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26 MAY 2018


John L. Sullivan Revisited: Part 2

John L.Sulivan knocking down Charlie Mitchell
John L.Sulivan knocking down Charlie Mitchell

By Thomas Hauser

Throughout American history prior to John L. Sullivan’s ascent, most recreational activity had a practical side. Horse racing was the nation’s most popular spectator sport, but hunting and fishing were far more prevalent.

In Sullivan’s time, games that were games began to spread. They were sport for its own sake and for the entertainment of others. Casual play was augmented by professionalism in baseball, football, and other sporting endeavors. A class of professional athletes rose to prominence within organized business structures. At the same time, a national popular culture fueled by advances in transportation, communication, and journalism emerged. Sullivan was at the vortex of all of these trends.

“His name, his face, and his deeds were now known throughout the land,” Michael Isenberg writes. “He was constantly before the public in newspapers and magazines. The lithograph and the photograph produced images that heretofore had been private or the property of a limited circle and spread Sullivan’s likeness far and wide. The flood of likenesses rapidly saturated the masculine world, no saloon being complete without the champion on display. Every avenue of communication tieing together the popular culture brought his name before the public. The sporting press and respectable metropolitan dailies carried his exploits into practically every literate home in America. Crowds would wait hours just to glimpse him or, even better, shake his hand. He was instant history, a living epic, a public symbol like none had seen before.”

“Sullivan’s popularity,” Isenberg continues, “transcended class barriers and raised him to a level reached by no previous sporting figure. His most rabid following was among his fellow Irish-Americans. But to identify John L.’s following with immigrants and working-class men only is to ignore his standing among many American males regardless of background. He was arguably the most popular man in the United States.”

Sullivan revelled in the spotlight. Virtually nothing about his life was private. No public figure (let alone, a member of a looked-down-upon ethnic and religious minority) had been the subject of such constant attention. Other than those occasions on which the attention was called to his drinking, he seemed to like it.

But the drinking remained a problem. “And lest his public be disposed to forget,” Isenberg writes, “John L. was disposed to provide a flagrant new lapse every few months or so. His public career was a veritable parade of drunken escapades, most of them fully reported by the nation’s press. Loud boisterous behavior was the least of it. In practically every city in the Union, he drank, quarreled, came to blows, and often ended up standing sheepishly before a magistrate and paying a fine. He did it all so publicly. When he was drunk, people saw it. He was one of the greatest exemplars of unrestrained vice the nation had to offer. John L. Sullivan had become big business, a celebrity, and a public disgrace all rolled into one.”

As a counterbalance to his drinking, Sullivan had redeeming personal qualities. When sober, he was usually polite and considerate toward others. He was honest and generous. Much of his money was poorly spent on jewelry and expensive clothes (he was a flashy dresser, frequently in poor taste). Too often when drinking, he paid the night’s tab for everyone in the saloon. He lived lavishly and “loaned” money to friends who had no intention of paying it back. But he also supported his parents, bought them a nice house, gave generously to other family members, and donated large sums to charity.

In April 1884, Sullivan’s wife bore him a son. But their marriage was in shambles. Rumors were spreading that he beat Annie when he was drunk. Several months after John Jr was born, she moved back to Rhode Island (from whence she’d come). In February 1885, she sued for divorce, accusing her husband of cruel and abusive treatment and “gross and confirmed habits of intoxication.”

Sullivan contested the divorce, and the case was dismissed. The marriage remained in tact as a matter of law for another twenty-three years. But as a union of two hearts, it was over.

Meanwhile, although it hardly seemed possible, Sullivan’s drinking worsened. He was involved in numerous street-fights and saloon brawls and, at one point, was criminally charged with kicking a carriage horse three times in the underribs and striking the horse with his fist.

The first major ring appearance scheduled for Sullivan after his Grand Tour was a “sparring session” to be conducted under Queensberry rules at Madison Square Garden on June 30, 1884. The opponent was Charlie Mitchell, who had knocked Sullivan down before succumbing in three rounds in their previous encounter. Five thousand fans paid between two and twenty-five dollars each for the show. Sullivan arrived three hours late, staggered to the ring dressed in a black suit, and told the crowd, “Gentlemen; I am sick and will not be able to box.” It was clear that he was drunk; a fact that was reported in newspapers across the country.

Al Smith quit as Sullivan’s manager after the Mitchell fiasco. Thereafter, the champion followed a pattern of “Fight an unskilled foe. Binge. Fight an unskilled foe. Binge.” But despite his drinking, when he entered the ring, he won.

“Sullivan frightens his man every time,” an article in the Pittsburgh Dispatch declared. “They all lose their nerve the moment they face him.”

