How two mythical trainers- Jack Hurley and Pop Foster – generated
“The Greatest Fight Seen in the Garden”
by Wilson Pitts
On a night 80 years ago an epic fight took place in Madison Square Garden. Many ringside observers and sports writers considered this to be the greatest fight they ever saw in the Garden.
Nat Fleisher of The Ring Magazine wrote that “No one who saw that mill in the Garden in 1930 will ever forget it.”
On November 21, 1930 the first Billy Petrolle- Jimmy McLarnin fight took place in New York City at Madison Square Garden. Also on that night two of the great characters of depression era boxing faced each other as well. Petrolle was managed and trained by Jack Hurley and McLarnin by “Pop” Foster.
In those days there weren’t so many different players in a fighter’s camp. Today the manager is liable to be a promoter who just picks the opponents and negotiates the contracts. Different people will be brought in to do conditioning and day to day gym work and someone else may be looking at video of the opponents and devising strategy, if that is even happening. These guys from the 1920’s and 30’s were different, they did it all, and without video. Both Hurley and Foster were great students of the art, and they both had only one fighter that went to the highest levels. They were Billy Petrolle and Jimmy McLarnin respectively and they had brought them up from very early in their boxing careers. Both fighters fought a lot and were big draws even in the Great Depression.
Both Hurley and Foster taught their fighters their unique styles of boxing and trained and coached them through long careers against top notch opponents. Each of these men had their own fight psychology as well. They taught their fighters to remain calm and relaxed in the ring so that they could maintain snap on their punches and stay within themselves aerobically for the duration of the fight.
It all came together on that night in the Garden, both fighters at the peak of their abilities. If styles make fights then these two unique styles matched up to make one of the most exciting fights of the 1930’s. Almost all of McLarnin’s fights were at catch weights negotiated by Pop Foster, and they were almost all against smaller men. He ended several contenders’ careers with crushing early round knockouts.
This famous KO of Al Singer 1930-09-11 was McLarnin's last fight before the fight with Petrolle.
When McLarnin and Petrolle met in 1930 it was a catch weight of 141 pounds. McLarnin’s record at this time was 46-6-3 and he weighed 141. Petrolle had a record of 74-14-8 and he weighed 138.
Jack Hurley, Billy Petrolle’s manager trainer, taught his fighters to turn away from a right hand and throw the counter right hand back. You can see Hurley’s last contender Harry “Kid” Mathews
Jack Hurley and Billy Petrolle
doing it in the first round of his fight with Rocky Marciano.
Before the McLarnin fight in the Garden that night Hurley told Petrolle that McLarnin would be expecting him to do that move so they had to change tactics. McLarnin was taller and had a very sharp straight right hand so Hurley told Petrolle to drop his left hand and draw the right from McLarnin and then go under it and counter with the left hook. Petrolle dropped McLarnin with this move twice in the early part of the fight. After the second round Hurley told Petrolle that he wouldn’t be able to land that counter any more and to change tactics again.
In the forth round he had Petrolle jab short and miss on purpose and when McLarnin tried to swarm in he floored him with a right hand and had him in trouble. McLarnin made it through the ten rounds even though the referee asked him twice if he wanted to stop.
Nat Fleisher reported that McLarnin “took a licking that might have spelled finis to the career of a less courageous, stout hearted battler.”
“ McLarnin was down twice in the 4th round for nine counts. His manager later claimed McLarnin injured his right hand in the 2nd round and "it was noted that he used his right hand seldom after the 4th session." (James P. Dawson, New York Times).
He had a history of hand problems and indeed broke his right hand early in this Petrolle fight. McLarnin’s version of what happened was that he went after Petrolle too soon, broke his hand, and went into shock and took a beating.
Jimmy McLarnin didn’t fight again until he fought the rematch with Petrolle on May 27, 1931 at Madison Square Garden which he won via decision. The rubber match was held on August 20, 1931 at Yankee Stadium where McLarnin gave Petrolle a bad beating and won another decision victory. The mark of a great cornerman is the ability to watch the opponent and learn what he does. Petrolle jumped on McLarnin and surprised him in this first fight but Pop Foster got to study him for 10 rounds. McLarnin had Petrolle figured out in their subsequent two fights.
Scripts Howard editor and writer Joe Williams wrote that in twenty five years of watching fights at Madison Square Garden the greatest he ever saw was the first Petrolle- McLarnin fight.
On the morning after the fight James P. Dawson, writing in the New York Times, said; "The greatest welterweight in America and believed heretofore to be the uncrowned world ruler of the class was knocked from his lofty perch last night in Madison Square Garden and supplanted by an overgrown lightweight…Billy Petrolle, an ironman of the ring and a hitter of no mean ability himself, carried off the decision and did everything but knock-out McLarnin. He missed that climax to a wonderful effort because of the Irish lad's recuperative powers."
Jack Hurley was a veteran of World War I and claimed to have been inspired to devise his own boxing style by a bayonet instructor in England. He taught his fighters to stand in a crouch with their hands down and draw leads and counter and he did teach a few distinctive footwork maneuvers that were some what his trademark. He was such a raconteur that it is hard to tell if any of it really derived from bayonet drills. Hurly was immortalized in the book “Once They Heard the Cheers” by W.C. Heinz.
