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This Article First appeared at Fightworld.us April 2005



      Jack Blackburn is best known as the Hall of Fame trainer who developed Joe Louis, but he was also a great lightweight boxer who engaged in over 160 professional fights from 1901 to 1923. Although never a champion he faced some of the greatest fighters of all time. He fought the legendary lightweight champion Joe Gans, “The Old Master” three times, all time great Sam Langford six times, the skillful black welterweight Dave Holly five times, future light-heavyweight champion Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, and an up and coming Harry Greb, possibly the greatest middleweight ever. Blackburn defeated welterweight title claimants Jimmy Gardner and Harry Lewis and beat top middleweights like Jack Bonner and Mike Donovan. He even faced heavyweights such as Jim Barry and Gunboat Smith. Billy Rocap said the greatest fight he ever saw was Blackburn’s famous 15 round draw with Sam Langford in Marlboro, Massachusetts. Veteran historian Charley Rose rated Blackburn as the third greatest lightweight ever in his 1968 ratings.

      Blackburn proved in his career that a good little man could indeed beat a good big man. He was a superb boxer with naturally brilliant timing and his mastery of distance, feinting, blocking and countering made him the consummate professional. He was also a fine strategist in the ring.

      Blackburn used his vast experience and knowledge of the intricacies of the game to become a boxing trainer after his professional career ended. He developed four fighters who went on to become world champions: welterweight Jackie Fields, lightweight Sammy Mandell, bantamweight Bud Taylor, and heavyweight Joe Louis. Louis was his masterpiece, the fighter that he molded in the image of the great boxer-punchers of his day, the cool calculating Blackburn, Joe Gans and Sam Langford.

      The great Langford thought highly enough of the young Joe Louis to compare him to the “Old Master” Joe Gans. The July 20, 1935 Chicago Defender reported, “Sam Langford, one of the greatest ringmen ever to pull on a glove paid Joe Louis the finest tribute when he said, “The Detroit Bomber is another Gans, whom I consider the greatest fighter of all time… He (Louis) can hit, he is fast and is no slouch at employing ring craft. I am glad I am still able to see enough to watch the boy. He is the marvel of the age.”

      Joe Louis compiled an amateur record of 50-4 with 43 knockouts and won Detroit Golden Gloves titles and the National AAU Light-heavyweight championship in 1934. Louis trainers in the amateur ranks were Alter Ellis the owner of Brewster’s gym, Holman Williams the gym’s top fighter and a top contender from lightweight to middleweight, and George Slayton who ran the Detroit A.C. Williams was Louis main trainer guiding him in the basics of boxing. Ellis developed Louis jab into a weapon by tying his right hand to the corner of the ring and making him use just his left. In the later part of his amateur career George Slayton was his cornerman. Slayton introduced Joe to John Roxborough who would become one of Louis managers. Once Louis was ready to turn pro Jack Blackburn was hired as his chief trainer to develop Joe into a champion.

      Blackburn came into Louis camp on June 25, 1934 and watched Joe spar. He saw that Louis had natural punching power, something that could not be taught, but he also saw that he was only a puncher at that time and still fairly green. Blackburn speaking of those early days with his young protégé said, July 20, 1935 Pittsburgh Courier, “Louis needed correction in everything except hitting. I had to teach him to back up his punches with the proper timing, accuracy and to instruct him in the proper art of balance. I trained him under the same methods I trained under when I was a fighter.”

      Joe had natural speed and power but coming out of the amateurs he was dancing around and not planting his feet to punch with authority. Louis said in his autobiography Joe Louis My Life, “He (Blackburn) saw my faults right off. I was hitting off balance. He corrected this by showing me how to plant my feet and punch with my whole body, not just swinging my arms. He said people going to fights don’t want to see a dancer or a clincher –they want to see a man who goes for the guts. He said I had strength and that I could beat or knock out anybody I wanted to if I planted my body in the right position.”

