No non-Irish need apply – Frank McNally on an era in American boxing when not being Irish was a major handicap
Katie Taylor: trailblazer. Photograph: Peter Cziborra/Reuters
I mentioned in passing here recently the short, violent life of “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn, who is widely believed to have helped organise the St Valentine’s Day massacre of 1929, and was himself gunned to death, seven Februaries later, in revenge.
His name, as we noted, was a fiction. He had been born Vincenzo Antonio Gibaldi, in Sicily. And although those were impeccable credentials for a member of Al Capone’s South Chicago gang, they were not so helpful during Gibaldi’s other career, as a boxer.
Fans of the mob movie Goodfellas will remember Jimmy Conway, played by Robert De Niro, who could never be “made” because he was Irish. Well, in US boxing circles during the early 20th century, the reverse applied. “Irish Jimmy Conway” would have been a perfect name for a prize-fighter, giving him a leg-up at the box office.
Anything Italian, by contrast, was a handicap.
Gibaldi/McGurn was far from unusual in doing what he did. Rolando Vitale, author of The Real Rockys: A History of the Golden Age of Italian Americans in Boxing 1900-1955, writes that “more than one thousand” Italian professionals of that era went by Irish pseudonyms.
These included not just journeymen fighters like McGurn, but also many champions. Thus Francesco Conte, a leading bantamweight, traded as Frankie Conley. Stefano Tricamo, a world junior-lightweight champion, was transformed into Steve “Kid” Sullivan. And a man born Ugo Micheli became Hugo Kelly, before vying for the world middleweight title.
Students of classical music may hear an echo there of Michael Kelly, an 18th-century tenor and friend of Mozart, who in Italy went as O’Kelly, and sometimes even Ochelli, blending in with music’s dominant culture.
Again, in 20th century boxing, that direction was reversed. Vitale mentions the catchily named Tony Caponi, whose fight career lasted from 1902 and 1917 but who struggled bookings, because he sounded “more like a music master”. He too gave the market what it wanted for a time, rebranding himself “TC O’Brien”.
Irish fighters didn’t have a monopoly on audience approval. Nor were Italians the only group disparaged.
A National Police Gazette report of 1903 gives a broader picture of the racial popularity spectrum ring-side: “There is always a hearty cheer and earnest backing for the Irishman; grins and good-humoured tolerance for the German, and violent hostility to the Italian and the Negro.”
A minority not mentioned in that list were Jewish boxers. They were even less visible than Italians, but were also often disguised as Irish. In their case, it wasn’t just about box office. Some Jews tended to frown on boxing, and sometimes fighters had to hide their identities from that ultimate authority figure: the Jewish mother.
Hence, for example, Al McCoy, a world middleweight champion during the first World War, who was not a real McCoy. He had been born Alexander Rudolph, son of a kosher butcher. Box-office issues aside, the likely initial motive for his disguise was to escape disapproval from his religious parents.
Another Jewish boxing star was Vincent Morris Scheer, a New Yorker who also had the Hebrew name for Moses: Moishe. From that it was only a small leap to being called “Mushy”. And it was as Mushy Callahan that he won the world welterweight title.
One of the best anecdotes – perhaps apocryphal – about Jewish boxing concerns Benny Leonard, the lightweight champion from 1917-1925, considered among the sport’s all-time greats. The incident dates – conveniently – from the early, undocumented part of his career.
In any case it involved him fighting one “Irish” Eddie Finnegan, in a Pennsylvanian mining town, where a rabidly partisan crowd encouraged his opponent “kill the kike”. Finnegan was outclassed, however, and angered by the jibes, Leonard only increased the punishment until finally, during a clinch, the “Irishman” begged for mercy, confessing his real name was “Seymour Rosenbaum”.
Happily, the days when other minorities had to pretend to be Irish are long gone.
Vitale estimates that from 100 per cent of Italian fighters adopting Irish or Anglicised names in the early 1900s, the proportion fell to 20 per cent in the 1950s. By the time the fictional Rocky Balboa first wowed Philadelphia, he could be confidently marketed as the “Italian Stallion”.
Maybe only around St Patrick’s Day does Irishness still give boxers a crucial edge in the US. Next week, as usual, Madison Square Garden hosts a green-themed fight card featuring Michael Conlan and Paddy Barnes. Meanwhile in Philadelphia, another promotion will include a real-life Irish star with a name no boxer would have considered using a century ago: Katie Taylor.