GEORGE LA BLANCHE
CANADA'S ORIGINAL WORLD CHAMPION
George La Blanche, nicknamed, "The Marine," was born to French Canadian parents in Point Levi, located in southern Quebec, Canada on December 19th, 1856. His real name was George Blais. George LaBlanche is one of many great Canadian boxers whose name has faded into obscurity with the passing of time. I first heard his name years ago when I was reading the book, Ring Magazine's Pictorial History of Boxing. I was surprised to find out that Canada had produced a world champion prizefighter prior to the immortal George Dixon, from Nova Scotia.
As is most often the case, the information that existed about him came from a boxing book written and published by Americans. Canadians have always proven to be very poor preservers of our own sporting history, especially when it comes to boxing. Suffice to say, without extensive due diligence exercised by some American boxing writers and historians, there would be almost nothing in print concerning some of Canada's earliest boxing heroes.
La Blanche stood five feet, seven inches in height and weighed barely 150 pounds soaking wet. He took on any fighter who would meet him from 150 to 170 pounds, which was the weight range for the middleweight division back in the 1880's. The limits for various weight divisions in boxing's pioneer days were never officially set in stone. Because boxing faced so many obstacles back then from many areas in society such as churches, local governments and even rival promoters, considerable leeway was given to weight class restrictions in order to get the fight signed, sealed and delivered to the public.
Strict rules regarding different weight classes weren't codified until much later on in boxing history. This is why we often hear about fights from that era where the disparity in weight between the two combatants is enormous. Such fights usually took place, for the most part, prior to 1920. For instance, Sam Langford weighed about 156 lbs. when he faced future heavyweight champ Jack Johnson, in Langford's 20th fight as a pro in 1906. Johnson weighed in at 206 lbs., giving him an advantage of exactly 50 lbs. over his smaller opponent.
This was not an uncommon circumstance in boxing back then. George La Blanche preferred to fight middleweights but took on all comers when there was more money at stake. There is no evidence to suggest that the possibility of becoming the first Canadian to hold a world boxing title ever crossed his mind.
Only when the Walker Law (named after popular New York mayor and huge boxing supporter, Jimmy Walker) was enacted in New York in 1920, did boxing's rules and different weight classifications become codified and better known to the public.
When you look at some of La Blanche's contemporaries, such as the original Jack Dempsey, Bob Fitzsimmons and Mike Donovan, La Blanche's success become even more remarkable when you consider that he was not a highly skilled boxer.
George La Blanche was rather crude in his approach even by the standards of the era in which he fought. He was not a gifted classic stand-up boxer like James J. Corbett, nor did he possess the one punch knockout power of a James J. Jeffries. He possessed enough of the skills of both Corbett and Jeffries to successfully fight the best men of his era.
Although not a technically sound boxer, La Blanche was nonetheless very agile and extremely quick on his feet, which served him well in his battles with boxers who exhibited much more technical ring expertise. La Blanche was able to pick his spots by capitalizing on his opponent's mistakes. This required a sharp eye and a lot of patience, both of which la Blanche possessed in abundance.
His quickness of foot helped him to dart in and land some hard shots and then just as quickly back away out of the range of his opponent's counters. La Blanche was an anomaly in boxing in the sense that he was not known for being a knockout artist although he did possess good power in both hands. He was a rugged customer in the ring and many of his victories occurred when his opponents were simply too tired and weak to continue because of the accumulation of punches they had absorbed from La Blanche.
La Blanche had a good chin early in his career, which often stood him in good stead when facing heavy handed fighters.. He was no stranger to the rougher aspects of his sport, such as cuffing, heeling, head butting and elbowing. Even when penalized for such transgressions, he didn't really care as the damage he had inflicted on his hapless foe usually led to their eventual demise in the later rounds. He was more than willing to lose a round or two in order to win the battle.
George La Blanche was very close with John L. Sullivan, boxing's first real superstar, and first gloved world heavyweight champion. Sullivan showed La Blanche the finer and rougher aspects of the sport of boxing, both of which La Blanche often put to good use, in order to win many fights.
Like many fighters of his time, La Blanche was reared in abject poverty and joined the nascent Canadian army as a teenager in order to further his life and his career aspirations. Also, the army guaranteed La Blanche three things that life in rural southern Quebec couldn't give him, namely three square meals a day, a job, and a future.
