by Michael T. Isenberg ‧ RELEASE DATE: Feb. 23, 1987
A knockout biography of John L. Sullivan that puts the fabled boxing champ squarely in the context of his rough-and-tumble times. Drawing on a wealth of contemporary sources, including the scandalous National Police Gazette, Isenberg (History/Annapolis) recounts how Sullivan brawled his way from a working-class background in Boston's Irish ghetto to the top of the prizefighting world. The Great John L. (for Lawrence) was king of the heavyweights from 1882--when, at 24, he beat Paddy Ryan in a bareknuckel match--until Gentleman Jim Corbett kayoed him after 21 bloody rounds in an 1892 bout conducted under Marquis of Queensberry rules. During his lengthy reign, the Boston Strong Boy traded punches with all comers save black men, whom he refused to meet on strictly racial grounds. Throughout America's Gilded Age, boxing remained an outlaw sport in most jurisdictions. As Isenberg makes clear, moreover, the hard-living, improvident Sullivan did little to redeem the image of his brutal trade. He hated to train but loved the bottle and willing women. Thanks to a series of exhibition tours at a time when the US population was moving from the countryside to cities, the gregarious alcoholic and adulterer nonetheless became an authentic national celebrity whose popularity transcended class as well as ethnic lines. He also helped to transform the fight game from a dirty, clandestine business into a lucrative, even legitimate enterprise. After losing his title, Sullivan hit the skids. Eventually, though, John L. quit drinking, remarried (happily), and enjoyed a generally comfortable retirement, hobnobbing with the likes of President Theodore Roosevelt. Wisely, Isenberg gives short shrift to his subject's anticlimactic years. Instead, he focuses on the achievements and escapades that made him an urban folk hero to rival such rural icons as Davy Crockett. It is greatly to the author's credit that he takes the unsentimental measure of a legendary figure without diminishing either his stature or accomplishments. A stunning piece of work, then, with appeal for fans of Americana as well as the sweet science. The absorbing text has 28 illustrations, including period photographs and line drawings (not seen).
Pub Date: Feb. 23, 1987
Page Count: -
Publisher: Univ. of Illinois Press
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1987
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