Discover the remarkable story of how journeyman Irish boxer Mike McTigue became world light heavyweight champion while the Civil War raged around him. eir sport 1, Mon, April 12th 8pm.
It is St Patrick’s Day 1923. Ireland is in the throes of a bloody civil war. The centre of Dublin is a no-go area dominated by military checkpoints and patrolling armoured cars.
What happened next remains one of the most bizarre episodes in boxing history as a journeyman Irish fighter defeats the reigning world light heavyweight champion to write his name into the history books forever.
The journeyman Irish fighter’s name was Mike McTigue. The reigning world light heavyweight champion was Senegal-born Louis Mbarick Fall who went by the somewhat mysterious moniker of ‘The Battling Siki’. The venue was the now long gone La Scala Opera House just off O’Connell St in the centre of Dublin.
It was a fight that owed as much to chance as to design. A decorated French war hero, Siki had been world champion since the previous September. He defeated Frenchman Georges Carpentier in a controversial bout that saw the three ringside judges overrule the referee who, claiming that Siki had tripped his opponent, initially awarded the decision to Carpentier despite the fact that he lay unconscious on the canvas. Fearing a full-scale riot, the judges intervened and Siki was duly crowned champion.
Siki was a flamboyant character, to say the least, known for his love of nightclubs, champagne and women. He was often seen walking his pet lion down the Champs Elysees dressed in white tuxedo and top hat.
He always carried a pair of revolvers and would fire them into the air to draw attention before ordering his Great Danes to do tricks.
He was touted as a potential opponent for reigning heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey amongst other big names, but for some reason agreed to fight McTigue and wound up in Ireland in the midst of a bloody civil war. It would be a decision that he would bitterly regret.
Clare-born McTigue was equally flamboyant in his own way. One of 14 children, he emigrated to America in 1912 at the age of 21 and, being handy with his fists, soon took up boxing. He fought for more than 16 years before finally having his licence revoked at the age of 38 following a series of bruising defeats.
The victory over Siki, of course, was his crowning moment. He went on to defend his title four times, eventually losing to former Olympic wrestling gold medallist Paul Berlenbach in May 1925.
McTigue had a reputation as a bit of a chancer. He pretended to be Canadian for a while to win the country’s middleweight championship in 1920. During one particular fight McTigue ducked as his opponent threw a punch which ended up hitting the referee instead.
He admonished his rival who, turning to apologise to the official for what he had done, allowed McTigue to catch him with a sucker punch from which he was unable to get up.
That the fight ever happened at all was a miracle. Neither side in the civil war was in favour of it going ahead claiming, ironically perhaps, that St Patrick’s Day was a time for celebration not violence.
Both boxers received death threats in the days beforehand. McTigue even got a handwritten warning under the door of his hotel room and both men began travelling with bodyguards.
A bomb exploded outside the venue just hours before the bout was due to start, shattering windows and injuring two children. But the fight went ahead nevertheless.
The ring itself was surrounded by armed soldiers as the fighters made their entrance. It was an intimidating atmosphere for both men. Strangely, the fight itself proved something of a non-event as very little happened over the 20 scheduled rounds, although McTigue finished the stronger and was duly awarded the decision.
Many years later he recalled that one of the soldiers surrounding the ring would jab him in the leg with his bayonet between rounds, saying: "I got three pounds bet on you. God help you if you lose!"
The fight proved a major turning point for Siki and his life spiralled out of control thereafter. He moved to the US, but was a shadow of his former self in the ring as hopes of securing another title bout quickly faded.
He sank into alcoholism and spent more time in speakeasies than the gym, often refusing to pay his tab and fighting his way out instead. His behaviour made him many enemies and he was found dead on a New York street with two bullets in his back in December 1925. He was just 28.
McTigue was met by over 1,000 well-wishers on his return to America after the fight. There was talk of him fighting Gene Tunney, another of the great heavyweights of the day, but it didn’t happen and he lost his title to Paul Belenbach before he was able to cash in on his new-found fame.
He worked as a floor manager in a Manhattan ballroom after leaving boxing, but also drifted into alcoholism and poverty and spent most of his later years either in rehab or being shunted from one New York hospital to another.
He died in 1965 at the age of 73.
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