- His colors are the Stars and Stripes,
He also wears the green,
And he’s the grandest slugger that
The ring has ever seen,
No fighter in the world can beat
Our true American,
The champion of all champions
Is John L. Sullivan!
- Popular Vaudeville Song
John Lawrence Sullivan’s total mastery, his complete domination of the ring, captivated men’s imaginations. But Sullivan was equally imposing outside the ropes; everything about him was larger-than-life. As champion of the world, he occupied center stage for a full decade, longer than any previous fighter. “Excepting General Grant,” one newspaper reported, “no American has received such ovations as Sullivan.” By the end of the 19th century he was certainly America’s best-known sports celebrity and probably the nation’s most famous citizen.
No one would have guessed that such fame was possible as the 1880’s dawned. Born in Roxbury, Mass, in 1858, Sullivan reached adulthood carrying the equivalent of an eighth grade education, a checkered work record, and a burden of anti-Irish prejudice. His aggressive temperament, however, combined with his unusual strength and agility, pointed him toward sports. Like many young working-class Irish Americans, Sullivan loved the free and easy life of saloons, where athletic prowess as well as hard drinking and physical toughness were esteemed. It was not an unusual step to try earning a few extra dollars in semiprofessional athletics. A gifted baseball player, Sullivan joined a variety of local teams and even was offered a professional contract to play in Cincinnati. But his talents led him in a different direction.
“At the age of nineteen,” he recalled in his autobiography, “I drifted into the occupation of a boxer.” Drifted was precisely the word. After winning a number of street fights, Sullivan strolled on stage at a vaudeville house one night to accept a professional boxer’s challenge to all comers. Such “scientific exhibitions of skill” were technically legal since the combatants wore gloves and allegedly refrained from any hard hitting. The lad stripped off his coat, put on the gloves, and knocked his opponent around at will. Encouraged by this initial success, Sullivan began sparring throughout Boston.
Since midcentury, bare-knuckle prize fighting had been the pet sport of “the fancy”—the urban underworld which included gamblers, keepers of working-class saloons, drifters, street brawlers, fops and dandies, cock breeders, and especially young laborers who rejected the bourgeois ethic of steady habits and domesticity. From its earliest appearance in America, prize fighting was a taboo sport. The gambling and drinking, the profanity and violence associated with boxing caused magistrates to prosecute fighters, their seconds, referees, even spectators under the laws against riot and mayhem. The New York Tribune spoke for all in polite society when it described the crowd at an 1858 fight: “Probably no human eye will ever look upon so much rowdyism, villainy, scoundrelism, and boiled-down viciousness, concentrated upon so small a space. . . . Scoundrels of every imaginable genus, every variety of every species, were there assembled; the characteristic rascalities of each were developed and displayed in all their devilish perfection.”
Sports like boxing violated the ideals of hard work, sober self-control, and social reform in which evangelical and bourgeois citizens placed their faith. During the antebellum years, several states passed anti-prize fight statutes, testimony
But during the decade or so preceding Sullivan’s entrance into the sport, boxing became too corrupt for even this rough constituency. A descending spiral of fixed fights, violence among spectators, and police interference almost destroyed prize fighting. By 1868, Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times began a report by referring to “the ring, or rather what is left of it,” while the New York Clipper, long a defender of pugilism, declared, “exponents of the manly art can no longer find the influential backers and patrons who formerly took an interest in this sport, for they have become disgusted with mob rule. . . .”
There were countertrends, however, less visible but ultimately more powerful. As Sullivan began to spar on urban stages in the late 70’s, a leisure revolution was just beginning. Despite uneven distribution and chronic recessions, per capita income rose slightly over the coming decades, while the length of the average work week declined a bit. Brash entrepreneurs began to glimpse the potential new market for commercialized leisure. Some experimented with advertising and mail-order sales, others promoted spectacles like circuses and cabaret shows, still others sought to fill the growing demand for sporting goods and athletic events. Not only working-class and ethnic peoples—who never fully accepted the Victorian ethos of piety, steady habits, and social progress anyway—but members of “respectable” society including white-collar workers, managers, and professionals, as well as the old elite “Brahmin” caste, began to pursue leisure-time activities as never before.
