I met Johnny Coulon in early 1965. I was fifteen and Coulon
was seventy-six. At first glance he did not impress. The Johnny Coulon that shook my hand that cold day in
Chicago, was a milk-white little man who wore a white shirt, dark pants and a bowtie. He had eyes like
berries on a bush and his voice was soft and friendly.
I was a young kid in love with boxing and Johnny Coulon fit me
like an old shoe. The little guy was not only a topnotch trainer, but living boxing history. He had known
every heavyweight champion since the Great John L. Sullivan, had been bantamweight champion of the
world, had trained hundreds of fighters and was a revered celebrity in Chicago during the sixties. At
seventy-six he could leave a ring by jumping over a top rope, landing softly on his feet. He celebrated a
birthday by walking the length of the gym on his hands.
He was born in Canada in 1889, but grew up in turn of the
century Chicago, where as a prelim fighter he became known as "The Cherry Picker from Logan Square." He turned pro
at sixteen and was champion at twenty-one. His career, managed by his father, Pop Coulon, stretched
from 1905 to 1920. The hall-of-famer is listed as losing only four times in ninety-seven fights, but he
claimed to have fought over three hundred pro fights.
"A lot of my fights never made the record books," he told me, as I began pumping him for information on boxing lore, " I fought in small shows all over Illinois and Indiana. I fought in Terre Haute four or five times and not one of those fights made the record books. I also fought in Gary, South Bend, Streator and other places, like county fairs. Not even half of my
fights are listed. There was a tavern near Logan Square that had a ballroom in the back and they used
to run weekly shows. I think they charged twenty cents at the door and the place held maybe three hundred.
My average purse for those fights was four dollars, but back then you could live on ten dollars a month. I
fought at least twenty times in that ballroom, in 1905 and 1906, and not one of those fights ever made the
books. During those two years I also toured eight weeks with a circus, fighting all comers for four rounds. I
was paid eight dollars a fight. I had maybe twenty five fights in those eight weeks. Not one made the record
Johnny Coulon fought all the top little men of his time. He
traded leather with Pete Herman, Jim Kendrick, Frankie Burns, Kid Williams, Frankie Conley, Harry Forbes and
Kid Murphy. A good fighter he beat was Charlie Goldman, a tough bantam who went on to become Rocky
Marciano's trainer. Coulon won the crown from Jim Kendrick in nineteen rounds . A fighting champion,
the record books tell that in 1912 Johnny Coulon beat two top contenders, Frankie Conley and Frankie
Burns, in two twenty rounders that both went the distance. The Cherry Picker packed forty rounds of
fighting in fifteen days.
"There were a lot of tough fighters in my time," he once told me, "when I fought Kendrick I was sick,
weak with a stomach ailment. When Conley fought me, he sprained his wrist real bad, but kept fighting
even though he grunted in pain every time he hit me. Conley was tough but he was made to order for my
style. I would jab him to the body, jab him to the head and use the jab
to set up the right hand. And Conley was a sucker for the right hand. I was not a great puncher, but I would
time him coming in and shoot the
right hand down the middle and I would score every time."
The gym was located at 1154 E. 63rd Street, on the South Side
of Chicago. The L Train rumbled past
the third floor windows. There was a single ring, a half dozen bags of
different types, a locker room and
clean showers. Johnny and his wife, Marie, ran a clean pugilistic
emporium. Mrs.Coulon did not allow
cursing or smoking . Visitors were allowed as long as they behaved
themselves in a proper manner. Sonny
Liston was expelled on his first day at the gym, then apologized and
became a very good friend of Johnny
The gym, which opened during the twenties, had been host to
boxing legends. Dempsey, Louis and
Marciano had sparred within these walls. Ali would often used the gym to
keep himself toned during his
exile years. I found myself sparring in a ring where Sugar Ray Robinson
had once trod.
At the time I embarked on a modest amateur career, the well
known fighters at Coulon's included former junior welterweight champion Eddie Perkins (74-20-4) who was managed by Coulon, and Light-heavyweight contender Allen Thomas. Perkins, a steelworker, was a
clever little boxer with a good chin. Thomas was a southpaw who fought Mauro Mina, Bob Foster and several other topnotchers. Other pro leather slingers included Ben Black, who lost to Cleveland Williams, and Fred Askew, who was one of George Foreman's early victims.
