Johnny Kilbane was born in Cleveland, Ohio on April 9, 1889 to John and Mary (Gallagher) Kilbane. His mom died when he was 3 and his dad became blind when he was 6. He had to drop out of school after the sixth grade to help support his family. He was raised in "the Angle", a heavily ethnic part of downtown Cleveland.
Johnny's first fight was in 1907 and paid him $25. Johnny became Worlds Featherweight Champion on February 22, 1912 by defeating Abe Attell in a 20 round bout in Vernon, California. He returned home to Cleveland on St. Patrick's day to the largest gathering in the history of the city, an estimated 200,000 people. Newspapers canonized him. Children idolized him. Parents even named their new born sons "Johnny Kilbane." During WWI Kilbane worked as a boxing instructor at Camp Gordon in Georgia, Camp Sherman in Ohio, and Camp Custer.
Johnny fought over 140 fights in his career losing only 4 and held the Featherweight title longer than anyone in the history of boxing in any weight class. Many consider Joe Louis to hold that distinction; however, for part of his reign Louis was technically retired. Kilbane's reign was completely uninterrupted. He retained the title until losing in the Polo Grounds to Eugene Criqui on June 2, 1923. His wife, Irene, to whom he was married 47 years, was always on hand to cook his meals in training camp, but she refused to watch him fight. Kilbane is generally considered one of the top 5 Featherweights of all time.
After his boxing career, Johnny became a referee in Ohio, operated a gym, taught physical education at local schools and for a time was in real estate. He entered politics and was elected a state senator in 1941. Later he was a state representative but resigned his post when he won the Municipal Court clerkship in 1951. Johnny lived in Cleveland his entire life growing up in the Angle on W 28th Street, near old River Ave, and living on W 74th Street, Hermann Ave, W 105th Street Fry Ave and Laverne Avenue later in life.
Johnny Kilbane was married to the former Irene McDonnell. They had two daughters, Mary Kilbane O'Toole and Helen Kilbane who died at the age of 6, and two grandsons, John K O'Toole and Thomas J O'Toole.
He died on May 31, 1957 in Cleveland, Ohio of cancer.
For a personal account of the early part of his life please visit the link at the top or bottom of the page entitled "In His Own Words" or click here.
The following is a series of articles that were published in the Cleveland Press in 1952. They were written by Dan Taylor to chronicle the rich history of Cleveland boxing. The chapters included here were taken from a scrap book compiled by the Kilbane family. It is not known if there are other chapters pertaining to Johnny Kilbane available. Included are a description of how he came to become involved in boxing, the events leading up to his winning the championship from Attell, several of his local bouts etc.
February 4, 1952
Cleveland Boxing History
By Dan Taylor
Kilbane Got $8 for First Bout
The arrival of a raw-boned, skinny little 18 year old kid of 110 pounds on the fistic horizon in 1907 marked the most important milestone in the history of boxing in Cleveland.
He was Johnny Kilbane, the city's first world champion and the man who held a title longer than any fighter in history until Joe Louis came along years later to beat his mark of 11 years in the throneroom.
Phil Brock was the only Cleveland fighter of note in those days and it was a bout he had in 1907 with Jimmy Dunn in Erie, Pa., that was indirectly responsible for Kilbane becoming a boxer and Dunn and Kilbane forming their manager-fighter partnership that led to the championship.
After three years of fighting, Brock was rated a pretty fair lightweight and Dunn had been classed as one of the top men in the division for several years. Their bout in Erie was a great fight and when Dunn won the decision it was really the first defeat Brock had suffered, although he was tricked into losing his first match to Joe Maxfield on a foul. Brock had done so well with Dunn, however, that Dave Langman, Brock's brother-in-law and the man who acted as his manager throughout his career, prevailed upon some Cleveland acquaintances to rematch the pair for a bout near Cleveland. The bout was set for an amusement park between here and Lorain.
Dunn, who was a resident of Newcastle, Pa., decided to do his training in this territory and opened a camp at Crystal Beach, near Vermilion, three weeks before the bout. He got George Frazier, a rugged Lorain lightweight of those days, to act as his sparing partner.
A group of Cleveland westsiders, wanting to get a look at the man who was going to box Brock, hopped an interurban car on Sunday to visit the Vermilion training camp. On the car was young Kilbane, who was working as a laborer on the ore docks to help support his father and two step-sisters. The elder Kilbane had lost his eyesight when Johnny was nine years old and Johnny left school early to contribute to the family's support.
When the Cleveland fans arrived at Vermilion they learned that Frazier had hurt his hand the day before and would be unable to box with Dunn. That meant there would be no sparring and the Clevelanders would be unable to get a look at Jimmy in action.
Kilbane had never done any boxing, but he did have his share of street fights and brawls on the ore docks. He had always managed to protect himself in good shape despite his frailness. Dunn suggested that he would be glad to work out for the benefit of the crowd if somebody would spar with him. The westsiders elected young Kilbane.
It was explained to Dunn that the youngster had never had a pair of boxing gloves on his hands and Jimmy agreed to take it easy with him. They worked several rounds and although Dunn didn't try to hurt the lad, he was impressed with his desire and his speed.
He invited Kilbane to come back to his camp any time, an offer Johnny took advantage of. Dunn spent considerable time with him, teaching him the rudiments of the game, and he became attached to the youngster. Kilbane proved an apt pupil and this impressed Dunn.
The Brock-Dunn fight never came off, incidentally, because the authorities learned of the plans and forbade the bout. Dunn returned to his home in Newcastle and that ended the Dunn-Kilbane association for the time being. Their paths didn't cross again until months later, but in the meantime Kilbane had tasted just enough action at Dunn's camp to decide that he liked the sport and he definitely made up his mind to try his hand at it.
The only fights held in Cleveland at the time were in private clubs and one of those was the La Salle Club, located on West 25th St., near the old High Level Bridge.
One of the stars of the weekly La Salle Club shows was a young westsider who fought under the name of Kid Campbell. Campbell was a rugged lad of about 135 pounds who worked as a lineman for the Ohio Bell Telephone Co. He added to his reputation as a "toughie" by parading around in the winter without an overcoat, and by chewing tobacco.