Historian John Higham has described this trend as a “reorientation of American culture.” Time clocks, rigid moral codes, factories, corporations, stuffy manners, all made Americans hunger, in Higham’s words, “to break out of the frustrations, the routine, the sheer dullness of an urban industrial culture. It was everywhere an urge to be young, masculine and adventurous.” In a world where frontiers were closing, businesses built, and fortunes made—in a world of mature capitalism—the old work ethic grew less compelling. Masses of men labored for salaries in large bureaucracies or for wages in enormous factories. Immense concentrations of corporate wealth and highly specialized labor obviated the transcendent republican goal of autonomy, of owning productive property and receiving the fruits of one’s efforts. Feeling cut off from “real life,” many men turned to vigorous sports as one way to fill the void.
Boxing, football, and other violent contests invaded colleges and athletic clubs. The drama of two men in the ring especially fascinated the middle and upper classes, now grown weary of Victorian demands for tight self-control. Thus the psychologist G. Stanley Hall confessed in his memoirs to being captivated by “the raw side of life,” and he ventured into urban backstreets whenever he got the chance. Hall’s slumming led him to the fancy’s pet sport: “I have never missed an opportunity to attend a prize fight if I could do so unknown and away from home, so that I have seen most of the noted pugilists of my generation in action and felt the unique thrill at these encounters.”
The problem, however, was that professional fighting under the old bare-knuckle rules was not only illegal, it was also associated with the dregs of society. The solution, according to men who wished to see boxing reformed, was to assimilate the professional ring to amateur rules, which had originated in England and were named for the Marquis of Queensberry. Under the old code, a round lasted until a man was knocked, pushed, or wrestled down, and a fight ended when either combatant could no longer continue. In the new order, punching was the sole legal means of offense, rounds were timed at three minutes each with one minute of rest in between, and the ten-second knock-out rule made pounding one’s opponent into temporary unconsciousness the most spectacular way to win a fight. Gloves did not make prize fighting any less corrupt or brutal; they protected fighters’ hands rather than their heads, rendering the sport more not less dangerous. But the Marquis of Queensberry rules gave the ring a fresh start by bringing boxing into the open, and thereby allowing a greater degree of crowd control.
Sullivan began his ring career when championships were still decided with bare-knuckles, when old-timers considered glove-fighting a pale reflection of real prize combat. The youth was so talented that within a few short years and after a handful of easy victories, he challenged champion Paddy Ryan for the title. Ryan accepted, and they fought bare-fisted in Mississippi City near New Orleans on Feb. 2, 1882 for $2,500 a side. The fight, of course, was illegal, yet thousands of men crowded around a ring pitched in front of a local hotel. “When Sullivan struck me,” Ryan said after the bout, “I thought that a telegraph pole had been shoved against me endways.” The battle lasted only nine rounds of about a half-minute each. From first to last Sullivan dominated his opponent. The pace exhausted both men, and neither escaped unharmed, but the challenger was always in control. “Among the sporting men and old ring goers that witnessed the mill,” the New Orleans Times-Democrat concluded, “it is generally conceded that the Boston Boy is a wonder. His hitting powers are terrific, and against his sledge-hammer fists the naked arms of a man are but poor defense. He forced the fighting from the start and knocked his opponent about as though he were a football.” At age 23, previously unable to keep a job, John Lawrence Sullivan was heavyweight cham pion.
