John L. Sullivan was born to Irish immigrants, Michael Sullivan from Abbeydorney, Co Kerry and Catherine née Kelly from Athlone, Co Westmeath. He was one of the most popular heavyweight champions and a symbol of the bareknuckle era of boxing.
Sullivan began to fight professionally in 1878 after briefly studying at Boston College. On 7 Feb 1882, at Mississippi City, Miss., he knocked out Paddy Ryan in the ninth round of a bareknuckle fight for the heavyweight championship. His 75-round knockout of Jake Kilrain at Richburg, Miss., 8 July 1889, was the last heavyweight title bout under London Prize Ring (bareknuckle) rules. In his only championship defense under the Queensberry rules, Sullivan was knocked out by James J. Corbett in 21 rounds in New Orleans, La., 7 Sept 1892.
Although Sullivan is generally considered to have been world heavyweight champion, some boxing historians regard him as a U.S. champion only. His only international match of consequence was with the English pugilist Charley Mitchell at Chantilly, Oise, Fr., 10 March 1888; it ended as a draw after 39 rounds. In addition, Sullivan declined to fight the great Australian black heavyweight Peter Jackson. From 1878 to 1905 Sullivan had 35 bouts, winning 31, of which 16 were by knockouts.
Sullivan’s blustering personality and fabled strength gained him a great following. As champion he earned more than $1 million but squandered it. A hard drinker during his ring career, he later became an advocate of prohibition and delivered many lectures on the subject.