in: Character, Knowledge of Men, Podcast

• Last updated: September 27, 2021

Art of Manliness Podcast #54: The Life of John L. Sullivan With Christopher Klein

In today’s episode I talk to author Christopher Klein about his new biography of famed 19th century boxer John L. Sullivan entitled Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero Klein and I talk about larger-than-life John L. Sullivan and his influence on boxing and modern ideals of manhood in America today (including becoming part of the logo of the Art of Manliness!).

Show highlights:

  • What boxing was like before John L. Sullivan and how he helped change it
  • The craziness that was the National Police Gazette and how it catapulted Sullivan to fame
  • How John L. Sullivan laid the foundation for the modern sports superstar
  • Sullivan’s deep personal flaws
  • How he eventually overcame many of those flaws at the end of his life
  • And much more!

Strong boy by Christopher Klein, book cover.

Strong Boy is a fantastic read that not only captures the life of John L. Sullivan, but also the dramatic societal changes that transformed America in the late 19th century. In addition to picking up Klein’s book, check out his free ebook that he put together called John L. Sullivan’s Guide to the Manly Life. It’s filled with quotes by the Great John L. on how to become more virile.

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Special thanks to Keelan O’Hara for editing the podcast!

Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Well, since the beginning of The Art of Manliness, I’ve had at the top of the website as a part of my header and he’s also become basically an unofficial logo and mascot of The Art of Manliness. It’s a bare-chested mustached bare-knuckle boxer.

But that’s not just any random 19th Century bare-knuckle boxer that is John L. Sullivan, one of the greatest boxers in the history of the sport. He was the last bare-knuckle champion. And he was also a gloved boxing champion. He only lost once in his storied career.

And besides being a fantastic boxer, the guy was just larger than life, just a character, just full of like virile, masculine and energy. And at one time during the 19th Century, he was considered like the world’s most famous person. He was America’s first sports hero. The interesting thing about John L. Sullivan, despite his influence on the sport of boxing despite his celebrity in the 19th Century, there is really not that much out there about the man and his life.

So, I was really excited to learn about a new biography that just came out about John L. Sullivan, it’s written by Christopher Klein, the name of the book is Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero. We’re going to talk to him about his book. We’re going to talk to him about the life of John L. Sullivan. We’re going to talk about his storied boxing career.

But we’re also going to talk about his deep personal flaws. The man was a very complicated complex figure. We’re going to talk about these personal flaws his eventual triumph over those flaws and we’re going to talk about John L. Sullivan’s lasting legacy on the sport of boxing but as well as masculinity and manhood in America today. Really interesting podcast so stay tuned.

All right, Chris, welcome to the show.

Chris Klein: Thanks Brett.

Brett McKay: Okay. So I’m really excited about your book, John L. Sullivan, the Strong Boy of Boston. Because he’s the guy that is sort of like the unofficial mascot of The Art of Manliness, he’s that all-time boxer at the top of our website. And as I wanted to learn more about him and his life, I was surprised how very little is – there is out there about John L. Sullivan and his career, and his life. And I’m surprised because he was a huge celebrity and he really changed the sport of boxing. Why do you think there is so little about John L. Sullivan and why did you decide to write his biography?

Chris Klein: Well, the last major biography of Sullivan was done about 25 years ago. And I think part of the reason one hasn’t been done since then is that boxing is becoming a bit of a dying sport. It seems to live on in movies and books more so than actually in the ring.

And I think that generation of people heard stories about Sullivan from their parents have passed along as well in the last quarter century. But I researched Sullivan from my last book. And what really drew me into him was being a Boston guy with his boxing connection he was born in the South end of Boston. And his nickname was the Boston Strong Boy.

And he was an Irish-American hero and being Irish-American has intrigued me. And just finding out what a colorful figure he was, I thought what a fun subject it would be for biography. And the more I researched about Sullivan, the more I learned just what an important figure he is in American culture. He is the first sports superstar. He’s the first Irish-American icon. And we may think of him as the sepia-toned relic but really he’s very much a trailblazer for the modern age in which we live.

