BILLY IRWIN - BEST IN THE WEST AND BEYOND...
The picture above was retrieved from Billy Irwin’s faded scrapbook and restored, as near as possible, to its original clarity. It appears to be a newspaper rendering of a photo which was probably sent by Billy Irwin to the Police Gazette magazine. Also known as the National Police Gazette it was published weekly in New York and circulated throughout the U.S.A. It was the leading sports journal of the time and it served to keep all of America’s boxing enthusiasts informed on all matters pertaining to the sport of boxing. Billy Irwin was one of the best “lightweight” boxers in the United States during the 1890s. In this essay I use “lightweight”, collectively speaking, to include not only the lightweight division boxers (127-135 pounds) but also the bantamweights (113-118 pounds) and the featherweights (119-126 pounds). I do this because the latter two weight divisions were new during the 1890s and the former (Lightweight division) was somewhat of a “catch-all” for the small but fast and agile smaller boxers of the time. I also include these three weight divisions under the collective term of “Lightweight” because not only Billy Irwin but most of his same weight and size competitors bounced back and forth, interchangeably, within these three divisions. Before presenting evidence as to why Billy Irwin is presented here as one of the best lightweights in the U.S.A. during the 1890s I must remind interested readers and historians that, like all decades, the 1890s spans ten years.
Most every boxer during this and other decades, Billy Irwin certainly included, had their rise…their peak…and their decline. For Billy Irwin his rise was pre-1895…his peak was 1895-1898 when he held the Colorado Featherweight Championship…the years 1899-1900 could be called his “plateau” in which he held the Colorado Bantamweight Championship in dispute with Dago Mike. From his loss to Dago Mike (June 1900) to his loss to Reddy Coogan (February 1901) would be the period of his decline. So the case to be made that Billy Irwin was one of the best lightweights in the U.S.A. during the 1890s will be gleaned primarily from data when he was the Colorado Featherweight Champion (1895-98). This data will be presented in bullet format as follows:
To begin with we start with a newspaper article written by Young Corbett in the Denver Post newspaper dated December 3, 1901. In this article he (Young Corbett) was charting his path from a novice boxer to the World Featherweight Champion. He stated that when he fought a twenty round draw with Reddy Coogan (November 14, 1898) that he considered Coogan to be the “best man of his weight in the West.” It was at this time that Coogan and Irwin were traditionally about five pounds different in weight (Irwin being the heavier). I think that it is very reasonable to conclude that Young Corbett, when he wrote this article as the World Featherweight Champion, should be accepted to be an absolute authority on the subject of featherweights at this time. The preceding being said, it is important to note that 5-1/2 months prior to the Corbett-Coogan draw (November 14, 1898) that Billy Irwin and Reddy Coogan fought a twenty round draw also (May 25, 1898). At the time (Aspen Tribune May 26, 1898) Coogan weighed 116 pounds (Bantamweight) and Billy Irwin weighed 121 pounds (Featherweight). Taking all of these facts together it is reasonable to conclude that at this time the three best bantam/featherweights in the West (and beyond I might add) were Billy Irwin, Young Corbett and Reddy Coogan.
As a follow up to the preceding bullet dealing with Irwin, Corbett and Coogan in 1898 it is important to go back to the year 1895 in order to compare these three boxers then. In 1895 Irwin knocked out “The Denver Iron Boy” (Fred Ross) in one round. Ross was the Colorado Featherweight Champion at the time ( Galveston Daily News dated May 18, 1895) and unbeaten (Leadville Daily Chronicle dated March 8, 1895). It was at this time that Billy Irwin became the Colorado Featherweight Champion. As far as 1895 and Reddy Coogan are concerned, Fred Ross beat Coogan in ten rounds (Galveston Daily News dated May 18, 1895). As far as 1895 and Young Corbett is concerned Corbett was of no consequence. According to BoxRec.com Young Corbett’s first fight came a year later in 1896. BoxRec.com states that Young Corbett knocked out “Nigger” Smith on April 19, 1896. But this claim is refuted by other newspaper evidence. According to the “New North-West” (Deer Lodge, Montana) newspaper dated April 24, 1896 “Kid Corbett of Denver was put to sleep by ‘Nigger’ Smith.” According to the Salt Lake Herald (Salt Lake City, Utah) Newspaper dated April 20, 1896 “Kid Corbett of Denver first faced ‘Nigger’ Smith of Kansas City and was put to sleep in the seventh round.” According to the Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) dated April 20, 1896 the headline read “Nigger Smith’s sorporific (meaning induces sleep) fists.” The article goes on to state “Kid Corbett was put to sleep in the seventh round.” So in 1898 Corbett, Irwin and Coogan were the “Best in the West” and pretty much equal but three years prior (1895) Billy Irwin was the best of the three.
