Blood, Guts And Greatness: The Incredible Kid Lavigne
By Mike Casey
reassuringly, perhaps the favourite indulgences of fight fans haven’t changed
radically down through the centuries. From day one, our curious and enduring
breed has adored the ritual of engaging in endless and inconclusive argument
that generally sweeps us straight up a back alley leading to nowhere.
than not, it is impossible to prove our opinions or reach a definitive verdict
on what was the greatest fight and who was the greatest fighter. We just know
that it feels good to chase our own backsides when there is nothing much else
going on in the world. There is nothing quite so curative as a good old barney
with our favourite sparring partners. God forbid that they should come over all
magnanimous and actually agree with a single word we are saying.
and Battling Nelson certainly started something back in 1910 after their
phenomenal battle of endurance at Point Richmond. Logically, Ad and Bat should
have been carted off to the cemetery after that one. It surely had to be the
greatest battle ever seen in the eternally fabulous lightweight division. The
cries of dissent were not long in coming – oh no it wasn’t!
Those of a
greater vintage argued that for sheer savage intensity, sustained excitement and
historical importance, there was nothing to match the brutal first battle
between George (Kid) Lavigne and Joe Walcott at Maspeth, New York, on December
marked the thunderous arrival of Lavigne on the world stage.
Few men could
go head to head with Walcott, the great Barbados Demon, in a straight punching
battle for survival. But Lavigne, the young Michigan tornado known as the
Saginaw Kid, did just that and joined Walcott among the select ranks of men to
It was a
fight that was already cooking long before the contestants got into the ring and
it established Sam Fitzpatrick as one of the shrewdest and most astute
matchmakers in the game. Lavigne and Walcott produced fifteen of the fiercest
rounds of fighting ever witnessed, their epic union cleverly engineered by
described by Nat Fleischer as “a short, thick-necked furious fighting man”, was
being managed by Tom O’Rourke and had compiled a mightily impressive record.
O’Rourke was able to provide Joe with constant training with the masterful
Little Chocolate, George Dixon. Walcott became such an accomplished and
dangerous fighter under the guidance of O’Rourke and Dixon that few people
doubted the Barbados Demon was the best lightweight in the world.
same time, Sam Fitzpatrick took Kid Lavigne under his wing. The Kid wasn’t
renowned for his love of training, but O’Rourke recognised the youngster’s class
and tremendous fighting spirit. Lavigne quickly progressed as he defeated tough
opponents in George Siddons, Jerry Marshall, Johnny Griffin and the tragic Andy
Bowen, who died from his injuries after the Kid knocked him out in eighteen
rounds in New Orleans. Lavigne also gained a highly creditable eight rounds draw
with the gifted drunken genius, Young Griffo.
considerably under the lightweight limit and it wasn’t at all unusual for him to
give away significant weight to his opponents. However, such was his progress
that Joe Walcott and Tom O’Rourke grew more than a little annoyed with the
attention and praise being lavished on the Kid. Lavigne became as irritatingly
irresistible to them as a slippery salmon does to a hungry Grizzly Bear.
couldn’t help but take the bait. It proved to be one of the few career blunders
that wise old Tom ever made. Not only did O’Rourke announce that Walcott would
fight Lavigne, but that Joe would agree to forfeit his entire purse if he failed
to stop the Kid inside fifteen rounds.
Fitzpatrick snapped up the offer but insisted that Walcott made the lightweight
limit. Walcott and O’Rourke readily agreed.
took an iron grip on Lavigne in the run-up to the fight and insisted that the
Kid didn’t skimp on his training. Lavigne behaved himself and his conditioning
improved rapidly. Interest in the fight grew and betting was lively in the east,
where much money was wagered on Lavigne failing to last the agreed course. Such
was Walcott’s reputation as a wrecker of men that it was becoming increasingly
difficult for the Barbados Demon to secure matches.
and a few of the Lavigne faithful countered by betting that the Kid would not
only last the distance but would defeat Walcott. Barbados Joe was supremely
confident that he would halt Lavigne and entertained no thoughts of losing.
Walcott stormed into the Kid from the start of the contest, but met with
terrific resistance as Lavigne hit back on even terms. Joe seemed taken aback by
the opposing force he had encountered, and the Kid’s tenacity didn’t diminish as
a gargantuan battle took shape and the rounds raced by.
toe-to-toe with Walcott through some withering, brutal exchanges, staying on top
of Joe all the time. One writer would later comment that the Demon had been out-demoned.