So, just seeing how important he is or how we live our lives and how sports, is such a central pillar of American culture today. I really thought it was time to freshen-up the story and of course in the couple of decades, with the rise of the internet, we now have these great tools that are hand to be able to go back. And even though a lot hasn’t been written about Sullivan maybe in the last 20 years, there are tens of thousands of articles that are written about him during his lifetime.

And now you can sort of research that right from your desktop going through all these old-time newspapers. So, it’s a benefit that we have in terms of doing the research now that we’ve done 20 to 25 years ago.

Brett McKay: Yes, that was the thing that struck me about the book as I was reading about his life. He was a larger than life character, very colorful, complicated. But his story is sort of like he was so intertwined with like the rise of Modern America.

Chris Klein: Yes.

Brett McKay: With the rise of sports that he was living at the time when baseball and football and boxing were becoming national pastimes in America. He was living at a time when mass consumerism was coming live and he took advantage of that. He was around when the mass press as we know it today came around. And so, it was just interesting to see how John L. Sullivan intersected – his life intersected with all these different aspects of American history at the same time.

Chris Klein: Yes, exactly. And I’m not really much of a boxing fan per say. And I wasn’t really interested in writing a boxing book. But what I was interested in doing was using Sullivan as sort of the lynching to talk about these different movements that were occurring in American history when you talk about the rise of celebrity culture and the immigration into America.

And sort of the gilded age with the wealthy and the downtrodden and how that might reflect on current times as well. So, it was a great way to sort of get in and delve into all these different aspects of American history and American culture that still impact us today.

Brett McKay: So, let’s talk about we know you didn’t set out to write a boxing book, but boxing lives large in the story. I guess what I got from your book when I was reading it, there was boxing before John L. Sullivan and there was boxing after John L. Sullivan. Can you talk about the state of boxing when John L. Sullivan came to I guess came to power? What was it like before and what was it like after he became a celebrity

Chris Klein: So, before Sullivan, boxing was completely different than what we think of today in terms of the modern sport. It’s really a bare-knuckled affair. So these guys were fighting under what was called the London Prize Ring rules.

So, you would fight without gloves and wrestling moves were legal. You could certainly get in a good amount of eye-gauging and hair-pulling. And so, when you see these guys with these flowing handle-bar moustaches, they didn’t wear those into the ring. And they cut their hair really closely too because your opponent could very well just grab a hold of your hair and get in a couple of good shots if you were down on the ground.

And rounds would last as long as one of the fighters was on his feet, once he hit the ground that would be the end of round, so rounds could last three seconds, it could last 35 minutes. And fights would go on until literally one fighter just couldn’t go on any further. And it was such a brutal affair and sort of awash in corruption and gambling that it was outlawed just about everywhere in America.

So, whenever these bare-knuckled fights would take place it was very much a cat and a mouse game between the boxers and the fans and the authorities to try to elude any sort of interference from the authorities. So these fights would take place in the backrooms of saloons or they might find secluded islands, the back woods are places that these fighters would commonly stage their prize fights.

And when Sullivan comes along, he really insists on fighting with the new rules that were being implemented then called the Marquess of Queensberry Rules. And these are more civilized rules of boxing, the ones that we’re more familiar with today where rounds are timed to last three minutes. There the fights would be done with gloves, there would be no wrestling that would be involved. So it was really a punching contest between the two fighters.

And even though we think of Sullivan as being this bare-knuckled boxer, he only fights three times – three championship fights with his bare fists and by insisting on fighting his opponents with gloves and with the Marquess of Queensberry Rules by the end of his career, he fights in the first championship fight that was done with gloves. And ever since then every fight has been done with gloves on the hands.

So, he is not necessarily just the last of the bare-knuckled boxers, he’s the first real modern boxing champion that we have.

Brett McKay: And he did a lot to legitimize the sport it seems?

