Cover for ISENBERG: John L. Sullivan and His America. Click for larger image

John L. Sullivan and His America

The "Great John L." reigned supreme as world heavyweight champion from his victory over Paddy Ryan in 1882 until James J. Corbett knocked him out after 21 rounds in 1892. The first national sports hero and probably the best-known American of his generation, Sullivan (1858-1918) represented the hopes and aspirations of millions of Americans. A drunkard, a wastrel, an adulterer, a wife beater, and a bully, Sullivan still became a national celebrity. Michael Isenberg traces the eventful life of the Boston-born fighter from his humble beginnings to the height of his popularity and examines the changing national cultural attitudes and mores of Gilded-Age America.

A Catholic Irish-American from an urban, working-class background, Sullivan was an outlaw in an outlawed sport who provoked public controversy. Isenberg depicts the dichotomy of Sullivan's America; he moved in a world of reputable workingmen as well as shady sporting types and hustlers, but his prowess in the ring attracted thousands of supporters, including presidents and princes. Sullivan, with the help of his backers and managers, played a major role in transforming boxing from an illicit activity into a profitable and ultimately legitimate business.

In this first in-depth study of the "Great John L.," Isenberg details the fascinating story of how one of the earliest entertainment figures won and kept the favor of the masses. Drawing upon previously unexplored archival material - including stories reported in the notorious National Police Gazette and the other sporting papers of the day - he tells us why so many turn-of-the-century Americans accepted Sullivan as a legitimate sporting hero, while others vilified him for his drunken and belligerent behavior.

"Sullivan's story is as colorful as its large cast, which ranges from 'Little Chocolate' and 'The Bull's Head Terror' to Theodore Roosevelt. Mr. Isenberg is quite right to suggest that by following it we can learn a great deal about American society at the end of the nineteenth century. . . . No one, reading Isenberg, can fail to feel the lure of the ring."--Times Literary Supplement

"The definitive biography of the last bare-knuckle heavyweight champion. . . . A vivid re-creation of an era of unchecked male dominance."--Sports History

"A remarkable study of Sullivan's life and times. . . . A rich and valuable account of a vivid era that has long been obscured by legend."--Sports Illustrated

"An objective and scholarly work cutting through the media image and ably analyzing the age that created Sullivan. A book of real merit for both scholars and the general reader."--Journal of American History

"Uncovers the roots of the Sullivan myths that help mark the break between America's isolated rural past and its modern urban culture."-- Washington Post Book World

"A fine work, well researched and nicely told. . . . Recaptures an extraordinarily important moment in the development of modern professional athletics."--Journal of Sport History

Micahel T. Isenberg is assistant professor of history at the United States Naval Academy. He is the author of The Puzzles of the Past: An Introduction to Thinking about History and War on Film: The American Cinema and World War I, 1914-1941.

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