Tag Archives: Paul Beston

100 Years Gone: Remembering John L. Sullivan

By Paul Beston

“I have anchored here,” John L. Sullivan said, speaking of Donelee Ross farm in Abington, Massachusetts, “until my time comes. There is no place like home.” It was at Donelee Ross that he died 100 years ago today, February 2, 1918, of heart failure at the age of 59. Surprisingly for a man whose exploits had often led the news, Sullivan’s passing did not make the front page of the New York Times, dominated by coverage of the war in Europe, in which American soldiers, shipping out across the Atlantic in ever-growing numbers, would soon start fighting. The country that Sullivan helped define—the America of the Gilded Age, what some called the Age of Confidence—already seemed quaint and far away, its outlines receding into history. Sullivan died a nineteenth-century man at his pastoral home, far from the mechanized clamor of a nation always impatient to race into the future.

Sullivan in 1881

“It is a dollar to a nickel that he is known to more people in this country than George Washington,” the Police Gazette had written of Sullivan as late as 1905. But like almost all heroes, his memory began to fade as the years passed.

By the time I encountered Sullivan in the 1970s, browsing books on boxing at my local library, he may as well have lived in Roman times. Younger generations see a great, lauded figure from the past, and they think to the present for reference. My point of comparison back then was Muhammad Ali, the only champion I’d yet known. Ali was then in his second reign as heavyweight champion and generally regarded as the most-recognized face on the planet. He was a hard man to compete with, even for his contemporaries; all the more so for those dim figures in boxing histories, who fought only in photos, not on film. They looked frozen in antiquity by comparison, their fighting stances ponderous, their bodies less defined. They wore tights. It was as if the history of boxing mimicked the timeline of the evolution of man, a slow accretion from crawling to walking, left to right, across a foldout page. Ali stood, arms raised, at the far right. Sullivan, barely off all fours, occupied the space on the far left. Or so it seemed to my young mind then.

It would be some time before I could understand Sullivan and his world and come to appreciate his fighting accomplishments and the trajectory of his remarkable life. He was champion for ten years, from 1882 to 1892, and he lost only one match, his last, to Jim Corbett, in New Orleans, losing the heavyweight championship along with it. They fought into the 21st round, and Sullivan took a relentless battering for over an hour before finally succumbing. His greatest victory was a 75-round marathon bout against Jake Kilrain in 1889, waged with bare fists under the old London Prize Ring rules, in 100-degree Mississippi heat. That battle lasted more than two hours and took on mythic qualities almost the moment that it was over—with fans gathering up sod, pieces of ring posts, and any other sacred relic that they could find. Sullivan vs. Kilrain stands alone in the history of boxing, a real-life myth. Nothing else compares with it.

Sullivan’s idea was that his possession of the heavyweight title made him an important person, a kind of king.

Certain people have ideas about themselves, and when they live out these ideas, they create new realities. Sullivan’s idea was that his possession of the heavyweight title made him an important person, a kind of king. There was no precedent for thinking so. There had been heavyweight champions before him. They were small-time figures, toiling in an illegal sport for modest payouts, and usually slipping into obscurity (and poverty) when their fighting days were over. None were known widely to the general public or written about with such fevered interest. When Sullivan won the title in 1882, prizefighting, as it was then largely known, was illegal in every state, and the efforts that went into making and staging matches were sometimes as dramatic as the matches themselves. When Sullivan left the ring, the sport remained broadly illegal, but his matches had been covered nationally and internationally; he had been to the White House; he had been the subject of literature, song, and art; he had made “the heavyweight championship of the world” (though he was not recognized overseas) into a compelling—and commercial—prize; and he had identified that title with America itself.

“There isn’t a self-respecting American,” he said, “no matter what tomfool ideas he may have about boxing in general, who does not feel patriotic pride at the thought that a native born American, a countryman of his, can lick any man on the face of the earth.” Where a void had been, Sullivan left behind a world. Alas, that world included the infamous color line, which Sullivan took it upon himself to draw against black fighters, shutting them out of a chance at the title. (It would take Jack Johnson to breach the line and Joe Louis to eradicate it.)