Chris Klein: Yes, yes. And because by insisting on fighting with those gloves it made it more socially acceptable. And that form of boxing was legal as well. So, by the end of his career they no longer have to try to find some place in the back woods to have their championship fight. His last fight that he had is a in a 10,000-seat electrically lit arena in downtown New Orleans, where the media is there, where the telegraphs at ring side standing results throughout the country. And it’s completely out in the open and legal, very much similar to what you would find in Las Vegas today a big prize fight.

Brett McKay: When I found it, one of the things I found interesting was, like boxing, sort of like – boxing was sort of like in a legal limbo at the time, like it was okay for exhibitions, like you can do exhibitions and display the manly art right?

Chris Klein: Exactly.

Brett McKay: But if there was like – it was known that there was money being bet or if they got too violent, the police would okay, no, stop it this is no longer an exhibition, we’re going to put a stop to this?

Chris Klein: Yes, it was it was sort of in that limbo with a lot of different aspects, morality during the gilded age, now where it was supposed to get premium proper Victorian society. But certainly corruption, gambling, prostitution were all rampant behaviors.

And boxing was sort of in that limbo as well where yes, that you could stage these four-round exhibition against another opponent under the guides of being the scientific exhibitions. But everyone knew that these were prized fights, money was being gambled on it. The fans were coming to see someone get knocked out.

And whether that would happen or not, often dependent on whoever was in – sitting in the City Hall and in-charge of the police in terms of how quickly they would enter the ring to stop a fight. They might get in there at the first sign of someone taking a big hit or they just might wait until someone was knocked out.

So, you really never knew what was going to happen when you showed up at one of these boxing exhibitions, not only what was going to happen between the two fighters or whether the police might get into the ring at any moment to stop the fight too.

Brett McKay: Okay. So, John L. Sullivan, he was a formidable fighter. I think he only lost once right, like one?

Chris Klein: Yes, the one big fight was the last – his last championship fight against Corbett was really his only defeat that he really ever suffered in the ring.

Brett McKay: And he, like so he had over like 200 victories in a 10-year stretch is something unheard of today.

Chris Klein: Yes.

Brett McKay: Okay. What made him such a great fighter, I mean, was he – was he scientific about his fighting, was he just one-trick pony, just one who was brutal with them, what made him such a great fighter?

Chris Klein: It was a combination of speed and power. He was not a classically trained boxer he never took a boxing lesson in his life. That being said he did think about the scientific points of boxing and claimed that he had sort of studied upon and determined that he knew precisely the right points on an opponents jaw to hit him to knock him out. So, he did seclude a bit in scientific manner but he certainly wasn’t formally trained or had any sort of lessons.

It really was that he just had such a powerful right that he hit his opponents with and he could deliver it really quickly. He could just get his punches off so quickly. And he said that he pounced around the ring like a tiger that combination of the speed and power would often overwhelm opponents.

And then after he became champion, really the force of his personality tended to intimidate his opponents too. And it was said that, he often won half his fights just by getting into the ring and staring down his opponent. It tended to intimidate him so much that he really had that advantage. That psychological advantage every time he stepped into the ring.

Brett McKay: So. As we talked about in the introduction of the podcast, John L. Sullivan came to rise the same time when we had the rise of mass media. There were always newspapers, these sports dailies were coming to I guess power. And one of the most popular sports dailies amongst bachelors in America at the time was the National Police Gazette. This is a magazine we’ve talked before about on the site.

And it’s just – can you talk a little bit about the National Police Gazette and what affect it had on boxing? And also about the owner of the Gazette at this time it’s Richard K. Foxx, another very larger than life character, he had a rivalry between John L. Sullivan and it seems like that rivalry between Sullivan and Foxx really fuelled the popularity of boxing. So, talk a little bit about the National Police Gazette and talk about Richard K. Foxx and Sullivan?

Chris Klein: The National Police – the national acquirer of its day. It was a weekly tabloid. It printed salacious stories about sex and violence and it could rectitude into a story so much the better. So, it covered Wild West shootouts and Native American raids and lynching and often stories about damsels in distress who might be shooting guns at jilted lovers.

