The Emerald of New York City
By Mike Casey
I wanted to write this one for an occasional and esteemed friend
out of Riverside, California. Those of you who know your boxing characters will
know the same of Bill O’Neill, who has been involved in the game for a great
many years and served with distinction as a Hall of Fame president.
Ol’ Billie, to give him his pen name, writes to me occasionally
about the many fighters he has known, always with the same delightfully dry wit.
He makes the occasional self-effacing joke about his advancing years and lack of
computer literacy, whilst craftily manoeuvring his way around the keyboard with
deceptive dexterity. He still loves the fight game and keeps abreast of the
latest developments with the help of his many friends, including former
lightweight champ, Mando Ramos.
Bill tells me stories about the great fighters and characters,
such as Jack ‘Deacon’ Hurley, Henry Armstrong, Billy Conn and Rocky Marciano. A
favourite of mine about the great Hurley was the spot of comic relief he got
after his boy Harry Matthews had been devastated in two rounds by Marciano. The
Deacon called Harry’s wife for her take on the fight and found her to be
considerably more upbeat than he had expected. Mrs Matthews, who wasn’t greatly
familiar with the finer points of boxing, reasoned that the fight had been a
draw because Harry had won the first round and Rocky had won the second.
However, if there was one fighter who held a special place in
Bill O’Neill’s heart, it was his lifelong friend, Jimmy McLarnin, who started
out as a scrawny 108-pounder at the age of sixteen, worked all the way up to the
welterweight championship of the world and only took his last breath two years
ago at the age of ninety-six. They called Jimmy the Belfast Spider.
When the Great Depression came along, so did McLarnin, a fiery
little one-man tonic for a generation of crushed souls who so desperately needed
their spirits lifting. He drew enormous crowds to his fights, mostly poor
Irish-Americans who would willingly save up their few pennies to watch the
exciting, clean-cut kid who also carried the name of Baby Face.
Jimmy’s pulling power did wonders for his wages, since promoters
knew better than to haggle or dispute the mantra of McLarnin’s shrewd manager,
Pop Foster. “James is on the card,” Pop would tell them, “and he’s got to be
‘Dynamic’ is so often the word used to describe Jimmy McLarnin’s
fighting style. It is an adequate word, if only because of the sheer pace at
which he fought. But it doesn’t do Jimmy justice for being a cunning and skilful
ring operator as well as a ferocious attacker and hustler.
His great rival Barney Ross, with whom McLarnin locked horns in
three classic duels, was probably more familiar than most with Jimmy’s often
understated versatility and ring guile.
“McLarnin tried to end every fight in the very first round if he
could,” Barney explained. “He’d come out winging at the bell, aiming at a quick
knockout. But if he didn’t connect in an early round, he’d settle back and make
a boxing contest out of it, with a lot of feinting, moving and countering. He’d
try to make you over confident, that maybe it wasn’t so tough being in with him
after all. But don’t get careless, because that was what he’d be waiting for.
You see, he’d always have that big punch back there, waiting to explode it at
the first sign of a letdown. With him, you were in danger every minute and you
could never afford to relax for a second.”
McLarnin held New York City in the palm of his hand, racking up
some astonishing attendance figures for his many thrilling fights. His debut
there in February 1928 couldn’t have been more spectacular, defining and sealing
his popularity with his new legion of supporters. Jimmy knocked out the skilful
and fast moving Sid Terris with a right hand blast to the jaw and was carried
back to his dressing room on the shoulders of those who rushed to acclaim him.
The word quickly spread about McLarnin and the gates soared
accordingly. He pulled in 18,000 to watch the Terris knockout, and his
attendance figures thereafter were consistently staggering. In 1929 alone,
combined crowds of nearly 80,000 came to pay homage to their boy in his fights
with Ray Miller and Ruby Goldstein and in his two encounters with Joe Glick.
Jimmy’s victory over Goldstein in December was just two months after the Wall
Street crash, yet the fight was attended by 19,541 people paying $87,760.
McLarnin wasn’t even a world champion yet, but he had already
come a long way from his poor and humble roots. Those roots when back to
Hillsborough in Northern Ireland, but it was in Canada where Jimmy grew up. He
was just a six-year old when his folks moved across the great pond to Vancouver
and he was getting into scraps from an early age. He was ten when he picked up
his first official purse of one dollar, spraining his thumbs for his troubles
because he didn’t know how to punch properly.
McLarnin was still only thirteen when he met Pop Foster, one of
the shrewdest fight managers the game ever saw. To Jimmy, Pop would also prove
to be one of the most compassionate and generous of men. Foster and McLarnin’s
father built a gymnasium for their promising youngster and the great education
of Jimmy McLarnin began.
