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John L. Sullivan & the making of an Irish-American sporting legend
Portrait of John L. Sullivan from 1887 Photo: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. USA

John L. Sullivan & the making of an Irish-American sporting legend

By Mark Duncan

Mike Tyson idolised him. Knew his story, admired his ring-craft, his chutzpah.

‘I like his confidence, his arrogance,' he remarked to a reporter from The New York Times more than 70 years after the man himself had died. ‘I like the way he used to say ‘I can beat any man in the house’. Before his career spiralled into the disgrace of a rape conviction in the early 1990s, Tyson revelled in his reputation as the most fearsome fighter in the boxing game, but he delighted, too, in demonstrating his schooling, courtesy of his first tutor-trainer Cus D’Amato, in the sport’s rich history and often troublesome traditions. And John Lawrence Sullivan, Tyson rightly understood, had laid the foundations upon which those very traditions had been built.

The son of a Kerry father and a Roscommon mother, Sullivan was a Boston-born brawler whose extraordinary career straddled the eras of bare-knuckle and gloved boxing. Indeed, long before the names of Marciano, Patterson, Ali, Frazier, Foreman or, for that matter, Tyson, had been stitched into the popular consciousness, that of John L. Sullivan was inseparable from the sport he done so much to both create and render respectable. In the late 19th century, Sullivan’s dominance of the ring was absolute and, helped by canny management and an obsessive press, he found himself catapulted into a realm of sporting celebrity that had been previously unknown.

It proved both a laurel and millstone. Just as his pugilistic prowess brought him fame and fortune, so his predilection for personal excess helped fritter it away. Not the fame obviously, but the fortune most certainly. Almost a decade after he’d retired from the ring and with his finances run dry, Sullivan, still happy to stoke his own myth, told reporters that he had spent a million dollars in 20 years.

Where did it all go?

‘Well I guess I gave away about £200,000’, he said. ‘I spent £200,000 on wine and general carousing. I blew about £100,000 on gambling....That’s half a million, ain’t it? It cost me about £200,000 for legitimate living expenses, and my training cost me about £100,000. Trying to be a business man without any experience cost me another £200,000. That’s another half a million, ain’t it.’

This life of flamboyance and waste was one for which he had never really been destined. His immigrant parents, devout Catholics and staunchly working class, had mapped out a different route for him, sending him off to the Jesuit-run Boston College, the first step on an apparent path to the priesthood. It would be the only step along that route he’d take. Sullivan dropped out of Boston College without a qualification and subsequently drifted as an apprentice from trade to trade, trying his hand at one manual job and then another. The only place the ground felt firm beneath him was when he turned to sport. Here he was accomplished and content. More than that, in fact: Sullivan displayed a talent for baseball but his sheer bulk – he weighted 200 pounds by the age of 17 – marked him out as serious boxing material. The problem was there was no money to be had in it in Boston (Massachusetts had a law forbidding boxing for money) and no future to be found in it anywhere else either. Nobody before had ever made a living as a prize-fighter. Sure, money could be earned, but fighters needed to work as well as brawl.

Caricature of Sullian Corbett prizefight in 1892. (Image: The Mascot newspaper)

What boxing gave the young John L. was less a living than a local notoriety. It gave him a profile, a status and a sense of importance. In time, too, it also helped expand his world beyond his urban, Boston-Irish milieu. Sullivan’s name was already appearing in newspapers as far afield as New York when, in 1881, he teamed up with the entrepreneurial Billy Madden, who took on the role of his manager. London-born to Irish parents, Madden conceived of a promotional tour to take in Philadelphia and Chicago and raised the finance to send them on their way. It worked on both the financial and sporting fronts: Sullivan’s profile rose as his boxing skills sharpened and when he returned to Boston he set his sights on toppling Paddy Ryan for the prize of what was being called, erroneously of course, the ‘championship of the world’.

He did just that.

The Sullivan-Ryan fight took place in a hastily constructed ring in front of the Barnes Hotel in Mississippi City in February 1882 under so-called London Rules (bare-knuckle). The purse was $5,000 a piece, winner take all. It turned out it was less a contest than a rout. Thurles-born Ryan, who ran a saloon, was no match for the more fight-fit Sullivan, whose conditioning and boxing instincts had been honed in the course of a busy schedule of exhibition bouts. The fight was over by the 9th round, but the result was inevitable from the get-go. Afterwards, Ryan vowed to never fight again, but news of his defeat was met with disbelief by many, including his supportive mother-in-law who learned of it from journalists she clearly considered to be the purveyors of fake news. Rolling up her sleeve to expose her bare forearm, the Tipperary-man’s mother-in-law defiantly declared to the attentive pressmen: ‘I could lick that man Sullivan me-self.’

She couldn’t, of course. Nobody could. Not for over a decade, anyway.

