Irish Jewel Of Cleveland: The Great Johnny Kilbane
By Mike Casey
Boxing, if taken from its earliest days in all its shapes and
forms, is probably the richest and most diverse sport of all, full of goldmines
and gold nuggets, a glorious and unruly slab of history with countless different
offshoots and mysterious little alleys. Just as eager astronomers continue to
discover new galaxies and new planets, so we continue to mine the lost and
hidden treasures of our own little kingdom and unearth new jewels. Somebody
discovers another Jack Dempsey fight that has been buried in the mists of time.
Somebody else comes up with a fresh story about a famous fight that we thought
we already knew everything about.
Where fighters of a bygone age are concerned, especially those
who are only able to show us their great talents on snatches of old and grainy
film, we can only study form and reach what we believe to be a fair summation of
their historical standing. Then we stumble across something that causes us to
rethink. Just recently, I was reading an old book by Denzil Batchelor, a popular
and respected British boxing reporter of the forties and fifties, and came upon
his opinions of the featherweights who reigned before the Great War. Up came the
name of Johnny Kilbane, the Irish wonder from Cleveland, Ohio. Ah-hah, I
thought, this should be interesting. Why? Because I have always had a little
trouble getting a real handle on Mr Kilbane. Such was Johnny’s cleverness that
so often in his career he would coast and clown and only do as much as he had to
do to win. Judging such fighters is always something of a headache, since one
can only give them so much leeway in regard to how much greater they MIGHT have
been if they had really stepped on the gas.
I remain convinced that the three greatest featherweights, all
factors considered, were Jem Driscoll, Willie Pep and Henry Armstrong, and I
really don’t have much of a problem about the order in which those three
geniuses are placed. But where does Johnny Kilbane fit in what we might call the
second tier? Was he better than Attell, McGovern, Johnny Dundee, Kid Chocolate,
Vicente Saldivar or Alexis Arguello?
Denzil Batchelor wrote his book in 1954, which of course was well
before the times of messrs. Saldivar and Arguello, but the author’s estimation
of Johnny Kilbane still surprised me. Here is a paraphrased version what
Batchelor said: “The greatest of American feathers before the Kaiser’s war was
unquestionably the brilliant Johnny Kilbane, who defeated Abe Attell in 20
rounds in 1912 and held the title for eleven years till beaten by Eugene Criqui.
“Kilbane, of Irish descent, came from Cleveland. It took him five
years to win the championship; by which time he had lost only twice: once to
Attell and once to the Mexican pepperpot, Joe Rivers. He was fast, clever,
brilliant at close quarters and a destructive puncher judged by the highest
standards. After he had won his title, he lost only two contests in eleven
years. The pity of it is that Driscoll visited the States before Kilbane had
matured. If the two had been exact contemporaries, the history of the
featherweight division would have been enriched by their rivalry. There never
was a better featherweight than Johnny Kilbane of Cleveland, Ohio.”
It is here that we run into the usual wall of frustration, since
we will never know whether Johnny Kilbane was truly one of the supreme talents
of his weight class. But here is something else that gave me a jolt. When you
trawl back through Johnny’s achievements by way of countless newspaper reports,
there is a recurring theme of unstinting praise for his ring skills. Hard-nosed,
genuine boxing writers, well seasoned and not inclined to purple prose, clearly
struggle to find the appropriate superlatives for the Fighting Mick of the
featherweights. On more than one occasion Kilbane is described as the ace of all
fighters, which is praise indeed when one considers that his long reign as
champion bridged the eras of Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey.
Outclassing Abe Attell
Speaking of long reigns, it seemed that Abe Attell had been the
featherweight champion since the days when a despairing Abe Lincoln was saying
of General McClellan, “If he is not using the Union Army, I should like to
Abe Attell, the wonderful Little Hebrew, was the so-called
dancing master, fast and crafty as a fox, tough and courageous. Only Peerless
Jem Driscoll had truly mastered Attell in the pure boxing stakes, trimming Abe
very neatly in their classic New York encounter of 1909. Abe had seen off all
other challengers and it seemed that he might just chug on forever. Then he
defended his championship against the young and devilishly evasive Johnny
Kilbane and must have thought that Driscoll had come a-haunting in a different
guise. Johnny didn’t just take Abe’s title. He absolutely cleaned him, and
referee Charles Eyton had no hesitation in raising the challenger’s hand at the
finish. Attell couldn’t believe his defeat and certainly could never accept it.
