The Book

The Book

John L. Sullivan, the first modern heavyweight boxing champion of the world, was the gold standard of American sport for more than a decade, and the first athlete to earn more than a million dollars. He had a big ego, big mouth, and bigger appetites. His womanizing, drunken escapades, and chronic police-blotter presence were godsends to a burgeoning newspaper industry. The larger-than-life boxer embodied the American Dream for late nineteenth-century immigrants as he rose from Boston’s Irish working class to become the most recognizable man in the nation. In the process, the “Boston Strong Boy” transformed boxing from outlawed bare-knuckle fighting into the gloved spectacle we know today.

Strong Boy tells the story of America’s first sports superstar, a self-made man who personified the power and excesses of the Gilded Age. Everywhere John L. Sullivan went, his fists backed up his bravado. Sullivan’s epic brawls, such as his 75-round bout against Jake Kilrain, and his cross-country barnstorming tour in which he literally challenged all of America to a fight are recounted in vivid detail, as are his battles outside the ring with a troubled marriage, wild weight and fitness fluctuations, and raging alcoholism. Strong Boy, called “one of the best boxing books ever penned” by the Boston Globe and a “muscular, relentlessly detailed book” by the Wall Street Journal, gives readers ringside seats to the colorful tale of one of the country’s first Irish-American heroes and the birth of the American sports media and the country’s celebrity obsession with athletes.

If sports are America’s secular faith, Sullivan is not only among the pantheon of athletic gods, he is our Zeus. Far from a sepia-tone relic, Sullivan blazed the trail for any athlete who ever earned and squandered a fortune, owned a sports bar, sought political office, wrote his memoirs, inked endorsements, found himself behind bars, soaked in the adulation of millions, spewed braggadocio, and always backed up his swagger.

Readers of Strong Boy will:

  • Learn how Sullivan’s incredible career and oversized personality launched America’s modern sporting obsession
  • Travel back in time to the extravagant Gilded Age to witness the birth of America’s celebrity culture
  • Discover how Sullivan’s power and self-confidence transformed him into an idol for a generation of Irish-Americans emasculated in the wake of the horrific potato famine that gripped their homeland


Advance Praise for “Strong Boy”

“Sports biography at its best. Rich in period detail, anecdote, and fresh perspective, Strong Boy paints both the good and the bad sides of success, as America’s growing celebrity culture turned a simple Irish American gladiator into a national, in fact international hero. A very human story with profound parallels for our sports-obsessed culture today!”
—Nigel Hamilton, author of Biography: A Brief History and The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941–1942

“This admirable biography has a Citizen Kane feel to it: Strong Boy both celebrates John L. Sullivan as a sports hero and lights up the pathos of Sullivan the man-child. If he could ‘lick any son-of-a bitch in the world,’ John L. could out-drink and out-eat all contenders. The first million-dollar man in sports died broke. Christopher Klein does justice to the legend, the man, and the times.”
—Jack Beatty, author of The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley, 1874–1958

“You don’t have to be a boxing fan to want to time travel back to the 1880s and sample some nickel beer, free lunch, horse trolleys, and the Babel of immigrants. Christopher Klein, in this well-researched book, delivers the sportin’ life of the Gilded Age when Americans crowned their first athlete-king, John L. Sullivan, in coast-to-coast banner headlines.”

—Richard Zacks, best-selling author of Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York

“Christopher Klein gives readers a ringside seat for one of the greatest boxing careers in history. The descriptions of the fights are quick and powerful—like one of John L.’s punches—and the Boston Strong Boy’s life story unfolds with wonderfully vivid detail. The Sweet Science deserves beautiful writing like this.”
—Bob Halloran, author of Irish Thunder: The Hard Life and Times of Micky Ward and Impact Statement: A Family’s Fight for Justice against Whitey Bulger, Stephen Flemmi, and the FBI

“Christopher Klein’s action-crammed account of the life and times of John L. Sullivan packs the wallop of the Boston Strong Boy’s legendary right fist. The magnetic, deeply flawed Sullivan comes back to life in this fascinating visit to the seedy, bare-knuckled culture of America’s nineteenth century beneath its Victorian gloss.”
—Edward Achorn, author of The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America’s Game and Fifty-nine in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had

“Christopher Klein’s Strong Boy is a well-researched look at a forgotten hero: modern boxing’s first heavyweight champion. It’s a go-to resource on John L. Sullivan’s personal life, his ring career, and the era in which he thrived. For all the talk about ‘the man who beat the man,’ here’s a work that documents the man himself.”
—John Florio, author of One Punch from the Promised Land: Leon Spinks, Michael Spinks and the Myth of the Heavyweight Title

largelineReviews of “Strong Boy”

“From the first page to the last, Klein’s prose retains its powers of enchantment and illumination. It is one of the best boxing books ever penned.”
—Boston Globe

“In this muscular, relentlessly detailed book, Christopher Klein not only tells Sullivan’s story but also documents the evolution of boxing from illicit bare-knuckle savagery akin to today’s steel-cage extravaganzas to the ‘sweet science’ of legally sanctioned bouts between skillful gloved opponents.”
—Wall Street Journal

“In Strong Boy, The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, the book that should go straight to the top of your holiday gift list, Irish American author Christopher Klein has written an immensely entertaining and insightful biography that’s worthy of his formidable subject.”
Irish Voice

“Freelance writer Klein offers this treasure trove of information that covers sports, celebrity, crime, politics and entertainment as he tracks the John L. Sullivan, “Boston Strong Boy,” across the country and globe as he rises from the tenement to the heavyweight championship and everything that came with it. Boxing fans will delight in the detailed accounts of Sullivan’s battles (he was the heavyweight champion from 1882 to 1892) with Paddy Ryan, Charley Mitchell, Jake Kilrain, and Jim Corbett, while others might find more interest in Sullivan drunken exploits. Also, of interest is how Klein, using his expressive-yet-scholarly prose (“A boxer always represents power in its most visceral sense, and John L. symbolized an ascendant America that was flexing its economic muscles”), ties Sullivan to the issues of the era, such as temperance, class and race relations, immigration, and America’s growth into a world power. In fact, if this book has a drawback it might be that boxing sometimes gets lost in the shuffle of all Sullivan’s other activities. Still, Klein should not be faulted for his thoroughness since, even though this may not be the first book about Sullivan, it just may be the most exhaustive.”
—Publisher’s Weekly

“Attentive as he is to historical details, Klein’s storytelling gift is most evident in how he depicts “John L.” as a beloved hero who was eventually undone by ego and who had a legendary appetite for food and drink…A lively, consistently entertaining sports biography.”
–Kirkus Reviews