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On February 12, 1901 at the Aspen Union Athletic Club Billy Irwin lost the only fight of his career on a foul call. As is the case with a great many such calls there are quite often two sides to such a decision. This certainly is the case in this situation. On the one hand there is the decision, disregarding the full historical context, which quite simply states that Billy Irwin violated the “agreement” and the “rules” when he struck his opponent in the clinches and on the breakaway and therefore deserved to loose the match on a foul. On the other hand there is the decision, regarding the full historical context, which leads one to believe that Billy Irwin violated neither the “agreement” nor the “rules” when he struck his opponent in the clinches and on the breakaway and therefore deserved not to loose the match on a foul.

The picture used for this essay (left) was taken from the Denver Post (April 11, 1903). It shows Young Corbett and Terry McGovern fighting in a clinch with one arm free during their World Featherweight Championship Match (November 28, 1901).


To begin with after Billy Irwin lost the Colorado Bantamweight Championship to Dago Mike on June 5, 1900 he considered his boxing career over and returned to full time work in the Leadville mines. On the other hand Reddy Coogan was still actively participating in boxing matches and on December 15, 1900 at Cripple Creek he suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Young Corbett in which Coogan’s seconds had “to throw in the sponge” in the middle of the third round.



Almost immediately, or within a couple of weeks after this humiliating defeat, Coogan sent a letter from Cripple Creek to one of Aspen’s fight enthusiasts, Doug Sullivan, “expressing a desire to meet Billy Irwin in this city (Aspen).” Coogan continues to say, according to ( Aspen Democrat dated January 3, 1901) : “He is willing to agree to any articles which are satisfactory to Irwin so long as Billy does not wish too much weight. Coogan would like to fight at about 122. Sullivan will consult Irwin regarding the match and there is a strong possibility that he will take up with the proposition.” Based on this letter, viaDoug Sullivan of Aspen, Irwin accepted Coogan’s challenge. Irwin had already fought Coogan on three previous occasions: a twenty round draw, a loss due to an alleged “criminal conspiracy” and a twenty round decision loss on points. Irwin knew his own strengths and weaknesses. He knew Coogan’s strengths and weaknesses also. Coogan was a more “scientific” fighter who could stand off his opponent at long range and outpoint him. Billy, on the other hand, was a better “inside” fighter and could wear down his opponent and win the match, not at long range, but in the clinches. That certainly seems to have been the case according to an article from the Aspen Tribune dated February 13, 1901 quoted here: “The general opinion was that Coogan was the most scientific but Irwin’s wind was better and he might wear the red topped boy (Coogan) down.” Given this strategy of keeping the fighting to the “inside” while denying Coogan his advantage on the “outside” Billy Irwin went into training for the upcoming match.


The match itself was reported in two different newspapers: The Aspen Tribune and the Leadville Herald Democrat both of which were dated February 13, 1901. From a compilation of these two newspaper articles the match is reported as follows: In the first two rounds, “the fighting was careful and scientific. It was a pretty exhibition and both men were so anxious to win that they were taking no chances. The rallies were fierce and heavy and the audience got its money’s worth.” Then in the third round (as the men clinched), “Irwin insisted on hitting in the clinches...was warned repeatedly...was awed and excited (upon warning)...he did not seem to remember it (referee’s warning) or he did it intentionally.” Finally in the fourth round (upon clinching), “He (Irwin) repeated it and was disqualified.”


So did Billy Irwin violate the “agreement” and the “rules” when he “insisted” on hitting in the clinches? Upon being “warned repeatedly” for “intentionally” doing this was he “awed and excited” because he was of the opinion that he was not violating any ”agreement” or “rules” at all and was therefore perplexed at the referee’s warnings?


Regarding the “clean break” and not “hitting in the clinch” rules imposed on this match it needs to be mentioned that at this time both of these “modifications” were contrary to the Marquis of Queensberry Rules and that most boxers of this period did not like or condone these “latter day modifications” to Queensberry.


