The Kid From Idaho

– Dan Raley Seattle Post Intelligencer

In the 1950s, practically every time Harry “The Kid” Matthews broke a sweat it turned up in the headlines. There was published photo after photo of him posing with dignitaries or a newborn daughter. It seemed nothing he did escaped the outside world.
“Mrs. Kid Matthews, who filed for divorce a week ago, called it off and returned to Harry’s corner,” the late Emmett Watson once wrote in the Post-Intelligencer.

Before Steve Largent, Ken Griffey Jr. or Gary Payton were born, Matthews was one of Seattle’s most beloved sports heroes. He was a natural for the limelight, given his appearance combined with his popular endeavor and the international climate -that of a ruggedly handsome fighter taking on all challengers during the Cold War era.

“He didn’t fit the concept of a fighter, of pug ugly,” said Bill Sears, former sports publicist for Seattle University and the Seattle Pilots. “He was a real gentleman. Of all the fighters we had around here, he probably was the one who captured the imagination of everyone more than anyone else.”

“He was our fighter,” former Post-Intelligencer sports editor John Owen said flatly. “People could identify with Harry.”

They had no choice. Matthews’ manager was Jack Hurley, a boxing promoter so adept at swaying public opinion he had outraged congressmen everywhere investigating the fight game when a title bout for The Kid couldn’t be arranged quickly enough to suit Hurley.

Matthews was a good boxer, but Hurley built him into something mythical, often spewing his fun-loving propaganda from a cluttered hotel room at the Washington Athletic Club. There were no apologies either, when his fighter crashed hard to the canvas in New York, knocked out in the second round by the great Rocky Marciano in 1952.
“He went amateur on me,” was all Hurley would say later.

Matthews grew up in Boise, Idaho, the son of a blacksmith and city councilman who decided that boxing was a ready solution for child-rearing. When Matthews was 9, he came home from school, crying after a classmate had picked on him. “His dad said, ‘That’s it, you’re getting boxing lessons,’ ” said Connie O’Keeffe, one of Matthews’ three daughters. “He had his first professional fight at 14.” From then on, Matthews was known as The Kid.

For 12 years, he fought throughout the Pacific Northwest, building a local reputation. He wanted to make some money and a name. He approached Hurley, seeking a career boost. The ensuing negotiations are Northwest legend.

Settling on a fee, Hurley said he wanted half of everything Matthews made. The boxer balked, insisting that no other manager got that amount.
“How much are you making now?” Hurley asked.
“Nothing,” was the boxer’s response.
“Well 50 percent of nothing is nothing,” Hurley huffed. “Fifty percent of what you’ll get is 50 percent better than what you’ve got now.”
They shook hands.
“Hurley was pricey, but he was worth it,” O’Keeffe said.

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Matthews compiled an 87-7-7 pro record with 61 knockouts, fighting from 1937 to ’56. He competed in the middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight divisions, though never topping 180 pounds. Among his most notable victories were 10-round decisions over middleweight title holder and Seattle native Al Hostak, lightweight title contender Bob Murphy, and one-time heavyweight champ Ezzard Charles.

The Marciano fight was Matthews’ one chance at ultimate glory, and Seattle was giddy over the moment. The Post Intelligencer ran a story every day for nearly a month leading up to the bout, and sent sports editor/columnist Royal Brougham by train to cover the event. Washington’s U.S. senators, Democrat Warren Magnuson and Republican Harry Cain, were among the 20,000 ringside at Yankee Stadium.

There were obvious distractions to overcome. Matthews’ second of three wives had just given birth to a daughter, and he arrived in New York later than planned to train. He was undersized. He also faced an East Coast media skeptical of his chances. And why not? Marciano was 41-0, a year away from becoming world champion and three years removed from finishing as the only undefeated (49-0) heavyweight title-holder in history.

The Kid gamely won the first round, though he missed with a half-dozen punches. Marciano, however, had seen enough. Two minutes and four seconds into the second round, he landed two sharp, left hooks and his opponent landed on the canvas, not sure where he was and unable to regain his feet.

The blows were enough to knock all the momentum out of Matthews’ career. In 1951 alone, he had 15 bouts. He fought only 13 more times over five years after losing to Marciano, which brought The Kid and Hurley a near $50,000 payday.
“He handled it pretty well,” O’Keeffe said of her father’s showcase defeat. “He always said it was one of those things.”

Giving up boxing in 1957, Matthews briefly became a King County Sheriff’s deputy, owned and operated the Bell Pine Tavern in Seattle, and had his own rental equipment and welding business in Everett. He also was a novice inventor, creating a winch device that could parallel park a car, and a motorized cart he could ride behind his elongated bar and deliver drinks. He never tried to commercialize these efforts.

Matthews was living in Everett until 1999, when he started to suffer from dementia. A housekeeper took advantage, allegedly stealing $15,000 in checks, a cellular phone and assorted boxing memorabilia, and coercing him into purchasing a car for her.

O’Keeffe moved her father to her California home, then to an assisted-care facility, where he died of heart failure Feb. 21, 2003
The Kid is home again, buried in Everett.

Courtesy of Roy Bennett of Vintage Boxing Archives

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