Founding father of the sweet science

Wed, Oct 29, 2008, 00:00

To mark the 150th anniversary of the fighter's birth, Kevin Mallontells the story of how the son of Irish immigrants became the first "world heavyweight champion"

JOHN L SULLIVAN, the last of the bare-knuckle heavyweight champions and the first publicly acclaimed American sports idol, was born to post-Famine Irish immigrant parents in Roxbury, a suburb of Boston, on October 15th, 1858.

From 1882 to 1892, in the absence of any official "world" heavyweight title, John Lawrence Sullivan, having beaten all-comers on both sides of the Atlantic, was almost universally acknowledged as the Champion of Champions.

In addition to hundreds of exhibition/sparring bouts, Sullivan, the "Boston Strong Boy", won all but one of his estimated 50 top-grade fights, the greater proportion of his wins being by straight knockout.

Sullivan fought under both the London Prize Ring Rules and the Marquis of Queensberry Rules, and played a pivotal role in the transition from the at times brutal age of prize-fighting to the more scientific era of boxing as it is known today.

The London Prize Rules allowed for bare knuckles, holding, tripping, hip-tossing, above-the-waist wrestling and the throwing of an opponent.

Rounds lasted as long as both fighters were standing and ended as soon as one went down and stayed down. There was no limit to the number of rounds or the number of times a fighter could go down, a rule exploited by many who simply dropped to one knee when under pressure.

As soon as a fighter went down he had 30 seconds to rest and receive attention, and another eight seconds to "come to scratch" or "toe the line" again.

It was boxing at its most raw, and while it resulted in long, bruising, bloody and on occasions near-fatal contests, it was a vast improvement on the kicking, gouging, head-butting, biting and blows-below-the-belt fare prevalent in the early days of uncodified prize-fighting.

John L Sullivan, who got his hot temper from his father and his powerful physique from his mother, stood 5ft 10in, weighed in at 190lb (13st 8lb, 86kg), had uncommonly large hands, a 74-inch reach and - between major fights - sported a trademark handlebar moustache.

In the ring, Sullivan employed an orthodox stance, and, while he could do enormous damage with either hand, most of his knock-out punches stemmed from the power of his prodigious right.

Still illegal in most US states, prize-fighting was held in particularly low regard when Sullivan burst onto the scene in the late 1870s. Within a decade, however, largely due to the Bostonian's sledge-hammer style in - and charisma out - of the ring, boxing had begun to gain some measure of respectability.

Before turning to prize-fighting John L had tried his hand as a hod carrier, a plumber and a tinsmith, and had even flirted with the idea of becoming a baseball player. But after a succession of Boston bar-room brawls it soon became apparent his future lay with his fists.

Sullivan frequently boasted that he "could lick any man in the house", so when local professional Tom Scannel challenged all-comers to fight him in Boston's Dudley Street Opera House in 1877, Sullivan immediately took up the offer and just as quickly knocked Scannel off the stage and into the orchestra pit.

It was the start of Sullivan's meteoric rise to fame. Emboldened by his early successes, which included a victory over the Champion of the West, "Professor" John Donaldson, John L, who was now just turned 22, in an open letter to the Cincinnati Enquirer, challenged the reigning champion, Paddy Ryan, to fight for what was in effect the "World" heavyweight title.

It was another two years, however, before the "bull-strong" Ryan finally accepted a match.

IN THE MEANTIME, Sullivan accumulated much wealth and experience, with his win over the formidable New Yorker, John Flood, the "Bull's Head Terror" on a barge moored in the Hudson River, being perhaps his most notable.

The Ryan/Sullivan fight was to be bare knuckle under London Rules, with both men putting up a stake of $2,500, winner take all, the venue somewhere within 100 miles of New Orleans.

While the police generally turned a blind eye to fights under the less objectionable Marquis of Queensberry Rules, London Rules contests were vehemently opposed by the authorities in most states, so the exact location of the fight was a secret even to those paying to attend.

In the 24 hours before the fight, the police and the "fancy" engaged in their usual game of cat-and-mouse. On the evening of February 6th, 1882, hardened fight fans, gamblers and the usual criminal types assembled in New Orleans.

The many thousands present then purchased their train tickets, destination "No Where", and set off into the southern night. By morning when the train drew to a halt at Mississippi City, the local police were nowhere to be seen.

A New York Tribunereport a few days later questioned the police commitment to stopping the fight, informing readers of the convenient absence of the sheriff who was detained in Biloxi on business until the fight was over.