La Blanche began his boxing career in 1882 while serving his country as an enlisted man in the Canadian military. La Blanche was a driver in Battery "B" as a member of a Canadian Light artillery unit. His army job required him to use his wits and constantly think on his feet, qualities that would go on to serve him well in his boxing career.
While in the army and, after his discharge from active duty, La Blanche regularly fought men much taller and heavier than himself. This was pretty much the norm in the very early days of boxing in Canada and the United States.
Back in the very early days of the sport, weight classes were not as clearly defined as they are today. In fact, one of La Blanche's first fights was against a man named J. Putnam at the Quebec Citadel. Putnam weighed in at 190 lbs., giving him a whopping forty-pound weight advantage over the smaller La Blanche. In the end it didn't matter as La Blanche knocked Putnam out cold in four rounds with a left hook, proving that the bigger they are, the harder they fall. It was a costly victory because La Blanche ended up breaking his left hand during the fight, which temporarily put him on the sidelines. As he became more successful in boxing, La Blanche began to pick and choose his opponents more carefully, always sure to avoid those fighters who were simply too big for him to encounter.
It's important to note that in the 1880's, a boxer's hands weren't as well protected as they are today in boxing. Today, state and boxing regulatory bodies strictly mandate the exact amount of tape and gauze, which a fighter is allowed to apply to their hands, as well as the size and type of gloves they are permitted to wear in the ring. This still doesn't prevent a fighter today from subverting the rules. Back then, there were virtually no rules in place to dictate what, if anything, a fighter could put on his hands or the size of the gloves he was to wear, if they wore any at all when entering the ring for combat.
In order to protect themselves and their hands, fighters in the 1800's usually had their manager or backers draw up a contract with their opponent's manager(s). Such a contract contained the "articles of combat', which, in effect, were rules agreed upon beforehand by both camps. The articles covered the size of the gloves the fighters were to use and what, if anything, a fighter could apply to his hands prior to donning the mitts.
In those bygone days of yore, fighters like La Blanche sometimes wrapped very light, strands of cloth or tape over the knuckles but not much more. Boxing gloves, or "mufflers" as they were more commonly referred to back then, were made of poor quality and usually weighed not more than 2 to 4 ounces.
As a result of such flimsy hand protection, fighters often suffered broken hands, fingers, knuckles and arms. In those formative years of the late 1800's, a fighter who punched his opponent in the head often suffered more damage (to his hand) than the man who absorbed the punch.
George La Blanche's luck changed for the better in the early 1880's when, on December 11th, 1883, with the help of some very influential sporting figures and friends, he was able to obtain an honorable discharge from the Canadian Marines, while he was stationed in Boston, Massachusetts.
The next month, on January 28th, 1884, with the help of his co-managers, Tom Bogue and Warren Lewis, La Blanche launched his boxing career by challenging George Smith, a full-fledged heavyweight fighter to a match, which ended in a disappointing six round draw at the Cribb Club. Such draws were not unusual in those early days near the turn of the century. In fact, it was quite common for a fight to end in a draw or a no-decision unless a knockout was scored by one of the fighters.
Many religious groups held a lot of political power at that time, much like today, and they often exercised their power to influence public morality, as it pertained to wagering money on sporting events, in particular, prize fights, which they viewed as exceedingly sinful, especially when they lost their money.
These religious groups saw boxing as immoral in the eyes of the church, and used the full weight of their political clout to put intense pressure on public officials to ban the sport of boxing. They were temporarily successful in many states throughout the Union. In fact, it was not unheard of for a boxer to be arrested after his fight because someone in attendance felt that the bout was morally offensive, or a sin, and thus filed a complaint or morals charge against both combatants.
Quite often, those people who found boxing to be morally offensive were, in fact, the same individuals who had wagered and lost large amounts of money on the outcome of one or many fights. The moral outrage experienced by these patrons came more from the lightness of their wallets than the profundity of their religious beliefs.
(Jack Johnson and "Jewish" Joe Choynski were once arrested and jailed for a month in Galveston, Texas, after participating in a prizefight. The truth came out years later when it was discovered that both fighters had paid off all of the right officials in order to allow the fight to go on. It was only when the local judge doubled the price of his bribe, and both fighters refused, that they were then jailed. Incidentally, Choynski KO'ed a very young and inexperienced Johnson in 4 rounds. It was Joe Choynski who taught Jack Johnson the finer points of boxing, which Johnson put to great use later on in his championship career.)
