TEN minutes before the fighters entered the ring, La Scala Theatre was silenced by the sound of a mine exploding near O’Connell Street. The Pillar Picture House was damaged, a baby boy was badly injured, and the master of ceremonies, Jim Harris, announced that by order of the military, nobody could leave the Prince’s Street venue until after 11.30pm. The edict barely raised a murmur of complaint. Having paid to witness Mike McTigue try to wrest the light-heavyweight championship of the world from the exotic title-holder, Battling Siki, fans weren’t going to allow the little matter of a Civil War raging outside intrude on the festivities.
On St Patrick’s Day, 1923, Dublin was the centre of the boxing universe. So many ticketless thousands congregated outside La Scala that the Dublin Metropolitan Police had to erect crash barriers and redirect traffic. Inside, George Bernard Shaw, a noted aficionado of the sport, took his seat alongside British heavyweight champion Joe Beckett and the French legend ‘Gorgeous’ Georges Carpentier. Public work-outs involving both McTigue and Siki at the Rotunda had whetted the city’s appetite and even a brief worry about the moral suitability of holding a prize fight worth £2,000 to the victor on a holy day had been assuaged.
“I can’t speak for Saint Patrick,” said Father O’Ryan from Goldenbridge, “but I think if I were in his place, I should be proud that after 700 hundred years of slavery, Ireland was free enough to welcome a stranger that dare not put his foot on the ‘sacred soil of Britain’. We all hope that our own countryman will prove that he is the best man but if it should happen that the man of colour and the foreigner, after a fair fight, proves to the world that he is the best man, he will be assured of hearty applause.”
McTigue was first into the ring, his entrance sparking enormous cheers from the partisan crowd. Born in Kilnamona, county Clare on 26 November, 1892, he’d emigrated to New York at 16 and wangled a job as a beef handler. After dropping a workplace bully with a single punch, his colleagues urged him to begin a boxing career that stretched for more than two decades. His first 13 years as a pro were mundane, an inability to knock out opponents made ‘Bold Michael’, as the posters ambitiously billed him, a hard sell at the box-office. The nearest he’d ever come to a title shot previously was annexing the middleweight title of Canada in 1921, and that he got to take on Siki in Dublin for the most prestigious belt of all was down to a curious confluence of circumstances.
In a major upset, Battling Siki (a more impressive moniker than his given name, Baye Phal) had knocked out Carpentier, the reigning world light-heavyweight champion in Paris seven months earlier. Despite being a decorated French soldier in World War One, the country’s newspapers turned on the Senegalese native for dethroning their hero. A hard-drinking womaniser, prone to strolling the Parisian streets with a lion on a leash, or with two Great Danes whom he got to perform tricks by firing pistols in the air, they labelled him ‘Championzee’ and ‘Child of the Jungle’.
The French authorities eventually conspired to ban him from fighting and when the Home Office also refused him entry to Britain, he had to box wherever he was allowed.
Certain in the knowledge that a knockout was his only guarantee of victory against an Irishman in Dublin on St Patrick’s night, Siki rushed across the ring at the first bell, unleashing a right to the ribs and a left to the face that put McTigue on the ropes where he quickly and cleverly took the sting out of the attack by ducking every subsequent jab. A couple of inches taller, the Clareman was over a stone lighter but was bringing to bear a reputation as a counterpuncher that saw him once described as “a high priest of the religion of defence”.
The first round set the tone for the next 19. Siki made the running and McTigue fought a smart, rearguard action forcing his man to chase him down and then picking him off with jabs. The pivotal moment came in the 13th. Having already opened a gash over McTigue’s left eye, Siki unfurled a massive left which had knockout written all over it, and the spectacular way McTigue evaded it wrung huge applause from the crowd. He returned to his corner to the soundtrack of ‘Bravo Mac’ chants, and from there on, his superior ringcraft saw him earn the decision on points in the last world title fight to go past 15 rounds.
When Manchester referee Jack Smyth raised McTigue’s hand above his head, La Scala erupted. That the bout had been far from a classic mattered little to those clambering into the ring. Amid chaotic scenes, one of McTigue’s seconds fainted and had to be carried to the dressing room. The fighter himself had a lengthy and emotional embrace with his own father before demanding quiet so he could thank the audience for their support.
“I protest that I won the fight,” said Siki. “I won at least 17 of the 20 rounds. McTigue might have won the other three but I won the fight alright.” Siki’s complaints about the judging were in vain. Most neutral observers felt McTigue had just about deserved the win.
“I won easily, and I would have stopped him in the 13th round only my right thumb was fractured,” said McTigue afterwards. “I beat him to the punch two to one. He didn’t land a clean blow in the full 20 rounds. I had no doubt whatever what the verdict would be. Siki had only two punches, a left and a right lead, and I blocked them both. I was trying to get him with a right to the jaw until I broke my thumb in the 13th round.”
When the Senegalese arrived in New York to restart his own career later that year, McTigue was photographed welcoming him to town. Unfortunately, Siki’s carousing lifestyle soon caught up with him, and the standard joke around the sport was that the only American sparring he ever got was in bar room brawls. On 15 December, 1925, he was found face down in the gutter in Hell’s Kitchen. Somebody had put two bullets in his back from point blank range over an unpaid debt of $20 and the murder was never solved.
Following a number of questionable bouts in which he didn’t put the title on the line, McTigue surrendered his title to Paul Berlenbach in May 1925. That comprehensive defeat almost convinced him to retire but at 35, he went the distance before losing to Irish-American Tommy Loughran in an epic contest for the then vacant world light-heavyweight title. Past his 38th birthday when he finally quit, McTigue opened a bar on Long Island which he ran until his health waned in the late 1940s. He died in Jamaica, Queens on 12 August, 1966, not too far from the cemetery in Flushing where Siki was buried 31 years earlier, the pair forever linked by their role in one of boxing’s most bizarre occasions.
“When the audience did leave La Scala, there was great excitement in O’Connell Street consequent on a number of shots being fired,” reported The Cork Examiner. “From somewhere in the vicinity there was a rapid burst of revolver fire. Immediately, a wild stampede for safety occurred, many people being trampled in the rush. Screaming women ran hither and thither whilst several more cautious sought to cower by throwing themselves on the ground. Even by doing so they took the risk of being trampled on. The crowd hastily dispersed afterwards and in a few minutes the street was deserted. A man named James O’Shea of 1, Harcourt Street was admitted to Jervis Street Hospital, suffering from a bullet wound to the leg. He is said to have been shot on Westmoreland Street.”
A memorable evening ended as it begun, the real combat upstaging the showbiz.