Classic Irish Boxing: Published September 2001
“The Boston Strongboy” John L. Sullivan is generally regarded as being the first heavyweight champion of the world under the Queensbury Rules. In this fascinating article Jack Anderson traces the Irish – American’s footsteps from his tour of Ireland in 1887.
John L. Sullivan was a boxing legend. He is credited as being the first heavyweight-boxing champion of the world and is still ranked highly in that division. Sullivan was the link between old style bare knuckle fighting and modern glove fighting under the Queensberry rules. He was the first great American sports celebrity and in his long and controversial career he met and sparred for Princes, Presidents and paupers. In late 1887, Sullivan, still the reigning heavyweight champion of the world, toured Ireland, the country of his parents’ birth.
John Lawrence Sullivan was born in mid-October 1858 in the Roxbury district of Boston, Massachusetts. Sullivan inherited his combativeness (and his fondness for alcohol) from his father, Mike Sullivan, a builder’s labourer from Laccabeg, Abbeydorney in Co. Kerry, who arrived in America in 1850. Sullivan’s physique came from his formidable mother, Athlone born Catherine Kelly, another Irish emigrant of the immediate post-Famine era. By all accounts, Sullivan’s childhood was as stable as it could be in the heaving mass of uncertainty and poverty that was the Boston Irish community at that point in the nineteenth century.
Mike Sullivan fulfilled the stereotypical Boston Irishman of the day: he worked with his hands, for he had little other skill; he was quick in temper and slow in temperance. His son, John L., at first attempted to learn a trade and for increasingly volatile periods was an apprentice plumber, tinsmith and stonemason. However, as some journeymen colleagues of Sullivan painfully found out, John L.’s personal attributes and ego were in fact perfect for prize fighting.
The Boston Strong Boy
For such a celebrated career – one that to this day marks the beginning of the modern heavyweight division – Sullivan’s first punch up was little more than a barroom brawl. In 1878 Sullivan and a few friends attended a benefit night at Dudley Street Opera House in Boston. At some stage during the night a local tough by the name of Jack Scannell challenged Sullivan – who by now had a reputation as the “Boston Strong Boy”. Massachusetts state law prohibited prize fighting but permitted “exhibitions” of physical skill. Duly the organisers of the benefit night accommodated the combatants. Sullivan took off his coat; laced up a pair of woolly mitts; received a knock on the head from Scannell; lost his temper and proceeded to belt Scannell into the on-stage piano. A star was born.
By 1881, and still without any formal coaching – appropriately he apprenticed on the job – Sullivan had graduated to performing on the then biggest boxing stage of all: Harry Hill’s Dance Hall and Boxing Emporium on New York’s East Side. In March 1881, Sullivan announced himself at Harry Hill’s by offering fifty dollars to any man who could last four rounds with him under the Queensberry rules. A veteran fighter named Steve Taylor attempted to do so but was pummelled in two rounds. During this stay in New York, Sullivan met Richard Kyle Fox, the Belfast born proprietor of the Police Gazette, and then the biggest boxing promoter in the United States. Fox and Sullivan were never to become friendly but both were cunning enough to ensure that their enmity remained well publicised to their commercial advantage.
Sullivan as Champion
Sullivan soon manoeuvred himself into a bare-knuckle title fight with the Thurles born titleholder, Paddy Ryan. Ryan was yet another Irish-American champion from the town of Troy, New York, where the celebrated Templemore born boxer John Morrissey had also grown up. However, Ryan was a mediocre and reluctant champion. The heavily gambled upon and much anticipated Sullivan v Ryan fight took place on 7 February 1882 in Mississippi City. The fight was somewhat disappointing and lasted roughly ten minutes with Sullivan easily defeating Ryan in nine rounds, as governed by the London Prize Ring Rules. In fact, the most interesting thing about the fight was the audience, in which the James brothers, Frank and Jesse, were spotted.
