The Boston Strong Boy
September/October 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 6
Americans have always admired size. We like big statues, big buildings, big burgers. And when it comes to boxing, it is the heavyweights we follow most avidly, fascinated by their sheer volume and by the terrible damage they can do. The swift, spidery, smaller men so popular in other countries usually appear here on the undercard.
John L. Sullivan, the subject of a new biography by Michael T. Isenberg (John L. Sullivan and His America, University of Illinois Press, $24.95), was both the last of the bareknuckle heavyweight champions and the first prizefighter ever to make his living in the ring. It was he, more than any other man, who transformed the American fight game from an illicit pastime into a more or less legitimate big business, and he who blazed the trail out of big-city slums, followed first by other Irishmen with the requisite speed and skill and hunger, and then by Jews, Italians, blacks, and Hispanics equipped with the same fierce talents.
Sullivan himself is irresistible, but this is an oddly unsatisfying book. The author too rarely allows his subject to remain in the center of the ring, backing him into a neutral corner in favor of numbing disquisitions on everything from cow-town violence to Irish attitudes toward women.
“Write any damn thing yuh please, young fella,” Sullivan told the young Theodore Dreiser when he came to interview the ex-champion, “and say that John L. Sullivan said so.” But even Sullivan might have been flummoxed by his new biographer’s grave search for greater meaning in every corner of his life and career. The relatively humane Marquis of Queensberry Rules Sullivan preferred, for example, required among other things that a felled man be back on his feet by the count of ten: This, Isenberg assures us, elevated the “timekeeper…to a position of prime importance, consonant with the growing significance of time in the industrial age.”
To be fair, Isenberg is not alone in his earnest quest: writers from Homer to Norman Mailer have labored altogether too hard to find high-minded reasons for the visceral pleasure they take in watching two total strangers try to batter each other senseless.
John L. Sullivan saw boxing in simpler terms; it was the best way he could think of to make money and get famous fast. He was born in 1858 in Roxbury, Massachusetts, the son of Mike Sullivan, a stumpy laborer from Tralee, and his immense wife, Catherine Kelly. John inherited his heavy drinking and combativeness from his father, whose hard life digging ditches also inspired him to seek a new, more lucrative way to exploit the size and strength that were the legacies of his mother.
Sullivan’s boxing career began in Boston on the stage of the Dudley Opera House in 1878 when he shed his coat, rolled up his sleeves, and put on gloves for what was billed, to placate the police, as a mere “exhibition.” When his equally green adversary thumped him on the back of the head, Sullivan knocked him into the piano. “I done him up in about two minutes,” he remembered. That was how he liked things to go. “I go in to win from the very first second…,” he explained. “Win I must and win I will.....” Win he did—at least forty-seven times, against every blacksmith, tugboat captain, iron puddler, and gandy dancer who accepted the challenge he issued to “all fighters—first come first served.”
Sometimes he liked to pontificate about the supposed scientific skill with which he went about his work. “My objective point in hitting is the corner of a man’s shoulder,” he explained to one reporter, “and if he ducks his head he is bound to get it in the neck. A man will break his dukes if he goes hitting at his antagonist’s skull.” In fact, his mode of attack was brutally straightforward: he rushed at his man from the opening bell, swinging his cudgel of a right fist until the opponent fell down. His defensive skills were limited largely to a ferrous chin, and the psychological impact of the relentless cheer with which he complimented any man who managed to reach it. “That’s a good one, Charlie!” he would say, continuing to move inexorably forward. There can be few more disheartening moments in boxing than to land your best punch and see its target smile.
His power really was prodigious: “I thought a telegraph pole had been shoved against me endways,” said Paddy Ryan, from whom he took the title in 1882. Another victim, awakened after being drenched with several buckets of water, wondered dreamily if he might have fallen off a barn. For those who refused to close with him, Sullivan had nothing but scorn. “I want fighting, not foot racing,” he liked to say, and he dismissed Charlie Mitchell, the British champion whose footwork helped hold him to a thirty-nine-round draw in 1887, as “the bombastic sprinter.”