The Babyface Assassin

He looked like an angel and punched like a mule: the Northwest's JimmyMcLarnin fought his way through boxing's golden age and has lived to tell all.

Just minutes from where the 9,300-year-old remains of Kennewick man were unearthed lives another compelling artifact from an earlier era: 91-year-old Jimmy McLarnin, the oldest living boxing champ anywhere in the world (well, except for Germany, where former heavyweight champ Max Schmeling, nine months older and not nearly as complete a fighter as McLarnin once was, is still breathing). Along with Schmeling, McLarnin is the last surviving title-holder from boxing's first golden age, the 1920s and '30s, when the likes of Jack Dempsey, Benny Leonard, Joe Louis, and Henry Armstrong ruled the ring, and Tex Rickard's Madison Square Garden was the center of the boxing universe.

"I started boxing when I was young and I was taught well," McLarnin says. "I was very fast—that's the secret of boxing. If they can't hit you, they can't hurt you."

Back in the days when boxing had only eight weight divisions and eight world champions, McLarnin earned a reputation for being the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. He fought the best and usually won, whipping Fidel LaBarba, Pancho Villa, Jackie Fields, Benny Leonard, Young Corbett III, Barney Ross, Tony Canzoneri, and Lou Ambers. Enshrined in both the International Boxing Hall of Fame and the World Boxing Hall of Fame, he fought 15 world champions and five fellow Hall of Famers. Five times he beat a reigning world champ in a non-title bout, and he held the welterweight crown twice.

Spry now, and just a few pounds heavier than his fighting weight of 147 pounds, McLarnin exhibits little visible damage from the ring. Only his hands give him away: They've been broken so many times, they resemble mangled claws.

"He looked like an angel and punched like a mule," says boxing historian Bert Randolph Sugar. "His left hook is the third-best all-time, ranking below Dempsey's and above [Joe] Frazier's."

JAMES ARCHIBALD MCLARNIN was born in Inchacore, Ireland, in 1906. When he was 3, his family joined the many Irish immigrating to North America. They traveled to Canada in steerage—a journey that left one of his older brothers dead. Jimmy's father, Sam, tried to make a go of it in Saskatchewan planting wheat, but proved unsuccessful at farming. He then moved the family to Vancouver, BC, where he ran a clothing store and raised his 12 children.

Jimmy took up boxing at a young age. The story, oft-told and parts of which are probably true, was that he and another kid got into a scrap for the right to sell newspapers on a busy street corner in Vancouver. McLarnin more than held his own against the bigger foe, and a wizened boxing manager named Charles "Pop" Foster took him under his wing and guided him to the welterweight title.

The details of the apocryphal tale notwithstanding, the facts remain that Pop Foster discovered Jimmy when he was a kid, taught him the intricacies of the sweet science, and molded him into a champion. "He was the secret of my success," says McLarnin, pointing to an oil portrait of Foster that hangs in his living room. "He taught me everything."

To hear McLarnin tell it, Foster operated with one goal in mind: to win the title. He worked for years to develop Jimmy's jab and foot speed, and taught him a power punch he called "the corkscrew." "You went like this—boom!" says McLarnin, shooting out a left jab with a concerted twist at the end. "You put everything into it, from your toes."

Foster closely monitored Jimmy's diet, strictly prohibiting fried or unhealthy foods. ("He said, 'No pickles, no pork, no pastry,'" remembers McLarnin.) Pop also shielded his fighter from unscrupulous promoters; McLarnin claims that Foster refused to deal with mobsters. That strategy may have cost the pair a chance at lucrative fights, but Foster paid that no mind: It was more important that he keep control of his fighter's career.

Because of the limited financial opportunities for fighters in Canada, Foster and McLarnin left Vancouver for San Francisco in 1922. Jimmy had recently turned 16— he'd abandoned school long ago—and looked even younger. Local promoters told them to get lost, and they subsisted for a time on Foster's World War I pension and the occasional crab they caught while fishing in San Francisco Bay.

