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The Boston Strongboy

John L Sullivan, the heavyweight boxer, affectionately known as the 'Boston Strongboy' was born in Boston in 1858. His father was born in Laccabeg, Abbeydorney and was part of the great post-famine exodus to America.

Poverty compelled John to seek employment at a young age, he held many labouring jobs which because of his strength, he acquired easily. His skill and ability at baseball led the Boston Red Sox to offer him $1,500 a year, he declined because his prospects in the boxing arena looked more promising. In time, John L became the forerunner of Mohammed Ali.

Finally, John L's tilt at the heavy weight crown came in 1882, when in Mississippi City he was matched with Paddy Ryan who was champion at the time. Both boxers had similar backgrounds. Ryan was born in Tipperary before he emigrated to America to make his fortune.  So successful were the Irish emigrants at boxing that they were dubbed 'the fighting Irish'.

At ringside for the Ryan-Sullivan fight were men who were noted for their speed with the gun and the knife.  The famous outlaw brothers, Frank and Jesse James who looked well dressed and youthful and Red O'Leary then New York's most notorious bank robber stood out boldly at the fight.  Betting was very heavy with Sullivan at odds of 2 to 1. Sullivan was declared the winner after the ninth round when Ryan was unable to rise from the ground without the aid of his seconds.  Sullivan as champion continued to defend his title but one thing that was sure to incur his wrath were efforts to bribe him to fix a fight.  He was above all this and is known to have administered severe beatings to men who approached him.  John L was now a national figure and this brings its own attending dangers.

A disasterous marriage ended in haste and his generosity and ready wit led him in to company that was best avoided.  He toured the United States, taking on all comers and in 1889 in Richburg, Mississippi he participated in what was to become a milestone in boxing history.  He fought and beat Jake Kilrain in 7 rounds of what was the last bare-knuckled heavy-weight title fight.  Security men kept the police at bay during the contest but both fighters were subsequently arrested.  Sullivan was sentenced to a year in prison but he didn't serve day of it.  Sullivan was now past his prime and ring-weary and three years later in 1892 he ill-advisedly fought a younger and more eager opponent in James J Corbett, a fellow Irish-American.  The interest generated by this fight was immense and even though he lost, John L was now a legend.  His record in the ring was fought 42-1-3, 33 by knockout and 3 draws.

Sullivan never forgot his homeland and visited Abbeydorney to see his ancestral home after his retirement from the ring.  Boxing has now taken on broad appeal and Sullivan is seen as the man who brought it from the shadows after the halycon days of his boxing success.  He dabbled in the theatre even turning to temperance on which he lectured widely.

Later, in a life that became confined to what are now known as “celebrity appearances”, Sullivan reconciled with his wife and they lived peacefully on a small farm outside Boston. Sullivan, by now a respected friend of President Theodore Roosevelt, returned to Ireland briefly in 1910, as part of vaudeville tour of Britain and Ireland. He died on 2 February 1918, probably of heart failure. A massive funeral followed. Always the showman, he went out with a bang, literally, the frozen earth had to be blasted to make his grave. In the commotion that followed, the Boston Irish finally realised that neither they, nor anyone else, would ever again queue “to shake the hand that shook the world”.

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