John L. Sullivan is a name that reverberates throughout sport. The Boston Strong Boy was the king of boxing a hundred years ago, the first heavyweight champion of the world. He transcended the prize ring to become a national, even an international, figure, and he changed boxing forever. Before his day, as Michael T. Isenberg writes in John L. Sullivan and His America ( University of Illinois Press, $24.95), a remarkable study of Sullivan's life and times, "no one in American history—no one—had ever made a living as a prizefighter." Sullivan broke the mold; he made a fortune from boxing—and spent most of it.
He was born in Boston in 1858, before the start of the Civil War, and died in a suburb of that city in 1918. He had worked as a plumber, a tinsmith and a mason, but by the time he was 20 he was more interested in fighting, although not with the idea of following it as a career. A big, powerful fellow (at 17 the 5'10�" Sullivan weighed nearly 200 pounds, a massive physique in those days), he began to fight in exhibitions around Boston. By 1880 he had gained enough of a reputation to move on to fights in New York City and as far west as Cincinnati.
His big breakthrough came in 1881 when he routed a prominent New York pug named John Flood. With that victory, the flamboyant Sullivan became a popular hero. His enormous strength and brutal punching power caught the imagination of the sporting crowd, which came to include prominent members of social, business and political circles. He went on tour, staging exhibitions and knocking out challengers in cities and towns across the country.
In 1882 he knocked out Paddy Ryan, who was known as the "American champion," and later defeated challengers from England, strengthening his position as undisputed champion of the world. He went on a "Grand Tour" that lasted eight months and took him to 136 cities and towns.
Throughout his career Sullivan displayed an aggressive alcoholism that got him into trouble repeatedly. He grew fat, and he puffed and wheezed when exhibition bouts lasted more than a few rounds. Yet he could respond to a serious challenge, as he did in his fight with Jake Kilrain in Richburg, Miss., in 1889. Sullivan fought most of his bouts wearing gloves, under the new Marquess of Queensberry rules, which he preferred, but the fight with Kilrain was under London Prize Ring Rules—a bare-knuckle bout. Sullivan trained his whiskey-soaked body into the best shape of his career, and after two hours and 16 minutes of bloody brawling he knocked out Kilrain to remain the champion.
Three years later, with his weight back up to 246 pounds, he tried to get into shape for a bout with James J. (Gentleman Jim) Corbett. He couldn't do it. Sullivan was almost helpless against Corbett, and in a fight whose result stunned the sporting public, he was knocked out in the 21st round, the only defeat of his 47-bout career.
Sullivan had one last inconsequential bout in 1905 and then stopped boxing, but he continued to appear onstage as an actor. He eventually stopped drinking, became a temperance lecturer and remained a celebrity, if a more subdued one, until the day he died.
Isenberg, a professional historian, explores in meticulous detail Sullivan's Irish immigrant background, the 19th-century popular culture he was so much a part of and the personal demons that beset him. He dissects Sullivan's boxing record, exposing the myths and the ugly truths of the champion's life (he was a racist, for example), but he reinforces the facts of Sullivan's greatness as a dominant force in the ring. Isenberg argues convincingly that Sullivan was a prime factor in making boxing and American sport in general "a cultural spectacle and a commercial enterprise." In short, Isenberg says, the great John L. was the grandfather of the modern sporting tradition in America. All in all, his book is a rich and valuable account of a vivid era that has long been obscured by legend.