Even as a kid, ignorantly dismissive of him as a fighter, I was struck by Sullivan as a character. His story leapt off those musty library pages. He did everything on a grand scale: traveling, boasting, eating, drinking (especially drinking), and spending. He estimated later in life that he had earned about $1 million and squandered all of it. His famous boast, “I can lick any sonofabitch alive!” became an archetypal fighting man’s motto. It lingers today, as does “Shake the hand that shook the hand of the Great John L.!” a line that originated in a vaudeville song and became emblematic of the adulation so many Americans, especially men, had for him.

When I was working on The Boxing Kings, one of my brothers asked me where the book would begin. With John L. Sullivan, I said. Many years had passed since that name had come up in conversation between us. My brother thought for a moment and then, as if pulling the phrase from the mists, said: “Let me shake the hand that shook the hand of John L.—that’s him, right?” That’s him.



In 1905, the 47-year-old Sullivan was 13 years past his championship years and well into a second career as a touring stage personality—but he was also deeply mired in the alcoholism that scarred so much of his life: it had wrecked a marriage and several friendships, got him into scrapes with the law, cost him half a million dollars by his own estimation, nearly killed him more than once, and left behind him a long trail of terrible behavior. Now, sitting in a hotel bar in Terre Haute, Indiana, Sullivan drained a glass of champagne (ale, in other accounts) into a cuspidor and vowed never again to take another drink—and never did, amazing his friends and more importantly, laying the foundation for a new life. He became a temperance lecturer. A few years later, he married a childhood friend, Kate Harkins, and they settled on their humble estate, Donelee Ross— its name an amalgamation of their Irish ancestral origins—and farmed, among other things, potatoes. After Kate died in 1916, Sullivan took in an orphan boy, William Kelly, and at the time of his death seemed to be preparing to adopt him. By all accounts, he doted on the boy, who was left parent-less, again, by his passing. Sullivan was also adored by the children of Abingdon, whom he regaled with stories while letting them play on the farm. He gave generously to charity. Thus Sullivan, who had been as notorious as he was famous during his fighting days, died a cherished old lion, revered in a way not unlike Ebenezer Scrooge after his ghostly visitations. “I have seen it all,” he said, and he had—and perhaps had attained some measure of redemption, too.

The arc of Sullivan’s life and career would be recreated by some of his heavyweight successors, in addition to becoming a kind of celebrity template: rise, fall, rebirth. But for all its familiarity, the model has a timeless lesson: one is never counted out unless he counts himself out. A century after Sullivan poured out that last glass of booze, Mike Tyson began traveling a redemptive path of his own. The stages of his life and career had resembled Sullivan’s: spectacular, iconic success; decline, fall, and descent into caricature; reclamation. Like Sullivan, Tyson left much wreckage behind him and had battled the demon of substance abuse; like Sullivan, he found an anchor in a later marriage; and like Sullivan, he wound up on stage, giving his testimony. Not everyone buys this reformed Tyson, but few would describe him as the same man who served a three-year prison term for rape or bit off part of Evander Holyfield’s ear.

All the heavyweight champions had to start over in some form or another when their fighting days were done. Some of their transformations, like George Foreman’s, or, more somberly, Muhammad Ali’s, were dramatic, others more ordinary. The courses they took illustrated in different ways that the qualities that make champions—determination, will, and the capacity to envision something that others may not see—can be applied outside the ring as well, for more enduring purposes.



John L. Sullivan was buried in Old Calvary Cemetery (now Mount Calvary Cemetery) in Roslindale, beside Kate. “He was an old and valued friend, and I mourn his death,” Theodore Roosevelt said. It had been such a bitter winter, and the day of the funeral itself was so frigid, that the ground had to be dynamited to make room for his body—a parting touch he would surely have cherished. “Never has the American prize ring had such a character as Sullivan,” the New York Times observed, “and never again will the fighting game produce another man who will stamp his personality on the world of pugilism as the blunt, gray, old philosopher of Donelee Farm.” One hundred years have passed now, and great and memorable champions have come and gone to challenge that judgment. But John L. is father to them all.

