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Jim Murray

They Almost Never Laid a Glove on Him

December 27, 1987|Jim Murray

Prizefighters are not supposed to have 80th birthdays. If they do, you'll know they'll celebrate it tucked away in a room some place with bars on the windows and rubber on the walls, hearing bells no one else can hear, throwing punches at foes no one else can see and telling stories about the night they fought the "bombah" in a laryngitic husk no one can understand. Their nose and ears are stuffed from a lifetime of hemorrhaging. Maybe their hand shakes or their voice trembles.

And then, there's Jimmy McLarnin . . . .

They used to call him "Baby Face" and "The Baby-Faced Assassin."

He was the welterweight champion of the world in the days when there weren't 11 of them, when the word "champ" meant you were the best of a thousand fighters, not a dozen.

He was blindingly fast when he started out as a flyweight. He threw shutouts. He never got hit till his 15th fight. That was back in 1924 when even Charlie Chaplin used to come and see him fight.

He was to fight 14 world champions in his career. He beat all but one.

As he grew heavier, he learned he had a punch. He knocked out Jackie Fields who was later to become welterweight champion of the world and from then on he fought out of a crouch instead of on tiptoe.

Then, one night, he fought a brawler out of Fargo, N.D., who came into the ring with an old Indian blanket and the best left hook in the business and didn't leave it until somebody was prone on the floor. Billy Petrolle outslugged Jimmy McLarnin from one end of the ring to the other, slamming him to the canvas three times. But, McLarnin was a fighter who got up.

He was also a fighter who learned. He turned back into a boxer for the two Petrolle rematches and Billy, the Fargo Express in the sports tabloids of the era, never did figure out where he went in the ring. McLarnin boxed his ears off. "You box a fighter and fight a boxer," Jimmy explained.

He was born in the slums of Ireland and raised in the cool climes of British Columbia and began his career in the old Vernon arena in Los Angeles and the Bay Area of San Francisco.

His reputation seeped East. In those days, there was big money in ethnic rivalries and the promoters of Manhattan thirsted to pair the young kid with the street urchin's face and the Lake of Killarney name with the great Jewish fighters of New York. One by one, McLarnin knocked them out--Sid Terris, Ruby Goldstein, Joe Glick, Al Singer, Louis (Kid) Kaplan, even Benny Leonard, although Leonard was old and coming back because he had been wiped out in the market crash at the time.

He was the toast of every guy in New York with a Mac or an O' at the start of his name. Then, one night, a Jewish kid out of Chicago handed him his head in 15 bloody rounds at the Garden Bowl in Long Island City.

He lost his title to Barney Ross that night, a title it took him 72 fights to get, and McLarnin won it back in another furious 15-rounder at the Garden Bowl in Long Island City four months later. But Ross won the rubber match decisively and reclaimed the title. For McLarnin, the clever Ross fell between two chairs. "I didn't know whether to box him or fight him," explained Jimmy. So he ended up doing neither.

McLarnin then defeated two lightweight champions, Tony Canzoneri and Lou Ambers, in over-the-weight matches, but the old verve was gone.

They offered him $50,000 to fight Henry Armstrong, but Jimmy had retired to the golf courses of Hollywood where one of his partners, an up-and-coming young comedian named Bob Hope, looked at the offer and whistled. "You mean you're not going to fight him for $50,000?! For $50,000, I'd fight him!"

McLarnin's career would depress every hack screenwriter Hollywood ever turned out. He never went broke, although he suffered financial reverses when he opened a machine shop to furnish ordnance to the military four months before the war came to an end.

He had a manager, Charles (Pop) Foster, who was so far from the standard underworld type ("Now, kid, I want you to go down in the fourth round or you'll never play the violin again!") that he actually ended up saving not only Jimmy's money and health but he bequeathed him his own money when he died.

It would make a lousy movie, but a great life. Look at McLarnin at 80 after 77 tough pro fights and almost as many amateur, the cheeks still pink, the eyes blue and sparkling, the speech fresh and the mind clear. If it weren't for the broken knuckles, you would take him for a guy who has been selling lingerie all his life.

He's still a welterweight. He's still a champ. Life has not been able to lay a glove on Jimmy McLarnin any more than a Tony Canzoneri or Al Singer could. You still wouldn't want to give him strokes on the golf course or the first punch in a fight.

He's almost an advertisement for a cruel sport. For anyone to reach 80 is an achievement. For a guy to make it who fought three 15-round fights with Barney Ross, three 10s with Billy Petrolle and 5 lightweight champs and 4 welterweight champs it's historical. He makes the fight game look as innocuous as croquet. He makes it look as innocent as he does.

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