Hope Versus Hope

Chapter Five

Coffey (right) poses with 'Bombardier' Wells (left) & TrainerCoffey (right) poses with "Bombardier" Wells (left) & Trainer

Early Career

It was well known that Billy Gibson chose for his stable only those who showed potential—real potential. To ensure their fitness he relied on Dan Hawkins who ran the best gymnasium in New York and a strict training regime; early morning road-work, skipping sessions, various types of strenuous press-ups, stretching exercises, combination punching on the heavy bag and co-ordination on the lighter ones, shadow boxing. And incorporated into a busy schedule great emphasis was naturally given to several rounds in the ring closely supervised by an active great exponent of ring-craft, Joe Jeanette. (He fought Jack Johnson in seven non-title bouts; Johnson would not give him a shot at the title; of the 154 bouts in his long career he lost only eight).

Another great bonus to the training of the maturing Coffey was the presence of the British Heavyweight Champion (1911–1919) Bombardier Billy Wells. He was the British entry in the White Hope stakes. A superb boxer, incidentally also famous as the athlete who tolled the giant gong introducing the Rank Organisation films. He too trained at the Hawkins gym and as they were about the same height, 6'3" (with Coffey still growing), and weighed about the 200 lbs mark, they were generally paired off for the boxing sessions. Wells was more a boxer than a fighter and Coffey learned a great deal from him. Between Wells and Jeanette and his own athletic reflexes, Coffey was becoming a formidable boxer-fighter.

As to Billy Wells he was a great boxer but wasn’t robust or strong enough to cope with the battle hardened warriors of those days. Furthermore he had a fatal flaw—in such company—he had a glass chin, that is he was too readily knocked out by a well-timed blow to the jaw area. In his first fight, in June 1912, he came up against Al Palzar, a knock-out specialist. Wells was knocked out in the third. Nevertheless his boxing skills stood him in good stead against two other tough opponents; he knocked out Tom Kennedy in eight rounds (Tom had been in with the best of them and knocked out George “Boer” Rodel in only the second round. George “Boer” Rodel was a very experienced and rugged South African and Coffey in March 1913 had a tough tussle with George and only saved the day by disposing of him in the ninth round.)

But then in March 1913 “Gunboat” Smith KO’d Wells in two rounds and Georges Carpentier (the French White Hope) KO’d him in four rounds.

After about twelve months in New York, Wells returned to England, where he retained the British Heavyweight title until knocked out by Joe Beckett in February 1919. Over a career of forty-nine fights, he had been knocked out eleven times. A great pity about his chin.

Another facet of being managed by Billy Gibson was his insistence that the contenders ate well. And Dan Hawkins reckoned the best staple diet consisted mainly of T-bone sirloin steaks. They were well fed.

Meanwhile back in Madison Square Garden (where he was a big share-holder) Billy Gibson was busy with his public relations exercises. Early in 1912, he told a gullible Press, always curious as to Gibson’s latest protégé, that Coffey had just arrived in from the ‘old country’, from a place called Roscommon (he had to spell it out for them); one of them suggested he could be called the “Roscommon Giant” and the name stuck.

He assured them Coffey had been boxing only three weeks when he beat Nick Muller and finally that Jim’s birthday was the 4th July. He made them gasp with some surprise when he told them that in a few weeks time, on 1st March, Jim was to meet Al Benedict over ten rounds. Al had just (on 21st January) gone ten rounds (No-Decision in those days) with the tough and durable Tom Kennedy, and again in 1916 against the same opponent, with the same result had proved he was no pushover and many times showed he was difficult to beat over ten rounds. Coffey had only done six rounds with Nick Muller, his first and only fight so far. A bout over ten rounds was a totally different proposition. However on the night Jim exceeded all expectations by putting Al down and out in the eighth round. The Press noted it; they were warming towards him.

