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21 JUNE 2018


John L. Sullivan Revisited: Part 1

John L. Sullivan
John L. Sullivan

By Thomas Hauser

Next month will mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of John L. Sullivan.

In recent decades, Sullivan has faded from memory. To many, he’s now more myth than reality, a sporting Paul Bunyan. In a way, that’s fitting because, in his era, Sullivan was a near-mythic figure as large as Babe Ruth, Joe Louis, and Muhammad Ali were in their prime. He was America’s first mass-culture hero and the most idolized athlete who had lived up until his time.

Good writing about Sullivan is hard to find. His autobiography (like much of the contemporaneous writing about him) is unreliable. The best book on the subject is John L. Sullivan and His America by Michael Isenberg (University of Illinois Press, 1988). Isenberg mined the mother lode of Sullivan material and crafted a work that’s superb in explaining the fighter as a social phenomenon and placing him in the context of his times. Twenty years after publication, it’s still the standard against which Sullivan scholarship is judged.

More recently, Adam Pollack has contributed John L. Sullivan (McFarland and Company, 2004); an exhaustive review of contemporaneous newspapers, magazines, and other primary sources as they relate to Sullivan’s fights. Various ring histories, most notably The Manly Art by Elliott J. Gorn (Cornell University Press, 1986) also contribute to the archival heritage. Reading their work, an outline emerges.

The Irish potato famine of the 1840’s led to a flood of immigration to the United States. One of those arriving in America was a young man named Mike Sullivan, who settled in Boston circa 1850. In 1856, he married Catherine Kelly, whose family had also come to Boston from Ireland.

Mike Sullivan was a small man, 5-feet-2-inches tall. His wife was considerably taller and weighed 180 pounds. On October 15, 1858, in the Roxbury district of Boston, she gave birth to a son, John Lawrence Sullivan.

The Irish, in the mid-eighteenth century, were largely scorned in America. They were manual laborers and household domestics, shackled by ethnic prejudices and anti-Catholic sentiment. Mike Sullivan was a day laborer, who dug trenches, laid bricks, and took whatever other work was available to him.

John Lawrence’s formal education ended when he was fifteen. Thereafter, he drifted from job to job as a plumber’s apprentice, tinsmith’s apprentice, and mason. He was physically strong and had his mother’s size, weighing close to two hundred pounds by the time he was seventeen. More significantly, he was athletically gifted and, from time to time, played baseball in local semi-professional games.

Prizefighting was introduced in the American colonies by British sailors during the Revolutionary War. But it never took hold and, by the time Sullivan was of fighting age, it was banned in all thirty-eight states. More significantly, the law was largely upheld, particularly in urban areas. Thus, boxing was a vagabond sport. Word of a forthcoming bout would pass quietly from mouth to mouth, after which the combatants and spectators would travel on short notice to the designated site.

The London Prize Ring Rules were the standard for prizefighting in America. Those rules provided that:

(1) A fight would take place on turf in a 24-foot-square enclosure.

(2) A mark would be drawn in the center of the enclosure as the “scratch line.” Areas large enough to hold a fighter and two seconds for activity between rounds were enclosed by other marks in the turf in opposite corners.

(3) A fight consisted of an undetermined number of rounds. A round ended when a combatant was down on at least one knee.

(4) Once a combatant was down, his seconds had thirty seconds to revive him. “Time” was then called and the combatant had eight seconds more to come to scratch or lose the fight.

(5) Eye-gouging, hair-pulling, head-butting, blows below the waist, kicking, falling without receiving a legitimate blow, and striking a combatant when he was down were grounds for disqualification at the referee’s discretion. Beyond that, the rules were pretty much “anything goes” (including wrestling and throwing an opponent to the ground).

Growing up, Sullivan had been involved in fights in the schoolyard and at work. In 1878 (at age twenty), he took things to a higher level. At a local entertainment show at the Dudley Street Opera House, he was challenged by a man named Jack Scannell, who’d heard that John had a bit of a reputation. Sullivan and Scannell went onto the stage. Each man shed his coat and rolled up his sleeves.