Campbell was the exact opposite of Kilbane in physique. He was short and muscular whereas Kilbane was tall and skinny. Campbell lacked science but packed a good wallop and won most of his fights by knocking out his foes with wild, roundhouse swings. The only thing Kilbane knew was to jab and run, but Johnny finally decided he could lick the bully and agreed to a match even though outweighed about 25 pounds.
They fought on a Sunday afternoon and the admission was 25 cents. Kilbane surprised even himself when he knocked Campbell out in the sixth round. Kilbane was paid $8 for his efforts. His success against Campbell was all Kilbane needed to convince him he was going to become a fighter.
February 5, 1952
Cleveland Boxing History
By Dan Taylor
Johnny Kayoes Tommy in Kilbane Grudge Battle
Cleveland has had many a grudge fight down through the years, but probably none to surpass its first one, held back in 1908 during a period when the city fathers frowned on the sport.
Johnny Kilbane had made his debut the year before by knocking out Kid Campbell, a neighborhood ruffian, at the old La Salle Club at the foot of W. 25th St. Before that year was out he had won two more matches, defeating Tommy Mangan at the old Eagles Club in three rounds and Tommy Burns, another local upstart, also in three rounds.
Kilbane, then 18, always had been a live-wire Irish kid in an Irish neighborhood and was well known to everybody in the immediate vicinity. When it became noised around that he had taken to boxing and had won his first three bouts he became the center of renewed interest.
Living on the next street was another family by the name of Kilbane, but, unusual for the neighborhood and the times, the families were not related. The second Kilbane family had a son about Johnny's age and size. His name was Tommy.
A jealousy developed between the two, Tommy resenting all the acclaim being given Johnny, and Johnny, in turn, feeling pretty good about his newly-won fame. Spats developed into arguments and arguments into brawls until it became almost a daily custom to watch the two Kilbane kids exchanging punches on the streets of their neighborhood.
Came the day when Tommy decided that if Johnny could be a fighter, he could, too, and it was inevitable that they eventually would find themselves battling in the ring. The chance came in Lorain and they met in a three-rounder at the old Eagles Club. The records show it was a draw, for which, Johnny recalls, he received $5.
This only added to the feud, and a month later they met again, this time in a four-rounder in Cleveland, and once again they battled to a draw. The pot was really boiling now, with the followers of each keeping the rivalry alive.
Another lad who was to cut quite a figure in the boxing world in later years, and might have become a champion had not death struck him down in his prime, came along at this time. He was Paul Koehler. One of his first fights was with Johnny Kilbane, and Johnny won the decision in six rounds.
Except for another six-rounder with Koehler, Johnny spent the next six months fighting out of town. He beat Herman Zahinger, Tommy Lynch and Battling Terry in Newcastle and Milburn (Young) Saylor, a ranking featherweight in Dayton.
In the meantime, Tommy was gaining experience and building up a reputation in the small clubs around Cleveland, and in the fall of the year followers of the two Kilbanes put up such a demand for another fight that the rival camps decided to have it out, for once and for all.
They agreed to a 25-round match to a referee's decision, winner to take all the gate receipts. Bouts of this type were forbidden in the city, so Watson's Farm on Pearl Road was decided as the site.
Because of the intense rivalry and the fact it was to be a referee's decision, the selection of a suitable referee threatened for a time to prevent the bout. All of the town's experienced referees regarded the match as a "hot potato" and with a couple of exceptions, refused to officiate. The one or two who reluctantly agreed to handle it, if nobody else could be found, were not suitable to the rival champs.
Somebody finally suggested the name of John Ruddy, battalion chief in the Cleveland Fire Department. Ruddy had never refereed a fight, but he was one of the town's most ardent fans and was known as a square shooter who could, if things happened to get too rough, take care of himself in a pinch.
Ruddy was a close friend of the two Kilbane families and he knew Johnny and Tommy well. He finally accepted the assignment and everybody was happy.
The day of the fight, 408 fans, at $1 a head, jammed the barn of Watson's farm to the rafters. Once the crowd had gathered in the barn, all the windows and doors were nailed shut, just in case the sheriff decided to pay a visit.
"With the place jammed and all the windows and doors nailed closed, it was like an oven in that barn," Chief Ruddy recalled in telling me of the fight the other day. "How those two kids could fight 25 rounds under the conditions that existed that day I'll never know."
Ruddy rates the fight as one of the greatest he witnessed in the entire history of boxing in Cleveland, and he has missed very few fights in the last 50 years.
"For 23 rounds it was a savage brawl. Tommy was more rugged than Johnny, but Johnny was much faster and far more clever. Tommy was as game as they come, and aggressive, and he never stopped tearing in. It was give and take all the way, but Johnny had a slight edge in my opinion," the chief said.
Any doubt as to the winner ended in the 23rd round when Johnny caught Tommy charging in and dropped him with a right hand smash on the chin for the only knockdown of the fight.
Although Ruddy, who will be 80 his next birthday, handled the fight like a veteran and rendered the proper decision, he never would agree to referee another fight.
February 11, 1952
Cleveland Boxing History
By Dan Taylor
Kilbane Spurns 75-G Offer to Quit Dunn
When Johnny Kilbane knocked out Joe Rivers in the 16th round at Vernon, Calif., on September 4, 1911, it was generally agreed that the Cleveland boxer had earned the right to meet Abe Attell for the featherweight championship.
Frankie Conley still hadn't lost in the elimination tournament, however, so Johnny still had him to beat before clinching the title match. They met on September 30 and, as expected after Kilbane's slashing performance against Rivers, Johnny won easily. The match went 20 rounds, however.
Kilbane continued his slam-bang style in this bout and although not as vicious as he had been with Rivers, he gave Conley a good pasting. The newspaper accounts said the gong saved Conley from a knockout in the 18th, 19th, and 20th rounds.
