Mick Leahy was born in Paul Street in 1935 and later moved to St Brendan’s Road, Spangle Hill from where he attended Blackpool National School. He boxed juvenile with Glen Boxing Club before enlisting in the Irish Army. After two and a half years he left Collins Barracks and sailed on the Innisfallen to Fishguard before searching for employment in Coventry his adopted city.
As an amateur he won the Munster Senior Middleweight title but a National eluded him and the closest he came to winning an Irish championship was when he was defeated by future Olympian Fred Tiedt at the National Stadium. Leahy turned pro in 1956 and on his debut was pulverising Steve Gee when the ref stopped the contest in round one. Over the next six months he made it nine wins from nine before drawing with Ray Corbett in Dudley whom he hammered in an eagerly awaited return. His winning run was halted when knocked out by Tommy Tagoe in Birmingham on his first anniversary as a pro fighter. The Cork man had a mixed year in 1958, suffering three defeats from eight contests with the highlight being a points decision over Nigerian champion Santos Martins who had a victory over Wally Swift to his credit.
After some impressive victories on his home patch Leahy headed off in 1959 to Australia where he gained invaluable experience and recorded victories over Australian champions Clive Stewart and Billy Todd and shared the spoils with British Empire title holder George Barnes. Leahy won on points when they first met in Brisbane in June but Barnes reversed the decision when they clashed a month later. The Australian relinquished his crown when beaten in a 15 round thriller by Brian Curvis who would, two years later, defeat Leahy in his second defence of the title. Before returning to Britain Leahy lost to Tuna Scanlon in Wellington in an eliminator for the Empire title. Scanlon was an accomplished boxer who had a verdict over European champion Gomeo Brennan.
On his return to action in 1960 Leahy defeated Northern Ireland boy Peter Sharpe at the Kings Hall after which promoter Mike Callaghan fixed him to fight Ghana champion Bob Cofi at the Gurranebraher Hall in Cork, a venue just a few hundred yards from his home in Spangle Hill. Prices for the eagerly awaited contest were set at 30/-, 20/- and 10/- which was pricey compared to admission prices of one shilling to see Glen play ‘Barr’s at the Mardyke, 2/6 to dance to the Dixies at the Arcadia and we were still throwing “thruppences” and “tuppences” into church collection baskets. Cofi proved to be no push over and Leahy had to be at his best to earn a points decision after ten excellent rounds which had the huge attendance on their feet throughout. “Always aggressive, he is a fighter rather than a boxer, but a very experienced one. But, with all the latent power of his chief weapon, a tremendous right cross, he just could not nail the lathe-like, but durable frame of Cofi.”, reported the Evening Echo. For 15 minutes afterwards the crowd stamped, clapped and roared their appreciation. They were still applauding not alone their own welterweight pride, Mick Leahy, but a very gallant loser. Willie O’Leary said “now that the Cork sportspeople had seen how good Leahy was they craved a British title almost more than he did himself.”
After a few more wins he was rated as a serious challenger for Brian Curvis’ welterweight belt and 1961 looked like being his year. He beat Jimmy McGrail in an eliminator and followed up with a win over Cecil Short before gaining a points decision over Tanos Lambrianides who had beaten him six months earlier in Wembley. At last he had a meeting with destiny when Curvis agreed to give him a crack at his welterweight title. October 10th at Wembley Stadium was to be the big night. Leahy got an earful from promoter Jack Solomon when he turned up for the test weigh-in nine lbs over the limit. An annoyed Solomon snapped “you get a crack at a British title and you don’t know if you’re a welter or a middleweight.” Mick wasted down to the welterweight and was knocked out in the eighth round by the champion who was making his fourth successful defence. All the wasting and the saunas had an effect on Leahy who said after the fight that the only pain he felt was that of hunger.
Just over one month later Leahy stepped up to middleweight and drew with Ted Wright after a cracking contest in Wembley. From that night on Leahy fought only the best and had designs on George Aldridge’s crown. He beat Orlando Paso, drew with Gomeo Brennan, was disappointed when he lost to Joey Archer in MadisonSquareGarden when he said “it was one of the fights I felt sorry about. I didn’t feel good.” There was no rest for Leahy; he fought Wally Swift three times losing the first, then drawing and defeating him in final eliminators. Leahy had three months to prepare for the title fight with a very confident champion George Aldridge at the Ice Rink in Nottingham.
On May 28th 1963 Mick Leahy became the first Irish boxer ever to win a British title and it took him just 105 seconds to do so. From the gong Leahy, sharp as a razor, tore into his man raining right hand after right hand into a rapidly weakening opponent. In one of the most amazing first rounds in history he decked Aldridge twice before beginning his grisly work again. Hooks, followed by that merciless right, slammed onto Aldridge’s head before the referee stepped in to save the champion from further punishment.