Foster finally got McLarnin a fight in Oakland in 1923, a four-rounder against George Ainsworth. Jimmy began to make a name for himself the next year, after he and Foster had moved down the coast to Los Angeles. Fighting in the flyweight division, he beat 1924 Olympic gold medalist Fidel LaBarba twice in three months. He was on his way.

IN 1924, AS the American economy continued its postWorld War I boom, Calvin Coolidge won election to a full term as president, attorney Clarence Darrow defended Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb on murder charges, and J. Edgar Hoover was appointed head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Meanwhile, Red Grange led the Fightin' Illini to football glory, and swimmer and Tarzan-to-be Johnny Weissmuller won three gold medals at the 1924 Olympics.

Before 1920, boxing struggled to gain legitimacy in the US. But the lobbying efforts of Jimmy Walker, the soon-to-be-mayor of New York City, led to the passage of the Walker Law, which in 1920 established a state commission to govern the sport. The result? Boxing ranked alongside baseball, horse racing, and college football in the sports pantheon, and New York City emerged as the capital of pugilism.

The sport entered its golden age balanced upon the powerful shoulders of heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey, also known as "The Manassa Mauler." After Dempsey lost the title to Gene Tunney—and after Tunney retired—the lighter weight classes became boxing's biggest draw. Irish, Jewish, and Italian fighters dominated the sport then, while black and Latino fighters, who found it hard to get a fair shake, received smaller purses and were often denied the opportunity to fight for a title.

Media coverage soon rivaled that of the other sports as journalists (and savvy promoters) conjured up nicknames to heighten interest in the sport. There was "The Herkimer Hurricane" (Lou Ambers), "The Ghetto Wizard" (Benny Leonard), and "The Terre Haute Terror" (Bud Taylor). Of course, some nicknames were less inspired: Carmen Basilio, a prolific bleeder who fought in the 1950s, was "The Upstate Onion Farmer."

Jimmy was dubbed "The Babyface Assassin" because of his cherubic looks. But when Foster and McLarnin moved to the East Coast—where promoter Tex Rickard and Madison Square Garden ruled the roost—Jimmy became known as "The Jew Killer" and "The Hebrew Scourge" because he took on (and usually beat) the top Jewish fighters. That's the way it was back then: If you pitted a Jew against an Irishman in New York City, you sold tickets as fast as Nathan's famous hot dogs. Irish-Italian and Jewish-Italian match-ups sold well, too.

"It was just a business," says McLarnin, downplaying the ethnic rivalry. "This was the Depression."

One of his first Jewish victims was Sid Terris, whom McLarnin beat in 1928. Sam Taub, then the voice of boxing, described the first-round KO this way:

"Terris starts out fast at the opening gong . . . Terris jabs McLarnin and gets away . . . Sid leaps in with two more straight lefts . . . Terris is boxing beautifully tonight . . . McLarnin has not started a punch yet . . . Sid is in again with that straight left . . . He is fast as lightning . . . Terris leads again . . . Oi! Oi! Oi! . . . Terris is down . . . McLarnin nailed him with a right to the chin . . . There's the count . . . 7 . . . 8 . . . 9 . . . 10 . . . Oi! . . . Oi! . . . Oi! . . . It's all over! . . . Terris is knocked out!"

New York promoters began matching McLarnin, who was also called "The Murderous Mick" and "The Dublin Destroyer," against other Jewish fighters, including Joe Glick, Ruby Goldstein, Al Singer, and Ray Miller. Finally, McLarnin took on the greatest of them all: the former lightweight champ Benny Leonard.

Born and raised on Manhattan's Lower East Side, Leonard electrified fight fans—and furnished inspiration to a generation of Jews—with his impeccable ring skills. Known for his slick moves and slicked-back black hair that he never allowed opponents to muss, Leonard shattered the stereotype of the studious, meek Jew.

But Leonard also shattered the stereotype of the financially savvy Jew when he lost his shirt in the stock-market crash of 1929. Like many a broke ex-fighter, Leonard attempted a comeback. After winning several easy bouts, he stepped up in class for a major payday against McLarnin.

