Heavyweight? Jack Delaney, Said Benny Leonard
By Mike Casey
The great Benny Leonard, still considered by many to be the
supreme lightweight of all time maintained that the finest light-heavyweight he
ever saw was the Canadian-born master from Bridgeport, Connecticut, known as
‘Bright Eyes’: Jack Delaney.
To which I am fairly sure that many of today’s younger fans will
It’s a fair question. Others of a greater vintage with more
accumulated knowledge will just as surely shake their heads in the belief that
King Benny’s praise was far too fulsome. They will know that Delaney was an
exciting, highly efficient ring mechanic who could punch commandingly with both
hands. But greater than Tunney, Langford, O’Brien, Moore, Charles, Foster or
Well, let us backtrack a little and remind ourselves that Benny
Leonard was speaking of the light-heavyweights he SAW. The Ghetto Wizard
shuffled off the mortal coil in 1947, so he certainly didn’t see Mr Foster or Mr
Spinks. Benny might not have seen much of Moore and almost certainly regarded
Tunney, Langford and Charles as heavyweights. Only in relatively recent times
has that stellar trio been grouped among the light-heavies.
Plenty of Benny’s contemporaries, however, rated Delaney above
the two old-time masters of Langford and George Dixon in the Canadian pantheon
of legends. Let me say here and now that I cannot do likewise. What I do find
strange is why Jack Delaney’s name so rarely crops up when old champions are
Jack didn’t lack fistic talent or charisma. He possessed both in
abundance. He was also a product of the Roaring Twenties, when boxers were
hugely significant sporting icons and frequently commanded the front pages of
I am loath to say that Jack is ‘forgotten’ or ‘unappreciated’,
since these have become very trendy terms that don’t always hold water. So
often, it transpires that fighters bearing such descriptions were really no
better or worse than their original classification by their peers. Cult figures
are frequently fashioned in this way, whereby their few successes are magnified
to the hilt and their shattering failures are quietly swept under the rug.
Wladimir Klitschko, some would have you believe, suffered a couple of
aberrations against Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster but is now well on the way
to becoming one of the greatest heavyweights. Ho-hum.
So what was the juice on Jack Delaney? Why was he so revered by
the fistic gurus of his age and how did he then manage to slip off the radar?
The significance of the much-maligned light-heavyweight
championship would appear to have much to do with it. It has never been a
glamorous weight class. The light-heavyweight fighter, historically, is
probably the ultimate misfit, as the very name of the category implies. He is
boxing’s great transient, a guy passing through and looking for richer pickings.
In days gone by, his only option was to move up to the heavyweights in order to
make hay. This nearly always proved too demanding a task for most natural
175-pounders. Even the creation of the modern cruiserweight division has failed
to change the belief of history-seeking light-heavies that a straight jump to
the ever-weightier dreadnoughts is worth the risk.
The stock of the light-heavyweight division in Jack Delaney’s
time was of a particularly low value. It was a place to hang out and make some
pocket money while you dreamed of some day hooking up with the million dollar
kid, Jack Dempsey.
When Delaney took the 175lb championship from Paul Berlenbach in
1926, it didn’t spark the beginning of what would probably have been an
impressive reign. Jack went hunting the big boys, just as Fitzsimmons and
O’Brien did before him, just as Tommy Loughran and many others would do
Sadly, Jack’s largely moderate success among the heavyweights
tended to soil his record and stick in the memory. Where a fighter last lay his
hat can often colour our perception of him. Fitzsimmons was arguably the most
devastating middleweight that ever lived, yet the majority of fans know him as
the man who won the richest prize in sport by lowering the boom on Jim Corbett.
In the last years of his great career, hampered by a hand injury
and drained of his desire to train thoroughly, Jack Delaney dropped decisions to
Jim Maloney, Johnny Risko and Tom Heeney, and got knocked out in a round apiece
by Jack Sharkey and Tony Tozzo. To the immediate fan, Delaney was the
good-looking fellow who couldn’t cut the mustard where it counted.
Now let us consider some of the men Jack Delaney defeated when he
was in his natural element. His hit list boasted the illustrious names of Paul
Berlenbach (thrice), Lou Bogash, Augie Ratner, Jamaica Kid (twice), Tommy
Loughran, Tiger Flowers (twice), Mike McTigue and Maxie Rosenbloom.
