James “Buddy” McGirt, Long Island’s first world champion and a throwback fighter reminiscent of the sport’s Golden Age, is among four boxers who have been elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame this year.
“It hasn’t really hit me yet,” said McGirt, who is from Brentwood. “This shows you’re appreciated by the boxing world and that all the hard work and dedication pays off. I’ve come a long way. And when I think back, I just want to thank Brentwood for all the support they’ve given me.”
McGirt is a two-division world champion who fought much of his 16-year career under the Madison Square Garden promotional banner. He will be inducted into the Hall on June 9 in Canastota, New York. Other members of the class of 2019 are welterweight champions Donald Curry and Tony DeMarco, junior middleweight champion Julian Jackson and Staten Island trainer and broadcaster Teddy Atlas.
“Buddy is a very special person in my life,” said Bobby Goodman, McGirt’s promoter at the Garden. “Buddy was underrated in his career, so I am glad he’s getting the recognition he really deserves.”
McGirt’s interest in boxing began in 1976 when he wandered into the basement gym at the Brentwood Rec Center.
“I used to just sit there and watch the pros,” McGirt said. “One day the trainer, Gene Moore, said you know we have a program for kids. I said, “How old do you have to be?’ He said 12. The next week I turned 12 and I went every day.”
At the time, McGirt also was playing youth football.
“I was standing out there in the cold thinking, ‘I could be inside a warm boxing gym right now,’ ” McGirt said. “I went to the sideline in the middle of the game. I gave the coach my helmet. I told him I’d give him the rest of the equipment tomorrow and I walked home.”
McGirt, a junior welterweight, turned pro in 1982 during his senior year at Brentwood High School. He did not enter the pro ranks with a long list of amateur accomplishments. What he did have was an unyielding work ethic and an appetite to learn.
“He was the nicest kid,” recalled Moore, who ran the boxing program at the Brentwood Rec Center. “He really wanted to be a fighter. He worked very hard at it. Sometimes I would drive him home from the gym. He was just a great kid.”
After a draw in his pro debut, McGirt reeled off 28 straight wins before losing to contender Frankie Warren in Corpus Christi, Texas. McGirt then embarked on an eight-bout winning streak that led to a 1988 rematch with Warren in Corpus Christi. This time the vacant IBF junior welterweight title was at stake. McGirt scored a 12th-round TKO and became a world champion.
“I think that’s my greatest moment,” McGirt said. “It was something that I knew they could never take away from me. I knew I would always go down in history as Long Island’s first world champion.”
By 1991, McGirt was campaigning as a welterweight. He captured his second world title that year when he outclassed heavily favored WBC champion Simon Brown over 12 rounds.
“Simon Brown was a textbook fight,” Goodman said. “He faced a great champion and took him apart piece by piece. If you wanted to school someone on how to box, that would be the tape to give him. The McGirt who fought Simon Brown was one of the greatest welterweights I’ve ever seen.”
McGirt’s long-time manager and trainer, Al Certo, helped him develop a style that incorporated touches from Sugar Ray Robinson and Jersey Joe Walcott.
“Buddy learned every little trick in the book,” Goodman said. “He could hook off the jab. He’d double, triple up his jab. His footwork was fantastic. He could slip, spin or pivot. He was doing stuff inside the ring that they just weren’t teaching anymore.”
In 1993, McGirt put his title on the line at Madison Square Garden against Pernell Whitaker, who was moving up in weight and was considered one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the sport. McGirt entered the fight with a nagging pain in his left shoulder. He said he initially was told it was tendinitis, but it later was diagnosed as a torn rotator cuff, and he lost a close fight with Whitaker.
“We can all say shoulda, woulda, coulda,” McGirt said. “If not for the injury, who knows what would have happened. I think if I was healthy, I would have beaten him.”
McGirt continued to fight until 1997 and holds victories over Livingston Bramble, Saoul Mamby, Joe Manley and Glen Cove’s Howard Davis Jr., a 1976 Olympic gold medalist.
According to Goodman, the Long Island Rail Road ran a special train to deliver fans of both McGirt and Davis to the Felt Forum for the fight. McGirt scored a one-round knockout live on ABC.
He retired with a 73-6-1 record with 48 knockouts and turned to training young fighters.
“I enjoy teaching,” said McGirt, 54, who now lives in Vero Beach, Florida. “I love it. Even when I was young, I always knew I wanted to be a trainer. I used to watch Gene Moore and I always thought it looked like fun.”
McGirt, whom Goodman described as a student of the game, has trained world champions Byron Mitchell, Vernon Forrest, Antonio Tarver and Arturo Gatti.
As a kid, McGirt would go to the Brentwood Library and take out any boxing book he could find.
“There was this one book, 'The World’s Heavyweight Champions,' that I took out all the time,” McGirt said. “Every other time, I would rip a picture out and hang it on the wall in my room. One day I went to the library and the librarian had the book behind the counter. She sees me and she says, 'Come here, young man. Is this what you are looking for?' She hands me the book and I say, 'Yes.' She says, 'Do me a favor. Take this home and keep it.' I say, 'Why?' She says, 'You took half the pictures out of the book.' I said, 'How do you know it’s me?' She said, 'You are the only one who takes this book out.'
“That was my childhood,'' McGirt said. "I was obsessed with boxing.”
Buddy’s Greatest Hits
2/14/88 — McGirt avenges his first career loss by stopping Frankie Warren in the 12th round of a 15-round for the vacant IBF junior welterweight title. The bout was at the Memorial Coliseum in Corpus Christi, Texas, Warren’s hometown. Warren was 25-0 at the time.
7/31/88 — McGirt takes on Long Island rival Howard Davis Jr. at the Felt Forum. Davis Jr. was a gold medalist at the 1976 Olympic Games. Davis Jr. was eight years older than McGirt and occasionally used the Brentwood fighter as a sparring partner. Buddy knocked him out with a right hand at 2:45 of the first round. It was the first knockout loss of Davis’ career. The bout was televised by ABC. The LIRR scheduled a special train to bring Long Island fight fans to the bout, according to promoter Bobby Goodman.
11/29/91 — McGirt wins the WBC welterweight title with an unanimous decision over hard-hitting champion Simon Brown at the Mirage in Las Vegas. The scores were 119-109 and 117-110 twice. The bout was televised by Showtime.
3/6/93 — Although McGirt lost his WBC title via unanimous decision to Pernell Whitaker at Madison Square Garden, the fight is one of Buddy’s best performances. Whitaker was considered one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world. The scores were 117-111, 115-113 and 115-114. Few at the time had held Whitaker to such close scores. McGirt fought with a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder. The fight was televised by HBO.