There are moments in history when a particular sportsman or woman comes to represent an era or geographical location or an ethnic group. Jesse Owens springs to mind, or Babe Ruth, and in boxing Jack Johnson or Jack Dempsey embodied both the spirit and vitality of their race or time.
In the early 1930’s boxing’s flagship division, the heavyweights, went through a period of transition, between the retirement of Gene Tunney and the all-consuming excellence of Joe Louis, so that fight fans looked elsewhere in the fistic firmament for inspiration.
They found it in the lightweight and welterweight divisions, where the likes of Barney Ross, Henry Armstrong, Lou Ambers and Tony Canzoneri were punching their way into the headlines.
Arguably the biggest draw of all of them was Irish Jimmy Mclarnin, a popular box-fighter born in 1907 in County Down, Ireland, but raised the son of a wheat-farmer in the harsh wilderness of Saskatchewan, Canada.
Mclarnin moved to Vancouver, Canada with his 11 brothers and sisters as an eight year old. Even at age 10 he loved a fight, and had his first fistic encounter: “I fought a kid called Klans Robinson, and we went at it, and I broke both my thumbs on him”.
His father had bought a 2nd hand store and set up business in Vancouver, and was introduced to an ex-booth fighter called Pop Foster, who took it upon himself to teach the young Jimmy how to fight. Foster helped the boy to construct a makeshift gymnasium in the family back-yard, and together they manufactured a style of boxing that would stun the boxing world in the years to come. Foster was convinced the kid had what it took, and persuaded his family that California was the place that Mclarnin needed to be to make the best of his abilities:
“It took me two years to develop a jab” Mclarnin remembered. “I left home at sixteen. Mother gave me their last twenty bucks.”
Back then you had to be eighteen to box legally in California, so Foster simply lied about the youngster’s age, and he won his first paid fight against the strangely named Young Fry in 1923 with a first round knockout. Over the following 5 years Mclarnin built a significant following in California, beating the likes of Pancho Villa, the reigning Flyweight World Champion, in an overweight match (Villa went under the knife after the fight for routine eye surgery, and inexplicably died on the operating table).
This was the era when ethnicity was becoming a major factor in American life, with the Irish, the Jewish and the Italian communities vying for a foothold in society, and inevitably boxers from each group became icons and representatives of their “people.” There were a lot of strong Jewish fighters coming through in the thirties, and Jimmy found himself matched with a good few of them:
“I had a terrible reputation – they called me the Jew-killer. That’s awful, and I wasn’t very popular with the Jewish people.”
Victories over Jackie Fields and Louis Kaplan propelled Jimmy into the headlines, and he found himself summoned to New York to fight for Tex Rickard at Madison Square Garden, at the time the headquarters of world boxing and where the real money was made. The mob were heavily involved with New York boxing at the time, headed by the gangster Owney Madden, and it was pretty much accepted that Madden dictated who made it, and who didn’t. Owney had learnt his skills during ten years of incarceration in Sing Sing, and had carried out any number of killings on the streets of New York. However, he was born in Liverpool, England as was Jimmy’s manager Pop Foster, and the story goes that Mclarnin was left pretty much alone when Madden and Foster reconciled their origins.
Nicknamed “Babyface” for his boyish looks, the Irishman was anything but in the ring. Fleet of foot and carrying a prodigious punch, he knocked out Ruby Goldstein in two rounds at Madison Square Garden in 1929, and continued his entirely accidental assault on Jewish fighters when he was matched with one of the all-time greats, the come-backing Benny Leonard in 1932.
Leonard had been imperious as World Lightweight and Welterweight king between 1917 and 1924, when he had retired, his money made and his legacy safe. Rumour had it that Benny had lost all his money in the Stock Market crash of 1929, and so had mounted a comeback at the age of 35. By 1932, he was 37 and had compiled a 19-0 record against middling opposition but such was his reputation he was widely expected to turn back the “Jew-killer”. In the event, Leonard was badly beaten:
“Benny Leonard was in great shape” said Mclarnin later. “He hit me in the first round and I saw stars, but he had lost all his speed. I knocked him out.”
The win over Leonard saw Mclarnin matched with champion Young Corbett III for the World Welterweight title in May 1933, back in Los Angeles, and Jimmy made
short work of it – knocking his man out in less than a round to become the world champion.
That fight ushered in the golden era of the welterweights, and for Mclarnin a three-fight series with the World Lightweight champion Barney Ross. Those three contests represented the very best that boxing had to offer, not merely in terms of the skill levels and sheer ferocity of the two combatants, but also their generosity of spirit and sportsmanship. They fought 45 rounds and each round could have been scored either way, so evenly were they matched. In fact, Ross won the first and third fights, whilst Mclarnin took the 2nd. Two of the contests were split decisions.
Mclarnin accepted the first loss magnanimously, and trained like a demon for the second fight: “I got in better shape. We took Barney Ross a little cheap, I think”.
He was less enamored of the decision in the third contest, but had his priorities in order. “I thought it was a bad decision, but we fought 3 times and I put $100,000 in the bank!”
Mclarnin fought three more times after the Barney Ross fight, two of which were barnstormers against the Italian Tony Canzoneri. Jimmy won the first by decision but only after he’d handed Canzoneri a serious beating. Said the New York Times the next day: “By the last round Canzoneri’s eyes were bloody and his nose was cut. The split lip he earlier sustained while training and sparring–resulting in postponing this bout–was “pulled and crimson.” The crowd of 11,423 was so sickened by the sight that they yelled for the referee to stop it. But, as Canzoneri had never been knocked out in his career, the referee allowed him to go the distance.”
They boxed again five months later, and this time it was a different story – Canzoneri took the decision and after a 10 round decision win over Lou Ambers a month later the Babyface hung up his gloves for good.
In retirement Mclarnin enjoyed the good life, playing golf with Hollywood A-listers and enjoying his family. He was offered $50,000 to return for a match with Henry Armstrong but wisely turned it down on the advice of manager Pop Foster. Foster and Mclarnin were together his entire career, forging a bond sadly seldom seen before or since in the professional ring. From the start Pop had refused to take his full cut of Mclarnin’s purses, and when he died in 1956 he left his entire estate, some $250,000, to Mclarnin and his family.
Over a 13 year career Jimmy Mclarnin fought and beat 12 fighters who would later be inducted into the Hall of Fame, surely a record, and left behind a
reputation not only as one of the very best boxers to have graced the professional ring, but as one of it’s forgotten gentlemen. He died in 2004, aged 97, with parting words that summed up the man:
“In many ways I was very fortunate. The big boss upstairs had his hand on my shoulder. I don’t know if he liked prize-fighters or not – but he sure liked me!”