Back in the days before Ultimate Fighting, Ultimate Frisbee, Ultimate Xtreme Face-Kicking, or any number of other sports that may or may not include the word "Ultimate" in the title, the most testosterone-laden, mega-asskicking competition available to humans was bareknuckle boxing. This badass, Fight Club-style face-smashery is as old as time itself, and back before everybody thought it would be cool to put the sport on skates and call it professional ice hockey, hardasses across the planet spent their days ruthlessly dishing out knuckle sandwiches like pissed-off chefs at the International House of Asskicking. For as long as Homo sapiens have had opposable thumbs (and therefore the ability to close their fingers into a fist), men have used the time-honored tradition of face-punching to appropriately determine who, in fact, truly is the most hardcore bastard out there.
If we choose to go by that criterion, then John L. Sullivan is probably the manliest man in American history, and the most hardcore bastard to ever sucker-punch a Gorilla in the chops for no good reason and then go off to a bar and celebrate by pounding a fifth of Jameson's, breaking the bottle over someone's head, and nailing some skanky, corseted 1880s street prostitute. Sullivan was the last of the great bareknuckle boxers, the first gloved boxing world champion, and a man so badass he could have detonated those giant blocks at Stonehenge into rock dust with a right hook and still have enough energy left over to resurrect the Druids, punch their heads off, and then go back to pounding whiskey until he passed out from being too awesome.
Born in Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1858, Sullivan was the son of ridiculously-poor first-generation Irish dirt farmers. He bounced around at a couple different crappy jobs early in his life, but his healthy disrespect for authority and uncontrollable Bruce Banner-like anger really hampered his professional career. Like for instance, one time an irate factory foreman kicked John L. in the ass for coming back late from his break. The 17 year-old Sullivan responded by punching his boss so hard that the guy broke his jaw and flew backwards through a glass window like an action movie extra getting blasted in the intestines with a shotgun at close range.
When he wasn't beating down authority figures or farm animals, Sullivan was also pretty notorious for hitting up the Boston bars, getting trashed, and boasting that he could "kick the ass of anyone in this room." Whenever people took an affront to his wild egomaniacal boasting, he took them out into the alley behind the pub, thrashed them senseless, and threw their unconscious bodies into a dumpster. He was also a competitive keg-tosser, meaning that he could throw a full keg of beer farther than pretty much anybody in Suffolk County, which is pretty sweet.
Eventually Sully fell into a career as a boxer, not by choice, but more or less because beating the hell out of people was pretty much the only thing he really excelled at. When he was 19 he went to see a boxing demonstration, and some jackass professional fighter got up on stage and offered to fistfight members of the audience to prove how giant his nuts were. Sullivan, being the crazy fight-hungry Irish hooligan that he was, obviously took this dumbass up on the offer. The jackass boxer sucker-punched Sullivan in the face during the pre-fight handshake, so John L. responded by knocking the guy out of the ring with a huge Little Mac-style uppercut, sending him face-first into the orchestra pit, where he crashed through a baby grand piano.
From that point onwards it was on like neckbone for John L. Sullivan. Known as, "The Boston Strongboy," the 5'10", 196-pound Sully started traveling around, fighting anybody stupid enough to stand toe-to-toe with him, and beating the hell out of amateur and professional boxers across the Northeast. He quickly became well-known for his berserker, hard-punching style (he once KO'ed a dude with two punches), his endurance, his speed, and his innate ability to take a ludicrous amount of physical damage while still remaining upright. Seriously, the guy had like 200 Hit Points and his unprotected, punch-hardened skin was roughly Armor Class 20.
Now during the late 19th century, bareknuckle boxing was illegal in the United States – and therefore even more badass – but this also meant that a lot of fights had to take place in situations where the cops couldn't bust them up and arrest the fighters for assault and battery ("The first rule of fight club is you do not talk about fight club"-type crap). On one such occasion Sullivan boxed a guy while riding on a barge in the middle of the Hudson River, beating down a dude known as, "The Bull's Head Terror", in a fight that lasted over an hour. I find this pretty damn impressive, because with a nickname like "The Bull's Head Terror", I'm picturing Sullivan fistfighting a freaking Minotaur. This may or may not be out of the realm of possibility.
Sullivan also traveled the country on the rails, traversing the United States on three separate occasions, putting on demonstrations and exhibitions, challenging anybody and everybody to come on stage and fight him, and offering a prize to any challenger who could last four rounds in the ring with him. On his three trips only one man ever made it the full four rounds – most of the others didn't last ten minutes before they had their brains rattled around inside their skulls until they started barfing and forgot their Social Security Numbers.
Sully getting ready to pwn someone 19th Century-Style.
John L. was pretty much an ultra mega superstar at this point, and had become legendary for his badassitude as a back-alley underground boxing champion. He won the American Bareknuckle Championship in 1882, only needing about ten minutes to bash in the face of the old champ, and won the world title in 1889 despite arriving at the fight after a long night of drinking, partying, and scoring with chicks. Sullivan showed up looking like he'd gone 36 hours without sleep (which he might have), and drank whiskey and tea in his corner between rounds. He barfed over the side of the ring in the middle of the 44th round, but kept in there, pushed it to the limit, and won the fight in the 75th round (!) when the other dude was too exhausted and pummeled to continue fighting.
Eventually they thought maybe they could curb the limitless concussive force of his rock-hard fists by making him wear gloves, but John L. Sullivan wasn't going to be nerfed by something as trivial as a two ounces of foam – in fact, he preferred the hard leather of the gloves because they protected his knuckles from getting cut up on his opponents' mutilated faces. The dude went out, put on his gloves, beat down a couple chumps, and took the Gloved Boxing Title as well, making him not only the last of the great Bareknuckle Boxing Champions, but the first real Heavyweight Gloved Boxing World Champion as well. Shove that in your crack pipe and set it on fire, bitches.
The life of hard-drinking and hard-fighting eventually caught up with John L. Sullivan. The Boston Strongboy lost his first fight at the age of 29, going down in the 21st round. I still find this pretty goddamned impressive – I'm 29, and consider myself to be in pretty descent shape, but I think I'd start complaining about my fingers hurting if I went 21 rounds in freaking Atari Boxing, let alone actually having some 200-pound jerk wailing on my face with his lightly-padded fists for about an hour. After this bout, Sullivan still did some promotional exhibition-type stuff, but this was more-or-less the end of his professional fighting career.
During his fourteen years as a fighter, John L. Sullivan was the champion for ten – seven years as a gloved fighter, and seven years as a bareknuckle brawler (he held both titles simultaneously from 1885-1889). He retired as one of the world's most popular and wealthiest sports heroes, helped bring gloved boxing into prominence as a professional sport, and was actually really good friends with Teddy Roosevelt, which can only be considered bonus points no matter how you slice it. His final, official record as a fighter was 38-1 with 33 knockouts, but that number doesn't take into accout his many unofficial, off-the-books fights - the majority of which resulted in his enemies having to find an amateur doctor to help wire their jaws shut or extract their faces from their abdominal cavities.
"When Sullivan struck me, I thought that a telegraph pole had been shoved against me endways."
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Roberts, Randy. The Rock, the Curse, and the Hub. Harvard Univ. Press, 2005.
Roberts, James B. The Boxing Register. McBooks, 2006.
Sugar, Bert. Boxing's Greatest Fighters. Globe Pequot, 2006.