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When Kid McCoy whipped three opponents in one night

Kid McCoy
Alex Daley recounts when legendary American Kid McCoy stunned east London

BOXING history holds a plethora of complex characters – mavericks and eccentrics who defy definition. At times these unusual figures have transgressed the bounds of morality to the point where, as much as we admire their ring achievements, their actions outside the roped square can cause alarm or even revulsion. World middleweight champion Kid McCoy (real name Norman Selby) was one such figure.

As a fighter he was exceptional – a quick, clever, crafty and vicious 5ft 11in middleweight with a 76in reach and a concussive punch who took on world-class heavies. Stories of his psychological ploys and underhandedness are the stuff of legend: repeatedly feigning illness before fights, hand wraps soaked in alcohol to augment his already formidable punch, and famously convincing world welter king Tommy Ryan that he posed no threat, was struggling to make weight and was fighting Ryan “just for the money”, before savaging Tommy in New York in 1896. The ruse was said to be revenge for liberties Ryan took when sparring with a youthful McCoy years earlier. The Kid is credited with inventing the “corkscrew” punch – a twisting shot he used to put many foes to sleep. It’s also claimed that the phrase “the Real McCoy” entered popular usage because of him.

Outside the ring, McCoy was just as colourful. A playboy who loved the high life and was married nine times (three times to the same woman), he became a film actor and friend to many movie stars before succumbing to alcoholism. Tragically, on August 12, 1924, Theresa Mors, a wealthy antiques dealer and divorcee whom McCoy was dating, was shot dead in the apartment they shared. The next morning, McCoy robbed Mrs Mors’ antique shop, holding 12 people captive and shooting one man in the leg. McCoy, who was charged with murder, claimed Mrs Mors committed suicide. He was found guilty of manslaughter, served seven years in prison and was paroled in 1932. Incongruously, three years later, he rescued several people whose boat had overturned on Lake Michigan. But in 1940, aged 67, he took his own life, saying in a suicide note that he could not “endure this world’s madness any longer”.

In December 1901, McCoy was in Britain after a 15-month break from the ring, his last fight being a KO loss to the legendary ex-world heavyweight champ “Gentleman” Jim Corbett. The Kid was apparently not in the best of shape yet decided to take a trio of fights – not weeks or months apart, but all in the same night.

Wonderland, in Whitechapel, in the heart of east London was the setting for this extraordinary feat. The place was packed with fight-loving Londoners, all of them wondering how the Kid would cope with three opponents, two of them heavyweights.

First up was the hopelessly overmatched Dave Barry, whom McCoy leisurely plastered with shots before halting him with a body blow in the second. “[Barry] hardly appeared to understand the methods of McCoy, who is very quick indeed,” wrote The Sportsman newspaper, which felt the Kid had “been kind” to Barry.

If McCoy had gone easy on Barry, then he saved his savageness for his second opponent, Bethnal Green heavyweight Jack Scales. “In all probability this was the shortest contest that has ever been decided at Wonderland,” The Sportsman observed. A brutal McCoy combination had Scales knocked out cold just 10 seconds from the opening bell. The American’s final opponent was 15st Sandy Ferguson. A giant by the standards of the day, Ferguson dwarfed McCoy. Evidently, however, Sandy had decided not to suffer the same fate as Scales. Despite repeated warnings by the ref, the big man held incessantly until disqualified in the fourth. “These three contests reminded one of an American cartoon which depicts the champion slugger taking on everybody,” remarked The Sportsman’s bemused reporter.

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