McFARLAND ... "THE CHAMP THAT NEVER WAS"
By Tracy Callis
Packey McFarland was a fast and clever boxer with exceptional skills. He possessed an educated left jab, stiff punches, fast feet, and a savvy of boxing that always kept him a step ahead of his opponent. Packey was one of the greatest fighters to ever hail from Chicago.
McFarland was among the taller early day lightweights at 5’8” and his best fighting weight was about 137 pounds, somewhat light for a welterweight. Yet, he handled welters as easily as he handled lightweights. He was often called the “uncrowned champion of the lightweights.”
Roberts and Skutt (2002 p 164) wrote, “One of several World War I – era fighters who never won titles, Packey McFarland held his own with the very best.” Pardy (Apr 1936 p 17) wrote that Packey was “never a champion, yet one of the greatest fighters at his weight.” Salak added (1950 p 20) that he was “regarded as one of the truly great lightweights of all time – alongside Benny Leonard and Joe Gans.”
Joseph Svinth wrote, “The Irish-American welterweight Packey McFarland starts an eleven-year string of unbroken victories. This is the longest winning sequence in boxing history. (He won 93 fights, drew 5, and lost 0 between 1905 and 1916.) Nevertheless, McFarland never had a big money fight, perhaps because he refused to intentionally lose to poorer fighters in order to secure a shot at the big one” (see internet site:
Packey had a stiff punch and used it well, especially during the early part of his career. He scored 31 knockouts in his first 37 bouts and had a 36-1 record, the lone loss coming during his first year when he was inexperienced and got caught by a shot that dropped him and knocked him out of time. (Some sources report an unconfirmed second loss).
During his entire career, Packey engaged in 104 bouts and lost just the one. He never forgot the loss and as he moved up in competition, placed caution first and preferred to outbox his man with shiftiness and speed rather than try to put him out and risk getting caught by a lucky punch. For the remainder of his career, he was floored only twice – by Ray Bronson and “Cyclone” Johnny Thompson.
Packey grew up in a tough section of Chicago (“back of the stock yards”) and learned early on to use his fists to take care of himself in fights on the street and in the handball courts. During his first year in the ring (1904), at fifteen years of age, Packey lost the only fights he would ever lose. Harry Gilmore Jr. noticed him in 1906 and guided him to some impressive wins over Billy Finucane, Fred Gilmore, Young Morris, and Jack Fox and, in 1907, wins over Steve Kinsey, Joe Galligan, Kid Goodman, Maurice Sayers, Charlie Neary, and Benny Yanger. Another win over Goodman and victories over Kid Herman (newspaper) and Bert Keyes earned him a match with Freddie Welsh, the unbeaten Britisher.
Packey gained a decision over Welsh in ten rounds at Milwaukee on February 21, 1908 and followed this great win by defeating Jimmy Britt in six rounds at Colma on April 11, 1908.
When accusations of favoritism surfaced after the first McFarland-Welsh bout, fans clamoured for a rematch. A second bout with Welsh was held on July 4, 1908 at Los Angeles. It ended in a draw after twenty-five rounds. Welsh showed himself very clever and skillful at close quarters while McFarland was better at a distance.
Salak (1950 p 34) wrote, “It was one of the fastest Lightweight scraps ever witnessed.” Van Court (1926 p 78) said, “For about twenty-one rounds things were decidedly even but Welsh appeared to be tiring under the fast pace… ” He continued, “Fortunately for Welsh, however, McFarland didn’t force the fighting, evidently thinking that he had matters well in hand.”
On the same day as the McFarland-Welsh bout, Battling Nelson captured the Lightweight Championship from Joe Gans at Colma. Try as he might, McFarland was never able to get a fight with Nelson, terms being the problem. Once, the two men almost got into a fight in front of the Hotel Astoria in New York while arguing about a title bout.
While Packey usually won handily with his quickness and rare boxing skills, on a few occasions he was pushed to the limit. One such bout was against Dave Deshler at Boston on March 30, 1909. Deshler, a good puncher, was “fired-up” and gave an outstanding performance. McFarland was forced to call upon all his great skills to pull him through. He felt he won and when a “draw” was announced, Packey went “ballistic.” He struck referee Sheehan and punched one of Deshler’s seconds before he cooled down.
He went to England and fought Freddie Welsh in London on May 30, 1910. Some early reports say it was for the British Lightweight title. Although the decision was announced as a draw, Packey merited the win. Pardy reports (Dec 1936 p 24), “the consensus of opinion was that the Chicagoan [McFarland] deserved the verdict as he carried the fight to the Englishman most of the time, and had the elusive Freddie on the run and bringing every trick of the game he knew to save himself from disaster.”
Another close call for Packey came at San Francisco on November 30, 1911 against Tommy Murphy, a man he had defeated two times before. Packey often called this fight the toughest of his career. Murphy was a two-handed, hard-hitting puncher who was aggressive and tricky. McFarland pulled all of his tricks out of the bag to gain a twenty round victory.