      The first week in training Blackburn did nothing but hold the heavy bag and give Louis instructions on how to throw his punches. Working for the first time in the ring with Joe, Blackburn’s early lessons were on how to block punches, how to block a left hook, how to block a jab, and how to forearm and elbow block body punches. As Louis began to progress he began to instruct Joe on how to place his punches to vital points and to set up his opponent’s by drawing and feinting, parrying and countering.

      Blackburn put Louis threw the paces, teaching him what he needed to become a great fighter. Blackburn instructed Louis in the art of punching accurately telling him “One clean punch is better than a hundred punches.” He also told him “Negro fighters don’t go to town winning decisions. When you get into the ring, let your fists be the referee. Bide your time. Place your punches and knock your opponent out.” Blackburn taught Louis the art of finishing off an opponent. “Don’t get impatient. Take your time, but move right in. Don’t throw your punches wild, shoot ‘em in straight. Don’t give him a chance to come back.”

      Knowing that Louis was a sure knock out puncher Blackburn decided to give Joe a vivid lesson in what it meant to be a heavy hitter. Waiting in the gym one day Blackburn attacked the unsuspecting Louis with a brick that he held in his fist and took a swing at Louis. Joe ducked and Blackburn slapped him with a counterpunch. “See what I’m trying to teach you? Pretend you got bricks in your fists, your opponent is going to duck and then you hit him with the other hand.” Jack Blackburn worked hard on teaching Louis how to put his punches together, “Hitting in boxing, like hitting in baseball, is got to be done in combinations to be effective.”

      Joe Louis absorbed these lessons well becoming one of the finest combination punchers in boxing history. He was also perhaps the ring’s deadliest finisher. Writing in 50 Years at Ringside Ring magazine founder Nat Fleischer said that Louis was history’s deadliest fighter at finishing an opponent once they were hurt.

      Joe Louis never fought in a preliminary. He fought in main events from the beginning of his career. Louis first opponent Jack Kracken was well scouted out by Blackburn. Louis was instructed to go to the body hard with his left, then wait and feint the same body punch. When his opponent dropped his guard to block, Louis came back with a left hook to the chin. The result was a first round knockout for Louis in his pro debut.

      In his sixth pro fight against the hard hitting Alex Borchuk (aka Al Delaney), Louis took a terrific right hand punch in the second round that busted one of Louis molars. Blackburn told him sternly, “It’s your own fault. You should have stepped inside.” Then, Jack gave him instructions to move in, step up his attack and punch with both hands. Louis hurt Borchuk with a right to the heart near the end of the third. In the fourth he dropped Borchuk with a right hand to the jaw for a count of eight. Louis then opened up with a two-handed barrage dropping the Canadian hard to the canvas for the second time forcing the referee to stop the fight.

      Two weeks later Louis was back in the ring for his seventh pro fight with tough Adolph Wiater, who became the first person to go the distance with the young Louis. Joe dropped Wiater in the first with a solid right hand but Wiater was up without a count. Wiater came back on the offensive in the next rounds. A hard right hand stunned Louis in the fourth. Louis was wobbly when he returned to his corner. But Louis recovered between rounds and came on strong to win the fight. It was after this fight that Blackburn said, “When Joe pulled through those ten rounds, I knew that I was handling a great fighter.”

      Wiater was a fighter who kept coming, a swarmer who threw a lot of punches. Historian Bob Soderman wrote of the incident, quoting Blackburn as instructing Joe with the following, “When they charge into you, like that, just step aside and catch his arm and spin him around.” Blackburn demonstrated by having Joe charge at him. Jack deftly slid to his own left and grabbed Joe’s right arm, pushing him in the opposite direction. Blackburn then taught Louis the next move – “When you spin him, you force him off his course. He’s off balance and unprotected, then sock him.”

      Louis was learning how to use distance and timing to become a great counter puncher. Blackburn was teaching him how to draw his opponents into him. If they stepped back, or ran, he learned how to use his footwork to step towards an opponent to cut them off and then deceptively step back to draw his opponent's toward him making him appear vulnerable. It was then that Louis exploded with devastating counters that would land with double impact as his opponents moved in. In his eight pro fight with Art Sykes the Oct 25, 1934 Chicago Tribune reported, "Joe stepped back for an instant, got the range and shot a right cross to the jaw. Sykes fell on his back, his head hitting the platform outside the ropes. He took referee Davey Miller's count without stirring, and it was several minutes before he was able to leave the ring."

