Thought Babe Ruth was the first sports superstar? Think again.
On the Thursday before spring break, author Christopher Klein spoke at the Boston Public Library of his new book Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero, about American heavyweight boxing champion John L. Sullivan.
“When people describe Sullivan as the ‘Babe Ruth of wrestling,’ they’ve got it backwards,” Klein said. “Sullivan had the same star status, and his story had similar epic proportions, but it happened forty years before Ruth was recognized nationally.”
Sullivan was born in South Boston in 1858 with an innate knack for fighting. After several years of scrapes and scuffles, his eager fists found a proper outlet. At nineteen, Sullivan attended a boxing demonstration where one of the performers challenged anyone in the audience to a fight. Nudged by his friends and fellow townsfolk, Sullivan seized the opportunity and with one mighty smack knocked the performer off of the stage.
“Thus,” Klein said, “a legend was born.”
The rest of Sullivan’s boxing career was a succession of fights won and increasing fame. He soon outgrew his reputation as “The Boston Strongboy” and moved to New York to pursue more boxing matches. In 1883-84 he garnered attention because of a coast-to coast boxing tour and a challenge. Sullivan announced that he would box anyone at any time during the tour for the best of four rounds, and he offered potential winners a $1,000 prize. Sullivan knocked out more than eleven men over the two-week cross country trip and found adoring fans in each city along the way.
Sullivan’s most important match, Klein explained, was against Ryan Kilrain in 1889. Throughout his life, Sullivan “lived high, drinking regularly and heavily.” After a particularly heavy bout of booze and womanizing, Sullivan lay incapacitated and sick–a priest was even called for last rites. Around the same time, newspapers began spreading the virtuosity of a new boxing champion–Ryan Kilrain. Hell bent on retaining his reputation and honor, Sullivan revived himself and enlisted a fitness expert named William Muldoon as his personal trainer. Muldoon kept Sullivan from the bottle. He whipped the wrestler into tip-top physical shape, prepping him for the Kilrain-Sullivan showdown.
Held in the backwoods of Mississippi, the match attracted over 3,000 spectators coming to watch Kilrain and Sullivan spar, despite the hundred degree heat. Their fight was the last bare-knuckled championship in the United States. It was also one of the first sporting events to receive extensive national press coverage. Though bare-knuckle wrestling was technically illegal, fans jostled excitedly as Sullivan and Kilrain battled; Kilrain finally surrendered to Sullivan after 75 rounds, fearful that he might die if the match continued.
After the Kilrain fight, Sullivan never wrestled bare-knuckled again. He fought in gloved matches but lost his title four years later to a hot-shot wrestler named Gentleman Jim from San Francisco. Shortly afterwards he retired from wrestling and settled down to a life as a farmer.
Klein noted that Sullivan, an Irish immigrant, rose from“the streets to the sports arena,” epitomizing the American Dream. Sullivan’s triumphs not only redefined the relationship between media and sports; they were also a source of pride and hope for many Irish American immigrants. Therefore, his legacy makes him a perfect figure to commemorate this week.