William Muldoon: The "Solid Man" Who Tamed John L. Sullivan

John L. Sullivan, heavyweight champion of the world, strode into the bar in the small town of Belfast in western New York state as if he owned it. He had done the same thing in hundreds of other bars nationwide since he won the championship seven years ago. "SET UP THE BAR," he bellowed, "when John L. drinks, everyone drinks." The bartender momentarily hesitated until Sullivan slammed his huge fist down on the bar. At that, the intimidated man quickly started pouring.

(Left: John L. Sullivan, "The Boston Strong Boy")

On May 25, 1889, very few men worldwide would not have been intimidated by the "Boston Strong Boy." Still, the 30-year-old champion was far from the lean and mean fighting machine he had been a few years earlier. Instead, there was a prominent layer of fat around the midsection of the now 240 lb champion. John L was some 30 to 40 lbs heavier than he was when he won the title. That layer of fat was why the champ, who loved crowded cities full of adoring fans, was far out in the countryside of western New York.

Belfast was the home of a man who was recognized as the Greco-Roman Wrestling World Heavyweight Champion: William Muldoon. Sullivan had come to Muldoon's hometown to be trained by the fitness expert at his farm for his title defense in July against Jack Kilrain. Today was Muldoon's 37th birthday, but it was Sullivan who was planning to do the celebrating. Muldoon knew that drinking destroyed Sullivan's fitness and had forbidden all alcohol while training.

Muldoon had asked all the bars in town to refuse to serve Sullivan if he showed up, explaining the initial hesitancy of this bartender. But, unfortunately for Sullivan, Muldoon was at the very top of the tiny group of men who were unintimidated by him. And now it was himself who came slamming through the door with fire in his eyes. The enraged Muldoon marched up to the bar, sweeping his muscular arm across it, sending whiskey and glasses flying. John L, who knew how desperately he needed Muldoon's help, meekly strode out of the bar and back to Muldoon's farm to continue his training.

(Right: The barns in Belfast, NY where Muldoon trained Sullivan.)

William A. Muldoon was born in Caneadea, near Belfast, NY. Most biographical information on him gives his birth date as May 25, 1845, but according to the 1870 census, he was born in 1852. William's father, Patrick Muldoon, was born in 1816 in Kilmalinoge, County Galway, Ireland. He married William's mother, Maria Donohoe, in Dublin on May 17, 1837. They were likely on their way to North America at the time, as their first child, daughter Rossana, was born in New York State in March 1838. By 1845, when their 3rd child, Mary, was born, they were in Caneadea, where Patrick bought some land and started farming.

When the Muldoons settled there, the fertile Genesee River valley was barely populated. The hard work of clearing and cultivating land would put plenty of muscle on the body of young William. While still a boy, the redhead would earn spending money from neighbors by chopping up cordwood. He would grow into a big, strong farm boy, not overly tall at 5'9" tall, but solid at about 210 lbs.

(Below: Regimental flag of the 6th NY Vol. Cavalry)

Before that happened, the country was torn apart by the Civil War. William's older brother, Jack, enlisted in Company I of the 6th New York Cavalry early in the war. The regiment was assigned to the famous Army of the Potomac and fought in most of the major battles in the Eastern Theater. Jack was captured in August 1862, paroled a month later, and then exchanged. He was also wounded at some point in the war, though his records gave no date or place. He was an excellent soldier, as he was promoted to 1st Sergeant in December 1863 and then to 1st Lieutenant in November 1864. The wound must have been severe. His death in January 1873, at just 31, was said to be related to that wound.

That brings us to the possible participation of young William in the war. All biographical information about him includes his service as a drummer boy or soldier in the same regiment as his brother. One would have to accept his earlier birth of 1845 for him to have been a soldier in the war. But he was listed in the 1860 census as an 8-year-old and in the 1870 census as an 18-year-old. So the 1852 birth date seems definite. And William is not listed on the roster of the 6th N.Y. Cavalry.

