New York

Chapter Four

New Arrival

New York Flatiron BuildingFlatiron Building

Jim was a jovial character; He loved telling gags. One of his favourites was about an Irishman who had just arrived in New York. He was standing at a level crossing and didn't appreciate the frantic gesticulations of a man in the signal box on the other side of the road; It seems the new arrival was standing directly on the spot where the barrier had to be lowered to stop road traffic for the approaching train. Eventually some passer-by showed the greenhorn what the problem was and he jumped out of the way - but not before the exasperated signalman had shouted "I hope the last of them is over now."

Not that Jim himself was that much of a greenhorn. That summer of 1911 found him well established as a trolley motorman on Third Avenue, a serious promotion from being in charge of a horse-and-cart back in Tully; Really in every way a big step in to the sophisticated bustle of the heart of New York.

Later that Autumn it came in very cold one evening, when a Traffic Cop called Tom Shaw stepped on to Coffey's car, more to get out of the bitter weather than to go anywhere. In any case they were snarled up in a traffic jam - nobody on board either at this stage. Tom was clapping his gloved hands and gave Jim a nod of acknowledgement and pranced about as he did a bit of shadow boxing. "As you're not busy and can't go anywhere," he said to Jim, "what about a bit of a wrestle to help your circulation?"

Jim Coffey Boxing Pose

"OK Tom," said Jim, and joined him, but in a jiffy he had Tom upskittled on the floor of the aisle. Jim at once apologised profusely. "It's them heavy overcoats you're wearing," he went on to explain.

Now Shaw was a big man, had been a boxer and a wrestler, indeed he was a keep-fit enthusiast; Later on he was to become the Physical Training Instructor at Police Headquarters. But Tom had been taken aback. The fast reaction and obvious athleticism of the big Irishman had surprised him; He reckoned the heavy overcoat only added to his 200 lbs weight that had so effortlessly been tossed around. He wondered if this motorman really realised how strong he was.

But by now the traffic was moving again and Tom hopped off, "See you around Jim."

"Anytime" said Jim, resisting a chuckle.

Home from Home

Some biographies report that Jim Coffey originally found work with friends at a bleachery in Pawtucket, Rhode Island; Followed by a period as a Teamster in Providence; Before finally settling more permanently in New York where he earned his living as a Motorman.

Many people from Roscommon stayed at the same New York City 'rooming' house on West 116th Street, which was run at that time by a Jane Hand (maiden name of Dillon), also originally from Tully in Co. Roscommon. Jim would have known many of the people who passed through it's doors while he was in residence there.

Jane Hand had been married to James Hand of Gortaganny, but only opened the 'rooming' house after his death. Her daughter had been a friend of Bessie Coffey (married name of Ford), and her grandson, Fred Brunner has been kind enough to contribute his time & effort, and several photographs to this book & web site about The Roscommon Giant, again renewing the links of friendship between our two families down the years.

Jack Johnson

Jack JohnsonJack Johnson

I break off here to outline the heavyweight-boxing situation about that time. Big Jim Jeffries had twice beaten most of his opponents and was fast running out of challengers. And so he retired unbeaten in 1904.

There was something of a hiatus after that—only partially filled when in 1905 Jim Jeffries presented the Heavyweight Belt to Marvin Hart, who had KO’d Jack Root in a sort of elimination contest. Hart went on to have some success, greatly highlighted by a twenty round decision in 1905 over the formidable up-and-coming Jack Johnson.

But Hart was never fully recognised as Champion, especially by a short Canadian who called himself Tommy Burns and who had a flair for self-publicity—not a bad fighter as his record shows, especially for his height (only 5'7") and weight (about 12 stone 7lbs). Eventually Hart and Burns met in 1906 and Burns out-pointed Hart over twenty rounds. This was scheduled and listed as the “Heavyweight Championship of the World”—and so Tommy Burns became the undisputed World Champion. He defended the title several times and then set out for Europe and Australia. Some said this was so that the title would be recognised all over the world, but others said (Tommy Burns himself amongst them to add to the publicity) that he was running scared, afraid of the powerful Jack Johnson. And as Tommy progressed, knocking out challengers in Ireland, England, France and finally Australia, insulting the “nigger” Johnson at every opportunity en route, the public demand for the fight became inevitable.

The clash took place in Sydney on Boxing Day, 26th December 1908. As predicted, Burns suffered a humiliating defeat, the Police entering the ring in the fourteenth round to save him from further punishment. But Tommy had ensured he was well paid for it; $30,000 a fortune in those days. Tommy fought on both sides of the Atlantic until 1920. In fact he must be the smallest World Heavyweight Champion ever elected to the prestigious Boxing Hall of Fame.

