Fearless: When Owen
Moran thrilled America
By Mike Casey
The face stares out of the picture taken long ago, like that of
an old gunfighter. The eyes are the most striking feature, baleful and quietly
menacing as Owen Moran seems to challenge the camera to penetrate the shield of
his tough countenance and guess his thoughts and innermost secrets. The dark
hair that frames his face is defiant in itself, slightly dishevelled as it
tumbles from his crown and flops casually across his forehead.
There is something haunting and oddly captivating about the less
sophisticated photographs of the early twentieth century. People so often look
like the living dead as their eyes meet yours and suck you into their fading and
mysterious world. One instinctively looks for Boris Karloff in every family
portrait. In a photographic studio of today, of course, the folks of that age
would look no more mystical or threatening than you or I.
However, there are exceptions to every rule, and I would
confidently wager that Owen Moran would look pretty much the same if he were
able to step into a time machine and rejoin us now. For Moran was an exceptional
human being and a true fighting man from head to foot. It helped to look like
Owen did when you were plying your trade against men of the ilk of Abe Attell,
Harlem Tommy Murphy, Ad Wolgast, Battling Nelson, Jim Driscoll and Packey
People always commented on how hard Moran looked. They remarked
constantly on his seriousness and intensity. But one word came up more than any
other whenever the formidable Englishman was in the heat of battle: fearless.
The written word, however well woven, can still deceive. Write
about any tough guy from Moran’s stormy and anarchic era, and it is difficult to
avoid the implication that he was a sullen, mean and thoroughly unapproachable
individual. For many, the enduring appeal of Stanley Ketchel is that he was a
psychotic powder keg that could go off at any moment.
But the truth is invariably more complex and far less dramatic.
Owen Moran always staggered people on the rare occasions he cracked a smile, yet
he was never anything less than a charming and sociable man to those who treated
him fairly. But fighting was his trade and his life and could not, in his view,
accommodate levity or benevolence. Owen, like so many of his contemporaries,
simply had to be good at what he did and thoroughly committed. The simple
alternative was a grinding life of anonymity in the harsh and unforgiving
England of his time. Moran was a West Midlander from the city of Birmingham, or
a ‘Brummie’ to his fellow countrymen. He could just as well have hailed from
London, Liverpool, Manchester or Newcastle, where it was no less of an uphill
task for a working class man to escape a grim and repetitive existence.
Owen wasn’t a big man and only spoke when he felt the need to.
There was nothing gregarious about his nature. His statements of intent were
delivered confidently and plainly. Like a miniature Clint Eastwood, he reminded
one of that chilling old saying, “It’s always the quiet ones.”
Not that Moran was incapable of erupting if he felt he had been
wronged. Promoter Jimmy Johnston saw the dark side of Owen when the two men had
a difference of opinion during a meeting in Johnston’s office. The disagreement
quickly escalated into a heated argument and climaxed with Moran throwing
himself at Johnston with both fists swinging.
The size and reputation of an opponent never bothered Owen Moran
inside or outside the ring. A natural bantamweight, he quickly tired of his
weight class after winning the English version of the bantamweight championship
by outpointing Al Delmont at the National Sporting Club in London. Moran wanted
to hunt bigger game and began to attack the world’s best featherweights and
lightweights. He loved to fight and he wanted to fight the best men available.
In common with Jimmy Wilde and so many other fighters of that tough era, Owen
cultivated his skills and his hard attitude in the rough and tumble arena of the
He captured the attention of Captain H.E. Cleveland, a famous
boxing critic of the time, who saw Moran at work in Professor Harry Cullis’
booth. There was special aura about the laconic youngster, whose cyclonic style
of fighting was tempered by wonderfully subtle cleverness.
For Owen Moran was indeed something of a technical paradox. He
could attack and defend equally well and vary his tactics according to the task
at hand. He loved nothing more than to scrap with a known scrapper, yet derived
equal pleasure from outmanoeuvring a cunning fox.
Much like Roberto Duran in later years, Owen’s explosive, sudden
rushes would often serve as a canny cloak for his precision punching and
Owen Moran had his first fight in America in 1907 and remained
there for just over six years, during which time Uncle Sam couldn’t get enough
of him. How good was the grimly determined little battler from Birmingham? After
outclassing Frankie Neil in his Stateside debut at the Dreamland Pavilion in San
Francisco, Moran was being likened to none other than the genius of the age: Joe
Before the Neil fight, Moran was aware that he had to sell
himself to the American public, even though bragging never seemed to sit well
with him. He kept it short and sweet as always. “I’ll show the people of this
country that the country where I come from will be able to send over one
Frankie Neil was a dead game San Franciscan battler who never
stopped attacking and probably had more courage than was good for him. Just a
year before, he had fought with typical courage in an unsuccessful bid for Abe
Attell’s featherweight crown, taking Abe all the way to a 20-rounds decision.
