Writing Tom Sharkey’s biography meant we got to “meet” many of the great characters of old-time boxing.
Sharkey wasn’t the only wild character among them.
One of our favourites was “Kid” McCoy – real name Norman Selby – who faced Sharkey in January 1899 as a boyish-looking 26-year-old and had fast become one of the most notorious figures ever to step in the ring; a talented fighter, yes, but a trickster too.
According to Patrick Myler: “The numerous stories told about his trickery, mostly apocryphal, are a treasured part of boxing folklore.”
He was said to have once filled his mouth with loose teeth and spat them out during a bout, horrifying his opponent and delivering a knockout punch on his unguarded chin.
He also scattered thumb-tacks on the canvas when he took on a fighter who fought in bare feet.
One particularly dirty trick involved Peter Maher. McCoy sent him a fake telegram, shortly before they were due to fight, saying there been a sudden death in the Irishman’s family.
As another writer, Graeme Kent, has noted: “McCoy was a brilliant boxer and an extremely shrewd operator who had sailed close to the wind on a number of occasions.”
His name lives on with us to today as a way of describing the genuine article. Myler reckons this relates to confusion with a lesser-known fighter named Peter McCoy, who was also known as “Kid”. He says a newspaper once ran the headline, ‘Choynski is Beaten by the Real McCoy’ and the phrase stuck. Kent prefers a story more in keeping with ‘Kid’ McCoy’s trickster image. He says that McCoy, trading on the drawing power of his name, sometimes booked himself to appear in different places at the same time and sent along ringers.
“Promoters had grown wise to this ploy and had insisted on the Kid being less generous with his doppelgangers,” notes Kent. “To reinforce this point they had taken to billing the boxer as ‘the real McCoy’, a phrase which later entered the lexicon.”