And there were these elaborate wood-cut illustrations inside too that often depicted these violent episodes or women showing a scandalous amount of maybe their shoulders or ankles as well. And so it was a very salacious publication. And its proprietor, Richard K. Foxx he also saw the growing interest in sports in America.

So, he added sports into the mix of the stories about sex and violence, certainly boxing very much fit in with the violence that he was covering in America. And he becomes sort of an important figure in boxing. He starts handing out championship belts and trophies. He sets weight classes and inside the pages of National Police Gazette, he would print challenges from one fighter to another.

So, in that way Foxx was sort of part Rupert Murdoch, part Don King. He is very much a powerful figure in boxing when Sullivan comes along. And there is a powerful story that the two are sitting inside Harry Hills Gentlemen theatre one of the most famous fonts in New York in 1881, couple of days after Sullivan won a big match on the stage inside Harry Hills. And Foxx seized Sullivan holding cards, sends a word through a waiter to have Sullivan come over to his table.

And according to the legend, Sullivan roars back at the waiter that it’s no farther from him to me than me to him if Foxx wants to see me, he can come over to me. And that supposedly is a story that launches the dislike of these two guys, the last – the better part of Sullivan’s career.

Now I can say is, that’s always probably possible but we do know that the two men did meet in New York around that time period. And we do know that they did take an instinct dislike to each other, probably because they were just very similar personalities, they both were Irish Americans. They were both very stubborn bold-headed, successful driven men. Foxx is used to sort of getting his way by the power of the pen and Sullivan his way by the power of the fist. And they were sort of like two magnets with the same polarities, so similar that they were just going to repel whenever they got together.

So, from that first meeting that they had in New York, Foxx then, he literally searched the ends of Europe to try opponents to take out Sullivan. He went to – he imported fighters from England, he imported fighter all the way from New Zealand. And he never had any luck getting Sullivan – getting someone to knockout Sullivan.

But despite how much they hated each other, it was a very mutually beneficial hatred because with Foxx’s newspaper, Sullivan took on the starring role. And he sold Foxx he sold hundreds of thousands of newspapers for Foxx. And by starring in the Police Gazette, Foxx really made Sullivan a celebrity too. So, the two, as much as they disliked each other, this rivalry between the two really paid big dividends for both of them.

Brett McKay: All right. So, as we talked before, John L. Sullivan is basically America’s – and you could even argue the world’s first superstar athlete. I mean, he’s the first athlete to ever earn $1 million. But what’s interesting I found I was fascinated about him, he sort of laid the groundwork of what superstar athletes are supposed to do, right. Sort of like lead the archetype.

Chris Klein: Yes.

Brett McKay: And one of the interesting things I found about him, out about John L. Sullivan in your book was that he parlayed his fame in boxing to other arenas in the entertainment arena. Can you talk a little bit about some of Sullivan’s I guess exploits in other areas of the entertainment industry?

Chris Klein: Yes, I found this really fascinating too because it really did echo what we sort of see with modern celebrities, modern sports stars as sort of blur the lines of the different arenas of celebrity. And this started off pretty early in Sullivan’s championship reign. So a couple of years after he was champion, he signed on to a living statuary group.

So he would travel around the country carrying on different stages. He would be covered in this white powder, maybe wearing just skin-tight tights on him. And then he would sort of take these different poses in the forms of Greek and Roman sculptures, it was called living statuary.

And he sold out audiences just by people who want to come in seeing him do these 24 different poses on stage. They didn’t really care about seeing John L. Sullivan the boxer they just want to see John L. Sullivan in the flesh. And that’s where it launches his vaudeville career that he has for the better part of 20 years. And he goes on to star in different theatrical productions, during his career.

He pens a play, especially for him, with him in the starring role called Honest Hearts and Willing Hand. And he toured around the country six to seven months of going on stage and these plays were, I guess, he was an okay actor. And at the end of the climax of each play, he would get into the rank for for-around exhibition.

