Two Memories, One Regret

By Wrigley Brogan on September 11, 2017
Two Memories, One Regret
The ref called it a slip but it was no slip. McMurtry became the only man to drop Chuvalo.

About the only one who visited McMurtry in the dressing room before the fight was “Blinky” Palermo, top henchman for Mobster Frankie Carbo…

The lights of the Heritage Rehabilitation and Specialty Care facility across from Fred Meyer’s on Pacific Avenue did not shine nearly as brightly as did the lights above the boxing ring at Madison Square Garden on October 27th, 1958 when Tacoma’s “Irish” Pat McMurtry squared off against Canadian heavyweight champion George Chuvalo. Few sports fans gave McMurtry a chance in the bout. Chuvalo, 15-2-1 at the time, had never been off his feet and the gritty Canadian often had more guts than sense. About the only one who visited McMurtry in the dressing room before the fight was “Blinky” Palermo, top henchman for Mobster Frankie Carbo. He asked how McMurtry felt about the fight. He replied, “I can take him.” In familiar film noir movie style Palermo slapped him on the cheek and offered a thumbs up. Now the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports cameras were rolling. All of Tacoma, Washington, McMurtry’s home town, had their eyes on the television sets knowing their man could finish the job, and when he did he stood in line to face world heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson.

Because McMurtry fought mostly in the northwest not many people, except die-hard boxing fans, knew him back east. What a fighter he was! The kind found in books, movies and legends. Standing over six feet tall, his arms wrapped in iron cable, his stomach a riveted road of cement, beautiful white flawless skin with his face a cross between Achilles and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., the man was a born fighter. As a Marine he had devastated the military ranks and his arm had been raised over the heads of 103 amateur opponents. He had even brought home the NCAA heavyweight title.

No one doubted his guts and courage. During one series of contests he had broken his hand in the first bout. He refused to tell anyone except his father and Amundsen, his trainer. He fought the entire tournament with the broken hand. The pain was so intense in the championship bout that he could hardly throw a punch and he narrowly lost the decision. When word got out about the hand he was given a special engraved gold watch that he wears to this day. The watch is his most prized possession. He hit harder than his bones could endure and during his career his hand broke five different times.

McMurtry told me some of the stories when I visited him after learning he was suffering some physical problems and had been placed in a home. McMurtry had difficulty moving but, always gracious and neat, lifted some folded clothes off his bed and invited me to sit. He seemed eager to have a visitor and, although occasionally confused, freely told stories about his career.

I had known him for many years and had seen him at Sears where he sold appliances until he retired. He lived in a mobile home that was almost a boxing museum. Gloves, robes, posters, newspapers write-ups, awards, trophies, and boxing magazines filled the home. He was the neatest man I ever knew, everything was spotless including the kitchen where he loved making exotic specialty dishes from around the country. But no visit was complete without him kneeling in front of the VCR and showing his fight with Chuvalo. The fight, and his gold watch, were his proudest moments and the ones he talked about most.

McMurtry was born in January 5th, 1932, in Tacoma’s south side. His parents raised him to be a gentleman, always polite and gracious. When he decided to box, his father, Clarence, agreed to guide him. As he moved up the professional ranks his first big challenge came July 13th, 1956 from former champion Ezzard Charles. Charles’ record of 87-18-1 spoke for itself. The fight, at Lincoln Bowl, burst with fans as the two men entered the ring. McMurtry, just barely a heavyweight, weighed 184 pounds. Tacoma referee Davey Ward motioned the two men together. Nothing could stop McMurtry that night as he pummeled Charles around the ring. Out of desperation Charles hit him low in the sixth and seventh rounds to slow him down but once a stone rolls down hill there is no stopping it. McMurtry won nine of the ten rounds and proved he was ready for the big time.

