Timber!

Chapter Seven

Jim Coffey & Frank Moran

The boxing pundits at that time (New York State Athletic Commission) decided that Frank Moran, who was hard done by against Johnson in Paris, should be considered as a worthy challenger for the Title. At the same time they acknowledged that Coffey was the Number One contender, so in all fairness they ruled that Moran and Coffey would meet in an elimination contest to decide who should meet Willard, and they decided too that the elusive Willard would have to meet the winner for the Title.

Frank MoranFrank Moran

The ruling had no qualms for Billy Gibson or Jim Coffey. Recalling his record they established that Moran fought a No-Decision ten rounder with the durable Tom Kennedy—well Coffey had done the same. Moran was defeated over ten rounds by Tony Ross, whereas Coffey had knocked out Ross in six rounds. Moran had been beaten over twenty rounds by “Gunboat” Smith, whereas Coffey had out-boxed the “Gunboat” over ten rounds (a clear newspaper verdict.) Furthermore up until now Moran had not been in with such notables as “Battling” Levinsky, Carl Morris, Al Reich or “Fireman” Flynn—Coffey had come through against tougher opposition. Nevertheless, Moran had proved he could take some hammer—the twenty rounds with Johnson had proved that. And he had sixteen knock-outs to his credit. His method was well known, he’d absorb a lot of punishment to stay within range and wait for the opportunity to land his particular, powerful right-hand punch. He’d christened it his “Mary Ann”. It had stood him in good stead.

Coffey went in to special training at Brighton Beach where there was a well established state-of-the-art gym and training facilities. There was no doubt in either camp about the critical importance of the impending battle.

They met in Madison Square Garden on 19th October 1915. Hundreds of supporters had to be turned away. Coffey was odds-on favourite and the Irish had backed him to the hilt. The atmosphere was tense and electric. Coffey in his corner looked cool and confident; Moran looked his usual dour self.

From the outset Moran began to step in aggressively. Despite the accuracy and power of Coffey’s jabs it was like a rubber ball bouncing off a brick wall. Moran took the blows and waded through them. His plan was clear, to keep Coffey within range of his “Mary Ann”. The Coffey fans raised the roof when at the end of the first round Moran was bleeding from a busted nose and cut lips. He was being completely out-boxed. Again in the second round for the first two minutes Frank took a severe hammering. He appeared groggy and lowered his guard and now Coffey moved in to finish him off. But Frank had walked him in to a fierce “Mary Ann” that shocked the Irishman and sent him reeling across the ring. He staggered on to the ropes and although Moran tried to nail him Coffey defended as best he could and hung on until the end of the round.

The effects of the right-cross towards the end of the second round were still manifest when Coffey came out for the third. He was weak in the knees and still a bit bewildered. Moran sailed in, confident now. After a flurry of blows he swung wildly with a left to the body but at the same time put over a mighty right that landed full belt on Coffey’s chin. His “Mary Ann” had landed again. Coffey was helpless now but in fairness, Moran looked pointedly to the referee who made no move so that Moran felt he had to go in for the “kill”, but the referee recovered himself and arrived in time to step between them. He held Moran’s hand as the winner and escorted a confused Coffey back to his corner. Coffey’s destruction and the probable end of all his hopes had taken about ten minutes. Appendix 21 - Moran 1915.

The newspaper headlines stated “It was a tragic day for Ireland when Jim Coffey took the count”. The vast Irish following was devastated. Billy Gibson was broken-hearted. Nevertheless Billy took up the cudgels on Coffey’s behalf and insisted that he be given a re-match. And the pundits agreed. They were to meet again on 7th January 1916. In the meantime Gibson was also anxious that Coffey should not in any way be upset or discouraged. They consoled each other that defeat was due to a lucky punch, a fluke against all the odds.

Then six weeks after the Moran defeat Gibson matched Coffey against “Gunboat” Smith—his ulterior motive being to disconcert Moran who had lost to “Gunboat” over twenty rounds and indeed had never had the upper hand—Moran was to lose to him again at the end of this year and again in 1917—called No-Decision results, but it was well reported that Moran was out-pointed on the three occasions. In contrast Coffey had already out-pointed the “Gunboat” and now at this meeting on 29th November 1915 he proved to be fully recovered as he knocked out Smith in the fourth round. “Moran Beware!” said Gibson. Appendices 22 - Comeback & 23 - “Gunboat” Smith.

Greatly encouraged by his decisive victory over “Gunboat” Smith, Coffey trained as he’d never trained before. By January 1916 he was faster, lighter, and fitter than he’d ever been. Jim knew, and all the fans knew, that all he had to do was out-box the slower Moran—and of course avoid the “Mary Ann” this time around. Madison Square Garden was packed to the rafters. Again he was odds-on to win and the Irish felt they’d get their money back.

