Multi-titled boxing champion Oscar De La Hoya recently admitted being unfaithful to wife, snorting cocaine and dressing in women’s clothes. Many boxing fans were sympathetic that De La Hoya had “reached rock bottom” and will turn his life around.
History may not be on his side. 125-plus years ago, champion John L. Sullivan capped a year of rowdy behavior with public drunkenness at New York’s Madison Square Garden, rendering him incoherent and unable to fight. Sullivan’s public humiliation should have convinced him to tone down the alcoholism. Instead, he continued with public intoxication, battled bankruptcy, battered women, uttered racial slurs, with endured numerous arrests until he ultimately lost the title.
The story did realize a happy ending 25-plus years after the 1884 Madison Square Garden incident when a newly married Sullivan publicly announced (1911): “My name is John L. Sullivan and I am an alcoholic.” Sullivan lived the remaining years of his life as the most famous temperance lecturer in America.
John L. Sullivan was out of control by May, 1883. He had only been heavyweight champion for 15 months. but he had been a breakaway sports star like none America had ever known. Sullivan could do no wrong. His best contemporary comparison is Mike Tyson. Both were undefeated knockout specialists who were viewed as the savior of the sport before they became champion. Sullivan’s mega-fame was because there had never been a “knockout specialist” prior. It occurred because of Sullivan’s insistence that he would never fight except with boxing gloves. Sullivan was forced to fight bare-knuckle to win the championship, but vowed never again. The gloved Marquis of Queensbury rules with 4 round legal limitations were friendly to Sullivan’s offensive style. Similar to Mike Tyson a century later, boxers were afraid of Sullivan before the fight had begun. Both would become abusers of women and allowed this as a luxury for their immense popularity.
By May 1883, rumors were already rampant that Sullivan was no longer training properly for his bouts and was an alcoholic. Both of these rumors were true. Winning and knockouts came so easily for Sullivan that he only had to contend with English pugilists backing away throughout a bout. Tug Wilson was the first to slightly deflate the Sullivan legend by merely surviving the four rounds without being knocked out. Wilson backed throughout while picking a moment here or there to land a punch. Sullivan was never injured or threatened, scoring two knockdowns while Wilson intentionally fell twice, but Bostonians viewed their hero with scorn and disappointment. Sullivan reacted with depression and binge drinking. Despite the immense adulation Sullivan would suffer from depression throughout his life.
John L. Sullivan was afflicted with mental illness. Alcohol only worsened the condition. His 1892 "suicide" – which must have shocked America – was publicized in newspapers following the loss of his title to James Corbett. The report was false, but it was confirmed that Sullivan was on a "suicide watch" by close associates. His emotional swings might be diagnosed as bipolar today by a psychiatrist with prescribed meds. His stardom as an 1883/84 megacelebrity would have been an experience only shared by former President and Union Army General Ulysses S. Grant. Sullivan’s manic phase would have him buying drinks for everyone at a tavern or offering extravagant gifts to friends and strangers while attempting to purchase "class" from an upper-crust society that frowned on his occupation. Sullivan’s depression lows left him despondent, perpetually bankrupt while feeling sorry for himself. Throughout his boxing career – because of emotion and not strategy – Sullivan would speak to the crowd during bouts.
Englishman Charlie Mitchell would be the biggest obstacle of Sullivan’s boxing career. The man strategized a backing style unpopular with Americans, but effective. During their May 1883 bout, Mitchell scored a first-round knockdown. Sullivan had not trained and was tricked off balance. Sullivan could not knock Mitchell down. But the New York City police halted the Madison Square Garden contest, with 12000 fans, and awarded Sullivan the victory because Mitchell was backing too much. I dislike Mitchell as a historian, but there was no reason this bout should have been halted. Sullivan was dominating, but did not score a knockdown. The irony of the police intervention is that "fighting" was illegal (but not boxing) while Mitchell was disqualified for “not fighting”.
Sullivan’s popularity remained strong enough that 4,000 fans paid to witness the heavyweight champion pitch a professional baseball game in May 1883. Sullivan was paid $2000 and half the gate receipts to pitch for Metropolitan against Picked Nine. Sullivan had been a professional baseball player and had to contemplate whether to select baseball or boxing. He had played catcher and pitcher for two Boston teams, the Emmets and Trements. But this pitching performance was based on his boxing credentials. Sullivan pitched two shutout innings to lead 1-0. His first at bat was an embarrassing swinging strike out with the champion falling onto his face. The crowd laughed. The game was mostly legit except the opposing pitcher, Creedon, began allowing Sullivan to hit the ball and reach base. The crowd did not pay money to watch Sullivan strike out, so this was an exception. Sullivan’s pitching began to become wilder and he was hit more frequent. After six innings Metropolitan led 13-11. Sullivan pitched a complete nine inning game with a 20-15 victory. Sullivan was recorded having four hits and a game-leading four fielding errors.
Sullivan fought New Zealander (of Māori descent) Herbert Slade in August, 1883. New York produced 9,000 fans for the gloved contest. It was a dominating Sullivan performance with the referee ending the contest during the third round. New York critics savaged the bout as a carnival freak show rather than a sporting contest. The champion was described as a “smiling tiger preparing to put its majestic paw on a rabbit.” Slade, who was trained by former champion, Jem Mace, was described as “flabby and nervous.”
