Packey McFarland: The Art of Good Timing

By Mike Casey on May 5, 2014
Packey McFarland: The Art of Good Timing
“There was something menacing in the easy grace and speed with which he moved.”

When McFarland exploded onto the world stage in the spring of 1908, he was hailed as a boxing wizard without a discernible fault…

One could be forgiven for thinking that Packey McFarland, the wonderfully clever boxing ace from the Chicago stockyards, had a sneak preview of his life to come and was allowed to edit out the bad bits. Time and again, McFarland got his timing right. He knew when to change his style, when to be adventurous and when to be circumspect and how to preserve and prolong his great gifts. He also knew when to get out of the fight game and launch a new career as a highly successful businessman.

Packey McFarland lost just once in well over a hundred professional fights, that single blot on his magnificent record occurring when he was just a sixteen-year-old novice.

His defense at its best was virtually impregnable, he boxed with sublime skill and speed and carried a formidable knockout wallop when the occasion demanded urgency. Quite simply, he was one of the greatest and most complete boxing masters of all time. So how did the gods get their own back? They made McFarland a misfit. They gave him the natural body of a 135-pounder at a time when the official lightweight limit was an agonizing two pounds below that number.

Packey, the lightweight who was never truly a lightweight, never won an official world title. He didn’t have the constant menace and aura of Joe Gans, nor the obvious majesty and magnetism of Benny Leonard. In the stark and tougher days of eight divisions, McFarland skipped and hovered between the lightweights and welterweights and beat a golden generation of fighters from both divisions.

Those who saw Packey in action never forgot him. Huge crowds marveled at the hard-hitting, ghost-like maestro who possessed the visual tricks and elusiveness of a shadow. Boxing journalist tapping out their reports for the morning editions couldn’t find enough superlatives when praising him.

When McFarland exploded onto the world stage at the Mission Street Arena in Colma, California, in the spring of 1908, he was hailed as a boxing wizard without a discernible fault. Former lightweight champion Jimmy Britt was scientifically bewildered and battered to a sixth round knockout defeat and everyone was talking excitedly about the new kid on the block.

Ringside reporter Eddie Smith wrote of Packey: “McFarland is everything, a hitter, a boxer, a good general and wonderfully clever and fast.”

What a pity, then, that Packey constantly had to wage separate battles to make the lightweight limit. His title chances were frustrated as a result. Three times he was meant to challenge Ad Wolgast. Three times the proposed fight fell through because of McFarland’s weight difficulties.

But how the kid from Chicago made his mark in spite of it all! His clever and quietly brutal dismantling of the artful Britt was a revelation to West Coast fans who had read of Packey’s exploits in the Eastern press.

Problems

Britt was apparently wrestling with weight problems of his own at the Mission Street Arena. Jimmy looked drained and uncharacteristically subdued when the two fighters came to mid-ring for their instructions. It was normally Jimmy’s manner to stand tall and stare into the eyes of his opponent, but now the dapper little San Franciscan was shaking hands with McFarland with a weary air. When the photographers asked the fighters for another pose, Britt dropped his hands and shuffled irritably.

Britt’s lethargy shocked reporter Eddie Smith, who noted: “In the former days, he would have grasped the hand of that opponent and tried to jerk it out of its socket.”

What followed from McFarland, however, was a master class of box-fighting in any circumstances. Jimmy Britt fought with terrific courage but simply couldn’t handle the natural brilliance coming back at him. Jimmy’s sluggish pre-fight demeanor gave no hint of the fast and enthusiastic start he made to the contest.

He dashed from his corner at the opening gong, slipping into his familiar crouch and feinting for an opening. He would discover that openings in Packey McFarland’s defense occurred with depressing rarity. When the fighters came to close quarters for the first time, McFarland quickly demonstrated his superior strength and speed of thought with a right hand smash to the body as they broke from a clinch.

