Top of the Tree

Chapter Six

The Roscommon Giant with fans

To start with, in 1915 Jim Coffey recorded a victory over Jack “Twin” Sullivan who had a long and distinguished career—perhaps a little too long. By 1915 he was thirty-six years old. Back in 1905 he boxed a draw with Tommy Burns and eight months later he won on points over twenty rounds. He started his professional record in 1898 when he was twenty years old. He boxed draws with Stanley Ketchel and “Fireman” Jim Flynn in 1905, and Flynn again in 1907 (twice) and 1908. Sometimes he fought ten to fifteen fights per year—a very busy fighter (total bouts 138). He fought No-Decision ten round bouts with Joe Jeanette in 1911, with “Gunboat” Smith in 1912, and "Battling" Levinsky (twice) in 1913.

It should be pointed out that Sullivan was only 5'9" and weighed only 11½ to 12 stone. In his time he fought middleweights, light-heavyweights and heavyweights and could hold his own with any of them.

For his bout with Coffey that February 1915 he was conceding thirteen years in age, 30 pounds in weight and 7 inches in height. I quote from the press report of the fight and a short comment from Bob Armstrong at the time in Appendix 16 - Jack “Twin” Sullivan.

After Coffey’s victory, Jack the "Twin" retired but made a partly successful comeback in 1920 but had only five bouts until he finally retired in 1922. For a relatively small man he was one great heavyweight contender.

Subsequently for Jim Coffey there followed in the next four outings four consecutive knockouts (including Arthur Pelkey in three rounds, and the disposal of “Soldier” Delaney in two.)

Then for Coffey came a fight with great interest for boxing fans and pundits alike; he was to meet his erstwhile mentor, tutor and sparring partner, Carl Morris, over ten rounds on 7th April.

But I have to interrupt the Coffey saga here and report on the momentous fight that took place two days previously on 5th April when Jack Johnson was inveigled to defend his world title in Havana, Cuba, against Jess Willard, a lack-lustre fighter of limited accomplishment.

Jess Willard

Jess WillardJess Willard

For some years now the “powers that be” in New York were continually plotting to get Jack Johnson back in real circulation. He had only three fights during the three years in exile in Paris. One of those against Jim Johnson (no relation) ended in a draw, and in his latest fight against Frank Moran in June 1914 although he won on points over 20 rounds, many experts allege Johnson should have lost on a foul.

Johnson was now thirty-seven years old. His training was not what it should have been and naturally he was ring-rusty. He was also homesick for New York, and in debt, so when he was offered (by a dodgy promoter) $35,000 and by the same promoter a free pardon by the US Government (a hoax) and when it was decided he was to fight Jess Willard, Johnson felt in his soul that this was his ticket home. The only odd stipulation from the boxing authorities was that the contest be scheduled for forty-five rounds, the legal limit at that time. Johnson had no problem with that; seven or eight rounds against a ponderous fighter like Willard should suffice.

Back in New York they decided on Jess Willard for various reasons :

  1. He was a giant of a man, 6'6.5" tall and weighing 16.5 stone it was felt that Johnson might tire of pushing him around, especially if the fight went over the more usual fifteen rounds.
  2. Jess was awkward to fight and although he only started boxing when he was twenty-nine years old he was fairly competent.
  3. Over the fights he fought, nearly all no decision bouts, he had proved able to absorb some punishment. He had lasted the ten round distances with big hitters like Arthur Pelkey, Luther McCarty, “Gunboat” Smith (although Jess lost on points over twenty rounds) and Carl Morris. To his credit he had KO'd “Soldier” Kearns in eight rounds, George Rodel in nine and Dan Bailey in nine. No great record really.
  4. The only other suitable opponent, and one who would absorb the punishment Jack Johnson was bound to hand out, especially in the early rounds, was Frank Moran. But Frank had lost the decision against Johnson about ten months previously. He'd had his chance.
  5. Another factor that had to be considered was Johnson's reaction to whichever challenger they were going to provide. They felt that Willard would be the most acceptable bait to Johnson. Clearly Johnson could not afford to lose such a fight. With still a vestige of his old arrogance he would consider Willard as easy pickings.

