The Chicago Stockyards: Packey McFarland
By Mike Casey
He lost just once in well over a hundred professional fights,
that single blot on his magnificent record occurring when he was just a
sixteen-year old novice.
His defence at its best was virtually impregnable, he boxed with
sublime skill and speed and carried a formidable knockout wallop when the
occasion demanded urgency. Quite simply, he was one of the greatest and most
complete boxing masters of all time.
Packey McFarland, the fistic genius from the stockyards of
Chicago, the lightweight who was never truly a lightweight, never won an
official world title. He didn’t have the constant menace and aura of Joe Gans,
nor the obvious majesty and magnetism of Benny Leonard. McFarland didn’t even
have a weight class he could truly call his own. In the stark and tougher days
of eight divisions, he skipped and hovered between the lightweights and
welterweights, compensating for his status of misfit by beating a golden
generation of fighters from both divisions.
Those who saw McFarland in action never forgot him. Huge crowds
marvelled at the hard-hitting, ghost-like maestro who possessed the visual
tricks and elusiveness of a shadow. Boxing journalist tapping out their reports
for the morning editions couldn’t find enough superlatives with which to shower
When McFarland exploded onto the world stage at the Mission
Street Arena in Colma, California, in the spring of 1908, he was hailed as a
boxing wizard without a discernible fault. Former lightweight champion Jimmy
Britt was scientifically bewildered and battered to a sixth round knockout
defeat and everyone was talking excitedly about the new kid on the block.
Ringside reporter Eddie Smith wrote of Packey: “McFarland is
everything, a hitter, a boxer, a good general and wonderfully clever and fast.”
What a pity, then, that Packey constantly had to wage separate
battles to make the old lightweight limit of 133lbs. He was always nearer 135lbs
in his younger days and his title chances were frustrated as a result. Three
times he was meant to challenge Ad Wolgast. Three times the proposed fight fell
through because of McFarland’s weight difficulties.
But how the kid from Chicago made his mark in spite of it all!
His clever and quietly brutal dismantling of the artful Britt was a revelation
to West Coast fans who had read of Packey’s exploits in the Eastern press.
Britt was apparently wrestling with weight problems of his own at
the Mission Street Arena. Jimmy looked drained and uncharacteristically subdued
when the two fighters came to mid-ring for their instructions. It was normally
Jimmy’s manner to stand tall and stare into the eyes of his opponent, but now
the dapper little San Franciscan was shaking hands with McFarland with a weary
air. When the photographers asked the fighters for another pose, Britt dropped
his hands and shuffled irritably.
Britt’s lethargy shocked reporter Eddie Smith, who noted: “In the
former days, he would have grasped the hand of that opponent and tried to jerk
it out of its socket.”
What followed from McFarland, however, was a master class of
box-fighting in any circumstances. Jimmy Britt fought with terrific courage but
simply couldn’t handle the natural brilliance coming back at him. Jimmy’s
sluggish pre-fight demeanour gave no hint of the fast and enthusiastic start he
made to the contest. He dashed from his corner at the opening gong, slipping
into his familiar crouch and feinting for an opening. He would discover that
openings in Packey McFarland’s defence occurred with depressing rarity. When the
fighters came to close quarters for the first time, McFarland quickly
demonstrated his superior strength and speed of thought with a right hand smash
to the body as they broke from a clinch.
Packey’s clever footwork was quite exemplary as he frequently
made Britt miss by wide margins. Jimmy stumbled to the floor after missing by a
good foot with a left swing. His work was far too urgent and intense, his fiery
aggression denying him the necessary time he needed to assess and measure
McFarland’s capability. Jimmy did have some success with several hard lefts to
the body, but Packey was jabbing and moving around him beautifully.
McFarland was giving the crowd only a foretaste of what was to
come, for it was quite obvious that he was not yet showing his full hand. From
the second round, like a teasing magician, he began to reveal his most
impressive tricks. While Britt was still able to score to the body with his
left, most of his leads and counters were being blocked with great skill by the
young master from Chicago. By the end of the round, Packey was doing all the
leading and out-muscling Jimmy in the clinches.
Britt’s goose was more or less cooked at that early stage. He
simply couldn’t match McFarland for strength or skill. Packey’s seconds told him
to work Jimmy’s body in the third round as the breaking down process gathered
momentum and force. McFarland glided in and out like a man on castors during his
rapid and skilful raids, sometimes making Britt look inept. When Jimmy finally
hit the mark with a right to the head, Packey seemed momentarily disturbed. In
fact he was inspired.