Packey’s clever footwork was quite exemplary as he frequently made Britt miss by wide margins. Jimmy stumbled to the floor after missing by a good foot with a left swing. His work was far too urgent and intense, his fiery aggression denying him the necessary time he needed to assess and measure McFarland’s capability. Jimmy did have some success with several hard lefts to the body, but Packey was jabbing and moving around him beautifully.

McFarland was giving the crowd only a foretaste of what was to come, for it was quite obvious that he was not yet showing his full hand. From the second round, like a teasing magician, he began to reveal his most impressive tricks. While Britt was still able to score to the body with his left, most of his leads and counters were being blocked with great skill by the young master from Chicago. By the end of the round, Packey was doing all the leading and out-muscling Jimmy in the clinches.

Britt’s goose was more or less cooked at that early stage. He simply couldn’t match McFarland for strength or skill. Packey’s seconds told him to work Jimmy’s body in the third round as the breaking down process gathered momentum. McFarland glided in and out like a man on castors during his rapid and skilful raids, sometimes making Britt look inept. When Jimmy finally hit the mark with a right to the head, Packey seemed momentarily disturbed. In fact he was inspired.

He fired back, taking complete control of the fight and forcing Britt to employ some clever ducking and blocking to temper the backlash. Suddenly Jimmy couldn’t keep his assailant out and was punched all around the ring as McFarland stepped up another gear. Brave Britt managed to summon a brief rally, but he looked a distinctly dispirited man at the bell.

It was all or nothing for Jimmy from that point on. He knew that he had encountered a superior talent in all-round skill and that only a knockout would save the day. He tried gamely to find the big punch, but his greater daring and its accompanying recklessness only sucked him into further trouble. Packey smothered Britt’s best efforts and very nearly decked him with a right to the jaw. Jimmy was being struck repeatedly by his opponent’s hard and accurate jabs and was being taken apart in the clinches. Then Britt was heard to groan as he took a hard right hook to the body inside.

As he stumbled back uncertainly, McFarland pursued him and floored him with a right cross to the jaw. Jimmy looked all through, but the bell saved him and he showed his courage in the fifth round as he bought himself some extra time with a final attack. But even as he tried to find the one big shot that would turn his fortunes around, he was being smothered and shaken by short, jolting blows.

The gutsy little San Franciscan, a plumber by trade, still looked surprisingly strong as he came up for the sixth round, but no longer was he able to land a significant blow on his evasive tormentor. Coming out of a clinch, Britt had the last of his fighting spirit knocked out of him with a big shot to the jaw. McFarland went for the kill and scuttled Jimmy with a beautifully timed right cross. There was no hiding place for Britt when he struggled to his feet, another blow to the jaw sending him to the deck again. When a final right to the jaw crumpled him for the third time, one special man in the crowd had seen enough.

Jimmy’s grey-haired father clambered into the ring and pushed Packey back, signaling that the Britt family was through for the day. McFarland was overjoyed at his victory, running and jumping around the ring until his seconds calmed him and took him back to his corner.

The maestro from Chicago would paint many more masterpieces in the years ahead.

Boxing masters

The lightweight division, historically rich in boxers of great skill and guile, was a particular hotbed of versatile talent in Packey McFarland’s era. Packey was a bright jewel in a golden crown, one of several genuine masters who tracked and followed each other’s movements through the competitive jungle.

When McFarland won a ten-rounds decision over Freddie Welsh, the artful wizard from Wales, at the Badger Athletic Club in Milwaukee in February 1908, so began a keen rivalry that spanned three fights of immense skill and clever hitting. Five months later, the shining talents would wage a draw in Los Angeles, but it was their final meeting in the hushed environs of the National Sporting Club in London that would prove the most controversial and intriguing.

By that time, Packey had made an adjustment to his technique to prolong his career and better equip him for the long haul. He was thought to be boxing with only a half-clenched fist, sacrificing his impressive knockout ratio in return for less stress and greater stamina. The bad news for his opponents was there was no discernible difference in McFarland’s exceptional talent for hitting without getting hit.