The veteran and the new kid on the block clashed over 20 rounds
at the Vernon Arena in California on February 22, 1912. Nearly ten thousand fans
crammed into the venue, where the capacity was 8,400. A further five thousand
failed to get past the gates and were turned away. The gate receipts totalled
around $25,000, a formidable total at that time. Johnny and Abe fought for a
$10,000 purse, of which it was agreed that Attell would receive $6,500
irrespective of the result. The fight was filmed and the boys also agreed on an
even split of the motion picture privilege.
For Abe, the result was a stunning reversal. The skill and guile
that had seen him reign for years was sadly infrequent against Kilbane,
suppressed by Johnny’s speed and cleverness and by Attell’s ageing legs.
Abe was very nearly shut out of the fight, one ringside reporter
only according him the seventh round. Attell never got out of the starting
blocks and then he began to panic as his prized crown began to slip from his
grasp. Desperation gripped him as the battle wore on and his efforts to turn the
tide failed. He resorted to fouling, a tactic that didn’t go down at all well
with his supporters. He locked Kilbane’s arms in the clinches, heeled him on one
occasion and tried to bend his left arm back on another.
If Abe believed his fans would turn a blind eye to his actions,
he was mistaken. Boos and hisses filled the air as the old campaigner worked his
way through his box of dirty tricks. Attell had plenty to feel angry about. The
erstwhile boxing master was being repeatedly struck by a relentless flow of
accurate punches from the young Irish upstart. In the sixteenth round, with no
great attempt to mask his intentions, Abe surged into a clinch and butted
Kilbane so severely that Johnny sustained a deep gash over his left eye. Blood
oozed from the ugly wound but the inconvenience failed to check Johnny’s
inexorable march to the championship.
Abe’s mood had already worsened at the beginning of the round,
after referee Eyton had grabbed a towel and wiped a liberal coating of grease
off the champion’s body. Abe and his handlers, it seemed, were trying an
alternative way to slip punches. But Johnny Kilbane was the big story on this
day, even if the great Attell was finally slipping over the hill. Even Johnny’s
backers marvelled at the authoritative manner in which their man put Abe under
the cosh and never let him up for air. The youngster was incredibly fast with
his hands and feet and couldn’t seem to miss Attell with a persistent stream of
solid, straight jabs. Right crosses repeatedly hit the champion with speed and
force. Such was the quality of Kilbane’s footwork that even the usually graceful
Attell was often made to look crude and ungainly.
From the outset to the finish, wise old Abe laid traps that
yielded no prize. He tried to feint Johnny, he tried to corner him, but the
young ace avoided all the potential pitfalls with the untouchable air of a
ghost. The decision for Kilbane was a popular one and greeted enthusiastically.
Johnny was carried from the building on the shoulders of his friends, telling
them that he wanted to telephone his wife.
Attell left the ring on his own, no longer the world champion,
no longer the man everyone wants to talk to. Spotting a friend, Abe said, “Well,
I had to stand for it. I couldn’t do any better.” It seemed a philosophical
acceptance of the inevitable on Attell’s part, yet his dethronement – and Johnny
Kilbane personally – would rankle with Abe for the rest of his life and fill him
The truth is, Attell let himself down badly with his spiteful
rants, often sounding like a spoilt and resentful child. Kilbane had set him a
puzzle and Abe had failed to solve it. His warped conclusion was that Johnny had
stolen the title by unfair means. “Kilbane should have been ashamed of himself,”
Attell complained. “He was the challenger but he wouldn’t do anything but lay
back and play it cute. I would have made the fight but I couldn’t go forward, my
legs were gone.”
But that wasn’t all. It was also Abe’s contention that Kilbane
had tried to poison him by way of the fumes from the chloroform that Johnny’s
handlers had apparently rubbed into his body.
Forty years later, Attell was still raging when he bumped into
Kilbane at Madison Square Garden. It wasn’t your average social reunion. “I’d
like to punch you in the nose right now,” Abe said. Kilbane apparently laughed
and left it at that.
As Irish As Paddy’s Pig
According to boxing writer JP Garvey, Johnny Kilbane had jammed
43 fights into just three-and-a-half years’ campaigning by the time he dethroned
Abe Attell. Garvey was impressed by the new star of the featherweights and
wrote, “Johnny Kilbane, as Irish as Paddy’s pig, a 22-year old boy with
sparkling eyes, ready wit, whose every action is peppery, effervescent,
indicative of a lightning brain and panther body, is the successor of Abe Attell
as the featherweight champion of America. A boy better equipped for this
estimable honour would be hard to find.
“With him as leader, the scientific standard of proficiency
introduced by George Dixon and furthered by Attell will not suffer. Rather it
will be improved upon to the betterment of the boxing game.”
