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Monday, April 15, 2024

A Lucky Hat and a Right Hand: A Profile of Willie Jackson

A writer once dubbed Willie Jackson "possibly the best club fighter of this or any other century." It was actually an unfair declaration. More than a club fighter, Jackson developed into one of the best boxers in the featherweight and lightweight divisions in the world during the late 1910s and early 1920s.

Oscar Tobinsky was born in New York, New York on July 11, 1897 (see notes). The oldest of Samuel and Ester's seven children, Oscar spent his formative years in the Lower East Side before the family moved to the Bronx. His parents had immigrated to the United States from the Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire. Contrary to popular belief, names were not changed at Ellis Island, so the family was responsible for shortening their surname to Tobin.

Oscar Tobin earned $6 a week as an errand boy when he gave up his job to become a professional boxer in 1913. He weighed an anemic 98 pounds for his first fight at the Fairmont Athletic Club where he earned the princely sum of $9 for his effort. Ester objected to her boy fighting, believing Oscar was too frail, so he did his best to hit and not get hit. He assumed the fighting name of Willie Jackson, an ode to an old fighter of his manager Doc Bagley.

Before entering the ring that night, he wore a cap , one that would grow more worn and ragged throughout his career. That lucky cap would see Jackson beat some of the best fighters of his time.

Willie Jackson fought in the old newspaper era, when fights only became official if a fighter won by knockout or lost by disqualification. Otherwise, newsmen rendered their unofficial verdicts in their papers' next edition. Early in his career, Jackson lost one such decision to a world class fighter named Louisiana, a fellow Jew. He beat many good fighters during the first four years of his career, but lost at the top level.

On May 8, 1916, featherweight world champion Johnny Kilbane stopped Jackson in the fifth round of their non-title bout, the only time Jackson was ever stopped until his final two fights. Kilbane would later tell Doc Bagley that Willie possessed "the fastest left of anybody he ever saw, and this includes Benny Leonard." At 5'6", he was rangy for the weight, and possessed quick feet.

Willie continued to fight consistently in New York and Philadelphia when he was matched with Johnny Dundee on January 15, 1917. Dundee, a future two-division world champion, was already a grizzled veteran, one of the best fighters in the world. In the first round, Jackson landed a short right to the chin and Dundee's lights went out for the first time in his lengthy career.

The result shocked the boxing world. Before the knockout, Jackson had yet to register a signature win and he was regarded as speedy and ringwise, but not a puncher. Dundee's chin seemed to be more steel than bone. "I'm so tickled I don't know what to do," Jackson said days later. "I haven't slept since the fight, I'm afraid that if I do I will wake up and find it all a dream."

Former heavyweight champion James J. Corbett wrote a column that August praising Jewish fighters, singling out Jackson at one point. "And then some people say the Hebrews lack courage! The only man who ever knocked out Johnny Dundee was Willie Jackson (Oscar Tobin), a Jewish boy."
A cartoon depicting Jackson knocking out Dundee
Jackson trained at the famed Grupp's Gym at 116th Street and 8th Avenue with Ray Arcel, Benny Valgar, and Benny Leonard. When the owner, Billy Grupp, blamed the Jews for World War I, Leonard led a group to find a new gym in protest. Jackson was one of the fighters who made the switch to the soon-to-be world renowned Stillman's Gym.

Willie had been fighting regularly when he faced Dundee in a rematch that June. Dundee won the newspaper decision, but the pair would fight about a dozen times through the years with Jackson winning more than he lost. In October, writers granted Jackson a newspaper decision victory over future lightweight champion Rocky Kansas.

On November 10, 1917, Jackson married Pauline Sherr. The couple lived on Garrison Avenue in the Bronx, but the marriage wouldn't last.

In 1918, Jackson fought some of the best fighters of all-time. That year he battled Lew Tendler, who is perhaps the best boxer never to win a title. Willie took on Dundee and Kansas multiple times. And he fought the lightweight world champion, Benny Leonard. Leonard won a newspaper decision on a charity card in July but the experience allegedly convinced him never to fight Jackson for the lightweight title.