One sports writer with a flair for statistics claimed to have kept tab of the punches (light taps were not counted) and reported thusly:
Kilbane landed 198 clean blows and Conley 59, less than one third as many . . . Kilbane landed 15 times before Conley hit him . . . Kilbane landed 74 blows with his left hand and 124 with his right . . . Conley landed 32 with his left and 27 with his right . . . Kilbane landed 90 blows to Conley's jaw, 34 with his left and 56 with his right.
Now that Kilbane had won the elimination tournament by beating all three men, Patsy Kline in addition to Rivers and Conley, there wasn't much Promoter Tom McCarey could do but sign Kilbane and Attell.
McCarey, who had tried to maneuver Rivers, whom he managed, into the Attell match only to have Kilbane upset his plans, had agreed to give the winner of his elimination tournament a diamond-studded belt worth $1000.
When Johnny applied for the belt McCarey refused it to him. He told Kilbane that if he would fight Rivers once more he would give the belt to the winner. This Kilbane refused to do and McCarey never did give him the belt.
McCarey was a determined bloke, and he made one last effort - and a bold one - to come into possession of the featherweight title.
He felt that Kilbane was a cinch to beat Attell and he also learned that Jimmy Dunn, Kilbane's manager, did not hold a written contract with Johnny. It might be stated here that there never was a written contract between Kilbane and Dunn.
McCarey called Kilbane into his office and offered him $75,000 if he would quit Dunn and place himself under McCarey's management. Although $75,000 sounded like a million to Kilbane in those days, he never considered the offer for a minute and promptly walked out of McCarey's office.
Squelched in this last desperate effort there was nothing left for McCarey to do but sign Kilbane and Attell for the title match. It was scheduled for McCarey's arena in Vernon the following February 22 - about 5 months away.
Cleveland newspapers were lauding Kilbane to the skies by this time and he returned home in the role of a conquering hero. He was met at the train by several hundred fans and paraded through the streets, but this reception was nothing to the one that was to greet him five months later.
Kilbane intended to spend the next three months just keeping in shape before returning to California to enter serious training about a month or so before the title match.
Johnny was a confident individual by this time, however, and promoters everywhere in the East were anxious to show the youngster, so he finally broke down and accepted two bouts.
"As I look back on it now it certainly was a silly thing to do," Kilbane says. "McCarey would have used any flimsy excuse to cancel my bout with Attell and substitute his fighter, Rivers, and if I had been cut, or hurt a hand, he probably would have tossed out the match."
Kilbane's decision to fight during the waiting period was particularly silly when it is recounted that he took on two of the best featherweights in the business - Patsy Brannigan at Youngstown and Charley White, later one of the top ranking lightweights, at Gray's Armory here.
Kilbane gave Brannigan a thorough pasting, although Patsy had given Johnny rousing arguments in two 12 round bouts prior to this time. One newspaper report said: "Kilbane outpunched and outfought Brannigan in nine of the 10 rounds. There was as much difference between the Kilbane who fought around Cleveland last winter and the one who beat Brannigan last night as between day and night."
Public fights still were banned in Cleveland, but Kilbane's rise to the top brought a cry from fight fans of the city to legalize the game and Mayor Herman Baehr finally approved a match between Kilbane and White for Gray's Armory on December 23.
The Armory was packed to the doors and seated in a front row seat was Mayor Baehr, whom Kilbane greeted with a handshake through the ropes just before he was introduced to the crowd.
Kilbane beat White easily. Tom Terrell, now clerk of the Board of Education but a sportswriter in those days, wrote: "It was one of the greatest exhibitions of the manly art ever witnessed in this city. Kilbane fought an entirely different battle against White than in any of his previous fights. He used to be a long range, hit and get away fighter. He did his best work in close on White and his infighting had the Chicagoan groggy in the 10th, 11th and 12th rounds."
After the fight White said: "Kilbane is the greatest boxer I have ever seen. I tell you he's a tough boy, and my, how he can hit. He stung me twice with a right on the jaw far worse than I have ever been stung before. You can take it from me, Johnny is a wonderful little fighter."
As proof of what Cleveland thought of Kilbane, Ed Bang, sports editor of the News, conducted a mail campaign to raise funds to buy a diamond belt to make up for the one Promoter McCarey had promised him but refused to give him. The donations were halted when $1000 was raised and Kilbane was presented with a diamond belt the night of the White bout. Charles A. Otis, who has come to be known as "Mr. Cleveland," made the presentation in the ring.
February 12, 1952
Cleveland Boxing History
By Dan Taylor
Kilbane Ducks Bullet, Takes Title
Johnny Kilbane left Cleveland a month before his scheduled championship fight with Abe Attell in Vernon, Calif., February 22, 1912, to open his training camp near the scene of the bout.
The day the Kilbane troupe left Cleveland sports fans were treated to one of the most unusual sights in the history of the game.
Instead of the usual coterie of ring hangers-on, the Kilbane party was made up of Johnny and his wife Irene; daughter Mary Coletta, not quite two years old; daughter Helen, age 34 days; Manager Jimmy Dunn and his wife, Kitty, and their daughter, Catherine Sarah, only 18 days old, and Cal Delaney, Kilbane's chief sparring partner.
Newspapers made big news of the presence in the party of the wives of the fighter and manager, and their three infant children. Nothing like this had ever happened before. A picture of the party taken at the depot was carried in most newspapers from coast-to-coast.
A crowd of about 50 of Kilbane's friends, led by Sheriff Bill Smith, turned out at the depot to wish the challenger well.
Kilbane pitched his training camp at Venice, California where he had trained four months earlier for his second fight with Joe Rivers, and for his match with Frankie Conley.
Rather than take any chances on strange sparring partners butting Johnny, or failing to give him proper workouts, Dunn, who had retired as an active fighter several years earlier, donned the gloves daily in workouts and the challenger came up to the fight in perfect condition.
The fight was held in Promoter Tom McCarey's outdoor arena in Vernon, a suburb of Los Angeles, and a hot sun beat down the afternoon of the fight.
If Kilbane was to feel any nervousness at the fact he was to fight for the world's championship, a couple of happenings just before he went into the ring distracted his attention from the immediate task at hand.
