Outside the Ring: Holt McCallany

By Jill Diamond on May 31, 2015
Outside the Ring: Holt McCallany
He’s not a real fighter, but he has a fighter’s heart. We are privileged that he fights for us.

“I’d like to see all the great champions of the sport treated with the dignity they deserve until the end of their lives…”

Sports and Philanthropy: A series of articles dedicated to those who’ve given their all and still give more. Each article will feature a different community champion; no belts, no medals, no ratings… just good people passing it on.

FX. 10:00 PM. Lights Out. My guilty pleasure. Holt McCallany was the star of this television series. He played Patrick “Lights Out” Leary, a former champion whose prime has become a shadow in the rearview mirror. Despite promises to friends and family, circumstances propel him into making a comeback against the current champion, the man he feels stole his title; or did he? So we bite our lips and watch as Holt’s character battles his body, his wife, his critics, and readies to enter the arena, prepared to fight the only war that makes sense to him, the one, he’s long awaited, twelve rounds to the truth.

Holt was so convincing in the role of Patrick Leary that we thought he was a boxer, so we adopted him. He in turn, accepted his second role, outside the ring, as friend, activist and general supporter of all boxers, everywhere. Three years later, he’s on to other projects, but he has never severed his ties with the community. He recently accepted the position as face of the WBC Boxer’s Pension Fund, and he speaks eloquently for retired and injured fighters, their rights, and their needs. There isn’t a charity event Holt won’t attend, a fight he won’t cheer at, a person he won’t help, scheduling allowing. And that schedule is rich with the kind of work most actors pray for. His latest role is on a new NBC series called Warrior, where he plays, do I dare say, a retired MMA fighter turned Kingpin. And still, Holt gives back.

Okay, so he’s not a real fighter, but he has a fighter’s heart, and we are privileged that he fights for us.

Was Boxing a part of your life prior to Lights Out? If so, please tell me about your journey to the ring.

As a boy I was always fascinated by the sport. I read The Black Lights by Thomas Hauser and The Hardest Game by Hugh McIlvanney, and my favorite films were The Set-Up, Body and Soul, Rocky, Raging Bull, and Hard Times, but when my little brother won the Golden Gloves I knew I better get into the gym.

What prepared you for the role?

In 1994 HBO made a film about Mike Tyson and I was asked to play the trainer Teddy Atlas. He invited me to the gym where he was training Michael Moorer who became heavyweight champion that year by defeating Evander Holyfield. Michael would later lose the title to George Foreman in one of most famous heavyweight fights of all time. I was with Michael and Teddy in Germany when they regained the title from Axel Schulz. I had a window into the upper echelons of the sport, and opportunities to be in the locker room with the heavyweight champion of the world, right before his fights. I saw the preparation and the emotions. Later I trained for a time with Teddy in the gym, and after that with the great Mark Breland, a two-time world champion, and Olympic Gold Medalist, often referred to as the best amateur boxer of all time, who currently trains heavyweight sensation Deontay Wilder. I took an amateur fight for USA Boxing to test what I’d learned in the gym and won a three-round decision.

Tell me about the character you played?

Lights Leary was a hero, as opposed to an anti-hero. He was a guy with a big heart but he was in a terrible bind so he was conflicted on a certain level.

Did you in some way identify with him?

Yes. Sometimes you can believe that you’re the master of your own destiny and then you wake up one day and realize you’re at a place in your life where you’re no longer in control of events, that events are in control of you. That’s where Lights was, and I’ve been there too.

What boxers helped you mold your performance?

I watched hundreds of hours of tapes of Gene Tunney, Jerry Quarry, Gerry Cooney, Doug Dewitt, and my friend John Duddy, but in the end the boxer whose style most closely resembled mine was an Australian two-time WBC Light Heavyweight Champion named Jeff Harding.

What excites you about the sport?

Boxing is a metaphor for life. You fight to gain self-respect and self-confidence. You have to face adversity, and overcome obstacles. The ring is a chamber of truth, a place where you can’t lie to yourself.

As a fan, what would you like to see change?

I’d like to see real health benefits for former fighters, and a pension fund. Too many great champions are left penniless and forgotten at the end of their lives.

If you could be ringside for any fight in history, which would it be?

I would have loved to have seen the Battle of the Long Count between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney in 1927. Tunney is one of my favorite boxers. Irish and born in New York City like myself, he also had an interest in literature and the arts, and even did some acting. He fought strategically behind a consistent left jab and used his feet to stay on the outside, but he could stand toe-to-toe when necessary. He was beating Jack Dempsey on all cards when Dempsey caught him in the seventh round and sent him to the canvas, but Jack neglected to go to a neutral corner, giving Gene a few extra seconds to recover, resulting in the famous “long count,” one of boxing’s most controversial matches.

Who inspires?

I’ve always admired actors who continued to improve over the course of their careers. If you look at Paul Newman’s performance as middleweight champ Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me, and compare it to his work many years later in The Verdict, it’s clear he evolved tremendously as an artist. Burt Lancaster is another example. He was never better than in films like Atlantic City and Local Hero that he made at the end of his career.

Please tell me about any awards or honors?

