Gallons of lamp kerosene have been sizzled during many a late night in futile attempts to pinpoint why exactly boxers fight.
Perhaps a fighter was born into a “fighting family,” like being born a Spinks, a Mayweather, or even a Judah. Or maybe having no other option, and being forced to enter a field of masochism to find a path to stardom, like a Flash Elorde or Jack Dempsey. Some fighters may just not know how to do anything else.
Others fight because they love it — the adrenaline rush and the semi-blinding, teeth-rattling sensation makes one feel alive, doesn’t it?
Martin “Fiddler” Neary had only six professional fights, according to his BoxRec record. But the ring wasn’t where Neary lived his life.
By the time he passed away from pneumonia in November of 1903, Martin Neary wouldn’t even have gotten to enjoy a full three years of senior discounts at local watering holes, as he was gone at 57 years old.
Whether or not you would describe Neary’s life as a “full” one depends on what you consider worthwhile adventures. But a bastardized Chinese saying and curse has over the years and through many translations become, “May you live in interesting times.” Martin Neary made his own times interesting.
The history of the “Neary” surname shares that of most Irish surnames: the first chief of a given clan would pass his name down to his ancestors, and the name would usually describe the warrior character of said chief. In this case, Neary is an evolved and Anglicized version of “Naraigh,” meaning “modest” — a seemingly imprudent adjective for a warrior in general, and especially one such as “Fiddler” Neary.
A 16th century legendary character named Donal “Boy” O’Nare accounts for one of the first uses of the name. Oddly enough, this many-times-removed relative of “Fiddler” Neary was let off the hook for various crimes, even murdering a man named John Vale.
In a twisted sort of karmic comeuppance spanning generations, “Fiddler” was arrested and indicted for murder following the ring death of Billy Walker at the hands of a man he seconded named Jimmy Weeden, in August of 1876. Through 76 bone-jarring, scraping and nose-breaking rounds, Walker was smashed about by Weeden, who had reportedly taunted and goaded the much younger man into taking the fight for weeks.
The arrest itself perfectly sums up Neary’s life: He was only found by accident, as he had been in the middle of a brawl at Broad and Christian St. in Philadelphia. According to The New York Herald, the address Neary gave to police upon being arrested was “Clark’s drinking house,” and it was only after they realized who he was that the murder charges were brought forth.
Even before his transfer to state prison, he’d been arrested for brawling, fighting, attempting to gouge another man’s eye out, and jumping bail, only to be found by a bondsman in a saloon. But it wouldn’t be the first time he was arrested for gracing another fighter’s corner.
According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, in August of 1878, Neary was a second for F.P. Donahue against James Murphy in Philadelphia when the bout was interrupted by district police about an hour in. When police arrived, neither fighter had suffered much damage in the “blackened glove” bout — a type of fight where both men would put black paint or coal on their hands, and the one with the least amount of black on them at the end would be declared the winner.
He posted bail, per usual, and although the legality of boxing sometimes varied from city to city, much less state to state, there was the occasional legitimate fight for Neary. The Boston Globe reported in 1880 that a London Prize Ring Rules bout between Neary and Mike Mullary in which “Neary was terribly punished and not able to win. His second refused to let him fight it out,” but the bout was essentially declared a draw after 16 rounds and 35 minutes. But it wouldn’t be the last Neary would hear of Mullary.
A year later, the National Police Gazette reported that Mike Gillespie had defeated Neary, though didn’t specify what the result was, or whether the bout was a legal one. The same publication reported that Neary was also vanquished by Peter Croker via stoppage in 73 rounds in Long Island, October of 1871.
All in all, 1883 was an interesting year for the “Fiddler.” He managed to get thumped trying to steal the baton of a patrolman named “Burke,” get stabbed with a penknife in a bar fight — both in New York — and lose a points decision to Jim Connelly in Boston, in that order. The New York Herald called him “a well known character.” It was almost as if Neary’s shenanigans were, in a way, celebrated.
Win, lose or paying fines for disorderly conduct, Neary was something of a local legend — a rummy to be both laughed at and respected. Even when he and George Benland were taken to the Jefferson Market Courthouse covered in bandaged wounds later in 1883, no charges were brought on either man, and the scene turned downright satirical, with both men appearing ragged and freshly tended to, but clamming up and shrugging their shoulders.
From 1884-1886, “Fiddler” had far more squabbles outside of the makeshift rings than in them, going 0-0-1 and 1 no contest (which may or may not have been an exhibition) against Tom Allen and Patsy O’Leary legally, and found himself entrenched in this conflict and that — including an old one.
In September of ’85, Neary had been grabbing a drop at the sports club of famous boxing manager and former fighter Billy Madden on Bowery St. when, in typical “Fiddler” fashion, he began harassing a random customer. When Madden attempted to interfere, Neary smashed a handful of glasses at the respected boxing figure, who had handled the careers of John L. Sullivan, Peter Maher, “Nonpareil” Jack Dempsey, Tom Sharkey and Jack McAuliffe, among others. For his trouble, Neary was sentenced to one month of convict labor on Blackwell’s Island.
The following January, he was indicted on counts of goading a police officer into a fight, then clubbing the copper over the head. But the next month, Neary and old foe Mike Mullary met on the sidewalk between 1st and 2nd St. in Manhattan, sauced to the gills, and came to blows something fierce. According to The New York Herald, when police arrived, Mullary had already decked Neary moments into the scrape, pummeled him, and was on top of him and trying to gnaw his ear off. His head swaddled in bandages and eyes swollen almost shut, Neary was shipped off to a familiar island with time to think, but this time for three months.
