From McLarnin to Taylor: Ireland’s Five Greatest Boxers

Following Katie Taylor’s homecoming in Dublin and her likely return for a rematch with Chantelle Cameron later this year, and ahead of Michael Conlan’s return to Belfast, ProBox TV takes a look at the five best boxers ever to come from the Emerald Isle.

1. Jimmy McLarnin

Born in County Down in 1907, McLarnin emigrated at age three to Canada with his family and began boxing as a young man in Vancouver, British Columbia. In 1924, he moved to San Francisco in search of greater opportunity, but given his youth struggled to book fights until he lied about his age, earning him the nickname “Baby Face.” He scored wins over Pancho Villa and a faded Benny Leonard and became a huge attraction when he fought at Madison Square Garden. He won the welterweight championship of the world in 1933 via a first-round knockout of Young Corbett III, and then engaged in three nip-and-tuck distance fights with the great Barney Ross, winning the second but losing the others. After splitting a pair of bouts with Tony Canzoneri, he retired aged just 31, living a happy, healthy, and lengthy post-boxing life and passing away at the age of 92.

2. Nonpareil Jack Dempsey

The original Jack Dempsey was born as John Edward Kelly in County Kildare in 1862. He was undefeated through his first 62 bouts and lost just three of 68, earning him the nickname “Nonpareil”, or “Without Equal.” Lightning quick, he frequently fought men 10 to 15 pounds heavier, and in 1886 became the first commonly accepted middleweight champion of the world. His first defeat came in 1889 to George LaBlanche, but the “pivot punch” - essentially a spinning backhander - with which LaBlanche scored a 32nd round knockout was promptly declared illegal. He lost his title to Bob Fitzsimmons in 1891; depleted by tuberculosis, he was knocked out by Tommy Ryan in January 1895. He didn’t fight again and died that November.

3. Steve Collins

In an era when the middleweight and super-middleweight division on the eastern side of the Atlantic was dominated by Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank, "The Celtic Warrior” may have been the best of the lot – and certainly he proved superior to both men in the ring, defeating them both twice. Born in Dublin in 1964, he unsuccessfully challenged Mike McCallum in 1990 for a middleweight bout in just his 17th pro bout; he subsequently lost close and controversial decisions to Reggie Johnson and Sumbu Kalambay before closing out his career with 15 straight wins over four years. Those wins included a stoppage of Chris Pyatt for a middleweight strap, defeating Eubank for the super middleweight belt, and defending it against him, Benn (twice) and four others, before retiring when he was stripped after he was unable to defend against Joe Calzaghe because of injury. 

4. Rinty Monaghan

John Joseph Monaghan is said to have earned the name ‘Rinty’ from his mother, who called him Rin Tin Tin because of the stray dogs he would bring home. A man of many talents as well as having a dog-loving heart, he would end his fights at King’s Hall in his native Belfast by singing “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” and in 1943 formed a musical trio called “The Three Hillbillies” to entertain the troops in western Europe. As a boy in the 1920s, he boxed in street fights for the grand prize of a fish supper, before turning professional in 1932 at the age of just 14. In 1948, he became undisputed world flyweight champion with victory over Scotland’s Jackie Patterson, prompting celebrations and bonfires in Belfast’s York Street, where a statue of him now stands. Forced to retire at the age of just 31 due to bronchial problems, his professional record was 52-9-8 (20 KOs).

5. Katie Taylor 

Arguably the greatest female boxer to have fought as a professional, Taylor was a superstar in her native land before she ever fought in the paid ranks, winning Olympic gold in London in 2012 (where she was the flag bearer for Ireland) as well as five world and six European championships. Turning pro in 2016, she won a lightweight title the following year and became undisputed champion in 2018. In 2022, her title defense against Amanda Serrano in front of a sold-out crowd at New York’s Madison Square Garden was dubbed ‘Fight of the Year’ by Sports Illustrated. 

Honorable Mentions (in no particular order): Tom Sharkey, Carl Frampton, Dave McAuley, Barry McGuigan, Wayne McCullough, Mike McTighe, Jimmy Caldwell, Andy Lee, Ryan Burnett

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