The Boston Strong Boy Series Part I
Clarifying the Legacy of John L. Sullivan
John L. Sullivan, known mostly as the last of the bare knuckle boxing champions, should more accurately be described as the first gloved champion of the world. Preferring the newer gloved Marquis of Queensberry rules, bare knuckle fighting under the London Prize Ring rules was actually a practice Sullivan seemed to detest due to the illegal nature of such bouts. His status as a pop icon towards the end of the 19th century and his advocacy for gloved bouts went a long way towards legitimizing boxing as a sport.
To better comprehend Sullivan’s preference of fighting style, it is important to understand the historical, cultural and legal context under which he fought between the years 1879 and 1892. The term “prize fighting” was synonymous with illegal bare knuckle bouts fought under London Prize Ring rules where among other differences from today’s sport of boxing, a fighter could be wrestled to the ground; fall on top of a downed fighter; and throw his opponent to the ground or out of the ring. Other differences included the conclusion of a round only upon a fighter being thrown or knocked down; the fallen fighter had 30 seconds to rise and an additional 8 seconds to be ready to continue (indicated by coming to the center of the ring); a fighter’s entourage could help revive him to continue; and there were no round limits in a match. A fight would only end upon one of the combatants not being able to “come to scratch” within the 38 second allowable period after being sent to the ground.
Certainly, boxing under London Prize Ring rules was far different from today’s more modern version of the sport. In fact, the more modern form of boxing based on Marquis of Queensberry rules was not even considered prize fighting during John L. Sullivan’s era. Given the anti-prize fight laws prevalent during the period throughout Europe and the United States, gloved bouts were strictly advertised as boxing exhibitions, and law enforcement was usually present to ensure fights did not cross the line of being actual sporting contests. Meaning, should the police deem a match to be too rough or one of the fighters hurt, officers maintained the authority to stop the contest and arrest its participants. The discretion of the police was fairly wide and depended greatly on the degree of political tolerance within each local jurisdiction. As a result, some towns or cities had no tolerance for hosting competitive bouts, and the police were very strict in enforcing the letter of the law. On the other hand, some municipalities had a tendency to be more accepting of pugilistic matches, so the police would allow boxers to fight in competitive bouts under the guise of exhibitions and essentially break the law.
All of John L. Sullivan’s early fights of record were competitive gloved “exhibitions”, with each ending in a knockout. Having compiled an undefeated record of 10 victories and 10 KOs by the end of 1881, Sullivan was already widely considered the Heavyweight Champion of America – a title bestowed upon him by the populace and media. Given there were no formal boxing titles at the time, public opinion meant everything and favored John L. Sullivan for his level of competition, power punching and swarming offensive style.
Considering English boxer Jem Mace had retired years earlier as Champion of the World, recognition as a world champion was murky indeed. A world champion among boxing old timers and hard core fans meant fighting with bare knuckles under the London Prize Ring rules, and since Mace’s retirement, an Irish born fighter living in Troy, NY, named Paddy Ryan emerged as the recognized best among bare knuckle fighters. Mostly seeking to quell criticism for not engaging in London Prize Ring bouts, Sullivan agreed to fight Ryan on February 7, 1882, in Mississippi City, MS, where he destroyed the American Bare Knuckle Heavyweight Champion by knockout in 9 rounds. The entire fight lasted a total of approximately 11 minutes. After this bout, John L. Sullivan was often recognized as Champion of the World within the United States and England. Following his victory, Sullivan made the following remarks to The National Police Gazette about gloved versus bare knuckle matches:
“They said that I was only a glove-fighter, and that I was afraid of the bare knuckles. For that reason I consented to fight Ryan as I did. I think I have proved that I can fight with my knuckles, and now anyone who wants to tackle me will have to do it my fashion.”….under Marquis of Queensberry rules.
Between 1883 and 1884, John L. Sullivan toured the United States mostly performing non-competitive gloved boxing exhibitions with his sparring partners. Despite the non-competitive nature of these bouts, the general population was enthralled by Sullivan’s fame and generally paid anywhere from $0.50 to $2.00 to attend an exhibition. Sullivan would usually spar twice per day, resulting in two daily shows. The sparring sessions were a way for Sullivan to stay in shape and earn money while building his popularity by challenging any man in each locale to spar with him for a complete four rounds. Prize money ranged between $50 to $1,000 for anyone who could accomplish the feat, so needless to say local tough guy types were occasionally enticed. Most of these bouts ended within a minute by either knockout or stoppage by the police or master of ceremonies. Of course the invitation to spar with Sullivan in these events did not extend to black men. Whether exhibition sparring or competitive matches, he would always conveniently draw the color line and promise never to fight a colored boxer. His refusal to fight black men was readily accepted by the public and seldom ever questioned by the media. Such were the times in the United States of America during the late 19th century.
In the book entitled John L. Sullivan by Adam J. Pollack, Sullivan had the following response when asked if he had heard about a public challenge issued by a black fighter named Bill Williams:
To Read the rest: http://www.xlfights.com
What do you expect? The comedian is dead.