He fired back, taking complete control of the fight and forcing
Britt to employ some clever ducking and blocking to temper the backlash.
Suddenly Jimmy couldn’t keep his assailant out and was punched all around the
ring as McFarland stepped up another gear. Brave Britt managed to summon a brief
rally, but he looked a distinctly dispirited man at the bell.
It was all or nothing for Jimmy from that point on. He knew that
he had encountered a superior talent in all-round skill and that only a knockout
would save the day. He tried gamely to find the big punch, but his greater
daring and its accompanying recklessness only sucked him into further trouble.
Packey smothered Britt’s best efforts and very nearly decked him with a right to
the jaw. Jimmy was being struck repeatedly by his opponent’s hard and accurate
jabs and was being taken apart in the clinches. Then Britt was heard to groan as
he took a hard right hook to the body inside. As he stumbled back uncertainly,
McFarland pursued him and floored him with a right cross to the jaw. Jimmy
looked all through, but the bell saved him and he showed his courage in the
fifth round as he bought himself some extra time with a final attack. But even
as he tried to find the one big shot that would turn his fortunes around, he was
being smothered and shaken by short, jolting blows.
The gutsy little San Franciscan, a plumber by trade, still looked
surprisingly strong as he came up for the sixth round, but no longer was he able
to land a significant blow on his evasive tormentor. Coming out of a clinch,
Britt had the last of his fighting spirit knocked out of him with a big shot to
the jaw. McFarland went for the kill and scuttled Jimmy with a beautifully timed
right cross. There was no hiding place for Britt when he struggled to his feet,
another blow to the jaw sending him to the deck again. When a final right to the
jaw crumpled him for the third time, one special man in the crowd had seen
Jimmy’s grey-haired father clambered into the ring and pushed
Packey back, signalling that the Britt family was through for the day. McFarland
was overjoyed at his victory, running and jumping around the ring until his
seconds calmed him and took him back to his corner.
The maestro from Chicago would paint many more masterpieces in
the years ahead.
The lightweight division, historically rich in boxers of great
skill and guile, was a particular hotbed of versatile talent in Packey
McFarland’s era. Packey was a bright jewel in a golden crown, but he one of
several genuine masters who tracked and followed each other’s movements through
the competitive jungle.
When McFarland won a ten-rounds decision over Freddie Welsh, the
artful wizard from Wales, at the Badger Athletic Club in Milwaukee in February
1908, so began a keen rivalry that spanned three fights of immense skill and
clever hitting. Five months later, the shining talents would wage a draw in Los
Angeles, but it was their final meeting in the hushed environs of the National
Sporting Club in London that would prove the most controversial and intriguing.
By that time, Packey had made an adjustment to his technique to
prolong his career and better equip him for the long haul. He was thought to be
boxing with only a half-clenched fist, sacrificing his impressive knockout ratio
in return for less stress and greater stamina. The bad news for his opponents
was there was no discernible difference in McFarland’s exceptional talent for
hitting without getting hit.
It was quiet at the National Sporting Club when Packey stepped
out in his bid to establish beyond dispute his supremacy over Freddie Welsh.
Deathly quiet as it always was. For the hallowed NSC was like no other boxing
venue in the world. One didn’t shout or cheer within its somewhat intimidating
walls. One certainly didn’t yell, “Come on Freddie, my boy” or the like. By
Jove, sir, it just wasn’t the thing to do! The rules of the house stipulated
that the rounds be fought in silence, with only restrained applause in the form
of gentle hand claps during the intervals. A golfer hunched over a two-foot putt
at the Royal & Ancient would have felt no less at home at the NSC.
Imagine the horror of the patrons, therefore, when a cultured
riot – if there can be such a thing – broke out at the conclusion of hostilities
between Mr McFarland and Mr Welsh. Verbal protests pierced the air, fists and
walking canes were waved and nice suits were creased as the members reacted in
disbelief at the draw decision rendered by referee Tom Scott.
McFarland won the fight. There was no doubt about it. Poor
Freddie Welsh, the entirely innocent recipient of a lucky break, knew better
than to give his fellow Brits a cheery wave. Nothing offends them more than the
desecration of fair play.
The sympathy of the throng was entirely with the majestic
McFarland, who, it is probably fair to say, wanted to win that night more than
at any other time in a brilliant career bereft of official gold medals. The
contest was for British recognition as lightweight champion of the world, the
nearest Packey ever got to championship glory.
He was ready for the challenge too, in every way. Even his weight
was right, after much hard work and sweat to get inside the lightweight limit.
