Pugilism was a banned sport in late nineteenth-century America. A nation that had no stomach for men bashing in each other's skulls with their fists, however, was not as Victorian or religious as some might suppose. Manhattan was an "island of vice" with over 12,000 prostitutes, almost one in every hundred people living in the borough.* New Orleans had more saloons than butcher shops and, as Ken Burns aptly narrated in his PBS documentary, Prohibition, America at the turn of the twentieth century was a nation of drunks.
It was out of this climate that the nation's first superstar sports hero was born. John L. Sullivan (1858-1918), the son of Irish immigrants, would overcome racial prejudice and religious persecution to become more popular than the President of the United States. Boston's "Strong Boy" would become the prototype for gladiators to come.
Almost a half century before Yankee stadium rose up as The House That Ruth Built, Mr. Sullivan put Madison Square Garden, the greatest arena in the world, on the map. Twelve thousand New Yorkers would pay two dollars each, a handsome sum in those days, to see the extraordinary fighting skills of this young, brash Irish Catholic. These spectacles bore almost no resemblance to our modern expression of the sport: they were bare-fisted, head-butting affairs that sometimes went as many as seventy-three rounds. Even so, inebriated or hung over for most of his career, the Strong Boy lost only one bout.
John L.'s prowess also extended far beyond the ring. He parlayed his celebrity status into traveling vaudeville-type revues, circuses, plays, and even guest appearances at professional baseball games. It is estimated that in today's dollars he earned over $250-million, though he squandered most of it on expensive clothing, carousing, and lavish spending on hangers-on. (Sound familiar?) Other claims to fame include trading cards (the first athlete with such), a nationwide exhibition called "The Knockout Tour," international bouts, and frequent trips to the White House.
As with so many athletes today, it was hard for Mr. Sullivan to leave the spotlight. In his later years he attempted another modern-day phenomenon, a comeback. But alcohol and age had finally caught up with the Strong Boy. Severely overweight and out of shape, he scheduled bouts that ended with folks throwing debris into the ring and demanding their money back.
The final chapter of Mr. Sullivan's life had him quitting the bottle and writing a tract called "From Glory to Gutter to God." John L., like so many others who find fame and fortune, was sick and tired of being sick and tired. He moved out of the city, tried his hand at farming, and mounted a campaign against alcohol. Biographer Christopher Klein writes, "As an anti-drinking crusader, John L. completed the transformation from boozed fighter, to booze fighter, although he resisted the temperance label." His message was simple: "If we can teach our boys to never start drinking we won't need prohibition laws." John L. Sullivan had finally come to the realization that his fame and celebrity in the ring had indeed made him a role model and someone young people could emulate.
The John L. Sullivan story is certainly one of redemption, which is always good to see. But I am encouraged by a new batch of athletes who have not needed to fall hard to see the emptiness and vanity of life's pursuits. Men such as Tim Tebow (ESPN), Robert Griffin III (Washington Redskins), Russell Wilson (Seattle Seahawks), Clayton Kershaw (L.A. Dodgers), and Jeremy Lin (Houston Rockets) are showing themselves unafraid to bring their faith into the arena. These men have heeded the advice of the teacher in Ecclesiastes 12:1-2:
Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth,
Before the difficult days come,
And the years draw near when you say,
"I have no pleasure in them."
Though John L. Sullivan finished strong, these young superstars have seized their callings as professional athletes from the start. They see the sacredness of what they do, and are using their God-given position for influence. They have started with the end, so aptly summed up in Ecclesiastes 12:13, in mind:
Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter:
Fear God and keep His commandments,
For this is man's all.
* Zacks, Richard. Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean up Sin-Loving New York. New York: Random House, 2012.
To read more about John L. Sullivan, see Christopher Klein's Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America's First Sports Hero. Guilford, Connecticut: Globe Pequot Press, 2013.