By Tracy Callis 

John L. Sullivan was one of America’s first sports idols. He was a flag-waving patriot who reflected the spirit of a vibrant, young nation. Confident, strong, aggressive, and outspoken, Sullivan was a natural showman.

Shirtless, adorned in knee-breeches and stockings, wearing fighting boots (shoes with spikes), the great John L. fought using either bare-knuckles, skin-tight gloves, or padded gloves. He battled under both – the London Prize Ring Rules and the Marquis of Queensberry Rules. McCallum (1974 p 3) calls him “the true link between the bare-knuckle and glove eras”.  

At the call of “time”, Sullivan with black mustache, high cheekbones and sunken cheeks charged out – glaring, scowling, snorting, and swinging – trying to land the “Boston Special”, his powerful right hand punch. He was surprisingly fast for a 195-pounder. He used a straight up stance, employed feints, and threw the “One-Two”. In addition, he threw powerful left and right swings.

John could also take a good punch. In his prime, he quickly disposed of power hitters and, because of his endurance, was able to catch and defeat his greatest problem as a fighter – the “hit-and-run” tactician. But, over the years, his drinking and riotous living habits did him in. He even drank and smoked cigars during training.

His knockout ability has been challenged in recent years but he most certainly belongs in a special class of power punchers like “Sailor” Tom Sharkey of the 1890s, Rocky Marciano of the 1950s, and Mike Tyson of today.

He fought in a day when a man received credit for a knockout only if he scored a knockout. There were no technical knockouts. If a fight was stopped by a referee because of an injury such as a broken arm or by the police to prevent a brutal beating - there was no knockout. If an opponent quit fighting or ran from the ring - there was no knockout. The verdict was a “win”.  

There are many such bouts on Sullivan’s record which would be called knockouts by today’s rules but were simply recorded as wins in his day – Joe Goss, Johnny “Cocky” Woods, Dan Dwyer, Steve Taylor, John Flood, Tug Collins, Charlie Mitchell, John Laflin, Alf Greenfield, Paddy Ryan (1885), and Frank Herald.

There were many “No Decision” bouts on his record and, doubtless, if the details of these matches were known, he would have many more knockouts. Durant (1976 p 24) writes that Sullivan is estimated to have knocked out some 200 men during his career while fighting all types of men – lumberjacks, blacksmiths, local strong boys, and professional fighters.

Further, during the early years, records were often in error (for various reasons). Even topnotch fighters were apt to let many victories over minor opponents slip away unrecorded.

There is no question that John L. could hit. Langley (1973 pp 27 29) writes “As a knockout specialist John’s record remains unbeaten. No other fighter in history has left such a trail of broken and aching jaws behind him”.

Tim Scannell, 200-pound competitor, was lifted up and out of the ring by a Sullivan punch. Charlie Mitchell and John Donaldson were also knocked out of the ring.

He knocked many men “cold” and battered numerous others into helpless submission. John Flood, Paddy Ryan, Jake Kilrain, John Laflin, and Frank Herald were among those who had to be carried from the ring.

He broke jaws and bashed in faces with abandon. Johnny “Cocky” Woods, Kilrain, Scannell, Laflin, and Ryan were numbered among those who carried distorted features in the years following their pounding by the “Great John L”.

Paddy Ryan said “When Sullivan hit me, I thought a telegraph pole had been shoved against me endways” (see Durant and Bettman 1952 p 79; Durant 1976 p 22).

Professor Mike Donovan commented on Sullivan’s style “It wasn’t boxing. It was like being hit by a runaway horse”. The Professor called John L. the strongest man he ever fought and add, “He used his right as a blacksmith would use a sledge hammer …” (see Durant and Rice 1946 and McCallum 1974 p 10).

Charlie Harvey, old time manager, described Sullivan as a “rushing, tearing-in, two-fisted fighter with a power punch” and called him “… big, fast, and courageous” (see Fleischer 1972 p 207).  

Diamond (1954 p 10) writes about Sullivan – “He was quick on his feet – as quick as any modern heavyweight. And what a punch he had! A knockout in each hand! He was not a scientific boxer but a slugger, depending mainly on a vicious right swing to the jaw”.

Durant and Rice (1946) state “He was superbly fast with his hands and he moved always forward, growling as he advanced”.

Grombach (1977 p 43) describes Sullivan in this way “According to the writers of his time, he was a great burly, slugging fighter with bull-like tactics, mighty fists, and little science. He was good-natured, generous, conceited, blustering, and extremely popular”.

Durant and Bettman (1952 p 79) state that “…he was more than merely strong. He was amazingly fast for a big man and had a knock-em-dead punch in either hand. Ring science was not for John L. He never bothered much with defense. He brushed aside blows and kept moving forward, always punching. His was a hurricane attack”.

McCallum (1974 pp 10 11) describes him “ He was far from being muscle-bound. He was a “natural” puncher. His punches were perfectly timed, seldom wild, and fast. In the ring, he was extraordinarily fast. His hands were large. His shoulders enormous, his chest was remarkably deep …”.

Lardner (1972 p 43) writes that Sullivan was a bully, a boozer, and a braggart and later adds that he looked like a conqueror with his florid face, black brow, black hair, mustache, and aggressive fighter’s jaw. Burrill (1974 p 181) says he was “notorious for drinking and tavern brawls”. Tom Langley (1973 p 31) says that “Sullivan implicitly believed in his invincibility and wasted no time in passing on this information to the world”.

Billy Roche, famous referee, rated Sullivan as the greatest of all heavyweights and said that John L. had the best “One-Two”punch that he (Roche) ever saw (see McCallum 1974 p 4).

Gilbert Odd, Boxing Historian, once wrote that John L. in most of his early years only had to hit a man one time. If he did not knock the man out of the fight, he knocked the fight out of the man.

Jim Jeffries called Sullivan the greatest fighter in ring history (see Fullerton 1929 p VIII). Cooper (1978 p 103) calls “… John L., the Champion of Champions to everybody who saw him fight …”.

Grombach (1977 p 46) writes: “…if the strength, speed, hitting power, fighting instinct, and ring ferocity of Sullivan had been developed in the school of modern boxing, and were he around today, he would be a dangerous challenger to any champion”.


Burrill, B. 1974. Who’s Who In Boxing. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House

Cooper, H. 1978. The Great Heavyweights. Secaucus, New Jersey: Chartwell Books, Inc.

Diamond, W. 1954. Kings of the Ring. London: The World’s Work (1913) Ltd.

Durant, J. and Bettman, O. 1952. Pictorial History of American Sports. Cranbury, New Jersey: A.S. Barnes and Co.

Durant, J. and Rice, E. 1946. Come Out Fighting. Cincinnati: Zebra Picture Books.

Durant, J. 1976. The Heavyweight Champions. New York: Hastings House Pub.

Fleischer, N. 1972. Jack Dempsey. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House.

Fullerton, H. 1929. Two-Fisted Jeff. Chicago: Consolidated Book Publishers, Inc.

Grombach, J. 1977. The Saga of Sock. London : Thomas Yoseloff Ltd.; Cranbury, New Jersey: A.S. Barnes and Company, Inc.

Langley, T. 1973. The Life of John L. Sullivan. Leicester, England: Vance Harvey Publishing.

Lardner, R. 1972. The Legendary Champions. New York: American Heritage Press.

McCallum, J. 1974. The World Heavyweight Boxing Championship. Radnor, Pa.: Chilton Book Company

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