A Man You Don't Meet Everyday

By George Kimball


A Man You Don't Meet Everyday

Pat O’Grady’s unfortunate legacy is that he is destined to be remembered as the founder of the short-lived World Athletic Association, a one-man sanctioning body whose death knell was sounded by a single punch in its very first ‘world championship’ fight -- a bout that simultaneously turned Sean O’Grady into a broadcaster.

The mention of his name today conjures up images of yet another over-involved boxing father. To be sure, Pat was that, but he was sui generis, one of a kind.

Even old-time boxing scribes tend to recall O’Grady as the colorful buffoon who bungled away his son’s championship, but for a couple of decades Pat singlehandedly kept the fight game alive in the American Midwest, where he employed a Barnumesque approach to the staging of literally hundreds of club-fight cards in an era when live boxing otherwise seemed to be on the wane.

For nearly two decades O’Grady staged cards on the first and third Tuesday of each month.

On paper, his wife Jean was the promoter-of-record, but the O’Gradys were keeping it all in the family long before the idea occurred to Don and Carl King. It wasn’t unusual to see an Oklahoma main event in which O’Grady was not only the promoter, but the matchmaker and the manager – of both fighters.

“We moved to Oklahoma when I was six years old, but even before that I can remember my father running shows at the old Pan-Am Center in Austin, Texas,” recalled Sean O’Grady. “My father would attend to the fighters and the logistics and my mother would show up with a briefcase filled with tickets. She’d sell the tickets and pay the fighters, all out of that briefcase.

“Then by the time I was 12 or so I was working, too,” said Sean. “I’d help set up the ring, get the gloves ready, and be in the dressing room to get the fighters to and from the ring.

“I guess you could say I saw the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly side of boxing at a tender age. And the ugly side could be truly ugly. I can remember being in the dressing room with this heavyweight named Jimmy Cross, who’d just gotten his ass kicked by Duane Bobick. I mean he’d been pulverized in this fight, but he’s saying ‘Man, I get high off this!’ and I’m thinking ‘What?’”

Pat O’Grady had gravitated toward the fight game at least in part because he had returned from World War II with two Purple Hearts. The wounds left him unsuited for more conventional work.

“The second time he was wounded was by shrapnel from a mortar shell at Guadalcanal,” said Sean. “My understanding is that he was one of only four Marines in his unit who survived the explosion, but my Dad never wanted talk about the war. The only time I ever heard him talk about it was one time when somebody got him to drink a martini. He hardly ever drank, so that one drink was enough to get him going.” 

Pat knew the fight game inside out, and some of it even may even have rubbed off on the ever-changing stable of cowboys and shitkickers he kept trotting into the ring, masquerading as boxers.

He so successfully groomed an Oklahoma light-heavyweight named Brian Kelly that he managed to attract the great Bob Foster to Oklahoma City for a 1971 WBC title fight. Kelly was down twice in the second round and again a round later before the referee stopped it in the third.

O’Grady also developed a lightweight from Lawton, Frank (Rootin’ Tootin’) Newton. Newton was an undefeated 32-0-3 fighting in the Oklahoma-Nebraska-Arkansas nexus, 1-4-1 outside it. Pat never did get Rootin’ Tootin’ a title shot, but he did move him far enough along to lose a fight – to Charlie (White Lightning) Brown -- on the Hagler-Duran undercard at Caesars in 1983.

But long before there were Sean O’Grady and Rootin’ Tootin’ Newton, Monte Masters and Wimpy Halstead, there was Humphrey Pennyworth McBride.

He had been christened Claude McBride, but at Pat’s behest called himself Humphrey, after the bumbling, kind-hearted giant in the old “Joe Palooka” comic strip. (When Joe Palooka had a run as a syndicated television program in the mid-1954s, a real-life boxer -- Slapsy Maxie Rosenbloom -- had portrayed Humphrey Pennyworth.)