In an article from the Washington Times (Washington, D.C.) newspaper dated April 1, 1903 it stated that Young Corbett’s “most notable battles” before beating McGovern for the World Featherweight Championship were his victories over “Oscar Gardner, Billy Harris, Frank Newhouse, Kid Harris, Billy Irwin, Jack Flint, Abe Spitz, Paddy Hughes, Joe Bernstein, George Dixon, Kid Broad and Austin Rice.” It was certainly an honor for Billy Irwin to be named in this article amongst such prominent boxers. These twelve boxers, just mentioned, were some of the very best “lightweights” in the U.S.A. in the 1890s. George Dixon was the World Featherweight Champion in 1892, 93, 94, 97, 98, 99. Oscar Gardner fought George Dixon for the World Featherweight Championship in 1898 and lost on points in 25 rounds. Joe Bernstein fought Terry McGovern for the World Featherweight Championship in 1900 and lost to McGovern in 7 rounds. Austin Rice was the 6th best Featherweight in the U.S.A. in 1897 (BoxRec.com) and the 3rd best Featherweight in the U.S.A. in 1899 (BoxRec.com) and he also fought for the World Featherweight Championship in 1903 but he lost on points in round 10 (BoxRec.com). Abe Spitz fought a twenty round draw with Corbett in 1899 (BoxRec.com). Billy Irwin, as per evidence produced earlier in this essay was, with Reddy Coogan and Young Corbett, the “best of their weights in the West” in 1898. In short these most notable victories of Young Corbett, on his way to the World Featherweight Championship, represent 12 of the top boxers that he had to overcome before he would be able to fight Terry McGovern for the World Featherweight Championship.
In an article from the Inter-Mountain Republican newspaper (Salt Lake City) dated June 28, 1906 the main headline of the article reads “Should Now Get the Easier Ones.” Under this main title was the subtitle which read “Young Corbett Discusses the Tough Ones He Has Met.” It seems that at this time a representative of the Vancouver British Columbia Boxing Club was trying to match Young Corbett with either Mysterious Billy Smith and/or Harry Lewis of Philadelphia. Both Smith and Lewis were some of the toughest lightweights at the time. Hearing the Vancouver man’s proposition(s) Corbett objected and replied as per the following newspaper quotes: “There you go replied the Denver boy. Here you are still picking the hard marks for me, when it seems that I have earned the right to get at least one soft one after fighting every tough featherweight and almost all the lightweights of modern times…just look over my record and see if I am speaking the truth…hard ones were read off…a record book was produced and, as one by one, the hard ones were read off the crowd around the table looked at the little Denverite (Young Corbett) and confirmed his remarks about the hard ones…look them over for yourself and see if I did not speak the truth.” Then Young Corbett started to read off the “hard ones” and the first one he mentioned in the continuing article was Billy Irwin: “It is seven years now since Corbett fought Billy Irwin, who was then in his prime. Billy went down in four rounds. The same year he (Corbett) lost a twenty-round decision to Billy Rotchford, then one of the fastest and cleverest featherweights in the ring.” Finishing Corbett’s record for the hard ones of 1899 the article continues on into 1900: “In 1900 we find Young Corbett fighting such tough ones as Spike Wallace, Frank Newhouse and Benny Yanger. He knocked out Newhouse and Wallace, whipped Yanger once and again lost to the Italian in eight rounds. In 1901 he (Young Corbett) won the championship (World) by knocking out Terry McGovern in that memorable Hartford battle.” The article continues on but the main point to emphasize here is that Young Corbett when reading off his “hard matches” and his “toughest matches” and opponents to date mentioned Billy Irwin first. Reddy Coogan and Dago Mike, Billy Irwin’s main Colorado antagonists, are not mentioned at all. All of those mentioned in the article were World Featherweight champion contenders…Billy Irwin certainly included.
