June Is Month of Triumph, Travails For Irish Fighters

My last name has been a cause of some confusion to those boxing buffs inclined to jump to convenient conclusions. More than a few times, I have been asked, “So what are you? Mexican or Puerto Rican?” To which I reply, “I’m actually Spanish-English-French-Irish-Swedish.” That answer always leaves the questioner looking just a bit perplexed. But maybe it shouldn’t; it would seem that there aren’t that many blue-eyed, fair-complexioned Mexicans and Puerto Ricans for whom I might be mistaken.

The Irish-Swedish part owes to my paternal grandmother, and in a nod to her I chose Patrick as my confirmation name in seventh grade, as it is a popular choice by parents of male children in both those countries. My late father is of primarily Latin descent (Mom was of French-English lineage), but, interestingly, Dad (whose given name also is Bernard) was nicknamed Jack during his boxing days, because, during his very fine amateur career, someone thought his crouching style, and penchant for leaping left hooks, was somewhat reminiscent of Jack Dempsey. With just six pro bouts, which resulted in a nondescript 4-1-1 record (with one KO victory), no one should ever have confused my father, a welterweight, with the “Manassas Mauler,” but I did find it fascinating that the surname Dempsey is of Irish origin, and an anglicized form of O’Diomasigh.

As TSS readers know, I periodically do look-back pieces that tie in with the anniversaries of notable fights involving notable fighters. As June draws near its end, I found it curious that the sixth month of the calendar year is so heavily dotted with such fights involving Irish or Irish-American boxers. On June 11, 1982, Larry Holmes defended his WBC heavyweight championship with a 13th-round stoppage of Gerry Cooney in the sweltering outdoor ring at Las Vegas’ Caesars Palace; 23 years later, on that same date, a lumbering Irishman named Kevin McBride ended the career of an out-of-shape, disinterested Mike Tyson, who quit on his stool after six rounds in Washington, D.C.

On June 18, 1941, Joe Louis, making his 18th defense of the heavyweight championship, might have caught a break when the much lighter Billy Conn, ahead on two of the three official scorecards and even on the other, decided to go for the knockout in the 13th round at the Polo Grounds in New York City. Conn’s boldness backfired when he was starched at the 2:58 mark of that round. Asked why he hadn’t tried to continue outboxing the dangerous Louis, Conn, who had relinquished his light heavyweight title to challenge the “Brown Bomber,” famously replied, “What’s the use of being Irish if you can’t be stupid?”

Conn, who was taken out in eight rounds in his rematch with Louis in 1946, also posed this question to the longest-reigning heavyweight champ after their celebrated first match. “Why couldn’t you let me hold the title for a year or so?” Conn asked.

“You had the title for 12 rounds and you couldn’t hold onto it,” the great Louis replied.

Another date to remember is June 23, 1969, when “Irish” Jerry Quarry slugged it out with Joe Frazier in Madison Square Garden, for Smokin’ Joe’s New York State Athletic Association “world” heavyweight title, which was also recognized by Pennsylvania, Maine, Illinois, Texas and Massachusetts. The courageous but cut-prone Quarry gave as good as he got for a while, but in a humdinger of a scrap that was named Fight of the Year by The Ring magazine, Quarry, bleeding badly over his right eye, was not allowed to come out for the eighth round by referee Arthur Mercante.

It has been said that Quarry was a philosophical disciple of the unfortunate Conn in that he attempted to outbox Muhammad Ali (who defeated him twice) and overpower Frazier (against whom he also was 0-2), but that is a misrepresentation. Quarry went right at both of those all-time greats, but came up short. It should be noted, however, that Quarry likely have been at least an alphabet champion in a later era, and that he was more than capable enough to handily outpoint feared contender Ron Lyle and blow out the power-punching Earnie Shavers in one round.

In the forewords to “Hard Times: The Triumph and Tragedy of `Irish’ Jerry Quarry,” co-authored by Steve Springer and Blake Chavez, another elite heavyweight from that period, George Foreman, says that “Jerry Quarry was the best heavyweight fighter never to have won a championship belt. When I became heavyweight champion of the world, I dodged him purposely … He fought toe to toe with heavyweight champion Joe Frazier, twice. He fought heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali twice. He outboxed two-time heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson. He outpunched Earnie Shavers. He destroyed Mac Foster and schooled Ron Lyle.”

As June melts into July, it should be noted that the upcoming month is largely reserved for some of the high points of the legendary heavyweight champion with that Irish surname. On June 2, 1921, Jack Dempsey knocked out Georges Carpentier in Jersey City, N.J., to retain his title in the first round of what was then the first million-dollar gate; on July 4, 1919, Dempsey flattened Jess Willard, also in four rounds, in Toledo, Ohio, to win the championship; on July 4, 1923, he outpointed Tommy Gibbons over 15 rounds in Shelby, Montana; on July 21, 1927, he starched Jack Sharkey in seven rounds in New York City, and on July 27, 1918, he needed only 23 seconds of the first round to blow away Fred Fulton in Harrison, N.J.

