Boxing legend John L. Sullivan was country's first sports superstar


This article is an adaptation from Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America's First Sports Hero (Lyons Press, 2013). Copyright Christopher Klein, 2013.

An ocean of humanity lapped up to the doorstep of John L. Sullivan's gilded liquor palace. Heads craned as hordes of Bostonians attempted to steal a passing glance of their hometown hero through the open doorway. Inside, a ceaseless flow of well-wishers shook the heavyweight champion's hand and offered their farewells.

Reflections of gaslights flickered in Sullivan's dark, piercing eyes. His clean-shaven chin glistened like polished granite, although shadows hid in the recesses of a deep dimple and in the shade of his glorious handlebar mustache. The brawler's pristine skin, full set of teeth, and straight nose visibly testified to the inability of foes to lay a licking on him.

After imbibing the adulation of his fawning fans, Sullivan swam through the dense crowd waiting outside his saloon on the evening of Sept. 26, 1883, and bounded into a waiting carriage. The champ had departed on many journeys before, but no boxer had ever set out on such an ambitious adventure as the one the "Boston Strong Boy" was about to undertake.

John L. Sullivan was literally challenging America to a fight.

Over the next eight months, the hard-hitting, hard-drinking Sullivan would swagger -- and stagger -- across Gilded Age America, from soot-choked industrial cities to Wild West boomtowns, more than 150 different locales from sea to shining sea. In a sensational novelty act worthy of his contemporary P.T. Barnum, the reigning heavyweight champion would offer as much as $1,000 to any man who could simply remain standing after 12 minutes in the ring with him. Sullivan would not pay out a single dime.

Since capturing the heavyweight title in February 1882, Sullivan had already captivated boxing fans with his utter ring domination, and the legendary spirit of the fighting Irish that was made flesh in this son of Emerald Isle immigrants had transformed him into a Celtic icon. The champ's boozing and run-ins with the law had already proven to be godsends to big-city newspapers engaged in heated circulation wars, but it would be Sullivan's transcontinental "knocking out" tour that would make him the country's first sports superstar more than 30 years before Babe Ruth ever donned a baseball uniform.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images/SI

Sullivan's $1,000 offer was gloriously American in its audacity and concept. Its democratic appeal was undeniable: Any amateur could take a shot at glory by stepping into the ring with the best fighter in the world. Furthermore, the challenge, given its implicit braggadocio that defeating John L. in four rounds was a universal improbability, was an extraordinary statement of supreme self-confidence from a 24-year-old who supposedly bellowed his own declaration of independence: "My name is John L. Sullivan, and I can lick any son-of-a-bitch alive!"

As sparkling carriages and hansom cabs rattled outside, 3,500 eager fight fans filled Baltimore's Kernan's Monumental Theatre on Sept. 28 for the opening night of the epic barnstorm. The audience cheered wildly when Sullivan took the stage and donned gloves to spar with a constellation of boxing's brightest stars known as the "Great John L. Sullivan Combination."

After the exhibitions were complete, excitement fluttered through the audience as master of ceremonies Frank Moran trumpeted Sullivan's challenge to the crowd. Not one soul in Baltimore, however, dared to face the champ. But who would? Muscular without being muscle-bound, Sullivan was constructed like a pugilistic product of the Industrial Age. Sullivan's thick chest, chiseled back, and enormous shoulder blades provided the necessary support for his bull-like neck and bullet-shaped head. His combination of speed, strength and stamina had overwhelmed every fighter he had ever faced. The heavyweight champion possessed the biggest right hook in the land, but his greatest weapons were his penetrating eyes. Sullivan could say terrible things with his ferocious stare, which often crushed opponents before he ever threw a punch.

It would take three weeks before Sullivan met his first comer in McKeesport, Penn. Local slugger James McCoy looked like the consummate tough guy. Tattoos of snakes and a wide-mouthed dragon plastered his broad chest. Looks proved deceiving, however. After McCoy opened with a weak blow, the champion needed only a right and a left. The fight was over in mere seconds. "I never thought any man could hit as hard as he does," McCoy said afterward. "But I can say what few men can, that I fought with the champion of the world."

And that's precisely why the "knocking out" tour generated unprecedented publicity for Sullivan in newspapers around the country. Not only was the best fighter in the world bringing the sport to the masses, he was letting the masses get in the ring with him! Although Sullivan's title wasn't at stake in these fights, his de facto reputation as the world's toughest man was at risk each and every night. Plus, Sullivan -- big hitter taking on inexperienced amateurs -- had to be mindful not to cause irreparable harm to his opponents.

As the tour rolled into the Midwest, the cities started to blur. Youngstown. Steubenville. Terre Haute. Sullivan was finally knocked hard in St. Louis, but not in a ring. The St. Louis Browns of baseball's American Association paid the champion $1,000 and a percentage of the gate to take the mound in an exhibition game. Five thousand fans watched as the "Boston Strong Boy" hurled five lackluster innings in a 15-3 loss. Sullivan had now become such a celebrity that Americans paid money not just to see him box, but just to see him, period.

In Chicago, the crowds were so thick that the combination raked in nearly $20,000 in two nights. In St. Paul, Minnesota, Sullivan finally faced an opponent who could match him pound for pound. As soon as time was called, Sullivan stretched out his arm, and six-foot-tall railroad engineer Morris Hefey "fell on the stage as if struck by an axe," according to one newspaper. The fight took 30 seconds. "If you want to know what it is to be struck by lightning," the challenger said afterward, "just face Sullivan one second."

