LIGHTWEIGHT CHAMPION (DISPUTED) OF COLORADO (1898)
Billy Irwin fought in Colorado state championship matches in three different boxing weight divisions: Bantamweight…Featherweight…Lightweight. This is the story of his Colorado Lightweight Championship match.
To begin with over the years boxing weight divisions have varied but, for the most part, the minimum weight range between a Bantamweight (113-118 pounds), Featherweight (119-126 pounds) and a Lightweight (127-135 pounds) was only nine pounds. As a result, at this time, Colorado’s championship boxers, weighing between 118 pounds and 127 pounds, fought championship matches interchangeably in all three weight divisions as the opportunity for a Colorado state championship match presented itself. This was certainly the case when Billy Irwin fought Reddy Coogan for the Lightweight Championship of Colorado at Glenwood Springs on August 23, 1898. Some background material leading up to this match follows here.
Reddy Coogan began his boxing career in 1894. Between 1894 and 1898 he had fought as a Bantamweight. On September 21, 1894 he was matched with Jerry Haley for the Bantamweight championship of Colorado (Denver Rocky Mountain news – September 22, 1894). Although the match ended in a thirty round draw both Coogan and Haley nevertheless claimed the Bantamweight Championship of Colorado. However subsequent evidence uncovered favors Coogan’s claim: “Coogan has defeated all of the Kids in the catalogue and put Young Corbett to sleep in two rounds” (Aspen Tribune – June 16, 1898). “Coogan was considered at this time to be the best man of his weight in the West” (Denver Post – December 3, 1901).
On April 9, 1898 Reddy Coogan of Denver fought Kid Brooks of Cheyenne, Wyoming to a twenty-round draw at Cripple Creek. According to the Cripple Creek Morning Times dated April 10, 1898 Coogan was said to be the Lightweight Champion of Colorado and Kid Brooks was said to be the Lightweight Champion of Wyoming. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that the winner of the match would be recognized as the Lightweight Champion of both Colorado and Wyoming.
Billy Irwin began his professional boxing career in 1892. Following his first-round knockout of undefeated Kid Ross (Denver Iron Boy) at Victor on March 11, 1895, he claimed the Featherweight Championship of Colorado. At this time while his “to be” rivals Reddy Coogan, Young Corbett and Dago Mike were fighting as Bantamweights Billy Irwin remained in the Featherweight Division. Following his draw with Kid Brooks (April 9, 1898) for the Lightweight Championship of Colorado and Wyoming, Reddy Coogan also claimed the Featherweight Championship of Colorado and challenged Featherweight claimant Billy Irwin to a twenty-round match in order to determine who was “really” the Colorado Featherweight champion. The Irwin-Coogan match took place at Aspen (May 25, 1898). According to the Aspen Daily Times (May 26, 1898) it was stated before the fight that Reddy Coogan was the “Featherweight Champion of the State.” However according to the Aspen Tribune (May 26, 1898) it was reported that Coogan weighed 116 pounds (Bantamweight) and Irwin weighed 121 pounds (Featherweight) and so any claim to Featherweight status and its championship after the Irwin-Coogan draw was in favor of Irwin.
Nevertheless, after the match was declared a draw Coogan, as well as Irwin now, both claimed to be the Colorado State Champion in two weight divisions (bantamweight and featherweight).
On June 18, 1898 Billy Irwin and Kid Brooks were scheduled to box twenty rounds at the Wheeler Opera House, Aspen. This match was considered to be a championship match for a number of reasons: Kid Brooks presently claimed the Lightweight championship of Wyoming… he recently fought a draw match with Colorado Lightweight champion claimant Reddy Coogan… he was now scheduled to fight Colorado Featherweight champion claimant Billy Irwin who had just fought a twenty-round draw with Colorado Featherweight champion claimant Reddy Coogan. It was agreed by the parties (Irwin, Coogan and Brooks) that the winner of the Irwin-Brooks match would fight Reddy Coogan again and Reddy Coogan had arrived at Aspen from Leadville on June 15th “to be on hand to make arrangements to meet the winner.” (Aspen Tribune-June 16, 1898).
Newspaper evidence now confirms that this match did not take place. According to the Aspen Daily Times dated June 19, 1898: “Owing to a large number of Aspen’s citizens being absent from the city, and also owing to the Kemptons putting on a strong play and following it up with a watch drawing, thereby pulling a large crowd, the number of people who assembled at the opera house to see the Irwin-Brooks mill was by far too small to warrant the match to be pulled off, consequently it was postponed until the evening of July 4.” In the same article it further states: “On the evening of the Fourth, so says the Marshall, if the fight is billed for that date it must take place, crowd or no crowd.” Apparently, the match was not re-scheduled nor did it take place on the 4th of July.