      Louis twelfth professional opponent was against Lee Ramage, a legitimate contender and a very experienced and clever boxer who entered the ring a 7 to 5 favorite to beat the young Louis. Ramage voiced in the press his opinion that Louis was vulnerable to a good left jab. The Chicago Tribune reported in response that “Jack Blackburn has taught Louis how to slip a left lead and hook with his left at the same time.” Ramage boxed a beautiful fight but a pair of left hooks eventually caught him in the eighth and Louis finished him in the same round.

      In his fourteenth pro fight Louis faced the German boxer Hans Birkie, a man who had never been off his feet. Blackburn gave Louis instructions to go slow. “You’re in with a very cute person this evening,” Blackburn told Joe, “and you can learn a lot from him. Just bide your time and be careful. I’ll tell you when to go to town.” Louis boxed cautiously utilizing his jab while sweeping the early rounds. Before the 10th Blackburn told Louis to “go to town this round.” Louis nailed him with five left hooks on the chin forcing the referee to stop the fight against the helpless Birkie.

      Blackburn was developing Louis into the quintessential boxer-puncher that he had envisioned. “My boy, Joe,” Blackburn said, “is not only a boxer but a puncher, too. When you get a combination like that, you maybe have a champion. He’s put on 25 pounds in ten months and it’s all back and arm and chest muscle development. If he weighs 200 for Carnera, I’ll be satisfied.”

      By the time of the Primo Carnera fight Blackburn said that Louis had developed into a great fighter. “He has balance after using his left or right, his judgment of distance is remarkable, and I believe he is the best balanced fighter in the world today. If he misses with one hand, he is always in a position to punch with the other. He is the greatest puncher in the world barring nobody, and is never out of position.”

      For Joe’s New York debut against the giant Carnera Blackburn told Louis to “Go out and feint him.” Primo dropped his guard for an instant and Joe tapped him with a right. “Carnera thought that Joe was going to shoot for his body,” explained Blackburn, “but Joe’s right to da Preem’s mouth in the first round handed the Italian one of the biggest surprises of his life. After that I knew everything was alright and I simply cautioned Joe to take his time, and the kid followed my advice perfectly.”

      Against the hard hitting Max Baer Blackburn instructed Louis to “beat Baer to the punch with the left jab” and “wait for an opening.” Louis nailed Baer hard with an uppercut in the first round. In the second he dominated with his jab. Louis found his opening and nailed Baer with a big right hand in the third and sent the ex-heavyweight champion to the canvas for the first time in his career. The “Brown Bomber” finished him in the fourth with an impressive display of quickness and power punching. Louis said, “I always considered the Baer fight my greatest. I never had better speed. I felt so good I could have fought for two or three days straight.” Blackburn’s instructions for Louis to use his speed and accuracy to beat Baer proved to be the correct course of action.

      The one time Joe didn’t listen to his trainer resulted in the only time the real Louis was ever beaten. That was the first Max Schmeling fight. Louis was overconfident going into this fight and began to cut back on his training. He later said, “I thought I was going to win no matter what I did. So I took my golf clubs to training camp with me. I had the idea that I was doing a lot of hard work for nothing, so I started cutting my training short. I’d box two rounds and drive to the golf course. I was out golfing with sportswriters Hype Igoe and Walter Stewart. Chappie told me, “Those muscles you use golfing ain’t the same ones you use boxing.” Louis said, “I was dehydrating under the hot sun playing golf. I'd even sneak off to Atlantic City to see some girl whose name I don't even remember. Instead of gradually working up to a physical peak I was just melting off weight and it weakened me. I lost 18 pounds in 5 weeks, which was too quick. Chappie warned me about Schmeling’s right hand and that he would try to counter my left but I didn’t listen. Between not training, the golf and the women I was lucky I wasn’t killed in the ring.”