Not ceding the entirety of July to the incomparable Dempsey, one of my favorite fighters, “Irish” Micky Ward, took a 10-round decision over Emanuel Augustus on July 13, 2001, in Hampton Beach, N.H., which was so action-packed it was named Fight of the Year by The Ring.

What do all these fights, and fighters, have in common? It got me to thinking. There are certain generic groupings that instantly call to mind certain characteristics. Philadelphia fighters are said to come out of their mothers’ wombs firing that city’s signature punch, the left hook; Mexican fighters are acknowledged as being tougher than a 50-cent steak, and resistant to ever taking a backward step. If those generalizations are at least somewhat accurate, shouldn’t Irish fighters also have their own category? And what would be the most common trait, the thread that ties them together?

I asked Gerry Cooney, who, like Quarry, might have been a world champion, and a good one, if he had come along at a different time, if there are certain traits, in and out of the ring, that are common to fighters who are Irish to any appreciable degree.

“All fighters, whatever their background, fight their hearts out,” “Gentleman Gerry” responded. “I always fought my heart out. I fought to win. Jerry Quarry was the same way. But, really, all fighters are that way.

“But, sure, I’m proud to be an Irish-American. The Irish take pride in being tough guys.”

That toughness likely is an inherited quality. Remember, the Irish who came to America sought to escape economic hardship in their homeland (the Irish potato famine and a resistance, in some cases, to real or imagined British authority). Those who arrived on these shores often were relegated to manual labor and continued second-class citizenship, as was the case with other ethnicities arriving on these shores. And if boxing is proof of anything, it is that hard times make for hard men. Remember the Ron Howard-directed 1992 movie about Irish immigrants in the late 19th century, “Far and Away”? Tom Cruise played the role of Joseph Donnelly, a poor lad from the old country who earned his respect and a decent wage in a strange new land as a bare-knuckle fighter in bouts staged in waterfront saloons.

Donnelly is a fictionalized version of such very real Irish fighters as John L. Sullivan, Jim Corbett, Dempsey, Gene Tunney, James J. Braddock, Conn, Mickey Walker and Tommy Loughran, whose ideological successors were Quarry, Cooney, Barry McGuigan, Ward,  Wayne McCullough, John Duddy and Andy Lee.

The Irish have had more than their fair share of successes inside the ropes, to be sure, but their golden linings frequently have been obscured by dark clouds; even Dempsey had his Long Count, Conn his failed bid to put away Louis, Quarry his of-fer against Ali and Frazier, Cooney his courageous but doomed challenge of Holmes. Ward’s fights were pure entertainment, but he lost two of three in his epic trilogy with Arturo Gatti and never quite attained elite status. One of the more poignant stories I ever reported was that of Seamus McDonagh, the Pierce Brosnan lookalike who was stopped in four rounds by a pre-championship Evander Holyfield, lost himself in the bottle and gravitated westward, where he operated a shoeshine stand in San Francisco, showing patrons a wallet-sized photo of himself in action against Holyfield to anyone who expressed even a mild interest in boxing.

Then again, perhaps my interest in Irish boxers owes in part to the fact I am a writer, and the Irish are a people who, if anything, are better known for their mastery of the written word than their determination with padded gloves on their fists. Among the celebrated men of letters to have come from the Emerald Isle are James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett and William Butler Yeats.

It is my Irish-Swedish grandmother, who died when I was in grade school, who encouraged me as much as anyone to read the classics and to write about anything and everything that drew my attention. Perhaps she intrinsically understood that one of my favorite things was to watch the “Friday Night Fights” with her son, the ex-fighter, and from that bonding experience a career in boxing journalism might someday evolve for Bernard the younger. Then again, probably not.

We are all the products of multiple influences, of genetic splicing, of curiosities cast as a wide net and eventually narrowed to one or two specialized interests. When I look at my red-haired grandchildren (well, two of them, anyway), I see that part of myself that was passed on by my Grandma Lala and somewhere along the way brushed up against fighters like Jerry Quarry and Micky Ward.

In Quarry biography, there is a reference to his last fight of any real significance, in which the used-up and cut-up former contender is stopped in four rounds by Ken Norton. As a despondent Quarry laid on a table in his dressing room, Bill Slayton, Norton’s trainer, came by to extend his well wishes.

“The doctors had him on the table because he was all busted up,” Slayton is quoted as saying. Jerry asked him, “Did I disgrace myself?” To which Slaton replied, “You fought like an Irishman.”

Then, as now, that should be taken as a compliment.