Jimmy McLarnin

Boxing champion nicknamed 'Baby Face'
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The Independent Online

James Archibald McLarnin, boxer: born Hillsborough, Co Down 19 December 1907; world welterweight champion 1933-34, 1934-35; married (one son, three daughters); died Richland, Washington 28 October 2004.

James Archibald McLarnin, boxer: born Hillsborough, Co Down 19 December 1907; world welterweight champion 1933-34, 1934-35; married (one son, three daughters); died Richland, Washington 28 October 2004.

Bearing the misleadingly pacific nickname of "Baby Face", Jimmy McLarnin was one of the most accomplished boxers of the 1920s and 1930s. Twice world welterweight champion, in the course of his career he defeated no less than 13 past, current or future world champions of various weight divisions.

A skilful, fast-moving and scientific fighter, with a powerful right hand, McLarnin was also notable for having the good sense to retire from the ring while still in possession of both his health and his not inconsiderable earnings. In addition, he demonstrated that it was possible for a boxer to enjoy a lasting and mutually rewarding relationship with his manager.

Born in Hillsborough, near Belfast, in 1907, McLarnin was not yet three years old when his family emigrated to Canada. His father, Sam McLarnin, tried his hand at wheat-farming in Saskatchewan before moving to Vancouver, where he opened a clothing store. With 11 siblings, the young Jimmy McLarnin was soon encouraged to make a contribution to the family's income by selling newspapers on the street.

At the age of 13, he joined a boxing club run by Charles "Pop" Foster, a friend of his father. A rugged, English-born veteran of more than 200 boxing-booth fights, Foster was impressed with McLarnin's natural ability, and told him, "I'll make you champion of the world if you'll just behave yourself and do as I tell you."

In 1923, McLarnin fought his first professional bout, justifying Foster's belief in him with a points win over one George Ainsworth. The following year, after a string of victories in the Vancouver area, McLarnin and Foster moved to Los Angeles in search of more meaningful opposition. A three-bout series against the Olympic gold medallist and future flyweight champion Fidel La Barba saw McLarnin emerge with two wins and a draw, an achievement which marked him out as a rising star in the lighter divisions.

Despite a setback in his 32nd fight, against the future bantamweight champion Bud Taylor (he later beat Taylor on a disqualification), McLarnin immediately returned to prominence with an impressive win over the then flyweight champion Pancho Villa in a non-title bout. His next opponent, the future welterweight champion Jackie Fields, was knocked out in two rounds. Fields later paid vivid tribute to McLarnin's punching power, recalling that,

He knocked me out and broke my jaw . . . I thought I had my hands up and it looked like he was coming to me in slow motion. The next thing I knew, I was on the floor again. And I got up. Well, he knocked me down five times and they threw the towel in.

In 1927, Foster determined that his charge should move to New York, then the boxing capital of the world. Over the next three years, McLarnin became a major attraction as he proceeded to cut a swathe through most of the leading Jewish fighters of the day. Such was his record against the likes of Louis "Kid" Kaplan (former featherweight titleholder), Sid Terris, Sergeant Sammy Baker, Al Singer (then the reigning lightweight champion), Joe Glick and Ruby Goldstein, that McLarnin became known as "The Hebrew Scourge" and even "The Jew Killer".

McLarnin was also responsible for ending the career of the legendary Jewish lightweight champion Benny Leonard, whom he battered to defeat in seven rounds in October 1932. Before that, in May 1928, McLarnin had fought for the lightweight title, losing on points to the holder Sammy Mandell after a struggle to make the weight. In November of that year, McLarnin suffered his only inside-the-distance defeat when he was stopped in eight rounds by Ray Miller. He later avenged both losses.

Now a fully-fledged welterweight, McLarnin beat Young Jack Thompson (a future holder of that division's title) before being badly beaten by Billy Petrolle, a talented fighter known as "The Fargo Express". Nat Fleischer, editor of The Ring magazine, later wrote,

I recall the smashed, bloody figure of Jimmy, reeling under the terrific impact of Petrolle's merciless wallops; yet as he stood in the ring, bathed in his own gore, hardly strong enough to keep his hands up in defence, he wouldn't give in.

McLarnin proved his mettle by beating Petrolle in two subsequent encounters. On 29 May 1933, following his defeat of Leonard, McLarnin was matched against the tough Young Corbett III (real name Ralph Capabianca Giordano) for the welterweight crown in Los Angeles. McLarnin lost no time in disposing of Corbett with a right hand in the very first round.

Almost a year later, on 28 May 1934, McLarnin now frequently suffering from damage to his fists and contemplating retirement, accepted the challenge of the then lightweight champion Barney Ross. After 15 closely-fought rounds at the Madison Square Garden Bowl in New York, Ross was declared the winner on a split decision. The pair fought again on 17 September of that year, with McLarnin reclaiming the championship, also by split decision. A final encounter took place on 28 May 1935, at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan, which resulted in Ross defeating McLarnin by unanimous decision.

Despite his disappointment, McLarnin was persuaded by Foster to continue fighting for another year. In 1936, he lost to, and then defeated, the lightweight champion Tony Canzoneri, before finishing his career with a non-title victory over Canzoneri's successor as lightweight champion, Lou Ambers. At the end, McLarnin's record showed 62 wins, 11 defeats, three draws, and one no-decision contest.

McLarnin retired from the ring a wealthy man, due in no small part to the shrewdness of "Pop" Foster (of whom McLarnin once said, "Pop was the secret of my success. He taught me everything.") Moving back to the Pacific coast with his wife Lillian and their family, McLarnin opened a machine shop in Los Angeles which he later sold at a substantial profit. Some poor investments following the Second World War forced him to become a salesman for a while but on Foster's death in 1956, McLarnin inherited his mentor's estate of more than $200,000.

Though not one of boxing's more flamboyant characters, Jimmy McLarnin was, as Fidel La Barba once ruefully remarked, "a hell of a fighter".

John Exshaw