The boxing world has to be the most fascinating sports-land of all, for no other sport can quite match it for its drama, uncertainty and unusual happenings.
- Some say that boxing is the most thrilling of all sports, and some say that professional boxing is an ugly and brutal business. Nevertheless prize fighting has enriched sports literature with many of the strangest stories ever told. True tales far stranger than fiction. Many stories of happenings in the olden days never made the headlines and never show up in the musty record books.
St Patrick’s Day, a couple of weeks ago, reminded me of one such story about one of Ireland’s greatest fighters, Mike McTigue, who was born on a farm in the village of Kilnamona on the west coast of Ireland. He migrated to America where he soon made a name for himself in the prize ring. The American fight fans took a real liking to the Irish boxer who was as fancy a Dan as ever stepped into a roped arena, and they nicknamed him Bold Michael.
Throughout his career McTigue never ducked a fight, taking on many of the world’s best fighters from the middleweight division through to the heavyweights, opponents such as Harry Greb, who many boxing historians class as the greatest middleweight ever. The 1920s was an era of truly great fighters and the popular Irishman more than held his own. However, he still had one dream – to win the light-heavyweight championship of the world, a title held by the pride of France, Georges Carpentier, who the year before had fought the great Jack Dempsey for the world heavyweight crown. But McTigue thought that his time had past, for he was 32 years old, a veteran ring-wise in those days, who many thought was due for retirement after so many hard battles. Probably that’s the reason why, from ‘out of the blue’, came an offer for McTigue to fight Carpentier in England for the world title, the Frenchman’s camp considering the Irishman to be over the hill.
Mike McTigue quickly packed and left the States. At last his big chance had come. He had his opportunity to fulfill his dream of becoming the world light-heavyweight champion, and to make sure there would be no slip ups, he began to train as soon as the boat set sail. The boat was a few days at sea when the captain came to McTigue with a cable in his hand and said, “Sorry McTigue, its bad news I have for you. You can forget about your training....the Senegalese fighter Battling Siki knocked Carpentier out in the sixth round. I’ve just got the news by wireless, so there’s no title fight for you my lad.”
McTigue was devasted, thinking that his last shot at a world title had gone, but fate plays funny hands and when the boat made a port of call at Queenstown (now Dun Laoghaire) in Ireland, McTigue, being a good Irishman, decided to get off to tread the auld sod once again. However he found more than he was looking for because the Black and Tans were at their unpopular peak and travel was difficult. Nevertheless he managed to motor down to Limerick only to find the Shannon river between him and his native County Clare. Eventually he found a man who would get him across for ten shillings, but when McTigue got to the river he found that all he had was a little rowing boat. Halfway across a storm arose, the wind howled, the waves lashed and all but sank the small boat, but McTigue made it to the other side of the river – worn out, weary and drenched to the skin. A few days later he was approached by a Dr George Devine, an Irish sportsman, who asked him if he would like to fight Siki for the world title, stating that he was going to Paris and may be able to arrange a context with the champion who was based in the French capital. McTigue was over the moon at the thought of another chance and told him to fix it. The next day he went out in the country to do some roadwork. But no sooner had he started to runt that a bullet whizzed past his ear. McTigue stopped, terrified. No one was in sight, so he started to run again, and a second bullet whistled past heis head. By this time he was plainly frightened to death! Suddenly he saw a British soldier appear from behind a tree with his rifle cocked for action. “What are you shooting at me for”, screamed McTigue. “I’m only doing a little roadwork”. The soldier looked at McTigue and barked, “I’ve got orders to shoot anyone who runs”; so that was the end of McTigue’s roadwork. A couple of weeks later McTigue heard from Dr Devine who told him to renew training as he had arranged the fight with Siki. But McTigue refused to start road work in Dublin for he had no desire to be mistaken for a clay pigeon by trigger-nervous British tommies.
Since the champion Battling Siki wasn’t allowed to enter England, it was decided to stage the fight on St Patrick’s Day and of all places in Dublin. No one could understand why Siki’s manager had accepted a bout for his fighter against an Irishman on such a day, the only explanation being that the manager was blissfully unaware of what it entailed.
The meeting between the two took place in 1923. The arena was jammed to the rafters with a wild shouting frenzied crowd of Irish men. British soldiers patrolled the rooftops covering the crowd with their guns and a bomb went off somewhere outside just as the contest began, which probably intimidated Siki a wee bit for he was subdued throughout the fight. McTigue damaged his right hand in the fourth round but continued to gain points with his left jab. In a token effort to get their fighter going Siki’s corner men plied him with gin and then emptied a bucket of cold water over him. But with the wild crowd roaring at McTigue, “come on McTigue, no-body can lick an Irishman on St Patrick’s Day”, it goes without saying that McTigue won the decision over 20 rounds an the world light-heavyweight title.
Another little story dealing with a fight fought on St Patrick’s Day took place in American way back in the early part of the last century. Stanley Ketchel, the world middleweight champion, and a legend in boxing history, was in Cleveland on St Patrick’s Day and decided to put on a show for the entertainment of the local Irish. The feared Michigan Assasain, as he was nicknamed, offered $100 to anyone brave enough to go three rounds with him. The story goes that an unknown lad, a musician named Ernest Ball, who was desperately in need of the train farer to New York, agreed to fight the great Ketchel. It was no surprise that the young Cleveland born man took a severe beating from the champion, but he lasted the three rounds and won the hundred dollars, which got him to New York, where he eventually won fame and fortune as a song writer.
Ernest Ball wrote many American standards and some of the most popular Irish ballads of all time, many of which are sung to this day the world over, especially on St Patrick’s Day, for the man who took on the great Stanley Ketchel in the ring to earn the money to start his career wrote When Irish Eyes are Smiling.By George Reed