However, that does not mean he didn't serve as a drummer boy. Hundreds of underage boys served as drummer boys; not all were listed in regimental rosters. This was also often the case if the boy went in with their father or an older brother. Muldoon often spoke of having served in the 6th Cavalry later, so that was either some incredible "blarney" from the Irish-American, or he really did so as drummer boy but was never officially enrolled in the army.

(Right: A Union Army drummer boy.)

During the time he was famous and quoted about the war, many men of the regiment were still alive. And he still had a home in Belfast as well. It would have taken incredible nerve to lie with so many of his neighbors being veterans of the 6th. To be quoted as saying, "The business of trying to kill one's fellow man is not a pleasant memory," as he was, while living around veterans of the 6th, would seem impossible if you weren't really there. So on the roster or not, he must have been there.

One of his war stories involved the Battle of Cedar Creek, VA, on October 19, 1864. The day before, he was sent to the rear with the 6th's Postmaster to pick up the regiment's mail. Thus, on the day of the battle, as he walked back through the fog that covered the Confederate advance that morning, he could hear the sounds of the battle in the distance. And he was on the Valley Pike, the same road on which Sheridan made his famous ride back to his command to save the day.

Muldoon, who grew up loving horses, recalled Sheridan's beautiful, massive, black stallion, Rienzi, as Sheridan and his staff came charging down the pike past him. The cries of "Phil Sheridan is coming" famously ran through the ranks of the VI Corp as Sheridan arrived on the battlefield and rallied to victory. The event was later made even more famous by poem "Sheridan's Ride," by Thomas Buchanan Read.

(Below: Sheridan's Ride," by Thure de Thulstrup, depicts Sheridan's famous arrival at the battlefield of Cedar Creek in 1864.)

During his time with the 6th Cavalry, Muldoon first became acquainted with wrestling. During the winter of 1864-65, the regiment entered quarters in Winchester, VA. The men had to find ways to entertain themselves; one way was wrestling. As young as he was, William was big enough to take on some of the younger, smaller soldiers in the regiment. There he developed his love of the sport.

Muldoon also began a lifelong interest in physical fitness that would eventually become his life's work. He would recall that he learned, "The soul is much stronger than the body. The body dominant, nothing is well done. The body, as the servant, will shirk duty and magnify difficulties. The soul as the master of the body, if inspired with a noble idea, will convert a man into a hero."

The years immediately after Civil War are another cloudy period in Muldoon's life. Some accounts have him in New York City right after the war, but those accounts also give his birth date as 1845. In fact, he had just turned 14 as the war was ending, making it likely that he would return to his family farm at the end of the war. All biographical information on Muldoon agrees that he was in New York by the mid-1870s, but some have him engaged in another adventure in between.

At just 18, Muldoon took off for Europe to serve in the French army during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. It's hard to understand his motivation; perhaps it was just a case of a young man looking for adventure. Nevertheless, he continued wrestling with his new comrades in the French army and learning about Greco-Roman wrestling from them.

(Right: A French infantryman from the Franco-Prussian War (1877) Jean-Baptiste Édouard Detaille.)

While wrestling in a Paris gymnasium, he met the publisher of the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett. Bennett was very impressed with Muldoon's athletic ability. He told him, "You are a great athlete, Muldoon, and if you concentrate on Greco-Roman, you will be the best man in the world." Muldoon took that advice to heart, and Bennett would one day be proven correct.

Muldoon survived the war and returned to settle in New York City. He worked on the docks for a while and was involved in some professional boxing and wrestling matches in the city. He was making a decent living and got some notice, with many of his contests being at the famous Harry Hill's on Houston Street. Many of the renowned people of the day would come to Hill's to see Muldoon's matches, including P.T. Barnum, Thomas Edison, Oscar Wilde, and many other prominent members of New York society.

Around this time, there was a popular song called "Muldoon, the Solid Man." The song was written about a fictional character, not him, but soon, and for the rest of his life, it would be one of his nicknames. Another nickname often used for him was "The Iron Duke."

In 1876, Muldoon joined many of his fellow Irish Americans as a member of the New York City Police. One of his acquaintances from these wrestling bouts was Tipperary-born John Morrissey, a New York state senator, and former bare-knuckle prizefighting champion, not to mention a former member of the "Dead Rabbit" gang. Tammany Hall, ward heeler, secured Muldoon a position as a police officer. Many officers who got into physical altercations must have been very happy to see Muldoon arrive on the scene.

