On John L. Sullivan

Damon Runyon

Johnson City Staff-News/May 11, 1927


Give me a dollar for every time a sportswriter has been asked the question “Was John L. Sullivan ever champion of the world,” and I’d have enough money to retire to the Arkansas Valley and raise cantelope. The argument is so old it is always new, wherefore it is with pleasure that I stand aside today for Mr. Charles F. Mathison, veteran sportswriter and judge for the New York Boxing Commission as follows, and Mr. Damon Runyon:

Dear Sir: I seek enlightenment, I crave information to the end that a possible injustice may be lifted from the memory of the late John L. Sullivan, still the pugilistic hero of the old guard who saw him in action and of the countless thousands who never eyed him except in photography. Although an overwhelming majority invariable speak of Sullivan as the “champion of champions” and holder of the world’s title in the heavyweight class, an insignificant minority have the temerity to question the accuracy of those claims and insist that facts should have a place even, in pugilistic history.

The argument of the minority is to the effect that if Sullivan really was the heavyweight champion of the world, the time, place and manner of winning it should be set forth by some member of his great army of admirers, thus silencing the unjust suspicions of the minority. Failure to produce these convincing facts, according to the minority, would constitute an admission that the claims on behalf of Sullivan were not well grounded. The minority do not believe that Sullivan, if alive, would lay claim to any honors he-did not win, and that he would renounce any distinction not supported by the facts of history.

With knowledge of your nationwide clientele of readers, I entreat you to ask the Sullivanite majority to inform the minority when, where and how the Boston Strong Boy captured the world’s heavyweight title.

There does not appear to be an argument over the question as to how a world’s title could have been won in Sullivan’s day, as the pugilistic game was monopolized by three countries: America, England and Australia.

Therefore a fighter would become the world’s champion.

1—By defeating the holder of the title.

2—By winning the title of his own country and then defeating the champion of a foreign nation.

That was the course pursued by Dixon who made himself bantam champion of the world by beating Nunc Wallace, bantam champion of England.

Later Dixon won the American feather title by beating the best Americans in the class and then defeating Willis, Australian champion and Johnson, British title holder. McGovern, Lavigne, Klaus and others won their honors the same way, as did also Jem Mace, champion of England, and the acts sustain the assertions. Mace, English heavyweight champion, defeated Tom Allen, American champion, in 1870, and thus won the world’s title.

Mace retired while still in possession of the world’s and English heavyweight championships. These are incontrovertible facts of boxing history.

A few courageous members of the majority have attempted to explain Sullivan’s worlds title, one declaring that Sullivan defeated KiIrain and that Kilrain had beaten Jem Smith, champion of England. When this man was apprised that the Kilrain fight went 106 rounds to a draw, he subsided.

Another of the majority ventured the assertion that Sullivan had defeated Alf Greenfield, English champion. In reply to a query, Peggy Bettinson, then of the British Board of Boxing Control, assured me that Greenfield never held the English title.

The latest pronouncement by the majority is that Sullivan won the world’s title when he defeated Paddy Ryan in 1882. Thus the minority are compelled to endeavor to ascertain where Paddy Ryan got the title that ostensibly was concealed about his person when he was stopped by Sullivan in nine rounds.

It follows that if Ryan had the world’s title he must have obtained it when be defeated Joe Goss, an aged Englishman, in 87 rounds in 1880. When Goss arrived in America in 1876, his baggage did not contain any championship affidavits for the very good reason that before he left his native heath he had twice been thoroughly thrashed by Jam Mace, the champion of England.

However, the minority continued its investigation as to where Goss got the world’s title. This developed the fact that Goss had won on a foul in 1876 from Tom Allen, the American titleholder. This victory gave Goss the American title only. Mace had in 1870 knocked out Allen in a bout for the world’s championship. Mace was still lugging the world’s title at the time Goss defeated Arlen.

It must be plain even to the majority that Sullivan did not win the world’s championship from Paddy Ryan, that Ryan did not obtain the honor from Goss and that Goss did not get the crown from Alien, for the excellent reason that none of these pugilists ever had such a thing as a world’s championship.

Furthermore, Sullivan never in his career met a foreign champion in the ring, although Peter Jackson, who had knocked out Jem Smith, English title holder and also stopped Frank Slavin, Australian champion, thus becoming the champion of Europe and Australia, was eager for a joust with the Bostonian.

Had Sullivan beaten Jackson, or Smith or Slavin, he would have made himself champion of the world, and all the mystery as to his championship status removed.

Therefore I repeat: Please ask the majority to specify the time, location and result of the battle in which Sullivan won the world’s title.



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