Charles “Pop” Foster was born in Leeds England and had been a professional fighter before serving in World War I. By the early 1920s, when he was in his 50s, Foster was living in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, where he discovered and managed Jimmy McLarnin and Mickey Gill. Later he also managed Lee Ramage.
Jimmy McLarin and Pop Foster
Foster was known as “The man with the one way pockets.” “He never overmatched his fighter for mere money. He never "cut" his fighter with another manager. And there wasn't a promoter in the world who dared suggest a fixed match to the team of Pop Foster and McLarnin.” Sports Illustrated
Foster was an out of work longshoreman when he began training Jimmy “Babyface” McLarnin in the basement of McLarnin’s father’s store when Jimmy was 14 years old. Foster sanded the floor and spread the saw dust on the smooth surface. He had Jimmy practice footwork, responding to the opponent with his feet on the slippery surface. Foster became like a father to the boy and he taught McLarnin a distinctive stand up style, chin tucked, hands blazing. He worked with him for two years on speed, of feet and hands, before allowing him to turn pro at age 16. McLarnin was known for his snappy left jab and a straight right hand and his ability to stand in the gap and get off. Foster campaigned McLarnin in every weight division from flyweight to welterweight.
Foster’s methods were somewhat unique. He discouraged muscular development, especially in the arms and shoulders, because he felt that is decreased speed. He forbid McLarnin to punch with weights in his hands and had him fast for a week after a long fight. He crossed trained Jimmy during summer-long lay offs with hauling in fishing nets, rowing a boat, and running. He had him do everything with his left hand, throw darts, row a boat, bounce a ball.
When McLarnin was an established and very successful pro Foster was criticized in the press for not hiring professional sparring partners and for not following convention and making McLarnin do long workouts. Actually he was adamant about not over training McLarnin and tried to rein him in and teach him to be patient and not go for the knockout immediately. He only had McLarnin do three rounds of sparring per day, three rounds of heavy bag work, and three rounds of light bag work. Foster cooked all of McLarnin’s meals and stayed with him constantly when he was training.
Jimmy McLarnin said,” Pop was an old-timer from the old school. He knew boxing from A to Z. He developed speed. The important part of boxing is not to get hit. If they can’t hit you they can’t beat you, and can’t hurt you. This is, of course, the great science of boxing. Because of Pop I had a lot of fights and was never hit, never hurt...”
That being said, McLarnin took bad beatings twice in his career. This first Petrolle fight was pretty bad, he did not fight for six months afterward mostly because of his hand injury. The second time was at the hands of Tony Canzoneri May 8, 1936 in their first fight.
McLarnin failed in his first title fight, losing a unanimous decision to Sammy Mandell May 21, 1928 for the lightweight crown.
He fought big money fights at catch weights for five years before challenging for the welterweight title against Young Corbett III May 29, 1933. McLarnin upset Corbett by knocking him out in the first round of their fight in Wrigley Field in LA. He won the welterweight title twice but had a better knockout ratio fighting as a lightweight. I don’t have any video of this fight with Petrolle but I do have some footage of Billy Petrolle fighting Barney Ross in 1934
and of McLarnin’s last of three fights with Ross in 1935.
Petrolle also fought a ten round no decision bout with then lightweight champion Sammy Mandell in 1928 and lost a newspaper decision. He never did get a title shot. He is on that short list of fighters such as Charlie Burley with great records who never got a title fight. After the Mandell fight Petrolle fought much more often, for less money, than McLarnin did. Billy Petrolle was born on 10 -01-1905. It was said “The Fargo Express” retired in 1934 with $200,000 and an iron foundry in Duluth Minnesota. He later owned a religious goods and gift shop in Duluth, and was the chairman of the Board of Directors of the Pioneer National Bank. He passed away in 1983. According to Boxrec.com Petrolle’s lifetime record was 86 (KO 64) + lost 20 (KO 3) + drawn 9 = 117 bouts Rounds boxed = 709 Newspaper decisions won 34 lost 6 drawn 5 Rounds boxed= 406 Total Bouts: 162 a true journeyman fighter. KO% 39.5
Petrolle had an amazing total of 1115 rounds boxed.
Jimmy McLarnin retired in 1936 after defeating Lou Ambers, a great lightweight champion, over ten rounds in a non title bout. He retired to Glendale California and opened a machine shop. He appeared as himself in several films, including The Big City (1937), The Crowd Roars (1938), Swing with Bing (1940) and Joe Palooka (1946). He played golf with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby and did some lecturing in later life. Charles Foster bought a house in the same street, and used to drop by daily to relive past glories over coffee. When Foster passed away in 1956 he left McLarnin $200, 000. McLarnin died on October 28, 2004 at age 96. He is the subject of the book “Babyface Goes to Hollywood” by Andrew Gallimore
According to Boxrec.com McLarnin’s lifetime record was: won 54 (KO 21) + lost 11 (KO 1) + drawn 3 = 68 rounds boxed 452 KO% 30.88