His own people in faraway America could have known little more about him and his career than we did. Those were the lamplit days in the 1950s when the battered copy of The Ring magazine reposed on top of the local paper and the latest copies of the Sacred Heart Messenger and the Far East in the cubbyholes below the priceless old battery radios that throbbed with staticated passion once or twice a year in the small hours of the morning when the champion defended his title.
Once upon a simpler time in Ireland those heavyweight battles from Madison Square Gardens and elsewhere were only slightly less compulsive listening than the All-Ireland finals.! They were the topic of discussion for weeks beforehand. In an era when not every house boasted a radio, the audience around the open hearth would always include a neighbour or two, just like the All-Ireland broadcasts. And the ornate old radios would have been readied for 15 rounds in the days ahead of the bout.
The heavy wet battery in its glass container would have been brought to town for charging. A new dry battery was purchased. The womenfolk went to bed because the fights rarely began before three or four in the morning. An eight- or nine-year-old boy, if he was lucky, would be awakened by his Daddy so he could join in the excitement of it all.
I was that boy in golden memory.
The menfolk would play games of ‘25’ on the oilclothed kitchen table as they awaited the broadcast. And all the talk was of boxing and its heroes.
The radio was not normally turned on, (to spare its power) until the early stages of the buildup. There was maybe a dozen bottles of stout to be enjoyed. No more than that.
The cards whispered on the table as the men played and talked boxing. Above all others, they loved and respected Joe Louis. He was perennial champion in the 1940s and he took on all comers. They said he once had what they called the Bum A Month Parade.
On my first night’s permission to sit up for the fight, there was a pall of gloom in the kitchen when an ageing Louis was ferociously felled by Rocky Marciano. That was some time in the autumn of 1951 and the fallen leaves swirling outside in the wind whispered his fistic obituary as the menfolk genuinely grieved at his loss. It was as if their county had been thrashed in the Ulster Championship. They respected him as much as that. Nobody else ever came close.
“Marciano,” they said, “would not have laid a glove on him in his prime, and that’s the truth.”
Lord but those were simple but elemental times when the radios throbbed the fights into the Irish kitchens. When I think back on it as an adult, I realise that all of the four or five neighbours who joined the circle around the hearth, farmers and farm labourers, all themselves knew what it was like to be in a fight. To hit and to be hit. To win or lose. In their case most of the fights, would have been on the football fields or on the sidelines.
And the others would have been linked to politics and fought out in the backyards of pubs. There was one amongst them, my father told me, had once “beaten a whole backyard of Blueshirts” in a pub in Belturbet. There was another who was a road worker for the county council. His huge hands were so calloused and hard he would routinely stub out his untipped Gold Flake on his palm he was not close to the fire or the ashtray.
When he was listening to the action, he invariably bobbed and weaved in his kitchen chair and those huge fists were clenched.
I remember a mighty fight when I was a little bit older. Archie Moore, in his 40s, was bidding to be the oldest world champion and a virtually unknown Floyd Patterson, then just 21 years old, was battling to be the youngest. The menfolk, all then in their 40s and early 50s, were loudly cheering on Archie Moore and I was in danger of being knocked into the corner for backing Patterson.
After about four or five rounds, with Moore in front, there was a break in the BBC transmission. The radio just hissed and my father tinkered with it until it came back. And by then poor Moore had been knocked out and the Damon Runyonesque commentary revealed Patterson had already rushed out of the arena to a maternity hospital where his first child was being born.
There was Jersey Joe Walcott and Don Cockell and the tailend years of fighters like The Ambling Alp from South America whose real name I can’t recall just now and the sad reports of Louis fighting on far too long and the implacable might of Marciano. And the champion of the world, no matter what his name, avoided no challenger and defended his title at least twice a year.
There was always a bout to look forward to. And those fireside experts who read The Ring from cover to cover knew well already there was underworld and Mafia involvement in the background. But still they loved the battles between the big men.
Once upon a time long ago they used their imaginations to link high definition images of their own to the commentaries that went falsetto with excitement when fight climaxes came; when there were knockdowns and knockouts.
Snowballed black and white TV was already coming into the country but in my memory the pictures were far brighter and compelling on the radio (ye know what I mean).
The TV sets were becoming more common but still were rare in the late 1950s when Marciano made history by retiring unbeaten after 49 fights punctuated by 43 thunderous knockouts. And the men around the battery radio enjoyed them all. Marciano retired, yes, but it was said in The Ring there was a dangerous young newcomer to the division from Louisville with dancing feet of Clay. And a tough one called Frazier.
Once upon a time, long ago, the world had only one heavyweight boxing champ and he was special.