Friday, February 15, 2019

John L. Sullivan - The last champion


We all like champions, and maybe it's me, but is there something inherently wrong with idolizing professional sports figures? Well, let's take a look:

There's the good side: Training, fitness, health, clean living, moral values, steroids... uhh, sorry, that just slipped in, no judgement here. Um, lets continue with, well, contributions to society... Right.

That speaks for itself. 'Course, there are those who will argue in favor of the positive contributions that pro athletes have made to society, ( and yes, they do exist) but they seem to be far outweighed by the negative aspects of the "pay for performance" legacy.

Red Grange, the "Galloping Ghost" once said, and I paraphrase," I don't like football well enough to play for nothing". This may be sort of a poetic psalm that can be sung for this sorry sports epiphany. God bless Grange for his honesty. Now let's cut to the chase.
Who the heck is John L. Sullivan, and why should I, the caring, indolent sports fan, give a damn? I'll now make some observations from some other writers whom I'll quote and then, hopefully, make my case. Of course, you the reader, if properly informed, will be the final judge.

"Sullivan was a boxing immortal, the link between bare knuckles and glove fighting, and the first great American sports idol. He was powerful, quick, could hit with either hand but had exceptional strength in his right, and could take punishment; He is considered still by some to be one of the best heavyweights ever. Sullivan was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990". (unknown contributor).

"When people used to say"shake the hand which shook the hand which shook the hand of The Great John L." it really meant something. During his reign as heavyweight champion of the world from 1882-1892, and for many years thereafter, John L. Sullivan was iconic, larger than life, a touchstone embodying excellence in a nation just beginning to manifest its destiny." - Robert Ecksel.

Well, this sounds great! Damn this guy was good. And so he was. Sullivan lost only one fight in his career. He was never entirely knocked out. Sullivan traveled across America and challenged any man to last four rounds and nobody ever lasted four rounds. He was unbeatable.

This was tremendous cannon fodder for the downtrodden, the little man, the nobody. Sullivan was Irish Catholic, and to be Irish Catholic in post 1900 America was a death nell to success. But there he was in all his glory making more money than the President of the United States.

People soon forget that Sullivan made a sport (boxing) that was considered one rung between prostitution and robbery into a respectable profession.
Okay, okay, so what's my point? Well, there isn't the time (space) to go into Sullivan's life story, but if you can research it on your own, you'll find some common denominators with todays sports figures. But the point I want to make above all is this, what is the big deal about pro athletes? Maybe it's this.

Sullivan was a drinking, swearing, no-good son of a bitch who never, ever really trained for a fight. He lived for good food, good drink and good times. The difference is, he always said it and he always lived up to it. He challenged all comers and never made excuses outside the obvious. Even in his last fight as a champion in which he lost to another Irish boy, Jim Corbett, he said, and I paraphrase, " Maybe I fought one too many times, but I'm glad that if I had to lose, I lost to an American". Nevertheless, to this day, Sullivan's fame as an athlete is tarnished by his actions as a human being.

So, what is a champion? Maybe it's not what we thought it was at all. Certainly we think a champion is someone who excels and betters his peers. Or maybe this is just vanity.
Why do I suggest that Sullivan is the last champion? Honesty. Someone who said he was one thing and then lived up to it.

Whatever that "one thing" might be. Sullivan never claimed to be anything except the best fighter in the world. And he was. He never claimed to be a philanthrop, even though it is well known that he gave away almost all of his earnings. Later in life as an ex- alcohlic, he never ranted against the evils of drink, even though he became a temperance advocate. And as always, he went out among the people and was part of them because he knew that they wanted to be near their hero. Do we see much of this today in our sports "champions"?

Maybe a champion is just someone who falls into society's grace one minute, and then when we realize that he's just like us, out he goes.

About the Writer

M. Alan Gibson is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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1 comments on John L. Sullivan - The last champion

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By Merik Derath on June 13, 2007 at 02:11 pm
First. Wonderful personal interest article. I did in fact research the life of John L. Sullivan, and found him to be the profane, alcoholic S.O.B. you said he is. He was also an unparalleled boxer in his time, though. Also, to answer the frequently posed question as to "What is a Champion?" my reply is that it is something unattainable in today's environment. Most people want a champion to be a pillar of moral and ethical quality, not to mention a supreme competitor. Rarely, if ever, will this be found, especially due to the internet, and the fact that it's an inhuman desire for a human to fulfill.
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