from the Mike Casey Archives...
Jimmy McLarnin: 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 paid.”



‘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 punches.

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 times.

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 fight.

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 welterweights.

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 youngster.

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 Ross.



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 should be.

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 Irish? Perhaps.

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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