“My father hung a nickname on every boxer who ever walked into the gym,” said Sean O’Grady. “And usually they’d stick. He named Jerry Halstead ‘Wimpy’ because he whined all the time. Another guy was called ‘Hamburger.’ The first time he saw McBride, my dad said ‘You look just like Humphrey!,’ and from that day on he was Humphrey.

“But then a few years later Oscar Bonavena came to town and sparred with Humphrey. He couldn’t quite pronounce the name because of his accent, so it came out ‘Humpity,’ so from then on he was Humphrey in the ring but Humpity in the gym.’
Humphrey McBride stood 6’4”, his weight fluctuated between 280 and 300 pounds, and while he couldn’t fight a lick he won his first 27 bouts as a professional. Never mind that 12 of his opponents had never won a fight when they met Humphrey (and several of them never would). The rubes, inspired by McBride’s success, kept pouring through the turnstiles on weekend nights in Oklahoma and Texas.

Capitalizing on the physical resemblance to the comic-book character, Pat persuaded Humphrey to wear baggy pants with large polka dots, a newsboy cap, and a pre-shrunken sport coat. He even had a bicycle constructed with a tiny house attached to the back, just like the fictional blacksmith Pennyworth, and urged Humphrey to pedal it around the streets of Oklahoma City.

You wouldn’t find very many familiar names on the roster of Humphrey’s victims, but in 1972 he did win a decision over Henry Hank in Ardmore, and later that year in Oklahoma City, he beat Terry Daniels, who only seven months earlier had lasted almost four rounds with Joe Frazier.

At 37, Hank didn’t have much tread remaining on his well-worn tires, and Daniels would lose 17 of his last 19 fights, but even so, one must surmise that had those bouts been on the up-and-up they’d probably have had enough left to beat Humphrey.

But in 1972 Muhammad Ali, following his loss to Frazier a year earlier, was easing his way back up the heavyweight ladder with his own personal bum-of-the-month club. He’d beaten Al “Blue” Lewis in Dublin that summer, and was looking for another soft touch with a decent record.

Humphrey fit both descriptions, and Pat O’Grady made a deal. The Ali fight was agreed upon in principle, provided Humphrey won his next fight, against another 300-pound behemoth, Buster Mathis.

Although Mathis had gone 12 with Ali just a year earlier, he was widely (and correctly) considered to be at the end of the line.  O’Grady nonetheless advertised the collision of unthreatening blimps as a fight for the “World Super-heavyweight championship,” and booked it for Oklahoma City on September 5, 1972.

Mathis arrived in Oklahoma for a press conference a few days before the fight, and at their first face-to-face meeting Humphrey unaccountably lapsed into a spate of trash-talking. He told Buster he was “going to kick his fat ass,” and at one point offered to do it then and there.

Mathis calmly tolerated the smack-talk for as long as he could. Then he quietly displayed his right hand.

“See this fist?” he asked.

“Yup,” said Humphrey, his curiosity aroused.

“Well,” said Buster, “I knocked out a horse with this fist.”

Humphrey’s jaw dropped open.

“You did?” he asked.

Pat O’Grady slapped himself on the head and groaned.

“The fight,” he would later recall, “was over then and there. I could see it all – the shot with Ali, the money, maybe even the heavyweight title – going up in smoke.”
But when the two blobs collided in Oklahoma City a week or so later, Humphrey startled the audience, O’Grady, Mathis, and, probably, himself, a minute into the fight, when he landed two successive right hands that sent Buster stumbling backwards into the ropes.

Mathis was dazed, but still on his feet as he floundered there, but instead of jumping right on his wounded quarry, Humphrey stood back to admire his handiwork.

“I could see him thinking “Oh, God. I did that?” remembered Pat O’Grady.

Buster recovered, and having survived his first-round peril, caught up with Humphrey in the third and knocked him cold with a right hand of his own.

After being counted out, Humphrey was revived with smelling salts, and as he regained consciousness he could hear his friends, many of whom had just lost substantial sums of money betting on him, shouting and booing their fallen former hero from their front-row seats.