It was quiet at the National Sporting Club when Packey stepped out in his bid to establish beyond dispute his supremacy over Freddie Welsh. Deathly quiet as it always was. For the hallowed NSC was like no other boxing venue in the world. One didn’t shout or cheer within its somewhat intimidating walls. One certainly didn’t yell, “Come on Freddie, my boy!” or the like. By Jove, sir, it just wasn’t the thing to do! The rules of the house stipulated that the rounds be fought in silence, with only restrained applause in the form of gentle hand claps during the intervals. A golfer hunched over a two-foot putt at the Royal & Ancient would have felt no less at home at the NSC.

Imagine the horror of the patrons, therefore, when a cultured riot – if there can be such a thing – broke out at the conclusion of hostilities between Mr. McFarland and Mr. Welsh. Verbal protests pierced the air, fists and walking canes were waved and expensive suits were mildly creased as the members reacted in disbelief at the draw decision rendered by referee Tom Scott.

McFarland won the fight. There was no doubt about it. Poor Freddie Welsh, the entirely innocent recipient of a lucky break, knew better than to give his fellow Brits a cheery wave. Nothing offended them more than the desecration of fair play.

The sympathy of the throng was entirely with the majestic McFarland, who, it is probably fair to say, wanted to win that night more than at any other time in a brilliant career bereft of official gold medals. The contest was for British recognition as lightweight champion of the world, the nearest Packey ever got to championship glory.

He was ready for the challenge too, in every way. Even his weight was right, after much hard work and sweat to get inside the lightweight limit.

James (Jimmy) Butler, one of the greatest and most impartial of boxing writers, said of the American ace: “Packey, who had sweated in heavy turtle-neck jerseys throughout his training in order to make certain of his weight, immediately celebrated by gulping down a quart of egg and sherry mixture which Jimmy Britt held ready for him.

“Of his fitness, there was no doubt. Nowhere on his slim, wiry body was there so much as an ounce of superfluous flesh, and if Welsh’s rugged physique was the more impressive, there was something equally menacing in the easy grace and speed with which the American moved.”

McFarland was simply wonderful in a captivating, 20 rounds duel of sublime skill and cunning. He was known now as the prince of stylists and didn’t disappoint his eager and intrigued audience against the canny and aggressive Welsh.

The biggest surprise was Packey’s fast and vicious start, which clearly caught Freddie napping. Lefts and rights from the American, thrown with marvelous accuracy, penetrated Welsh’s guard and drove him to the ropes. The contrast in styles was no less fascinating than the contest itself. Where Packy’s defense was of a pure and classic nature, Welsh’s craftily constructed bunker was a constantly moving myriad of components. He bobbed, he weaved, he slipped and feinted. He was an excellent blocker, as were so many of the thoroughly schooled fighters of the time.

Freddie quickly learned, however, that out-witting McFarland require the agile and forward thinking mind of a chess master. One of Welsh’s little mannerisms in his pomp was to wear a quietly withering little smile to signal his belief that he could not be taken. Not on this occasion. He was far too busy trying to avoid Packey’s stinging jabs and thumping rights to the ribs. Always, it seemed, McFarland could find a way through the Welsh Wizard’s defense.

The pattern continued, resulting in a big shift in the odds. Freddie had started as the favorite, but Packey was the 2 to 1 choice of the bookies by the close of the second round.

Welsh clearly needed to be more adventurous and try something new. But what, if anything, could derail McFarland when he was in such imperious form? How Freddie must have raged inside when his big gambit in the sixth round reaped no dividends. He thought he saw the opening he had been searching for so patiently, putting all his speed and expertise into a mighty right uppercut that whistled in the direction of Packey’s chin. The blow fell short by a good six inches.

Few in the crowd saw McFarland move, yet he had evaded the punch with the deftest maneuver of his head. Then, almost outrageously, he did it again as Welsh followed up with a left and suffer similar embarrassment.