Years later in an interview with Val Dorgan of the Cork Examiner Leahy said “I never considered myself world class, I just thought I could make a few bob”. The new champ resumed boxing after a few months when easily disposing of Gil Diaz whom the Coventry Express criticised the following day with a report reading “Diaz was a rough dirty spoiler who should have been wearing a boxing
glove on his head and disqualified before the fight was four rounds old.” The same paper claimed that Leahy was robbed when beaten by Gomeo Brennan for the empire title vacated by Dick Tiger. Several commentators felt that Leahy had won nine of the rounds with two drawn and three to Brennan. Leahy then travelled to New Zealand and lost on points to Tuna Scanlon in a Commonwealth title eliminator. The globe trotting Cork man then defeated Larry Carney in a sizzling contest in Boston.
Former World Welterweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson agreed to fight Leahy in Scotland in Sept 1964. Many boxing fans and critics regard Robinson as "pound for pound", the best boxer of all time. Muhammad Ali, who repeatedly called himself "The Greatest" throughout his career, has said without hesitation that, while he does consider himself the greatest heavyweight in boxing history, he would rank Robinson the greatest fighter of all time. Other all time greats like Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Leonard have said the same. Leahy boxed well and gained a points decision over the former champ but afterwards refused to gloat and commented “I fought his ghost. He was past it. He was a lovely fella.”
After Terry Downes refused to meet Leahy in an open-air contest at Coventry City’s football ground he switched his attention to Lazlo Papp the World’s top middleweight and travelled to Vienna to meet him for the European title. Despite performing heroically Mick lost on points to the unbeaten Hungarian who was three times Olympic Champion. After that bout the Hungarian government refused to allow Papp fight for the world title because boxing for financial gain was incompatible with socialist principles. Papp then announced his retirement. Two months after the Papp fight Leahy lost his British title when beaten on points by his great rival Wally Swift. In February ’65 he went to Milan to take on Italian boxing sensation and former Olympic Champ Nino Benvenuti. The Italian won on points and just four months later he went on to win the World title. In 1995 Benvenuti, a wealthy businessman caused a sensation with the news that he was turning away from the material world and had travelled to Calcutta to become a volunteer at Mother Theresa's hospice. Leahy travelled from Milan to Cologne and in front of a partisan crowd was outpointed by German champion and European contender Jupp Else.
1n 1965 he was disillusioned with his Manager George Midleton and failed to get through to him on the phone to secure his release so he decided to drive to meet him. Unfortunately, ten minutes from home he hit an unlighted articulated truck. He lost the sight and hearing on one side. Doctors told him he lived because he was so fit. Galway born wife Theresa said “it was because he had a hard head”. It was not the way he would have wanted to end an exciting career but was thankful to survive.
Mick got £10,000 compensation and invested it in a friend’s shop which went bust. Mick who had five children got a job with Massey Ferguson and it was tough work. In 1977 he was honoured by the Cork Ex Boxers Association who paid him the ultimate tribute by honouring him as the first recipient of the Hall of Fame. In the Sunset Ridge the following day he told Val Dorgan that after winning the championship he was offered just £650 a fight. His biggest purse was £3,000 for the Papp fight and £2,000 for title fights with Aldridge and Swift. In nine years boxing he earned £22,500 of which his share was £12,500. Iin answer to a question he replied, “when I was young I didn’t worry about hurting people but later on I always prayed in my corner that nobody would be hurt. I suppose that was my trouble, I wasn’t a killer.”Amazingly his happiest memories are not of his Londsdale triumph but of being chaired by his mates in Sarsfields Barracks, Limerick as he walked up to receive his Army Junior LW trophy and the reception he received when awarded the Hall of Fame by Cork Ex Boxers’ Association in 1977.
Sadly, Willie O’Leary told me that the former champion was in the news again recently but this time under a heading “THE GLOVES ARE OFF”; the English writer announced that Mick is fighting his last battle and is in need of 24 hour care as he is trying to come to terms with Alzheimer’s disease. I don’t think that’s how Mick would want his fans to remember him so I will finish by returning to the scene of his greatest triumph - the Nottingham Ice Rink and boxing reporter Jack Birtley’s vivid description as the fight entered its closing seconds:
By now the champion was offering no resistance and taking the beating of his life, and it was a relief to all, when the ref led the tottering Aldridge back to his corner. Leahy was champion. Without hardly having a glove laid on him, too. Then the noise of the cheering voices exploded as all Ireland seemed to join in this victorious salute to their champion. I was about to remark to one “Paddy” that Leahy was no longer Irish but a naturalised Britisher, but had second thoughts as I quickly climbed onto a table to escape the invasion of crying, laughing, fighting Leahy supporters trying to climb into the roped square. ‘Glory, glory be, by all that is sacred and Irish he’s done it’, screamed one commentator. Mick Leahy the great Coventry and Spangle Hill kid is the new Middleweight champion of Great Britain.
Images and Words courtesy of Plunkett Carter.