in his own words

Johnny Kilbane

The following is a poem penned by Kilbane.

Fighting Heart

by Johnny Kilbane

A man can have two arms of steel

a punch of dynamite

But if he lacks a fighting heart

He'll miss the greatest height

He may possess an iron fist

And strength beyond his need

Then too he may be quick of mind

And blessed with extra speed

He may have great ability

Or be a fancy Dan

But without faith and fighting heart

He's just an also-ran

This need of heart is not just for

the pugilist who fights

But it holds true for all of us

Who battle for our rights

For when the chips of life are down

and troubled waters mount

A fighting heart will see us through

However long the count

This page contains quotes, articles and a poem all written by Kilbane himself.


February 22, 1912 before winning the title from Abe Attell

"I am going to take the championship title back to Cleveland with me.  I fought Attell two years ago. I was then a novice, but he did not bother me with his punches.  As he was the champion and I was a beginner, I did not mix it with him.  It will be different this time.  I am going to beat him.  I have set my heart and head on winning and I am surely going to make good."

     - Johnny Kilbane


February 18, 1951

"Boxing, not slugging, is the greatest game in the world.  You can't beat it.  You travel, get a broader education than can be found in any school, and perhaps - best of all - you meet people."

     - Johnny Kilbane


February 18, 1951

"My life has been a very happy one.  Ninety-nine percent of this is because of my wife, and the other one percent is the Luck of the Irish."

     - Johnny Kilbane


"Anybody who can be hit can be whipped"

     - Johnny Kilbane


The following is a personal account written by Johnny Kilbane and published in newspapers across the country in the early 1920's. NEA Services Inc. was the publisher.

Stage Attracted Kilbane When Boy


     You can never tell me that environment and circumstances don't play a big part in shaping a person's life.  Now that I have had time for leisure recollection, I have often thought what I might have done in this world for a living if I hadn't became a fighter.  Environment and circumstances certainly headed me into the ring.  Born on W 28th street, near old River Avenue, in 1889, I attended St. Malachi's School on old Washington Avenue.  My mother died when I was 3 years old and my father became blind when I was only 10.  I had no brothers or sisters, no relatives and mighty few boy and girl friends.  I was just one of those little kids that run wild, and, like Topsy, "I just grew".


     I was probably the skinniest kid in the parish.  I scarcely made a shadow when the sun shone, and the kids at school were forever poking fun at my thin legs.  My legs weren't the only things about me that were skinny, either.  My arms were almost as fleshless as my legs and it was not until Jimmy Dunn put me to work shoveling sand that I developed my chest and stomach muscles.  You could almost look thru them when I was a boy at St. Malachi's.


     It was probably my thinness that resulted in my developing a fondness for buck and wing dancing.  I was as light as a feather and I possessed what I presume would be called the inherent love of the Irish for the stage.  I sang in a tenor voice that was sometimes good and sometimes pretty squeaky, and I took a few cracks at the violin along with my dancing.  I hoped some day to be an actor.  Teachers at St. Malachi encouraged my bent for these things, but they also made me take time out for gymnastics.  I presume they did not want me to die on their hands.  I hit up a close acquaintance with the horizontal bars.  I liked the swinging - the abandoned feeling I experienced when I flew thru the air.  I decided I would add the horizontal bars to my act - for I was fully determined to go on the stage when I became old enough.


     As I grew into my teens, I longed for company.  I began stealing away to the dance halls of the West Side at night.  The natural ability I had for dancing made me a favorite with the girls on the floor, but when it came time to take them home they sought out the healthy-looking boys.


     It was a visit to the old La Salle Club, W. 25th Street and Division Avenue, that shattered the dreams I had had about being an actor and gymnast.  In the winter of 1906-1907, Tom Sharkey came to the club to box an exhibition with Otto Craig.  I had never seen a professional fighter, and tho Sharkey was thru at the time, I had picked up enough of his reputation piece-meal to become enthralled by the glamor which surrounded a man who had fought Corbett, Jeffries, Fitzsimmons and other great heroes to us Irish boys.  His exhibition with Craig wasn't very much, but the lights and the crowd, the prominent Clevelanders present, the heavy cigar smoke and the general atmosphere of romance made a deep impression on me.  I decided then and there against the horizontal bars, the buck and wing, voice and the violin.  I would become a boxer!  But how? 


     I had a friend, Perk Gibbons, who ran an elevator in the old City Hall. He was my closest friend, my boyhood advisor.  Most people would have laughed at me if I had told them I was going to be a boxer, but I knew Perk Gibbons wouldn't, and I confided my secret to him.  He looked at me sort of wonderingly at first but when he saw I was in earnest he said: "You don't look like a boxer, Johnny, but maybe the fighting is all in your heart, or maybe just in your head.  If you're in earnest I'll give you a note to Jimmy Dunn.  He's down at Crystal Beach (near Vermilion).  If you can fight, he'll soon find it out, and if you can't he won't be half as long".


