Is boxing merely reflection of what we are? Or does combat create that which we aspire to be?
Heroes, villains, martyrs and murderers are created at the bend of a knee to boxing’s stubborn rule, and the 1920s busted at the seams with tropes, devices and pugilistic deus ex machinae.
A man named Mike McTigue stepped into a ring with the “Georgia Deacon,” Tiger Flowers, on December 23, 1925, and through the cold New York City air rattled reminders of what the world signed on for when it decided to fit boxing into the playbill.
From Kilnamona, County Clare in the western portion of Ireland, McTigue was born in 1892 and one of thirteen children. At the age of 21, he found himself in New York, reportedly working the docks.
In a 2008 article for The Clare People, McTigue’s grand-niece Christine Breen related the familial tale about how McTigue fell into boxing. “Finding himself one day between a rock and a hard place he had to choose to defend his boss who had been knocked flat by a trucker or walk away and risk getting fired. He chose to fight and although bloodied and bashed, he won. His boss watching from his knocked-down position on the ground told him he was too good for the docks and should be in a ring.”
McTigue turned professional as a middleweight in March of 1914. Fighting almost exclusively out of New York, McTigue brought his record to (44-11-3, 17 KO) in four years, fighting mostly mid-range opponents at best. He seemed to have a knack for getting himself disqualified, as he racked up four losses that way. In his 1915 disqualification loss to Sailor Eddie Maher, for example, the New York Times said that after Maher had decked McTigue in round 1, “The latter was still groggy when the second round started and immediately ran into a clinch. After an exchange of blows McTigue said that he had been hit low, but the referee refused to concede a foul and McTigue left the ring.”
The Moose Hall in Cleveland was all too happy to welcome Harry Greb, who the Plain Dealer called a “fighting sensation,” to town. McTigue stepped up as his opponent, but he only managed to walk away with an embarrassing loss and a cut over his left eye. The Denver Post reported, “McTigue saved himself from a knockout by hanging on for the last four rounds.”
Following a three-month break, McTigue followed up the loss to Greb with three fights against journeyman Frank Carbone. Their final match in July resulted in McTigue being officially stopped for the first time, despite claiming a foul and being given several minutes to rest. The Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader said Carbone landed a “terrific body punch,” however, suggesting McTigue tried an old trick, and it again wasn’t allowed.
Nine fights later, a return bout against Greb was scheduled for December, 1919, and it didn’t yield McTigue much more than the first time. But hanging around for another 10 rounds against an offensive powerhouse like Greb — who the Cincinnati Post referred to as the “Jumping Kangaroo” — led McTigue to push for better opposition.
By this time, McTigue had been repeatedly promoted and touted as the “Irish middleweight champion,” though he never held the title, and in fact hadn’t ventured outside of a few states. Nonetheless, McTigue went to Nova Scotia in the spring of 1920 and knocked out undefeated Canadiam middleweight champion and amateur sensation Eugene Brosseau. The year prior, Brosseau tangled with former middleweight champion George Chip over 12 ugly, foul-filled rounds that left the Canadian partially paralyzed in his left arm.
McTigue stayed in Canada for the remainder of the year, during which he defended the Canadian belt over Bostonian Joe Eagan, before losing it to “The Bayonne Globetrotter” Jeff Smith in August.
Into 1923, McTigue’s opposition continued to improve, but he never could peak when it mattered: a win over Panama Joe Gans was good, but not great; and reclaiming the Canadian belt by knockout over George Robinson wasn’t insignificant, but did little for legacy and wallet. Fighting to veritable stalemates in 10 rounds against Battling Levinsky and Tommy Loughran brought experience, but didn’t necessarily translate to success.
Of all things, crushing an aged former British welterweight champion in Johnny Basham puffed McTigue’s name up a tad overseas, and, as he had done before, McTigue got comfortable and stayed for a while. Two wins right when 1923 came about led McTigue to an opportunity against light heavyweight champion Battling Siki — amid the Irish Civil War on St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin.
