Jimmy McLarnin: Baby Face

05.12.05 - By Craig Parrish: “It’s a very silly pair of feet that stay around and let your face get punched” — Jimmy McLarnin

A Master Boxer, Jimmy McLarnin is one of those rare stories of a young man who got into the rough world of boxing and got out young, healthy, and rich. A man who knew when to hang it up and played the game on his own terms. Not the most powerful fighter, although a dangerous puncher, McLarnin personified how to find success by constantly working on technique and developing the gift he had: speed. He was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1907, but his family immigrated to Canada while he was very young.

As a youngster, Jimmy loved to fight and would do so for a dollar here and there. Money was tight and a dollar was a small fortune to Jimmy.

At thirteen, he met his future Manager, Pop Foster, and oldtimer who took a liking to the kid and started to teach him technique. Foster and Jimmy’s Father were friends and they built a gym for training. For several years, Pop worked Jimmy and taught him the science of boxing, developing his speed and creating the elusiveness for which he would become famous.

While still only 16, McLarnin headed out to California to start his career in 1923. He lied about his age and told everyone he was 18. McLarnin admitted later that he hated lying, but they were desperately poor and needed money fast. It took three months around San Francisco before he got his first match, and started a run of 31 consecutive victories. His first real test however, came the following year in a set of 2 matches against the future Flyweight Champ, Fidel LaBarba. McLarnin got a decision in one bout and the other was a draw in the 4-rounders. Jimmy later said that LaBarba was a tremendous puncher and on a few body shots he felt as if “all his teeth were being pulled out”. But by sticking and moving he survived LaBarba.

In 1925, Jimmy went on a tear. He decisioned tough Flyweight Champ Pancho Villa on July 4th, knocked out future Welterweight Champ Jackie Fields in November in 2 rounds and beat future Bantamweight Champ Bud Taylor in December, although Jimmy won on a foul and would lose to Taylor the following year. By 1927, McLarnin was stepping into the ring with Louis “Kid” Kaplan, a tough fighter who had just won the Featherweight belt from Danny Kramer. Pop felt that Jimmy was not ready for this level of
competition, but they were not at a point to pick and choose. Jimmy felt that he could run from Kaplan if necessary, but in the first punch of the fight Kaplan broke Jimmy’s jaw and for the first time in his career, McLarnin hit the canvas. Kaplan continued to put Jimmy down, but each time he got up. By the fourth round, Kaplan is starting to tire from punching McLarnin, and Pop instructed Jimmy to move in when he starts to throw the hook and hit him with a right hand. Down goes Kaplan. Jimmy knocks him down again and again, but Kaplan is game and keeps getting up. Finally, at the beginning of the 8th, an exhausted
Jimmy rushes Kaplan as he is coming out of the corner and drops him for the KO. This performance raises Jimmy’s profile and eventually lands him a title shot with Sammy Mandell in 1928.

At this point, Jimmy is still only 21 and growing. He had a difficult time making weight for the Mandell fight and lost a 15 round decision. He decided to move up to 140 pounds and over the next several years he beat Ray Miller, Mandell twice, Sergeant Sammy Baker, Young Jack Thompson, and Billy Petrolle. In 1932, Jimmy fought one of his boyhood idols, Benny Leonard. While Leonard was well into his thirties, he gave Jimmy fits early in the fight before succumbing to a 7th round knockout, after which he retired. Jimmy knew that if Leonard had been a few years younger, it might have been a different story.

In 1933, Jimmy got his shot at the Welterweight title and made the most of it, knocking out Young Corbett III in the first round. Jimmy’s reign as Champion was fairly short-lived though, as he began a series of fights with Barney Ross in the Spring of the following year. McLarnin lost the first fight on points over 15 rounds, but regained the title three months later with a decision. He lost the title back to Ross with yet another points decision in May, 1935. Many boxing experts felt McLarnin was robbed.

At this point, Jimmy was only fighting about once a year, which he later said was a mistake. However, he had a series of broken hands over this time that made it difficult to box. He had wanted to go out as Champion, but the decision in the Ross fight was starting to sour him on the fight game. He only fought three more times in his career, splitting two fights with Tony Canzoneri and finished up with a decision over lightweight Champ Lou Ambers in his final fight, although it was a non-title bout. Ambers had just won the title from the legendary Henry Armstrong. Although it wasn’t for a title, McLarnin felt that a victory over Ambers was just as good, and retired at the age of 29.

In addition to being a terrific fighter, McLarnin had a reputation of being a genuinely nice person. This lesson he claimed to have learned from the great “Gentleman” Jim Corbett, who was a regular visitor to his training camps. McLarnin had great personal success outside the ring after his career, starting several businesses. His was a great success story of a young man who made the most of himself through sacrifice, dedication, and hard work. His career record was 62 (20)-11-3, and he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991. Not bad for a kid that retired at 29. He passed away on October 28th, 2004.

Article posted on 06.12.2005

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