“Sullivan was friends with James Michael Curley, the first Irish mayor of Boston,” says Klein. “But he was born in a tenement, his father was a mason, he worked in many manual labor jobs, he was from a hardscrabble background. It was a very typical upbringing for a lot of the Irish in Boston so they felt a strong natural connection to him.”
Sullivan had made his mark in Boston before he became a national figure. There had been previous champions, but it was Sullivan’s sheer force of personality that meant people were able to connect to him in a new way. He was a guy who literally worked with his hands to make a living, people could relate.
“Sullivan did something that was unique. After he won the world title in 1883 he set out on a barnstorming tour of the United States. He literally challenged all of America to fight him. He said he would pay $250 dollars to anyone who would stay in the ring with him for four rounds (there were few takers).”
Sullivan’s whistle stop, 200-date national tour, was the first of its kind and it allowed tens of thousands to see him in the flesh. From Irish heavy strongholds like Chicago to the mining town of Colorado to the gold rush towns of California, he encountered the Irish in the mines, in the boomtowns and building the railroads, creating the infrastructure of the United States and laying the foundation of the modern America.
“Seeing famous people in the flesh is how you build celebrity. John L. Sullivan and Buffalo Bill were the two people in America who had the most eyes on them. In an era where the president would hardly travel out of Washington this made a stark contrast.”
The tour made him famous and it began to make him rich. In Klein’s mind he’s the first American sports superstar. Remember, this tour is forty years before Babe Ruth. Along the way he set the gold standard for his sport and became its champion for a decade in an era where people associated boxing with low class settings if they thought of it at all. Sullivan’s career changed that perception.
“He arrived at the start of the tabloid broadsheet, when the railroads and the mass media were really getting started,” says Klein. “Papers like The New York World and The National Police Gazette could make hay with his drunken binges, his arrests and his boasting. At one point he knocked down a horse and got arrested for that. He was a dream for news editors and so he dominated sports pages and front pages. He’s got these wild weight fluctuations, he’s got a drinking problem, and he’s a womanizer. People couldn’t read enough about him.”
At the time Sullivan began his career, bare knuckle boxing, like prostitution and gambling, were illegal in New York but practiced everywhere. Promoters still found ways to host prize fights. Cops were paid to look the other way; crackdowns were followed by new opportunities.
But Sullivan insisted early on fighting by the Queensbury rules, which in fact continue to this day. He was the last of the bare-knuckle fighters and the first of the modern champions that we know of these days, says Klein. His first fights were held in barrooms and his final fight was held in a 10,000-seat arena lit by electric light and he wore gloves. In between he became rich and famous.
In a lovely coda to a richly lived life Sullivan made the trip back to Ireland in his old age, a moneyed and famous man, to see the place in County Kerry that his father had fled from.
“There’s a real redemption at the end,” says Klein. “In his final years he bought a farm with his second wife in a town about 20 miles south of Boston. They lived there very happily called it Donnellyross Farm, an amalgamation of Donegal, Tralee and County Roscommon.”
The most successful crop on Sullivan’s farm was – you guessed it, potatoes.