John L Sullivan, aka the “Boston Strong Boy,” was the first sports superstar. After winning the heavyweight boxing title in 1882, he went on to become the first athlete to earn over a million dollars, although he spent money faster than it came in. With his robust paunch and the stiff, upright boxing pose popular in early boxing pics, he doesn’t appear very menacing to the modern eye, but before the introduction of the Queensberry Rules, boxing was a bloody, brutal, bare-knuckle affair that was outlawed in many jurisdictions.
The last bare-knuckle title fight was between Sullivan and Jake Kilrain in 1889. The bout drew a few thousand fight fans from all over to Richburg, Mississippi, even though the location and and exact time were kept secret as long as possible because boxing was illegal in that state. The time-keeper was Bat Masterson, the gunslinging lawman most famous for cleaning up Dodge City, Kansas. Sullivan won, successfully defending his title after 75 rounds in the 106° F heat, making him the last bare-knuckle champion and cementing his status as one of the most famous people in the world.
When John L first came to Vancouver on 8 January 1892, it wasn’t for a boxing match, but to star in a play at the Vancouver Opera House on Granville Street. He was the biggest draw the venue had to date, though the papers felt compelled to manage readers’ expectations around John L’s acting skills, comparing him to the trained animal acts that graced vaudeville stages. Aware of Sullivan’s notorious heavy drinking, the theatre assured audiences that the show would not offend; Sullivan was “keeping perfectly sober,” they said, and “no ‘scenes’ are expected to occur here.”
The show went off without a hitch and Sullivan received a three minute standing ovation, but declined to make a speech as he did in San Francisco when he told the crowd, “I know I ain’t no actor, but I gets the money just the same, see!” People flocked to see the great John L, the pugilist, not a seasoned thespian, but they did get a kick out of his performance, especially when he spoke of “me dear old mudder.” Later that year, Sullivan’s reign as heavyweight champ ended when “Gentleman” Jim Corbett famously knocked him out in New Orleans. His prizefighting career was winding down but his stage career had only begun.
When he returned to the Opera House in 1899, John L had been “cured of the idea that he can act.” In a show called “A Trip Across the Ocean,” Sullivan was joined by his old bare-knuckle nemesis, Jake Kilrain. The pair showed off their boxing prowess “without their somewhat painful attempts to do what they used to do,” leaving the acting to the professionals in the cast.
John L Sullivan was fond of Vancouver and returned many times, along with Kilrain and various other boxers. Unlike other athletes past their prime, John L remained extremely popular and consistently drew large crowds. When he and Kilrain performed at the Pantages in 1909, hundreds were turned away each night and police were needed to clear the sidewalks. He was still considered the “Champion of Champions” and widely admired for his role in turning boxing from a barbaric, underground pastime to a legitimate sport. Even Jack Johnson, who had criticized Sullivan for refusing to take on black challengers for the heavyweight title, praised him for always being “on the level” and accepted John L’s offer to referee his 1910 Reno match with Jim Jeffries for no money.
Sullivan deepened his relationship with Vancouver with each visit. In addition to his stage appearances, John L spent time with aspiring young pugilists at the Vancouver Athletic Club, refereeing one of their boxing matches and giving them advice; guest-edited the sports section of the Vancouver Daily World; arranged for local cinemas to show rare boxing films and slides from his personal collection; and umpired a baseball game.
John L’s second career as a vaudeville attraction proved almost as lucrative as his boxing career, and he was finally able to settle down on a farm he bought outside his hometown of Boston with his new wife. He also spent $10,000 on property in Vancouver’s Point Grey and considered building a house and spending part of the year here in his retirement, but it looks like it remained just an investment property. He explained to a reporter in 1913 that he regretted not investing in Vancouver real estate much earlier:
I have lots of friends in Vancouver. It’s thirty years since I was first here, and my last visit was three years ago. I could kick myself in forty different places at once when I think of the lost opportunities in life. I always had a notion Vancouver would be a great town some day. I was right enthusiastic for its future and more than once had a notion of investing a thousand or so here when the place was little more than a fish camp. I am more than ever enthusiastic now. But money was ‘easy-come’ those days and it looked like the stream would never stop flowing, so it was just as ‘easy-go.’ Think what a thousand invested then would mean now.
John L Sullivan died on his Massachusetts farm on 2 Februrary 1918. Jake Kilrain was an usher at his funeral.