Jack Doyle was notorious long before Conor McGregor

Every sports star fits the age in which they flourish. Nowhere was this point more obviously made than when Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather embarked on their four-city press conference tour to sell their forthcoming ‘fight’.
Jack Doyle was notorious long before Conor McGregor

There is no need here to rehearse the crudity, homophobia, and misogyny – not to mention the suggestions of racism – that was on view. None of that really surprised.

What the repeated press conferences did more than anything else, of course, was reveal the limitations of the famed wit and humour that was supposed to run through it all.

If ever two men deserved each other, they are McGregor and Mayweather.

Nonetheless, to contrast this festival of boors with previous attempts to make money from fighting is not to claim some sort of superiority for the past. There is no truth in nostalgia.

There are resonances of McGregor in the story of a previous Irishman – Jack Doyle – who made his fighting fortune from London and America, but those resonances have been crassly distorted in the echo chamber of the modern media.

The story of Doyle is an extraordinary one. Unlike McGregor, he was a big man. He stood an imposing 6ft 4in tall. He was also graced with matinee idol looks and a boundless charm. And as he made his way as a boxer in the early 1930s, he entered the ring under the legend: ‘The Gorgeous Gael’, ‘The Body Beautiful’, or ‘The King of Clout’. In 1932 Doyle began his professional career with a flourish, as ten straight knock-outs (by courtesy of a powerful right hand and some carefully chosen opponents) brought him massive publicity.

These successes, backed by his looks and a whirl of hype, allowed him to embark on a lifestyle that neutered his talent even as it developed. An apparently insatiable desire for chasing women was unleashed as he courted the socialites of the West End in London: He gladly accommodated the many who sought his company.

His training suffered to such an extent that he had to be revived by brandy between rounds of an undistinguished victory over Jack Pettifer. By the time he was granted a fight for the British heavyweight championship against Jack Petersen in July 1933, it is reported that he was suffering from venereal disease.

In front of a 70,000 crowd in White City, London, he was disqualified for a series of low blows in the second round, inducing a mini riot as the crowd stormed the ring, throwing chairs, before carrying him shoulder-high to Marble Arch. The Irish believed he had been disqualified because he was Irish – the deep prejudices of the English being revealed in the decision-making!

Doyle was later fined almost £3,000 (his purse) and banned for six months by the British Boxing Board of Control. This was a decision he never forgave, it irked him until his dying day.

The break did enable him to pursue a career in singing, and with a fine tenor voice he recorded such songs as ‘Mother Machree’, which sold in great numbers.

As well as singing (he undertook a concert tour of Ireland), he was also a budding actor: In 1935 he moved into the movies as a fearsome fighter and robust lover in the buccaneering ‘McGlusky, The Sea Rover’. He later starred in the equally inauspicious ‘Navy Spy’ (1937).

He travelled to America that same year and arrived in Hollywood, where he married the actress Judith Allen. Their passionate and apparently sincere romance did not stop him embarking on a series of affairs with other women, but attempts at reform saw the couple travel to London, where their concert tour was well received.

In Dublin, however, distaste at his marriage to a divorcee forced cancellation of shows at the Theatre Royal, and he returned to America where he formed a ‘drinking and messing’ friendship with the Hollywood legends Errol Flynn and Clark Gable. With their help, he continued to live a hectic social life.

The lure of the ring kept calling to him. He returned to boxing in America and won his first three fights, but lost his fourth when he was unluckily beaten by Buddy Baer on a technical knockout in the first round at Madison Square Gardens, New York.

From 1938 he fought on only a handful of occasions, and defeat in the first round by Chris Cole, a Mullingar blacksmith, in front of a huge crowd at Dalymount Park, for the heavyweight championship of Ireland, effectively ended his career in 1943.

Only one of his fights had gone the distance during his career and few lasted more than two rounds; his 17 professional wins were achieved through the ferocity of his punch rather than a talent for boxing, but his six defeats were the product of a glass jaw.

That he never bothered too much with a defence did little to protect that jaw, and his physical fitness was something that might charitably be described as ‘fragile’.

Even by the standards of his sport, he was an outrageous self-publicist whose flamboyance was not tempered in defeat. He earned a vast amount of money and at the height of his fame kept a large mansion at Ascot, attended by an entourage that included bodyguards, servants, chauffeurs, and a singing maestro.

After divorce from Judith Allen, he took up with the automobile heiress Delphine Dodge, as well as with her daughter and her sister-in- law. It is reported that that the Dodge family later paid him £10,000 and threatened him at gunpoint to stay away from the women of the family.

Another actress, Betty Strathmore, took poison in front of him in a hotel. He then met Movita, a Mexican actress who had appeared with Clark Gable in Mutiny on the Bounty, and they married in Mexico in January, 1939 and then in St Andrew’s Church, Westland Row, Dublin in February, 1943. The couple toured and performed on stage in London and Dublin, including a successful run at the Theatre Royal. But his persistent womanising and alcoholism fuelled violence and Movita left him in 1945, later marrying the actor Marlon Brando.

After a period of homelessness when he slept in the back of a broken-down taxi on Henrietta Street in Dublin, he made something of a recovery and became a wrestler. He performed intermittently on the cabaret circuit and made periodic attempts to resurrect his career, but was plagued by alcoholism. He lived in London for many years with Nancy Kehoe, but his enduring charm saw him continue to woo many women, including Diana Dors.

Having squandered and been cheated of a fortune, he lived in relative poverty and periodic homelessness. In 1972 he returned to Cork, where he played to a cabaret in the Commodore hotel, drawing large crowds.

When he died on December 13, 1978 in London after a long illness, there was a genuine outpouring of grief and a huge crowd attended his funeral in Cork. The story was beautifully captured in Jimmy McCarthy’s song, ‘The Contender’:

The wheel of fortune took me,

From the highest point she shook me,

By the bottle live by the bottle I shall fall.

It is plain that history reveals flaws in everybody, even those for whom the most sympathetic of ballads are written. And ballads too often bleed into propaganda, where the evidence of history is fundamentally reshaped to meet the demands of the present.

Nonetheless, there is enough that is unpalatable in the life of Jack Doyle to allow for an unfavourable comparison with McGregor, if you chose to assemble the evidence in a particular way.

In his own way he was notorious, walking in step with the changing world of the middle decades of the twentieth century.

His talent outside the ring – notably as a singer – earned for him an admiration that pushed him beyond the one-dimensional cartoons of boxing salesmanship.

But, if you strip away the charm of his words and the pathos of his end, some of his life’s deeds do not make for good reading.

As for McGregor: He is, of course, loved by his own fanatical fans who will hear no criticism, see no wrong, admit no flaw, see no need of apology for any insult, revel in his ‘outrageousness’.

That’s all fine – heroes are not always chosen wisely.

But it is nonetheless revealing and it would be interesting to see what form the ballads would take that they might write of their man. And what are the words that would have to be omitted to make those ballads sympathetic?

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