ASPEN'S FOUR "PET" PUGILISTS (1894-1901)

One of Aspen’s oldest taverns still in business today, as of this writing, is the Red Onion. On one of its walls are a number of pictures of internationally prominent boxers from the 1890s. Also, on the bottom row, pictured above, are four of Colorado’s “gamest” feather/ bantamweights of Aspen’s “golden era” of boxing which lasted from 1895 to 1899. Shown here (bottom row) from left to right are Billy Irwin, Dago Mike, Young Corbett, Reddy Coogan and lastly is Billy Irwin again with two trainers. Between 1895 and 1900 these four boxers, at one time or another and in dispute amongst themselves, claimed the state of Colorado championships for the Bantamweight, Featherweight and Lightweight classes. The following paragraphs make note of their various encounters.

 

 Billy Irwin, the oldest of the four, began his boxing career in Leadville circa 1884. His boxing career between the years of 1884 to 1892 has yet to be documented except for two boxing pose photographs dated circa 1879 and 1884. By 1895 Leadville had largely banned boxing matches, except for exhibition matches, within its Lake County limits and conversely Aspen was becoming more and more “boxing friendly” and so Billy Irwin relocated there in 1895. By 1900 however he returned to Leadville and finished his boxing career there. Dago Mike (Michael Mongone) began his boxing career at Cripple Creek in 1896, relocated to Aspen in the late 1800s and by 1900 was boxing out of Leadville. Reddy Coogan (John Coogan) and Young Corbett (William Rothwell) both began their boxing careers in Denver circa 1894 and did their fighting mostly in all three venues of Denver, Cripple Creek and Aspen.

 

 In 1898 Reddy Coogan was considered to be the “best man of his weight in the West” according to an article written by Young Corbett and printed in the Denver Post on December 3, 1901. Billy Irwin was also considered to be one of the “best men of his weight in the West” after his twenty-round draw with Reddy Coogan on May 25, 1898. However, in 1895 Billy Irwin was the best of the four (see essay 10 Featherweight Champion).  According to a Denver Rocky Mountain News article dated May 26, 1898: “Coogan Failed to Knock out (Irwin)... Irwin received a lot of punishment but there was plenty of fight left in him at the end of the twentieth round.”

 

Young Corbett was also considered to be one of the “best men in of his weight in the West” when he fought Reddy Coogan to a twenty-round draw on November 14, 1898. On December 18, 1898 Young Corbett knocked out Dago Mike in the second round. And by 1899 thereafter Young Corbett was considered to be “THE” best man of his weight in the Western United States. He even went on to become the World Featherweight Champion by knocking out “Terrible” Terry McGovern in the second round at Hartford, Connecticut on November 28, 1901.

Following here is the chronological boxing record of these four “rivals” between the years of 1896 and 1901 and also a “benefit match” for Young Corbett sponsored by Dago Mike just weeks before Young Corbett died in 1927:

In a Denver Post article by Otto Floto dated February 26, 1903 Floto recalled the first Dago Mike vs. Young Corbett match. It was scheduled to go twenty rounds. After twenty rounds the referee, Jim Donaldson, could not select a winner so he ordered the men to fight twenty rounds further. In the 31st round Corbett deliberately fouled Mike because he was tired and did not care to continue. According to Otto Floto “He (Corbett) had no right to lose that fight as he afterwards knocked out Mike in two rounds.” In an Aspen Tribune article dated May 21, 1899 Young Corbett stated that this fight took place in 1894 at Cripple Creek and that it lasted 32 rounds. However, Young Corbett was wrong in stating that the match was in 1894. Evidence (copy of boxing ticket stub) gleaned from Mongone Family memorabilia on the Ancestry.com web site verify that this match took place at the Topic Theater in Cripple Creek on Friday, December 4, 1896. To be noted also, according to the Denver Federal Census, Young Corbett was born in October 1879.Therefore in 1894, at fight time, he was seventeen years old. According to the Federal Census for Denver, Colorado in 1900 Dago Mike (Michael Mongone) was born in June of 1882. Therefore in 1894, at fight time, he was fourteen years and six months old. Therefore, this match, given both their ages, is considered to be a pre-professional match.