Benny Leonard said of Jack, “Delaney understood the art of
Nat Fleischer, the erstwhile dean of experts, lavished similar
praise on Delaney, calling him, “a boxer of extraordinary cleverness with a
Jack was all of that. A precise and almost classical boxer, he
made himself so defensively adept that his dark good looks were rarely ruffled
or tarnished. The more knowledgeable members of the boxing fraternity frequently
referred to him as the Bridgeport Adonis. Along with his more popular name of
Bright Eyes, a vision of a fleet-footed Fancy Dan might well come to mind to
those who never saw him. But there was nothing flashy or negative in the way
that Jack Delaney went about his business.
He was a very correct and methodical fighter, who was often
content for his opponent to make the first move before countering with
accurately placed punches that carried great authority. Jack could be a quick
and ruthless killer when the opportunity presented itself. The wise old heads
that constituted the average Madison Square Garden crowd in days of yore had
serious reservations about Delaney until he blasted out Tiger Flowers with a
single, thunderous right to the jaw.
Jack was of French Canadian ancestry and his birth name of Ovila
Chapdelaine immediately presented an awkward problem to the urgent and direct
world of boxing. Long names that might be difficult to pronounce just wouldn’t
do in Delaney’s era, so some inventive soul kept rolling ‘Chapdelaine’ around in
his head and decided that it didn’t sound a million miles away from ‘Jack
Jack made his professional debut as a middleweight in October
1919, just three months after the Dempsey era had begun in earnest at Toledo.
Delaney started out as a middleweight and quickly established himself as a smart
boxer and damaging puncher. However, the caution often evident in Jack’s work
led many fans to question his desire to mix it and his ability to take
punishment. Those doubts would persist until his dramatic annihilation of
Flowers six years later, by which time Jack had proved that there was little
lacking in his impressive armoury.
Like so many other prospects in an intensely competitive era,
Jack encountered a few bumps in the road on his way to the top. He dropped a
decision to Tommy Robson in 1921, bounced back to out-fight Lou Bogash over 15
rounds for the New England State title in 1922, but then lost his way
temporarily when he caught a couple of tartars in Augie Ratner and Young Fisher.
Ratner stopped Jack in the first round, while Fisher knocked him out in three.
Delaney learned from the mistakes of these defeats and was soon
rolling again. He avenged his loss to Ratner by posting a 12-rounds decision
over Augie in 1923, and then made a spectacular start to 1924. Now campaigning
among the light-heavyweights, Jack achieved a remarkable double inside a month
when he outsmarted the boxing master of the age, Tommy Loughran and followed up
with a stunning fourth round knockout of New York hit man, Paul Berlenbach. A
classy boxer and ferocious puncher, Berlenbach carried the intimidating nickname
of the Astoria Assassin and would leapfrog Delaney to the light-heavyweight
championship before meeting up with him again further down the road.
Jack was big news after those sparkling victories. Few men
out-hit the immensely dangerous Berlenbach or outboxed the brilliant Loughran.
Jack’s foxy wait-and-see tactics worked perfectly against the aggressive
Berlenbach, whose menacing advances were repeatedly thwarted by Delaney’s
But there was another smart cookie in the mixer, a gifted boxer
whom Delaney could never figure. That man was Jimmy Slattery from Buffalo, one
of the cleverest natural boxers ever to grace the game. If ever a man squandered
his potential, it was Jimmy. It was a measure of his talent that he would still
win the world championship in spite of his disdain for the discipline and
dedication that makes truly great fighters.
When he clashed with Delaney, Slattery was a wiry, nineteen-year
old prodigy who danced on his toes, rifled fast and unerringly accurate punches
from his sides through the tightest of defences and was virtually impossible to
trap. Sound like someone who came along much later?
Ted Carroll, for so long a marvellous writer and sketcher for The
Ring magazine, described the Delaney-Slattery fight thus: “In this meeting,
which was limited to six rounds because of Slattery’s age, the Buffalonian did
look the cleverest boxer of all time. The ‘sprinters’ distance was made to his
measure. Delaney was the most deliberate of fighters. He required time to adjust
his sights and zero in his finishing blows. Slattery never gave him a stationary
target, flitting about the ring high on his toes, like a ballet dancer, his arms
dangling at his sides.