For the next decade or so Sullivan, despite chronic alcoholism, easily held on to his title, defending it nearly thirty times. These fights were predominately arranged around Sullivan’s great tours of the United States in 1883-4 and 1886-7, whereupon at each stop John L. made his standard offer of one thousand dollars to any man who could last four rounds. He rarely had to pay out for he could “lick any man alive”. Interestingly, and unlike the original title fight against Ryan, all of these bouts were fought with gloves and took place under the Queensberry rules. There is no great mystery as to why Sullivan preferred gloves: they were safer, they prolonged his career; thus enabling him to make more money. Indeed, Sullivan was a commercial phenomenon; using one commentator’s figures, it is estimated that Sullivan cleared between eighty to one hundred thousand dollars during the 1883-4 tour of the United States. Later, Sullivan’s commercialisation of the ring would open unprecedented opportunities for other boxers, though Sullivan drank most of his own earnings.
The Champion Abroad
On 27 October 1887, Sullivan, at the height of his fame, and with a mistress in tow, sailed from Boston aboard the steamer Cephalonia. By 6 November, and after a brief stop at Queenstown, the ship had docked at Liverpool. After a month or so of being fêted at the various sporting clubs of London, notably the Pelican Club, Sullivan was formally invited to a breakfast in the mess room of the Scots Guards at St. James Barracks. Sullivan’s autobiography suggests that Sullivan was taken more with the spread of food and meats on offer at the breakfast than the regiment’s dubious and long history of combat in Ireland. Later in the same day, 9 December 1887, Sullivan met the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, at the nearby Fencing Club. The meeting went well and the Prince of Wales – maintaining a long history of royal benevolence towards what was an illegal sport – presented Sullivan with a matching set of emeralds. Sullivan, who sparred briefly for the Prince, thanked the future king and reminded him that if he ever came to Boston, to be sure and look him up and, “I’ll give you such a show round as you never had in your life before.”
The following day Sullivan left for Dublin. Though much can be overplayed in this, the symbolism of Sullivan’s visit – occurring as it did a mere year after the defeat of the first Home Rule Bill and in the middle of the “Plan of Campaign” – was important. For Catholic Ireland here was a physically indestructible symbol of one of their own made good. Here was a world champion, here was a wealthy man, who in becoming so had literally defeated every Englishman who had crossed his path. Moreover, in some sectors of English society at least, Sullivan even commanded, of all things, respect.
Sullivan in Ireland
Sullivan seemed genuinely moved by the reception he received in the land of his forefathers. His visit had been much anticipated by sports fans in Ireland. On Saturday, 10 December 1887, The Irish Times carried an advertisement for “a splendidly executed Lithographic picture of this World-Renowned Boxer, a genuine work of art, and the best likeness of the redoubtable Yankee”. The same advertisement appeared in The Freeman’s Journal of the same day and it also noted the draw for the amateur contests to be decided on the following Monday and Friday in the Leinster Hall (now part of the RDS Simmonscourt complex), which Sullivan would attended.
The following evening, Sunday, 11 December 1887, Sullivan arrived in Ireland. Sullivan and his party had left London by midnight on the Saturday, and after a brief stop at Crewe, they reached Holyhead where they embarked on the mail steamer The Connaught. Later that evening, they docked at the Carlisle Pier in Kingstown. A large crowd had assembled to meet Sullivan and by the time Sullivan’s party had reached Westland Row station, they were to find themselves “in a complete state of siege”, such was the multitude that had gathered. In response to several calls, Sullivan gave a brief speech from the drawing room window of hotel room at the Grosvenor, in which he thanked most cordially the people of Dublin for their warm and enthusiastic welcome. To much cheering he reminded the crowd that he was one of their own; that he was delighted to be in the land of his parents’ birth and even though he would not, during his all too brief stay, show them anything “wonderful”, he would he promised, at least show them what he was capable of doing. He concluded, as he often did in front of his adoring Boston followers, by reminding the people of Dublin that he would always remain, through good and bad, their faithful friend. A satisfied crowd dispersed and Sullivan retired for dinner, and most probably a well-earned drink or two.
The following evening, Sullivan was the guest of honour at a boxing promotion in the Leinster Hall. Yet again, Fred Gallagher, the editor of Sport, a well-known newspaper of the day, introduced Sullivan to the thronged masses, in which The Freeman’s Journal noted, “…all classes and conditions of people were represented. There were barristers and doctors in dozens, while the military were represented by no less a personage than the Commander of the Forces in Ireland, the Prince of Saxe-Weimar, who visited the hero of the night in his dressing room just before he made his appearance in the ring in all his war paint.” Sullivan, to the strains of “See the Conquering Hero come” and “Yankee Doodle”, gave a brief speech thanking the audience for turning up in such great numbers. Then John L., ever in tune with his true supporters, gained a very pronounced and prolonged burst of applause when he announced his sympathy with the Irish struggle. This part of the speech was not mentioned in The Irish Times’ report nor was the reaction of the Prince of Saxe-Weimar recorded.