According to an article in the Aspen Tribune dated June16, 1898 “Reddy Coogan has defeated all of the “kids” in the catalogue and put Young Corbett to sleep in two rounds.” In an article in the Aspen Tribune dated May 21, 1899 Corbett listed his to-date record and did not mention his knockout by Coogan. It was stated however in this same article that “during 1897 he did nothing but practice work” and so I believe that this was the year in which Coogan (practice workout) “put Young Corbett to sleep in two rounds.”

Featherweight Championship of Colorado. Both Coogan and Irwin claimed the Featherweight title at this time. In the Aspen Daily Times dated May 26, 1898 it referred to “Reddy Coogan of Denver, featherweight champion of the state” however. The article goes on to state “Referee Houston announced that if both men were on their feet at the close of the twentieth round that the match would be declared a draw. In the negotiations preceding this fight it appears that Coogan had stated that he would knockout Irwin within twenty rounds (Denver Rocky Mountain News dated May 26, 1898 “Coogan Failed to Knockout”). In any event he (Coogan) did fail to knockout Irwin...both men were on their feet at the end of the twentieth round...both Coogan and Irwin did continue to claim the Featherweight Championship of Colorado & Irwin, in his draw with bantamweight Coogan, now claimed the Bantamweight title also.

Lightweight Championship of Colorado. This match took place less than three months after Irwin and Coogan had fought a draw match for the Colorado Featherweight Championship. According to the Denver Rocky Mountain News dated August 21, 1898 the match at hand was for the “championship of the Western slope.” According to the Leadville Herald Democrat dated August 14, 1898 the match at hand was for the “Lightweight Championship of the state.” According to an article from the Newcastle Non Pareil dated August 25, 1898 Billy Irwin did not lose this match fairly and squarely. The article goes on to state: “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 Non Pareil 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.” After this match the Lightweight Championship of Colorado remained in a “disputed” state between the admirers and backers of Irwin and those of Coogan. For a full account of this match see Essay 12 titled “Lightweight Champion (Disputed) of Colorado (l898).”

Featherweight Championship of Colorado. According to an article in the Denver Evening Post dated November 15, 1898, “Reddy Coogan and Young Corbett, purporting to be the champion featherweight pugilist of Colorado fought a twenty-round draw here last night.” This was considered a championship match and Coogan was knocked down twice and at the conclusion of the match, “Corbett seemed by far the fresher of the two.” From this time on the general opinion was that Young Corbett’s claim to the Colorado Featherweight championship was the most valid.

Bantamweight Championship of Colorado. Young Corbett had been largely absent from the Colorado boxing scene during all of 1897 and most of 1898 according to an article in the Aspen Tribune dated May 21, 1899. According to a Denver Post article dated December 3, 1901 he left Colorado in mid-1898 and fought a number of matches at Omaha, Kansas City and Des Moines. Upon returning to Colorado he fought a twenty-round draw at Aspen with Reddy Coogan on November 14, 1898. According to a Denver Post article dated November 15, 1898 Young Corbett, after this match, was “purported to be the Featherweight Champion of Colorado.” Thus, the Featherweight Championship was at this time no longer “disputed” between Coogan and Irwin but instead the “dispute” was between Coogan and Corbett. It was at this time however and under these circumstances that both Billy Irwin and Dago Mike simultaneously & now in earnest claimed the Bantamweight Championship of Colorado. Over the years boxing weight divisions have varied but, for the most part, the Featherweight Division range is between 119 to 126 pounds. The Bantamweight range is between 113 to 118 pounds. Billy Irwin’s traditional boxing weight range was between 120 to 125 pounds and so in order for him to fight as a Bantamweight was only a matter of a couple of pounds. The same held true for Dago Mike. It appears that circa November 1898 Dago Mike challenged Billy Irwin to a six round “finish fight” in which he would either knock him out in six rounds or lose the match. This is derived from a Denver Post article dated April 18, 1899 which states: “Dago Mike tried some time ago to stop Irwin in six rounds but failed.” Sixteen-year-old Dago Mike did indeed fail to knockout Twenty-nine-year-old Billy Irwin and Billy Irwin went on continuing to claim the Colorado Bantamweight Championship... much to the chagrin of Young Dago Mike.