The pace of the fight was astonishing, as was the punishment suffered and the
injuries borne. The ring was stained crimson from the blood of both men’s
wounds. Lavigne would inherit a cauliflower ear from one of Walcott’s slashing
the two titans didn’t seem to notice the outer limits to which they were
hurtling. Lavigne eventually outpaced Walcott to earn the referee’s decision
after a barn-burning battle of powerful hitting, courage and perseverance in the
face of terrible punishment.
Lavigne and Joe Walcott hooked up for their return match on October 29, 1897,
the Kid was the lightweight champion of the world and was repeatedly astonishing
the boxing public with the near frenetic pace of his attacking style and his
extraordinary toughness. It seemed that no man could hurt or deflect the
non-stop wonder from Saginaw.
Lavigne proved Walcott’s master in mayhem, with Joe being pulled out of the
contest at the end of the twelfth round by Tom O’Rourke. The crowd of 10,000 at
the Occidental Club in San Francisco could scarcely believe how little effect
the tremendous blows of Walcott had on the relentless Saginaw Kid.
entered the ring in his usual determined mood, adorned in a salmon-coloured robe
and attended by Tom O’Rourke, George Dixon and Joe Cotton. Lavigne was second
into the ring, his handlers including his brother Billy, Teddy Alexander and
Billy Armstrong. Billy Jordan was the master of ceremonies and Eddie Greaney was
As in the
first battle between the two greats, Lavigne set a blistering pace and
maintained it. Walcott did extremely well to fight back and landed many a hard
blow when he was able to adequately time Lavigne’s rushes. But the Kid had taken
charge of the fight by the fifth round and Joe was unable to turn the tide
round was one of the fastest seen by reporters of the day. Lavigne bulled
Walcott into the ropes and scored with a big left uppercut to the face. The Kid
followed with a right to the jaw that shook Joe badly and forced him to clinch.
Lavigne was merciless in such a situation and would just keep hammering at his
opponent. He wouldn’t leave the troubled Walcott alone and struck him again with
rights and lefts to the head.
desperately to summon all his ring smarts and weather the violent storm around
him, clinching whenever he could. But when he was sent to his haunches near the
ropes, it became apparent that he was living on borrowed time against the
rampaging little killer before him. Lavigne chased and harried Walcott all over
the ring in the eighth and ninth rounds, landing some thudding blows over the
limped back to his corner at the end of the ninth round with muscular cramps in
his legs, a condition which often plagued him. His handlers worked on the legs,
but it was apparent to all that Joe required a major recovery and a big rally to
overturn the significant points lead that the charging Lavigne had compiled.
still limping when he came out for the tenth round, and his torment was only
worsened by repeated shots to the jaw that sent him staggering. By the twelfth
session, Joe was doing little more than surviving by calling on the last
reserves of his guile and instinct. The Demon fought with great gameness and
heart, but it was his heart that Lavigne continued to target with vicious and
well placed blows. By now Walcott was in no position to defend himself or fight
back effectively. When he returned wearily to his corner at the end of the
round, Tom O’Rourke told referee Eddie Greaney that the Demon could not go on.
Lavigne’s capacity to absorb punishment was so incredible that it seems almost
mythical to us now, much like the gruesome hardship and deprivation of his
piled up about Lavigne and the evidence of their truth was in the footprints of
spilled blood, bashed bones, clotted noses and misshapen ears that led to his
door. In later years, as we shall see, the Kid spoke most humorously about the
grisly souvenirs he collected and their deceptively positive effect on his
27, 1896, Lavigne defended his lightweight championship against Jack Everhardt
at the Bohemian Sporting Club in New York. It was a fight that might be
described as par for the course in Lavigne’s turbulent and violent career. He
knocked out Everhardt in the twenty-fourth round, but the bare detail of such a
result could never hope to convey the full flesh and bones of a Kid Lavigne
Everhardt was a classy and educated ring mechanic and comprehensively outboxed
Lavigne for much of the way, punishing the Kid badly in the process. Lavigne’s
eyes were partially closed and his face was a swollen mess from all the
attention it received from Jack’s accurate punching. Finally, in typically
heroic fashion, the Kid caught up with Everhardt and knocked him out with a big
blow to the jaw. However, one found it difficult to tell the winner from the
loser. So badly battered was Lavigne that he had to be led from the ring after
The Kid had
already endured another taxing marathon after locking horns with Englishman Dick
Burge at the National Sporting Club in London on June 1, 1896. Lavigne had
gained recognition as the lightweight champion of the world with a dramatic
seventeenth round knockout of Burge, but Dick gave the Kid plenty to remember
Burge was a
conundrum. His brilliant talent was frustratingly offset by a Jekyll and Hyde
personality. James (Jimmy) Butler, the great British boxing reporter, wrote of
Dick: “His superb skill – for he was one of the cleverest boxers at his weight
the world has ever seen – kept Burge in the limelight for many years, yet he
always remained an enigma.
would box with a brilliance that would have won him a world title and sometimes
he would appear as lethargic and dull as any novice. You could never be sure how
he would shape.”
