Bare-Knuckle Boxer John L. Sullivan Returns in Bloody Glory

Strong Boy The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America's First Sports Hero By Christopher Klein Biography, 353 pages, Lyons Press.

Strong Boy
The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero
By Christopher Klein
Biography, 353 pages, Lyons Press.

Libraries are filled with books chronicling the lives of powerful people writ large. Biographies are continuously churned out on the lives of the titans of history. What is less common—and far more interesting—are biographies of famous people whose lives get buried among the history books. These histories provide fresh canvases for the historian and the biographer, canvases without the brush strokes of each generation painting over the one before it. One such canvas is the life of 19th Century boxer John L. Sullivan, a man who rarely felt the canvass of the boxing ring during his 13-year career.

Boston-based writer Christopher Klein offers a blow-by-blow, quite literally, account of Sullivan, who reigned as heavyweight boxing champion of the world from 1888 to 1892. Sullivan’s life is replete with the trappings of a great American success story. The son of Irish immigrants, Sullivan grew up in Boston’s South End neighborhood. It was there that he developed a reputation as a tough fighter with a powerful hook. This reputation eventually sent him into the clandestine world of bare-knuckle boxing.

Klein’s book goes beyond merely a retelling of one man’s life as a prizefighter. In many ways, Sullivan’s is the conduit through which Klein tells a story of America in the late 19th Century. It is a world that is both starkly strange and oddly familiar to the 21st Century reader.

It is no secret that the sporting life of modern America is part public relations fairy tale and part calculating business venture. In the era of the bare-knuckle fighters, those elements mixed together more blatantly than they do today. It is these glimpses into the sporting life of America where the book shines. Prize-fighting was not quite legal in the 1880’s and 90’s, and matches were often staged in out-of-the-way locales frequented by gamblers, pickpockets, and other assorted criminals. A thoroughly-researched work, Klein recreates the scenes of Sullivan’s major battles with gritty realism.

We see a tug loaded with the 23-year-old Sullivan and 400 fight fans skimming over the Hudson River, trying to stay one step of police in a gilded-age Manhattan of gaslights, Victorians, and a not-yet-completed Statue of Liberty. As Sullivan’s career unfolds, we are taken along for the ride across the landscape of the fledgling democracy. Hired decoy carriages speed down Vine Street, the main thoroughfare of Cincinnati, pursued by policemen intent on stopping a Christmas Eve fight. Later that night, we are there as Sullivan defeats his opponent in an abandoned tavern while the barrel-organ strains of a sideshow in the distance. We see an aging, paunchy Sullivan battle to a 75-round victory in the sweltering August sun of Mississippi as locals dip tin pails full of warm water to the crowd. We sees sparring exhibitions that crisscross the country, stopping in Idaho mining camps, gin-fueled barrooms, wealthy athletic clubs, and everywhere in between. These scenes offer an off-the-beaten path view of the Victorians in a way that both debunks and reaffirms the common perceptions of the era. Much like 21st Century America, Gilded Age Americans were equal parts sanctimonious and base inn their pursuits. Their sports, too, were more like ours than we may want to admit. Boxing promoters and managers of the time courted audiences with gentlemanly codes of conducted while doing everything in their power to give their audiences the blood and circus they craved.

Sullivan stands astride two unique eras in American boxing history. He was the last of the bare-knuckle boxing champions and he fought the first championship bout with gloves under Marquess of Queensbury Rules. Among the innovations of Queensbury Rules were the three-minute round, the ten count, and the prohibition of wrestling an opponent in the ring.

John L. Sullivan was an early advocate for gloved bouts. Sullivan, it seems, was many things: an alcoholic, a bully, and an adulterer. One thing he was not, however, was underhanded. He fought clean and fair—a reputation which made him an American folk hero and had millions of fans wanting to “shake the hand that shook the hand of Sullivan,” to quote a famous phrase from the day. It is Sullivan’s life as an American sports hero that is most prescriptive to modern readers. He was the prototypical American superstar athlete. Sullivan was by some accounts the first sportsman to earn $1 million in his lifetime. He came of age when new technology was making the world a much smaller place—namely, the railroad, the telegraph, and the mass newspaper media. Fans could follow Sullivan’s career with unprecedented immediacy. The daily newspapers wanted more than just fight results, however, they wanted to know the man. Sullivan’s private life proved fertile ground for the nascent news media. Sullivan was a notorious hotheaded drinker who was quick to come to blows with those who crossed him inside or outside of the ring. He was also a generous spender where friends and family were concerned, blowing through much of his money showing other people a good time. After his wife Annie left him, Sullivan cavorted with a string of mistresses, leaving the confused press wondering which “Mrs. Sullivan” was which.

Klein deftly brings these biographical and historic strains together against the backdrop of an American blood sport. Equal part sports, economic, folk and popular history, the book’s well-researched and well-crafted narrative should appeal to scholars and historians interested in any of those aspects of the late 19th Century. The book is also a Boston sports fans dream: a seldom told story of Beantown sporting prowess. Klein’s fondness for the city is present throughout, which is fitting: Sullivan was not just “Strong Boy,” he was “The Boston Strong Boy.” In telling the story of his beloved city’s beloved hero, Klein gives us an account of 19th Century America, not from the pristine halls of power, but from the blood-soaked fringes of society. He tells of a man whose story resonated with masses of frustrated immigrants whose descendants, some of them at least, would become those great figures in history books—the kinds of history books that don’t tell the stories of bare-knuckle fighting in smoke-filled taverns late into the night. Fortunately for us, this book does just that.

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