According to an article in the Aspen Tribune dated December 17, 1898, “about the middle of the first round Mike knocked Corbett down. This seemed to rile Corbett who sprang to his feet and landed a heavy right hander on Dago Mike’s solar plexus following with a left on the neck which not only felled him to the floor, but practically put him out. Time was called but Mike was too groggy to get to his corner before the gong rang for the second round and when he attempted to put up a show of fight it was plain to be seen that it was all up with him. Before the second round was half over Corbett had Mike at his mercy and a couple of stiff rights laid him out hopelessly beaten.”

According to an Aspen Tribune article dated December 22, 1898 the Minstrel Show put on by Billy Van, “proved to be a glowing success.” Of the many attractions in this Minstrel Show it mentions the Young Corbett-Billy Irwin sparring exhibition: “The gymnastics closed with a three round sparring exhibition by Young Corbett, champion lightweight pugilist of Colorado and Billy Irwin a local lightweight of considerable note. This was particularly interesting and the contestants closed the third round with honors about equally divided. It was no slugging match but they were simply sparring for points.” The article on in its “Side Talk” finale states: “The three round glove contests was remarkably warm throughout...and were Billy Irwin to go abroad he would be considered a world-winner.” (ND = no decision match in record books).

In Billy Irwin’s scrapbook is an undated clipping describing a four round sparring exhibition between Reddy Coogan and Dago Mike. Its title is “At the Wheeler.” Its subtitle is “The Henry Hi’s Entertained a Large Audience Last Night.” Regarding the Reddy Coogan-Dago Mike sparring exhibition it states: “The four-round sparring exhibition between Reddy Coogan and Dago Mike gave the cultured audience quite a little taste of what the sports enjoy when the fight is for blood. In the first round the little roosters took things easy and some who were up on prize ring matters, said it was tame. In the second round it was a little faster and the fighting spirit in the Dago seemed to get the better of him. In the third round, it got interesting as both the bantams seemed to lose their temper and hammered each other severely. In a clinch towards the end of the round Coogan, being provoked at Mike’s rushes, thrust his head several times into Mike’s face. The fourth round opened so vicious and the men showed such evident bad temper that, for decency’s sake, referee Manley separated the combatants after the mix-up had lasted but half a minute and ordered the men from the stage. The bout was decided a draw. Coogan proved himself quite clever but physically seemed hardly equal to his opponent.”

Bantamweight Championship of Colorado. After Dago Mike’s failure to “stop” Billy Irwin in six rounds he still continued to claim (now weakened) the Colorado Bantamweight championship... as did Billy Irwin (now strengthened)! On February 14, 1899 Dago Mike therefore challenged Billy Irwin to “any amount of rounds to which we will agree” and on that same day Billy Irwin accepted (according to undated newspaper clippings from Billy Irwin’s scrapbook). It appears that they agreed to a “Finish Fight” of twenty rounds for according to an Aspen Tribune article dated March 16, 1899 the match “Ended in a Draw” (Title)... “But not a Finish” (subtitle). According to excerpts from the Aspen Daily Times dated March 16, 1899: “Early in the bout Mike did a little grand stand acting and talking and wore a confident smile.” “Later on, however he found he had a real fight on his hands and looked a little worried and serious.” Although Mike was more aggressive Billy Irwin, it appears, out boxed him handily: “Mike’s rushes were frequent but he couldn’t find his man and he fell against the ropes frequently even once falling to his knees.” “In the third round Irwin stopped one of Mike’s rushes by a blow on the face which “brought the claret upon Mike’s nose. First blood was claimed by Irwin.” The balance of the match was summarized as “honors even” and the match was declared a draw with both Billy Irwin and Dago Mike thereafter still claiming the Colorado Bantamweight championship.

As an addition to this article I am adding here a story which took place many years ago. In 1957 this writer, (Terrance Irwin, grandson of Billy Irwin) and his father (Francis Irwin) were visiting Leadville one beautiful summer day and happened by chance to run into Dago Mike on Harrison Avenue. I remember him being very neatly dressed in a coat and tie and very personable. My father extended his hand in friendship saying “Hello Mike!” I was introduced to him and likewise shook his hand. We chatted for a while and my father recalled to him the three matches he had with his father... a loss... a draw... a win. What I remember the most of Dago Mike’s reminiscences was (paraphrase): “Your grandfather was a hard man to hit... he just wasn’t there! I couldn’t get thru to him to knock him down or out!”

