Jack Blackburn had a fine career as a fighter but is honored in the Hall of Fame for his even greater achievement as the trainer of Joe Louis. Born in Versailles, Kentucky in 1883, Blackburn was the son of a minister. He moved with his family to Terre Haute, Indiana, where he first began boxing, then headed to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to continue his ring career. He was quick, had a fine jab, and a powerful left hook, and though he weighed only 135 pounds, often fought much larger men. He made good showings against such greats as Joe Gans and Sam Langford (who outweighed him by 45 pounds), and he gave Philadelphia Jack O'Brien all he could handle in a no-decision bout in 1908.
In January 1909, Blackburn's career was derailed when he went on a shooting spree in Philadelphia. In the midst of an argument, he killed three people, including his wife. He was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to ten to fifteen years in prison. Blackburn, who gave boxing lessons to the warden and his children, was released on good behavior after four years and eight months.
Blackburn returned to professional boxing, taking on opponents such as Ed ("Gunboat") Smith and Harry Greb. He retired from fighting in 1923 after losing by knockout to Panama Joe Gans and Ray Pelkey. Blackburn posted an official career record of 38-3-12 with 50 no-decisions. He claimed to have fought 385 times.
Blackburn then became a trainer and guided weak puncher Sammy Mandell to the lightweight title in 1926. Blackburn also trained Bud Taylor, who won the bantamweight title in 1927. Blackburn also worked briefly with Jersey Joe Walcott in Philadelphia.
Blackburn at first expressed skepticism about Louis, predicting that a black heavyweight would not have many opportunities. Nevertheless, Blackburn worked tirelessly with Louis, schooling him on every aspect of fighting, such as balance, stepping forward when throwing a punch, and hitting with accuracy. According to Hall of Fame trainer Eddie Futch, Blackburn changed Louis from a "box and move" type to a more aggressive fighter. Though Blackburn was tough on Louis, the two grew close and called each other "Chappie." Louis later said, "Chappie made a fighter out of me. He was my closest friend."
Blackburn had problems with drinking and with arthritis during the time he trained Louis. In 1935, he was indicted for perjury and manslaughter in a case that was later dropped. Blackburn's health deteriorated and, in 1942, he died of a heart attack.
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Excerpted with permission from 'The Boxing Register' by James B. Roberts and Alexander G. Skutt, copyright © 1999 by McBooks Press. All rights reserved.