The night the "Gorgeous Gael" fought in White City

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“I want to fight like you and sing like John McCormack,” said Jack Doyle the day he met Jack Dempsey.

“Wouldn’t it be just too bad,” replied Dempsey, “if you could only sing like me and fight like John McCormack.”

Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, 1935

 

The traffic around White City was so bad that with half a mile still to go, Jack Doyle had to get out of the taxi and walk to the stadium. Well-wishers clapped his back every step of the way and one over-zealous female fan even clipped a lock of his hair as a keepsake. By the time he reached the dressing-room, Doyle had been made almost giddy by the atmosphere, laughing, joking and reading the plethora of good luck telegrams he’d received. Outside, 70,000 people were teeming into London’s one-time Olympic venue to watch a 19 year old from Cobh challenge for the British heavyweight championship.

A raw talent that first became apparent in frantic childhood fistfights in his hometown quarry, he now stood six foot five and weighed just above 15 stone, wearing glamorous green satin shorts with his initials embroidered in gold along the side. Numerous impromptu punch-ups on the most famous waterfront in Ireland and a devotion to studying Jack Dempsey’s instruction manual “How to Box” had put him on top of the bill on a night when, win, lose or draw, he’d pocket (pounds)3000, quite a sum when the average industrial wage was just over 3 quid a week.

The first sight of him entering the arena elicited huge cheers that grew louder still after he climbed through the ropes, stripped off his robe and unveiled a golden torso to compliment the handsome face. He chatted casually to the referee Pickles Douglas but after a few minutes the small talk gave to way nerves. As champions often do, Jack Petersen had let Doyle stew in the spotlight until he was good and ready to make his entrance. By the time Douglas brought the two boxers together, the challenger’s early anxiety had given over to anger. He wanted to make the cocky Welsh champion pay in the same way he’d inflicted punishment on his previous ten professional opponents.

There was only one problem with that intention. Peterson was better than anybody he’d ever faced before and, even more importantly, Doyle should not have been anywhere near a boxing ring that July night in 1933. He was suffering from a bad dose of the clap – history has yet to confirm whether it was gonorrhea or syphilis – that had left him in no physical condition to go 15 rounds against a tough, unbeaten veteran of 23 fights. Apart from anything else, the venereal disease he contracted earlier that summer (reputedly following an encounter with a woman he met in the West End) had seriously affected his ability to train properly. In the days before penicillin, his title chances had been effectively destroyed the moment he entered a shady late-night establishment called Murray’s Club.

Still, ever the game competitor, Doyle went on the offensive from the first bell. He knew his only chance was to put Petersen down early. Even before incurring his STD, he’d never been past the second round in a professional contest before. His method was unorthodox, raining punches on the Welshman from every direction and headed to every destination. A huge number strayed below the belt but Doyle didn’t heed the repeated warnings from the referee. A frantic first round culminated in the pair of them duelling toe to toe in the centre of the ring.

The sort of action beloved of spectators, it nonetheless brought Douglas to the Doyle corner before the start of the second round. Any further punches below the belt would merit instant disqualification, he was warned. Less than a minute of the second round had elapsed when Douglas called a halt to proceedings. He had a reputation as an officious referee and another stray Doyle punch south of the waist had persuaded him to invoke the rule book. The fight was over. Doyle had lost. The decision was greeted by a sustained chorus of boos in the stadium. Back in Cork, the thousands gathered outside The Examiner’s offices in Academy Street were stunned when news filtered through the local boy had failed ignominiously in his attempt to take the title.

“I fouled Petersen in the first round,” wrote Doyle in the Sunday Pictorial, some years later. “I admit that now freely. I was warned that I should be disqualified if I persisted. I did persist. I fouled him again in the second round more than once. I was ordered back to my corner, disqualified and disgraced. Why did I do it? Why did I ignore the warning I got? The plain honest fact of the matter is that I was ill, so ill I should never have been in the ring.

“I could have refused flatly to go in the ring at all. I put the public first. I did not want to disappoint the tens of thousands who were waiting for the ‘match of the century’, not just the huge crowd who watched, remember, but the peoples of Britain and Ireland. I knew I had only one chance. A knockout in the first two rounds. My strength would not last beyond that.”

There was a chaotic aftermath to the bout as the British Boxing Board of Control ordered Doyle’s purse withheld, pending their investigation into the circumstances surrounding his disqualification. Eventually, they suspended him for six months and required him to forfeit (pounds)2,740 of the money due to him. The rest was to be paid, at the rate of a fiver a week, to Doyle and to his mother back in Cork. It was a Draconian penalty, far in excess of the usual punishment levied for such an offence. Worse again was that after taking the case to the High Court and winning, the BBBC had that decision subsequently overturned on appeal.

