Acclaimed "Fighting Irishmen" Exhibit Comes to ICC's McClelland Library
In his prime, the late John L. Sullivan was one bad cat. The Irish-born boxer may have only been a mere 5-foot-10, but he wielded a 74-inch reach (which tops such modern-day heavyweights as Mike Tyson or Roy Jones, Jr.), frequently fought in bare-knuckle contests, amassed a record of 38-1-2, and sported a badass old-timey mustache.
Courtesy of the Irish Cultural Center Bare-knuckle boxers square off during a bout in the late 19th century.
And according to James J. Houlihan -- curator of the touring exhibition "The Fighting Irishmen: Celebrating Celtic Prizefighters 1820-Present," which opens today at the Irish Cultural Center's McClelland Library -- Sullivan routinely made a habit of challenging fellow pub patrons to impromptu matches.
"He was famous for going into many a bar and saying, "I can lick any son of a bitch in the house.' That was his standard line," Houlihan says. "And he definitely could."
The exploits of Sullivan, which include holding the world heavyweight championship for a decade in the late 1900s, are depicted in the critically acclaimed exhibition, as are the deeds of dozens of other Irish-born fighters from throughout boxing's lengthy history. In particular, "The Fighting Irishmen" focuses on the turn of the century era, where the sweet science was dominated on pugilists who emigrated from the Emerald Isle.
Courtesy of the Irish Cultural Center
"[Sullivan] was the largest and most popular sports figure of the 19th century," Houlihan says. "In those days, boxing, baseball, and horseracing were about it. Those were the three biggest spectator sports. There wasn't a lot else going on as there wasn't any football, basketball, hockey, or golf. So these boxers were very, very famous, even through the first half of the 20th century."
The exhibition is a literal time capsule of boxing lore dating back to the era prior to the Civil War and contains a treasure trove of photographs that were featured in the pages of Sports Illustrated, movie clips, and other ephemera. Lore and memorabilia from such legendary fighters such as Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Barry McGuigan, and Freddie Gilroy is included in the wealth of material making up "The Fighting Irishman."
"We have all these great champions included, and yes, some lesser-known individuals from boxing history that are featured in the exhibit," Houlihan says.
That includes such names as "Butcher" Bill Poole, a bare-knuckle competitor who is more notorious for his membership in the Bowery Boys gang, as depicted by Daniel Day Lewis in Martin Scorcese's 2002 film Gangs of New York. The great Muhammad Ali is also featured in the annals of the exhibit, as Houlihan says he's considered to be an Irish fighter due to the fact his maternal great-grandfather came to America from County Clare in Ireland right after the Civil War and married a recently freed slave. (Ali, who currently resides in the Valley, is also scheduled to appear at the exhibition's opening reception tonight.)