Against Moran, Frankie found himself hitting shadows and
apparently getting hit by a hammer. Despite trying with everything he had, Neil
simply couldn’t find a way past the technical brilliance of the English wizard.
Owen put forth a memorable exhibition of skilful boxing and commanding power as
he captivated and impressed the West Coast crowd. The scouting reports on Moran
had filtered through in the run-up to the fight. Reports from the East and
regular updates from the Moran camp had spoken glowingly of the tough and
exceptionally talented man who was about to mark his territory. But the
wonderful reality far surpassed the expectations.
Ringside reporter Eddie Smith wrote of Owen: “He proved to be the
greatest find of many years, and his clean-cut clever style of milling will live
in the memory of the lucky fans who witnessed last night’s contest for many days
Moran demonstrated that he could hit with great timing and
precision with either hand. Beautifully balanced, he made so few mistakes that
reporter Smith paid him the highest possible compliment by comparing his
artistry to that of lightweight genius Joe Gans.
Frankie Neil won the admiration of the crowd at the Dreamland
Pavilion for his enormous courage and willingness. Never once did he stop
charging and ploughing forward, ever searching for the formula that would make
the ghost before him turn into mortal flesh and blood. But Moran had Frankie’s
number from the opening gong and never once looked like being toppled from his
The intrigue of the battle was the strange marriage of Moran’s
skill and Neil’s never-say-die pluckiness. Frankie took a sustained and painful
beating, yet kept rushing Owen in frantic bids to land a significant blow and
slow the Englishman’s march.
The bout got underway at seven minutes before ten and the opening
round offered the first hint of Neil’s fate. The crowd was eerily silent as the
two men initially felt each other out and showed some artful and clever
feinting. Then Frankie made his move and discovered that Moran was infinitely
more than just a nice boxer. Neil attempted a left to the body that fell short
of the target and brought him to close quarters with Owen. The first significant
action erupted suddenly as the two men teed off in a fast and vicious exchange.
But one blow sounded above all the others. With an incredibly loud thud, Moran
connected with a left hook to the jaw and followed up with a similar blow of
Neil took the punches remarkably well, but the warning signs
continued to pop up on his bumpy road. What shocked the locals, who had grown
accustomed to seeing their Frankie out-fight many bigger opponents at close
range, was how superior Moran proved to be at the infighting.
Students of the game who were seeing Owen for the first time
found him a fascinating case study. The English ace would only fire his punches
when confident that he could hit the target, but his agile mind was no less
evident as he studied Neil’s every move. What could Frankie do? He very quickly
made the heart-dropping discovery that he could neither outbox nor out-slug
It appeared that the contest would be over as early as the second
round, when Moran opened up in earnest and hammered Neil repeatedly with left
hooks to the body and right crosses to the jaw. Paving the way for these blows
was an educated and stunningly effective left jab that snapped to the target
with great force from only a short distance.
Neil took his punishment and continued to rush Moran, but the
only morbid intrigue of the one-sided battle was how long Frankie could last. It
seemed he would go under in the sixth round as he wavered and shook from Moran’s
precise jabbing and superb counters. Then Neil was suddenly down from a right
cross to the jaw and apparently out to the world. But he somehow struggled up at
nine and brought applause from the crowd as he bulled Owen to the ropes.
However, Neil’s increasing desperation was shredding his ability
to think and plan correctly. He was hooking and swinging almost exclusively with
his left hand and Moran was easily able to anticipate Frankie’s ill-timed rushes
and predictable home run slashes.
The beating administered by Moran became more brutal as the bout
wore on, to the distaste of many reporters who felt that Neil should be saved
from further punishment. Referee Billy Roche felt that his hands were tied on
that matter, revealing later that Frankie’s father had assumed responsibility
for his son’s welfare and had urged Roche not to halt the proceedings.
That didn’t cut too much ice with Captain Duke of the local
police, whose men were clambering into the ring in the sixteenth round just as
Neil’s seconds finally threw in the sponge.
Moran received a tremendous ovation from the crowd and paid
Frankie tribute when addressing reporters. “I asked referee Roche to stop the
fight two rounds before the end came. I realised that I had Neil at my mercy and
did not want to see such a game little fighter get an unnecessary beating. I
believe I fought the greatest battle of my career. I want to take on Abe Attell
next. If I beat him, I will demonstrate to the world that I am the greatest
living boxer at my weight.”
