This article originally posted at BloodyElbow.com by John S. Nash on June 28, 2012 [†]
Think Junior Dos Santos is the "Baddest Man on the Planet"? Sorry, but that title, and boxing's lineal title, belong to someone else. The Martial Chronicles: Why CM Punk Is 'The Baddest Man On The Planet'. What?
With the announcement of Junior Dos Santos's next title defense[†], a rematch with former champ Cain Velasquez, attention now turns to the UFC's continued efforts to market him and the UFC heavyweight title holder as the "Baddest Man on the Planet." Unfortunately, for Dos Santos and the UFC, tradition holds that this title belongs to the heavyweight champion of boxing and not MMA.
This has been the case for generations, even if the title "Baddest Man on the Planet" hasn't always been known by that name. The appellation only entered popular use after serving as the moniker for Mike Tyson during his heavyweight championship reign. Before him Sonny Liston was "the World's Baddest Man", Joe Louis, "the strongest man in the world", Jack Dempsey was "the toughest man in the world", and John Sullivan could "lick any man alive". "The heavyweight champion," as Joyce Carol Oates once observed, "is the most dangerous man on the Earth". This has been true for some time now, and, unfortunately for the UFC and mixed martial arts fans, it will hold true well into the future.
You may ask why we can't disregard the obviously outdated practice of automatically awarding the title of "Baddest Man" to a boxer when mixed martial artists have proven their superiority in a "no holds barred/street fighting" situation time and time again? Because such a change would ignore another tradition, namely that the position of "Baddest Man on the Planet" is not assigned to a fighter because he actually fits the description, but instead it can only be claimed by taking it from the previous "Baddest Man". In other words, to be the man you have to beat the man (who beat the man). The title is therefore synonymous with boxing's lineal championship, so that the possessor of one automatically holds the other.
Does this mean that the "Baddest Man" is always guaranteed to be in the 8 oz gloved hands of a boxer? It would if it wasn't for the simple fact that boxing lost that title well over a century ago.
First, a brief, or maybe not so brief, chronology of the lineal championship of boxing:
The first "Baddest man on the Planet" would have been James Figg, a man recognized as the father of boxing and one of the great, or perhaps greatest, prizefighters of the early 18th century. The prizefighting that Figg participated in was very different from what we have today, and the majority of his bouts were more likely to involve swords or cudgels than barehanded brawling (together these three made up the "sport" of prizefighting). The fisticuffs Figg took part in, and helped craft the rules for, were also very different from those seen today, allowing for, if not endorsing, the use of kicks, knees, ground fighting, hair pulling, and even gouging.
Figg was crowned the English champion (it was probably thought unnecessary at the time to include 'World') in 1719 and held the title for five years before running into and losing it to his archrival, the pipe-maker Ned Sutton. Figg demanded and received a rematch the very next year, where he reclaimed the title by smashing Sutton's knee with a cudgel (again, boxing was a very, very different sport in those days).
Figg held the title of champion for five more years until his retirement in 1730, ending his career with a reported 269-1 record, his sole blemish being the loss to Sutton. With such a record and with his mastery of swordsmanship, stickfighting, and barehanded pugilism, Figg could very well have been the "Baddest Man on the Planet".
Following Figg's retirement, the sport of boxing became exclusively unarmed and the title of champion was passed on to a Figg protégé by the name of George Taylor. Taylor in turn would lose to Jack Broughton, another Figg student and one of the most important figures in the history of fisticuffs. Broughton held the championship for a decade, during which he transformed boxing by introducing his "Rules of the RIng", the first written rules of any sort governing the sport. It is from Broughton and Figg, and the domination they demonstrated, that the lineal championship draws its legitimacy.
Broughton would eventually lose the title to Jack Slack, the grandson of Jame Figg (and a notoriously dirty fighter). Following Slack possession of the "Rules of the Ring" lineal boxing title would over the next century pass down through George Meggs, George Millsom, Tom Juchau, William Darts, Tom "the Waterman" Lyons, Harry Sellers, Duggan Fearns, Benjamin "Big Ben" Brain, Daniel "the Jew" Mendoza, John Jackson, Thomas Own, Jack Bartholomew, Jem Belcher, "The Game Chicken" "Hen" Pierce, John Gully, Tom Cribb, Tom "the Light Tapper" Spring, Tom "The Great Gun of Windsor" Cannon, Jem "The Black Diamond" Ward, Peter "Young Rump Steak" Crawley, Jem Ward for the second time, until finally reaching James "The Deaf ‘un" Burke.
Burke would be the last champion under Broughton's rules and the first under the newly introduced London Prize Ring Rules which further defined the sport as an exclusively standup, fist-centric combat sport. It is the fights under these rules that most people's images of "bare knuckle boxing" come from. It also the rules under which the lineal championship would be contested for the next half century.
