- Don Stradley
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When Mike McTigue was an elderly man, being shuttled from one New York hospital to another, he always could count on a visit from a sportswriter when St. Patrick's Day rolled around. For it was on St. Patrick's Day, 1923, in a bout colored by controversy, that McTigue won the light heavyweight championship from Battling Siki.
The story generally has been written from Siki's standpoint -- of the duped Senegalese warrior arriving in Dublin only to lose his title on a disputed decision -- while McTigue usually has been depicted as a willing accomplice in a grand hoax.
What's been forgotten is that McTigue was a colorful character. He had a career any fighter would envy, cramming over 170 fights into a 16-year campaign. The fight with Siki overshadows everything else he did, which is a bit unfair.
It's a wonder that the Dublin bout happened at all. The Irish Civil War had been raging for nine months and Eamon de Valera, Ireland's president at the time, had deemed the event inappropriate.
When thugs threatened to bomb the La Scala Opera House where the fight would take place, Siki and McTigue began traveling with guards; death threats were slid under the doors of their hotel rooms.
Still, the promoters put the fight on as scheduled, even as armored cars patrolled the streets. St. Patrick's Day, they maintained, was a time for celebration. But mere hours before Siki and McTigue entered the ring, a mine exploded outside the arena, shattering windows throughout the neighborhood and injuring two children.
Siki was nervous -- and not just because of the violence outside the ring. He hadn't wanted to fight an Irishman in Dublin. Since winning the 175-pound title from the popular Georges Carpentier, Siki was being eyed by promoter Tex Rickard as an opponent for Jack Dempsey. Rickard was planning to introduce Siki to America by matching him with Harry Wills.
All Siki had to do was whip the lightly built McTigue.
Twenty rounds later, McTigue was declared the winner and new champion.
Descriptions of the bout don't always support the popular legend that Siki was robbed. Most ringside reports from the era describe neither fighter doing much until the 14th round, when McTigue started coming on as Siki faded.
The Associated Press reported that in the final round, McTigue "went in hard and punished Siki severely in the face." Then, as now, a strong finish counted for a lot.
"Perhaps it is doing 'Bold Michael' an injustice to imply he won the title from Battling Siki only because he was an Irishman fighting in Ireland on St. Patrick's Day," New York Times columnist John Daly wrote 21 years later. "Of course, all historians gleefully pounce on the remarkable coincidence until it has come to grow as accepted fact. Too few realize that McTigue was a polished boxer; Siki, a crude and relatively inexperienced workman."
Siki (whose real name was Amadou M'barick Fall -- or just Louis Phall) had been a French war hero during World War I, going to the front at age 16 and earning the Medaille de Militaire and the Croix de Guerre on the battlefield. As a prizefighter, he was promoted as a sort of untamed man child with an impossibly hard skull.
Siki gave newsmen plenty to write about. He was a partier who once walked down a street in Paris with a lion on a leash.
Michael Francis McTigue had been born to a farm family in the parish of Kilnamona, near Ennis, County Clare, Ireland, on Nov. 26, 1892. Along with his 12 brothers and one sister, McTigue worked the farm until he was 16. After his immigration to America, he worked as a butcher's helper until he started fighting for money.
McTigue had a bit of the con artist in him. For a while he pretended to be Canadian; when he won the Canadian middleweight championship in 1920, the Halifax crowd cheered as if he were one of their own.
During a bout with Emilio Solomon, McTigue ducked and Solomon accidentally belted referee Billy McPartland. McTigue scolded Solomon, saying, "See what you did, you big oaf?" When Solomon turned to apologize to McPartland, McTigue sucker punched him for a 10-count.
If McTigue was crafty, he'd learned from the best. McTigue fought multiple bouts against the likes of Harry Greb, Mickey Walker and Tommy Loughran. He lost most of those bouts, but he actually got the best of the great Loughran during one of their no-decision contests. He also earned close decisions over Tiger Flowers and "Panama" Joe Gans.
When McTigue returned to America after beating Siki, he was greeted by a marching band and over 1,000 admirers. McTigue entertained the mostly Irish mob with old-fashioned blarney.
"Siki outweighed me by as much as 30 pounds," McTigue lied, "But I boxed him carefully and won on points." McTigue then praised Siki's brute power, adding, "If he'd learn how to box, he'd be a great man in the ring."
By this time, stardom had found McTigue. There was serious talk of him fighting Gene Tunney in Yankee Stadium.
Unfortunately for McTigue, he was already an aging fighter when he beat Siki. Hand injuries and managerial problems plagued the champion and before he could cash in on being champion, McTigue was defeated by Paul Berlenbach via decision.
McTigue avenged his loss to Berlenbach two years later with a sensational fourth round KO, but that would be his last great night in a ring. After losing 16 fights during the next three years, McTigue's boxing license was yanked by the New York Commission.
McTigue worked as floor manager of a Manhattan ballroom and lived in the Bronx with his wife, Cecilia. Without boxing, he drifted into alcoholism. One January night in 1937, as McTigue was drunkenly making his way home from work, six men attacked him on a subway platform.
Appearing in court with blackened eyes, teeth missing and a fractured skull, McTigue identified his attackers but didn't press charges. Since everyone involved was Irish, there was no need to press charges, McTigue said. To the judge's surprise, McTigue and his attackers left the courtroom as buddies.
McTigue spent the final years of his life broke and ill, until he died at age 73 in Queens General Hospital.
As for Siki, he hit bottom after fighting McTigue. He relocated to New York, lost several fights and spent most of his time inebriated. In 1925, he was found dead on Ninth Avenue with two bullets in his back. His murder was never solved.
Siki and McTigue had been on the verge of fame and fortune. One was due to fight Dempsey, the other to fight Tunney. Instead, their Dublin meeting was the beginning of the end for each.
Even in rehab without a nickel to his name, McTigue regaled listeners with tales of the Dublin bout. McTigue's favorite story involved an armed sentry stationed in his corner to keep the peace. As the rounds progressed, he stuck his bayonet between the ropes and jabbed McTigue in the leg. "I got three pounds' bet on you," the guard said. "God help you if you lose!"
Perhaps that bayonet accounted for Mike's late-round surge. All accounts agree that he finished stronger than Siki, which helped him become the first Irishman to win a world title on Irish soil, giving several generations of columnists something to write about when March 17 rolled around.
Eighty-five years later, we're still doing it.
Don Stradley is a regular contributor to The Ring.
Mike McTigue's upset win over Battling Siki 85 years ago is still shrouded in controversy. Don Stradley sheds light on this St. Patrick's Day oddity.