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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
On the evening of March 31, 1881, when John L. was 23, he and his manager were in Harry Hill’s saloon and dance hall in New York, where stage and sporting people gathered nightly. Eyeing them a few tables away was Richard KyIe Fox, publisher of the National Police Gazette, a popular weekly devoted to scandal, sports, and the theater. Fox was the most inflluential sports figure in the country and was aware of his power. He was a liberal donor of awards and prizes in various sports and the backer of Paddy Ryan, the reigning American heavyweight champion. Fox looked over at John L.’s table and said to a waiter, “Tell Sullivan to come over here. I’ll talk to him.”
The message was delivered to young Sullivan. “Tell Fox if he wants to see me he can come over to my table,” he answered. No one had ever talked to Fox like that before, and he never forgot it. The affront caused him to put on a campaign against John L. in the Gazette and to search for a man who could whip him—a search that was to cost him thousands of dollars.
But first Sullivan had some business with John Flood, a New York gang leader who had never failed to stop his man. They fought on a barge anchored in the Hudson River on the night of May 16, 1881, bare-knuckle rules, before 500 sports. This was an important fight for John L., for a victory would lead to a match with Ryan for the title.
The Boston Strong Boy, as usual, wasted no time. Every round ended with Flood on his back, and in the eighth his seconds threw in the sponge. As John L. was passing the hat for Flood’s benefit he spotted Ryan in the crowd and said, “Ready for yours, Paddy?”
Paddy got his the following February in a ring pitched in front of the veranda of the Barnes Hotel in the Gulf resort town of Mississippi City. He went out in the ninth round and now, to the chagrin of Fox, John L. was champion of America.
No prize fighter ever enjoyed his trade more. After winning the title, Sullivan went on an unprecedented barnstorming tour across the country, taking on all comers and offering $1,000 to anyone who stayed four rounds, Oueensberry rules. No fighter had ever done anything like this before, and John L.’s popularity rose to new heights. He fought everywhere—in theaters, dance halls, and armories, and he fought the toughest—lumberjacks, blacksmiths, local bully-boys, and professional ringmen. Few stayed more than a round. In his first season he flattened 59 men. Tug Wilson, an experienced British heavyweight backed by Fox, was the only man able to stay four rounds, and he had to resort to shameless holding, clinching, and continuous slipping to the door to avoid being hit. No count was kept of the cities John L. visited on his various tours or of the number of battles he fought, but it has been estimated that he knocked out about 200 men. Night after night, drunk or sober—and often he was so drunk that his handlers had to help him into his tights and push him on stage—the Strong Boy never failed to drop his man. The wonder is that he never killed anyone, for he had such a terrific wallop that the head or shoulders of his victim sometimes hit the canvas before the buttocks.
John L. took time out from his tour now and then to appear on the banquet circuit and to come to New York to dispose of the latest Fox importation. After the Tug Wilson fiasco, Fox brought over the claimant to the British title, Charley Mitchell, a clever boxer but some thirty pounds lighter than Sullivan. The men met in a glove fight in Madison Square Garden. In the first round Mitchell went down twice, then got up and to the amazement of all let go a short right that dumped the Strong Boy on the seat of his pants. Enraged, Sullivan bounded up without waiting for a count and swarmed all over the little Britisher. In the third round the fight was stopped by police to save Mitchell from further punishment. But he had shown that the impossible could happen, that John L. could be knocked down.
Their return engagement at the Garden was a sellout. Box seats sold for $25, and the house was jammed with 13,500 people. At the scheduled time for the bout there was some delay. Mitchell was in his corner waiting, but there was no John L. Several minutes passed and the fans were growing impatient when the champion, dressed in evening clothes with diamonds sparkling on his shirt front, climbed through the ropes and reeled to the center of the ring, so drunk he could hardly stand. Waving for silence amid the catcalls, he explained that he was “very shick” and could not fight. Then he weaved down the aisle and went off to a Turkish bath. Not a cent was refunded by the Garden management, and John L. pocketed several thousand dollars as his share of the gate receipts. Yet so great was his popularity that he was forgiven within a few days; on his next appearance in New York he was greeted as a hero.
Fox continued his search for a man to whip Sullivan. He imported Herbert Slade, a giant Maori, supposedly the best fighter in Australia. Slade didn’t last three rounds. Next was AIf Greenfield, heralded as one of England’s finest. Two rounds for Alf.