The speech making completed, Sullivan refereed a few amateur contests before stripping to the waist for a four round spar with his usual (and literal) sidekick, Jack Ashton. The Freeman’s Journal, though noting that Ashton was very much overweight, was still very taken with the muscular appearance and skill level of the redoubtable Yankee.
The following day, Tuesday, 13 December 1887, Sullivan left for Waterford on the nine o’clock train from Knightsbridge. According to reports he was greeted warmly at all the intermediate stops but most particularly at Maryborough and Kilkenny. It is during this part of the trip that Sullivan visited “Donnelly’s Hollow” a natural amphitheatre at the Athgarvan end of the Curragh, where in 1815 Ireland’s Dan Donnelly famously fought and defeated England’s George Cooper. Donnelly’s footprints on leaving the hollow have been preserved by being retrodden by countless visitors since, and Sullivan was delighted to add his imprint.
In Waterford, hundreds gathered along the quays to catch a glimpse of Sullivan, as he made his way to the Imperial Hotel (now the Tower Hotel). Later that evening at the Theatre Royal, Sullivan sparred another exhibition with Ashton, during which The Freeman’s Journal’s correspondent noted, “whilst the men were on stage the spectators seemed to be simply spellbound.” Sullivan, as ever, had time to make a speech. Playing with the emotions of the crowd, Sullivan reminded them that the reason he had travelled across the Atlantic was to fight the English champion, Jem Smith, but that he had been “blackguarded” out of that fight and would soon have to face Charlie Mitchell instead ; not, as Sullivan roared, that it mattered who he fought, though he confessed to the crowd that he was worried about the challenge he was to face the following day in Cork in the form of highly rated local amateur, Mr. Frank Creedon.
The pre-publicity work done, Sullivan and his party left for Cork. If Sullivan read his morning paper, he would have noted that, while he was entertaining Waterford, Kildare-born Jack “The Nonpareil” Dempsey was successfully defending his middleweight championship of the world in New York, by knocking out Johnny Reagan. The Irish Diaspora would continue to dominate the sport of boxing until the 1920s.
Sullivan arrived in Cork on the afternoon of Wednesday, 14 December 1887, and was met by a now customary large crowd at the Great Southern & Western terminus. The crowd practically whisked Sullivan and his party to the Victoria Hotel. Later in the afternoon Sullivan visited Blarney Castle and kissed the Blarney stone, a superfluous act if ever there was one. He also visited Mahony’s Mills, now Blarney Woollen Mills, where the firm presented him with a full suit of Irish tweed. That evening Sullivan appeared in an exhibition at the Cork Opera House. Sullivan was due to fight a local amateur, Frank Creedon, from Clarence Street in Cork, who one paper had described as, “the only man on this side of the ocean anxious and ready to stand up before the unbeaten one.” Creedon, despite advice from the home crowd who felt it better that he go home (the uncharacteristically modest Cork crowd thought John L. would “pulverise” Creedon), put on his woollen fighting mitts.
Creedon, an amateur boxer, was twenty-three years of age; five foot seven in height and weighed eleven and a half stone. Sullivan, by now reaching his physical peak, usually fought at not less than fifteen stone. Sullivan took one look at Creedon and declared, “He is not in my class”, and refused to fight. However, one of Sullivan’s party obliged Creedon and, “after a protracted spar dusted Creedon considerably.” Later, prior to another exhibition with Ashton, Sullivan presented Creedon with a gold medal and commended him on his bravery.