And he sold out theatres around the country during these performances. So each year he did different play, for one year even appeared as Simon Legree in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. One year he went around delivering monologs and reciting different poems. And he also would appear – he was hired by professional baseball teams to come and pitch exhibition games for them or to umpire baseball games. And they would get 7,000 to 8,000 people who would show-up to watch a meaningless baseball game just to watch Sullivan pitch.

It was really interesting to find how people really just – they paid good money just seeing him in person, not necessarily see him in the ring.

Brett McKay: Yes, I just found that is just completely fascinating. And it just, I think he did a good job capturing sort of the celebrity, the birth of celebrity mania in America.

Chris Klein: Yes.

Brett McKay: And it’s amazing people think about how our celebrity obsession today is something new and it’s been around for over 100 years. It’s crazy. So, let’s talk, so John L. Sullivan without a doubt, one of the best fighters in the history of boxing, but the man had a lot of personal flaws like big, big-time flaws. And the one that haunted him for most of his career was his alcoholism, his drinking. Can you talk a little bit about John L. Sullivan’s battle with the bottle and how that affected his personal life and how did it affect his career?

Chris Klein: Yes. I mean, it appears that Sullivan was not a really big drinker until he won the championship in 1882. And then he’s got people who are always willing to buy him drinks and he opens up his own saloon in Boston. And really in-short order, he really develops a really bad drinking problem that really does take its toll on him. And he suffers through some very bad illnesses after some drunken benders that he goes on, a couple of times. He summoned priest to his bedside to deliver last rites.

One illness in particular he dropped 60 pounds and he was about to really be near death and they were sending out bulletins by the hour in terms of how he was faring. These drunken benders got him into countless run into the law where he gets into ballroom brawls or even one-time he was arrested for punching his horse out in one of the streets in Boston.

And then breakup of his marriage, he becomes a very terrible alcoholic and comes home in his drunken states and it appears that he took his work home with him and beat his wife on a number of different occasions. And in his boxing career, it took its impact too. He showed up for one fight at Madison Square Garden, the place was sold out, waiting for him to come into the ring. All of a sudden he shows up stumbling drunk into the ring and telling him that he has a doctor’s note that says he’s too sick to go into fight. But everyone could just physically see that he was terribly inebriated inside the ring.

So, he took some shots to his reputation, it led to breakups with managers, led to a breakup with his marriage. And it was a big problem for him for 20 years and then suddenly in 1905, according to him, he just calculated that he’d earned $1 million and spent $500,000 of it on booze and decided to quit cold turkey. And it appears that was true that somehow he was able to just quit drinking just like that.

And then later in his life he became a temperance speaker too. So, it was sort of redemptive moment for him later in his life.

Brett McKay: Yes, I was glad to see that because I’ve heard about John L. Sullivan’s drunkenness and his wife-beating. And I was glad to see that he was able to turn around at the end of his life, finally. So yes, like you said, the biography John L. Sullivan is very much like a redemption story at its heart.

Another big flaw of John L. Sullivan that lots of other white men at the time had during the 19th Century was he was a racist. And I loved how you did a good job explaining the race line in boxing which was, white fighters would not fight black fighters and particularly pointing with Irish-American fighters. Can you talk a little bit about the race line in boxing at the time?

Chris Klein: Yes. In the 1880s during Sullivan’s time, boxing was actually probably one of the more integrated if not the most integrated sports in America. That’s a time when baseball is becoming segregated until that would last for now 60 years until the time of Jackie Robinson. But you would find white fighters and black fighters in the ring with one gigantic exception that being for the championship bouts.

So, Sullivan certainly carried the racial biases of many Irish-Americans so that they had to begin with. And then once he gets the championship, he really feels that it’s his duty to keep a black man from ever wearing the championship belt.

So, he draws what he calls the color line and refuses to fight any black fighters once he became champion in the ring. And it appears that before he was champion that there might have been some matches that were set up and never happened. But the fact is that he never once got into the ring with an African-American or any sort of black fighter.

And later in his career, in the last couple of years, there was a fighter named Peter Jackson, he’s an average small fighter from Australia. And he was certainly among the handful of the top contenders of the day. In fact, in 1891 he fought Jim Corbett who would go on to defeat Sullivan to 61 round no contest. So we know that he was at least the match of Corbett who ends up knocking out Sullivan.

