Tommy Loughran 'The Phantom of Philly' and Tyrone's light-heavyweight world champion
Perhaps the only good thing that came out of Carl Frampton’s cancelled fight in Philadelphia last month was that it shone a light on one of the greatest Irish-American fighters of all time: Tommy Loughran.
Loughran, AKA 'The Phantom of Philly', was the son of Patrick Loughran, who had left Galbally in county Tyrone around 1895 to seek his fortune across the Atlantic Ocean. He found work as a milkman and later married Anne Haley, the Philadelphia-born daughter of Irish emigrants who had fled Ireland during the Famine.
The couple settled in the Irish community of south Philadelphia and Tommy was the third of their seven children. He went on to become the light-heavyweight champion of the world and is arguably the greatest fighter never to have won the heavyweight title. With the assistance of Tommy's nephew Tom Dooley, Andy Watters recalls the life and times of Tyrone's world champion...
A PICTURE on the wall. A smiling boxer in black and white. The dark hair that matched his boots and gloves, swept back over his head.
Galbally native Sean Carberry remembers going with his father to Packie Loughran’s house 40 years ago. Packie lived in a cottage beside the now demolished Crosscavanagh Primary School. Young Sean – now chairman of the Galbally Pearses club - listened as the men talked of fight nights in a land far away.
The boxer in the picture was Packie's cousin Tommy Loughran, ‘the Phantom of Philly’, a man who traded blows with ring legends and cultural icons like Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Max Baer and ‘The Cinderella Man’ James J. Braddock in boxing’s golden age during the 1920s and ’30s.
Tommy’s father, Patrick Loughran (Packie’s uncle), was born and bred in the townland of Crosscavanagh. In 1895, aged in his late teens, he boarded a ship and went off to seek his fortune across the Ocean.
His first job was as a milkman and perhaps it was on his rounds that he met Philadelphia-born Anne Haley whose parents had fled Ireland during the Great Hunger of the 1840s. Tommy was the third of their seven children, six boys and one sister Catherine, and his first taste of the noble art was at the St Monica’s Boxing Club in South Philly.
“Him and three of his brothers delivered papers at St Monica’s Church on Sunday mornings,” explained Tommy’s nephew Tom Dooley, son of Tommy’s sister Catherine.
“That was like a combat situation on the streets of Philadelphia around 1910. St Monica’s had a boxing club and Tommy joined very young and turned out to be very good at it.”
The outbreak of World War One changed Tommy’s outlook on life and he ran away from home to join the US Army at the tender age of 14. Tall and well built, he managed to convince the recruiting sergeant in the Georgia barracks that he was 23 and began training for the trenches.
“His parents went to the police and put in a missing person complaint,” Tom Dooley explains.
“They went down there and found him and put him on a train back to Philadelphia.
“One of his cousins did go to the war. He got gassed in France and suffered the rest of his life with a breathing problem, so everything could have changed – we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation – had Tommy gone overseas. It would have ruined his athletic ability completely.”
Under protest, Tommy was brought home and he returned to St Monica’s ABC where he found an outlet for his fighting spirit.
He had his first professional fight in 1919 aged 17 years old and he knocked out Eddie Carter making the princely sum of 11 cents. From those humble beginnings he progressed up the rankings and within seven years he took on and beat Gene Tunney – a future heavyweight champion, who had served in the Marine Corps in WW1 and was already a famous boxer and personality.
In 1923, Loughran was matched against world light-heavyweight champion Mike McTigue and he beat him too but the contest was deemed ‘a challenge fight’. The title wasn’t on the line and he had to wait until four years later before he finally got a crack at it.
Loughran wasn’t a devastating puncher, he was a master boxer, a technician with a classical ‘jab and move’ technique and an innovator. Perhaps inspired by his good friend ‘Gentleman’ Jim Corbett, he developed his style during hours of practice in the gym.
Tom explained: “He bought the house that his parents originally owned and brought him and his brothers and sister up in.
“He set up a gym in the basement surrounded completely by mirrors and he used them to work out that certain movements meant certain things; like a guy is gonna hit you with his right when he moves his foot in a certain way.
“Nowadays you have films to find out that sort of stuff but he figured it out on his own. He was a very smart guy who was able to have a well laid-out plan going into a fight. He was one of the first to look into the science of boxing.”
The heavyweight championship which was held at that time by the fearsome Jack Dempsey. Loughran and Dempsey became close friends in later life but only after he had given the ‘Manassa Mauler’, who was given the title ‘Nonpareil’ because of his reputation for being unbeatable, a boxing lesson during sparring for Dempsey’s first fight with Tunney in 1926.
“Dempsey wanted his experience of fighting Tunney and he went up to spar him,” Tom Dooley explained.
“That was the famous spar when he drew blood from Dempsey – nobody had ever drawn blood from Jack Dempsey prior to that. They sparred and after a while Tommy decided he’d had enough for the day and he started leaving the ring and Dempsey says to him: ‘Yo Loughran, get back in this ring, I wanna break your nose’.
“Tommy said: ‘But Jack, you have to hit me first’.
“That was quite a comment to Jack Dempsey! They became lifelong friends and they were two people who very much respected each other.”
Tunney won that first fight with Dempsey and the second (the famous ‘Long Count’ fight) and he refused to give Loughran a shot at his title. With the heavyweight door closed ‘The Phantom of Philly’ set his sights on the light-heavyweight crown.