In a matter of seconds, Sullivan obliterated his foe. Thereafter, he began to spend time around the prizefight crowd and made the decision to prepare himself to fight for money. Isenberg writes, “He already had accumulated a history of arguments and disputes ending in challenges to fight. He could see a grim future in the model of his father. A choice between fame in the ring and sweating through twelve-hour days in dank ditches was not hard to make. And above all, boxing gave him what plumbing, tinsmithing, and masonry never could – a sense of importance and self-esteem. Once he heard the cheers, once he had a sense of his ability to dominate other men, he never looked back.”

But as Isenberg notes, “Sullivan could not have been attracted to pugilism because it offered him a living. No one could see that this chosen walk of life would produce anything more than facial scars, scrambled brains, and trouble with the law. No one in American history – no one – had ever made a living as a prizefighter. Some of them owned or worked in saloons. Others moved from odd job to odd job. Nor did the calling afford a chance to rise in the world. The social stigma against prizefighting ran broadly and deeply through American life. Prizefighting was against the law, and prizefighters were considered the dregs of society.”

The one glimmer of respectability that was attached to boxing related to a new code of conduct for matches. In 1866, Henry Sholto Douglas (the eighth Marquis of Queensberry) had authored what were known as The Queensberry Rules. These rules provided that:

(1) Fights would be contested in three-minute rounds with a minute rest in between each round.

(2) A man who was knocked down had ten seconds to rise unassisted by his handlers or be declared the loser by knockout.

(3) Wrestling, grappling, and throwing were forbidden.

(4) A fight could be contested as a fight to the finish or for a pre-determined number of rounds.

(5) The combatants would wear gloves.

At the time Sullivan turned to fighting, gloved “exhibitions of skill” were permitted in some states as long as they didn’t turn too unfriendly. Often, the police were stationed at ringside and intervened if they believed that the fighters were throwing punches “with intent to injure.” But sometimes (particularly when financial inducements were offered to the authorities) actual fights under Queensberry Rules were allowed to proceed until, in the judgment of the police, one of the fighters was badly hurt and in danger of being more seriously incapacitated.

Various record books and scholarly studies are at odds regarding Sullivan’s ring record. The discrepancies come from the discovery of previously-unknown matches and inconsistencies as to whether certain bouts are recorded as prizefights or exhibitions.

What’s clear is that Sullivan preferred to ply his trade with gloves. He wore them in all but three of his recorded fights and fought all but five of his fights under Queensberry rules. By early 1880, he’d established a following with a series of exhibitions in Boston and New York. Then, on April 6, 1880, in Boston, he had what Isenberg calls his first “fight” – an event publicly styled as an “exhibition” against American heavyweight champion Joe Goss (who was preparing for a May 30 bout against challenger Paddy Ryan).

In front of 1,800 spectators, Sullivan knocked Goss down and battered him for three rounds. On June 28, also in Boston, he knocked out an experienced fighter named George Rooke. On December 24, he journeyed to Cincinnati and, fighting under the London Rules for the first time (albeit with skintight gloves), disposed of John Donaldson in ten rounds.

The following spring, Sullivan won his “break-out” fight. On May 16, 1881, fighting on a barge that had been towed up-river and anchored off Yonkers to avoid New York law enforcement authorities, he vanquished John Flood in eight rounds. That conquest, conducted under the London Rules with skintight gloves, paid him a purse of $750.

Two months later, under the auspices of Billy Madden (his first manager), Sullivan began a tour of the northeast and midwest, during which he sparred with all comers and offered fifty dollars to anyone who could last four rounds with him under Queensberry rules.

Boxing in Sullivan’s day was crude and unskilled compared to what came later. Regardless, those foolish enough to challenge him on the tour (for the most part, they were novices) were quickly disposed of. Sullivan had sloping shoulders, massive forearms, and enormous fists. He was blessed with size, strength, and agility. In Pollack’s words, he was “a vicious slugger with huge power and very good speed. He knew how to land his punches and land them well. He had an underrated ability to avoid being hit and absorbed the blows he did receive very well.”