James (Jimmy) Butler, one of the greatest and most impartial of
boxing writers, said of the American ace: “Packey, who had sweated in heavy
turtle-neck jerseys throughout his training in order to make certain of his
weight, immediately celebrated by gulping down a quart of egg and sherry mixture
which Jimmy Britt held ready for him.
“Of his fitness, there was no doubt. Nowhere on his slim, wiry
body was there so much as an ounce of superfluous flesh, and if Welsh’s rugged
physique was the more impressive, there was something equally menacing in the
easy grace and speed with which the American moved.”
McFarland was simply wonderful in a captivating, 20-rounds duel
of sublime skill and cunning. He was known now as the prince of stylists and
didn’t disappoint his eager and intrigued audience against the canny and
The biggest surprise was Packey’s fast and vicious start, which
clearly caught Freddie napping. Lefts and rights from the American, thrown with
marvellous accuracy, penetrated Welsh’s guard and drove him to the ropes. The
contrast in styles was no less fascinating than the contest itself. Where
Packy’s defence was of a pure and classic nature, Welsh’s craftily constructed
bunker was a constantly moving myriad of components. He bobbed, he weaved, he
slipped and feinted. He was an excellent blocker, as were so many of the
thoroughly schooled fighters of the time.
Freddie quickly learned, however, that out-witting McFarland
require the agile and forward thinking mind of a chess master. One of Welsh’s
little mannerisms in his pomp was to wear a quietly withering little smile to
signal his belief that he could not be taken. Not on this occasion. He was far
too busy trying to avoid Packey’s stinging jabs and thumping rights to the ribs.
Always, it seemed, McFarland could find a way through the Welsh Wizard’s
The pattern continued, resulting in a big shift in the odds.
Freddie had started as the favourite, but Packey was the 2 to 1 choice of the
bookies by the close of the second round.
Welsh clearly needed to be more adventurous and try something
new. But what, if anything, could derail McFarland when he was in such imperious
form? How Freddie must have raged inside when his big gambit in the sixth round
reaped no dividends. He thought he saw the opening he had been searching for so
patiently, putting all his speed and expertise into a mighty right uppercut that
whistled in the direction of Packey’s chin. The blow fell short by a good six
inches. Few in the crowd saw McFarland move, yet he had evaded the punch with
the deftest manoeuvre of his head. Then, almost outrageously, he did it again.
Welsh followed up with a left, only to suffer similar embarrassment. One can
only imagine how humbled Freddie must have felt. It was akin to Jack Nicklaus
scuffing one of his famous drives ten feet through the grass.
What made McFarland such a wonderfully complete fighter was that
he was no backtracking will ‘o’ the wisp. The subtlest of defensive moves always
combined seamlessly with equally intelligent and cultured attacks.
He was all over Welsh one minute and then standing back teasingly
out of range the next. Packey seemed to want the points victory. In his own
mind, that would represent the most forceful confirmation of his superiority.
Through no fault of his own, this would prove to be his only tactical error.
Freddie, to his great credit, never gave up the chase. A Welsh
lad in name and country he might well have been, but his rounded and normally
excellent game had been honed in the furnace of the American school. He finally
came on in the late rounds, enjoying a greater degree of success with some
vicious half-arm hooks to McFarland’s ribs and kidneys. The American ghost
finally seemed to grow flesh and bones as Welsh cut his mouth and left eye with
punches that still packed plenty of steam.
For Freddie, however, the late surge wasn’t nearly enough – or
shouldn’t have been. Referee Scott’s amazing draw verdict was a cruel defacement
of McFarland’s work of art, yet therein lay another sad tale. Within a few short
months, Scott was admitted to a mental institution where he very quickly died.
There was every reason to believe that his mind had been ravaged and unbalanced
for some time.
McFarland never once mentioned the fight when he met up with his
old reporter friend Jimmy Butler some time later. Perhaps that was
understandable bitterness on Packey’s part. Perhaps it was just another touch of
Mike Gibbons, the wonderful St Paul Phantom, was something of a
spiritual brother of Packey McFarland. Mike, on his best day, was as hard to hit
as McFarland or any other man in the game. But that wasn’t the only similarity.
Gibbons too, would never win a world championship, nor even challenge for that
The older brother of light-heavyweight Tommy Gibbons, Mike was a
shining star of the middleweight and welterweight classes, beating the cream of
his era. Among others, he duelled with Jeff Smith, Jimmy Clabby, Eddie McGoorty,
Harry Greb, Ted (Kid) Lewis and Jack Dillon. But all Mike ever got for his
endeavours was a scantly recognised claim to the middleweight title.
