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Famous and Not Forgotten: Jack Munroe

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Jack Munroe made a distinct mark on the smoky city of Butte, Montana. When the world heavyweight boxing champion Jim Jeffries was passing through the Mining City, Jack Munroe had the gumption and random luck to challenge him to an exhibition – a confrontation that thrilled his hometown and cemented his status among the local populace as a genuine hero.

Like other men of similar destiny, he scraped out a living in the deep choking cramp of the copper mines. But in addition to his ability to withstand the toil of h heavy labor, this brawny itinerant possessed an unusual amount of courage.

Born in 1877 in Nova Scotia, Canada, Munroe followed his older brother and their uncle slightly south, and decidedly west, to the United States, becoming “one of a dozen Cape Breton Island natives who decamped in the West to mine copper in Montana,” according to one account.

At age 18 he was said to be a member of the Butte city adult football team. Afterwards, he spent time in San Francisco, playing as a guard on that city’s Olympic Club football team. In 1900, he won the Olympic Club’s amateur heavyweight championship medal, defeating three local bruisers en route to a title. Some time thereafter Munroe started boxing professionally, all while continuing to play football and working odd, itinerant jobs.

The peripatetic miner-boxer returned to the Butte area sometime around 1903. Sweating out a precarious living six days a week, ten hours a day, in what most considered unrestrained misery on earth didn’t seem to impede the will of Jack Munroe.

Heavyweight Gauntlet Thrown Down

According to an article about Munroe in Macleans: “In Munroe’s time, professional prizefighting was still illegal almost everywhere in North America and, over the whole 'sport,' there still hung the bloody, sweaty aroma of the bad, old, bareknuckle days of eye-gouging, armbreaking, neck-chopping, ear-biting, groin-smashing and snappy tricks to dislocate elbows, cave in ribs and crunch faces.”

One night in December, 1903, Jack Munroe was purportedly “one of a bunch of the vagabond miners who were carousing in the bars and streets of Butte, itching for a little excitement,” according to one boxing historian’s account. The heavyweight boxing champion Jim Jeffries, born in Ohio in 1875, and the older ex-champion Bob Fitzsimmons, born in England in 1863, were in Butte, too.

The gauntlet was thrown down (by whom and in what context is a matter of conjecture): any man who could withstand four rounds with Jeffries or Fitzsimmons would receive $500. The amount of the bet varies in alternate accounts, but this figure seems to be the most oft-repeated.

The sparring exhibition at the Broadway Theater took place on the Saturday night subsequent to the challenge, drawing “a fifteen-hundred-dollar house,” according to the Butte Miner. The fighters were operating under Marquis of Queensberry rules, with clean breaking and no hitting in the clinches.

According to the Butte Miner, no event of the year had attracted so much attention as Jeffries’ challenge to Munroe in December of 1903. “All the big newspapers east and west have been keeping the wires busy asking for extended accounts of the four-round bout, pictures and measurements of Munroe and his history. In addition to the Associated Press reports, many papers asked for specials.”

As it turned out, on December 19, 1903, both fighters fulfilled their stated missions.

Jack Munroe: “Lion of the Hour in Butte”

There are two schools of thought concerning the famous four-round affair between the world champion and the miner-pugilist. One is that Jeffries tried his best, but simply couldn’t dispatch the clever, more hardy opponent; the other is that it was a pre-arranged affair and that it was “fixed” for Munroe to withstand the limit. It’s also possible that neither of these general beliefs were correct; Jeffries might have considered the fight more of a lark than a serious threat, at least at first.

According to one ringside newspaperman, “Both men went into the ring in good faith, Munroe to do his best to stay the limit and Jeff to give the crowd some excitement.”

At six feet and 195 pounds, the powerful miner fended off the champion – who was taller and outweighed him by at least 20 pounds – for four rounds. Jeffries seemed to have done his meanest to stop Munroe. But he failed.

According to one ringside report, “Jeffries several times ignored the [Marquis of Queensbury] rule, and freely punched Munroe while in the clinches, and went at him rough shod, with the intention of stopping the affair as soon as possible. Several times he forced Munroe to his knees, but the Butte man took advantage of the count and rested up.”

Of course, Munroe, with only a few professional bouts to his credit (though he had gone the limit with heavyweight champion Jack Johnson), was considered no equal for the champion, and his victory was not expected. One account even indentifies Munroe as “two years removed having laced boxing gloves and stepping into a ring to compete.”

But Munroe, who according to one account had trained exclusively for ten straight days prior to the fight and was of “perfect wind, hard muscles, healthy pink flesh,” showed gumption and pluck. Not content to survive, he even exhibited some aggressiveness, “landing several hard stiff jabs on the champion’s nose.”

Jeffries was “not altogether pleased” with the decision given by Referee Dune McDonald. This decision was recorded in his fight record as a losing mark, the first blight in his pugilistic career. Jeffries later blamed his defeat on a number of reasons, admitting that he underestimated his opponent, claiming he was out of condition, and even stating that he was afraid of exerting himself too strenuously in the unaccustomed elevation.

Similarly, the Butte InterMountain accused Jeffries of loafing, of being “hog-fat and easily winded in the high altitude” while Munroe “trained faithfully” for his fight with the champion.

Nonetheless, going the distance with Jeffries, the heavyweight champion, turned Munroe into a genuine celebrity in the streets and taverns of Butte. “At present Munroe is the lion of the hour in Butte and through his unflinching grit has made many friends,” stated The Butte InterMountain on December 22, 1903.

According to Macleans, “Eleven days later the Terrible Miner appeared in a vaudeville melodrama called ‘Road To Ruin.’”

Jack Monroe (above at left) and heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries shake hands before the fight at Mechanic’s Pavilion in San Francisco on August 26, 1904.

Munroe continued to box, and a year later, on August 26, 1904, he accepted a rematch with the revenge-seeking Jeffries, in San Francisco. Despite the support Munroe received from a notable team of trainers, “Jeffries wiped the floor with the suddenly terrible miner,” almost “decapitating” him with the first punch of the fight. Since the fight transpired in California, Munroe no longer had the hometown support of rowdy Butte folks, and the crowd of 21,000 maintained no allegiance to him whatsoever. He was reduced to a bruised, bloody heap of humanity within minutes, and the fight was called off, to save his hide.

Munroe fought six more bouts after his title tilt with Jeffries — including a knockout loss to Jack Johnson in 1905 — before retiring with a career mark of 9-2-4, with eight of those wins coming from KOs.

Prospector and Soldier of Fortune

Munroe wasn’t quite finished, however. He later beat Peter Maner, the Irish heavyweight champion, after he had returned to his native Novia Scotia. Subsequently, he found work as a prospector and lumberjack in Northern Ontario, and he signed up in Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry at the onset of World War I.

During training, he carried his double-bitted axe (it’s reported that he later killed at least one German soldier with it) at his side. The regiment’s mascot was a large collie named Bobby Burns; Munroe had brought along his dog to Europe, it’s been said, to provide color and a few smiles to counterweight the grimness of battle. Still, the war’s harsh realities were undeniable, and an infected wound from a sniper’s bullet led to the amputation of Munroe’s right arm.

After serving for Canada in World War One, Munroe decided to write a book in the third person through the eyes of his collie Bobbie Burns (pictured with an aged Munroe at right) who had survived the war with him.

Following The Great War, Jack Munroe purportedly made gobs of wealth while returning to prospecting in his native Canada. He also served as mayor of Elk Lake, Ontario before dying at the age of 64 in February of 1942.

—Brian D’Ambrosio

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