Contemporary descriptions of Sullivan’s fighting refer to his “bull-like rushes” and “sledge-hammer right hand.” He was “quick as a cat . . . a whirlwind of activity . . . What he lacks in science is fully made up by his tremendous strength and hitting power coupled with a quickness of action not often found in big men . . . So rapidly are his blows delivered that parrying them is an impossibility.”

Sullivan’s 1881 tour gave him a reputation outside of Boston. But more importantly, it established him as the next logical challenger to Paddy Ryan (who had defeated Joe Goss subsequent to Sullivan boxing an “exhibition” against the American heavyweight champion).

The term “champion” was loosely applied in those days. As Isenberg explains, “Champions were made and unmade in the press as often as in the ring. Essentially, a ‘champion’ was he who won a noteworthy fight and kept winning, particularly over those who had styled themselves similarly.” Indeed, Ryan had only one serious victory to his credit (his May 30, 1880, triumph over Goss).

But Ryan had a powerful backer. In 1876, an Irish-born American named Richard Kyle Fox had assumed editorial control of the National Police Gazette and, focusing on crime and sex, established it as a journal for the masses. Then Fox discovered boxing and styled the Gazette as “the leading prize ring authority in America,” lifting its circulation to 400,000.

Fox and Sullivan didn’t like each other. They’d met for the first time in New York in spring 1881. Sullivan considered Fox a pompous bore, and Fox resented the fighter’s refusal to act in an appropriately obsequious manner to gain favorable coverage in the Gazette.

In May 1881, Paddy Ryan authorized Fox to serve as his emissary in arranging a title defense pursuant to the London Rules and said that he’d fight anyone for the winner’s share of the purse plus a $5,000 side bet ($2,500 per side). Fox put up Ryan’s $2,500 share. Sullivan found backers for his end.

Ryan’s partisans took heart in the fact that their man had won the title by defeating Joe Goss in a bare-knuckle contest that lasted 87 rounds contested over 84 minutes. Sullivan, by contrast, had never participated in a bare-knuckle fight and the longer of his two matches under the London rules had lasted only ten rounds. Thus, the challenger’s stamina and the strength of his hands were in doubt.

What Ryan’s backers failed to consider was that Sullivan, even then, was probably the greatest fighting man who had ever lived.

The match was made for February 7, 1882. Because prize fighting was illegal throughout the United States, it was to be contested at a site “within one hundred miles of New Orleans.”

At 5:00 A.M. on February 7, Ryan, Sullivan, and more than a thousand fight enthusiasts boarded a special train that had twelve passenger cars. Three hours later, they arrived in Mississippi City. A ring was pitched. Ryan is believed to have weighed 192 pounds. Sullivan had trained down to 182 pounds and was in the best condition of his life, having readied for a long grueling fight.

The battle began shortly after noon. Thirty seconds later, Ryan lay on the ground, felled by a series of blows to the ribs followed by a vicious right hand to the jaw. At the end of nine rounds, his handlers threw in the sponge. Less than eleven minutes of fighting had elapsed. Bob Farrell (a ring veteran who helped prepare Sullivan for the bout) said afterward, “I never saw such work as Sullivan did. He went at Ryan as you would chop a log of wood and broke him all up from the start.”

Ryan acknowledged, “I never faced a man who could begin to hit as hard. I don’t believe there is another man like him in the country. He spars as well as the general run of pugilists, and he can hit hard enough to break down any man’s guard. Any man that Sullivan can hit, he can whip.”

The New Orleans Times-Democrat reported, “Sullivan cared nothing for Ryan’s blows, and his own hitting is so tremendous that it seems beyond the power of a man to recover from the shock of one of his hands let out from the shoulder. His style of fighting differs from that of any pugilist that has entered the ring of late. He is a skillful wrestler and a good in-fighter, quick to dodge and always on the alert for any opening that an opponent may leave. He is a rusher, and it is this quality and his tremendous hitting powers that make him a great pugilist. Against his sledge-hammer fists, the naked arms of a man are but poor defense.”

