Fighting City Part 1 – Introduction / Con Desmond
Exploring the Rich History of Boxing in Lowell – Part 1
Micky Ward’s ring career reads like a great boxing movie: boxer overcomes limited opportunity, repeated setbacks and seemingly insurmountable odds by virtue of grit and determination. Ward won the admiration of die-hard fans with a pro career defined by some of the best fights anyone had ever seen. Though “The Fighter,” a movie based on Ward’s life, was the first story about a local fighter to reach the big screen, the attic of Lowell’s boxing history is brimming with equally worthy tales of gutsy battlers who lived their lives in Technicolor.
It is hard to imagine Micky Ward happening anywhere other than Lowell. Nowhere are the threads of the city’s social fabric stronger than the world of boxing. Social, familial and civic support have kept a fading sport alive, handed down from one generation to the next as if a cherished heirloom. Multiple generations of Lowellians have used boxing as a way to put food on the table, beer on the bar or just say, “I was here.” This sport more than any other thrives in immigrant communities such as Lowell because it needs participants who are physically and emotionally hungry. Boxing history is a powerful lens through which to view the intersection of social history and raw human emotion.
In the 19th century, boxing was relegated to the shadows, but Lowell’s first big-time fight promoter, “Con” Desmond, would bring it into the light. Not yet a legal sport, “exhibitions” were allowed only as entertainment in private athletic clubs such as The Knickerbocker, The Nutone, The Gladstone and Spindle City. Illegal bare knuckle fights were held in abandoned buildings or outdoors in places such as Dracut’s Lakeview or Dewey Grove. Admission was 10 or 15 cents at live boxing venues such as Professor Page’s Sparring Academy and the backroom at Tom Gray’s Saloon.
During this era, well-heeled citizens wanted little to do with boxing publicly, leaving it wide open to a group that by nature was very comfortable with physical confrontation, the Irish. Lowell boxing became another venue to organize and create a powerbase in an otherwise hostile world where “Irish need not apply.”
In the 1890s, when C.I. Hood’s horse farm switched from horse racing to prize cattle, its chief blacksmith, Con Desmond, set up his own shop on Middle Street in Lowell. After hours, Desmond promoted and organized boxing shows and built a stable of local fighting champions, first the Moriarty brothers of Lowell, and later the more famous Gardner brothers. Con brought George, Jimmy and Billy Gardner down from Manchester, N.H. George became the first light-heavyweight world champion. Years later, the fights still most discussed were the impromptu bouts in the loft of Con’s blacksmith shop.
Desmond drifted out of boxing to build a political base in city government. He kept himself in the public eye by organizing sporting events and charity picnics, or by holding large parties at his Stackpole Street house. At home with politics, Con wrangled himself the city blacksmith job. When a 1933 political power play threatened to remove Desmond from the position, the matter was settled pugilistically at the city yard and he retained the blacksmith job for many years to come. Although the Lowell Sun never gave specific details, it was widely assumed that Desmond threw the first and only punch, as he was well known for his mean, straight right.
Con Desmond’s ability to help build and organize a boxing community in Lowell was easily transferable to the world of politics. His sons, Robert and Con, had successful political careers after World War I. Con Sr. could and would roll in the mud with the best of them, a skill that was useful in both venues.