Ring of Solace, Part 1: Jimmy & Pop

By Ted Spoon on September 23, 2014
Ring of Solace, Part 1: Jimmy & Pop
A war veteran, ex-boxer and trainer, Charles “Pop” Foster had oodles of life experience.

The McLarnins were a mere drop in the wave of Irish immigrants that flooded Canada each year. A utopia it wasn’t…

“You don’t have to talk to Pop more than a minute before you realize that baby faced Jimmy is his pride and joy.”—Henry McLemore

James McLarnin entered the world via the greenery and calm of Northern Ireland. The fifth of what would escalate into twelve children, there simply wasn’t enough cotton wool to go round. Once a vertical base had been achieved it was time to observe the family hustle. Teamwork was the rule, independence was the lesson. These first traces of life moved along like a dream. Reality started to pinch in the harsh settings of Saskatchewan, Canada.

The McLarnins were a mere drop in the wave of Irish immigrants that flooded Canada each year. A utopia it wasn’t. With those big blue eyes, three-year-old Jimmy watched his father Sam struggle to keep tummies from grumbling. The tougher it got the stronger the family bonded; during school it was Jimmy’s role to hand out packed lunches. When the Great War began and life appeared to have some structure, the prospect of moving to Vancouver quickly led to action.

Near a bustling waterfront, temperatures weren’t quite as trying, Sam won more bacon as a carpenter and Jimmy learnt to stay on his toes. When Sam gave the restless mite a pair of gloves there was suddenly no more time for baseball or soccer. Jimmy went on the prowl. Quick moves got the better of other kids in robust sparring sessions. His first amateur fight followed, and all kinds of bodily aches. “Is boxing for me?” became thought of the month. 

Selling newspapers at the docks implied it was merely a phase. Now a teenager there was a growing appreciation for an honest day’s work. When papers were exchanged for coin Jimmy looked around at fishermen and sensed his contribution. It was all smiles later as mother counted his keep. One day a rival paperboy barged into his territory and those quick moves reappeared.

Meanwhile Sam had befriended an interesting chap named Charles “Pop” Foster. A war veteran, ex-boxer and trainer, Pop had oodles of life experience. As he hobbled around (compliments of an artillery barrage) he zeroed-in on little Jimmy and saw a champion. Sam was told straight while Pop gained the boy’s trust. And then on Jimmy’s sixteenth birthday, rather than devour cake he stepped into a professional ring.

The clock struck 1924 and they hopped onto a ship. Next stop California. Success followed in a big way. Pop understood both the physical and technical aspects of boxing. His protégé learnt to appreciate the hard graft but always had the presence of mind to digest criticism. Seven mile runs, lots of gym work and a nine o’ clock bedtime shaped his life. He was encouraged to do everyday tasks with his left hand, to strengthen that jab and set up a thumping cross. With the last drill completed Pop would fish for dinner, offer advice on women. One of the great partnerships began to form. 

In less than two years Jimmy had beaten two golden Olympians in Fidel LaBarba and Jackie Fields, plus the great Pancho Villa. Defeat against Bud Taylor simply taught him something that Pop couldn’t. Unlike today where many view defeat like a scratch on a Picasso, back then it was more like a rite of passage. The real fear lay in not entertaining, and while Jimmy did his utmost to buzz the audience, concluding victory with a flip, Pop gave no quarter in negotiations. He’d never put Jimmy in over his head and always insisted on the heavy end of the purse.

A tough apprenticeship in California brought them to Chicago. There to greet them was a short, muscular featherweight with battered features. Louis “Kid” Kaplan obviously fancied his chances against the younger man. In the first round, possibly with his first punch, Kaplan broke his opponent’s jaw. Down for a moment, Jimmy got up. Down in the second, up he got again. Rather than hang tough he started to return fire with interest. In the eighth Jimmy had not only dug himself out of a hole but used the spade to concuss.

For some time Jimmy wandered around with his injury, unaware. The constant aching urged him to see a doctor which led to wires being inserted. It was time to keep schtum about it as Pop worked on securing Jimmy’s New York debut. Speaking with matchmaker Jess McMahon, a winning record vs. Jews began to stand out. “The Irish-Jewish rivalry is already a source of good copy” reflected Jess. Pen met paper, Jimmy resumed training and punched out a tough victory over Billy Wallace, after which it was time to pack. 

1928

Manhattan’s population continued to skyrocket, and every new face added to the chaos. Jimmy could detect the big bucks. Over 15,000 attended his fight with Sid Terris, another Jew. The true danger of McLarnin’s sweeping right came to light shortly after 90 seconds of fighting. Moments after cigars were lit, Terris was looking at the roof. A single blow had left him “twitching on the canvas.” The victor was escorted back to his dressing room on a torrent of fans. 

Andrew Gallimore, author of Babyface Goes to Hollywood praised that “chameleon-like ability” of Jimmy’s “to rework himself into any environment.” Initially homesick when sailing to California (and physically sick), Jimmy went from a reliable momma’s boy to a snarling hitman. The victory against Terris made him an overnight sensation, but Pop wasn’t about to let this reputation cool. A lightweight title fight was secured against Sammy Mandell. 

