CENTRE OF THE RING Kilbane (left) holds off Abe Attell during their title fight in front of a crowd of 10,000 people in Vernon, Los Angeles.
Lord of the Ring
On February 22, 1912, Johnny Kilbane, the son of an Achill emigrant shocked the boxing world to become the Featherweight Champion of the World
At 4pm on St Patrick’s Day in 1912, thousands of Clevelanders covered the hillsides and embankments near Union Station on Lakeside Avenue in green as they waited for the train to arrive to honour their latest hero. On the train was 22-year-old Johnny Kilbane, the son of an Achill emigrant who a few weeks earlier was crowned the new world featherweight boxing champion.
The fight took place 100 years ago tomorrow on February 22, 1912 in Vernon, Los Angeles when Kilbane shocked the world to defeat defending champion, Abe Attell, over 20 gruelling rounds and became one of the greatest boxers of his and any generation.
At the time of Johnny’s success boxing was generally considered to be an undesirable sport but his success in the ring and his affability out of it helped in a large way to bring respectability to the sport. His devotion to his young wife Irene and daughter and his clean-living lifestyle as much as his exploits in the ring captured the imagination of the public and he became a darling of the city.
However, it was his exploits in the ring which made Johnny Kilbane a household name and why he is considered to be one of the top five featherweight boxers of all time. His fight record of over 140 fights with only four career losses speaks for itself as does the distinction of being the undefeated world champion from 1912 until he finally relinquished his title in 1923.
It was a record only surpassed by the great heavyweight Joe Louis who held the title for 30 days longer but this is disputed because during part of his reign Louis was technically retired while Kilbane’s reign was completely uninterrupted.
Kilbane was born in Cleveland in 1889 and grew up in the ‘The Angle’ neighbourhood of the city on West 28th Street, which was known as ‘Little Achill’. His father was John Kilbane, a native of Achill Beg, who emigrated a decade earlier and his mother Mary Gallagher was born in Cleveland to Irish parents.
‘The Angle’ at the time Johnny was born was described as an impoverished Irish ghetto but despite this was a close-knit community. Johnny had a difficult start to live with his mother dying when he was only three years of age and his father became blind when he was six. As a result he had to leave school at a young age to work as a labourer on the docks to support his family.
Life may have turned out differently for Kilbane had he not attended a boxing match at the LaSalle Club in 1906 and became ‘hooked’ on ‘the lights and the crowd.…..and the general atmosphere of romance’.
He teamed up with trainer Jimmy Dunn and despite being described as ‘raw-boned’ and a ‘skinny little 18 year old kid of 110 pounds’, Kilbane was an apt pupil and impressed those around him. In his first fight in 1907 he knocked out ‘Kid’ Campbell a ‘neighborhood ruffian’ and his talent soon became recognised around the Irish districts of Cleveland.
However all the acclaim being lauded on Kilbane led to a beginning of a local rivalry between his namesake, Tommy Kilbane who lived on the next street and was himself a decent boxer. Their first two bouts both ended in a draw which only increased their rivalry and the grudge fight finally came to a head when they decided a 25-round match to a referee’s decision, with the winner taking all the gate receipts.
The fight, in front of 408 fans who packed Watson’s farm barn, was described as a ‘savage brawl’ but Johnny was too fast for Tommy and had a ‘slight edge’ over him in the end. Eventually the fierce rivalry abated with Tommy becoming a sparring partner for Johnny in preparation for many of his fights.
Kilbane kept on winning and it was not long before he was the main challenger to take on Abe Attell who had held the title since 1906. Attell was a Jewish American had a reputation for fighting dirty and two years earlier had defeated Kilbane in Kansas City.
He was also a colourful character who was an associate of gangster Arnold Rothstein and was later charged and acquitted of game fixing in the Black Sox Scandal in 1919.
The fight was scheduled for the outdoor arena in Vernon, a suburb of Los Angeles with the 10,000 capacity venue full which made it the largest fight crowd in the history of the arena. Johnny Kilbane was the underdog going into the bout but he got on top of Attell from an early stage and in the end was the clear winner.
Newspaper accounts of the fight were full of praise for the new champ. One report read, “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.”
200,000 welcome home the ‘Champ’
Kilbane spent the next two weeks in California recuperating following the gruelling fight which gave Cleveland plenty of time to organise the welcome home party. As luck would have it, arriving home on St Patrick’s Day was a pure accident because the train was delayed by up to 20 hours because of a blizzard in Kansas.
On his descent from the train, Kilbane waved a green flag and led what was one of the largest St Patrick’s Day Parades in the city’s history as he was driven in an open-top car to the cheers of an estimated 200,000 people.
When the Parade finally ended over four hours later, 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.”
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 later 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.
His great-granddaughter, Erin O’Toole hopes to follow in his footsteps and seek election as a Judge for the Cuyahoga Court of Appeals in a democratic primary on March 6.
Johnny lived in Cleveland his entire life and he and wife Irene had two daughters, Mary Kilbane O’Toole and Helen Kilbane who died at the age of six, and two grandsons, John K O’Toole and Thomas J O’Toole. He died on May 31, 1957 in Cleveland, Ohio but will be forever a champion of the Achill community in Cleveland.
To honour this unsung hero of Cleveland and Achill, the two communities are planning activities throughout the year to celebrate the 100 years of Johnny winning the title.
These include a weekend of activities this June in Achill to celebrate his links to the island - which he visited in the 1920’s - including a Kilbane family gathering, a boxing tournament and the unveiling of a statue. A documentary of Johnny’s life is also being produced and is due to be completed later in the year.
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