TACOMA, Wash. -- Pat McMurtry hears bells.
He's gassing up his 1990 Cadillac Coupe de Ville, an extra-clean car with little leather boxing gloves dangling from the rear-view mirror. Somebody at the gas station says, "Hey, weren't you Pat McMurtry?" and he hears bells. Not gas station driveway bells, not church bells, but the ominous, sonorous gong of ring bells.
"It's like I'm young again," McMurtry said. He is 59 and lives alone in the Parkland area of Tacoma, Wash., in a trailer populated by publicity photos, boxing gloves and memories.
"Ladies'll come up and say, 'Hey, my husband saw you fight,' so I turn on the blarney," McMurtry said. "I'll tell 'em, 'Nice to see you. Thanks for remembering me. Thanks a real lot.' See, you get more flies with honey than you do with vinegar."
Blarney and bells are balm to McMurtry. He was the fifth-ranked heavyweight on the planet, at a time when being No. 5 really meant something.
Like Marlon Brando playing Terry Malloy in "On the Waterfront," McMurtry coulda been somebody. He coulda been more than TC contender. In the fickle cosmos of professional boxing, Patrick Terrance McMurtry of Tacoma could have been heavyweight champion of the world.
The climb to almost the top began in the old Starlight Athletic Club at Seventh and Commerce in downtown Tacoma. Homer Amundson, a scrawny guy with a screwy nose, ran the Starlight. When 15-year-old Pat McMurtry walked into the gym, smelled wintergreen liniment and heard guys snorting and hitting the heavy bag, he fell in love.
"I paid $15 for my first month dues," McMurtry said. "After the first month, Homer said I didn't have to pay any more dues."
McMurtry had the whole package -- strength, smarts, legs, fast hands, nice looks, a crewcut that made him resemble a basketball player more than a boxer.
"Pat was a good Irish fighter," said the 75-year-old beacon of boxing in Seattle, George Chemeres.
"He was aggressive and could punch," Chemeres said. "He could have been a real good fighter. He just lingered around Tacoma too long. He could have developed big time."
McMurtry served in the Marines during the Korean War. The Tacoma News Tribune regularly ran photos of Pat -- lifting 100-pound bombs with the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, sparring with the queen of the Tacoma Fun Fair, shoveling gravel with a Pierce County road crew, shouldering a 195-pound deer he shot at Blewett Pass, solemnly training under the protective gaze of his father, Clarence McMurtry, who sold Golden Rule bread door-to-door for 40 years. Everyone called him Pop.
When Pat McMurtry turned pro in 1954, Pop became his manager. McMurtry began knocking out fighters once or twice a month. In July 1956, a crowd of 10,729 at Lincoln Bowl saw its hero win a 10-round decision from former heavyweight champ Ezzard Charles. It was McMurtry's best payday -- $20,500.
In August 1956, a record Tacoma fight crowd of 11,095 jammed Lincoln Bowl to watch McMurtry lose a 10-round decision to clever Willie Pastrano. But McMurtry won his next five fights, capped by a second-round knockout of Carl "Bobo" Olson, and climbed to No. 5 in the Ring magazine rankings.
"McMurtry reminded everybody of Gene Tunney. He even looked like him," said Teddy Brenner, matchmaker at what was the Valhalla of boxing, New York's Madison Square Garden.
"He was classy," Brenner said. "Good-looking kid. Good defense. I thought he was going places."
So did the mob that ran boxing in the 1950s. Minutes before McMurtry fought the veteran Charlie Norkus at old Cheney Field in July 1958, a small, slender man in a gray silk suit visited his
dressing room. It was Frankie Carbo, the New York underworld's overlord of boxing.
"Carbo came in with all these goons and said, 'Hey, how you feel?' " McMurtry said. "I told him I was ready. I felt good. He went to a pay phone by my locker and bet another $14,000 on me.
"I beat Norkus in 10. Easy. After the fight, Carbo comes in my dressing room. All these people in there, they parted like it was Moses at the Red Sea. Carbo slapped me a couple times, real light, you know. He said, 'Nice job, kid. Nice fight.' He put some paper in the pocket of my robe.
"When I got home, my wife was going to wash my robe. She said, 'What's this?' It was two $1,000 bills."
The big time beckoned. In October 1958, McMurtry fought the Canadian heavyweight champion, another rising star, a tough guy from Toronto named George Chuvalo.
"The greatest moment of my life was walking down 49th Street in New York and seeing my name on the marquee," McMurtry said. "They gave me Joe Louis' old dressing room. I could hear the roar from the prelims. A guy came in and said, 'OK, you're next.' My heart was pounding.
"I came down the tunnel and saw the crowd, the smoke. Johnny Addie was the greatest ring announcer to ever wear a tux. I can still see Johnny reaching up for the microphone."