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John L. Sullivan Revisited: Part 3
By Thomas Hauser
The Marquis of Queensberry Rules that John L. Sullivan proselytized for throughout his career didn’t make boxing less violent. Gloves were worn to protect fists, not an opponent’s brain. And under the new rules, a fighter could no longer gain thirty seconds of relief by falling to the ground.
But as Elliott Gorn writes, “The Queensberry Rules redrew the arbitrary border separating acceptable deviance from unpardonable vice. They sanitized prize fighting just enough to make it a legal spectator sport and changed the social composition of the crowd and the environment in which fights were held. The ring continued to call forth images of primitive brutality, of lower-class and ethnic peoples venting their violent passions. But gloves and new rules appeared to curb the animality sufficiently to allow a titillating sense of danger inside safe and civilized boundaries.”
Nowhere was this change more evident than in New Orleans. In 1890, the New Orleans City Council voted to allow fights that were contested under Queensberry Rules as long as those fights were not held on a Sunday, no liquor was served, and the promoter contributed fifty dollars to charity. One year later, the New Orleans Olympic Club (one of several athletic associations in the city) mounted a successful court challenge to Louisiana’s statute against prizefighting insofar as it related to gloved fights.
The New Orleans athletic associations spearheaded the modernization of boxing. Fighters were divided into six weight classes. Club employees were trained as referees and empowered to stop fights if a combatant was hurt and unable to properly defend himself. Of greater significance from a commercial point of view, the clubs built indoor arenas and began to contract for fights under a system in which they chose the fighters and supervised every aspect of a promotion. On September 7, 1892, John L. Sullivan put his imprimatur on this new world.
By 1892, more than two years had passed since Sullivan had entered the ring against Jake Kilrain. Criticism of his reluctance to fight was mounting. And he needed money. Hence, in early March, he issued a public challenge that read in part, “This country has been overrun by a lot of foreign fighters and also American aspirants for fistic fame and championship honors, who have endeavored to seek notoriety and American dollars by challenging me to fight. I hereby challenge any and all of the bluffers to fight me either the last week in August or the first week in September at the Olympic Club, New Orleans, Louisiana, for a purse of $25,000 and an outside bet of $10,000, the winner of the fight to take the entire purse. The Marquis of Queensberry Rules must govern this contest, as I want fighting, not foot racing.”
One of the fighters whom Sullivan mentioned by name in his challenge was James Corbett.
A native of San Francisco, Corbett, like Sullivan, was the son of Irish immigrants. He was not a particularly strong puncher. But he was fast, quick, and a skilled counter-puncher with exceptional stamina. At age fifteen, Corbett had been let into Mechanics’ Pavilion in San Francisco free of charge by a compliant ticket-taker and seen Sullivan in the ring during the champion’s Grand Tour. Two years later, when Sullivan returned to San Francisco to fight Paddy Ryan for the last time, Corbett attended the fight.
In 1891, Sullivan and Corbett were formally introduced. The champion was in Chicago, performing in Honest Hearts and Willing Hands. Corbett, by then, was twenty-four years old and a fighter of some renown. After Sullivan’s performance, the two men went drinking together, with Sullivan doing most of the drinking. They met again in June of that year and “sparred” together at a benefit in San Francisco. But Sullivan insisted that they wear formal dinner attire for the occasion to negate any hint of competition.
After reading Sullivan’s public challenge, Corbett and his manager (William Brady) traveled to New York and raised the money for the $10,000 side bet. On March 15, 1892, a contract was signed. Sullivan-Corbett would be fought at the New Orleans Olympic Club on September 7, 1892, as a fight to the finish under Queensberry Rules. The fighters would wear five-ounce gloves. The Olympic Club put up the $25,000 purse. With each man posting a $10,000 side bet, the winner would receive $45,000, the largest sum in the history of prize fighting.
Sullivan was a 3-to-1 favorite in the early betting. He was John L. Sullivan. Those who thought that his hedonistic lifestyle would destroy him had learned their lesson when he defeated Jake Kilrain. Kilrain, who’d lost to both men, predicted a Sullivan victory.
But Sullivan had been inactive as a fighter, binge-drinking, and over-eating for three years. He was just shy of his thirty-fourth birthday, whereas Corbett was twenty-six. Moreover, Corbett had begun serious training for the fight in early June at a fit 190 pounds. Sullivan didn’t go into training until July. When he did, he weighed more than 240 pounds. His workouts were light, and there was no conditioner to oversee his training.
