In decades past the boxing world was an even tougher and less forgiving place than it is today, not to mention more crooked. Fighters were fighters, not businessmen, and they battled to make a living and to give paying customers the kind of excitement only live fisticuffs can offer. No, it wasn’t fair, as the cash flowed for the most part everywhere but into the boxers’ pockets but, at the risk of romanticizing the past, the fight game then wasn’t just about money. Pride and respect and glory were part of the stakes, not to mention the excitement of competing against the very best and the thrill of seeing your name in high letters on a big, bright marquee. We can only hope Beau Jack fully appreciated these more abstract rewards of his trade, as of the more concrete variety he saw precious little. Beau Jack’s real name was Sidney Walker. He shined shoes for a living before he started boxing, and so thoroughly was he fleeced of his ring earnings over the years that after his career ended, back he soon went to buffing other people’s leather until it shined like honey.
But for the moment we recall the glory days of Beau Jack, when he was young and strong and with his intense, all-action style he brought out the big crowds in Chicago, Philadelphia and New York. Few boxers in history have headlined more big-time fight cards than the immensely popular brawler from Augusta, Georgia, who still holds the record for most main events at New York’s Madison Square Garden, an arena once known as the “Mecca of Boxing.” And it was there that in the span of a single month he twice took on legendary champion Fritzie Zivic, winning by decision on both occasions. Just under 19 000 filled the Garden to see the reigning lightweight champion again take on welterweight Zivic, a turnout lower by three thousand than the crowd which had sold out the fabled arena on February 5 for their ten round affair. The promoters, hoping to capitalize on the buzz generated by their first thrilling tilt, had tacked on two more rounds and then of course hiked the ticket prices, hence the fall-off at the gate.
Still, it was another grand night at the Garden for all involved except Zivic, who suffered another defeat, this one more definite than the squeaker which had inspired the rematch. Then, Zivic’s dramatic late-round rally, plus a point deduction for a low blow which the crowd actively resented, had many in the Garden jeering the decision that went Jack’s way. This time the smaller man again faded a bit down the stretch, but he’d clearly done enough work ahead of that to earn the verdict. No jeers were heard on this night. In fact, with the exception of round six, Beau Jack dominated the bout right up to round ten. Perpetual motion personified, he swarmed all over Zivic, continually beating him to the punch and denying his bigger, heavier opponent breathing room, let alone a chance to set himself and fire back. The most effective weapons in Beau’s attack were a short right hand to the body and a potent right uppercut which landed repeatedly to the chin and had Zivic in serious trouble in round seven. In round nine Jack started to wind down, missing more and pushing his punches. And as in their first meeting, when “The Brown Buzzsaw” began to lose his edge, Zivic came on, scoring with both hands and backing Jack up. Some heavy shots found their way to the smaller man’s chin and Jack tottered and wavered somewhat, but never came close to going down. In truth, while Jack appeared vulnerable in the last three rounds, Zivic had been in worse shape in round seven when the former welterweight champ held on for dear life after taking that vicious uppercut and tasting his own blood. “Three more rounds and I could have put him away,” shouted Zivic after the decision was rendered, but all recognized the declaration as less a statement of confidence than a plea for another chance, this time at the championship distance.
But Beau Jack’s dance card was already full. Less than a month later he fought the great but over-the-hill Henry Armstrong, winning in ten rounds, and six weeks after that he defended his world title against Bob Montgomery, dropping a 15 round decision, the first in their four fight series. Both contests were at Madison Square and both attracted big crowds and Jack had four more fights before the year was over. You see, Beau Jack, one of the greatest lightweights of all-time, was a popular boxer and he liked to fight. And the people handling him liked to make money. You could say it was a winning proposition all around. Until the years passed and they found the great Beau Jack, once boxing’s biggest star, shining shoes in Miami Beach. — Michael Carbert