Biographer R. F. Dibble explained what it was like to face the champion: “The rival, looking across the ring, would see a burley menacing figure. The iron muscles bulged and swelled. Black coarse hair bristled all over the huge head. The deep thick hairy chest and sloping shoulders betokened a man of extraordinary strength. The broad face, the square pile-driver jaw, and the ominous droop at the corners of the mouth blended into a terrifying grin. There he sat, his clenched fists resting on his knees, his stony gray eyes glancing toward his opponent. Time would be called. Sullivan would rise slowly and advance, slapping his left hand against his thigh.”

Joe Choynski (a leading heavyweight of his day, who later knocked out a young Jack Johnson and fought Bob Fitzsimmons, Marvin Hart, and James Jeffries to draws) said of Sullivan, “His right arm comes across like a flash of lightning with a jerk. And if he misses, he’s so quick you can’t get your head out of range before it’s back ready for another shot at your jaw.”

“I can tell pretty well when my man is giving in,” Sullivan proclaimed. “I watch his eyes, and I know at once when the punishment is beginning to tell on him.”

But Sullivan was also firm in saying, “There is more intelligence required in this business than outsiders give us credit for. A man fights with his head almost as much as he does with his fists. He must know where to send his blows so they may do the most good. He must economize his strength and not score a hit just for the sake of scoring it. Learn to strike straight and clean. Swinging blows nearly always leave an opening for your opponent. It is always well to do your leading with the left, reserving your right for a good opening. Always watch your opponent. As soon as you see him about to lead, shoot your left into his face. The force of his coming towards you will increase your blows considerably.”

“I endeavor to hit my man above the heart or under the chin or behind the ear,” Sullivan explained. “A man wears out pretty soon if one can keep hammering away in the region around the heart. A blow under the chin or behind the ear will knock a man out quicker than a hundred blows on the cheek or any other portion of the face. I have always considered it necessary that a young man, in order to become an accomplished boxer, should have brains as well as muscle. I never knew a thick-headed fellow yet to become skillful in the manly art.”

Sullivan also took pride in the fact that he was self-taught and had learned his trade from sparring and watching other fighters. “I never took a boxing lesson in my life,” he said. “No professor of sparring can ever claim me as a pupil. What I know about boxing, I picked up from hard experience and intelligent observation. I belong to no school of boxers and have copied no special master’s style. I always fight according to my own judgment. If a man can’t train himself, no one in the world can do it for him.”

Sullivan’s contemporaries understood his ring savvy. Mike Donovan, who sparred with the champion, acknowledged, “He is the cleverest big man the ring ever saw. He can stand off ten feet and fiddle in a way that disconcerts you and breaks your guard. Then he comes at you like a battering ram, you get it on the jaw, and down you go.”

And the Chicago Herald proclaimed, “Sullivan is as clever as any man. His unquestioned ability as to being the hardest hitter has caused the overlooking of the fact that his blow is always planted where it will do the most good. The truth is that Sullivan is a careful scientific fighter.”

Meanwhile, the public remained fascinated with the champion. Popular songs such as “Let Me Shake the Hand that Shook the Hand of Sullivan” abounded. For twenty weeks, he performed as “model statuary” in a venture called the Lester and Allen Minstrel Show. For five hundred dollars a week (clad as what the National Police Gazette called “the biggest undressed heroes of antiquity”) Sullivan posed as the curtain rose and fell between him and the audience. Thus, the American public was treated to such visions as the Gladiator in Combat, the Dying Gladiator, Hercules at Rest, and Cain Killing Abel.

In 1887, Sullivan began living with a statuesque blonde named Anna Nailor, who had worked as a chorus girl in Boston under the name Ann Livingston. She was a few years older than he was, divorced, with an active romantic history. In October 1887, with Ann at his side, the champion left the United States for a tour of the United Kingdom.

Sullivan was enthusiastically received in England, Scotland, and Ireland. Although overweight and in poor condition, he sparred in fifty-one exhibitions and had one actual fight; a bare-knuckle bout under London Rules against Charlie Mitchell. After 39 rounds in the rain during which Mitchell fought almost entirely defensively, the contest was declared a draw.

The anecdotal highlight of Sullivan’s European tour came on December 9, when he was introduced to Edward, Prince of Wales. There followed twenty minutes of conversation between the son of Irish immigrants and the man who, upon the death Queen Victoria in 1901, would succeed to the throne. Sullivan is said to have closed the conversation by telling the prince, “If you ever come to Boston, be sure and look me up. I’ll see that you’re treated right.”

The champion arrived home in Boston on April 24, 1888. One witness to his return said that he weighed 280 pounds. Shortly thereafter, refusing to tolerate his drinking and abusive behavior, Ann Livingston left him.

