The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero

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Published by: Lyons Press
Release Date: March 1, 2015
Pages: 384
ISBN13: 978-0762788385



John L. Sullivan, the first modern heavyweight boxing champion of the world, was the gold standard of American sport for more than a decade, and the first athlete to earn more than a million dollars. He had a big ego, big mouth, and bigger appetites. His womanizing, drunken escapades, and chronic police-blotter presence were godsends to a burgeoning newspaper industry. The larger-than-life boxer embodied the American Dream for late nineteenth-century immigrants as he rose from Boston’s Irish working class to become the most recognizable man in the nation. In the process, the “Boston Strong Boy” transformed boxing from outlawed bare-knuckle fighting into the gloved spectacle we know today.

Strong Boy tells the story of America’s first sports superstar, a self-made man who personified the power and excesses of the Gilded Age. Everywhere John L. Sullivan went, his fists backed up his bravado. Sullivan’s epic brawls, such as his 75-round bout against Jake Kilrain, and his cross-country barnstorming tour in which he literally challenged all of America to a fight are recounted in vivid detail, as are his battles outside the ring with a troubled marriage, wild weight and fitness fluctuations, and raging alcoholism. Strong Boy, called “one of the best boxing books ever penned” by the Boston Globe and a “muscular, relentlessly detailed book” by the Wall Street Journal, gives readers ringside seats to the colorful tale of one of the country’s first Irish-American heroes and the birth of the American sports media and the country’s celebrity obsession with athletes.

If sports are America’s secular faith, Sullivan is not only among the pantheon of athletic gods, he is our Zeus. Far from a sepia-tone relic, Sullivan blazed the trail for any athlete who ever earned and squandered a fortune, owned a sports bar, sought political office, wrote his memoirs, inked endorsements, found himself behind bars, soaked in the adulation of millions, spewed braggadocio, and always backed up his swagger.


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“From the first page to the last, Klein’s prose retains its powers of enchantment and illumination. It is one of the best boxing books ever penned.”
—Boston Globe

“In this muscular, relentlessly detailed book, Christopher Klein not only tells Sullivan’s story but also documents the evolution of boxing from illicit bare-knuckle savagery akin to today’s steel-cage extravaganzas to the ‘sweet science’ of legally sanctioned bouts between skillful gloved opponents.”
—Wall Street Journal

“In Strong Boy, The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, the book that should go straight to the top of your holiday gift list, Irish American author Christopher Klein has written an immensely entertaining and insightful biography that’s worthy of his formidable subject.”
—Irish Voice

“Klein offers this treasure trove of information that covers sports, celebrity, crime, politics and entertainment as he tracks the John L. Sullivan, “Boston Strong Boy,” across the country and globe as he rises from the tenement to the heavyweight championship and everything that came with it.”
—Publishers Weekly

“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…A lively, consistently entertaining sports biography.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“Sports biography at its best. Rich in period detail, anecdote, and fresh perspective, Strong Boy paints both the good and the bad sides of success, as America’s growing celebrity culture turned a simple Irish American gladiator into a national, in fact international hero. A very human story with profound parallels for our sports-obsessed culture today!”
—Nigel Hamilton, author of Biography: A Brief History and The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941–1942

“This admirable biography has a Citizen Kane feel to it: Strong Boy both celebrates John L. Sullivan as a sports hero and lights up the pathos of Sullivan the man-child. If he could ‘lick any son-of-a bitch in the world,’ John L. could out-drink and out-eat all contenders. The first million-dollar man in sports died broke. Christopher Klein does justice to the legend, the man, and the times.”
—Jack Beatty, author of The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley, 1874–1958

“You don’t have to be a boxing fan to want to time travel back to the 1880s and sample some nickel beer, free lunch, horse trolleys, and the Babel of immigrants. Christopher Klein, in this well-researched book, delivers the sportin’ life of the Gilded Age when Americans crowned their first athlete-king, John L. Sullivan, in coast-to-coast banner headlines.”
—Richard Zacks, best-selling author of Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York

“Christopher Klein gives readers a ringside seat for one of the greatest boxing careers in history. The descriptions of the fights are quick and powerful—like one of John L.’s punches—and the Boston Strong Boy’s life story unfolds with wonderfully vivid detail. The Sweet Science deserves beautiful writing like this.”
—Bob Halloran, author of Irish Thunder: The Hard Life and Times of Micky Ward and Impact Statement: A Family’s Fight for Justice against Whitey Bulger, Stephen Flemmi, and the FBI

“Christopher Klein’s action-crammed account of the life and times of John L. Sullivan packs the wallop of the Boston Strong Boy’s legendary right fist. The magnetic, deeply flawed Sullivan comes back to life in this fascinating visit to the seedy, bare-knuckled culture of America’s nineteenth century beneath its Victorian gloss.”
—Edward Achorn, author of The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America’s Game and Fifty-nine in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had

“Christopher Klein’s Strong Boy is a well-researched look at a forgotten hero: modern boxing’s first heavyweight champion. It’s a go-to resource on John L. Sullivan’s personal life, his ring career, and the era in which he thrived. For all the talk about ‘the man who beat the man,’ here’s a work that documents the man himself.”
—John Florio, author of One Punch from the Promised Land: Leon Spinks, Michael Spinks and the Myth of the Heavyweight Title

Additional Press Coverage for Strong Boy


Prologue: Rumble on the River

The most wicked men in New York City skimmed along the surface of the Hudson River. With the sun safely tucked beneath the horizon on the night of May 16, 1881, a tug hauled a barge laden with an unsavory cargo of pickpockets, gamblers, swindlers, drinkers, and drifters. Past the waterfront’s forest of rocking masts, the motley menagerie crept up the liquid highway on a nefarious moonlight excursion.

As they nervously scanned the river for waterborne police, the four hundred outlaws bathed in the reflected glitter of America’s greatest metropolis. On shore and under the yellow glare of Manhattan’s gaslights, black-bonneted ladies in pinched corsets and cigar-chomping gentlemen with finely waxed mustaches and silk top hats promenaded to Broadway theaters. Sparkling carriages and hansom cabs rattled over a carpet of cobblestones past the Fifth Avenue palaces of the country’s merchant princes. Beneath Delmonico’s silver chandeliers and frescoed ceilings, the city’s power brokers feasted on oysters and champagne as they peered out at the disembodied arm of the Statue of Liberty lifting its torch above Madison Square Park, a nagging reminder that the pedestal for the copper colossus remained unbuilt.

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