“I shook the hand of the man who shook the hand of John L. Sullivan” — as some used to boast at the turn of the 20th century. Before Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey, there was heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan, a.k.a. the Boston Strong Boy and the first international sports star.
Born in 1858, Sullivan bridged the bare knuckle and gloved eras of boxing. He was the last heavyweight king under the London Prize Ring Rules (bare-knuckle boxing) and considered the first champion under the modern Marquis of Queensbury Rules. He was a larger-than-life figure, and this remarkable book takes full measure of the man, the fighter, and fin de siècle America.
An Irish American whose parents fled the famines of 1840 in Ireland, Sullivan grew up in Boston’s South End. His first love was baseball, but as young day laborer, Sullivan had a penchant for getting into dustups and in the process demonstrated the unearthly power in his paws.
Sullivan, who was about 5 feet 10 inches tall and 190 pounds, began his professional career in 1878. Four years later, in a bare-knuckle brawl, he knocked out Paddy Ryan to win the title. Soon thereafter, Sullivan embarked on a nationwide barnstorming tour in which he offered $1,000 to anyone who could last four rounds in a gloved contest. He put scores of tough guys on their backs, and no one made it to the final bell.
Klein offers a vivid picture of the last bare-knuckle championship tilt and the signature battle of Sullivan’s career. In July 1889, in the triple-digit heat of Richburg Miss., Sullivan outlasted Jake Kilrain in a 75-round fight. The grueling contest lasted well over two hours, and only culminated when Kilrain’s corner, fearing for their man’s life, tossed in the towel. From then on Sullivan fought in gloved contests. He lost the title to Gentleman Jim Corbett in 1892.
Though he would eventually conquer his love of the bottle, for most of his life, Sullivan was a heavyweight drunkard. Boxing has always had its share of athletes so gifted that although they lived like pirates, they nevertheless were able to dominate opponents. That was the great John L., and Klein reminds us of this man’s physical strength and prowess — as one challenger put it: “If you want to know what it is to be struck by lightning . . . just face Sullivan one second.”
Sullivan’s marital history was checkered at best. Married twice, the first one ended, largely owing to his drinking and abusiveness. He had a child by that first wife, Annie Bates, but the boy died at 2 from diphtheria. Sullivan quit drinking in 1905, and five years later married Kate Harkins, bought a spread in Abington, Mass., and lived out his last years as a gentleman farmer and temperance lecturer before dying of a heart attack at 59 in 1918.
Klein’s portrait of Sullivan is nuanced and balanced. He pulls no punches on his subject’s backward stance on race. Sullivan refused to come to scratch with black fighters. Klein writes, “Sullivan was not immune to the poisonous racism that infected most of nineteenth century America, but as the hero who carried the banner of a city with a proud, abolitionist past, he failed terribly in his chance to use his powerful platform to take a courageous stand.”
There can be no doubt that Sullivan could be a bully and a brutish boor. But he was also generous, patriotic, and as Klein sums up, “In a corrupt country and a crooked sport, John L. was a straight shooter.”
Klein’s meticulously documented study illuminates the then aborning relationship between the media and sports. It also helps us to grasp the terrible prejudices that Irish immigrants faced in the United States. To them, Sullivan was a conduit of strength, “a hero for tens of thousands of sons and daughters of the Emerald Isle who had felt emasculated in the wake of the Great hunger.’’
From the first page to the last, Klein’s prose retains its powers of enchantment and illumination. It is one of the best boxing books ever penned.Gordon Marino is a professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College and a boxing trainer. His, “The Quotable Kierkegaard,’' was recently published by Princeton University Press.