It needs also to be mentioned that the fight took place under the auspices of the Aspen Union Athlete Club and it seems that at this time this club was getting a reputation for “faking out of its boxing matches.” This is based on a Leadville Miner newspaper article reprinted in the Aspen Tribune (2-11-1901) as follows: “So long as Aspen can keep faking out of its boxing matches, those who admire it will be able to see some good bouts, but the suspicion that everything is not just right will keep the game quicker than an antagonistic police force – Leadville Miner (newspaper).” In other words an outside fighter could use his advantage to outpoint or knockout his opponent while avoiding punishment from the inside fighter in the clinches. And on the other hand, the inside fighter had to accept being outpointed or knocked out on the outside while not being able to follow thru with his advantage on the inside. This was indeed a recipe for “faked” matches “quicker” than intervention by “an antagonistic police force” because under such “rules” the match would most certainly not last the full scheduled twenty rounds as a knockout by the outside fighter or a foul out by the inside fighter was most probably the case early on in the match. In order to explain this match...the rules...and Billy Irwin’s strategy better, a number of articles and comments follow here:


  • According to an article written in the Denver Evening Post dated February 8, 1899 and titled “D.A.C. Smoker”: “Credit should be given Prof. ‘Reddy’ Gallagher for the contests furnished. There were some exceptions taken by some of the spectators when the men hit in a clinch. This is perfectly permissible under the Queensbery Code, or in fact in any other rules. There are four different sets of rules framed that govern boxing contests and they are London Prize Ring, the Marquis of Queensbery, Fair Play and ‘Parson’ Davies rules. Not one of them forbids hitting with one arm free. These rules have stood for years. All championship battles both in this country and Europe have been fought under one or the other and just because Corbett and Sharkey agreed not to hit in a clinch, every boxer thinks he must have the same ruling in his case. Then again it makes a contest more interesting and there is more apt to be a decision than when the men stand off at long range and clinch. The contest nine times out of ten resolves itself into a hugging match. But let them know that a man can hit in a clinch with one arm free and it prevents to a great extent the clinching and hugging which otherwise takes place, and by which a clever man may avoid defeat by resorting to clinching tactics. They have tried the ‘break-away-clean’ method in both Chicago and New York and it has proven a failure so much so that the attendance fell off to such an extent that the different clubs were forced again to adopt the Straight Queensbery rules.” (Comment: according to all four rules governing boxing matches at this time it was perfectly permissible for Billy Irwin to hit in clinches. Coogan had planned to beat his man by “outside” fighting followed by clinches with impunity. Irwin had planned to take whatever Coogan could dish out from the “outside” and beat his man from the “inside” by wearing Coogan down in the clinches. In this particular time and place it was unfortunate for Billy Irwin that his strategy to beat Coogan was denied him).

  • According to an article written in the Denver Rocky Mountain News dated May 26, 1898 and Titled “Coogan Failed to Knockout”: “In the twenty-round glove contest this evening between Reddy Coogan of Denver and Billy Irwin of Aspen, the bout was declared a draw. Irwin received a lot of punishment but there was plenty of fight left in him at the end of the twentieth round.” (Comment: Billy Irwin could take whatever Coogan could dish out in 20 rds. He was better at infighting than Coogan. He also had better wind than Coogan. He did fight the match “according to the rules” (Straight Marquis of Queensberry...hitting allowed in clinches), but unfortunately was disqualified nevertheless).

  • According to an article written in the Leadville Daily Chronicle and dated March 8, 1895: Billy...”is one of the best bag punchers in the western country. In fact, he has made a specialty of it and consequently he is remarkably quick...” (Comment: Billy Irwin using his skills as an infighter, could beat Coogan and he would do it in the clinches. Unfortunately Billy’s strategy to win was not allowed).

