The Fistic Master Instructing Joe Louis

Damon Runyon

Wilkes-Barre Times Leader/June 3, 1935

A tall negro, the color of coffee with plenty of cream in it, and with the gray of 52 years settling about his ears, is the Master Mind of young Joe Louis’ pugilistic existence. 

This is Jack Blackburn, of Versailles, Kentucky, once rated one of the greatest fighters in the world. He has a mouthful of gold teeth and a plaintive expression. He deposited his fistic career in a state penitentiary in Pennsylvania twenty-six years ago, and never recovered it. 

After a fighter has been out of the ring ten to twenty years his pugilistic prowess is usually greatly exaggerated. We often hear the lads discussing moss grown gladiators as having been good fighters in their heydey, when, as a matter of fact, they were first-class rutabagas, and the record book so indicates. 

Many an old-time exponent of the manly art of pugilistic adagio dancing owes a reputation for bygone ability to youthful historians who never saw him in action, or never bothered to consult the archives. Even the veterans of the game often let their fond recollections betray them when they get to mumbling about the good old days, and retrospect gilds many a memory. 

But Jack Blackburn is one relic of a bygone fistic day whose ability must have been 18-karat, because the aged raconteurs of the ring agree that he was great, and they are borne out by the book. 

Blackburn’s forte was consummate boxing skill. 

It was a matter of instinct with him, as with most of the great negro fighters like Joe Gans, Jack Johnson, Sam Langford, Harry Lyons, Rule Turner, Sam McVey and Joe Jeannette. The great negro boxer is rarely a matter of manufacture, like many white boxers. He is born that way. 

Timing, and distance, and feinting and blocking, and leading, and countering, and all the rest of it, came to Blackburn naturally. 

But unlike many other boxers just as great, Blackburn was able to transmit his knowledge and skill to others. He has long been regarded as a great coach. He worked with a lot of other fighters before Joe Louis came along to fulfill Blackburn’s dream of a pupil who could do the things that Blackburn used to do—and as well. 

It is rare a teacher finds a pupil like that. 

Nearly every once-great boxer has tried to pass his own ability on to some youngster, but either the teacher lacked the knack of teaching, or was unable to dig up the right pupil. 

The great Jim Corbett, Jim Jeffries, Bob Fitzsimmons, Jack Johnson, Abe Attell, Jack Dempsey, Tommy Ryan and scores of other former greats, struggled with raw material at different times, and gave up in disgust. 

Blackburn, too, has had his failures, but at last came upon Joe Louis, the ideal pupil. The old timers say you see in Louis of reflection of the Blackburn thirty years old, the ice cold, dead pan master of the science of boxing. 

In his heydey Blackburn weighed between 135 and 140 pounds. He was of that species that became known as a Philadelphia lightweight. He did most of his fighting in the City of Brotherly Love, when they had six round no-decision bouts. 

Probably at his very best Blackburn weighed around 138 pounds, but weight was no consideration with him when it came to picking opponents. He would let them come in as big as a house. He was tall and rangy, and while not a tremendous puncher, he had a punishing pair of hands. 

He fought the mighty Sam Langford, then a welterweight, several times, drawing with him in twelve and again in fifteen rounds. He fought Joe Gans a couple of no-decision bouts, then lost to “The Old Master” in fifteen. Blackburn was then only about 20 years old. 

He fought fellows like Jack Twin Sullivan, Jimmy Gardner, of Lowell; Joe Grim. Dave Holly, Larry Temple, George Gunther, George Cole, Harry Lewis, Jack Bonner, Charley Hitte, Jim Barry, Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, Tony Caponi, John Wilde and Mike Donovan. Most of these names mean nothing to the present generation, but they were accounted fair fighters in Blackburn’s day. 

Some of them were welters, some middles, some heavies. It made no difference to Blackburn. It was rarely that he was shaded in no-decision bouts, in which the decisions were rendered by the newspaper writers. 

He was 5 feet 10 inches tall, with a long reach. He was rarely damaged by an opponent’s blows, because he rarely took a solid punch. He was a horse for work, because of his superb defensive ability, and he could fight a couple of times a week without any trouble.  

His big fight was 1908. He fought about seven years before he was at his very best. His last recorded fight was with Ray Pelkey in Los Angeles, when Blackburn, a shadow of his former greatness, lost in three rounds. 

He has been making his home around Chicago since quitting the ring, always working with some young fighter, amateur or professional. He is a quiet chap, with a good memory of the old days, and probably with regrets that he never attained the full reward of his amazing prowess.


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