Small for a light heavyweight at about 5 feet 9 inches tall, McTigue rarely even came close to approaching the light heavyweight limit of 175 pounds. As the weigh-in between Siki and McTigue had been waived for undisclosed reasons, the Irishman was clearly to face a larger foe, but it was unclear how much larger Siki was.
Eamon de Valera, then the Irish president, criticized the event heavily, and McTigue and Siki eventually had to travel with armed guards when the La Scala Theater was rumored to be facing bomb threats, and both men received death threats personally. The fight moved forward, and McTigue used footwork to outbox Siki for most of the bout before turning on the offense in the final five rounds. McTigue punished the larger man, taking the title in front of the 1,500-person audience, which included an array of Irish political figures, and former champion Georges Carpentier.
An explosion rang out after the fight, not far from the Dublin opera house, but was reported to be part of celebrations.
From June of 1923 to January of 1925, there were at least four instances where McTigue perhaps should have lost his title. Due to the politics of allowing fights to end in official decisions, however, newspaper verdicts were rendered, and Tommy Loughran, Young Stribling and Mickey Walker all got the better of McTigue on plenty of cards, while the title remained Irish.
Paul Berlenbach, a former Amateur Athletic Union wrestling champion, was the fighter to claim McTigue’s title in May, 1925. In only his 36th bout, Berlenbach ate a stream of jabs through the first half of the fight, before pulling through with his strength and slicing McTigue’s face apart before the end of 15 rounds.
Bouncing back with a win and a short rounds draw, McTigue then took on Tony Marullo, who was Berlenbach’s first defense. A clear decision win then brought McTigue to try his luck against a Georgia transplant called Tiger Flowers, who had fought Greb to a close 10-round No Decision in 1924.
According to Bob Mee, author of “A Tiger Rose Out of Georgia: Tiger Flowers – Champion of the World,” a 1900 census stated that Theodore Flowers was born in February of 1893 in Camilla, Ga. Flowers’ father worked the Georgia railroad, though Theodore and his three siblings largely grew up in squalor, among other black families who lived the same way.
Flowers registered for the draft in 1917, during the middle of World War I, then began fighting as a professional in 1918. As Flowers’ exact date of birth is shrouded in mystery, so is much of his early career, which author Jimmy Jones would say Flowers directly credited God for planning out. A deeply religious man, Flowers was never without his copy of the bible, and often recited verses immediately prior to fighting.
Through 42 bouts, Flowers established himself as a decent draw, mostly fighting in the South, and mostly against other black fighters who were likewise frozen out of serious title contention more often than not. Before he had even fought 10 times, Flowers had gone 15 and 20 rounds twice apiece, always fighting hard. What kept Flowers from getting to the head of the class, however, were stoppage losses to various fighters. Among them, Panama Joe Gans, Jamaica Kid, Lee Anderson, Kid Norfolk and the great Sam Langford.
Finally at the end of 1922, when Flowers would have been about 29, he twice defeated New Orleans middleweight Eddie Palmer, then won over recognizable journeyman Frank Carbone by DQ in a wild donnybrook to close out the year.
Another knockout loss to “colored” light heavyweight champion Kid Norfolk, and an early loss due to injury against contender (and notorious racist) Fireman Jim Flynn — both in 1923 — temporarily derailed Flowers, but he would stay officially undefeated through the entirety of 1924. The snag on his record, if it could even be called that, was a no decision, non-title contest against middleweight champion Harry Greb that a majority of newspapers in attendance shaded Greb’s way. An AP report stated that Flowers, who had been called “the southpaw Harry Greb” by a number of reporters, confused Greb briefly in the opening rounds. But, “Greb staged one of his characteristic slam-bang fights, doing practically all of the leading and forcing the battle at practically all stages. He landed his blows from any and all angles.”