After the fight, the National Police Gazette gave Sullivan his due. Richard Kyle Fox had previously labeled the match as being for “the championship of the world” (the first time that designation had been used). “As much as any other single event,” Elliott Gorn writes, “the fight fostered the development of modern sports coverage. The National Police Gazette presses rolled for days with an eight-page illustrated special. All of the major dailies sent reporters, stimulating and fulfilling the demand for news.”

Still, after Sullivan’s conquest, there was little to distinguish him from his predecessors. A series of exhibitions and fights against unskilled opponents followed.

Then things began to change. Sullivan discovered that, trading on his notoriety, he could make money outside of boxing. He was paid five hundred dollars a day to tour with a variety-show. Next, on May 28, 1883, he pitched in a semi-professional baseball game at the Polo Grounds in New York. Four thousand spectators attended. Sullivan gave up fifteen runs and committed four errors in a 20-to-15 triumph. His fifty-percent share of the gates receipts amounted to $1,585.90.

As a man of newly-acquired means, Sullivan also became more attractive to women. One of them whom he began spending time with was Annie Bates Bailey.

Sullivan was on familiar terms with more than a few prostitutes. Annie had a reputation as “a loose woman.” She was a year older than he was and, like his mother, a tall woman who weighed in the neighborhood of 180 pounds. After Sullivan won the championship, she traveled with him as his “wife” for about a year. On May 1, 1883, they were married.

Meanwhile, in due course, Sullivan was called upon to resume the business of serious fighting. Prior to his beating Ryan, there had never been a recognized “gloved” champion. Sullivan created that role.

“They said that I was only a glove-fighter and that I was afraid of the bare knuckles,” Sullivan had said after winning the championship. “For that reason, I consented to fight Ryan as I did. Now anyone who wants to tackle me will have to do it in my fashion.”

On March 23, 1882 (six weeks after defeating Ryan), Sullivan issued a public challenge, declaring, “I am willing to fight any man in this country in four weeks from signing articles for five thousand dollars a side; or any man for the same amount at two months from signing; I to use gloves and he, if he pleases, to fight with bare knuckles. I will not fight again with bare knuckles as I do not wish to put myself in a position amenable to the law. My money is always ready, so I want these fellows to put up or shut up. John L. Sullivan.”

On May 14, 1883, pursuant to that challenge, Sullivan fought Charlie Mitchell of England (his most credible opponent since winning the championship). Their bout at Madison Square Garden was labeled an “exhibition” to stay within New York law. But the ten thousand spectators who attended understood that it would be something more. Mitchell knocked Sullivan down in the first round; the first time that John L. had ever been floored. But the champion rose and battered his opponent around the ring until the fight was stopped by the police in the third round. Sullivan’s share of the gate was roughly $12,000. An August 6, 1883, third-round knockout of Australia’s Herbert Slade, also at Madison Square Garden, was equally profitable.

Sullivan was now gathering increasing attention. “Other boxers begin by sparring,” Irish-born novelist John Boyle O’Reilly (then editor of a Boston newspaper called The Pilot) wrote. “Sullivan begins by fighting, and he never ceases to fight.”

To that, Sullivan added, “When I started boxing, I felt within myself that I could knock out any man living. I go in to win from the very first second. And I never stop until I have won.”
But greater heights lay ahead. On September 18, 1883, Sullivan announced a venture of unprecedented proportions. He intended to embark upon an eight-month national tour, during which he would visit every region of America.

Sullivan was accompanied on his Grand Tour by heavyweight boxers Herbert Slade, Jem Mace, and Steve Taylor, and also by two lightweights (Pete McCoy and Mike Gillespie). Frank Moran (a friend of Sullivan’s) served as the master of ceremonies. Al Smith (Sullivan’s new manager) was the advance man. Jack Menzinger handled the finances. Annie Bates Bailey Sullivan was the final member of the group.