On January 1, 1908, at the Coffroth’s Arena in the great old
fight town of Colma, Owen Moran got his chance when he fought the first of his
five battles with fellow maestro, Abe Attell.
The two little titans were well matched, to the extent that
referee and former heavyweight champ James J Jeffries was unable to decide a
winner after 25 rounds of clever and hard- hitting duelling. So aligned were
Moran and Attell in pure talent that one could barely slip a cigarette paper
While Owen had played a wait-and-bait game for much of his
contest with Frankie Neill, the game plan against the artful and cagey Attell
required more urgency. Moran knew that he couldn’t afford to lay back. Much as
the American public had quickly grown to adore him, he would learn that the more
hardened officials of the game would do him no favours against their own.
Owen willingly took the role of the aggressor against Abe,
pursuing the champion constantly and aggressively but always with great speed
and deft skills. Attell, in turn, needed all of his tricks to bank the fire and
keep his distance.
Abe’s punches lacked their normal snap and authority as Moran
blunted their effect with his skilful and evasive form of aggression. But Attell
was a wonderful fighter who could still leave his mark when under pressure. He
found the range sufficiently to give Owen a black eye and a bleeding nose.
Moran clearly relished the examination paper that had been set.
Abe was no less adept than the Englishman at feinting and slipping and was just
as much of a tough cookie at taking his medicine. He avoided many of Moran’s
hooks and swings to the jaw and didn’t appear greatly hurt by the body blows
that were ripping into his stomach.
It was apparent that the two chess masters were cancelling each
other out, but the crowd of some 8,000 found the battle of wits constantly
engrossing. Moran switched between orthodox and southpaw to get close to Attell,
following up with fast and hard blows on the inside. Abe jabbed and countered
and hustled as each man searched for a weakness in the other’s game.
The twenty-fifth and final round saw Owen making a grandstand
charge to grab the fight and the decision. Keeping his head down, he sailed into
the champion with a volley of lefts and rights as Abe hit back in a thrilling
finish. The fighters continued to tear at each other after the bell, and referee
Jeffries needed much of his famous muscle to separate them. Jeff would tell
reporters that he found it impossible to name a winner after such a close and
intensely fought battle.
Attell would continue to frustrate Moran. Owen could equal and
sometimes better Abe in combat, but could never conclusively or officially
master the man they called the Little Hebrew. The two men would fight three
further draws, while Attell would capture the newspaper verdict on two other
It is hard to believe that Owen Moran never added the
featherweight or lightweight championship to his roll of honour. He truly was
the nearly man who was as good as anybody on his day but never quite got the
essential breaks. His progress was checked repeatedly by draw decisions and
highly questionable defeats.
Only the unbiased boxing observers of the day knew the truth of
some of these affairs, and there was certainly no doubt in the mind of the
esteemed Nat Fleischer that Moran belonged with the all-time elite. In Nat’s
view, Owen was the third greatest lightweight behind the dynamic duo of Joe Gans
and Benny Leonard.
It was in that weight division, one of boxing’s most
talent-laden, that Moran would make his indelible mark. On November 26, 1910, at
Blot’s Arena in San Francisco, he did what no other man could ever do: knock out
the great Durable Dane, Battling Nelson. Eddie Sterns had stopped the young
Nelson and Ad Wolgast had butchered Bat to a standstill in their titanic
engagement at Port Richmond. But nobody had put Nelson down for the count. It
seemed that boxing would never see that particular curtain fall.
The execution was painfully drawn out as Moran’s clever attacks
were heroically met by Nelson’s almost inhuman resistance. Bat, it seemed,
regarded death as a more honourable exit than even the bravest capitulation. He
was outsmarted and out-manoeuvred from the outset, yet never stopped trying to
smash and batter his way through Owen’s defences.
There was nothing new in Nelson taking a shellacking to earn his
daily bread. He had carved his formidable reputation from his simple but
murderously effective hit-or-be-hit approach. But this time it was different and
the wise birds at ringside sensed it. By the ninth round, Nelson was tiring and
flagging so badly that his backers feared the worst. Yet Moran’s coup-de-grace
in the eleventh round was shocking for all that
It is ever thus with the giants of the game. We see the axe
cutting ever deeper into the tree, yet the inevitable crash still jolts the
system. Nelson was moving in on Moran for the umpteenth time, enjoying limited
success with occasional blows to the body. A left hook to the Englishman’s head
offered Bat greater encouragement, but then he ran into the equivalent of a
flying brick. As the fighters broke from a clinch, Moran ducked in anticipation
of a left swing from Nelson. As Owen rose up, he fired a perfectly timed right
straight from the shoulder that cracked against Bat’s chin with terrific force.