"I got the scare of my life just before being called into the ring," Johnny recalls, "and maybe it was a good thing. At least it took my mind off the fight for a few minutes. I was lying on the rubbing table getting a last minute rub-down, when the secretary of the club walked through my dressing room door to tell me it was time to go on. Just as he stepped through the door he was hit on the head by a brick and knocked unconscious.
"It developed that a group of Mexicans who had been imbibing a little much had started a young riot just outside my dressing room because they couldn't find their seat in the crowded arena. We stopped to see how badly the secretary had been hurt and just then somebody fired a revolver. I can still hear the bullet whistling over my head. Police finally got the unruly fans in hand, but my thoughts weren't on Attell, or the championship, as I walked down the aisle to the ring. All I could think about was the whistling sound of that bullet."
Every one of the 10,000 seats in the arena was filled and it was estimated that another 5,000 fans were turned away. It was the largest fight crowd in the history of the Los Angeles arena.
Although Kilbane had become tremendously popular by his smashing victories in the same arena over Rivers, Conley and Patsy Cline in the elimination tournament, the so-called wise men of the fight game were still picking the great Attell as the winner.
But Kilbane was the master workman that day and the fight developed into an easy victory for the Clevelander. A past master of every trick, fair and foul, known to the game, Attell resorted to every tactic at his command, but nothing could stop Kilbane that afternoon.
Following are excerpts from one newspaper account of the fight:
"The 22 year old Kilbane outfought, outgamed and outpunched Attell and received the decision of referee Charley Eyton at the end of 20 rounds. Kilbane led from start to finish and at no time was the result in doubt. Attell was clearly outfought. His boasted speed and wonderful cleverness were not in evidence. Kilbane made him look like a novice in nearly every round.
"Attell brought the wrath of the big crowd upon his head by foul tactics. Time and time again he would hold Kilbane's arms in a clinch and once, in the eight, he grabbed Kilbane's left arm with both hands and tried to bend it back.
"In the third, he 'heeled' the Cleveland boy while in a clinch and in nearly every succeeding round his work called forth loud hisses from the spectators. At the beginning of the 16th round Referee Eyton stopped the fight and grabbed a towel and thoroughly wiped off Attell's body. It was seen to be covered with some greasy substance.
"Later in the 16th round, after rushing into a clinch to avoid Kilbane's merciless tattoo on his face and body, Attell butte the Clevelander with his head, opening a gash over Kilbane's left eye from which blood flowed profusely.
"Kilbane's work was a revelation to his fans. Entering the ring with the odds 2 to 1 against him, he never faltered for an instant. He was lightning fast, both with hands and feet. Attell seemed bewildered throughout the fight.
"The decision of Referee Eyton was received with a wild whoop and Kilbane was carried from the building on the shoulders of his friends. Attell, tired, his face drawn and bleeding, stood at the edge of the platform at the end of the fight and said to a friend: 'Well, I had to stand for it. I couldn't do any better'."
February 13, 1952
Cleveland Boxing History
By Dan Taylor
200,000 Welcome Kilbane Home as Champ
Although the amounts are insignificant when measured by today's shrinking dollar, riches began to come to Johnny Kilbane almost the moment his hand was raised in victory over Abe Attell, the fallen champion.
He received $3500 for a moving picture short with Jim Jeffries, the former heavyweight champion and Ad Wolgast, lightweight champ and Johnny Coulon, king of the bantamweights.
He signed for two weeks of vaudeville in California at $2000 per week.
Outside of his vaudeville stint, Kilbane did nothing for two weeks following the bout but rest and pal around with some of the Cleveland fans who had traveled across country to see him win the championship.
Some of them, incidentally, did all right for themselves. Attell had entered the ring a two to one favorite and practically every Cleveland man on hand wagered all he could afford on Kilbane at those odds.
Otto Leisy, the brewery founder, was reported to be the biggest winner. It was generally accepted as fact that he won $11,000 on Johnny's victory.
Kilbane returned to Cleveland on the afternoon of March 16, 1912 to the greatest civic celebration ever given any man - be he athlete, soldier, statesman or hero - in the history of Cleveland.
As though fate would have it that way, the young Irish hero came back home on St. Patrick's Day. This was pure accident. He was to arrive the preceding night, but the train carrying his troupe from California was delayed about 20 hours because of a terrific blizzard in Kansas.
Cleveland had three weeks to get ready for Kilbane return because of Johnny's two-week vaudeville contract and the city made the best of this time and really planned for a celebration. Committees were formed, a line of march mapped out, reviewing stands erected and civic organizations enlisted to join in the parade.
On his arrival Johnny was piled into an automobile, top down, and paraded down Euclid Ave., to the cheers of an estimated 200,000 people.
All walks of life were represented: not only boxing fans or the sporting element. Mayor Newton D. Baker, not a particular booster of boxing and a man who later put a ban on the sport here, sat in the reviewing stand.
The beaming 22 year old Irish lad made a terrific hit with the citizens when he stood up in the auto, his two year old daughter, Mary Coletta, in one arm and an American flag in his other hand.
The kind and generous side of the youthful champion was brought to light the morning after the parade.
The morning newspapers, telling of the parade, reported that nine year old boy had been knocked down by an automobile during the parade and badly hurt. While he lay on the street awaiting an ambulance he said to the policeman who was holding his injured head: "Don't take me away until I see the champion."
Kilbane left home without breakfast that morning, stopped at a florist shop for some flowers and visited the injured lad at Lakeside Hospital. A nurse helped the boy sit up and he could only look at Johnny through a blackened eye and bandaged head, in speechless joy as he grasped the posies. As Johnny departed from the room he left enough money with the nurse to buy the boy a new suit of clothes for the suit that had been torn when he was hit by the auto.
The town had gone Kilbane crazy. As an example, a baby was christened Johnny Kilbane Beckett. His father was the city hall janitor and the baby had been born while the father was helping to erect the reviewing stand for Johnny's parade.
