The Pugil List: Ten greatest Irish boxers of all-time
Yes, St. Patrick’s Day has passed; Michael Conlan provided enough inspiration for an article last week and what person of Irish heritage does not want to double down on St. Patrick’s Day for a second feature? So I gathered my thoughts, along with a goodly amount of St. Brendan’s for my morning coffee and Guinness for the evening, to craft this homage to Ireland’s finest fighters. No active boxer was considered, given their careers are still being formed, but Carl Frampton and Ryan Burnett have a shot at making this list if they maintain their career trajectories. Also boxers from Northern Ireland (as it is on the same island) were both considered and included on this list.
Great Irish-American fighters such as John L. Sullivan, Harry Greb or Billy Conn were not given consideration, as they are a category unto themselves. However because of the vagabond ways of the Irish, in the late part of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries, some of the boxers I included never fought in Ireland, despite being born there. Nor were cousins born on English shores, like John Conteh, Paul Hodkinson and Shea Neary. Missing out on the Top 10 were Johnny Caldwell, George Gardner, Mike Donovan, Jim Coffey, Andy Lee, Bernard Dunne, Freddie Gilroy, Pat O’Connor, Damaen Kelly and Eamonn Loughran.
10. Rinty Monaghan, 52-9-8 (19) – An rare Irishman who had the good sense to retire while on top and with the world flyweight title in his possession. Monaghan’s first paid bout was at age 14 and he was a showman before, during and after his fights. After every fight, Rinty took the microphone to serenade the crowd with a well-traveled rendition of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” Those Irish eyes were a key to Monaghan’s success, helping the little dynamo win British, Commonwealth, European and world flyweight titles. Rinty (real name John Joseph Monaghan) held, and defended, all four titles for two years. Monaghan’s legacy could have been greater but World War II coincided with his physical prime and limited Monaghan’s bouts between 1940 and 1944. Boxing historian Patrick Myler noted, “The little Belfastman fought like a bulldog, aiming to end proceedings with a powerful right hand.” He won the world title with a 15-round decision over Hawaiian Dado Marino, after losing to Marino in a non-title fight via disqualification previously. Made his name in Ireland with a trilogy against English arch rival Terry Allen, with whom he split the series 1-1-1. Monaghan retired after a 15-round draw with Allen and was only 28 when he hung up the gloves, a decision hastened by the onset of chronic bronchitis.
9. Tom Sharkey, 37-7-6 (34) – Sharkey is probably the only Irishman to begin his career in Hawaii, talk about divergent islands. The heavyweight brawler never rose up to claim the heavyweight title, mostly because Sharkey’s career coincided that of a prime James J. Jeffries and there was only one world title back then. Jeffries did cite his two bouts with Sharkey as the toughest of his title defenses. Wins over Hall of Fame heavyweights like Joe Choynski, Bob Fitzsimmons and Jim Corbett prove Sharkey had the makings of a champion. Sharkey was a short, husky brawler who was a forbearer of the low center of gravity style Rocky Marciano and Mike Tyson made famous. He soaked up punches (seemingly absorbed by his massive shoulders), returned fire with venom and had a mean streak in the ring that he was not afraid to call upon. Five of Sharkey’s seven defeats came in his last 10 bouts and I believe Sharkey was the first tattooed athlete of note, his chest emblazoned with a battleship and red star, and he was rated a respectable No. 64 in THE RING Magazine’s list of the 100 greatest punchers.
8. Dave McAuley, 18-3-2 (8) – Not one of the most exciting Irish fighters but McAuley was in a couple of the most dramatic bouts in Irish ring history. McAuley made a habit of rising off the canvas to haunt those who had the temerity to put him there. Tenacity made McAuley, which is why he kept coming back, finally winning the flyweight title in his third attempt. A bit like Thomas Hearns, McAuley is most known for two exciting losses. Those came against Colombian Fidel Bassa, who was stylistic nightmare for the fantastically tall (5-foot-7) McAuley. If McAuley was not knocked down, he often bled, which added to his woes. In his first fight with Bassa, McAuley was knocked down seconds into the bout but regrouped and knocked Bassa down hard, twice, in the ninth round. However McAuley spent too much energy in his rally and was stopped in the 13th round. A second loss to Bassa was supposed to put McAuley on the scrap heap but he overcame 5-to-1 odds to hand new IBF champ Duke McKenzie his first loss. Made good on the second chance, reeling off five successful title defenses, including wins over Jacob Matlala, Dodie Boy Penalosa and Rodolfo Blanco. McAuley retired with bitterness after a controversial return loss to Blanco, turning down multiple offers for title fights.
