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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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She also told him she preferred that he be a preacher.

A week later a gang demanded a tip he had earned. Beau Jack attacked the leader, smashed his head against the concrete and kept the coin.

Not long after that came the battle royals. The winner got to keep all the coins that the amused southern gentlemen tossed into the ring. Invariably Beau Jack, the littlest one in there, would win, and the gentlemen cheered.

Once, one man got so excited watching Beau Jack punch, he handed him a $100 bill. Anything a kid like Beau Jack got in life beyond the necessities made him vulnerable; another boy skulked up and snatched the bill away. Beau Jack spun and knocked him out, too.

Funny thing about fighting blind. Made a guy feel scared, but took a weight off him, too. If a guy couldn't see what he did, there weren't any complications. A guy couldn't see, how could any of the responsibility be his?

One day, Beau Jack's grandma called him to her, told him to be a good boy and go fetch her a bowl of soup. When he came back, she was dead.

By 15, he was married and making his own children: He loved the feel of their little arms around his neck. He had a job shining shoes at Augusta National, the golf club where the Masters is played, and there he made the sportsmen stand and holler each time they staged a battle royal. A group of them, including the famous golfer who started the club, Bobby Jones, pitched in $50 each to send Beau Jack north and start his boxing career.

For the first few years, he fought in a converted gasoline storage tank in Holyoke, Mass. "People called it boxing, I called it fighting," he told a reporter. "He had no pity," said a sparring partner. "A jungle cat," a writer called him. "A bum...not nothing...never will be nothing," his trainer, Sid Bell, kept sneering at him. "Your best ain't good enough. Rip their mouths out." Twelve straight uppercuts, left hook, right cross, bolo punch, uppercutuppercutuppercut.... A man who never stopped attacking was never vulnerable. A man who never stopped attacking was blind.

It was wartime, and the men who stayed home needed to see some violence. Soon Private Beau Jack was fighting main events at Madison Square Garden, and the house was SRO with love. He beat Henry Armstrong in front of 19,986. Twice he was lightweight champion of the world. In 1944, to see him fight Bob Montgomery, people had to buy U.S. war bonds. The gate was $35,864,900. Each fighter was paid one dollar. In 1944 Beau Jack sold out the Garden three times in a single month.

Now he was 66. He passed his nights in the tiny efficiency, his days a few blocks away in the dying gym. I headed there the next day, noticing all the tattoos on the transients in his neighborhood, all the missed belt loops of old people who had no one to let them know.

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