Mickey Riley: “The Joe Grim of the West”

By Pete Ehrmann on March 16, 2017
Mickey Riley: “The Joe Grim of the West”
Riley “was never was a champion, but he gave champions some awful good beatings.”

Battling Nelson fought Riley fought four times. “That’s one fellow I never could lick,” lamented Nelson in his autobiography…

When Mickey Riley’s Irish eyes were smiling, it was damned hard to tell. A celebrated lightweight in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Riley had severe exotropia — he was cross-eyed — a condition that exasperated opponents who went up against the Milwaukee lightweight in the ring.

The story goes that in one bout when Riley was hit below the belt he growled at the transgressor, “Why don’t you look where you hit?” The confounded opponent responded incredulously, “Why don’t you hit where you’re looking!”

Somebody at the Milwaukee Sentinel went overboard writing in 1932 that Riley “saw gloves coming from every side of the ring,” but the Sentinel’s J.J. Delaney didn’t in 1912 when he said that Riley “was never was a champion, but he gave champions some awful good beatings,” and that 133-pound Mickey “was the small boy’s hero (and) the small boy’s champion.” His praises were literally sung in a popular early 1900’s song titled “Hurrah for Mickey Riley!”

He was even sought for celebrity endorsements. In 1904, Riley was featured in a syndicated newspaper advertisement for “Swamp-Root,” a liquid concoction “Indispensable for Kidney and Bladder Complaints.”

“Mickey Riley has been in the fighting game for over ten years,” said the broadside, “and his work in the past two years has shown that he has lost none of his former powers. Riley has participated in nearly 200 ring battles, and though the decisions have not always been in his favor, yet he has never been knocked out, and for that reason has earned the title of the ‘Joe Grim of the West.’”

It was meant to be a compliment, apparently. Joe Grim was a walking crash-test dummy known by admirers as the “Iron Man” and detractors as “The Human Punching Bag.” The 150-pounder defied heavyweights to put him down for the 10-count, and such worthies as Jack Johnson and Bob Fitzsimmons — both heavyweight champions — couldn’t do it. But while Grim’s sole ambition was to show that he could take a beating without whimpering (“I’m Joe Grim, and no man can knock me out!” he’d crow through mangled lips when the final bell rang), Riley had more going for him than that. And it wasn’t just Swamp-Root.

His business card identified him as “Challenger of the world at 133 pounds,” and he proved it by facing the best and toughest fighters of his and any era, and dishing out as much as he took, mostly with a right-hand uppercut likened to “a perfected golf drive reversed. The arm curve started somewhere behind the knee and finished with the recipient out or Mickey almost on his face from the impetus.”

Before Battling Nelson became lightweight champion of the world in 1906, he and Riley fought four times. The Milwaukee boxer took one by decision, the police stopped one, and the other two were draws. “That’s one fellow I never could lick,” lamented Nelson in his autobiography.

Their final bout was in Hurley, Wisconsin, on July 24, 1903. The fighters weighed in at a local firehouse that afternoon. Getting off the scales, Riley looked at Nelson and sneered, “What a licking I’m going to give you tonight!”

“Why wait?” responded Nelson, and they went at it right there until firefighters restored order.

That night when it was discovered that nobody had brought regulation boxing gloves, somebody came up with two pair of skintight gloves said to have been worn in the heavyweight title fight between John L. Sullivan and Paddy Ryan back in 1882. Maybe they were, because there was so much dried blood on them the gloves were like iron.

“Of course, the mere mention of the old time gladiators using the gloves stirred our blood up to a fighting pitch,” wrote Nelson, “and how we did tear, maul and slam each other for fifteen rounds.” The verdict was a draw.

When Riley lost a decision to George Memsic on January 17, 1904, The Milwaukee Journal reported that “Memsic would whale away with both hands, landing innumerable blows (but) he might have just as well been pounding a brick wall as far as any effect his blows had on (Riley), (who) not only withstood all the attacks, but came back for more and although Memsic landed five for one, Mickey was the stronger at the finish, though clearly beaten.”