Outside the ring, September, 1883, Sullivan wore diamond jewelry and owned a tavern. He publicly swore off bare-knuckle fighting once again. Sullivan insisted his fame was fleeting and he would soon be forgotten. A journalist asked whether a professional athlete known to imbibe too much should own a bar. The champion replied: “I rather wish I had not opened the place until I retired. The trouble is it breaks a man all up. One man comes in and asks me to drink champagne, another beer, another whiskey, and a fourth brandy. That’s the way it goes.”
Champion Sullivan continued with exhibition mismatches as he toured America. In January 1884 he wound up in a brawl with Denver, Colorado bar patrons. Sullivan and his exhibition sparring partner, Herbert Slade, celebrated the New Year with prostitutes and binge drinking. As the loud talk became mutually aggressive the pugilists realized they were outnumbered. Sullivan raced to the owner and asked for a gun. When the owner refused, Sullivan punched him with his famous right hand. A patron friend of the owner hit Sullivan. As chaos erupted the pugilists rushed outside. The patrons followed. Slade knocked a man down and stepped on his face. Two men seized Slade from behind. A man hit Slade to the back of the head with a brick. Slade dropped to the ground unconscious and bled as a frightened Sullivan fled. The bar patrons believed (incorrectly) they had committed murder. They assisted their fallen comrade to his feet and fled.
March 6th, 1884, promised to be a true heavyweight championship bout as Sullivan prepared to fight the West Coast champion, George Robinson. The anticipated gloved bout would be on Robinson’s home turf of San Francisco, California. The largest West Coast crowd in American history at 15,000 was preceded by events and a parade in Sullivan’s honor. The prize was $20,000. It was meant as a bout for the ages. Sullivan had wanted 3-ounce boxing gloves but police insisted on 8-ounces instead. The bout would ultimately shame the local crowd. Sullivan knocked Robinson down with his first punch. There were seven recorded knockdowns in the first round. There were 14 recorded knockdowns in the second round. Sullivan would hit Robinson once and the man would fall down. Robinson began to fall down without being hit. After three rounds, Sullivan’s corner men asked for a disqualification. The referee refused. The angry San Francisco crowd heckled their disgraced hero. They had not paid for their champion to behave like a coward. Following a fourth-round knockdown with one punch Sullivan began to mock his foe. Sullivan began feinting punches. Robinson continued to be "knocked down" by phantom blows. The referee finally intervened and disqualified Robinson. The crowd’s mood turned to raucous cheers as Sullivan waved and acknowledged them. But one of the most anticipated boxing bouts in history would be relegated to an obscure footnote.
In March 1884 Sullivan’s boxing tour brought him to Tucson and Tombstone, Arizona. His sparring exhibition partner was a New Yorker, Pete McCoy. Tucson described the bout: “Like pitting a mountain against a mole hill.” Sullivan would hold one glove against his nose while snapping jabs with his left. McCoy backed and backed as the crowd laughed at his predicament. Sullivan was clearly clowning with both pugilists at half-effort. In the third round Sullivan pushed his glove against McCoy’s chin. The New Yorker fell off the stage as the crowd laughed and cheered. Tucson critics concluded: “Like sending a boy to stop a six-horse wagon pitching down hill.” Sullivan fought five boxers at Schiefflin Hall in Tombstone. (Two years earlier Morgan Earp was assassinated shortly after leaving the theater.) The most notable is that one of the Tombstone pugilists might have been James Young. It would have been a first-round knockout victory for Sullivan, and if true, Young was the only Black pugilist that Sullivan ever fought.
Sullivan returned to the East Coast and his June 30th, 1884 humiliation in front of 6,000 paid Madison Square Garden attendance, the police commissioner and several New York legislatures. Ex-bare-knuckle champion Tom Allen was an esteemed guest. Sullivan’s opponent was Englishman, Charlie Mitchell. Sullivan staggered as he attempted to enter the ring. A friend held Sullivan’s hand to assist. It was obvious to everyone that the heavyweight champion of the world was drunk. Sullivan entered the ring to light boos. He looked horrible with blood-shot red eyes, unkempt hair and unshaven. Some of the crowd shouted comments, calling the champion an alcoholic. Sullivan was offended by the truthful heckling. Sullivan’s corner men wanted to cancel the bout due to sickness.
Sullivan unwisely decided to address the crowd by shouting loud enough that his comments were published: “This is the first time I have ever come to New York to fight and wasn’t able to do it.” The crowd was saddened and deflated. Sullivan said he could maybe spar with Mitchell a bit but cannot fight. A police captain attempted to end this drunken, rambling speech by yelling at Sullivan to shut up and sit down. Sullivan unwisely continued his incoherent plea that he was not drunk. The words were slurred while he breathed heavily and sweat profusely.
New York City, circa 1880s
It had become a public meltdown. The champion was providing an embarrassing spectacle of his life outside the ring. As the crowd heckled Sullivan became increasingly needy and despondent. The captain ordered an officer to eject and escort the heavyweight champion from the arena. Sullivan struggled to stand. He lost his balance and could only hold himself from falling by gripping the ropes. Sullivan continued to shout and plead to the crowd: “I can’t fight. The doctors won’t let me. I’m sorry.” Police surrounded the outside of the ring expecting possible violence with the cancellation. The stunned crowd was fairly subdued. An ashamed Sullivan stopped talking to bow his head. He covered his face with his hand.
The crowd was shocked at the sight of the heavyweight champion crying. The sobs became louder. An unidentified man threw a towel at Sullivan’s feet. He picked it up and began wiping his face. The police captain reached the champion as his escort from the ring. The somber crowd sadly exited with a scene that resembled a funeral procession.