Coffey sparring with WellsCoffey sparring with Wells

Then only two weeks later Billy Gibson again threw Coffey in at the deep end. He was to meet Alfred “Soldier” Kearns on 15th March. Now “Soldier” Kearns, who didn’t fare too well against the more seasoned opponents, had a formidable reputation (from 1909 to 1912) for knocking out up-and-coming prospective “Hopes”. In those years his fifteen victories all came by knockout, nine of those in round one. He did the same to the aspiring Coffey—a KO in round one. I append a copy of the report on the fight from the press cutting at the time (Appendix 11)

In the aftermath that followed, Billy Gibson advised Jim to follow Joe Jeanette’s advice. “It’s like being thrown off a horse—the best thing to do is to fearlessly mount up again, get your balance right, stay up there, and fire ahead.” But Billy also blamed himself. “I should never have matched you against that seasoned destroyer of novices.” And he deliberately reined in his unrealistic ambition for Jim and set about giving him more experience, so as to bring him along more gradually.

The training and learning continued apace and when he boxed again that mid-summer of 1912 he KO’d a collection of competent, but not too highly rated heavyweights. He also out-pointed “Soldier” Delaney, Dan Daily and Ray Simmons, over one six round fight and two ten round bouts, and so obtained some vital training in going the distance over ten rounds. Eight important fights in as many months.

He continued in the same vein in January 1913 by knocking out the same Ray Simmons in two rounds, and again out-boxing Daily over six, as well as having seven other serious bouts.

Jim Coffey Rises in the Ranks

Arthur PelkeyArthur Pelkey

By now Billy Gibson was eager to really launch his greatly improved prospect against a higher echelon of competitors. And so, early that January in 1913, in between the bouts with Simmons and Daily, Jim was matched against Arthur Pelkey, the Canadian entry in to the White Hope ranks. About this time the world’s white heavyweights, in the absence of Jack Johnson who had absconded to Paris, began to compete for the shadowy, racist title of “White Heavyweight Championship”.

At the time there were seven or eight contenders listed (some self-listed). They called themselves the “Great White Hopes.” We’ll come across most of them as the Coffey story unfolds, but for now suffice it to say that Arthur Pelkey belonged to that group

It was therefore a big upward step for Coffey to be matched with Pelkey. The fight took place over six rounds in Philadelphia on 9th January 1913. The report of the fight in “The Boxing News” stated : “They were due to fight a six-rounds, No-Decision bout at Philadelphia and Coffey was not only there at the final round but, in the opinion of most of the ringside scribes, had the best of it.

Nat Fleischer's Ring Record Book page 267 (Appendix 12-Luther McCarty) shows that on 24th May 1913, Pelkey fought Luther McCarty (the leading White Hope contender at the time), when only eight minutes in to their fight and after an apparently light blow in a clinch, Luther McCarty died in the ring. The Coroner’s jury decided that such a minor blow could not be responsible for McCarty’s collapse but that death was due to a brain haemorrhage, most likely inflicted in an earlier fight. McCarty’s previous fight was on 30th April 1913 (only three weeks before) when he went ten gruelling rounds with an equally formidable contender, Frank Moran. So the fatal damage to Luther McCarty should really be attributed to Frank Moran—of whom more anon

Coffey fought Pelkey again in March 1915 when he knocked out Pelkey in the second round

Now whenever the Roscommon Giant was on the Bill, the Irish fans were filling the arenas. The Press too were wakening to him, especially after the Pelkey victory. Between February and May he KO’d Ned Carpenter (in round one), Jack McFarland (in round five), George “Boer” Rodel (Technical Knockout in round nine) and Whitey Allen (in round one

It has to be mentioned that all the fights were not KOs, or easily won. Take the fight with George “Boer” Rodel (it may be recalled that Bombardier Billy Wells KO'd him in two rounds.) I append a Press Cutting (Appendix 13 - Coffey Vs. Rodel 1912-03-26) which shows that Coffey had to pull out all the stops to demolish Rodel in the 9th round

