Commentary

Lee following in a long line of great Irish fighters

When Andy Lee climbs into the ring on Friday, he'll be following a long line of great Irish fighters who punched their way into the annals of boxing history over the years.

Originally Published: March 20, 2008
By Graham Houston | Special to ESPN.com

Ricky MonaghanMonty Fresco/Topical Press Agency/Getty ImagesMonaghan, right, was colorful and charming outside the ring, but all business while he was inside of it.
Andy Lee's appearance on "Friday Night Fights" will serve as a reminder of the contribution to boxing made by Irish fighters. If the unbeaten, London-born, Irish-raised middleweight turns out to be as good as trainer/manager Emanuel Steward believes, he will be following in some illustrious footsteps.

There have, of course, been great Irish-American fighters, but what of those born and raised in the Emerald Isle?

Currently, New York-based middleweight John Duddy has attracted a loyal following, while junior middle James Moore, also unbeaten and living in New York, is considered a prospect. Across the sea in Ireland itself, fighters such as Paul McCloskey and Andy Murray are coming along nicely, while Matthew Macklin, a Brit with Irish ancestry, has been looking impressive. (Dublin's Bernard Dunne is in the process of rebuilding his career after a shocking KO loss.)

Here, with Andy Lee's ESPN main event in mind, is a look at five of the best Irish born-and-bred boxers.

5. Freddie Gilroy

The Belfast southpaw Freddie Gilroy was something of a shooting star. A European, British and British Empire bantamweight champion in the late 1950s and early '60s, Gilroy had only 28 fights but went out a big-fight winner, stopping Belfast rival Johnny Caldwell in nine bloody rounds in Belfast.

An exciting, hard-hitting boxer-fighter, Gilroy was an Olympic bronze medalist who stormed his way to 21 wins in a row before losing on points to Mexico's Ignacio "Zurdo" Pina in what was considered a huge upset in 1960.

The British fight fraternity was astonishingly unaware that Pina was a southpaw (the Mexican had artfully boxed in the orthodox stance in his London workouts). Gilroy was caught by surprise, suffered an early knockdown and never got into the fight. The great British matchmaker Mickey Duff later ruefully admitted that if he had studied a little Spanish he would have known that "zurdo" meant left-handed.

Gilroy fought for the European version of the world bantamweight title, losing a controversial decision to the French-Algerian Alphonse Halimi in London in October 1960. It was a bout that Gilroy seemed to have dominated despite being dropped in the 13th round, but neutral referee and sole arbiter, Philippe de Backer, of Belgium, had Halimi winning. Author Thomas Myler wrote in his book, "The Fighting Irish," that "there was hardly a person in the arena, outside of the French party, who agreed with the verdict."

4. Dave 'Boy' McAuley

Although Dave "Boy" McAuley was not known as a particularly gifted boxer, he was a hard hitting, game and fiercely determined fighter who today might have been called an overachiever.

From Larne in Northern Ireland, McAuley had only 18 fights but nine were for versions of the world flyweight title. He won the IBF championship in June 1989 and made five successful defenses before losing the title on a unanimous but close decision to the Colombian Rodolfo Blanco in Spain. McAuley had previously outpointed Blanco in a title defense in Belfast.

McAuley was perhaps unfortunate to have been fighting at the same time as the acclaimed Irish boxing star Barry McGuigan, whose exploits overshadowed his own. McAuley struggled for recognition, even in Ireland. In his book "Heroes and Hard Men," author Harry Mullan wrote of McAuley's early career: "He was relegated to down-the-bill appearances on the shows which McGuigan headlined, although he was an exciting performer in his own right."

At one time, McAuley considered retiring because he was making so little money from boxing, but he persevered and became a champion in his third attempt. Ironically, McAuley's most memorable fight was one he lost -- his first world title challenge, against Panama's undefeated Fidel Bassa in Belfast in April 1987. It was one of the greatest fights in Irish history. Although McAuley was stopped in the 13th round, he came very close to winning when he twice knocked down Bassa in a sensational ninth round. Harry Mullan wrote: "Ironically, had the fight taken place a few months later, when the WBA's championship distance had been reduced to twelve rounds, McAuley would have won since he was ahead on all three judges' cards at the end of the 12th round."

3. Rinty Monaghan

[+] EnlargeRinty Monaghan
Topical Press Agency/Getty ImagesMonaghan would seranade boxing fans in attendance with "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" after his fights.
The hugely popular Belfast flyweight Rinty Monaghan used to entertain the crowds with songs after his fights, with the particular favorite being, of course, "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling."

Monaghan was world flyweight champion in the late 1940s. Reports indicate he was a tough boxer-fighter type, and colorful and charming outside the ring.

There are reports of Monaghan being carried through the streets of his Belfast neighborhood on the shoulders of fans after one of his victories, with so many people in the happy throng that traffic was stopped.

