Thursday, December 12, 2013

The House That John L. Sullivan Built

Go back, back to when Madison Square Garden was actually adjacent to New York City's Madison Square Park. Back when the "world's most famous arena" was barely known in Gotham. Back when William H. Vanderbilt, son of the late Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, had one of those pesky millionaire's problems.

When Vanderbilt assumed control of the first incarnation of Madison Square Garden in 1879, the building hosted a lineup of masquerade balls, horticultural shows, temperance lectures, revival meetings, and band concerts. P. T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth and the new Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show brought in the paying customers, but only for a few weeks a year. To boost revenue, Vanderbilt decided to host more sporting events at his building across from the northeast corner of Madison Square Park. Wrestling matches and billiard tournaments, however, drew only lukewarm crowds. Six-day pedestrian races, which started a minute after midnight on Monday morning and ended at midnight the following Saturday, brought in fans, but spread over the course of an entire week they were not big money-makers.

Like any New York theater owner, Vanderbilt needed a smash hit with a box-office superstar in the leading role.

He needed John L. Sullivan.

He booked the newly christened American heavyweight boxing champion for a grand sparring match against the man who claimed the championship of England—Joe Collins, alias “Tug Wilson.” Not even Vanderbilt, however, could have envisioned the throng that descended upon Madison Square Garden on the sultry summer evening of July 17, 1882. Thousands poured out of the Third Avenue elevated trains and jumped off the Fourth Avenue streetcars as fight time approached. The sweltering swarm with one-dollar tickets in hand pushed, swore, and shoved their ways inside the Fourth Avenue entrance while Manhattan’s oligarchs flashed their two-dollar tickets at the entrance on fashionable Madison Avenue. The marketplace laws of supply and demand pleased the army of ticket speculators, who received as much as five dollars a ticket.

Never had so many passed through the gates of the arena. Twelve thousand people boiled inside the oppressive cauldron of Madison Square Garden as at least two thousand disappointed fans pleaded to be allowed inside. A stagnant haze of tobacco smoke hovered over the crowd and obscured the views from the building’s outer reaches. What struck reporters was not only the size of the crowd, but also its composition. More than the rabble had been roused by the spectacle. “Hundreds of respectable citizens” turned out as well. “From the highest type of respectability to the lowest grade of depravity, every art, profession, vocation, trade, and crime had its representative,” reported one local newspaper.

Sullivan had refused a prizefight against Wilson, instead offering him $1,000 and half of the gate if he could stand up for four rounds. And for four rounds, Wilson infuriated the champion and earned the hisses of the crowd by dancing around the ring and hitting the ground to avoid any of Sullivan's punches. He flopped, hopped, and dropped. He skipped, dodged, and dove. When Sullivan approached, he clenched, hugged, and danced. Wilson wasn't interested in fighting. Diving was the only sport he exhibited in the Garden. Although prostrate for most of the twelve minutes, Wilson remained standing in the ring as time was called at the end of the fourth round. The Englishman had
failed to land one big blow and by some accounts fell twenty-eight times during the bout, yet he emerged the winner under Sullivan’s ground rules.

To Vanderbilt’s joy, however, the gate money for the Sullivan-Wilson fight topped $16,000. John L. left Madison Square Garden disgusted, but—with his share of the receipts—far richer. He raked in thousands for just twelve minutes of work with the gloves, and Vanderbilt found his drawing card. Over the next several years, John L. became a regular draw at MSG, both in four-round gloved exhibitions and testimonial benefits. Sullivan put Madison Square Garden on the American sporting map. The arena would be torn down in 1887 to give way to a second, more glorious incarnation of Madison Square Garden. 

If old Yankee Stadium was the "House That Ruth Built," then the original Madison Square Garden, that other New York sporting cathedral, certainly was the "House That Sullivan Built." 

Read more about John L. Sullivan in Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America's First Sports Hero. Strong Boy is available on and