Christopher Klein’s extraordinary new biography of John L. Sullivan, the first international sports star and heavyweight champion of the world, is a rollicking good read about a man who was larger-than-life in every way conceivable.
Sullivan, born in 1858, grew up in Boston’s South End. His penchant for fighting came early in his life. After many street fights, he gave up his day laborer job for a career in the ring.
The young Sullivan was an intimidating figure, standing 5-feet 10-inches and weighing close to 190 pounds. His deadly glare turned most of his opponents to Jello. If his look failed to intimidate, his powerful right hand rendered them senseless.
In a bare knuckle fight in 1882, Sullivan knocked out Patty Ryan to claim the heavyweight belt. He’s considered the last champion under the bare-knuckle (London) rules and the first under the modern Marquis of Queensberry rules.
Sullivan was soon boasting that he could, “Lick any son-of-a-bitch in the house.”
To prove it, he embarked on a nationwide tour, offering one thousand dollars to anyone who could last four rounds with him.
Klein reminds the reader of Sullivan's unique talent. A few years into his championship run, Sullivan was a raging alcoholic, still managing to hold onto his title through brute strength and will for ten years.
He finally lost the crown to James J. Corbett in 1892 in what at the time was considered the biggest upset in the history of sports. Corbett, almost 10 years younger and 40 pounds lighter, out boxed Sullivan and stopped him in round 21.
The now former champion was soon broke. He made stage appearances to make ends meet. His marriage broke up. His only child died a few years later.
In many ways, his life parallels that of another heavyweight former heavyweight champion, Mike Tyson.
Sullivan gave up drinking in 1905. He re-married and bought a farm in Massachusetts. He lectured about the dangers of drinking. Sullivan passed away in 1918.
Klein has written a balanced book about a complicated man. Sullivan was no saint. He could be a loudmouth and a bully, but also an honest and caring human being.
Klein's prose is rich with informative passages describing America near the turn of the century. Klein's telling of Sullivan's story proves his talent as a biographer.