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Wednesday 21 March 2018

Crusher Casey: Was he Ireland's greatest sportsman?

He was the supreme wrestler in the world for a decade no-one in Europe or America could match him. Then he turned to boxing and the great Joe...

He was the supreme wrestler in the world for a decade no-one in Europe or America could match him. Then he turned to boxing and the great Joe Louis refused to go into the ring with him ... John Daly reports

The boys of the Kingdom of Kerry seen glory on many a field,

But the brothers called Casey from Kerry at wrestling were surely the cream,

The most famous of all at the spin, flip and fall,

Was the famous Steve Casey from Sneem

from The Famous Steve Casey by Bryan McMahon, 1938

They don't make men like Steve `Crusher' Casey any more.

In 1938 he was crowned Heavyweight Wrestling Champion of the World and retained the title for nine years until he retired, undefeated, in 1947. He is the only Irishman ever to retain a world title in any discipline for such an extended period of time and will be honoured in his native Sneem, Co Kerry, this Saturday.

To mark the achievements of a man frequently described as `Ireland's greatest sporting hero', a life-size bronze statue will be unveiled by Olympic medal winner Ronnie Delaney to celebrate one of the Kingdom's most famous sons.

Born in 1908 in this picturesque village on the southwest Kerry coast, Steve Casey was one of a family of seven brothers who, in their younger days, claimed to be ``the toughest family on earth''. Famous locally for their exploits at rowing, tug-of-war, wrestling and boxing, the seven brothers were inducted into the Irish Sports Hall of Fame in 1987, the only group ever to receive that honour.

`It wasn't from the hills or the mountains they brought it' goes a local saying in Kerry, and yet, in the Casey's case, the opposite holds true. Sprung from a union between Mike Casey, a renowned bare-knuckle boxer who was once a sparring partner for world boxing champion John L Sullivan, and Bridget Mountain, a champion oarswoman on the Southern coast, the combined sporting gene pool clearly dictated the future glory of their seven sons.

Both parents worked for the Vanderbilt family at their summer estate in Newport, Rhode Island, during their younger days. Mike Casey oversaw the employment and operation of the extensive fleet of racing sculls maintained by the millionaire family, particularly during the Newport Regatta each summer.

``I told Mr Vanderbilt if he'd pay passage for a gang of oarsmen from Sneem to come over, we'd beat all around us,'' Mike once recalled.

Cornelius Venderbilt duly obliged and The Hibernians, as they were christened, won every event they entered for three years.

Possessed of a fine physique measuring 6' 4`` in height and 17st. weight, Steve Casey was an exception to the norm when plentiful food was hardly the staple diet of rural households.

``T'was never from eating too much we got it,'' he once remarked. ``Whether it came from my father, my mother or God himself, we were blessed by nature.''

A famous tale is often recalled of his teenage days working with the Forestry Department around Templenoe. The clearing of land involved six men working with a sturdy drayhorse constantly propelling a heavy turntable. One day, the horse dropped from exhaustion and all work stopped. Steve immediately tackled himself up to the horse harness and single-handedly powered the turntable for the rest of the day.

Having won every Irish rowing contest by the early 1930s, Steve and Paddy Casey became members of the British amateur wrestling team in 1935 and travelled across Europe winning every match in their categories. Being in need of extra money, as sporting grants were practically non-existent at the time, both brothers wrestled professionally for ready cash.

``Steve and his brothers found it hard to get anyone in the ring with them after a while,'' recalled Gerald Egan, a wrestling manager who arranged many of their matches. ``Nobody in England would take them on and pretty soon most of the European wrestlers felt the same way. The brothers were simply unstoppable and I advised them to move to America as quickly as possible to capitalise on their success.''

Later that year, with the aid of brothers Tom and Mick, they entered and won the All-England Rowing Championships a natural springboard for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Unfortunately, the fact that they had wrestled professionally forced their disqualification from the team that eventually went to Germany. Most observers of the time, and the Caseys themselves, were utterly confident they would have won all six rowing events they entered.

``Jesse Owens showed Adolf Hitler how poor his Aryan race really was,'' commented Jim Casey. ``But if the Caseys went to Germany, we'd have drowned his ambitions with the spray of our oars.'' With little left to achieve in Europe, Steve Casey headed to America in search of greater glory. In quick succession he defeated the cream of US wrestling Bronco Narquisi aka the French Angel, Charkie Stack, Rube Wright, the Duser Brothers aka the Omaha Terrors, Bibber McCoy and Louis Thezs.

In 1938, Casey was crowned the undisputed Wrestling Heavyweight Champion of the World - a title he defended on numerous occasions without defeat over the next nine years.

``1938 is a long time ago,'' wrote Fionan O'Shea, retired national school teacher and secretary of the Sneem welcome home committee. ``The economy of Ireland was at a very low point. There were no Celtic Tigers around, not even a fat mouse. When Steve came home a world champion, he lifted the spirits of Ireland with his sporting exploits and put Sneem on the world map.'' With a ruthless ability to tangle even the best opponents in his legendary `Killarney flip' in the ring, Casey also proved himself a media darling with his gift for understatement on the sidewalk.

``I never met a man I was afraid of in or out of the ring,'' he once told the Boston Herald. ``No man has ever harassed me. But if you think I'm good, you should meet my six brothers. They are not only wrestlers they will outfight, outrun or outrow any men in the world.''

On another occasion when six intruders broke into his Boston bar, Crusher Casey's, Steve took a bullet in the back defending his patrons. ``They caught the three guys and gave them nine months. I had to spend a year in hospital, but I'm still alive. Irishmen never die until they're dead.''

Not content with his wrestling title, Steve Casey moved into the boxing ring in 1940 where he defeated the US champion Tiger Warrentown. ``All who saw the Warrentown-Steve Casey fight, including Jack Dempsey, were of the opinion that Steve would beat Joe Louis,'' wrote sports journalist Dermot Clarke.

He immediately challenged Joe Louis for the World Heavyweight Championship. In the only refusal of his sporting career, Joe Louis declined the challenge. ``Even the greatest run scared of the Sneem Machine,'' ran the New York Post headline.

Steve Casey and his wife Eileen had two sons and a daughter, Margaret, who distinguished herself as an oarswoman while a student at Harvard.

In 1983, the Casey family organised a family reunion in Sneem. While all seven brothers were alive at the time, only five were able to make the trip. Then in their 70s, the brothers climbed once again into the same four-oar boat they used to win the championships in 1930, '31 and '32. Although they had not rowed together in 50 years, the same unity and natural grace remained undimmed with the passing of time.

``Their oars broached and cleared the water in perfect unison,'' wrote Jim Hudson in his book, The Legend Of The Caseys. ``Backs erect, arms outstretched, they propelled the boat through the shimmering waters as smoothly as a raindrop sliding down silk. Many of those crowding the shoreline found it difficult to cheer because of the lumps in their throats. They knew they were watching the final performance of the greatest oarsmen and finest individual athletes Ireland had ever seen.''

In a career where he remained unbowed and unbeaten for over 40 glorious years, Steve Casey lost his only match of his life when he succumbed to cancer in 1987. In a fitting tribute among the many thousands from around the world, his brother Paddy put it best: ``If it wasn't for Steve, none of us would have ever been heard of.''

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