The exhausted Irish boxer stood in the middle of the makeshift boxing ring in the smoke-filled La Scala opera house in Dublin. Sweat was trickling down his face, tinged scarlett with a bit of blood oozing from a cut above his left eye. His chest was heaving with a heavy breathing -- a mixture of fatigue and apprehension. He had just fought 20 grueling rounds against a much younger, stronger Light Heavyweight champion of the world.
It was the night of St. Patrick’s Day in 1923, and this well-past-his-prime boxer was waiting for referee Jack Smith to announce a decision that would dramatically alter his future for good or ill. Now he closed his eyes and held his breath, and perhaps said a silent prayer, as Smith strode to the middle of the ring to raise the hand of the winner, revealing the outcome to the boisterous Irish crowd. Would this journeyman gladiator finally be rewarded for his long years of toil and pain in blood-soaked boxing rings around the world?
Michael Francis McTigue (left) was born in Kilnamona, County Clare, about 5 miles northwest of Ennis. According to his boxing biographies, the date was November 26, 1892, but in Andrew Gallimore’s biography of McTigue, he says Mike was actually 28 when he started training in 1914, but gave out that he was 22. That would mean he was actually born in 1886. He and his 11 siblings lived in a thatch-roofed cottage that is now just a lonely pile of stones in a farm field. He was thin and scrawny but a good athlete. Mike played the Gaelic games, football and hurling, which were becoming more popular with a push from the nationalist movement, but never boxed at all.
In his teens, Mike got into a dispute with British soldier and left for Sheffield, England. He returned in 1912, then left for United States from Cobh on the SS Baltic, arriving stateside September 21st with just $25 in his pocket. He moved with his brother, Patrick, and got a job at Swift & Co. wholesaler, handling sides of beef, like the later, fictional 'Rocky' Balboa.
McTigue's fighting skills defending his boss from an assault one day impressed the man, and he backed him to get into prize fighting. Mike first trained with George “Elbows” McFadden. “Elbows” got his name from his liberal, and illegal, use of his elbows in the ring. Dirty tactics, using elbows, knees and head-butting, were quite common at the time. McTigue said he learned, and used, many techniques then that you could never get away with years later.
Mike was considered “too old” to take up boxing even after telling the lie that he was 22. Had they known he was actually 28, it’s unlikely they would have taken him on at all. He later claimed that because of healthy upbringing in the Irish countryside, “I was actually a younger man, physically, than 90 percent of the city-bred chaps of 18.”
“Bold Mike” won his first fight by a knockout. These low-level professional matches at fight clubs were known as “blood bucket” fights. It was a brutal life, but like so many Irishmen, who dominated boxing at the time, McTigue found it better than slinging sides of beef
Mike became good friends with Jim Coffey, an Irish heavyweight known as “The Roscommon Giant,” even rooming with him for a time. He also befriended Irish-American Jack Britton, who was born William Breslin, Welterweight world champion. He was a sparring partner for Britton, who had Mike spar with his right hand tied down to learn how to use his left better, especially the left jab. That would be a huge help to him in later years.
The only way to make a living fighting then, if you weren’t a top contender, was to fight often. Mike fought 40 times from 1915 through 1916, or less than three weeks between fights on average. He won most of them, and his defensive skills must have been outstanding to even survive the regimen, but those skills also made him unpopular. Fans came to these “blood bucket” fights looking for blood on the canvas, not the “sweet science” of boxing. Consequently, he did not earn large purses.
McTigue’s excellent defense made him a much sought-after sparring partner, though, which helped supplement his income. He often sparred with the legendary future Heavyweight champion, Jack Dempsey, and Middleweight champion Mike Gibbons (left). He and Gibbons became very good friends.
Mike went to Canada in the spring of 1920 and revived his career by winning the Canadian Middleweight title with a fifth-round knockout over Eugene Brosseau. He would fight mostly in Canada for the next two years. McTigue was now a little bigger and stronger, and had more knockouts and TKO’s in his Canadian fights, making him more attractive to U.S. promoters. But when he finally got a big fight back in New York, in Madison Square Garden for the first time, he scored an unimpressive 15 round decision against Jeff Smith, a fighter who had previously beaten McTigue in Canada.
