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"I am John L. Sullivan, and I can beat any man alive."

— John L. Sullivan

Championship belt, 1887
Artifact Detailsview larger

As Sullivan's income dwindled, he chipped out the diamonds from his championship belt and pawned it again and again. In 1901, a jeweler created a replica to display at the Buffalo World's Fair. It is not known whether the Smithsonian's belt is the original or the replica.

— Gift of Mary A. Delaurier

John L. Sullivan
America's First National Sports Celebrity

John L. Sullivan fought his way to the heavyweight championship and charmed his way to truly national celebrity. The bare-knuckle prizefighter personified the masculine, aggressive spirit of the era, and the fans who loved him vastly outnumbered his detractors.

After capturing the 1882 championship, the "Boston Strong Boy" toured the world defending his title and burnishing his image. This son of poor Irish immigrants rose above the prejudice of his day, and his celebrity demonstrated a national shift towards the acceptance of Irish Americans.

Though boxing was illegal in most states, the press-savvy Sullivan won fans from every walk of life, including the president of the United States. At the high point of his career, Sullivan's supporters bought him a diamond-encrusted belt which was presented to him by the mayor of Boston. "The Great John L." lost only one of his nearly 50 career fights, falling to James "Gentleman Jim" Corbett in 1892.

Name: John Lawrence Sullivan
Born: Roxbury, Massachusetts, 1858–1918
  • First American sports hero to become national celebrity
  • First American athlete to earn $1 million in career prize money
  • Heavyweight Champion, 1882– 1892
  • 47 career bouts: 29 victories by knock-out, 14 by decision, 3 draws, 1 loss

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National Museum of American History   Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service