Therefore, in an effort to appease both the religious and political power groups of the day, many boxing matches were deemed draws, regardless of the true outcome of these fights, in an effort to show those in power that the sport was merely a form of gentlemanly exercise rather than the punch for pay bloodbaths that in reality, they often were.
Many prizefighters from the late 19th century, more often than not, came from impoverished backgrounds, and were simply trying to make some money in order to provide a better life for their immediate family. Sure, these fighters were definitely not choirboys, but, by the same token, they were often denied access to polite society and other more established and approved fields of endeavor by the very same religious groups that actively sought to ban their sport.
In a very real sense, boxing was a class struggle. With all other avenues of progress closed to them, for whatever reasons, pugilists like George La Blanche were willing to literally fight their way to a better station in life. If boxers were allowed to be paid handsomely for something as crude as fighting, then, in a short time, they would eventually be able buy their way into polite society, which was something that these class-conscious religious groups saw as a direct threat to their own positions in society. They simply didn't want to share the wealth.
On March 21st, 1884, La Blanche, strictly following the advice of his trainers, Charles Gleason and Mike Quilligan, gave a one-sided beating to tough Tom Bates of England, stopping him in five brutal rounds. La Blanche, eager to show his fans that the beating he issued to Bates was not a fluke, followed up his convincing victory over the resilient Bates with another impressive display of power, followed up his convincing victory over the resilient Bates with another impressive display of power, punishing Denny Kelleher before stopping him in the fourth round on October 3rd, 1884, once again at the Cribb Club. His stunning victory over Kelleher was pivotal in helping La Blanche secure a fight with Peter McCoy, then one of the top middleweight fighters in the game, in April, 1885, at the venerable Boston Boxing Club.
An interesting sidebar to the Peter McCoy fight was that McCoy weighed in at a mere 143 pounds whereas La Blanche tipped the scales at 170 pounds, giving him a considerable weight and strength advantage. Since the weight limits were rather blurred in that era, any fighter over 170 pounds was generally considered to be a heavyweight. That being said, a fighter tipping the scales between 155 and169 was usually labeled a middleweight. La Blanche regularly fought heavyweight fighters when his own weight went up.
La Blanche fought heavyweights for one very good and obvious reason. Heavyweights made the most money of any weight class in the sport. Economically, the risk made sense to La Blanche. Unfortunately, the McCoy match turned out to be a disappointment for La Blanche, as it was declared a draw after eight bruising rounds.
As often happens in the bizarre world of boxing, the draw with McCoy proved to be a real boon to La Blanche's career. It gained him a new legion of fans, more notoriety in the press and numerous offers from some financial backers to set up a fight between La Blanche and future boxing immortal, the original nonpareil Jack Dempsey, universally regarded then as the middleweight world champion.
In fact, Dempsey was held in such high esteem by both fans and reporters, he was often referred to as the best fighter in the world, irrespective of weight. Born in Ireland on December 15th, 1862, Dempsey immigrated to New York with his family where he found work as a child laborer in a Brooklyn Barrel factory. At the age of 20, Dempsey first ventured into wrestling but found boxing more to his liking. He started out as a lightweight at only 20 years of age in 1883.
In 1884, Dempsey knocked out George Fulljames to capture the world middleweight crown, although overseas he was regarded as only the American middleweight champion. Truth be told, he probably was the best middleweight fighter in the world at that time.
Although George Fulljames lived in Winnipeg, Manitoba, he was in fact born in London, England. At the time he fought Jack Dempsey, Fulljames was the Canadian lightweight champion. Both Fulljames and Dempsey weighed around 125 lbs. for their fight even though it was listed as a middleweight title fight.
Dempsey gave La Blanche a crack at his middleweight title because he didn't consider La Blanche to be a credible fighter. Dempsey sat ringside for La Blanche's fight with Peter McCoy. Dempsey surmised that if La Blanche couldn't stop McCoy, a fighter he greatly outweighed, then La Blanche was not a bona fide threat to defeat him and capture the middleweight title.
On Sunday, March 14th, 1886, at Larchmont, Long Island, George La Blanche and Jack Dempsey, two fierce combatants who loathed each other, fought for a then record amount for middleweights of $2000 each plus a mutually agreed upon side bet of $500 per fighter. La Blanche, the Fighting Marine from Canada, stood toe-to-toe with Dempsey giving as good as he got before succumbing in the thirteenth round. The fight lasted forty-nine minutes and five seconds and was an all-out war, both men feeling sore and beat up for many weeks after the fight.
