Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Upcoming "Strong Boy" Book Talks

What better way to celebrate St. Patrick's Day than learning more about one of the country's first Irish-American heroes? I'll be telling the colorful tale of the hard-hitting, hard-drinking Gilded Age boxer John L. Sullivan at a number of Boston-area institutions this March. Among the scheduled dates are the following:

March 6, 6 PM: Boston Public Library
March 8, 9:30 AM: The Irish Ancestral Research Association (Boston)
March 12, 7 PM: Medford Public Library
March 16, 2:30 PM: Stevens Memorial Library (North Andover)
March 18, 7 PM: Falmouth Historical Society and Museums on the Green
March 19, 7 PM: Thomas Crane Public Library (Quincy)
March 27, 6:30 PM: South End Historical Society

Come on out, and you'll
  • Learn how Sullivan’s incredible career and oversized personality launched America’s modern sporting obsession
  • Travel back in time to the extravagant Gilded Age to witness the birth of America’s celebrity culture
  • Discover how Sullivan’s power and self-confidence transformed him into an idol for a generation of Irish-Americans emasculated in the wake of the horrific potato famine that gripped their homeland
  • Grab a ringside seat to Sullivan’s epic brawls, such as his 75-round bout with Jake Kilrain, and his battles outside the ring with the law, a troubled marriage, and raging alcoholism
  • Explore how Sullivan revolutionized boxing from outlawed bare-knuckle fighting into the gloved spectacle we know today

A full list of events can be found on the Strong Boy web site. I'll be bringing flat John L. in tow. He's bundled up for the winter weather and ready to go.

Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Muhammad Ali and John L. Sullivan

It was 50 years ago today that 7-1 underdog Cassius Clay shocked the sports world by defeating reigning heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in Miami Beach, Florida. The next morning Clay announced to reporters that he had joined the Nation of Islam, and within weeks he would change his name to Muhammad Ali.

Ali was arguably the greatest fighter of the 20th century, and he had much in common with the premier brawler of the 19th century, John L. Sullivan. The loquacious Ali was a master showman and boxing's poet laureate, composing verses in which he taunted opponents and praised himself. (His iambic pentameter was so popular that Columbia Records released a 1963 spoken word album called “I Am the Greatest” in which the 21-year-old rising star performed his poetry, backed my musical accompaniment, before an audience.)

Ali's self-aggrandizing braggadocio made him controversial, but it didn't make him unique. Nearly a century before, John L. Sullivan approached his opponents with the same swagger, such as the time he blitzed John Flood on a barge towed up the Hudson River in 1881 and pointed at Paddy Ryan, the reigning heavyweight champion, in the audience and growled: "I'll get you next!" "I can lick any S.O.B alive" is the famous mantra attributed to Sullivan, and with the exception of "Gentleman Jim" Corbett it was also true.

Ali is more than just a boxer. He is a major cultural figure who transcends sport, much in the same way Sullivan was in the 19th century. Ali starred in films and during his forced exile from the ring even headlined a Broadway musical called "Buck White," which unfortunately took a seven count--seven performances before the curtain fell on the flop. (The Playbill for "Buck White" spends as much time listing the colleges where Ali lectured as his accomplishments in the ring.)

A century before, Sullivan was also a pugilistic thespian. He starred on stages around the country, headlining five-act melodramas written specifically with him in mind for the lead. He appeared in Uncle Tom's Cabin and also toured the country delivering monologues in which he told stories of his fighting days and bad Irish jokes.

Oh, and one other surprising connection. Both men had Irish roots. Sullivan's lineage to the Emerald Isle would not be a shock. Both his parents emigrated from Ireland in the aftermath of the Great Hunger. So did County Clare native Abe Grady. He settled in Kentucky in the 1860s and married a freed slave. One of their grandchildren was Ali’s mother, Odessa Lee Grady Clay. Now you know where each fighter got his gift for gab.

For more on Sullivan, visit the "Strong Boy" web site and click here to purchase the book.

Friday, February 7, 2014

When John L. Sullivan Gained the Heavyweight Crown

February 7, 1882, was a beautiful day for barbarity. The brilliant mid-winter sun transformed the Gulf of Mexico’s placid blue canvas into a sparkling sea of diamonds. The ivory sands of the Mississippi coastline glistened like a blanket of fresh powdered snow as lazily drifting clouds offered periodic relief on an unseasonably warm day.