Even though the Irwin-Brooks match was cancelled Billy Irwin was nevertheless chosen over Kid Brooks to fight Reddy Coogan at Glenwood Springs for the Lightweight Championship of Colorado. The reason that Irwin was chosen over Kid Brooks for this championship match was that in their most recent matches with Coogan, Irwin had made a better showing than did Kid Brooks. Newspaper accounts verify the claim that Billy Irwin fought a better fight against Coogan than did Kid Brooks. In the Coogan-Brooks match, according to the Cripple Creek Morning Times (April 10,1898): “Kid Brooks down and out and wanted to quit.” “There was a time when it seemed that Brooks was irretrievably gone.” “Brooks knocked down twice” (sixth round). Twice Coogan floored Brooks” (tenth round). According to the Denver Rocky Mountain News (April 10, 1898): “Coogan had the best of the fight all the way and he had the Wyoming boxer (Kid Brooks) groggy half a dozen times.” Conversely Irwin was not knocked down or groggy at all in his match with Coogan. Nor did he show any signs of wanting to “quit” as did Kid Brooks. According to the Aspen Tribune News (May 26, 1898): “Honors (Coogan and Irwin) were evenly divided.” And according to the Denver Rocky Mountain News (May 26,1898): “Irwin received a lot of punishment but there was plenty of fight left in him at the end of the twentieth round.” So thus, ends the events and circumstances leading up to the Billy Irwin vs. Reddy Coogan match that would end under a cloud of “criminal conspiracy” and a “disputed” Lightweight championship.
The preliminary match to the main championship event on August 23rd was a four-round fight between Tom Harris and Kid Fox both of New Castle. Thus, newspaper reporters from the New Castle Nonpareil were ringside to report the event to their readers back home. Being at ringside and in a position to observe and record events as they unfolded on the spot the Nonpareil reported a shocking story… especially when correlated with other newspaper evidence which follows here.
Fight day came and there was great excitement among the many boxing enthusiasts on the streets of Glenwood. According to the Glenwood newspaper, the Avalanche Echo dated August 25, 1898, on fight day Coogan was heard to say, “if I hit Irwin on the head, I will kill him.” Coogan had hit Irwin many times in the head during their previous fight (three months earlier) and had not yet “killed” him. So why would he “kill” Irwin now if he hit him on the head? In retrospect this strange boast by Coogan would prove to be quite revealing in light of the outcome of this match.
The match, which lasted only one round, went perfectly according to Coogan’s boast. Summarizing the Glenwood Post Article dated August 27, 1898: When hit the very first time Irwin was knocked down and when back up on his feet appeared “somewhat groggy.” Coogan’s second punch sent Irwin to the floor “in a heap badly dazed.” Coogan’s third punch caused Irwin “to hit the foundation with a thud” for a third time. “In a dazed condition he (Irwin) staggered to his feet and was again prostrated.” Then time was called ending round one and Irwin was “carried to his corner in a semi-conscious condition.”
Needless to say, given the equality of Coogan and Irwin in their previous match, Irwin’s backers and admirers were surprised and suspicious with the outcome of round one. And their suspicions were further aroused when Glenwood Springs Sheriff Adams halted the match before the commencement of round two. Many had bet heavily on Irwin and the odds-on Irwin being knocked out in round one was virtually nil. Anyone betting that Coogan would knockout Irwin early in the fight (especially in one round and given the odds spread) would have reaped a fortune.
According to the New Castle Nonpareil newspaper dated August 25, 1898 the explanation of Billy Irwin’s humiliating loss was reported and is quoted in its entirety as follows:
“The glove contest which came off at Glenwood Tuesday night between Billy Irwin of Leadville and Reddy Coogan of Denver for the Lightweight Championship of Colorado was a brutal exhibition and was very properly stopped by Sheriff Adams at the conclusion of the first “round.” As the Nonpareil understands the rules, the decision should not have gone to Coogan as he fouled his opponent a number of times – besides, the gloves he wore had been tampered with by his seconds, the result being that Irwin might as well have gone up against bare knuckles.”
According to the Herald Democrat (Leadville newspaper) dated August 24, 1898: “If the authorities do their duty there will be no more fights in Glenwood.”
Billy Irwin had “officially” lost the Lightweight Championship of Colorado in round one of a scheduled twenty rounds match. But, according to the evidence, he didn’t lose it fairly and squarely. At the very least when Glenwood Springs Sheriff Adams intervened and stopped the fight all bets should have been called off, the fight should have been declared a draw and the purse should have been split evenly between Irwin and Coogan. But even more properly before the match was halted by the Sheriff, the fact that Coogan “fouled his opponent a number of times” and was fighting with “tampered” gloves should have been more than enough to disqualify him. Thus, Irwin should have been declared the winner and Lightweight Champion of Colorado. But instead Referee Keek disregarded the Sheriff’s intervention and declared Coogan the winner causing all bets to be paid off.
Needless to say, for some time after this match the Lightweight Championship of Colorado remained in a “disputed” state between the admirers and backers of Irwin and those of Coogan. However, when they fought their next 20 round match at Aspen in May 1899 it was stated (Aspen Daily Times - May 13, 1899): " Reddy Coogan of Denver, champion featherweight pugilist of the state, and Billy Irwin Western Slope champion."