Three years later on August 27th, 1889, at the California Athletic Club in San Francisco, California (which was James J. Corbett's home club), they met again in a finish fight, which lasted 32 rounds, ending only when La Blanche knocked out Dempsey with his infamous pivot punch, or, " La Blanche Swing," as it was referred to in the press. The pivot punch was essentially a backhanded punch or slap, made more effective by cracking your opponent across the mouth with your knuckles.
La Blanche once described how to throw the pivot punch to devastating effect. "This blow is delivered by closing the eyes, turning rapidly on one heel and letting the right hand go at random." (Tacoma News Tribune, Tacoma, Washington.) To simplify it even further, La Blanche simply extended his right arm like a stick and spun around backwards, landing the back of his closed fist on Dempsey's chin, which dropped Dempsey to the ground, unconscious, for the full count. Several bystanders said it reminded them of what a man looked like when struck in the head with a hammer. It was the first and last time the pivot blow was ever used in boxing. In Karate, it is a very common striking move. The New York State Athletic Commission permanently banned the pivot punch along with the more popular rabbit punch.
The New York State Athletic Commission was very powerful and once they issued a ban on those two punches, virtually every other athletic commission in North America and around the world followed suit. La Blanche's victory over Dempsey won him the American version of the world middleweight title. Because fellow Canadian George Dixon won the world featherweight crown in 19 rounds at the New Pelican Club in Soho, London, United Kingdom on June 27th, 1890, George La Blanche can rightfully claim that he was the very first Canadian prizefighter to ever lay claim to a world boxing title.
There was definitely no love lost between the original Jack Dempsey and Canada's Fighting Marine, George La Blanche. Right up to the very end of his tumultuous life, George La Blanche always considered his knockout of Jack Dempsey to be the single most satisfying moment of his entire boxing career, if not his life.
Sadly, La Blanche's claim on the middleweight title ended rather ignominiously for him on February 20th, 1890, when he was knocked out in 12 rounds by a fighter named Young Mitchell in a fight La Blanche later admitted was fixed. La Blanche, who always outspent his income, was broke and in desperate need of more money than he was being paid for fighting Young Mitchell. La Blanche agreed to take a dive for additional $1000 cash, delivered to him prior to the fight.
In fact, La Blanche told his friends and family members ahead of time, the exact round in which he would fall, so they could get their bets down on Young Mitchell. La Blanche hit the canvas in the 12th round and didn't move until the count of ten had been tolled over him. No evidence was ever found indicating that Young Mitchell was in on or even aware of the fix. La Blanche's purse was withheld by the promoter.
A year later, on November 17th, 1890 in Butte, Montana, La Blanche was disqualified in the 13th round for kicking George Kessler in the groin. The fight was originally listed as a knockout loss suffered by La Blanche at the hands of Kessler, although this was patently untrue. Kessler only had two professional fights before retiring to become a boxing referee of some distinction.
Kessler was originally born in Britain and rarely talked about his fight with George La Blanche. There are British boxing journals that suggest several reasons as to why La Blanche kicked Kessler in the groin, none of which can ever be proven. One source suggests that La Blanche had not trained properly for the fight and thus was exhausted by the 13th round. The exhaustion story is hard to believe when you consider that only a year earlier La Blanche fought Jack Dempsey for 32 hard, brutal rounds in a finish fight. The dive against Mitchell was really the beginning of the end for George la Blanche as a top-notch fighter. He lost 22 of his last 27 fights before retiring for good in on July 20th, 1899 following a 3rd round knockout loss to a pug named Dick O'Brien.
His last years were very sad, as he drifted across the United States and Canada penniless, offering to do manual labor for a dollar a day. His old friend John L. Sullivan helped him out by taking him along on several old timers' boxing tours, where La Blanche fought controlled exhibitions against other all-time greats.
Blanche visited Montreal many times during the last ten years of his life,
always feeling cheered up when greeted by family members. He owned a saloon in
San Francisco for a while during this period but was forced to sell it when he
began to consume more of the saloon's stock than he was selling to customers.
During the last years of his life La Blanche was often in and out of prison in
the United States throughout New England, for various crimes such as grand
larceny and aggravated assault. He was a very heavy drinker and, when
inebriated, he became uncontrollable and often extremely violent, reliving past
ring glories in his drunken stupors. George la Blanche died in Lawrence,
Massachusetts on May 3rd, 1918. At last finding a peace in death that so often
eluded him in life.
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