A quick sketch of Jimmy McLarnin, “probably the greatest little human fighting machine ever produced in Canada”
CHARLES L. SHAWDecember11932
The Boy Who Beat six Champions
A quick sketch of Jimmy McLarnin, “probably the greatest little human fighting machine ever produced in Canada”
CHARLES L. SHAW
WHEN the ageing, bald and somewhat corpulent Benny Leonard, undefeated lightweight champion of the world, ran short of funds a few months ago and in a burst of optimism came out of retirement to attempt that usually hopeless journey along the so-called come-back trail, he showed unexpected lack of judgment in his choice of an ultimate opponent.
"I want a shot at this McLarnin kid.” said Benny, who in his heyday was reputed to be a very smart fighter, indeed.
The undefeated lightweight champion had two very s|)eal reasons for wishing to do battle with young McLarnin, who, by the way, was wearing short pants and selling papers when Benny was in his prime. First of all, Leonard resented the fact that three of his star pupils from New York’s Elast Side—Sid Terris, Ruby Goldstein and AÍ Singer, all Jewish boys like himself—had been given a terrible beating by this same McLarnin. Benny sought revenge. Secondly, the shrewd Mr. Leonard knew that a successful battle with McLarnin would prove that he had definitely upset the old sporting proverb to the effect
that once out they never come back.
Two good reasons, no doubt. But Benny Leonard had made a serious miscalculation. He did not realize, apparently, that Jimmy McLarnin, of Vancouver, probably the greatest little human fighting machine ever produced in Canada, was not only a hard hitter, but a master of ring strategy too. Nor did he take into consideration the fact, now well knowm in fight circles, that champions, coming champions and exchampions are the favorite victims of Vancouver’s Jimmy.
What McLarnin did to Benny Leonard at Madison Square Garden is now ring history. The réferee stopped the fight in the sixth round after the little Irish-Canadian had battered the brave and celebrated but unduly hopeful Benny into a sorry mess.
Will Jimmy go on up to the top and win the welterweight championship of the world? It seems almost comical to speak of a title as something yet to be attained by McLarnin. Yet, despite his glories, he has never officially held one. Curious things happen in pugilism, and that is one of them.
Before the bout with Leonard there had boen talk of Jimmy’s contemplated retirement. While the cheers of the crowd were still for him, he would shake the rosin from his shoes, climb through the ropes and hang up his gloves for the last time. But now— well. Jimmy isn’t so sure.
“A Smashing Fighter”
LONG ago Jimmy and “Pop" discovered that it wasn’t necessary to be a champion in order to pack the house— which, after all, is an important object. A smashing fighter who is'in there working all the time and winning -precisely what Jimmy has been doing for many seasons—is a far bigger drawing card than an ex-champion who is trying desperately to stage a come-back. You don’t find Jimmy engaging in “bread-and-butter” fights every month or so. He saves himself for battles at infrequent intervals, with the result that every McLarnin affair is a classic and Jimmy, with his earnings estimated at $50.000 a year, is rated as one of the greatest “money fighters” of all time.
Don’t get the impression that Jimmy hasn’t been trying all the time for a chance at the welterweight title. The simple fact is that the title is, and has been, guarded by men who fear his lusty smacks. Jimmy and his manager are making the best of things in a businesslike and profitable manner.
Another unusual thing about McLarnin is that he and his manager have always held themselves aloof from the
sordid, undercover side of the fight racket. In that respect he has often been coupled with Gene Tunney. who knew when to quit; the striking difference between the two being that, while Gene was an unpopular champion, Jimmy has always been a favorite with the crowd. He was recently voted the most popular fighter in New York, where all good fighters eventually appear. He is the delight of the fans there because he always gives them their money’s worth. A McLarnin fight is never a “flop.” Jimmy is a slashing, tearing type of battler; skilled in the defensive art, but primarily a hard hitter and as courageous as a terrier. From gong to gong he is in there scrapping, head down, thinking of nothing but how to punch his man down.
What a contrast between this scowling, merciless Jimmy McLarnin of the prize ring and the self-effacing citizen, which is the rôle he plays in his home town of Vancouver! It is a long time since he did any serious fighting in Vancouver. His early battles there are merely a vivid memory to the fans, who know him now chiefly as the associate of other young business men with whom he attends Rotary luncheons and plays golf. This mildmannered young man, with a face so boyish that he is sometimes mistaken for an office boy or junior clerk, is such an inconspicuous figure in his home town that strangers are astonished when he is pointed out as the great little Jimmy McLarnin. You would never guess, as he smiles and talks on various topics, that he has pummelled to defeat such famous fighters as Jackie Fields. Louis Kaplan, Sid Terris, Sammy Mandell, Stanislaus Loyanza, Joe Glick, Young Jack Thompson, AÍ Singer and Billy Petrolle.
