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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Eamon de Valera, the president of the shadowy Republic of Ireland, was in Dublin at the time. When the Irish Free State was established by treaty with England in 1922, Republicans under De Valera had refused any settlement less than a united Ireland and complete independence, and the civil war that followed between the Republicans and the Free Staters, who held less uncompromising views, was now in its final phase. To De Valera, the prospect of a great public spectacle in the midst of the country's suffering was intolerable. That it should be held on St. Patrick's Day seemed especially inappropriate; he was fond of the old saying that on St. Patrick's Day there was a trout in every pool, a nest in every tree, and a heifer in every paddock in Ireland.

De Valera's government ordered the fight stopped. Both sides in the civil war opposed it. But when Lad Ray opened the doors of the La Scala Theatre at six o'clock, on schedule, the government backed down. A double line of soldiers ringed the area. The fans were searched when they went inside, and once there they could not get back out. There were 3,000 seats—$1.10 for ringside—and the fans straggled in one by one, the last arriving at 8:30, just before the main event.

Outside, the crowd grew steadily. The magnificent old theater was on O'Connell Street next to the Post Office, the scene of the main fighting in the Easter Rising of 1916. The entrance to the theater was on narrow Prince's Street beside the Post Office, but the crowd overflowed the side street and packed the wide expanse of O'Connell Street itself. By the time the preliminaries were over, hundreds of men were jammed shoulder to shoulder in a dark mass under the dim street lamps, Republicans and Free Staters alike, silently gathering in a city where all public assemblies had long been prohibited. Just before the fight began, a bomb exploded in a nearby building. It shook the theater, breaking windows and injuring two children. But it was a minor explosion, considering the threats that the roof of the La Scala was to be blown sky-high.

Siki and McTigue entered the ring at 8:15. McTigue looked pale and thin and unprepossessing compared to Siki. Through the first six rounds, while the rest of the audience sat in relative silence, the multitude of sportswriters, representing the major newspapers of London, Paris and New York, in addition to every Irish daily, were preoccupied with finding different ways of saying that McTigue was on the run. "Siki dashed to the attack. McTigue was entirely on the defensive, obviously weighing his man and taking no chances" (The Irish Times). "Round 2 was a repetition of the first. Siki tried hard for a knockout" (The New York Times). "Round 3: Siki drove McTigue to his corner, where he landed a left flush to the face" (Clare Champion). Round 4: "Siki landed twice on the body and head" (The Irish Times). "Siki was obviously puzzled by McTigue's defense" (The New York Times).

The fight film, spotty and unclear as much of it is, gives a far more vivid account despite the fact that it compresses two rounds into one until rounds 19 and 20. McTigue walked slowly to the center of the ring, arms extended, showing no eagerness to get things started. Siki touched McTigue's outstretched gloves and then—as though suddenly remembering where he was—propelled himself at McTigue in a headlong rush. He swung wildly, driving McTigue into the ropes and almost through them. McTigue sidestepped. Siki ran at him again, head lowered, swinging hard. "McTigue dodged a dangerous-looking swing which, had it found its billet, would have ended the matter then and there" (Clare Champion). Having missed, Siki again drove McTigue to the ropes, but again McTigue got away.

Through the first six rounds McTigue endured perhaps the worst humiliation of his professional life. A knockout—and it seemed only a question of time before one was coming—would have been easier to bear than the ignominy he had to suffer. The strategy that had sustained him through 99 fights was plainly not working; he could not jab and get out of the way because Siki was always on him in an inelegant onslaught of collisions and flailing arms.

What was lost in the violence was McTigue's dignity; looking at the film, one is reminded of Buster Keaton in Battling Butler, a rich boy accidentally matched against the champion of the world, looking as surprised as some innocent bystander who has been attacked by a ruffian in the street.

"Siki was obviously puzzled by McTigue's defense and started to look hopelessly for the Irishman" (The New York Times). Time and again McTigue was pinned against the ropes. Siki closed in, right arm cocked, like a woodchopper, and McTigue bolted and ran around the ring. Siki ran after him, trying to hit him in the back. "McTigue was compelling the black to follow him around the ring" (The Irish Times).

In the sixth, the Irishman at last handed a solid right. He continued his newfound aggression in the seventh, a round that a viewer of the film might award to McTigue. By the eighth round, however, Siki was on the attack again. He began stalking McTigue, waiting for the chance to get in the one blow needed to end it (he later said he believed he already had the fight won). The camera caught some eerie instances that the reporters did not mention, though The Sporting Life compared Siki to a panther, "striking out fiercely anywhere and everywhere." At one point, Siki bent double, almost slithering across the ring, suddenly springing erect close to McTigue and swinging with both hands. "I thought he had dropped to all fours and crawled across the ring and jumped to his feet," said William Blackburn in Dublin the other day, remembering that chilling moment.

But Siki kept missing, and McTigue landed occasional jabs to the head. According to one account, the crowd began to yell, "Hit him, Mike! Hit him!" Even the silent film's brief glimpses of the audience show a quickening of interest that was lacking in the early rounds. In the 10th, when Siki began a cautious sparring, McTigue landed a right-left-right combination that jolted Siki. Yet when McTigue tried to fight toe to toe with Siki in the 11th, a hard right cut a gash over his left eye, which began to bleed freely.

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