Brooklyn’s Finest: Terrible Terry McGovern
By Mike Casey
Here’s a mischievous old story about the featherweight
championship fight between Terry McGovern and Aurelio Herrera in 1901, and I
will give you the flip side of the coin when you reach the other side.
When Herrera entered the ring at the Mechanics Pavilion in San
Francisco, somebody of considerable note was conveniently perched nearby.
Legendary referee Joe Humphreys had travelled out to California
with McGovern and was sitting in a chair behind Aurelio’s corner nattily attired
in boots and a big Stetson. Joe wasted no time in approaching Herrera, all too
eager to dispense some kindly, paternal advice.
“Listen, kid,” Humphreys said, “I’ve bet the works on you and
you’ve got the biggest chance in the world. I’ve been east and seen this guy
McGovern and he ain’t so much. All he’s got is a kick, and if he puts you down
you’ve got to watch yourself when you get up. If he should knock you down, take
your time. Don’t get up in a hurry.
“I’m going to stay right back of your corner and if McGovern
should drop you, you turn and watch me and I’ll wave my hand when it’s time to
get up. Don’t pay any attention to anyone else. I know this bird and I’ll give
you the office. You gotta win and I’ll split 50/50 what I take off these birds.
Remember, now – keep your eye on me.”
Aurelio Herrera nodded his head. “I’ll remember,” he said.
Herrera was a tremendous puncher who had the smarts to go with
his power. Writer Joe Williams memorably described the little destroyer from San
Jose as “… a savage hitter and shrewd as a Shylock.”
Against McGovern, Aurelio stormed into battle, full of
confidence. Terrible Terry, as furious a whirlwind as there ever was in a ring,
found himself being bashed and buffeted by a hurricane. The champion was in all
sorts of trouble as Herrera winged in damaging punches. Repeatedly Terry was
struck by numbing blows to the chin and was dazed and tiring after four rounds
of furious action.
Terry McGovern couldn’t run or play hide and seek. It just wasn’t
in his nature. When he came out for the fifth round, it was with simple
instructions from manager Sam Harris to go hell for leather and knock Herrera
The two fighters engaged like a pair of charging bulls and
McGovern suddenly uncorked a big shot to send Herrera to his knees. Aurelio
needed a friend and he looked to the kindly Joe Humphreys and awaited the
signal. Joe looked back and never removed his hands from his pockets. Herrera
was counted out. His big chance had gone and so too had Mr Humphreys by the time
the puzzled challenger sought him out.
That, folks, is our mischievous story. A story of a classic sting
and a good man wronged. The flip side of the coin? Well, in more candid times
when boxing writers spoke with far greater freedom, Aurelio Herrera was often
referred to as ‘a touch yellow’ when the going got tough against the true major
Whatever the truth of that juicy old chestnut, few ever doubted
that Terry McGovern, from Brooklyn, New York, was a major league hitter of the
There is really no overly fancy way of describing McGovern’s
relentless and intimidating style of fighting. As my fellow historian Tracy
Callis says: “Terry came out swinging at the opening bell. He was aggressive and
attacking in style, a relentless, hard-hitting offensive machine. He wasted no
time in feeling his man out, his main objective being the total destruction of
the other man. He went right to work at taking his man out and was often
compared to Jack Dempsey, the heavyweight champion, in that respect.
“McGovern applied constant pressure as he stalked his man. From
his moderate crouch, he was a terrific head and body puncher. His left hook was
hard and his right was fast and explosive to his opponent’s chin or heart area.
“Like Bob Fitzsimmons, Joe Choynski, Joe Walcott and Stanley
Ketchel, Terry’s explosive punching power far exceeded his size. Some contend he
could be easily outboxed, but he applied so much pressure that even the best of
boxers made mistakes in avoiding him. One false move and it could be over.
“The list of fighters McGovern beat includes Joe Gans, George
Dixon, Frank Erne, Oscar Gardner, Harry Forbes, Casper Leon, Thomas ‘Pedlar’
Palmer, Eddie Santry, Aurelio Herrera, Jimmy Briggs, Tim Callahan, Joe
Bernstein, Sammy Kelly, Tommy Sullivan, Tommy White, Eddie Avery, George Munroe,
Patsy Haley, Austin Rice and Billy Rotchford.