I was honored by the WBC with the Nick Charles “Good Guy” Award named after the late broadcaster. I was also the American Ireland Fund’s Man of the Year in 2011, and I was given the John Garfield Lifetime Achievement Award by the Shadow Box Film Festival.

How is life as an actor similar to the freelance life of a boxer?

The late great writer Norman Mailer famously said there are only two ways a man can present himself to the American public. He will either be some kind of a warrior, or some kind of a lover. Every character you will ever play will be at bottom some variation on one of those two themes. I have more often played the warriors in our society. Like a boxer, the actor has to be ready to perform at a certain appointed date and time, and over the course of his career he must continue to grow and improve.

Would you speak a bit about your background?

I was born in New York to a theatrical family. My parents were both performers, my father later became a producer and won the Tony Award for a play about a young soldier in the Irish Republican Army called Borstal Boy. It was the first Irish play to win top honors on Broadway.

Your mother was a beloved performer/singer. Can you tell us a little about her?

My mother Julie Wilson was a well-known cabaret singer who made 21 albums during her long career. She was also an actress who made films in Hollywood and starred on Broadway and in London’s West End. She passed away this year on Easter Sunday and she’ll be missed very much.

Despite a varied and active career, you’ve continued with many philanthropic acts within the Boxing Community. Tell me about some organizations you support with your presence.

I’ve worked for many years with the Dr. Theodore Atlas Foundation, and more recently with WBC Cares. I also support both Ring 8 and Ring 10, which are non-profit organizations that help former professional boxers in need of assistance.

A moment or story you can share?

I met a young man named Ian Cannon who suffers from Cerebral Palsy and is confined to a wheelchair. I was surprised when he told me boxing had changed his life. I didn’t know there was such a thing as “wheelchair boxing” until I met Ian, but now they’re making a documentary about his life. It reminded me that boxing helps a lot of people in unexpected ways.

What’s coming up?

I’m in several films this year: Blackhat with Chris Hemsworth, Run All Night with Liam Neeson and Ed Harris, The Perfect Guy, and Monster Trucks.

If you had a wish, it would be…?

I’d like to see all the great champions of the sport treated with the dignity they deserve until the end of their lives.

Outside the Ring: David Berlin
Outside the Ring: Sam Hadfield
Outside the Ring: Steve Farhood
Outside the Ring: Kathy Duva
Outside the Ring: Comanche Boy
Outside the Ring: Margaret Goodman
Outside the Ring: Allen Furst
Outside the Ring: Lonnie and Muhammad Ali
Outside the Ring: Bruce Silverglade
Outside the Ring: Mauricio Sulaiman
Outside the Ring: Luke Downdey
Outside the Ring: Kevin Iole
Outside the Ring: Barry Halbritter
Outside the Ring: Chicago Youth Boxing Club
Outside the Ring: Robert Guerrero
Outside the Ring: Mike Tyson
Outside the Ring: Teresa Tapia
Outside the Ring: Israel Vasquez
Outside the Ring: Holt McCallany

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Lights Out on FX Official Trailer #1 (HD)

Gene Tunney -vs- Jack Dempsey I 1926 World Heavyweight Championship (Restored Full Fight))

Julie Wilson in This Could be the Night (1957)

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  1. FrankinDallas 12:13pm, 05/31/2015

    I met Holt at the Super Bowl in Dallas. Super nice guy, very modest.

  2. Buster 11:58am, 05/31/2015

    So actor Holt McCallaney is now “The Face of the WBC Boxers’ Pension Fund”.  Wouldn’t a better choice to represent this so called “sanctioning organization” have been Willie Sutton, the famous 1950s bank robber? Over the past 30 years the totally corrupt scumbag Jose Sulaiman in cahoots with boxing’s criminal overlord Don King stole millions disguised as “sanctioning fees” off of completely exploited prizefighters and then uses some of that same stolen money to create a pension fund (that I doubt even exists to any significant degree) for the PR purpose of trying to clean up this disgusting organization’s image? The damage the World Boxing Council has done to boxing and boxers in incalculable—and incredibly it continues! In the words of Michael Corleone “Who’s being naive now Kaye”—or more accurately it is the totally clueless Ms. Diamond who is being naive.

  3. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 10:22am, 05/31/2015

    My favorite so far in this series. Paul Newman in “The Verdict”...heck yea!. Don’t forget Burt Lancaster in “The Leopard”....which reminds me….Claudia Cardinale! Good God Almighty!

  4. Kid Blast 09:39am, 05/31/2015

    I want to see Run All Night with Liam Neeson and Ed Harris, Ed makes a good maniac type.

  5. Kid Blast 07:40am, 05/31/2015

    Keep ‘em coming Jill. This is another diamond!

  6. Clarence George 05:58am, 05/31/2015

    Julie Wilson?  Good Lord!  A contemporary of Fran Warren, whom I had reason to bring to mind recently.  I dated one of her daughters, Jody Ellentuck (RIP), some 20 years ago.

    Excellent interview, Jill.  One thing, if I may:  Your subject says that “Borstal Boy” is “a play about a young soldier in the Irish Republican Army.”  That’s not quite accurate.  It’s Brendan Behan’s memoir of the time he spent in borstal (or boys’ reformatory) for IRA activities.  It’s where he met Neville Heath, future sex killer.  Recommended reading.

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