Doyle would box again after Petersen but really, his time as a genuine contender in the ring had already passed.

 

 

(NB) Anybody interested in Jack Doyle should read Michael Taub’s classic book “Jack Doyle: Fighting for Love”.

Desperately seeking ticket to ride

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Dear Most Holy Chairman of the County Board,

I know you are probably inundated with letters from so-called fans now that we have reached the All-Ireland final. Obviously, you don’t know me unless you remember that time I roared “you useless bollix” at you after our ignominious departure from the provincial championship last year. Or unless you’ve traced my IP address in order to discover who’s been posting that stuff about you on message boards. But, look, that’s all in the past now. I need to be in Croke Park and I deserve to be too. Why? Well, let me count the ways.

 

I deserve a ticket because I was the only fella in the pub in February talking up our chances of going to the final. It was shortly after I mocked two die-hards who were heading up the country to some god awful place for some match at a pitch opening. I remember distinctly that just after making fun of their interest at seeing how the new young fellas might fare in their first outing at senior level, I turned around and said: “Those boys are only wasting their time, you lads are only wasting your time and that team is wasting its time.” But that was only having the crack.

I deserve a ticket because I told everybody before the first round we’d see the sky over Croke Park come September. Now, there are some close to me who might tell you I said, “We’ll be watching Sky Sports instead of games in Croke Park this September.” Those fellas are liars. I like a bit of Sky as much as the next man and, made no mistake about it, I will be stopping off in the pub on the way to Croker to watch the United game on the big screen. But to suggest I sneered that we’d be watching the garrison game instead of the county team is just plain wrong.

 

I deserve a ticket because I’ve been going to the matches for years. Well, I’ve been going at least since the corporate market opened up and I started getting the freebies off my buddy who’s high up in Guinness. And then that guy who worked in the dodgy bank that dare not speak its name got that corporate box in Croker. I never tasted canapes like that before or since. That’s got to be ten years or more I’m going to these matches. And I haven’t missed one apart from the days when it was raining, when the pundits reckoned we didn’t have a chance or when the fixtures clashed with the Irish Open golf.

 

I deserve a ticket because I’ve always supported the games in the county. My track record at club level speaks for itself. I bought a raffle ticket that time the club were running the draw for the Mitsubishi Pajero. I went to several end of year dances back when I was going out with your wan whose father was on the committee. I bought an ad in the programme for the pitch opening and that was at a time when the club needed the money. That was 2002 or 2003 and fifty quid wasn’t easy to come by then I can tell you. And did I ask for anything in return? No, I did not. Until now.

 

I deserve a ticket because I went to school with several lads who played for the county. Sure I used to take the mickey out of them all when they were heading out training after school in the driving rain and the biting wind. I used to knock great fun out of their inability to come out on the lash with the rest of us because they were always either training or preparing for some game or other. That was character-building stuff. Do you think they’d have made it where they are today without the likes of me helping them find inner reserves of strength? I don’t think so.

I deserve a ticket because I go to all the big events. I never miss a rugby match as long as the media convince me it’s an important one or if it’s on somewhere good like Paris or the south of France. I used to go to all the soccer internationals back when that was the done thing. Oh yeah, I was part of Jackie’s Army and all that. There are some around here who’d tell you that it’s not a sporting bandwagon unless I’m on it so the county board would want to think of that when they consider my application. It’s not a serious to-do unless I’m there tweeting pictures of myself.

I deserve a ticket because I’ve invested at least 150 euros in replica shirts over the past two decades. I’ve bought at least one every time we’ve reached an All-Ireland final. If nobody believes me they can come around to the house and look at the back of the wardrobe where all of them have remained in a heap gathering dust since I returned in a drunken state those Sunday nights. Not to mention I’ll buy another one this year if I get a ticket because, well, the years haven’t been kind, and the old shirts will never stretch down over the swelling belly at this point.

I deserve a ticket because I know a lot about the game. I know that “an effing Brolly” is not a golf umbrella you left behind in a pub but a reference to some fella from up north who is sort of the Gaelic football version of George Hook and Alan Hansen. I know that the Clare roar is not the delighted sound every tourist makes when leaving that godforsaken county, it’s a shriek their fans emit when they make their twice in a lifetime trip to Croker.

I know you’ll be hearing from a lot of bluffers and spoofers in the coming weeks and I don’t envy you trying to sort out the worthy causes from the chancers but two upper Hogan will do the job.

Yours in Sport,

The county’s biggest fan.