Kilbane had an engaging personality and a sharp sense of humour.
He was born in Cleveland to Irish parents and JP Garvey couldn’t help waxing
lyrical about the influence of Johnny’s spiritual homeland. “He has no brogue
but you can tell his ancestors had. There is something about him – perhaps it’s
his flashing eyes and a general air of activity which he can’t control – that
suggests shamrocks in full bloom, the bogs, the turf, the clay pipes and the
From his teens, Johnny Kilbane was a tough little customer. He
simply had to be. His father went blind and Johnny was hurried through school so
that he could go out to work and support his family. He was around thirteen or
fourteen when he got a job as a switch tender on the New York P&O railroad. He
weighed little over 90 pounds but quickly became known as a live wire who loved
to fight. Johnny spent his evenings hanging out with boxing fans at the
appropriate watering holes and loved to listen to them discussing the fights.
The young Kilbane soon began to fantasise about a career as a professional
fighter, imagining glorious victories and the cheers of big crowds.
Switch tending on the railroad paid a steady wage but it wasn’t
the way to spend the rest of your life. Johnny quit after a year. The boxing bug
had bitten him hard. Jimmy Dunn, a crack lightweight of the time whom Kilbane
idolised, was training at Crystal Beach and Johnny went to watch him. He and
Dunn became good friends and Dunn willingly gave Kilbane boxing lessons, later
becoming Johnny’s manager.
Kilbane fought his first professional fight on December 2, 1907,
and had no trouble getting matches for the first six months of his career. But a
lean period followed, during which time Johnny often found it hard to get three
square meals a day. The tough times failed to dampen his enthusiasm. He studied
the Noble Art all the time, eager to learn more and improve his toughness and
technique. His natural love and talent for boxing made him a quick learner. The
first big year for Johnny was in 1909, when ring work became plentiful again and
he started mixing with quality fighters such as Jack White, Johnny Whittaker,
Biz Mackey and Happy Davis.
Kilbane’s style was a double-edged sword that drew its share of
critics. His great skill and speed, not to mention his general ring cleverness,
became universally acknowledged, but even his friends felt that he was too much
of a ‘runner’. Kilbane proved that he could knock opponents out as well as
out-fox them over the long haul, but he failed to shake the conviction of many
that he was, in the parlance of the day, a ‘looking glass’ boxer. Johnny’s cause
wasn’t helped by the presence of another ‘Kilbane’ on the boxing scene. The
undefeated Tommy Kilbane, also out of Cleveland, was much more of a fan’s
favourite with his aggressive, hard-hitting style. He and Johnny had already
clashed three times , with Johnny holding the advantage in their closely
contested series. The two boys decided to settle the question of supremacy and
it was Johnny who won the day by a decision when they battled at Canton, Ohio,
on New Year’s Day in 1910.
Nevertheless, Kilbane continued to be a ‘grey’ fighter to many
fistic observers. Very skillful, yes. World class, undoubtedly. But could the
kid marry all that fancy stuff to a knockout wallop against a top notch
opponent? The fight that caused many of Kilbane’s critics to revise their
opinion of him was his smashing triumph over Mexican Joe Rivers at Vernon,
California, on September 4, 1911. Rivers had already taken a 20-rounds decision
off Kilbane in their first fight four months earlier, a defeat that hurt Johnny.
He took a great pride in being one of the ‘Fighting Irish’ and felt he had let
his side down. In the early rounds of their return match, Mexican Joe, a
powerful and natural fighter, again proved to be a tough proposition. A fast and
often furious puncher, Rivers had little trouble in tagging the speedy and
elusive Kilbane. The stinging blows that struck Johnny only served to harden his
resolve as he turned hunter and waited for the chance to outpunch the puncher.
The end came with shocking suddenness in the sixteenth round, when he drilled a
tremendous right to Mexican Joe’s chin and knocked him out.
The Eternal Champion
By 1921, Johnny Kilbane had been the featherweight champion for
nine years, having mastered the division in much the same dominant fashion as
Abe Attell had done before him. Johnny had now won the respect of fans and
writers everywhere and was approaching near legendary status. He had become
almost a part-time fighter, devoting much of his time to buying and selling real
estate. But the cartoonists still loved to remind people that this was the
phantom with a punch who had made Abe Attell look foolish. Abe’s caricature
would invariably be seen swiping furiously at thin air, and how that must have
hurt the Little Hebrew.
