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Gary Smith
February 15, 1988
Former lightweight champ Beau Jack lives out his legend
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February 15, 1988

Still Fighting Old Wars

Former lightweight champ Beau Jack lives out his legend

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"This weekend?"

The man nodded toward the small blinking man on the apron, whose lips were drawn back to show his toothless gums, whose wrist veins bulged as thick and as taut as the ropes he was clutching. "And that," he said, as if it explained everything, "is Mr. Beau Jack."

So he wasn't dead. He was managing the Fifth Street Gym. My eyes left the men in the ring and fixed on him. He had wide, flaring Indian cheekbones, eyes wrapped in hoods of thick scar tissue and magnified by soda-pop-bottle lenses, sitting crooked on his flattened nose. His head and shoulders bobbed with the action; now and then he threw two short, vicious uppercuts at the air, grunting with them: "Ah ...ah!" The bell rang. Beau Jack screamed at the fighters to continue: He was working inside his own space and time.

I heard the helpless one get clubbed again, turned and saw him stumble against one of the other fighters who awaited his turn. And then I remembered: Hadn't they told me Beau Jack got his start fighting in battle royals—an old tradition in which a group of five to 10 teenage blacks, for the amusement of southern gentlemen, were blindfolded and sent into a ring en masse for a free-for-all. I had read an account of one in Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man: I felt a sudden fit of blind terror. I was unused to darkness. It was as though I had suddenly found myself in a dark room filled with poisonous cottonmouths. I could hear the bleary voices yelling insistently for the battle royal to begin....

I wanted to see, to see more desperately than ever before. But the blindfold was tight as a thick skin-puckering scab and when I raised my gloved hands to push the layers of white aside a voice yelled, "Oh, no you don't, black bastard! Leave that alone!"

...And I heard the bell clang and the sound of feet scuffling forward. A glove smacked against my head. I pivoted, striking out stiffly as someone went past, and felt the jar ripple along the length of my arm to my shoulder. Then it seemed as though all nine of the boys had turned upon me at once. Blows pounded me from all sides while I struck out as best I could. So many blows landed upon me that I wondered if I were not the only blindfolded fighter in the ring....

Blindfolded, I could no longer control my motions. I had no dignity. I stumbled about like a baby or a drunken man.... A glove connected with my head, filling my mouth with warm blood. It was everywhere. I could not tell if the moisture I felt upon my body was sweat or blood. A blow landed hard against the nape of my neck. I felt myself going over, my head hitting the floor. Streaks of blue light filled the black world behind the blindfold. I lay prone, pretending that I was knocked out, but felt myself seized by hands and yanked to my feet. "Get going, black boy! Mix it up!" ...Pushed this way and that by the legs milling around me, I finally pulled erect and discovered that I could see the black, sweat-washed forms weaving in the smoky-blue atmosphere like drunken dancers weaving to the rapid drum-like thuds of blows....

In one corner I glimpsed a boy violently punching the air and heard him scream in pain as he smashed his hand against a ring post. For a second I saw him bent over holding his hand, then going down as a blow caught his unprotected head.... The smoke was agonizing and there were no rounds, no bells at three minute intervals to relieve our exhaustion. The room spun round me, a swirl of lights, smoke, sweating bodies surrounded by tense white faces. I bled from both nose and mouth, the blood spattering upon my chest.

The men kept yelling, "Slug him, black boy! Knock his guts out!"

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