Sullivan's opponent, Paddy Ryan, the reigning champion of America, was born in Thurles, Co Tipperary. A fighter/wrestler very much in the Sullivan mould, Ryan "The Trojan Giant" won the title from Joe Goss in 1880 after a marathon 87 rounds.

At 1pm on February 7th, 1882, some 5,000 fight fans crowded around the ring in front of Barnes Hotel in Mississippi City to see the 31-year-old Ryan last a mere nine rounds and just over 10 minutes before being knocked out by one of Sullivan's infamous rights. Ryan described it as like being "hit sideways with a telegraph pole".

For at least one immigrant son the American Dream had become a reality, with 23-year-old Irish-American John L Sullivan, the Boston Strong Boy, replacing Tipperary man Paddy Ryan as Heavyweight Champion of America and, in the eyes of many, as Champion of the World.

FOR THE NEXT 10 years John L Sullivan dominated the world boxing scene. Criss-crossing the United States, he fought hundreds of minor opponents in so-called "exhibition" bouts, and, as the knockouts mounted, so did Sullivan's fame and fortune.

Everywhere he went thousands paid to stand in line to shake the hand "that shook the world". In July, 1887, his celebrity was confirmed when he received a special, inscribed belt - Presented to the Champion of Champions, John L Sullivan, by the Citizens of the United States - with the centrepiece featuring the flags of the US, Britain and Ireland (a gold harp on an emerald background).

Later that year he toured abroad for the first time, spending a week in Ireland where, as the son of emigrants Michael Sullivan from Abbeydorney, Co Kerry, and Catherine Sullivan (nee Kelly) from Athlone, he was given an "effusively friendly" welcome.

Sullivan's extensive party arrived in Dublin on December 11th, and so great was the crowd in and around Westland Row Station that all other rail traffic had to be suspended prior to his arrival.

The following evening the Leinster Hall was packed for what was billed as a Grand Assault at Arms.

After a number of amateur contests at middle, light and bantam weight, some of which Sullivan refereed, the Champion of Champions sparred four, two-minute rounds with American heavyweight Jack Ashton, during which the champion's cleverness, quick hands and terrific hitting powers were obvious to "even to the most uninitiated of the spectators".

A day later, Sullivan appeared at the Theatre Royal in Waterford where he assured the cheering crowd that, even though he had been blackguarded into a match with England's Charley Mitchell instead of his preferred opponent, Jem Smith, he had not the slightest doubt he would win easily.

The following day his arrival in Cork brought the city to a standstill. In the afternoon he visited Blarney, kissed the Blarney stone and was presented with a suit of tweed at the factory.

In the evening, in front of a record Opera House crowd, Sullivan declined the challenge of a local boxer, Frank Creedon. But impressed by the man's bravery, Sullivan, ever the crowd-pleaser, presented the Corkman with a gold medal instead.

Next day scenes of wild excitement greeted Sullivan in Limerick. That evening the Theatre Royal was packed to the rafters to hear John L Sullivan, the son of Mike Sullivan from just down the road in Abbeydorney, delight the partisan audience with the contention that, although he was born in America, he was "as good an Irishman as ever breathed".

After another exhibition bout in Dublin, Sullivan completed his Irish visit in Belfast.

While it had undoubtedly been a financially lucrative tour, the continuous travel, lavish hospitality and Sullivan's increasing fondness for alcohol left him badly out of shape.

So, with the Charley Mitchell fight on the horizon, the champion returned to serious training.

The fight, under London Rules, took place on Baron Rothschild's estate at Chantilly north east of Paris. Five years earlier, Mitchell had been the first man to knock down Sullivan, and while Sullivan eventually got the upper hand, due to police intervention, that fight was unfinished. So their meeting in France on March 10th, 1888, was of huge interest.

In training, Sullivan lost over two stone, and yet was still two stone heavier than Mitchell, although Sullivan did appear to be still hampered throughout the fight by an arm injury picked up when he fought Pasty Cardiff a year earlier.

In driving rain, the fight lasted a gruelling three hours and 11 minutes, at the end of which, having beaten each other almost to a pulp, a stalemate developed and the battle was declared a draw.

AFTER THAT RELATIVELY unconvincing display, Sullivan, with much to prove, shifted his attention to his main US contender, Jake Kilrain.

Cut from much the same cloth as Sullivan, Kilrain, another Irish-American, real name John Joseph Killion, had been recognised as the World champion by Richard Kyle Fox, the Belfast-born owner of boxing's main magazine, the Police Gazette.