Future heavyweight champion Bob Fitzsimmons voiced the concern of many when he observed, “From what I have heard of Sullivan, he will not do his work like a man who is going to meet a good and clever boxer. It may be that Sullivan will underestimate Corbett. If he does that and will not train, he will be beaten, for Corbett is a remarkably clever man and can hit a hard blow.”
Corbett, for his part, paid tribute to the champion, acknowledging, “The man I am going up against is the best that has ever lived. I don’t know as I will win. But I will be in the ring on September 7 and, if I am defeated, will go the way of many other good men.”
However, that bit of humility was offset by the declaration, “I think that I can defeat him. I always thought that I could. Ever since we boxed a friendly bout together in San Francisco, I have had my mind made up that I could whip him. No man who has lived the life that Sullivan has lived can beat me in a fight to the finish.”
As the fight neared, New Orleans was consumed by Sullivan versus Corbett. Thousands of boxing enthusiasts, hustlers, prostitutes, and legitimate entrepreneurs descended upon the city. The Olympic Club built a new arena, replete with electric lights, that could hold ten thousand spectators.
The bout was more eagerly anticipated than any sporting event ever up until that time. Word of its outcome would be transmitted instantaneously by telegraph across the nation. In New York, two beacons were mounted on top of the Pulitzer Building. A red one would be lit if Sullivan triumphed; white if Corbett prevailed.
A flood of “smart money” on fight day dropped the odds to almost even. Sullivan entered the ring at 212 pounds; Corbett weighed 187.
The bout began shortly after 9:00 PM. At the start, Sullivan stormed across the ring in his usual manner, slapping his left hand against his thigh. For the first few rounds, Corbett evaded the champion’s blows. In round five, he landed a solid left that brought blood gushing from Sullivan’s nose.
From that point on, the challenger beat up the champion. “Sullivan is big and strong,” Corbett said afterward. “But I knew that he could not hit me. I kept my right in reserve and cut him down with my left. When I saw I had him safe, I ended it as soon as possible. I won by whipping him, not by keeping away.”
By round seven, Corbett was landing hard blows to the body. Sullivan found it increasingly difficult to even lift his arms as the challenger danced around him, raining down blows. By round fourteen, Corbett was landing virtually at will. The champion kept coming forward. It was the only way he knew how to fight. Now and then, when Corbett landed a telling blow, Sullivan acknowledged, “That’s a good one, Jim.” But he was powerless to retaliate in any meaningful way.
The end came in round twenty-one. Michael Isenberg describes the scene: “The iron constitution and raw energy that had served John L. Sullivan so long and so well could do no more. The tree-trunk legs were barely holding him up. His arms ached, hanging straight down at his sides. He could barely see through puffed-up eyelids. Dazed, he hardly knew what was happening around him. But he would not fall. Wavering, he stood helplessly in his corner as Corbett advanced, at last determined to go for the kill. Corbett feinted, then slammed home a right to the jaw. Sullivan dropped to his knees; then incredibly, slowly raised himself to his feet. There he stood, completely defenseless, waiting for the inevitable.”
An account in the New York Sun tells what happened next: “The blood from Sullivan’s face flowed in torrents and made a crimson river across the broad chest. His eyes were glassy. It was a mournful act when the young Californian shot his right across the jaw and Sullivan fell like an ox.”
John L. Sullivan, champion of champions, had lost.
Sullivan was barely conscious as his handlers carried him to his corner. There, they sought to revive him by placing ammonia beneath his nose and pressing ice against the back of his neck and head.
The crowd was cheering wildly for the new champion. Years later, Corbett would write in his autobiography, “I was actually disgusted with the crowd, and it left a lasting impression on me. It struck me as sad to see all those thousands who had given him such a wonderful ovation when he entered the ring turning it to me now that he was down and out. I realized that some day they would turn from me when I should be in Sullivan’s shoes, lying there on the floor.”
Then, still dazed, Sullivan rose from his stool and lurched toward the ropes. Holding onto a ring post to steady his body, the now-ex-champion held up his right hand and cried out to the crowd. “Gentlemen, gentlemen.” The crowd grew silent. “All I have to say,” Sullivan continued in a wavering voice, “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.”
