Boxing started as a distraction for winter residents in the early 1900s, when it was held in small clubs and financed by Palm Beach socialites, such as Edward F. Hutton. In the late 1920s, the sport moved to the American Legion’s 2,000-seat arena in the 400 block of Clematis Street, near the Florida East Coast Railway tracks.
West Palm Beach’s best-known boxer was Philip Dillon O’Connell, Sr., months before he became a municipal judge at age 25 and then state’s attorney for 28 years.
When he first attended University of Florida, O’Connell was a Southern Conference boxing champion as featherweight (1929) and lightweight (1930). After turning professional during law school, he won his first 59 fights. O’Connell spoke in 1977 of the 60th fight to a reporter with The Palm Beach Times, fought in February 1931 at the American Legion Hall:
[Heavyweight boxer] Young Stribling and his father flew down here in their plane and tried to talk me into fighting five main matches in the New York Gardens, to be probably the first college boy to make it to Madison Square. I told them no, that I was going to be a lawyer in three months. ... If I hadn’t had my jaw broken, I might have changed my mind, thinking of that good money ($685).
Although O’Connell was injured in the first round, he fought the full ten rounds. According to his son Phil Jr. in a 2004 oral history, “After that fight, they took him up to Good Samaritan [Hospital], they wired his jaw up, [and] he got in the car and drove back to Gainesville to go to law school the next day.”
During his law career, O’Connell coached boxing at Palm Beach High School from 1931 to 1934, and was occasionally guest referee at the American Legion fights. He later recalled: “I began refereeing big Miami fights, which I continued right up to World War II. I used to referee the University of Miami fights, too, but I’d just endorse those checks back to the school’s scholarship fund.”
Local boxing died out when television offered the sport in the late 1940s.