Johnson Vs. JeffriesJohnson Vs. Jeffries

Mainly because he was black, Johnson’s succession to the World Championship was greatly resented. There were other reasons too. The real trouble was that he was no Uncle Tom. The white man’s racism was fully reciprocated by Johnson in many ways; he mocked and taunted his white opponents in the ring; he delighted in ostentatious displays of wealth while at the same time leaving trails of unpaid bills. However the greatest criticism of him was that he was a womaniser, with a penchant for white women. In 1913 he was convicted of “immoral conduct” (i.e. transporting white women across State Lines for “immoral purposes”). He married four women, three of them white, kept a string of mistresses and generally outraged the establishment. He definitely succeeded in becoming the most hated man in America. He set back any prospect of a black fighter being considered for the Championship for more than twenty years. However, as a boxer he was really supreme. Indeed at one stage, in 1910, the invincible Jim Jeffries at thirty-five years of age, was persuaded to come out of retirement to tackle Johnson, but on the Fourth of July—of all days—he too was humiliated and knocked out in the fifteenth round.

Johnson was eventually defeated by Jess Willard (white of course) in 1915, but we will save discussion of the controversy surrounding that fight for later.

Jack Johnson went on boxing until 1928 (then fifty years old); he had 112 bouts and only lost seven. As a matter of interest he was killed in a motoring accident in 1946. He was belatedly but deservedly elected to the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1946. He was one of the greatest.

That winter therefore of 1911 when he first encountered the young Coffey, Tom Shaw would have been imbued with the widespread antipathy towards Johnson and the urgent need to discover someone with a glimmer of hope against him. And of course there were many entrepreneurs, promoters and managers very eager indeed to obtain a share of what had become a very lucrative business. Even Damon Runyon was affected by the tension created and wrote at least one of his short story classics on the subject.

Motorman to Boxer

Tom soon arranged to see Jim Coffey again. This time he quickly established that Jim had never boxed or wrestled, that he was a native Irish giant with no strings attached. And he surmised that if this big Irishman could fight he would be worth his weight in gold. As an initial step he suggested that they meet up at the Police Gym at 113 Street and the river—just to see what Jim would make of it all, see a boxing ring, punch a bag—just to have a look. “Nothing to lose,” thought Jim. On arrival the first evening there was a scattering of chairs in the lobby, which they tidied up and stacked against the wall inside the gym. There was a lot of activity; some skipping, quite a few shadow-boxing, others punching the several heavy bags. Further in two fellows with gloves were snorting inside a roped off area. “That’s the ring,” Tom pointed out. “You stay here, Jim; I’ll go and get some training gloves.” He was back in a jiffy. “Put these on—they’re well padded training gloves—so nobody gets hurt.” Then he proceeded to give Jim his first boxing lesson. “Lead with the left, the straight left, in to my open gloved hand.” Then he showed him the right cross; he outlined the uppercut, “That’ll come naturally in any case. Catch my punches now in your big gloves. Keep your guard up—learn to protect your head and keep it down.” “Now Jim try some body-punching on me, just bang out for my chest area, as hard as you can, bang away with your left.” And Jim did. But Tom was surprised to find himself reeling backwards and banging in to the stacked chairs. He was aware of discomfort in his ribs. Jim was at once apologetic. “You’ve been hit by them damn chairs,” he explained. But Tom knew the chairs hadn’t hit him in the chest. Again he found himself wondering if big Jim realised how strong he was. For now, Tom knew that Jim was a natural and had taken to this introduction like a duck to water.

They met regularly after that. Tom introduced him to skipping, punching both types of bag, how to duck and weave and some shadow-boxing. “I’d rather have somebody in front of me, rather than belting the air” Jim used to say. “A natural—a born fighter” Tom would remark to himself.

Then one evening Tom suggested that they have a chat instead of a work-out. “I’ve been talking to Carl Morris,” he said, and went on to explain that Carl Morris was the leading White Hope at the time. It seems that Tom had been talking to him that day—bumping in to him regularly as they lived in the same apartment house. “I’m a great fan of his—been to all his fights—an impressive series of KOs and wins. But he is anxious to continue on the crest of his winning wave. Now he tells me that he has two important—well they’re all important—fights before Christmas and he is on the look-out for a big sparring partner. And I’ve told him about you Jim, and how you were coming along—only starting out really, but he suggested we come in to the New Polo Club in the next day or two—there might be more in it for you Jim than the Trolley Car job.”