The fight, held in the unforgiving summer heat of Richburg, Mississippi, on July 8th, 1889, was the last London Prize Rules title fight.

The brutal reality of bare-knuckle fighting was well illustrated in a subsequent article in the Roxiana Review, which reported that, whereas Sullivan was tripped or wrestled down five times, Kilrain was knocked out three times, knocked down 24 times, thrown down seven times and shoved down six times. Kilrain also went down 26 times to avoid further punishment.

Even though some 40 rounds into the fight Sullivan was seen to vomit, the Bostonian continued to dominate, and at the end of the 75th round, two hours and 16 minutes into the fight, one of Kilrain's seconds, Mike Donovan, threw in the sponge, convinced by the fight doctor that if Kilrain fought on he could well have died.

That victory marked the high point of John L Sullivan's prize-fighting career. In spite of his refusal to fight a West Indian native, the black Australian heavyweight champion Peter "Black Prince" Jackson, Sullivan was still accepted as the best boxer in the world, a fact he was reminded of, time and again, by his adoring American public.

But Sullivan's career then took an unexpected turn. The Boston Strong Boy became an actor, touring the country as the hero in the thoroughly undistinguished Honest Hearts and Willing Hands.

OVER THE NEXT three years, out of condition and drinking heavily, Sullivan fought only exhibition bouts, one, ironically, in June, 1891, in full evening attire against an up-and-coming heavyweight called James J Corbett, the man destined to be his next championship contender.

"Gentleman" Jim has been dubbed the "Father of Modern Boxing". Putting the onus on style and strength rather than pure power, Corbett, a boxing coach in San Francisco, epitomised boxing's New Order.

On September 7th, 1892, the Olympic Club in New Orleans played host, under lights, to one of the most intriguing contrasts in style ever witnessed in a World heavyweight title bout: Sullivan, the prize-fighter, versus Corbett, the boxer.

The fight was held under Marquis of Queensberry Rules for a $25,000 purse and $10,000 a side. Both men wore five-ounce gloves, and in the early rounds, much to the displeasure of Sullivan's supporters, Corbett held back, side-stepping, dodging, weaving and jabbing, the complete opposite to the out-of-shape Sullivan's headlong rushes and wild swings.

In the third round Corbett broke Sullivan's nose, and after that it was a case of gradually wearing the champion down. In the 21st round, for the one and only time in his career, the hitherto invincible Sullivan found himself on the wrong end of a knockout punch.

That marked the end of John L Sullivan's competitive career. It also marked the end of an era.

IRONICALLY, DESPITE LOSING his title, Sullivan remained as popular as ever. He continued to hold exhibitions and occasionally returned to the stage, but by then his already excessive drinking was completely out of control. He even opened a saloon, believing that he could "kill two birds with one stone: sell liquor and keep prosperously drunk on the proceeds".

John L Sullivan made well over $1 million in and out of the ring, and yet by 1902 he was forced to file for bankruptcy, liabilities $2,658, assets $60.

Three years later, just after he beat Jim McCormick in a two-round exhibition in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Sullivan experienced his Road to Damascus moment.

He had been drunk all that week and was "pretty near down and out", but, as he admitted later, "a heavyweight head is the best Temperance lecture in the world", and so there and then on March 4th, 1905, in the Terre Haute hotel bar, he tipped his last glass of wine into a spittoon and never drank again.

With all the zeal of a convert Sullivan then took to the Temperance lecture circuit, promoting himself as "a reformed pugilist, a reformed drunkard and a muscular Christian". He even joined the Anti-Saloon League.

Some of his more colourful lecture titles included "From Fistic Supremacy to Alcoholic Degeneracy", "How John Lawrence Sullivan Knocked Out John Barleycorn in One Glorious Round" and "From Glory to Gutter to God".

In typically colourful terms, Sullivan once described marriage as "a scrap for life, under London Rules, no rounds without a knockout and a fight to the finish". Not surprising then that in 1908 he divorced his first wife, Annie Bates, after informing the court that he didn't want "that woman" to have his bones.

Two years later he married childhood acquaintance Kate Harkins and settled down to another new life, this time on a farm in West Abington, near Boston.

After his wife died he lived there with one of his old sparring partners, George Bush, and his adopted son, William Kelley.

John L Sullivan died of a heart attack on February 2nd, 1918, aged 59. True to form, the last of the bare-knuckle heavyweight champions did not go quietly. In a fitting end to a barn-storming life, the rock-hard winter ground had to be dynamited to allow for the burial of one of America's most controversial and most loved sportsmen.