Another tough lightweight named Harry Fails was unloading on Riley in their fight when Mickey warned him, “You had better look out that you don’t hurt your hands, for you are fighting a man now.”

Riley’s behavior in the ring wasn’t always governed by the Marquis of Queensbury rules. On January 28, 1904, after he’d built a commanding lead over Tommy Smith in a fight in St. Joseph, Missouri, Smith started to find the range in the fifth round. “After Smith had landed a couple good blows,” reported the Sentinel, “Riley lowered his head and drove into Smith’s stomach like a pile-driver. Smith was knocked breathless and fell to the floor groaning.” The referee disqualified Riley, who proceeded to take on several unhappy members of the audience in impromptu battles.

Rather than wear a mouthpiece, Mickey preferred to chew on a plug of tobacco in the ring. In the clinches he sometimes used his opponent’s eyes as a spittoon.

Cashing in on his popularity, producers of a play called “Sporting Life” insured big crowds at the Milwaukee Academy of Music by casting Mickey in the role of a prizefighter who gets knocked out by the dashing romantic hero in a boxing scene.

“Mickey readily consented when he saw what money he was to receive for the little act,” recounted the Sentinel. “A week was spent in rehearsing, and by that time Mickey felt that he could play anything from Hamlet to Peck’s Bad Boy. Mickey made a great impression, and when he was put down for the count every night, rolled over on the mat, groaned, and altogether acted just as though he were used to it.”

Before the final performance, a joker smeared black gunk on the boxing gloves worn by the hero. When he hit Riley and the black marks on Mickey’s face made it look like he was taking a real beating, his outraged fans in the audience shouted for him to retaliate. He did, and the play had a different ending that night.

Joe Grim ended up in the loony bin from all the beatings he endured, but Mickey Riley was fine until pneumonia put him down for good on September 21, 1936. The headline in the Journal said it all: “Mickey Riley, Fighter, Dies.”

On St. Patrick’s Day, forget the green beer and toast this fighting Irishman by uncorking some Swamp-Root. It’s still available on-line, and contains more than 10% alcohol. Your kidneys and bladder will be the life of the party.

ICourtesy OnMilwaukee.com

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Discuss this in our forums

Related Articles


This is a place to express and/or debate your boxing views. It is not a place to offend anyone. If we feel comments are offensive, the post will be deleted and continuing offenders will be blocked from the site. Please keep it clean and civil! We want to have fun. We want some salty language and good-natured exchanges. But let's keep our punches above the belt...
  1. Captain MAGA 10:05am, 03/18/2017

    Irish…Some good advice to the people out there. Acquire a guard dog if nothing else. Shepherds, Dobies, Rotties, Rhodesian ridgebacks, or any type of mastiff breed. I have me a Scott/Johnson hybrid American Bulldog to watch my back.. The feller weighs a solid 110lbs or so, give or take a meal. He is gentle when he has to be, and he loves children, but God help the poor person that wishes me or my loved ones harm. Plus, even a small dog is a good alarm system to have around the Casa.

  2. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:45am, 03/18/2017

    @Capitan Maga-The scapegoating of Jews has metastasized to the scapegoating of white Americans….and yes these rats that KO game whites and attempt murder whites for making the big mistake of talking to them or even offering to pay for their meals are fascist BROWN SHIRTS!

  3. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:23am, 03/18/2017

    @Capitan Maga-Every scam has a hook….in both cases utopia was and still is the hook. Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Schiff, Soros, and even Alinsky were and are self loathing, grievance ridden, hate filled rats. It’s not that complicated….in the present day in the most free country in the history of the world the rats in the present day are hooking with that same utopia horseshit….and guess what…. it’s working! Believe this…. when those useful idiots were chanting “four more years” what they really meant was president for life.

  4. Captain MAGA 05:24am, 03/18/2017

    Irish…I just have to add this. IF Bolshevism/Communism was about class warfare, why were all those Ukrainian & Russian peasants in the Holodomor? And a NYC banker by the name of Jacob Schiff bankrolled the Bolshevik takeover after originally funding Japan in the Russo-Japanese War. The poor were some of the most brutalized in the Soviet Union. Time to go make a Reuben sammich, and use up that leftover corned beef.

