Irish professional boxing is in a good place as we enter 2018 but there is a lot they could learn from Mick Leahy’s battles in and outside the ring, writes Jack Anderson.
Over the Christmas and New Year period, ESPN has been re-showing highlights from its excellent sports documentary series, 30 for 30.
One of them, first aired in 2009, is Muhammad and Larry, and focuses on Muhammad Ali’s ill-fated attempt to defeat his former sparring partner Larry Holmes and win an unprecedented fourth heavyweight title.
About 15 minutes into the documentary, there is a panorama of Ali’s training camp where you see him slumped, sweat pouring from his ridiculous moustache and slurring in speech after a light sparring session.
And yet a couple of weeks later, in October 1980, he entered the ring for his 60th professional fight, a bout in which Holmes would show no mercy in ten, one-sided rounds.
That was the first fight I saw on television though I was sent to bed, a disgruntled six-year-old, before I could hear Angelo Dundee scream at the end of the 10th: “I am the chief second, this is my fighter and it’s over.”
I am still fascinated by Ali – yes, I have read Jonathan Eig’s latest door stopper of a biography on him, and yes, Ali, A Life is good.
I also still like boxing. I get it from my Da. Home one weekend I interrupted him, watching a fight from York Hall, Bethnal Green or somewhere, and asked “Why boxing, Da?”
“Your uncles worked on the buildings in England with Mick Leahy. They were at some of his fights. They got me into it,” he replied tersely, and then turned up the volume.
In the late 1950s, my uncles and aunties, like so many more, emigrated to England.
In her recent magnificent book, Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Postwar Britain, Clair Wills notes that at this time fully one sixth of the population of the Republic of Ireland were living in Britain.
By day, my uncles’ lives were bound by scaffolding and tea. By the weekend, it was sport and beer and off to shout for Leahy.
My auntie chose an even more dangerous path and became a Coventry City supporter.
Leahy fought professionally 72 times from 1956 to 1965 but the bare statistics – 46 wins, 19 defeats and 7 draws – are not important. The footnotes of whom and where he fought are, because they form a scrapbook for an often forgotten, now ageing generation.
While my uncles hurled in the West Midlands for St Peter’s and St Finbarr’s, Leahy learned his fighting trade in Granby Hall, Leicester; at the Embassy Sportsdrome, Birmingham; and in the Harringay Arena, London.
In 1959, in halls full of £10 Poms and Paddies, he toured Australia and New Zealand. He did well there and on his return began to push for a title.
In 1961, he failed on his first attempt to win the British middleweight title. Two years later, he would make no mistake, knocking down George Aldridge twice in 100 crazy seconds at the Nottingham Ice Rink.
You can never be sure with boxing records but this victory seems to have been the first by an Irishman in a British title fight.
My uncles and many of their mates were there, and it brings a smile to now read The Times patronisingly describing Leahy’s 3,000-strong following as “partisan”. How could — why should — they have behaved otherwise?
In October 1964, Leahy would fight Laszlo Papp for the European middleweight title. Papp was a three-time Olympic champion and the only man from behind the Iron Curtain permitted to fight professionally.
The Hungarian was in line for a “Cold War” title fight with then world champion, Joey Giardello. Leahy was beaten but did enough to convince Papp that professionalism “was incompatible with socialist principles” and that he should retire undefeated.
Less than a month prior to the Papp fight, Leahy had met and beaten Sugar Ray Robinson at the Paisley Ice Rink in Scotland.
Even though Robinson was a fading shadow by then, only a handful of men can ever say they defeated the sport’s greatest pound for pound fighter.
Later Leahy would arguably give the bravest display of a fearless career when in his penultimate fight in February 1965 he went 10 rounds with the ferocious Nino Benvenuti, a future world champion and Hall of Famer.
Pathé newsreels of these fights still exist. In the Robinson fight, Leahy’s style is similar to a current, world class Irish middleweight, Gary ‘Spike’ O’Sullivan.
The similarities do not, of course, end there. Leahy was born in Cork.
Leahy’s career was ended by a car accident. He lived out his life in the West Midlands, later suffering, as Sugar Ray Robinson did, from the effects of Alzheimers. They both probably boxed on for too long.
Leahy died on 5 January 2010 remembered by a few in his native Ireland and buried like so many in his exiled home of England.
Irish professional boxing is in a good place as we enter 2018 — our Katie, Conlan, Paddy Barnes, Frampton, Burnett, Andy Lee and more.
There is a lot they could learn from Mick Leahy’s battles in and outside the ring.
Boxing is a sport that can physically and financially exploit you like no other.
Professional boxing events in Ireland are well regulated but globally if any sport needs a “players’ union” or independent body to represent the participants’ long-term interests, it is professional boxing.
And yet, there is inspiration too for Irish boxers from the story of our first British title winner, and especially for Spike O’Sullivan.
O’Sullivan seeks a world title fight in 2018.
I hope he gets his chance and that when he does, he takes the same attitude as Leahy did back when he fought Robinson: Sugar Ray may have been pound for pound the best there ever was but he was not from Cork.
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