A Hero in His Home Town
AÑADA habitually makes little fuss over her champions. ^ A Vancouver street crowd would probably fail to recognize McLarnin. But you can’t fool the kids. There is hardly a boy in Vancouver who does not recognize McLarnin. Jimmy, who isn’t much past the boy stage himself, is the one and only hero to countless youngsters who, on vacant lots and in gymnasiums, hay lofts anti attics, try to emulate him.
Not so very long ago Jimmy was doing the same thing practising punches, with the idea that some day he might repeat the achievements of some earlier hero of the ring. The difference between Jimmy and his contemporaries was that his dream came true. A McLarnin only happens once in a very, very long time.
A modest house in a suburb of old Belfast was Jimmy’s birthplace. He was the first boy of a family of thirteen—a fact which from the first gave him a strong sense of responsibility. All the way along the rough road to fame, Jimmy’s first thoughts have been for his family. He has been a good provider. Regardless of the distance he has to travel, Jimmy is always home at Christmas.
Jimmy remembers little of Ireland. To him it is a vague dream of his childhood. For a while the McLarnin family lived on the Canadian prairies, but they soon moved westward to the coast, and at Vancouver they settled down. Money was a rarity in the household; every member had
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j to get out and hustle. Jimmy sold papers and, even as a vensmall lad, managed to j contribute his mite to the domestic ; exchequer. He was a well set-up youngster; ! sturdy, strong and aggressive. He was the star player of his school’s football and j basketball teams, and became the boss of ' his little gang in Vancouver's East End. He was boss, but no bully. Even in those 1 days he had a reputation as a scrapper, but he did not take advantage of it. It seemed natural for the youngsters of his neighborhood to accept his authority. There was something in his cheery disposition, his sense of fair play, that made him a leader. Jimmy always exercised discrimination in
his choice of associates. There were no hoodlums in his mob.
Probably Papa McLamin never suspected that he had a coming prize fighter in his family, though he knew that Jimmy could hold his own with the next boy. He thought there could be no harm in encouraging the lad to use his fists in the approved style, so he bought Jimmy a pair of boxing gloves and endeavored to show him how to use them. After his first brief lesson Jimmy rushed out, looking for a sparring partner. His first victim was an easy one who went down from the first blow struck. But on that same day Jimmy met his first defeat at the hands of a smart youngster.
Jimmy Meets “Pop” Foster
JIMMY hung up his gloves for a while and concentrated on basketball, but those gloves were a taunt to him. Determined to become a good boxer he joined a downtown club where boxers went through their paces. When his first bout was over, “Roughhouse Charlie” Bums, who ran the club, said: “You're a comer, kid; you'll get along.”
It was not until three years later that Jimmy turned professional and met Pop Foster. He was a stripling of sixteen then, lightning fast on his feet and with a poisonous punch in his right hand, but he was ignorant of the finer points. Pop watched the boy work out. admired his natural ability and realized the possibilities in a youngster who could throw such punches and carry the attack so effectively.
After the workout Pop sought out Jimmy and told him frankly what was on his mind— that, with proper handling, he had the makings of a champion. And Pop did not neglect to point out that he could supply the required handling. The bargain was quickly sealed—that was nearly ten years ago—and Jimmy and Pop have been together ever since. It is a partnership probably without a parallel in fight annals— not entirely a business partnership either. There is genuine friendship between the two. No father and son could have a closer affection, a more zealous devotion for each other’s interest.
“What I liked most about Jimmy when I first saw him,” Pop recalls, “wasn’t so much the steam behind his blows, the quick footwork and the fine stamina. It was Jimmy’s spirit that attracted me; his eagerness to ive his best even against better fighters, his absolute fearlessness.”
So Pop took on the job of turning the raw material into the finished article; converting the plucky amateur into the crafty professional that Jimmy turned out to be. Pop admits that it wasn’t hard to effect this transformation. “Right from the start.” he says, “Jimmy had everything. He just needed an old-timer like me to bring it out and make it effective.”
Pop proceeded to teach Jimmy all he knew of the arts of the prize ring; showed him the tricks of defense as well as how to make his punches register 100 per cent. Jimmy learned fast. Soon he became too good for Vancouver. Even at sixteen, he was so superior to any one in his class that every bout arranged for him with a local opponent turned out to be a burlesque.
“We can’t get any farther here,” said Pop. “We’d better move along.”
