Rare Film Surfaces

By Mike Silver on January 13, 2014
Rare Film Surfaces
According to BoxRec.com, over the course of a 15-year career Gibbons had 133 bouts.

Mike Gibbons was one of the early pioneers of the “sweet science,” wherein footwork, timing, distance and balance were fundamental to the art…

I have been intrigued by the great middleweight boxer Mike Gibbons ever since I read that Gene Tunney tried to duplicate his style. “I learned more about boxing by watching Mike Gibbons in the gym than from any other source,” said Tunney. That is high praise from one of boxing’s all-time ring scientists. Mike’s younger brother, Tommy, was also a master boxer but was a bit more aggressive and packed a heavier wallop. He is best remembered for surviving 15 rounds with Jack Dempsey in 1923.

Mike Gibbons was known as “The St. Paul Phantom.” The nickname honored his home town and his uncanny defensive skills. Opponents were constantly missing him with their punches. Gibbons was one of the early pioneers of the “sweet science,” wherein footwork, timing, distance and balance were fundamental to the art. According to BoxRec.com, over the course of a 15-year career (1907-1922) Gibbons had 133 bouts. His three official losses occurred when he was past his prime. Among the many outstanding opponents he faced were Harry Greb, Leo Houck, Ted Kid Lewis, Jimmy Clabby, Soldier Bartfield, Al McCoy, Jeff Smith, Eddie McGoorty and Jack Dillon.

Another quality opponent of Gibbons was middleweight contender Augie Ratner of New York. As an amateur Augie won both National A.A.U. and international welterweight titles. He turned pro in 1915. By the time his 104-bout career ended in 1926 Ratner had fought (on multiple occasions) many of the top fighters of his era, including Harry Greb, Ted Kid Lewis, Dave Shade, Jack Delaney, Paul Berlanbach, Jock Malone, Lou Bogash and Bryan Downey. 

At the age of 71 Ratner was interviewed in the August 1967 issue of Boxing Illustrated magazine. He told the interviewer that Ted Kid Lewis and Harry Greb were the best fighters he ever faced. “Both were great,” said Ratner. “Lewis could box and he could hit. Greb was not as other men; he started his fights at a fast pace and accelerated it as the fight went on.” 

But of all his opponents Ratner considered Mike Gibbons the best boxer he ever fought. “Gibbons was a wonderful boxer,” he said. “Maybe the very best I ever saw. He employed a peculiar footwork—none of the fancy-dan steps some of the moderns use, but a gliding maneuver that proved amazingly effective and energy-conserving. He knew every defensive move in the book, but he was by no means all defense. When he went on the attack, the punches came thick and fast, hard and true. He was a marvel.” (Harry Cleavelin, “Augie Ratner: Champ Without A Crown!”, Boxing Illustrated [February 1967], p. 38-40)

Only one film of Gibbons in action is known to exist—his 1915 10-round no-decision bout with the great Packey McFarland. Sadly the film is not available on YouTube. (Maybe our indefatigable editor can come up with it.) But recently I came across another YouTube of Gibbons giving boxing instruction to American soldiers in training during World War I. It is quite impressive and a revelation to those who think boxing back then was crude and unsophisticated. Gibbons is shown demonstrating various punches (including stepping in with “the old one-two”), and also blocking, slipping and countering techniques. These are fundamental moves but rarely seen in today’s world of “I hit you, now you hit me” school of crude and unsophisticated boxing. The rest of the film—Gibbons is only featured in the first few minutes—is just as interesting, as it shows Uncle Sam’s Doughboys getting judo instruction and lessons in bayonet fighting. It is a rare glimpse back in time and well worth the ten minutes it takes to view it.

Note: Boxing historian Mike Silver is the author of “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science” (McFarland Publishing Co.)

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U.S. Army's Basic Hand To Hand Fighting of World War 1 (Silent film)

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  1. Monte Cox 11:37am, 10/15/2018

    All the pre WW 2 martial arts books are valuable as well. Techniques about vital points disappear from manuals after that date. I had a copy of a WW 1 military training manual that showed some of these techniques as well as some old martial arts manuals, one rare by Choki Motobu. No doubt much of the old arts has been lost, but in boxing styles continued to be developed and probably peaked in the 1930’s.

  2. Steve Compton 11:21am, 01/18/2014

    There is footage of Gibbons-O’Dowd 1 from 1919. It was in the possession of the Gibbons family, given to them by Mike O’Dowd (who financed the film) because O’Dowd had no children and wanted to honor Mike Gibbons for doing so much for the sport in the midwest. J.J. Johnston, who was friends with Jack Gibbons, had the film transferred for the family. Later Tony Fosco bought both prints of the film, thats where these copies disseminate from. Most of his fight with McFarland exists as well (although the common version has been edited down to only about 10 or 15 minutes). Mikes fights against Soldier Bartfield in Brooklyn and his second fight with Young Ahearn were also filmed. The Ahearn fight film was financed by Mike Gibbons. He also appears several times in the unedited version of the Johnson-Willard bout, ultimately being introduced in the film in ring center just prior to the fight. Mike was also filmed in June of 1916 training which was shown as a newsreel in theaters (this may be the footage which is occasionally seen of Mike training with Tommy atop the Woolworth building in Manhattan. He was filmed, shown here, training troops in WW1 and even authored a manual on the use of the bayonet using boxing tactics. He was also shown in a newsreel in the 1930s with amateur golfer Jimmy Johnston.

