SI Vault
Robert Cantwell
March 19, 1979
Did Mike McTigue really beat Battling Siki for the world title on that fateful St. Patrick's Day? Here, after 56 years, is the true story of what happened
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March 19, 1979

The Great Dublin Robbery

Did Mike McTigue really beat Battling Siki for the world title on that fateful St. Patrick's Day? Here, after 56 years, is the true story of what happened

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A writer in The Irish Press reported to the folks back in Ireland that McTigue lived quietly with his wife and two daughters in a Long Island suburb and enjoyed a fine reputation as a clean fighter in the mob-infested '20s. McTigue was a gentleman—temperate, patient and sociable, but altogether independent. He was invariably polite and civilized, said The Irish Press; he had a round boyish face, "smiled easily, spoke quietly, dressed immaculately." He expected other people to act politely also, which was scarcely the most appropriate attitude for a fight with Battling Siki.

Fifty-five thousand spectators appeared at the new velodrome in Paris in the fall of 1922 for the Carpentier-Siki light-heavyweight title fight, the biggest crowd in European boxing history. In the first two rounds Carpentier flicked punches to the head, and at one point Siki dropped to one knee, although he was up before a count could begin. George Bernard Shaw wrote that any white pugilist would have been down and out half a dozen times from the blows that Carpentier landed, "but they did not worry Siki for a moment." In the third round, Siki was down for a count of seven. What happened after that led to one of the most cloudy of fight controversies. One account is that Siki leaped to his feet and shot across the ring with the terrific acceleration that marked his rushes and landed a blow to the chin of Carpentier. A review of that film shows that both fighters at this point were trading hard punches to the head. One writer noted that the crowd "suddenly realized that uncontrollable forces had broken loose." Siki battered Carpentier with nonstop, roundhouse punches. Midway through the sixth round Carpentier was knocked out. As he was falling, one of his legs became entangled with Siki's. Carpentier lay unconscious and was later taken by ambulance to a hospital. In the hysteria of the moment, the referee ruled that Siki had tripped Carpentier illegally and awarded the fight to Carpentier. An hour later, the judges reversed this preposterous decision and declared Siki the light-heavyweight champion of the world.

McTigue was on a liner in the mid-Atlantic, bound for France to arrange a title fight with Carpentier, when the wireless crackled with the stunning news of Siki's victory. So McTigue went to England instead, where he had four warmup bouts in four months to prepare for the Siki match on which he had now set his sights. Two of these bouts impressed British observers: McTigue knocked out Johnny Basham, an enormously popular former middleweight champion of Britain, and then knocked out Harry Reeve in the third round, less time than Siki had required when he fought Reeve.

But the problems of lining up a fight with Siki seemed almost insoluble. Although Siki announced that he had reformed and was going to behave like a world champion—a resolve that lasted only about 24 hours—the main problem was that he wanted to fight Dempsey for the heavyweight title. But at the same time, Siki was suspended from fighting in France. He had acted as a second for another fighter, a friend, and had punched the opposing fighter's manager. Having already gone through most of his winnings—something that happened after most of his fights—Siki was broke. He went to his old friend Blaise Diagne, then a French Cabinet minister.

Siki told Diagne that the Carpentier fight had been fixed and that he had double-crossed the fixers. His manager and Carpentier's manager had agreed that Siki was to be knocked out in the fourth round, Siki said. In the first round, he was to drop to one knee as a signal to Carpentier; in the third he was to take a long count to make a prearranged fourth-round knockout look good. But Siki said the enormous crowd, his following—and his shame as the count was tolled—made it impossible for him to go through with the frame-up.

Diagne was outraged. He repeated Siki's story in the Chamber of Deputies and demanded an official investigation. Siki, he said, was merely an uneducated, childlike native preyed upon and swindled, a symbol of the blacks of French Africa. Carpentier's apparent connivance in the plot became an international scandal, but no action was taken against him. As for Siki, who remained suspended in France, he needed not only a stirring victory to clear his name, but he also needed money.

Lad Ray was not a fight promoter. He was a wealthy Dublin sportsman who spent much of his time riding to the hounds and training a few racehorses on his farm. In this last pursuit he was not notably successful; his best horse, Odd Cat, finished third in an Irish Grand National. Lad Ray was a cosmopolitan, a linguist, a gambler and a lover of drama—and also was a most unusual character in the Ireland of his time: staging a world championship fight in Dublin on St. Patrick's Day was a bold promotional stroke. The likes of John L. Sullivan and Jack Johnson had been seen from time to time in exhibitions at the old Rotunda in Dublin, and local promoters had occasionally staged professional fights there, but these were of little consequence; the winner was lucky to get a couple of quid. Unlike English upper-class sportsmen, Irish gentlemen had nothing to do with the fights. "If you mentioned boxing," says Paddy Masterson, "you were a blackguard." But Lad Ray was unconventional, and he thought the time had come to stir things up in Dublin.

In this he differed from the authorities of the newly established Free State, who thought the fight might provoke the worst riot in Dublin history. Not because it would pit a black man against an Irishman; that had nothing to do with it. The reason was that the fight would draw a great crowd, and supporters of the Free State and supporters of the Republic would come to blows and gunfire. However, Lad Ray felt that in the excitement of the fight, political differences would be laid aside.

In addition to not being able to fight in France, Siki had been refused permission to box in England. A proposed match between Siki and the heavyweight champion of England, Joe Beckett, had been disallowed by the Home Office because "In bouts between men of color and white men, the temperaments of the contestants are not comparable, and, moreover, all sorts of passions are aroused." At first, Siki was reluctant to fight in Ireland, but he agreed when he was allowed to pick the referee; he chose a highly respected Englishman named Jack Smith.

In Dublin, Siki trained hard. He was quartered in the old Claremont Hotel outside the city, and jogged eight miles daily to work out in the Rotunda. For sixpence, the locals could watch him spar, "puffing and snorting so loud you could hear him way over on O'Connell Street." Blacks were rarely seen in Dublin in 1923, and Siki was an intimidating figure, "strong as a bull and as lithe and fierce as a black panther," said The Sporting Life. But he seemed uneasy. When he rode down O'Connell Street with a cheetah on a chain on the roof of his taxi, his showmanship was obviously out of place. O'Connell Street was a waste of shattered glass after the shelling of Republican strongholds.

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