“Among those who recognised the greatness in McGovern were DeWitt
Van Court (boxing instructor of the Los Angeles AC), Charles Mathison (New York
state boxing judge and veteran sportswriter), Biddy Bishop (old-time fighter,
manager and boxing promoter), Bill Duffy (old-time fight manager), boxing
historians Jack Hare and Alexander Johnston, sportswriter Thomas S Rice and Ring
magazine writer, Francis Albertanti.”
There is really nothing that can adequately prepare a fighter for
getting hit by a true hitter. Confidence, positive thinking and hypnosis are
delicate and temporary shields against the dreadful force of shock. We
repeatedly saw emphatic evidence of this fact in the peak career of Mike Tyson,
as bodies were broken and senses were shattered. The vanquished so often looked
as if they had stared into the eyes of Mephistopheles. Watch the expression of
stunned disbelief on the face of Trevor Berbick as his communication cord is
cut. Even as his legs assume a scrambled mind of their own, Berbick still cannot
believe his fate.
Terry McGovern’s power shocked opponents in a similar way. Men of
great experience and sound technical knowledge would come prepared and then be
rendered mindless and clueless by the cold reality. Nat Fleischer, among others,
estimated Terry’s punching power to be equivalent to that of a middleweight.
McGovern, of Irish stock, was a gifted athlete who might have
become similarly famous as a baseball star. He practised regularly with the
major league New York and Brooklyn teams and rejected a number of offers to turn
Born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and raised in Brooklyn, Terry
had been a professional fighter for just over two years when he fought Johnny
Ritchie at the Westchester Athletic Club in New York in the summer of 1899. The
bout was billed for the American bantamweight championship over 25 rounds and
McGovern started only a slight favourite. One crack from his left hook in the
third round concluded matters. Ritchie was out and Terry had begun his
inexorable march to greatness.
Just two months later he was back at the same venue, challenging
England’s Pedlar Palmer for the world bantamweight championship. Now here’s a
little tale about that fight which, though not at all unusual for the era,
certainly has a modern day ring to it. McGovern and Palmer weighed in at five
o’clock in the morning on the eve of the fight, with Terry holding a one-pound
advantage at 116 1/2lbs. By fight time, the guess among writers was that Pedlar
was around 121, while Terry looked nearer 130.
The ring was pitched in the middle of a stockade, with seating to
accommodate a crowd of 10,000. Ticket prices ranged from three to fifteen
dollars and some 9,000 people attended. The distinguished guests included Tom
Sharkey, Bob Fitzsimmons, Kid McCoy, Jim Corbett and the old strong boy himself,
John L Sullivan.
They had come to watch a fight that would last for just two
minutes and thirty-two seconds as Palmer was simply overwhelmed and brutally
swept away. Even McGovern’s supporters hadn’t reckoned that their man could win
in such quick and devastating fashion. Palmer’s superior skill and movement was
simply swamped by Terry’s power and aggression.
Palmer forced the pace, quite clearly confident of his chances as
he shot out the left jab, but he was quickly in trouble from McGovern’s return
fire and constant pressure. It didn’t take Terry long to manoeuvre the battle to
close quarters, where he scored heavily with half-arm punches, favouring a right
to the jaw and a follow-up right to the body. McGovern punched continuously with
both hands in a quick and brutal exhibition of cold power, although he was
forced to take a frustrating time-out before applying the coup de grace.
The boys had been fighting for a minute when the timekeeper
accidentally hit the gong. McGovern and Palmer went to their corners and resumed
fighting after twelve seconds. McGovern scored with a left and a right to the
head, but Palmer countered him. Pedlar went into a crouch and used his left to
try and fend off the oncoming McGovern, but the champion didn’t see the fast and
sudden left hook to the head that sent him tumbling to the canvas.
