Strong Boy—The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero

By Peter Weston Wood on April 22, 2015
Strong Boy—The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero
Sullivan’s boast of the 1880s, “I can lick any son-of-a-bitch in the world,” still resonates.

Klein’s recounting of “The Babe Ruth of Boxing” is a story that could only be found in the history pages of early 20th century America…

Strong Boy—The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero by Christopher Klein is a raw, powerful and disturbing biography—a head-spinning take on Sullivan’s turbulent life. Unlike other sports memoirists, Klein doesn’t pull punches, he offers up slashing comments on a mythic sports hero. 

Sullivan’s arrogant boast of the 1880s, “I can lick any son-of-a-bitch in the world,” still resonates today inside smoky barrooms across American and Europe. This daring claim could announce only one man: Irish-American John L. Sullivan, the World’s Heavyweight Boxing Champion. A legendary fighter, he won the title in the last bare-knuckle championship, and then traveled the world like no sportsman before him, defending it against all comers. But as Klein documents, Sullivan was also a legendary drinker who turned up for many of his most important contests scarcely able to defend himself.

Christopher Klein’s biography gives us an undiluted view of the Boston Strong Boy, a hero of the ring in the days when prizefighting was illegal though avidly followed by every social class. Klein recounts the numerous times when the law gave Sullivan more trouble than many of his ring opponents. Sullivan fought and beat all the great boxers of his generation, Paddy Ryan, Charley Mitchell, Jake Kilrain—with the notable exception of Peter Jackson, against whom Sullivan drew the color line.

For more than a decade Sullivan was invincible. The championship seemed to belong to him. To have met him was a rare honor and people stood in line to ‘shake the hand that shook the hand of John L. Sullivan,’ as a popular catchphrase of the time ran.

Strong Boy tells the story of one of the most feared boxers in history up to that point. Sullivan terrified contenders across the globe. With his swaggering virility he would become one of those outrageous characters that made the turn of the century a colorful era. He drank as he fought, prodigiously, never meeting a saloon he didn’t like. And the nation loved him for it. Klein’s recounting of “The Babe Ruth of Boxing” is a story that could only be found in the history pages of early 20th century America. He was the Muhammad Ali of his generation.

Sullivan was born the son of an immigrant father who fled to America. The anti-Irish, anti-Catholic discrimination faced by the famine refugees was not subtle. It blared in black and white, in shop windows and newspaper classified ads. He was faced with: “No Irish person need apply” and “Catholics and dogs not allowed.”

However, Sullivan’s toughness and work ethic carried him to the highest levels of one of the most unforgiving sports.

When he won the heavyweight belt in 1882 no Bostonians celebrated more than the Irish, who felt blistered by the red-hot Brahmin scorn since their arrival. Now, one of their own was champion of America. Sullivan instantly became an Irish-American idol, one of the country’s first ethnic heroes.

Historical references run the gamut. In London Sullivan was lauded by the Prince of Wales; Teddy Roosevelt considered him an outstanding American; Baron Rothschild staged one of the champion’s fights on his private estate in France.

After Sullivan became champion, he spent most of his time touring as an actor on the vaudevillian circuit instead of training. Klein chronicles his rapid fistic decline—his spousal abuse, assault and battery, womanizing, and his constant drinking. 

Sullivan’s lack of training caught up with him, and with a “tumorous belly, sagging skin, and eyes hanging low in their eye sockets, he was matched with a brash young boxer named Jim Corbett.”

The Sullivan-Corbett match was held on September 7, 1892. “Corbett sat in his dressing room as a priest gave him a blessing,” writes Klein, “while a relaxed Sullivan cracked jokes with his trainers.”

The kid from San Francisco was given little chance, but the champion who had a punch like a thunderbolt from Zeus was well past his prime, dissipated by years of boozing and inactivity, and on this night, one of the greatest upsets in sporting history occurred. A legend was toppled.

After losing his title belt, and after a sobering epiphany on his farm, Sullivan announced in 1915 the launch of yet another phase of his career. “I am quitting the farm and ‘coming back’ to have a go with a bigger champion than I ever was—the champion of champions—John Barleycorn.” He launched his own anti-alcohol lecture tour in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Klein writes, “His speech reflected the arc of his life—it was entitled, ‘From Glory to Gutter to God.’”

The reader gets the sense that Klein’s book as a whole is less a calculated attempt to uphold a mythic sports hero as it is to show the genuine effort made by a troubled soul to gain some understanding of the long, dissipated journey that had been his life. Despite gaining fame and fortune, Sullivan was someone obsessed with the need to redeem himself.

Upon his death, bereaved Bostonians kept spilling in to pay respects to the old gladiator. The mourners were still filing through when it was time to leave for the 10 a.m. funeral mass held around the corner at St. Paul’s Church.

Klein writes, “His coffin was as big as a bed…His iconic white mustache flowed gallantly, with the fine curls on each end. The lifeless right hand that had once delivered such violent punishment clenched a black rosary.”

