The phrase “boxing hotbed” is one of those fight terms that gets thrown about with ease whether the user truly understands its meaning or not — like “shot,” “exposed” and “ring generalship.”
There aren’t many boxing hotbeds around right now, be it for lack of overall interest in the sport, or maybe even times just not being quite as tough as in previous eras.
If asked which cities or regions of the United States frequently churn out young talent, the Great Lakes area probably wouldn’t make the cut.
For instance, Minnesota’s finest crop in the last 20 or more years has been Will Grigsby, Jason Litzau and maybe Matt Vanda — not exactly the Murderers’ Row of the fight fame.
Such wasn’t always the case though. In the early 1900s, states like Wisconsin and Minnesota were not only producing respectable fighters (and a few very, very good ones), they were also included in the battle grounds of boxing legislation in that part of the country.
Mike “The Harp” O’Dowd was born in St. Paul, Minnesota in March, 1895 — a wonky time for the sport in that region.
The Minnesota state legislature outlawed boxing in April of 1892, though the law wasn’t that strictly enforced, and exhibitions where no money officially exchanged hands weren’t necessarily frowned upon.
Prize fights took place, mostly on the sly, but even many of the publicized fight cards were held to one bout, and inaccurate records were often kept. On Feb. 1, 1901, welterweight and middleweight great Tommy Ryan steamrolled a guy thought to be Jim Judge — and later discovered to be Chicago fighter Frank Scott — in five rounds, the only bout that night at the Minneapolis Athletic Club.
Minnesota governor John Albert Johnson became known for canceling sanctioned bouts last-minute, whereby the fighters would usually move to different locations. Chicago, St. Louis and even few nearby Wisconsin cities were more popular nearby fight towns that didn’t seem to mind the blood and guts as much.
In September, 1909, two black fighters, George Gunther and Walter Whitehead, were arrested and charged with participating in a prize fight not far from a dock on the St. Louis River outside of Duluth, though witnesses were unsure as to whether the dock was on the Wisconsin or Minnesota side. Their subsequent trial was hot news and deemed a “‘society’ event” by the Duluth News-Tribune.
Courtroom witnesses argued that neither man received money for the fight nor inflicted significant damage over the 11 rounds that took place before police intervention, but both were jailed, released and subsequently lampooned in the press.
Regardless, the St. Paul Auditorium (among other venues around the state) would frequently hold cards attended by thousands before boxing was officially legalized in Minnesota in 1915.
Growing up in St. Paul, a town whose development relied heavily on mining and the railroads’ support thereof, O’Dowd reportedly was an excellent athlete, doing well in both baseball and football, before seeing Mike Gibbons training. The 17-year old, though short at about 5’8″, was inspired to begin training himself.
His professional debut in 1913, as reported by the Duluth News-Tribune, was a 1st round KO victory over Minn. middleweight “Newsboy” Mike Brown in Superior, Wisconsin, just across the river from Duluth. Not long into the opening stanza, one of Brown’s swings connected with the top of O’Dowd’s head, breaking his arm, and Mike was announced the winner.
Shortly after turning pro, O’Dowd was picked up by manager Jack Reddy, brother of St. Paul Athletic Club matchmaker Eddie Reddy, and became a popular fixture on fight cards in the area.
Two of his eight fights in 1915 were entertaining dust-ups with Walter Monaghan, a Pittsburgh middleweight then known as “Bearcat.” The first was a co-main event supporting a bout between Mike Gibbons and Eddie McGoorty, in what was at the time the largest ever crowd for a fight in Hudson, Wisconsin, that O’Dowd edged.
On July 12th of 1915, the state’s first “legal” show in over 20 years was headlined by Tommy Gibbons vs. Billy Miske — the second of five meetings between the St. Paul natives. Reportedly a spirited battle, Gibbons was given the newspaper decision over Miske. Fighting on the undercard, O’Dowd decisioned Chicago-based Willie Schaeffer in his 22nd verifiable pro fight, avenging a loss from earlier in the year. O’Dowd had actually lost a newspaper decision to Miske in April of ’15, likely losing out on a shot against one of the popular Gibbons brothers.
His next fight was a 5th round knockout of Freddie Gilmore in St. Paul, stealing headlines from Johnny Ertle, who would go on to “win” the bantamweight world title from champion Kid Williams by DQ less than a month later, despite never being universally recognized.
The rematch with Monaghan was its own main event at the Lyceum Theater in Duluth, and both men reportedly stood toe-to-toe in front of a pro-Monaghan crowd for much of the middle chunk of the fight. According to the Duluth News-Tribune and the Pittsburgh Post, O’Dowd landed the cleaner blows and showed sharper defense than his opponent, taking a just 10-round decision.
