Book Review|Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero

What if I told you that America’s most famous person during the latter part of the 19th century was a conqueror, bigot, racist, drunk, adulterer, failure, and redeemer all mixed into one? This would be the iconic and infamous first World Heavyweight Champion of the gloved era, the “Boston Strong Boy” John Lawrence Sullivan. Sullivan was born on October 15, 1858, in Roxbury, Massachusetts to Irish immigrants. Christopher Klein’s Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero, takes us on a journey through the rise, fall, and redemption of the fighter simply known as John L.

The book starts out by taking us into the atmosphere of an early John L. fight against John Flood in 1881, as Sullivan started to generate buzz in the fighting game, which was largely still operating under the bare-knuckle rules in underground, inconspicuous locations. By the time of gloved boxing becoming more prominent, it largely outlawed and often disguised as exhibitions. His fight with flood took place on a barge somewhere in the Hudson River as all parties did everything in their power to try and avoid police. It was this and the fight prior to against then-undefeated Steve Taylor, which showed Sullivan had the makings of someone special.

Sullivan eventually got the fight with then bare-knuckle champion, Paddy Ryan, on February 7, 1882, where he picked up the American bare-knuckle heavyweight title in nine rounds. As Klein aptly points out, rounds. during the bare-knuckle era, also known as the London Prize Ring rules, could last as long as a fighter was able to stay standing. This distinction is continually pointed out as we go through instances of both gloved and bare-knuckle fights in succession at various stages.

With this book, Klein does an excellent job of transitioning from between the ropes to the real-world issues that Sullivan was dealing with during his time outside of the ring. As fortune and fame continued to come about over Sullivan’s career, so did his demons and detractors. This is no better explained than as we go through the feud between Sullivan and then-Police Gazzette owner, Richard Kyle Fox. With both Fox and Sullivan being of Irish descent, Klein does an excellent job of showing the personalities of two alfa-males both deadset on controlling the narrative and future of boxing.

With the feud between newspaper and fighter, Klein shows us what may have been the first major feud of the two entities. It also showed us the importance that each meant to the other and set the tone for what would become global sports coverage over the course of the 19th century and the heights of such today. Sullivan also embarked on what amounted to an American tour in search of any boxer who could last four rounds with him under the gloved, or Marquess of Queensbury rules. This played an intricate part in his growth as an American superstar.

John L. Sullivan in 1882 with his trademark curling mustache

Strong Boy also takes us behind the scenes of Sullivan’s relationship with his first wife, Annie (Bates) Sullivan whom he married in 1883. The two also had a child born in 1884 who died of diphtheria in 1886. By this time Sullivan and Annie had been living separately since 1885, by which John L. was then in a relationship with a burlesque artist, Ann Livingston. The more egregious part of Sullivan’s relationship with both wife Annie and mistress Ann is the fact that Sullivan contested a divorce decree filed by Annie for which she was ultimately denied and forced to live as Sullivan’s wife in namesake until 1908. Sullivan then married a childhood friend in Kate Harkens whom he remained tied to until both of their deaths.

It was during this time of relationship and family turmoil in which Sullivan won the inaugural Heavyweight title in 1885 against an Irish-American Middleweight, Dominick McCaffrey. Though not in the primed shape of the Sullivan of earlier years, he still proved to be too much offensively for any challenger he faced, especially those of smaller size whom he was able to connect with.

Sullivan vs McCaffrey, 1885

After winning the title, Sullivan’s feud with Fox remained at an all time high as.he was never officially recognized as the true champion at that point as the Police Gazette deemed fighters the likes of Charlie Michell of England, and American Jake Kilrain as being the true champions given that Sullivan hadn’t defended his bare-knuckle title. He ultimately drew with Mitchell in their 1888 fight for the World Bare-Knuckle title in France, a fight in which Mitchell employed a tactic of avoiding Sullivan for as long as he could.

Fox, seeing this as a moment to cease control, designated Kilrain as the champion from their which forced Sullivan into an eventual 75 round contest in Mississippi, which he won and staked his claim as the true Heavyweight Champion of the World. Sullivan then disavowed ever fighting a bare-knuckle fight again as he and others involved in the contest went through serious legal issues and ultimately had to use any money associated with the fight on legal fees.

As Klein was able to bring together, Sullivan at this point was all but a shell of himself and had gone through a number of ups and downs, having become addicted to alcohol, something that would split his fans into opposers given the number of drunken assaults and foul-mouthed tirades Sullivan seemed to always find himself in, all over the country, burning many bridges. This is chronicled in great detail throughout the book. Sullivan also brushed death on multiple occasions.

After nearly four years off, Sullivan finally suffered his first defeat to Corbett in 1892. At that point Sullivan a far cry from the fighter he was in his previous fight, let alone earlier in his career. His feud with Corbett lasted until his death though the two fighters found ways to be cordial towards each other.

Klein documents all of Sullivan’s dealings in theater and acting along the way. It was estimated that Sullivan had made over $1,000,000.00 in his career, which was an astronomical amount for a sports star during that period. Having turned around his life and alcohol-free for years until his death in 1918, Sullivan was under the good graces of fans at his death and had seen success in media with his own weekly fight column.

No stone was left unturned in Strong Boy and shows that newspaper accounts of that era were top tier. Sullivan was without question the individual that brought boxing to the mainstream. It is estimated that Sullivan fought between 400 and 500 fights over the course of his career. In my humble opinion, there will always be an asterisk by Sullivan’s record as he refused to fight a black fighter during his career, viewing them as unequal and unworthy (to say the least) of a Heavyweight title shot though many writers and fans of the time clamored for him to fight Australian Heavyweight, Peter Jackson.

All things considered, Christopher Klein provided us with a greatly written book that would be entertaining to non-boxing fans and boxing fans alike. One can’t help but be immersed in the story and life of Sullivan. You will certainly finish this book with an understanding of who Sullivan was as a man and why his name is still relevant in the sport of boxing to this day.

The only video we have of Sullivan is that of an older, overweight Sullivan jarring with James J. Corbett before giving a go at a speed bag from 1910, prior to the Jack Johnson vs James Jeffries clash.

To Sullivan’s credit, he did rightfully document and crown Jack Johnson as the true champion after he defeated Jeffries in the newspaper he was working for. One has to take the small wins. The story of boxing can’t be told without the feats and legacy of John L. Sullivan. With this well-authored book, Sullivan and Klein’s legacies live on forever. Boxing was and still is the greatest sport in the world. I didn’t give you everything about his illustrious career, but that’s what the book is for. Signing out.

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