Historian and travel writer Klein (Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands: A Guide to the City's Hidden Shores, 2008, etc.) delivers a well-researched, enjoyable biography of boxing’s first heavyweight superstar, John L. Sullivan (1858–1918).
In the late 1800s, boxing matches were little more than “savage human cockfights.” Though prizefighting had rules, few participants followed them; moreover, the sport itself was mired in corruption and always on the run from the law. All that began to change when “Boston Strong Boy” Sullivan stepped into the ring in the late 1870s. A wondrous “ ‘engine of destruction’ manifest in flesh in blood,” Sullivan drifted into boxing at age 19 after demonstrating his prowess in impromptu brawls that caused him to lose jobs as a day laborer. He began his career by taking part in local matches around his native Boston. In 1880, Sullivan met his first two championship-level opponents and demolished them both. He traveled all over the country to take part in exhibition fights, and he earned a reputation as a fearsome opponent who never lost a match. Two years later, Sullivan finally had his much-desired shot at the heavyweight title in a bare-knuckle, illegal brawl. He defeated the reigning champion and then began another successful fight, outside the ring, to require that prizefights be conducted under Marquess of Queensberry rules, under which contestants had to wear gloves and put an end to such practices as head butting and wrestling. Attentive as he is to historical details, Klein’s storytelling gift is most evident in how he depicts “John L.” as a beloved hero who was eventually undone by ego and who had a legendary appetite for food and drink. Though largely forgotten, Sullivan was the great “American Hercules” who ruled the late-19th-century boxing world and helped usher it into the modern sporting age.
A lively, consistently entertaining sports biography.