"My name is John L. Sullivan, and I can lick any sonofabitch in the house."
He made that promise while waving a stein of John Barleycorn at the drinking public, and he backed it up with his fists against any doubter fool enough to face him in the smoke-filled back room of a saloon. By 1892 Sullivan had been the champion of the world of bare-knuckle fighting for a decade, though it had been three years since he defended his title in a 75-rounder against Jake Kilrain. Since he beat Kilrain, Sullivan's occasional bouts with patsies—as well as his regular benders at the saloon—had diminished his stature a bit. But to most folks he was still John L., the 5'10½", 212-pound Boston Strong Boy—budding stage idol, possible congressional material and, until proven otherwise, the strongest man in any house.
The prizefight game had changed since John L. KO'd Kilrain—in 1890 it had become legal in Louisiana—and the 33-year-old Sullivan made the first sanctioned heavyweight title fight ever the stage of his last defense. His opponent in New Orleans on Sept. 7, 1892, was 26-year-old James Corbett, known as Gentleman Jim. A former bank clerk, Corbett lacked Sullivan's raw power in the ring and his roguish charm out of it. "To me it was the most boring thing in the world to be mauled around by a lot of drunks," Corbett once wrote, "and...there, old John L. 'was on his native heath.' "
For days the prefight hype had relegated the presidential race between Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison to the back pages of the newspapers, and 10,000 spectators flocked to the Olympic Club for the bout. At the betting windows, John L., 34 pounds heavier than the 6'1" Corbett, was a 4-to-l favorite. Even Gentleman Jim's dad laid out two weeks' pay on the champ.
At the opening gong a snarling Sullivan charged out of his corner, determined to catch his agile challenger before he could sprint away. But the champion's trademark overhand left missed Corbett's jaw. In the fifth round Corbett drilled Sullivan with a series of blows to the head, drawing blood from the champ's nose.
Heretofore John L. had been renowned for his sturdy constitution. Against Kilrain, in 115° heat, he had steadily quaffed tea and bourbon between rounds, a combination that caused him to vomit in the 44th round. Asked by his manager, Jim Wakely, if he was all right, Sullivan had said, "That I am. I just threw up the tea and kept the whiskey down."
But that had been three years earlier. In the 21st round Sullivan could barely raise his arms. Corbett's last punch was a mere formality, a blow to Sullivan's jaw. John L. stood for a moment before flopping forward onto his broken nose.
The nation had a new champ but hardly a new hero. No boxer could succeed the colorful Sullivan. Eventually John L.'s stage career floundered, and he spent his fortune in the saloons. Before he died in 1918 he became a spokesman for a cause that he had never before held dear: temperance.
In a bout that captivated the country, Corbett (right) outslugged the beloved Boston Strong Boy.