Then Billy Gibson ratcheted up the standard another notch or two. Coffey was to meet “Fireman” Jim Flynn over ten rounds on 28th May and this time Jim Coffey was to appear for the first time in Gibson's beloved venue, MADISON SQUARE GARDEN

A Word about Jim Flynn

This year (1913) Jim Flynn was thirty-four years old, and had been boxing since 1901 and he was still boxing in 1923 at forty-four years of age. Relatively small at only 5'9" and weighing about 180 lbs (13 stone) he spent his long career "Battling" with the heavyweights. In 1906 he lost to Tommy Burns over fifteen rounds for the heavyweight crown. He fought Jack Johnson in 1912 again for the Title, to lose in nine rounds (bout stopped by Police). He is famous for knocking out Jack Dempsey in one round in 1917 - in fairness Jack Dempsey was only twenty-two years old on his way up the ranks. And of course Jack had his revenge by knocking out Jim Flynn the following year in round one. Flynn had been in with the best of them; an experienced veteran of many battles. He was going to be a real test for the aspiring Coffey.

One report of the fight, "The Boxing News" of those days says: "The two Jims met at Madison Square Garden, the Irishman's first appearance there, and he did well to stay with his more experienced opponent for the full ten rounds of their No-Decision bout."

The National Police Gazette, New York, reported : "In the early part of the fight it did not look as though Flynn had a ghost of a chance of standing out the prescribed number of ten rounds under the energetic assault of his youthful opponent. But just at the stage where the crowd was bending to see the grizzled veteran go to the floor, Flynn would cut loose with an attack that would send Jim all over the ring."

Press reports considered a draw was not a bad result for the young Coffey.

""Battling" Levinsky" to "“Gunboat” Smith"

To round off a great 1913 and add to his prestige Jim was to fight "Battling" Levinsky on 22nd December.

"Battling" Levinsky (Jewish American) born in June 1891, started boxing in 1906 at the age of fifteen, early record not available; Professional record starts in 1910: Real name Barney Bebrowitz, height 5'11", weight 175 lbs (12-13 stone), Light Heavyweight Champion of the World 1916 to 1920; Credited with official 274 fights, but real figure is probably nearer 400 (an all time record); His boxing career stretches from 1906 through to 1929 but he was inactive for four to five years (Jan 1922 to Aug 1926) following his defeat for the Light Heavyweight Championship, over twelve rounds, by the unbeatable Gene Tunney (Levinsky then thirty-one years of age, the up-and-coming Tunney twenty-four). And this makes his annual active fight rate all the more phenomenal.

To achieve this he was obliged to fight the leading contenders many times over, e.g. Jack Dillon, leading Light Heavyweight (one time World Champion) eleven times, “Gunboat” Smith five times and Jim Coffey seven times (but it is known that they met more often than that) and so on. Indeed to quote from the "Great Book of Boxing" - Harry Mullan :

"He (Levinsky) achieved the unique distinction of boxingthree main events on the same day, when on New Year's Day1915 he boxed ten rounds with Bartley Madden in Brooklynin the morning, ten more with “Soldier” Kearns in New Yorkin the afternoon, and rounded off his remarkable day witha brisk twelve rounds against “Gunboat” Smith at Waterby,Connecticut in the evening."

In an extraordinary career he was KO'd only 4 times, one of these by Jack Dempsey in 1918. Following his return to the ring in 1926 he carried on boxing until 1930, then retired aged thirty-nine. He was elected to the Ring Boxing Hall of Fame in 1966.

And so Coffey faced a formidable opponent that December 1913. Actually they met three times over a relatively short period of about three months, December 22nd 1913 over ten rounds, January 3rd 1914 over six rounds and March 9th again over ten rounds. In the second fight Coffey was given the Newspaper decisions over Levinsky and in the third encounter the report goes, "Jim handed out more punishment than Levinsky was ever before forced to take in a ring, being battered in seven of the ten rounds. Levinsky several times in distress only kept his legs through masterly skill. It was voted one of the best bouts ever seen in Madison Square Garden."

