Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 12 July 2014

Jack Magowan: Great Irish heavyweights are few and far between

Once the richest prize in sport. Now the threadbare era of rent-a-champion. Like the man in the song said: 'We ain't got nobody to love!'

Boxing's proud old heavyweight division is derelict, but may still be valuable property.

Tonight's David v Goliath battle between Ulster's Martin Rogan and big guy Audley Harrison will only half-pack London's Excel Arena, but should be worth a nice little pay-day to both men in a match that hints of being an Oscar-winner, or flat-beer B-movie. Take your pick. There could be no in-between.

The Irish are often said to be infatuated by their own image as good fighters. In the lighter weights, that is. At heavyweight, it's all about the sizzle, not the steak. Only once in a blue moon do we groom a hefty hulk with even the vaguest pretensions of being a serious prospect.

Danny McAlinden, I'd say, was cut from the same cloth as wrecking-ball Rogan.

You could have boiled an egg in the time it took this fierce-fisted Ulsterman to demolish pig-farmer Jack Bodell (KO2) for the British and Commonwealth titles, but when it came to boxing somebody bigger, or better, than himself, Danny-boy from Newry was found wanting.

He was beaten by two good, not great, Americans before the Jamaican-born Bunny Johnson and Richard Dunn both knocked him out in championship contests. The year - 1975.

Now 61, McAlinden, like Rogan, had made an indelible mark by winning a three-fights-in-one-night tournament in a total of four explosive rounds.

Dan seldom weighed more than 14 stone, but wouldn't have thought twice about conceding Harrison’s height and weight just for the sheer joy of a good punch-up. That was the nature of the beast!

It was in the year McAlinden retired (1981) that Enniskillen's Gordon Ferris shot across the heavyweight horizon.

The British title was vacant, and Gordon, a lock-keeper by trade, outpointed Billy Aird over 15 punishing rounds in Birmingham. Nothing to do with boxing's sweet science, I recall, but nobody asked for their money back.

Sadly, Ferris's reign only lasted six months. He never saw the sledge-hammer right hand thrown by a balding, 34-year-old Neville Meade, and nose-dived face first into the canvas. It was all over in 2 min 45 seconds.

We all love a hero, but tend to love a flawed hero even more. Like Jack Doyle, the singing playboy best remembered as the only man to draw a crowd of 90,000 to London's White City.

Doyle, 6ft 5 in tall and only 19 years old, had won his first ten pro fights by knock-outs, and was all the rage.

His purse as challenger to British champion, Jack Petersen, topped £3,000, massive money in the 1930's, yet he scarcely saw a penny of it.

Reckless and undisciplined, he lost his head completely, raining home one outlaw punch after another against a startled Petersen, and was disqualified in the second round.

The fight, an unmitigated flop, almost sparked a riot, and cost Jack dearly. He was fined a whopping £2,700, suspended for six months, and ordered to pay his mother £5 a week for the duration of his ban.

The penalty was vicious in the extreme. In fact, no boxer disqualified in a British ring since then has ever been penalised so cruelly, and Jack died penniless, alone, and from liver failure.

Kevin McBride, the Clones colossus, was even taller, and heavier, than Doyle, and had a bigger heart as well.

The Washington Post might have roasted his fight with Mike Tyson, and Kevin himself as a boxer "with no discernible skills," but the giant Irishman took his chance like a true warrior, forcing the ghost of a once-great world champion to quit on his stool at the end of round six.

For years, the McBride barometer had been stuck at zero, but suddenly he was an overnight sensation. Why he failed to cash in on such newly acquired fame, nobody knows. He missed the boat badly!

Remember Pat Stapleton? Somebody will. If not as Ireland's heavyweight champion half-a-century ago, then for the cool-headed act of heroism that opened his door to boxing.

In full view of a Dublin street crowd, teenager Pat crawled under a wrecked car and jacked it up bodily so that a trapped victim could be released.

Naturally, his strongman feat made the front pages, and he was invited to London, first to train as a wrestler, then in the noble art.

It was in his ninth, and final, contest that he stripped Paddy Slavin of a national title Slavin had held eleven years without ever having to defend it, then decided to hang up his gloves. He was 22.

That's how bare Mother Hubbard's heavyweight cupboard had been, even in the days when two shows a week in Belfast were the norm.

Gerry O'Colmain, another young Dubliner, was Europe's best amateur heavyweight before winning seven Irish championships in all, but how this big fellow would have shaped up in the professional ring, he himself was always reluctant to say.

Not so Barney Wilson, however, or that hard-hitting trio of Darren Corbett, Dessie Reynolds and Downpatrick lad Jumbo McKenna. All proud Irish, and dedicated to legalised violence at a time when world champions were less devalued, and the heavyweight title really was the richest prize in sport!

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