  • According to an article from the Denver Rocky Mountain News dated September 22, 1894 regarding the Jerry Haley vs. Reddy Coogan match: “The cries of foul which went up at intervals were occasioned by Coogan’s habit of holding on to Haley’s glove, and the effort of the latter to land hard swings while this so-called clinch was in use.” (Comment: This article referred to the clinches in this match as “so-called.” Apparently the writer of this article recognized these “so-called” clinches as merely “Coogan’s habit of holding on to Haley’s glove.” Haley’s response to Coogan’s holding tactics was “to land hard swings while this so-called clinch was in use.” As far as the spectators were concerned they cried “foul” for two different reasons: Coogan’s holding tactic and Haley’s effort to land hard swings in the “so-called” clinches. This quite possibly was the same situation in the Irwin-Coogan match. It is no wonder that Billy Irwin was “awed and excited” when he was warned by the referee for hitting in “so-called” clinches).

  • According to an article (edited) from the Cripple Creek Morning Times dated April 10, 1898 regarding the Reddy Coogan vs. Kid Brooks match: “Last night...Coogan Lightweight Champion of Colorado and Kid Brooks Lightweight Champion of Wyoming fought 20 rds...a clinch with infighting was followed by a left on Brooks ear in the break-away...Coogan made a gross foul in the fourteenth. Brooks had gone down under a light blow to avoid punishment and Coogan deliberately gave him a heavy blow while he was on the floor. There were angry cries and hisses, but the referee said nothing. After that...the men clinched and rolled on the floor in a regular wrestling match, but the referee hung indolently on the ropes and let them get up when they were ready. At no time did he seem to have more interest than the spectators in how the fight was carried on.” (Comment: In this match there were clinches with infighting...hitting on the breakaway...hitting while one opponent was on the floor...rolling on the floor in a regular wrestling match and all without a peep from the referee. In the Irwin-Coogan match when infighting and hitting on the breakaway took place Coogan protested for he knew that this style of fighting was to his disadvantage and to Irwin’s advantage. Unfortunately for Billy Irwin he was not allowed to hit in the clinches and on the breakaway).

  • In an article from Billy Irwin’s scrapbook dated circa 1898 and probably from the Aspen newspaper it describes the Dago Mike vs. Reddy Coogan match: “First round tame...Second a little faster...third round the bantams seemed to loose 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.” (Comment: Coogan was indeed quite clever at outside fighting but at inside fighting he would have lost to Dago Mike possibly. Against Dago Mike’s infighting Coogan had to resort to head butting. Such was possibly the case in the Irwin-Coogan match in which Coogan was at a disadvantage with Irwin on inside fighting).

  • In an article from the Leadville Herald Democrat dated December 28, 1899 regarding the Kid Parker vs. Tom Moriarty match: “Referee Bat Masterson then entered the ring and stated that the principals had signed to fight under strict Marquis of Queensbury rules.” Then Masterson continued on to explain what “strict Marquis of Queensbury rules” were regarding clinches: “The man whose hands are free can strike. The one who does the hugging is the one who fouls.” (Comment: In the Irwin-Coogan match Billy Irwin was indeed fighting according to the strict Marquis of Queensbury rules. Also in the Irwin-Coogan match Irwin’s hitting Coogan in the clinches while Coogan was “hugging” him was, if Bat Masterson was the referee, a foul by Coogan against Irwin. No wonder Billy Irwin was “awed and excited” when the referee called the disqualifying foul against him (Irwin).

  • In an undated article from Billy Irwin’s scrapbook and probably from the Aspen newspaper dated December 9, 1899 regarding the Irwin vs. Johnny Taylor match: “Referee Bruin stepped into the ring at 9:32 and laid his coat on the ropes. A few minutes later he called the men to the center of the ring and delivered instructions and informed them that the go was to be under strict Marquis of Queensbury rules, allowing each man to fight himself clear in a clinch.” (Comment: Billy Irwin’s last professional boxing match at the Aspen Union Athlete Club (2-12-1901) was when he was disqualified by this same referee (Frank Bruin) for hitting in the clinches and not “breaking clean.” This Irwin-Taylor match was the second to the last match (12-8-1899) that Billy Irwin fought at the Aspen Union Athletic Club. According to Referee Frank Bruin (12-8-1899) the “go was to be under the strict Marquis of Queensbury rules allowing each man to fight himself clear in a clinch.” According to Referee Frank Bruin (2-12-1901) Billy Irwin was disqualified for fighting himself clear in the clinches” instead of “breaking clean.” No wonder Bill Irwin was “awed and excited when the referee called the disqualifying foul against him.

