Fighting City Part 2 – Martin Flaherty
Exploring the Rich History of Boxing in Lowell – Part 2
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.
Born in 1873, the son of an immigrant textile worker, Martin Flaherty would apply a scientific approach to boxing and later become Lowell’s first celebrity personal trainer. As a child he worked alongside his father in the mills. When Martin’s nagging cough prompted his mother to seek medical advice, the doctor prescribed a punching bag and some dumbbells.
At 10, Martin fought in exhibitions throughout New England. His small stature led one referee to introduce him as fighting in the “window weight” class, as there was no weight class for boys under 90 pounds. Together with older brothers Tom and Joe, they became known as the Fighting Flahertys. Local newspapers recorded a robust rivalry between the Flaherty brothers and the Moriarty brothers, which guaranteed a good draw, whether in the ring or on the back streets.
Martin turned pro at 15 and quickly became known as a fearless, two-fisted puncher with remarkable stamina. Many of his bouts were held in abandoned buildings or in an outdoor ring. Though not a world titleholder, his record shows that he beat or boxed to a draw some of the best names of the day.
At 19, Martin met the great featherweight champion George Dixon in Chicago. Dixon’s failure to knock out Martin miffed the champ’s manager, who, out of spite, paid Martin’s $250 fee in silver dollars, which Martin had to wrap in his boxing tights to carry. Lighter-weight boxers like Flaherty were forcing changes in the old stand-and-deliver style of boxing by incorporating speed, combination punching and the beginnings of modern footwork.
In 1898, while his career was still on the rise, Martin met his equal in Anna Chenevert, an accomplished horsewoman who could ride and shoot a gun as well as, if not better than him. Eventually, with his reflexes slowing, Martin’s days as a world-class contender ended in 1899, when Lawrence boxer Timmy Kearns knocked him out. Unlike many other fighters of the day, Martin had lived a healthy lifestyle, banking enough of his ring earnings to begin what would become a Flaherty-family enterprise, personal fitness training.
Martin ran gyms and fitness centers at a variety of locations throughout greater Lowell. His approach toward fitness was holistic, including a common sense diet plan. Anna and Martin appreciated the outdoors and established the Flaherty Health Farm on a sizable piece of land in the Wamesit area of Tewksbury. The farm catered to different groups throughout the year: horseback riding for young Catholic ladies, physical fitness to restore civilian men to health, and, of course, training for fighting men.
Flaherty’s farm became very popular with boxing trainers and managers in Boston who needed to keep their fighters in peak form and away from the unhealthy distractions of booze and loose women. Some of Boston’s biggest names were regular guests at the health farm, including Jack Sharkey, Andy Callahan, Honeyboy Finnegan and Jim Maloney. What had once been a living room in the large farmhouse now served as a gymnasium with an indoor ring. Martin would lead his guests in workouts or hikes or a rousing game of tennis. Boxers would spend the day training rigorously, with their only treat being a small bowl of ice cream before a 9 p.m. bedtime.
Anna and Martin Flaherty managed to create working vacations for themselves in the early 1930s by traveling to the millionaires’ playground in Ormond Beach, Fla. With his services in demand, this was an opportunity for Martin to grow his business and get away from long, dreary New England winters.
Martin passed away in 1954. During the course of his lifetime, boxing had gone from being an underground sport of last resort to one that was entering America’s living rooms via television.