Not even Charley Mitchell, a hard-puncher from Birmingham, England, who, in 1883, travelled to America and floored Sullivan for the first time in his career at Madison Square Garden (even if Sullivan insisted into old age that he had merely slipped) and who, five years later, held him to a draw in an epic, if illegal, bout hosted in a French chateaux in Chantilly.

And not even the gifted bare knuckle brawler from Long Island, Jake Kilrain, who pushed Sullivan to the limit of his endurance in 1889 in a fight recognised as perhaps the finest of the pre-modern era.

Photographs of the Sullivan-Kilrain set-to survive, and they show the full splendour of the occasion: an amphitheatre set outdoors amidst tall pine trees in rural Mississippi with 3,000 spectators packed tightly around the ring, many on raised earthen banks. For those who had travelled a great distance (as many of them had), they got full value. The fight was brutal and long, even if there was no denying the ill-conditioned Sullivan’s superiority throughout. In a ring that measured 24 feet square and which was enclosed with thick manila rope wrapped around eight pine posts hammered into the ground, Kilrain clung on for two hours and 18 minutes. 

Too long for his own good.

It was the 75th round when the fight finally came to an end. Kilrain’s body was badly beaten by then, but the champion was in no mood for mercy. When Sullivan’s ring was approached to see what they would give Jake, moneywise, if he would just surrender, the Boston Strong-boy shot back uncompromisingly: ‘Not a cent. Let the __sucker get up and fight.’ But Kilrain had nothing left to give. There was no fight left in him. He was done. The bout was over, but many in the crowd, sensing the significance of what they had just witnessed, stormed the ring to claim mementos of the occasion, sporting keepsakes upon which tall tales could be spun and history embellished. Ice buckets, ring posts, if it could be lifted and carried, it was taken.

Scenes from the Sullivan - Kilrain fight in 1889. (L) Building the ring and (R) large crowd watching the 7th round. (Images: Library of Congress)

Victory over Kilrain, and in such an epic manner, bolstered a legend that was already firmly established. However, Sullivan’s superstardom owed much to forces beyond his own natural boxing brilliance. His celebrity and cultural power was very much the creation of a unique set of historical circumstances, the product of a particular moment in America’s industrial and social development. When, in September 1883, he set off once more on tour (one much more ambitious one than that of 1881) he traversed the country in a way that had never been done before by an American public figure. Not by a president, not by a sportsman, not by an entertainer. Not because there had been nobody to think of it, but because nobody could have done it. The means did not exist. The spread of the railways in the decades prior to Sullivan’s sporting arrival opened up possibilities that had never before prevailed and it enabled him to reach parts of the America where his boxing exhibitions were the stuff of pure novelty. It was little wonder that everywhere he went a buzz was created and the money, almost $200,000 of it, flowed. And, of course, the railways were not the only advantage that modernity conferred upon Sullivan. He was similarly the beneficiary of a growing popular press which carried news of his sporting deeds far and wide, and by the emergence of photography which ensured that reproductions of his image became as familiar as his name.

But if the Sullivan story is partly about American society in the midst of rapid transition, it is equally about the movement of sport from the margins to the mainstream of American cultural life. And in the course of that movement, sport underwent change of its own. The Sullivan-Kilrain fight, compelling as it undoubtedly was in its brutality, brought down the curtain on the age of bare-knuckle boxing. It was the last sanctioned fight under London Rules in the United States. 

The upshot was that the sport of boxing was regulated very differently at the end of Sullivan’s career than it was at its beginning. It looked different, too. When Sullivan’s career eventually came to an end three years after the Kilrain fight – he boxed exhibition bouts in the intervening period, but nothing serious – it was under Queensbury rules and he wearing five ounce gloves. His opponent on that occasion was, like Sullivan himself, the scion of Irish immigrants. James Corbett was eight years younger than Sullivan when he stepped into the ring at the Olympic Club in New Orleans. Not only that, he was fresh and lean and, having abandoned a desk job in a San Franciscan bank, he looked every inch the professional athlete that he was. Sullivan, in contrast, bore the tell-tale signs of physical wastage, drink and soft living having reduced him to a shadow of his once glorious sporting self.

Looking back, the omens weren’t good for Sullivan. Harvard-based Dr Dudley A. Sargent, America’s first professor of physical education, who traced his measurements in the count down to the fight noted that he had shed 20 pounds in the course of a two-month training regime, the daily routine for which involved a mix of physical activities: running and walking 20 miles, playing handball, dumbbell and skipping exercises, pounding a punch-bag for an hour, bathing and swimming. And yet, even with all that, his weight of 216 pounds for a height of five foot ten and half inches was, according to Sargent, ‘considerably in excess of what it should be for a man in good condition, of this stature’. 