  5. JJ Austin 02:56pm, 03/17/2017

    This GGG-Jacobs fight reminds me of Alot of the Hopkins vs Trinidad fight back in 2001.. Don’t be surprised if the bigger, better Jacobs Kos the guy who has been beating smaller, slower guys for most of his career.. Kell brook exposed many flaws in ggg and I think the Natural, bigger middleweight (Jacobs) will capitalize on them. Ggg hits hard, but so does Jacobs and much harder than anyone GGG has ever fought.

  6. Captain MAGA 02:49pm, 03/17/2017

    Irish…I beg to differ on Bolshevism being about class warfare. That is the ruse that was used. I don’t want to get too far into a political discussion because it would ruffle some feathers. I would love to debate about it, but people are too damn sensitive or can’t take different opinions.. I do know that Trotsky believed that “Classical Marxism” wasn’t working as well as planned with the people and he felt that “Cultural Marxism” could gain more converts worldwide, outside of the Soviet Union.  People should just learn to live and let live. Life could be so much easier. I’ll stick with the critters. haha. Don’t worry so much, things will work out.

  7. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 02:22pm, 03/17/2017

    @Capitan Maga-Bolshevism and Nazism both needed a scapegoat to achieve their end goals. In communism this was defined by class and in National Socialism by race. These rats are attacking people by race and this is why they are the present day Brown Shirts.

  8. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 10:37am, 03/17/2017

    Brooklyn filth attempt murder on a disabled man who offered to pay for their meals. Of course this is boxing related….all of this shit is related. He got his beat down because he made the big mistake of talking to these grievance ridden, hate filled rats while white and yes the bottom line on all of this hate for Trump is that he is white!

  9. Captain MAGA 09:46am, 03/17/2017

    Irish…My bad. Point taken. Thank you for reminding me of the great contribution of the rest of those Gaelic warriors. haha. Those Deblasio voters and their cousins also have no problem with Poop Dogg’s video on Trump or one has been (c)rapper named, “Bow Wow,” talking about pimpin out Melania. Bow Wow is Poop Dogg’s nephew. Imagine a white country singer making a video about shooting Obama or pimpin’ Moochelle Obama? They would be rotting in jail. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!!! Maybe Tyson Fury will make that list if he ever comes back.

  10. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:17am, 03/17/2017

    This is a simply great contribution to Boxing.com. I love reading about batshit crazies like Mickey! When I see Riley in my mind’s eye….I see Ben Turpin!

  11. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 08:59am, 03/17/2017

    @Capitan Maga-How about McTigue, McCullough, McAuley, Caldwell, the original Jack Dempsey, Monaghan, McGuigan, Collins, McLarnin and my favorite of all time aside from Frankie Crawford….Joey Archer! Joey beat Dick Tiger, Holly Mims, Rubin Carter, Ray Robinson and yes he beat Griffith in their first go round! He had little more than a 10% KO ratio but he had mad fighting skills like Joey Giardello! All those DeBlasio voters in NYC that come on Boxing.com act like Joey never existed!

  12. Captain MAGA 06:56am, 03/17/2017

    After giving a Frenchie List. Here Is my top list of the Sons Of Eire Fighters

    1. Harry Greb (Greb is German/Irish, but the hell with it)
    2. Mickey Walker
    3. Jack Dempsey ( Dempsey is close enuff as well)
    4. James J. Jeffries
    5. Gene Tunney
    6. Tommy Loughran
    7. Billy Conn
    8. Tom Sharkey
    9. Jerry Quarry
    10. Jim Braddock
    *Honorable mention to “Irish” Leroy Haley. teehee.

    * Corbett and John L. would have been just too old school. Figured I’d go back to Jeffries time and later. Enjoy the Blood Puddin, lads. Happy St. Patricks day

Leave a comment