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Yours Truly, John L. Sullivan
Taking on all comers, he had always dropped his man—but his supreme moment came in bare-knuckle boxing’s last great fight
August 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 5
Matches were fought on a winner-take-all basis. Sometimes a hat was passed through the crowd and the beaten man got a few dollars, but only if he had made a good showing. The winner got a share of the side bet put up by his backers, but this did not generally amount to much even in championship bouts. Prize fighters made their money outside the ring, as saloon keepers and on exhibition tours with theatrical troupes. Most were heavy drinkers and died broke.
After Morrissey beat Yankee Sullivan, and indeed until well after the Civil War, there was little boxing in this country. It was a long and dreary period that produced few boxers of ability and few honest matches. The ring seems to have shared in the widespread political corruption of the postwar period. If a fight wasn’t fixed—and many were—the chances were that it would be won by whichever fighter had more thugs at the ringside to intimidate the referee or, as often happened, to break up the fight when it was obvious that their man was going to lose.
Ring fans turned away from the sport in disgust, and it might have gone the way of bearbaiting and dogfighting had it not been for the young gladiator from Boston, John L. Sullivan.
The “Boston Strong Boy” arrived on no white charger to save the game. He came on foot with fists swinging and with one purpose in mind—to destroy the man in front of him as quickly as possible. Here at last was a real fighter and an honest one who wanted only to fight—he did not care whom. “I am prepared to fight any man born of woman. Always on the level, yours truly, John L. Sullivan,” growled John L., who liked to write his signature in the air this way at the conclusion of a speech.
John L. was America’s first great sports hero, the first to be followed on the streets by such crowds that he needed guards to keep from being trampled. When he arrived in London in 1887, a waiting throng at Euston Station rushed his cab and shattered it to bits. In Dublin the horses drawing his carriage were set loose, and the mob drew him through the streets to his hotel. It was the same in Chicago, New Orleans, Detroit, or wherever he went. Everyone wanted to see the champ, get close to him, cheer his words, and shake his hand.
Yet this American god was certainly no model for the youth of the land. He was, in truth, a notorious drunkard, a bully, and a shameless adulterer. For years he lived openly with Ann Livingston, a busty burlesque queen, although he had a wife living in Boston. He was a drinker of amazing capacity (he once drank 56 gin fizzes in one hour, according to Professor William Lyon Phelps), and he would stay drunk for days at a time. In this state he would flatten anyone who happened to displease him. “He was an s.o.b. of the first water—if he ever drank any,” said one non-admirer of the great John L., and there were many, even among the Boston Irish, who felt the same way. The humor magazines Life, Judge , and Puck often depicted him in cartoons as a booze-fighter and a lowbrow. The press usually held its nose when forced to mention his name. On the morning after his fight with Kilrain, for example, the New York Times headline read: “THE BIGGER BRUTE WON.”
Nevertheless he was adored. He had his faults, to be sure, but in spite of them he was completely honest and straightforward. After all, what was a fighter supposed to be, Little Lord Fauntleroy? And what a fighter John L. was—with bare fists, skintight or padded gloves, under any rules, anywhere, against anybody.
He looked like a fighter, too, though his face was unmarked and his teeth were white and even. Deep-chested, well-proportioned, black-haired and scowling, he stood 5 feet 10½ inches and scaled 195 pounds in fighting trim. He was amazingly light on his feet and fast of hand.
John Lawrence Sullivan was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, near Boston, on October 15, 1858, the son of Irish immigrants. His mother was an enormous woman, as tall as her son and almost as heavy. Mike Sullivan, his father, stood but 5 feet 3 inches and was a hod carrier, an occupation that John L. himself followed after a respectable amount of schooling. At nineteen he began boxing in Boston theaters on Saturday nights to pick up a few extra dollars. These were glove bouts conducted under the new Marquis of Queensberry rules—which called for gloves and three-minute rounds—that were even then gradually superseding the bare-knuckle code. The matches were limited to three or four rounds and were billed—to get around the Boston police—as sparring exhibitions.
John L. knew nothing about sparring or the niceties of the manly art. But he did know how to punch. “It was like being hit by a runaway horse,” said Mike Donovan, one of the few who stayed three rounds with the Strong Boy on a Boston stage. “When Sullivan struck me,” a knockout victim said, “I thought a telegraph pole had been shoved against me endwise.”
John L.’s fame as a knockout artist spread. Hc acquired a manager—Billy Madden, one of the several he was to have—and they went on tour. In Cincinnati, Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York, Sullivan fought a series of glove and bare-fist bouts and bowled over everyone who faced him.