Friends at last - the final meeting of John L. Sullivan and Jim Corbett
Photos (top to bottom): The Wichita Kansas Beacon reports Sullivan's death; Sullivan in his younger days; Sullivan in an image published in 1915; Jim Corbett in his fighting days; Introducing John L. Sullivan, a painting by George Bellows
One hundred years ago today boxing superstar John L. Sullivan passed away at the age of 59. Gary Lucken reveals the final and poignant tribute paid to the legendary pugilist by his great rival 'Gentleman' Jim Corbett...
The death of John L Sullivan exactly one hundred years ago triggered an avalanche of press coverage commensurate with his status as a global sporting superstar.
Incalculable quantities of paper and ink were devoted to the life of the former bareknuckle and gloved heavyweight champion in the days, weeks and months following his passing at his home in Abington, Massachusetts – a victim of heart disease at the age of 59.
Among those who went into print with recollections of the rambunctious ring warrior was 'Gentleman' Jim Corbett, the man who dethroned him as king of the fistic world.
Corbett famously ended a decade of Sullivan dominance with a 21st round KO of the 'Boston Strong Boy' when they did battle in New Orleans in September 1892, ensuring their names would forever be linked in the annals of boxing history.
In an extensive series of articles entitled “John L Sullivan – As I Knew Him”, Corbett chronicled their fight plus details of Sullivan’s previous battles against foes such as Paddy Ryan, Charlie Mitchell and Jake Kilrain. He also delved into other issues including Sully’s problems with alcohol.
Furthermore, he offered a fascinating personal insight into his strained relationship with the 'Professor of Bicepital Forces', to give Sullivan one of his less well-known monikers, in the years after they met in the roped arena - a period in which the pair often swapped barbs in the media.
In a moving final instalment Corbett revealed how the men apparently buried the hatchet before Sullivan’s death during a meeting which occurred, rather appropriately, at a heavyweight world title fight.
Corbett was sometimes accused of gilding the lily in his prose – friends of Bob Fitzsimmons, for example, had reacted angrily to some of his articles when Fitz died the previous year – but, even with that caveat in mind, it remains a touching piece.
The centenary of Sullivan’s death seems the perfect time to revisit Corbett’s words, reproduced in full below – a poignant tribute from one champion to another.
JOHN L SULLIVAN – AS I KNEW HIM (Final instalment)
By James J Corbett
“My last meeting with John L Sullivan is one that I shall never forget because it was the meeting that bridged the chasm that had divided us ever since that day in New Orleans; it was the day that made us friends at last.
“John L went to New York in March 1916 to serve as a reporter for one of the press associations at the Jess Willard – Frank Moran match. The veteran warrior arrived in town a day or so before the contest. On the morning of the day that the fight took place, a mutual friend came to me and said: ‘Jim, John L is up at the Cumberland Hotel. Why don’t you go up and see him? It’s about time for you fellows to let bygones be bygones.’
“I welcomed such an opportunity. Through many years I had tried in various ways to change John L’s feeling toward me. Somehow or other he never fully forgave me for the New Orleans battle. I had won it fairly and squarely and John L himself admitted it. But, just the same, the very fact that he had gone down to defeat before me made it impossible for him to feel kindly toward me.
“So, with the hope in my heart that the feeling John L had held toward me for nearly 25 years might have dimmed through passing time, I jumped into a taxi, went up to John L’s hotel and had the clerk announce that I was downstairs waiting to see him.
“In a second the clerk said to me: ‘Mr Sullivan wants you to come up to his room right away.’
“It wasn’t necessary for me to rap to gain entrance. John L had opened the door and was standing in the hallway ready to greet me. That very fact, coupled with a smile on his face, made me feel that all the rancor John L had felt for me had been dispelled; that, at last, he was willing to greet me as a friend.
“’How are you, Jim?’ exclaimed John L, pushing out his mighty right hand and almost pulling me across the threshold into his room.
“For a time we discussed commonplaces – and the fight that was to be staged that night. John L was strong for Moran, while I felt sure that Willard would win. A good-natured argument followed. At Last there came a pause. John L looked out of the window for a few seconds, then turned toward me, got up from his chair, walked over, put his left hand on my shoulder and extended his right.
“’Here you are, Jim – take this; let’s shake and be friends.’
“I jumped from my chair and wrung the hand of Sullivan. Before I could speak John L, still holding my hand, said: ‘Jim, it hurt me an awful lot to be beaten down there in New Orleans. I had a lot of pride about my fighting ability and I always felt that no man could beat me. You came along and you whipped me without letting me land a really hard punch. I certainly was sore about it. I simply couldn’t get rid of that feeling for years. But lately I have been thinking that it isn’t fair for me to feel that way. And I’m through.’
“My own feelings while John L was talking are hard to describe. If there was one man’s friendship that I had wanted it was that of Sullivan. Yet for more than 20 years it had been denied me.
“I had idolized Sullivan from the days of my boyhood and even after that New Orleans battle I still regarded him as one of the most remarkable fighters that ever lived. He had been a king – and he was still an idol of mine. But always he had looked upon me as one of his bitterest enemies merely because I had defeated him in 1892. So, one can see what it meant to me when, at last, John L extended to me the hand of friendship.
“’I’ve wanted you for a friend all my life, John,’ I said to him, ‘now that you offer me that friendship it makes me happier than I can express.’
“’That’s all right, Jim, I’m glad to hear you say that,’ answered John L. ‘A lot of us make mistakes. One of mine has been to feel unkindly toward you through all these years. But now all that is past.’
“My last sight of John L was that night, March 25 1916. As a preliminary to the fistic clash between Willard and Moran, the champions who were at the ringside were introduced to the crowd. Bob Fitzsimmons was introduced; so was I. But the cheers for the freckled warrior and the cheers for me were but whispers in comparison with the mighty tumult that was raised when the gray-haired Sullivan climbed through the ropes.
“Madison Square Garden rumbled and thundered with wild cheers. Nearly a quarter of a century had passed since he fought his last ring battle; a new generation had arisen during that time. But the esteem and the love in which the great old warrior was held even by youngsters who never had seen him during his fistic prime, was one that never is to be forgotten.
“That appearance was John L’s last before a big fight audience. But the amazing reception that he got made an indelible impress upon the memory of every man and woman within the confines of the historic arena that night.
“And now John L is gone; the mighty Sullivan has taken the long, long trail. But John L shall live ever in the memory of sport loving America – as the redeemer of pugilism, its most spectacular, its most wonderful and its most idolized warrior.
“He was a real champion – the champion of champions – one whose like the ring game never again shall know.
“John L Sullivan – good-bye!”
(Willard won a 10-round newspaper decision in what was his first title defence – a verdict that Sullivan publicly disagreed with. Contemporary reports confirm Corbett’s memory that Sullivan got the loudest ovation of the former champions introduced at the fight – a moment immortalised in the artwork by George Bellows - above left - entitled “Introducing John L Sullivan”.)