Humphrey walked slowly across the ring, leaned over the ropes, and addressed the occupants of the ringside seats in a stage whisper.

“Listen,” he told them, gesturing over his shoulder toward Mathis, “He knocked out a horse!”

“Yeah. And now he’s knocked out an elephant,” said Pat O’Grady.

“Really?” Humphrey exclaimed.

“Yeah,” said Pat. “You.”

Mathis only fought one more time, and retired after being knocked out by Ron Lyle. Humphrey was so chastened by the unhappy experience that he lost six of his next ten fights. Then, in 1975, he managed to win two in a row and proudly announced to O’Grady that he finally understood this boxing game.

“You big jackass!” O’Grady told him. “If you’re so damned smart, how come I’ve fixed forty fights for you and you still lost seven of them?”

By then, of course, Pat had bigger fish to fry. A year earlier he had turned his 15 year-old son Sean pro, and the boy with the clean-cut Joe College look was packing them in all over the Midwest.

Billed as “The Bubblegum Kid,” Sean O’Grady was 29-0 when his father overreached to match the 17 year-old against Danny “Little Red” Lopez and nearly got Sean killed. The bout was mercifully stopped after four, and it was back to the drawing board for the younger O’Grady.

Taking the Lopez fight is commonly regarded as having been a major miscalculation on the part of O’Grady pere, but his son disagrees.

“I could have kept fighting opponents in the midwest and been 50-0, but I needed a test,” said Sean. “I needed to find out where I fit in at that stage of my career. Unfortunately, I did.”

Around this time a sportswriter named Dave Wolf came to Oklahoma City to do a profile on Pat and Sean. He spent two weeks following Pat O’Grady around, then flew back to New York, turned in his resignation, and went into the boxing business. He would later achieve some prominence managing a lightweight named Ray (Boom-Boom) Mancini.

By 1980 Sean O’Grady was a remarkable 73-1 and attracting worldwide attention. Following a Sports Illustrated profile, he was matched against WBC lightweight champion Jim Watt in Glasgow that November.

Since the title bout would be carried on live television back to the US, it was scheduled to start at 2 am in Scotland. At the pre-fight press conference Watt was asked whether the unusual starting time would be a problem.

“No,” Watt replied, accurately. “In Glasgow, everybody fights at 2 am.”

The bout hinged on a collision of heads that was seen by everyone save the Belgian referee, Raymond Balderoux. Both fighters were cut, although O’Grady’s was the more serious of the wounds. When it was finally stopped in the 12th, Watt was ahead on all three cards, but O’Grady had proved this time that he belonged in such heady company.

The following spring, his cuts having healed, Sean was matched against Emanuel Steward’s WBA lightweight champion Hilmer Kenty. This time O’Grady pulled off the upset and won a unanimous decision.

I was in Ireland that summer when Pat, Jean, and Sean O’Grady turned up in Dublin, ostensibly to explore the possibility of Sean attending the College of Surgeons there. They were accompanied by Sean’s new attorney and business representative, Joe Namath’s lawyer and onetime roommate Jimmy Walsh – no relation to Joe Palooka’s manager Knobby Walsh.

We spent several days in the Irish capital, with Pat so charming to the locals that they might as well have been paying customers back in Oklahoma City.

Asked about the possibility of Sean defending his title against Belfast lightweight Charlie Nash, who had lost to Watt just a year earlier, Pat diplomatically replied that his son “would never fight a fellow Irishman.”

Sean O’Grady says he wasn’t just blowing smoke about attending medical school in those days.

“I also explored the possibility of going to school down in Guadalajara,” he said. “It just didn’t work out.”

But the storm clouds were already gathering. The WBA had Claude Noel of Trinidad rated as its top contender. When Pat O’Grady balked at making a high-risk match against a low-profile opponent, the WBA stripped Sean and vacated the championship.

