Native Irish, and Irish-Americans alike, have always prided themselves on their inherent toughness and heart. Therefore, it should come as little surprise to many that the Irish have enjoyed a long and stored history of success inside the brutal sport of boxing.
In contemporary times, Irish boxing had experienced a bit of resurgence when middleweight contenders John Duddy and Andy Lee were having once created a rabid fan base out in the Northeast United States, as well as back in Ireland. Though both Duddy and Lee haven fallen considerably out of the limelight they once enjoyed, they follow in a tradition of Irish pugilists who have left a lasting mark on the sport of boxing.
With St. Patrick’s Day upon us I thought it fitting to take a look back at some of the greatest fighters to represent the Green, White and, Gold.
For the sake of argument, my list of the ten greatest Irish boxers encompasses fighters who have hailed directly from Ireland and those of Irish decent.
So read on, enjoy, and pour a pint of Guinness for me.
Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh (Happy St. Patrick’s Day)!
Mickey “Toy Bulldog” Walker (93-19-4, 60 KOs, 1 NC, 46 ND) – Elizabeth, NJ
Walker lived life like he fought, reckless and aggressive. Subscribing to the theory that weight is just a number the fearless Walker took on all fighters from welterweight to heavyweight. Walker scored a 15 round decision over Jack Britton in a rematch to capture the world welterweight title. Three years later Walker would battle Mick McTigue to a no-decision in an attempt to try to capture the light heavyweight title. What perhaps is even more impressive is the fact that Walker weighed only 149 lbs for the fight – lightest man ever to fight for the light heavyweight title. Walker’s training methods were less then ideal preferring the cozy confines of the speakeasy over those of a boxing gym. Such was Walker’s affinity for the drink that he is fabled to have laced the water bottle in his corner with gin during a middleweight title fight. Walker would go on to capture the middleweight championship with a 10 round decision over Tiger Flowers in 1926. After three successful defenses of his title Walker would relinquish the belt and move up to heavyweight. Walker would fight to a 15 round draw with Jack Sharkey but would fail in his attempts to capture a belt in the heavyweight ranks. Walker was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
Jimmy “Babyface” McLarnin (62-11-3, 20 KOs) – Inchacore, Ireland
Entering into the paid ranks as a Leprechaunesque 4-foot-11-inch flyweight the legend that is McLarnin did not take off until his venture into the lightweight division. One of the sports finest ring craftsman, McLarnin’s footwork and defensive prowess was uncanny. Able to slip punches with the greatest of easy, many tales were told of McLarnin having never tasted the leather of some opponents. But McLarnin was not without a powerful right hand having used it to knock out Benny Leonard in 1932. McLarnin knocked out Young Corbett III in the opening round to win the world welterweight title. McLarnin would go on the engage in one of the sports greatest trilogies with the great Barney Ross losing two of the three fights via 15 round decisions. Throughout his illustrious career McLarnin defeated the likes of Pancho Villa, Sammy Mandell, Al Singer, Tony Canzoneri as well as Lou Ambers. He was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991.
Billy “The Pittsburgh Kid” Conn (63-12-1, 14 KOs) – East Liberty, PA
Arguably one of the greatest light heavyweights ever to grace the sport Conn was master of the art of “hit and not get hit”. The fighting pride of Pittsburgh, Conn took on all comers and taught them all a valuable lesson in the intricacies of the sweet science. Think of Conn’s defensive acumen as a cross between Winky Wright and James Toney. Conn would parry the incoming blows of his opponents with his arms, gloves, elbows as well employing the subtle art of the shoulder roll. While Conn bested some greats in his time including the likes of Fritzie Zivic, Young Corbett III and Vince Dundee, Conn is perhaps best known for his near capture of the heavyweight crown against the legendary Joe Louis. It was a fight that Conn nearly had in the bag. Boxing beautifully to befuddle the stalking Louis, Conn was ahead on all scorecards until his inherent Irish stubbornness got the best of him. After being intoxicated with a false sense of security during an exchange with Louis where Conn managed to stagger the champ, his desire to replicate the feat proved disastrous when he was caught flush and counted out. After the fight Conn acknowledged that perhaps his “Irishness” had played a part in his loss stating, “What’s the use in being Irish if you can’t be think?” Conn was elected into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
John L. Sullivan (38-1-3, 33 KOs) – Roxbury, MA
Such was the iconic image of Sullivan that a multitude of men would stick out there hand and proclaim proudly, “Shake the hand that shook the hand of the great John L.” The bareknuckle brawler with a right hand so ballyhooed that it was described as containing the force of a mule kick was perhaps America’s first sports figure superstar. With his cock-sure attitude and decree of “I can lick any man in the house” coupled with his love of the saloon endeared him into the hearts of many, especially the Irish. Sullivan won the world heavyweight title from Paddy Ryan in 1882. Sullivan also has the distention of engaging in the first ever heavyweight title fight under the Marquess of Queensberry rules where he was knocked out in the 21st round by James J. Corbett. Charter member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
Barry “The Clones Cyclone” McGuigan (32-3, 28 KOs) – Monaghan, Ireland
Raised in the small town of Clone – for which his nickname was derived – McGuigan would one day rise to the level of national hero in his native Ireland. Aptly named the “cyclone” for his never ended swarm of punches, McGuigan simply overwhelmed all but three of his opponents. “The Clones Cyclone” would snatch the WBA featherweight title in front of 26,000 partisan followers when he grinded out a 15 round decision over Eusebio Pedroza. After two successful defenses of his newly acquired belt McGuigan would meet the unheralded Steve Cruz in Las Vegas. In a fight that nearly cost McGuigan his life, the two featherweights did battle in sweltering 110 degree heat in an outdoor arena at Caesars Palace Casino. McGuigan valiantly battled on despite being dropped in the tenth and fifteenth rounds. After 15 grueling rounds McGuigan lost by decision and was immediately rushed to the hospital for dehydration. After the loss it would be two full years before McGuigan stepped back into the ring but when he did the whole island if Ireland was behind him. Such was the impact of McGuigan that the long standing violent feud between the Protestants and Catholics was put on hold every time McGuigan stepped into the squared circle. McGuigan was elected into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2005.