Later that night, having gathered his senses more fully, the defeated champion acknowledged, “He hit me whenever he wanted to. I tried in every way to hit him, but I couldn’t. I am gone now. I can’t fight anymore, and that settles it. I could, at that fellow’s age, have licked any one of them in the world, but that time has passed.” Then, on a more defiant note, Sullivan added, “Let him go through what I have. Let him knock them all out for twelve years and then see if he can do any better than I did.”
Sullivan-Corbett marked the first transfer of the gloved heavyweight championship of the world. There was a new king. But Sullivan had reigned for ten years. He was still famous. And in defeat, he refused to leave the public stage.
For the next fifteen years, the former champion continued to make money by going on theatrical and vaudeville tours. “The monologue was his bread and butter,” Isenberg recounts. “John L. would walk slowly from the wings to center stage, where he would plant both feet and not budge for the remainder of his routine. Clad in full dress suit, he would slip his left hand into a trouser pocket and use the once-lethal right for gestures. And off he would ramble. Drunk or sober, he was seldom a disappointment for the confirmed fan. And on his good nights, he could be positively enchanting.”
Unfortunately, many nights were bad. After Sullivan was beaten by Corbett, boxing was no longer in the back of his mind, which meant that there were no constraints whatsoever on his drinking. A series of embarrassing incidents followed.
In 1893, Sullivan was indicted for assault and battery after beating up a one-armed man on a train. Settlement of the resulting civil suit and legal fees (civil and criminal) cost him $1,200. In 1894, he was arrested after assaulting a carriage driver. In 1896, he was arrested and fined after beating up a streetcar conductor and assaulting a police officer. That same year, in a drunken stupor, he fell off a moving train while trying to urinate onto the tracks. He was knocked unconscious and suffered an eight-inch gash on the back of his head.
There were frequent hospitalizations for drinking-related ailments. Along the way, pressed for cash, Sullivan pawned his championship belt. Decades later, the diamonds having been removed, the belt was melted down and sold for its gold content.
In 1902, at a matinee performance of his monologue in Detroit, Sullivan staggered out in front of the audience dead drunk, almost fell through the backdrop, and resisted efforts to forcibly remove him from the stage. After a struggle, he was taken back to his hotel, went out on another drinking binge, and wound up in jail for eight hours.
And so it went.
On March 1, 1905, Sullivan was on tour in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Several recent theatrical appearances had been cancelled because drinking had rendered him unfit to appear onstage. Badly in need of money, he agreed to step into the ring against a young fighter from Texas named Jim McCormick.
Sullivan was forty-six years old. He weighed 273 pounds and had not fought competitively in more than twelve years. He knocked McCormick unconscious in the second round.
Four days later, Sullivan was in Terre Haute, Indiana. The previous night, his theatrical performance had once again been cut short because heavy drinking rendered his monologue unintelligible. After being led back to his hotel, he’d slept until noon.
It was March 5, 1905. Sullivan walked into the hotel bar, ordered a glass of champagne, poured his drink into a spittoon, and declared, “If I ever take another drink as long as I live, I hope to God I choke.”
Perhaps the victory over McCormack had released the demons within him. Maybe he’d simply had enough. He never drank in public again and his anti-social behavior came to an end.
Meanwhile, backed by religious reform groups, the temperance movement was gathering strength nationwide. Sullivan personally opposed the prohibition of alcoholic beverages, believing that drinking was better addressed as a matter of education and conscience. He also cast a jaundiced eye at “reformers,” noting, “In all my years of wild spending, I never heard of nobody refusing to take the money of John L. Of all the money I gave for churches, schools, and other charities, I can’t remember a single cent being flopped back to me because it was earned by biffing some chap on the jaw.”
Nonetheless, after going dry, Sullivan became a sought-after lecturer and powerful symbol for advocates of prohibition. “If I had not quit drinking when I did,” he told his audiences, “there would be somewhere in a Boston suburb a modest tombstone with the inscription on it, ‘Sacred to the memory of John L. Sullivan.’ There is only one way to get the best of John Barleycorn, and that is to run away from him. There are men who say about liquor that they can take it or leave it. But those are the ones who always take it. And in the end, it gets them. I say to the young men of the United States, ‘Leave liquor alone.’”
Sullivan’s transformation earned him praise in high circles. Theodore Roosevelt (then President of the United States) observed, “John’s best fight was made after he lost to Corbett. I mean his whipping John Barleycorn. That was a real victory, and I’m proud of him for having made it. Since then, he has been the most effective temperance lecturer I have known of. He has been effective because he could appeal to classes of men and boys others could never hope to reach.”