In June and July 1888, Sullivan appeared in a show called the John B. Doris and Gray Circus that saw him spar briefly and ride a pony. Later that summer, most likely as a result of his incessant drinking, his liver and stomach lining became inflamed. The champion’s temperature rose to a dangerously high level and a priest administered the last rites. He recovered after losing eighty pounds. And for one month, at least, he had been dry.

Meanwhile, given the decreasing frequency of Sullivan’s ring combat against serious opposition, Richard Kyle Fox was seeking to anoint a new “champion of the world.” His chosen vessel was a fighter from Baltimore named Jake Kilrain.

Kilrain was four months younger than Sullivan and, like the champion, Irish-American. He was a stable family man and a pretty good fighter, having defeated some of the better competitors of his day. In May 1887, Fox had gone so far as to present him with a silver championship belt on behalf of the National Police Gazette. In response, Sullivan’s financial backers and admirers in Boston presented John L. with the most celebrated sports symbol of all time.

Their gift to Sullivan was a championship belt made of 14-carat gold. It was four feet long and weighed close to thirty pounds. The belt had eight panels with scenes depicting Sullivan in addition to various Irish symbols and the flags of the United States, England, and Ireland. The panels were separated in the middle by a large shield bearing the legend “Presented to the Champion of Champions, John L. Sullivan, by the Citizens of the United States.” Sullivan’s name was beneath a three-carat diamond and encrusted with 256 diamonds of its own.

The belt was valued at $8,000. Sullivan famously said that it made Fox’s gift to Kilrain look like a dog collar.

But Sullivan was destined to fight Kilrain. He needed the money and wanted the acclaim. On January 7, 1889, the two men entered into a contract for a fight to the finish to be held on July 8, 1889, at a site “within 200 miles of New Orleans” under the London Prize Ring Rules for a side bet of $10,000.

There were doubts about Sullivan’s fitness to fight Kilrain. Fox observed, “Sullivan has been drinking hard for several years and undermined his constitution to an alarming extent. No man can expect to drink almost continuously and not injure his health. I tell you; John L. Sullivan is not the man he once was.”

To ready Sullivan for the fight, the champion’s backers turned to a conditioner named William Muldoon. Isenberg recounts, “Muldoon liked Sullivan, was saddened by his chronic dissipation, and viewed him as an ideal test for his theories of physical fitness. For the first and only time in his life, Sullivan was training thoroughly under the guidance of a man who understood the rudiments of physical culture.”

They worked together pursuant to an agreement under which Muldoon paid all of the training expenses. If Sullivan lost, the trainer would receive no compensation. If Sullivan won, Muldoon would be paid a share of his winnings.

Sullivan despised training. "A fellow would rather fight twelve dozen times than train once,” he said. “But it has to be done."

Muldoon kept Sullivan active from dawn to dusk, chopping down trees, plowing fields, skipping rope, and eventually sparring. He built up Sullivan’s legs and wind and wrestled with him to reacquaint Sullivan with the grappling and throwing allowed under the London Rules. Of equal significance, he kept Sullivan away from alcohol. When they began working together in May 1889, Sullivan weighed more than 240 pounds, much of it fat, not muscle. During the next two months, he shed thirty pounds and, more importantly, regained his strength and speed.

As Sullivan-Kilrain neared, the national press paid more attention the fight than it had ever paid to a sporting event before. But there was a fly in the ointment. Prizefighting was illegal in Louisiana and all other states “within 200 miles of New Orleans.”

On July 7, 1889, in Marion County, Mississippi (103 miles north of New Orleans), laborers began constructing a 24-foot-square ring fronted by bleachers on three sides. They worked under the supervision of a young Mississippian named Charles Rich, who owned a sawmill surrounded by 30,000 acres of pine forest in an area known as Richburg. As they worked, three trains departed from New Orleans. The first carried Sullivan, Kilrain, and their respective entourages. After the fighters arrived in Richburg, Kilrain spent the rest of the night in Rich’s home, while Sullivan stayed with Rich’s chief clerk. The other two trains, filled with fight enthusiasts, arrived in Richburg after sunrise.

At 10:13 on the morning of July 8, 1889, John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain “came to scratch” bare-knuckled for what would be the last heavyweight championship fight ever fought under the London Prize Ring Rules.

Sullivan weighed 215 pounds and was wearing green fighting tights with white stockings. Kilrain, twenty pounds lighter, wore black tights and blue stockings. The weather was muggy, the temperature close to one hundred degrees.

Referee John Fitzpatrick (who would later be elected mayor of New Orleans) called “time.” The defining fight of John L. Sullivan’s career had begun.

