On Tuesday, Nov. 18, 1884, future heavyweight Champion John L. Sullivan faced off against Al Greenfield at Madison Square Garden in New York City. However, in New York, boxing did not become legal until 1920, so in the second round, both fighters were arrested for cruelty. This would be one of many almost mythical stories about the last bare-knuckle boxer champion.
Sullivan was born in Boston in 1858 to Irish Immigrants. When Sullivan was young, he was arrested several times for fighting as boxing was illegal Sullivan’s parents wanted him to become a priest, but he chose baseball instead, making $30 to $40 a game. From there, he got into boxing and decided to fight instead. But his fighting style is not the kind we are accustomed to today. His style was no gloves, called bare-knuckle fighting.
Bare-knuckle fighting originated in England in the 17th century, though the exact year is disputed. The first official bare-knuckle champion was mixed fighter James Figg, who is seen as the father of boxing while being the first bare-knuckle champion in 1719. While he may be considered the father of boxing, there is evidence of this in the 688 BC Olympics in Ancient Greece.
Sullivan would begin his boxing career on Mar 13, 1879, against Jack Curley in a fight that would last one hour and 14 minutes without the winning round being recorded, followed by beating Johnny Cocky Woods in five rounds. Throughout his time, there was no formal boxing champion, but in his 14th fight, he would fight Paddy Ryan on Feb 7, 1882, in Mississippi for the bare-knuckle championship, where he would win.
Sullivan would tour the in 1883-84, facing challengers, which is how he ended up in New York to fight against Greenfield. The fight with Greenfield was originally supposed to be on Nov. 17. Still, New York authorities threatened to arrest them, so it was moved to Nov. 18. The next day, there was heavy police resistance, but New York City Police Captain Alfred S. Williams allowed both fighters made it to the ring. In the first round, Greenfield seemed to have the early advantage, but Sullivan would knock down Greenfield as the first round ended.
In the second round, Greenfield would start off hot once more, but Sullivan would fight back once more and looked like he was ready to end the fight in a knockout. However, right then, Captain Williams would enter the ring and arrest Sullivan while a fellow sergeant arrested Greenfield. It is not known why Sergeant Williams allowed the fight to happen or why he made the arrests he did and when.
After the fight, Sullivan would continue to fight both gloved and bare-knuckled for nine years before taking two years off. One of his most notorious fights came on Jul 8, 1889, when he faced Jake Kilrain in a 76-round match that lasted two hours and 16 minutes, where Sullivan won via knockout. This would be the final bare-knuckle fight under the London Prize Ring Rules, making him the final bare-knuckle champion in one of the first U.S. sporting events to receive national press coverage, with 3000 fans showing up from around the country.
On Sep 7, 1892, he came out of retirement and lost his first match against James J. Corbett, losing the heavyweight title in the 21st round via KO. After retirement, Sullivan would be affected by the 46 fights he endured and became overweight and an alcoholic. He would die at age 59 due to heart failure with just $10 to his name.
In any sport, one person always brought the sport into the national spotlight, and for boxing, that person was Sullivan. It’s thanks to him that boxing became the sport it is today he highlights the issues that boxing has always had, but without him, the sport may have never become what it is today.