Profiles in Manlitude: John L. Sullivan

Gentlemen and brutes, you would both do well to study the life of John L. Sullivan, aka The Boston Strong Boy. He was not only the first world heavyweight champ of gloved boxing, but the last bare-knuckle one.

A mighty Irishman with a prodigious appetite for food, drink and fisticuffs, Sullivan fought over 450 matches in his career, boxing anybody with $500 to lose while killing time between real bouts. And yes, he had a handlebar mustache. It could also beat you up.

Sullivan was the first athlete ever to earn one million dollars, which in 2008 dollars is about $23 million or in 2011 dollars, $500,000.

He lost only once (officially, but there are a couple of hard falls in his world-travelling record).

The biggest obstacles to his career were not being allowed to drink during training and the fact that God kept turning down his challenge to fight. He also had a hard time finding places where it was legal to pound a man into glue. Apparently those laudanum-swilling savages of the 19th Century weren’t brutal enough to watch Sullivan scientifically dismantle the human body.

One notable bout was the time he and Charley Mitchell pounded fists for two hours in the rain until the police showed up, because apparently the shockwaves from their punches were threatening to collapse nearby buildings. However, the official reason was that at the time boxing was illegal in France and everywhere else — so their devastating bout required apocalyptic weather to truly capture its unsanctioned-yet-also-sanctioned badassery.

The two men pounded each other into glue until the cops showed up to signal Act III of this boxing film. The gendarmes’ arrival coincided nicely with neither man able to lift his arms anymore because they did not know how to fall, they knew only how to fight. Mitchell was arrested but Sullivan escaped because iron shackles were scared of his fists.

Sullivan’s friends helped him escape to Liverpool–which is nowhere even close to Chantilly–a mysterious, bandaged figure that had locals wondering who had TPed a mountain. But that is a different movie, and frankly, sounds like some kind of anime.

Back to this story. As you have already guessed from seeing Rocky and Rocky II, Sullivan and Mitchell became lifelong friends, as would you if you met the only other thing on Earth that could not die.

When he fought Jake Kilrain in the last bare-knuckle title bout, everyone thought Sullivan was finished after he vomited in the 44th round. What they didn’t know was that vomit was The Boston Strong Boy’s way of exorcising anything in his body that wasn’t strong enough to defeat him. The mighty man got up and proceeded to pummel Kilrain into the 75th round, at which point the latter’s manager threw in the towel–although it’s possible the towel was just pulled into the slipstream from one of Sullivan’s punches.

Lesson learned: Sleep must be a woman, because that’s the only way John Sullivan ever went horizontal.

So what did he do upon retiring? Only every job a man could ever want — actor, public speaker, umpire, sports reporter and bar owner. He died at age 59 with just ten dollars in his pocket, which means he budgeted perfectly for the end and ate and drank his way there. You might call it a young age to die, but we like to think John Sullivan shortened so many lives, he submitted his timecard early to make up the balance. And damn, did he live well getting there.

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