In Davenport, Iowa, blacksmith Mike Sheehan told his family that he was going to face off with the champion. Sheehan's frantic wife visited Sullivan before the fight and beseeched him not to fight her husband, but not for the reason the champion suspected. "We've got five small children, and I don't want them to have a murderer for a father. If you get into a fight with him, he'll surely kill you," she warned the champion.

John L. took his chances and started the fight with a smash to the nose of the stunned challenger. Sheehan's surprise turned to rage. He charged at Sullivan. A big clout on the jaw by the champion sent his foe spinning to the back of the stage, and the challenger decided he had taken enough punishment. Sullivan sent Sheehan away with $100 for being game.

In choosing the stops on his tour, Sullivan was sure to travel to the outposts where the Irish labored in 16-hour shifts: mining towns, lumber camps, and mill cities along railroad lines that were built by calloused Celtic hands. To a generation of Irish Americans who had felt traumatized by the potato famine, powerless under the thumb of the British back home, and blistered by scorn in their new land, Sullivan's strength and self-confidence were potent elixirs. Working-class Irish Americans thought of the champion as one of them, just another Irish bloke scrapping to earn a living with his hands, and on the "knocking out" tour they flocked to see their idol.

As soon as "Sullivan's Sluggers" arrived in the mining boomtowns of the Rockies, the outlaw element of the Wild West seemingly infected the fighters. Newspaper reports of Sullivan's drunkenness and barroom brawling appeared with increasing frequency. On Christmas Day in Denver, Sullivan almost killed a fellow fighter while playing around with a double-barreled shotgun he was told was unloaded. Two days later in Leadville, a drunken Sullivan hurled a lighted kerosene lamp at another fighter backstage following an argument. In Victoria, British Columbia, the Daily British Colonist reported that he was in "a state of beastly intoxication" and refused to stand for a toast to the health of the city's namesake, Queen Victoria, explaining that he "hadn't been brought up to seeing Irishmen drinking to the health of English monarchs."

Even when Sullivan wobbled into the ring, he dispatched all his challengers with ease. John L. was leaving a trail of broken bottles and battered fighters littered across America, but perhaps his toughest foe awaited when Sullivan arrived in Galveston, Texas, on April 10, 1884. Al Marx, an imposing cotton baler considered the champion of Texas, wanted to send an early statement, and just after shaking hands, he nailed Sullivan in the jaw. The Texas giant gained confidence after landing several hard blows on the inebriated Sullivan in the first two rounds, and he was convinced John L. had met his match.

When the champion came out of his corner for the third round, however, Marx noticed a change in Sullivan's eyes. John L. unleashed his feral glare. Then he launched a left smash to Marx's jaw that crumbled the Texan to the stage like a bag of oats. Sullivan lifted him up and then cracked him over the footlights and into the orchestra pit, shattering two chairs, three violins, and a bass drum. As Marx lay unconscious, the tour's financial manager reached into the gate receipts to scrounge for $24 to pay for the crushed instruments.

Three weeks later in Memphis, bricklayer William Fleming took the stage with the champion. At the opening signal, Sullivan charged. He struck a blow on the lower part of Fleming's left jaw that knocked him unconscious for 15 minutes. Total time of the bout: two seconds. When Fleming came to, he asked, "When do me and Sullivan go on?"

"You've been on," he was told.

"Did I lick him?" the oblivious bricklayer asked.

On May 23, 1884, "Sullivan's Sluggers" pulled into Toledo, Ohio, and Sullivan reportedly tore through the town to put a fitting exclamation point on his continental spree. The combination had reached their final stop. According to some accounts, 39 men had stepped into the ring seeking to go 12 minutes with the champion. Thirty-nine men failed.

Accounts of the financial receipts from the tour vary, but Sullivan likely pocketed tens of thousands of dollars, approaching President Chester A. Arthur's $50,000 annual salary. While the exact size of Sullivan's financial windfall may not be known, it's certain that he earned an incredible level of superstardom by traversing the continent.

Sports were rapidly becoming America's secular faith, and Sullivan was now its Zeus. The railroads allowed the ring gladiator to reach hundreds of thousands of people across America, something that wasn't possible just years before, and his audiences rivaled those of Barnum and "Buffalo Bill." Sullivan was now an American celebrity of the highest order. The American people literally wanted a piece of John L. Women purchased his shorn hair from his barber for a dollar to snap into their lockets. Most of the United States, however, was content to hold a cabinet photograph or a tobacco trading card of the champion. John L.'s celebrity gave rise to vaudeville songs and marching tunes. "Let me shake the hand that shook the hand of Sullivan" quickly became a cultural catchphrase, and wherever John L. traveled, an outstretched arm always reached in his direction.

On the night of May 26, 1884, Sullivan quietly slipped back to Boston after the end of his "knocking out" tour. Although he told no one of his travel plans, the minute his carriage pulled away from the railroad depot, legions of his fans magically emerged from the darkness and started to run behind his hack through the city streets. By the time John L. pulled up to his saloon, eight months to the day after he had left it, his adoring public had already packed it full. They couldn't wait to shake his hand.

Christopher Klein is a freelance writer and author of three books. To buy his book, "Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America's First Sports Hero," go to

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.