The Jim O'Hara Story:

Boxing, Dignity & StReet Smarts

O'Hara with Jim Wells circa 1995

Editor’s Note: A Golden Gloves champ, Jim Wells was a sportswriter at the St. Paul Pioneer Press for over 37 years, covering some 2,500 bouts. His body of work includes interviews with some of the greatest boxers of all time. Wells has been inducted into the Minnesota Boxing Hall of Fame and the Mancini’s Saint Paul Hall of Fame as well as the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame. 


He was widely known as Jim, but to his friends, and there were many of them, he was more affectionately known as Jimmy. By either appellation, Jim O’Hara was truly one of a kind, a man with a burly exterior, a kind heart and a knack for getting the job done.

He was a man of the streets, St. Paul’s streets, for the majority of his 76 years, but he was comfortable in any city or state government building. He was a man without a higher education but with more insight into human nature than associates with doctorates. He could size up a person quickly and accurately and divine his intentions before he uttered a word.

“There was something about him. He really understood human nature,” said former St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Don Riley, a lifelong friend of O’Hara’s. “His greatest skill was probably bringing people together, getting sides to agree.”

As another friend once put it, O’Hara could walk into a room full of cougars and antelope and have everyone in agreement and happy when he left. His appearance was one thing, gruff and tough with a commanding presence. His ability to negotiate peace between long-time rivals was nearly legendary.

“He could have been anything he wanted to be,” Riley added. “He could have been a politician or a labor negotiator. A million jobs could have used a man like him.”

O’Hara knew the intricate workings of the boxing business as well as anyone and could spot a phony the moment he saw him. “He knew the boxing business inside and out,” said longtime international referee Denny Nelson. “Nobody pulled anything on him. He dealt with nice guys and tough guys and he could handle both.”

When boxing camps brought their fighters to town, there was Jim O’Hara to deal with, first as a commissioner with the Minnesota Boxing Board, successor to the State Boxing Commission and the State Athletic Commission, and then as the Boxing Board’s long-time Executive Secretary.

Although he had a secretary for a period of time, O’Hara was a one-man office much of his career. He answered his own calls, providing responses to questions from the press, rival fight camps, fighters and others who aspired to the profession. As often as not, he served as referee between warring factions, paving the way to a meeting of the minds. There were times, too, when promoters and fighters angrily badmouthed him for bringing ethics to the game, for nixing soft-touch opponents or matches that stunk before they were made.

“Guys would come into town with fighters and he knew what was going on from the start. He had them figured out before they got here,” Nelson added.

Nelson recalled a time when the two of them were on a downtown corner together and a fellow approached them on the street. “Jimmy I need this or that,” Nelson recalled. “He helped the fellow out. Jim seemed to know everyone in the city, the politicians as well as the guys at the Dorothy Day center.”

O’Hara was a salesman in the produce business and worked on beer delivery trucks at one time. Stout fellow that he was, cases of beer were like mere six-packs to him.

He had a heavyweight professional boxing career and learned how the game was conducted from first-hand experience. “He knew his boxing,” Nelson added, “and nobody got anything by him.”

O’Hara rubbed elbows with acquaintances on the streets as well as the city’s big shots, the lawyers and senators at the capitol.

“The advice he gave to people was always right on track,” Nelson added. “He’d say ‘forget about that, don’t worry about it, we’ll work it out.'”

There was also his sense of humor, often used to ease tensions between rivals, other times to amuse a friend or most often his wife, Kitty. “He used to come home at lunch and tell jokes to me every day. He made me laugh all the time. We had a good time together,” she recalled. “He was home at lunch every day and we’d chat and he’d tell me stories.”

She was also acutely aware of her husband’s talents. “He knew how to fix things, how to bring people together,” she said.

His boxing style perhaps left something to be desired.
“He was a big guy but a boxer,” said Riley. “He wasn’t a big hitter and he carried his hands low, like the great fighter from Pittsburgh, Billy Conn, the way Muhammad Ali later did. We always kidded him about his Pittsburgh style.”

What Riley, about half O’Hara’s size, recalls with particular fondness was his friend’s agility. “For a big guy he was extremely agile,” Riley said. “We used to put on a show for some of the patrons in a saloon. I’d show up, call him a name or two. Then I’d grab him and he’d flip over on his back somehow, making it look as though I’d thrown him.” Riley would then say something like, “Next time will be worse,” leaving nearby patrons engrossed and then stunned. “Jim had a terrific sense of humor,” Riley said. “He could have been a great professional wrestler.”

Again, it was his ability to ameliorate intractable situations, to bring harmony to discord, to replace a scowl with a smile, that was O’Hara’s trademark.
“He was the only guy I ever knew who could agree with both sides and then have both agreeing when he got through with them. He could keep people off each other’s throats,” Riley said.

O’Hara kept himself aware of the world by starting the day early, wherever he went. “Whenever we traveled I’d get up the next day and find him in a coffee shop or someplace reading the local paper before 7 a.m.,” Riley said. “He always said that the only real smart people in the world are those with street smarts and he had them. He knew things about fighters that they didn’t know about themselves.”

Jim O’Hara, truly Mr. Boxing in Minnesota for decades, left the world in 2002, much too soon and with work still to do. Even Kitty isn’t quite sure what made him such an attraction to people around him.
“We’d walk into a room somewhere and everyone wanted to be near him. I can’t put my finger on it. I don’t know what it was,” she said.

No one does, Kitty. For years now we’ve been trying to define it with terms such as “big shoes to fill,” “one of a kind,” “a man of the people.”

Maybe we can drop the analysis and settle simply for Jimmy O’Hara, Mr. Boxing.

Jim Wells
January 2013