“Sober or stiff, I belted the guts out of the best of them,” Mickey Walker declared, looking back fondly on his historic Hall of Fame career.
And that he did, with his pugilistic ambitions having known no weight bounds; while an accumulation of those fistic feats and his colourful life outside of the ring ultimately fashioned one of boxing’s most unique characters.
Living a high-octane life of prize-fighting, Walker’s unrelenting desire for the biggest challenges was surpassed only by his unquenchable thirst away from the squared-circle; being equally as devoted to the bottle.
Embodying the fighting spirit of ‘The Roaring Twenties’, he rallied to both welterweight and middleweight supremacy in a distinguished career that spanned three decades.
Known as ‘The Toy Bulldog’ for his stocky stature and aggressiveness within the ring ropes, Walker was a scrappy Irish-American who made up for his modest 5’ 7” height with sheer strength and unwavering mettle but should also be remembered for ahead-of-his-time technical abilities too.
‘The Toy Bulldog’
Born in Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1901, Walker was a man who simply loved to fight and didn’t know how to quit. Following World War I, the American streets were filled with those returning from overseas and seeking work, which was then hard to come-by.
Boxing was subsequently Walker’s chosen path, beginning what would ultimately become a legendary ring career at the tender age of 17 years old. Staying close to home, his first ring appearances and early successes took place in New Jersey.
With a relentless attack and possessing a trademark destructive left hook, he swiftly stormed through the ranks to rise to prominence in the welterweight division. Within three years of his debut, Walker enjoyed a successful championship charge in 1922 when overcoming the experienced Jack Britton to secure his maiden world title triumph.
‘The Toy Bulldog’s’ grasp on the welterweight championship lasted almost four years before his reign was tamed by Pete Latzo in a 1927 hometown defeat. But, by that stage, Walker had already been sizing up the middleweight crown and was toppling larger foes such as reigning light-heavyweight ruler Mike McTigue.
A 1925 middleweight title loss at the hands of Harry Greb hadn’t derailed his efforts in proving size was irrelevant; eventually dethroning Greb’s conqueror Tiger Flowers the following year by controversial decision to have his hand raised as the division’s top dog.
One of the toughest and most popular champions of his day, Walker’s warrior style saw him rally to two division title victories, ousting no less than five Hall of Fame fighters in a 16-year career and getting the better of 10 rivals who outweighed him by 20 pounds or more.
Throughout his career, Walker showed absolutely no hesitation in taking on the most dangerous challenges and the best fighters of his era; regardless of weight classes.
Despite first winning the welterweight world title, ‘The Toy Bulldog’ would go on to contest top light-heavyweight opponents and remarkably become a genuine contender at heavyweight.
Albeit unsuccessful in his crazy ventures, Walker stepped up to battle both Jack Sharkey and Max Schmeling, a former heavyweight ruler who famously knocked out Joe Louis. Sometimes remarkably giving away up to 50 pounds in weight to his towering foes, he relished the opportunity to show size mattered little next to talent and skill.
With a ferocious drive and unbreakable resilience, Walker used his compact and powerfully built 5’ 7” frame to push the top dogs at heavyweight to their limit and notch up some impressive victories over much larger men.
As well as a win over Ireland’s light-heavyweight champion McTigue, Walker defeated another of the division’s former rulers Paul Berlenbach. At heavyweight he also bravely battled to a 15-round draw with former champion Sharkey and notched up scalps over King Levinsky and Paulino Uzcudun.
Tales of Drunken Fights
Along with holding a somewhat delusional sense of confidence heading into such seismic battles, Walker is believed to have utilised some liquid courage as well. His love of a drink therefore didn’t always remain outside of the ring, with the New Jersey-native rumoured to have laced his water bottles with spirits for in between rounds and fight under the influence for some of his title bouts.
His ability to perform under such circumstances and only taste defeat on 19 occasions across a documented 165 professional fights is an accomplishment in itself.
