Throwback Thursday: John L. Sullivan Makes a Stop at Nantasket Beach
Nantasket Beach in the summertime is a pretty nice spot to be. On August 18, 1887, it was especially nice because the Boston Strong Boy himself had stopped by to show off his shiny new Heavyweight World Champion belt.
John L. Sullivan, who typically assumes the above (not-so-enthusiastic) pose in most photographs and portraits, was a celebrity at the time. Known for his violent and entertaining fights, the Roxbury-born Irishman became so celebrated that he rubbed shoulders with influencers of the day, including Babe Ruth, Buffalo Bill, and even President Theodore Roosevelt.
Before his fame and fortune (which both eventually depleted due to alcoholism), Sullivan fought with his gloves off—literally because he didn’t wear gloves, and figuratively because boxing wasn’t recognized as an official sport yet. As Christopher Klein, author of Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero, writes, “the hard-hitting, hard-drinking boxer ushered the sport from its outlawed bare-knuckle days into the modern gloved era while becoming the country’s first sports superstar and the first athlete to earn $1 million.”
America’s first sports hero was also the country’s first Irish-American sports hero. This delighted the Irish immigrants of Boston, who felt empowered by Sullivan’s strength and growing fame. Sullivan’s parents had immigrated to Boston to escape the Irish potato famine, and Sullivan worked to climb out of poverty by fighting for money. He once challenged to fight “any man breathing” for any amount of money between $1,000 and $10,000. A perpetual winning streak propelled him to fame, eventually leading to his Heavyweight World Champion title.
So when Sullivan arrived at Hull’s Nantasket Beach—a favorite summer drinking spot for the fighter— 129 years ago, thousands of fans turned up to admire their local celebrity. MassMoments.org describes Sullivan’s belt as an impressive diamond-studded, gold-plated accessory. He donned the belt and greeted his fans that night before heading out for his world tour. Cheers, Boston Strong Boy.