At the start of 1925, Flowers had avenged all of his losses but one. Unfortunately Flowers ran into Jack Delaney, a Canadian light heavyweight with a reputation as a puncher. Before two rounds were completed, the New York Times said, “…Flowers left his chin unguarded and started another dynamic rush. Delaney, set solidly and poised for the rush, sent over a right, a sort of half-hook, half-uppercut, which crashed against Flowers’ chin. The negroe’s body quivered an instant. Then he slipped to the floor from the impact of the blow, and blood spouted from his nose.” Then Flowers was counted out.
Flowers notched five wins before a month was up, then lost to contender Lou Bogash by DQ on a low blow. About six weeks after their first bout, Delaney was ruled the victor over Flowers once more by stoppage, but not without some controversy: after three rounds of Delaney playing defense, a right hand felled Flowers much like one had in their first bout, though not as decisively. When Flowers got up without a count and saw Delaney advancing, he took a knee, which was grounds for being disqualified. Delaney lashed out and pummeled Flowers with a shot while he was down, though, and it seemed as though referee Patsy Haley’s initial call would be to hand Flowers the win on a foul. After a few minutes, Haley curiously decided to start round 4 anew, and a single right hand put Flowers out for real this time.
A McTigue-Flowers bout had initially been slated for late August in Chicago, and was to be one of five scheduled engagements for Flowers that month. On August 1, however, reports out of New York stated that Flowers was having his tonsils removed, and his ledger was cleared. Flowers wound up keeping the scheduled bouts with Allentown Joe Gans and Jock Malone upon posting a quick recovery.
There were 19 fights on Flowers’ ledger from March to December of 1925, including revenge wins over Bogash, and meaningful victories over St. Paul, Minn. contender Malone. A points win over Welsh middleweight Frank Moody set the stage for Flowers to challenge former champion McTigue.
In early December, multiple outlets reported McTigue-Flowers as a done deal for Madison Square Garden on December 23, on a card benefiting the Christmas Fund — one of many causes boxing cards commonly put money toward. This one was put together by the New York American, and raised money to feed the needy on Christmas.
It was also noted early in the promotion that the winner would get a crack at light heavyweight champion Berlenbach.
Two days before the bout, International News Service editor Davis J. Walsh reported that McTigue was a 7-to-5 favorite. Walsh went on to say, “It will take all McTigue’s science to stave off the negro. Flowers is known as a knockout artist, and has put down many good men. He is a sensational scrapper in action, making a feature of swinging long lefts and rights from the floor. He invariably provides lots of color and typifies action. McTigue, however, is a shrewd, clever man inside and may be no target for the negro. Mike is the favorite because it is believed by many fans that in this fight there will be no knockout.
The same day, W.A. Hamilton, writing for the Boston Herald, said, “Despite his much vaunted success against colored boxers, Michael has a man’s-sized job on his hands when he faces Flowers. The Tiger will prove an altogether different proposition from many others he has fought. Unless Mike gets an early start, he is more than liable to find himself on the losing end of the verdict.”
On the day of the fight, James E. Doyle, writing for the Plain Dealer, said, “Michael, the careful Mctigue, meets Tiger Flowers in Tex Rickard’s new Cauliflower. The winner has been promised a title match with Paul Berlenbach, who knocked the light heavyweight diadem from atop Michael’s corrugated brow. McTigue, colorless fighter though he usually is, probably would have a better chance that any other light heavy to dethrone Berlenbach.”
A somehow overlooked harbinger of lunacy to come, none of the three officials in charge of the bout had much boxing experience, if any: referee Eddie Purvieux had never taken a boxing assignment, and judges Bernard Gimbel and Peter Brady were actually a department store owner and a banker, respectively.
In attendance at Madison Square Garden — McTigue’s first appearance at the venue since 1921, and Flowers’ first since his second loss to Delaney — was middleweight champion Greb, who took a train from Pittsburgh to catch the fight and promote a few likely upcoming bouts.