On October 10, 1927 he took on McTigue again over 15 rounds at Madison Square Garden, New York and this time the title was on the line. Buoyed by the confidence he gained from his spar with Dempsey he won on unanimous decision and huge crowds of joyous fans were waiting when he arrived back in the City of Brotherly Love.
His nephew Tom Dooley takes up the story: “There was 40,000 people outside his house the night he won the title
“He came back to Philadelphia on a special train and when he got back he had to go down an alley and got in through the back door before he stepped out to say a few words.
“You wouldn’t believe how popular he was in Philadelphia then and even to this day. He was still a huge name in Philly even 30 or 40 years after he had retired. If your name was Loughran, you were gold in Philadelphia many years after he had retired.”
During the following two years Loughran took on all-comers. Jimmy Slattery, Leo Lomski and Pete Latzo (twice) were all beaten before he met James J. Braddock (immortalised by actor Russell Crowe in the movie ‘Cinderella Man’) at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.
Revered boxing writer T Von Ziekursch, had this to say about Loughran’s performance in his report: “Riding to victory on the greatest exhibition of super-boxing in all his career, Tommy Loughran fought his last fight as king of the world light-heavyweights here at Yankee stadium when he conquered James J Braddock,” he wrote.
“In magnificent triumph the gallant proved again that the great boxer is the ruler of them all. Like old Alexander, the Macedonian, there are none left for him to conquer. Braddock was the last of them.”
By that stage Loughran was finding it increasingly difficult to make the light-heavyweight limit of 175lbs so he stepped up to heavyweight and challenged Joseph Paul Zukauskas, AKA Jack Sharkey (many fighters adopted Irish-sounding names in those days and still do in the US), AKA ‘Boston Gob’.
It was a fight he was expected to win.
“Uncle Tom wiped out anybody that would have been even remotely challenging for his light-heavy title and when Tunney retired (as heavyweight champion) he decided to step up,” Dooley explained.
“If it wasn’t for Jack Sharkey he would have been heavyweight champion of the world. But it was the old story: ‘You don’t put the crown on until you win it’. He ran into a right hand and that was it.
“‘Whack’ and the world changed.”
Huge crowds packed stadiums as battles for the heavyweight title raged. The belt changed hands between Sharkey, German Max Schmeling, Primo Carnera and Max Baer before Braddock unexpectedly wrote his name in folklore by dethroning Baer in 1935. Loughran hoped to get another shot at the title but ‘the Cinderella Man’ had no interest in giving him one.
“When he got the title he would not give Tommy the same benefit of putting him into the queue,” explained Tom Dooley.
“There was resentment there because Tommy had given him a fight in 1929 when he didn’t have to but Braddock wouldn’t grant him a rematch. Tommy took that bad after being kind enough to grant Braddock a fight when Braddock really didn’t have much going for him.
“He was not impressed with the man at all and he knew Max Baer very well and the stories (in the movie Cinderella Man) about Baer being a bad person... My uncle would not have felt the same way towards Baer.
“I remember him going to lunch a couple of times with Baer and my uncle wouldn’t have associated with him had he been anything like the way he was portrayed in the movie. He considered him a gentleman.”
Despite his setbacks, Loughran remained in the title mix and a rematch win over Sharkey in 1933, four years after their first meeting, set up a challenge for the heavyweight crown which by that stage was held by Italy-born Primo Carnera. Known as ‘Ambling Alp’, Carnera was a huge man who outweighed Loughran by six stones. Loughran went into the fight knowing he needed a knock out to win the title.
“He went 15 rounds with him and had him in trouble a couple of times but he didn’t knock him out so he lost,” Dooley explained.
“Being in trouble and being on the canvas are two different things.
“They didn’t count points in the championship apparently and Carnera was standing at the end so he kept the title. There was only one way to win it – Carnera had to be lying on the canvas.
“It is what it is. He deserved to be the heavyweight champion but he never was.”
Loughran eventually hung up his gloves in 1935 aged 34 after beating Sonny Boy Walker in front of his adoring Philly fans. He accomplished as much in retirement as he had as a fighter and at the start of WW2 he enlisted in the Marine Corps, this time successfully.
“If he was too old for boxing he should have been too old for the Marine Corps,” said Tom, who followed his uncle into the Corps years later and served in Vietnam.
“But he still went in, did his thing and came out and became a radio and TV personality.
“He moved up to New York because that’s where the radio and TV industry was then and he worked in the city and became a sugar broker on Wall Street. He was a very successful broker and as well as the TV he was also a very successful and popular referee.
“He also did work with Catholic schools and youth groups and became very popular as an after-dinner speaker. Any money he made from that he gave back to charities and supported good causes.
“He kept a box at Yankee Stadium that was used for bringing disadvantaged kids to the baseball games.”
Loughran, who never married, moved into a US Army veterans’ home in 1974 and spent his time walking and reminiscing with former foes like Dempsey about their great days in the ring.
“I got back from Vietnam in 1969 and I saw him a lot,” said Tom.
“We saw him on the 2nd of July and took him out to dinner. He had a great time and he was talking about the Jack Sharkey fight that night. We dropped him back and he looked fit and healthy and my mom rang me a day or so later to tell me he had died and I was just floored.”
Tommy Loughran passed away on July 7, 1984. Seven years later he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame and two years ago he was inducted into the US Marine Corps Sporting Hall of Fame.
He said after he had sparred with Dempsey: “Those two rounds gave me confidence in myself. I learned an important lesson that day: Never to be defeated by fear.”
A lesson for us all from the man in the picture on the wall.