Father Lyons blessed the grave of his parishioner and reminded all in attendance that Sullivan’s greatest triumph had come out of the ring—it was his hard-fought victory over the bottle.

Strong Boy is a hefty and satisfying biography that gives the reader a ringside seat into the colorful and extravagant personal life of John L. Sullivan. We quickly learn that he was one of the greatest champions from boxing’s Golden Age, but also a deeply flawed man. Nevertheless, The Great John L. Sullivan is as important a cultural figure as he was a sports idol. 

Peter Wood is a 1971 NYC Golden Gloves Middleweight Finalist in Madison Square Garden; a Middleweight Alternate for The Maccabean Games in Tel Aviv, Israel, and author of two books: Confessions of a Fighter, and A Clenched Fist—The Making of a Golden Gloves Champion, published by Ringside Books.

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Legendary Champions - John L Sullivan, James J Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons etc

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  1. bikermike 03:30pm, 04/30/2015

    John L. Sullivan ....was not a diplomat…
    As time went on….and Sullivan got more into the booze….he’d find himself stupefied .and his consumption.

    I’m sure there is truth in some of the tales read…that he got his clock cleaned when he was out of sorts….in the rough tuff saloons of his era

    Everybody does

  2. bikermike 03:22pm, 04/30/2015

    ...the HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE a Title..that,even today, is traced by historical of….the man..that beat the man..who beat John L Sullivan..
    JOHN L. SULLIVAN was, his time, ..the Heavy Weight Champion , OF THE WORLD…and what follows is from this man.

  3. peter 08:06am, 04/30/2015

    A Cap—Excellent comment, Cap. “Old Chocolate”, as he was named later in his career, was only a light heavyweight, but good enough to beat men twice his size.

  4. Cap 07:39am, 04/30/2015

    When you mention boxers he never fought you forgot the other pride of Boston George Godfrey.

  5. Louie Berard 11:35am, 04/26/2015

    This article explains a story I heard form one of my martial art mentors, the late Bob Bremer. Bob was Bruce Lee’s Gladiator at his China Town School. He was the guy Bruce had fight whoever came in to challenge Bruce’s style of Jeet Kune Do. Bob was one of the most colorful people I have ever known. He did many fascinating and colorful things throughout his life, Being Bruce Lee’s main fighter, and weekly guest at his house being only one of them. As actor, Paul Renteria (who knew Bob when he was a kid and Bob a young man,) called him at his memorial service ” The most interesting man in the world!” One story Bob told me was about his father who owned a saloon in Goldfield Nevada during the first part of the last century. Bob, A big rough man himself, said his father was built like a gorilla and had a huge pot belly to boot. One day he said his father beat the tar out of John L. Sullivan at his saloon. Incredulous, I asked how he did it. Bob said he rammed him up into the wall and held him there with his huge belly and bludgeoned him with his fists! I was always amazed that Bob’s father was such a bad dude to be able to do that. After reading this article however, I imagine Sullivan was probably a drunken shell of his former self, and was easy pickings for a prime monster like Bob’s Dad.

  6. Alan W. 12:28pm, 04/24/2015

    We know the name, John L. Sullivan—and that’s about all.  This terrific book review filled in some of the gaps for me, and I’m sure the book will fill in more. In 1882 when John L. was at his peak, Chester A. Arthur was president.  Today a helluva lot more of us can picture Sullivan—who he was, what he was, and what he did—than we can picture the guy who had been the president of the U.S.  But as Babe Ruth said when he was questioned about earning more money than Pres.Hoover: “I had a better year.”

  7. Bob 11:54am, 04/23/2015

    For some inexplicable reason, John L. Sullivan never captured my imagination, but after reading this review my interest has been piqued. It sounds like the book captures the legend of Sullivan as it related to the times, and doesn’t sugarcoat his decline or his flaws. I’ve always believed that as “great” as a person might be at something, without their flaws being examined their stories are far less interesting. In a bookstore recently I perused a book about actor James Stewart, who had a sterling reputation for marital fidelity, honesty, integrity, patriotism and deccency.  I didn’t buy the book, but I picked up Lee Marvin’s bio the day it came out. I think I’ll pick up the book on the Strong Boy as well based on this terrific review.

  8. bikermike 05:05pm, 04/22/2015

    Clarence George….an observation on your first comment
    ...Irish Catholic…being abused….

    No more so than any other far away place,,,who’s system has failed ...and wishes to ‘export the people that present system could not support…
    Decades later….Cuba did the same thing from their place Florida…

    and some other considerations…’



  9. bikermike 04:52pm, 04/22/2015

    ...that John L Sullivan…who could BEAT ANY MAN IN THE HOUSE..for about ten years…..
    would wind up selling off the jewels .in his WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP BELT…....awarded to him by his ‘promoters’ ..of that day

    Showed that from then to now…..‘promoters ..or other captains of legalbafflegab…...Other folks make money off a Name Fighter…..until ...he/she a race horse… done

  10. bikermike 04:40pm, 04/22/2015

    See….??? Right from the beginning….‘Name Fighters’ ..never obeyed the rules….