7. Wayne McCullough, 27-7 (18) – Irishman are known for their thick heads and McCullough may have had the thickest. Took to boxing early, at age eight, compiling one of the greatest Irish amateur careers, winning the Olympic silver medal. His offensive prowess attracted fans, featuring a swarming style that earned him the nickname of “Pocket Rocket.” Later Wayne distinguished himself with the ability to take shots, as he moved up the weight classes. In one of the most one-sided bouts ever featuring elite European boxers, McCullough took a beating from Scott Harrison that would have prompted cries of abolition, had it been staged between two animals. Likewise famed power-puncher Naseem Hamed was unable to dent McCullough’s granite chin. Mexicans were similarly frustrated, as thunderous punchers Erik Morales and Daniel Zaragoza failed to put Wayne on the canvas. Somewhat lost in his ability to soak up punishment were successes like winning the WBC bantamweight title by decision on foreign soil, in only his 17th pro fight. McCullough never lost at bantamweight, giving up the crown to challenge Hall-of-Famer Daniel Zaragoza, losing via controversial split decision. Never off his feet, and only rescued in his last fight by the ringside doctor, McCullough is a monument to Irish stubbornness.
6. Mike McTigue, 77-26-9 (52) – As brutish and exciting as Tom Sharkey was is how defensive and cautious McTigue went about his work. They are the polar opposites of Irish boxing styles. Fast feet and a rapier jab enabled McTigue to frustrate opponents into mistakes and ultimately losses. Though certainly not without a hard punch, to which 52 kayos in 77 wins attests, McTigue preferred to slip out of situations in which he did not have a clear tactical advantage. Ironically McTigue won the world light heavyweight title, after his manager let him go, believing the 30-year-old was washed up. He fought on for eight more years, two of them with the title in his hands, and was forcibly retired by the New York State Athletic Commission after four losses. Famously defeated Battling Siki in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day. McTigue had no trouble crossing the color line, defeating Tiger Flowers, Zulu Kid and drawing with underrated heavyweight Larry Gains. Held wins over Paul Berlenbach, Panama Joe Gans and Tommy Loughran. Like a good Irishman should, opened a bar on Long Island after retirement.
5. Jack McAuliffe, 20-0-10 (20) – Nicknamed “The Napoleon of the Prize Ring,” McAuliffe never engaged in his Waterloo, leaving the ring without tasting defeat. McAuliffe was a impressive boxer for his era and that undefeated record attests to his abilities, a feat made more impressive by the fact that he rarely trained, relying on natural stamina to get him through some lengthy battles. A star of his time, it was a transitional period between the bare-knuckle era and the adoption of the Marquess of Queensberry rules. It is impossible to compare him to latter-day lightweights but his two-fisted attack relied heavily on straight blows that translate well against looping punchers of any era. Uncommonly nimble on his feet, which was not common for the age. A past-his-prime McAuliffe beat featherweight sensation Young Griffo in 1894, in a highly controversial decision most thought Griffo won. McAuliffe retired shortly afterward, made a comeback in 1896 and retired for good (at age 31) after a draw versus Tommy Ryan.
4. Barry McGuigan, 32-3 (28) – Remembered as more than just a boxer by the people of Ireland, McGuigan was a uniting force in a time of tensions between Ireland’s Catholic and protestant factions. McGuigan, a Catholic, showed the people they could live as one, marrying a protestant woman. Did not have a long or distinguished reign but it left a lasting legacy no one has forgotten. His fights were exciting battles of attrition; McGuigan forced his style and will on opponents. A highly effective pressure fighter, he fought as if raised in Mexico instead of Ireland. He pressed forward, mixing head and body blows, while moving opponents into a corner with footwork that cut off the ring. Began boxing at 13, topping out with a Gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in 1978 before a disappointing Olympic performance. It was obvious that McGuigan had more of a pro style, and he got a featherweight title shot against Eusebio Pedroza, who was a champion for seven years, making his 20th title defense. The rounds were never one-sided, with good two-way action, but Barry proved too fit and strong. After two defenses, McGuigan made his American debut but was upset by little-known late replacement Steve Cruz. McGuigan never got acclimated to the Nevada climate and suffered dehydration during the bout, held in 110-degree heat in a outdoor venue. In the last round, which decided the fight, McGuigan told his cornermen, “Say a prayer for me,” as he walked back into the action. Cut on both eyes and dropped twice in the 15th, McGuigan refused to be counted out. McGuigan would be out of the ring for two years fighting court cases against his manager instead of boxers. A frustrated McGuigan retired at age 28.
