Perhaps no man has ever embodied the spirit of the fighting Irish more than John L. Sullivan. Born in Boston in 1858 to parents who had fled Ireland’s potato famine, Sullivan ruled as boxing’s heavyweight champion from 1882 to 1892. The hard-hitting, hard-drinking boxer ushered the sport from its outlawed bare-knuckle days into the modern gloved era while becoming the country’s first sports superstar and the first athlete to earn $1 million.
Sullivan’s symbolic position as the world’s most powerful man transformed him into the first Irish-American hero. To a generation of immigrants who had believed themselves powerless under the thumb of the British in their homeland, slighted in their new country, and traumatized by the horrific famine, Sullivan’s strength and self-confidence were an elixir for their malignant shame.
The champion’s unblemished ring record as well as his womanizing, boozing, and run-ins with the law were godsends to big-city newspapers engaged in heated circulation wars. The “Boston Strong Boy” grew into such a celebrity that “Let me shake the hand that shook the hand of John L. Sullivan” became a cultural catchphrase in the late 1800s. When not knocking out foes in the ring, Sullivan’s powerful right hand shook those of some of the Gilded Age’s greatest icons—from presidents and kings to Wild West gunslingers and pioneering women.
Despite their vastly different upbringings, the aristocratic Theodore Roosevelt and working-class Sullivan—born 15 days apart—shared a love of boxing and a disdain for “mollycoddles.” While in the White House, Roosevelt continued to box until a punch from a sparring partner left him nearly blind in his left eye, and the sweet science, much to the First Lady’s disdain, was a frequent dinnertime conversation topic. Roosevelt had particular esteem for Sullivan, whom he considered “as game and straight and honest a fighter as ever stepped in the ring,” and their mutual admiration morphed into friendship. John L. visited the White House on several occasions and presented the president with a gold-mounted rabbit’s foot that Roosevelt carried with him on safari to Africa.
King Edward VII
Sullivan created such a sensation on his 1887 tour of the British Isles that even the Prince of Wales—the future King Edward VII—requested an audience with the champion. “I never saw anything like him in the world,” raved the prince after watching Sullivan spar three rounds in a private exhibition at the London Fencing Club. “He’s a marvel of a man, altogether out of the ordinary.” The prince’s royal reception for a son of Ireland and the purveyor of a brutal sport still illegal in his domain rankled the upper crusts of English society and reportedly infuriated his mother, Queen Victoria. The American press, however, took great glee in writing up accounts of the meeting between British and boxing royalty.
William Barclay "Bat" Masterson
The famed Dodge City gunslinger and die-hard boxing fan Bat Masterson stood ringside for Sullivan’s most famous bouts—but in the opposite corner. In 1889 the Wild West icon, with a six-shooter in his hip pocket, served as the bodyguard and timekeeper for challenger Jake Kilrain, Sullivan’s foe in the epic 75-rounder in the Mississippi backwoods that would be the last bare-knuckle heavyweight championship in boxing history. Three years later, Masterson was the timekeeper for James J. “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, who knocked out Sullivan in the 21st round to end his heavyweight reign and hand him his only career defeat.
Nellie Bly, the 19th century’s preeminent investigative journalist, who had gone undercover to probe everything from police misconduct to the baby-buying trade, visited Sullivan in upstate New York in 1889 to pen a feature on America’s biggest sports superstar. The champion, in training for the Kilrain fight, had never been interviewed by a woman before, and he behaved more like a bashful schoolboy than a growling prizefighter. In her blunt, yet soft way, Bly asked John L. about everything from his bathing habits to his earnings. The journalist wasn’t afraid to use her femininity to charm her subject, such as unsuccessfully trying to wrap both her hands around his biceps. As Bly left, Sullivan confessed, “I have given you more than I ever gave any reporter in my life.”
The temperance crusader, like Sullivan, had achieved fame with a smashing right, albeit one that wielded a hatchet that left behind a trail of shattered saloon glasses, splintered bar tops, and alcohol bottles throughout the Midwest. When she came east to visit Manhattan in 1901, Nation had a 42nd Street saloon owned by Sullivan in her crosshairs. Although the former champion—and America’s foremost boozehound—reportedly threatened to “throw her down the sewer,” the saloon-smasher pulled up to Sullivan’s bar in her carriage only to be told the purveyor was upstairs sleeping and could not be disturbed. As the battle-axe’s carriage rattled away, newspaper reporters saw the shutter in Sullivan’s upstairs room slowly open as he peered out.
William “Buffalo Bill” Cody
During and after his ring career, Sullivan toured the country starring in vaudeville shows and theatrical productions, including a turn as Simon Legree in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” He frequently crossed paths with other barnstorming entertainers such as “Buffalo Bill,” who in St. Louis in 1884 invited Sullivan to watch his Wild West show with dignitaries such as General William Tecumseh Sherman and ride in the famed Deadwood stagecoach through a mock battle. Decades later in 1908, when both men became teetotalers, Sullivan met Cody outside Boston and revisited old times for two hours over tall drinks of ginger ale as costumed cowboys and Native Americans hovered to listen to their anecdotes.
William Howard Taft
While Sullivan, who had packed on the pounds when his fighting days were over, was waiting to meet Roosevelt on a 1907 White House visit, Secretary of War William Howard Taft waddled by. When the two portly men decided to compare their vitals, Sullivan said he hit the scales at 335 pounds, while the future president claimed he was down to a slim 283. “Guess I got you skinned a block, ”John L. quipped.
The premier American sports superstars of the 19th and 20th centuries briefly came together on the emerald lawn of Boston’s Fenway Park in September 1917. Months before Sullivan’s death, he served as the first-base coach for a team of baseball all-stars facing the Boston Red Sox. Starting and pitching five innings for the home team that day was Babe Ruth. Although Sullivan is sometimes referred to as the “Babe Ruth of boxing,” the prodigious eating, headline-grabbing benders, womanizing, and sporting achievements of the “Bambino” all echoed those of he “Boston Strong Boy” 40 years earlier. In truth, Ruth was the “John L. Sullivan of baseball.”
Christopher Klein is the author of Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero, newly available in paperback. Follow him on Twitter @historyauthor. Visit his website, www.christopherklein.com.