What made McFarland such a wonderfully complete fighter was that he was no backtracking will ‘o’ the wisp. The subtlest of defensive moves always combined seamlessly with equally intelligent and cultured attacks.

He was all over Welsh one minute and then standing back teasingly out of range the next. Packey seemed to want the points victory. In his own mind, that would represent the most forceful confirmation of his superiority. Through no fault of his own, this would prove to be his only tactical error.

Freddie, to his great credit, never gave up the chase. A Welsh lad in name and country he might well have been, but his rounded and normally excellent game had been honed in the furnace of the American school. He finally came on in the late rounds, enjoying a greater degree of success with some vicious half-arm hooks to McFarland’s ribs and kidneys. The American ghost finally seemed to grow flesh and bones as Welsh cut his mouth and left eye with punches that packed plenty of steam.

For Freddie, however, the late surge wasn’t nearly enough – or shouldn’t have been. Referee Scott’s amazing draw verdict was a cruel defacement of McFarland’s work of art, yet therein laid another sad tale. Within a few short months, Scott was admitted to a mental institution where he very quickly died. There was every reason to believe that his mind had been ravaged and unbalanced for some time.

McFarland never once mentioned the fight when he met up with his old reporter friend Jimmy Butler some time later. Perhaps that was understandable bitterness on Packey’s part. Perhaps it was just another touch of class.

Mike Gibbons in Brooklyn

Mike Gibbons, the wonderful St. Paul Phantom, was something of a spiritual brother of Packey McFarland. Mike, on his best day, was as hard to hit as McFarland or any other man in the game. But that wasn’t the only similarity. Gibbons too, would never win a world championship, nor even challenge for that greatest honor.

The older brother of light heavyweight Tommy Gibbons, Mike was a shining star of the middleweight and welterweight classes, beating the cream of his era. Among others, he dueled with Jeff Smith, Jimmy Clabby, Eddie McGoorty, Harry Greb, Ted (Kid) Lewis and Jack Dillon. But all Mike ever got for his endeavors was a scantly recognized claim to the middleweight title.

When Gibbons clashed with McFarland at the Brighton Beach Motordome in Brooklyn on September 11, 1915, some 60,000 fans saw a face-off between the two great untouchables of the game. It was to be Packey’s last fight and his last great performance.

He was coming out of semi-retirement after nearly two years of inactivity, and Gibbons was some opponent for a comeback fight. McFarland however, much like Gene Tunney a little later on, always seemed protected by a ring of destiny in those great years of his prime. Packey and Gene possessed precise and lively minds and were among the best ever at formulating and re-shaping a game plan. Nothing, they believed, was meant to knock them off their chosen path. When something did, they genuinely couldn’t believe it. It is said that McFarland, jealously proud of his defensive magic, brooded for days after getting a black eye from Kid Burns in their New York set-to. Tunney, likewise, viewed his brutal defeat to Harry Greb as a failed mission that simply had to be corrected.

Packey was still lean and strong at 153 lbs. for his classic fencing duel with Gibbons, who scaled the same weight. One could understand how getting down to 133 lbs., even as a younger man, had always been such a hugely taxing experience for McFarland.

The Brighton Beach Motordome was some place to go to watch a fight. Thirty thousand seats had already been filled by the time of the first preliminary bout at 8:30 pm, the endless throngs of spectators being played into their seats by a 32-piece band and assisted by 300 smartly attired ushers.

McFarland entered the ring at three minutes past ten, followed by Gibbons who paced around testing the boards. Both fighters looked superbly fit and deadly serious, although Packey did afford himself a little grin when ring announcer Joe Humphries announced him as “The Fighting Chicago Irishman.” The frantic clicking of cameras could be heard all around, while movie cameras and other machines were positioned on a high platform fifteen feet from the ring.

