Worldwide

Forgotten Champions: Jake Kilrain, George Godfrey, and Paul Pender

Published

on

Forgotten Champions: Jake Kilrain, George Godfrey, and Paul Pender

Visiting the gravesites of Massachusetts fighters has become something of a regular pastime for my girlfriend and me. I look up the cemeteries and she looks up nearby restaurants. I post our visits to social media, one by one, as they take place. At the start of 2024, I made a thread to collect all the posts in one place. It quickly became my most popular social media post, and I have since pinned it to the top of my profile.

Seeing the posts together was illuminating.

On the one hand, there was no specific throughline connecting the fighters beyond their relationship to Massachusetts (and even that connection was disrupted by the visit to Tony Galento and Joe Jennette in New Jersey).

On the other hand, I could see how the posts had evolved. The first post about John L. Sullivan had been a single Tweet, and I didn’t appear in any of the photos.

A few months and a few thousand social media views later, my post about Tony Galento was nine tweets long.

It featured photos from his fights, a Ring magazine cover, screenshots from movies and cartoons depicting him, and even a link to a polka written in his honor.

Seeing these posts as a group allowed me to see our gravesite visits as a long, continued project instead of separate day trips. I knew I wanted to continue locating more Massachusetts fighters, but I was running out of obvious choices. I had to start learning how to research or I’d be stuck.

The project began with a chance visit to John L. Sullivan’s grave, and now several months later, I recalled that visit and realized that a fighter linked inextricably to Sullivan was also buried nearby. Jake Kilrain, the bare knuckle fighter who went 75 rounds with the Boston Strongboy in an undisclosed Mississippi ring back in 1889, is buried in Quincy, MA.

Kilrain was born in Feb 1859 John Joseph Killion in Greenpoint, NY.

In his teens, Kilrain moved to Somerville, MA to work in the mills, and at 21, he began boxing. Three years later, he quit his day job at the mill to pursue prizefighting full time.

Those were the early days of the sport, when prizefighting was mostly illegal and bare knuckle fights were as likely to be broken up by police as they were to finish. Kilrain was known for his endurance, and he attracted the attention of Richard K. Fox, publisher of the Police Gazette.

Fox didn’t care for John L. Sullivan, who was already something of a star. He wanted Kilrain to be the best known “biffer,” as fighters were sometimes called back then.

He maneuvered Kilrain to France, where Kilrain battled the British champion Jem Smith on a tiny island in the River Seine. A mere 79 people were in attendance, although one of those attendees was the Marquis of Queensbury himself.

The fight lasted 106 rounds and was stopped only because the sun had set and it was too dark to see. Regardless, the Police Gazette declared Kilrain the new world champion and awarded him its “diamond” belt.

“I would not put Fox’s belt around the neck of a bulldog,” declared a disgusted Sullivan.

Still, the Gazette’s PR gamble paid off, and in 1889, Kilrain and Sullivan faced off in Mississippi for what would turn out to be the last bare knuckle championship fight. The fight went 75 rounds under the London rules. Rounds lasted until one man fell, and wrestling was allowed.

Sullivan emerged the victor and secured his enduring place in pugilistic history.

After Sullivan-Kilrain, gloved fighting dominated the prize ring under the Marquis of Queensbury rules. Kilrain continued to fight, entering the ring with James Corbett, Frank Slavin, and George Godfrey, among others.

Kilrain and Sullivan eventually became good friends. They toured together giving exhibition matches. When John L. passed in 1918, Kilrain served as pallbearer.

Jake Kilrain is laid to rest at St. Mary’s cemetery in Quincy, MA. It’s a beautiful space, and large for a parish cemetery. The church has several outdoor sculptures. I especially appreciated their statue of St. Francis. He’s depicted holding a cross in his right hand and a book in left. Next to his feet is a human skull, a traditional “memento mori” detail.

Kilrain’s headstone is made of red granite. His name is deep set, and the stone is decorated with carved flowers. A pair of carved boxing gloves dangles in the center above Kilrain’s name. Text on the headstone attributes it to the Veteran Boxers Association of Boston, also known as “Ring 4,” and references Kilrain’s 1889 clash with Sullivan, referring to Kilrain as “a great boxer.”