This clever boxer shared Pop’s cardinal rule – the best fighters don’t get hit. Sammy was a good looking chap, reminded folks of movie hunk Randolph Valentino, albeit with a flatter nose. The fight against Jimmy was scheduled for the more spacious Polo Grounds. Thousands of eager bees strapped themselves in for the most important lightweight scrap since Benny Leonard and Lew Tendler. Tex Rickard had been itching to confirm the date as rain kept intervening. It eventually held off for May 21 and Jimmy showed up with a twinkle in his eye.

Fifteen rounds passed and one of Jimmy’s eyes had shut. Mandell’s footwork and left hand was the complete master of the aggressive Irishman. The decision was unanimous. Not so much the loss but the extent of Jimmy’s defeat made him just a little ashamed. In November pride took another blow as Ray Miller became the only man to stop him. Pop hurt that little bit more.

Fortunately Christmas was just around the corner and Jimmy found that the anguish of defeat, just like the swellings on his face, gradually disappeared. When his mood returned to focusing on the positives he saw a young man with bags of experience. The clock hit 1929 and it was back to the Garden.

Following back-to-back victories over Joe Glick, McLarnin got his revenge over Miller. Come October it was easy work against Sammy Baker. The next opponent took on the rest of America – Black Tuesday. The Wall Street Crash had pencil pushers consider lacing ‘em up. Those already inside the ropes fought harder, for their family, for their own sake. Jimmy’s lifestyle did not suffer much. Though good money had been made Pop insisted they live like travellers, catching Z’s in budget accommodation. 

A rematch was arranged with Mandell at welterweight. Jimmy was growing as well as learning. This time he worked a crouch, to slip that left, and did enough to grab a split decision over ten rounds. No title was on the line. Pop joked that it was the “right opponent at the wrong time.” Ruby Goldstein, another Jew, was blasted in December.

On the eve of 1930, many took those hands which couldn’t afford a drink and put them together in prayer. Jimmy kept things simple, living humbly and continued his ascent. Near the end of the year he bumped into a rock. Billy Petrolle had been on a roll since the good times had vanished. The Fargo Express met Jimmy head-on and the Irishman came off worse. He busted his hands to boot. 

Pop’s dynamo had been guilty of experimenting with his style, to negative effect; fighting when he should box and vice versa. It was important not to lose two in a row, certainly not after six months without a headline. What Pop had stressed when he first taught Jimmy (sharp movement and a good left hand) took away Billy’s advantages in a rematch and won the decision. A rubber match in Yankee Stadium was all McLarnin. 

Almost a year passed without a fight. Pop switched to auto-pilot before making his next move while Jimmy appeased his love for golf. Pop didn’t like it, grumbling that it “stiffens up a fighter,” but this partnership worked because there was freedom as well as regimen. Soon Jimmy’s popularity took a hit. There wasn’t too much commotion about losing a split decision to the naturally larger Lou Brouillard, but that whipping of old Benny Leonard was followed by an easy win against Sammy Fullmer who conceded ten pounds.

All the training, injury and occasional boos were about to pay off. An absence of six months was necessary to bag a shot at the welterweight crown. In typical give-no-quarter fashion, Pop bickered over the amount of hand tape. All was settled and Young Corbett III put his belt on the line. 

In two minutes and thirty-seven seconds there was a new champion.

Jimmy performed his classic handspring and fans lapped it up. The Irish Lullaby, The Dublin Dynamiter, this crowd pleaser had inspired many nicknames. The Baby-Faced Assassin enjoyed the widest distribution though after flattening Leonard a particular one was in vogue.   

Over in Chicago, Tony Canzoneri and Barney Ross entered the ring to the delight of 11,204.

Pop kept an eye on ‘em. The Jew Killer waited for his signal. 

Ring of Solace: Introduction
Ring of Solace, Part 1: Jimmy & Pop 
Ring of Solace, Part 2: Born to Fight
Ring of Solace, Part 3: Faith in Violence 
Ring of Solace, Part 4: Collision 
Ring of Solace, Part 5: Sparkling Debris

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  1. Eric Jorgensen 12:54pm, 09/24/2014

    Heh, I never heard “Beltin’ Celt” before, I love it.  Great article, Ted.  McLarnin was one of the ones, no question.

  2. Eric 01:17pm, 09/23/2014

    Nice serial, Mr. Spoon. Gotta love all the nicknames that McLarnin had hung on him. I’m sure some of those nicknames wouldn’t fly with the PC Nazis of today. Besides the ones you mentioned, I found a couple of others Here are some of the other nicknames the little Irishman inspired. Murderous Mick, Dublin Destroyer, Beltin’ Celt, Belfast Spider, The Jew Beater, Hebrew Scourge, as well as a couple of others not listed. This guy had to be king of the nicknames. I thought Apollo Creed had enough nicknames in Rocky II, but he had nothing on Mr. Jimmy.

  3. Clarence George 08:32am, 09/23/2014

    Except for Kid Azteca, McLarnin is my favorite welter.  I liked his reaction, when very old, to meeting whoever was welterweight champ at the time (can’t remember who).  It was a snarl that went something like, “I guess they give championships to anyone these days.”

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