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· Anon.
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John L. Sullivan Revisited: Part 1

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.

· Anon.
1,562 Posts
Discussion Starter · #2 ·
John L. Sullivan Revisited: Part 2

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.”

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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.

· Anon.
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Discussion Starter · #3 ·
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."

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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 *****," 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!"

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