On the afternoon of Thursday, 15 December 1887, Sullivan arrived in Limerick by rail, via the Junction. The Freeman’s Journal recorded that Sullivan and his troupe received “a most enthusiastic welcome”. It is interesting to contrast this reception with that received by the Lord Lieutenant and Lady Londonderry who earlier in the same week had travelled by rail to Adare Manor for a few days hunting: “Their Excellencies left Dublin by the one o’clock train, arriving in Limerick at half-past six pm, whence they travelled to Adare by special train. At Limerick and elsewhere along the route the general public took no special notice of the party, but bodies of police were at all the stations along the line. At Limerick, County Inspector Moriarty and District Inspector Dunne had a force of thirty riflemen on the platform, but there was no demonstration of any sort, not even a cheer being raised.”
The Freeman’s Journal’s report of Sullivan’s brief stay in Limerick is perfunctory. Indeed, The Freeman’s Journal’s main reference to Limerick during that month was not to Sullivan but to the prosecution of Father Matthew “The General” Ryan, C.C. of Hospital who was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment for an pro-plan of campaign speech at Caherconlish on 20 November 1887 (The prosecutor of the case was Edward Carson). The Limerick Chronicle was also very much taken with the Fr. Ryan case but devoted time to the Sullivan visit and it is clear that the enthusiasm for the “Slogger” was as evident in Limerick as elsewhere. Indeed, a week prior to the visit, The Limerick Chronicle previewed Sullivan and citing directly from “a recent issue of Sport” it gave a very impressive and accurate summary of Sullivan’s career to that point. The report concluded, “We are sure that the visit will be a most successful and popular one.” And it was.
On that Thursday evening Sullivan and his troupe appeared at the Theatre Royal. The venue was full a half an hour prior to the performance and was “crowded to inconvenience in every part”. Sullivan’s appearance was preceded by four amateur contests between local boxers. Charles Hipkiss and Frank Murphy fought to a draw; Jack Hickey defeated Jim Kendrick; followed by a bout between Nune Wallace and Charles Williams; finally Samuel Blakelock fought a Mr. Hook, the latter, despite his small size “played a plucky part” and got a warm ovation from the crowd. John L., with the No. 1 National Band playing “See the Conquering Hero comes”, then took the stage and after a brief speech, he again sparred with Jack Ashton for “four really well contested rounds”. The Limerick Chronicle’s reporter was very impressed with Sullivan’s fighting style and particularly with the “swiftness of hands, eyes, and feet”. Then, to tremendous applause Sullivan exited the stage.
Later that evening Sullivan returned to Dublin and the following day, Friday, 16 December 1887, he appeared at Leinster Hall for the finals of Monday’s amateur boxing promotion at the same venue. Sullivan again acted as a referee. Though the crowd was smaller than the previous Monday, Sullivan and Ashton again gave them good value for money with their usual four-round bout. Sullivan and his party then retired for dinner at the Sheridan Club on St Stephen’s Green; but not before Sullivan’s personal manager, Harry Phillips, presented Fred Gallagher, the editor of Sport, with a gold locket, surmounted with a diamond horseshoe, as an acknowledgement of the manner in which Gallagher had organised the Irish tour.
Sullivan & Co. could well afford this gift. The Irish part of the tour was particularly lucrative and later Sullivan claimed that he had made more money in one week in Ireland than he had in six weeks in England. Sullivan noted that apart from the money, his Irish followers had given him: one tweed suit; four jugs of whiskey; seventeen blackthorn sticks and forty-five letters asking him to underwrite charitable organisations.
The next day, Sullivan travelled to Belfast for yet another exhibition. His chief biographer, Michael Isenberg seems somewhat surprised that Sullivan, a Boston Catholic, received such an enthusiastic welcome in Belfast ; however the sport of boxing had long been one of the few sports that genuinely united “across the divide” in working class Belfast, thus the warmth of the welcome afforded to Sullivan was not that surprising.
From Northern Ireland Sullivan travelled to Scotland where he learned that his fellow Irish-American Jake Kilrain had, on a marshy island in the middle of the Seine, forced the English champion, Jem Smith, to a draw over 106 rounds in a fight that lasted nearly three hours. Kilrain, with logic understood only by the boxing world, now claimed the title. Sullivan was annoyed but was contracted to defend his world title against Englishman Charlie Mitchell. On 10 March 1888 Sullivan faced Mitchell in a bare-knuckle fight, which took place on the estate grounds of Baron Alphonse Rothschild near Chantilly, just north of Paris, probably without the knowledge of the Rothschild family. In a bruising encounter, wherein at one stage Sullivan was heard roar: “Fight like a gentleman, you son of a bitch, if you can,” Mitchell forced Sullivan to a draw after thirty-nine frustrating rounds. Sullivan chased by the French police left for the United States immediately after the fight.
