“I want to fight like you and sing like John McCormack,” said Jack Doyle the day he met Jack Dempsey.
“Wouldn’t it be just too bad,” replied Dempsey, “if you could only sing like me and fight like John McCormack.”
Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, 1935
THE traffic around White City was so bad that with half a mile still to go, Jack Doyle had to get out of the taxi and walk to the stadium.
Well-wishers clapped his back every step of the way and one over-zealous female fan even clipped a lock of his hair as a keepsake.
By the time he reached the dressing-room, Doyle had been made almost giddy by the atmosphere, laughing, joking, and reading the plethora of good luck telegrams he’d received.
Outside, 70,000 people were teeming into London’s one-time Olympic venue to watch a 19-year-old from Cobh challenge for the British heavyweight championship.
A raw talent that first became apparent in frantic childhood fistfights in his hometown quarry, he now stood six foot five and weighed just above 15 stone, wearing glamorous green satin shorts with his initials embroidered in gold along the side.
Numerous impromptu punch-ups on the most famous waterfront in Ireland and a devotion to studying Jack Dempsey’s instruction manual “How to Box” had put him on top of the bill on a night when, win, lose or draw, he’d pocket £3,000, quite a sum when the average industrial wage was just over three quid a week.
When he was born on August 31, 1913 at 12 Queen’s Street, Joseph Doyle had weighed 14lbs. The extra girth would be a natural aid to him as he grew up in tough circumstances.
His father Michael was invalided out of the Merchant Navy and ended up half-blind following an accident in a quarry, so his mother Stacia had to work several jobs just to keep her children clothed and fed.
A boyhood of pitch and toss, and chester cake came to an abrupt end around the age of 12 when Jack, as he was affectionately called, got his first job on a farm.
That segued into a stint unloading the coal boats down at the quay, and when that trade was slack, he carried suitcases for the rich American tourists after they docked.
None of it was easy work, but it must have felt better to have a few bob than to be tramping, sometimes barefoot, to school.
As a teenage worker, he honed his fighting skills in impromptu bareknuckle bouts of the sort that were then plentiful in the port town.
Whether it was British soldiers over from Spike Island or co-workers in the coal trade irked by his good fortune at cards, he downed them all.
Turned down by the Free State Army at 16 because he was two years too young, he took the Innisfallen to Pembroke where he enlisted in the Irish Guards by lying about his age: he pretended to be 14 months older than he actually was.
Less than two months after joining up, he had his first amateur bout in the army. He won with a second-round knockout and began in earnest the journey that brought him to national prominence. Three years after seeking out the Irish Guards’ recruitment officer, he was out of uniform and had sold out White City.
The first sight of him entering the arena elicited huge cheers that grew louder still after he climbed through the ropes, stripped off his robe and unveiled a golden torso to compliment the handsome face. He chatted casually to the referee Pickles Douglas, but after a few minutes, the small talk gave to way nerves.
As champions often do, Jack Petersen had let Doyle stew in the spotlight until he was good and ready to make his entrance.
By the time Douglas brought the two boxers together, the challenger’s early anxiety had given over to anger. He wanted to make the cocky Welsh champion pay in the same way he’d inflicted punishment on his previous 10 professional opponents.
There was only one problem with that intention. Peterson was better than anybody he’d ever faced before and, even more importantly, Doyle should not have been anywhere near a boxing ring that July night in 1933.
He was suffering from a bad dose of the clap — history has yet to confirm whether it was gonorrhea or syphilis — that had left him in no physical condition to go 15 rounds against a tough, unbeaten veteran of 23 fights.
Apart from anything else, the venereal disease he contracted earlier that summer (reputedly following an encounter with a woman he met in the West End) had seriously affected his ability to train properly.
In the days before penicillin, his title chances had been effectively destroyed the moment he entered a shady late-night establishment called Murray’s Club.
Still, ever the game competitor, Doyle went on the offensive from the first bell. He knew his only chance was to put Petersen down early. Even before incurring his STD, he’d never been past the second round in a professional contest before.
His method was unorthodox, raining punches on the Welsh champion from every direction and headed to every destination.
A huge number strayed below the belt but Doyle didn’t heed the repeated warnings from the referee. A frantic first round culminated in the pair of them duelling toe to toe in the centre of the ring.
The sort of action beloved of spectators, it nonetheless brought Douglas to the Doyle corner before the start of the second round. Any further punches below the belt would merit instant disqualification, he was warned.
Less than a minute of the second round had elapsed when Douglas called a halt to proceedings. He had a reputation as an officious referee and another stray Doyle punch south of the waist had persuaded him to invoke the rule book.
The fight was over. Doyle had lost.
The decision was greeted by a sustained chorus of boos in the stadium. Back in Cork, the thousands gathered outside The Cork Examiner offices in Academy Street were stunned when news filtered through the local boy had failed ignominiously in his attempt to take the title.
“I fouled Petersen in the first round,” wrote Doyle in the Sunday Pictorial, some years later.
“I admit that now freely. I was warned that I should be disqualified if I persisted. I did persist. I fouled him again in the second round more than once. I was ordered back to my corner, disqualified and disgraced.
“Why did I do it? Why did I ignore the warning I got? The plain honest fact of the matter is that I was ill, so ill I should never have been in the ring.
“I could have refused flatly to go in the ring at all. I put the public first. I did not want to disappoint the tens of thousands who were waiting for the ‘match of the century’, not just the huge crowd who watched, remember, but the peoples of Britain and Ireland.