Thereafter, Roosevelt and Sullivan established a friendship of sorts, and Roosevelt told biographer John Leary, “Old John L. has been a greater power for good in this country than many a higher respectable person who would scorn to meet him on terms of equality. I know that his former profession is not a very exalted one. But he has profited by his travels and he is better informed on most matters than most men who have had no better opportunity in school work than he had. He was a good fighter and clean. He never threw a fight. In his way, he did his best to uphold American supremacy. He has been my friend many years, and I am proud to be his.”
After Sullivan renounced liquor, he began spending time with a woman named Katherine Harkins, six years younger than he was, who he’d known since childhood. In 1908, he sued Annie Bates Bailey Sullivan (who was still living in Rhode Island) for divorce. At the hearing, he told the judge, “When a man ain’t lived with a woman for twenty-five years, he don’t want to call her his wife. I’ve always fought shy of divorce courts on account of my religion. But there’s a time when the torture is too strong. I don’t want that woman to have my bones.”
The divorce was granted. The only child of their marriage, John Jr, had died of diphtheria twenty-three years earlier.
Sullivan and Harkins were married on February 7, 1910, and moved to a small house twenty miles south of Boston. The following year, he retired from the stage. They lived together in contentment until 1916, when “Kate” died of cancer.
During the last few years of his life, Sullivan suffered from cirrhosis of the liver and was almost totally deaf in his left ear. His weight fluctuated between 270 and 320 pounds. At a 1917 banquet held in his honor in Boston, The Great John L. told the admiring crowd, “If the good Lord shall call me right now, I may say that I have seen it all. I know the game of life from A to Z, from soda to hock.” On February 1, 1918, he suffered a heart attack and died.
Evaluating Sullivan through the haze of history is a complex task.
Late in life, James Corbett declared, “It is very hard to tell, as you gaze down the list at all the defeated champions of the past, which was supreme. And all argument as to their respective merits is foolish and futile.”
Be that as it may; Sullivan was likely the best fighter ever under any rules of boxing up until his time. He was an honest fighter with enormous physical gifts. Shortly before his thirty-fourth birthday, his body a shell of what it once was, he remained standing into the twenty-first round against James Corbett (who was in his prime). That alone showed extraordinary courage and heart.
Sullivan made fighting under the Marquis of Queensberry Rules acceptable to the fight crowd. That led to the acceptance of boxing among the higher classes of society and under the law. By his insistence on adhering to the new rules, he modernized boxing. And by his persona, he popularized it.
The most significant blot on Sullivan’s ring record was his refusal to fight a black opponent. “I will not fight a negro,” he said on more than one occasion. “I never have and never shall.”
The best defense of that stance (and it’s a poor justification) is that a man must be judged by the standards of his time. Sullivan had been born into a world in which slavery was the bulwark of the economy in a substantial portion of the United States. Throughout his life, separation of the races was law in much of the land. In drawing a color line, he was reflecting values he’d been taught as a child and saw all around him.
That said; more than anyone else, Sullivan created modern boxing. Without him, the sport would have evolved in an entirely different way. Before Sullivan, there were title claimants. He founded a line of kings who were universally recognized heavyweight champions of the world. He brought new value to the championship and paved the way for a more businesslike approach to the sport. He gave boxing a new foundation to build on.
As for Sullivan the person, Elliott Gorn sums up, saying, “He was a hero and a brute, a bon vivant and a drunk, a lover of life and a reckless barbarian. He cut through all restraints, acted rather than contemplated, and paid little regard to the morality or immorality of his behavior. He was totally self-indulgent, even in acts of generosity, totally a hedonist.”
But his most endearing personal quality, the one that made him loved, should not be forgotten. Sullivan, it was said at the peak of his reign, “modestly accepts plain citizens as equals and friends.”
American novelist Theodore Dreiser (then a young newspaperman) met Sullivan shortly after the fighter’s ring career ended. Later, Dreiser recalled, “John L. Sullivan, raw, red-faced, big-fisted, broad-shouldered, drunken, with gaudy waistcoat and tie, and rings and pins set with enormous diamonds and rubies. Surrounded by sports and politicians of the most rubicund and degraded character. Cigar boxes, champagne buckets, decanters, beer bottles, overcoats, collars and shirts littered the floor. And lolling back in the midst of it all in ease and splendor, his very great self. What an impression he made!”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org