‘Irish’ Pat McMurtry continues to fight the good fight

The wheelchair that Pat McMurtry calls home inside the walls of the Avalon Care Center in Federal Way is a far cry from the the unbelievably active life this stoic man has lived.

“Irish” Pat McMurtry was the definition of the All-American male during his heyday back in the 1950s. He had the life that young boys dream about.

He had movie star good looks, was a fighter pilot in the Marines during the Korean War and was one of the top-ranked heavyweight boxers in the world.

You couldn’t get any “cooler” than McMurtry.

In an era before major league sports arrived in the Pacific Northwest, McMurtry was arguably the region’s biggest sports star.

And despite having to be pushed in his wheelchair around the Federal Way nursing home, McMurtry still looks like he could emerge from his seat and throw a perfect one-two combination that would knock you into tomorrow. There’s just an aura that surrounds the now 75-year-old.

Just something about him.

There’s no doubting that the nearly 200 amateur and professional boxing bouts against some of the biggest names in the sport have taken their toll on McMurtry’s body.

He admits to having a little brain damage and has underwent numerous surgeries on different parts of his body.

But McMurtry isn’t like a lot of old boxers. His opinions are lucid and he glows when discussing his days in the Marine Corps. He also recites punch-by-punch recaps of his entire boxing career and his face still looks like it was sculpted out of granite. He doesn’t sport a sideways nose, there isn’t a lisp when he talks, his handshake is still firm and, most importantly, he wouldn’t change anything about his life.

“Boxing is a tough sport,” McMurtry said. “A very, very tough sport.”

But it was a sport that McMurtry and his younger brother, Mike, fell in love with as kids growing up in the mean streets of South Tacoma. His father, Clarence “Mac” McMurtry, had a goal for his two sons to become boxers even before they were born. Actually, the whole family had the boxing bug. McMurtry’s grandmother stitched boxing trunks for him when he was 6 years old.

“That was when boxing was boxing, not like the carnival it is today,” McMurtry said. “When my parents were first married, my dad told my mother that they were going to have two sons and they both were going to fight. That is what he got. Mike had 214 amateur fights and lost seven, and I had 105 and lost two.

“Every Christmas from the time I was 6, I got a pair of boxing gloves for Christmas. We would go down and fight in the basement and we would have smokers in our backyard.”

The McMurtrys got their boxing baptism at the Starlight Athletic Club on Market Street in Tacoma. The gym was on the top floor of the building, situated over a butcher shop, a grocery store and a bakery. Homer Amundsen, McMurtry’s manager, owned the building along with Kelley’s Gym at Ninth and Commerce, which always had the smell of wintergreen in the air because of the rubdowns the boxers would receive.

“Irish” Pat McMurtry was the more natural of the two brothers in the ring. Amundsen and his trainers saw the potential for him to become the heavyweight champion of the world. Upon completing his tour in Korea with the Marines, he won his first 22 professional fights, including a 10-round decision over former heavyweight champ and boxing Hall-of-Famer Ezzard Charles. As an amateur, McMurtry posted an amazing 103-2 record before turning pro in 1954.

In July 1956, 10,729 fans flocked to Tacoma’s Lincoln Bowl to watch McMurtry face Charles. McMurtry was brilliant that night, winning nine out of 10 rounds on his way to a unanimous decision.

“Pat was one hell of a fighter,” Bob Jackson, McMurtry’s trainer, said in a 1998 article in the Tacoma News Tribune. “He could box, he could punch, he could do anything. He put Tacoma on the map, as far as boxing. Plus, he lived a good, clean life. He worked harder than anybody. Everybody admires a guy like that.”

The win over Charles vaulted McMurtry into a legitimate title contender, and Ring Magazine ranked him as the No. 4 heavyweight in the world.

But his ascent up the heavyweight division took a temporary setback the next month when he lost a decision to Willie Pastrano, a promising fighter who later won the world light-heavyweight championship, in front of 11,095 fans at the Lincoln Bowl. The bout generated so much hype that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran a special edition on the morning of the fight.

The loss to Pastrano was also a wake-up call — and it showed. Campaigning on the West Coast, McMurtry reeled off five-straight wins, including a convincing second-round knockout of former middleweight champion Carl “Bobo” Olson. But to get a shot at the world championship, McMurtry would need a bigger stage than the Lincoln Bowl or other West Coast arenas.

In October 1958, he got his chance before a national television audience on the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports. The venue was New York City’s famed Madison Square Garden, once prizefighting’s most hallowed shrine and a necessary stop on the way to a world championship bout.

McMurtry’s opponent was the tough Canadian champion, George Chuvalo, then at the start of a sterling 93-bout career against some of the best heavyweights in the world.

McMurtry dominated the fight. The win over Chuvalo should have been a stepping stone to a showdown with heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson. Altough Patterson was a superb boxer with solid hand speed, he was shorter and lighter than the 6-foot-2, 200-pound McMurtry.

Unfortunately, a McMurtry-Patterson fight never materialized. After the Chuvalo fight, sports writer Harry Grayson approached McMurtry and his father about a bout. But McMurtry would have had to move to Boston and have another man promote him. In the end, the deal died because Clarence McMurtry, who also served as his son’s promoter, would have lost control of McMurtry’s career.

“I should have taken the deal,” McMurtry said in a 1990 News Tribune interview.

So instead of fighting Patterson for the world title, McMurtry’s next two fights ended in first-round knockouts. Nino Valdes and Eddie Machen, who were both bigger and more powerful heavyweights than Patterson, stopped McMurtry early in both fights. The loss to Machen was the final fight of his professional career, which ended with a 33-4-1 record with 25 knockouts.

“He knocked me out for 14 minutes and I ended up with brain damage,” McMurtry said. “They wouldn’t let me fight again. I was upset, but they were just taking care of me.”

“Mistakes were made,” Jackson told The News Tribune. “I wish he could’ve had the fight with Patterson. But that’s over and done with. It took a while for that to sink in with Pat. Finally, I said, ‘Let me ask you a question: Would you want to trade places with Muhammad Ali — or any of the old heavyweight champs? Hell, no,’ I told him. ‘Pat you can talk. You can drive a car. You can live a normal life.’ I think the point finally got across.”

The career-ending loss was even more damaging because it came just three months after his brother Mike’s first and only professional fight. On July 21, 1959, Mike McMurtry won an easy six-round decision over Ken Haas in Seattle after fighting on the same card as Pat, who took care of Earl Atley.

But after the McMurtry boys celebrated the wins, doctors found a blood clot in Mike’s brain. He never fought again and has recently passed away after suffering a couple of strokes. Mike McMurtry fought 222 amateur fights and won the 1954 NCAA heavyweight championship while attending Idaho State.

Following his boxing career, “Irish” Pat McMurtry worked as a fight referee and sold refrigerators for Sears.

Since his move to the Avalon Care Center in Federal Way, McMurtry received another huge honor when he was inducted into the Washington Sports Hall of Fame. A special presentation was made during the finals of the 59th annual Tacoma Golden Gloves inside the Tacoma Dome in March.

“Boxing was good to me,” he said. “I bought a house and all the furniture from boxing. I paid cash for everything. I wouldn’t change any bit of what I’ve done.”

Sports editor Casey Olson: 925-5565,

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