Except for the Earl of Sandwich, Norman Selby is the only sportsman whose name has become a common noun in general use. Selby fought under the name of Kid McCoy and the word McCoy is now found in reputable lexicons, "usually preceded by the," according to The Random House Dictionary, "as, the real McCoy, the genuine thing as promised, stated or implied." The term "real McCoy" spread through American speech around the turn of the century, appeared in English novels in the 1930s and even popped up in Scotland, where it became the real McKaye. The real McCoy himself, that is the fighter whose true name was Norman Selby, never actually liked the phrase, and as he became a household word he tried repeatedly to recapture his identity as plain old Norman Selby. But he never succeeded.
Kid McCoy burst into sports history in 1896 when he was 23 years old. He won the world welterweight championship (145 pounds) and went on to fight middleweights (then 158 pounds), light heavyweights (175) and even heavyweights. The biggest man he defeated was one Herr Plaacke, who at 6'5¾" and 245 pounds was the size of Jess Willard. McCoy fought several heavyweights. He knocked out 220-pound Peter Maher, who nearly beat Fitzsimmons. He was barely beaten by Tom Sharkey, whose followers claimed he had really won a savage 25-round fight awarded to James Jeffries. McCoy was knocked out by James Corbett in the last fight in Madison Square Garden before boxing was outlawed by New York State in 1900.
In all McCoy had 105 recorded fights, winning 81 and losing six. The others were drawn or were no-decision affairs. McCoy is in the Boxing Hall of Fame, and by searching with diligence one can find occasional references to him in ring literature, but his real importance was as a word and a symbol. McCoy was the first sports celebrity to become a nationally known, publicity-created character, a fictional being. Later on the phenomenon became familiar, and people today recognize that the public image of, say, Joe Namath is not necessarily the same as the real Joe Namath in private life.
But in McCoy's time the popularization process was barely beginning. Because he was the real McCoy, people expected him to act like the real McCoy all the time. So he began to think of himself as the real McCoy and to act in a way that would have been impossible for the real Norman Selby. The result was a personality struggle and eventually Selby became trapped in his own living legend. There was nothing so clear-cut as a Jekyll-Hyde situation. It was just that the fictional creation of Kid McCoy and the living human being of Norman Selby became increasingly entangled with each other; the motives for their conflicting actions became confused and in the end, by way of romance, theft and murder, they destroyed each other.
Norman Selby was the more likable and definable of the two. He was a farm boy, tall and skinny, never robust, born in a close-knit family of three sisters and a younger brother in Moscow, Ind. He was soft-spoken, courteous and remarkably handsome, with gray eyes and black curly hair and a classic profile that made him look like a more rugged version of John Barrymore. His matinee-idol features even led him to a theatrical career, his greatest success coming in David Wark Griffith's silent-screen masterpiece, Broken Blossoms.
As a farm boy, Selby's life ran according to the pattern of the time and place: he fished, rode horseback, hunted rabbits, did chores, and left home. At 18, in Butte, Mont., he had his first and only professional fight as Norman Selby. He was paid $5 and believed he had come upon the ideal way to earn money.
His first fight under the name of Kid McCoy (there is no record as to why he selected that particular name) was in St. Paul in 1891 and for the next three years, while he was living at home, he fought a good deal around Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Cleveland. Eventually he began to attract attention because he went into the ring bent on getting the business over with as soon as possible. It was a time of long-drawn-out fights: Tommy Ryan, the welterweight champion, fought 76 rounds with Middleweight Danny Needham before knocking him out. These marathon struggles were masterly demonstrations of conditioning, but they were almost as tiring for the spectators as they were for the fighters.
McCoy, on the other hand, rushed into action from the first bell as though he had to catch a train. He had 12 fights in 1893 and won nine of them in from one to five rounds. He fought constantly, hurrying from bout to bout in Akron, Dubuque, Jersey City, Syracuse, Boston, Hot Springs, New Orleans, Joplin, Mo. He generally would knock out some promising local boy in a round or two and rush on to another fight. His opponents were an inglorious throng and they often dropped out of boxing after fighting McCoy. He was accused of a lack of sportsmanship in eliminating so many fighters who might have gone on, but he explained that he was doing them a service. "A quick knockout could be construed as merciful," he once said. "I always tried for one."
At this time McCoy was still subordinate to Norman Selby, for whom fighting was merely a means of earning money, one at which he happened to be proficient. The fight game as such, fight-club personalities, the vast importance attached to subtle gradations in the standing of opponents, meant little to him. A short time before his 21st birthday Selby fell in love with Lottie Piehler, a nice, quiet country girl who was working in a millinery shop in Middletown, Ohio. He had $300 left from McCoy's last fight, and he married her. They went to Cincinnati, and when the money was spent McCoy got a job in a theater in Louisville, where his part of the evening's entertainment consisted of fighting anybody in the audience who wanted to try him. For this he earned $250 a week and he and his bride saved their money and went to New York. There McCoy got a few fights with middleweights of some reputation, including Abe Ullman, Shadow Maber and Mysterious Billy Smith, all championship contenders. When he won easily he began to be taken seriously by the New York sporting crowd.
There was more than bold aggression, ambition and a hint of snobbishness in the makeup of Kid McCoy. Damon Runyon, at the beginning of his sportswriting career, called McCoy one of the greatest fighters in ring history and praised his intelligence. "One of the cleverest, craftiest men who ever put on boxing gloves" was the way Runyon put it. And most experts agreed that McCoy was a superb boxer. He differed from such fine boxers as Tommy Ryan in that he was not primarily defensive; his boxing skill included an attack that went on as long as he could keep it up or until his opponent could no longer face it. If his fights went more than 10 rounds they tended to be drawn.