For seven of the ten rounds Coffey boxed like the world beater he really was. Moran had no answer to the onslaught. His wild swings were easily avoided. He tried to upset Coffey by fouling in the clinches, holding and wrestling. The referee had to warn Moran more than once. At the end of the seventh round Coffey was so well ahead on points that he felt he could slow down a little and conserve his energy for a big finish. Only ten minutes or so to go. At the same time he noticed that an exhausted, well-beaten Moran dropped his guard at intervals. He was really tempting Jim to take a pot-shot at his chin. And of course Jim would dearly love to knock him out—this would even the score and make certain of his fight with Willard. Then towards the end of the eighth Coffey seized his opportunity and stepped in to finish him off. But Moran had already unleashed one of his desperate right swings. More “Mary Ann”s and Coffey went down for the nine count at least three times. He went to rise helpless and hopeless for the fourth time when at the count of six Billy Gibson tossed in a towel to indicate defeat, but nobody took any notice, so Billy threw in a larger towel, then a big sponge and would have thrown in the bucket but referee Brown eventually intervened, for Gibson was mindful of the effect that the same Moran had had in the recent past on the late Luther McCarty. See Appendix 24 for both fights.

Moran's Title Shot

As a matter of interest Jess Willard had to agree to meet Frank Moran who needed almost three months to recover from the battering he took from Coffey. It was reported that Jess and his manager Jones would not have put the Title at stake if the contender had turned out to be Coffey. Even against Moran they stipulated that the Title would not change hands on a No-Decision verdict—Moran had to knock out Jess to win the Title. The battle took place in Madison Square Garden over ten rounds on the 25th March 1916. It turned out to be a lack-lustre slogging match, both men dishing out and receiving mighty punishment. Frank landed now and again with his hay-making “Mary Ann” and Jess landed many times with the right that floored Johnson—but all to no avail. Neither man went down. Moran as usual took a severe beating and it has to be stated that Willard won, well ahead on points. For once Frank failed to pin-point the “Mary Ann”.

Willard's Reign

With the major share of the $70,000 purse Jess put the Title in to cold storage. No way could he be induced to tangle with Coffey or “Gunboat” Smith, or any other of the leading contenders. Apart from a harmless six round victory over “Sailor” Burke (record not known) in September 1916, and a great preference for Exhibition bouts, Jess virtually disappeared from the boxing scene. When he did emerge in 1919 he had not defended the Title in three years. He was ring-rusty and then thirty-three years old, but worse than that he was up against one of the greatest hitters of all time, Jack Dempsey, who demolished him in three rounds; actually Dempsey nearly killed him and rumour abounded that Dempsey had used unorthodox bandaging back in the dressing room, together with a hint of Plaster of Paris. Nothing was made of it at the time but it is significant to quote from page 192 of the book by John Jarrett on Gene Tunney :

"In the preparation for the Dempsey-Tunney fight it had been provided by the Boxing Commission that the bandages which they were to furnish were to be put on in the ring."

However, there was some consolation in the fact that Jess received $100,000 and Dempsey only $27,000

Moran's Downfall

Frank Moran over the next few years (1916 to 1920) continued to have success with his "Mary Ann" and crossed the Atlantic a few times to do so, but apart from the boring fight with Jess Willard, he never got another tilt at the title. In 1921 and 1922 however he lost four consecutive bouts, two in New York, one in London when Joe Beckett (who had knocked out Bombardier Billy Wells for the British Title) knocked him out in seven rounds, and one in Paris, when Marcel Nilles outpointed him over fifteen rounds. It is claimed that Moran then gave up boxing. He had taken too much hammer over the years and - according to Nat Fleischer - became an actor in Hollywood. But there is a counter-claim that he stayed on in England, where he would end up as a barrow-boy in Leeds Market (Yorkshire).

Back to Coffey

Carl MorrisCarl Morris

As far as the Jim Coffey camp was concerned one can hardly imagine the agony of disappointment and chagrin following this second defeat by Moran. As reported in Appendix 18 - First Willard Offer & 19 - Second Willard Offer, Billy Gibson tried in every possible way to inveigle Jess Willard and his manager Jones to meet Coffey, but they had no intention of putting their precious title on the line.

"Never mind" said Billy Gibson "you're only twenty-five years old, your career is still ahead of you - we'll get you the Title yet!"

"You set them up" agreed Jim, "and I'll continue to knock them out".

