The night the "Gorgeous Gael" fought in White City


“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”.

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