But Kilbane was now fading and losing his desire for ring
warfare. Ace writer Bob Edgren had seen the hunger slowly go out of 31-year old
Johnny, so much so that the champion was able to turn down an offer of $30,000
from Tex Rickard to fight any challenger of choice. Wrote a somewhat
disenchanted Edgren: “I have no trouble remembering the time when Johnny would
have been glad to fight any featherweight in the world for fifteen hundred or
for the fun of it. If Kilbane was Kilbane, he’d do it now.
“Johnny may be fair, fat and thirty-one today, but he was the
genius and original ‘Fighting Mick’ when he beat Abe Attell. Surest thing you
know, that boy could fight anything from a Mexican wildcat to a grizzly bear and
get away with it. He had a poke like a lightning bolt and a sidestep that made
his opponents miss more swings than there are on all the gates in the county.
Talk about a dancing fool! That was Johnny Kilbane when he felt like dancing. He
could hop, skip and jump around a ring in a way that would make Johnny Dundee
look like a loaded truck trying to go up Fort Lee Hill on an icy morning.
“They couldn’t hit Kilbane with a bucket of birdshot, and that’s
all there was to it. He invited punches and when they arrived he simply wasn’t
there. And all the time he was slapping and tapping and laughing and chatting,
and making a monkey out of the earnest young man in front of him until people in
the front row laughed so hard they fell out of their seats. Yes, when he wanted
to, Kilbane surely could fight.”
Edgren was not wrong. It was a recurring theme of Johnny’s career
to remind people with a jolt of his ability to seek and destroy when he needed
to. A good way into his featherweight reign, Kilbane was moving along nicely and
outpointing challengers without fuss or frills. The fans were getting a little
bored with the safety-first champ. Then a man known as the Knockout King made
the mistake of upsetting Kilbane. George (KO) Chaney, as hard a pound-for-pound
puncher as there ever was, secured a crack at Johnny’s title after Chaney’s
manager had baited Johnny in the sports pages for quite some time.
“They think I can’t hit any more,” Kilbane said in a letter to
Bob Edgren. “I can hit harder than ever, but I always prefer winning on points
because I don’t like to risk hurting anybody. This time I’m going to let the
punches go, and I’ll knock this fellow Chaney out in a hurry.”
Kilbane was true to his word. He gave George (KO) Chaney two
rounds to show his wares and then knocked out the Baltimore challenger with a
single shot in the third.
Downed By The Ghetto Wizard
Kilbane had talked about retirement as early as 1917, when he
made what has often been described as the only major mistake of his career.
Johnny got it into his head that he could step up to the lightweight division
and take Benny Leonard’s crown. Great as Johnny was, this was a foolish notion
as Benny, the slick and dapper Ghetto Wizard, was even greater as well as bigger
and stronger. He knocked out Kilbane in three rounds at Philadelphia and
Johnny’s manager, Jimmy Dunn, said, “There was nothing to do but throw in the
towel. I never saw Johnny fight the way he did last night. He was badly beaten.
If I’d sent him out again it would have been to have him take a worse beating
than a knockout and I didn’t want to see him beaten up. This is his last fight.
I’ll never send him in the ring again. As far as I am concerned, Johnny is
through and will retire with his title.”
Benny Leonard’s sparkling performance confirmed his standing as
possibly the greatest of all the lightweight masters. As one reporter noted,
“No man, lightweight or featherweight, has ever been given a higher rating than
Kilbane. Champion in his own class, four times he has stepped into a ring
against another champion and three times he has come off victorious. The last
time was last night when he failed.”
But Johnny boxed on, of course, as most great champions
invariably do until they receive that final and irrefutable confirmation that
the well has run dry. Some two years before French war hero Eugene Criqui ended
Kilbane’s astonishing reign, Johnny painted his last masterpiece in Cleveland.
There, on September 17, 1921, he gave another stirring example of how he could
turn off the smiles and turn on the power.
Danny Frush, despite a brave and courageous challenge, had
already been decked twice by the time he came out for the seventh round to take
another Kilbane fusillade. The two fighters rushed to the centre of the ring and
Johnny landed a left to the face. Frush then went down for a third time from a
left to the jaw, getting up slowly at the count of nine. He was quickly down
again from a succession of lefts and rights to the jaw and now in disarray from
being hit and generally bedazzled. Unsteady, Danny swayed into the ropes and
received terrific punishment from further rights and lefts to the face. He fell
from the ropes to the canvas, where he remained as the referee counted him out.
Oh yes, Johnny Kilbane could dance alright. He could also kick
like a mule when the mood took him.
My sincere thanks to Kevin O’Toole for allowing us to publish the
picture of Johnny Kilbane that accompanies this story on the CBZ Newswire.
Please check out Kevin’s excellent website on Johnny at
> The Mike Casey Archives