Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America's First Sports Hero

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




Boxing in the 1880s was part circus, part backyard pro wrestling, part early days of UFC and part WWE. In other words, it was great.


“I can lick any son of a bitch in the world.”
So boasted John L. Sullivan, the first modern heavyweight boxing champion of the world, a man who was the gold standard of American sports for more than a decade and the first athlete to earn more than a million dollars. He had a big ego, a big mouth, and even 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 19th-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 gives listeners 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.
©2015 Blackstone Audio, Inc. (P)2015 Christopher Klein


I have been intoxicated but I never was drunk.

– John L. Sullivan

I don’t even know where to begin to try and put the life and times of John L. Sullivan into context. Thankfully, I don’t have to because ‘Strong Boy’ by Christopher Klein does a good job of doing it for us. John L. Sullivan feels like a character who came straight out of the Old West despite having spent most of his life in Boston and on the East Coast.
I found two aspects of the book to be particularly outstanding. The first is Klein’s retelling of some of the major fights in Sullivan’s career. I thought the chapter concerning the lead-up to, actual bout and aftermath of the Jake Kilrain fight was the best thing in the whole book. Listening to Klein’s account, I had absolutely no trouble trying to imagine the fight in my head. The same goes for the bout against Paddy Ryan in which he became the heavyweight champion.
The second aspect of the book that I thought was great is that it never felt repetitive. There are a lot of stories in this book concerning John L.’s drunken antics and yet I never got tired of them. In fact, with each new story I became even more excited for the next one. Granted, Klein often points out that a story may not be true or may be over-stated, but that just proves that spinning yarns about a celebrity’s exploits is hardly a recent phenomenon.
If there is one drawback, it would be that the book could have used an epilogue. History is all about context, and a discussion of John L. Sullivan’s legacy and portrayal in popular culture after his death would have been nice. For example, the bout with Kilrain was so famous that some 70 years after it took place, it was lampooned in a Mr. Peabody and Sherman cartoon. I doubt that 70 years from now people will be making stories about the recent Floyd Mayweather VS Manny Pacquiao bout, even if it did break all kinds of records for viewership. However, I certainly didn’t feel cheated by the absence of how Sullivan’s legacy has been framed since his death.


Christopher Klein is a Boston-based author and freelance travel and history writer. He has two points that he emphasizes in ‘Strong Boy’ and handles each in a unique way.
The first point is that John L. Sullivan was America’s first national sports hero. This point gets emphasized to a pretty significant degree. Klein does a great job of proving that Sullivan was more famous than even the President of the United States at the time.
The lesser of the two points is that John L. was the first of what we would call the modern athlete. Klein doesn’t work nearly as hard to make his case for that, but he really didn’t need to either. As the book unfolds, I didn’t need Klein to compare Sullivan to any modern athlete, as I made those comparisons on my own. Sullivan reminds me a lot of some of the famous professional wrestlers from my youth, like Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, and most especially Terry Funk. He was famous for his violence, but was also a quote machine.


Joe Barrett has a gruff voice to begin with, and that makes him an ideal choice to narrate a book like this. He tosses in a few accents when appropriate, and does some of the small things very well. If you’re really paying attention, you’ll notice him stressing words in just the right way to make it sound as though he were sitting next to you recounting something he just witnessed or heard about from someone else.


Everything is as it should be when it comes to how the track sounds. The audio is crisp and clear with no glitches or changes in volume levels. There is no music on the track, and it is also free of sound effects. The chapter stops on the track match up with those found in the actual book, and it’s hard to ask for much more than that.


‘Strong Boy’ is a thoroughly entertaining read from start to finish. I was never bored and could not put it down. It has particular appeal to people who have an interest in sports history and America’s celebrity culture, but I would recommend this to anyone who is a fan of American History. The period between the end of the Civil War and World War I is an underrated time period in American History. Yet it is this time period that laid a lot of the foundation for the America that we live in today.
The only reason I’m not giving this book a perfect 10 is because I felt there could have been more about how Sullivan was viewed and depicted after his death. Also, there were a few minor errors in the book that might go over the head of most listeners, but I noticed them. E.G., Jake Kilrain is called “Jack” a couple of times and Jim Corbett was said to have defeated Peter Jackson in a May 1891 bout at one point, even though earlier in the same chapter the fight was described as a draw.
Other than that, I could easily see myself reading ‘Strong Boy’ on a regular basis. John L. Sullivan is a compelling figure in American History. I found myself wondering how Sullivan would fit in if he were transported from his 1880s peak to 2015. How would he cope with having every drinking binge ending up a top headline on TMZ?


Title Author Narrator Publisher Genre Release Date Running Time Score
Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero Christopher Klein Joe Barrett Blackstone Audio, Inc. Sports 07/07/2015 11 hours, 53 minutes 9.25/10


A copy of ‘STRONG BOY: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JOHN L. SULLIVAN, AMERICA’S FIRST SPORTS HERO’ was purchased from Audible for review.

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