Young Corbett’s “sojourn in Omaha the past summer made him a great deal better man than even his sanguine friends had dared to hope for” (Denver Evening Post-December 17, 1898). He was now ready to box his way out of Colorado and then eastward for the World Featherweight Championship. So, in early April 1899 he and Billy Irwin agreed to a twelve round “finish fight” in which Young Corbett would lose the match if he couldn’t knockout Irwin within the twelve rounds. The match took place on April 17, 1899. The match was covered by the Aspen Daily Times, Aspen Tribune and the Denver Post all dated April 18, 1899. The following are excerpts from these newspapers covering the fight. In the first round “to the surprise of the audience Irwin assumed the aggressive landing on Corbett’s face and rushing him to the ropes” (Aspen Daily Times). In the second round “Irwin landed repeatedly and was loudly applauded and honors were about even” (Aspen Daily Times). Also, in the second round “Irwin succeeded in drawing blood on Corbett” (Aspen Tribune). In the third round “Irwin continued pluckily forcing the fighting and landed repeatedly with light blows on Corbett’s face (Aspen Daily Times). In the fourth round “Corbett lands right swing on Irwin’s jaw, knocking him down. As referee counted off the seconds up to eight, Irwin staggered to his feet too dazed to put up his hands. Corbett struck him a terrific blow in the temple, and Irwin dropped to the floor unconscious and was carried to his corner. The large crowd jumped to its feet shouting “foul” and the ring was soon filled with excited men. Order was restored and Referee Huston declared there was no foul and gave the decision to Corbett (Denver Post). “Irwin suffered defeat last night on account of the superior strength of his antagonist. However, he put up a gamey fight and not for one moment did he show the white feather. From a pugilistic point of view, he suffered defeat but not dishonor” (Aspen Daily Times). This was the only “legitimate” knockout of Billy Irwin’s career. “Legitimate” because his only other knockout was “illegitimate” by Reddy Coogan who had fouled Irwin numerously...fought allegedly with “tampered boxing gloves” ...after which the match had been stopped by the sheriff at the conclusion of round one (New Castle Non Pareil dated August 25, 1898). Billy Irwin must have felt bad about his knockout by Young Corbett in four rounds. But a little over a year and a half later, he must have felt much better about it after Young Corbett knocked out Terry McGovern in only half as many rounds (two rounds) to become the World Featherweight Champion. Also, as a point of historical interest it is worth mentioning here that when Young Corbett fought Terry McGovern for the World Featherweight Championship that they were both twenty-one years old and in their prime. Conversely when Billy Irwin lost his fight to Young Corbett he was ten years older than Young Corbett and past his prime. This age factor must have caused Billy Irwin, throughout the rest of his life, to speculate as to how a 21-year-old Billy Irwin would have come out against a 21-year-old World Featherweight Champion Terry McGovern and a 21-year-old World Featherweight Champion Young Corbett.

According to a clipping (undated) from Billy Irwin’s scrapbook: “The Leadville Miner says: In Aspen before the A.U.A.O. on the night of February 12, Billy Irwin of Leadville and Reddy Coogan of Denver, will meet in a 20-round go. These men have fought two battles before. The first was 20 rounds and resulted in a draw, although Irwin’s friends claim he had a long way the best of it. The next was also 20 rounds. Both men were fighting at the finish but Coogan was given the decision.” This article from the Leadville Miner was probably written several days before the February 12, 1901 mentioned date. This second 20-round match took place in May 1899 at Aspen (Aspen Daily Times May 13, 1899). According to an article in the Leadville Herald Democrat dated June 4, 1900: “Billy Irwin put on the gloves for four rounds with Young Corbett and although the latter was the heavier Irwin held his own very creditably.” (ND = no decision in the record books).

