There’s Philadelphia, the historic “City of Brotherly Love,” and then there’s boxing’s Philadelphia — the city with an unquestionable penchant for producing the type of fighters that laugh off blood and smirk at guts.
The industrial apathy of early 20th century Pennsylvania gifted the boxing world with one of the original “Philly fighters,” Tommy Loughran.
He doesn’t quite fit the schema of the brawling boxer we’re used to hearing about; Tommy was actually much more defensive-minded stylist than say Matt Saad Muhammad or Joe Frazier, to put it lightly.
Loughran was a legitimate professor in the ring. The issue was simply that it wasn’t often thrilling, and he is regrettably shortchanged for it as time goes by.
Even in 1928, essentially Loughran’s prime (or close to it), The Springfield Republican stated, “…for years Loughran was regarded as a colorless, uninteresting sort of fighter. He is a fine looking chap, of wonderful physique and handsome features, but he couldn’t hit a lick on earth, and he was given to defensive tactics to a degree that was positively annoying.”
Born Thomas Patrick Loughran on November 29, 1902, his dad was a street car motorman who wasn’t much of a boxing fan. Tommy grew up in an Irish immigrant home, like many other kids in that same South Philly area, the youngest of three boys.
Though he later attended St. Monica’s Parish for both grammar school and high school, Tommy tried to enlist in the U.S. Army at the age of 14, smack dab in the middle of World War I. The Army discharged him when they found out his age, though, and instead Loughran went back to school, then dropped out at 16 to work a few jobs, including one at a newsstand, and to learn how to fight.
Just barely 17-years-old, Loughran turned professional under the tutelage of William Fitzgerald at the Auditorium Club in Philadelphia, debuting as a lightweight and even earning a mention in The Philadelphia Inquirer’s “Boxing Gossip” section. His first fight resulted in a 2nd-round knockout win over a guy named Eddie Carter.
Tommy was clearly talented with his feet and very sharp his with hands, however, and became known around Philly for his technical style as he moved through welterweight and settled at middleweight for a spell.
In July, 1921, Loughran fractured his right hand in a bout with Jules Ritchie in Lancaster, Penn. — an injury that would affect his game for much of his career.
Loughran signed to fight middleweight great (and Pittsburgh native) Harry Greb, alias “The Human Windmill,” in June of 1922 for the light heavyweight title. Greb was coming off of wins over Mike and Tom Gibbons, Gene Tunney and Jeff Smith, while Loughran was advertised as unbeaten in his first 40-plus fights. Records now show that he was actually held to a few draws and lost a handful of fights early in his career, as reported by local newspapers, but he was seen as a worthy challenger based on wins over Mike McTigue and Bryan Downey, who had twice challenged Johnny Wilson for the middleweight belt.
Greb was the consensus winner of their first bout, which local Philadelphia publications described as relatively even through the first half before Greb’s mauling style won the day.
Just over a month later, Loughran took on former light heavyweight king Gene Tunney at the same Phillies Ballpark that saw him lose to Greb.
Even publications in the same city didn’t agree on who won Loughran-Tunney. For example, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Loughran outboxed Gene for the win, but The Philadelphia Record felt Tunney took the a very close bout, agreeing with The Wilkes-Barre Times, who had the bout for Tunney firmly.
But in losing close fights to a pair of truly great fighters, Loughran proved he was a true pugilistic chess player, especially good at slipping shots ever so slightly as to leave him in great position to counter. He wasn’t just a counterpuncher or a boxer or mover, though; he was sneaky in the clinch and he’d exchange when necessary — and he was pretty good at it too.
Over the next three or so years, Loughran battled with Greb five more times, in addition to two more bouts against fellow Irish scrapper Mike McTigue, two against light heavyweight great Young Stribling, a pair with Canadian Jack Delaney and two more with New York fighter Jeff Smith, who also had a bit of a rivalry with Harry Greb.
The existence of one champion was vague even back in the roaring 20’s, and while his only “official” title challenge at that time was for Greb’s “American Light Heavyweight” title in their third matchup, McTigue’s “World Light Heavyweight” title was confusingly halfway on the line — only for Loughran if he stopped McTigue in their June, 1923 fight. Since Tommy won a decision according to the papers, he wasn’t credited with winning the belt.
Loughran did manage one newspaper decision win over Harry Greb in their six meetings: a non-title bout that following October, though papers like The Riverside Daily Press reported after the fight that no winner had been declared, as was the case for most close fights of the time. The Omaha World Herald reported Loughran was a solid victor a few days later.