  3. Kurt 04:23pm, 01/16/2014

    OK,  I will send a copy of the complete Mike Gibbons - Mike O’Dowd   fight   from 1919, to the editor.  Hopefully It will get posted in a few days.  Its very entertaining,  Both guys were fighting full bore the entire 10 rounds.  Gibbons was badly cut early in the fight,  blood was everywhere.

  4. Tex Hassler 02:31pm, 01/16/2014

    I have read and studied about Mike and Tommy Gibbons for years. The word great is now tacked on to fighters who have had less than 30 fights and have fought shallow competition. The Gibbons brothers were great with a capital G. Drills are where you learn to slip punches but you hear little about drills today. My trainer won 106 amateur and pro fights and I bet he never saw or heard of a punch pad.  You learn how to slip punches by having someone throw punches at you.  If you do not slip you get hit and that promotes learning. That is the way I was taught. Wonderful article by a great writer.

  5. Matt McGrain 08:39am, 01/16/2014

    Cheers Mike.
    Maybe it’s this shortened version that has given this impression?  I’m having a hard time squaring the reports with the buzz…would love to see the extended version.

  6. Mike Silver 10:40pm, 01/15/2014

    Matt, I’ve seen a shortened version of the fight—about 10-12 minutes. Judging from what I saw McFarland was trying to keep most of the fight at close quarters knowing he was not sharp because of of his 21 month layoff. He was very adept at closing with Gibbons who would have preferred keeping the fight at long range. But it appeared that Gibbons was landing the cleaner punches, but was not dominating the fight. If the rest of the fight was at that same pattern I would have scored it for Gibbons.

  7. Matt McGrain 11:28am, 01/15/2014

    Have you seen the film Mike?  I’ve spoken to one guy who’s seen it, and he claims a pretty clear domination for Gibbons - but every single report i’ve read has the fight close enough to be called a draw or leans towards Pack.

  8. Bobby Franklin 05:20am, 01/15/2014

    Great piece Mike. It is amazing how far boxing has regressed. Slipping, feinting, parrying, finding angles, and not wasting motion are all lost from the game. These are the things that made boxing an art. A young boxer would learn more from watching these few minutes of film then six months on those foolish pads. I hope the clips of a Mike Gibbon’s bouts show up for us to see.

  9. Mike Silver 07:54pm, 01/14/2014

    Thanks guys! Kurt, a Gibbons-O’Dowd fight has surfaced? How do we get to see it? It’s frustrating knowing these fights are out there and not being able to see them. Finding them is like uncovering hidden gems.

  10. peter 04:04pm, 01/14/2014

    Excellent article and footage. Some of the guys Gibbons was teaching looked pretty good, too! Where else but Boxing.com get you get an article like this? Keep ‘em coming Mike Silver.

  11. Kurt 03:51pm, 01/14/2014

    Mike, Great article . Cool footage,  I agree,  padwork helps develop bad habits in the ring. Its mostly for show, when website reporters are around. The Mike Gibbons - Mike O’Dowd first fight from 1919,  has surfaced , all 10 rounds,  it gives a much more extended look at Mike Gibbons than the McFarland fight.  Its quite a compliment when Gene Tunney says he tried to duplicate Gibbons style.  I rate Mike Gibbons,  Benny Leonard,  and Tunney the three best ring technicians of their era.

  12. Mike Silver 02:19pm, 01/14/2014

    And what of the “Brockton Blockbuster”? As pure a puncher as you will find but he is weaving and ducking away from many punches. Of course he had the great Charley Goldman teaching him the tricks of the trade. LaMotta was trained by Mike Capriano and became expert at “riding” or slipping punches but, like Graziano, always in position to counter. These were very aggressive fighters but not “catchers”.

  13. Jim Crue 01:43pm, 01/14/2014

    Yes Mike, the Flanagan family still lives in the twin cities. Your reply to my comment brings to mind the fights I have seen lately on HBO and ESPN. You hit me, I hold my gloves in front of my face then when you are done I hit you. Little subtlety.
    I always point to Graziano. A limited slugger but almost never out of boxing position and he did slip and block punches. Whitey Bimstein taught him well.
    Anyway, thanks for writing this and I wish all the young folks who look at this site would read your book. They would learn a lot and understand what us “old timers” are talking about.

  14. Mike Silver 12:56pm, 01/14/2014

    Thank you Jim. It is a pleasure to write about these old time technicians. No, most of today’s trainers do not teach boxers to slip and block punches. Slipping a punch is rarely seen. Instead most boxers adopt the rope-a-dope hands held in front of the face style of defense and wait for the other guy to stop punching before doing the same to him. It is crude and a reflection of what has been lost. Also the result of too much “punch pad” work and not much else.
    Speaking of St. Paul, let’s not forget the Flanagan brothers of the 1950s who were influenced by the Gibbons brothers. Excellent boxers.

  15. Jim Crue 08:14am, 01/14/2014

    good video…
    do todays trainer teach their fighters to slip and block punches? Floyd and a few others seem to be the rare exception.

  16. Jim Crue 08:10am, 01/14/2014

    thanks for remembering Mike Gibbons. I remember reading that article in Boxing Illustrated. I have lived in Minneapolis, by way of Chicago, next door to St Paul for 36 years and older folks still talked about the Gibbons family. My friend and historian who lives in Minneapolis has had contact with the Gibbons family over the years. St Paul has a rich boxing tradition.

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