Matt Wells, the outstanding British fighter and closest rival to Freddie Welsh for his Lightweight crown, battled McFarland on April 26, 1912 at New York. Packey outpointed Wells with ease and actually outclassed him. After the fight, Wells, all puffed up and bloody, said, “I couldn’t ‘it that cove with a ‘orsewhip.“
A hard fought series of three bouts against the master boxer, Jack Britton, resulted in a draw on January 30, 1911 at Memphis, a “No Decision” newspaper win on March 7, 1913 at New York and another “No Decision” newspaper win on December 8, 1913 at Milwaukee.
So, one by one, champions, future champions, and top contenders, took boxing lessons from the great McFarland - another super fighter who never got a shot at the World Championship.
On September 11, 1915 at Brooklyn, in what was expected to be an all-time great boxing spectacular, McFarland, who had not boxed in two years, met another great, Mike Gibbons. But, instead of an outstanding contest, what took place was a great disappointment.
Each man was respectful of the other and fought with great caution. Mostly, one then the other, feinted, moved in, jabbed, tapped, and moved away. There were few hard exchanges of punches and the result was a draw.
In all endeavors, Packey was a smart decision-maker. Inside the ropes, his fighting skills raised havoc with his foes and, outside the ring, his business ventures always prospered.
He took the small monetary winnings (as compared to modern numbers) and invested wisely in various businesses, including oil and real estate. When he retired in 1915, he was worth around $300,000 from winnings in the ring and business earnings. (What would that be by today’s inflated monetary standards?)
Packey had a happy, successful marriage that produced a son and three daughters. He never dissipated in any fashion, won universal respect by his good manners and wholesome standard of living, and possessed an instinct for saving money …” (see Pardy 136 p 22).
In later years, McFarland was involved in Democratic politics, was appointed to the Illinois State Athletic Commission, and was a Director of the Joliet National Bank. He died at age 47 after a two-month illness.
Dan Cuoco, boxing historian and Director of IBRO (International Boxing Research Organization) wrote the following (private correspondence, 2002), “Packey McFarland was one of the most scientific boxers to ever set foot in the ring. In my opinion he was an early day "Willie Pep," only with a harder punch - a master of hitting an opponent without getting hit in return. I love the story about the sensation created when Packey received a "black eye" in his first 1912 fight with Kid Burns. That's how highly respected he was by the boxing public for his defensive skills.
His record is amazing. His only official defeat occurred as a 16 year old prelim in 1904. He fought from 1905 until 1915 without tasting defeat. The list of outstanding fighters he defeated include Benny Yanger, Jimmy Britt, Steve Kinney, Phil Brock, Jack Goodman, Young Ahearn, Tommy Devlin, Willie Schaeffer, Billy Ryan, Tommy Kilbane, Leach Cross, “Cyclone” Johnny Thompson, Freddie Welsh, Jimmy Britt and Jack Britton (by newspaper decision).
He had a flashy style consisting of extremely fast hands, a dazzling fast left jab, slashing combinations, and a devastating right hand when he felt like using it. He threw punches from so many different angles that most of his opponents became bewildered and just covered up. He seldom tried to knockout an opponent once he became a headliner, merely content to win by decision (hmmm, sounds a lot like Roy Jones). But when he was bent on a knockout he kayoed outstanding fighters such as Benny Yanger, Jimmy Britt, Steve Kinney, Phil Brock, Jack Goodman, Young Ahearn, Tommy Devlin, Willie Schaeffer, Billy Ryan and Tommy Kilbane. Packey was one of the greatest scientific boxers of all-time.”
Laurence Fielding, outstanding IBRO boxing historian, thought highly of Packey and rated him as the #9 All-Time Lightweight (private correspondence, 1994). Jan Skotnicki, another excellent IBRO boxing historian, rated McFarland as the #8 All-Time Lightweight (private correspondence, 1994). Herb Goldman, former Editor of The Ring magazine and Record Book, rated Packey as the #7 All-Time Lightweight.
In the opinion of this writer, McFarland was the #7 All-Time Lightweight and the #4 All-Time Junior Welterweight. Pound-for-pound, he ranks among the best.
McFarland was elected to the Ring Boxing Hall of Fame in 1955 and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992.
Chicago Tribune. January 12 1900; January 13 1900.
Cuoco, D. 2002. Private correspondence.
Fielding, L. 1994. Private corrspondence.
Pardy, G. Apr 1936. “Titles Beckoned, But They Didn’t Make It” (contained in The Ring, Apr 1936 pp 14-17). New York: The Ring Publishing Co.
Pardy, G. Dec 1936. “Packey McFarland, Master Scientist” (contained in The Ring, Dec 1936 pp 22, 23, 24, 25). New York: The Ring Publishing Co.
Roberts, J. and Skutt, A. 2002. The Boxing Register. Ithaca, NY: McBooks Press
Salak, J. April 1950. The King Had No Crown (contained in The Ring April 1950 pp 20, 34). New York: The Ring Publishing Co.
Skotnicki, J. 1994. Private correspondence.
Stillman, M. 1920. Great Fighters and Boxers. New York: Marshall Stillman Association
Svinth, J. Jan 2002. A Chronological History of the Martial Arts and Combative Sports 1900-1939 (rev 01/02); http://ejmas.com/kronos/NewHist1900-1939.htm
Van Court, D. 1926. The Making of Champions in California. Los Angeles: Premier Printing Company
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