During a busy 1919, Jackson once again faced Lew Tendler in a memorable bout on August 4. Willie knocked down the rising star twice in the first round. One came from a right that knocked Tendler out cold for five seconds. Tendler's trainer Scoodles Reinfeld tossed a bucket of water on his man, a move that would be grounds for disqualification now but was legal back then. Tendler woke up, and battered Jackson for the remaining five rounds, breaking Willie's nose in the process.
Jackson knocks down Tendler, Shibe Park Philadelphia, Aug. 4, 1919

Jackson beat Dundee again less than a month later. He fought numerous times each year, but never earned a title shot. He fought mostly on the East Coast, though he traveled to Milwaukee in 1920 to fight Richie Mitchell, a top lightweight. Jackson lost the newspaper decision. The next year he fought a fifteen-round draw with Richie's brother Pinky, the future junior welterweight champion. In 1922, he faced a hard-punching Jew named Charley White in a grueling fifteen round bout at Madison Square Garden. White knocked down Jackson twice in the thirteenth and nearly stopped him in the final two rounds.

The year kept getting worse for Willie. In May, his wife sued for divorce alleging cruelty. The split turned hostile over the amount of alimony Jackson should pay, and the issue gained nationwide attention. Pauline claimed Jackson had earned about $400,000 during his career and he owed her $125 a week. Willie argued that he had made less than $100,000 during his career, a third of which went to Bagley. A sympathetic profile of Jackson that year described him as "one of the greatest lightweight money makers." In 1924, the dispute was rendered moot when Pauline remarried.

After the divorce proceedings had ended, Jackson intended to go on an Australian tour, but Bagley wouldn't tag along, and the two had a falling out. Even when Jackson reconsidered and fought close to home, it was too late to repair the relationship.

A downtrodden Jackson fought a few novices before battling the cerebral Harry "Kid" Brown, a fellow Jew. Though outweighed by six pounds, Brown beat his once-great opponent by newspaper decision. After two more decision losses, Jackson faced Johnny Sugrue on December 4 in Jersey City. With his old lucky cap perched on his head, Willie waited for Doc Bagley to come through the door for one last fight. For old time's sake. But Doc never came. Willie's effort in the fight was valiant, but at 25 years old, he was washed up. Sugrue stopped him in ten rounds.

Jackson retired, save for an ill-conceived comeback fight in 1924. He didn't gamble and wasn't much of a drinker, but still had no money left. He sold paper and twine and remarried. He and Milly had a son named Jack.

Oscar Tobin died on November 13, 1961 in Kings County Hospital after a brief illness. His legacy, carved out of hundreds of fights, was cemented with a surprisingly concussive short right hand on a winter's day in Philadelphia back in 1917.

Notes: The origin of Jackson's surname from Tobinsky to Tobin was mentioned in Rocap's "Willie Jackson is Coming." At one point, some papers claimed his birthname was Isaac Pomper, but that isn't true. His birthdate is listed as July 11 in his WWI draft registration and July 13 in his WWII draft registration.

Bodner, Allen. When Boxing was a Jewish Sport. Pg. 73.
"Boxer asks Cut in Alimony." New York Times. May 30, 1922. Pg. 2.
Carolan, James S. "Lew Tendler Never Felt First Punch that Floored Him." Evening Public Ledge. Aug. 5, 1919. Pg. 15.
Corbett, James J. "In Corbett's Corner." The Evening Report. Aug. 16, 1917. Pg. 6.
"Lion-Hearted Willie Jackson's Passing is Real Ring Tragedy." Portland Evening Express. Dec. 22, 1922. Pg. 6.
"Oscar Tobin Boxed as Willie Jackson" New York Times. Nov. 14, 1961. Pg. 36.
Ripley, Robert L. "Dundee's Conqueror." The Atlanta Journal. Jan 20, 1917.Pg. 7.
Rocap, William H. "Willie Jackson is Coming." The Houston Post. Jan 28, 1917. Pg. 17.

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