I have often been asked whom I consider the greatest heavyweight in all history. There have been many good men in this division, some with terrific punches and others with great science and only a moderate punch. I have no hesitation, however, in declaring that the late Peter Jackson, of Australia, is my selection as the greatest heavyweight the world has ever known.
It was never Jackson's honour to hold the heavyweight championship of the world, but that was due simply to the fact that John L. Sullivan drew the colour line. Sullivan knew what he was doing when he barred Jackson. I am sure that Jackson would have defeated Sullivan had they ever met. Sullivan did not have the speed to stay with the great negro. He had to get his man within four rounds or he slowed down perceptibly. This was quite noticeable in his long-drawn-out bout with Jake Kilrain at Richbury, Miss. Jake was a slow man, too, and they dragged the fight on for 75 rounds.
Jackson was a brainy fighter. No type of opponent bothered him. He was masterful on the defensive, and had great resource and stamina. Jackson seldom forced the fighting. He let his opponent bring the fight to him, and then shot out his long left with telling effect. When I say that Jackson was a defensive fighter I do not mean that he could not lead if necessary. He could slug, but he preferred to make use of his great skill. He led his opponents into a trap, and then beat them to a punch.
The black race certainly produced a great fighter in Jackson. I doubt if a greater ring general ever tied on a glove.
It is rather unique that to-day, as I am writing, another black man should be seeking the heavyweight crown held by a white man. But I do not think the case is an exact parallel. Sullivan actually barred Jackson. To-day Jack Dempsey is willing to talk about a fight with Harry Wills, although he is taking a long time to get into the ring. Dempsey has not drawn the colour line.
Wills, however, is no Jackson. If he were he would win over Dempsey. In my opinion Wills will prove easy for Dempsey should the two ever meet in the ring.
When I say that Bob Fitzsimmons was the greatest man of his weight in the history of boxing I hope no one will think I am prejudiced in favour of my own country. Jackson and Fitzsimmons have both been heralded to the world as Australians. Neither, however, was born in the Commonwealth. Jackson came to Australia at 14 years of age as a cabin boy on a sailing ship. He was born in the West Indies. He was taken hold of by Larry Foley of Sydney, N.S.W., and developed under his instruction. Fitzsimmons was born in Cornwall, England, and at the age of eight years went to New Zealand, and later moved to Australia, where he worked as a blacksmith.
"Ruby Robert," as Fitzsimmons was affectionately called, was built on spindly legs, but he had a great spread of shoulders, long arms, and knew exactly how to hit. He timed his blows, and was a great judge of distance. These assets, plus a tremendous wallop, made Fitz's punches crushing in the extreme. Fitz was hardly a heavyweight, as we think of them in regard to weight; but his rugged character, speed, and punch enabled him to batter the big boys, and his saying, "The bigger they are the harder they fall," became one of the prize sayings of the ring. Australia will always be remembered for developing such men as Jackson and Fitzsimmons. Perhaps the day will come when the Commonwealth will produce another Jackson or Fitzsimmons.
Another fighter I have always admired was Tom Sharkey. He came pretty close to lifting the crown from Jim Jeffries. I am quite certain that Sharkey would have made a champion in the days of the London prize-ring rules. He was a rugged fighter, and would have suited the old style of fighting admirably. I have little respect for boxing to-day. It reminds me too much of Irish wrestling. I would like the present followers of the game to see men like Peter Jackson and Jim Corbett in the ring. It would prove a revelation. Both were scientific men, who stood up and fought. There would be no need for a referee to break his back trying to tug the men apart in the clinches. The modern style of boxing arouses little enthusiasm in me. After a few rounds I usually get up and walk out. Perhaps I'm too old-fashioned, but, anyway, I shall always believe that the present generation of fighters is not up to the standard of 25 and 30 years ago.
I notice a great deal is written these days of fighters breaking their hands. You pick up a paper almost any night and read of some fight being called off because one of the principals has broken a bone m a hand. At other times fighters use the broken-hand alibi for the loss of a fight. I never knew what it was to break a bone in my hands, although I fought both with bare knuckles and with gloves. I was blessed with a good pair of hands by Nature. When in hospital the other day my attending physician looked at my hands, and asked permission to take an X-ray of them. He said they were the most remarkable hands he had ever seen. This may account for my escape of injuries in the ring, but I, nevertheless, believe that many of the broken bones to-day are caused through wrong tactics in training. To the young man who wants to make his living by boxing, I would advise him to discard eight-ounce gloves if he wants to preserve his hands. With eight-ounce gloves the fist cannot be closed tightly. The hand does not take the blow properly. The glove lining is also too stiff. It should be made of the strongest, lightest, and most flexible material. I have had the lining made from tanned eel skin. With this you can clench your fist absolutely tight.
Present-day fighters are afraid of having their faces marked up in training. They put on the big gloves and, while they save their faces, they hurt their hands. In fighting the hands make the money, not the face. Light gloves and flexible ones are what the boys should use. Massaging the hands is also very helpful. One of the most famous men in the old days who had brittle hands was Charlie Mitchell of England. He had small bones which were covered with lots of muscle. Mitchell's hitting strength was too much for his small hands. Another bit of advice to young boxers, and, for that matter, all athletes, if they wish to get anywhere, is proper training and living. Much promising material in all branches of athletics has been lost through riotous living. No athlete will get anywhere unless he lives correctly and trains faithfully. Set your eye on a mark and do not deviate from the straight path until you reach it. Having reached it, do not be foolish and pave the way for your downfall by hitting the bright lights and then fading out fast. The past is crowded with the wrecks of men who could not stand up under the popularity their sporting prowess gained for them.
And now an observation on dear old Ireland, the land that gave my parents birth. Irish descendants have given to the world great athletes, but not one champion was ever born there. A couple of decades ago it was a ten-to-one bet that one parent or both of nearly every athlete of any ability was born in Ireland. But never since the days of old Don Donnelly has Ireland produced a ring champion of her own. Some day the Old Sod may produce one.
This is the end of my story. My life has been eventful, romantic, and exciting, and, my one regret to the end of my days will be "I was horn 40 years too soon." I read of the million-dollar purses and think of when I fought for a couple of hundred dollars, without police protection or a line of publicity. The champion to-day is a business man, but I suppose I'd have been the same if I'd have had the chance. A man is judged by his dollars to-day. No champion can last for long, so, if the public will pay, the champion is foolish hot to hold out his hat and take all he can get.
The Register (Adelaide, South Australia), April 1, 1926.