After finding Kilrain, I was looking for more Massachusetts fighters who lived and died in the Bay State. It occurred to me to look to Kilrain’s record itself. He fought in Massachusetts plenty of times, so I sought out the fighters he faced in or around Boston, especially if he faced them multiple times, as some of them would inevitably be local fighters.

One name jumped out: George Godfrey.

Godfrey faced Kilrain three times: early in their careers, when they were mostly regional fighters, and then again, in 1891, two years after Kilrain’s historic bout with Sullivan.

Like Sam Langford and George Dixon, George Godfrey was a Black Canadian who ended up in MA. Born in 1853 in Prince Edward Island, he moved to Boston as a teen in 1870.

Like Kilrain and Sullivan, Godfrey’s career encompassed bare knuckle fighting and gloved contests.

Nicknamed “Old Chocolate,” he started fighting relatively late, at age 27.

At only 175 lbs, he often gave up weight and size.

Still, he faced some of the toughest opposition of his day: not only Jake Kilrain, but Peter Maher, Peter Jackson, and Joe Choynski.

Godfrey was always gunning for a fight with the heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan.

Rumors claimed they were set to fight, dressed in robes and all, but were prevented by a police raid. Whatever the truth to that, Sullivan drew the color line and never faced Godfrey, or any other Black fighter for that matter.

To offset this racial inequality, which limited not only the prestige of Black fighters but also their ability to earn a living as prizefighters, a “Colored” championship was created.

On February 7, 1883, Godfrey won the “Colored” championship title by defeating “Professor” Charles Hadley.

The former lightweight champion “Make Believe” Billy Edwards wrote that Godfrey possessed “skillful generalship, undoubted courage, and more than ordinary science.”

An interesting aside, which sometimes complicated my process of reading about George Godfrey, was that, like many early champions, another fighter later used his name in the ring. It’s an interesting practice, adopting another man’s name in tribute.

Jersey Joe Walcott was born Arnold Creem.

Jack Sharkey had combined the names of his favorite fighters, Jack Demspey and Tom Sharkey.

Jack Dempsey (“the Manassa Mauler”) himself had adopted his name from an earlier Jack Dempsey (“the Nonpareil”).

In England, a fighter named John Harper took the name Jack London, after the pugilistically-inclined American author. When his son Brian Harper took up boxing, he carried the pseudonym forward and fought as Brian London (facing Floyd Patterson and Muhammad Ali, among others).

I doubt such tributes are unique to boxing, but I cannot think of any other arena in which this unusual practice has been so common and so accepted.

The latter George Godfrey was born Feab Smith Williams. Also known as “the Leiperville Shadow,” he was active in the 1920s and 1930s, facing the likes of Sam Langford, Larry Gains, and Jack Sharkey. Like the first Godfrey, he also held the “Colored” championship belt, from 1926-28. Strangely enough, both Godfreys faced opponents named Jake Kilrain.

George “Old Chocolate” Godfrey died in 1901, and is buried at the Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett, MA.

The cemetery describes itself as an “urban jewel,” and it is a beautiful space, dotted with horticultural flourishes and crowned with a lovely chapel. Godfrey’s grave is along the Fern Path. Reports say he did well in business after retiring from the ring, and owned property in nearby Revere.

His stone reflects his relative financial stability, featuring his surname carved prominently upon an arched top. He is listed only as “Husband,” with no mention of his prizefighting days.

I had not known about George Godfrey before visiting his grave. He was a champion previously unknown to me.

I admit, I have not read up on the history of the “colored” championship as I should. I was pleasantly surprised to find several people on social media, however, who were very familiar with his legacy, and keenly interested in our visit.

On social media, I reached out for suggestions of more Massachusetts fighters. I wasn’t disappointed.

The name Paul Pender was brought up, a middleweight champion of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Pender was also unfamiliar to me – thank you, S Saaadeq Ahmed for the suggestion.