Perhaps the most bizarre ring outing occurred in 1930, when Walker received word that his fight with heavyweight Paul Swiderski had been cancelled. His immediate reaction was to turn to the bottle, hitting the pubs in celebration before realising he had misinterpreted proceedings and, in fact, had a fight to get ready for after all.
Walker reportedly stumbled into the ring and was knocked to the canvas at least five times inside the opening round, as his manager Jack ‘Doc’ Kearns managed to save his plastered fighter from a knockout by slamming a water bottle off the timekeeper’s bell to end the round.
When Walker was dropped again in the second, Kearns pulled a fuse to send the arena into darkness. Once the chaos had come to an end, Walker had sobered up enough during the timely blackout to turn things around; sending Swiderski to the floor an incredible 16 times before an eventual decision triumph.
Mythical Street Brawl
As with the tale of his drunken Swiderski success, many myths have been long linked with Walker and different versions of certain stories told by both himself and those who worked closely with him.
Most notably is the infamous street brawl with all-time great Harry Greb. Two key points are remembered about the Greb vs. Walker fight (which Greb prevailed in by decision); one being that no footage exists today, despite evidence of recording, and the second is the mythical fight both men engaged in after their actual bout.
Both sides claimed ‘victory’ in the bust-up that has since become an urban boxing legend. While no one knows precisely what did happen outside a New York City bar in 1925 (or neither side wanted to fully admit the details), Walked explained in his autobiography.
After entering a bar alongside fellow night life enthusiast and manager Kearns, Walker was summoned to have a drink at a nearby table by a familiar voice - belonging to ‘The Pittsburg Windmill’ Greb.
Following an indulgence of whiskey, wine and prohibition ale alongside Greb and two female companions of his, Walker stumbled arm-in-arm with his recent conqueror towards the next watering hole destination.
But before they could arrive at their destination, an argument over their fight just hours prior broke out, with Walker stating:
"Greb made one mistake. He began to peel his coat off, and that was too good a chance for a roughneck who’d been raised on street fighting. When the coat was halfway off, I bounced one off his chin. The punch would’ve kayoed any other man - but not Greb. We slugged away and people came running over to see what it was all about."
Two champions and all-time greats who had fought in front of 65,000 roaring fans just hours earlier for a $75,000 purse split between them had reignited their rivalry on the sidewalk, before a policeman separated the pair and sent them both home in separate taxis. Sadly, another fight in the ring never materialised and Greb died the following year of heart failure from routine surgery complications.
Despite the iconic Jack Dempsey being the most prominently remembered fighter of his era, it was the hell-bent-on-throwing-fists Walker who perhaps more fittingly embodied the essence and aura of the eccentric ‘Roaring Twenties’.
"It’s easy for a guy like me to live violently, as if there was no tomorrow," admitted ‘The Toy Bulldog’ at the height of his fistic powers.
On the rare occasion he wasn’t trading blows or enjoying the high-life outside of it, Walker was recognised as a renowned artist and a keen golfer. Famously, the morning after he went 15 rounds with heavyweight Jack Sharkey, ‘The Toy Bulldog’ was pictured on the golf course alongside those close to him, proudly sporting his war wounds and a beaming smile.
One of the most unique characters in boxing history, Walker accumulated enough battle wounds and lasting damage along with his many historic feats to cause him trouble later in life - as an all-too-familiar sad ending awaited another one of boxing’s greats of the past.
Holding a lifelong reputation of fondness for a drink, Walker was found lying on the street by police in Freehold, New Jersey in 1974 and was initially admitted to hospital by doctors - assuming he was feeling the effects of another boozy session.
Tests later revealed Walker was suffering from Parkinson’s syndrome, arteriosclerosis and anemia; subsequently undergoing treatment at Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital but sadly passing away in 1981.
At a time when Prohibition had a national grasp on citizens, Walker somehow slipped through its fingers to bask in the off-limits spoils, all the while simultaneously cementing his legacy as one of the greatest fighters of all-time.