     There was only one thing more standing in my path to pugilistic fame.  I didn't have the 30 cents necessary to pay my fare to Crystal Beach.  I had been working for the Pennsylvania railroad as a switchboy, but pay day was not at hand and the money from the last one had long since gone for dance tickets and a ticket to see Sharkey.  It was this switchboy job, by the way, that was another factor in deciding me on a fistic career.  I couldn't throw the switches by my hands alone.  I had to throw my entire body on the bars and bounce up and down to throw them. Perk Gibbons gave me the 30 cents and on a sunny June day I got off the interurban at Crystal Beach and asked for Jimmy Dunn.


Kilbane's Fight With Attell


     A crowd always is with a champion before the fight.  As soon as his opponent starts to hit him, they cry for a knockout of the titleholder.  But when the champion steps into the ring, the cheers are all for him.  I learned that especially at Vernon, California on that day back in 1912 when Abe Attell and I clashed for the featherweight title.  I had been told by so many that he was unbeatable.  It didn't encourage me any more than witnessing an execution would encourage a man sentenced to die.  But I sort of gathered my wits and asked myself whether it wasn't an advantage to me to have Attell such a great fighter.  Surely it would be no credit for me to lick or be beaten by a dub!


     And so I climbed into the ring.  I didn't mind the half-hearted cheers I received, and the roof-smashing cheers that went to Abe.  I determined not to rush him, but to have him bring the fight to me.  When he brought it, I'd have a reception committee consisting of a couple of rights and a few lefts there to greet him.


     I followed this course, and altho Attell gave me a severe tongue lashing - he certainly tried to discourage me vocally - he didn't do any particular damage to my husky young body.  "So you're the guy who beat Kilbane," he said at one time in a clinch.  He was so excited he even thought he was fighting Rivers!  I'd answer with a simple: "Yes" Or I'd even add a "Yes -sir!"  That made him so mad he dropped his hands once, and asked me why I didn't come in.  I was polite, but firm, in replying that the honors were all his.  And I wound up the day by getting the decision, and with it the championship, which I have kept ever since.


     When the referee lifted my arm and proclaimed me the champion, the crowd was all for me.  I didn't seem to realize it.  It was all so new.  And to this day I can't seem to get excited over it.  I've never realized I was the champ.  My life's habits have not changed a bit. 


     After the fight the talk of the town was Kilbane.  Those in the cabarets wanted to know where he was.  Why didn't he come around and show himself?  The reason he didn't, I don't mind telling for the first time, was that he was walking up and down the beach with Mrs. Kilbane, pushing their baby carriage.  We slipped away from the crowds and stayed together all that evening, walking back and forth, talking, planning our future.  Because my wife's happiness meant more to me than all the championships put together.  Our baby was only about a year old.  Our second baby, whom we were to lose, had not been born.  Our future meant everything.  The few curious ones who wanted to see the new champ meant nothing.  We decided to go back to Cleveland, but to take the journey leisurely, playing a few theatrical engagements on the way. 


     We started back about six weeks later, and all went well until we hit Syracuse, Kansas.  There we ran into a snowstorm that held us up nearly two days.  I'll always remember that storm.  It was a terrible one.  Finally, on March 17, a Sunday, we reached Cleveland, and what a reception!


Crowds Welcomed Kilbane Home


     At the time I won the championship from Attell at Vernon, California, Newton D. Baker, secretary of war under President Wilson, was mayor of Cleveland.  He has proved one of my best friends, thru his kindly advice. 


     The crowd that was at the station to meet me was tremendous.  Newspaper men and photographers started to get on the train at Toledo and Sandusky.  The crowd fairly swept me from my feet.  No visitor to Cleveland ever received the ovation that my fellow townsmen gave me.  I have never forgotten it, and never will.  My wife and I reached an auto, and were whisked home. 


Soon afterward, I received a call from Mayor Baker, asking me to come to see him.  This I did, and he gave me some advice I have followed carefully ever since.  "Now Johnny," he said to me, "you're a champion now, and everyone will be coming to you.  Don't get a swellhead, whatever you do.  Keep your level head."  I pause here in my writing, to ask a question of the reader.  How many men, as high up as Mayor Baker was then, would stop to do what he did?


     The town was painted a rich green for its Irish champ.  I appeared a week at Keith's theater and the outside was decorated in Erin's color.  It so happened John McCormack followed me the next week, and they kept the colors as fully appropriate for him.  I was so nervous I couldn't punch the bag on my first appearance.  The whole city seemed to welcome me.  I don't say that in any spirit of conceit.  It was Johnny this, and Johnny that.


     I confess I liked it.  It was something new.  But the realization that I was the champ never has dawned on me to this day in the sense that the very act of becoming a champ automatically lifts a man completely apart from the rest of the field and makes him a separate world unto himself.  In those days crowds, in a way, frightened me, both when I was in or out of the ring, especially in.  I didn't understand them.  I was later to learn that they always root eventually, in the course of a fight for the underdog, the one fighting what seems to be against odds.  But here, too, we meet the same condition that exists elsewhere in the world.


     The admiration goes for the struggler.  Once you obtain success, this admiration for your pluck turns in many instances, I am sorry indeed to say, to envy, and to a savage desire to see you uncrowned.


     Now I have realized all this.  Eleven years of it have made me immune.  Now it is more of a business with me, not entirely in the monetary sense, because I still love the game, but in the sense I realize how easily the crowds' cheers for me can turn to jeers.