Greb wasn’t the only one who had difficulty with Flowers’ southpaw style and angles, apparently, as McTigue couldn’t figured out what to do with Flowers’ right jab and hook. From the start, Flowers was all over McTigue, who couldn’t side-step a foe that was about his size. McTigue struck back with body shots before round 1 was over, at least in an effort to establish his presence.
The temperature of the battle rose in the 3rd round, with both men swinging almost wildly. Surprisingly, Flowers began retreating as McTigue strafed his jaw with right hands. As John J. Romano, AKA “Fair Play,” wrote, “Tiger was all over him from the first round… McTigue, it was found after the bout started, had returned to his old defensive habits, and it was only in the fourth and fifth rounds when he cut loose and outfought the negro that he made any showing at all.”
At the start of round 5, McTigue had Flowers again retreating as he attacked. But in the final minute of the 5th, Flowers shifted gears as McTigue punched himself out, then managed to cut McTigue over the right eye before driving him about the ring as the bell sounded.
McTigue’s final hurrah, it seemed at the time, came as he flayed open Flowers’ left eyebrow with a right hand in the 6th round. Despite a veil of blood, Flowers pressed forward and kept the former champion on the defensive. Rounds 7 and 8 saw a repeat, but without any sort of momentum for McTigue, who couldn’t muster offense through Flowers’ effort.
Flowers chased McTigue around in the 9th, to the point where the latter was almost running away. An AP wire from the bout read, “In the last two rounds… Flowers carried the fight to the New York man so strongly that many observers expected the rally would decide the battle in his favor.”
When popular ring announce Joe Humphreys announced the split decision for McTigue, the crowd of about 12,000 “let out a roar that could have been heard to the East River. If ever an inefficient, blind, idiotic verdict was turned in at the end of a bout, this was it,” wrote Paul Gallico of the New York Daily News. They protested for about 10 minutes before being led from the arena by armed policemen, then continued discussing in disbelief outside — to the point of extreme mocking.
Founder of The Ring, Nat Fleischer, would later say, “There were many critics around the ringside who didn’t even give McTigue a round.”
In his next bout, McTigue also suffered a stoppage at the hands of Delaney, while Flowers was granted a crack at Greb for the title, which he won.
McTigue rebounded from the Delaney loss to score seven wins, all but one significant, then never won a meaningful fight again. Before retiring in 1930, McTigue lost to Tommy Loughran, Jack Sharkey, Mickey Walker, Leo Lomski, Bob Godwin, and far, far worse. In the late 1930s, McTigue had several run-ins with the law and was eventually committed to Bellevue’s psychiatric ward for alcoholism. He somehow survived until the age of 73. In 1966, he passed away in Queens, N.Y. of what was reported only as a “long illness.”
Flowers made one defense of the middleweight title with a close win over Greb, then lost the title to Mickey Walker in his subsequent defense. After dropping a points verdict to Lomski at the start of 1927, Flowers stayed undefeated until November, where his tale would fall more in line with the times.
McTigue won light heavyweight title from Battling Siki, who met an untimely end, murdered on the streets of New York. Flowers would go on to also pass away prematurely, as in November of 1927, complications arose four days after a surgery he had to remove scar tissue.
Greb had passed away very similarly, almost exactly one year earlier.
In early 1925, boxing lost Welsh great Jim Driscoll to pneumonia at the age of 44; then in summer came the death of Filipino great Pancho Villa after he suffered complications of his own after a tooth extraction procedure; and then Battling Siki was murdered. Greb was taken in 1926, in about the only instance where a fighter with around 300 professional fights simply didn’t have enough. In 1927, “The Welsh Wizard,” Freddie Welsh, suffered a strange heart attack in his hotel room at the age of 41; Tiger Flowers rounded out a succession of hard losses in boxing that November.
The roar of the 1920s perforates eardrums even today. Boxing — a sport of shadows, tricks and soul-selling — embraced the chaotic noise, as tragedies and losses gave birth to the most compelling of narratives.