By John F. McKenna (McJack)
Beau Jack, born Sidney Walker, was a great African American boxer of the 1940’s. Beau Jack came from very humble beginnings and went on to win the lightweight championship of the world. He was born on April 1, 1921 in Augusta, Georgia.
His maternal grandmother, who raised Beau, gave him the nickname after his mother passed away. From an early age Beau Jack was an industrious youth, walking three miles every morning to Augusta so that he could earn money shining shoes. When Jack was fifteen years old he began participating in a brutal game called “Battle Royal” to make money at the nearby Augusta Country Club. The game “Battle Royal” consisted of between five and ten black men being blindfolded and then fighting until the last man was left standing. This “game” was a brutal spectacle which became popular in the Jim Crow era south and was funded by rich white men for their own entertainment. The winner was usually showered with coins depending on how well the crowd thought that he had performed.
Despite being only 5’6” and weighing about 133 lbs, Beau Jack excelled at the game of “Battle Royal” and would frequently be the last man standing. In this way Jack became popular with the country club set. One of the tricks of the trade that Beau developed was to stand in the corner with his back against the ropes to allow the larger, more powerful participants to wear each other out. He would then knock out his last opponent, who by then was exhausted. Jack won many “Battle Royal” contests using this technique. Beau once related that on one occasion the battle came down to him and his brother, “So I knocked him out too!”
His biggest battle came during one of the early Masters Golf tournaments. Jack stated that “All those rich people had to be entertained at night, so the club put on this big battle in the dining room of the Bon-Air-Hotel.” The battle came down to one huge brawler and Beau Jack, who by now was a standout and a crowd favorite. Jack threw a long looping bolo punch, which knocked the man out. On this night the crowd began throwing not coins, but $10, $20 and $50 bills. Jack took home over one thousand dollars on that night.
After this “Battle Royal” the steward at Augusta National gave Beau a job shining shoes at the club. Most of the golfers treated Jack as if he were invisible. Only golfing legend Bobby Jones had time for him said Beau Jack years later.
Jones called Beau aside one day and told him that he had collected $2,500 from fellow members at Augusta National to help him prepare for a career in boxing. The club owner and sportswriter Grantland Rice were two of the people donating money for Jack.
Beau did some caddying while he trained for his first pro fight.
Beau Jack had qualities that no trainer can teach. Heart, guts and quick hands that seemed to speed up as the fight progressed. He was a promoters and a trainers dream come true.
“Beau Jack was an action packed fighter and he threw punches non stop,” says Nigel Collins – former editor in chief of The Ring. Nigel also adds that “Jack became an iconic figure.” In his first two years Beau Jack achieved a record of twenty seven wins, four losses and two draws. On December 18, 1942 Jack knocked out Tippy Larkin to win the Lightweight Championship of the World. Three years prior Beau Jack had been a shoe shine boy, now he was at the very pinnacle of fistic success.
Beau Jack became the happy go lucky mascot of Bobby Jones and his friends. His outlandish costume consisted of a yellow check coat, peg top pants, pork pie hat, purple tie and yellow shoes. He was a high energy character and lots of fun to be around. His colorful manager Chick Wergeles stated that Beau Jack loved to fight whether there was money involved or not. The Madison Square Garden fight crowd quickly adopted Jack as one of their own. Beau was quoted as saying that the fight crowd loved him because “They found out that I fight every second of every round and that I never give up!” He headlined a record 21 fight cards at Madison Square Garden and he would bring sellout crowds to their feet with flurries of jabs, right hooks and an occasional bolo punch.
The late boxing historian Bert Sugar is quoted as saying that “Beau Jack was a crowd pleaser without equal-even more than Ali.” Sugar went on to say that “Beau Jack was tremendously popular with fans and he was good for other fighters too.”
His drawing power made a lot of money for other fighters. White fighters would routinely duck black fighters unless the fix was in, but every fighter wanted to fight Beau Jack because they would make more money fighting him.
Jack lost the Lightweight Title to rugged Bob Montgomery in a razor thin decision on March 3, 1943 then won it back again on November 19, 1943. He lost the title again to Montgomery in 1944 then both he and Montgomery entered the Army as privates. Shortly after entering the Army, Jack and Montgomery fought an exhibition at the Garden to raise money for the war effort. They raised 35 million dollars in war bonds, a fantastic amount of money for the time. Both fighters donated their entire purse to the war effort. “That was for the country I live in,” said Jack after winning the fight, adding “That was the proudest thing that could happen to me.”
After World War II Beau Jack’s skills as a fighter began to erode, partly because of the “Battle Royal’s” he had participated in as a kid and partly due to his crowd pleasing style of fighting. He had absorbed a tremendous amount of punishment as a fighter. He had three matches with another World War II legend Ike Williams, one of which was an epic draw. Although Beau was in the best of condition for the inevitable rematch with Williams, he still lost. Beau Jack continued to fight until 1951, his fighting skills steadily eroding. After Jack’s retirement he opened a drive through barbecue in Augusta, which he ran for four years before attempting a comeback, which almost all fighters do after their skills have long since vanished. The comeback was short lived.
Beau Jack eventually began shining shoes again, this time at the Fontainebleau in Miami.
Sportswriter Jimmy Cannon paid a visit to Jack one day at the shoe shine stand. Some people recognized him and still called him champ. Others referred to him as boy.
Cannon was quoted as saying that “There was never more of a man than Beau Jack.”
Legend has it that Rocky Marciano saw this once great fighter shining shoes and was horrified at the spectacle. Some say this incident contributed to Marciano’s paranoia about money and the efforts he took to ensure that what happened to Beau Jack did not happen to him.
Although fortune turned against him and he was forced to go back to shining shoes, Beau Jack never complained. “I’ve been to the top of the mountain. I was Champion of the World,” he told the New York Times in 2000.
After his retirement, Beau Jack campaigned heavily to develop a pension plan for retired fighters. He did not want other fighters to endure what he had having to shine shoes to eke out a living after his boxing career was over.
In his later years Beau Jack suffered from pugilistic Parkinson’s disease, the disease that would eventually kill him and the same disease that afflicts Muhammad Ali and also afflicted the late Joe Louis. Beau Jack died on February 9, 2000.
At Augusta where it all began there are no statues, there are no plaques on the wall and nothing to acknowledge this great fighter and individual who got his start here. Like Joe Louis before him, he donated huge amounts of money to a country that was in dire straits during those dark days of World War II. Nothing can be done now to right the wrongs that were done to Beau Jack in his youth. It would be nice however, if Augusta National gave some recognition to his accomplishments and for his huge contribution during World War II.
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