Champion Irish boxer lost ‘hide and seek’ World Championship

I was extremely amused last week by Radio Ulster’s tongue-in-cheek roundup of the DUP leadership contest, set in a boxing ring with both gloved contenders sitting in their corners awaiting the starting bell.

Wednesday, 19th May 2021, 6:00 am
Bob Fitzsimmons took the World Championship title from Maher in 95 seconds

I couldn’t restrain my imagination from kitting them out in boxing shorts, and considering the gagging order, their mouthguards were most appropriate too!

My mind’s eye had probably been sharpened by reading an account of the “hide-and-seek” world boxing championship fight of 1898 and of an “Irish giant’s” role in it.

The story also involves two of the most famous figures from the history of the U.S. west: “Judge” Roy Bean the saloon-keeper/self-styled “law west of the Pecos” and the gunfighter Bat Masterson.

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Peter Maher. Irish-born World Heavyweight Champion for 102 days

Regular contributor Mitchell Smyth, from Ballycastle, who toured the U.S. west many times as travel editor of the Toronto Star, says he came upon the story when he visited the restored Roy Bean courthouse and saloon in Langtry, Texas, near where the River Pecos enters the Rio Grande.

“I stood on the front porch of the saloon,” he says, “and looked across the Rio to Mexico, and pictured the scene from 21 February 1896 when Langtry was the centre of the sporting world.”

On a sandbar in the river, world heavyweight champion Peter Maher, aged 27, from Tuam, County Galway, faced Bob Fitzsimmons, the contender.

But we’re getting ahead of the story.

Self-styled ‘judge’ Roy Bean

More interesting than the result of the bout was the lead-up to it, an account that has gone down in western lore as the “hide-and-seek” championship.

The story, as Mitchell discovered in the Roy Bean visitor centre, goes something like this:

Peter Maher, after a short boxing career in Ireland, (he fought in Dublin and Belfast) had emigrated to the United States where he quickly made a name for himself, finally winning the heavyweight championship in 1895, aged 26, when he knocked out Steve O’Donnell, who had been coached by the legendary “Gentleman Jim” Corbett.

Immediately, promoters began setting up a fight between the great Bob Fitzsimmons and the man who was now being billed as “the Irish giant” (a bit of a literary licence there: Maher stood half an inch short of six feet.)

El Paso said it would host it and fans and sportswriters descended on the west Texas city in February 1896.

But there was a problem; legislators passed a law banning prize-fighting in the state. Where would the fight take place?

Writers and fans suspected that promoter Dan Stuart was “hiding” the venue to drum up publicity, and the fans were “seeking” it. Somebody called it the “hide-and-seek” prize-fight and the name stuck.

Enter Roy Bean.

The wily old Justice of the Peace (he never was a judge, though his judgments are legendary) cabled Dan Stuart that his town of Langtry (population 250) would be happy to stage the bout and there would, he assured, be no legal problem.

His solution was to hold the fight on a sandbar in the Rio Grande and the spectators could view it from the river bank in front of his saloon.

The sandbar, he said, was in Mexican territory so the Texas Rangers wouldn’t care.

Stuart agreed. The crowd rolled in on the Southern Pacific Railroad from El Paso. They included Bean’s old friend, Bat Masterson, the lawman who had cleaned up Dodge City, Kansas; Bean hired him as head of security.

A couple of days earlier, a group of about 50 Irish roustabouts on the team building a railway spur nearby, came to Langtry to cheer on their homeland hero.

After a saloon brawl, one of the Irishmen was accused of killing a Chinese worker.

Roy Bean took off his barkeep’s apron and declared “Court is open.” He knew that if the navvies didn’t like his verdict they would tear the place apart, and he had a big promotion, the championship fight, coming up.

The “judge” consulted his law book (he only had one!), then announced that although there were many prohibitions against homicide there was no specific ban on killing “a Chinaman.” Case dismissed!

The world heavyweight championship fight lasted 95 seconds. Fitzsimmons won by a knockout. “The Irish giant” had been champion for just 102 days.

Roy Bean cleaned up financially and got his name in newspapers all over the world.

A legend was born.

Bean spun some great yarns for the assembled newsmen, telling them for instance that he had named the town Langtry in honour of his great love (although he had never met her) the Jersey-born actress Lily Langtry, the mistress of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. (In fact, a railway engineer gave his name to the town.)

Bean kept up the pretence, naming his saloon/courthouse The Jersey Lilly (though she spelt her name with one ‘l’ in America), whose sign gave equal prominence to beer and justice.

Peter Maher stayed in the fighting game until 1911, when he retired at the age of 42.

His record in America: 177 fights; 142 wins (107 by knockout); 28 losses; six draws and one no-contest. He died aged 71 in 1940, in Baltimore, Maryland. He never returned to his native Ireland. And he never got another shot at the world title.

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