Welterweight Jimmy Corkum was heavily favored when he squared off against local rival Sean Mannion at the Hotel Bradford in Boston in November 1979. Corkum hailed from the working-class city of Brockton, Massachusetts, which had spawned Rocky Marciano, while Mannion, a transplant from Ros Muc, Ireland, resided in nearby Dorchester.
With only two losses in 42 bouts, the 21-year-old Corkum was more experienced than Mannion, who entered the fight with a record of 11-1.
The Boston Herald predicted an easy victory for Corkum, who despite his youth had been ranked as high as the No. 10 junior welterweight in the world by The Ring magazine.
In Mannion’s 2018 biography, “The Man Who Was Never Knocked Down: The Life of Boxer Sean Mannion,” he recalled being enraged while observing a seemingly relaxed Corkum laughing with his cornermen as they awaited the ring introductions.
“Nobody laughs at me,” wrote Mannion, who would go on to stop Corkum in the sixth round and six years later fight Mike McCallum for the vacant WBA super welterweight title.
Corkum said he never took any opponent for granted and if he was laughing it was because he was relaxed and overconfident, not cocky and disrespectful.
He also said that losing to Mannion was more of a blessing than he could have imagined at the time.
Despite being a pro for less than four years, and two months shy of turning 22, Corkum retired with an impressive record of 40-3 (23 KOS). He was getting ready to graduate with honors from Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, and was determined to fulfill his longtime ambition of attending medical school.
“Had I beat Mannion, I might not have left the fight game,” recalled Corkum. “At that stage of my career, I was always one or two fights away from something big – or a title fight.”
Up until that point, everything Corkum did was geared towards eventually becoming a physician. When he turned professional at the age of 18, he naively thought he would earn enough money to pay for college.
While that did not happen, he parlayed the anomaly of being a prizefighter into making him an attractive candidate for higher education.
“Being a professional fighter was my biggest selling feature in getting accepted into medical school,” said Corkum. “Because it was so unusual and atypical, I was able to push it and sell it in my personal statements.”
Corkum said many of the students competing against him had attended Ivy League undergraduate schools, so he hammered home the point that he had maintained perfect grades at Cardinal Spellman High School in Brockton, where he graduated second in his class, as well as in his pre-med studies at Stonehill.
He did not ignore the “attributes” associated with his comparatively hardscrabble beginnings. His father, James, worked for the phone company, while his mother, Ann, was employed for decades at the lunch counter of Lederman’s Pharmacy, a Brockton mainstay, where longtime owner Morris Lederman’s 2010 obituary read that he “was attentive to virtually every customer, making sure he or she got what was needed.”
Both parents are now deceased.
Corkum had also taken summer jobs at the Boston Department of Public Works, picking up trash for $3 an hour, or, as he likes to say, “$120 a week.”
After working from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., Corkum would head over to the boxing gym and train under the watchful eye of the colorful Vinnie Vecchione, who two decades later guided Peter McNeeley to a 1995 bout against Mike Tyson.
Corkum said Vecchione had a profoundly positive effect on his life.
‘Vinny was everything to me,” he recalled. “He was a wonderful manager and mind coach who gave me great confidence. He taught me to control my own destiny.”
Corkum said he and Vecchione were “as close as can be” and the trainer taught him as much about the rudiments of boxing as he provided him with lessons on life.
Vecchione protected Corkum from the negative influences of “the guys from Springfield and Providence,” mobsters who liked to visit the gyms, ingratiate themselves with the boxers, and attend the fights.
“Vinnie made it clear to me who they were, but they had enough respect for him to not speak to me without him being present,” explained Corkum.
Although Corkum admits to competing against “some very smart people” for admission to medical school, his innate intelligence and emotional savvy matched the confidence he exhibited in the ring. It was a winning combination.
Not only was he admitted to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, but he also qualified for numerous grants. When he graduated in 1985, he was $35,000 in debt, which is a fraction of what Georgetown would have cost and $85,500 in today’s dollars.
“My parents offered me great [emotional] support, but they could not help out financially,” said Corkum. “I knew I would find the means to go. By the grace of God, I got into Johns Hopkins, which had a huge endowment.”
Corkum met his wife, Meda Elizabeth Groff, a social worker, while doing his internship and for decades has been practicing internal medicine – gastroenterology in Towson, Maryland. He and his wife have three children.
His medical colleagues know that he was once a boxer, but few, if any, can relate to his unique past.
“The fight game means nothing to them,” he said. “No one gets it. Unless you have trained as a boxer and had to go into the tenth round punched out and exhausted, you cannot understand. You can explain it, but people have no idea.”
Corkum has fond memories of his ring career, despite it seeming like it was eons ago. It stopped him from being bullied as a youngster and he had a great team with Vecchione and Sam Silverman, the venerable promoter who died tragically in a car crash at the age of 64 in July 1977.
Corkum, who until recently believed he was 100 percent Irish, was so shaken by Silverman’s death, he honored him by having the Star of David stitched on the left side of his trunks. On the right side was an Irish shamrock.
When Corkum got a DNA ancestry test in the last few years, he was astounded to learn that he was 49 percent European Jew and 51 percent Irish. Thinking it had to be a mistake, he retested with a different company and got the same results.
He was determined to find an answer to this genetic family mystery but has thus far been unable to do so. His father’s surviving family members are not talking to each other while also staying mum or playing dumb, his sisters do not want to perform DNA tests, and his mother’s siblings are all deceased.
On rare occasions, Corkum, who is still in tremendous physical condition, muses back about his past life as an exciting contender. There was the night he lost a 10-round decision to crosstown rival Tony Petronelli at the Boston Garden before 10,000 fans.
Besides being six years older, Petronelli was the son of Pat Petronelli, who along with his brother Goody trained and managed Marvelous Marvin Hagler and were considered boxing royalty in New England.
Corkum’s other loss, in July 1978, was by third round TKO to seasoned veteran Jimmy Heair, who would go on to have over 130 fights during his career.
Corkum’s most memorable ring encounter was his March 1978 decision victory against journeyman Jose Papo Melendez at the Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum in New Haven, Connecticut.
The non-televised fight was the main prelim to Sugar Ray Leonard’s victory over Javier Muniz. Leonard, a 1976 Olympic gold medalist, was 8-0 at the time and on the road to superstardom.
“I was knocked down in the eighth round, but got up to win a decision,” said Corkum. “There was a full house, and the Leonard fight was on national television. It was an exciting event.”
Corkum and his wife have three children, whose upbringings could not have been more different than his own. However, he is glad that they have the same fierce work ethic and self-belief that made him a success in two of the world’s most challenging vocations.
Eldest son Tyler did his undergraduate studies at Drexel University and became a nurse practitioner after attending Johns Hopkins. Daughter Abigail played lacrosse at William and Mary, is completing her master’s in public health at Thomas Jefferson University, and will soon be applying to medical schools. Youngest son Jack is a freshman at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Unlike many retired boxers, Corkum has no regrets about the early ending to a career that had once seemed so promising.
“Very few people make it to the top,” he said. “If you do, most don’t stay there long. Everything turned out great for me. It was my dream to be a doctor and I made that happen. I’m glad I didn’t have to experience being a 30-year-old boxer making a comeback.”