DON’T CALL ME BABY FACE—PART ONE
This Vancouver newsboy gave no mercy and expected none as he battered his way to a championship of the world and into the Hall of Fame. He retired at 29 with a family and a fortune
WHEN I was fighting I gave the job everything I had. I trained hard and fought hard. After my winning fights, which out-numbered my losing fights 63 to 10, I would turn a handspring in the ring and come up grinning while Pop Foster, my manager and best friend, wrapped me up in an emerald dressing gown decorated with a golden harp. Then Pd head up the aisle behind a cordon of grinning Irish cops and, if the fight had happened to be a real good one, those wonderfully emotional Irish fight fans who used to come to my fights would break through the cops and carry me to the dressing room on their shoulders.
I was very lucky. I made close to half a million dollars out of my fights and saved most of it. In my Last fight I beat the lightweight champion of the world and when I retired at 29 the only mark
on me was a big ridge of bone across the back of my right hand, the result of hitting too many other fighters too hard.
Because of these things people often come up to me and say, “Don’t you miss it, Jimmy?” I try to give them an honest answer. I say: “No.”
“Quit kidding,” the other person often says. “I used to see you and you loved every minute of it.” “No,” I say, “I didn’t love it at all. I didn’t even like it. It was strictly business.”
I seldom go into details. It’s not fair to expect anyone who hasn’t been through it himself to understand what it is necessary to do to succeed as a professional boxer. For some the formula has come easier than it came to me. But I am sure it never came really easy to anybody.
I didn’t start earning my livelihood as a boxer
until I was 16 years old, but boxing was my bus ness from the time I was 12. I had nothing to start with except a quick wiry pair of legs and Pop Foster's promise that he would make me a champion of the world if I would do what he told me to. When I was 26 Pop mude the promise come true. It was a happy moment for both of us, and there had been many, many happy moments in the 14 years that came l)etween. But no one but Pop and I can know how long those years were.
loiter I’m going to talk about Pop’s long struggle to make a boxer of me, to keep both of us eating, honest and ambitious while I learned the painful lesson that if I was going to make boxing my life there wasn’t going to l>e room in my life for much of anything else.
But let’s look first at the high spots the times after we’d arrived, when the years of hunger were paying off and the money had started coming fast and big.
Every time I read about the glamour attached to the prize ring in general and the career of Jimmy McLamin in particular I think about my fights with Billy Petrolle. I fought Petrolle three times between Nov. 21, 1930, and Aug. 20,1931. The first two fights were in Madison Square Garden in New York, and the third was in Yankee Stadium.
At that time Billy was a heavy lightweight and I was a light welterweight, meaning that I was fighting at around 141 pounds and he was fighting at around 138 or 139. I was riding a two-year winning streak and, though I hadn’t yet won the title, I had beaten most of the good fighters in and near my class and for nearly two years I had been ranked unofficially as the best welterweight in the world.
Petrolle wasn’t the best fighter I ever fought, but I never fought anybody gamer or tougher. He was better than an ordinary boxer, could hit very hard with either hand and he had as much heart as anybody has a right to have. He was a busy, bustling fighter who liked to work at close quarters, and they called him the Fargo Express.
I spent two months training for the first fight and all through the training there was never the slightest doubt in my mind or Pop’s about the kind of fight I ought to make. If Pop’s 77 years were added to my 42 there still wouldn’t be enough years for Pop to teach me all he knows about fighting. But by now I fully understood the first rule at least: “Box a fighter and fight a boxer.”
Pop had done his best to make me both a fighter and a boxer, so that no matter what type of opponent I was in against I had—in theory at least—the power to force my opponent into the kind of bout in which his natural style and talents would be of least use to him. In our book Billy Petrolle was a fighter. Pop’s instructions were to stay away from him at first, to wear him down gradually and then, if I could, to knock him out.
The night of the first Petrolle fight I tried to cheat on Pop a little. I’d knocked out four of my last eight opponents—none of them pushovers—in three rounds or less. Somewhere between the time I got up from my stool and the moment when Petrolle and I met in the middle of the ring I got
the idea that there couldn’t be any harm in making just one quick tentative try for the fast knockout against him. If it didn’t work, okay, I could forget about it. I still wouldn’t be committed to making Petrolle’s kind of fight. I could still box him.
