I have been intrigued by the great middleweight boxer Mike Gibbons ever since I read that Gene Tunney tried to duplicate his style. “I learned more about boxing by watching Mike Gibbons in the gym than from any other source”, said Tunney. That is high praise from one of boxing’s all time ring scientists. Mike’s younger brother, Tommy, was also a master boxer but was a bit more aggressive and packed a heavier wallop. He is best remembered for surviving 15 rounds with Jack Dempsey in 1923.
Mike Gibbons was known as “The St. Paul Phantom”. The nickname honored his home town and his uncanny defensive skills. Opponents were constantly missing him with their punches. Gibbons was one of the early pioneers of the “sweet science”, wherein footwork, timing, distance and balance were fundamental to the art. According to Boxrec.com, over the course of a 15 year career (1907-1922) Gibbons had 133 bouts. His three official losses occurred when he was past his prime. Among the many outstanding opponents he faced were Harry Greb, Leo Houck, Ted Kid Lewis, Jimmy Clabby, Soldier Bartfield, Al McCoy, Jeff Smith, Eddie McGoorty and Jack Dillon.
Another quality opponent of Gibbons was middleweight contender Augie Ratner of New York. As an amateur Augie won both National A.A.U. and international welterweight titles. He turned pro in 1915. By the time his 104 bout career ended in 1926 Ratner had fought (on multiple occasions) many of the top fighters of his era, including Harry Greb, Ted Kid Lewis, Dave Shade, Jack Delaney, Paul Berlanbach, Jock Malone, Lou Bogash and Bryan Downey.
At the age of 71 Ratner was interviewed in the August 1967 issue of Boxing Illustrated magazine. He told the interviewer that Ted Kid Lewis and Harry Greb were the best fighters he ever faced. “Both were great”, said Ratner. “Lewis could box and he could hit. Greb was not as other men; he started his fights at a fast pace and accelerated it as the fight went on.”
But of all his opponents Ratner considered Mike Gibbons the best boxer he ever fought. “Gibbons was a wonderful boxer,” he said. “Maybe the very best I ever saw. He employed a peculiar footwork—none of the fancy-dan steps some of the moderns use, but a gliding maneuver that proved amazingly effective and energy-conserving. He knew every defensive move in the book, but he was by no means all defense. When he went on the attack, the punches came thick and fast, hard and true. He was a marvel.”
Only one film of Gibbons in action is known to exist—his 1915 10 round no-decision bout with the great Packey McFarland. Sadly the film is not available on YouTube. (Maybe our indefatigable editor can come up with it). But recently I came across another YouTube of Gibbons giving boxing instruction to American soldiers in training during World War I. It is quite impressive and a revelation to those who think boxing back then was crude and unsophisticated. Gibbons is shown demonstrating various punches (including stepping in with “the old one-two”), and also blocking, slipping and countering techniques. These are fundamental moves but rarely seen in today’s world of “I hit you, now you hit me” school of crude and unsophisticated boxing. The rest of the film–Gibbons is only featured in the first few minutes–is just as interesting, as it shows Uncle Sam’s Doughboys getting judo instruction and lessons in bayonet fighting. It is a rare glimpse back in time and well worth the ten minutes it takes to view it.
Note: Boxing historian Mike Silver is the author of “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science” (McFarland Publishing Co.)
 Harry Cleavelin, “Augie Ratner: Champ Without A Crown!”, Boxing Illustrated (February 1967), p. 38-40.