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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Mairtin Thornton: A champion and a legend in his own lifetime

I met Mairtin Thornton, ex-boxer and once heavyweight champion of Ireland, in 1980. He was hard to forget: Granite chin, massive hands, broad shoulders, that combined, said it all, ‘don’t mess with me.’ He was nicknamed the Connemara Crusher.' Even then stories were doing the rounds about the antics he had got up to. Some of them were true.

                                                             Mairtin Thornton in 1974

He also played the double for Victor Mc Laglen in the movie, The Quiet Man, in 1951, after hustling himself into the part by claiming cousinship of John Ford. Between filming, he went on a wild session one evening and night with John Wayne. Later, as the drink loosened the tongue and stiffened the courage, John Wayne challenged Thorton to a fight, telling him that only one would survive it. Thorton did not accept the challenge because he knew it would not be Wayne. It was also no coincidence that the character that Wayne played in the movie was called Sean Thornton.

Then there was the talk that he threw a fight when he was a professional boxer, betting on himself to lose, and having to skip his beloved and native Galway for a few years until things quietened a bit. The closest he came to admitting that he did indeed throw the fight was when he whispered to a mate that he never saw a poor day after it.
He also had a canny if not jaundiced eye for a deal. One farmer he had to deal with still had his first Holy Communion money, and Thornton set out to part some of it from him.

The story goes that Mairtin went to buy a few cattle from him. The farmer would not budge from his inflated price and was known to be less than honest in his many dealings, but Mairtin knew how to make any deal an equal contest. Mairtin said he noticed that the cows had a bit of TB about them and offered him half of his asking price. The farmer displayed outrage and sent Mairtin on his way.

A few days later, a man with a white suit and clipboard went to visit the farmer. He said he was from the Dept Of Agriculture (DOA), prodded his cattle a bit and confirmed what Mairtin had said, adding sadly that the cattle would have to culled. The farmer, desperate now, called Mairtin and said he had thought more about the offer, and, because of other pressing matters he would sadly accept it, while adding that the cattle were indeed healthy. Mairtin went to see him the next day and displayed even greater outrage when he told the man that he had heard the DOA had visited him and condemned his cattle. and only for he wanted the  cattle’s hides for coverings for his animal feed, he admonished, he would not have come to see him at all. The farmer was spent and accepted half again of Mairtin’s first offer, who went on to make a tidy profit from those otherwise healthy cattle for he had borrowed a white coat and a clip board from one friend and asked another to wear it to pay the farmer a visit that couple of days before.

When there is talk of champions, Joe Frazier, World Heavyweight Champion in 1971, came to Connemara and met Thornton. “You may be heavyweight champion of the world Joe,” Thorton told him, “but I am the heavyweight champion around here.” He was a legend in his own lifetime too. Mairtin Thornton passed away in 1984 

Barry Clifford