A New York Times reporter opined, “Neither fighter exhibited any qualifications which would warrant serious consideration for either of them as a championship prospect.” And so he was back to fighting small- purse fights. He now had a wife, Cecilia, whose parents were from County Kerry, and two daughters, ages three and under one year of age. He needed to think of his family’s financial future, and, if there was no chance of getting a championship shot in the United States, he’d look elsewhere for money, if not fame.
Mike had tried Canada -- now he would try Europe, where American fighters with experience often did well. And so in spring 1922, he and his family were off to England, where he had several bouts lined up in Sheffield. Little did he realize that this move, born of the frustration of ever getting a title shot, would rather miraculously produce one.
In France, Louis Fall, known as, “Batttling Siki,” a black man born in Senegal, had done the unthinkable and beaten, in Paris, Georges Carpentier, a handsome movie star and, like Siki, a a decorated wartime hero. With this, Siki assumed Carpentier'is world Light-Heavyweight title. (See comments for more on Siki.)
(Right: Siki's corner men lifting him up after his victory over Carpentier.)
But now Siki was in trouble with the French boxing authorities, who had suspended his license. His management tried to arrange a fight in England with British Heavyweight champion Joe Beckett, but the British Home Office decided that a fight between a white man and a black man was not a good idea when you control an empire where a very large number of blacks are ruled by a very small number of whites.
Mike McTigue was unaware that any of this might affect him as 1922 was closing. He was planning his family’s return to the United States after trying and failing to get a match with Joe Beckett himself. He fought Harry Reeve, who owned a victory over “Battling Siki,” in Liverpool in January. Reeve was heavily favored, but McTigue knocked him out in the third round. His plan was then to visit Ireland with his family before heading home, but Irish racehorse owner Tom Singleton watched him beat Reeves that night, and offered him a chance to fight in Ireland. Mike was looking for any payday he could find, and agreed to the bout, with no idea who the opponent might be.
As the Mctigue family arrived in Dublin on January 9th, it was far from the peaceful country Mike had left a decade earlier. A fierce civil war was ravaging the country. Erskine Childers (left) had been executed in November 1922. Two members of the government were shot, one killed, in December, and the government responded by executing four randomly chosen Republican leaders, including Liam Mellows and Rory O’Connor, who had been the best man at government minister Kevin O’Higgin’s wedding. It had become a vicious and pitiless brother-against-brother war that would cause animosity and resentment for generations.
For a time, people thought McTigue had become personally involved in the war. He and Cecilia left Dublin to visit her parent’s home in Caherciveen, Kerry, on January 17th. Republicans burned down a number of homes of politicians and kidnaped Senator John Bagwell on January 30th and a London newspaper reported that McTigue, who hadn’t been seen since leaving for Kerry, had also been grabbed. No attempt was ever made to kidnap him, however.
Mike had actually been in England discussing a future fight while he was “missing.” When Singleton broached the idea of McTigue fighting Siki for the title in war-torn Dubliln, he had no qualms either on the location or the color of Siki’s skin. Mike had fought black opponents about 30 times already in his career. At this point in his career, with his actual age was late 30s, he’d have probably agreed to fight Satan at the North Pole to get a shot at the title.
After a career in which it seemed as if nothing could ever go his way, suddenly McTigue had a title fight in his native country fall directly into his lap. No one expected he could vanquish a light-heavyweight who had just trounced the great Carpentier. Most of Mike’s success against good boxers had been as a middleweight. He weighed 11 stone 6 pounds (163 pounds), and Siki weighed 12 stone 7 pounds (178 pounds), so he was giving away 15 pounds. And he was actually in his late 30s. There were lots of reason he shouldn’t, or even couldn’t win, but he threw himself into his training with a knowledge that this was surely his last chance to make a name for himself, and help ensure his family’s financial future. A few people did give him a chance though. His old friend Jim Coffey (right), “The Roscommon Giant,” urged the Irish to bet the underdog. This was a real-life “Rocky” moment.
