Since the earliest, bare-knuckle days of the sport, Irish pugs have held a prominent place in prizefighting. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I’m presenting my own ranking of the top five boxers of all time.
Note that I am excluding Irish-American boxers. This is a list only for fighters born in Ireland.
Dundalk native Tom Sharkey never actually reigned as a world champion, but he was among the best heavyweights in the world during the early gloved era. Despite giving up thirty pounds, four inches of height and over six inches in reach, Sharkey was the only fighter who gave the great James Jeffries a tough fight prior to Jeffries’ retiring as the undefeated champion. He lost two decisions to Jeffries of 20 and 25 rounds. The latter was among the most bruising heavyweight bouts in history.
The Clones Cyclone was one of the major attractions of the mid 1980s. He won the WBA featherweight title in June 1985, when he defeated Eusebio Pedroza. He lost the belt in an upset to Steve Cruz a year later, in one of the decade’s best fights. Battling in the old Outdoor Arena at Cesar’s Palace, with ringside temperatures of over 100 degrees, McGuigan and Cruz showed unearthly stamina, nearly sprinting from their stools for the start of each round. McGuigan was dropped twice in Round 15, giving Cruz a razor-close decision.
Collins was overshadowed a bit by contemporaries such as James Toney, Roy Jones, Bernard Hopkins and the man who succeeded him as the WBO super middleweight champion, Joe Calzaghe. But Collins was a two-division world champion who retired with never lost either of his belts. He vacated the WBO middleweight belt to move up to 168 pounds and retired with that strap still around his waist. Won the super middleweight title when he handed Chris Eubanks’ his first professional loss. Beat Eubanks in a rematch and beat Eubanks’ great rival, Nigel Benn, twice as well.
The County Clare native moved to the U.S. at 21. He held the light heavyweight championship of the world from 1923 until 1925, during a great era for that division. With the Irish Civil War still raging, McTigue returned to his homeland to capture the belt in Dublin against the ferocious Battling Siki. McTigue successfully defended his title against future Hall of Famers Tommy Loughran, Micky Walker and Young Stribling.
One of the all-time greats at welterweight, McLarnin emigrated from Ireland to Canada at just three years of age. McLarnin came up in an era when nobody was protected and title shots could only be earned by fighting your way through a genuine murdere’s row. McLarnin had been campaigning for a decade when he knocked out Young Corbett III in Round 1 to capture the world welterweight title in May 1933. McLarnin lost his title in May 1934 to the great Barney Ross via split decision. He won the belt back four months later, in another split decision, than lost the title for good in another extremely close decision in May 1935. The McLarnin-Ross trilogy is one of the greatest three-fight rivalries in boxing history. McLarnin finished his career in 1936 with back-to-back wins over Hall of Famers Tony Cazoneri and Lou Ambers.