One month later he again stepped into the Lincoln Bowl ring to face future light heavyweight champion Willie Pastrano. At 178 pounds he had lost even more weight. Irish Pat earned $35,000 for the fight, a huge sum at the time. Over 11,000 fans attended the fight, a new Tacoma record, and watched McMurtry, a plodder, lose a controversial decision to Pastrano’s slick boxing style. McMurtry could not catch him to land a telling blow and Pastrano gave him trouble the entire fight. McMurtry has never believed in giving up and he went right back to work winning his next four bouts.

The wins put him in position to fight former middleweight champion Carl Bobo Olson. He put him away in round two. Ring Magazine now rated him 5th in the world when he lost his next fight, a close split decision in Seattle, against Willi Besmanoff. Again he returned to the gym earning three more victories including one against tough Charley Norkus in Tacoma. He knew he had to get out of the west coast and reach a larger audience. He quickly snapped up a chance to fight Chuvalo on television. A win over him might get him a title shot and he felt he could beat the light hitting and often-protected Floyd Patterson.

Chuvalo knew only one way to fight, straight ahead and throwing countless punches that eventually wore down his opponents. McMurtry understood his tactics and boxed appropriately, sliding left and right, advancing when needed, retreating at other times, mostly avoiding punches while landing his own. Round two was the only time Irish Pat found trouble. Chuvalo landed a tremendous left hook knocking him halfway across the ring. Chuvalo attacked sensing a kill. Lefts and right flew like fireworks but McMurtry effectively covered up until he cleared his head. From then on the fight was his. By round five McMurtry was the aggressor and Chuvalo was fighting for his life.

Chuvalo became so battered that the ring physician stepped into the ring to examine him at the end of round seven. Most people thought the fight should have been stopped then but he was allowed to continue. In round nine, McMurtry caught him with a right that sent him to the canvas. The referee called it a slip but everyone, including Irish Pat and the ring announcers, agreed it was no slip. McMurtry became the only man to drop Chuvalo in his career.

After the win, McMurtry rested in his dressing room. Blinky Palermo again appeared. “I did good by you tonight,” he said, and patted him on the chest. McMurtry felt something in his pocket. Palermo had stuffed the pocket with $1,000. Boxing was filled with corruption at that time and a fighter needed connections to get a title fight. Even Jake LaMotta had to throw a fight against Billy Fox to get his shot. Because of television Irish Pat was now known worldwide and ready for the championship, the perfect match-up. During the 1950’s race still figured heavily in sports and the ruling white class, although they much admired the soft-spoken and polite Patterson, wanted a white heavyweight champion.

Patterson’s peek-a-boo style was ripe for McMurtry. The shorter Paterson had to jump in to throw his left. McMurtry would be ready to catch him with a devastating right and take him out.

Sports writer Harry Grayson approached McMurtry and his father and offered them a deal for the championship fight. He explained that without taking the deal he would never get to fight Patterson. Grayson had the connections. McMurtry could only guess who they were. Sam Silverman would become his manager and Clarence, his father, would be out. Silverman also had the right connections; Clarence did not. Silverman had promoted many great fighters including Rocky Marciano. McMurtry would have to move to Boston and train. They would offer him two or three easy fights, then the championship bout that they knew he could win.

McMurtry had always relied on his father for advice and they discussed the opportunity. “My father never said I shouldn’t take the deal,” he said, leaning over in his room and placing his elbows on his legs, “but he made it sound like I was betraying him if I did. He said he could get me the championship fight without playing their game. I stayed with my father. It has been my only regret.”

In his room McMurtry seemed to drift off for a minute as he rubbed the stubble on his face and wondered what had happened to his youth. “Dad had worked with me my whole life and I couldn’t cut him loose. I stayed with him and I have had a touch of hard feelings about it every since. He shouldn’t have made me feel that way yet I would not have gotten where I was at that point without him. I still have mixed feelings because I could have become world champion. Not taking the chance with boys back east is my only regret. I could have been champion.”

