Updated: May 30, 2020
Contributed by sportswriter Paul Zanon
Pound for pound, coronavirus is proving to be one of the toughest opponents to have surfaced on this planet in several decades. As we currently battle toe to toe with this virulent pandemic, British Vintage Boxing looks back at a fighter who perished from the last major global outbreak, just over a century ago.
When you mention Mike Donovan to most boxing aficionados they will stand there and scratch their heads. However, you go through his résumé and the almighty legacy he left within the realms of pugilism, those very same people will instantly be converted into admirers of the 5ft 8 inch middleweight.
Born Michael O’Donovan on 27 September 1847 in Chicago, Illinois, the future United States Middleweight champion was an active fighter in the crossover period of bare knuckle to gloved boxing. However, his fighting days started out in a battlefield as opposed to the prize ring.
In 1861, aged either 13 or 14, Donovan joined the 71st Illinois Infantry, serving General William T. Sherman and the future eighteenth President of the United States, General Ulysses S. Grant. Under the leadership of General Sherman, Donovan eventually fought in the Battle of Resaca in May 1864, marching through Georgia and into a battle which claimed nearly 3,000 lives.
Donovan’s boxing career is somewhat foggy on paper. Trying to establish his first and last official fights is a debate of folklore versus fractured boxing records from a number of bygone sources. However, the highlights without a doubt make for great conversational pieces.
Despite some reports of Donovan’s first professional fight being on 18 May 1866, against Billy Crowley, it’s widely recognised that 18 year old Donovan’s first fistic encounter was against Crowley Davis on 3 June 1866. On 8 June, The Burlington Hawk Eye reported on the marathon bare knuckle encounter. ‘A prize fight occurred at St Louis on the 3rd, between Crowley Davis of Pittsburgh and Mike Donovan of Chicago. After fighting fifty-nine rounds, in two hours and two minutes, the contest was decided in favor of Davis, Donovan having made a ‘foul’.”
Three years from his debut, on 4 July 1869, Donovan fought John Shanssey. In addition to being a boxer, Shanssey was a well known gambler, saloon owner and even the Mayor of Yuma, Arizona. However, all these credentials on the day of the fight have been overshadowed in history by the name of the 21 year old referee who was handy with a Colt .45. Mr Wyatt Earp.
Donovan walked away with a points decision over ten rounds and in the next three years fought a further nine times without defeat, whilst working full time as a ship caulker. In the next couple of years, the Illinois favourite opened a saloon and also started testing the water as a boxing trainer.
On 6 April 1878, Donovan took on W C McClellan at the Masonic Hall, New York for the American Middleweight Title. It’s worth noting, up to this point the majority of Donovan’s contests had been bare knuckle. Fighting with gloves and under the banner of the Marquis of Queensbury Rules, Donovan was unfortunate not to get the nod. The NY Herald wrote. ‘Donovan was warned by the referee in each round following the 12th for not obeying his orders to 'break' quickly enough, or hitting after the 'break'. Previous to the 16th round the referee gave Donovan the last warning. In the last round the referee again ordered them to break apart, McClellan lowered his hands and stepped back, when Donovan hit him three times and was disqualified. Previous to that Donovan was clearly having the better of the fight.’ Six weeks later, in yet another messy affair, they fought again with McClellan being disqualified in the seventh session.
The most memorable of their encounters was on 18 August 1879 in San Francisco, California, when the pair battled it out over a gruelling 96 rounds, culminating in a draw. They would continue to share the ring a number of times over the next decade in exhibition bouts, but whenever their surnames were mentioned in the same sentence, it was usually with reference to ‘that’ contest.
In February 1880, Donovan fought the ‘Boston Strong Boy,’ better known as John L. Sullivan. It’s unsure if the contest was an exhibition or a ‘No Contest,’ but either way, they shared ring space for four rounds, with Donovan giving away over 50lbs in weight to the future first gloved heavyweight world champion. Sources show that they would have in excess of 15 exhibitions over the next 12 years and in the process striking up a strong friendship.
In 1884, The New York Athletic Club was in need of a new head boxing coach. The shortlist comprised of Donovan and a British boxer called Walter Watson. The two decided to fight for the position, and after six hard fought rounds, the referee was unable to separate them. After one more session, Donovan was declared the victor and in doing so, was bestowed the official title of ‘Boxing Instructor,’ at the New York Athletic Club.
In 1886 and 1888, Donovan took on ‘Nonpareil’ Jack Dempsey. The first encounter was widely regarded as an exhibition, whereas the latter six rounder finished in a draw. 1892 however, was certainly a mixed bag. In addition to participating in three exhibition contests with ‘Gentleman’ Jim Corbett, Donovan trained Corbett for his clash against John L. Sullivan in August 1892. After 21 hard rounds, skill, youth and stamina overcame the Boston resident and he was knocked out in the 21st round.
The passing of the torch saw Corbett crowned as the new heavyweight champion of the world and John L. Sullivan hung up the gloves for good.
In 1896, Donovan took on the esteemed British bare knuckle champion, Jem Mace, in Broadway, New York. Clinching a victory over four rounds, Donovan repeated the task in 1897 on Mace’s home turf in the U.K., however, it’s worth bearing in mind that although Donovan was a few days shy of 50 years old, Mace was reportedly 67.
Records point towards Donovan’s last bout being an exhibition with Corbett in 1900. However, by this stage, Donovan had gained a reputation as one of the best trainers in town, turning fighters into champions and showing the pugilistic fundamentals to some of the better known pillars in society, including President Teddy Roosevelt and his sons. In fact, the 26th President of the United States sparred with Donovan on a number of occasions.
Donovan’s teachings laid down the groundwork for generations of boxers, with his mindset of hitting and not getting hit, via the use of footwork, combination punching and reading your opponent. He’s also been accredited as the person who invented the modern day punching bag.
At the age of 70, Professor Mike Donovan died at 1.15am on 24 March 1918 as a result of contracting the deadly Spanish flu; a viral strain that would be responsible for an estimated 50 million deaths worldwide. His wife, three sons and five daughters were by his side when he passed away. Despite ceasing his physical being, Donovan left a legacy that cemented his presence in boxing circles for several generations to come. His son, Arthur Donovan would become a prolific boxing referee and International Boxing Hall of Fame inductee and his grandson, Arthur Jr, went on to earn honours as an inducted member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Despite his recorded weight varying from 147lbs to 164lbs, the majority of his contests were a little over 150lbs. A small modern day super welterweight, Donovan focused on the man in front of him instead of the boundaries of sensibility. He never ducked an opponent and those who fought him knew they’d been in a fight.
In 1998, Donovan was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Known by many as ‘The Professor,’ for his boxing IQ, Chicago’s fighting son was a national treasure, sporting icon and pioneer. His presence is still very much alive in modern day boxing.
PaulZanon, has written eight books, with almost all of them reaching the No1 Bestselling spot in their respective categories on Amazon. He has co-hosted boxing shows on Talk Sport, been a pundit on London Live, Boxnation and is a regular contributor to Boxing Monthly magazine amongst other publications.