EDITOR’S NOTE: This story also appears in this week’s issue of TimeOut Chicago, as part of our weekly web-to-print partnership.
Despite the chilly September darkness near midnight, two fighters and excited boxing fans gathered under a tent erected in a picnic grove in suburban Lemont.
Kerosene lamps pushed back the dark. The crowd was warned against being too loud because the event was not officially lawful and could be stopped if the noise drew police.
Instead of padded gloves, Chicagoan Jimmy “Little Tiger” Barry and Casper “The Sicilian Swordfish” Leon from Sicily by way of New York wore skin-tight mitts. The fistic contest raged past 27 rounds and, according to one report, Barry was carried to his corner by his seconds at the end of each round and wrapped in a blanket against the cold before the gong sounded for the bout to resume.
The year was 1894.
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History enhances some reputations and swallows others. Jimmy Barry’s falls into that second category, but deserves to be in the first.
A boxer never losing a fight is as hard to believe as a ballplayer batting .400 for his entire career. But while a lifetime .400 hitter is the stuff of fiction, a Chicago boxer who retired unbeaten after 70 fights is real. That’s Jimmy Barry, the “Little Tiger.”
He is a rarity among fellow inductees into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Among the hundreds of world champions in history, only nine—most notably Rocky Marciano, Joe Calzaghe, Ricardo Lopez, and Barry—made it through their careers without a loss. And Barry fought more often than any of them, Lopez being the closest with 51 victories and one draw. Some records show Barry fighting more than 70 bouts. None show him ever losing.
His feat was even more remarkable in other ways: Some of his bouts in the 1890s went far beyond the 12 rounds common for title fights today. In the Lemont Marathon, he knocked out top contender Leon in the 28th round.
Standing 5-foot-2 and barely topping 100 pounds, Barry was a fearsome puncher who knocked out 39 opponents.
In his career from 1891 to 1898, there were years when he fought nearly every month. Leon tried a half dozen times to beat Barry, but never could.
In today’s weight classes, Barry would probably be listed as a strawweight (105 pounds and under), said Sean Curtin, boxing archivist and Illinois’ former chief of professional boxing. “But in his era, 115-pound bantamweight was the smallest class, so Barry was often fighting bigger and heavier opponents. He had exceptional punching power and great endurance.”
Late in his career, he kept at his sport although devastated by a tragic event in the ring. More about that later. Despite abandoning his signature aggressive firepower and instead pulling his punches thereafter, he still won or fought to a draw in each of his last 10 bouts.
In short, the Little Tiger was a beast, but he was also a consummate pro.
Many disbelieving fans turned out to see the combination of power and finesse in a man who looked more like a jockey than a boxing champion. He fought most often in Chicago, where he was born to Irish parents and got into frequent scraps as a schoolboy. He trained under the notable ex-fighter Harry Gilmore, who once said, “Teaching Barry to box was like teaching a duck to swim.”
Barry’s professional career took him across the country for bouts from New York to New Orleans to San Francisco. He fought in venues of the day ranging from the picnic grove to McGurn’s handball court, the old Star and Empire theaters, and Tattersall’s events hall in Chicago, to the Academy of Music in New York.
No champion ever goes unchallenged. After Barry won the world bantamweight title, he heard disclaimers from overseas, so he traveled to England in 1897 to face British champion Walter Croot.
Their highly competitive bout in the National Sporting Club of London ended abruptly in the 20th round. It would haunt Barry forever. His two-punch combination, a left to the heart and right to the jaw, made Barry a knockout victor and left Croot, who fell heavily onto his head and remained unconscious, a fatality.
Barry broke down and wept after the fight. “I never did that,” he said. He and others, including the referee and cornermen for both fighters, were charged with manslaughter. They were later exonerated when it was determined that a critical factor in Croot’s death was his head striking the unpadded floor. That led to reform in the creation of padded canvas ring surfaces.
“I am deeply upset and can hardly say what I think,” Barry was quoted saying in a New York Times article after the bout. “I had not the slightest enmity toward Croot. We were good friends, and there was nothing bitter in our fight. I never had the slightest thought that my blow would do more than stop him for a few moments.”
Distraught, Barry retired from boxing. But he was untrained for any other profession, so he soon returned to the ring as many retired fighters do. He kept boxing despite telling reporters he could no longer attack with his previous ferocity. As quoted in The Ring Magazine, he said, “It bothers me a lot when I’m boxing. I can never lose sight of Croot’s face as he lay there getting counted out.”
He never knocked out another opponent. Barry’s last eight bouts ended in draws, including, after another retirement of eight months, his farewell fight against Harry Harris, a fellow bantamweight and Hall of Fame inductee.
Some felt the referee and judge could have scored that last bout for Harris but called it a draw out of respect to enable a great fighter to leave with an unblemished record.
Boxing historian Herb Goldman, a former editor of The Ring, noted that Barry began fighting in an era when bare-knuckle boxing coexisted with gloved fighting and the Marquis of Queensbury rules had just been instituted to regulate the sport. As such, Barry was “the first notable fighter” at his slight weight in gloved competition, Goldman said. And, he added, while there are always debates as to who deserves to be enshrined, “there is no way to challenge Barry’s place in the Hall of Fame.”