Published: 10:48 | 10/3/21

Documentary: Babyface Goes To Hollywood

This is the story of forgotten Irish boxer Jimmy McLarnin who won two welterweight world championship titles in the 1930s before embarking on a successful business and acting career. eir sport 2, Mon, March 15th 9.30pm.

So many tales of sports legends from years gone by end in tragedy, a life cut short by accident or illness leaving behind just a few battered black and white photographs or a flickering sepia-tinted film to remember them by. 

Where once their name was on everybody’s lips, so often all we are left with are just a few tattered mementos to remind us of a forgotten star in their pomp.

Not this one though! Jimmy McLarnin walked the hard road in the golden age of boxing, fighting some of the best boxers of the era along the way. He rose to the top but, more importantly, knew when to quit and retired a wealthy man who went on to live to a ripe old age.

Written and directed by Andrew Gallimore, ‘Babyface Goes To Hollywood’ is the story of his life as told, mostly, by himself. We also hear from a host of colourful ringside experts including legendary sports writer, screenwriter and author Budd (On the Waterfront) Schulberg.

Early years

McLarnin was born into a Methodist family in Hillsborough, Co. Down in December 1907. His family emigrated to Saskatchewan, Canada when he was three years old before finally settling in Vancouver where the young McLarnin quickly made a name for himself as a prodigious athlete who excelled in football and baseball as well as boxing.

Former professional boxer Charles ‘Pop’ Foster recognised his potential and took him under his wing, even building a gym for him to train in. It was a partnership that would serve McLarnin well at a time when most up and coming fighters fell prey to mobster and gamblers.

The pair headed to the United States when McLarnin was just 16 looking to land some big purse bouts. He quickly carved out a reputation on the circuit where his youthful looks and awesome punching power earned him the nickname ‘The Babyfaced Assassin’.

Boosted by strong support from the emigrant Irish, he fought his way up the ranks, first in the lightweight division and later as a welterweight.

His first shot at a world title came in May 1928 against lightweight champion Sammy Mandell at the Polo Grounds in New York, but he was defeated by unanimous decision. 

He would go on to beat Mandell twice over the next few years in non-title bouts among several other notable victories.

World champion

McLarnin moved up to welterweight and earned his first world title in May 1933 when he knocked out reigning champion Young Corbett III in the first round in Los Angeles. It was the culmination of years of dedication and hard graft.

He relinquished his crown a year later when he lost the first of his legendary trilogy against tough American three-weight champion Barney Ross by split decision at Madison Square Garden. 

The pair met again six months later at the same venue where McLarnin emerged victorious, again by split decision, to be crowned champion for a second time.    

The final chapter in the trilogy came at the Polo Grounds in May 1935 when Ross regained the title by unanimous decision. 

McLarnin never fought for a world title again. He beat Tony Canzoneri and Lou Ambers, considered two of the greatest fighters of the day, to seal his place in boxing legend before retiring in November 1936 after a 15 year career.

Later years

He never returned to the ring, despite being offered significant monetary incentives to do so. Instead, he opted to enjoy his retirement and make the most of his celebrity status.

He opened an electrical goods store and did some lecturing, but mostly just played golf. He also dabbled in acting and appeared in a number of Hollywood films throughout the late 1930s and 1940s, most of which centred around boxing.

He died in October 2004 at the age of 96.

Image: Getty

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