Review of Adam Pollack's, John L. Sullivan: The Career of the First Gloved Heavyweight Champion
12.01.07 - By Zachary Q. Daniels: Unlike most boxing biographies, Adam Pollack's John L. Sullivan: The Career of the First Gloved Heavyweight Champion is not a chronicle of his life and times, but rather an extensively documented history of his boxing career. Readers who are interested in stories of Sullivan's drinking habits and later conversion to evangelism will have to look elsewhere—but those interested in "The Boston Strongboy's" performance in the ring will find a wealth of information likely unobtainable outside of library microfilm machines. What Pollack has done is to reconstruct the details of Sullivan's career using almost exclusively primary sources that describe the various fights Sullivan participated in immediately after they occurred, rather than relying on secondary sources published decades later. This gives the book an historical authenticity that is usually absent from most boxing biographies.
Article posted on 12.01.2007
He begins by describing the context of Sullivan's career by explaining the state of the sport in the 1870s when Sullivan began his career, providing insight into the rules under which Sullivan fought, in both bare-knuckle and gloved bouts.
Particularly interesting is the fact that Sullivan, from the start of his career fought with gloves, under the Marquis of Queensberry rules—as well as under the earlier bare-knuckle London Prize Ring rules.
In fact, it appears that the majority of his bouts, particularly if one includes the many "exhibitions" he fought—many of which appear to have been actual fights disguised under this label—were gloved contests. At this time, there was a distinction between prizefights, which were fought bare-knuckle under the London rules, and exhibitions, which were fought with gloves under the Queensberry rules. Sullivan, from the beginning, preferred the latter, and only periodically engaged in bare-knuckle fights. This is quite in contrast to the standard portrayal of him as largely a bare-knuckle fighter.
Pollack recounts the details of all of the various exhibitions and prize-fights in which Sullivan participated, and one of the things that becomes clear in this review is that the line between the two was often blurred, and intentionally so as to get around the fact that while prizefighting was illegal in most jurisdictions, "exhibitions of skill" were not. Thus, in some cases, gloved contests advertised as exhibitions were broken up by law enforcement officials when it became clear they were fighting "for real." This happened more than once throughout Sullivan's career.
Another thing that emerges from Pollack's detailed review of the primary sources for Sullivan's major fights is that there are often inconsistencies in the reports concerning what actually happened in each fight, when fights ended, what particular punches were landed when, and other details. Given that there is no film of Sullivan's fights for contemporary analysts to review, it is impossible to fully reconcile these varying accounts, but Pollack does an excellent job in attempting to do so. Thankfully, in most cases, the discrepancies are confined primarily to minor details. One case where the issue is not so minor concerns the length and reasons for termination of his fight with Dominick McCaffrey in 1885. Primary source accounts place the ending at either the 6th or 7th round, and some differ as to whether a decision was even rendered by the referee. Pollack does an excellent job of explaining all the confusion and offers his novel analysis and conclusions using both national and local newspapers.
The ambiguity of Sullivan's drawing of the color line is well—dealt with throughout the book. Pollack recounts an incident where Sullivan agreed to box black fighter George Godfrey in 1888, and reports that that he had been matched to box Godfrey back in 1880 or 1881, although this was apparently prevented by police. Sullivan's apparent vacillations on whether he was willing to meet top contender Peter Jackson are also recounted in detail, and some solid details on Jackson's career are provided from primary sources.
In fact, a unique feature of this book throughout is the attention it pays to providing details on Sullivan's opponents—who they were, who they fought, what their general status in the sport of boxing was at the time. This helps give the reader a clear idea of the significance of various fights, which ones were against solid contenders who were legitimate threats, and which fights were of lesser significance. This provision of "perspective" is often absent in standard works on boxers—if they cover their fights in any detail at all, it is often only the major ones, leaving the reader wondering what the rest of the fighter's career was like. Pollack spares no detail when recounting Sullivan’s boxing career during his prime years.
Some will object to the relatively sparse coverage Pollack gives to the Corbett fight in 1892, an omission he justifies on the grounds that it will be covered in his next book on Corbett's career. This is perhaps understandable from a researcher's perspective, but the relatively brief coverage of such a significant fight does leave the reader wishing for more detail, particularly given the wealth of information this book provides on other fights. On the other hand, it certainly does wet the appetite among dedicated boxing fans and historians for more, which is perhaps the intention.
Overall, then, this book is a superb—and, in many ways, unique—contribution to the boxing literature. It is not an easy book to read, given its attention to detail and quasi-academic style—but it is most definitely worth the effort for those boxing fans who really want to know the details of Sullivan's career through the eyes of those who actually saw him fight. As none of Sullivan's fights were filmed, this is as close as boxing fans of today can get to actually seeing him—which speaks volumes about the quality and detail of the research Pollack has undertaken.
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