In the pantheon of sports stars, trailblazing Irish American boxer John L. Sullivan is undeniably our Zeus, the big daddy of them all. Born to an impoverished Irish family that fled the Great Hunger, he managed within one generation to change their fortunes and embody the American Dream. And he did it all with his bare hands. CAHIR O’DOHERTY talks to author Christopher Klein, who has written a rollicking and remarkable biography of John L. Sullivan.
John L. Sullivan, the first modern heavyweight-boxing champion of the world, was the father of them all. The most successful athlete of his era, he was also the first to earn more than a million dollars for his efforts, an extraordinary achievement in the 19-century.
But Sullivan was also a big boozer, a braggart and an insatiable womanizer. He could be a hell of a lot of fun, in other words. Through his long career he became a sort of a cross between Muhammad Ali, Casanova, Mark Twain and Amanda Bynes. Tabloid editors loved him. He wasn’t just a sportsman; he was a star in the modern sense.
Men who fought him say his right hook felt like being hit full force by a telegraph pole. “I can lick any son-of-a-bitch in the world,” Sullivan used to say, with justification. He was gifted and he had his demons, but he bested every challenge that came his way.
In Strong Boy, The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, the book that should go straight to the top of your holiday gift list, Irish American author Christopher Klein has written an immensely entertaining and insightful biography that’s worthy of his formidable subject.
“Boxing has a pretty rich tradition in Boston that stretches back to John L. Sullivan and to when the Irish started arriving here in record numbers during the Famine in the 1840’s.
“Then Klein began to realize what an impact Sullivan had had on the world we live in now. He was the first sports superstar, he appeared right at the birth of modern celebrity culture, and he was a trailblazer for modern sports with all their crazy fans and corporate endorsements. Because of that the sepia tones of the gilded age turn into bright color,” says Klein. “I thought it was time to freshen up his story a little bit.”
Like so many Irish tales, it starts with the famine, that ghastly Year One of Irish history. In 1845 Boston was a city of little more than one hundred thousand. But thirty-seven thousand Irish people arrived in the year 1847 alone. By 1850 the Irish represented over one quarter of Boston’s population.
Sullivan’s father Michael was among their number. Originally from Laccabeg in County Kerry, the only thing that guided him in his new life in the new world was the certainty that it had to be better than the hell on earth he had sprung from.
So the trauma of the Great Hunger, the sheer unspeakable scale of the calamity, was the formative experience of Sullivan’s father’s generation and that collapse and failure haunted their dreams, their lives and damaged their sense of themselves and their aspirations.
They needed a hero and boy did they get one. “I’m not a boxing fan per se,” Klein explains. “What drew me in was Sullivan in his cultural standpoint. Here you have both his parents leaving Ireland in the wake of the Great Hunger. They’re very representative of that first generation coming here. They were just so beaten down, so defeated. Then in Boston they find the Protestant Brahmins are ruling the city and they have the Irish under their thumb.”
Suffering from what Klein calls the deleterious effects of malignant shame, Sullivan’s parents were astonished by the literally fighting spirit of their son’s generation.
“He becomes the most powerful man in the world, no one can beat him, and he has Irish blood running through his veins. He’s the literal embodiment of the spirit of the fighting Irish. He’s an elixir for a generation of his own downtrodden countrymen,” says Klein, in a pitch that seems perfect for the Hollywood biopic of Sullivan’s life.
There’s good reason to think it would play well. Sullivan’s story is the story of the Irish coming of age in America, really. It bridges worlds, the old one and the new one. When Sullivan was at the height of his powers and fame the first Irish mayor was elected in Boston, and the Irish really started getting involved in the political scene. It wasn’t a coincidence. He helped inspire them. The parallels and overlap are self-evident.