O’Dowd, earning the nickname “The St. Paul Cyclone,” then took a decision from the popular scrapper Soldier Bartfield — a Hungarian trash talker who fought just about everyone worth a damn, and often mocked his opponent mid-fight to rile up the crowd and make the bout more entertaining.
A loss to New York-based welterweight Kid Graves in December if 1915 revealed that O’Dowd had been fighting with a loose bone fragment over his left eye, which required surgery to correct. The operation kept Mike out of the gym until February, 1916, and his next fight with Schaeffer was a 10-round dud, with the Denver Post stating “[The fighters] boxing a tame ten-round draw last night. Hisses of a very small crowd greeted them in every round.”
Mike trudged along though, gradually moving east, he won two newspaper decisions and two knockouts, all the while rarely scaling above 150 lbs., before facing welterweight great Jack “The Boxing Marvel” Britton in June of 1916.
Britton, fresh off a win in one of his many, many bouts with Ted “Kid” Lewis and the consensus welterweight champion, was a savvy veteran of considerable class, but reportedly showed up looking sluggish. According to the Pawtucket Times and the Duluth Times-Tribune, O’Dowd attempted to crowd Britton and take the fight inside, having success going to the New York-native’s body, but Britton was able to negate much of O’Dowd’s offense and unpleasantly slow the pace down. Despite a spirited finish from both men, the Boston fight put more of a weak period on the welterweight title debate than an exclamation point and Britton was awarded a points decision, as Massachusetts was a state in which decision victories (and not no contests or draws whose winners were decided via newspaper coverage) were awarded.
Over the next six months or so, O’Dowd went 7-0-1 with 3 knockouts before again facing Britton in January of 1917, and this time in St. Paul.
Ohio’s Repository printed a headline that read “BRITTON HELD TO DRAW IN ST. PAUL; SHOWS UP POORLY,” the details reading, “The first four rounds were without action, with O’Dowd doing all the trying, but in most instances being unable to connect. Britton did his best fighting in the sixth. His blows, nevertheless, were without steam and did not stop O’Dowd from boring in. From the standpoint of aggressiveness, O’Dowd was entitled to a lead, but in cleverness Britton was easily the superior of the local man.”
In 1917 alone, O’Dowd would fight a sickening 27 times total, which included 4 fights against Frank Carbone, 2 more with Soldier Bartfield, a slim win over Britton, and 3 fights with “Kid” Lewis, against whom he went 1-2 in newspaper decisions. The round robin between the slightly blown up welterweights prompted publications like The Richmond Times Dispatch to ask existential questions of the weight class, like, “Who in this welterweight division, anyways?”
Sometime during his maddening schedule, frequent returns to the Clermont Avenue Rink in Brooklyn landed him in the managerial hands of the venue’s matchmaker, Paddy Mullins, who later also managed Harry Wills.
O’Dowd announced before his early October bout with KO Willie Loughlin that he’d been drafted into the U.S. Army and it would be his farewell fight, but after dispatching Loughlin in under two rounds, Mike fought twice more in New York before a title shot would present itself.
On Nov. 14 of ’17, O’Dowd was granted a shot at the convoluted middleweight championship and managed to stop Al McCoy, the first ever southpaw world champion. McCoy’s claim to the title was iffy, as he’d knocked out and overweight George Chip in 1914 and had lost several bouts since, including two against Chip and one to future champ Harry Greb, though the title was only on the line if he lost inside the distance, according to the confusing rules of the time.
That said, the same publications that named winners and losers appeared more comfortable regarding O’Dowd as champion given his recent run and emphatic kayo of McCoy in Brooklyn.
His first official defense of the title was a six-round decision over Billy Kramer, and then a non-title six-rounder over Joe Welsh.
An early February title defense against Greb was pushed back to the 25th, as both men requested more time to train, according to the Repository.
In defending his belt at the St. Paul Auditorium, the Riverside Daily Press reported that “O’Dowd had Greb dazed on several occasions.” The Duluth News-Tribune said of the fight, “O’Dowd fought a strong defensive battle, forcing Greb frequently to swing wildly or stopping him short with a stiff left … in the second a right smash to the Pittsburgher’s mouth brought the blood of the fray. In the ninth, with the crowd calling for a knockout, the local boxer made his best showing, but Greb skillfully covered and clinched.”
Publications awarded O’Dowd a decision in the entertaining bout — his only fight of 1918.
A little over a week later, O’Dowd reported for duty at Camp Dodge in Des Moines, Iowa, where Mike Gibbons was the boxing instructor. O’Dowd joined the Army National Team and was successful in overseas tournaments, including the 1918 Inter-Allied Biff Tournament in London. In fact, his impressive showings in international competition seemed to boost his credibility stateside, though pundits were anxious to see the champion once again tangle with solid opposition.
