Kevin Kilbane shines a light on the story of legendary world boxing champ Johnny Kilbane

Des Kilbane and Kevin O'Toole join the ex-Ireland winger to talk about the Cleveland fighter of Mayo origin

BY Raf Diallo 12:19 Friday 9 December 2016, 12:19 9 Dec 2016

Our own Kevin Kilbane will always go down as a centurion when it comes to Irish football history.

A winner of 110 caps for Ireland, the Off The Ball co-presenter is the most well-known Kilbane on planet earth.

But on Wednesday, Kevin has been finding out about another Kilbane who made an impact in the sporting world - a distant relative no less - who won 110 fights in a successful boxing career.

Johnny Kilbane, whose origins can be traced back to Achill in Co Mayo and was himself born in 1889 in Cleveland, Ohio and passed away in the same US city 68 years later, became World featherweight champion in 1912.

Kevin was joined by Des Kilbane and Kevin O'Toole from Cleveland to learn about his distant and famous relation.

"Brian Kerr, the former Ireland manager was the one who made me aware of this story. My Dad had mentioned a boxer who originated from Achill who'd gone on to win the world title," Kevin said.

"Brian gave me the story that was written in the Irish Times about a documentary that had been made."

Des Kilbane was the maker of the award-winning TG4 documentary Fighting Heart and revealed that former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson held Kilbane in high regard.

"In the '80s, I had a book of lists which had all the top people of the day who listed their favourites albums, soccer players etc and Mike Tyson was the champion at the time and he listed Johnny Kilbane in his Top 10 of all-time," he said, adding that his own father had made him aware of Johnny Kilbane's existence originally.

O'Toole is another relation of Johnny Kilbane's through his grandmother who was the former boxer's daughter and contributed to the documentary.

He gave a background to how the Irish immigrant community in the Cleveland area adapted.

"He dropped out of school in about the 6th grade because his father was blind and his mother had died [when he was 3-years-old] and he was the one that had to support the family. And even though, he was less than 100 pounds, he was doing manual work to support his family," said O'Toole of Johnny, whose ambition was to be an actor or work in the arts.

But shadow-boxing drew attention to him and his ability to dance aided him during the years to come in the ring as it contributed to his skill and speed.

"He invented punches that no-one had ever done before and that's what made him a great champ," said Des of the fighter who beat Abe Atell in California in 1912 to claim the featherweight title that he would hold until 1923. 

His contemporary impact in the Cleveland of the 1910s was huge as his 1912 homecoming proves.

"It was the largest gathering for any person in the history of Cleveland, more than presidents or politicians - and it wasn't really a planned event. Just when the train arrives, there were so many people lining the streets from downtown all the way out to his house was and they were hanging off of buildings and they were just waiting for a chance to glimpse at the champion - and somebody who was one of them," says O'Toole.  

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