"The last bare-knuckle champion"

2013 July 26

He was born in the South End neighbourhood of Boston to Irish immigrant parents, Michael Sullivan from Abbeydorney, County Kerry and the former Catherine Kelly from Athlone, County Westmeath/County Roscommon. Sullivan was nicknamed The Boston Strongboy. As a youth he was arrested several times for participating in bouts where the sport was outlawed, and he went on exhibition tours offering people money to fight him. After the championship, Sullivan won over 450 fights in his career. In 1883–84 Sullivan went on a coast-to-coast tour by train with five other boxers. It was scheduled to comprise 195 performances in 136 different cities and towns over 238 days. To help promote the tour, Sullivan announced that he would box anyone at any time during the tour under the Queensberry Rules for $250. He knocked out eleven men during the tour. The Kilrain fight is considered to be a turning point in boxing history because it was the last world title bout fought under the London Prize Ring Rules and therefore the last bare-knuckle heavyweight title bout. It was one of the first American sporting events to receive national press coverage. For the first time, newspapers carried extensive pre-fight coverage, reporting on the fighters' training and speculating on where the bout would take place. The center of activity was New Orleans, but the governor of Louisiana had forbidden the fight in that state. Sullivan had trained for months in Belfast, New York under trainer William Muldoon, whose biggest problem had been keeping Sullivan from liquor. Rochester reporter Arch Merrill commented that occasionally Sullivan would "escape" from his guard, and the cry was heard in the village, "John L. is loose again. Send for Muldoon!" Muldoon would snatch the champ away from the bar and take him back to their training camp. On July 8, 1889, an estimated 3000 spectators boarded special trains for the secret location, which turned out to be Richburg, a town just south of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The fight began at 10:30 the following morning, and it looked as if Sullivan was going to lose, especially after he vomited during the 44th round. But the champion got his second wind after that, and Kilrain's manager finally threw in the towel after the 75th round. Undefeated at that point, Sullivan did not defend his title for the next four years. Sullivan agreed to defend his title in 1892, against challenger "Gentleman Jim" Corbett. The match was on 7 September in New Orleans. It began at 9PM in the electrically illuminated Olympic Club in the upper Ninth Ward neighbourhood now known as Bywater section, the venue filled to its 10,000 person capacity despite hefty ticket prices ranging from $5 to $15 (approximately $117 to $353 in 2009 dollars). The heavyweight contest occurred under the Marquess of Queensberry Rules, but it was neither the first title fight under those rules nor was it the first title fight using boxing gloves. Corbett was younger, faster and his boxing technique enabled him to dodge Sullivan's crouch and rush style. In the 21st round Corbett landed a smashing left "audible throughout the house" that put Sullivan down for good. Sullivan was counted out and Corbett declared the new champion. When Sullivan was able to get back to his feet, he announced to the crowd, "if I had to get licked I'm glad I was licked by an American". Sullivan is considered the last bare-knuckle champion because no champion after him fought bare-knuckled. Sullivan retired to Abington but appeared in several exhibitions over the next 12 years, including a three-rounder against Tom Sharkey and a final two-rounder against Jim McCormick in 1905 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He continued his various careers outside boxing such as stage actor, speaker, celebrity baseball umpire, sports reporter, and bar owner. Overweight and unhealthy from a long life of overindulging in food and drinks as well as from the effects from prizefighting, Sullivan died at age 59 and is buried in the Old Calvary Cemetery in Mattapan, now a neighborhood of Boston. He died with barely 10 dollars in his pocket. According to the building owner Don, Sullivan once trained in the gym across the road from Cafe 821, in Richmond, VA. #richmondmuralproject presented by ArtWhino.

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