Through it all, he was also the only world champion to serve during World War I.
In Mike’s first fight after returning from being stationed around Paris in early July, 1919, Al McCoy entered the bout “many pounds over-weight” and was thoroughly bludgeoned in three rounds, hitting the deck seven times before his manager threw in the towel for the third time. McCoy’s corner had attempted to end the fight on two other occasions, but referee Curley Ulrich refused to acknowledge them.
Again O’Dowd’s pace quickened, and he fought 12 more times before the end of the year, defending his title in half of them, and twice by knockout. Having only fought in the last half of the calendar year, he still faced Britton (a fight which many papers were split on), Lewis, Bartfield and Steve Latzo, and then put a clear stamp of badassery on the year by defeating Gibbons in St. Paul — a hometown showdown in front of 9,000 people.
The start of 1920 saw Mike go 11-0 with 8 knockouts, one of which was a quick 2nd round KO over the ultra-tough but aging Jack McCarron in March — a man Mike had already entertainingly defeated by decision in 1917. This time O’Dowd floored him thrice in the 1st round, and once in the 2nd before McCarron’s corner threw in the towel.
In early May, O’Dowd defended his crown against Johnny Wilson in Boston, Wilson’s home base. Despite personally choosing the ref, the “referee decision” went to Wilson clearly, to the surprise of those in attendance — even though O’Dowd was floored for a four-count in the 2nd round. Press, fan and pundit opinion of the bout seemed split though, with The New Orleans Item calling the result “another one of those flukes,” while The Riverside Daily Press reported Wilson had “southpawed his way to the title.” The consensus among press was that O’Dowd had lost a solid eight rounds, unable to get out of the way of Wilson’s left hand, and in effect lost his middleweight championship.
Before the month was up, he defeated Jackie Clark and Britton by newspaper decision, then stopped George KO Brown at the brand new Ice Palace in Philadelphia, in front of a crowd of about 11,000.
His very next bout was a scrape with grizzled Oakland/San Fran middleweight Battling Ortega, who the Repository called “best of the coast middleweights.” The fight was officially called a draw by referee Denver Ed Martin, as O’Dowd was reportedly unable to break through Ortega’s defense, thought the pace was referred to as “furious” by more than one publication.
In less than a month between September and October of 1920, O’Dowd beat “Kid” Lewis once and Frank Carbone twice, all the while seeking a rematch with Wilson. A pro-Irish boxing article from The Republic-Times from January, 1921 said of the potential rematch, “If Johnny Wilson would only come out of his hole and meet Mike O’Dowd in a return match the Irish might claim five of the six titles.”
In the meantime, O’Dowd got into some trouble while waiting to snag his belt back, and was arrested for attacking a police officer following New Year’s of 1921.
Mike’s wishes were granted after much negotiating through the press, and a rematch with Wilson was set to take place at Madison Square Garden, and for the newly-created NYSAC middleweight title.
In front of a crowd of over 13,000, a disappointing bout unfolded, with each man fighting defensively and cautiously, and O’Dowd repeatedly complaining about low blows.
Again the outcome was controversial, with the referee ultimately giving the deciding vote to Wilson, and the fight represented what looked to be a sharp downslide, even though it was later revealed that Mike had suffered a hernia during the fight, and a hernia repair operation put him out of commission for five months.
From then on out, O’Dowd face Bartfield again and Gibbons twice more, then won the NYSAC middleweight title (and some felt the legitimate world title) by DQ from Dave Rosenberg in November, 1922.
O’Dowd was frequently advertised as “undefeated” throughout his career, which essentially meant he’d never been knocked out. His only stoppage loss was to Jock Malone in his last bout in March of 1923. And it wasn’t long before O’Dowd’s last bout (and subsequent retirement) that Minnesota voted to allow fights to go to official decisions.
O’Dowd was Minnesota’s first “recognized” world champion. Its first was bantamweight Johnny Ertle, though he was never fully recognized as it had been won by DQ in a bout with champion Kid Williams.
Apparently the vending machine business called Mike’s name following retirement, and he later owned and operated a bar in St. Paul. But in the Spring of 1957, O’Dowd suffered a heart attack and eventually passed away in the St. Paul Veterans Hospital on July 28th, 1957.
O’Dowd, the Gibbons brothers, Ertle and Miske all made for some outstanding action. But to quote the Oregonian, O’Dowd was “credited with being one of the most aggressive world’s champions in history.”
Read more from Patrick Connor at Beloved Onslaught. Follow him on Twitter @integrital.