      Against Schmeling Blackburn instructed Louis to keep his left high and not drop the left hand for the high hook for about three or four rounds. In the second round the 21-year-old Louis did just what he was told not to do, he dropped his left to throw a hook. Schmeling came in with a right hand over Louis low left that landed flush on Joe’s chin with the full weight of Max’s body behind it. Louis later said, “I thought I had swallowed my mouthpiece.” In the fourth a sharp right counter dropped Louis for a 2 count. At the end of the fifth a smashing right landed just after the bell. Louis was hit so hard he never recovered. He kept getting hit by right hands the rest of the fight. Louis said, “That was the first time I didn’t listen to Chappie and it was the last time. I never made that mistake again.”

      Despite the upset loss to Schmeling Louis worked his way back into title contention. He was given a title shot at champion James J. Braddock the year following his loss to Schmeling. When the fight was signed and Blackburn and Louis knew they were getting a shot at the heavyweight championship of the world, Chappie Blackburn promised Louis “I am going to make you into a fighting machine!” Blackburn told Louis he lost to Schmeling because of dropping his left. He had Joe practice catching flies out of the air. Not flies like in baseball, but flies as in the insect. In this way Louis sharpened his skills at picking off punches. Blackburn then told him his attack pattern was too predictable with his standard one-two combinations. Blackburn drilled Louis on stepping back at the right time, weaving and countering. Louis said “my muscles were hard and tough, and my reflexes were never sharper. I was as fast as lightning because of those flies.” Louis said he learned more during those training sessions than at any other time from his tutelage under Blackburn.

      In his fight with Braddock Louis ducked into a short right uppercut that dropped him without a count in the opening round. Blackburn told him later that he should have stayed down to take advantage of the count. Louis always insisted that his head was clear though, not like in the first Schmeling fight. Louis came back and staggered Braddock with a left hook and a right cross before the bell. Chappie Blackburn instructed Louis after the first round to “Wait and take it easy. He’s game, keep sticking and countering. Don’t get in too close. Let him do the crowding. He’ll come apart in five or six rounds.” That is precisely what happened when Louis won the heavyweight title with a picturesque eighth round knockout victory.

      The rematch against Max Schmeling proved what a great combination of master teacher and boxer puncher the tandem of Blackburn and Louis were. Blackburn’s fight plan was simple. Schmeling was a master at glove blocking and countering. Therefore the plan was to not let Max get set. Louis fought the perfect fight. He came right at Schmeling, pressuring him and getting inside his effective range. When a thinking fighter like Schmeling is crowded he is off his game because he doesn't have his preferred space to work from. Louis neutralized Max's ability at blocking and countering by keeping all of his punches short and throwing them up close thereby not giving Schmeling any long punches to counter. Hands held high Louis did not drop his left a single time. The only right hand Schmeling threw was easily blocked. As the opening round began Louis moved in measurably, but crowding Schmeling up close. Louis then slipped inside by moving his head, swarming Max with a two-fisted attack. A pair of jabs and a sharp right backed Max up. A right uppercut followed by a hammering right cross buckled Schmeling near the ropes. Louis then devastated Schmeling with a merciless body attack. Louis landed a pulverizing right hand kidney shot followed by a left hook to the solar plexus that paralyzed Schmeling against the ropes. The "Brown Bomber" followed through with another right to the side, a left hook to the heart, a left to the head and a crashing right behind the ear causing Schmeling to collapse and sink towards the canvas only to be held up by the upper rope. The final three knockdowns finished the slaughter. The first round knockout of the German was one of the most convincing displays of dominance of one athlete over another ever seen in a boxing ring. Joe Louis would go on to set records for the longest uninterrupted heavyweight title reign and the most successful title defenses that stand to this day.

      Jack Blackburn taught Joe Louis the finer points of pugilism, teaching him what it took to become a polished fighter and a great champion. If not for Jack Blackburn there never would have been a Joe Louis. It's been 54 years since Joe Louis retired for the last time. Some have asked where is the next Joe Louis? The reason there has not been another complete boxer-puncher like Joe Louis is that there are no Jack Blackburn's around to teach anymore.