The older we get, many of us, the more we look backward. It’s a natural tendency, of course, because as we approach middle age, there is less anxiety in play when we look to the future, where the finish line lays, than when we look back, cradled by the warm glow of nostalgia.
The temptation to look back, with fondness, and sometimes excessive reverence, can bedevil the sports fan, especially. “They don’t make them like they used to,” you might find yourself thinking, if, say, you came of age during the time when Muhammad Ali ruled the world…and I’m not saying that isn’t true. But, I think, we often blind ourselves to the positive developments which occur as time marches forward, while looking in that rose-colored rear-view mirror.
Windy preamble aside, I do think we can sometimes look back, after acquainting ourselves with some particularly curious, or interesting or jarring history. Like, for instance…today is the 125th anniversary of a mind-blowing, in retrospect, chapter in fighting history. On July 8, 1889, bare-knuckle bad-boy John L. Sullivan battled Jake Kilrain FOR MORE THAN TWO HOURS under a broiling sun in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. That one was scheduled for 80 ROUNDS. Let that sink into your head, and let it stay there the next time you see fighters losing steam in round ten of a scheduled twelve…
Author Christopher Klein wrote about that humdinger of a spectacle in “Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero.” Klein was kind enough to let TSS pick his brain about Sully, that fight, and the meaning of it all.
QUESTION FROM WOODS: How and why did you choose the subject matter for this book?
ANSWER FROM KLEIN: I had done a little research about Sullivan for my previous book, which was about Boston sports, and I was struck by what a seminal figure he was in American culture. Although most people would think that Babe Ruth was America’s first sports superstar, it really was the “Boston Strong Boy” who was the country’s first sports icon. Everything you know about Babe Ruth–the fame, the fortune, the appetites for eating, drinking, and women–Sullivan was doing 40 years beforehand. He was the first athlete to earn $1 million, and during his days, he was probably along with Buffalo Bill and P.T. Barnum the biggest celebrity in America. Sullivan’s story is the story of the birth of American sports, mass media, and our modern-day celebrity culture. It’s also a tale of the Irish coming of age in America during the Gilded Age, which appealed to me as an Irish-American.
Q)Chris, what do you want readers to take away from your book after reading it?
A) I want readers to realize that John L. Sullivan wasn’t some sepia-toned relic, he was very much a modern-day figure. If sports are America’s secular religion, he wasn’t just among our pantheon of athletic gods, he was our Zeus. He blazed the trail for all sporting icons who followed him. Everything you see with today’s athletes, Sullivan was doing back in the 1880s. He acted, endorsed products, wrote his own memoirs, opened his own sports bar, flirted with running for public office, and suffered from the pitfalls of fame. I’d also want readers to learn that, although our minds flash to Sullivan fighting with bare knuckles, he only did so a handful of times and always preferred legal gloved fighting. It was Sullivan’s eventual insistence on fighting with gloves that ushered in the Marquis of Queensberry Rules in boxing.
Q)John L. Sullivan–could he hang with a Tyson…or a Klitschko?
A) While we have a tendency to look back at the “good old days” with nostalgia and believe that the sporting heroes of our youth were superior to today’s superstars, I lean the opposite way because the modern-day advances in training, medicine, and physiology give modern-day athletes an incredible advantage over those from generations ago. So I believe even a dominant boxer like Sullivan from the late 1800s would have quite a challenge ahead of him if he stepped into the ring with a Tyson or Klitschko. What would be an interesting matchup, however, would be if we put Tyson into a bare-knuckle fight with Sullivan using the old London Prize Rules, in which rounds lasted as long as a fighter stayed on his feet, wrestling was legal, and the fight lasted until one fighter could not go on. Sullivan dominated his fights under those rules during some of his championship bouts.
Q)Some of the stuff they did then, they don’t do know, it makes me SMH. You mentioned a cornerman sucking the blood out of a fighters’ eye…How and why was blood sucked out of a fighter’s eye?
A) Cornermen did a number of things that would be hard to believe today. For instance, with fighters getting bruised, bloodied, and oftentimes blistered by the sun in the ring, trainers would give their men some whiskey between rounds to dull the pain. And when a bloodied fighter came back to his corner, it was common for dutiful cornermen to place their mouths over their fighters’ noses, suck the blood clear, and spit it out to clear their breathing passages. They would use a similar method to get the blood out of their eyes to clear their vision.
Q)Boxing…better then or now…and why?
A) That’s a really tough question. Before Sullivan came along, there wasn’t enough money to be made as a professional boxer so boxers of that era couldn’t devote all their time to training and learning their craft and they fought less frequently, so the fight quality is better now. The sport is much more accessible to the fans now then back in Sullivan’s day. But I would love to have had the chance to have been ringside at one of these illegal bare-knuckle title fights, such as Sullivan-Kilrain, in the backwoods to take in the spectacle. The details of the Sullivan-Kilrain fight–between the bets flying ringside, the gladiators in the ring pitched in the great outdoors, a figure such as Bat Masterson working the corner for Kilrain, and the cat-and-mouse game to elude the authorities–are of course much more colorful than anything seen in the sport today.
Christopher Klein is the author of Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero.
Follow him on Twitter @historyauthor.
Here is ordering info for the book:
Here is a link to the book’s web site, which has an excerpt and more information: www.strongboybook.com.