  • In an article from the Cripple Creek Times dated October 11,1905 regarding the Whitie Watson vs. Bob Lundie match: “considerable discussion was engaged in before Whitie Watson would go on with Nelson’s sparring partner, Bob Lundie, Champion Lightweight of California, Watson standing out for a clean break owing to Lundie’s 15 to 20 pounds advantage in weight. He (Watson) won out finally (to the clean break stipulation).” (Comment: In Coogan’s letter to Doug Sullivan, Coogan agreed “to any articles which are satisfactory to Irwin so long as Billy does not want too much weight.” It appears that when the referee was chosen at ringside any agreement between Coogan and Irwin was disregarded. Irwin quite simply fought the match as per Coogan’s letter to Doug Sullivan).

  • In an article from the Leadville Herald Democrat dated January 13, 1900 regarding the Paddy Purtell vs. “Parson” Willard Bean match: “Bat Masterson, the master of ceremonies, called the boys to the center of the ring. The fight, he announced, was straight Queensbury rules, hitting allowed in clinches if both hands are free.” (Comment: Bat Masterson’s opinion of Straight Queensbury rules was that hitting was allowed in clinches when both hands were free and thus the clean breakaway was not observed in his matches. Billy Irwin would not have been disqualified in the Coogan-Irwin match if Bat Masterson was the referee).

  • In an article from the Leadville Herald Democrat dated February 17, 1903 regarding the Dago Mike vs. Hatch Smith Fight: “There was some discussion last night during the fight and afterwards over the fact that the referee (Billy Irwin) did not insist on the men breaking clean. The fight was under the Marquis of Queensberry rules and the men agreed before the fight started that they would fight in the clinches with one arm free.” (Comment: Billy Irwin was the referee of this match just two years after he was disqualified for fighting in the clinches against Coogan. It seems that there was “discussion” both “during the fight and afterwards over the fact that the referee (Billy Irwin) did not insist on the men breaking clean.” It is evident here that Billy Irwin’s interpretation of Queensberry “rules” was that fighting in the clinches with one arm free was perfectly acceptable. Billy Irwin refereed the match according to the “rules” as he perceived them...the same way he perceived the “rules” when he was disqualified for not “breaking clean” against Coogan).

  • In an article from the Denver Post dated February 25, 1903 regarding the Young Corbett vs. Eddie Hanlon fight Referee Eddie Grany met with Young Corbett at Sheehan’s Tavern to discussed the rules and asked Young Corbett: “I want you to speak right up and give me your honest conception of Queensberry rules. I wish you would illustrate to me with Tim here, what you consider constitutes hitting in a clinch...after listening to Graney, the champion (Young Corbett) replied in a cool I understand Queensberry rules, I am allowed to hit in the clinches with one arm free. I will not agree to the so-called clean break. The rules do not call for it and it makes a bad fight for the spectators.” (Comment: Both world champion Young Corbett and Billy Irwin interpreted Queensberry rules as allowing hitting in the clinches with one arm free. Both Corbett and Irwin did not subscribe to the “so-called clean breaks” implementation and both were of the opinion that the “rules do not call for it and it makes for a bad fight for the spectators).

