During the mid-nineteenth century the Victorian Age in England ushered in a new era of morality and many modes of entertainment came to be considered devilish. One such entertainment frowned upon by Victorian England was the sport of prize fighting. Throughout Britain it became well nigh impossible to conduct the business of prize fighting as the police became less tolerant, clergymen more adamant and attacks on the sport more frequent. Thus the bulk of English pugilists struck out “across the pond” for the shores of America. It was the beginning of the end of English domination of the sport and the beginning of American hegemony.
By 1882 John L. Sullivan had won the national championship and travelled across the nation challenging all comers. This created an insatiable interest in boxing throughout the United States and the new national wire services described not only his bouts but even the smallest detail of his private life and public career. Up to this time boxing matches were closely linked to saloons, music halls and theaters. In time national champions like John L. Sullivan and later on “Gentleman Jim” Corbett earned more money on the stage than they did in the ring. Whether it was in a melodrama act, a song and dance routine or a sparring exhibition it made no difference to their awe struck fans as long as they could see their heroes in person. This interest in the national boxing heroes manifested itself onto local boxing heroes also.
During the mid to late 1890’s one of Colorado’s boxing heroes was Billy Irwin. He had held the Featherweight championship of Colorado (1895-1898). Between 1898 and 1900 he had fought in state championship matches in three different weight divisions against Reddy Coogan (Featherweight and Lightweight) and Dago Mike (Bantamweight). As such he was considered one of the “gamest” pugilists in Colorado. With such credentials and being held in such high esteem he was often times contracted to fill out boxing programs as an entertainer.
The typical boxing program or “athletic tournament,” as they were sometimes called, usually featured one or two preliminary boxing exhibitions which in turn were followed by an assortment of crowd pleasers to suit local tastes. To name but a few there were jugglers, tumblers, gymnastic feats, horizontal bar routines, acrobats and song and dance specialties by “colored” performers or white performers in “black face”. Billy Irwin’s entertainment specialty(s) were threefold. Sometimes he would perform as part of a tumbling or gymnastic athletic team. Or sometimes he would be featured as a vocalist (solo or duo). And at other times he would appear in an Irish clog dance exhibition (solo or duo).
At this time there were travelling minstrel troupes who criss-crossed the United States from east to west. They gave their shows not only in the larger cities such a Denver but they even ventured into the most remote mining camps in Colorado playing where there was anything remotely resembling a theater. Aspen had its Tivoli Theater, Wheeler Opera House and the Aspen Union Athletic Club. Leadville had its own halls also (Knights of Labor Hall, Tabor Opera House, Armory Hall, City Hall and Turner Hall). Even though these minstrel shows consisted of travelling actors from the east the cast would oftentimes include local characters to make the show more relevant to the local populace. It was not uncommon for these minstrel shows to include sparring exhibitions on the program. And for example on December 21, 1898 Billy Irwin and Young Corbett were contracted by the “Mammoth Home Minstrel Company” to fill out their program with a three round sparring exhibition at the Wheeler Opera House. According to the newspaper the “sparring exhibition between Young Corbett and Billy Irwin was particularly interesting and the contestants closed the third round with honors about equally divided”.
During his prize fighting career Billy Irwin had, actively or passively, witnessed many theatrical productions. As a result he had acquired he ability to promote and organize a variety of entertainment events. In the early years of the 1900’s his efforts to bring good clean entertainment to the people of Leadville made him one of Leadville’s best known and most popular citizens.
As Leadville’s Fire Chief, besides his fire fighting duties, he turned both of Leadville’s fire houses into “places of entertainment” with boxing training sessions and sparring exhibitions open to the public. He also organized and promoted inter-fire department and inter-city fire hose cart races in which sometimes thousands of ardent supporters lined the street to cheer on their “home team.”
As president of the Eagles Lodge he promoted monthly “smokers” featuring competition in boxing or clog dancing which “never failed to pack the house.” He was put in charge of Leadville’s 4th of July 1908 celebration and as Grand Marshall he and his committee “outdid themselves in making the affair a success.” He planned and organized the tenth anniversary of the Eagles on February 6, 1908 which was a dinner-dance at Joyce’s Hall with a thousand people in attendance which, according to the newspapers, “altogether the affair was the largest attended and probably the most successful of the kind held in Leadville in many years.” In September 1909 he was made the primary delegate to the National Eagles Convention at Omaha. As head of the Drum Corp they performed credibly in competition with other lodges. While at Omaha the local lodge scheduled a boxing match between Jimmy Gardner and Clarence English which ended in a ten round draw and Billy telegraphed back to Leadville: “Tell the bunch Leadville has them beat a mile.”
As manager of the Cloud City Athletic Club (1906-1908) he promoted six boxing programs consisting of twenty one boxing matches. And as manager of the Eagles Athletic Club (1908-1910) he promoted six boxing programs consisting of fifteen boxing matches. Thus he was and still is Leadville’s foremost boxing promoter.
Even individually, when not affiliated with any group or organization, Billy Irwin loved the stage and to entertain before an audience. At Leadville’s Imperial Theater and at numerous social functions or benefits he performed as an Irish vocalist duo (“Irwin and Gibbons”) and as an Irish clog dance duo with Jimmy Joyce (“The Irish Aristocrats”). His last stage appearance was at Christmas 1909 at the Forester’s Hall and as quoted in the newspapers: “Billy Irwin and his tiny son, Jimmy, aged 5 years old, appeared in a song and dance entitled “Two Irish Sports.” The little fellow captured the audience by his cleverness both in the dialogue and in the fancy stepping with his tiny feet. Bending to the work like a veteran he jiggled and reeled until he had the audience in a storm of cheers.”
In 1910 he developed pneumonia as a result of his tireless efforts towards the success of his Democratic party in the upcoming November mid-term elections. After a two week battle he succumbed…it was his last fight! According to his obituary there were many accolades but perhaps the best one for Billy Irwin, the entertainer, was “He was a man who always had the good of the community at heart and was among the very first to boost along anything that would prove of benefit to Leadville.”