The announcement of the fight created a worldwide sensation. This was the so-called “Golden Age of Boxing,” when boxers were some of the biggest celebrities of the time. This fight had a white man versus a black man in Ireland, which had just won at least partial freedom, after it had been banned in Great Britain, the country that had ruled Ireland. To add to all that, it was scheduled for the night of March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day, in the La Scala Theatre. Boxing reporters from all over the world were buying tickets for Dublin.
The title would be contested in a country fighting a civil war. Now the bout had become a part of that war. For the Free State government, it was a way to show legitimacy. The Republicans might want to stop it for the same reason, but an Irishman fighting for a world championship in Ireland for the first time would be a dangerous thing to oppose. Meanwhile, the war went on. After five Free State soldiers were killed by a mine in County Kerry on March 6th, nine Republican prisoners were tied to a mine and blown up in retaliation.
(Left: Free State soldiers attacking the Four Courts in Dublin at the start of the Civil War.)
The viciousness of the war was ramping ever higher. After six more Republican prisoners were executed on the 13th, the Republicans issued a statement declaring a mourning period where all “amusements” were banned for an indefinite period. It was clearly directed at the fight. Two Free State soldiers were shot dead in Dublin that night, and a bomb went off in Dublin the night of the 16th.
Both Siki and McTigue received death threats, as did the fight promoters. Siki’s management kept them a secret from him. Two days before the fight, the government put guards on the La Scala Theatre, which had also been threatened. Security was increased around the city. A reporter from the “Sporting Chronicle” wrote on the 16th that, “If the McTigue – Siki fight takes place tomorrow night, it will be literally at the point of a bayonet.”
(Right: "Battling" Siki having fun with some Irish boys.)
The morning of the fight, McTigue got a letter from the Republicans saying if he showed up for the fight he’d be hung. Siki was taken to La Scala in a military convoy, and it was good that he was. They were briefly delayed by a Republican barricade, where a short gun fight ensued. Siki, oblivious to the politics, thought fire works were going off in his honor. It’s unlikely the Republican leadership wanted to hurt Siki, as that would probably turn most Irish against them. Tom Singleton was ready to call the fight off, but the Free State government sent in 500 more troops and several armored cars to protect the site and insisted it go on.
McTigue was said to look pale as he entered the building, perhaps wondering if he would survive the night, win or lose. The people of Dublin ignored the threats of violence, however. It was St. Patrick’s Day, and they had come with hopes of celebrating an Irishman winning the title at home.
The “Sporting Chronicle” reporter had not exaggerated. There were Free State soldiers with bayonet tipped rifles around the ring and up every aisle. Reporters from every major western newspaper were in the house, along with several government ministers. Georges Carpentier (left) got huge ovation as he walked down to his ringside seat. Between the possibility of violence and the electricity of a native son attempting to win a world title on St. Patrick’s Day, the tension in the air must have been palpable.
At 7:30 the tension increased when the building was rocked by a Republican bomb going off on Henry St., just fifty yards from La Scala. The windows of the Tower Bar on the corner were blown out. Apparently the intent had been to cut off the power to La Scala, but it failed. A murmur of concern rumbled through the crowd, but they remained in their seats.
As the fighters entered the ring their robes told the story of their recent boxing history. “Battling” Siki, who had been spending his winnings from his title fight like water, was in a beautiful, bright purple robe. In contrast, one writer described McTigue’s as “the poorest thing that ever draped a human frame. When the robes came off, Siki’s muscular frame also presented a contrast to McTigue, who looked like “an underdeveloped stripling” in comparison according the “Sporting Chronicle” reporter.
From the opening bell Siki was the bull like aggressor, with McTigue struggling to defend against the onslaught of the bigger man. The likely end seemed so clear that ringside bookies stopped taking any more bets on the champion in round two. But starting in round three a subtle change began, as Siki began to tire, and McTigue’s superior boxing skills could take effect.
