Mike Gibbons By George D. Blair
When I was very young, I found out that my dad used to be a boxer back in the glory days of the sport in the Minnesota, and that he had around a dozen fights. Listening to him talk about boxing back then perked my interest and it never waned. I also heard him talk many times abut a boxer from his era who he called he greatest boxer that Minnesota ever had. He said he used to marvel at the boxing genius of this man as he watched him spar during training sessions at the gym. Of course, I never had the chance to see him in action live, but just one time I did see a rare old film which showed a few rounds of one of his fights, and it was enough for me to confirm my father's belief about the man's ring genius.
His name was Michael J. Gibbons and they called him "The Phantom", and for very good reason. It was Mike Gibbons who established St. Paul as a boxing capitol in the decade before 1920 and the many who followed, patterning their style after him. A master of the art of scientific boxing, which he later taught for years, he would influence boxers of the future who probably never heard of him or knew who he was. IN some quarters, the master boxer is still said to fight the "Gibbons Style". Nat Fleischer, the man who started Ring Magazine back in 1922 and ran it until his death, rated Gibbons as the #9 middleweight on the all-time list. Yes, Mike Gibbons was a true all-time great, and the best fighter the state of Minnesota ever produced.
Gibbons was born in St. Paul, Minnesota on July 20, 1887 of Irish decent. As young man, Gibbons was a very good amateur wrestler until he met a man by the name of George Baron who was the athletic instructor at the old Y.M.C.A. on Fifth Street near St. Peter St. in St. Paul, Barton would start Gibbons on a fistic career that would span 16 years and 132 fights. Both Gibbons and Barton would leave their marks in the annals of boxing history. Although Gibbons is listed with the all-time greats of the ring, he never won a world title. It is a matter of record, however, that despite public clamor that he be given a title fight, three successive middleweight champions avoided meeting him. They were George Chip, Frank Claus, and Al McCoy. Gibbons did meet Chip three times and McCoy once, however, they were not the champion at the time. Only fellow St. Paulite and friend , Mike O'Dowd, ever gave Gibbons a crack at the crown, and that came late in his career.
Gibbons embarked on a professional career in 1907 at a time when boxing was illegal in Minnesota, and if you got caught engaging in boxing by the authorities, there as a jail term or heavy fine, or both. Unfortunately over half of Gibbons career was spent at a time when he sport was banned his home state. But where there's a will , there's a way as place like small halls, gyms, barns, open fields in the woods and upper floors of building right downtown, some in the shadow of police stations all served as sites for boxing matches. There were always those lovers of boxing who would take a chance. Word-of-mouth among those "in the know" would always produce a good crowd for the illegal fights.
A match for Gibbon's debut was secured by Barton; it was to be a prelim fight in South St. Paul with Barton in the feature event. Gibbons and Barton went to the building where the fights were to be held and , per instructions, entered through a secluded back door and found themselves looking at a row of jail cells. It seemed that the chief of police in South St. Paul was also the promoter of the fights and the hall was upstairs in, of all places, the city hall.
Gibbons won his debut by take a six round decision over Newsboy Brown. He was back in action on January 11, 1908 in St. Paul as he kayoed fellow St. Paulite Roy Moore in the third round. A barn in St. Paul Park was the site of Gibbons' third pro fight on March 20th. His opponent was tough Herb Catherwood of Minneapolis. The deal was that the two fighters would split the gate receipts 50/50 . An "in the know" crowed of 200 gathered to see Gibbons and Catherwood wage a tremendous battle, and at the end of it, was declared a fifteen round draw. When the two fighters came to get paid, they found out that most of the people in attendance were gate crashers and the promoter could nothing about it as the fights were illegal. The gat came to $90.00 so each man was paid a whopping $22.50 each. Gibbons received a cauliflower ear in that match that he had the rest of his life.
Evading the authorities and jail, Gibbons stayed near home to do his boxing. In December of 1909 he lost his first of only three official career losses when he dropped a ten round decision to the great Jimmy Clabby in St. Paul. Mike Gibbons would go on tto fight 106 bouts without an official loss between 1910 to 1921. During that period, the middleweight division was the toughest in its long and honorable history, and Mike Gibbons fought all the great ones and nobody was ever able to knock The Phantom in his entire career.
When the ten-middleweight champion, Stanley Ketchell, was shot and killed by a jealous boyfriend on October 15, 1910, several of the era's best men laid claim to the title, Gibbons was one of them. However, Mike had done most of his boxing in around his home state and had not fought many of the world's top fighters at the time. He was not well-known in the eastern fight center then, therefore, his claim to the title was not widely recognized
Gibbons and his handlers knew that if they were to reach the top, they would have to travel to the big boxing capitols of the country. After several more Midwestern bouts, Gibbons met Jimmy Clabby in a rematch in Milwaukee on September 1, 1911 where they battled to a newspaper draw. Just four weeks later, he won a fifteen round newspaper verdict over Clabby in Winnipeg. It was then on to New York where, on November 10th, he kayoed Young Sherman in the fourth round. He then took on a world class opponent in the wily Willie Lewis. Mike Gibbons dazzled Lewis and the New Yorkers on November 10, 1911 as he outboxes and outclassed Lewis and the New Yorkers on November 10, 1911 as he outboxed and outclassed Lewis, capturing a ten round newspaper decision. A week later he did he same to Walther Coffey. The New York crowds were now believers in Mike Gibbons.