Born in Brookline, MA in 1930, Pender’s boxing career had a shaky start. His hands, often described as “brittle,” broke something like six times in as many fights. The pain forced him to take time off. Pender joined the Marines. After seeing a doctor of sports medicine, he was able to return to the ring.

His career revitalized, he faced Gene Fullmer and lost. But this tough fight led to wins over Ralph “Tiger” Jones, Terry Downes, and the “Upstate Onion Farmer,” Carmen Basilio.

Undoubtedly, Pender’s biggest achievement in the ring was a pair of wins over the GOAT, Sugar Ray Robinson, in 1960. Those wins earned Pender the middleweight championship.

“Ray Robinson had the greatest repertoire of punches of any fighter that ever lived,” Pender would later say. “But boxing ability, he couldn't shine Willie Pep's shoes as far as pure boxing ability.”

As champion, Pender had a strained relationship with boxing’s politics. The NY Boxing Commission stripped him of his title. He took the Commission to court and won.

“The worst thing that ever happened to boxing managers,” Pender said “was when boxers learned to read and write.”

Pender retired from boxing in 1963, still middleweight champion of the world. Despite those big wins over Robinson, he soon faded from boxing’s sometimes fickle memory.

He died forty years later, in 2003. Believing he suffered from Alzheimer’s, Pender’s wife donated his brain to science. It was discovered he had severe CTE, not Alzheimer’s. In his excellent book Damage, Tris Dixon describes this as a “pivotal moment in boxing history.”

The study of Pender’s brain, and the toll CTE took on him, helped turn the corner on understanding “dementia pugilistica.” A filmmaker and distant relative made a documentary about Paul Pender, called The Brain of a Boxer. It is available digitally to stream.

Pender is buried in his hometown of Brookline, MA, in the Holyhood Cemetery, a beautiful example of the rural cemetery. Stumbling onto the history of New England’s rural cemeteries was an unexpected benefit of this project.

Cemeteries give shape to our loss. They provide a landscape for our grief. Seeing the care and the dedication put into these rural cemeteries has been a special kind of joy.

Paul Pender is buried with a large family stone, encompassing nine individuals under four last names. The stone features ornate carving and the words “In loving memory” and “My Jesus, mercy.” Additionally, Pender has his own flat marker, noting his service in the Marines.

Brookline’s Holyhood cemetery has strong ties to Massachusetts history. Joseph and Rose Kennedy, parents of President John F. Kennedy, are buried there. The cemetery’s website lists other notables including governors, mayors, a Baseball Hall of Famer and one golfer – but not the world champion, Paul Pender.

Jake Kilrain and George Godfrey fought 75 years before Pender. Those were chaotic years for boxing, They saw massive overhauls to the sport they were helping to form by their participation, notably the adoption of gloves and the implementation of the Marquis of Queensbury rules. These overhauls allowed the sport to flourish.

But as the case of Paul Pender, who fought in what many consider boxing “golden age,” a flourishing sport does not always translate into a fair shake for fighters.

No matter how much we grouse and repine on social media, most of boxing’s problems are not new. Nor are they all that difficult to identify. Typically, the sport’s haphazard bureaucracy and lack of systematic healthcare are behind any given complaint of the day.

But history shows that boxing is capable of changing. It is capable of getting better, instead of perpetually worse.

The people’s historian and Massachusetts native Howard Zinn reminds us, “The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

Boxing’s past, too, was once a succession of presents, shaped by decisions people chose to make, whether those persons were Richard K. Fox or the members of New York Boxing Commission.

We’ve visited the gravesites of ten boxers: some champions, some contenders. Some remembered, some forgotten. I have a list with more names on it, too. More cemeteries to locate, more day trips to make.

As I walk out of these cemeteries, their headstones behind me, it is Zinn’s admonition to “live now” that I carry with me.

Boxing is the occasion which frequently brings so many of us strangers together, but it is up to each of us – whether fighter or judge, historian or member of the roaring crowd – to decide exactly why we’ve come together, and what we will make from this marvelous victory.