In June of 1926 Loughran faced the next great fighter on his ledger, former light heavyweight champion Georges Carpentier. In front of roughly 30,000 spectators at Sesquicentennial Stadium in Philadelphia, the Frenchman cut and hurt Loughran early in the contest, only to get floored by a right hand in round 7 and smashed to the body for the rest of the fight. While Carpentier was admittedly not far from the end of his career at that point, Loughran dug deep with a nearly closed right eye against a bigger foe with a famous name and won a 10-round decision.
The win against such a high profile opponent put Loughran in the running to challenge for the light heavyweight belt, then held by Paul Berlinbach. And holding his own against larger guys became a recurring theme in his career after settling into the light heavyweight division.
A bout against Chuck Wiggins in the Fall of 1926 highlighted what many fans disliked about Loughran though, as both he and Wiggins were suspended for 60 days for “stalling,” though Loughran was given a disqualification win, according to the Associated Press.
When Jack Delaney forfeited the light heavyweight belt in July, 1927, a Delaney-McTigue bout scheduled for August was scrapped, and instead McTigue was named the champion the same day. Thus, a McTigue-Loughran matchup in October was contested for the title.
The Rockford, Illinois paper The Republic reported Tommy was “…too fast, too clever, too light on his feet and too quick with his hands” for McTigue, though the champion had Loughran in dire straits at the final bell — the product of a furious last-minute rally that was too little, too late.
Jimmy Slattery’s win over Maxie Rosenbloom for the fledgling NBA organization’s light heavyweight title in August, 1927 created further confusion over who deserved to be called champion at 175 lbs., though numerous publications suggested Loughran had more of a right to be named king than Slattery, and Tommy was named a 2-1 favorite over Jimmy by the day of the fight in December, according to The Evening Repository from Canton, Ohio.
A strong southpaw, Slattery started quickly per usual, but Tommy used better footwork to take the middle rounds, earning a majority decision despite Slattery’s late rally.
In January, 1928, Loughran rallied back from being decked hard twice in the first round to take a 15-round decision from underrated light heavyweight contender Leo Lomski at Madison Square Garden. A few days later, The Milwaukee Journal credited Jack Brady and Joe Smith — his trainer and manager, respectively — for helping Tommy recuperate in before the 2nd round.
Following the Lomski fight, Loughran briefly shelved his title, citing a lack of suitable opponents and an inability to compete with the type of heavyweight and welterweight bonanzas Tex Rickard was always looking to promote.
Two fights against Scranton guy Pete Latzo in the Summer of 1928 did little to contradict Loughran’s reputation as a bit of a spoiler, as both bouts were controversial; Latzo should have received the decision than Tommy got in their first fight, according to the crowd of almost 8,000 fans, and Latzo complained of multiple fouls in their rematch a little over a month later in Wilkes-Barr.
An entrepreneur named Harry M. Pollock attempted to stage a 45-round bout between Loughran and Mickey Walker in Mexico for mid-1929, which fell through for unknown reasons.
Instead, Loughran’s title defense against Walker in March of 1929 marked the first event held at Chicago Stadium. The 20,000 fans in attendance watched as the larger Loughran out-jabbed and generally out-classed the former welterweight and middleweight champ, who was looking to become the first man to hold titles in three divisions since the great Bob Fitzsimmons.
July saw Tommy announce his final days as light heavyweight champion, suggesting that his fight against “Cinderella Man” Jimmy Braddock would be his last before likely moving up to heavyweight.
Following a wide decision win that showcased Loughran’s bag of tricks, Tommy confirmed by Special Wire that he would indeed be speaking to sanctioning organizations about moving up, saying, “From now on I am going to fight at my normal weight, which will preclude my continuing in the 175-pound division. I intend to give up the crown and see what I can do among the heavies, the authorities, of course, willing.”
In September, 1929, Jack Sharkey was tentatively scheduled to meet Max Schmeling when he KO’d Loughran in three. It was far from Loughran’s first bout over the light heavyweight limit, but it was his first attempt at becoming a serious contender at heavyweight and boosting his overall reputation. The hard-punching Sharkey was experienced at taking on former light heavyweight champions, having stopped Jack Delaney in round 1, and Mike McTigue on cuts in the 12th. Loughran entered the bout undefeated for almost four years. After likely winning the first two rounds, Sharkey stepped with a retreating Loughran early in the 3rd and landed a bruising right hand. Loughran rose to his feet clearly unfit to continue, and referee Lou Magnolia stopped the bout in front of a crowd of over 45,000 people in Yankee Stadium.
Pugilism wasn’t Tommy’s only hobby, though. Along with his trainer Jack Brady and actor friend Turc Duncan, he performed in a traveling vaudeville act. The trio also teamed up for charity events, like doing a boxing comedy skit at the “Annual Under-Privileged Child Benefit” in Palm Beach, Fla. in 1930.