The Press sponsored a contest for the best words to be sung during "Kilbane Week" when Johnny and his manager, Jimmy Dunn, were to appear at the Hippodrome Theater. Parodies were asked for "The Wearing of the Green," "Where the River Shannon Flows," "Killarney," and "When Johnny Comes Marching Home."
As though to carry out the Irish theme the winner, oddly enough, was a little Irish girl by the name of Kathleen Kennedy who attended St. Patrick's school.
When the parade was ended Kilbane told newspapermen: "I never lost my nerve when I faced the best fighters in the ring, but I lost my nerve today for the first time in my life. Please thank the people for me."
Kilbane recalls that the following week Mayor Baker sent for him to come down to city hall. Closeted with Baker, who was regarded as one of the most astute lawyers in the entire county, Johnny listened while the mayor talked. He said: "Johnny, you are only 22 and you have just come into the highest honor in your profession. I just wanted to offer this as a little advice from an older man:
"Don't get a swelled head and don't shun your schoolhood pals.
"Don't go in for high-powered automobiles.
"Treat the fellows right who treated you right before you became champion.
"Don't sign your name on any paper until you know exactly what is on those papers."
Johnny failed to follow Baker's advice in regard to high-powered automobiles because it wasn't long until he bought himself a flashy gas buggy, but he did a pretty good job of living up to the mayor's three other points.
February 14, 1952
Cleveland Boxing History
By Dan Taylor
Kilbane's Rise Brings Boxing Boom Here
Johnny Kilbane's rise to the featherweight championship really marked the birth of professional boxing in Cleveland.
The sport had floundered around since the early '90's banned most of the time and tolerated for short periods, but when Kilbane started his rise in 1911 that terminated with his winning of the championship the following February he carried the game up the ladder with him.
Other youngsters, spurred by his success and the attendant publicity, interested themselves. With Jimmy Dunn, who later proved to be one of the greatest teachers and trainers of all time, to help them along, a boxing boom began that lasted for years.
Pro shows still were not openly promoted here although Mayor Herman Baehr tolerated them. In December, Baehr finally lifted the bars and issued his first permit for a show - the meeting of Kilbane and Charley White at Grays Armory. The game enjoyed the green light for only a year, however, for Mayor Newton D. Baker clamped down the lid again in December of 1912.
When 1911 got under way Johnny and Tommy Kilbane; the Brock brothers, Matt and Phil, and Danny Dunn, later manager of Johnny Risko, who had moved here from New York, were the only fighters of note calling Cleveland home.
The year also brought forth the first local challenge to Johnny Kilbane since his last fight with his namesake, Tommy, in 1910. Matt Brock scored a 10 round knockout over Eddie Kelly in Akron and returned to Cleveland to challenge Kilbane. Kelly had gone the limit with Abe Attell six times and Matt was feeling his muscles because he had stopped the Buffalo lad, something Attell couldn't do. Matt finally got his crack at Kilbane, but it didn't come until six years later.
The year also marked the end of the Johnny Kilbane - Tommy Kilbane feud and they became stablemates under Jimmy Dunn. Tommy enjoyed his most successful year. He started out by beating Danny Goodman, then got a match with Abe Attell, still champion at the time, at Gray's Armory here. He was supposed to make 132 pounds for the match but when he scaled one pound over the mark Attell refused to go into the ring.
Tommy exercised and took steam baths for hours but the pound wouldn't disappear. Finally Attell agreed to go anyway, but it was a few minutes before midnight when they started the bout. The match ended in agony for Attell. In blocking one of Tommy' punches in the fourth round something snapped in Attell's shoulder. An examination disclosed that a bone in the shoulder had been broken and the match was called off at that point.
February 15, 1952
Cleveland Boxing History
By Dan Taylor
Fate Hits Others, but Kilbane Sails On
While 1911 always will be remembered as the year in which more Cleveland fighters made their professional debuts than any other, it also marked the end of two promising careers and the beginning of the end for another local star.
. . . after Kilbane got 1912 away to a flying start by winning the featherweight championship in February, he elected to pick up some soft money for two months along the vaudeville trail but was ready to go back to work again.
Promoters all over the country sought his services but Manager Jimmy Dunn decided that the time was ripe to invade New York City which, then, as now, was the spot for the big money.
Kilbane was guaranteed $5500, his largest purse up to that time (he got only $3500 in winning the title from Abe Attell), for a 12 round bout with Frankie Burns of New York at the St. Nicholas Arena, May 14.
To say that Johnny took the big town by storm is putting it mildly. New York newspapermen liked his style and his type the minute they laid eyes on him and they wrote reams of copy about this new kind of champion.
Here's how one New York writer put it: "Gotham fight fans have gone Kilbane mad. Sports writers are devoting the greater part of their pages to laudations of the new featherweight champion. Fight lovers have thronged to his training quarters in Rye, N.Y., and wherever pugilism is discussed Johnny Kilbane is the main topic.
"No blare of trumpets preceded Kilbane's entry into the city, as is the case with most other champions. He came here quietly with his wife, his baby daughter, his manager and his sparring partners and just as quietly slipped into the seclusion of his training quarters. His modesty has endeared him to the fans here."
Kilbane's straightforwardness also impressed the scribes. He unblushingly told them: "Show me a business where I can make more money than I can in the ring and I'll never fight again. I don't fight because I like it. I fight because it means a living for my family and myself."
They had never heard a champion talk this way and they liked this handsome Irish kid of 23 for his frankness.
The arena was packed to the doors and several thousand fans were denied admission. Bankers and Wall Street millionaires rubbed elbows with the usual right mob and the crowd was described as one of the most colorful.
Kilbane gave Burns an unmerciful beating and only the New York boy's gameness kept him on his feet for the 12 rounds. When it was over one New York writer described it thusly:
"New York witnessed one of the cleverest exhibitions of all round boxing ever demonstrated here. Kilbane proved a revelation to the big crowd and at the conclusion the fans left the building lauding the new champion to the skies."