Pop Foster knew his boxing technique inside out and impressed
upon Jimmy the importance of ring science. He never discouraged his feisty
protégé’s love of having a good old fashioned fight, but cleverly re-shaped
McLarnin’s style to incorporate skills and smarts. Pop taught Jimmy to develop
speed and a good eye, working him out at a testing but sensible pace like a
young racehorse. It was tough and uncompromising work, but McLarnin committed
himself to the effort and was always eager to become the complete fighter. In
later years, Jimmy enjoyed telling people that he already had a hundred thousand
dollars in his bank account by the time he was nineteen.
As a professional novice, Jimmy didn’t just face the challenge of
becoming a more rounded fighter. He had another problem. He needed to beef up.
So slight was the innocent looking youngster that even the hardy characters of
the fight game were scared of employing him.
He told writer Peter Heller: “I lied about my age when I first
started. When I came to California I said I was eighteen. I was really sixteen.
I don’t like lying, but this was a matter of survival, because we were really
awfully hungry. When I was came to California, I was very small – four feet
eleven – and weighed 108lbs. We couldn’t get a fight because I looked so young.
I was around San Francisco for something like three months before I ever could
get a fight. It was really tough going. I was away from home, homesick. We
lived in a little place that cost us seven dollars a month and it was a
broken-down place. I had no friends or anything. It was tough. That’s where I
first started in the United States.
“When I fought Fidel LaBarba he was a flyweight and I was a
bantamweight. I was sixteen years old at the time. Fidel was rough. He was one
of the best left hookers. He was strong and I could move good. I was a good
boxer. I had a long reach, so I used it. I kept jabbing and running, jabbing and
running. And I really ran, I don’t mind telling you, because it’s a very silly
pair of feet that stay around and let your face get punched. So I kept moving
and kept my left jab right in his face. He had a great left hook to the stomach.
Oh boy, he hit me a few times and I thought all my teeth were being pulled out.
He was a puncher.”
What boggles the mind about McLarnin’s 68-fight record is the
astonishing quality of the men he fought and beat. No less than thirteen were
world champions at some point in their own careers. Even in the formative stages
of his ring education, Jimmy was duelling with true aces of different weight
divisions who knew all the moves, such as Bud Taylor and the remarkable Memphis
Pal Moore. The formidable Filipino whirlwind, Pancho Villa, was flyweight
champion of the world when McLarnin took a decision off him in 1925. Villa had
stormed to the championship with his famous victory over the great Jimmy Wilde,
but Pancho was outsmarted by the young Jimmy.
McLarnin always sportingly admitted that Villa might have
underestimated him and greatly admired his relentless opponent’s fighting
talents. Jimmy was able to pile up points by keeping Pancho at a distance for
most of the fight but still suffered for his efforts. Such was Villa’s ferocity
on the inside, McLarnin’s ears were blackened by the little man’s vicious head
The Belfast Spider steadily began to swell his impressive ledger.
Two fights later, he blitzed future welterweight champion Jackie Fields in two
rounds at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, knocking Jackie down four
Jimmy’s knockout of Louis (Kid) Kaplan at the Chicago Coliseum in
1927 was a see-saw thriller, in which McLarnin learned a lot about his own
resolve and resilience. Knocked down in the first and second rounds, Jimmy
roared back to deck the Kid in the fourth and fifth before knocking him out in
the eighth. Getting floored was a new experience for Jimmy, but he proved he was
made of the right stuff. Kaplan tired as wise old Pop Foster worked his magic in
the corner and calmly guided Jimmy through the stormy waters. Foster told
McLarnin when Kaplan was ready to be taken and Jimmy took him.
Jimmy wasn’t yet the finished article. When he challenged Sammy
Mandell for the world lightweight crown at the Polo Grounds in 1928, the Irish
lad ran into a boxing master who beat him convincingly over fifteen rounds. “He
gave me a beautiful boxing lesson,” McLarnin would admit.
Jimmy was an outstanding lightweight, but the strain of making
the poundage was beginning to tell on him. It was at welterweight that he would
be in his true element and wage some of his most thrilling contests against
genuine fellow greats of the ring.
He sucked up the Mandell defeat, bested Sammy in two subsequent
meetings and rolled on to greater things. Courageous to the core, McLarnin
decisioned Young Jack Thompson at Madison Square Garden in 1930 despite
suffering a broken hand in the first round.
People still write stories about Jimmy’s unforgettable trilogy
with the barn-burning warrior known as the Fargo Express, Billy Petrolle.