“Let’s go and see what they have to say—nothing to lose, have I?” said the laconic Jim.

“All the big names train here” remarked Tom, as they met with Carl Morris and his trainer at the Polo Club.

“You’re big enough anyway” remarked Carl, suggesting they have a sparring work-out. “A big reach too and plenty of muscle there.”

As they sparred around and went in to a clinch or two Carl kept nodding to his Manager and after about a three-minute round they took off the big training gloves and head-gear, assembled in the corner of the ring, and Carl said, “This big fella’ll do me fine.” Then he added, “But I’ll want him to train full time—to train alongside.”

A quick calculation of his present pay showed Jim was earning about $18 a week—The Manager offered $20 a week and Jim settled for this. But he did ask if he could be considered at a later stage for inclusion in one of the bouts the boxing promotions frequently staged. “Otherwise all the training and sparring would have no purpose.”

“See how you shape up,” said the manager.

On the way home Tom explained about Carl Morris. His father was Irish, his mother Cherokee Indian; he’s 6'4" tall and weighs about seventeen stone. His record up to that time (winter of 1911) showed nine wins by knock-outs, including Marvin Hart, and one No-Decision ten round battle with Tom Kennedy, a small very tough and durable slogger, fighting since 1901 and still beating the best of them. [No-Decision (ND) fights were never decided by points, and could only be won by knock-out. See page 100 for a fuller explanation.] Carl himself had been boxing only about twelve months and was now twenty-four years old. There was one odd thing Tom also felt he should mention. Carl had six fingers on his right hand necessitating out-size gloves, both for training and fighting. The gloves had to travel with him for every change of venue. Of course this meant his right fist was bigger than usual. Indeed it was thought he’d find it difficult to miss with that right hand. “The tip is, Jim,” Tom went on, “always circle him to the left—don’t provide a target for the big right hand.”

And so that winter of 1911 Jim Coffey gave up his job as a Trolley Motorman and got his feet in the door of the professional boxing circuit.

Carl Morris proceeded to win both fights, the first by his usual KO method but in the second he had to go the distance against the durable Tom Kennedy (himself a promising White Hope.)

That Christmas 1911 Jim Coffey had to nurse a damaged nose—it had run in to Carl’s big right hand. “The ham-fisted bastard”, Tom Shaw remarked. “It’s no wonder he runs out of sparring partners.”

“You didn’t mention that,” said Jim. “Anyway it’s not too bad—it’s taught me to be on my guard at all times—especially, when sparring with big Carl.”

But Jim was for some time now clamouring for a fight of his own. He trained assiduously alongside Carl and, unbeknownst to him, his prowess was being monitored.

Jim Coffey with Trainer Jim Coffey with Trainer

Billy Gibson

Then on 26th January, Jim’s opportunity arose. An opponent for Nick Muller failed to turn up at the Fairmont Athletic Club in New York. Nick Muller, in the professional game for some years now, had been at one time a sparring partner for Stanley Ketchel, the World Middleweight Champion, who in 1909 had stepped up two divisions to challenge Jack Johnson for the Heavyweight Crown (he lost in the twelfth round but he had floored the great Jack Johnson earlier on).

Billy Gibson (right) signing Gene Tunney (center)Billy Gibson (right) signing Gene Tunney (center)

Middleweights could box faster and hit harder than many of the Heavyweights. Indeed competition in the Middleweight division was so fierce that contestants often stepped up in to the Heavyweight rankings as a sort of money earning respite. This also applied to the Light Heavyweight division. But that night for his début, Jim, over six rounds, was facing an experienced, battle hardened professional, who would be quite used to dealing with a heavier and taller opponent. Press reports of the fight say that although “ . . . eager to make a good showing, Coffey boxed well within himself to win an undisputed points verdict.”

Watching Jim’s performance that night was Billy Gibson, a selective scout of the boxing scene. In his time he managed Benny Leonard, World Lightweight Champion from 1917 to 1922 who retired undefeated; and Gene Tunney, World Heavyweight Champion from 1926 to 1928, who also retired undefeated. Straight after Coffey’s victory over Muller, Gibson went to the dressing rooms and took over the Irishman’s affairs. At the same time the Club Management gave Jim his first prize-money. A great night for Jim Coffey—a sort of Birthday present in a way—for the next day, 27th January 1912, Jim was 22.