McTigue was showing signs of possibly winning on points. The Irish crowd wanted a slugfest, however, and weren’t pleased with the proceedings. But this fight was too important for Mike to allow the crowd to change his plan. The fight was scheduled for a grueling twenty rounds, the last ever world title bout of more than fifteen rounds, and he had a plan for wearing down Siki to win. The crowd got their blood in the eleventh round, but it was Mctigue’s, as his left eyebrow was split open. Mike said it was an old injury and believed it was opened up by Siki’s laces, not a punch. His face was covered with blood that dripped down off his chin. His green trunks were splattered with scarlett as the round ended. It looked ominous, but his corner stopped the blood between rounds and kept it under control the rest of the fight.
In the thirteenth round, McTigue landed a hard right to the top of the head of the ducking champion. It was a solid blow, and hurt Siki, but it hurt McTigue more, breaking his thumb. Some fighters might have quit, but Mike could see his plan was working. Siki was wearing himself out with his bull rushes. McTigue fought on. Any blow landed with the right hand now sent searing pain up McTigue’s arm, but he was landing it more and more as the end of the fight got nearer. By the seventeenth round Siki’s handlers had to push him off the stool.
Mike was taking over now, and the Irish crowd was rocking the building with thunderous cheering. He landed a number of hard right hands in the last few rounds, perhaps they would have ordinarily been enough to knock him out, but surely the broken thumb had to be sapping much of the strength from those blows. McTigue himself believed the injury prevented him from scoring a knockout late in the fight. As for Siki’s punches, Mike later said he had someone tell him how to say “Is that your hardest punch” in French, planning to use when he first got hit hard, but he claimed he never go hit hard enough to use it.
The two battered gladiators were in an exhausted clinch as the bell ended the twentieth round. It took referee Smith several minutes to make his decision. The crowd held their collective breath as Smith strode toward the two fighters. Then he reached for the hand of Mike McTigue and raised it high. The hall exploded more loudly than the bomb that went off on Henry St. before the fight. People were tossing their hats in the air and chanting “McTigue … McTigue … McTigue!”
(Left: McTigue's hand being raised from the grainy film of the fight.)
Now the crowd parted to let Mike’s father pass through. He climbed into the ring, bent low, wrapped his arms around Mike and lifted his son into the air to the deafening approval of the exulting throng. If anyone had told the weary fighter just a few months earlier that his father would be lifting him in triumph in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day as a world champion, he would have thought the person insane. Years of long, hard work and dozens of desperate, brutal fights in obscure arenas had finally paid off. There must have been many a moist eye in the house watching that father and son moment. The crowd carried him around the ring, then out of it around the room.
Outside the entire city of Dublin, who had few things to celebrate of late, partied in the streets. When the word reached far off Kilnamona, bonfires were lit on hill tops. As would be expected, with an Irish fighter winning a decision in a close fight in Dublin, many then and since have asserted that Siki had won.
(Right: McTigue signing autographs for Irish fans.)
McTigue got lots of offers to fight again in Europe, but he knew where the big money was for a world champion: New York City. When they departed the year before, no one but close friends were even aware of it; their return was a bit different. A thousand cheering fans greeted them as they disembarked, along with the regimental band of the Irish 69th N.Y. It must have been quite a shock for Mike. The band then led a procession of vehicles in a parade to his hotel. He had hit the big time as he was approaching forty, a point when most boxers were already retired, though the boxing world had no idea he was that old.
Mike’s time as champion would prove less lucrative than he hoped, however. Management problems and his lingering thumb injury plagued him. He was also hurt by his own decision to do as many champions did at the time and protect himself with non-decision bouts where he could only lose the title if knocked out. A champion had little incentive to do anything other than stay on their feet in such a “fight,” which resulted in boring “bouts” that were very unpopular with boxing fans.
