Born in Ireland, 1936 John (known as big John Mulroy) moved to England seeking a better life and an overall change in circumstance. His friend who had already made the trip encouraged John that a move to England came with a better job. A prospect that John longed for as his current job in a mill left John without many prospects. After moving to Birmingham John began training 3 nights a week under Steve Hayden at Small Heath Boxing club via the Hobmoore pub. With ‘a couple of bags’ and his pal Barny Bourne John spent his new and not so ‘grand’ life in England working and boxing. Having never boxed in his life, taking up the sport on a whim John’s route into boxing was not a ‘typical’ one. John worked and boxed around Lucas industries and was ‘on the building at Ham’s Hall’, also spending time as a tunneller. Whilst working these physically demanding jobs all over Birmingham John also attempted to stick to his 3 day a week training programme. “It was hard”, John told us, “Real hard”, his previous experience with fighting only being on the streets of Ireland! Somewhat of a mischievous fellow with a heart of gold and head strong character John soon found himself fighting whoever and wherever he could. Bartley Gorman in his book King of the Gypsies describes John as ‘the hardest hitter he had ever fought.’ Quite a statement considering that Gorman was an infamously ‘mad’ bare knuckle gypsie boxing champion. The fight between these two furious men took place when Gorman was 22 and Mulroy was approaching 30 at the Metropolitan Club in Small Heath. The match only came about due to pure happenstance that neither John’s nor Gorman’s opponents turned up that night. With that Steve Hayden told John he was to fight the giant Gorman (who to John’s surprise) was around ‘5-6 stones heavier’. Completely outweighed, completely illegal today, John laced up his gloves and took on his Goliath. After a long, full fight, involving mostly draining holds and frequent exchanges John left the ring standing up but disqualified. Along with Gorman at the end of the final round the referee brought the two fighters to the centre of the ring and disqualified both men. For what John is still unsure to this day and he is adamant he won the fight, asking Steve to arrange a rematch the following month which never materialised. In hindsight it is now possible to explain that the referee probably dqd’ both John and Gorman after a brawl broke out in the audience between their opposing fans. The truth of the matter was that there was more than just a boxing match taking place. Suspicion and anxiety about the travelling community is not just an issue for boxing but society in general. It is likely that the referee simply wanted to put out an already lit fire and get this eclectic crowd of gypsys and Irish men home as quickly as possible. The scale of this fights cultural and social significance led to The Birmingham Post reporting the fight as an historical event, given the risks of holding a contest between Irish travellers and so called ‘settled’ Irish Brummies.
Standing at 6ft 3 John was a genuine Irish giant who boxed all over the midlands from Birmingham to Shrewsbury, from Leicester to Penns Hall-Sutton Coldfield. After spending the weekends as a doorman around Birmingham’s pubs and clubs John found himself spending his Monday nights at Penns Hall boxing. The combination of hectic weekends, manual work and a 3 day training week left John not exactly ‘in form’ for boxing on Monday nights. Nevertheless, long before red bulls and protein shakes, Big John powered through.
John finished boxing at 29, his club at the time being on Fazley Steet, shortly before Pat Benson took the reigns.
John’s final thoughts about boxing were positive and optimistic. He believes that boxing is a great way to get kids off the streets and channelling their energy into something positive and structured. Boredom and a desire to prove yourself are anxieties that plague young boys and girls from their teenage years all the way up to young adulthood. Boxing can fill both of these gaps.