A Vancouver time travelogue brought to you by Past Tense.
John L Sullivan, the “Boston Strong Boy,” was the first global sports superstar. After winning the heavyweight boxing title in 1882, he went on to become the first athlete to earn over a million dollars, which he spent faster than it came in. With his 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 Queensberry Rules were introduced, 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, making John L both the last bare-knuckle and first gloved champion to hold the title.
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. He was the biggest draw the venue had to date, though the papers felt compelled to manage its readers’ expectations about his thespian abilities, 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” and, it said, “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!” Later that year, Sullivan’s reign as heavyweight champ ended when “Gentleman” Jim Corbett famously knocked him out in New Orleans. His boxing career was winding down but his stage career had only begun.
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.
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 and refereed one of their boxing matches; edited the sports page for the Vancouver Daily World; arranged for local cinemas to show rare boxing films and slides from his personal collection; and umpired a baseball game. 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.
Sources: John L Sullivan and his wife at the Hollow Tree, Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, #WA MSS S-2513; Colourized photo, Afflictor.com; John L Sullivan at the World, Vancouver Daily World, 26 Februrary 1909.