    One time….several sources…Good ‘ol John L…...was just to fkn drunk to fight…and it was announced so..

    Folks would come for a thousand miles….with no interstate system…just to see John L Sullivan…....shake the hand that shook the hand..of John L Sullivan….

    Holy shit….so many guys claimed that thing…..wonder Champ got to go to the bathroom….lol

    ...sort of…“If everyone who said they were at WOODSTOCK…were actually there…the earth would have caved in….get the picture

  11. bikermike 04:33pm, 04/22/2015

    ...amongst the guys tied for first place…..would be Mathew Franklin…later.Saad Mohammid (?)...

    Saad…was a pretty rough customer himself..

  12. bikermike 04:30pm, 04/22/2015

    Loved the panel of grand old matches…

    One of my favorites…...which would not be allowed to happen today..if boxing referees did their job…

    Archie Moore and Yvonne Durell…first one…
    Moore got up ..after being knocked down…once more than his opponent…Moore was one of the four guys tied for first place…him and Fitzsimmons..and Spinks…..and…????

  13. bikermike 04:18pm, 04/22/2015

    “FITZ” milked it for all it was worth….and stayed too long….
    Read he ended his years ...raving and suffering from dementia…

    Still…..if there were a nation of men and women…with the fighting spirit of ‘Ruby Bob’.....they would fear no enemy…That guy had bigger balls than any building destruction firm on earth…!!

    As big or maybe bigger than Moore, or Spinks

    Very rough customer…

  14. bikermike 04:10pm, 04/22/2015

    Corbett got caught…while he was clowning…‘cuz he was so far ahead..

    ...( he was also looking for his second breath…..or a sniper in the crowd, because Fitz was catching him…and Corbett was outta gas…!!!

    ...a blow to the ‘solar plexus’...probably occurred, at , or about the same time Corbett was sucking wind…and ...well ...I’m told there has been good footage of this event recovered..

    Ruby Bob ..kicked ass…or ..gave body attack ...a whole new meaning.

    Corbett not the first Champion to ...drink deep…from the cup of life !

  15. bikermike 03:57pm, 04/22/2015

    That Dempsey Willard thing…..

    .....whispers of loaded gloves ..continue.

    Promoters of the day ....were even less regulated and ‘controlled ’ than today..
    Many sources indicate the side bet for Dempsey ..was huge…‘specially if it was a first round KO….

    Never saw a winning fighter so eager to get out of the ring…...‘cept one guy..who trained in the a sparring partner..and got on the undercard…..turns out he knocked up about six nice ladies…some of them single…while he was there…

    got outta the ring and into the car..and flagged down the bus about thirty miles outta town..

  16. bikermike 03:40pm, 04/22/2015

    great read…Look forward to the next one…

    One of the old axioms…of John L. Sullivan…..when he went into the ring…after having ‘several glasses of good cheer’...
    John was in the corner..seated…and he ‘puked ’ a whale blowing ..

    ..He shouted to his supporters…‘Don’t worry ...I still kept the booze inside me!!’...He went on to win the fight..
    Great Heavy Weight Champion of his day…!!

  17. BigMikeTampa 02:26pm, 04/22/2015

    It was a great book. I would highly recommend it to any boxing geeks. Casuals will be bored.

  18. FrankinDallas 11:13am, 04/22/2015

    Corbett slapped worse than Calzaghe.

  19. kid vegas 10:50am, 04/22/2015


  20. Kid Blast 09:04am, 04/22/2015

    My first boxing hero

  21. Eric 06:16am, 04/22/2015

    Like probably most boxing fans I don’t know much about John L. Sullivan, other than his bouts with Corbett, Kilrain, and “John Barleycorn.” One of the more common photos of Sullivan features the Boston Strong Boy wearing his fighting togs, assuming a fighting stance, but sporting a noticeable paunch. That photo was obviously taken after Sullivan retired but it is probably that image that most people think of when the name John L. Sullivan is mentioned. Sounds like the Boston Strong Boy might have been somewhat of a mean spirited bully outside the ring. Sullivan is rarely mentioned in today’s world but you won’t hear too much about Bronko Nagurski, Man o’ War, or Walter “Big Train” Johnson either. Might have to give this book a try, wouldn’t mind seeing more books on the earlier champs like Corbett, Fitz, and Jeffries also.

  22. Clarence George 03:09am, 04/22/2015

    Peter:  Very nice review and synopsis of a book that I have yet to read, but will.

    Not only one of the great heavyweights, but arguably the Sweet Science’s ultimate icon, I find it bizarrely paradoxical how neglected Sullivan is today.  To be expected (however deplored), I suppose, from boxing fans who think Muhammad Ali the be-all and end-all of heavyweight history.  Jack who?  Joe what?  Rocky…?  Oh, you mean Balboa.  That was a movie, ‘tard.

    I like that Irish-Catholics (as you point out, among the most abused people who ever came to these shores) stood by him to the end.  None of them went to Harvard, which is probably why they had the wisdom to recognize that heroes are no less heroic for not being impeccable.