Known far and wide as “The Saginaw Kid,” George H. Lavigne, who had fists which would beat as fast as the chatter of a computer, became lightweight boxing champion of the world.
Lavigne was born in Bay City, Michigan, in 1869 but came to Saginaw with his parents and the rest of the family when a boy of 10. They moved to Melbourne, the bygone sawmill town which once flourished near Zilwaukee. Mrs. Lavigne ran a boarding house there. There were a good many tough fighting men who worked in the sawmills and along the Saginaw River then. Kid Lavigne took note of their fighting prowess and flamboyant courage. In a few years, his parents thought young George old enough to work in a sawmill. He was a cooper boy and did heavy work which required a lot of lifting.
This work molded him a remarkable physique for his size. Lavigne was a little man, only 5 feet 3½ inches tall, and weighed 132 pounds at the height of his ring career. But he had the arms and legs of a heavyweight fighter, endowments of his sawmill days. His arm span, from fingertip to fingertip, was four inches greater than his height.
It was Billy Lavigne, an older brother, who encouraged the Kid to become a professional boxer. Billy, who had taken boxing lessons in Saginaw, had become a fair boxer himself. Billy bought some boxing gloves and he and George used to put them on against each other. Billy soon learned to be shifty and steer clear of his young brother’s whistling punches or be knocked silly.
George Lavigne became known as a devastating hitter. He could take a man out with one punch and often did, even when he fought bigger men out of his own weight class.
He was 17 when he began his early prizefighting, mostly in Saginaw and neighboring towns. Lavigne got his nickname after an early fight at East Saginaw’s Bordwell’s Opera House, which had a fare of booze, vice and “girlie” stage shows. It catered to lumberjacks and the sporting gentry. Prize fights were held on the stage there in the lumber era heyday of Bordwell’s. Lavigne, then a novice, was challenged to an eight-round bout by one “Pikey” Johnson, a tough journeyman lightweight who had fought the best in the business. Lavigne had Johnson out on his feet in four rounds and was an easy winner. “Happy days, Kid,” Billy Lavigne shouted, “you’re made now!”
From 1896-99, Lavigne was the lightweight champion of the world. The Kid fought at a time when boxers wore knee-length tights and skin-tight gloves. They were lucky to receive a few hundred dollars for fights lasting hours. It usually was a winner-take-all proposition. Fighters and managers bet their last penny on victory.
Rules were few, fights seldom were stopped, and a man fought until he fell and couldn’t rise. In his prime, Lavigne not only had a knockout punch, especially in his right hand, but the capacity to withstand enormous punishment. He also had a fighting heart which wouldn’t let him quit when he seemed beaten. The Saginaw Kid was so good in his class he ran out of challengers. And after what Lavigne did to Joe Wolcott, called the “Barbados Demon” and the best welterweight of his time, in beating Wolcott twice in two of the bloodiest and most savage donnybrooks of all time, not even the good middleweights wanted any part of Lavigne.
The Kid won the world’s lightweight championship in June, 1896, when he knocked out England’s Dick Burge, claimant to the title, in 18 rounds in London. Lavigne entered the ring on the short end of 2-1 betting odds. He needed only a minute of the first round to change a lot of opinions. Razor sharp and trim at 132 pounds, The Saginaw Kid worked on Burge’s midriff and pummeled him about the ring at will. Lavigne, faster than his opponent and punching wickedly, kept slamming Burge’s midsection, red with welts. For 12 rounds he continued body-punching, then shifted his attack to the head. In the 17th round, Burge hit the canvas twice and almost had to be carried to his corner at the end of the round. Lavigne put him down in a matter of seconds at the start of the 18th. Burge bravely staggered to his feet but the 20-round fight was stopped without dissent from the predominately English crowd of sportsmen. Lavigne backers cleaned the London bettors. The bout had attracted much attention in American fight circles and many managers and their fighters crossed the Atlantic to view it. Most of them found willing English pounds in bets backing their man, Burge. The American delegation left for New York with pockets bulging with money after the fight. The Saginaw Kid received $3,500 as his purse and won an additional $2,500 on a side bet.
When he was 29, the Kid, who was at the height of his fame and the toast of Broadway and fistania, did what so many fighters and celebrities have done. He fell victim to the bright lights and the saloons, blowing his money freely in a time when a fighting purse of only a few thousand was big. That came only for championship and big-name matches. Lavigne’s high living caught up with him and he was beaten by inferior men he would have handled easily had he been in condition.
After his ring days, Kid Lavigne ran a saloon for a time in Detroit. Then he was hired by Harry Bennett of Ford Motor Company as a member of Bennett’s strong-arm squad.
The Saginaw Kid died in Detroit in 1928 at the age of 58.