A few weeks before Christmas, 1919, an enterprising First Ward teenager named Willie “Skitsy” Fitzgerald had a proposition for his best pal, Jimmy Slattery. The Automobile Club of Buffalo was putting on an amateur boxing tournament; Slattery should enter.
Dabbling briefly around that time in the ring – only to have his bell rung – Fitzgerald quickly proclaimed himself a trainer and signed up his buddy.
And so it happened, 100 years ago this weekend, Buffalo-born Slattery, twice light-heavyweight champion and one of the greatest boxers in history, climbed into a ring for the first time in public.
The 15-year-old had spent the better part of his childhood boxing in the yard with his dad and brothers; however this was his ring debut.
The Auto Club slated the event to be held at the Elmwood Music Hall (on Elmwood Avenue and Virginia Street; long-ago demolished and presently site of The Adult Learning Center); it would have competed with a few holiday charity tournaments for youth boxers. The Buffalo Courier held a Christmas fund tournament, forerunner to the national “Golden Gloves” feeder tournaments which the Courier-Express began to sponsor starting in 1931, accordingto Buffalo boxing historian, Bob Caico.
In December of 1919, Slattery hawked newspapers in the mornings and worked afternoons in a shipyard, hammering rivets. All told, his entire day’s work paid out less than a dime. The notion of being able to win a first-prize gold watch (that could be pawned for a few bucks) would have been alluring.
A few days before the event, Skitsy (who in addition to being Slattery’s best friend and trainer was also his cousin) and another close pal, Joe Hickey (also a cousin), had ventured to the Superior Gym on Oak Street to sign Slattery up. Neighborhood elders called the lad Shamus but all of his pals called him “Slats.” And yet when asked for hisring sobriquet, the novice picked “Bo’s’n Slattery.” It was the name of a fictitious lake sailor featured in the colorful columns of The Courier‘s marine editor, Walter C. Kelly. (And a nickname Slats never used again.)
That night, Monday, December, 15, Slattery competed as a 107-pound flyweight (lightest of the tournament’s five classes). He was tall for his age, eventually sprouting to nearly six feet at the time he turned professional two years later, but gangly.
Slattery was matched against a West Side kid, Al Paul, eldest son of a retired boxer, Tony Paul. (Al would hang up the gloves early on but his brothers, Mickey, Tommy and Tony Jr. also became boxers; Tommy Paul won the featherweight championship in 1932).
For the first time, Slattery was inside an actual ring, before a crowd of about 1,500 people.
He won the three-round bout by decision. The newspapers didn’t say much but over the years. It was said Paul gave Slattery a tough fight. That was all for the night; Slattery injured his hand and did not continue on in the tournament.
Months later he would have his first really famous fight with a neighborhood bully and then have a slew of noteworthy amateur bouts, including at least one epic battle with Artie Colpoys. Slats, with the help of his manager, Paul “Red” Carr, turned professional at age 17 in 1921. This was at a time when boxing was being legalized in New York State – it soon exploded in popularity – after decades ofbeing frowned upon, intermittently banned and for the most part forced into clubs and small halls.
Slats would win his first 39 fights, most of them at the Buffalo Broadway Auditorium. Eventually he would rise, by the middle part of the 1920s, to be one of the best-known fighters in the game and potentially a future heavyweight champion. He was a national figure who fought many of the all-time greats — Young Stribling, Harry Greb, Jack Delaney, Tommy Loughran, Maxie Rosenbloom, Paul Berlenbach, Jim Braddock – at boxing’s apex.
Slattery would win two versions of the world’s light heavyweight title: first in 1927 (the World Boxing Association version) and in 1930 (New York State’s) although he was never able to defend his title, nor did he ever hold both versions at the same time. At the time, this would have been held against him by the likes of Nat Fleischer of Ring magazine. Yet considering how wildly competitive boxing was during Slattery’s era – hundreds of thousands of hopefuls in every town and city, across the country – nothing should be taken away from twice reaching the top of the ladder. Slattery retired from the ring in the early 1930s. He died at age 56 in 1960. In 2006, Slattery was named to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.