Non-stop Billy was never a world champion in his vastly more competitive era,
but was a glorious fighting man who troubled everyone he fought and seemed
incapable of having a dull fight. Coming into his first match with McLarnin, the
sprawling record of the Fargo Express stood at a mighty 99-17-12.
Billy gave Jimmy a rude shock at Madison Square Garden, twice
decking him for nine counts in the fourth round in chugging to an upset points
victory. McLarnin was believed to have injured his right hand in the second
round of that torrid war and certainly used it sparingly for the duration of the
But Jimmy got his revenge. The New York fans were treated to two
more feasts from McLarnin and Petrolle over the following nine months, Jimmy
winning both and regaining his berth as one of the world’s greatest
It was McLarnin’s ability to read the game of boxing and
recognise its many technical subtleties that made him such an exceptional little
battler. Pop Foster was always telling him to watch out for this and that, and
Jimmy learned to adapt his own style to different requirements. He learned a lot
when he stopped a fat old man called Benny Leonard in 1932. The bloated, fading
impersonation of the once fabulous Ghetto Wizard, who is still regarded by a
many experts as the all-time king of the lightweights, was still good enough to
box most men’s ears off and hit them with sledgehammer force to keep them sweet.
McLarnin could see Benny’s greatness and noticed how the old maestro could
capitalise on any weakness he spotted in his opponent. Jimmy was grateful for
the win and could only imagine how much greater Leonard had been as a peerless
McLarnin was close to the big bauble and he went to Wrigley Field
in Los Angeles to collect. Yet still it was regarded as a major upset when he
tore the welterweight crown from the great Young Corbett III in one sensational
round, courtesy of one booming right. The oft-forgotten Corbett would lose just
twelve times in his 157-fight career and was far from finished after McLarnin
dropped the bomb on him, going on to scalp the likes of Billy Conn, Fred
Apostoli, Mickey Walker and Gus Lesnevich.
Jimmy McLarnin, the adopted Emerald of New York City, was on top
of the world. It was the spring of 1933 and he would cross swords with only one
man over the next two years in a pulsating three-fight saga that would thrill
New Yorkers and captivate the entire boxing world. He was about to do business
with Beryl Rosofsky. Beryl, of course, always sounded much fiercer as Barney
To this day, they stick together like a more primitive version of
Laurel and Hardy in the minds and hearts of historians. McLarnin and Ross, Ross
and McLarnin. Any way you roll it off the tongue, it sounds smooth and warmly
familiar. Look at various lists of the all-time great welterweights, and Jimmy
and Barney are still locked together in similarly lofty positions. So they
The two little titans drew 60,000 people into Madison Square
Garden for their opening epic, when Barney took Jimmy’s title. McLarnin regained
it in the second chapter, but Ross finished on top in their final set-to at the
Polo Grounds in 1935.
These are the bare facts. But all three fights went to the wire
and all three were desperately close, despite the often ridiculously wide
scoring of the officials. After each memorable saga, opinion was sharply divided
on which man had truly won. When Ross won the third battle, ringside observer
Gene Tunney was aghast, offering the opinion that McLarnin had won thirteen of
the fifteen rounds at least.
Jimmy was typically philosophical and took it all with good
sportsmanship and grace. He never was one to rage and rant when he felt that
life had dealt him a bad hand. He recognised Barney as an excellent fighter and
he was quite correct in that summation. Ross couldn’t hit like Jimmy, but his
skills could very often make an opponent look inadequate.
Everybody wanted a fourth fight between the two wonderful
magicians, especially the enthralled Irish and Jewish communities of New York.
Jimmy kept busy in the only way he knew how, not by kicking a couple of tomato
cans, but by seeing off a couple of gents with the resounding names of Tony
Canzoneri and Lou Ambers.
But the fourth fight with Ross never did come. The negotiations
got complicated and Jimmy ran out of patience. It was at this point that he and
Pop Foster played their final masterstroke. They hung ‘em up. Jimmy was
twenty-nine, in excellent health and had shrewdly saved and invested his
earnings. Why go and spoil a good thing?
When Pop Foster died, he famously left two hundred thousand
dollars to his beloved Jimmy to boost his coffers even more. The luck of the
But you look at the career of Jimmy McLarnin, you look at his
determination and his fighting spirit, and you mix in his mettle as a man. He
fashioned all those fine qualities out of hard work, common sense and a
willingness to learn from his mistakes. There weren’t too many times, to this
writer’s knowledge, when he pleaded for some luck. If he got some in the end,
God bless him.
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