Hold your horses! The day John L. Sullivan was nearly killed by a runaway nag

Gary Lucken
21/01/2017 9:38am

The great John L Sullivan was a pal and admirer of the mighty little ring warrior Terry McGovern - but the friendship almost cost him his life.

The retired Boston Strong Boy befriended 'Terrible' Terry as the youngster rampaged through the bantamweight and featherweight divisions in the late 19th and early 20th century.

McGovern battered his way to world titles in both classes, in 1899 and 1900 respectively, and in his pomp was renowned for a hard-hitting, fast and aggressive style which overwhelmed opponents.

It’s easy to see why the no-nonsense heavyweight icon took a shine to the fearless pocket dynamo - particularly as some newspapers described 5ft 3in tall McGovern as a miniature Sullivan.

But the admiration nearly had catastrophic consequences one cold and snowy day in Connecticut when he hired a horse and sleigh and set off to go and visit his young friend at his training camp.

Amid chaotic scenes the horse broke free from the sleigh, heaving Sullivan into the air and then dragging the burly ex-champion at high speed along the road on his belly when he stubbornly refused to relinquish the reins.

The drama only ended when Sullivan hurtled into a snowdrift in front of horrified onlookers who were convinced he must be dead - but the ageing fight veteran somehow survived unscathed.

The incident was revealed by sportswriter Bob Edgren in the New York Evening World newspaper following McGovern’s death in February 1918.

It’s not clear exactly when it happened but it occurred at some point when McGovern was getting into shape at the noted Bond’s Dock training camp on the Housatonic River at Stratford which was run by mustachioed former schooner captain John C Bond.

Edgren said: “Terry McGovern and John L Sullivan were great friends. Sullivan always liked a fighter who had no fear. Lack of fear made McGovern great.

“It was Terry who first told me the story about a visit of John L Sullivan’s to Terry’s training quarters at Captain Bond’s place near Bridgeport.

“The story amused Terry. He laughed and chuckled during the telling.”

TERRY MCGOVERN San Francisco Call April 28 1901According to Edgren, McGovern recalled: “John L. heard I was training at Captain Bond’s and he started out to see me.

“John hired a sleigh at a livery stable and drove down the street. When he’d gone a little way the tugs broke and the horse went out of the shafts, leaving the sleigh behind.

“John had the reins wrapped around his wrists and the horse pulled him over the dashboard and dragged him through the snow.

“Then the horse got scared and ran away. John slid along the snow on his belly until he stuck in a big drift and the horse stopped.

“A lot of guys ran up. They thought John was killed. After they dragged him out and stood him up on his feet and found he wasn’t hurt somebody asked him why he didn’t let go.

“’Let go hell!’, says John, ‘I never let go!’ And he got his horse harnessed and came along to Bond’s.

“He told me about it himself and he told me never to let go either.”

Edgren added: “Terry didn’t need the advice - he never ‘let go’ in a fight in his life.”

Sullivan appears to have suffered no long term effects from his experience but it’s interesting to note what one former opponent once said of him.

Renowned old-time middleweight 'Professor' Mike Donovan, who had his nose broken in an exhibition bout with a young, up and coming Sullivan, said: “It wasn’t boxing. It was like being hit by a runaway horse.”

What a cruel irony it would have been if the man whose style of fighting was likened to a runaway horse had met a premature end at the hands of one.

JOHN L SULLIVAN HORSE ACCIDENT Evening World NY February 25 1918