And in November, 1886, a saloon keeper named Theodore Mollenda, who ran another joint on Bowery St., complained that Neary had been threatening to assault him. “Fiddler” was in return sentenced to six months on Blackwell’s by the Essex Market Court.
One could say Neary was staging a scenic and unprecedented tour of court rooms, Justice chambers and correctional facilities around New York and Philadelphia. And in that sense, he was well-traveled. Blackwell’s Island must have spat him back out and disliked the taste, however, because he was never reported as going back. It wouldn’t serve as much of a surprise to learn he simply wasn’t welcome there anymore.
He wasn’t all snips and snails, however. In December of ’84, Neary and Jack Keenan participated in a “square hold” wrestling match — an Irish form of folk wrestling — to benefit a man named Steve O’Donnell at Harry Hill’s gambling Hall on Bowery St., reported The New York Herald.
1887 looked to be a solid four seasons for Martin Neary, as he’d finally put together two wins: Jack Williams and Jake Hynes both picked up losses, Hynes by KO. Except one month after his May bout against Hynes, Neary was found wandering the streets of New York acting “peculiar,” according to The Plain Dealer, and was turned over to the commissioners of charities and correction.
Since Neary hadn’t committed any well-known atrocities in a bit, one would assume he simply went about being Martin “Fiddler” Neary, just better-tucked under the radar than usual. He turned up in 1889, however, once more arrested, and this time for bashing the noggin of a 17-year-old patron of the Third Avenue Theater while working as an usher.
The film business didn’t seem to suit him, so Neary went on to fight an exhibition with Jimmy Hagen on a mixed boxing and wrestling card at the Athletic Club of the Schuylkill Navy in January of 1890, thought the bout was reported by the Philadelphia Record as being “for blood,” and in that regard, Hagen won. The same month, Neary held a benefit at the Quaker City Athletic Club. And finally in November of the same year, in his final recorded bout, Neary lost a points verdict in seve rounds to his most notable opponent, Johnny Van Heest. Five years later, Van Heest would win a highly controversial decision over Joe Gans — a decision Gans was never given the opportunity to avenge.
But it appeared that Neary had worn out Bowery St.’s welcome, and familiar New York neighborhoods were no longer amused by the malarkey. Living on Wood St. in Queens, Neary was sentenced to a year in the Department of Corrections three months after the Van Heest bout, in 1891. And in 1895, the Philadelphia Record had Neary and 40-plus other men getting arrested for hosting a bout between “Fiddler” and Charles “Bull” McCarthy in a secret gathering dubbed the “Coachmen’s Club.” The building on South 24th St. in Philly was also found to have a large stockpile of liquor.
The New York Times broke the news of Neary’s passing from pneumonia at Bellevue Hospital in 1903. According to the story, Neary worked the last eight years of his life as a “special policeman” at the Iron Pier on Coney Island.
In the 1910s and ’20s, Tad Dorgan wrote a national column in which he reported on the opinions of various fight personalities and pundits as to who the best fighter they’d ever seen was. Dorgan asked artist and Civil War correspondent Arthur Lumley some years before he passed away in 1912. Lumley replied, “There were in my day Dempsey, Sullivan and McAuliffe. Great men I guess, just as good as any I ever saw, but there was another fellow who was a terror. ‘Fiddler’ Neary was this fellow’s name, and he never trained any harder than a desk sergeant at police headquarters. He was just a fighter. He cared nothing about condition, but in a fight he was just a terror. This fellow used to fight 10 and 12 times a night. Can you beat that? He used to make the rounds of the clubs and take on anyone near his weight as long as he could get some change. His first stop of the evening would be Harry Hill’s old joint, then he’d go to Owney McGoogan’s, then to Billy McGlory’s Armory hall. Some nights he’d knock out five or six. Then ‘Fiddler’ would sport around the rest of the night and flirt with the merry mucilage until he was broke. He usually ended up in ‘Irishtown,’ Brooklyn saloons. Some nights, after a tough evening before, he would start out to get money, and in his first three starts would be knocked out. That made no difference to him, however, for after being cleaned up he’d sail on to the other boxing halls and win two or three goes to even up the night. He was just a fighter. Loved it and would take it for breakfast, lunch and supper if he could.”
You’d need fewer than six degrees to separate Neary from something meaningful, or someone truly great. Even in his last “legitimate” professional fight, his opponent held a win, albeit questionable, over a man widely considered to be an essential ring pioneer in Joe Gans. But rarely was Martin “Fiddler” Neary separated from a bottle of alcohol by more than six feet.
A fiddle is nothing more than a violin, just used to play a different, less-classical tune. Needless to say, “Fiddler” Neary sauntered through life to his own signature notes. But it almost seems rare that a fiddle is associated with much of anything good. Roman Emperor Nero “fiddling while Rome burned” has become a common colloquialism to describe madness and/or apathy; playing “second fiddle” generally means being obscured by or subordinate to something or someone greater; and even going back to Franz Liszt’s Mephisto Waltzes, the fiddle has been used as a vehicle to suggest devilry afoot.
In a strange, anachronistic way, “Fiddler” Neary could relate to all of those things. Perhaps he could have been a much greater and more meaningful fighter had he settled anywhere other than Bowery St. for a time in his life, but a fighter he was. And that may have been the only music he needed.