The sport had not only given in to mob rule but, driven to the netherworld of saloons and barges, was also increasingly subject to the most dreadful chicanery. In his 1986 book, The Manly Art, Elliott J. Gorn recalls an 1863 fight in San Francisco in which a pugilist simply dropped to the ground without suffering so much as a single blow. Fighters indulged in obvious and infuriating conspiracies to engineer results. (In an 1871 championship fight in Canada, with $4,000 at stake, the contenders circled each other for an hour and 17 minutes until the police, exasperated and confused, broke up the peace; the rematch, seven months later, was one-sided yet ended in an altogether amazing draw.)
Nobody was to be trusted. Referees were sufficiently suspect that after a rare apparently honest fight, ringsiders would report their satisfaction in the phrase of the day: "The referee failed to be killed." They were not fooling. In an 1863 bout a referee reversed a dubious decision while having a pistol held to his head. This was no longer a sport of gentlemen, or sport at all.
But then as now, the game could be driven only so far underground. As the Gilded Age approached, with money and leisure time and publicity newly available, it was inevitable that boxing make a comeback. Besides, then as now, the sporting public could be easily galvanized by an exciting enough performer. Sullivan was just the man to lead boxing forth out of the saloons, out of the sideshows, ultimately off the barges to become the semi-legitimate theater it is today.
He was not called the Boston Strong Boy for nothing. John Lawrence Sullivan was born in 1858 in the Roxbury section of Boston, one of three children of an Irish immigrant laborer. By the age of 17 he was close to 200 pounds, enough of it muscle that he could entertain his friends by hoisting kegs of nails overhead. He was athletic enough to be earning $25 a game playing first base for local baseball teams. (He said he was offered a $1,300 contract to play for the Cincinnati Red Stockings.) But his ambition lay in the outcast sport of boxing, all the stranger since no boy, no matter how strong, had ever managed to make a living at it.
Sullivan, who had been an indifferent apprentice at plumbing, tinsmithing and masonry, had finally discovered good use for his pile-driving hands, and he took to a sport that was, by turns, secretive and flamboyant. There was not much chance to practice it beyond sporadic forays into saloon fights and quasilegal "benefits" and "exhibitions" (in which the boxers, ostensibly sparring, would share the bill with clog dancers and other variety acts). Even so, he developed a local reputation in this weird underworld and eventually found backers to sponsor a trip to New York, specifically to Harry Hill's, where, in a wholly spontaneous gesture one night in 1881, the 22-year-old Sullivan offered $50 to anyone who could last four three-minute rounds with him.
Steve Taylor, a 30-year-old former cop from Coney Island who had once been Jersey City's coroner and who dabbled in boxing, even training the day's "champion," Paddy Ryan, was there and accepted Sullivan's challenge. The fight was over before police could interrupt. But if the magistrates weren't in attendance, society was. Among those whose interest was piqued by the affair was Richard K. Fox, publisher of the National Police Gazette, who was always on the lookout for sensational fodder for his barbershop tabloid.
Fox was the Rupert Murdoch of his day, a Belfast-born outsider who was determined to rejuvenate the sagging paper he had bought in 1876 any way he could. He was a journalistic visionary, the first to recognize his readers' growing appetite for entertainment as opposed to news. Eventually he offered in the pages of his pink weekly what is believed to have been the world's first sports section, but from the beginning he was developing a knack for the kind of stunts that could boost readership in tonsorial parlors across the land.
For Fox, whose ego required him to advertise his name in the masthead, nearly every borderline activity known to man could be cast in heroic terms. Thus he sponsored contests for oyster opening and for haircutting, for one-legged dancers and for rat-catching dogs. Circulation seemed to increase with each champion crowned, whether it was the bartender who engineered a pousse-caf� with the most layers or the poor guy who had the most pins stuck into his skin. It's estimated that he spent a quarter of a million dollars on cups, trophies and belts; to his mind, it must have been money well spent: Each award featured a likeness of the mustachioed Fox.
Nothing, however, bumped readership like a fight. Fox noted that his normal circulation of 150,000 reached 400,000 for coverage of the May 1880 Paddy Ryan-Joe Goss fight, a bout of such minimal significance that it would be hard to say the winner was any more distinguished than a rat-catching dog. Goss, a product of the British fight game, was a 41-year-old 150-pounder, while the 27-year-old, 220-pound Ryan, who had been dubbed the Trojan Giant, had one match to his credit. Still, because the bout was billed as a championship fight, the interest proved astonishing. Without forsaking steeple climbers, Fox resolved to recognize boxing in his paper henceforth. Ryan, who beat Goss in 87 rounds, was hailed as the new American champion and awarded a National Police Gazette belt—PRESENTED BY RICHARD K. FOX, PROPRIETOR.
Fox might well have embraced Sullivan as a new flag bearer save for the affront at Hill's. You might predict that a self-made man such as Fox, who had gotten into the habit of crowning people, would take umbrage at Sullivan's lack of deference. What nobody could guess was how lasting that umbrage would be. Though Fox would feature Sullivan in his tabloid when it suited his circulation, he would remain the fighter's constant enemy, always on the lookout for an opponent to embarrass the Strong Boy.