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Review of Adam J. Pollack’s John L. Sullivan: The Career of the First Gloved Heavyweight Champion.

by Sergei Yurchenko

John L. Sullivan had become a mythical figure long before he decided to quit the ring. Mythical in both his status as quite possibly the greatest athlete there was in the 19th century, and in the number of stories or legends about him, which were not always true. One of the biggest examples of the latter was that he was primarily a bareknuckle fighter.

A lot was written about Sullivan, some books focusing on him exclusively, some dedicating a chapter to his role in the history of heavyweight boxing. But too often they focused primarily on his biggest fights and on his personality, and offered little about his lesser-known fights and opponents. There wasn't one book that stood out as the consensus best about him. Some preferred his autobiography, some thought Isenberg's 'John L. Sullivan and His America' was best and most thoroughly researched, while some chose Chidsey's 'John the Great' for his writing style.

And while the question about the best description of his personality and his life remains unanswered, it seems to be consensus opinion now that the best book on him as a fighter is the one written by Adam J. Pollack. It's hard to disagree with that.

The author of 'John L. Sullivan - The Career of the First Gloved Heavyweight Champion' reveals his goals from the very beginning:

- present facts and analysis that is based mostly on primary sources;
- provide multiple views where there's a discrepancy between different sources and let the reader decide which of them seems to be closer to truth;
- discuss his opponents, to provide insight into significance of each fight;
- describe the way Sullivan developed as a fighter, his skills and abilities, providing opinions of both his critics and his followers and fans;
- describe the epoch when he fought, and his influence on the course of history in general, and the history of boxing in particular.

The book fulfills these tasks nearly perfectly. The efforts Adam J. Pollack has put into his research is visible from the start, the number of sources and the quality of them is immense, and the way he treats them as a true historian, with excellent objectivity and neutrality, that are not at all clouded by his affection to the object of his research.

The fighting record of Sullivan not only grows in size and rids of multiple errors as compared to any other version that has been compiled before, but it stops being just a list of names on paper too. The author carefully paints images of many of them, who they were and how significant was their role on the boxing scene.

And even though Adam J. Pollack has decided to concentrate only on that part of Sullivan's life that is relevant to his fighting career, the personality of this great pugilist becomes much clearer after reading this book than can be achieved from reading of any other books on him. Dislike of bareknuckle rules; lack of passion for boxing later in his career, drawing the color line and the indecision about his position on it - all these points are discussed in detail.

It can be only criticized the way the book ends at the Corbett fight, without much discussion on it and on what happened to Sullivan afterwards, but this is easily excused by the fact that the author is going to continue and finish the story of Sullivan in his later books, one of which has already been finished and is available via, and supposedly discusses the conqueror of Sullivan, James J. Corbett, as thoroughly as the book being reviewed discusses Sullivan. It’s called: In the Ring With James J. Corbett.

In all, the book is a must-have for any follower of the 'sweet science', and fully deserves a place on the shelf with the best books ever written on boxing.

John L. Sullivan: The Career of the First Gloved Heavyweight Champion is available at

McFarland - Publisher of Reference and Scholarly Books

In the Ring With James J. Corbett is available at

In the Ring With James J. Corbett by Adam J. Pollack (Book) in Sports & Adventure
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