Fifteen seconds into the match, Kilrain grabbed Sullivan around the neck, leveraged him over his hip, and threw him to the ground. Sullivan returned the favor to end round two. In round six, after three more falls, Kilrain drew first blood with a right hand blow to the nose. But before the challenger could survey the damage, Sullivan knocked him down with the hardest punch of the fight thus far, leaving it to the dazed fighter’s seconds to lift him up and lead him to his corner.

From that point on, Kilrain had the look of a beaten fighter. His face grew more and more disfigured. Frequently, he fell without cause in order to gain relief and end a round. His strategy was to survive; perhaps close Sullivan’s eyes with jabs; and failing that, hope that Sullivan wilted in the heat.

As the temperature rose, by some accounts reaching 114 degrees, Muldoon asked Sullivan how much longer he could stand the heat. “I can stay here until daybreak tomorrow,” Sullivan told him.

By round thirty-six, Kilrain was so tired that he had to be lifted from his chair by his seconds at the start of each round. The outcome seemed a foregone conclusion. Then, five seconds into the forty-fourth round, Sullivan began to vomit.

“Will you draw the fight?” Kilrain asked.

“No, you loafer,” Sullivan told him.

The battle continued. In addition to the damage caused by blows, each man’s upper body was blistered by the sun. Kilrain’s corner began giving him large amounts of whiskey to dull the pain. He was now exhausted and barely conscious. Two hours and sixteen minutes after the battle began, he refused to come to scratch for the seventy-sixth round.

Word of Sullivan’s victory was transmitted by telegraph throughout America. Some big-city newspapers recorded it on page one. Richard Kyle Fox conceded, “By this fight, Sullivan has proved that he is a first-class pugilist in every respect. He is a stayer as well as a slugger.”

Sullivan, for his part, told reporters, “I knew after two or three rounds I was the sole master of the situation. If Kilrain had stood up and fought like a man, I could have whipped him in about eight rounds. He hardly fought fairly, going down, as you know he did, numbers of times without a blow.” But the champion added, “Jake is a good fighter. He gave me a better fight than I ever got before. He took far more punishment than I believed he would.”

Both Sullivan and Kilrain left Richburg immediately after the fight and returned to New Orleans. There, the champion was informed that a sheriff from Mississippi was searching for him with a warrant for his arrest on a charge of violating Mississippi’s law against prizefighting. He boarded a train headed north, was arrested in Tennessee, and held in jail overnight. He was released the next day but arrested again on July 31; this time in New York. From there, he was escorted under guard back to Mississippi, where, on August 16, he was found guilty of prizefighting and sentenced to a year in jail.

Sullivan made bond and was released by the authorities pending appeal. In March 1880, the Mississippi Supreme Court overturned his conviction on a technicality that rendered the indictment faulty. He was re-indicted, pled guilty, and was sentenced to a five hundred dollar fine.

Kilrain was arrested in Baltimore in August. Charles Rich posted his bond. The fighter returned to Mississippi for trial in December, at which time he was found guilty of assault and battery, fined two hundred dollars, and sentenced to two months imprisonment. Under Mississippi’s prison contract system, he was allowed to serve his sentence at the home of Charles Rich.

After defeating Kilrain, Sullivan began drinking heavily again. Later that year, he announced that he would stand as a candidate for Congress. He was a lifelong Democrat, and Boston was solidly in the Democratic column. But given his much-publicized drinking and outside-the-ring brawling, the local Democratic machine wanted no part of him. He failed to get the nomination.

In 1890, Sullivan turned to acting. On August 28, 1890, he opened in the role of a blacksmith turned pugilist in a melodrama entitled Honest Hearts and Willing Hands. By this time, he weighed close to three hundred pounds.

Isenberg recounts, “Sullivan performed like a wooden Indian. He tended to entangle himself in lines and was so intent on his speeches that, when the audience interrupted a sentence with applause, he doggedly retreated to the beginning and started again.”

But audiences loved him. Honest Hearts and Willing Hands was soon on national tour.

Sullivan had no intention of fighting again. “His stomach,” Isenberg notes, “was a veritable mountain of flesh, the weight of which left him winded after the slightest exertion. He was in no condition for any kind of athletic endeavor, never mind the strenuous demands of the prize ring. Yet he could not give it up. Money filtered through his wallet like water, spent in saloons, given to friends, and in all probability lavished on prostitutes. He had to keep the money coming in. And he could not walk away from the one thing that gave him purpose, sustained his ego, and nourished his existence. All else stemmed from what he achieved in the ring. The theater crowds, the civic awards, the adoring hordes of small boys, the gaping adults at every train station and hotel.”

Inevitably, Sullivan would fight again.

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at

Click here for Part 3 of "John L. Sullivan Revisited"

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