So all through the first round I was watching for the kind of knockout situation which best suited my way of fighting. I say that I was looking for a knockout situation, rather than for a knockout, because the distinction is important. During my years in the ring I was often credited with one-punch knockouts. But I never knocked a man out with one punch in my life and if I had I’d have been thoroughly ashamed of myself. A fighter who knows his business doesn’t try for one-punch knockouts.
Unless you’re boxing an out-and-out ham the absolute minimum for a scientific knockout is two punches—one to create the situation and one to create the knockout.
The cleanest and safest way I knew to go after a quick knockout was this-
I would feint in the hope of drawing the other man’s lead. In the same instant I would drop into a crouch and try to duck under his lead and dig a left hand into his liver. A good hard punch down there will run right up inside a man’s body and down his arms and for an instant the feeling is as though somebody’s pulling out his fingernails with hot pliers. He will drop his hands, partly because he doesn’t want to get hit in the liver again and partly because his hands have grown dead and heavy.
Then, when you see his hands coming down, it’s soon enough to try for your knockout. Maybe you get it in the next split second with a right cross to the chin and maybe you never get it at all. But if you follow the general rules—don’t try to finish him before you’ve hurt him, bring his hands down before you try to bring him down—you are at least fighting like a professional who understands his profession.
I didn’t get a chance to bring Billy Petrolle’s
hands down in the first round. It was a fast round, not too tough, about even I think. “Keep boxing him,” Pop said, in the comer. “Sure,” I said. That was what I meant to do, but I still had this other idea in the back of my mind. After all, I was a 7-to1 favorite. Billy still hadn’t shown me anything to suggest that, even at that price, I was an overlay.
Early in the second round I spun Billy a little with a left to the ribs and I saw what I thought was an opening to his jaw. You don’t get time to reason these things out, of course, but after you’ve had 50 or 80 or 100 fights your decisions, quick as they have to be, do have reasons behind them. Billy was still carrying his left nice and high, but I thought I could come over it with a right to the jaw. The right I threw was as hard a punch as I ever threw. Because Billy’s left was still well up the punch had to start a little high. Billy started to duck as it landed. It caught him on the top of the head and it broke my hand.
I don’t know how the top of Petrolle’s head felt but I thought the top of my head was coming off. Pain shot up my right arm from the broken hand and exploded right above my eyes and for a moment I couldn’t see anything but a white-hot blur. Then I pulled Billy into a clinch and by the time Patsy Haley, the referee, had pulled us apart I was all right again.
I’d broken the same hand in each of two earlier fights and I recognized what had happened from the way it felt. I’d managed to win both of those other fights and I still thought I was going to be able to win this one. As the X-rays showed later, this particular punch had broken the thumb in addition to rebreaking the old fractures on the back of the hand. But once the first stab of pain was over it didn’t feel too bad. Billy hit me two or three hard lefts and a solid right before the round ended, but I was in pretty good shape when I went back to the corner. I knew I was in trouble, but I didn’t think it was serious trouble.
Petrolle’s best punch was a looping left hook. He chunked three or four good ones off my jaw in the third. I kept moving around, stepping in with my left whenever I got a chance and keeping my right cocked so he wouldn’t know anything was wrong. He won the round.
In the fourth he threw another of those long lefts and it nailed me on the button. The button is not a figure of speech. There are two buttons on the jaw, one on each side of the point of the chin. Run your hand along the underside of your jaw and you can feel them. A clean punch on either button sends a special set of shock waves along the nerve that leads from the button to the brain. If you get a good punch on the button you see a pool of white light and then a dark curtain drops across the pool.
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I didn’t feel myself hitting the floor. But I picked up the count at four. I started to get up and then remembered I shouldn’t get up until nine. I watched Haley’s hand and pushed myself to my feet just as it was coming up for the last time.
I tried to back away. Usually a fighter doesn’t want to keep his knees straight but there are times when he wants to get them straight just to prove to himself he can do it. I couldn’t. I felt my knees sinking.
Billy rushed me. I pawed him away. He hit me with another left. This wasn’t quite as good a punch as the first one. The punch didn’t black me out but it knocked me down again through its physical force. I went back on my shoulders and felt the canvas hitting me. If anything was hurting me I was not aware of it. I just felt hopelessly weak and the question in my mind was not whether I should stay down till nine but whether I would be able to get up at nine. I got up at nine and dropped across Petrolle’s shoulders. I stuck to him, half falling and half clinging, until Haley drew us apart.
