WINTER 2014 / VOL. 14 ISSUE 1
Sullivan Book Packs Punch

By Martin Russell
The Irish American Post book editor

Author Christopher Klein never put on boxing gloves or stepped into a ring. Yet his latest tome features the boldest, baddest bare-knuckle battler ever to grace America boxing world. Strong Boy: The LIfe and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero (Lyons Press, USB 0762781521). 

Sullivan claimed he could defeat any "son of a bitch in the world" and he proved his point in the 1880s. A native of Boston’s South End neighborhood of Boston, his parents were Michael Sullivan from Abbeydorney, Co. Kerry, and the former Catherine Kelly from Athlone in the Irish Midlands.
Klein may not be ring brawler like his hero subject but he has plenty of writing creds. He is a history and travel writer, contributing frequently to The Boston Globe and History.com. Klein has also published in The New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, Harvard Magazine, Red Sox Magazine, ESPN.com, Smithsonian.com and AmericanHeritage.com. For his pedigree, visit him at www.christopherklein.com.

"I'm a big sports fan, but I don't closely follow boxing. I've never gone 
in person to see any fights," said Klein. "Growing up in the 1980s, I certainly saw the big fights with Hagler, Hearns, Leonard and Tyson, but as the sport waned in popularity over the last couple of decades, so did my interest in it." 

Looking at those contemporary boxers, Klein took a poke at modern ring world. "While we have a tendency to look back at the "good old days" with nostalgia and believe that the sporting heroes of our youth were superior to today's superstars, I lean the opposite way because the modern-day advances in training, medicine, and physiology give modern-day athletes an incredible advantage over those from generations ago," he said.

"So I believe even a dominant boxer like Sullivan from the late 1800s would have quite a challenge ahead of him if he stepped into the ring with a modern-day titleholder," Klein went on. He predicted an interesting matchup, however, if a modern-day titleholder was put into a bareknuckle fight with Sullivan using the old London Prize Rules. 

Under those rule, explained Klein, rounds lasted as long as a fighter stayed on his feet, wrestling was legal and the fight lasted until one fighter could not go on. "Sullivan dominated his fights under those rules during some of his championship bouts," Klein recalled. 

Klein came across Sullivan's incredibly colorful story in writing his last book, The Die-Hard Sports Fan's Guide to Boston. When it came time to think about his next book, he wanted to tell a story that was rooted in Boston, but still had a national appeal, and, as an Irish-American himself

"I was drawn by how Sullivan's rise mirrored that of the Irish in America. The last biography on Sullivan was written 25 years ago, so I thought the story could use some freshening. What surprised me when I dove into the research is that far from being a bygone, sepia-toned relic, Sullivan's story is a familiar one," Klein asserted.

He pointed out that like many modern-day athletes, the "Boston Strong Boy" earned and squandered a fortune, owned a sports bar, starred in theatrical productions, sought political office, wrote his memoirs, shilled products for advertisers, found himself in jail, soaked in the adulation of millions, spewed braggadocio and always backed up his swagger. If sports are America's secular faith, according to Klein, "then Sullivan is not only among our pantheon of athletic gods. He is our Zeus." 

Of course, this took a lot of research top pull all this together, confirming that Sullivan was a complex figure who exhibited enormous strengths and 
foibles. According to Klein, Sullivan was a soft touch, constantly giving money to friends and sprinkling coins on the ground like bird seed to trailing schoolkids. "He also dropped a fortune on booze, and his terrible alcoholism made him a 19th century ‘bad boy,’" Klein agreed. He added that Sullivan was also a poor husband and an indifferent father during his ring career. 

But for Klein, ultimately Sullivan's story is a redemptive one. "After giving up the bottle in his retirement, he settled down and remarried and took in an orphan, and became a loving husband and father figure," the author went on. Klein also said that the most striking thing about Sullivan is that his life was full of adventure. "He was a man who sucked every moment out of life. In that regard, he reminds me so much of his contemporary, Theodore Roosevelt, and it's not a surprise that the two men actually became friends during Roosevelt's time in the White House," he indicated. 

There is a lot of myth that surrounds Sullivan and Klein found out quickly in the research process that the myth seeped into many of the accounts written about Sullivan in the years after his death. So hefocused nearly all of his research on newspaper sources written during Sullivan's life. In that way, the Internet has revolutionized research for nonfiction authors, he said. 

Subsequently, through newspaper databases, Klein had access to more than 100,000 newspaper articles about Sullivan, saying that he was overwhelmed by how much material was out there about the boxer. "I was also able to visit local archives and Boston city records to fill in some of the gaps in Sullivan's stories. Through Ancestry.com, I also tracked down some of the descendants of Sullivan, who assisted with telling the story as well," Klein explained

Such a project is not done overnight, with Klein doing on-again, off-again research on Sullivan for years. The process of pulling the book together took about a year and the actual writing process took about five months. "Thankfully, I had a great support network in my family to keep me fed with good meals, but I was living on little sleep during the time I was writing," he recalled.

Dealing with numerous challenges is part of an author’s job. Luckily when tackling a biography, the structure of the narrative is basically straightforward. Outside of deciding on an opening scene for the book, the chronology of a life is the writer's organizing principle, said Klein. The biggest challenge was in terms of wading through the reams of information that was out there on Sullivan and keeping the narrative tight and flowing. 

Finding the right point in the book to provide some background on the boxing rules of the day and the experiences of Irish immigrants to America was also a challenge, he emphasized. 

Klein is a full-time writer, so he needed to juggle writing Strong Boy along with his writing for other outlets such as the Boston Globe and History.com, the web site of the History Channel. He wrote in his home office with a nice view. "While writing Strong Boy, I did get to see the trees outside turn colors, shed their leaves, and ultimately bud again. No menagerie in our house. Our 3-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son keep us busy enough," he laughed. 

By the time Klein was finished writing the book, it felt like he went 20 rounds with Sullivan. "Ask most nonfiction authors, and they will likely say that the sleuthing involved in the research process is much more enjoyable than putting pen to paper (or fingerprint to keyboard). That was certainly the case with me," Klein said. "The writing process involved many long hours, and by the final days, I had spent so much time sitting at my desk that my feet actually began to swell up. Probably still beats a pummeling by John L., though," he affirmed. 

It helped that Klein had a great literary agent, but it was a challenging economic environment when they were shopping the proposal to publishers a few years ago. The team did hear from many publishers who thought Sullivan's story was a great one, but they were concerned about the market for a "boxing book." 

But Klein always considered Strong Boy to be much more than just a "boxing book," however, because Sullivan's story is a jumping-off point to delve into the history of Gilded Age America, the rise of the Irish in America a generation after the Great Hunger and the birth of America’s sports obsession and celebrity culture. 

"Luckily, Lyons Press, which has published books on boxers such as Micky Ward, saw my same vision for the project, and I got to work with a great editor in Keith Wallman," Klein said.

It takes a certain type of writer to pursue and interpret such a subject as complex as Sullivan, one who definitely has a passion for the subject and the story. "In that respect, Sullivan's story was so colorful that it was easy to maintain that level of interest. I think you also need to be interested in the broader historical age in which the story takes place," he emphasized. 

Klein is kicking around a couple of ideas for other books at the moment but neither deals with sports heroes. He said he definitely wants to continue to write about history, but he’s not wedded to writing about sports. 

What Klein loves most about writing is the opportunity he’s given to share stories with others and shed some light on some little-known or forgotten aspects of history. "The most fulfilling thing for me as a writer is to hear back from a reader: ‘I didn't know that,’" Klein concluded. 
 
 


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