The Little-Known Story of a Boston Man Who Revolutionized the Sport of Boxing

He was left with just ten dollars at the time of his death.

Sal
Lessons from History
7 min readApr 7, 2024

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John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain boxing match at Richburg | Image Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

In 1883 there was a retired soldier singing the Irish volunteer, and in came John L. Sullivan — wearing green tights and a shirt that quickly came off to reveal giant shoulder muscles and a thick neck.

He marched around and finally pointed to the crowd with his leather-glove-covered finger, roaring the following words: “I’m John L. Sullivan, and I’ll lick any son of a b*tch in the house!” At this, the crowd went absolutely crazy. Such was the fervor around Sullivan’s boxing career at the time.

Boxing, as a sport, can be dated back to over 2700 years ago when the ancient Greeks turned it into a professional event — with proper rules and bouts taking place. However, modern-day boxing is quite different from that of ancient times, and there is one man who is supposed to have brought about a great amount of this change in his time. John L. Sullivan, the Boston Strong Boy, reigned as the last heavyweight champion of bare-knuckled boxing and also the first heavyweight champion of proper gloved boxing during the late 19th century.

Growing up surrounded by the illegal world of boxing, John’s personality led to him becoming America’s first

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Sal
Lessons from History

I am a History Educator and a Lifelong Learner with a Masters in Global History.