The tour wouldn’t have been possible without recent advances in communications (most notably, the telegraph) and rail travel. It lasted from September 28, 1883, through May 23, 1884. Sullivan visited twenty-six of the thirty-eight states, five territories, the District of Columbia, and British Columbia.

Every major American city west of New York was on the tour. So were dozens of small communities, whose residents had never seen a boxing exhibition let alone come face-to-face with a person of renown. Sullivan made 195 appearances in 136 cities and towns over the course of 238 days. No one, not even a presidential candidate, had undertaken such an ambitious tour before.

Each stop on the Grand Tour centered around forty-five minutes of gloved sparring by the fighters. Rounds were three minutes long. Sullivan explained the concept to his audience as follows: “We are giving exhibitions of what can be done in the art of boxing. Two of these gentlemen fought me in New York and I done them up, but they are my friends now and I am their friend. Though we hit hard, we suffer no injury. We do no fighting, but it would be terrible punishment if a novice had to take it. We are simply giving these exhibitions that the people may see something of the art of boxing.”

Sullivan was warmly received in virtually every locale he visited. Isenberg recounts a typical welcome: “At the railroad station, official greeters including the community’s leading men. At the hotel, punctilious service. In the streets, crowds of men and boys eager to get a look at the Boston marvel. Audiences were composed of a mix of the better sort and riff-raff. Occasionally, some women attended.”

Sullivan had the look of a champion. He was the first famous person that most of the onlookers had ever seen. And there was one more enticement to come see the show.

To heighten interest in the tour, Sullivan agreed to fight any man at any stop and pay $250 to anyone who lasted four rounds with him under Queensberry Rules. “John L.” Isenberg writes, “was literally challenging all of America to fight.”

No one accepted the offer. Thus, the prize money was raised to $500. The first taker was a man named James McCoy, who challenged Sullivan in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, and lasted twenty seconds with him. By the end of 1883, only four men had been willing to step into the ring with the champion; each of them a novice who lasted a matter of seconds. Thus, the bounty was increased to $1,000. The first taker was a transplanted Texan named Fred Robinson, who challenged Sullivan in Butte, Montana, and was knocked down fifteen times over the course of two rounds.

Sometimes, challenges were halted by the local police. But as a rule, if a challenger got in the ring and the bell rang, the battle (such as it was) didn’t last long enough for the police to intervene.

In Oregon, on February 1, 1884, Sullivan faced a challenger named Sylvester Le Gouriff; a giant of a man who weighed more than three hundred pounds. Before the bout, Sullivan surveyed his foe and proclaimed, “The bigger he is, the harder he’ll fall.” Twenty seconds after the bell for round one rang, Le Gouriff was unconscious. “I break wood and fences with my fists,” he told Sullivan afterward. “You break stone.”

Five days later, Sullivan was in Seattle, where more than two thousand spectators saw a strong well-conditioned man named James Lang vie for the thousand-dollar prize. As reported in the Seattle Daily Post-Intelligencer, “It took a little less than seven seconds to make Mr. Lang aware of the fact that he had business elsewhere. In that time, he was knocked from side to side as if he were a child, battered to the floor, and forced to quit. It was simply impossible to withstand the rain of blows and the force with which they were delivered.”

Other descriptions of Sullivan’s ring prowess were equally chilling:

* “For a big man, he is a marvel for activity and precision in delivering a blow. He swings the right across about as quick as most men can shove out the left hand. He will pound a man about, regardless of size, the same as he would handle a sandbag or punching ball. No man can stand up to his hurricane work.”

* “Sullivan is a marvel of strength, skill, and agility. If there is another man on earth who is equal, certain it is that that man has never been publicly known. The force with which he delivers a blow is simply appalling to ordinary people. There is nothing comparable to it, unless it be those guns holding several charges, which are discharged one after another. He is wonderfully agile, and his motions resemble those of a tiger in the act of springing on its prey. No ordinary man has any chance at all before him, and it is idle, foolish, to talk otherwise.”

