Jimmy McLarnin: The groundbreaking Irish-Canadian boxer

On May 29th, 1933, the stands at Wrigley Field baseball stadium in Los Angeles were packed. A crowd of 20,000 gathered to watch 25-year-old Jimmy McLarnin take on the World Welterweight Boxing Champion Young Corbett III.

McLarnin, aka the Baby Faced Assassin, was considered the underdog in this fight, but Corbett had one crucial flaw. He tended to lean in just before he threw his right arm forward. As McLarnin recalled, his plan was always to lull the reigning champ into a false sense of security before taking advantage of this weakness.

“He did it a couple of times and I didn’t react,” McLarnin told the Los Angeles Times years later. “He kept doing it. It was the third time, and bing!”

Amidst the roar of the crowd, McLarnin hit Corbett with a left hook. Corbett went down before shakily getting back to his feet. McLarnin drove him into the ropes and continued to throw punches until the referee called it. McLarin’s hand was raised. It took the Irishman just two minutes and 37 seconds to win the world title, according to the next day’s New York Times.

According to McLarnin, the best part of it all was that his 71-year-old father was there to witness his big win.

“My father was a beautiful man,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “He had 12 kids and took his family from Ireland to Canada in 1910. He could do anything. He could farm, he could fix shoes, he was a butcher, he could make furniture, he could run a lumber mill. He had tough times in his life. That he could be there to see his son become a champion… It meant so much to me.”

The McLarnins’ move from Ireland to Canada

McLarnin’s father Sam was from Dublin. As a young man, he emigrated to Alberta, Canada, to work on cattle ranches, but he returned to Ireland where he opened a butcher shop. Here, he met and married Jimmy’s mother Mary.

When Jimmy was just three, the family emigrated to Canada together. They first settled near a village called Mortlach in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan and began farming, but moved to Vancouver six years later.

Here, Jimmy’s father opened a secondhand furniture shop. The McLarnins lived on Union Street not far from the city docks, where Jimmy sold newspapers as a child. It was here that he met Charles ‘Pop’ Foster – a former professional boxer who spotted McLarnin’s potential and would later become his manager.

Pop set McLarnin up with a punching bag in the basement of his father’s store. “He sanded and polished the floor and put sawdust on it to speed it up,” he once wrote in Canadian magazine Maclean’s. “We’d meet there in the evenings and Pop’s gruff, eager voice would chase me around and around the floor.”

Irish boxing clubs in Canada

While McLarnin’s beginnings were humble, many up-and-coming Irish boxers were lucky enough to train at local boxing clubs. These gyms often became community hubs for Irish-Canadians, as well as immigrants fresh off the boat.

These gyms cropped up all over Canada; McLarnin’s success undoubtedly helped contribute to the surge.

Montréal’s Irish community had the Griffintown Boxing Club which was located near the city’s docks. As John Toohey describes in the Photo Album of the Irish book, as well as training boxers, the gym also hosted Irish songs, dance, theatre and all sorts of other entertainment for the local Irish diaspora. The Shamrock Gym on Montréal’s Centre Street offered another outlet for the local Irish community too.

In Toronto, first generation Irish-Canadian Earl O’Sullivan ran Sully’s Boxing Gym, which was first established in 1943. He was a boxing promoter and the gym hosted some of the world’s greatest boxers – including Muhammad Ali. But its primary goal was always to support the city’s underprivileged youth. Though it has moved location many times, it is still a non-profit organisation today.

McLarnin’s enduring legacy

After kick-starting his boxing career in Vancouver, McLarnin and ‘Pop’ Foster headed for San Francisco. After his stunning win in Los Angeles, McLarnin fought Barney Ross three times; each bout attracted huge crowds. He lost his belt to Ross, before winning it back again, but ultimately lost it to him during their final fight.

McLarnin beat other all-time greats before retiring in 1936 while on a winning streak. He had 63 wins, three draws and 11 losses under his belt. He left the ring a wealthy man and invested in a store that sold electrical appliances, while also acting and lecturing on the side. 

In 1966, McLarnin was named Canada’s ‘Boxer of the Half-Century’ and inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. Today, BoxRec still ranks McLarnin as the greatest Canadian boxer of all time and the second greatest welterweight ever. He passed away in 2004 at the age of 96.

The Photo Album of the Irish: Canada Exhibition

Across the generations, boxing has been a consistent theme evident in the photo albums of Irish-Canadian families. Some photos were staged in studios, while others recorded real events taking place in local clubs.

The Photo Album of the Irish: Canada exhibition will run until March 5th 2023. Book your tickets here