Monaghan captured the old National Boxing Association's version of the flyweight title by outpointing Filipino Dado Marino in London in 1947. The following year, he scored probably his most important win when he knocked out rival title claimant Jackie Paterson, the Scottish southpaw, in seven rounds in Belfast.

Monaghan's last fight was a 15-round draw in a world title defense against the Londoner Terry Allen. He retired due to bronchial problems. British boxing historian Gilbert Odd wrote of Monaghan: "His was a 15-year career, severely curtailed by five years of war, yet he won all that there was to be gained at his poundage and did so with a smile in the truest Irish tradition."

2. Wayne McCullough

[+] EnlargeWayne McCullough
John Gichigi/Getty ImagesMcCullough, left, is considered one of the sturdiest boxers to ever lace up the gloves.
Former bantamweight champion Wayne McCullough still considers himself an active fighter although he will be 38 in July and hasn't boxed in almost three years. A fight with Spaniard Kiko Martinez was scheduled for Belfast last Dec. 1 but was cancelled the day before when Martinez failed to make the agreed weight.

Born and raised in Belfast (but now a Las Vegas resident), McCullough was an Olympic silver medalist and won the WBC bantamweight title by defeating Yasuei Yakushiji in Japan. He made two successful defenses before moving up in weight. His gritty, aggressive, constant-punching style made him a fan favorite in Ireland and the U.S., and his punch-resistance might one day be considered legendary: Naseem Hamed and Erik Morales hit him with their best shots but could not keep him from coming forward.

McCullough's losses were all against world champions, and he bitterly protested when the Nevada commission doctor Margaret Goodman decided he had taken too much punishment after 10 rounds in his rematch with Oscar Larios, which was the last time we saw McCullough in the ring. McCullough wept tears of disappointment that night, and the fans' memory of him will be of a super-fit Irish warrior who gave everything he had -- and sometimes even seemed to find a bit more.

Talking about his high-pressure style in a 1994 interview for Boxing Monthly, McCullough told me: "When you go forward, you're gonna get hit. And I don't mind getting hit -- as long as I don't take too many punches."

1. Barry McGuigan

[+] EnlargeBarry McGuigan
Steve Powell/Getty ImagesWhen McGuigan defeated Pedroza in 1985, his countrymen celebrated for days.
The "Clones Cyclone," Barry McGuigan, was fighting at a time -- the mid-1980s -- when boxing was a weekend afternoon sports staple on the U.S. networks. This meant that some of his biggest fights were seen live on television by American fans, including his unanimous decision win over the crafty and very experienced Eusebio Pedroza to win the WBA featherweight title in June 1985.

That was the emotional summer's night outdoors at the Queens Park Rangers soccer stadium in London when McGuigan's late father, Pat, sang "Danny Boy" in front of a 27,000 crowd prior to the contest.

Talking about that magic moment in a 2005 interview with British "The Mail on Sunday" sports columnist Patrick Collins, McGuigan recalled: "God, it still makes me shiver."

McGuigan, known for his pressure-fighter style and body punching, but especially the left hook, spent long hours working on an overhand right with which to surprise Pedroza. In the seventh round, he landed the right; Pedroza went down, and the fight had shifted decisively in McGuigan's favor. Writer Collins captured the importance of the occasion and what McGuigan meant to the Irish nation: "The celebrations raged on for days. More than 70,000 turned out to meet him in Belfast and around 400,000 thronged the streets of Dublin three days later. Ten thousand people converged on the tiny border town of Clones, where the hotel owned by Barry's mother-in-law stayed open for three days and nights."

When McGuigan lost his title to Stevie Cruz outdoors in Las Vegas in June 1986, his fight was the first on the pay-per-view show, starting just after 6 p.m. in the still-scorching desert heat. McGuigan faded in the late rounds of the 15-round fight, when his opponent from Texas, more accustomed to extremely hot weather, was coming on strongly. Had the fight been one of today's 12-rounders, McGuigan would have won. Writing about the fight in "Heroes and Hard Men," Harry Mullan noted: "Cruz was a competent but unexceptional performer, and under any other conditions, McGuigan would have beaten him. But the heat was intolerable, almost literally lethal, and it drained and dehydrated him. By the closing rounds he was fighting on blind instinct, but it still needed two fifteenth-round knockdowns to swing the the verdict Cruz's way."

Like his former stablemate, Dave McAuley, McGuigan is now an expert analyst on TV boxing broadcasts -- McAuley for the Irish national broadcaster RTE, McGuigan for ITV in Britain.

Very honorable mentions include Johnny Caldwell, the "Cold Eyed Killer" from Belfast, who won the European version of the world bantamweight title in the 1960s, and Steve Collins, Dublin's "Celtic Warrior" who won WBO titles at middleweight and super middleweight and twice defeated both Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank in big fights.

Graham Houston is the American editor of Boxing Monthly and writes for FightWriter.com.

Graham Houston is the American editor of Boxing Monthly and writes for FightWriter.com.