A surge of enthusiasm greeted Sullivan’s victory. When the National Police Gazette issued an illustrated extra edition with complete coverage, public demand proved insatiable and the presses rolled for weeks. Crowds mobbed every railroad station to catch a glimpse of the new champion as he made his way back north. Appearing in leading saloons or sparring in local sporting houses, he was heralded in Chi cago, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York. Back home in Boston, he received a thunderous reception at the Dudley Street Opera House, where just three years before he had sparred in his first exhibition. But the adulation was just beginning. Over the next decade Sullivan became one of the best-known public figures in the world and the most idolized athlete of the era.
For ten years he reigned as the unquestioned master of pugilism and the “physical superior of all men.” Yet he entered the regular prize ring only twice. Although we remember Sullivan as the last great bare-knuckle champion; his reputation was based largely on his prowess with the gloves. He quickly discovered that short Queensberry fights were a gold mine. Sullivan would enter an arena, challenge the house for fifty, one hundred, or eventually one thousand dollars, and then knock out some hapless local hero inside four three-minute rounds. If no one dared meet the champion, then another professional, whose services were retained for such emergencies, would spar a few rounds with him. Sullivan also insisted that before he would give them title fights, serious challengers must first prove their mettle in glove battles, lucrative affairs that packed stadiums like Madison Square Garden and yielded thousands of dollars. The champion was so adept with the gloves that most seasoned professionals fell before a few rounds were over, obviating bare-knuckle fights.
Sullivan and his managers—mostly former fighters, buccaneers by genteel Victorian standards, but all in the mainstream of Gilded Age hucksterism—quickly found a way to tap the new potential market for recreation. Taking their cue from traveling circuses and vaudeville shows, they organized troupes of fighters along with assorted other variety acts, and put them on the road. The grand tour of 1883—84 was the prototype. For eight months they traveled all over the country, usually spending only one night in each town, boarding a train after a performance, and heading for the next stop. These tours required careful planning to assure that arenas were prepared, publicity arranged, accommodations made, and schedules kept. During the 1883—84 road campaign, Sullivan alone cleared $80,000, and he earned nearly one million dollars before his career ended.
In addition to these “knocking-out tours,” as Sullivan called them, the champion coined money by lending his name to a variety of commercial endeavors. He made personal appearances at baseball games, endorsed products ranging from boxing gloves to beef broth, and acted in a series of stage shows. Sullivan’s career exemplified the growing commercialization of leisure late in the 19th century. A New York wax museum presented his likeness to the public; a circus advertised a boxing elephant named for the champion; and sheet music vendors hawked the popular song, “Let Me Shake the Hand That Shook the Hand of Sullivan.” He earned more each year than presidents or business executives, and unlike the old bare-knucklers who lived in the shadows of urban vice and criminality, Sullivan basked in the public spotlight. In a word, the champion was a professional entertainer whose livelihood depended on constant adulation.
It was Sullivan the celebrity as much as Sullivan the fighter who electrified men. His raw, spontaneous personality drew endless comment in the press. He knew how to accumulate money, but he knew even better how to spend it. The champion’s legendary conviviality, his embrace of the easy camaraderie of saloons and sporting houses, were central to his public image. John L. loved the good life, including elegant clothes, expensive jewelry, the finest foods, the best cigars, and free-flowing champagne. Everyone knew of his drinking binges and his extramarital affairs. Everyone also knew of the gorgeous barroom he opened in Boston to treat and toast his friends. He embodied Gilded Age fascination with! rich living and gaudy displays of wealth. In his reigning decade he strode into countless saloons, slapped a hundred-dollar bill on the counter, and treated the house. Like a padrone or public benefactor, Sullivan met an endless stream of down-and-out men asking for handouts, widows without means, and religious missionaries in need of support. He always turned to his current manager—he changed them often—and barked a gruff demand for a five, or a ten, or a fifty to help the supplicant. The champion’s extravagance, his lack of bourgeois prudence were an ingratiating part of his public persona in an age grown weary of stern self-control.
