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The Great John L. Sullivan Remembered

The Great John L. Sullivan Remembered
February 26
05:59 2021

The Great John L.

John L. Sullivan

It was February 7, 1892 when boxing history was made. That was the first time that the heavyweight champion of the world title belt changed hands.

That was the day that “The Boston Strong Boy” lost his belt to “Gentleman Jim.”

John L. Sullivan – known widely as “The Great John L. – was America’s first national sports idol. He was also the first athlete to earn a $1 million in his career.

He began his career in the 1870’s, back in the days of bareknuckle boxing under the London Prize Ring rules – a round lasted until a fighter was knocked off his feet, whether by punch, trip or wrestling.

In 1882 Sullivan won the American title from Paddy Ryan and promptly declared himself the champion of the world. He backed it up by whipping the championship challengers from England and France. His fight with Frenchman Jake Kilrain lasted 75 punishing rounds.

Boxing didn’t pay back then so champion fighters would do speaking tours or take to the stage to pad their income.

Sullivan did as well and became quite popular along the way. He was a hard-drinking, lovable scamp. He would enter a bar and promptly declare, “I can lick any SOB in the house!” His boast was only called a few times, leaving the objecting party a little worse for wear!

In the ring he was undefeated. The last world heavyweight champion to win the title in a bareknuckle bout, Sullivan insisted that he would only fight under the Marquis de Queensbury rules – mandating gloves and three-minute rounds.

For 10 years Sullivan remained undefeated as champion. But, by 1892, years of carousing and ring inactivity was taking its toll on Sullivan. Several younger fighters were demanding a title fight.

That led to the match with “Gentleman Jim” Corbett.

Sullivan came from the old days when the bruisers came out to the center of the ring and slugged it out. Corbett was a new breed, a scientific fighter who danced around the ring, blocked his opponents’ blows and picked his spots.

For 20 rounds, under a blazing Louisiana sun, Sullivan stalked his younger and quicker foe, growing frustrated as he would launch a vicious blow only to have Corbett evade it with ease.

Corbett stopped running in the 21st round and his sudden attack caught the winded champion offguard. The audience was stunned as their beloved boxing rogue was counted out.

Suddenly had a habit of addressing the crowd after a fight. He did so one last time. The Great John L. made no excuses.

“My name is John L. Sullivan,” he told the crowd, “and I came to the ring once too often.”

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