It’s not often that small fighters scrap their way to stardom in boxing, but it’s not entirely unheard of either. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, one of the first celebrities that boxing’s lower weight classes produced, “Terrible” Terry McGovern, paved the road for numerous successors.
McGovern developed a reputation around New York as a hard-charging puncher, but his 1899 seizure of the title with a 1st round knockout of Pedlar Palmer confirmed that he indeed ruled the bantamweight division. In the year that followed he mowed through almost everyone in his path and scored 17 wins by stoppage, including one over featherweight champion George “Little Chocolate” Dixon.
Nobody was safe, but McGovern wasn’t without chinks in the armor; he could be caught early on in fights and on more than one occasion a skilled opponent was able to use his aggression against him. Once the fight really unfolded, however, the odds tipped in his favor substantially.
Despite knockdowns suffered against Oscar Gardner and Frank Erne in fights he would win by stoppage, newspapers wrote about a shortage of opponents for the reigning featherweight champion and wondered who, if anyone, could defeat him.
A 22-year-old Jewish fighter out of New York named Joe Bernstein had been making noise and earned the nickname “Pride of the New York Ghetto,” among a few others. He wasn’t that quick or powerful but he was tough and reasonably skilled. Bernstein had also stayed the 25-round distance with Dixon in a featherweight title bout, defeated former champion Solly Smith and roughed up Gardner in two disqualification losses. At only 22, he had a surprising amount of experience.
In the summer of 1900 just prior to Bernstein and Gardner’s rematch, McGovern reportedly said he would fight the winner. It made sense that the champion would fight either man. On one hand he wanted revenge for the knockdown Gardner caught him with, but Bernstein had lasted 25 rounds in losing to a pre-champion version of McGovern and “Terrible” Terry wanted another shot at an early night.
According to the Jersey Journal, British featherweight champion Ben Jordan was traveling the U.S. around the same time and was also in the running to face McGovern, but that pairing never materialized. It was unnecessary in a way since McGovern defeated Eddie Santry, who had thrashed Jordan six months earlier.
As McGovern waited for a big match his manager Sam Harris agreed to pit him against the winner of Gardner’s October fight against Dave Sullivan, brother of “Spike” Sullivan. When Sullivan came up victorious, however, he and his manager insisted on nonsensical stipulations before declaring McGovern’s intentions insincere. McGovern and Harris called Sullivan’s bluff only for Sullivan to claim he needed more time to train, so McGovern moved on.
When the rematch McGovern and Bernstein was finally signed for 20 rounds and a $3500 purse, Louisville, Ky. landed the honors. The city that would later birth Muhammad Ali was to host its first major title fight, though legendary boxers like Joe Choynski, Peter Jackson and “Barbados” Joe Walcott all fought there at one time or another. Louisville hadn’t easily taken to boxing, though, and police were known to step in and end fights quickly there.
Nevertheless, after arriving in town McGovern settled in and appeared in a local stage production at night after his daytime training. He was more than just a fighter at this point, after all.
While contracts were being finished there appeared to be some dispute as to who handled Bernstein’s affairs as manager between Jack Dougherty and Joe Humphries. Additionally, the day before the fight Louisville’s city council nearly passed a measure that would charge $500 for each fight that took place within city limits, which would have killed the show. The measure was swiftly voted down, however.
The Denver Post wrote, “Bernstein has shown during his fighting career that his capacity for punishment is greater than any other featherweight in the business. A little while before McGovern defeated ‘Pedlar’ Palmer Bernstein stood twenty-five rounds before ‘Terrible Terry,’ who at that time could hit a few lines. McGovern has improved wonderfully since then, but despite that Bernstein’s tough carcass can still take a heap of hammering.”
It was nearly midnight when the fighters entered the ring in the Nonpareil Athletic Club in front of about 5,000 spectators; financial issues arose when it became clear Bernstein hadn’t brought money to cover his side of the purse, but some compromise was reached and the fight started.
Thins were going to be different this time, and McGovern made sure of it with a knockdown in round 1, then two more in round 2 and another in the 3rd. Things weren’t looking good for Bernstein just a few rounds into the fight and he began to appear quite ragged.
Not exactly a crude brawler, McGovern concentrated on Bernstein’s midsection in rounds 4 and 5 and got him to drop his guard more and more as minutes went by. The end drew near and all Bernstein had left was to not go quietly, so in the 6th he struck out and landed a freak left hook that jolted the champion and briefly changed his fortune. But his success didn’t last and McGovern closed the round strong.
In the 7th Bernstein traded enough with McGovern to all but guarantee his own ruin, and indeed “Terrible” Terry capitalized by brutalizing his foe to the canvas. When Bernstein go up, the champion forced him down again, and this time George Siler halted matters. McGovern remained champion.
McGovern would be champion one more year before losing the title to Young Corbett II. But it was another year to grow his own legend. For decades McGovern remained a great example of a little fighter who dreamed big and reached stardom.