Emblematic of an emerging national mass culture that partially transcended the divisions of class and gender, of religion and ethnicity, Sullivan represented sensual fulfillment and consumption of leisure, previously seen as working-class vices but now becoming hegemonic norms. The champion’s monikers, “the Boston Strong Boy,” “the Boston Boy,” or simply “the Boy,” indicate that the public Sullivan was very much a child in a man’s body. Above all, he seemed a creature of impulse. Editor Charles Dana of the New York Sun commented on Sullivan’s enormous appetites; he dined like Gargantua, drank like Gambrinus, had the strength of Samson and the ferocity of Achilles; he moved with a child’s ease but hit like a giant.
Stories circulated about Sullivan protecting newsboys against bullies, aiding women in distress, and giving up liquor at his dying mother’s request. More stories circulated that Sullivan kicked newsboys and chased waitresses, that he beat his wife and kept mistresses, and that he broke up saloons in drunken rages. Inebriated one night in Philadelphia, he tore up his hotel room, went outside to harass passers-by, returned at dawn for a breakfast of six dozen clams and whiskey, and then had to be carried to bed. When awakened, Sullivan calmed his belligerence with another pint. Police avoided him during such drunken sprees, while newspapers editorialized that the immunity of the “hulking ruffian” only encouraged his brutality.
Both images of Sullivan—the generous, good-natured boy and the brooding, destructive boy—contained much truth; both were united by themes of adolescent impulsiveness. He was a hero and a brute, a bon vivant and a drunk, a lover of life and a reckless barbarian. In the public mind, Sullivan the man and Sullivan the fighter were one. He cut through all restraints, acted rather than contemplated, and paid little regard to the morality or immorality of his behavior. He was totally self-indulgent, even in acts of generosity, totally a hedonist consuming the good things around him and beckoning others to do the same. For individuals deeply ambivalent about the transition from middle-class Protestant virtues of productivity to new values of consumption, he was a transcendent symbol. And for bourgeois men terrified of losing vital “nerve force,” the key ingredient to success, Sullivan seemed a glorious example of abundant human energy. He epitomized action in an age that feared inertia.
Perhaps Sullivan’s most important fight was the epic 1889 struggle against Jake Kilrain. Weary after years of touring, Sullivan’s exhibitions grew spiritless. He engaged in only one bare-knuckle battle after winning the title, an embarrassing draw with the English champion Charlie Mitchell, fought in Chantilly, France in 1888. Years of excess had eroded his physique, and shortly after he returned to America, his health broke down completely. He claimed to suffer from typhoid fever, gastric fever, inflammation of the bowels, heart trouble, liver complaint, and incipient paralysis. Acute alcoholism was a more plausible diagnosis. He lay bedridden for weeks, finally rising on his 30th birthday against the advice of his doctors. His claim to the title shaken by Mitchell, his health and age betraying him, his fans clamoring for vindication, and his enemies out for blood, Sullivan staked his career on a single desperate battle. He signed articles to fight Kilrain, whom the National Police Gazette had declared champion at the depths of Sullivan’s fall.
John L. ‘s backers remanded him to the custody of William Muldoon, a champion wrestler, celebrity strong-man, and health fetishist. Sullivan shed years of dissipation and regained much of his lost vitality. Once again, New Orleans with its cosmopolitan atmosphere and libertine ways was chosen as the battle’s staging ground. Exclusive men’s athletic clubs lent their facilities to the fighters, fans poured into the Crescent City, and newspapers covered the story with gallons of ink. Declared the New Orleans Picayune, “The city is fighting mad. . . . Everybody has the fever and is talking Sullivan and Kilrain, Ladies discussed it in street cars, men talked and argued about it in places which had never heard pugilism mentioned before.” On the morning of July 8, 1889, special trains rolled into Richburg, Mississippi, and five thousand fans crowded the ring as the temperature soared past 100 degrees.