Muldoon shortly helped organize the Police Athletic Association and began wrestling the best opponents around the city and beating them. On January 19, 1880, he wrestled Thiebuad Bauer in a match that was dubbed the Greco-Roman championship. The match was watched by over 3,000 people at Gilmore's Garden, on the site that would later be Madison Square Garden. Muldoon took 2 falls out of 3 and was crowned the "World Champion" of Greco-Roman wrestling.

Muldoon defended his title against William Miller to a draw three months later. He had another draw in a match early in 1881 with Clarence Whistler, which he blamed on his inability to train full-time due to his police duties. So shortly after that match, Muldoon quit the police department to train and wrestle full-time.

Whistler would prove a formidable opponent, wrestling Muldoon to a draw three times. All the bouts lasted hours. In the third one, in San Fransisco in November 1883, Whistler sustained a broken shoulder. Whistler, whose nickname was “The Kansas Demon,” refused to quit, saying he would rather die in the ring, and Muldoon declined to take advantage of a man with a broken shoulder, so the referee declared the bout a draw. As Muldoon correctly commented later, the rules were the same as in boxing, and he should have been declared the winner.

(Below: Muldoon with an arm lock on Whistler in a posed photo.)

During these early 80s and later in life, Muldoon also took occasional forays into the world of acting. In 1883, he shared the stage with Maurice Barrymore, the patriarch of the famous acting family that continues to this day, in a production of Shakespeare's "As You Like It." Unsurprisingly, they cast him as "Charles the Wrestler." He would also play the part of "The Fighting Gaul" on Broardway in "Spartacus" in 1887.

Later, based in San Fransisco, Muldoon took on wrestlers from all over the world who came to challenge him. He defeated Jules Rigal, styled as the champion of France, and Pietro Delmas, who disputed Rigal's claim to that honor. He also beat Andre Christol and Bisamos, two more French challengers. He pinned Professor Carlos Martino of Spain, said to be one of the greatest of the Old World wrestlers. He vanquished Donald Dinnie from Scotland, and Tom Cannon, from England. He overpowered Swiss strongman Sebastian Miller, and finally, Matsada Sorakichi, a Japanese wrestler, fell to the champion.

During the decade of the 80s, Muldoon was also doing barnstorming of the same sort as boxing champion John L. Sullivan would later do. Moving from town to town, he would challenge any local to get into the ring with him. An incident in Pueblo, Colorado, indicates Muldoon's character. Coming upon a weeping woman with three children on the step of a gambling establishment, he comforted her. Finding her distress was caused by her intoxicated husband having been taken advantage of within. Muldoon could get no personal benefit from helping her, but he entered and confronted the owner. "I am Billy Muldoon," said the ex-police officer, looking his man square in the eye. "That man over there has been drugged and robbed, and I am here to get back what belongs to him." He added a little twist to the man's wrist as he said it. Unsurprisingly, he was soon returning the lost money to the melancholy wife.

While on one of his early tours, he first met up-and-coming boxer John L. Sullivan in Boston. Muldoon's tour happened to have him in New Orleans on February 7, 1882, so he watched Sullivan beat Tipperary-born Paddy Ryan for a fight that most considered the world championship. Many years later, after Sullivan had passed, Muldoon said of his performance in that fight: "John L. was a remarkably quick and tremendously strong and furious fighting man that day. What a fight Sullivan, on the day he became champion, would have made with Dempsey." That being Jack Demsey, whom Muldoon would also train In his later life.

(Left: The young John L. Sullivan)

Muldoon and Sullivan, along with baseball's Mike "King" Kelly, became three of the first superstars of America's newly emerging sports scene in the 1880s. The industrial revolution created something that had never existed: a working class with some free time and a little money to spend on sporting events. And Irish-Americans were very prominent in all the professional sports that developed as a result.