February 20, 1952
Cleveland Boxing History
By Dan Taylor
Williams, Dundee, Leonard Easy for Kilbane
The three year ban on professional boxing that lasted from 1913 through 1915 worked a hardship on some of Cleveland's rising young ringsters. A famine was prevented, however, when neighboring cities, taking advantage of the fact Cleveland fans had no place to spend their spare dollars, began running shows at regular intervals.
The ban here didn't prevent Johnny Kilbane from keeping busy and before boxing opened up again in Cleveland, the featherweight champion fought 37 times. He had 10 matches in 1913, 12 in 1914 and 15 in 1915.
Only three of these bouts were of special importance and when Johnny won all three easily he was showered with praise anew. In these three bouts he beat a champion of another division - Kid Williams, king of the bantamweights, and two future champions - Johnny Dundee and Benny Leonard.
He met Dundee in a championship match in Los Angeles on April 29, 1913. He had defeated the fleet footed Italian in a 12 round no-decision bout in New York six months earlier so boxing fans the country over were astounded when they picked up their newspapers to learn that Dundee had been given a draw in the Los Angeles match.
Charley Eyton, the referee who had jobbed Kilbane out of the decision in his first match with Joe Rivers, two years earlier and almost cost Johnny his title match with Abe Attell, was the culprit again. As a result, Kilbane and his manager, Jimmy Dunn, announced they never would accept another bout in which Eyton was the referee. And they never did.
Newspapermen who covered the fight agreed that Kilbane had won easily, Jack London, the famous author who was one of the country's most rabid boxing fans at the time, said Kilbane had won 17 of the 20 rounds.
Kilbane's next match of importance was in Philadelphia on March 17, 1915, with Kid Williams, who had just won the bantamweight title nine months earlier by knocking out Johnny Coulon in three rounds. Although bouts in Philadelphia were limited to six rounds and no decisions were allowed, Kilbane saw a chance to grab the bantam title if he could make the class limit of 118 pounds and knock out Williams.
He went into serious training and on the day of the match weighed under the 118 pound limit. He tore into Williams from the outset, trying for a knockout, but the bantam champ weathered the six rounds and kept his crown. He had taken a terrific beating, however, and sports writers again wrote reams of copy telling about Kilbane's greatness.
One wrote: "Kilbane again has silenced his detractors. His convincing victory over Williams is the brightest spot in Johnny's career since he whittled Abe Attell into defeat three years ago and captured the featherweight title. His detractors said he couldn't make 122 pounds and be strong. He made 118 for Williams and was strong. They said he couldn't hit. He hit Williams harder than anyone has hit him since he acquired prominence. They said he lacked spirit. He tore into Williams from gong to gong. He not only outboxed, but he outfought Williams."
Two weeks later Kilbane beat Eddie Wallace in Brooklyn then, on April 29, met Benny Leonard who was fast becoming the talk of the east, in a 10 rounder in New York City.
Leonard already had started to show the class that was to bring him the lightweight title in 1917, but he was a soft touch for Kilbane on this occasion.
It was to be different when they met again, two years later, but this night Leonard was no match for Johnny.
One newspaper report said: "Kilbane had all the better of the fight . . . There was scarcely a round in which Kilbane did not force the fighting and he landed the greater number of clean punches throughout. Leonard fought in streaks - but most of the time he applied the doctrine of 'safety first.' The champion never tried so hard in any of his local bouts. He was in there trying with might and main at all times. He rushed, fought in close and tried everything in his repertory, but Leonard had set his mind on avoiding punishment."
February 28, 1952
Cleveland Boxing History
By Dan Taylor
Beaten Matt Brock Gives Kilbane Two 'Shiners"
. . . As 1917 was born, Jimmy Dunn let out a blast at Cleveland promoters who were presenting practically everybody of any importance in the fight game except the homegrown Kilbane. His yells finally brought some action and Matt Hinkel signed Kilbane to meet Richie Mitchell at Grays Armory on January 30.
Mitchell had given Kilbane two of his toughest fights, one in Milwaukee and one in Cincinnati, and the match proved popular with Cleveland fans. It was a cinch to be a sellout, but a week before it was to come off Mitchell broke his hand in training and it was canceled. The bout never was rescheduled and Hinkel had to refund more than $5000 that the fans already had spent for tickets.
The customers took up Jimmy Dunn's chant by this time and were asking for a chance to see the town's champion, who had not boxed here in five years - since his lopsided beating of Monte Attell caused Mayor Newton D. Baker to ban boxing in 1912.
Finally, on April 19, Cleveland got the match for which it had been waiting many years - Hinkel signed Kilbane to meet Matt Brock in a 10 rounder at Gray's Armory.
Brock had been hurling challenges at Kilbane even before he won his title in 1912, but they always fell on deaf ears. A lot of bad blood had developed between the rival factions and the armory was much too small for the crowd that wanted to see this one. The place was jammed hours before fight time.
The first round was probably as savage as any first round in boxing history. The match had hardly started when Kilbane found an opening for his right hand and Brock was sent hurtling to the canvas. Kilbane, more vicious than a Cleveland crowd had ever seen him, smashed Brock to the floor eight more times before the round was over.
The champion couldn't keep Matt down, however, and Brock still was on his feet, although bleeding badly from the nose and mouth, when the round ended. Seeing that he had Matt at his mercy, Kilbane relented in his attack in the second round. After he got over that point, Brock demonstrated remarkable recuperative powers and Johnny never could land his knockout punch.
The match was rough and tumble most of the way and in the sixth round Referee Johnny McGuire warned Kilbane for butting in a clinch.
The fireworks were not over, however, because in the 10th round Brock let out with a desperation attempt that almost caught the champ unprepared. A terrific puncher with the left hook, Brock hit Kilbane on the chin and nearly upset him.
Later in the round Brock caught Johnny squarely on the forehead with another hook and blackened both eyes for the champion. Angered by this turn of events, Kilbane went out to try for a knockout again and the spectators were treated to the spectacle of the titleholder throwing all caution to the winds and slugging it out with a foe notorious for his knockout ability.
In addition to giving Kilbane two black eyes in that closing round, Brock also opened a cut under one of Johnny's eyes and both fighters were smeared with blood when it was over.