Another newspaper article, The Houston Post (Houston, Texas) dated July 1, 1906 largely paraphrases the preceding Salt Lake City article and also gives a list of Corbett’s toughest opponents between 1899-1904 as follows: Billy Irwin…Billy Rotchford…Spike Wallace…Frank Newhouse…Benny Yanger…Terry McGovern…Joe Bernstein…Kid Broad…Eddie Santry…Oscar Gardener…George Dixon…Eddie Tenny…Young Erne…Crockey Boyle…Austin Rice…Billy Maynard…Eddie Hanlon…George Memsic…Hughey Murphy…Jimmy Briggs…Sammy Smith…Jack O’Neill…Tim Calahan…Dave Sullivan…Britt…Nelson and Tommy Mowatt.The preceding paragraph mentions 26 boxers as the toughest that Young Corbett encountered between 1899-1904.In looking at BoxRex.com and googling Cyber Boxing Zone one can see, from their boxing records, just how tough and formidable these boxers really were.It is also worth noting that Billy Irwin’s peak years were 1895-98, well before the 1899-1904 timeframe of the article, and so Billy Irwin’s match with Young Corbett in 1899 must have made an impression on young Corbett when he included Billy Irwin amongst his toughest adversaries.
As of 2017 if you google “Cyber Boxing Zone-Young Corbett” you can find his entire boxing record. In the preface to this boxing record it states: “During his career, Corbett defeated such men as Terry McGovern, George Dixon, Billy Irwin, Joe Bernstein, Eddie Santry, Oscar Gardner, Austin Rice, Jimmy Briggs, Eddie Hanlon, Dave Sullivan, Harry Scroggs, Tommy Mowatt, Maurice Thompson and Joe Tipman.” Billy Irwin is mentioned above along with others, fourteen in all, under the introduction of “such men as”… indicating some of Young Corbett’s toughest adversaries who were undoubtedly World Champion contenders.
According to an article written in the Boston Post (Boston, Massachusetts) dated December 1, 1901 Young Corbett’s fighting record from 1897-November 28, 1901 lists all the opponents that he had to fight before becoming “qualified” to fight Terry McGovern for the World Featherweight Championship. Most of these opponents he fought only once but some more than once. His opponents during these years, including World Champion Terry McGovern, numbered 33 in all…his matches numbered 44. Billy Irwin lasted for four rounds in his encounter with Young Corbett (10 years younger than Billy). Some boxers lasted less than four rounds with Young Corbett…some lasted four rounds as did Billy Irwin…whereas others lasted more than four rounds. Although not very scientific and considering each round by each fighter as equal rounds against Corbett we come up with the following statistic(s):
18 lost to Corbett in less than 4 rounds
10 lost to Corbett in 4 rounds exactly
+16 won or drawed or lasted but lost in more than 4 rounds
44 matches against 33 opponents
Taking these statistics into consideration only 16 boxers did better than Billy Irwin and three of these were, at one time World Champions and the rest would certainly be legitimate contenders…Billy Irwin certainly included.
Billy Irwin in one round knocked down and then knocked out Fred Ross (The Denver Iron Boy) at Victor/Cripple Creek on March 11, 1895. Besides winning the Featherweight Championship of Colorado, what was the national significance of this win for Billy Irwin? Who was Fred Ross and how did he compare to other “lightweights” of the same time frame? To begin with, according to “Box Rec’s Annual Ratings – Lightweight Annuals – Box Rec (1890s)” Fred Ross was rated as the 15th best lightweight boxer in the U.S.A. in 1895. Less than six weeks after Ross’ one round knockout by Billy Irwin, Ross went on to beat Johnny Van Heest on points in ten rounds. Just the year before (1894 according to the same just mentioned source) Johnny Van Heest was rated as the 7th best featherweight in the U.S.A. So Billy Irwin beat Fred Ross and Fred Ross beat Johnny Van Heest in the same time frame. What then is the national significance of this as far as Billy Irwin is concerned? Looking at Johnny Van Heest’s “boxing pedigree” during the 1894-95 time frame tells us a lot about the national standing of Billy Irwin at this time. In 1894 Van Heest fought draws with Young Griffo…Oscar Gardner…and Solly Smith. In 1895 Van Heest beat Joe Gans…Billy Whistler…and lost to Fred Ross. The just mentioned boxers who fought and lost to Van Heest were all well known and nationally ranked as follows:
- Young Griffo was rated the number two best featherweight in the U.S.A. in 1893…in 1894 the fourth best featherweight…in 1895 the third best lightweight…in 1896 the sixth best featherweight and in 1897 the fifth best featherweight.