Now a popular favorite of the eastern fight crowds, he campaigned several time is New York, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Boston, and Pittsburgh fight clubs. From 1912 through 1915 Gibbons fought the likes of Willie Lewis, Jeff Smith, George "K.O." Brennan, Tommy Maloney, Eddie McGoorty, Young Ahearn, Al McCoy, George "K.O." Brown, Bob Moha, Jim Clabby, Leo Houck, and Soldier Bartfield, all world class contenders.
On September 11, 1915, Gibbons met another great boxer in Packey McFarland at the Brighton Beach Arena in Brooklyn. This fight had all the glamour of a world title fight as it pitted the world's two cleverest boxers against each other for what called the "unofficial" middleweight championship of the world. Each boxer would receive a purse of $16.250 for what was expected to be a classic encounter. Each man predicted victory. McFarland instated he would knock out Gibbons, and Mike promised to give McFarland the beating of his life.
A tremendous crowd of 26,092 showed up and it's safe to say that all present were greatly disappointed as the fight turned out to be a dull bore as Gibbons was just to reluctant to mix it up even though he appeared to be the better boxer of the two. Mike didn't do anything on the offense and McFarland was content to hold on in the clinches. Neither one extended themselves in a very lousy fight. It was a no-decision affair, but he newspaper reports on hand seemed to be split evenly as to who had won the fight.
After the McFarland fiasco, Gibbons returned home and took four months off. While he had been fighting in he east, Minnesota had legalized boxing and the locals were eager to see Mike Gibbons in action as he had become a top contender since he was last seen in Minnesota. So, on January 18, 1916 , Mike made his first home state appearance since he fought Gus Christie in Duluth in May of 1911. His opponent was the tough Young Ahern. A large crowd filled the St. Paul Auditorium to see Gibbons explode and flatten Ahern in he fist round. He followed that by winning a ten round newspaper decision over Jeff Smith in St. Paul of St. Patrick's Day. It was then back to New York to win another paper verdict over Willie Lewis.
There was a long layoff before Gibbons signed to meet ex-light heavyweight champion Jack Dillon who was still consider to be very tough and a terrific puncher. The St. Paul Auditorium was the site and November 10,1916 the date. Those close to Gibbons were afraid that he might be overmatched against the bigger and power-punching "Giant Killer." Their fears proved to be groundless. Mike completely dominated Dillon in every round as he hit Dillon with eight or nine punches while Dillon would swing at a man who would vanish is front of him. Dillon received the boxing lesson of his life as Mike Gibbons was at his incredible best that night. The day after the fight, the St. Paul Pioneer Press called it the greatest exhibition of classic boxing ever seen.
Gibbons hit the road in 1917 as he won newspaper verdicts over Harry Greb in Philadelphia, George Chip in Youngstonw and Jack Dillon , again in Terre Haute. He finished the year knocking out Jimmy Howard in Duluth and Frank Mantell in St. Paul .
With World War I in progress, Mike Gibbons left his boxing career behind and joined the Army, serving as an instructor of boxing. His only appearance in the ring during his Army tour as a six round exhibition at Fort Dodge, Iowa against Packey McFarland in April of 1918
Back home in 1919, he resumed his career and he had no soft touches that year as he met Greorge Chip twice, Soldier Bartfield twice, Leo Houck, George "K.O." Brown, Harry Greb, and Jeff Smith among others. After thirteen years in the pro ring, Mike Gibbons was finally given a crack at a world championship when he signed to meet fellow St. Paulite and friend, world champion Mike O'Dowd.
The two met with the championship belt on the line in St. Paul on November 21st. Officially it was a no decision meeting according to state law so, for Gibbons to win the crown from the tough O"Dowd, he would have to knock out the champion and Mike Gibbons was not known as a big puncher. It seemed ironic that with all the world champions in the preceding years who had ducked Gibbons, it was friend , O'Dowd, who finally gave Gibbons a chance.
The match itself was treated with all the hoopla of he title fight it was. There were special trains from all over the country that brought fans into St. Paul for the fight, parades and lots of newspaper reporters. A sellout crowd of 9, 559 paid a gate of $41,846 which was a record gate that would stand until 1957. Although Gibbons boxed well that night, it was evident that his best days were well behind him as the younger O'Dowd was able to land enough punches to give him the newspaper decision over Gibbons.