Palmer was up at ‘four’ but clearly shaken as Terry bulled him to
the ropes and went to work with both hands. McGovern was being too rash in his
attempts to finish the fight, and Palmer’s instinct took over as he ducked and
avoided the follow-up blows with great skill. But Terry kept punching and Pedlar
was forced to crouch and seek refuge in a clinch. As the fighters broke,
McGovern struck Palmer with a hard right over the heart and then cracked a left
hook off his chin. Palmer was badly shaken and began to stagger as Terry saw his
chance to bring down the curtain.
Another big right sent Pedlar crashing to the mat and into a
semi-conscious state. He made a gallant attempt to get to his feet, but McGovern
was already turning to his seconds and raising his arms in victory. Referee
George Siler counted Palmer out and the fallen champion’s handlers rushed into
the ring to escort their man back to his corner.
A scene of mild chaos followed as some of Terry’s supporters
invaded the ring to present their hero with a floral horseshoe, which was
quickly picked apart by voracious souvenir hunters. John L Sullivan then got up
into the ring and called at McGovern to shake Palmer’s hand. Terry duly obliged
and headed for his dressing room. Palmer, having regained his senses, was able
to walk from the ring.
Surprised but overjoyed by the speedy manner of his great
triumph, McGovern told reporters: “I don’t know what to say. It came off much
quicker than I expected. I thought it would certainly go on at least ten rounds
or maybe seventeen, but I had no doubt as to the result. I never felt Palmer hit
me and I’m sure he was unable to touch me with any effect. I am now ready to
meet them as they come, George Dixon first and the rest in their proper order.”
Terry didn’t find himself short of offers. Tom O’Rourke, on
behalf of George Dixon, challenged McGovern at 116lbs for $5,000 a side. The
manager of Oscar (The Omaha Kid) Gardner also pitched in with a challenge to
fight McGovern at any weight from 114lbs up for $10,000 a side.
George Dixon, the brilliant little magician they called Little
Chocolate, went out like the true champion he was at the Broadway Athletic Club
in New York. And it did indeed seem that the slight and ghostly little master
from Canada had been the champion of the world forever.
But Dixon was on the wane, a leopard fast losing its speed and
reflexes, and just about ripe for a rampaging young lion like Terry McGovern. By
the time the hunt was over on the night of January 9, 1900, McGovern was the
proud owner of both the bantamweight and featherweight championships.
Dixon, hustled and punched out of the battle after eight torrid
rounds, had been knocked out of a fight only once before in his illustrious
career, and only then after being cruelly duped by the gloriously named Kentucky
Rosebud, alias Walter Edgerton.
In dethroning the great Dixon, Terry McGovern impressed many
boxing observers, who were quick to point out how rapidly Terry had progressed
into a much cleverer and more cunning fighter. Although favoured to beat Dixon,
the Brooklyn boy knew that he would have a fight on his hands. George’s
preparation for the battle had been long and thorough, including a stay at the
West Baden Springs and three weeks of hard training near Lakewood in New Jersey.
It was noted at the weigh-in that Dixon looked in superb shape,
while McGovern looked tight and drawn. George certainly looked a picture of
confidence in the opening round, as he took the role of the aggressor and
frequently led with left hooks and swings. McGovern, demonstrating his fast
improving ring education, avoided many of these blows by stepping neatly inside
the champion. He attacked Dixon’s body with great vigour, bringing a look of
mild surprise to George’s face. Few men had been able to reach the master’s ribs
Dixon repeatedly found the mark with jarring punches to the head
and jaw, but McGovern took the punishment well and it failed to deter his
aggressive march. Time and again, the stomach and the ribs were Terry’s targets.
George’s task suddenly looked mountainous in the seventh round as McGovern’s
relentless attack and lusty punching began to take effect. Arguably the
watershed of the battle was when Terry nearly broke Dixon’s nose with a right
hand smash. All at once, that one blow seemed to visibly drain the fading
champion. At the gong, blood gushed from the damaged nose as he walked
unsteadily back to his corner.
George made a good recovering and fought back bravely in what
would prove to be the fateful eighth round. But the champion was clearly
unsteady and vulnerable. He slipped to the floor coming out of a clinch and
McGovern earned a round of applause by helping Dixon to his feet. George’s poor
balance and his general bearing were sending out all the right signals to a
hungry hunter of Terry’s ferocity. Dixon slipped a second time after treading on
a wet patch near McGovern’s corner, and the marauding challenger seemed to sense
that his opponent was ready for the kill.