Paul Beston is managing editor of City Journal and author of The Boxing Kings: When American Heavyweights Ruled the Ring.


Youtube Boxing

Studying The Art Of Boxing


By Bobby Franklin

Boxing was once a great art. Unfortunately, it is now a lost art. The practitioners of this once noble form, men such as Johnson, Robinson, Dempsey, Louis, Leonard (Benny and Sugar Ray), Moore, Tunney, and so many others, were the Michelangelos and DaVincis of their craft. And while the likes of the great Florentines will never be seen again, so it is with the Old Masters of Boxing.

Boxing was once a great art. Unfortunately, it is now a lost art.

Leonardo has been dead for hundreds of years, but we can still gaze upon his work in museums around the world. The sculpture, painting, and architecture of Michelangelo is still very much with us. To gaze upon the David in Florence or the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican is a moving experience. These great works and so many others still speak to us and leave us in awe, so much so that it is almost impossible to think of the men who created them as being dead. They live on through their work and the influence it continues to have on us.

While I may be bordering on hyperbole to compare boxing with such great masters in the classical arts, when it comes to the world of sports I can think of no other that encapsulates the art spirit as much as boxing. So, how are we able to experience and appreciate what is now a lost art? You certainly cannot hang the Louis/Conn fight on a wall in a museum. We can read about these great practitioners and learn what interesting lives they led, but in order to truly experience what they accomplished we have to see it.

The art form boxing is closest to is dance, something that is beautiful because of its motion. You can look at a photograph of Nureyev gliding through the air in much the same way you can see one of Ray Robinson executing a perfectly timed left hook, but that only gives a view of a split second in time of their performances. To truly appreciate what these great talents did you have to see them in action. Thanks to Thomas Edison and his invention of moving pictures many of these great works have been preserved on film. However, it was not until recently that we were able to gain access to so much of this material. Yes, thousands of hours of footage were recorded but it was very rare that we ever got to see any of it. That is until the advent of YouTube.

Robinson vs Fullmer

YouTube is the Smithsonian of boxing. For anyone interested in looking back at the years when boxing was a true art form, YouTube is the Holy Grail. It is beyond belief what can be seen there. Not only is there film of great masters dating back to the 19th Century, but much of it has been restored and even corrected for problems with the speed at which it was originally shown making these pieces even better then when they were originally shown.

Where is all this footage coming from? I have no idea, but there are a lot of people out there who are digging it up and sharing it with the rest of us. They are the caretakers and archeologists of this history, and their work is invaluable. Because of them we are now able to finally view the great Sam Langford in action. I can watch Jake LaMotta training at the original Bobby Gleason”s Gym. Do a search for “D’Amato, Dundee, and Ali training” and you will be a fly on the wall listening in while the two great trainers exchange comments while watching Ali spar. You can see Gene Tunney in a playful sparring match with James J. Corbett. But most of all you can go back and watch some of the great fights of all time, some you may have only read about. You can watch them as often and whenever you want to, and quite often you may find they are a bit different from what you have read about them. I found this to be the case when I watched the first Joe Louis v Billy Conn bout.

Now that we have this great museum of boxing masters available for us to watch in our homes how do we best appreciate them? As with all great art, you can enjoy it  just by watching them. But, to really delve into the art it is best to learn more about what you are watching. There are many ways to learn what I call “Boxing Theory”, understanding what is happening on a deeper level when watching these artists. Looking at the Mona Lisa is a moving experience, but as you learn more about the subtleties and different interpretations of it you gain so much more. Great art truly appreciated often leaves us asking more questions the more we view it. This is true of boxing.