- Oscar Gardner was rated the number five best featherweight in the U.S.A. in 1894…in 1897 and 1898 he was the seventh best featherweight.
- Solly Smith was rated the Fourth best featherweight in the U.S.A. in 1892 and 1893…the eighth best in 1894…the sixth best in 1895…and in 1896 was rated as number one…in 1897 he became the World Featherweight Champion…in 1898 he fought Tommy White to a draw for the World Featherweight Championship.
- Joe Gans was rated the number 12 best lightweight in the U.S.A. in 1896…in 1898 he was rated number one lightweight…i in 1902 he became the World Lightweight Champion and held the title until 1908.
- Billy Whistler was rated as the number 5 best Bantamweight in the U.S.A. in 1894…in 1895 he was rated number 7.
So in reading the preceding “boxing pedigree” of Johnny Van Heest who lost to Fred Ross who in turn was knocked out in one round by Billy Irwin it is reasonable to conclude that Billy Irwin was one of the top ten contenders in the U.S.A. for the World Championship (Bantam…Feather…Light…weight) during the 1895 to 1898 time frame.
Billy Irwin, after his stunning victory over Fred Ross on March 11, 1895 went to celebrate in a Cripple Creek saloon after the match. He had heard that the Montana Kid (Dave Reese) was in town to challenge the winner. The Montana Kid had, the year before, challenged Billy Irwin to a match and later skipped town without an explanation. It had disappointed Billy greatly at the time since the Montana Kid had a national reputation and Billy had wanted to beat such a well known boxer. That day, flushed with victory against Fred Ross, Billy decided to have his “national exposure” once and for all against the Montana Kid. So he did! Billy confronted the Montana Kid directly and a bare knuckle saloon fight ensued in which, according to the Leadville Daily Chronicle dated March 16,1895, Billy was the victor described as follows: “The battle was short and sweet and unless appearances are deceitful the Montana Kid was the most badly used up prize fighter in Cripple Creek…” So what was the significance of Billy’s newspaper win over the Montana Kid? To begin with, according to “Box Rec’s Annual Ratings Lightweight Annuals-Box Rec (1890s)”, Dave Reese (Montana Kid) was rated to be the 15th best lightweight boxer in the U.S.A. in 1890. According to the Salt Lake Herald dated August 6, 1890 the Montana Kid was said to be the Champion of Colorado. According to Box Rec the Montana Kid fought three matches with Bobby Dobbs in 1890 (two draws and one win). He also fought one match with Bobby Dobbs in 1891 (win for Montana Kid). Referring back to Box Rec’s Annual Lightweight Ratings Bobby Dobbs, in 1892, was rated as the number 4 lightweight in the U.S.A. To encapsulate the preceding, Billy Irwin fought a “short and sweet” bare knuckle saloon fight with the Montana Kid and scored a newspaper win over him in 1895. This same Montana Kid was rated the 15th best lightweight in the U.S.A. (1890) and the Champion Lightweight of Colorado also in 1890. The Montana Kid (1890-91) fought four matches with Bobby Dobbs (2 draws and 2 wins) and Bobby Dobbs was rated the 4th best lightweight in the U.S.A. in 1892.