3. Steve Collins, 36-3 (21) – The aptly nicknamed “Celtic Warrior” is one of best super middleweights ever. Collins never got his due in America, since he was one of the European boxers Roy Jones Jr. refused to fight overseas. Of course Jones was an odds-on favorite to win but he would not have come out of the contest without having his chin tested. Collins twice bested awkwardly infuriating Chris Eubank and followed those wins by twice stopping fellow warrior Nigel Benn. Granted, both of those men were nearing the end of their primes but so was Collins. Emerging victorious against those drastically divergent styles once would have been impressive; to do it four times should put him high on the all-time super middleweight rankings. Collins did not win a title until he was 30, showing determination after losing his first two title attempts at middleweight. Not to be overlooked is that Collins retired as a champion, undefeated in his last 15 fights, of which eight were successful title defenses. In fact, Collins never lost at super middleweight. The only man to ever outclass him was a prime Mike McCallum; his other decision losses were of the majority version on foreign soil. Never dazzled in any skills department but always gave 100%, forcing opponents into brawls. His first fight with Eubank was a classic, both men down in the late rounds, and Collins was generally in fun tilts. The epitome of a hard fighting Irishman.
2. Nonpareil Jack Dempsey, 51-4-11 (23) – The only case in which a legendary boxer had his name usurped by a similarly immortal sports figure, who came along well after the original’s passing. The skills which the original Jack Dempsey displayed were so iconic in range and variety that they spawned one of the classiest nicknames in all of sports…”The Nonpareil” (without equal). For the first 13 years of his career, Dempsey went undefeated and when he finally did lose, it came against Hall of Fame opposition at the end of his career. Dempsey enjoyed a streak of 61 fights to open his career without tasting defeat. Sports writer Marshall Stillman summed up the legacy Dempsey left in boxing, “He retained the middleweight championship for many years and was exceedingly scientific, securing his victories more through science than through rough tactics.” Dempsey fought for and retained the middleweight title, though rarely exceeding 150 pounds, ensuring his body was not slowed by the limitation of additional weight. Standing 5-foot-8, Dempsey cut a muscular but angular figure with long arms. His movements were enhanced with a superb sense of balance, gained in his formative years as a wrestler. Dempsey was revolutionary employing the previously uncultivated use of angles, he practically danced, as his opponents shuffled forward. Simply put, Dempsey was ahead of his time.
1. Jimmy McLarnin, 55-11-3 (21) – A man every boxer today would do well to emulate. How unique is McLarnin? McLarnin defeated Hall of Fame inductees Tony Canzoneri and Lou Ambers in his last two bouts, then retired without cashing in on those successes at age 29, despite lucrative offers. McLarnin never looked back and built an equally successful career away from the ring. A model of sportsmanship in the ring and outside of it, none found fault with him. A handshake agreement with his lifelong manager, made in his early teens, was never in peril. McLarnin’s welterweight title reign was brief, only lasting two years, yet his greatness and quality wins spanned an entire decade. Over 10 years, Jimmy dueled 15 world champions, beating 13. He defeated five reigning world champions in non-title bouts, while turning back many noteworthy contenders. McLarnin tested himself against nine Hall of Fame entrants and scored at least one win over all of them. Had a keen sense for the nuances, which surfaces when you realize he went undefeated in rematches. His historical staying power is impressive when you consider that, 50 years after his retirement, THE RING Magazine still rated McLarnin the fifth best welterweight. Did all this despite chronic problems to his powerful right hand. McLarnin’s chin was also world-class; a lone stoppage loss was cut-induced. McLarnin enjoyed the “Luck of the Irish,” retiring with enough money to ensure he would not want for anything the rest of his life.