Many thought that Gibbons retired as he had no fights in 1920. He returned in 1921 defeating the likes of Chuck Wiggins, Dave Rosenberg, Silent Martin, Eddie McGoorty, Augie Ratner, and Jeff Smith as he racked up 17 wins in a row. On November 25th, he suffered his second official loss when he lost a ten round decision to Tommy Robson in Boston. Victories over Phil Krug and Augie Ratner followed. He closed out 1921 by winning a newspaper decision over now ex-champ Mike O'Dowd in St. Paul. In 1923 he had three wins and one no decision, then he again met his friend from St. Paul, Mike O'Dowd, only this time the venue was New York. O'Dowde copped the decision., it was only the third loss of his career.
Ten days after the O'Dowd bout, he was n Winnipeg, Canada where he stiffened Danny Fagan in the second round. It was to be his final ring appearance. When asked wh he quite after the Fagan match, Gibbons said, "I didn't know it was my last one at the time. But my eye troubled me a little and I asked the doctor if it was serious." The doctor told him that if he kept on fight, he would give him another eye that would looks just like the other one, same shape and color and everything, but he wouldn't be able to see with it. That scared Gibbons and at that point he said, "I quit."
In a career that lasted from 1907 through 1923, Mike Gibbons had engaged in 132 fights. His recorded record showed he had 70 wins, 3 losses and 55 no decision fights. He scored 40 knockouts and was never kayoed.
Mike Gibbons may have retired as an active fighter, but he didn't quit the ring business as he joined up with promoter and manager Mike Collins to open a gym in downtown St. Paul. They managed several boxers, among them Jimmy Delaney, Dandy Dillon, Saph McKenna, Silver Perry, Jack Joseph, Farmer Lodge, Ollie Anderson, Johnny Tillman. Ray Jones, Billy Ehmke, Johnny Noye, and Bud Logan. He also helped his brother Tommy get ready for his 1923 heavyweight title fight with Jack Dempsey.
In April of 1925 Gibbons made the surprise announcement that he was severing all connections with the boxing world and would dispose of all interests in boxers that he was managing at the time.. He entered the insurance business working for the Equitable Life Insurance Company of New York in their St. Paul offices. In 1931 Gibbons ran for and won the position of St. Paul City Clerk. In 1993 he was appointed as a special agent at the St. Paul Agency of the Modern Life Insurance Company. He also worked as a physical director for the St. Paul police department. He would alter be appointed to the Minnesota State Boxing Commission where he served as a commissioner until his death. He worked for many ears at the Pfeiffer-Schmidt Brewing Company in St. Paul where he retired from in July of 1956.
Gibbons was also an author. Along with old time St. Paul Dispatch editor Morrie Selfe, he wrote two books: How to Box and How to Train. They sold about 15,000 copies of the two books, and for years, they still received queries from far away places like Japan, South Africa, the Philippines and other places from around the world. The books were translated into many foreign languages. The books were also used as a standard course text book on boxing at such schools as the University of Illinois.
Only one of Mike's sons pursued a fistic career, Michael J. Jr., know as Jack, became a highly rated light heavyweight in the 1930's. With his father training him, Jack Gibbons was very successful and posted a win over the great Tony Zale.
On August 31, 1956 Mike Gibbons was playing cards with his wif in their home at 1193 W. Como Blvd. In St. Paul. Around 1:00 in the afternoon, Gibbons suffered a fatal heart attack and passed away.. He was 69 years old. He was survived by his wife Mary, sons Michael Jr. (Jack), James, Eugene, Robert, and Daniel, and one daughter, Virginia.
Needless to say, the boxing world was shocked and saddened by the death of Mike Gibbons and his family received condolences from all over the country. Local boxing celebrities commend about Gibbons and his greatness.
George Barton, veteran manager, referee and newspaperman said,"No question about it, Mike Gibbons was just the greatest boxer who ever lived. He might have been a great wrestler, or great in any sport, but boxing was his game. I never expect to see another as good. One had to see Mike in action to fully appreciate his kills and understand why he was called The Phantom. He was the personification of perfection in boxing and punching technique, graceful motion and ring generalship."
Johnny Ertle, former claimant to the world bantamweight crown commented, "What I learned about boxing I learned mostly from Mike. We worked in the same gym for years. No, none will ever match Gibbons as a boxer."
And from the great former heavyweight champion Gene Tunney," I learned more about boxing by watching Mike Gibbons in the gym than from any other source."
There were many more compliments showed on Mike Gibbons after his death, and they were all very well deserved. He was elected to boxing's hall of fame in 1958. There have been many great boxers who have come out of Minnesota, but as George Barton said, there never has been one as good as Mike Gibbons. Even today, many years after his passing the "Mike Gibbons Style" is still taught in he Midwest area, which is a great tribute to St. Paul Phantom, Mike Gibbons.