By mid-1896 Billy Irwin went to Denver to, hopefully, make a match with some nationally known boxer…Jimmy Ryan preferred. During this time frame Jimmy Ryan had fought a ten round and a twenty five round draw with Leadville’s Paddy Purtell (originally from Michigan but relocated to Leadville). Jimmy Ryan was a welterweight (136-147 pounds) and Billy Irwin weighed between 122-124 pounds (featherweight). For Billy to match with an opponent 15 or 20 pounds heavier was no problem given his-to-date record of successfully challenging and beating heavier opponents. The match between Irwin and Ryan was for 10 rounds and Billy won it on points. How significant was this win for Billy Irwin? The answer lies within Jimmy Ryan’s record and the “boxing pedigree of those who fought him. Jimmy Ryan, sometimes called “Cincinnati” Jimmy Ryan”, as per his record fought Tom Tracey (1896) to a draw…he fought Tommy Ryan (1891) to a draw according to the San Francisco Chronicle dated November 19, 1896…he lost to Jack McAuliffe in 6 rounds on points in 1894…he fought a draw and a loss with Paddy Purtell (1896) and now (1896) he lost a 10 round match with Billy Irwin on points. Looking at the merits of the adversaries of Jimmy Ryan and his performance against them we can see, by comparison, what kind of boxer Billy Irwin was and draw a reasonably accurate conclusion of Billy Irwin’s (should be ) rating in the U.S.A.:
- Jimmy Ryan’s adversary in 1896 was Tom Tracey who in 1890 was rated the 7th best lightweight in the U.S.A. …in 1891 he was number 13 and in 1898 he was number 5.
- Jimmy Ryan’s adversary in 1891 was Tommy Ryan who in 1891 was the World Welterweight Champion…in 1896 he fought for the World Middleweight Championship but lost…in 1898 he became the World Middleweight Champion and held it until 1902 retiring while still holding the championship.
- Jimmy Ryan lost on points in 6 rounds to Jack McAuliffe (1894) but a loss to the great Jack McAuliffe was certainly not bad as Jack McAuliffe was rated in 1892 as the 6th best lightweight in the U.S.A. …in 1893 the number 4…in 1894 number 3.
- Jimmy Ryan’s loss and draw to Paddy Purtell in 1896 can be assessed in light of the fact that Paddy Purtell (1900) fought two draws with “Parson” Bean for the Western U.S.A. Middleweight Championship. Given Jimmy Ryan’s record and “boxing pedigree” of his adversaries, Billy Irwin’s 10 round win on points reflects very favorably on Billy Irwin as one of the “best in the West and beyond”.
As 1897 approached Billy Irwin had made quite a name for himself by beating such nationally known and highly rated “lightweights” such as “The Denver Iron Boy” (Fred Ross)…”The Montana Kid” (Dave Reese)…and “Cincinnati Jim Ryan” (Jimmy Ryan). Martin Flaherty of Lowell (Boston), Massachusetts had heard about Billy Irwin and liked what he heard so he contacted Billy Irwin to be his trainer for his upcoming bout at Carson City, Nevada which was to take place on March 17, 1897. It came to be labeled the “Fight of the Century” and Martin Flaherty vs. Dal Hawkins was billed as the World Featherweight Championship match. It is logical to conclude that a person like Martin Flaherty who was fighting in such a match would hire a trainer better than himself…equal to himself… or at the very least almost as good as himself…or at the absolute very least a trainer worthy of fighting in the same ring with himself. So who was Martin Flaherty and how was he nationally rated? According to Box Rec’s Annual Ratings (1890s) Martin Flaherty was rated to be the number five best bantamweight in the U.S.A. (1893)…in 1896 he was rated number three…in 1897 he was rated number two…in 1898 he was rated number three…and in 1899 he was rated number five. The preceding begs the logical question should Billy Irwin be rated higher, equal or a bit lower than Martin Flaherty.Conservatively, this evidence indicates, to say the very least, that Billy Irwin should be rated within the top 10 “Lightweights” (Bantam, Feather and Light) in the U.S.A. during the 1897 time frame.
From 1898 to 1900 Billy Irwin would be in the same ring four times with “soon-to-be” World Featherweight Champion Young Corbett. His first ring encounter with Corbett during this time frame was a three round sparring exhibition at a Billy Van Minstrel show in Aspen, Colorado on December 21, 1898. According to the Aspen Tribune newspaper article dated December 22, 1898 the sparring match between Young Corbett and Billy Irwin: “Was particularly interesting and the contestants closed the third round with honors about equally divided.” The same article on its “Side Talk Finale” goes on to say: “The three round glove contest was remarkably warm throughout… and were Billy Irwin to go abroad he would be considered a world-winner.
