The Heavyweight Bookshelf: John L. Sullivan

Before I started working on The Boxing Kings, I had read a good deal about John L. Sullivan in other sources but no biographies of the man himself. Of the book’s 12 chapters, it probably took me longest to research and write Chapter 1, on Sullivan, since I knew the least about his era coming in. I enjoyed this work immensely, and I only scratched the surface of things. 

There are at least three excellent biographies on Sullivan. The most recent is Christopher Klein’s Strongboy (2014), which is vividly written and loaded with period detail. It's a rollicking good read and probably the most contemporary take on Sullivan, and in that sense contrasts with Donald Barr Chidsey’s 1942 John the Great, my personal favorite Sullivan book, which you can get for reasonable prices on Amazon.

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Chidsey has the verve of bygone writers who never got the memo to apologize for American history; he sees the Gilded Age as fairly glorious, and John L. as emblematic of it. That said, he does not avoid serious issues or spare criticism of his subject. He has an interesting take on John L. and race, one that doesn’t jibe with latter-day views of Sullivan as a hardcore racist. “He did not seem to find Negroes offensive outside of the ring,” he writes of John L., puzzling over his imposition of the color line on heavyweight challengers. “He was not of the stuff of which Ku Klux Klansmen are made. On at least one occasion he refereed a fight in which a Negro, George Godfrey, was a principal.” Chidsey then goes on to claim that Sullivan was in fact matched with black fighters on at least two occasions: with Godfrey in Boston, before Sullivan won the title, and with the era’s great black heavyweight, Australian Peter Jackson, in San Francisco, the year not named, but that authorities broke up both matches before they could occur. (Later Sullivan biographies make passing mention of the supposed Godfrey match, though the details remain sketchy. I’ve not seen another citation of an attempted bout with Jackson. Chidsey notes that Nat Fleischer also makes mention of it, though the Fleischer quote he offers suggests a different characterization of events than his own.)

Whatever one makes of such claims, Chidsey’s biography is a reminder that how great figures were seen by people in earlier times is at least as important as how we see them later. John the Great is very much worth tracking down.

The best overall book on Sullivan is Michael Isenberg’s scholarly, exhaustive, and quite readable John L. Sullivan and His America, which masterfully places Sullivan within the context of his time, with deep dives into Irish immigrant and working-class culture, along with fascinating detail on the nineteenth-century pugilistic culture that John L. would both exemplify and transcend. (For this material, Isenberg draws on the work of Elliot Gorn, whose The Manly Art is the authoritative take on that culture and history.)

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Sullivan’s own take on matters can be found in Reminiscences of a 19th Century Gladiator: The Autobiography of John L. Sullivan, which came out just as John L. was preparing to face James J. Corbett in 1892, in which he would lose his heavyweight title. It’s a lively read; the voice of Sullivan comes across loud and clear, though the reader will have to weigh what assertions to accept and which to be more skeptical about, as per usual in such works. In 1979, Gilbert Odd published I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch in the House! John L. Sullivan, His Autobiography, a reprinting of Reminiscences with an editor’s afterword. I’ve never gotten my hands on The Modern Gladiator: Being An Account of the Exploits and Experiences of The World’s Greatest Fighter, John Lawrence Sullivan, which came out in 1889, and consists mostly of press clippings. The copies I’ve seen on the Internet run from $250 to $575.

Other Sullivan books abound, which I can’t opine on—I haven’t read them. The most prominent would be Adam Pollack’s two efforts, In the Ring with John L. Sullivan (2016) and his earlier John L. Sullivan: The Career of the First Gloved Heavyweight Champion (2006). Pollack is engaged in a hugely ambitious project to write comprehensive boxing-oriented biographies about all the heavyweight champions. These titles, all beginning In the Ring With, go into immense detail on the fights themselves, using extensive first-hand newspaper accounts. Pollack has completed work through Jack Johnson, on whom he wrote two enormous volumes.

I haven’t read Nat Fleischer’s 1951 John L. Sullivan: Champion of Champions (I’m guessing that this is where he makes note of the Jackson matter), though I’ve read a good deal of Fleischer on Sullivan in other books; Fleischer’s published boxing canon is oceanic. Nor have I gotten my hands on Roy F. Dibble’s John L. Sullivan: An Intimate Narrative. And surely there are other books that have come and gone over these many years.

One last book on Sullivan that bears special mention is not a biography: it is Andrew English's excellent Ringside at Richburg, a deeply detailed and researched (with extensive citations) account of Sullivan's epic 1889 championship fight against Jake Kilrain in Richburg, Mississippi. English has heavily tapped local archival sources and unearthed a host of rare photographs for his book, which really does give you the feeling that you're there. Here's the authoritative source on the event that put an exclamation point on Sullivan's career.

You could boil down my Sullivan biographical recommendations as follows: best overall book, Isenberg; most contemporary and accessible, Klein; favorite book, Chidsey. Those are three pretty good options to have if you’re setting out to learn about the Great John L., without whom there might not be a heavyweight title as we know it, let alone anyone to write about it. Look on his works, ye mighty, and despair—and if you write about boxing, you ought to wake up every morning and thank him.  

 

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