Reasoning that Sean’s marquee value was more valuable than the WBA title, Pat arranged for a televised fight against Howard Davis, Jr., to be held in Hartford. When the network asked about a title, he supplied one: The fight would be for the World Athletic Association lightweight championship of the world.

The WAA’s first title bout found itself in some jeopardy when Davis withdrew with a knee injury, but Pat salvaged the TV date by moving the fight to Little Rock, Arkansas, and bringing in Andy Ganigan, a Hawaiian with a 33-3 record, as a substitute opponent.

Ganigan caught O’Grady cold in the second round, knocking him down with a punch that stunned him so severely that he never recovered. Sean was down twice more before the fight was stopped at 2:06 of the round. The first WAA champion had lost his title in his first defense.

“I can’t even remember what he hit me with. A Hawaiian punch, I guess,” said Sean. “I try not to think about that fight too much.”

That wasn’t quite the end of the WAA, but it was close. Pat had also arranged titles in several other weight divisions, and had designated his daughter’s husband, a latter-day Humphrey McBride named Monte Masters, the organization’s heavyweight champion.

When Masters and Rosie O’Grady divorced in 1984, O’Grady promptly stripped his erstwhile son-in-law of his title.

In the meantime, Jerry (Wimpy) Halstead had become the world’s first super-middleweight champion (Pat called his 168-pound division “junior light heavyweight”) by knocking out Ronnie Brown in Denver.

Wimpy shortly thereafter outgrew the division and campaigned thereafter as a heavyweight. Once his usefulness on the Oklahoma circuit had been exhausted, Wimpy went on to a lucrative second career as an Opponent, losing all over the world to the likes of Pierre Coetzer in South Africa, Tommy Morrison in Las Vegas, Alex Stewart in New York, Herbie Hide in London, Yosuke Nishijima in Tokyo, Brian Nielsen in Denmark, and Wladimir Klitschko in Germany.

“When I look back on it, I don’t regret the influence my father had on my career,” said Sean O’Grady. “When he took his stand against the WBA he was doing what he philosophically and morally felt was right. Like some other things, it just didn’t work out. Andy Ganigan was a dangerous puncher, he had his one chance, and he made the most of it.

“I don’t regret the things my father did in terms of my own career, but I would have to say that success changed things for both of us. I mean, when I was back in Oklahoma City fighting bums, we didn’t have any money but it seemed like we were a lot happier than we were later on. It didn’t change our boxing relationship, but it changed our personal relationship – and my father never seemed to be able to separate the two.”

Pat O’Grady moved with his family to Castaic, California in 1982. He still ran the odd show here and there, including one (Sean against Pete Ranzany) for which his partner and co-promoter was Sylvester Stallone. 

As he had during his more active promotional days, he continued to phone friends and acquaintances around the clock. It wasn’t unusual for Pat to call at 3 or 4 in the morning.

“What you doing?” he’d ask. Hanging up was out of the question, because you knew he’d just call back. A long (and entertaining) conversation would usually ensue, and an hour later you’d find yourself lying in bed wondering “why did he call?”

“Once he phoned me at four in the morning,” recalled Sean O’Grady. “I was in college and living on my own, but he said he needed to talk to me, so I got up, got dressed, and drove over to my parents’ house. When I got there he just wanted to shoot the breeze.”

By 1983, a year and a half after the Ganigan fight, Sean O’Grady had retired from boxing at the age of 24. He went on to a career as a top-flight color analyst, whose broadcast partners addressed him without a trace of irony as “the champ.”

“I still broadcast fights for FOX, but it’s a non-exclusive contract, so I do a lot of freelance television work as well,” said Sean O’Grady. “The odd part of it is that a whole generation of boxing fans has grown up who don’t even realize that I fought myself. Kids today only know me for my television work. I guess that’s flattering.”

Pat died on March 30, 1988. He was sixty years of age. A whole generation of fans has grown up who don’t remember him, either. It is their loss.


Send questions and comments to: gkimball@boxingtalk.com