* “He is such a prodigy in the fistic world that there seems to be no rule, whether physical or mental, that can apply to him. He is a phenomenon. It is his nature to fight. He is as lithe as a panther and his rush is like an avalanche.”

* “Even in imagination, the ancients never conceived such a hitter as Sullivan. No man that ever lived can evade Sullivan if he is well and strong. He is the quickest big man that ever fought in the ring. When he gets an opponent in the ring, that is the end of that man’s chances.”

On March 6, 1884, in San Francisco, Sullivan faced his first serious challenger on the Grand Tour; a professional prizefighter named George Robinson, who had defeated Herbert Slade a year earlier. Twelve thousand spectators watched the contest. Robinson survived, but only through cowardice. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that he fell to the canvas to avoid blows sixty-six times in four rounds.

Meanwhile, in addition to making money, Sullivan was using the tour as a pedestal upon which to preach the gospel of his profession. “Why is it that people raise such a cry against boxers?” he asked during an interview in Minnesota. “Aristocratic gentlemen in Europe, and sometimes in this country, go out with a couple of friends and try to kill each other with swords or revolvers at twenty paces. Why don’t they settle the question with their fists? There would be no loss of life and it would be equally effective in determining who is the better man.”

“I claim to have worked a revolution in the public sentiment by substituting gloves for the naked fists,” Sullivan told America. “Fist-fighting [bare-knuckle] days are over for me. I have introduced the new rules of the fight into this country, and I intend to stand by them. It will ere long not be considered a disgrace to be a boxer. It will not be long before the best people in the country will attend boxing contests.”

For eight months, America embraced its champion as it had never embraced a common man before. “No matter where I go,” Sullivan told a reporter, “there is a multitude of people who seem to know me and consider it an honor to shake my hand. I am gazed at by everybody, and at first this overawed me. But I have gotten used to it. It is an innocent request to satisfy, and I don’t mind them a bit.”

But there was a problem. A big one. Sullivan was a drunkard. He had grown up in a drinking environment and, by his early twenties, was an alcoholic.

After Sullivan defeated Paddy Ryan to become champion, the public became aware of his drinking. John L. acknowledged that he was “no temperance man” but claimed to “never carry drinking to excess.”

The number of brawls that he was involved in and the number of public appearances that he showed up for “under the weather” indicated otherwise.

Often, Sullivan would drink himself into a stupor in a saloon and boast, “I can lick any son-of-a-bitch in the house.” He had a hair-trigger and frequently pulled it when he was drunk.

On the Grand Tour, Sullivan’s drinking was a problem from the start. He denied it. “I don’t drink much,” he told a reporter for the National Police Gazette. “Say, five or six glasses of ale a day and a bottle for dinner if I feel like it.”

That would have been too much, and it understated the matter. As the tour progressed, the champion’s drinking spiralled out of control. With increasing frequency, when he performed before the public, he was drunk. Only one exhibition is known to have been cancelled because of it. But as Isenberg notes, “This meant that audiences throughout the country were often treated to a shambling drunk rather than a muscular advocate of the manly art crisply showing his stuff.”

In later years, Sullivan claimed to have fought fifty-nine challengers during the Grand Tour. More likely, the number was twelve. Estimates of his earnings vary. The champion said he made a profit of $145,000 ($3,187,000 in today’s dollars) after the deduction of $42,000 in expenses from gross receipts of $187,000. Isenberg places the profit at between $80,000 and $90,000. Regardless, no professional athlete (indeed, no common man) had earned anything close to that amount of money before. And more significantly, more than 100,000 Americans had seen Sullivan in the flesh.

Other than presidents and a few military heroes, John L. Sullivan had become the most famous person in the United States.

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at

Click here for Part 2 of “John L. Sullivan Revisited”

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