So we know that Jackson would at least have been a formidable challenger to Sullivan in the ring. But he flatly, when he invites in 1892 invites fighters to take him on, he’s specifically writes in his notice to the press that he will not fight any negro fighters and that would include Peter Jackson. So, that certainly was among the dark episodes when we take a look at the life of Sullivan.

Brett McKay: I see. You just mentioned James Corbett, Gentleman Jim he was the fighter that finally defeated John L. Sullivan. How was Corbett able to beat him, was he just – was he more a scientific fighter than Sullivan, was Sullivan just out of shape and just drunk. How did he finally, how did Corbett beat Sullivan?

Chris Klein: It’s sort of a combination too. Corbett was a very different fighter and a very different personality from Sullivan. Now Sullivan, as I said never took a lesson in his life but Corbett was a very tough and very scientific fighter. He had gone through a lot of training at the Olympic club in San Francisco. So, he wasn’t really a fighter, who fought on instinct, he really was an intellectual type of fighter.

And we talked around the book that Corbett and Sullivan actually fought an exhibition a couple of years before they met for the championship. And even then according to Corbett he was sort of feeling out Sullivan. And he would purposely put himself against the ropes to see how Sullivan would sort of give away his punches.

So he was thinking about fights rounds and rounds ahead where Corbett was sort of viewed fight as chest match. Sullivan supposed to fighting was that he would just be like an elephant that would come and just trample right over the chest port. It was all about power and brawn and getting right on top of your opponent right from the get go, whereas Corbett is thinking three four steps ahead.

So, they did have these very different approaches and I think the scientific approach that Sullivan brought in – that Corbett brought into the ring served him well in the fight. But it was true that Sullivan comes into the ring not in his peak condition either. He is 33 years old. He had not fought in the ring, in a championship fight for three years. His training leaning up to the fight was not all that rigorous. He had all these other activities on the side.

So, as he trained for the fight he’s also rehearsing for his new theatrical production that’s going to start weeks after the fight. He’s finishing up an autobiography. So he start throwing himself full throttle into the training and he’s still little bit out of shape and shows in the ring with Corbett and manages to put on a good fight. He hangs in there for the better part of an hour and 21 rounds. But ultimately Corbett is a younger more in-shape, more thoughtful fighter. And I think that ultimately is the only reason that why he ends up emerging triumphant in that fight.

Brett McKay: And what happened to Sullivan’s career after the defeat, did he sort of put boxing on the back-burner and devoted more time to his acting career and his, I guess just as a career as a celebrity, what did he do with the rest of his life?

Chris Klein: Yes, I mean, he sort of becomes this professional celebrity. So he does have this fall-back option where he has been at least for the three previous years been going around the country, starring a theatrical production and he continues to do that. And he flirts every once in a while of getting back in the ring and fighting in a big championship fight and every once in a while calls out these other fighters.

But he did not like training at all. He would like to indulge in food and drinking and he sort of threw himself into that big time after he lost to Corbett. And I think he knew that he never was going to put the effort into really get into the fighting shape that he wanted to be in to allow these challenges, I think were a lot of bluster that came from him.

But he still did appear in the right periodically. He would fight in different exhibitions against fighters mainly on these weren’t real fights, he was just getting to the ring for what different charity events and touring around the country he actually toured with some of his former opponents. And they would put on these different shows around the country.

So, he kept in the boxing arena for good almost 20 years after he lost that championship fight. But he still was one of the more famous men in America, even after he was no longer the title-holder because people just knew the great John L and the Boston Strong Boy. And he still was touring the country and showing up in towns, cities, all around America. So, he really was just this professional celebrity there for a long time.

Brett McKay: Yes. I love – there was a song a vaudeville song written about him called “I Shook the Hand That Shook the Hand of John L. Sullivan”.

Chris Klein: Yes.