  • In an article from the Denver Post dated August 10, 1899 regarding the Terry McGovern vs. Pedlar Palmer match for the Bantamweight Championship of the World: “It appears that Pedlar Palmer will fight Terry McGovern for the Bantam Championship of the World at a disadvantage. The match, as made and signed calls for a contest under straight Queensberry rules which according to the American interpretation, as followed in all local clubs, means hitting in the clinches and on the breakaway. McGovern’s best work has been at this style of fighting. He is one of the fastest punchers at close quarters in the ring today and is also a rougher in the clinches. According to men who have seen Palmer fight on the other side, he is practically invincible on the clean break style, for the reason that his wonderful cleverness enables him to stand off an opponent and outpoint him. (Comment: If you did a verbatim article and substituted McGovern’s name with Irwin’s name and Palmer’s name with Coogan’s name, then the newly substituted article would perfectly portray the Irwin-Coogan match at Aspen. It is also worth mentioning that according to this article it states that “in all local (Colorado) clubs the American interpretation of Queensberry is followed allowing hitting in the clinches and on the breakaway.” Again the question must be asked about the Coogan-Irwin match: “Wasn’t Irwin following the rules like he was supposed to and if so why was he disqualified?”).

  • In the same article just mentioned (Denver Post dated August 10, 1899) it includes a comment by boxer Dave Sullivan: “Dave Sullivan says (in reference to the National Sporting Club) that if McGovern fought over there he would be severely handicapped. He would be cautioned for roughing his antagonist in the clinches” and “ring followers believe therefore that Palmer will be up against a hard game in this country because of the way the rules will be interpreted. (Comment: In the Coogan-Irwin match, when Billy Irwin “insisted” on hitting in the clinches and seemed to do it “deliberately” and “intentionally” and that he seemed “awed and excited” when “warned” by the referee about it, further demonstrates that Billy Irwin was truly fighting in accordance with the “rules” as he and most boxers of this era perceived them to be).

  • In an article from the Denver Post dated July 8, 1899 regarding the Dal Hawkins vs. Jack O’Brien match: “The fight although fast and game was not satisfactory. It was first announced that the men would fight straight Queensbury rules. Then in the second round they agreed to break clean and failed to do so. There was no announcement of the latter agreement until later and as a result there was an immense amount of wrangling and confusion. The crowd hissed both men for fouling but referee Johnny White contented himself with mild cautioning. The men did about as they pleased. They hit in clinches, with the arm free and hit at the breakaway. In the eighteenth round White took matters into his own hands and at every clinch forcibly broke the men. Even at that they continued to hit away at one another both in clinches and after the breakaway.” (Comment: Irwin fought his match with Coogan according to straight Queensbury rules and his correct interpretation of those rules but was nevertheless disqualified).

  • In an article from the Denver Daily News dated February 27, 1897 regarding the Gentleman Jim Corbett vs. Bob Fitzsimmons: “If referee Siler wants a rough house on his hands he will stick to his present interpretation of Queensberry rules, under which hitting on the break-away when one arm is free is deemed “compulsory.” (Comment: Not only did referee Siler believe that the rules allowed for hitting on the breakaway but he also “deemed” it to be compulsory.” Had Siler been the referee in the Coogan-Irwin match, Billy Irwin would not have been disqualified.




Headline copy from newspaper pertaining to above bullet

  • In an article from the Los Angeles Herald dated January 10, 1899 it states: “When the articles were signed there was a verbal agreement which modified the articles. McCoy’s position was at variance with Sharkey’s. McCoy agreed with the letter of the articles while declaring they were contrary to the spirit. Sharkey intended to adhere to the verbal agreement whereas McCoy would only abide by the written articles. “This newspaper article mirrors the Irwin – Coogan match. Irwin fought as per signed articles and verbal agreement while Coogan did not adhere to the verbal agreement, according to his letter to Billy Irwin (Aspen Democrat dated January 3, 1901), in which he stated that he (Coogan) is willing to agree to any articles which are satisfactory to Irwin so long as Billy does not wish too much weight. 

Many articles and comments have been presented here which I believe should go a long way in putting the Irwin-Coogan match into its proper context. Irwin did fight the match according to the “rules.” Others did try and impose their interpretation of the “rules” onto Irwin. Irwin did stick to his original agreement with Coogan and fought the match accordingly. Was Irwin rightly or wrongly disqualified in this match? In the final analysis this question can only be left up to each individual reader of this essay to decide!

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