Dr Pat O’Callaghan ‘the greatest all-round athlete in the world’
America at Large: He signed on to something in the US more showbiz than sport
In 1928 O’Callaghan was the first citizen of the Irish Free State to win an Olympic gold medal. Photograph: Sean Sexton/Getty Images
Rumours about Dr Pat O’Callaghan decamping to America swirled about for years. Finally, on May 4th, 1938, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle ran a back page story confirming he was on his way, the only remaining doubt, whether the two-time Olympic champion intended to conquer the world of boxing or wrestling or both.
Covering all bases, the paper ran an enormous cartoon depicting the Corkman in various fighting poses against Joe Louis, then heavyweight champion of the world. In one, he’s throwing his hammer at the beleaguered Brown Bomber’s chin, in another he has him in a headlock. Farfetched? Only to those who don’t realise the stature he enjoyed then.
“An Irish giant whose feats rival those of the mythical Brian Boru, ” wrote the Los Angeles Times in its own breathless preview of his arrival. “They say of O’Callaghan that he is the greatest all-round athlete in the world. O’Callaghan can run the 100 in 10 seconds flat.
“He can hurdle close to the Olympic marks. He can pole vault with the best and high jump around six foot four inches. He excels at the discus and weights and is the best hammer thrower in the entire world.”
The boxing never materialised but on June 1st, the two-time hammer gold medallist made his pro wrestling debut at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. A Mexican nicknamed El Pupo (the octopus) had to retire with a broken arm after being flung through the ropes by the neophyte grappler some were already calling Dr Hercules.
Other monikers included The Irish Hammer, the wavy-haired Adonis from Erin, and The Wild Irish Rose. Inevitably, headline writers were overfond of describing the six foot two, 17 stone native of Derrygallon as “a broth of a boy.”
“Every ounce is iron,” wrote Grantland Rice, the pre-eminent sportswriter of the time. “He is more powerfully built than Jim Londos or Strangler Lewis (the two brightest stars in wrestling’s firmament) and he could take them together and break them like brittle sticks.”
It seemed O’Callaghan didn’t quite realise he had signed on to something that was more showbiz than sport
At 32, married with two kids and a burgeoning medical career, O’Callaghan was in a strange place. Having rebuffed Sam Goldwyn’s invitation to succeed Johnny Weismuller as Tarzan after his triumph at the Los Angeles Games, his bid for a third successive Olympic title in Berlin had been thwarted by internecine warfare involving rival governing bodies in Irish athletics, and his life tinged by tragedy when a child was killed by a hammer at a meet in which he was involved.
He’d turned down lucrative offers to turn pro before, and, on one of those occasions, a desperate promoter took Danno Mahoney, a much lesser athlete, in his stead and moulded him into a champion. Edward Delaney, the latest impresario to try his luck, dangled the prospect of $100,000 for 12 months work and talked of a title fight between the two Irishmen lighting up the American box office.
To get there required piecing together a plausible resume so, throughout the summer of 1938, O’Callaghan fought regularly on the west coast circuit, recording victories over seasoned pros like King Kong Kashey, Frank Malcewicz, Chief Little Wolf and Bobby Stewart.
Everything was going to plan until the night he was put in against KO Koverly, a Yugoslav who made his living as a dastardly heel, often departing the arena under police escort. The script for his bout with O’Callaghan called for him to play the fall guy and, in defeat, amplify the credentials of the newcomer. Nobody was ever sure whether Koverly improvised a different outcome at his own behest or that of a scheming promoter, but, using hardened tape wrapped around his fist, he quickly made a bloody mess of his opponent’s face.
Although the referee somehow declared the contest a draw and O’Callaghan was so irate at the underhand tactics he challenged Koverly to a bareknuckle boxing fight for $1000, irreparable damage was done to his credibility. Within weeks he was back in Ireland, where he established a General Practice in Clonmel and became a stalwart of Commercials GAA club.
For months after, however, even as reels of his fights were still playing in American movie theatres as part of the preview shorts running before the latest Roy Rogers’ flick, controversy raged about his ill-fated flirtation with wrestling.
From the angry tenor of his comments upon returning home, including an allegation a promoter called Toots Mondt demanded he stump up $25,000 of his own money to ensure a shot at the title, it seemed O’Callaghan didn’t quite realise he had signed on to something that was more showbiz than sport.
He may have been duped by the fact O’Mahoney becoming world champion had been reported by the gullible Irish media as a genuine athletic triumph rather than the pre-arranged commercial decision of a consortium known as the syndicate.
The same shady characters who had quickly realised their latest, more expensive Irish signing wasn’t cut out for the ersatz combat, antic buffoonery and practiced chicanery involved. And when his criticisms filtered back across the Atlantic, Ring magazine took him to task in an editorial.
“Dr O’Callaghan was brought to America not because he knows anything about wrestling, for he doesn’t, but because of his colour,” went the piece. “It was figured that he could draw well among the Irish because of his great athletic ability but to call him a wrestler would be stretching things too far.”