Terry tore into George, flooring him with a volley of lefts and
rights. Dixon took his time getting to his feet and McGovern was poised to
follow up as he hovered just four feet away. A body blow put George down for the
second time and then Terry ran riot as he decked the broken champion a further
six times. Most of the knockdown came from the withering effects of McGovern’s
body assaults. When George gamely arose for the eighth time, manager Tom
O’Rourke threw in the sponge.
Beaten and tired, Dixon spoke little in the aftermath, but said
that he had never faced any fighter greater than McGovern. It was George’s
contention that Terry, in prime condition, would see off any man of his weight
in the world.
McGovern told reporters that he had been confident of ending the
fight before the tenth round, but added that he had never faced a better
opponent than Dixon.
Close, But No
Terry McGovern relished the challenge of overcoming adversity in
much the same way as Stanley Ketchel and Jack Dempsey. The roof doesn’t cave in
for such men when the going gets tough. It blows right off from the force of
On March 9,1900, at the Broadway Athletic Club in New York, Oscar
Gardner must have thought he was on his way to winning the featherweight
championship of the world. Moving well and boxing smartly, Oscar saw his opening
in the first round and floored Terry McGovern with a peach of a left to the jaw.
The world must have seemed a beautiful place for Gardner at that
point in time. Somebody had handed him an impossibly difficult jigsaw and he was
slotting the pieces into place like a born genius. Then Mr McGovern got a tad
angry. Embarrassed by his unusual predicament, he got up and launched one of the
most vicious attacks of his thunderous reign when he came out refreshed for the
He tore into Oscar, flooring him with a left. The torrent of
blows kept coming from McGovern as he decked the dazed and disoriented Gardner
twice more. So fast and hard were the champion’s punches that Oscar could
neither protect himself nor fire back. He showed tremendous pluck in hauling
himself up from the knockdowns, barely beating the count on each occasion. But
Terry had him.
There was no slackening of pace, no lull or measuring process as
McGovern charged in for the kill in the third round. A left hook to the jaw sent
Oscar staggering towards the ropes and a cracking right to the face had him in
complete disarray. A final left hook to the head finished the fight and cemented
Terry McGovern’s place as the world’s premier featherweight. He would knock out
Oscar Gardner for a second time a year later at San Francisco.
The great crash was heard around the world when Terry McGovern’s
star sensationally fell out of the sky. Terry’s reign as featherweight champion
was just two months short of two years when Young Corbett II registered that
stunning second round knockout of McGovern that still makes us blink when we see
it in the record book.
Was Terry’s star of the shooting variety? Some posed the question
then and some pose it today. Well, here was a man who had engaged in 63 recorded
battles going into the Corbett fight, battles that had been waged in one of the
toughest and most unforgiving eras boxing ever saw.
If McGovern were meeting Corbett at the MGM Grand next week,
would we not be questioning Terry’s wisdom in taking a possible fight too many?
Sixty-three fights! Dear, oh dear, we would likely be describing him as
battle-worn, battle-scarred, and in total denial.
I think the simple story of the Corbett fight was that Terry
McGovern ran into the one man who would always beat him. Some of us wander
pleasantly through life without ever meeting that certain person who can whip us
at everything. Others aren’t so fortunate. It is equally important to remember
that Corbett was a tough, tenacious, canny fighter who would feature highly in
the all-time featherweight rankings for many years afterwards. Billy Rothwell,
as was his given name, was also fearless; a priceless quality against McGovern,
whose reputation as a destroyer could shred opponents mentally as well as
For all that, McGovern’s fall from his seemingly sturdy pedestal
was indeed a mighty shock. ‘TERRY McGOVERN MEETS HIS MASTER’, blared one
headline. The fight at the Nutmeg Athletic Club in Hartford was over after just
one minute and forty-four seconds of ferocious fighting. McGovern was outfought
and out-thought by a man of similar steel and power.
Corbett, fighting out of Denver, was almost perfect in the way he
executed his victory. The sense of disappointment felt by the New York fans who
had travelled up to Hartford was compared to the grief felt when John L Sullivan
met his Waterloo at the fast hands of another Corbett, the great James J.