Bantamweight Championship of Colorado. This match, according to the Leadville Herald Democrat article dated June 4, 1900, was for the Bantamweight Championship of Colorado.  According to this same “pre-fight” article, “Irwin is not such an aggressive fighter as Dago Mike, but if the latter attempts too much he might find himself against one of Billy’s hard rights which he uses so handily.” This was indeed the case because the match seemed to be another draw but since Dago Mike was the more aggressive he was given the decision. Some highlights of the match from Billy Irwin’s perspective were: “Hot rally in Billy Irwin’s corner and Mike came out bleeding at the mouth (round two). “Mike keeps leading with his left but Billy is never there.” “Billy lands two lefts on the nose and follows it with two more. Billy finds Mike’s nose again and the Dago found that laughing didn’t pay” (Round Twelve). “Dago starts to rush matters but Irwin is not there” (Round 13). “Dago is compelled to resort to clinching to save himself from punishment.” ‘Billy showed great skills in ducking Dago’s swings” (Round Fifteen). “Mike is on the aggressive but is unable to hit his man effectively” (Round Seventeen). “The fighting is very even and the men seem both fresh” (Round Seventeen). “Billy dodges a right and Mike went to his knees from the force of his own blows” (Round Nineteen). “Both men were on their feet at the end of the 20th round and both apparently fit for 20 rounds more.” Although the match was determined to be even the referee awarded the decision to the “more aggressive” Dago Mike. And thus, thirty-one-year-old Billy Irwin lost the Colorado Bantamweight championship to the eighteen-year-old Dago Mike.

 

Next the Coogan- Young Corbett match, according to “Box Rec” (www.boxrec.com/boxer), took place in Colorado Springs on November 29, 1900. It was a “Newspaper decision” in favor of Young Corbett after ten rounds. According to an article in the Denver Post dated December 15, 1900: “Young Corbett of this city had no trouble at all in defeating Reddy Coogan at Cripple Creek last night before the Olympic Club of that city. From start to finish it was all Corbett, and in the middle of the third round Coogan’s seconds, seeing he had no chance whatsoever, threw up the sponge.”

Within a couple of weeks after Coogan suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Young Corbett (sponge in round three) he sent a letter to Billy Irwin, via Doug Sullivan of Aspen, expressing a desire to have a match with Billy Irwin. In this letter he stated he was “willing to agree to any articles which are satisfactory to Irwin so long as Billy Irwin does not wish too much weight” (from Billy Irwin’s scrapbook). All of the collected evidence indicated that they agreed to a twenty round match under “Strict Marquis of Queensberry rules” which allowed hitting in the clinches and on the breakaway. The fight took place at Aspen under the auspices of the Aspen Union Athletic Club but it seems that at this time Aspen and Aspen Clubs were “faking” its matches (Leadville Miner article from Billy Irwin’s scrapbook-February 1901) in that they only appeared to allow “clean break” matches. The referee, chosen at ringside implemented this policy but nevertheless Billy Irwin fought the fight as per his training for the match...as per his agreement with Coogan...and as per strict Marquis of Queensberry rules. But as the fight proceeded the referee warned Irwin “repeatedly” to “break clean.” Irwin continued however as per his interpretation of the “rules” and after the first clinch of the fourth round he was disqualified. For a complete narrative of this match see the picture-essay titled “Quick” Match – Queensbury Rules or What? (1901).

According to the Denver Rocky Mountain News dated May 22, 1902 Young Corbett was training for a match with Kid Broad at the same time Coogan was training for a match with Young Devanney. The article states: “Young Corbett has practically finished his training and will do nothing but light work from now until the hour of his fight. Yesterday he boxed ten fast rounds with Reddy Coogan, who will go in a preliminary with Devanney.” It is probable that the “ten fast rounds” mentioned in the article were referring to a training/exhibition type of match.

(ND = no decision)

According to an article in the Denver Post dated April 11, 1927 Young Corbett had retired from the ring in 1910 and appears to have relocated from Denver to New York. He did not return to Denver from New York until 1922. When he returned he “was only a shell of the champion that he used to be.” The article goes on to say that “the Broadway lights and ponies proved his downfall.” Some years later when Dago Mike died (November 1, 1966) his obituary narrative makes mention of Dago Mike saying: “a lot of people would say now Mike he (Young Corbett) made a lot of money and he just spent it all. Mike just said that doesn’t keep him from being hungry now.” It was in this context that Dago Mike organized a benefit exhibition match of three rounds between himself and Young Corbett that was held at the Elks Club, Denver in March of 1927. Several weeks later (April 10, 1927) Young Corbett dropped dead while crossing State Street in front of the Curtis Theater, Denver. (ND = no decision)

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Dago Mike fought Young Corbett when he was fourteen Years and six months old and Young Corbett was seventeen. This fight is not listed in BoxRec for neither one’s record. This match, given both their ages, is considered to be a pre- professional match.