I saw another left coming and swayed under it and grabbed Petrolle again. Haley yanked me away. I tried to get my hands up. In my nightmares I had dreamed about a time when I wouldn’t be able to get my hands up, in the same way that other people dream of the time they’ll be walking down a busy street with nothing on. Now my hands weighed 8,000 pounds each and I couldn’t get them up. I went into a low crouch, trying to get my head down to the level of my hands, and I bobbed and weaved the best I could.
Billy hit me some more punches before the round ended. I don’t know how many. But they didn’t have the weight of these earlier punches. You can get tired throwing punches too.
As any sensible and honest boxer would have done, Billy came out to finish me in the fifth. I won that round. I stopped trying to stay away from him and I threw both hands at him. When the right landed I hardly felt the broken bones.
A boxer’s hands are always tightly bandaged before he puts the gloves on. The tight bandage and the tight glove held the broken bones in place and kept the swelling down. My hands were still too heavy to hold up and block Petrolle’s punches with but, with the help of leverage from my shoulders and upper arms, they weren’t too heavy to throw.
All through the fifth Billy and I threw punches at each other. We seldom missed or tried to make each other miss. I hit him in that round more often than he hit me, and just as hard. When the bell went we both stumbled toward the same corner. I felt a desperate tug of triumph as I saw Billy trying to beat me to my stool. I looked for Pop, but Pop wasn’t there. Then I realized it was I, not Billy, who was headed for the wrong corner.
We fought the same way in the sixth, the seventh and the eighth. I didn’t get around to reading about it until several days afterward, but one New York paper called it “the greatest fight in the memory of man.” Neither of us was making any pretense of boxing. Billy was too intent on a knockout to worry about defense and I had no defense left. Billy beat me badly in each of these three rounds. In the sixth a spectator dropped dead of excitement. At the end of the seventh my good
friend Jimmy Walker, then mayor of New York, lfeft the Garden; he couldn’t stand any more. At the end of the eighth my eyes were closing and there was a lot of blood around my mouth and nose and the crowd was yelling at Haley to stop it.
While Pop was sponging off my face Haley came over to the corner and leaned across his back. “I’m going to stop it,” he said.
“Please don’t stop it, Mr. Haley,” I
“Stop it,” Pop said.
“Please don’t,” I said. “I can still beat this boy.”
“No,” Pop said. “You’d better stop it, Mr. Haley.”
Haley let it go on. In all my years with Pop that was the only major argument I won from him and the only major argument I wanted to win from him.
Mercy Was a Luxury
For more than half my life Pop Foster had been far more than a manager to me. He had been a mother and a father, a brother and a Dutch uncle, a teacher and friend. Our relationship being what it was his capacity to watch me take punishment could not possibly have equaled my capacity to take it. For once I honestly thought my judgment was better than his. I honestly thought I could stay on my feet for two more rounds. I honestly thought I had some kind of chance of winning. Anyway I wasn’t quitting. I was fighting for money, but I always tried to earn the money. Once the bell went I felt that mercy was a luxury no fighter could afford to give or expect to receive. These were hard standards, but they were of my own choosing. They were not the kind of standards that you could change when the going got tough—not and hope to live with yourself.
Haley let me go out for the ninth round. Petrolle’s arms were getting tired now, too, and more and more of his punches were going to the body. During this round and the 10th my head was clearer than it had been since the fourth. Billy was a better long puncher than I was and I was a better short puncher than he was. I got inside him to land a lot of short left jahs and a few rights in the ninth, but I was clubbing and poking him, not really hitting him. He outpunched me again in the 10th, a very hard and very long round for me. I didn’t have to wait for the decision to know it was unanimous and for him.
Pop was crying when we got back to the dressing room. I didn’t feel like crying until we got back to our room in the Bretton Hall Hotel at 86th and Broadway and looked in the mirror and saw for the first time what a mess Billy had made of me. Staring back at me out of what 1 could see of my eyes was the question every fighter has to ask himself some day. How many more like this can you take before the damage moves inside? Or is your brain the only one that can never be hurt by punches?
“Well, I guess that’s that,” I said.
“We’ll see,” Pop said.
