O’Grady would mine out a career that saw him step into the roles of promoter, manager, trainer, matchmaker, cut man and publicist. Perhaps his greatest achievement was guiding his son, Sean, to the WBA world lightweight title when he upset highly regarded Hilmer Kenty.
The recent anniversary, March 31, (1988), of the passing of former Oklahoma boxing promoter Pat O’Grady got me thinking about a time, for better or worse, (I’m gonna go with better), when boxing seemed a lot less complicated.
Back in the 70’s and 80’s, club-level opponents, a vital building block in the game, were allowed to work without getting shut down by commissions for, what were deemed, unacceptable records. Boxing has levels and there was a time when opponent level fighters were given a platform, and if properly matched, could carve out a career on the club circuit. Nobody understood the value of, and market for, club boxing, (the true theatre for characters of the sport) like the man affectionately referred to as “Fat Pat the Rat” O’Grady.
O’Grady would mine out a career that saw him step into the roles of promoter, manager, trainer, matchmaker, cut man and publicist. Perhaps his greatest achievement was guiding his son, Sean, to the WBA world lightweight title when he upset highly regarded Hilmer Kenty, of the famed Kronk boxing gym in Detroit, to win the world title in 1981. After Sean’s first attempt at a world title in November of 1980, he would go to Atlantic City 5-months later and upset Kenty to capture the belt. Kenty was out of the highly respected Kronk Gym in Detroit Michigan, a legendary fight factory that would produce a multitude of world champions over the years. But, on this night, it was the little Irish banger, who had developed on his dad’s small club shows in Oklahoma, that would leave the ring a world champion.
Pat O’Grady, tough as nails on the outside, but fiercely loyal to those in his inner circle, was one of the last of an era of true independent promoters. He ran bi-weekly club shows in Oklahoma for years, giving a place for opponents, pre-lim level, and yes, aspiring champions, to ply their trade.
In a piece on the fighting O’Grady’s penned for Sports Illustrated, author Dave Wolf perhaps best described O’Grady in referring to him as “large, loud and loquacious, boxing’s Barnum of the boondocks”. He went on to say that O’Grady was “a living relic, a slice of Americana, cut from an era before television, when free-wheeling managers and promoters thrived in scores of small-town clubs from coast to coast”.
Those kind of club shows, long the development league for fighters who would go on to the championship level in the sport, thrived in smoke-filled ballrooms, entertaining fans who just wanted a night out at the fights. They weren’t expecting to see the best in the sport, just a couple of locals scrapping it out, supporting the main event which may feature a fighter who had the chance to move on to bigger and better things. And, that was good enough for them.
Those nights were a lot of fun for fight fans, those nights provided more than a few good tussles over the years, and those nights were the launching pads for some very good fighters. And, sadly, those nights, seem a thing of the past.
Sean Gibbons, long one for the sport’s most influential, and globally respected players, including his current role as matchmaker for legend Manny Pacquiao’s “MP Promotions”, cut his teeth working for Pat O’Grady. In speaking with Gibbons, fresh off a work week in Puerto Rico with his lovely wife Valerie, he had nothing but fond memories of his time on the Oklahoma club circuit learning all aspects of the game from a true club boxing legend, his uncle Pat O’Grady.
“I started out in Oklahoma with Pat and he was really a legend in the game. People think of the biggest promoters in the sport when they think of successful fighters, but they forget that they all started on club shows of some level and Pat was indeed the king of the club shows on the Midwest circuit in his time”, said Gibbons. “Pat knew how to promote like no other at that level and he provided fight fans, week in and week out, with a great night at the fights. Pat had everything from 4-round club level guys to fighters who would go on the have some real success at the top level. Boxing needs those club shows as a development league for the fighters who need to hone their skills as they get ready for the big time. And, added Gibbons, “it was also a great place for local guys, and guys who were only going to fight at the club level, to box as well. A club fighter could have a career back then, get a local following, have some fights, have some fun and look back with great memories for the rest of his life”, said Gibbons. “Pat was one of the best and I have nothing but fond memories of him. He provided a lotta fighters with a place to develop and carve out a career. He was as tough as nails on the outside but had a heart of gold on the inside. Of all my adventures in this sport, and there has been a few”, said Gibbons with a laugh, “I’ll never forget who gave me my start. I’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the greatest fighters of my era and for that I am grateful”, said Gibbons. “But, let me tell you, Pat taught me to respect all fighters, especially those guys who grind it out on the club level. I learned to respect anybody who goes up those 3 steps into the ring. My time under Pat was invaluable. Nobody was getting rich, but we were doing what we wanted to do, running shows, developing fighters and having the time of our lives. Great memories Billy. And, what a character”, added Gibbons. “Viva Pat!!”.