Seeing how there are no courses on “Boxing Art Appreciation” it is up to us to take the autodidactic route. Finding books that work as guides that lead us to uncover more and more of these treasures is a good place to start. Good books on boxing will also cue you in on what to look for when watching a classic fight. It will also give you historical context which is very important. As with any art, it is important to view it with a proper perspective of when it was created. Seeing Jack Dempsey in the ring with Jess Willard is much more interesting when you know what led up to him being there.

Paul Beston’s The Boxing Kings: When American Heavyweights Ruled The Ring is an excellent overview of a great period in boxing history. As you read each chapter you can then go to YouTube to watch footage of the men Mr. Beston has written about. Reading and watching in tandem makes it a truly wonderful experience.

To delve more deeply into the techniques of the old masters I would recommend Mike Silver’s The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science. Reading this work along with viewing the fights all help you to better understand that is happening in the ring.

There are also many autobiographies and instruction books that were written by the fighters from the great era of boxing. For instance, I read Tommy Farr’s autobiography in which he gives a beautiful account of his fight with Joe Louis. After reading it the fight took on a whole new meaning as I watched it.

With great books such as those written by Mike Silver and Paul Beston as your guide you can embark on a wonderful adventure studying the Art of Boxing. Bring a critical eye when watching these films. Look for the subtleties. As with any great art, look beneath the surface, you will find there is so much there. I must warn you though, once you start it will become an addiction.

When Everyone Knew Who The Heavyweight Champion Was

The Boxing Kings:
When American Heavyweights Ruled The Ring
By Paul Beston
Rowman & Littlefield
356 Pages

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

From the time of John L. Sullivan up to the reign of Mike Tyson just about everybody knew who the Heavyweight Champion of the World was. It was the most prestigious of all sporting titles and the man who held it was one of the most famous, if not the most famous man on the planet. From 1885 up to 1990 only 30 men were able to claim that title.

Being the Heavyweight Champion went beyond just winning fights. Unlike other sports, the Champ did not compete as part of a team. This was a solitary accomplishment that was the epitome of rugged individualism. It took more than just physical prowess to win the title, it also took strength of character and a determined will.

People who have come to the sport of boxing in recent years have no idea what an important figure the Heavyweight Boxing Champion was to past generations. In that period I doubt there was a boy alive who didn’t at one time dream of holding the title. The history of those men who did reach that goal is a very rich one that often mirrors society as a whole. While many books have been written about individual title holders, there has been a need for a broad history of the era when everyone knew the names John L. Sullivan, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, and many others.

People who have come to the sport of boxing in recent years have no idea what an important figure the Heavyweight Boxing Champion was to past generations.

Now, thanks to Paul Beston, the Managing Editor of City Journal, that need has been filled. In The Boxing Kings: When American Heavyweights Ruled The Ring Mr. Beston tells the story of these unique individuals with insight and respect while at the same time not glossing over their weaknesses. If you are not already familiar with this history there is no better book for you to learn from. If you are an experienced boxing fan you will find this work refreshing and informative. I consider myself to be a bit of a boxing expert and I still found much that was new to me while reading this lively narrative.

It was interesting to find out that John L. Sullivan, who is well known for drawing the color line when it came to defending the title against black challengers, was one of the first people in the ring to congratulate Jack Johnson, the first black champion, when he defeated Jim Jeffries. Sullivan also rode on the railroad car with Johnson and his black supporters after the fight. There may have been an ulterior motive for Sullivan’s actions, but it is still surprising to read about this considering the time in which it took place.

There is so much more. Johnson, who is seen today as a man who stood up and broke through the color line drew one of his own and would not defend the title against some of the finest “colored” heavyweights of his day. Johnson, with his extreme behavior, not only offended whites but finally even blacks who did not find him a good example for their children. To quote the author, “As a black man living on his own terms-not those of whites, not those of blacks, and not those of Booker T. Washington or W.E.B. DuBois-Johnson had no home in the America of his time. But he didn’t have to make the choices he made.”

