The Boston Strong Boy

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Isenberg assures us that Sullivan was “the first significant mass cultural hero in American life.” A good many other historical figures, starting perhaps with Davy Crockett, have as much right to make this somewhat gassy claim, but the champion’s mustached portrait did soon hang everywhere. Small boys pursued him from saloon to saloon; their fathers followed his feats in and out of the ring in the burgeoning penny press or in the pink pages of the National Police Gazette; and people seemed willing to pay to see him do almost anything, including declaim poetry and pose motionless in tights as “The Dying Gladiator” and “Hercules at Rest.” For three of his ten years as champion he abandoned the ring entirely in favor of a cross-country tour playing a virtuous blacksmith in Honest Hearts and Willing Hands, a melodrama especially written for him—"Mr. Sullivan,” wrote one careful critic, “was quite as good as the play"—and he later starred briefly as Simon Legree in a drastically rewritten version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in which Mrs. Stowe’s harsh overseer had been transformed into a hero so that Sullivan could hold on to the audience’s sympathy while pummeling Uncle Tom.

The champion swore that he had “never been angry in any of the engagements I have been in.” Between engagements things were different. Sullivan was “a son-of-a-bitch of the first water,” one contemporary said, “if he ever drank any.” A mean drunk, his favored brawling technique was to butt his enemies into oblivion. His drinking caused him to balloon to more than three hundred pounds; it lost him his first wife and almost cost him his life when, staggering out onto the platform between two cars to urinate, he tumbled off a speeding train.

In 1889 he nonetheless announced his qualifications to run for Congress. He was a loyal Democrat, he explained; he kept his promises, and as for people who criticized his occupation, “They don’t know what they are talking about. My business is, and always has been…to encourage physical culture....Many a young man is bigger and stronger because my example has set him to work.” (Gingerly party bosses politely overlooked his offer.)

One of the young men Sullivan had set to work was James John Corbett, who left his bank teller’s cage in San Francisco that same year to pursue Sullivan’s title—and the big cash prizes that now went with it. The two men finally met at New Orleans three years later. The champion, overweight at thirty-three and breathing hard from the eighth round on, never caught up with his agile challenger, who banged him with counterpunches every time he lunged until he collapsed in the twenty-first round.

There can be few more disheartening moments in boxing than to land your best punch and see its target smile.

As Isenberg points out, nothing in Sullivan’s ring career became him so much as his leaving of it. Shrugging off the restraining hands of his seconds, who thought he wanted to continue his hopeless battle, he managed to lean heavily on the ropes long enough to deliver a curtain speech: “Gentlemen....All I have to say is that I came into the ring once too often—and if I had to get licked I’m glad I was licked by an American. I remain your warm and personal friend, John L. Sullivan.”

Sullivan lived on for another twenty-six years, little better suited to retirement than most of the champions who came after him. By one estimate he had made and lost more than a million dollars; he failed three times at saloon-keeping, was forced to pawn his gaudy championship belt, tried refereeing, hurling across the ring lighter men when they dared clinch, and in 1905, at the age of forty-seven and weighing a wobbly 273 pounds, had enough left to knock out an opponent half his age for five full minutes.

Instead of resuming boxing, however, he gave up alcohol—"If I ever take another drink as long as I live,” he told astonished fellow patrons in a hotel bar in Terre Haute, Indiana, “I hope to God I choke"—and later launched a new career as a temperance lecturer.

Having opened a new way to wealth for poor whites, Sullivan sought to obstruct it for all blacks. He was an implacable believer in the color line. "I will not fight a negro,” he used to boast. “I never have and never shall.” When, in 1908, the heavyweight champion, Tommy Burns of Australia, signed to fight Jack Johnson, Sullivan piously denounced the foreigner’s greed. “Shame on the money-mad champion!” he said. “Shame on the man who upsets good American precedents because there are Dollars, Dollars, Dollars in it.” To Sullivan’s credit, once Burns was knocked out, he wrote that despite his own “well-known antipathy to [Johnson’s] race,” the black man had won fair and square.

In 1910 he married a woman he had known since childhood, almost as tall as he and nearly as wide. She moved with him to a Massachusetts farm and kept a careful eye on what little money her husband retained.

John L. Sullivan died of cardiac arrest at fifty-nine in 1918. For the wake, held in his sister’s parlor, the undertakers laid him out in a tuxedo, his massive right fist clenched over his heart.