Sullivan appeared to be in excellent shape, and his performance matched his appearance. Kilrain wrestled, backpedaled, and counterpunched, but he only succeeded in angering the champion, who growled and cursed throughout the fight. Sullivan controlled the pace, stalking Kilrain, pressing, keeping him always off balance. “His old time ferocity seemed to come back,” Police Gazette reporter William Edgar Harding wrote; “he rushed at Kilrain like a tiger at its prey. His eyes flashed, his lips were set and he seemed to become larger and more massive than he was.” The battle lasted two hours and 15 minutes. The July sun blistered Kilrain’s pale back, while Sullivan cut up his face, smashed his ribs, and verbally abused him: “Stand up and fight like a man”; “I’m no sprinter, I’m a fighter”; “You’re a champion eh? A champion of what?” The only doubt about the outcome came in the 44th round. A drink of cold tea spiked with whiskey made Sullivan vomit. Word quickly went round the ring that his stomach was retaining the whiskey but rejecting the tea, a bit of humor that barely masked his partisans’ alarm. But when Kilrain offered a draw, the champion barked “No, you loafer,” and punched him down again. The final 30 rounds were more lopsided than the first 45. The 55th time they toed the scratch, Kilrain barely could defend himself. Ten rounds later gamblers offered 500 dollars to 50 on Sullivan with no takers. After 75 rounds, fearing for their man’s life, Kilrain’s seconds threw up the sponge. No one knew it then, but the world had witnessed the last bare-knuckle championship fight.
After the Kilrain bout, the good life beckoned again and Sullivan followed. For three years he did very little fighting. Much of his time was spent on the stage in a melodrama called Honest Hearts and Willing Hands. Playing a blacksmith, Sullivan took off his shirt, pounded an anvil, beat a bully, and mutilated his lines. Critics hated it; the American people loved it. More than ever, Sullivan was the consummate celebrity, one on whom the public spotlight shone so brightly that person and persona merged. Besides fighting itself, John L. ‘s greatest talents lay in the show-business arts of self-advertisement and self-promotion. His troupe toured North America in the second half of 1890, then went to Australia in 1891.
The overseas tour was not a success. Worse, while the champion was away, hungry young boxers mocked his abilities, and when he returned to America fans clamored to know if he dared renew his claim as the world’s greatest fighter. Hurt by his supporters loss of confidence and angered at the petty pretenders, he answered in his own distinctive way:
I hereby challenge any and all the bluffers who have been trying to make capital at my expense to fight me, either the last week in August or the first week in September, this year, at the Olympic Club, in the city of New Orleans, La. , for a purse of $25,000 and an outside bet of $10,000, the winner of the fight to take the entire purse. . . . The Marquis of Queensberry rules must govern this contest, as I want fight, not foot-racing, as I intend keeping the championship of the world.
There it was: the next heavyweight title fight would be settled with gloves. Young James J. Corbett immediately picked up the gauntlet. Part of the challenger’s stake money came from the usual bookmakers and sporting men, but his trainer, former middleweight champion Mike Donovan, also garnered a large portion of Corbett’s cash from wealthy socialites at the New York Athletic Club. While depositing the stakes in New York, Corbett’s manager, William Brady, allegedly remarked, “there are men, members of high standing clubs right in this city, who will put up almost any amount on Corbett.” Significantly, Brady was not an old-time boxer or ring man but a show-business entrepreneur, soon to become a motion-picture promoter, who saw prize fighting as an extension of the entertainment field. Indeed, he viewed the championship as a way to cash in on the real money afforded by the stage. Accordingly, Brady wrote the play, Gentleman Jack, expressly for Corbett to star in after he won the title.
Although the usual sporting men and pugs gathered for the signing of articles of agreement, they met not at the Police Gazette offices but in the New York World building. Such respectable journals as E. L. Godkin’s The Nation bemoaned the decline of newspaper editors’ moral stewardship. Godkin railed that the press pandered to the “offscourings of human society—gamblers, thieves, drunkards and bullies. . . . persons whose manners and morals are a disgrace to our civilization.” But World editor Joseph Pulitzer and other new moguls of the print media understood the power of spectacles, and they wanted to capture the Police Gazette’s readership for their dailies. Indeed, to compete for the Gazette’s clientele, they established separate sports sections and carried feature stories on muscular heroes.
Corbett’s public image also added a unique dimension to the ring. After attending college, he held a respectable job as a bank clerk; heavy labor for Corbett meant training, not putting bread on the table. He learned boxing in a sparring club rather than on the streets, and his reputation rested totally on glove fighting under the Queensberry rules. The newspapers called him “Handsome Jim,” “Pompadour Jim,” and eventually “Gentleman Jim.” Clean-cut, intelligent, and highly skilled, Corbett denied the old equation of boxers with bruisers.
But the most striking thing of all about the upcoming fight was its business arrangements. Late in 1889 New Orleans’ silk-stocking athletic clubs began sponsoring professional bouts, expanding old arenas and building new ones, all the while hiding behind the thin padding of five-ounce gloves. As one newspaper put it, “steady businessmen, society bloods, and in fact, all classes of citizens are eager and anxious to spend their wealth to see a glove contest.” On March 14, 1890, the New Orleans city council authorized Queensberry fights, with the proviso that no liquor be served, that no bouts be staged on Sundays, and that promoters contribute 50 dollars to charity. The final obstacle fell when the Olympic Club defeated the old anti-prize fight statutes in court.
All of this testifies to the ring’s transformation. During the 1880’s many socially prominent men had surreptitiously attended Sullivan’s bare-knuckle fights in Mississippi. Lawyers, doctors, school board members, police commissioners, civic officials, even one college president later acknowledged their presence in Richburg for the Kilrain match. With glove fights legal, these men would openly attend the upcoming bout.
Sensing the large potential audience for the sanitized sport, new clubs now competed to sign up prominent contenders, and they offered handsome purses in the belief that gate receipts would exceed expenses. Boxing failed to become as rationalized and bureaucratically regulated as baseball or football; the corrupt underworld scent always lingered. Still, promotional techniques shifted control away from gamblers to entrepreneurs. The de facto legalization of prize fighting in New Orleans and the transformation of the ring into something approaching a business gave unprecedented opportunities to promising young fighters such as Robert Fitzsimmons, Arthur Upham, Billy Myer, Jimmy Carroll, Peter Mahar, Andy Bowen, and Frank Slavin.
New Orleans athletic clubs did more than simply attract new talent; they helped systematize boxing. Six weight classifications which Police Gazette editor Richard Kyle Fox had informally recognized with championship belts were standardized. Referees, now club employees, were empowered to stop bouts and award decisions if a fighter’s life became endangered. Some clubs sponsored contests with a limited number of rounds and authorized the referee to declare a winner if the battle went the distance. All the old pugilistic categories—prize fights, sparring exhibitions, Queensberry contests—began to merge under the new order. Especially important, the challenge system, derived from dueling’s code of honor, was eliminated. Club owners selected contenders, hired agents to negotiate their contracts, rented or built indoor arenas, and made all the local arrangements for matches. These changes ratified the fact that control of the ring had moved out of the old, honor-bound neighborhoods. Boxing was becoming commercial entertainment, more accessible than ever before to all classes.
As the first heavyweight championship bout under the new rules promoted by an athletic club and held in an urban arena, the Sullivan-Corbett fight put a seal of approval on these changes. Sullivan was the key player in this transition because he was by far the most prestigious figure in the boxing world. But while the champion had done so much to encourage the ring’s transformation, he would always be remembered better as the last great bare-knuckler than as the bringer of the modern era. Declared the New Orleans Picayune, “It was the old generation against the new. It was the gladiator against the boxer.”
“Handsome Jim” Corbett had already bested Jake Kilrain, beaten the fine Jewish fighter Joe Choynski, and fought to a draw against the masterful Australian black, Peter Jackson. The challenger worked out in California with Mike Donovan and, by the time he left for New Orleans, felt sure that Sullivan would also fall. Meanwhile the champion packed the house for a few more performances of Honest Hearts and Willing Hands, trained lightly for the coming bout, and enjoyed a triumphal round of benefits all the way South.
As both men arrived, the Crescent City was in an uproar. The Olympic Club not only built another new arena and put up the twenty-five-thousand-dollar purse for the heavyweight bout on Sept. 7, 1892; it also arranged a lightweight title fight between Jack McAuliffe and Billy Myer on September 5 and a featherweight championship contest between Jack Skelly and George “Little Chocolate” Dixon for September 6. The New York Herald marveled that “the odium which rested upon the prize ring and the majority of its exponents a decade or two ago, because of the disgraceful occurrences connected with it, have in a measure been removed, until now the events on hand are of national and international importance.” The Chicago Daily Tribune, recalling the old bare-knuckle days, concurred: “Now men travel to great boxing contests in vestibule limited trains; they sleep at the best hotels . . . and when the time for the contest arrives, they find themselves in a grand, brilliantly lighted arena.”
The great pugilistic carnival sent a surge of excitement through the country. Grover Cleveland’s and Benjamin Harrison’s presidential campaigns simmered on the back burner as boxing coverage boiled over onto front pages. McAuliffe retained his lightweight title by knocking out Myer in the 15th round. The following night, despite the controversy over a black fighting a white, Dixon thrashed Skelly in eight rounds. The bout may have demoralized Southern whites in this dawning age of Jim Crow, and many resolved that a black man must never strike a white one again in the ring, but “Little Chocolate” retained his crown for seven more years.
By September 7, fans from across the country swelled New Orleans to bursting, and the festive crowds in the French Quarter evoked Mardi Gras. Colorfully dressed sportsmen, solid planters, ragged black roustabouts, and Italian street vendors paraded the teeming thoroughfares. Merchants’ windows were filled with pictures of the pugilists and replicas of their fighting colors. Until fight day betting had been light at three or four to one on Sullivan, as fans expected a repetition of 1882 and 1889. Ominously, however, a surge of last-minute money for Corbett brought the odds close to even.
That night at ringside, former New Orleans Mayor Guilotte announced the fighters’ weights to ten thousand fans in the Olympic Club arena. Sullivan scaled in at 212 pounds, close to his size against Kilrain. But the champion’s flabby body showed none of the tautness of three years earlier. Corbett, his hair as always in an impeccable pompadour, entered the ring in splendid condition, 25 pounds lighter and eight years younger than the champion. Urbane clubmen, respected professionals, and businessmen in formal evening attire sat nervously at ringside until the introductions ended. But it was not only men—and a few elegant women—in the Crescent City who waited anxiously. In every metropolis excited fans gathered in theaters and newspaper offices to learn the results. On top of the Pulitzer Building in New York a red beacon was poised to signal when the fight went Sullivan’s way, a white one for Corbett. Small towns were also caught up in the information network. Miners in Blocton, Alabama gathered at the local Odd Fellows lodge where, for 50 cents each, they heard the round-by-round telegraphic reports read aloud and shared for a moment in an instantaneous national culture. With hundreds of thousands on the edges of their seats, then, the bout began.
The fight was no contest. Young Corbett circled, danced, jabbed, and countered, while Sullivan rushed his fleeting form and slugged the air. At first the crowd hissed the challenger’s running tactics but soon applauded his strategy. By the fifth round, having measured Sullivan’s slow reactions, the Californian landed consistently. Fans grew ever more excited, sensing what was coming. Corbett probably could have ended the fight any time after the 12th round, but he waited until the champion staggered with exhaustion. Then in the 21st, the Police Gazette reported:
Youth, skill, and science, the newspapers said, over age, dissipation, and brute strength.
he rushed in and planted blow after blow on Sullivan’s face and neck. The champion, so soon to lose his coveted title, backed away, trying to save himself. He lowered his guard from sheer exhaustion, and catching a fearful smash on the jaw, reached to the ropes, and the blood poured down his face in torrents and made a crimson river across his broad chest. His eyes were glassy, and it was a mournful act when the young Californian shot his right across the jaw and Sullivan fell like an ox.
The day after the fight, William Lyon Phelps, professor of English at Yale, read the daily newspaper to his elderly father, a Baptist minister. “I had never heard him mention a prize fight and did not suppose he knew anything on the subject, or cared anything about it. So when I came to the headline CORBETT DEFEATS SULLIVAN, I read that aloud and turned the page. My father leaned forward and said earnestly, “Read it by rounds.”” A few commentators welcomed Sullivan’s defeat as the fitting end for a swaggering rowdy. Pontificated The New York Times, “The dethronement of a mean and cowardly bully as the idol of the barrooms is a public good that is a fit subject for public congratulations.”
But more sensitive observers saw larger significance in Sullivan’s career. A young journalist named Theodore Dreiser remembered meeting the great man shortly after his last fight:
Here was Sullivan the hedonist, garish in every detail, flattered by hangers-on, luxuriating in the good life. With his own masculine prowess unquestioned, he gloried in leisure and excess. Crude, boisterous, gargantuan in his powers and his appetites, Sullivan was the perfect symbol for an expansive age.
And then John L. Sullivan, raw, red-faced, big-fisted, broad shouldered, drunken, with gaudy waistcoat and tie, and rings and pins set with enormous diamonds and rubies—what an impression he made! Surrounded by local sports and politicians of the most rubicund and degraded character. . . . Cigar boxes, champagne buckets, decanters, beer bottles, overcoats, collars and shirts littered the floor, and lolling back in the midst of it all in ease and splendor his very great self, a sort of prize-fighting J. P. Morgan. . . . I adored him.
Within ten years of losing his title, having gained a hundred pounds and pawned his championship belt, he filed for bankruptcy. For a while his fortunes revived as he gave theater tours and temperance lectures and even collaborated on fight stories under his own by-line. Sullivan became a sort of elder statesman, brusque yet comical, always on hand for a championship bout. According to popular legend, his last years were painful ones, as heart disease, cirrhosis of the liver, and poverty debilitated his body and spirit. He died on Feb. 2, 1918 and was buried in Roxbury.
Yet it was Sullivan in his full powers that men remembered, the raw, bare-knuckled giant who challenged the world and beat all comers. At the turn of the century Ernest Thompson Seton, founder of the Boy Scouts of America, worried aloud that mothers coddled American youths and made them flabby. But Seton was reassured by the thought that he never met a boy who would not rather be John L. Sullivan than Leo Tolstoy.
Looking back on his own boyhood, Vachel Lindsay also recognized the champion as the central symbol of the era:
Heroic strife broke through the sentimental clutter of lace and ruffles and curls. Sullivan rejected the routine world of work and family to live by his fists and his wits. If one may think of culture in terms of gender, then John L. Sullivan, the greatest American hero of the late 19th century, represented a remasculinization of America. To Lindsay, writing in the shadow of World War I, the Strong Boy of Boston embodied a lost era of genuine heroism, betrayed now by the complexity of modern life. To turn-of-the-century American men, Sullivan symbolized the growing urge to smash through the fluff of bourgeois routine and the ensnarements of corporate dependencies to the throbbing heart of life.
When I was nine years old, in 1889,
I sent my love a lacy Valentine.
Suffering boys were dressed like Fauntleroys, While Judge and Puck in giant humor vied.
The Gibson Girl came shining like a bride
To spoil the cult of Tennyson’s Elaine.
Louisa Alcott was my gentle guide. . .
Then. . .
I heard a battle trumpet sound.
Nigh New Orleans
Upon an emerald plain
John L. Sullivan
The strong boy
Fought seventy-five rounds with Jake Kilrain.