Mike Donovan, middleweight boxer of the bare-knuckle era also known as Professor Mike Donovan and Mike O’Donovan, is born in Chicago, Illinois on September 27, 1847 to Irish-born parents. He later becomes one of the foremost teachers of the sport.
The first of many memorable events in Donovan’s life comes when he fights for the Union Army in the American Civil War, serving in William Tecumseh Sherman‘s army in its march through Georgia. After the war, he begins a boxing career that associates him with some of the best-known people of his age, in and out of the ring.
In 1868, Donovan defeats John Shanssey in a bout in Cheyenne, Wyoming, refereed by famous Western lawman Wyatt Earp. He wins the middleweight title in 1887 in San Francisco. He also fights the most famous Irish boxing champion in history, John L. Sullivan, fighting two four-round fights with him in 1880 and 1881.
After his active boxing career ends, Donovan becomes a boxing instructor at the New York Athletic Club and works with several famous Irish fighters. He is in Jake Kilrain‘s corner when he loses to John L. Sullivan in the last bare-knuckle heavyweight championship fight, and also helps James Corbett when he defeats Sullivan for the title in 1892.
Donovan spars with President Theodore Roosevelt, who loves boxing, on several occasions. He earns the sobriquet “Professor” for his scientific approach to his own career and in his later teaching of the sport. The “Professor” leaves a legacy, as well. His son Arthur is a famous boxing referee in the 1930s and 1940s and is enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame along with the “Professor,” the only father-son combination so honored. His grandson, also Art, plays for the Baltimore Colts in the National Football League and is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
Donovan dies on March 24, 1918 at St. Francis Hospital in the Bronx, New York from complications from a bout with pneumonia he develops while teaching a boxing class. He is survived by his wife, Cecilia, and eight children, all who are at his bedside when he dies. After his death, his will indicates that his last name is actually O’Donovan.
Donovan’s silver championship belt is bequeathed to his son, Arthur, who at the time is serving in the United States Army, in the 105th Field Artillery at Spartanburg, South Carolina, during World War I.
Donovan is elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York in 1998.