In the searing heat of Havana that blistering day (5th April 1915) they both stepped in to the Racetrack Arena and the battle commenced. Following his instructions Willard remained on the defensive for the first fifteen rounds whilst Johnson, as predicted, went all out for an early KO. He nearly achieved this towards the end of the seventh round and this encouraged him all the more to try to dispose of Jess—but all to no avail.

After the sixteenth round Johnson began to run out of steam, whereas Willard, despite the battering he had taken, now went on the offensive and began to land on the still elusive champion with both hands. But Johnson was tiring. The end came in the twenty-sixth round when a vicious right under the heart followed by a left hook as he went down, ended the reign of Johnson after nearly seven years. He made no attempt to get up and was counted out. A clear victory for Willard. But afterwards Johnson tried to refute this. He claimed that he had taken a “dive”—had thrown the fight. As evidence of this he would point to a famous photograph taken as he lay on his back on the canvas. This showed his right arm arched across his forehead seeming to shield his eyes from the sun. Johnson always claimed that he deliberately did so but most observers consider his action as a natural, unconscious reaction. The next shot in the photo sequence shows him prostrate with both arms and legs flat on the canvas. But on this it is thought that Nat Fleischer can be given the last word :

"When a fight is arranged (i.e. fixed) the man who is taking the dive doesn't fight for twenty-six rounds and break his rival's ribs and jaw as Johnson did to Willard." - Nat Fleischer

The promised pardon from the US Government did not of course materialise. In fact he had to stay in exile until 1920 when he then gave himself up and proceeded to serve out his twelve month sentence—actually he got two months off for good behaviour. He carried on boxing, mainly in New Mexico, but eventually did wind up in exhibition bouts (1928–1933) back in New York. As mentioned in an earlier chapter, he was killed in a car accident in 1946 (aged sixty-eight).

Coffey Vs. Morris

Madison Square GardenMadison Square Garden

Reverting to the Coffey/Morris fight the sports pages had a field day showing the pupil about to cane the teacher or the teacher tweaking “Jim lad” by the cheek. For some reason both boxers were on edge. They were both only too well aware that Willard had just won the World Championship, that he was not invincible and that the outcome of this fight could well determine which of them would qualify to meet him for the World Title.

Maybe also the Press got to them by calling it a "needle" match. This barely suppressed suspense was further exacerbated when even before the bell had sounded to start the fight Carl Morris ran across and hit Coffey while still on his stool in his corner, and so they started without the usual glove shake. Again at the start of the sixth round Morris behaved strangely. For round by round details I enclose Appendix 17 - Coffey Vs. Morris 1915-04-07 from a press report on the fight. Despite the writer's hyperbole about Morris's bravery and gameness Coffey emerged as the clear winner.

Next over the horizon came Al Reich. Following a brilliant amateur career (several National championships, usually by the KO method) he turned professional in September 1913, then aged twenty-three and also matching Coffey in height and weight. However one week after his first KO win as a professional he was knocked out in the second round by Carl Morris. He also had a No-Decision bout with Tom Kennedy in 1914 and with “Fireman” Jim Flynn in 1915. Up to this scheduled fight with Coffey he’d had a total of seventeen fights and apart from the three mentioned he won them all by KO. Still Coffey had the edge in the form-book. Reich was reckoned to be a knock-out artist. Again there was a great deal of Press coverage and hype. Exactly four weeks after beating Carl Morris, Coffey once again featured in the main event at Madison Square Garden, and as usual 12,000 fans filled the venue with hundreds turned away. In an all action battle Coffey won in three rounds. The Headlines in the Papers the following morning pronounced “Al Reich was no match for the Irish Giant” and went on to report that “ . . . those three rounds were full of fight. For a short contest, more actual blows were struck than the boxing patrons usually saw in twenty rounds. It was clean, hard punching and every blow that reached its mark left another mark. The bell alone saved Al from being knocked out in the second round. A few seconds before the gong sounded (the end of the round) Coffey staggered him with right and left smashes to the face and then when the former Amateur Champion was all but helpless, Jim sent in a cracker-jack that landed on the jaw. Reich went down but the bell saved him. But he was still groggy and in the third round was quickly disposed of.”