”The second ring encounter between Corbett and Irwin took place at Aspen on April 17, 1899.They agreed to a 12 round “finish fight” in which Corbett would have to knockout Billy Irwin in 12 rounds or less or he would lose the match.The fact that Corbett estimated that it could require 12 rounds to knockout Irwin reflects favorably on Billy Irwin for up to this time and on into his (Corbett’s) world championship match with Terry McGovern, Corbett fought 44 matches with 33 opponents.Of these 33 opponents only 9 did better than 12 rounds.This second encounter between Billy Irwin and Young Corbett is covered at length in essay number 14 (Bantamweight) of this booklet.Although Billy Irwin lost this match to Corbett by a knockout in round four there were highlights which showed Billy Irwin’s fistic merits against the “soon-to-be” world champion as follows:At this time Billy Irwin was 10 years older than Corbett.
The third time Billy Irwin and Young Corbett were in the same ring was on November 14, 1898.At this time Corbett and Reddy Coogan were fighting for the Featherweight Championship of Colorado.Important as this match was for Corbett in his rise to the world championship he (Corbett) had the confidence in Billy Irwin’s boxing expertise to have him as a second (cornerman).As Corbett’s cornerman during this match Billy Irwin gave advice and counsel on how he could best beat Coogan.This match, although ending in a 20 round draw, amounted to a newspaper win for Corbett.
The fourth and final time Billy Irwin was in the ring with Corbett was at the Harrison Avenue Fire Station (Leadville).There, according to the Leadville Herald Democrat newspaper dated June 4, 1900: "When Billy Irwin was tried out a bit on Saturday he showed up in excellent form. He put on the gloves for 4 rounds with young Corbett and although the latter was heavier Irwin held his own very creditably."
Professional boxing today has the benefit of such organizations as the National Boxing Association (NBA) and the World Boxing Association (WBA). They are the structures in which boxing rules, regulations and rankings can be found. Boxing today is a legal sport. Vast networks of radio, television and the internet advertises and shows these matches not only nationwide but even worldwide. For those who “missed the fight” they can watch the match unfold days…weeks…or even years later on a “rerun” basis. For those far away people who want to witness the fight in person they can comfortably travel there by plane. Billy Irwin and his boxing contemporaries didn’t have such “luxuries” as just mentioned. Billy Irwin had no manager or public relations team.He fought his matches in an era of illegality in which matches were often times in secret for fear of stoppage and even jail.He travelled to and from his matches via stagecoach and train which had their own struggle making schedule in heavy snowfall and avalanches. Although some fans were lucky enough to actually see the match at ringside, for the most part, boxing enthusiasts had to settle for a bar room seat in a saloon connected to the match via a telegrapher at ringside who was connected in turn with other telegraphic locations throughout the state and beyond.Telegraphic messages were constantly updated on newspaper bulletin boards and these messages were relayed back and forth from bulletin boards to saloons by “runners.”Such was the boxing world of Billy Irwin.Thankfully such boxing organizations as BoxRec.com endeavors to sort out the top boxers of various eras and decades so that boxing enthusiasts and historians of today can assess and record accurate conclusions about boxers of the past.In this essay about “Billy Irwin Best in the West and Beyond” I have done my best to draw unbiased conclusions based on first hand newspaper accounts and BoxRec.com.
Finally, in my opinion based on evidence produced in this essay, I believe my grandfather (Billy Irwin) was one of the best lightweight boxers (Bantam, Feather and Light) in the U.S.A. during his most productive years of 1895-1898.I would more specifically state that he was amongst the top ten in the U.S.A. (1895-98).As such he would certainly be regarded as a viable contender for a shot at the world championship.In a short and concise phrase: “Billy Irwin, featherweight boxer (1895-98), was as good as any World Featherweight Champion contender who did not actually and officially win the World Featherweight Championship.”
The Billy Irwin Boxing Era: Bare Knuckles… skin tight gloves… padded gloves… sometimes legal matches… sometimes illegal matches… sometimes police interference.