‘The Boston Strongboy’ is generally recognised as the last heavyweight champion of bare-knuckle boxing and as the first heavyweight champion of gloved boxing. He was arguably the first boxing superstar and one of the world’s highest-paid athletes of his era, writes JIM DEVEREUX.


It is just over 100 years since the death of John Lawrence or JL Sullivan, the Irish-American boxer hailing from Boston, USA and widely regarded as the world’s first heavyweight boxing champion.

JL Sullivan was born in 1858 in an Irish neighbourhood of Boston, the son of Michael Sullivan from Abberdorney a village in north Kerry and Catherine Kelly, formerly a native of Athlone, Westmeath.

His parents intended for John to become a priest and he began his training for the priesthood at Boston College, but his student life was short-lived as he later explained:

“I had a leaning towards athletic sports. I attended college 2 or 3 months but as I could make $30 – $40 a week at playing ball and other athletic games I threw my books aside and gave myself up to it.”
Initially Sullivan pursued a baseball career, but he eventually drifted into boxing.

At that time boxing was bare knuckled and professional bouts were fought under the London Prize Ring rules. These were later superseded by the Marquess of Queensbury rules which form the basis of modern day boxing.
Even with the adoption some form of rules, boxing in the late 19th century was a pretty brutal business.
In that era there were no timed rounds as such. A round ended when a boxer was knocked down. He was then given 30 seconds to recover and an additional 8 seconds to return to the centre of the ring marked by the scratch line that separated the boxers at the start of the bout. Hence the origin of the saying ‘starting from scratch’.

When a boxer was unable to come to the scratch line the contest was deemed over and his opponent declared the winner.

Sullivan achieved fame by defeating champion boxer Paddy Ryan in a fight held outside a hotel in Mississippi City on 7 February, 1882, in front of a crowd of over 5,000 spectators. Ryan, who originally came from Thurles, County Tipperary, had won his title two years earlier against the American, Joe Goss.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own