A study of Sullivan's physique by Dr Dudley Sargent. These photographs were included in the Sullivan memoir, Life and reminiscences of a 19th century gladiator

Corbett dispatched Sullivan in 21 rounds but with an ease not readily conveyed by that fact. He collected his $45,000 purse with barely a blemish upon him. Across the ring, Sullivan, suffering his first-ever defeat, was bloodied and broken-bodied. ‘The laurel has shifted’, one newspaper reported, before offering up the opinion that Sullivan had been bested not only by his opponent but by his own immoderation. Reflecting upon the bout some years later, the Washington Herald recalled it as a ‘triumph of youth, agility and skill over advancing years, over-confidence and strength. It was victory of mind over matter’. It was an analysis that Sullivan himself, still only 34 years-old, appeared to share. Talking to reporters in the fight’s immediate aftermath, his voice began to break and his eyes moistened as he confessed: ‘It’s the old, old story. I am like the pitcher that went to the well once too often.’ 

The loss cut deep, but there was no crying foul at the result, no bitterness at the outcome. Instead, Sullivan sought consolation in being beaten by a compatriot. ‘I can only say that I am glad that I have been beaten by an American.’

It was a revealing remark and an illustration of how far these two sons of Irish immigrants had been assimilated into American society. Representatives of a distinct ethnic Irish community they remained, but they were also fully fledged and proud Americans. Sport had a way of smoothing this transition and what is evident in the trajectories of boxers like Sullivan and Corbett was echoed across the American sporting landscape, most obviously in the game of baseball where, in the late 19th century, players and manager of Irish descent dominated the ranks of the newly emerging professional leagues.

For Sullivan the connection to Ireland was something that never defined him, but neither was it something from which he can ever be divorced. He was the unmistakable product of a post-famine Irish-America and its Boston heartland. It shaped a racist outlook that saw him swear to allow only a white man a shot at being World champion – ‘I have drawn the colour line’, he once boasted to Jim Corbett. And it compelled him to return on more than one occasion to the homeland of his parents. Sullivan did so for the last time in 1910, when he was accompanied by his wife. Not his first – from whom he was divorced on grounds of desertion in 1908 – but Kate Harkins, who was herself Irish-born and the daughter of Boston-based immigrants from Derry. The pair’s visit to Ireland was part honeymoon, part business, part sight-seeing jaunt, part a journey of genealogical discovery, and when they returned to live what was left of their lives together (Kate died of cancer two years before John L.), they did so in a cottage outside Boston which they christened DonLee-Ross farm, the name a construction intended to honour of Kate’s birthplace in Donegal and John L.’s parents’ roots in Tralee and Roscommon. 

After his defeat to Jake Kilrain, John L. Sullivan never fought again. Not seriously. Not competitively. Never with an eye to regaining his lost pre-eminence. When he took to the ring in retirement it was typically for the purposes of show business, for the performance of a sporting celebrity from which he would never be truly estranged. In many ways, Sullivan had been preparing for life beyond sport even before Jim Corbett delivered the death-blow to his pugilistic career. In the course of his preparations for that fight he had both begun and concluded the work of dictating an autobiography, which bore the somewhat unwieldy title of Life and Reminiscences of a Nineteenth Century Gladiator (a 1979 edition was renamed using a famous Sullivan boast, ‘I can lick any sonofabitch in the house’) and which appeared, somewhat unfortunately, at the very moment the author’s own sporting demise. 

But collaborating in the writing of a memoir wasn’t the only sign of Sullivan’s restlessness with the ring. Even before that, he had begun to seek out alternative platforms for his fame: he had, for instance, taken to the theatre circuit in a career crossover made all the easier by the fact that he merely had to play himself, or at least a version of himself. Honest Hearts and Wiling Hands was a comedy-drama written specially for Sullivan by the playwright Duncan B. Harrison. Set in Ireland and with Sullivan in the starring role of the brawny village blacksmith who was handy with his fists, the production toured for two years and took him to theatre houses in locations as far flung as Canada and Australia. Sullivan was no gifted actor and, if the observations of at least one reviewer are any guide, he appeared to care little for the ‘art of elocution or gesticulation’ and when required to remain silent on stage he assumed a look of ‘high disdain for the attention of the crowd and the dramatic art in general’. Still, when it came to a prize-fight scene at the end of the fifth and final act he was deemed to have appeared ‘completely at home’, the audiences only too delighted to roar their approval for the play’s hero when he floors the play’s villain with a mock knock-out blow.

Advertisement for the comedy-drama Honest Hearts and Willing Hands with John L Sullivan. Click image to see advertisement in full. 