Jack Dempsey, “The Nonpareil” (50-3-8, 3 NC) – Kildare, Ireland
Born John Kelly but having changed his surname to that of his stepfathers for the purpose of using to form a wrestling team them mere fact that the press christened him the nonpareil, meaning unrivaled, speaks testaments to his ability. Dempsey claimed the vacant middleweight title after knocking out George Fulljames in the twenty-second round. The bout was fought with heavy driving gloves. Dempsey lost his title to Bob Fitzsimmons when kayoed in the thirteenth round in 1891. Dempsey was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992.
“Terrible” Terry McGovern (60-4-4-, 42 KOs, 10 ND) – Johnstown, PA
One of the hardest hitters ever to troll the bantamweight and featherweight divisions McGovern was all heart and fists. Leaving the science of boxing to those better suited to such endeavors McGovern was your prototypical brawler through and through much to the delight of his Irish constituents. McGovern was the type of fighter who would plant himself into your chest and batter you as if he was being paid by the punch. McGovern would capture the bantamweight championship of the world in spectacular fashion, stopping Pedlar Palmer in one round in 1899. Due to his inability to boil down to the bantamweight limit McGovern would move on the featherweight. McGovern would win the featherweight title in brutal fashion punishing the great George Dixon round after round until Dixon’s corner threw in the towel in the eighth. McGovern would successfully defend his title six times, all by way of knockout, before finally losing it to Young Corbett in 1901. McGovern was elected into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
Packey McFarland (64-1-5, 47 KOs, 34 ND) – Chicago, IL
Hardened by the numerous streetfights of his youth, McFarland had a mission to make an honest living the only way he knew how, with his fists. The lightweight slasher, whose pinpoint accuracy left many an opponent battered an defeated is one of boxing’s greatest participants to have never won a title. To be fair, this was due to no fault of McFarland but rather the repeated posturing of the current lightweight champion at the time Battling Nelson who wanted no part of McFarland. But just because McFarland failed to capture the recognition of champion does not detract from his numerous fistic accomplishments. McFarland holds victories over the likes of Freddie Welsh, Jimmy Britt, as well as Cyclone Johnny Thompson. McFarland was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992.
Wayne “The Pocket Rocket” McCullough (27-6-, 18 KOs) – Belfast, Northern Ireland
Perhaps no other fighter embodies the never say die Irish spirit quite like McCullough. Possessing tireless work rate and a chin so strong it must be infused with steel, McCullough was a whirling dervish of fistic brutality. An accomplished amateur, McCullough would win the silver medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain for Ireland. In only two and a half years after turning pro McCullough was given a title shot against Yasuei Yakushiji in Yakushiji’s native Japan. Not one to be afraid of thraveling abroad to fight, McCullough managed to grind out a 12 round split decision over the champion to capture the WBC bantamweight title. McCullough would move up to super bantamweight but failed in his attempt to capture a title there when he dropped a 12 round split decision to Daniel Zaragoza. But while a gifted fighter McCullough’s mostly recognized for his chin. In fights with TNT infused punchers Naseem Hamed and Erik Morales, McCullough never wavered in his determination despite taking shots from two of the hardest punchers in the sport. In fact McCullough prides himself on having never been dropped or kayoed. Even in the face of insurmountable odds McCullough never backs down.
“Sailor” Tom Sharkey (40-6, 37 KOs, 3 ND) – Dundalk, Ireland
Having run away from home as a young boy Sharkey would tour as a cabin boy eventually landing in New York where he enlisted into the U.S. Navy. Thus the “Sailor” moniker was born. Although never a champion, Sharkey battled and reportedly bested many of the great heavyweights of the time. Sharkey has victories over Hall of Famer Joe Choynski and was reported to have been wining a fight with James J. Corbett before police interference stopped the contest. Sharkey also holds a victory over the great Bob Fitzsimmons as well as a tenth round stoppage over Kid McCoy. The victory over McCoy earned Sharkey a title shot against James J. Jefferies in 1899. After 25 fiercely contested rounds Jeffries was declared the winner is what many considered to be a disputed decision. Sharkey was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2003.