Mr. Beston moves through the years concisely but without giving short shrift to any of the personalties involved.

Mr. Beston moves through the years concisely but without giving short shrift to any of the personalties involved. In the case of Jack Dempsey, a man who would become one of the most beloved figures in the history of sports, we learn he had his problems stemming from his not having served in the military during WWI. It was a stain that would haunt the great champion for years. Yet, even with that baggage his magnetism provided for the first million dollar gates in history. Dempsey also brought boxing out of the shadows and into the mainstream.

Mr. Beston shines in this book in that he not only has done painstaking research, but he is also a great writer who never gives his readers a dull moment. In a chapter entitled The Substitutes he covers the period between Dempsey and Joe Louis. For many this time is looked upon as a lull between two great champions, but it was actually a fascinating period. It was during this time that two of the champions were not from the United States, making it truly a world championship. As that world was slipping into chaos it appeared the Heavyweight Championship was too. Max Schmelling won the title on a foul, the only fighter ever to do so. Gangsters were becoming heavily involved in the game, and there was even a question of whether or not Jack Sharkey threw his fight with Primo Carnera.

It took Joe Louis to bring stability and honor to the sport. While reading Mr. Beston’s chapter on the Louis years one is filled with joy and sadness. Louis was not only arguably the greatest heavyweight of all time, but also one of the most important figures of the 20th Century when it came to unifying the nation and breaking down racial barriers. Louis does not receive the credit he deserves for all he accomplished. He is given his due here. As Mr. Beston writes “Louis was a light in black America’s darkness, and a generation would never forget him for it.” When reading that line I can’t help but think of how Muhammad Ali would later mock the aging champion.

Louis was the first black golfer to play in a PGA event, another wall he broke through. I have to admit I was almost bought to tears reading about Joe’s days after boxing. This man who had done so much for boxing and for his country was hounded for years by the IRS and relegated to being a greeter in LasVegas. Paul Beston gives this great man the respect he earned and deserves.

Mr. Beston brings us Rocky Marciano, the Brockton Blockbuster. Marciano possessed the grit, determination, and sheer will that allowed him to overcome his physical shortcomings to become the only undefeated champion in history. He was also a hero to working class America. Following Rocky, Floyd Patterson’s rise to the throne ushered in a period when boxing appeared to be fading away. Then along came the colorful and handsome Swede Ingemar Johnson who briefly shot some adrenaline into the veins of the sport. We see Sonny Liston, the man whose stare paralyzed opponents and whose lifestyle made him unwanted as champion. Mr. Beston gives us insight into this complicated man who is almost impossible to understand. If boxing were the works of Shakespeare, then Liston would be one of the “problem plays”.

In reading the chapter on Muhammad Ali, the man who certainly saved boxing but at at a cost, I can’t help but think of how different things would have been if Ali had made some other choices. His decision to become part of a radical black separatist movement that preached racial hatred was so at odds with the unifying movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. This charismatic young champion could have done so much to further race relations but chose to take a different path. It is ironic he is looked upon as a great Civil Rights leader when he preached separation of the races. Mr. Beston gives us much insight into Ali’s career, but I think he could have a whole book just on this one subject where he would be able to delve more deeply into this subject.

Paul Beston closes his history with the years following Ali and ends with Lennox Lewis taking over as champion. In these chapters he discusses the bitterness of Larry Holmes and even made me feel some sympathy for Mike Tyson. He gives his thoughts on why the Heavyweight Champion is no longer a recognizable figure.

Paul Beston’s work is truly worthy of the Championship Crown.

I read a lot of books on boxing. There are a number of good ones out there. However, some are well researched but poorly written and not well edited, while others are plain awful. In The Boxing Kings we have the rare book that is well researched, well written, lively, informative, and fully conveys the author’s love for the sport while taking an honest view of it. If books were fighters some would be tomato cans, some journeymen, some contenders, and a very few would be Champions. Paul Beston’s work is truly worthy of the Championship Crown. I highly recommend it.