The time a South Side priest defied the Outfit at a world title fight
The Rev. Daniel Mallette, a retired South Side priest who was dedicated to battling violence and poverty, has died, according to his former parish, March 27, 2017.
Did you hear the one about the South Side priest who defied the Outfit to work the corner at a world title fight?
Like most of the wild stories the late Rev. Dan Mallette told about himself, it sounded too good to be true.
But it happened all the same.
Mallette, who died last week at 85 and was honored at a Mass in his St. Margaret of Scotland parish in Washington Heights on Saturday, was as real as it gets.
He cussed like a sailor, was revered as a "living saint" by his flock, and, in 1979, showed his grit when he stepped in to help Chicago lightweight challenger Johnny Lira in his World Boxing Association title fight against champ Ernesto Espana.
"The night before the fight, my father went to court to win the right to manage himself," Lira’s daughter, Nina Lira-Santiago, told Chicago Inc. "My father and everyone who worked his corner had their life threatened."
A Las Vegas promoter had sought an injunction to have the nationally televised fight from Chicago’s Conrad Hilton hotel stopped after Lira fired him, news reports from the time show. Then came the Outfit death threats, said Lira-Santiago, who along with her mother was sent out of town for her own safety.
"My father’s trainer Johnny Tocco wouldn’t come to the fight because of the threats, so Father Mallette covered for him," she said, adding that she only learned the full story later in life from her father and Mallette. "My dad looked up to him as a father figure."
Mallette, a fighter as a boy, used the sport to engage troubled kids in his parish.
Lira, also a well-known Chicago character in his later years, had a rough start in life himself and was frequently in trouble with the law as a young man. He died in 2012 after suffering from the neurodegenerative brain disease CTE. His upbringing made him well-equipped to understand the "tough love" that Mallette dispensed, his daughter said.
"When I first met Mallette, I couldn’t believe he was a priest because he had such a ‘potty mouth,’ " Nina Lira-Santiago said with a laugh. "But later I understood that he was dealing with kids off the street — it might have been unconventional, but it worked."
Lira, alas, lost the fight, despite putting Espana on the canvas in the 7th round.
James Kitchen, a former boxing champ with Chicago’s Catholic Youth Organization, was among those ringside with Mallette.
"Mallette was yelling ‘Jab, jab, jab!’ " he recalled. "He knew a bit about boxing."