Butler was a fortunate man who enjoyed some wonderful experiences in a golden
age. He never forgot a three-rounds exhibition he saw between Burge and the
legendary Jack McAuliffe in 1914. Burge had been out of the ring for fourteen
years by that time. McAuliffe hadn’t seen action in eighteen years.
still fight? Here is what Mr Butler wrote of their little set-to: “Those three
rounds between Dick Burge and Jack McAuliffe I shall never forget. The details
of so many of the big fights I have witnessed have long faded from my memory,
but the recollection of their marvellous exhibition is still vivid.
“Not for a
fraction of a second did they clinch. They stood toe-to-toe, as upright and
straight as poplars, feinting, leading, hitting, countering and
cross-countering, with a speed and skill that left us open-mouthed in wonder.”
fight with Lavigne, Butler commented: “Burge stepped into the ring a 2 to 1
favourite, but before the bout had progressed far it was evident that his
efforts to make the weight had left him weakened. The old snap and fire were
missing from his punch, and although he put up a desperate and plucky effort to
avoid defeat, it was of no avail.”
At one point
during that torrid battle, Lavigne mistimed one of his rushes at Burge and
charge headlong into a ring post. Typically the Kid regarded this as a minor
inconvenience, another honourable scar to add to his burgeoning collection.
Surgeons: The Kid’s Theory
rarely felt bad about the lumps he took. Very often he was quite grateful for
them. They reinforced his intriguing theory that boxers could be as surgically
gifted as doctors.
Here is what
the Kid had to say about his bloody business: “You hear a lot about injuries
done in the ring, but you have never heard about the counter-irritant one blow
is to another, have you?”
pointed to his left ear, a classic cauliflower job of his era, and continued:
“Look at this ear that I’m carrying. It is a memory of one fight. My old pal Joe
Walcott gave it to me in our first fight and almost at the start of it. Some
people think that Walcott can hit. It got past the imagination place with me
before we boxed one round.
“I knew it
was true the first time he landed. And the first time he put one fair on this
left ear, he sent me back to my corner wondering if I’d ever forget that poke.
That was where I got my ear. In a round or two it puffed up and filled with
blood so that it looked like a raw tomato. It felt worse than it looked. There
was a whole comic opera chorus in my head, singing songs that sounded like the
music you hear in the dentist’s chair just before they wake you up.
have happened if Walcott hadn’t played surgeon for me, no one can tell. But
along in the fourth or fifth round, he brought his glove over on the bad ear,
pulled the heel across it and burst the ear. The songs stopped, the pain went,
the ear shrank and Mr Walcott was stopped in round fifteen.”
‘surgical’ punch certainly had a deceiving effect on some reporters at ringside,
who initially thought they had seen Lavigne’s ear come off. Some time later, The
Kid was no less obliged to Dick Burge for a spot of skilful handiwork.
the English fighter, performed another operation for me. It was the year after
the Walcott affair and Richard attended to my nose. Through being hit on the
bridge in other fights so many times, a little lump had formed. It wasn’t
painful, but it didn’t look pretty and it didn’t help me any in my breathing.
But I didn’t pay much attention to it until Burge and I got well warmed up in
our mill in London.
went seventeen rounds and we hadn’t gone half of that route when Burge came to
me with a straight right on the nose that carried me part way to the sleeping
quarters. No one ever hit me as hard on the nose. I had to guess where my corner
was at the finish and I steered for it by the voice of my handlers. When I
cleared my nose, a thick clot of blood was discharged. That clot must have been
the lump that had been bothering me, and my nose was good as new when I went out
for the next round.
“I beat Burge
and he gave me a present of a straight nose to boot.”
however, played havoc with Lavigne’s nose more than the great but tragically
flawed boxing master, Young Griffo. The two men fought out two draw decisions,
which itself is testament to Lavigne’s class. Hitting the brilliantly gifted
Griffo was akin to trying to hit a ghost, irrespective of whether the alcoholic
Griff was sober (which was rarely) or drunk (which was often). Here was a man
who would keep himself in drinks later in life by spreading a handkerchief on
the floor of his local saloon, placing a foot on one corner and challenging any
man in the bar to punch him off it.
