O’Brien Fought Many Battles

Damon Runyon

Washington Herald/November 20, 1922

Old Dancing Master Went Into Ring 200 Times at Average of $1,000 Per Time

NEW YORK, Nov. 19—Coming over from Philadelphia not long ago, we met up with Joseph O’Hagan, a distinguished-looking gent with slightly indented features known in other years as Philadelphia Jack O’Brien.

The old Dancing Master of Fistiana—and not so old, at that—is conducting a big gymnasium in New York, but he occasionally visits his former home, the town that gave him his name, where he still has business interests.

We got to talking of this and that, and in the course of conversational events, we touched on Philadelphia’s Jack’s financial affairs.

“You made a lot of money in your time, Jack?” we queried.

“Yes, a lot of it for the era in which I was fighting,” replied Jack. “It might not be considered a lot of money now, but it was plenty then. If I hadn’t dropped in for some bad real estate and other investments, I would have wound up with plenty

“I fought around 200 battles in the course of twelve years,” he continued. “I averaged about $1,000 per battle. I don’t mean I always get that much, because I’d fight for a few hundred dollars, but counting in the few fairly big shots I got it averaged up about that.


“I was never idle,” Jack went on. “I fought as often I as I could get matches, and I fought all over the world. If you look up my record you’ll find that few fighters have covered as much ground as I did.

“I fought all the toughest men of my day, welters, middleweights, light heavies and heavies. I went all over America, to Europe and Alaska while I was in the game. All the black fighters of my time picked on me, and I never dodged any of them.

“I have no regrets,” sighed Jack, lost in memory “unless it is that I didn’t come along in this day of fat purses. I had a good time, made plenty of money, and got out of the game with all my wits about me.

“Nor am I one of those old-timers that think there are no good fighters nowadays,” he continued. “I can name boys in every division that would have compared favorably with the best of the old fellows. I consider Jack Dempsey one of the greatest fighters that ever lived. Benny Leonard is a great fighter. So is Jack Britton.

“And say,” Jack added, “since I’ve quit fighting I’ve come to the conclusion that managing fighters is almost as tough a game as fighting itself. I had a couple of experiences handling boxers, as you may recall. I had my $50,000 beauty, Jack McCarron, and my own brother, Young Philadelphia Jack, and I know what the managers have to contend with.”


Philadelphia Jack was one of the most picturesque characters the game has ever known, as well as a real good fighter. He had a knack of getting publicity for himself that has never been approached by any other boxer.

Jack attracted attention by going in heavily on the social stuff. At one time, if memory serves he astonished the boys by pulling a social secretary on them. He also had a tutor. Strong men almost fainted at the very thought, but it was brand-new publicity stuff in pugilism.

Jack dug up Anthony Drexel-Biddle, a name to conjure with social over in Philadelphia, and taught him to box. They boxed together in exhibitions, which was water on Jack’s publicity wheel. Naturally a polished sort of duck, Jack adopted mannerisms to go with his social role, dressed the part, lugged a cane, and was a veritable riot wherever he went

All that—and it was always all artificial with Jack—is now behind him. He is bubbling and effervescent as ever, retaining all of his old-time enthusiasm, but he no longer requires the kind of publicity he sought in the brave days of his pugilistic youth.


O’Brien was exceptionally fast and exceptionally clever in the ring. He was a “smart” boxer. He knew how. He learned his business in a hard mill.

He demonstrated his absolute gameness on one memorable occasion, and that was the night he fought Stanley Ketchel in the old horse market where the Pioneer Club now holds forth. Those who saw that battle still talk of it as the greatest fight they ever witnessed.

As a middleweight, at his best, O’Brien would undoubtedly have licked the daylights out of most of the men in that division today. Had Jack taken up some other business early in his career, he would probably have made a fortune. He had intelligence.

Uncle Tom McCarey, the old Los Angeles promoter, was talking to O’Brien one day years ago, trying to match him for the McCarey club and in the course of the argument Tom said:

“Now listen, Jack, you’re a smart fellow, and –“

“No, Uncle Tom,” Jack interrupted, gravely. “I’m not a smart fellow If I was a smart fellow, I wouldn’t be a pugilist.”

(Source: Chronicling America, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045433/1922-11-20/ed-1/seq-15/)