Muldoon would hold his title against all comers for the decade of the 80s, retiring as the Greco-Roman champion in 1890. But before that happened, he would once again connect with the "Boston Strong Boy." Early in 1880, Sullivan signed a contract to defend his title in July against Jack Kilrain, whom many were sure would defeat the out-of-shape "Strong Boy." Sullivan's backers had put up $10,000 that would be forfeited if Sullivan could not fight the bout, as appeared likely. They came to Muldoon and asked him to try to get Sullivan back into fighting shape. Muldoon agreed, saying his fee would be $10,000 if Sullivan won the bout and nothing if he lost. Knowing they would forfeit $10,000 if Sullivan could not fight, they readily agreed.

Muldoon did not intend to train Sullivan in any city, knowing most had a bar on every street. He brought the champion to his own hometown, the small town of Belfast in western New York. There was only one bar in Belfast, and Muldoon let the bartender know he was not to serve Sullivan. Muldoon intended to isolate Sullivan from his usual fan adulation and fawning press and work him harder than he had ever worked in his life.

(Right: Muldoon's barns in Belfast.)

During the two months Muldoon trained Sullivan, only two reporters were allowed to interview him. One was Ban Johnson, who would one day be president of the American League in baseball. The other was Nellie Bly, one of the few female newspaper reporters of the 19th Century in the U.S. Sullivan was charmed by the 24-year-old Bly, telling her, "You are the first woman who ever interviewed me. And I have given you more than I ever gave any reporter in my life." Later that year, Bly would achieve nationwide fame with her" Around the World in 80 Days" race.

Twenty days into his training, Muldoon would wrestle his out-of-shape friend in a best-out-of-three falls exhibition contest. Over 2000 people were on hand for the match in Gloucester, MA, in May 1889. Boxers at the time were allowed to use various wrestling moves to throw their opponents to the mat, so Sullivan was not unfamiliar with wrestling.

(Below: Advertising poster for the Sullivan vs Kilrain bout.)

Muldoon was the world champion of Greco-Roman wrestling. So even though he had just turned 38, he'd be expected to beat Sullivan. Perhaps he believed losing in public would be a good motivator for Sullivan. Maybe it did, as Sullivan would continue to work hard and, on the day of the fight, would weigh in at just 207 lbs, but Muldoon had to remain vigilant. Rochester reporter Arch Merril commented that occasionally Sullivan would "escape" from his guard. In Belfast village, the cry was heard, "John L. is loose again! Send for Muldoon!" Muldoon would snatch the champ away from the bar and take him back to their training camp.

Sullivan would need every bit of Muldoon's hard training, including hours tossing a weighted "medicine ball," which Muldoon is credited with inventing by some. On the day of the fight in Richburg, Mississippi, 100 miles north of New Orleans, temperatures were said to hit 104. In betting leading up to the fight, Sullivan was favored, but only slightly, unlike most of his fights. This last-ever bare-knuckles championship fight was also the longest. It lasted 2 hours and 16 minutes. In such a marathon bout, the best-conditioned fighter was likely to win. Kilrain's trainer, another famous Irish-American of early boxing history, "Professor" Mike Donovan, threw in the towel at the end of the 75th round.

Sullivan gave another interview to Nellie Bly, telling her, "Mul is the best damn trainer in the world. Let me tell you, Miss Bly, when Bill took me in charge I had gastric fever, typhoid fever, inflammation of the bowels, heart trouble, and liver complaint." Sullivan was always prone to hyperbole, but the publicity of Muldoon's successful training of the most famous boxer in the world had physical training requests flooding into Muldoon's mailbox.

(Below: A tobacco card celebrating Muldoon.)

With his wrestling career nearly over, Muldoon had found this life's work going forward. It would not just be training boxers, though he would do that, but also as a physical fitness expert to many of the most prominent people of the next four decades. He might have been the first of what we now call celebrity trainers.

Through most of the 90s, Muldoon concentrated more on training boxers than civilians, but he did not train Sullivan again. Immediately after the Kilrain fight, Muldoon and Sullivan had a falling out. That was partly over the legal problems of Muldoon regarding the fight. Bare knuckles fights were illegal in Mississippi then, as they were nearly everywhere. Muldoon felt like he didn't get enough support from Sullivan to fight his charges. It became so contentious that with dueling newspaper attacks on each other for a time, people believed it would come to blows. They would eventually reconcile years later.

