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“Terrible” Terry McGovern

A Little Like Tyson

By: Monte D. Cox


      The name Terry McGovern might not mean much to boxing fans today, but in his youthful prime he was one of the most awesome hitters in boxing history. His punching power put fear into the hearts of fighters from bantamweight to lightweight. McGovern was like a little Mike Tyson destroying opponent after opponent during his short, but devastating reign of terror.

      Stylistically there are many similarities between Terry McGovern and Mike Tyson. Both were stocky built, swarming style hitters who came in low and wrecked their opponents with sharp and powerful counter punches. Like Tyson, McGovern had a seek and destroy mentality from the opening round.

      Prior to the coming of Terry McGovern fans did not like to watch fights that ended almost as soon as they began. The boxing crowd and the gamblers who ran the sport liked to see drawn out boxing exhibitions that featured sparring for openings, masterful defense, and a relatively slow pace until an opponent made a mistake. The longer a fight went the more money that could be placed on bets by the gamblers and the fighter’s financial backers. It was common to see the elite fighters carry an opponent to cash in on the stakes. McGovern cared nothing for that. He came out of his corner like a hungry lion who was ready to feed and attempted to devour his opponents in the shortest amount of time. When McGovern exploded on the scene he electrified the crowds with his fast attacks and devastating, shocking early round knockouts. No one had seen anything quite like him before. McGovern scored 23 of his 44 career knockouts in 3 rounds or less.

      The National Police Gazette characterized him thusly; “Terry’s style of fighting was a never ending source of delight to the thousands who saw him for the first time in a ring engagement. He was as fast as a streak of lightning, and the large crowd was amazed at his great footwork…Terry has wonderful control of himself in a mix-up and never gets rattled. He would go in like a steam engine and slip away like a snake. This was one of the most notable features of his work in the contest. He was always fighting but never let his opponent hit him to any extent.”

      McGovern was a hand held high, ducking, slipping, and short armed puncher much like heavyweight Tyson. "Iron" Mike was known for his defense, slipping and countering to get inside. McGovern fought much in the same manner, the Gazette reported, “McGovern’s defense was perfect and his delivery fast and furious.”

      After his fight with Billy Rotchford the Gazette described McGovern with the following, “He hooks fast and punches straight and has a remarkably swift punch, moving over the shortest possible space, and both hands are capable of working evenly, smooth and fast as two pistons. The position in which he had his mitts drew up his shoulder and protected his chin and neck. The elbows were ready to drop to stave off rib blows, and the hand, either right or left, prepared to slip inside any swing or wide hook an opponent might deal up.”

      When Tyson was “on” he was a strong body puncher as in the Jesse Ferguson fight, but Tyson was never the pound for pound puncher to the body that McGovern was. Historian Barry Deskins wrote, “Short blows to the body followed by a viscous straight right is McGovern’s strongest asset, particularly his work to the body.” Old time fight announcer Joe Humphrey’s said, Sept 1936 Ring Magazine, “McGovern was a lightning fast feinter and a terrible hitter. He was a great body puncher, an art that seems to be lost to the present generation.”

      Harry Lenny, an old time fighter and trainer who served as a sparring partner for lightweight champion Joe Gans and worked Joe Louis corner agrees with this assessment saying, “McGovern was a very powerful man, who hurt you with every punch. He was a great body puncher.”

      Ducking and going to the body with quick two handed combinations McGovern would then come up with a powerful right to the head. The Gazette writer depicted McGovern in his fight with Casper Leon as having “a beautiful right hand cross-counter punch” that lands with “such marvelous force that something has to drop, and that something usually lays stretched out until the referee counts the fateful ten.”

      When Terry McGovern challenged champion Pedlar Palmer for the bantamweight championship the boxing public expected a great boxer versus puncher match up. Instead they saw an annihilation. Like Tyson’s 1988 knockout of the previously undefeated Mike Spinks, McGovern’s 1899 knockout of previously unbeaten Palmer ended in the first round. McGovern stunned the crowd with a terrifying right hand to the chin that won the championship in record time. McGovern was just 19 years old.

      George Dixon, one of the greatest fighters of all time, reigned as Featherweight champion for nearly 10 years and made 23 successful title defenses. His boxing skills were so highly regarded he was considered to be “a fighter without a flaw” during his prime years. Although Dixon was past his peak and wearing down from a long career he had never been knocked off his feet in a regulation match. McGovern gave him no respect attacking him with the same ferocity as he did all of his other opponent’s. McGovern laid a beating on Dixon taking away his title and sending him to the canvas twice in the 8th and final round. McGovern was now the world featherweight boxing champion and he was not done yet.

      “Unconquered and unconquerable Terry McGovern, the Brooklyn whirlwind fighter, stands today without a peer in the pugilistic world” wrote the Gazette after McGovern defeated lightweight champion Frank Erne in a non-title match. McGovern vanquished Erne in three rounds. In the space of 10 months he had defeated the bantamweight, featherweight, and lightweight world champions all by knockout. At one point he had knocked out 10 men in a total of 17 rounds and the victims included highly ranked contenders Pat Haley and Harry Forbes.

      Like Tyson after him McGovern was considered an invincible puncher who could not be beat. Terrible Terry’s reign of terror over the lower weight classes ended when he was upset and beaten by Young Corbett. The Gazette wrote, “McGovern for the first time in his career, met an opponent who was not afraid of him, and a clear headed, strong, quick and shifty boxer who had a tremendous punch.” Corbett had won the battle of psychological warfare by incensing McGovern and causing him to lose his cool. Before the fight he went by McGovern’s dressing room and yelled, “Come on out you Irish Rat, and take the licking of your life." McGovern charged at Corbett during the opening bell but didn’t cover up and left himself wide open. Corbett landed a strong right hand counter that put McGovern on his pants. McGovern came back and decked Corbett the same round but he was making mistakes. In the second round Corbett again caught McGovern coming in wildly and knocked him down for the second time and soon finished him. Corbett also beat McGovern in a rematch stopping him in 11 rounds to prove it was no fluke. Neither McGovern nor Tyson were quite the same once their aura of invincibility was removed.

      McGovern after being bested began to suffer from mental problems. He spent much of his later life institutionalized.

      Francis Albertanti, writer for The Ring Magazine and witness to hundreds of live fights, wrote in 1928, "We may never live to see a duplicate of the famous 'Terrible Terry'. Fighters like McGovern come once in a lifetime."