More than a little bit ago, when I was Signal sports editor, I spent the day with a good friend at the L.A. Open. He was an avid but horrific golfer. I had as much interest in the sport as elephant soccer. Hiking the Republican Wetlands, we smirked and made inappropriate comments, as sports writers do.
My pal from the rival Los Angeles Times knew I was finishing my first novel, “The Last American Legend.” He made a surprise confession: His lifelong and unrealized dream was to write “dime detective novels.”
The enemies of art uncountable conspired against him. Marriage, family and the fame of being inarguably the greatest sports writer in world history thwarted Jim Murray’s dream.
There’s a French word for it. Manqué.
Having failed to become what one might have been.
Recently, I spent hours chatting with my nephew-like substance. Todd Caine has a name that belongs on a Wild West “Wanted Dead or Alive” poster. We spoke of a boxer who has always haunted me.
John L. Sullivan was the last heavyweight bare-knuckles champion. His official record of 38-1 belies the legend. Sully fought nearly 1,000 fights. In the past 500,000 years, this indestructible Irishman may have been the most ferocious man who ever lived. The term, “knock-out” comes from John L. He was literally the catalyst for the invention of the modern newspaper sports page and the first $1 million athlete, a fortune in the late 19th century. One of the most famous people on the planet, he died young and penniless.
Todd and I relaxed over beers, speaking of many things. We marveled at the differences of today and yesteryear of the male species. Todd knew little of Sullivan, The Boston Strongboy.
John L. Sullivan fought Jake Kilrain for the last bare-knuckles title fight. It was on July 8, 1889, in Richburg, Mississippi. By 7 a.m., the mercury hit 100 degrees with near-matching humidity. How tough was Sullivan? Sully had just returned from a European tour of 50 fights.
He was a womanizer, trencherman and ferocious drunk, nightly chugging bourbon from beer steins and inhaling magnums of champagne. Returning to the U.S. he had ballooned up to 280 pounds, suffered a heart attack, gastric flu, typhoid and liver failure. He was given the last rites of the church on his deathbed, which he climbed out of to train for the Kilrain fight.
The morning of the title bout, Sully’s breakfast included: a dozen eggs, pork chops, a giant steak, a few pints of brandy, beer, pastries, fruit, potatoes, juice, coffee and, of course, more beer. In a memoir, he recalled feeling “horrible” the first 60 rounds. He threw up in the 61st, felt better, coasted a few rounds, then — THREE HOURS LATER — knocked the bee-jeebies out of Kilrain in the 75th round.
Outside. In 100-degree-plus heat and total humidity.
Todd asked how my new novel was coming. It’s the sequel to that long-ago “Last American Legend.” Before publishing, we changed the title to “Naked Came the Sasquatch.” I confessed. I’d been dodging the fight. Writing’s been both kind and an Old Testament test. I’ve been rejected more than the tribes of Israel and I wasn’t sure I could stand another spurning. It was quiet for a long moment.
Todd smiled and said something I’ll never forget. “It’s the 60th round. Maybe you need to throw up.” We both laughed our heads off.
And what the hell.
Before a fight, John L. Sullivan would sometimes be so drunk, his trainers held him in the air and wiggled his tights onto him. He’d be bashed and battered so badly in the ring his face was unrecognizable. He lost so much blood in the ring, he nearly died. Imagine summoning the will to hit someone when your hand is broken and swollen to twice its size.
No excuses. And the thought of defeat is not even a possibility.
Certainly Sully was a man from another era, filled with sins and foibles. He claimed, not with braggadocio, he had never experienced fear. Never.
Someone once asked: “How would you live your life if you had no fear?”
I’d smile and start Round 61.
Earth’s most prolific humorist, Boston has penned more than 11,000 blogs, columns, essays, books, features and stories. He’s been named both best serious and best humorous columnist in America, is the recipient of The Will Rogers Lifetime Achievement Award and is on Round No. 61 of “Naked Came the Novelist.”