Following Burke as possessor of the linear title was William "Bendigo" Thompson, who held it until it was taken from him by Ben "the Torkard Giant" Caunt, who in turn lost it to Nick Ward, who was followed by Caunt and Thompson for a second time each, who were then usurped by William "The Tipton Slasher" Perry, who was then toppled by Harry Broome, who in turn passed it on to Tom "Redditch Needlepointer" Paddock, who relinquished it to Tom "The Brighton Boy" Sayers, who then passed it on to Sam Hurst "The Staleybridge Infant", who lost to Jem "The Gypsy" Mace, who in turn fell to "the Fighting Sailor" Tom King, who then returned the title to Mace, who then ruled seven more years before Tom Allen took it off his hands, only to hand it over to Joe Goss, who would end up losing it in a grueling 87 round fight to Paddy Ryan, who then held the title for almost two years before stepping into the ring in 1882 with the aforementioned "could lick any man alive", John L. Sullivan.
Sullivan's reign lasted a decade, during which he would be the last man to win and hold the championship under the London Prize Ring rules and also be the first champion under the Marquis of Queensbury rules. Eventually, James J. Corbett would depose him of his crown. Gentleman Jim had won the title of boxing's heavyweight champion from Sullivan, but what he didn't gain were Figg's lineal championship nor the title of "Baddest Man on the Planet" or any variation thereof, for you see, Sullivan had already lost those, only not to another boxer.
With our prologue out of the way, we can return our attention to "The Boston Strong Boy" John Lawrence Sullivan. Sullivan was probably the most famous sports figure of his era, renown for his ability to beat every and all comers, as well the wealth lavished on him by adoring supporters. During his decade long reign he is estimated to have earned over $1 million, money he put to good use on food, drink, and women. His appetites were so large that a good portion of his success could be credited to his trainer, William Muldoon, for keeping him in any semblance of fighting shape.
William Muldoon, "The Solid Man", was a legend in his own right, being the biggest athletic star in the country until displaced by Sullivan. Famed for his wrestling prowess - he held the American Greco-Roman Championship - and for his awe inspiring physique. Part of his traveling "act", outside of wrestling, involved painting himself marble white and taking the stage nearly nude, where he posed as a greek statue.
It was a most unlikely pairing, to say the least.
In his new book "Shooters" (which chronicles in fascinating detail the real-life toughest men in professional wrestling, tracking the evolution of yesterday's "hookers" into today's WWE entertainers), Jonathan Snowden describes the relationship between Muldoon and Sullivan:
The two men were polar opposites. Muldoon was a staunch believer in Muscular Christianity, a philosophy that combined religion, masculinity and physical fitness. As a teetotaler who frowned on alcohol and tobacco, Muldoon was the favorite of respectable society. Future President Teddy Roosevelt trained with him and he brought a hint of class with him to the otherwise disreputable athletic shows. Even his art, Greco Roman wrestling, was considered more proper - his scandalous nearly nude modeling dignified by the allusions to classical art. As his career wound down he toured for several acting companies, performing Shakespeare rather than performing suplexes.
Sullivan, for his part, was a fat and slovenly drunk. While Muldoon put on airs, putting a humble upbringing and a stint as a bar bouncer behind him, Sullivan never rose above his circumstances. His mother had dreams of the priesthood for him. He preferred drinking and fighting to his year and a half at Boston College. Yet despite what the New York Tribune called 'his brutality, his coarseness and his vices, Sullivan's fighting prowess was never in question. "He certainly is not afraid of meeting any living man with his barefists."
Following a tour of Europe in which he overindulged on every possible vice, Sullivan was scheduled to face his greatest challenge, the Police Gazette's champion, Jake Kilrain. Once again, he was in need of Muldoon's hated services. Snowden details how this went:
Muldoon staked his reputation that he could get the grotesquely out of shape Sullivan into fighting trim in time to face Kilrain. It wasn't easy. Sullivan was too stubborn to quit and performed all the physical tasks asked of him. It was quitting liquor that was the hardest part. Muldoon kept a watchful eye on the pugilist, once even following him into town and dragging him back as he was just getting started in what would surely be an epic bender. By the end of training the two were sharing a single room but hardly speaking.
