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The Boston Strong Boy

May 2024
6min read

Americans have always admired size. We like big statues, big buildings, big burgers. And when it comes to boxing, it is the heavyweights we follow most avidly, fascinated by their sheer volume and by the terrible damage they can do. The swift, spidery, smaller men so popular in other countries usually appear here on the undercard.

John L. Sullivan, the subject of a new biography by Michael T. Isenberg (John L. Sullivan and His America, University of Illinois Press, $24.95), was both the last of the bareknuckle heavyweight champions and the first prizefighter ever to make his living in the ring. It was he, more than any other man, who transformed the American fight game from an illicit pastime into a more or less legitimate big business, and he who blazed the trail out of big-city slums, followed first by other Irishmen with the requisite speed and skill and hunger, and then by Jews, Italians, blacks, and Hispanics equipped with the same fierce talents.

Sullivan himself is irresistible, but this is an oddly unsatisfying book. The author too rarely allows his subject to remain in the center of the ring, backing him into a neutral corner in favor of numbing disquisitions on everything from cow-town violence to Irish attitudes toward women.

“Write any damn thing yuh please, young fella,” Sullivan told the young Theodore Dreiser when he came to interview the ex-champion, “and say that John L. Sullivan said so.” But even Sullivan might have been flummoxed by his new biographer’s grave search for greater meaning in every corner of his life and career. The relatively humane Marquis of Queensberry Rules Sullivan preferred, for example, required among other things that a felled man be back on his feet by the count of ten: This, Isenberg assures us, elevated the “timekeeper…to a position of prime importance, consonant with the growing significance of time in the industrial age.”


To be fair, Isenberg is not alone in his earnest quest: writers from Homer to Norman Mailer have labored altogether too hard to find high-minded reasons for the visceral pleasure they take in watching two total strangers try to batter each other senseless.

John L. Sullivan saw boxing in simpler terms; it was the best way he could think of to make money and get famous fast. He was born in 1858 in Roxbury, Massachusetts, the son of Mike Sullivan, a stumpy laborer from Tralee, and his immense wife, Catherine Kelly. John inherited his heavy drinking and combativeness from his father, whose hard life digging ditches also inspired him to seek a new, more lucrative way to exploit the size and strength that were the legacies of his mother.

Sullivan’s boxing career began in Boston on the stage of the Dudley Opera House in 1878 when he shed his coat, rolled up his sleeves, and put on gloves for what was billed, to placate the police, as a mere “exhibition.” When his equally green adversary thumped him on the back of the head, Sullivan knocked him into the piano. “I done him up in about two minutes,” he remembered. That was how he liked things to go. “I go in to win from the very first second…,” he explained. “Win I must and win I will.....” Win he did—at least forty-seven times, against every blacksmith, tugboat captain, iron puddler, and gandy dancer who accepted the challenge he issued to “all fighters—first come first served.”

Sometimes he liked to pontificate about the supposed scientific skill with which he went about his work. “My objective point in hitting is the corner of a man’s shoulder,” he explained to one reporter, “and if he ducks his head he is bound to get it in the neck. A man will break his dukes if he goes hitting at his antagonist’s skull.” In fact, his mode of attack was brutally straightforward: he rushed at his man from the opening bell, swinging his cudgel of a right fist until the opponent fell down. His defensive skills were limited largely to a ferrous chin, and the psychological impact of the relentless cheer with which he complimented any man who managed to reach it. “That’s a good one, Charlie!” he would say, continuing to move inexorably forward. There can be few more disheartening moments in boxing than to land your best punch and see its target smile.

His power really was prodigious: “I thought a telegraph pole had been shoved against me endways,” said Paddy Ryan, from whom he took the title in 1882. Another victim, awakened after being drenched with several buckets of water, wondered dreamily if he might have fallen off a barn. For those who refused to close with him, Sullivan had nothing but scorn. “I want fighting, not foot racing,” he liked to say, and he dismissed Charlie Mitchell, the British champion whose footwork helped hold him to a thirty-nine-round draw in 1887, as “the bombastic sprinter.”