The first time he put it on the line in a decision bout, in Columbus, Georgia, against native son William “Young” Stribling, on October 4, 1923 it was possibly more bizarre circumstances than his fight in Dublin. Wanting to pull out of the fight, either because of his thumb still being hurt, or perhaps because he’d lined up a more lucrative bout and wanted to cancel this one, Mike and his manage were held at gun point and threatened with hanging by the local KKK. McTigue being a Catholic with a Jewish manager, Joe Jacobs, and wanting to take away Stribling’s opportunity, did not sit well with them. So McTigue fought, with one hand, he later claimed. The referee called the bout a draw, meaning Mike would retain his title, KKK members were in the ring by then, threatening to kill him unless he called Stribling, then still a teenager, the winner. Discretion being the better part of valor, he prudently did that. Once safely out of Georgia, however, the referee reinstated the draw, and Mike was still champion, and happy to be out of Georgia alive.
Finally, on May 30, 1925, he was forced into taking a real “winner take all” championship by the NY Boxing Commission. The opponent was Paul Berlenbach a plodding, heavy hitting young fighter who was well over ten years younger than McTigue. Most observers though Mike won a close decision, and champions seldom lost close fights then, but he lost and his title was gone. Boxing writers were sure his career was over.
Mike nearly did retire at that point, but was talked into returning to the ring by famous fight manager Jimmy Johnston (right), who sports writer Damon Runyon dubbed, "The Boy Bandit of Broadway." No longer needing to protect a title, Mike became an utterly different, more aggressive fighter. He won six fights in a row, four of the last five by knockout. The last was a 4th round TKO of Berlenbach, though it came after he had lost the title to Jack Delaney. Some thought it was the best fight of Mike’s career. Sports writers who had buried him now dubbed him the “Methuselah of the Ring.”
He had another shot at the title against champion Jack Delaney lined up in 1927 when Delaney couldn’t make the weight anymore and vacated the title. Amazingly the slick Johnston got the boxing commission to declare McTigue the champion. At forty plus years old, thanks to his remarkable reinventing of his style, and some creative management, somehow he was the champion again. When Johnston took over Mike's management, he'd promised to make him champion again. The skeptical McTigue jokingly said if he did it, he'd buy Johnston a car. A week after Mike was awarded the title, Johnston found a new Buick outside his door. Mike was a man of his word. Age was finally catching up with him though, and he lost the title in a close 15 round decision to future boxing Hall of Famer, Tommy Loughran in October.
Like so many fighters before and since, McTigue didn’t know when to quit. He had seven fights in 1928 and won none of them. He fought into 1930, winning a few, but losing most of the time to fighters he’d have easily beaten years before, and finally retired in September.
Mike wasn’t the typical “old palooka” who squander the money he made fighting. He had invested it well and he and his family appeared set for life, but life is not always fair. The Wall Street Crash in 1929 and a dishonest money manager undid all of that. His life from there became the same sort of sad tale that seems so common with aging boxers.
By the mid-30s Mike was working as a laborer to make ends meet, and had begun to drink heavily. He was injured numerous times, as so often happens with alcoholics, and his wife left him. The adage is that “old soldiers just fade away,” but it seem even more appropriate about old prize fighters.
(Below: The boxing gloves Mike McTigue wore in his fight with "Battling" Siki.)
By the mid-1950s the ex-champ was virtually penniless and in Creedmoor State Hospital, nearly abandoned. Then his nephew Joe Breen, just out of the Marines, arrived to be the angel of his final years. Joe took over his care. He and his sons would take Mike out to restaurants and to the seashore. It was a sad end to his life, but at least a little less so than it would have been without the kindness of Joe and his family. The old pugilist would still delight people with stories of his glory days. His favorite was about his famous St. Patrick’s Day victory in Dublin and how one of the Free State soldiers had come near the corner, prodded him with his bayonet and said, "I got three pounds' bet on you. God help you if you lose."
In the summer of 1966 Mike got into some sort of altercation in the hospital and was hit with a chair. The old warrior had taken one more blow to the head; it would be his last. God counted ten on Michael Francis McTigue in Queens General Hospital on August 12th. Though he had been totally out of the public eye for decades, not everyone had forgotten “Bold Mike.” Many of the old “Golden Age” fighters were already gone, but Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Tommy Loughran and even Paul Berlenbach attended Mike’s funeral. In 2001 the Kilnamona Community Centre was named after McTigue.
“A Bloody Canvas - The Mike McTigue Story” by Andrew Gallimore