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 email@example.com. Click here for Part 2 of “John L. Sullivan Revisited”