Muldoon began training Sullivan's former opponent, Jake Kilrain, and was in his corner when he lost to a fighter Muldoon had never heard of until shortly before their fight, Jim Corbett, soon to be known as "Gentleman Jim." Muldoon tried and failed to get Kilrain a rematch with Sullivan, hoping, no doubt, that a reversal of the result would prove his training was decisive. Instead, two years later, Corbett would defeat Sullivan for the heavyweight title. There was no Muldoon to save Sullivan from himself this time.

One day in late June 1897, Muldoon heard a gruff, familiar voice call out, "Where's Muldoon." It was none other than the "Boston Strong Boy," John L., who had come to make amends. After some tense moments, the two agreed to let bygones be bygones and shook hands. Of course, Sullivan had an additional purpose in mind. Though nearing 40-years-old, and weighing over 260 lbs, he wanted to challenge champion Bob Fitzsimmons for the title. After failing to talk him out of it, Muldoon agreed to attempt what he knew was impossible. After a few weeks of training, though he had dropped a lot of weight, Sullivan recognized the futility of the task. Muldoon was relieved, and he had repaired their friendship by letting him make an attempt.

In 1899, Muldoon opened a health farm called "Olympia" in White Plains, NY, just northeast of New York City. Soon the ever-present Nellie Bly arrived to do a story on Muldoon's new enterprise. Muldoon had set up his health farm for training men only, but the ever-persuasive Bly convinced him to allow her to undergo some of the training for her story. "I have found the safest doctor in the world," she wrote. "He takes his own medicine. In other words, what he prescribes for a patient he shares with him and is the living example of his own physic." Some say it was the first such "fitness farm" in the world.

Muldoon would become known far and wide as someone who could return men to an excellent physical condition they had once known, or in some cases, never known. "Olympia" included a gymnasium, dormitories, guest quarters, stables, and barns, all surrounded by hedges and green lawns. There were flower beds around the property as well. It had a beautiful kitchen and dining area, where his cook, Mlle. Leonie Lutringer would cook healthy meals for the patrons.

For the rest of his life, Muldoon would be employed at the job of making men, and occasionally women, as fit as they could be. Some would still be boxers, but most would not be involved in any sports. And many would be among the more prominent. He was so respected in the area of physical fitness and health that people began to call him "Professor."

(Below: Muldoon's "Olympia" fitness facility in White Plains)

Many rich and famous men would come to be put in shape by Muldoon, including former U.S. Ambassador to Britain Joseph H. Choate, publisher Ralph Pulitzer, Senator Chauncey Depew, Major General J. Franklin Bell, novelist Theodore Dreiser, and the next generation of the Barrymore acting family, Jack, Ethel, and Lionel, still remembered by many today as the villainous Mr. Potter in Frank Capra's 1946 film "It's a Wonderful Life."

President Teddy Roosevelt, a great proponent of physical exercise, also helped promote Muldoon's health farm by sending his Secretary of State, Elihu Root, to Muldoon when his health failed. Roosevelt had known Muldoon well during his days as President of the New York City Board of Police Commissioners and Governor of New York in the late 90s. Roosevelt loved boxing and had spared with Muldoon on occasion.

(Below: Muldoon looking dapper in his 50s.)

Muldoon's business was wildly successful. He made more money from his business than he had ever made wrestling. And all who passed through the doors of Olympia said that he treated everyone the same, regardless of wealth or social station, which is to say he was hard on all. As one of his patrons later said, "He nearly kills you, but strangely enough, none ever die on the premises." And anyone who refused to do as he ordered was escorted off those premises. For those who stuck to Muldoon's regimen, most began to feel much better in 3 to 5 weeks.

Muldoon never stopped being interested in boxing, but he soured on the sport for a time after working with Charles "Kid" McCoy. He discovered that McCoy was planning to throw his fight with Peter Maher in January 1900. He confronted him the night of the fight and talked him out of doing it. McCoy knocked Maher out, but in August McCoy was KOed by "Gentleman" Jim Corbett in a fight many believed was thrown by him. Muldoon prized his honesty and integrity too highly to be associated with boxing for some time afterward.

