Weir, Isaac O'Neill (‘Ike’) (1867–1908), bareknuckle boxer, was born 17 January 1867 in Lurgan, Co. Armagh, son of Jacob Weir, weaver, and Catherine Weir (née Neil). As a young man he showed an aptitude for many different sports and activities, being described as an excellent jockey and clay-pigeon shooter, as well as a fine pianist, step-dancer, and comic singer. His father reputedly wanted him to become a priest, so he ran away (1885) to Manchester, where he won a number of minor boxing competitions. He emigrated to America in 1886, where he reputedly went twenty professional bouts undefeated.
It is sometimes claimed that he was the first featherweight champion of the world, although this is disputed by most of the leading authorities and is probably the result of a number of incidents in his eventful career. At this time there was no universally recognised world champion, and documentary evidence is scarce. Weir boxed three times for the title, drawing twice and losing once. Initially he challenged the then accepted champion Dai Hawkins, who had to forfeit the fight when he could not make the weight. Harry Gilmore subsequently offered to defend his title against Weir provided he would agree to a new limit for the division of 122 lb (55.45 kg) rather than the existing 118 lb (53.64 kg) limit. Weir declined, and when Gilmore outgrew the weight division he got his first real opportunity to fight for the title when he met Englishman Frank Murphy in a contest for the vacant title held above Mike O'Brien's grocery store in Kouts, Indiana (1889). Both boxers wore skin-tight gloves for the contest. With a $1,500 purse at stake, the fight was long and bloody, and was finally stopped by the referee (or the police, depending on reports) in the eightieth round and declared a draw at 4.00 a.m. the following day. It remains the longest-ever world title contest in any weight division. Weir's claim to the title was not recognised, and he was to suffer further disappointment in his second attempt to win the title (January 1890) when he again fought the New Zealander Billy ‘Torpedo’ Murphy in a fight advertised as being for the vacant title. This however, was not recognised by the American boxing fraternity, despite the fact that Richard K. Fox, publisher of the most widely read boxing magazine of the day – ironically entitled the Police Gazette – provided a purse of $2,500 and a diamond-studded championship belt for the winner. Boxing historians have called it the Fox featherweight championship of the world. Weir lost by a knockout in the fourteenth round, one of only three losses in his professional career. Latterly Murphy has been generally regarded as the first widely accepted world featherweight champion.
For the next four years Weir remained unbeaten, during which time he gained revenge on ‘Torpedo’ Murphy by knocking out the world champion in the sixth round of a contest held in Boston (November 1893). His third and final attempt at winning the world title ended when the police intervened in the third round of his fight against champion Johnny Griffen, and the contest was declared a draw. He retired in March 1894 after losing to another former world champion, ‘Young Griffo’.
Weir was known as ‘the Belfast Spider’ (also ‘the Master Mechanic of Pugilism’) because of his peculiar boxing style of wriggling his body and keeping his left hand and shoulder in constant motion; his professional record and long unbeaten spell suggests that he was extremely unlucky not to have won the world championship. The fractious and uncertain nature of professional boxing at the time and its quasi-legal status in the USA, coupled with disputes over weight limits and American reluctance to recognise world title fights that did not include an American contender, all militated against Weir winning a world title. In forty-one professional fights he won twenty-nine, drew eight (including two world title fights) and lost just three, with one ‘no-decision’. After retiring from boxing in 1894, he disappeared into obscurity, and little is known about his subsequent life. He died at the age of 41 in Charlestown, Mass., in 1908.