"What hurt me the most about the whole affair," Johnny says, "is that I was to be a guest along with Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, at a party at the Cleveland Athletic Club after the fight. I sure didn't feel like any champion when I walked in there wearing those two 'shiners'."
While the fans left the armory that night realizing they had seen one of the greatest fights in the town's history, the show had a tragic ending.
Luke Ginley, Cleveland southpaw, had been knocked out in the eighth and final round of the semifinal by Jimmy Berry. The match had only 20 seconds to go when he collapsed. Efforts to revive him were futile and he was taken to Huron Rd. Hospital, where he died at midnight, from a cerebral hemorrhage. It was Cleveland's third ring fatality.
February 29, 1952
Cleveland Boxing History
By Dan Taylor
Lightweight Champ is Soft Touch for Kilbane
The year 1917 was one of the most eventful in Johnny Kilbane's career. In addition to his bloody brawl here with Matt Brock, he beat the champion of the next higher division, he suffered his first knockout and a couple of his matches wound up as riotous affairs.
In January he had gone up to Waterbury, Conn., to meet a hometown favorite by the name of Young Drummie. Although not known in these parts, Drummie was a good fighter and he gave Johnny a stiff argument. When the going got especially rough in the 19th and last round Kilbane conked Drummie with his right hand and knocked him out.
This wasn't to the liking of the crowd and they started an argument with the champion and his manager, Jimmy Dunn, with the result the Cleveland pair had to leave the arena through the back door, and on the run.
Kilbane then went to Pittsburgh to take on another hometown favorite Johnny Ray, the man who was in the headlines in later years as the manager of Billy Conn when the latter was Joe Louis outstanding challenger.
It was apparently early in the fight that the Pittsburgh fans wanted their hero to win. The referee a man by the name of Dooley let Kilbane know in the first two rounds that it was going to be a rough evening. He roughed Johnny up in breaking the men in the clinches and he complained, it seemed to Kilbane, every time the champ hit Ray.
Kilbane found that he could feint Ray out of position and then, when the Pittsburgh battler was off balance, clout him on the chin. Dooley stopped the fight the third round and warned Kilbane: "If you do that once more I'm going to award the decision to Ray."
Kilbane figured out a fast way to take care of the referee. He maneuvered Ray into position where he was between Kilbane and the referee. Kilbane then let a right hand fly toward Rays chin but purposely missed his opponent and hit Dooley flush on the jaw. The referee dropped to the floor, out cold.
That ended the fight because the crowd swarmed into the ring. The bout was held in Duquesne Gardens and the place was crowded to the doors. It was so crowded that when Dunn and Kilbane arrived for the bout they could find no place to dress so they used a truck that was parked in an alley behind the arena as a dressing room. This proved their saving for they escaped through a rear door and hid in the truck until the fight crowd was dispelled.
Kilbane so far outclassed the competition in the featherweight division that many fans and several promoters had been howling for a year or more for a match between Freddie Welsh, the lightweight champion, and Kilbane.
Finally, the Manhattan A.C. of New York City landed the bout for May 1. This was only two weeks after Johnny's bout here with Matt Brock, but Kilbane had recovered from the bruises he received in that match, and from his cut eye, and was in perfect condition for the king of the lightweights.
Although the bout was a no-decision affair, Kilbane was careful to scale below the class limit of 133 pounds so if he knocked out Welsh he could claim the lightweight title. Kilbane weighed 130 pounds and Welsh 139 the afternoon of the bout.
Like Kilbane, Welsh was a master boxer and this, together with the fact it was the first bout in New York in 15 years between two champions, brought out a crowd of 20,000 for the match.
Kilbane amazed the fans by the ease with which he beat Welsh. One of the leading news services credited Kilbane with winning eight of the 10 rounds.
Excerpts from the stories of three of New Yorks leading boxing writers of the day tell pretty clearly Kilbanes mastery over Welsh. They are:
Ed Curly, New York American: "A most wonderful fighter is this Kilbane. Welsh fought back as hard as he could, but Kilbane was too fast, too clever and also too crafty . . . Early in the fight Johnny began hitting Freddie with right hands that indicated Welsh was in for a rough time . . . Later Kilbane tempered strength with mercy."
Hype Igoe, New York Morning World: "Johnny fought like a mad man to win his second crown, but his overanxiousness spoiled his chances . . . Welsh deliberately set about the task of blocking, and it was plain he was interested only in going the 10 rounds."
George Underwood, New York Sun: "Had Referee Bill John been empowered to render a decision he would have raised Kilbanes hand. . . . The Cleveland boxer gave the Briton almost 10 pounds in weight and a clean whipping on the side . . . Kilbanes mastery was apparent in every round except the third, which was even."
Later, in reviewing the pugilistic picture for the year, Grantland Rice, then, as now, one of the country's outstanding sports authorities, wrote:
"There seems to be just one real fighter left little Johnny Kilbane, the featherweight champion. Johnny has gone out of his class twice to annoy the titleholders in other divisions. Once he made the weight to outbox Kid Williams, then the bantamweight champion and, later he gave Freddie Welsh, the lightweight champion, a sound beating . . . Rightfully, Kilbane should hold three titles . . . The only reason he does not is that no decisions were permitted when he fought the other two titleholders."
March 4, 1952
Cleveland Boxing History
By Dan Taylor
6 Champs on Fund Show in '18
Although the United States entered World War I in April of 1917, business continued pretty much uninterrupted in the boxing game until about the close of the indoor season, then the boys started to march off to Army camps and the battlefields, and the menu that fall was skimpy.
By September, most of the fighters were in service. Jimmy Dunn, with a stable of a dozen main bout fighters several month earlier, now had only Johnny Kilbane, Jackie Wolfe and Johnny Downs.
On October 14, Dunn's stable was cut further because on that date Kilbane was assigned by the Army to Camp Sherman at Chillicothe, O., as a boxing instructor and bayonet drillmaster. He was given the rank of lieutenant.
A month later Dunn himself left for the service, receiving the same type of appointment as Kilbane, but being assigned to Camp Sheridan in Montgomery, Ala.