When Gibbons clashed with McFarland at the Brighton Beach
Motordome in Brooklyn on September 11, 1915, some 60,000 fans saw a face-off
between the two great untouchables of the game. It was to be Packey’s last fight
and his last great performance.
He was coming out of semi-retirement after nearly two years of
inactivity, and Gibbons was some opponent for a comeback fight. McFarland
however, much like Gene Tunney a little later on, always seemed protected by a
ring of destiny in those great years of his prime. Packey and Gene possessed
precise and lively minds and were among the best ever at formulating and
re-shaping a game plan. Nothing, they believed, was meant to knock them off
their chosen path. When something did, they genuinely couldn’t believe it. It is
said that McFarland, jealously proud of his defensive magic, brooded for days
after getting a black eye from Kid Burns in their New York set-to.
Packey was still lean and strong at 153lbs for his classic
fencing duel with Gibbons, who scaled the same weight. One could understand how
getting down to 133lbs, even as a younger man, had always been such a hugely
taxing experience for McFarland.
The Brighton Beach Motordome was some place to go to watch a
fight. Thirty thousand seats had already been filled by the time of the first
preliminary bout at 8.30pm, the endless throngs of spectators being played into
their seats by a 32-piece band and assisted by 300 smartly attired ushers.
McFarland entered the ring at three minutes paste ten, followed
by Gibbons who paced around testing the boards. Both fighters looked superbly
fit and deadly serious, although Packey did afford himself a little grin when
ring announcer Joe Humphries announced him as, ‘The Fighting Chicago Irishman’.
The frantic clicking of cameras could be heard all around, while movie cameras
and other machines were positioned on a high platform fifteen feet from the
Nothing could separate the two defensive masters for the first
eight rounds, as they feinted, shifted and bluffed like a couple of wary snakes.
Referee Billy Job was barely noticeable as all eyes were fixed on two of the
great ring scientists and their clever efforts to concoct the winning formula.
Each was occasionally made to look foolish by the other’s brilliance, but it was
McFarland who was the calmer and more measured battler. He would often smile at
friends in the crowd over Mike’s shoulder, conveying the impression of a man
taking a pleasant stroll in the park.
Mike was much more earnest, baring his teeth and often showing
his frustration as he attempted to hit something apart from Packey’s gloves.
Come the ninth round, McFarland commenced his sprint for home. Gibbons enjoyed
an early success as he feinted with the left and then struck Packey with a hard
right to the jaw. But McFarland rallied to get the better of a heated mid-ring
exchange, landing a left-right combination without return. Packey tucked up and
protected himself beautifully as Mike tried to counter.
In the final round, Gibbons had the bearing of a man who knew he
had to force the fight to win it. He tried all he knew to pierce the famous
McFarland defence, but it was the Chicago ghost who was doing the cleaner
scoring. Gibbons took three lefts to the face without return and was also being
punished to the ribs. McFarland was anticipating Mike’s return fire and
staggered the St Paul man with yet another left.
At the final bell, it seemed to many that the mesmerising
McFarland had done enough to secure victory. He certainly had plenty of
supporters. George Holmes of the Oakland Tribune, called the bout for Packey,
describing the Chicago man’s performance as ‘wonderful’. Many others disagreed,
including the Associated Press, which tabbed the fight 7-2-1 for Gibbons. The
New York Times and referee Billy Job called it a draw, which is how the contest
is most often recorded today.
Who really won the fight? Who knows? For this was the indecisive
and muddled era of the no-decision, where the newspapers and anyone else with an
opinion pitched in their two cents worth.
For Packey McFarland and that intelligent and voracious mind that
ticked away inside his head, there were other fields to move on to and conquer.
One somehow knew that Packey would prosper at whatever he chose to do. Settling
in the Chicago town of Joliet in his retirement, he became a very wealthy man in
the contracting and brewing business and served for a time as director of the
Joliet National Bank.
He left a few other special men in his wake. One wonders if a
fighter called Dusty Miller had even an inkling of what he truly achieved way
back in 1904. For it was Miller who knocked out the sixteen-year old McFarland.
Thereafter, the only men to knock Packey off his feet were Ray Bronson in New
Orleans and Cyclone Johnny Thompson in Kansas City.
McFarland at his best probably came as close as any fighter ever
did to making himself invisible. How cruelly ironic that an invisible opponent
finally penetrated his guard and killed him. In September 1936, while serving as
a member of the Illinois State Athletic Commission, forty-eight year old Packey
slipped into a fatal coma from an infection near the heart.
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