Lavigne’s recollections of the Australian maestro: “He was like a dozen arms. He
threw a hodful of arms at me every time I went after him. I’d start out and
would lead one that looked as if it ought to land and send the Australian over
the ropes. So far as I could see, Griffo never moved. But I didn’t see much, for
as soon as I led and started in, six or eight gloves would land on my nose and
knock my head back so that I was looking at the ceiling.
“He had my
neck in a hinge until the fight was about half gone, when I gave up anything
that seemed like boxing – just rushing wildly and trying to bear him before me.
I couldn’t hurt him much because he was too shifty, but he tired so that he
couldn’t stop to do any boxing himself – and that, when you had him throwing a
lot of gloves at you, was worth something.
way he did, George (Kid) Lavigne was destined to wear down and wear out before
most others. He had been campaigning for just under three years when he lost his
lightweight championship in the blazing and defiant manner that one would have
expected of him.
conqueror was the Swiss-born Frank Erne, a fast and clever ringman, who got his
big chance in his adopted hometown of Buffalo on July 3, 1899. The match took
place at the Hawthorne Athletic Club in the suburb of Cheektowaga, with Erne
capturing a 20-rounds decision in a lively and fast-paced battle. Both boys were
in terrific shape and the Kid started favourite.
fighting was fierce between Erne and Lavigne, the duel was also shot through
with speed and skill from both combatants. In all the rip-roaring stories about
Lavigne, it is sometimes forgotten that the Kid was no slouch for ring
however, it was the Kid’s trademark courage that shone through more than
anything else in his last championship stand. He battled Erne on even terms for
the first six rounds, but things went awry for Lavigne in the seventh when he
ran into a hailstorm and received a bad lacing from Frank. The sound of the gong
probably saved the fading champion from being knocked out in that session.
never quite so effective thereafter, unable to finish Lavigne. This was a puzzle
to many until it was discovered at the fight’s conclusion that Frank had badly
injured his left hand in that seventh round onslaught.
By the final
round, the Kid had been beaten virtually to a standstill by the precise punching
of Erne. Lavigne’s eyes were shut but he continued to chase Frank, even though
Erne’s punches were more plentiful and hurtful.
Lavigne was a natural and wonderful successor to the great Napoleon of the Prize
Ring, Jack McAuliffe. The Kid needed to be colourful and special to follow in
the footsteps of Jack.
ruled the lightweights when John L Sullivan bossed the heavies and Nonpareil
Jack Dempsey held sway over the middleweights. The three men were great friends
and referred to fondly by the American sporting public as the Three American
intelligent, possessed of great humour and loved the good life. His weight would
often be nudging 175lbs when he entered his training camp.
Lavigne carved his own special reputation and did so magnificently. For a great
many years after his career was over, there were many boxing observers who
believed that Lavigne was the greatest of all the lightweights. Interestingly,
as late as 1944, by which time the career of Benny Leonard was done and dusted,
the debate as to who was the all-time lightweight king was not between Benny and
Joe Gans, but between Gans and Lavigne. Joe, the Old Master, got the majority of
votes. But the Kid claimed a healthy share of the poll.
But what of
Jack McAuliffe’s opinion on Kid Lavigne? Here are Jack’s thoughts on the Kid
from 1928: “Natural fighters always have had the better of book-made boxers in
the lightweight division, although Benny Leonard was one of the latter class and
he certainly fought his way up from a club fighter to a worthy champion.
fighter, particularly a hitter, has the advantage. John L Sullivan was a natural
fighter. So was Jack Dempsey. I think Kid Lavigne was the greatest of them all.
I picked him as my successor when I retired undefeated and I made a good
(first) fight with Walcott was one of the classics of the ring. The Saginaw Kid
had courage, stamina and was a natural fighter.”
once fought a gruelling 64-rounds draw with a fighter called Billy Myer, who
carried the nickname of the Streater Cyclone. It is doubtful whether Billy ever
forgot Jack or vice-versa. Billy’s brother and near fighting equal, Eddie Myer,
certainly never forgot Kid Lavigne.
knocked out by the Kid in 1893 after taking a vicious right to the temple. Myer
was still suffering the after-effects of that punch thirty years later. In 1923,
Eddie did a little shiver as he told a reporter: “Often I can feel that blow
now, especially if I catch cold. Then the spot where he hit me gets sore and
aches like fury.
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