At the same time Gibson however was greatly relieved that Coffey had recovered well - indeed twenty-one nights exactly after the defeat by Moran he proceeded to knock out Lou Bodie in five rounds in Syracuse; Again a few months later on he knocked out the experienced “Denver” Jack Geyer - see report of the fight (Appendix 25) showing that the referee stopped the contest in the fifth round, at the same time as Geyer's seconds threw in the towel. And now as the records show, Billy Gibson proceeded to supply Coffey with KO fodder.

1917 started off with a clear decision over Bob Devere over ten rounds and then in the next three bouts (versus Sam Nolan, Joe Cox and Terry Kellar) either the referee intervened to stop the contest or their seconds threw in the towel - each fight lasting only three rounds - easy victories really for the Coffey's continuing comeback. But then an acid-test fight loomed up. Carl Morris sought revenge for Coffey's one-sided victory, just about two years previously. Press speculation claimed Morris had greatly improved over the last twelve months having chalked up inter alia, victories over "Battling" Levinsky in fifteen rounds, and “Gunboat” Smith in ten. Indeed he could be reckoned once again as a real contender for Jess Willard's title. On the other hand since the Moran defeats, Coffey at this time was an enigma; As to how he'd cope with the revitalised Morris was anybody's guess.

As usual for Coffey, many fans had to be turned away. I enclose Appendix 26 - Carl Morris which details the fight which took place on 23rd April 1917. Coffey won the first round against the slower opponent but then seems to have become lethargic until Billy Gibson told him that Morris was ahead on points—Jim would have to pull out all the stops in this last, tenth round to beat Morris. As the report shows, Coffey did just that. Morris took such hammer in the last round that his points lead was wiped out and the contest was deservedly declared a Draw. Not only that, but Coffey’s prestige was restored in the rankings and he was back again in top favour with his fans. But Billy Gibson noticed that Jess Willard and some of his entourage had made a point of attending and assessing the Morris bout, and he felt in his heart that neither Morris nor especially Coffey would rank in Jess’s future plans. And they never did.

About four months later Jim was to meet a fellow compatriot, Bartley Madden. Born in the adjoining County of Galway, Bartley in 1910 became interested in boxing (it must have been the amateur version in Galway) but in 1912 when he landed in New York he soon became involved in the professional game and quickly found himself contending with some of the best fighters in the business at that time. White Hopes like "Battling" Levinsky, Bill Brennan, Harry Greb, Tom Gibbons and many more light-heavyweights and heavyweights. He found training dull and boring and for some fights he never trained at all. Harry Wills, the Black Panther (whom even Dempsey avoided during his career by applying the Colour Bar) battered Bartley from pillar to post, but Bartley wouldn’t go down; Fred Fulton too and many others found they couldn’t do anything with the rugged Irishman. Indeed, his durability was so renowned that when Gene Tunney eventually succeeded in knocking him out (third round, 25th Sept. 1925) some mischievous news sheets claimed that Bartley had taken a “dive” and thrown the fight. However, Bartley quickly contradicted any such falsehood and confirmed the truth of the matter.

Bartley and Jim Coffey (really neighbours’ children) met on 3rd Sept. 1917. The Press claimed that continuing his six wins so far in 1917 Coffey also had a sound victory over Bartley Madden. When a return match was suggested Jim was only too willing. But prior to that return match and only eight nights after his clear win over Madden, Coffey had another of his many battles with "Battling" Levinsky—this time to Jim’s great annoyance the result over twelve rounds was declared a draw. “I’m getting fed up with these Draws” complained Jim, who within two nights proceeded to force Joe Bond’s seconds to throw in the towel in the third round. “That’s more like it”, thought Jim. Next in line was Big Bill Brennan, a good fighter with a decent record—perhaps best remembered for his title fight with Jack Dempsey on 14th December 1920. Briefly, Brennan staggered Dempsey with a terrific right uppercut in round two. By the fifth round however, Jack was back in the fight. Then in the eighth a right hand nearly took Bill Brennan’s head off. In the tenth a terrific right from Brennan almost tore off Dempsey’s left ear. Dempsey’s corner was alarmed that the referee might stop the fight as he should have done and roared to Jack that he had to finish it—and he duly did in the twelfth round by knocking out Big Bill and thus retaining the Title. Appendix 27 describes Coffey's tussle with Brennan. Apart from the New York Times which awarded the honours to Coffey on points, most press reports gave it as a Draw, "Another bloody Draw" said Jim. Two weeks later came the return match with Bartley Madden, where as the press has it "Jim outboxed his fellow country-man with ease for six rounds, but in the following session Jim was slow in getting his chin out of the way of a mighty swing from Bartley and Coffey was counted down and out"

With something like thirteen fights in as many months since the defeat by Moran, Jim had gone a fight too far.