First Important Bouts
SO THEY went south to San Francisco, where many champions have been developed. Pop thought he could find fights for his boy there if they could be found anywhere, but the promoters took one look at Jimmy and laughed.
“We’re not running a kindergarten here,” they said. “Have a heart. Let the kid grow up.”
Pop took Jimmy across the Bay to Oakland, and there a matchmaker reluctantly gave the lad a try-out. Jimmy defeated an opponent seven pounds heavier than himself so easily that he had no further trouble securing matches, and there followed a series of triumphs for the Vancouver boy without precedent in California. In quick succession he whipped Jackie Fields, Fidel La Barba twice, and Pancho Villa. These three boxers were then, in 1925, quite prominent. Jimmy McLamin became the boxing sensation of the State, which was then the happy hunting-ground of fighters because of the boom and the flood of easy money.
Then came the reaction. Jimmy was growing fast. Perhaps he had fought a little too often. Success had come to him so quickly that the temptation to take everything that offered was strong. He lost four decisions successively, and it was then that Pop and Jimmy took counsel with each other and decided on one of their smartest moves.
“We just laid off for a while, took a rest,” recalls Jimmy. But it wasn’t long
before Jimmy and Pop arrived in Chicago ! and the Eastern sporting world received ; with surprise the news that “the baby-faced boy from the Coast” had taken the measure of Kid Kaplan in a slashing eight-round battle. To demonstrate that this result ! wasn’t due to good luck, Jimmy proceeded j to defeat Billy Wallace, another fast lightj weight. He returned to Vancouver for Christmas, a real hero and a finished fighter. ¡ and Pop merely echoed the chorus when he announced that his protégé had definitely “arrived.”
Great things were in store for Jimmy when he returned East. He was matched against Sid Terris, the “Ghost of the Ghetto;” which meant that he was in the big money now, near the top of the heap. ! Twenty thousand spectators saw that fight —what there was of it. Jimmy dashed out of his comer in the first round, swung two j lightning-fast blows at his opponent’s head, ' and the “Ghost” folded up and lay flat on the floor.
Jimmy became the toast of Broadway, one of the elect of Manhattan’s sporting world. Here was no soft-shoe dancer masquerading as a fighter, but the genuine article.
Best But Not Champion
SAMMY MANDELL was the lightweight champion then, and Jimmy was next in line for a match with him. It was made, but three times it was postponed and when a date was finally settled upon, Pop shook his , head dubiously, suspecting that Jimmy had overtrained. Thirty thousand cash customers saw Jimmy go in against the “Rockford Sheik.” a great defensive fighter who managed to dodge Jimmy’s savage attack and win the match on points.
It was a disappointment to Jimmy and his followers, but they were later to witness a return engagement in which the Canadian decisively defeated Mandell. This time, however, they fought overweight and no decision was at stake. When Mandell finally lost the lightweight title it was a boxer other than McLamin who took it from him. The same conditions applied when Jimmy gave the negro champion. Young Jack Thompson, a bad beating a few months later.
Then, after Jimmy had beaten such hardy warriors as Sergeant Sammy Baker, Phil McGraw and Ray Miller, came the match j with AÍ Singer, the boast of the Bronx who : had risen in a few months from soda jerker to king of the lightweights. It was the same story. AÍ would fight Jimmy, but not as a lightweight. He didn’t care to risk the title. And so Jimmy beat Al, too. Apart from the $30,000 cheque, it was an empty victory.
Describing one of McLamin's fights, the great Jim Corbett said:
“I’ve seen hundreds, even thousands, of fights, but outside of my own victory over Sullivan I don’t think I was ever thrilled as much as when I watched Jimmy beat Petrolle. I never saw more beautiful timing or countering than Jimmy did that night.” But Corbett is only one of many ring celebrities who admire the Canadian boy.
“I have thought for years that Jimmy McLamin was the best welterweight fighter ¡ in the world,” wrote Jack Dempsey recently. “He has everything. He is a real fighter if there ever was one.”
Grantland Rice, foremost American sports writer, rated McLamin recently as the greatest fighter, pound for pound, in the prize ring today.
So, you see, Jimmy has really scaled the heights and is close to the summit of the long, rocky trail that started in “Roughhouse Charlie” Bums’s club. He’s had his share of thrills and triumphs. There’s nothing much left for him in the fight game now except the championship; and if he wins that he may be no more content than he is today.
“It’s great to be trying for something,” said Jimmy the other day. “When you’ve got it, that’s that. The fun s all over.”
And that is why he may hang up his gloves before he wins the title, while the cheers are still for him.
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