The soft, repetitive murmur of the wavelets kissing the white dunes was muffled, however, by the yells of a bloodthirsty mob gathered just yards away. Nearly 2,000 boxing fans had invaded the grounds of the Barnes Hotel, jolting the resort town of Mississippi City from its wintertime slumber. The sanguinary crowd hoped that the hotel’s emerald lawn would soon turn crimson from the soaking blood of two warriors—reigning American heavyweight champion Paddy Ryan and John L. Sullivan, the undefeated 23-year-old phenom from Boston who had awed America with his power.

From boisterous barroom squabbles to surreptitious whispers in church pews, the bare-knuckle 
championship had become the talk of the nation. Preacher Henry Ward Beecher warned his Brooklyn congregation against betting on the fight, but to little avail. The New York Times reported that as much as $200,000 had been wagered on the bout in New York City alone. Major metropolitan newspapers provided unprecedented coverage, and as the days remaining to the fight dwindled, trainloads of fans poured into New Orleans from as far away as San Francisco.

The savagery, corruption and gambling endemic to prizefighting roamed so far beyond the bounds of Victorian-era sensibilities that the governor of Louisiana had banned the Ryan-Sullivan affair from his jurisdiction and the governor of Mississippi ordered sheriffs to use any means necessary to prevent the championship fight from soiling his state’s turf. Fearful of “magisterial interference,” fight promoters kept the bout’s location shrouded in a cloak of secrecy as thick as the darkness that enveloped the trainloads of fans that departed New Orleans at 5 a.m. on the morning of the fight for a destination unknown.

Hours later, the train finally stopped and exhaled at Mississippi City, and fans sprinted to the battleground. Well-to-do dandies in stovepipe hats and a handful of corseted women in flowing dresses gladly surrendered five dollars for the highly coveted vantage on the hotel’s verandah, while fans of lesser means perched themselves in bare magnolia trees.

As Ryan and Sullivan came to the center of the ring and doubled-up their clenched, bare fists, the crowd pressed hard against the makeshift ring. The roar of 2,000 voices echoed off the towering Mississippi pines as Sullivan pounced like a caged tiger. He surprised his adversary with a jackhammer left that landed on Ryan’s cheek with a sickening fleshy thud. The massive opening salvo tore open a gash on the champion and gave Sullivan first blood. The challenger followed it up with a right fist that rocked Ryan’s left jaw, sent him to the turf, and induced winces throughout the crowd.

It had taken all of thirty seconds. Thirty seconds for Sullivan to demonstrate he was the unstoppable force. Thirty seconds to prove his power wasn’t diminished by his naked fists. Thirty seconds to prove that a lack of prizefighting experience meant nothing when you had two thunderbolts attached to your arms. Ryan had never been on the receiving end of such hard hits. “When Sullivan struck me, I thought that a telegraph pole had been shoved against me endways,” he said after the fight.

As blood spurted down his face, Ryan walked back to his corner to get sponged, but his confidence was shaken. With boyish amusement, Sullivan skipped back to his corner, understanding what most of the fans—and probably Ryan himself—had just discovered: He was the superior man.

For nine rounds, the challenger continued his onslaught with terrific rushes as Ryan’s left eye began to swell shut. As a groggy and exhausted champion mounted a counter to get to the middle of the ring in the ninth round, Sullivan geared up and threw his favorite punch: a wicked right hook to the left side of the neck, connecting just under Ryan’s left ear. The blow made such an awful sound that even those without a direct view knew immediately that Sullivan had unleashed a terrible knockout blow.

Ryan crumbled to the ground in a heap, bloodied and broken. His trainer sent a sponge aloft in a symbol of surrender. John L. Sullivan was the new heavyweight champion.

Rather than reveling in his victory, Sullivan’s first act as champion was a gracious one, crossing to his opponent’s corner to shake hands. Still full of energy, he then hurdled the ropes and sprinted the one hundred yards to his quarters and streaked into superstardom. After being carried to his quarters to be examined by a doctor, a bloodied and battered Ryan discovered a further indignity—$300 had been stolen from his vest pocket while Sullivan was stealing his crown.