“I knew I had only one chance. A knockout in the first two rounds. My strength would not last beyond that.
“At all costs, I must knock Petersen out in six minutes. I left my corner reckless and desperate, my mind obsessed by just one thought — I must hit and keep on hitting. In this way, I became fighting mad. I did not know what I was doing. I saw red. ‘Hit and keep on hitting’, drummed through my dazed mind and not until I had been forced back to my corner did I realise what I had done.”
There was a chaotic aftermath to the bout as the British Boxing Board of Control ordered Doyle’s purse withheld, pending their investigation into the circumstances surrounding his disqualification.
Eventually, they suspended him for six months and required him to forfeit £2,740 of the money due to him. The rest was to be paid, at the rate of a fiver a week, to Doyle and to his mother back in Cork.
It was a draconian penalty, far in excess of the usual punishment levied for such an offence. Worse again was that after taking the case to the High Court and winning, the BBBC had that decision subsequently overturned on appeal. Doyle would box again after Petersen, but really, his time as a genuine contender in the ring had already passed.
While the legal shenanigans played out, his second career, and the one for which he would arguably become far more famous, took off in earnest.
Deprived of the right to box for six months, he turned to the only other gift he had — his voice. A tour of a revue in which he showcased both his talents equally, singing songs in the first half and working out to music in the second, begun at the Theatre Royal in Dublin.
For four weeks, every one of its 3,600 seats was filled twice daily and he was pocketed £600 per week due to a clause guaranteeing him a share of the gate. The arena had changed but the Doyle name remained pure box office.
“His was a captivating blend of Doyle soprano and McCormack tenor,” wrote Michael Taub in his classic book, Jack Doyle: Fighting for Love.
“His material struck a perfect balance between poor schmaltz and acceptable sentimentality and his delivery, as in the boxing ring, was executed with a perfect sense of the dramatic. He set up his audiences perfectly with perennial favourites like The Hills of Donegal and The Rose of Tralee and then knocked them out cold with his emotional rendering of Mother Macree.
Having been spellbound by The Voice, the fans were now transfixed by The Torso as Jack pushed his massive frame through a series of calisthenics and shadow-boxing routines. The physical side to the show was designed not only to keep Jack in fighting trim during his enforced absence from the ring, but also to arouse the women in the audience.”
The show moved to the Cork Opera House in September, 1933. There, he was greeted as the returning hero who had suffered a great injustice in England.
They paraded him through the streets as if he had won and not lost the title challenge. Therein, always, lies the problem with Doyle.
Aside from his reprehensible behaviour towards women, there seems a very good argument for not featuring him in any sports history of Cork at all.
Even in a country that has never excelled at producing boxers, there are pugilists with equally good careers. Between Packey Mahoney (later to earn distinction training Cork and Glen Rovers) fighting for the British title back in 1913 and Kieran Joyce boxing in two Olympics, Mick Leahy defeated Sugar Ray Robinson in September, 1964. Admittedly, the greatest pound for pound fighter of all time had turned 44 at the time of the bout.
Doyle’s record was reasonable — 17 victories and six defeats — but he was disqualified in the only title bout he ever fought. He was punched all over Dalymount Park by Mullingar’s Chris Cole during a 1943 comeback, and, according to one account, reportedly begged Cole to throw the fight beforehand.
If he had such a great boxing talent — and pundits differ about everything beyond his raw punching power— he was guilty of squandering it.
That is the sober assessment. The truth is that in Cork, a place that hasn’t boasted a world champion boxer since the 19th century, Doyle is the most famous we have ever produced.
More than a quarter of a century after his death, he lives on in the most vibrant ways, each a tribute to the romance of his rise, the operatic tragedy of his fall.
Apart from Michael Taub’s biography, there is a stage-play, and a beautiful Jimmy McCarthy song (poignantly titled The Contender), Sporting lives filled with medals, and overflowing with achievements slip through the cracks yet his tale endures.
Because it was the story with everything, a handsome leading man involved in a melodrama that spanned continents and decades and teemed with equal portions of pathos, passion.
The rags to riches element of his early life; the perceived injustice meted out by the British boxing authorities, the voice that could move an audience to tears, the glamour of his liaisons with a slew of starlets, his disgraceful violence towards those women, the failed comebacks, the divorces, the break-ups, and the final, terrible, inevitable descent into alcoholism and penury.
After threatening but never achieving boxing glory, Doyle also dabbled in wrestling, once drawing 22,500 to Tolka Park.
He filmed three movies, and during his foray into acting, stole a woman from Marlon Brando, drank with Errol Flynn and Clark Gable, starred in The Belles of St. Trinians, and slept his way through Hollywood.
The highlight of his cabaret career was “The Punch and Beauty” show he put on with Movita, the Mexican Hollywood star he married and also repeatedly physically abused throughout their relationship.
One of those assaults on Christmas Day, 1944 caused her to miscarry.
By the winter of 1978, he was homeless and penniless and on the way out. After a spell dossing on the streets of London, wandering at times barefoot from pub to pub, he died on December 13.
He’d been put up just the night before by John O’Sullivan, a Corkman working on the railway, who couldn’t bear to see Doyle in such a pitiful state. The funeral was, inevitably, an epic production. Between London and Cobh, three requiem masses were said, and the coffin’s journey stopped traffic in Dublin and Cork before he was brought home to the Holy Ground.