At one end of the gym, in the southern side of the room, where
long windows faced the elevated
tracks of the L Train, Johnny Coulon had his personal office. In
Christmas, holiday postcards framed the
doorway. Among the cards there were best wishes from European royalty,
senators, movie producers,
actors and writers. Coulon knew everyone. Ernest Hemingway had visited
Coulon's and insisted on
sparring with the local pugs. LeRoy Neiman had sketched boxers working
out. A cult movie of the sixties,
"Medium Cool," filmed scenes at the gym, where Coulon briefly appeared,
a tiny old man captured forever
Johnny Coulon was a special man not only for his fame as a
former champion and first rate trainer. In
a brutal trade he was a man of ethics. When a local community center
was about to close up for lack of
funds, the one man who stood to benefit from such a closure was Johnny
Coulon. He knew that a dozen
fighters, seeking a new gym would increase his monthly revenue of dues.
Instead of ignoring the situation
and waiting for new clients, Johnny Coulon sat in his office for hours,
calling members of the chamber of
commerce, aldermen, reporters. Within hours, Johnny had politicians and
blue blood socialites donating
money to the center. Coulon even wrote a personal check and helped
promote an amateur boxing show and
a benefit dinner to raise funds for the competition. The community
center stayed open. Such a gesture was
not unusual for the Cherry Picker. The night he won the crown from
Kendrick, Johnny donated a thousand
dollars, a large sum of money in those days of nickel beer, to the
Working Boys Home of Chicago.
When Johnny Coulon opened his gym, in the early twenties, the
neighborhood had been blue collar
Irish and Polish. By the time I joined the gym, the area was pure black
ghetto. The four or five of us from
other ethnic backgrounds commuted from the suburbs, a concept that never
thrilled our parents. To Coulon,
ethnic or racial background did not matter. He treated everyone the
same, with a Victorian courtesy dating back to the turn of the century. As a result, when the Chicago race
riots of the sixties burned down and looted whole city blocks of the South Side, Coulon's gym was neither
burned nor ransacked, a true symbol of respect. Johnny was not only "color blind," he could boast of having been a close friend of Jack Johnson., had frequented Johnson's inter-racial restaurant the "Café De
Champion," and had even been a pallbearer at the great champion's funeral.
" Johnson," he once told me, "was a very smart man. The papers said some horrible things about him,
and he was very hurt by the whole situation, although he put on this public display of not caring., but he
did. His first wife was pretty and a real nice lady. She killed herself. The second wife was a working girl
from a bordello. I liked him but I did not approve of his lifestyle. He smoked cigars and drank wine and
champagne. An athlete should not do those things."
"His restaurant, " Coulon described, "was known as the "Café Du
Champion, " and it was located on thirty-first street. It was not open for long, because Johnson had all
the legal problems and his first wife, Etta, killed herself on an upstairs apartment. The Café was impressive.
It had several rooms, expensive gold plated cuspidors, burgundy wallpaper and green silk curtains. The
food was very good, mostly steak and chicken dishes served on good china. He had entertainment, from
local talent and early jazz bands to violin players. The Cafe was like Johnson, gaudy and fun. You know, back in those days almost everyone dressed in dark suits, but Johnson would have tailors make him suits in
bright colors, like mustard or mint green. They were expensive suits and they looked sharp on him. He was a dandy, but I felt sorry for him. He had demons."
Coulon was also known for a trick he performed for celebrities.
Tacked on the gym walls were several portraits of heavyweights like Primo Carnera and Sonny Liston attempting to lift the 110 pound former champion. It was a clever trick, for as a giant would attempt to lift
him, little Johnny would place a hand on the man's neck and press gently. Whatever nerve he touched was enough to incapacitate the lifter. Men twice Johnny's size attempted to lift him, but always failed. Although I asked him where he had learned this unusual skill, he never said, but did tell me that he had toured with a vaudeville group, where he made a profitable living giving boxing exhibitions and daring members of the audience to lift him on the stage.
Nothing good lasts forever. The little Cherry Picker from Logan
Square died on October 29, 1973. I was just married and living on the East Coast, so I missed the funeral.
An old pug told me that Johnny was buried with honors, at a funeral attended by writers, senators, society
people and a lot of men with broken noses and mashed up ears. The pallbearers did not strain much lifting
the coffin with the remains of the little champion, but as the box disappeared into the snow, tears ran down scarred faces.