They were to meet again a few years later to box a Draw in 1917 over twelve rounds, two no-decision six round bouts in 1918 with a win over twelve rounds for Levinsky in February 1919. It could be said that they were evenly paired but that clear win in March 1914 must tip the scales in Coffey's favour.

Madison Square GardensMadison Square Gardens

1913 therefore had been a great year for Coffey. He remained unbeaten over nine bouts, won five by knock-outs and was clearly moving up the senior heavyweight ranks. And of course, he was also moving up the financial ladder, regularly now billed as the main bout of the evening, often too in Madison Square Garden.

As well as the two newspaper wins over Levinsky, 2nd January and 9th March, already mentioned, Jim had ten other bouts the following year, in 1914. Of these six were by KOs. The most notable wins were a fourth round KO over “Fireman” Jim Flynn and a one round vengeful demolition of “Soldier” Kearns. A newspaper report on the Flynn fight states :

 "Bruised and battered by a hurricane of blows that sapped his rugged strength, Jim Flynn, the 'Pueblo Fireman', was finally battered in to submission in the fourth round at the Stadium Athletic Club, New York, on 24th April 1914."

 "In point of science Flynn proved no match for Coffey and, before the final count which found him stretched full length and face downwards on the canvas, he was knocked down seven times. In the first six of these trips to the floor the 'Fireman' took the count of nine."

About the fight with “Soldier” Kearns the report says "Coffey knocked him out in one round" and it goes on to say "There was little damage done on either side until the (first) round was half over. Then came the deciding blow - a straight left to the jaw (one of Jim's jabs). It landed with fourteen carat force and Kearns went down as if shot. His head struck the floor with a resounding whack. He was out."

A month earlier Coffey outpointed ever-durable Tom Kennedy, over ten rounds. He outboxed Dan Daily (the third time) and gave Terry Kellar such a drubbing that his corner threw in the towel in the ninth round.

Nevertheless Jim Coffey was then given a boxing lesson over six rounds. He couldn't catch up with a nimble combination-punching Light Heavyweight, a nineteen year old Charley Weinert, weight about 12 stone, height 5'11". The Press likened him to Jim Corbett in his prime, a boxing sensation. However Billy Gibson and his fellow pundits considered the defeat as a blip in Coffey's spiralling career, "another round or two and Jim would have caught up with him" they surmised. And so they proceeded to match Jim against “Gunboat” Smith. See Appendix 14 - Charley Weinert.

A short description of the "Gunboat" (Edward J Smith) from the records says, "Smith was lean and scrappy and a very good boxer; He moved well and hit sharply with both hands. He was designated as one of the top White Hopes. In the abscondance of Jack Johnson he won the (hollow) White Heavyweight Championship on 1st January 1914 by knocking out Arthur Pelkey (Technical KO) in fifteen rounds. In 1914 he was twenty-seven years of age, 6'2" in height, weight about 180 lbs (13 stone). Amongst those he defeated were Jess Willard, Sam Langford, "Battling" Levinsky, Carl Morris, Frank Moran (he'll crop up again in the Coffey story), “Fireman” Jim Flynn, "Bombardier" Billy Wells, Tony Ross and George “Boer” Rodel, a formidable record. Gunboat had 121 bouts in total, with 39 KOs."

Jim and the "Gunboat" headed the Bill in Madison Square Garden in a No Decision, ten round, battle on 15th December 1914. Newspaper report says "It was unfortunate for Jim (Coffey) that decision could not be rendered in New York at that time, but he got the majority of the newspaper verdicts and was now riding very high in the heavyweight ratings."

Fullfilling a Dream

It should be mentioned here too that there had been a great boost to his private life about the very time he defeated “Gunboat” Smith. The Registry of Deeds in Dublin records that he had bought Glebe House and Glebelands (his dream house and beloved farm) for the sum of £1,150, the contract (indenture) signed on the 11th December 1914 and registered in the Registry of Deeds in February 1915.

Glebe ConveyanceGlebe Conveyance