On October 7, 1932, at the height of the Depression, more than 21,000 fans packed the old Madison Square Garden to witness the fight. Leonard started fast, staggering McLarnin early in the first round. But Leonard's ring-rust and McLarnin's punishing blows took their toll, and the fight was mercifully stopped in the sixth round. Afterwards, Leonard retired for good.

"He was a great fighter at his peak—one of the best ever," recalls McLarnin. "I'm glad I caught him later on."

The next year, McLarnin challenged Young Corbett III (the nom de guerre of Italy's Raffaele Capabianca Giordano) for the welterweight crown. The southpaw Corbett came in as the favorite, having just beaten Jackie Fields to win the crown. But Pop Foster had noticed a flaw in Corbett's attack: He tended to lean forward before throwing his right hand. Foster directed McLarnin to sucker him in and catch him with a left hook, and McLarnin, following his instructions, knocked Corbett out in the first round at Los Angeles' Wrigley Field.

THE CHAMPIONSHIP BELT was his, but not for long. McLarnin admits that he relaxed after winning the crown, working on his golf game and wooing Lillian Cupit, a young woman from Vancouver he'd eventually marry. Nearly a year to the day after he won the title, he re-entered the ring for the first of three bouts against Barney Ross, a fighter whose life had its own share of dramatic moments.

Born Beryl David Rosofsky, Ross was raised in Chicago by Orthodox Jewish parents who refused to allow him to fight. But when his father was shot and killed during a robbery, Ross began boxing to earn money for his family. After his Hall of Fame career, he enlisted in the Marines and became a much-decorated World War II hero when he killed 22 Japanese soldiers while defending a foxhole on Guadalcanal. Ross became a junkie, addicted to the morphine he took because of his war injuries. He kicked the habit and later wrote about it in his best-selling autobiography, No Man Stands Alone.

On May 28, 1934, in front of 60,000 at the Madison Square Bowl in Long Island City, Ross' speed proved a perfect foil for McLarnin's power. Jimmy knocked Ross down in the ninth round, but Ross returned the favor 45 seconds later. The split decision went to Ross.

The fight preserved two quirky streaks: The eight previous welterweight champs had all lost their first title defenses, and no champion ever successfully defended his crown at the Long Island Bowl. In the rematch at the Bowl just four months later, both jinxes continued: Ross lost the title in his first defense, with McLarnin winning a split decision.

When a match-up is good—cf. Tony ZaleRocky Graziano, Sugar Ray RobinsonJake LaMotta, Sandy SaddlerWillie Pep, Muhammad AliJoe Frazier—it makes dollars and sense to do it again. So McLarnin and Ross fought for the third time in one year, on May 28, 1935, at New York's Polo Grounds. This time, Ross took the controversial decision: "Jewish Welter Earns Verdict in Gory Scrap" read the headline in the next day's Los Angeles Times.

Complained Foster after the fight: "It was a plain case of robbery. . . . What did they mean putting Dempsey [who served as the referee] in there to start with? He's been friendly with the Ross camp ever since Barney started training. Mike Jacobs, the promoter, assured me Dempsey would not referee. I never would have let Jimmy go into the fight if he hadn't had his gloves on."

Nat Fleischer, The Ring magazine's legendary founder-editor, also disagreed with the decision, scoring it 8-5-2 for McLarnin. "I have been watching fights and reporting fights for 30 years," he wrote. "I cannot permit myself to fall in line with my colleagues. . . . Jimmy was less bruised than his opponent, finished fresher, stronger, and more full of fight than did Barney."

Today, McLarnin shakes his head in disgust about the decision. "I thought I'd won," he says. "Ross was a tough guy, but I won the fight."

After the bout, McLarnin contemplated retirement. But he returned to the ring in 1936, splitting two decisions with Hall of Famer Tony Canzoneri, then defeating Lou Ambers (born Luigi Guiseppe D'Ambrosio), another Hall of Famer. The Ambers fight was his last; his final record was 63-11-3.

By then, Joe Louis had entrenched himself as boxing's next superstar, and McLarnin felt it was time to leave boxing to the next generation. After his retirement, he turned down a huge payday with the legendary Henry Armstrong, who would take the welterweight crown from Ross. Says McLarnin, "Pop told me, 'You have all your faculties and money in the bank. Why fight?'"