Nelson was bowled over like a skittle as the crowd roared, yet remarkably
scrambled to his feet at the count of nine.
There was no respite for the former lightweight champion as he
was swept into a maelstrom that seemed to whirl and throw him around the ring
for an eternity. He hit the deck five more times, twice being wrestled down as
Owen tried to shake himself free to apply the kill. Finally, Moran found the
killer punch. A right to the head concluded the rough-and-tumble battle, with
Nelson just failing to beat referee Ben Selig’s count. Bat protested as great
fighters do, but ringsiders were relieved that a legend of the sport would not
have to suffer further.
Owen Moran had not won an elusive world championship. But with
one of his greatest displays, he had written himself into the record books for
Ad Wolgast at
By Independence Day, 1911, Ad Wolgast was in the ferocious prime
of his fighting life when he defended his lightweight championship against Owen
Moran at San Francisco. Wolgast, the so-called Michigan Wildcat, was surely one
of the most relentless and intimidating men who ever stepped into the ring.
In his savage marathon with Battling Nelson at Point Richmond, Ad
had graphically demonstrated his maniacal and near suicidal desire to win. He
was a furious fighting man, reckless and devil-may-care, no less of a danger to
himself than he was to others. Punching, hustling and charging all the time,
Wolgast would frequently offer his head as bait to his opponent and seemed to
take his pain and punishment with as much relish as he gave it. Before his final
fight in 1920, Ad would already be teetering between reality and fantasy from
the brain damage of his many wars.
It could be said that Independence Day wasn’t the greatest day
for an Englishman to be fighting Ad Wolgast, but the Wildcat never required
special motivation. Like Moran, he just loved to fight.
The two men had engaged three years before in a no-contest in New
York, when Wolgast was still climbing the ladder. By the time of their San
Francisco meeting, Owen was twenty-seven years of age and already grizzled and
jaded from a string of tough battles against talented and hungry men from a
brutal boxing era that we will never truly understand.
Just as the great Nelson had taken his first ten count at the
hands of Moran, so brave Owen would suffer the same fate against Wolgast. Ad set
a breakneck pace and it was quickly evident that Owen would not be able to
contain the Wildcat over the long haul. Much of Moran’s genie-like magic was
still in the bottle, and he was able to comfortably outbox Wolgast from long
range, delighting the crowd with excellent jabbing and footwork and skilful
ducking and slipping. But Owen’s finest work couldn’t prevent Wolgast from
bulling his way inside and wreaking damage with his heavy body blows.
Ad walked through everything Moran had to offer and even took the
play away from the challenger in the clinches. Few men had ever bettered Owen on
the inside, but he simply couldn’t cope with the vicious right uppercuts that Ad
was slamming home. Deceptively clever in his own right, Wolgast was looping many
of these hammer-like blows around Moran’s left arm.
The punishing attack of the champion eventually took its toll,
although Moran’s confidence seemed to lift as the crowd applauded his skill. He
got his second wind in the tenth and eleventh rounds, when he slowed Ad for the
first time with an array of brilliantly timed punches.
Fighting Wolgast, however, must have drained many a man’s morale.
Between rounds, Ad laughed and chatted with friends in the crowd, as if he were
out for a pleasant stroll in the park in his own exceptional world.
No fighter is indestructible, but Wolgast was close to being so
at that stage in his rip-roaring career. Moran was wearing down and even the
feverish attention of his cornermen could inspire him no more. In the thirteenth
round, Owen’s face turned sickly pale as Wolgast drove in a series of terrific
right uppercuts to the stomach. A cut lip had left a smear of blood on Moran’s
face as his tired body spluttered to a halt and began to waver and fall. A final
left hook thudded against Owen’s jaw as he crashed into a sleep that lasted for
As Wolgast’s supporters rushed into the ring to congratulate him,
the champion tugged at the American flag he wore around his waist and exclaimed,
“Some battle for the fourth of July!”
Some battle indeed.
Owen Moran was demonstrating how he knocked out Battling Nelson.
The man gingerly pretending to be Nelson was Owen’s good friend, newspaper
reporter Jimmy Butler. “It was like this,” Moran explained, dropping into a
crouch. He feinted a punch to Butler’s stomach and then cracked him on the chin.
Owen was horrified as Butler staggered across the room, figuring
that Jimmy would have the sense to step out of range. “Gosh, Jimmy, I’m sorry,”
Moran said. “I didn’t mean to hit you.”
How Butler must have loved recounting that story. Owen Moran had
actually apologised for hitting someone on the chin!
> The Mike Casey Archives