The intense media attention and fan interest surrounding the 1882
championship bout provided a mere glimpse at the future. Newly laid railroad lines had permitted fans and reporters from across the country to witness the event in person, and brand-new telegraph lines instantly transmitted blow-by-blow accounts. With a transportation and communications network stitching the country together and media coverage growing, the modern sports age had begun, and it had found its first athletic god. He had arrived in Mississippi City as John L. Sullivan and departed as an American Hercules.

This post was an excerpt from the new biography "Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan," which the Boston Globe called "one of the best boxing books ever penned." For more, visit the "Strong Boy" web site and click here to purchase the book.

Photograph of Mississippi City fight scene courtesy of Tracy Callis

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Final Hours of John L. Sullivan

The temperature had nearly sunk to zero when the sun rose on Saturday, February 2, 1918. In spite of the freeze, John L. Sullivan decided to keep his plans to meet friends in Boston. He had news to share. He was returning to the ring—albeit a circus one. The night before, Sullivan’s business manager, D’Arcy O’Connor, visited the ex-fighter’s farm in Abington, Massachusetts, to get his signature on a contract to tour that upcoming summer with Ringling Brothers Circus. Under the deal, Sullivan was to receive $1,000 a week to ride in an Irish jaunting car with an Irish bagpiper and deliver a ten-minute address in the center ring.

As Sullivan prepared to depart, his old sparring partner George Bush, who had lived with the champ since the death of his wife, heard groaning emanating from the bedroom. He rushed in and found that John L. had fainted on the bed. Bush contacted an Abington doctor, R. B. Rand, who revived the former champion and gave him a heart stimulant. “I’m all right now,” Sullivan reassured Bush as he sat on his bed. “Telephone the people in Boston that I’ll be along and that I’m sorry I’m late.” Shortly after Dr. Rand left, Bush again heard Sullivan groaning and complaining about the sharp pain in his chest. Sullivan began to slip away after this second attack. At 11:45 a.m., John L. Sullivan passed away.

Although he had been having heart trouble for the previous three weeks, the death of the old gladiator “came as a bolt from a clear sky.” That death had visited Sullivan so quickly, and at the age of fifty-nine, may have been stunning, but the cause of his demise—“fatty degeneration of heart” was listed on the death certificate—would not have surprised John L. in the least. Although death had brushed him several times, from barroom bullets to a drunken stumble off a rushing passenger train, Sullivan always knew his heart would do him in. He had predicted it a quarter-century earlier. “I have always had it in my head that it is heart disease that is to be my ending,” he told a reporter in 1893. “My mother died of heart disease, and I take after her physically. It has to come some time, and I am not looking for it in a hurry, but when it does come I had rather be snuffed out quickly by something like heart disease than to suffer with a lingering illness.”

The news quickly spread across Abington before it radiated out to the front pages of evening newspapers around America. Hundreds of Sullivan’s neighbors made the pilgrimage that afternoon to the forlorn farm. Inside, fourteen-year-old Willie Kelly, an orphan taken in by Sullivan years earlier, sobbed for his best friend and the man he knew as a father for half his life. John L.’s favorite pet collie, Queenie, wandered from room to room whining for the “Big Fellow.” Within the next week, perhaps in a quest to follow their master, a cow, a bulldog, two collies, and Sullivan’s favorite horse, “Colonel Corn,” all dropped dead on the farm.

The “Strong Boy” returned to Boston in the company of his lifelong friend, undertaker Timothy J. Mahoney. The mortician could find no coffin in metropolitan Boston to hold this mountain of a man, so a specially ordered mahogany casket was shipped from New York. The day after his death, Sullivan’s body was brought to his sister’s Roxbury house, the closest thing John L. had to home for so many years before he remarried. The house on Brook Avenue may have been just over a mile from where he was born on East Concord Street in Boston’s South End, but the road he had traversed between those two bookends of his life had been a truly long one, one of the most storied and colorful in sports history. 

Read the story of John L. Sullivan in the new biography "Strong Boy," which the Boston Globe called "one of the best boxing books ever penned." For more, visit the "Strong Boy" web site