In fact, even by February, 1930, the “Phantom of Philly” had become popular enough that special trains were run from Palm Beach to Miami so that his family, friends and a bugle and drum corps could be transported to his fight against European heavyweight champion Pierre Charles at Madison Square Garden Stadium. Loughran, alongside former Jack Dempsey trainer Jimmy DeForest, called out Schmeling shortly after going to heavyweight in 1930, even half-jokingly declaring that Max would hit nothing but air with his right hand prior to Schmeling’s first bout with Jack Sharkey — a surprise from one of boxing’s “nice guys,” though Tommy spoke from experience.
Two difficult losses to Ernie Schaaf in April and June of 1930 in Philly sidelined Loughran until October, and in November Tommy overcame a bad 1st-round knockdown to decision the experienced former fishmonger King Levinsky. But with every passing fight, it seemed Loughran’s speed dipped as he began to sit down on punches more, having adding muscle to his already-stocky frame.
The added power aided him in a firefight with Jack Gross, a fight that had Tommy tasting canvas in the rounds 6 and 8, but furiously battling back to make the bout a classic to many observers.
A 22-year old Max Baer was dealt loss number five at the hands of Loughran in February, 1931. Referee Jack Dempsey oversaw what was reportedly a strict boxing lesson by the man sometimes called the “Quaker City Kid.”
Later in ’31 Tommy avenged his losses to Ernie Schaaf with a decision, then beat Gross more soundly to erase any idea that Jack was nearly his equal. Based on his heavyweight activity, he became ranked in the top five at heavyweight.
Loughran was on the decline, though, and getting knocked down thrice against Levinsky in their second fight seemed to prove it. In 1932, Tommy’s version of “inactivity” towards the end of his career included back-to-back-to-back fights with tough contender Steve Hamas, where he went 1-2. A tough loss to fairly unheralded Stan Poreda in his hometown meant he’d lost in four of his last five outings.
But a returning Loughran put together a string of wins against Levinsky, Hamas and Sharkey, seemingly recapturing his old form.
A shady-looking bout with the 11-0 Ray Impellittiere — a Jess Willard-sized heavyweight that had 70 lbs. and more than a half-foot of height on Loughran — had Tommy overcoming a lacerated lip to win a decision, with the help of a crowd of over 5,000 and an intervening New York State Atheltic Commission chairman. Regardless, the fight led to a shot at the heavyweight crown, something Loughran had dreamed of for years.
In March, 1934, Loughran utilized technique and smart counters to outmaneuver Primo Carnera early in the fight, even stunning the much larger man on a handful of occasions. As the bout wore on, however, Carnera bulled at Loughran, using his size to wear Tommy down and slow his footwork to trap him on the ropes. The crowd of about 10,000 was unimpressed, and Carnera was railed in the press for facing an “old and decrepit” challenger after he took a wide decision.
Again Loughran demonstrated his idea of “winding down” his career by fighting Art Godoy three times, Impellittiere twice more — even capturing the Pennsylvania State heavyweight title in 1935.
Two struggles against Sonny Boy Walker convinced Loughran to walk away from the game in January of 1937, following a nearly 20-year career.
Loughran’s official record, as stated by the International Boxing Hall of Fame, stands at 94-23-9 (17 KO), 1 no contest and 45 no decision results, and Tommy boxed well over 1,100 pro rounds. He was stopped only three times: against unheralded Philly fighter Johnny Viggi in July, 1920 due to an injured rib that sidelined him for a spell; against Jack Sharkey in their 1929 meeting, courtesy of an excellent right hand; and in 1932 against Steve Hamas, who he would go on to have a four fight series with.
Post-pugilism, Tommy opened a restaurant in Philadelphia and worked as a recreations director for the city before joining the Marines.
Interestingly, heavyweight great Joe Louis wasn’t the only American fighter used for propaganda fuel during World War II. When Loughran joined the Marines in September, 1942, reporters on site quoted Tommy as saying he’d be happy to meet up with Schmeling on the battle field to compensate for the bout that never happened inside the ropes.
In the 1950s, Loughran got active in the Philly boxing community, hosting a local televised boxing program and commentating smaller fights from ringside, and tipping the scales at just 190-195 lbs. in his mid-50s.
When his church, St. Monica’s, was damaged in a fire in the 1970s, Loughran personally helped to coordinate fundraisers for repairs. That’s just the kind of guy he was.
Journalist and historian Chuck Hasson said of Loughran, “Tommy was known throughout his career as a gentleman as much as he was for being a great fighter.”
Perhaps simply being the nice guy isn’t the worst way to be remembered after all.
Read more from Patrick Connor at Beloved Onslaught. Follow him on Twitter @integrital.