Isenberg assures us that Sullivan was “the first significant mass cultural hero in American life.” A good many other historical figures, starting perhaps with Davy Crockett, have as much right to make this somewhat gassy claim, but the champion’s mustached portrait did soon hang everywhere. Small boys pursued him from saloon to saloon; their fathers followed his feats in and out of the ring in the burgeoning penny press or in the pink pages of the National Police Gazette; and people seemed willing to pay to see him do almost anything, including declaim poetry and pose motionless in tights as “The Dying Gladiator” and “Hercules at Rest.” For three of his ten years as champion he abandoned the ring entirely in favor of a cross-country tour playing a virtuous blacksmith in Honest Hearts and Willing Hands, a melodrama especially written for him—"Mr. Sullivan,” wrote one careful critic, “was quite as good as the play"—and he later starred briefly as Simon Legree in a drastically rewritten version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in which Mrs. Stowe’s harsh overseer had been transformed into a hero so that Sullivan could hold on to the audience’s sympathy while pummeling Uncle Tom.

The champion swore that he had “never been angry in any of the engagements I have been in.” Between engagements things were different. Sullivan was “a son-of-a-bitch of the first water,” one contemporary said, “if he ever drank any.” A mean drunk, his favored brawling technique was to butt his enemies into oblivion. His drinking caused him to balloon to more than three hundred pounds; it lost him his first wife and almost cost him his life when, staggering out onto the platform between two cars to urinate, he tumbled off a speeding train.

In 1889 he nonetheless announced his qualifications to run for Congress. He was a loyal Democrat, he explained; he kept his promises, and as for people who criticized his occupation, “They don’t know what they are talking about. My business is, and always has been…to encourage physical culture....Many a young man is bigger and stronger because my example has set him to work.” (Gingerly party bosses politely overlooked his offer.)

One of the young men Sullivan had set to work was James John Corbett, who left his bank teller’s cage in San Francisco that same year to pursue Sullivan’s title—and the big cash prizes that now went with it. The two men finally met at New Orleans three years later. The champion, overweight at thirty-three and breathing hard from the eighth round on, never caught up with his agile challenger, who banged him with counterpunches every time he lunged until he collapsed in the twenty-first round.

There can be few more disheartening moments in boxing than to land your best punch and see its target smile.

As Isenberg points out, nothing in Sullivan’s ring career became him so much as his leaving of it. Shrugging off the restraining hands of his seconds, who thought he wanted to continue his hopeless battle, he managed to lean heavily on the ropes long enough to deliver a curtain speech: “Gentlemen....All I have to say 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.”

Sullivan lived on for another twenty-six years, little better suited to retirement than most of the champions who came after him. By one estimate he had made and lost more than a million dollars; he failed three times at saloon-keeping, was forced to pawn his gaudy championship belt, tried refereeing, hurling across the ring lighter men when they dared clinch, and in 1905, at the age of forty-seven and weighing a wobbly 273 pounds, had enough left to knock out an opponent half his age for five full minutes.

Instead of resuming boxing, however, he gave up alcohol—"If I ever take another drink as long as I live,” he told astonished fellow patrons in a hotel bar in Terre Haute, Indiana, “I hope to God I choke"—and later launched a new career as a temperance lecturer.

Having opened a new way to wealth for poor whites, Sullivan sought to obstruct it for all blacks. He was an implacable believer in the color line. "I will not fight a negro,” he used to boast. “I never have and never shall.” When, in 1908, the heavyweight champion, Tommy Burns of Australia, signed to fight Jack Johnson, Sullivan piously denounced the foreigner’s greed. “Shame on the money-mad champion!” he said. “Shame on the man who upsets good American precedents because there are Dollars, Dollars, Dollars in it.” To Sullivan’s credit, once Burns was knocked out, he wrote that despite his own “well-known antipathy to [Johnson’s] race,” the black man had won fair and square.

In 1910 he married a woman he had known since childhood, almost as tall as he and nearly as wide. She moved with him to a Massachusetts farm and kept a careful eye on what little money her husband retained.

John L. Sullivan died of cardiac arrest at fifty-nine in 1918. For the wake, held in his sister’s parlor, the undertakers laid him out in a tuxedo, his massive right fist clenched over his heart.

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