Local hero

By Pete Ehrmann on November 25, 2017
Local hero
The only known photo shows Pat McLaughlin sprawled face-down over the bottom rope.

Dempsey wasn’t taking any risks on the exhibition tour he’d kicked off. His opponents were strong, willing but limited bruisers like Pat McLaughlin…

About 125 miles north of Milwaukee, Waupaca, Wisconsin, pop. 6,000, is located on a chain of spring-fed lakes that make it a popular summer and winter playground. To me, though, its list of stellar features was topped by an exceptional used book store—The Bookcellar—until that was surpassed recently by the discovery that a Waupacan swapped punches with Jack Dempsey almost 90 years ago.

James “Pat” McLaughlin fought the “Manassa Mauler” three times. They were exhibition bouts, but Dempsey fought them as fiercely as when he caved in Jess Willard to win the world heavyweight championship in 1919 and then socked his way to immortality in a series of explosive title fights that heightened the din of “The Roaring ‘20s.”

Dempsey lost his title to Gene Tunney in 1926 but remained the most popular boxer around, and in 1931 he was preparing for another run at the championship by touring the country boxing exhibition matches.

Pat McLaughlin left Waupaca that same year to pursue his dream of ring glory in Chicago. “A rugged youth who tosses a lot of leather when he gets started,” said the Appleton (WI) Post-Crescent of the 6-2 tall, 200-pound boxer.

In the Windy City, McLaughlin’s size caught the eye of another great former heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, who trained him for his first few fights. But Johnson couldn’t impart his own trademark boxing skills to the Wisconsin fighter, who caught as much leather as he threw and won just two of the seven bouts he had that year. In three of McLaughlin’s four defeats (one fight was a draw) he was knocked out, and the only known photo of him, published in the Detroit Free Press, shows McLaughlin sprawled face-down over the bottom ring rope and being counted out after Michigan heavyweight champion Benny Touchstone knocked him cold in two rounds on September 3, 1931.

Dempsey wasn’t taking any risks on the exhibition tour he’d kicked off several weeks before that in Reno, Nevada. His opponents were strong, willing but limited bruisers like Pat McLaughlin—and on December 7 in Duluth, Minnesota, Pat McLaughlin himself. Before 6,000 fans the Waupaca boxer was knocked down early in the single round he went with Dempsey, then “weathered a severe body attack from the former champion” (Chicago Tribune) to finish the three-minute session on his feet. Dempsey went three additional rounds with other boxers.

Two days later Dempsey and McLaughlin boxed two rounds before a big crowd at a St. Paul gym, and according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune they “went at it hammer and tongs rite from the start. McLaughlin took some vicious jabs in the face, but he weathered the storm until near the end when he hit the deck. He finished strong, however, and the second session which was not so fast showed plenty of action, especially near the close.”

In their final exhibition bout on February 15, 1932 in Flint, Michigan, reported the Chicago Tribune, “McLaughlin showed a disposition to trade punches with the former champion and got in two stiff body punches before Dempsey found the range and sent him down for a three count. Then came a series of rights and lefts which brought the exhibition to a close” after just one minute and 12 seconds.

Three days later, contender King Levinsky showed up Dempsey in a Chicago exhibition and Jack retired for good. After losing three more fights in a row, on January 2, 1933 Pat McLaughlin won a four-round decision over Jack Clifford in Stevens Point, just up Highway 10 from Waupaca.

That appears to have been it for his boxing career, the explanation for which most likely is provided by an item printed in the Stevens Point Journal 11 days before the Clifford fight:

“McLaughlin takes on new sparring partner: Glancing through the list of applicants for marriage licenses at the courthouse the other day, the sports editor ran across the name of Robert C. McLaughlin, Waupaca, better known as ‘Pat’ McLaughlin, heavyweight boxer. The girl is Gwendolyn Allen, 1135 Ellis St.”

The trail goes cold after that. In January 1982 a Robert McLaughlin, age 71, died in Wautoma, 15 miles south of Waupaca, but according to the obit in the local newspaper his middle initial was D, not C, and he married Mildred Schultz in Waupaca in 1946. He was a custodian at the county courthouse up to his retirement in ’75.

The middle initial could be a typo, and people divorce and remarry. It pleases me to think this might be the guy, and that every day of his janitorial career Robert McLaughlin pushed his broom with special élan remembering how he had slugged it out with Jack Dempsey.

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  1. Pete 01:11pm, 11/27/2017

    Thank you, Bob. “You never know who is pushing the broom” says it all.

  2. Bob 04:59am, 11/27/2017

    You outdid yourself with this one, Pete. You are always outdoing yourself. This is a great story. You never know who is pushing the broom.

  3. Pete 11:13am, 11/25/2017

    A wonderful addendum, Mr. McCain.Thank you.

  4. Lucas McCain 07:25am, 11/25/2017

    The Ring Detective as archaeologist.  So many traces that cry out to be preserved.  I can’t help thinking of fellow workers, policemen, and lawyers who told others, “You see that guy over there with the flattened nose?  He boxed Dempsey 3 times!,: and probably heard and enjoyed his stories more times than that.  Nice piece for a Thanksgiving weekend.

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