When Tommy Loughran was in his prime in the late '20s, they said he could fight 15 rounds without disturbing a single wavy hair on his handsome head. Born Thomas Patrick Loughran on Nov. 29, 1902, the son of an Irish immigrant who married a Philadelphia-born woman, he was the quintessential Irish fighter and the pride of South Philadelphia. His deportment in and out of the ring was pure class; even today, oldtimers remember him as the most stylish of fighters, a beautiful boxer and the most gracious of men.
Loughran's boxing career spanned 19 years, from 1919 to 1937, and though the Ring Record Book lists 172 fights under his name, he probably fought a lot more than that. He won the light-heavyweight championship in 1927 and successfully defended the title six times before moving up to the heavyweight division in 1929. He fought once for the heavyweight championship, in 1934 against Primo Camera, when the signs to retire were beginning to appear. ("When one minute between rounds isn't enough time to recuperate, then you know," he was to say later.) Although he lost on a decision, the fight went into the
Guinness Book of World Records for having the greatest weight disparity of any heavyweight championship bout: Camera's 270 pounds to Loughran's 184.
Loughran was an intelligent fighter and articulate, even as a schoolboy. He graduated from high school three years early, primarily because of his exceptional memory. He was also ahead of his age group in physical maturity; he joined the Marines at 14, telling the recruiter he was 23. In the Marines, they put boxing gloves on him for the first time. "They matched me with a tough Marine and what I did to him was nobody's business," Tommy says, recalling his initial boxing experience with a chuckle.
Today, at 76, Loughran lives in a veteran's home in Hollidaysburg, Pa. At 190 he is only five pounds over his last fighting weight. At 5'11", he is an impressive physical figure, the size of a solid quarterback. His blue eyes are clear and sharp, his voice deep and unwavering. He uses his huge hands to tell stories in such perfect coordination with the pitch of the voice and excitement of the tale that the stories seem choreographed. He has told them so often, he almost tells them by rote. While Loughran's memory of recent events is fading, much of the famous recollective powers remains, and the stories of old have endured. It is only the things he did yesterday that Tommy has trouble recalling.
The incidents of Loughran's favorite story took place on Sept. 11, 1926, 12 days before Gene Tunney took the heavyweight championship title from Jack Dempsey in Philadelphia's Sesquicentennial Stadium before 120,757 people, the largest paid attendance ever at a boxing match.
" Dempsey was training down in Atlantic City for the fight with Tunney," recalls Loughran, "and he needed a boxer for a sparring partner. He had some other partners down there—Jimmy Delaney from St. Paul, Big Bill Tate and a fellow named Marty Burke from New Orleans, a really tall, rangy redheaded fellow—but they all knew Jack's style better than he did. They were no good to him; they were defensive fighters. They wouldn't lead or do anything offensive. Dempsey wanted to train with me because I had fought Tunney in an exhibition the year before. I knew Tunney's style, how he fought at that time. I knew what it was all about, how Dempsey should train. Dempsey needed a boxer like me.
"So Dempsey came up to Philadelphia and offered Joe Smith, my manager, $5,000 if he would let me spar with him. Joe said, 'No, nobody's sparring with Tommy for any amount of money, not as long as I'm his manager.' Jack was terribly disappointed.
"Now, Jack and I were pretty good friends. I had lived at his hotel in Los Angeles for three months the year before, and I got to know him then. I used to study him a lot, watch his moves. I knew he had this Indian blood. Boy, I'm telling you, if there ever was a vicious person, he was it. He had these stalking methods, typical of an Indian. Jack would walk on the balls of his feet, not back on his heels like most.
"Yet he had the most attractive personality. You couldn't help but like him. He had a gracious smile, a good handshake, would always have something nice to say. But at the same time I knew he had this other streak in him, and boy, I'm telling you, if he had a chance, that would be it. He was the only man I was ever afraid of, and I think he knew it.
"Between the challenges from Jack and the pressure from everybody telling me he needed to box with me, my conscience was bothering me, and I finally said to my manager, 'Let's go down to Atlantic City. Let's go try Dempsey.' Joe looked at me and he said, 'Do you know what you're doing?' and I said, 'I want to find out. I want to go down there and see if he can knock me out.