JIMMY AND LILLIAN settled in Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles. Jimmy worked on his handicap at the Lakeside Country Club and became a regular at his buddy Bing Crosby's annual clam bake at Pebble Beach. His Hollywood pals got him extra roles in a few films, including Big City (with Spencer Tracy), The Crowd Roars (with Robert Taylor and Maureen O'Sullivan), and Joe Palooka, Champ.

Jimmy figured he'd ease into retirement and help raise his four children, but he ran into financial difficulties after a misguided investment he made near the end of World War II. So he traded his smile and firm handshake for a paycheck, working as a sales representative for various LA firms, including Dyer Plating for 15 years. He regularly attended fights at LA's Olympic Auditorium and lunched weekly with a motley group of retired fighters and wrestlers. Wrote the Los Angeles Times' Pulitzer Prizewinning columnist Jim Murray, describing how well Jimmy adjusted to life after boxing: "It makes a lousy movie, but a great life. . . . He's almost an advertisement for a cruel sport."

The saddest aspect about growing older was watching his friends and rivals, tough guys all, falter. Leonard died in 1947, collapsing in the ring while refereeing a fight. Pop Foster passed away in 1956 (leaving McLarnin some $300,000—enough to put the boxer's four children through college, and then some). Ross died in 1967, Dempsey in 1983, Ambers in 1995.

The biggest blow was the death of Lillian, his wife for more than 50 years. She succumbed to breast cancer in 1989. "I lost my bride," he says, pointing to a sepia-toned wedding photo. "I didn't think I'd outlive her."

Shortly after Lillian's death, McLarnin moved back to the Pacific Northwest. He lives in a retirement community and spends his days in the company of an enormous cat named Sassy. Three of his four children live nearby; the "kids," ranging in age from 44 to 56, visit during the week, stocking the fridge and taking him to lunch at neighborhood restaurants. The thirtysomething waitresses flirt and fuss over McLarnin as if he were Oscar De La Hoya.

Unable to drive a car or grip a golf club, Jimmy stays in his apartment most days, reading the paper and watching sports on the tube. He does his best to follow boxing, though he's scornful of the many "alphabet" boxing organizations that have increased the number of championship titles and thus diluted their importance. Among contemporary fighters, he most admires De La Hoya, the current welterweight champ. "He's a pretty good fighter," Jimmy says, then joshes that he would challenge the Golden Boy "if he let me have the first punch."

McLarnin is less enamored of former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson's travails. "I don't know about him," he says warily. "Someone who bites the other guy's ear—that's pretty bad."

Tyson's "bite fight" with Evander Holyfield reminds McLarnin of the dirtiest opponent he ever faced: Bud Taylor. The two fought twice in the 1920s, with McLarnin winning the first bout on a foul and losing the rematch by decision. "Bud didn't bite me but he did everything else," says McLarnin. "He poked me in the eye with his thumb—he gave me a blue eye." (McLarnin got off relatively easily: Taylor killed two men in the ring.)

On the walls of the apartment is the accumulated detritus of McLarnin's 91 years: black-and-white photos and newspaper clippings faded to orange, hanging in time-warp freeze-frame. Here he is with Jean Harlow, the two of them out on the town and beaming as if the sun would never set. In another, he's shaking hands with Clark Gable, and you can tell that Gable's the one who's thrilled about the whole set-up, Gable's the one who'll say the next day, "Say, d'you know who I met last night?" And then a gag shot: Joe Louis, achingly young and with the hint of a flicker of a smile, cradling Jimmy in his massive arms.

You look at the old photos and try to reconcile the images of a vigorous young man with the shrunken figure of a senior-senior citizen before you. And you wonder how he did what he did so many years ago. How could this 91-year-old grandfather be "The Babyface Assassin"?

But then he's in front of you, talking softly, and every once in a while he gets a serious look to him as he sizes you up. And you realize that that look was The Look, the one that saw all the openings that led to all the victories. The look of a knockdown artist.

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow