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John L. Sullivan – Boxer –"The hand that shook the world"

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Mike Deveney ran a training center near Highland Lake, known in later years as the Columbus Outing Club. Many well-known sports figures, mostly boxers and prize fighters trained at the camp. The great John L. Sullivan visited the camp. During the summer months, at Mr. Deveney's expense, or as he preferred to put it, "at my pleasure", large groups of children from the "slum districts" of Boston were brought out to the lake for a day of games, good food and ice cream.

From John L. Sullivan – The First Irish American Boxing Champion and ‘The hand that shook the world’ by Jack Anderson - Limerick.

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.

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 organizers 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 soon manouvered 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. However, Ryan was a mediocre and reluctant champion. The heavily gambled upon and much anticipated Sullivan vs. 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.

Sullivan while in Scotland 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. 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 became a respected friend of President Theodore Roosevelt. 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”.