Al1 went on boxing until 1924 but as a result of this defeat by Coffey he had slipped in the rankings and became in his own words “a preliminary bout” boxer.

1 Al Reich attended a meeting with alleged kidnappers of the Lindburgh baby in 1932 and was a witness for the Prosecution in the trial of 1934. Al died in 1963 aged seventy-one

Willard Offers

Jess WillardJess Willard

It now became an obsession with Billy Gibson to persuade the new Champion to meet Coffey. He arranged, tried to arrange, a $25,000 purse for Willard in an open air contest at the Polo grounds - the title did not have to be at stake unless of course one or other of the contestants was knocked out. But Jess would have none of it - not against Coffey at any rate (Appendix 18 - Willard Offer & 19 - Second Willard Offer).

Meanwhile only three weeks after the Al Reich victory Coffey was in action again, this time at the Beach Athletic Club. By now Gibson was having difficulty finding a worthy opponent to give Jim a contest but the intrepid “Fireman” Jim Flynn stepped in to the breach. It will be recalled that in May 1913 Coffey outboxed the "Fireman" in a No-Decision ten rounder and in April 1914 he knocked Flynn out very decisively in four rounds. Again now in May 1915 he knocked him out in nine. (Appendix 20 - Coffey Vs. Flynn).

But as Appendix 20 - Coffey Vs. Flynn points out, Coffey seriously damaged both hands - "Hitting Flynn's head", he claimed afterwards, "it was like hitting concrete." However the damage was done and all realised the importance of resting and regaining strength so as not to develop 'Fragile' hands.

An enforced rest with a break from boxing and training was inevitable. So Jim had fifteen weeks that summer of 1915 to recuperate and relax. And relax he certainly did. A reporter records that “All the Summer the big fellow from Ireland rollicked in the popularity that was his. He smiled and bowed [his way] in to the hearts of the fans and how they did boost him and root for him.” In every way they fêted him. In the notable absence of Jess Willard, Jim was greeted as the World Champion Designate and sometimes the word “designate” was ignored. John McCormack in one of his crowded concerts introduced him as the “future Heavyweight Champion of the World”; then they’d all join in the chorus of “When Irish Eyes are Smiling”. ’Twas a great time for the Irish. On a visit back home a crowd of well-wishers greeted him at Ballyhaunis railway station; he helped with light hay-making as a type of physiotherapy, assisting his Brother Ned who took care of the Glebe in his absence; Jim took up the early morning roadwork and started shadow boxing again.

Later, back in New York, he gradually resumed training. Billy Gibson had given up all hope of persuading Jess Willard to come out of hiding. In a discussion with Jim he suggested that it might be a good idea to go further afield for his first comeback fight and he arranged for Jim to meet Jack Reed on 15th September at Montreal, Canada—“400 miles should be far enough” said Billy. Nothing is known of the said Jack Reed. Coffey knocked him out in the third round. Five days later he followed this by knocking out Jack Driscoll in New Bedford, near Cape Cod; Driscoll went in four rounds. Billy Gibson was reassured, and Coffey was back in form.

By now Coffey had victories over all the top-liners and was generally reported in the Press as the Number One Contender. Reports also state that "Coffey has a greater personal following than any fighter in the East. He is the greatest drawing card in New York, not excepting Jess Willard (the World Champion) or any other Champion".

The Irish were all for Jim and were in no doubt that he "can whip with ease the big Kansas Champion".