With St. Patrick's Day in two days, everyone is either Irish, loves the Irish … or both. And we will all be seeing green
And when you think of the Irish you may think of the caricatures of “fighting” Irish. Especially Notre Dame University fans.
This time of year, I can’t help but think of Johnny Kilbane, a boxing legend who many don’t realize lived and is buried on the West Side of Cleveland. Everyone in the Westshore area who has that last name assumes they are related..
Is that a bad thing, no. My father-in-law, the well-known columnist George Condon, always referred to him as “a prince of a guy,” or “just a sweet man.”
Johnny Kilbane reigned as featherweight boxing champion from Feb. 22, 1912 until June 2, 1923. It's still the longest streak in boxing history.
He was just a member of the community, who just happened to be a world champion boxer. In the 1916 city directory of Cleveland, his home address is 1255 Fry Ave., Lakewood. Six years later, in the 1922 directory, it's listed as 1338 West 105th Street, Cleveland.
Both list his occupation as “pugilist.”
He was raised in the neighborhood called The Angle, and lived his entire life in the area. His mother died when he was 2 and his father became blind when he was 6, so he dropped out of school to help support the family. At 17, he had his first fight, getting $25.
He fought from the time in which boxing, including championship bouts, were still in its primitive stage until the Jazz Age in which boxing became a big-time sport. Boxing with gloves started to become popular in the 1890s. Prior to that illegal bare-knuckle boxing was the norm.
Most bouts were held outdoors during the day. There was natural lighting for movie careers, which had just begun to film fights.
To compare the difference, look on youtube. A good start would be the Abe Attell-Johnny Kilbane fight in which Kilbane won the title.
To begin, Attell was a good champion, winning the title in 1906 by beating George Dixon. He defended the title 22 times.
He was also good friends with gambler Arnold Rothstein. Both later were involved in the Black Sox Scandal in which the 1919 World Series was fixed.
Kilbane won the 20-round decision to take the title. After the bout, the winner said that Attell had put something on his gloves in an attempt to blind him. Others at ringside agreed.
Perhaps that helped in winning 22 title bouts.
After winning the title, Kilbane returned to Cleveland fittingly on March 17, greeted by a huge crowd.
Kilbane is criticized for not defending his title. Actually from 1912 until 1923, he fought frequently and against some of the best of the era. He fought Benny Leonard, Jimmy Walsh, Monte Attell, Johnny Dundee, Rocky Kansas, Richie Mitchell, George KO Chaney, Freddie Welsh and many others.
He did not fight in 1918. Two things prevented that: World War I and the Spanish Flu. Instead, he helped train soldiers.
Many of his fights also were “no-decision” bouts. At the time, many states would not allow a decision to be made. The only official outcome came if a fighter won by knockout. To settle bets, people used newspapers for the decisions. And since sports writers are questionable people, they could be bribed.
He did fight 10 times in 1919, seven times in 1920, twice in 1921 before losing his title to Eugene Criqui in 1923.
Once he retired from boxing, Kilbane served in the Ohio Senate House for a while. He later became Clerk for the Cleveland Municipal Courts. I also saw a Johnny P. Kilbane as president of the Johnny P. Kilbane tires in the 1922 city directory; I wonder if that's the same one.
He died of cancer in 1957, leaving his wife, daughter and two grandsons. In 2014, a statue of Johnny Kilbane by world-class sculptor Rowan Gillespie was unveiled in Battery Park.
So, if a Kilbane says they are related, it must be through one of Kilbane's siblings.
When we moved here in 1996, I spent a snowy January day in Calvary Cemetery looking for his grave. I found the general location after about two hours. Six months later, I parked, looked, and there it was right before me.
He is one of the all-time great featherweights. And if you don't agree, we can fight about it. I'll meet you next to Two Bucks in Lakewood at 7 p.m. Friday.
Just kidding, btw. I will probably be in there sipping a rum and coke enjoying a “bee-sting” pizza.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
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