Sullivan’s next title defence occurred at 10.30 am on the morning of 8 July 1889, and it was against Kilrain. Almost three thousand spectators were present at the fight scene near Richburg, Mississippi; where they saw an unusually well trained Sullivan enter the ring. Kilrain, the younger man, was sponsored by Richard Kyle Fox and seemed primed to take Sullivan’s “undisputed” title. Yet, after two and a quarter hours of bare knuckle pounding, Kilrain’s trainer refused to allow Kilrian to come up to scratch. Sullivan was victorious or as the New York Times put it – on page one no less – “The Bigger Brute Won”.
In the aftermath of the fight, the state of Mississippi attempted to indict both Kilrain and Sullivan for the offences of prize fighting and assault. At trial, Sullivan was convicted though he successfully appealed. However, Sullivan’s legal victory was a pyrrhic one because it cost – in the form of legal fees and travel expenses – more than he cleared from beating Kilrain. Sullivan vowed never again to fight under the old bare-knuckle rules; he remained true to his word and with that the days of the old bare-knuckle title fight ended.
Indeed, Sullivan remained out of the ring for the next three years. During these years Sullivan subtlety avoided all challengers except black fighters, whom he expressly evaded and insulted. Finally, on 6 September 1892 in New Orleans, Sullivan lost his title to James J. “Gentleman Jim” Corbett. A visibly ageing Sullivan was knocked out in the twenty-first round. Once recovered, Sullivan gave a gracious speech to the stunned crowd, muttering that he was glad that if he was to be whipped, that at least he was “licked” by an American. Indeed, Sullivan, like the majority of his fellow working class Boston Irish, was a simple American patriot all his life.
In 1905, Sullivan, on tour, broke and drinking heavily, fought and defeated Jim McCormick in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was to be his final fight. Four days later, on 5 March 1905, Sullivan gave up drinking. Later, in a life that became confined to what are now known as “celebrity appearances”, Sullivan was reconciled with his wife and they lived peacefully on a small farm outside Boston. Sullivan, by now a respected friend of President Theodore Roosevelt, returned to Ireland very briefly in 1910, as part of vaudeville tour of Britain and Ireland. He died on 2 February 1918, probably of heart failure. A massive funeral followed. Fittingly, the frozen earth had to be blasted to make his grave. In the commotion that followed, the Boston Irish finally realised that neither they, nor anyone else, would ever again queue “to shake the hand that shook the world”.
Jack Anderson lectures in law at the University of Limerick. He is from Doon in Co. Limerick.
For further information on the career of John L. Sullivan, please note that Sullivan’s 1892 autobiography, mentioned in the footnotes, is fairly reliable but difficult to locate. Isenberg’s 1994 biography is exhaustive and definitive and can be easily ordered. A more recent text is Gee, T John L. Sullivan: Cradle to Grave Romford: Sporting Profiles, 1998.
Other sources – some of which are of dubious academic value – would include Chidsey, D John the Great: The Times and Life of a Remarkable America London: Chapman and Hall, 1947; Diamond, W Kings of the Ring: From John L Sullivan to Jack Johnson Kingswood, Surrey: World’s Work, 1954; Dibble, R John L. Sullivan: An Intimate Narrative Boston: Little & Brown, 1925; Fleischer, N The Boston Strong Boy: The Story of John L Sullivan, the Champion of Champions New York: Ring Magazine, 1941; Fleischer, N John L Sullivan: the Champions of Champions London: Hamilton, 1956; Langley, T The Life of John L Sullivan Leicester: Vance Harvey, 1973 and Odd, G I can lick any s.o.b. in the house London: Proteus, 1979, which is in large part a facsimile reprint of Sullivan’s 1892 autobiography.
Information on Sullivan’s first visit to Ireland was largely obtained from Sullivan’s autobiography, as well as Isenberg’s biography. Primary references include reports from The Irish Times, The Freeman’s Journal and The Limerick Chronicle.