In the end Muldoon's efforts proved successful, as Sullivan defeated Kilrain in a grueling 75 round match in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. In promotion of this contest the two went on the road together, touring the country to give exhibitions in their respective crafts. Even though they were in business together, the two had little use for each other, and would rarely speak or socialize, so strong was their mutual dislike. Eventually, in Gloucester, New Jersey (which is often mistakenly labeled as having happened in Gloucester, Massachusetts) a match was set up between the "Wrestling Gladiator William Muldoon" and the "Pugilistic Gladiator" and "champion of all champions" John L. Sullivan. It has been reported by different sources as having been either a Greco-Roman wrestling contest or a mixed competition in which both wrestling and pugilism were permitted. Whatever the truth, it probably mattered little, for Muldoon was an experienced boxer as well as wrestler. As for Sullivan, as Nat Fleischer wrote in From Milos to Londos, "Sullivan was by no means a novice in wrestling science, as he and other bare knuckle fighters were permitted under London rules to mix wrestling and boxing."
At the time, it was a given that boxing was the superior combat art. Lost to current MMA fans raised on the exploits of Royce Gracie and the lessons learned in those early Ultimate Fighting Championships, was the fact that ground fighting is a relatively new art. For the majority of history grappling was a stand up skill where the objective was to "throw" your opponent. Following your opponent to the ground was not typical, understandable when one realizes that wrestling was a martial art developed for the battlefield, where going to the ground to deal with one opponent while surrounded by his armed comrades was an invitation to a quick death. It was only in the late 19th century that ground fighting became common in both wrestling and jiu jitsu as catch-as-catch-can and ne-waza rose to prominence in their respective disciplines. It is therefore easy to understand how a boxer, someone who could both grapple and strike, would be viewed at the time as holding the clear advantage.
The match, as detailed by both the May 31, 1889, Evening Edition of The World and Nat Fleischer's From Milos to Londos, was a fastpaced and entertaining affair. The first fall was taken by Sullivan in only 2 minutes, after the two had traded throws before Sullivan used his great strength to force his opponents shoulders to the ground. The second round was even even more exciting with the two gladiators alternating "in picking one another up and trying to throw him on his back." Eventually, Muldoon managed to drop Sullivan like a log onto his shoulders. It had taken three minutes of work but the match was now even. Sullivan, although visibly tired, rose to his feet smiling at his prospects in the final and deciding fall.
"Muldoon went at Sullivan as though he meant business. He grabbed his head and shook it viciously." Sullivan broke the hold and countered by tripping Muldoon onto his side, but was unable to press the advantage. Defending himself ably, the Solid Man forced his way back to his feet and then "grasped Sullivan in his arms, lifted from his feet and threw him with great force upon the broad of his back. The fall seemed heavy enough to shake the Earth. The crowd yelled delightedly as Muldoon stood over the fallen gladiator with a look of triumph on his countenance."
When an obviously shaken Sullivan stood back up he is reported to have raised his fists with the intent of continuing the contest, but was prevented from striking his tormentor when in rushed a thousand spectators to separate the two. Shortly thereafter, Sullivan and Muldoon would part company.
Muldoon, the Greco-Roman Wrestling Champion of America was now also the newly crowned "Baddest Man on the Planet" and possessor of a lineal championship that stretched back to Broughton and Figg. It had been defended and won in matches contested under the rules of Figg, Broughton, London Prize Ring, and now wrestling. Boxing would not get a chance to reclaim its titles, for Muldoon would soon pass both on to the catch-as-catch-can master Evan "the Strangler" Lewis, who would then hand it off to future professional wrestlers...
Thus, it is in professional wrestling and not boxing or mixed martial arts that one will find the heir to Muldoon, Sullivan, Broughton, and Figg.
Author's Note: Shortly after posting this article Mark S. Hewitt, author of the wrestling history books Catch Wrestling and Catch Wresting, Round 2, alerted me to an earlier match between Muldoon and Sullivan on May 28th, 1888 in Cincinnati. The bout was a wrestling match contested under London Prize Ring Rules - however that worked - and was reported by The Fitchburg Sentinel as ending as a 5-5 draw. Sullivan gave a good showing, being described as looking "in prime condition... not in the least fatigued".
† -- This article by our guest columnist John S. Nash has been crossposted to Cagesideseats.com today (Oct. 23, 2012). In addition to delving into wrestling's past for Cageside Seats, John Nash has regularly chronicled the forgotten history of mixed martial arts at our fellow SBNation Blog: BloodyElbow.com, where this article was also posted back on June 28, 2012. Cageside Seats is proud to present a cross-posting of his article archives in this exclusive guest column for your enjoyment. To read more fascinating articles from Mr. Nash, simply bookmark this link and remember to check back frequently right here for new content.
"James Figg, Master of the Noble Science of Defence" via www.thamehistory.net
"John Sullivan Tobacco Trading Card" via upload.wikimedia.org
"William Muldoon, the Solid Man" via prowrestling.realmenrealdads.com
"WWE Champ CM Punk on the January 30, 2012 episode of WWE Raw" via Steve Wright Jr. from Conway