. . . The only program of importance in Cleveland in 1918 was the mammoth benefit show for the soldiers recreation fund held at League Park in July.
Johnny Kilbane was the only current champion on the bill but five other performers were boxers who held championships at one time or another. They were Harry Greb, Jack (Twin) Sullivan, Johnny Dundee, Ted (Did) Lewis and Rocky Kansas.
The event was something of a society affair in addition to a boxing show with many of the towns leading citizens in attendance. Women patrons of boxing were unknown in those days, but this show broke the ice. Hundreds of women attended and most of them were seated in the old League Park field boxes directly in front of the grandstand seats.
Patron tickets were sold for a boxing show for the first time and among the holders were Alva Bradley, Samuel Mather, Malcolm L. McBride, M.B. Daly, J.W. Corrigan, W.T. White, Ben F. Hopkins, Thomas H. Towell, F.C. Chandler and other industrialist and business tycoons.
The bouts, all four-rounders, ended in this fashion:
Johnny Kilbane beat Larry Hanson of Brooklyn
Harry Greb, Pittsburgh, outpointed Oscar Anderson of Denmark
Barney Adair, New York, shaded Charley White of Chicago
Joe Burman, Chicago, edged Benny McCoy, New York
Rocky Kansas, Buffalo, had a narrow margin on Cal Delaney, Cleveland
Ted (Kid) Lewis, New York, outpointed Jack (Twin) Sullivan, Boston
Matt Brock, Cleveland, outpointed Johnny Dundee, New York
Willie Jackson, New York, beat Young Gus Christy, Buffalo
Benny Valgar, France defeated Elmer Doane, Buffalo
Johnny Griffith, Akron, edged Vincent Pokorni, Cleveland
Matt Brock and Johnny Dundee stole show for actual fighting. Two years earlier they staged what New Orleans fans called one of the greatest fights ever seen in that city and the League Park affair was a carryover from that meeting. Brock almost upset Dundee in the first round and from that point on it was a savage affair.
More than 8000 people turned out and the show netted the soldiers fund about $12,500. Before the final bout George Schneider made another appeal for donations and 100 Red Cross workers passed through the crowd and collected an additional $1,864.
March 6, 1952
Cleveland Boxing History
By Dan Taylor
Kilbane Floored in First Comeback Fight
While Jackie (Kid) Wolfe grabbed most of the fistic headlines in Cleveland early in 1919, some other important happenings were transpiring along the boxing rialto.
Featherweight champion Johnny Kilbane resumed training late in January. Kilbane made his first start in 18 months since his knockout by Benny Leonard on July 25, 1917 against Frankie Brown at Philadelphia on March 10, 1919.
The champion showed the effects of his long layoff and Brown was given the edge in their six-round no-decision bout. Brown surprised the packed house at the Olympia Athletic Club when he knocked Kilbane down in the third round with a left hook. The champion was up without a count, but he had been on the floor, nonetheless.
Johnny finally found himself in the last two rounds and gave Brown a good trouncing in the fifth and sixth, but it was too late to overcome the margin the New York youngster had piled up in the early sessions.
Two weeks later Artie Root went over to Philadelphia and beat Brown to re-establish himself as a favorite in that city, where he long was regarded as Kilbanes No. 1 challenger.
Kilbane returned to Philadelphia three weeks after his bout with Brown and demonstrated that lack of ring work had been responsible for his poor showing. He knocked out Johnny Mealy, a much better fighter than Brown, in the second round.
One Philadelphia newspaper said: "This Kilbane was a different Kilbane than the one who fought Brown. This Kilbane was the personification of confidence and class. He feinted his taller opponent into knots and crashed home the right hand when the occasion presented itself.
"The moment Kilbane hit Mealy there was no doubt as to the effectiveness of the blow. As Mealy hit the canvas, Kilbane danced back to his corner, smiled at Jimmy Dunn, his manager, waved his gloved hands to the fans and climbed through the ropes amid a tremendous ovation. The referee still was counting over the fallen Mealy when Kilbane already was down the aisle, on his way to the dressing room."
Kilbane knocked out Artie O'Leary in six rounds in Philadelphia, April 6: outpointed Jack Lawlor at Charleston, W. Va., April 12, then made his first appearance in Cleveland since he beat Matt Brock on April 17, 1917. He opposed Ralph Brady of Syracuse at the Cleveland Theater on May 14.
March 20, 1952
Cleveland Boxing History
By Dan Taylor
Kilbane Needed Rally to Beat British Champion
Johnny Kilbane, who had not fought since his League Park match with Artie Root, agreed to his first fight in 10 months when he signed to meet Freddie Jacks, British featherweight champion, at the ball park on May 25, 1921.
Tex Richard had been attempting all summer to get Kilbane to defend his title and was reported ready to give him $40,000 for a championship match against either Jacks, Danny Frush, Charlie Beecher, Andy Chaney, Sammy Sieger or Bill De Foe.
Kilbane wanted more money than $40,000 for a championship match, however, so rather than go into strange territory with the title at stake he decided to fight Jacks here in a non-title match for less money. Matt Hinkel promoted the fight.
Kilbane was rusty from his 10 months on the sidelines and most of the fighting in the first five rounds was done by Jacks who, although he appeared timid against the champion, earned a slight lead.
Finally, in the sixth round, Kilbane nailed Jacks with a right cross to the chin that almost ended the fight. Jacks was rugged, however, and dead game and he retaliated with a right hand of his own that shook the champion.
Kilbane hurt his hand with the punch that nearly upset Jacks, but it didn't prevent him from finally casting caution to the winds and sailing in, trying for a knockout.
In the eighth, he opened up with all guns and slowed Jacks down with several well-placed rights to the chin. He had finally fought himself into shape and in the ninth he was the Kilbane of old.
In telling of this round one of the newspapermen said: "He was like a lion turned loose. He scored with terrific rights to the face, especially to the chin."
Kilbane tried desperately for a knockout in the 10th. Jacks fought back, however, and although he took a lot of punishment, he stayed on his feet.