The Season’s Best Draw
1 went on a fast for a week. I often did that after a hard fight, whether I won or lost. I’d drink nothing but fruit juice and nibble a little lettuce and celery. An animal that is sick or hurt or weary stops eating to give its system a chance to rest up and I thought the treatment made sense for a fighter who was feeling the same way.
My kidneys bled off and on for three weeks, but the doctors said there was nothing permanently wrong with them.
After the swelling went down my hand set cleanly. I was still disgusted and mad at myself, but I changed my mind about giving up.
“Pop,” I said, “can I beat Petrolle?”
“If you box him,” Pop said. Once a point had been made Pop didn’t believe in flogging it to death.
When my hand was well on the mend Pop and I made a trip back to Vancouver and from there we headed up the B. C. coast. We did a little hunting and chopped some wood and in the early spring we moved into a little cabin at Smith’s Inlet and went salmon fishing. Pop had a commercial license. We’d go out together in a rowboat with a gill net. I’d row the boat and help handle the long net. Hauling it in and out of the water helped my shoulders and the constant exposure to salt water was good for my hands and a lot less monotonous than sitting around holding them in a pail of brine.
I fought Petrolle back at the Gardens on May 27, 1931. We drew $82,377, the biggest house of the season. I boxed well and carefully. Billy swarmed in and tried to make it another roughhouse, but my left was very sharp. I used my right very little and kept bouncing him back with my left and then moving away and then bouncing him back when he came in again. I rom the seventh round on I moved in on Billy. I felt him rock quite a few times, but as I’ve said he was a game tough fighter and I never moved him off his feet. It was a unanimous decision again, this time for me.
He wanted a rubber match and we fought it in Yankee Stadium in August. In an effort to get me to repeat the disastrous try for a fast knockout that I’d made in the first bout, Petrolle s manager, Jack Hurley, announced publicly that I’d shown a yellow streak in the first fight. Petrolle said in print that I was a coward. The fight was built up as a grudge fight. So far as I was concerned it never was.
A boxer who takes his work seriously has no more time for grudges than he has for pity. I assumed that Hurley and Petrolle said what they were saying either to help the gate or to needle me into doing something I knew better than to do. I didn’t think they really meant it. If they did mean it I couldn’t see what difference that made to me or my fight.
Not Sorry, Not Mad
I heat Petrolle very badly, much worse than I ever beat anybody before or since—worse, most of the boxing writers said, than he had beaten me the first time around. I still had no desire to prove that 1 could take his liest punches, but I was determined to prove that I could punch better than lie could. I outboxed him for the first three rounds and then when his hands started coming down I outpunched him in the last seven. By the sixth he was bleeding badly and by the ninth his right eye was completely closed.
It was a unanimous decision again, and there was a lot of speculation in the papers about my failure to knock him out. Some of the writers attributed this to chivalry and others to revenge. One of them, remembering what Hurley and Billy had said about me before the fight, wrote: “McLamin made his
answer last night and made it with a studied cruelty and viciousness that came straight from the heart. I oe to toe, punch for punch, he slugged Petrolle into submission and then deli bora tel y set to work to slash his detractor to riblsins.”
Neither theory WHS correct. I didn t feel sorry for Billy and 1 didn t feel mad at him either. My failure to knock him out was of his doing, not mineIfI
wanted to forget about defense—and take the chance of catching another of his long lefts on the button—I guess I might have put him away. But it would have been a mistake to try.
Billy came into my dressing room afterward and asked me if I remembered a hard right hand I’d hit to the stomach in the eighth round. I said I did.
“You nearly killed me with that punch, Jimmy,” he said. “My nose was bleeding. The blood was trickling down from my nose and I was swallowing it. When you hit me that one in the stomach I nearly died.”
We shook hands. “I know how it feels, Billy,” I said.
We all know how it feels, even those of us who were lucky and handed out two or three for every one we took. That’s why, whenever somebody asks: “Was it fun, Jimmy?” I try to give the right answer.
I try specially hard to give the right answer if the person who wants to know happens to be a kid with stars in his eyes and a promising left hand. For one in 10,000 the money can be fast. But even for that one it never can be
In the next chapter of his life story Jimmy McLarnin tells how he started fighting and how he met the remarkable longshoreman who was to make him welterweight champion of the world. ★