Pat McMurtry, the charismatic boxer whose thrilling rise through the heavyweight ranks in the 1950s became a civic obsession in Tacoma, died Sunday morning at Park Rose Care Center after a battle with liver cancer.
He was 79.
“There was no one like him,” said former Tacoma mayor Bill Baarsma, who grew up idolizing “Irish Pat” and, at age 14, joined a throng of more than 11,000 at Lincoln Bowl to see McMurtry lose a disappointing decision to Willie Pastrano on Aug. 24, 1956.
“He was my hero,” Baarsma said. “He really captured the fancy of everyone in town. We were all kind of pulling for him to become the champion.”
Born Jan. 5, 1932, to Maude and Clarence McMurtry in Tacoma’s South End, McMurtry received an early baptism in the “Sweet Science.”
His dad, a traveling bread salesman known simply as “Mac,” gave him his first pair of gloves at age 6. He would manage him for the rest of his career.
“Don’t go starting fights,” McMurtry once recalled his father telling him. “If you ever walk away from one, I’ll disown you. If you’re Irish, you’ll fight.”
Soon he was trading blows with his younger brother, Mike, in a makeshift basement ring.
Stan Naccarato might be the last surviving witness to those sibling donneybrooks.
“I just remember Mike pleading not to fight Pat anymore because Pat would kick the dickens out of him,” Naccarato said.
McMurtry, who stood a hair taller than 6-foot-1, was a chiseled specimen with the striking looks of a matinee idol.
He began training with Homer Amundsen at the Starlight Athletic Club on Market Street in a humble, top-floor gym above a butcher shop.
He participated in Tacoma’s inaugural Golden Gloves championships in 1949, becoming a two-time champion in that event. He won 103 of 105 amateur fights, then turned pro in 1954.
After graduating from Lincoln High School, he attended Gonzaga, later enlisting in the Marines during the Korean War.
He was a blue-collar throwback who reveled in hard work and hated braggarts and big shots. His boxing prowess might’ve won him a reprieve from overseas deployment.
“McMurtry wouldn’t do it,” said Ron Rall, a friend and former boxer. “His whole idea was to go to Korea and fight the war. He wanted to go overseas. He thought he’d be fighting the enemy by hand.”
He landed in a bomber support group, servicing, among others, his mentor, Marine pilot Dick Francisco.
“He was one hell of a guy,” Francisco said. “I wish we had more like him. He was probably the best jabber I have seen. Watching him fight was like a ballet without music, it was beautiful.”
Francisco was in McMurtry’s corner in August 1957 when he scored a second-round knockout of former middleweight champion Bobo Olson at Meadows Race Track in Portland.
“He hit him with a beautiful jab followed up by a left hook,” Francisco said. “He knocked him stiff. The referee could’ve counted to a thousand, and Olson never would have gotten up.”
McMurtry, who rose as high as No. 5 in Ring magazine’s list of heavyweight contenders, won a decision against former champion Ezzard Charles before more than 10,000 at Lincoln Bowl on July 13, 1956.
He returned to Lincoln Bowl the following month to fight Pastrano, a future light heavyweight champ.
McMurtry recovered nimbly from the Pastrano defeat. His career reached its apex on Oct. 17, 1958, when he beat Canadian heavyweight champ George Chuvalo at boxing’s shrine, New York’s Madison Square Garden, in front of a national television audience.
Chuvalo staggered him with a left hook in the second round, but McMurtry danced away and recovered to win a unanimous decision.
A little more than a year later, it was all over.
On Oct. 27, 1959, he was knocked cold by Eddie Machen in the first round at the Pacific Livestock Pavilion in Portland. He suffered minor brain damage, and did not box again. He segued into a long career as a referee, and worked at Sears in later years.
“He’s an important part of Tacoma history, no doubt about it,” Baarsma said.
“Whether it be the president, Marilyn Monroe or Willie Mays, nobody got as much ink or more coverage than Pat. He was one of a kind.”
He finished with a 33-5 professional record with 25 knockouts. But he always longed for a shot to fight heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, he said.
“I think I coulda licked Patterson,” he admitted. “I could punch just as fast, I could move just as fast, and I could catch a helluva lot better.”
McMurtry was preceded in death in 1999 by his brother, Mike.
“To me, he was everything and bigger than life,” said Shannon Daulley, his daughter.
He’s also survived by a son, Patrick, son-in-law Jim Daulley and two grandchildren.
In the months before his death, McMurtry had Tacoma on his mind.
“We had a good love affair,” McMurtry said during an interview at Park Rose.
“Wherever I went, Tacoma was always there to give me a hand. They really stayed behind me. I would like to thank the people for what they’ve done for me.”
John Wallingford: 253-597-8682 email@example.com