Turning out on stage was one way in which Sullivan maintained a public profile. Another was as the unlikely champion of temperance. After drink had helped drain him of much of his personal fortune, he became a zealous convert to the anti-alcohol cause, preaching the virtues of abstinence and promoting the aims of the Anti-Saloon League, an influential political lobby group that pressed for prohibition of the manufacture, sale and consumption of alcohol. But, in his very championing of sobriety, Sullivan remained, until his final years, sufficiently intoxicated by his own former fame to repeatedly refer to himself in the third person – ‘the booze wasn’t afraid of John L. Sullivan’, he would say. Or ‘Now, I want to tell you something from the book of experience of John L. Sullivan. The booze has more ways of hitting you than you have of dodging, no matter how successful an individual you may be.’ In a further effort to marry his reformist message with both his fame and his need to make money, Sullivan attempted to enter the movie business, incorporating the John L. Sullivan Motion Picture Company on St Patrick’s Day, 1917, with the aim of making physical education films to help turn young men into ‘clean, able-bodied citizens’.

It never worked out and anyway, within a few weeks of his new venture launching, young American men had more pressing matters on their mind than. Their country had entered the First World War, abandoning a policy of neutrality that had sat more comfortably with the Irish-American community than it did Sullivan’s friend, the ex-President Theodore Roosevelt, who had long been urging a greater American preparedness to fight. For Sullivan there was no question of divided loyalties – he threw the weight of his celebrity behind Roosevelt and when America finally entered the war, he backed the former President’s request that he be allowed to lead a division of the army to France. He did so most vociferously at a rally at Faneuil Hall in Boston in May 1917 when he signalled his own willingness to serve: ‘If the time prevails and the opportunity avails, your uncle, John L., will be there. I’ve got to die sooner or later, but I have no fear of death in this fight for democracy.’

As it happened, it was a fight that Sullivan would not be required to fight, and the ‘end’ of which he spoke would come sooner than anyone expected.

Sullivan was dead by the time the war he had helped prepare America for was won. On 2 February 1918, at his home in Abingdon, Massachusetts, he died unexpectedly, struck down by a heart attack as he was preparing to leave for Boston where he was planning on announcing his latest publicity wheeze – a tour with a circus for which he would receive $1,000 to enter the ring in an Irish jaunting car and deliver a 10 minute address. Sullivan was 59 years old at the moment of his death, and if not penniless, then neither was he flush, his estate eclipsing his debts, though not by much.

Sullivan’s death was a major event. It gave rise to a deluge of reportage which recounted the highs and lows of a life that, from an early age, had been lived in full glare of publicity. 

But just how to make sense of it all?

In his terrific book John L. Sullivan and His America, published in the late 1980s, academic Michael T. Isenberg (since deceased) tried to grapple with the measure and meaning of Sullivan’s career and celebrity. ‘The explanation of the Sullivan phenomenon lies as much in what he was as in what he did’, he wrote.

‘It was no accident that Americans measured Sullivan in heroic and legendary terms when they did; his was a symbiotic relationship with his era, which was not one of ‘brutal but tremendously vital achievement.’ It was not the norm from the Gilded Age to describe its celebrities in hyperbole – the ‘greatest’ this or that. But Sullivan was so described; he was instant history, a living epic. He was made so by word of mouth within the cult of masculinity, and by the press. Good, bad, or indifferent, he was news, and he was news because for whatever reason people wanted to read about him....In part he was the product of journalistic fiction, and once he realised this he spent much of his life trying to live up (or down) to what a later time would be called his ‘media image’. Sullivan was a creature of print, and both positive and negative hyperbole about him saturated the popular culture with little or no check on it, save by the man himself.’

Isenberg’s eloquent analysis places Sullivan in the wider context of a country and its culture and society in the midst of a period of extraordinary change. But at the actual moment of his death, Sullivan was remembered less for what he represented or for the forces that brought him to such public prominence than for what he principally was – a boxer of sustained and unmatched brilliance. And it was not only those he’d vanquished who said so. When reporters approached ‘Gentleman’ Jim Corbett, whose own epic life would subsequently receive the Hollywood treatment, to inform him of Sullivan’s passing, the one man who had defeated him in the ring exclaimed ‘What’, as if taken by surprise that someone who had appeared so indestructible had been taken so quietly. ‘I suppose you want some expression from me’, he continued, before pausing to gather his thoughts. ‘Well’, he eventually resumed, ‘John L. Sullivan was the greatest of all fighters in his day. The world will bear me out on that statement...I can honestly say he was the best man and the more admired of the heavy-weight fighters. In his day he could have bested any man. Even though I won the championship from Sullivan I could never have won nor could have won had I faced him in his prime. His fairness in the ring and his true sportsmanship made him the most loved of all in the ring, not only by the fans, but by the men he fought as well.’

John L. Sullivan was buried in Mount Calvary Cemetery in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, where his still imposing headstone makes no mention of what he was or how much he achieved. Most likely it was felt there was no need.

Mark Duncan is a Director of Century Ireland


Century Ireland

The Century Ireland project is an online historical newspaper that tells the story of the events of Irish life a century ago.