In 1883, the Irish-American heavy-weight boxing champion John L. Sullivan embarked on an unprecedented coast-to-coast tour of the United States offering a prize to any person who could endure four rounds with him in the ring.
Christopher Klein tells of this remarkable journey and how the railroads and the rise of the popular press proved instrumental in forging Sullivan into America’s first sports superstar.
A dense ocean of humanity lapped up to the doorstep of John L. Sullivan’s gilded liquor palace. Heads craned and tilted as hordes of Bostonians attempted to steal a passing glance of their hometown hero through the open doorway. I
nside, a ceaseless flow of well-wishers offered their farewells to America’s reigning heavyweight boxing champion.
Sullivan’s dark, piercing eyes gleamed with the reflections of the flickering gaslights. His clean-shaven chin glistened like polished granite, although darkness hid in the recesses of a deep dimple and in the shadow of his glorious handlebar mustache.
Sullivan’s pristine skin, full set of even teeth, and straight nose belied his profession and visibly testified to the inability of foes to lay a licking on him.
Muscular without being muscle-bound, the “Boston Strong Boy” was constructed like a pugilistic product of the Industrial Age, a “wonderful engine of destruction” manifest in flesh and blood.
After imbibing the adulation inside his saloon on the evening of September 26, 1883, the hard-hitting, hard-drinking Sullivan waded through the throng of fawning fans outside and stepped into a waiting carriage that sprinted him away to a waiting train.
The man who had captured the heavyweight championship nineteen months prior had departed on many journeys before, but no man had ever set out on such an ambitious adventure as the one he was about to undertake.
For the next eight months, Sullivan would circle the United States with a troupe of the world’s top professional fighters. In nearly 150 locales, John L. would spar with his fellow pugilists but also present a sensational novelty act worthy of his contemporary, the showman P.T. Barnum.
The reigning heavyweight champion would offer as much as $1,000 ($24,000 in today’s dollars) to any man who could enter the ring with him and simply remain standing after four three-minute rounds.
The “Great John L.” was challenging America to a fight.