Muldoon would get very active in the sport again later in his life, however. In February 1918, he was one of the honorary pall-bearer for John L. Sullivan in Roxbury, MA. In July of the following year, he watched another great Irish-American fighter, Jack Demsey, beat Jess Willard for the heavyweight title. He called Dempsey "… the greatest fighting machine … that I ever looked at." In 1920, the governor appointed Muldoon the first Chairman of the State Athletic Commission, though it took much arm-twisting to get him to agree. He showed himself a man ahead of his time when he banned smoking in Madison Square Garden during fights. During these later years, running the Athletic Commission, he came to be known by some as "The Grand Old Man of Boxing."

(Below: Muldoon's death notice in the New York Times)

When future champion Gene Tunney was nearly ready to retire due to hand problems, Muldoon's advice on healing them saved his career. Three years later, Tunney took the heavyweight title from Dempsey.

The 81-year-old Muldoon died of cancer on June 3, 1933. He was a very private man who was thought to have never married, though some now believe he did have two brief failed marriages. Part of the reason may have been his hot temper. Muldoon remembered his mother once telling him, "I don't think you should ever marry, William. You are all together to set in your ways and your temper is terrible. You would only make some woman and yourself very unhappy."

At the time of Muldoon's death, The New York Times obit quoted retired boxing champion Gene Tunney, "All I know about training I learned from him…. His patience, intellectual courage, and wisdom were inspirational." Jack Dempsey said, "Long after Gene (Tunney) and I are forgotten, the name of William Muldoon will live."

Muldoon's barn in Belfast, NY, where he trained Sullivan for the last bare-knuckles championship fight, is now the Bare Knuckles Boxing Hall of Fame. Muldoon was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame In 1996 and the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2004. For many years a life-size painting hung in the lobby of Madison Square Garden. Still, Dempsey's prediction could not have been more incorrect. Muldoon's part in the early stages of wrestling and boxing, his contributions to cleaning up the sport of boxing, and his pioneering work in physical fitness are nearly forgotten today.

(Left: The elderlly Muldoon.)

Muldoon would not be that concerned about his lack of recognition. He was never one who sought out fame or the spotlight. He once said, "Always I have tried to do the thing that in my heart and mind I believed was the right thing to do. And while a man cannot always be right – he can always try to be."


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Comment by Joe Gannon on May 21, 2023 at 6:07pm

On September 27, 1847, Civil War veteran and middleweight champion 'Professor' Mike Donovan was born in Chicago to Irish-born parents. The first of many memorable events in Donovan's life came when he fought for the Union Army, serving in Sherman's army in its march through Georgia.

(Left: The elderly Donovan on the right in the photo, training his son in the early 20th century.)

After the war, Mike began a boxing career that would associate him with some of the best-known people of his age -- in and out of the ring. In 1868, he defeated John Shaunessy in a bout refereed by famous Western lawman Wyatt Earp. Donovan won the middleweight title in 1887 in San Francisco. Donovan was in the ring with the most famous Irish boxing champion in history, John L. Sullivan, fighting two four-round fights with him in 1880 and 1881. After his boxing career ended, he worked with several famous Irish fighters. He was in Jake Kilrain's corner when he lost to John L. Sullivan in the last bare-knuckle heavyweight championship fight, and he also helped James Corbett when he defeated Sullivan for the title in 1892. Donovan had a fan in the White House -- Teddy Roosevelt loved boxing and sparred with Donovan several times. He earned the sobriquet 'Professor' for his scientific approach to his own career and in his later teaching of the sport. The 'Professor' left a legacy, as well. His son Arthur was a famous boxing referee in the 1930s and '40s and is enshrined in the Boxing Hall of Fame along with the 'Professor,' the only father-son combination so honored. His grandson, also Art, played for the Baltimore Colts in the National Football League; he is enshrined in the Football Hall of Fame, in Canton, Ohio. You can learn more about Mike Donovan and many other Irish fighters from the early days of boxing at the International Boxing Hall of Fame Web site.


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