by Wilson Pitts
John L. Sullivan hailed from Roxbury, Massachusetts and became known as “The Boston Strong Boy.” His career lasted from 1879 to 1892. He came up in the last of the bare knuckle days fighting under the London Prize Rules [LPR] in which any time a knee went down time was called and 30 seconds rest given. Most fights were fought outdoors, often on the bare ground, and were usually to the finish. A round could last 30 seconds or it could go on for many minutes. A take down or push counted as a knock down and there was a lot of grappling during the fights. Bare knuckle fights fought under London Prize Ring Rules LPR lasted anywhere from a few minutes to over two hours and so were fought at a walking pace.
John L. Sullivan had fights that lasted 10 minutes or less, but with LPR rules he never knew when he might have to sustain effort. Once he went 75 rounds with Charley Mitchell in a fight that lasted three hours in the pouring rain. In the bare knuckle era Sully had to be ready for anything. Knees, elbows, finger jabs, throttling [grabbing the throat] while technically illegal, were common place. Stand up wrestling was within the rules such as they were.
The match might go on for hours if the opponent in Sullivan’s words "started flopping" or "hugging the ground". This is why Sullivan wanted a rules change, and did countless demonstrations and fights using the new rules and with gloves on. His influence as heavyweight champion was why they eventually went to gloves and the Marquis of Queensbury rules with timed three minute rounds.
Sullivan was the last London Prize Ring Champion, a title he carried to his grave. His record was 38-1 which was a lot of mostly bare knuckle fights. He had an astounding 78% knockout ratio and was deemed one of the truly great hitters of all times by none other than Nat Fleisher of The Ring Magazine. Many men could not withstand more than a hand full of fights using these primitive rules. Indeed, many men were maimed or killed in these contests. Inside the ring it was a very hazardous environment that had it roots in the boxing booths in London and links to Catch Wrestling in Ireland. Sullivan represented the end of a two hundred year long era of bare knuckle boxing.
Training Methods of the Old School
I n Hazlett’s 1822 account of attending an bare knuckle fight outside of London he recounts his favorite’s training regime.
“The whole art of training …consists in two things, exercise and abstinence, abstinence and exercise, repeated alternately without end. A yolk of an egg with a spoonful of rum in it is the first thing in a morning, and then a walk of six miles till breakfast. Then another six or seven miles till dinner-time”
Of the fight itself he reports- “There was little cautious sparring - no half-hits - no tapping and trifling, none of the petit-maîtreship of the art - they were almost all knock-down blows: - the fight was a good stand-up fight.”
There are pictures of Sullivan from a later period that are somewhat misleading. For example this picture is from 1890, well after his fighting days were over. When you examine the pictures of Sullivan in his prime you can see that, like Farmer Burns in wrestling, he was the prototype for the modern conditioned athlete before 1900. By the time he lost to “Gentleman” Jim Corbett in 1892 fighting for the new Heavyweight Title under Marquis of Queensberry Rules, the first gloved heavyweight title fight, he was clearly past his prime. He went into heavy training, meaning he lost forty pounds, in preparation for this last bout of his career and stayed with the younger man for an hour, over twenty rounds with five ounce gloves, before being knocked out.
In Sullivan’s day a training camp usually lasted eight weeks, the first week was spent sweating the alcohol out of his system! The rest of the training centered on taking unwanted fat off of his body in preparation for contest. “Exercise and abstinence” indeed! There was a lot of time spent sweating under blankets and getting rub downs during training.
Reading Sullivan’s autobiography “I Can Lick Any Son of a Bitch in the House” was very interesting for what could be learned about his training methods. Here are a few examples that I found interesting in this regard: He never sparred in preparation for fights- too hard on the hands. He had the same sparring partner who worked with him for years, his name was George Bush. They would walk through the fight over and over working out what was going to happen at each stage and what tactics where going to be used when. Then Bush would hold a rugby ball and move around and Sullivan would throw body shoots at it while working on his timing and footwork.
John L. shaved the sides of his head in preparation for a fight to prevent hair pulling. He worked on takedown defense in training camp because being thrown down counted just as much as a knock down. He used to wrestle with William Muldoon, the great strong man and conditioning expert of his era, to get ready for big fights. Muldoon trained him for his greatest contest, a bout against Jake Kilrain that lasted two hours in the mid day heat in Mississippi.
Sullivan’s primary training method was what Ernst van Aaken termed the Long Slow Distance method of roadwork. He walked 12-14 miles each morning, running the last two miles “at a dead run.” He then cross trained with swimming by treading water for 15 minutes. He went to the gym and worked out in the afternoon with light dumb bells and did a traditional boxing/wrestling workout in which he found rope skipping to be “the perfect exercise. “
Here is my challenge to you, dear reader, take a Saturday off and try John L. Sullivan’s workout sometime! Get up early and start walking for six or seven hours,then run, then swim, then wrestle and then do a boxing workout! Walking that far in and of itself is deeply exhausting, now go to the gym! Report back to me with your findings…