Brett McKay: I mean I love that line. Okay, so his boxing career just sort of fizzled out and sort of spent the rest of his life doing the celebrity thing, acting. He became a temperance advocate. He also settled down with another woman, another wife and he adopted his son, he kind of became a farmer I guess that’s what you would describe a country gentleman?

Chris Klein: Yes. His life sort of comes full circled at the end. A lot of life stories tend to, I think those people mellow of the age and this tour takes stock on where they’ve been. I think Sullivan sort of did the same thing. He was 51, 52 years old and he had given up drinking for a couple of years. And then he strikes up a romance with a childhood friend of his. And gets a divorce from his first wife and marries this woman and they buy a farm outside of Boston. And yes, Sullivan sort of writes those along.

He is this temperance advocate, he did have a son with his first wife but he wasn’t there when his son was born, he wasn’t there when he son died suddenly at the age of 2.5. And by all indications he never even visited the grave site at this time. And that was just a terrible thing when he looked back at that. But with his second wife, they bring in this orphan and adopt him and bring in another friend of a close, another young boy from a close friend that was going through health problems.

And by all counts he was a great father figure to these boys, the kids that lived around on him on the farm, all loved him and he was great with the kids. And he does settle down to be this farmer and also to bring the story full circle. His parents emigrated from Ireland in the wake of the great hunger and the potato famine there.

And the most bountiful crop that Sullivan was able to grow on his farm outside of Boston turns out to be potatoes. And I think it sort of shows that journey of that still many Irish-American families went through from the terrible hunger in Ireland to ultimately success here in America.

Brett McKay: All right. Time is coming to an end. Last question, besides boxing, what legacy do you think Sullivan had on I guess on manhood or masculinity in America? And I love the idea that Plutarch puts out there that biography should be used for moral instruction. Is there any lesson that you took away from the life of Sullivan as you researched and wrote about him?

Chris Klein: Yes. I think so. He is sort of this icon of masculinity. And I think even though he may not know much about Sullivan or even necessarily know his name you probably know that image of the bare-chested handle-bar and mustachioed figure that is sort of an icon for masculinity. And I sort of think there were obviously, when you examine any sort of life, those are those qualities that you admire and know that you want to take instruction from.

And I think the thing about Sullivan that made him such a fascinating character to me was just the way that he attacked life. And he was very much this Teddy Roosevelt kind of figure and it’s no surprise that the two men actually struck up a bit of a friendship because they sort of threw themselves into everything that they did. There wasn’t anything that they did have hearted. Any time Sullivan was in the ring the minute that the fight started he put his full effort into it, and that’s sort of the way that he approached life as well.

It’s that he really lived life at full throttle. And you can’t say that there were too many wasted minutes during the course of the day when it came to John L. Sullivan. And there was a sort of a popular saying of the day that any man would sort of give 15 minutes, give anything to spend 15 minutes in the skin of John L. Sullivan.

And I think that’s true for the most part but then we do take a look at the black marks on sort of his life being the racism the way that he treated his son, the way that he treated his first wife, the drinking problem that he had. And I think you’ll look at those as instructive moments as once that when you look at your own life you certainly wish that you do a better job as a father, as a husband in terms of how you life your life with your family.

So, I think those are instructive for us. But I do think there really is this powerful energy that was around him and just the way that he attacked life is something that we sort of want to try to emulate in everything that we do.

Brett McKay: Well very good. Well, Chris, it was a fascinating discussion and it’s a fascinating book. I wish we had more time to delve into the life of John L. Sullivan. But thank you for your time. And I’m going to encourage all my readers to go out and get his book. It’s the Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan. Chris Klein, thank you so much for your time.

Chris Klein: Great. Thank you. I appreciate it.

Brett McKay: Our guest today was Christopher Klein. Christopher is the author of the book Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero. You can find that book at Barnes & Noble and on And I highly recommend you to go check it out. It’s just a fascinating read.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. For manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at And if you enjoy the podcast, we’d really appreciate if you go on iTunes or whatever service you use to listen or download the podcast and give us a review that would help us out a lot. And until next time, stay manly.

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