McGovern looked superbly fit, but he couldn’t match Young
Corbett’s speed. The first round, fought at a breakneck pace, was an earlier
version of that unforgettable opening session between Marvin Hagler and Thomas
Hearns. Terry and Corbett lashed at each other with a fury, both looking as
though they might fall at any moment. It was clear, however, that Corbett’s work
was more controlled and that McGovern was putting himself peril. Terry was
placing all his faith in his big left hook and leaving himself worryingly open
for damaging counter punches.
Corbett was far more composed and seemed to have an answer for
everything McGovern did. But Terry kept charging in and ripping away, as if
believing he were invincible. Then it happened. Corbett cracked a hard right to
the jaw that sent McGovern crashing onto his back. The crowd gasped and could
scarcely believe what it was seeing. Terry’s admirable powers of recuperation
helped him to his feet at the count of seven, but suddenly he seemed vulnerable
and drained of strength.
He survived the round cleverly by hustling and punching his way
back into the fray, but Corbett’s accurate countering now bore an ominous look.
When McGovern got back to his corner, he told his handlers, “That’s the toughest
guy I ever met, but I’ll lick him just as soon as I see an opening.”
It was not to be. Corbett had Terry’s number now and the
knockout was not long in coming in the second round. Fighting on the defensive,
Corbett checked McGovern’s charges with accurately placed left jabs and then
floored him with a left uppercut. Not accustomed to such treatment, Terry
fatally lost his temper at that point. The red mist descended and all he could
do was play into Corbett’s hands by rushing in recklessly.
However, it was a gloriously defiant attack on McGovern’s part,
which brought new heart to his supporters. Incredibly, the fight was still in
the balance, but then Terry made his biggest error. Corbett feinted and threw a
grazing right as McGovern sidestepped. It didn’t seem a greatly significant
moment, but then Corbett feinted again during a vicious exchange and nailed
Terry with another right – the knockout punch!
McGovern tried gamely to beat the count as his disbelieving
supporters cried at him to get up. He didn’t make it.
A happy Corbett told reporters: “I was sure I could beat McGovern
and my opinion was based on what I had seen and heard of him. I felt that I had
him from the first punch, but I was cool-headed all the way through. When I
began to sting him he lost his head, and when he lost his head it was all over.
I had him right there, and with a right swinging uppercut I landed the blow
which won the battle.”
McGovern was philosophical in the aftermath. “Well, you can’t
tell how things can be accounted for. I hope to make another match with Corbett
and I am more than confident that he will not be able to put it over me again.”
Corbett did put it over McGovern again. In March, 1903, he
knocked out Terry in eleven rounds at San Francisco.
There is, of course, another massive entry on the record of Terry
McGovern, that of fellow legend Joe Gans. On December 13, 1900, McGovern
apparently knocked out Gans in two rounds at Malachi Hogan’s Saloon in Chicago.
I won’t venture into great detail about this unfortunate chapter
in boxing, since it is currently a mighty subject all of its own in the form of
a feisty thread in our Old Timers section. Many will tell you the knockout was
legitimate. Many others will violently disagree. The simple facts are that Joe
Gans, one of the greatest defensive wizards of all time, was knocked down seven
times in a highly odious affair that chased boxing out of Illinois for nearly
thirty years. Joe looked almost thespian-like at times, though certainly no
After the fight, Joe told a Chicago Times-Herald reporter, “The
better man won. I did not ‘lay down’. I was hit hard early in the fight and that
seemed to take the wind out of me. I don’t think there is anyone who can stand
up to McGovern at the lightweight limit.”
Yet Al Goldstein, of the Baltimore Sun, later wrote: “Only a
month before, the battlers had staged a ‘friendly’ unrecorded fight at Poth’s
Roadhouse in Westchester, NY, and Gans, according to observers, had given the
harassed Brooklyn brawler a four-round boxing lesson.”
Well, folks, maybe and maybe not. For what my opinion is worth, I
believe that a prime Joe Gans, trying his utmost, would have seen off Terry
McGovern or any other man of similar poundage, past or present.
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