When the Leadville-Lake County Sports Hall of Fame was established in 2004, a member of the first class of inductees was William “Billy” Irwin.
Irwin was a boxer who became both bantamweight and featherweight champion of the state of Colorado.
His story has been written and published by his grandson, Terry Irwin, who lives in Dale City, Calif.
Terry Irwin possesses his grandfather’s scrapbook of boxing memorabilia and also a number of photographs. These form the basis of the book, “William ‘Billy’ Irwin, Colorado Champion Pugilist 1895-1900).”
Billy Irwin was born in County Limerick, Ireland, in 1869. His family immigrated to Leadville in 1879 during its silver boom.
Like many Irish, Irwin regarded the prize ring as easier, less dangerous and better paying than the mines. Boxing was looked upon as one of the few escape routes that an Irishman could use to break loose of the bondage of poverty.
Irwin’s career began in amateur nonpaid bouts that preceded the “main event.” As he gained experience and poise he gradually obtained managers, backers, promoters and trainers and developed a strong following. The most successful years of Irwin’s career were said to be from 1894-1896.
In 1896 he became the featherweight co-champion of Colorado when he fought Reddy Coogan to a 20-round draw in Aspen. He fought “Dago Mike,” who boasted of being the bantamweight state champion at the time, to a 20-round draw.
The book describes the major fights in which Irwin participated and also laws and restrictions pertaining to boxing at that time. It also includes all his statistics as a fighter.
Author Terry Irwin recalls a trip to Leadville when he was 13, when he and his dad ran into “Dago Mike,” who recalled Billy Irwin. (“Dago Mike” was the owner and operator of the Pioneer Bar in Leadville for a number of years.)
“Billy Irwin was a hard man to hit … he just wasn’t there when you tried to hit him … I couldn’t get through to him to knock him out,” Dago Mike said.
When his professional boxing career ended, Irwin took advantage of his knowledge of entertainment, dating to the time when boxing matches were often paired with other acts.
He became Leadville’s fire chief and subsequently turned both of Leadville’s firehouses into places of entertainment, including boxing-training sessions and sparring exhibitions.
He also promoted intercity fire hose cart races that attracted numerous supporters. As manager of the Cloud City Athletic Club, he arranged a number of prize fights.
In 1908 he became president of the Eagles Lodge and manager of the Eagles Athletic Club. In 1909 he was appointed as the deputy clerk and recorder of Lake County.
Irwin also continued to perform as part of an Irish vocalist duo known as Irwin and Gibbons and as an Irish clog dancer with Jimmy Joyce. His last performance was at Christmas 1909 when he and his son Jimmy, age 5, performed a song and dance routine at the Foresters’ Hall in Leadville’
All of Irwin’s activities resulted in a great deal of press coverage, which was found in his scrapbook and included in the book.
He was busy with the upcoming election as secretary of the Democratic Party Central Committee in fall 1910 when he fell ill at work at the county clerk’s office.
The cause of his illness was pneumonia, and he succumbed to it on Nov. 5 at age 41.
The Herald Democrat said of Billy Irwin after his death, “Mr. Irwin was honest and upright in all his dealings, true to his convictions and his friends, kind and generous to a fault and a man held in the highest regard by all who knew him,” also noting that “there are few men who have won such popularity among all classes of people in this county.”
Irwin is buried with other family members in St. Joseph Catholic Cemetery in Leadville.
Anyone wishing to obtain a copy of the book should visit Irwin-ociarmacain.com, click download at the right, scroll down to Billy Irwin Book and click “Buy Now,” then follow the PayPal instructions.
Cost of the book is $29.95 plus $2.47 for tax and $8 for shipping and handling.