A manager’s job is to pick the right fights. As if to prove his boy could beat anyone, and deserved to fight Patterson, Clarence made some bad decisions, the first one was to fight Nino Valdes just a month after the Chuvalo fight. Once Irish Pat beat Valdes, boxing fans would demand he fight for the title. Valdes was a much more dangerous opponent than Patterson and should have been avoided. The fight was an unnecessary risk. Because the fight was again at Madison Square Garden, Clarence thought it would be good exposure. Valdes put McMurtry away at 2:39 of the first round.

Back in the Northwest McMurtry started to rebuild his career against poor opponents. He beat Gavin Sawyer, Earl Atley, and Bob Albright. Atley’s record was just 3-6-2, hardly a match for McMurtry. Clarence then made another mistake, a final, almost fatal mistake. To vindicate his son, he signed a fight for the vacant Pacific Northwest Heavyweight Title against Eddie Machen at the Pacific Livestock Pavilion in Portland, Oregon.

McMurtry said he would never forget what little he could remember of that fight, which is not much. “It was October 27th, 1959. Machen looked like a molded piece of steel.” Any manager looking for a title fight would never have put his fighter in with Machen, a powerhouse puncher with a record of 30-1-1. Machen almost beat the smaller McMurtry to death smashing him to the canvas three times as he put him away at 2:11 of the first round. The fight ended McMurtry’s career and left him with brain damage, nothing serious but enough to affect his balance.

McMurtry remained in the Tacoma area the remainder of his life. He was an honored guest at Brian Halquist’s boxing shows at the Emerald Queen Casino. Eventually he could hardly stand and was often confused.

Before he died he leaned over to me in the rehabilitation center and said, “You have to keep fighting. Quitting is not an option.” As I left for the last time he said, “Have you seen my father?” He drifted off under the pale yellow light of an overhead lamp.

Five days after this visit Pat McMurtry suffered complications and was sent to St. Joseph’s Hospital. He died shortly after.

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  1. Brian Halquist 08:42pm, 02/24/2019

    An amazing man and an amazing fighter. I miss Pat and all the great boxing stories he shared with me over the years. I learned so much about the sport from Pat. A Tacoma GEM!!!

  2. NYIrish 11:51am, 09/16/2017

    Beautifully written.

  3. Pete The Sneak 08:49am, 09/12/2017

    Another great read Mr. Brogan. You are becoming must read here at Great stuff!...Peace.

  4. Bill Angresano 05:26am, 09/12/2017

      Very interesting and well written insight into “big time” Boxing of this era. In reading this it reminded me of Chuvalo’s Bio . As a kid we all had no idea HOW boxing at this level “worked” , you just thought the best fought the best under all “level” conditions. Of course not so.  And the classic theme of Father and sons , never ending source at times for true tragedy.

  5. Bob 02:23am, 09/12/2017

    Wonderful but ultimately very sad story. Sounds like Irish Pat was obsessed with that one regret. Terrific portrait of a troubled man.

  6. Kid Blast 06:22pm, 09/11/2017

    What’s sad is that great articles like this get relatively few hits. Maybe it’s the dumbing down of America spreading to boxing—maybe it’s already happened. SAD

  7. peter 05:02pm, 09/11/2017

    Excellent story. Excellent read. Thank you.

  8. Lucas McCain 11:59am, 09/11/2017

    Very touching story, and a nice gesture bringing his name back up for the public to remember.  I never saw the Chuvalo fight, but it’s possible that Bonavena put him down as well.  One of the “slips” is ambiguous on Youtube.  Whether Pat could have beaten Patterson is a debatable point.  Floyd was no big guy like Nino, nor at that stage of their careers, would he have handled the superb, hard-luck Machen the way did years later, but he was as fast as hell and as Johansson II would show, he was not a light puncher.  Still, regrets about what might have been, especially when one is derailed by a decent gesture of loyality, is galling.  Nice, sympathetic portrait.

  9. Kid Blast 11:18am, 09/11/2017

    Nice stuff

  10. Timothy Agoglia Carey 09:37am, 09/11/2017

    Wow! The bar is getting higher and higher here on! Looks like the mob would have taken care of him better than his dad did! He clearly could have made 175 and that’s where he should have stayed!

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