Nothing could separate the two defensive masters for the first eight rounds, as they feinted, shifted and bluffed like a couple of wary snakes. Referee Billy Job was barely noticeable as all eyes were fixed on two of the great ring scientists and their clever efforts to concoct the winning formula. Each was occasionally made to look foolish by the other’s brilliance, but it was McFarland who was the calmer and more measured battler. He would often smile at friends in the crowd over Mike’s shoulder, conveying the impression of a man taking a pleasant stroll in the park.

Mike was much more earnest, baring his teeth and often showing his frustration as he attempted to hit something apart from Packey’s gloves. Come the ninth round, McFarland commenced his sprint for home. Gibbons enjoyed an early success as he feinted with the left and then struck Packey with a hard right to the jaw. But McFarland rallied to get the better of a heated mid-ring exchange, landing a left-right combination without return. Packey tucked up and protected himself beautifully as Mike tried to counter.

In the final round, Gibbons had the bearing of a man who knew he had to force the fight to win it. He tried all he knew to pierce the famous McFarland defense, but it was the Chicago ghost who was doing the cleaner scoring. Gibbons took three lefts to the face without return and was also being punished to the ribs. McFarland was anticipating Mike’s return fire and staggered the St. Paul man with yet another left.

At the final bell, it seemed to many that the mesmerizing McFarland had done enough to secure victory. He certainly had plenty of supporters. George Holmes of the Oakland Tribune called the bout for Packey, describing the Chicago man’s performance as ‘wonderful.’ Many others disagreed, including the Associated Press, which tabbed the fight 7-2-1 for Gibbons. The New York Times and referee Billy Job called it a draw, which is how the contest is most often recorded today.

Who really won the fight? Who knows? For this was the indecisive and muddled era of the no-decision, where the newspapers and anyone else with an opinion pitched in their two cents worth.

Fields

For Packey McFarland and that intelligent and voracious mind that ticked away inside his head, there were other fields to move on to and conquer. One somehow knew that Packey would prosper at whatever he chose to do. Settling in the Chicago town of Joliet in his retirement, he became a very wealthy man in the contracting and brewing business and served for a time as director of the Joliet National Bank.

He left a few other special men in his wake. One wonders if a fighter called Dusty Miller had even an inkling of what he truly achieved way back in 1904. For it was Miller who knocked out the sixteen-year-old McFarland. Thereafter, the only men to knock Packey off his feet were Ray Bronson in New Orleans and Cyclone Johnny Thompson in Kansas City.

McFarland at his best probably came as close as any fighter ever did to making himself invisible. How cruelly ironic that an invisible opponent finally penetrated his guard and killed him. In September 1936, while serving as a member of the Illinois State Athletic Commission, 48-year-old Packey slipped into a fatal coma from an infection near the heart.

Mike Casey is a Boxing.com writer and Founder & Editor of ALL TIME BOXING at https://sites.google.com/site/alltimeboxingrankings. He is a freelance journalist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).

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  1. Tex Hassler 05:07pm, 06/05/2014

    McFarland was one of the truly great fighters that most people know nothing about today. His fight with Mike Gibbons, another great fighter, proves the greatness of McFarland. Wonderful article.

  2. The Flea 10:37am, 05/08/2014

    I uploaded the Gibbons footage, do check out my channel for more gems!

  3. Mike Casey 01:26am, 05/08/2014

    Thanks, Dan. McFarland really was special.

  4. Dan Cuoco 07:08pm, 05/07/2014

    This is a beautiful tribute to one of the finest pure boxers to ever step in a ring. Imagine how much better McFarland would have been if he ever tried to win by knockout. He was one amazing fighter!

  5. Mike Casey 02:12am, 05/06/2014

    Thanks Mike and Peter. Important that we remember these guys, irrespective of how we rate them.

  6. Mike Silver 11:57pm, 05/05/2014

    Wonderful story. With or without a title McFarland was one of the century’s finest boxers. He was also a great trainer. Can you imagine being lucky enough to get instruction from this master boxer.

  7. peter 04:04pm, 05/05/2014

    Thank you for this excellent article. I enjoyed reading it. You keep alive the forgotten fighters from the past.

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