“Delaney found his mastery thwarted by an elusiveness he had
never before encountered. Slattery’s speed of foot was the difference. His
punches darted from the sides of his body with bewildering swiftness,
penetrating Delaney’s scientific defence with enough regularity to gain him the
decision. Of course the short distance was all in his favour too, whether he
could have survived a longer route left the onlookers guessing but the victory
“This setback cost Delaney some prestige. When he returned to the
Garden again to face a third ring sensation, he was the underdog to Deacon Tiger
Flowers. If Slattery’s style proved unsolvable to Delaney, Flowers’ was an open
Tiger Flowers was proving a revelation and inducing even the most
experienced of boxing writers to reach for fresh superlatives. Strong and
aggressive, with a daunting and intimidating countenance, Flowers was on a big
winning streak and hadn’t been officially beaten in more than 40 fights when he
squared off with Delaney at the Garden on January 16, 1925. Just a month
earlier, Tiger had taken just three rounds to wreck former world middleweight
champion, Johnny Wilson, a tough and formidable scrapper in his own right. The
menacing Deacon had also seen off Billy Britton, Dan O’Dowd and Joe Lohman.
Writers Hype Igoe and George D Underwood described Flowers as ‘invincible’.
Then Jack Delaney bloomed and showed the doubting Garden fans
what he could do. Forty-three seconds into the second round, he knocked out
Flowers with one right hand blast to the jaw. Jack plotted the victory in his
usual, meticulous manner. He spent the first round getting the measure of
Flowers and assessing Tiger’s style and strength. This didn’t prove easy, as
Flowers alternately switched between orthodox and southpaw, but Jack soon began
to find the range with some stiff right uppercuts. Throughout his career, Jack
would execute the right uppercut quite beautifully and with very damaging
When Flowers upped the ante and attacked in the fateful second
round, he was playing straight into Delaney’s dangerous hands. Jack worked him
into a clinch and cleverly turned his head away from Tiger’s vicious uppercuts.
Delaney put a lock on Flowers’ arms and the referee broke them up.
Tiger shot a left to the face, but Jack kept his head low to
avoid the punch and then crossed a terrific right to the chin. Flowers went down
with a big thump and was in complete disarray as he rolled onto his back. The
effect of the blow made his body convulse, but he made a brave attempt to rise
before falling back to take the full count.
Tiger’s seconds helped him to his feet and he soon regained his
balance as Delaney gave him a consoling pat on the shoulder. Jack’s win
showcased his true talent as well as his hidden courage. He had been fighting
with a broken left rib sustained in an earlier fight.
The result was a big blow to promoter Tex Rickard, as Flowers was
his best draw at the time. But wise old Tex always had an alternative game plan
and promised that he would match Delaney in a return go with Paul Berlenbach.
That match-up gained additional glamour four months later, when Paul lifted the
world championship from Mike McTigue at Yankee Stadium.
Delaney weighed 163lbs for the Flowers fight, while Tiger tipped
the beam at 166. Flowers was a natural middleweight who would dethrone the great
Harry Greb just a year later, and Delaney was really not much more. Jack would
rarely get his weight above 180lbs for his later heavyweight adventures, which
goes a long way to explaining his failures in those far choppier waters.
Delaney lost a little of his momentum after his win over Tiger,
dropping successive decisions to Allentown Joe Gans and old nemesis Jimmy
Slattery. But then Jack embarked on the run that would take him to a shot at
Berlenbach’s championship by knocking out Flowers again at the Garden, this time
in the fourth round.
Delaney was favoured to take Berlenbach’s crown in December 1925
but missed his chance as the Astoria Assassin put on a show of great courage and
resilience to win the day. Decked in the fourth round and badly hurt in the
sixth and seventh sessions, Paul rallied superbly to pass the tiring Delaney for
a thrilling points win.
Jack, however, was now in the form of his life and reeled off
eleven successive wins over the next seven months, including a fourth round
knockout of Mike McTigue and a decision over Maxie Rosenbloom. Bright Eyes never
looked brighter by the time he faced Berlenbach for the third time at Ebbetts
Field in Brooklyn in July 1926.
A twenty-four hour postponement of the fight failed to dampen the
enthusiasm of a capacity crowd of 45,000 at the famous old home of the Brooklyn
Dodgers. But it did put Delaney at a greater weight disadvantage. At the time of
the weigh-in, Delaney scaled 166lbs to Berlenbach’s 174 1/4lbs. By fight time,
however, Paul was up to 181 to Jack’s 169.
This time, before an enraptured and excited crowd, it would be
Jack Delaney who would furnish the great comeback rally. Berlenbach was in
tremendous form, a proud champion determined to stay on his throne. He displayed
his great power of punch repeatedly through the first ten rounds of the battle,
and the hardy Delaney appeared to be tiring under the effects of the steady flow
Then Jack dug in and found a new lease of life, launching a
tremendous drive over the last five rounds that would have Paul fighting
desperately for survival. Such was the unlikely intensity and passion of
Delaney’s great charge that it would be described by reporters and fans as one
of the greatest comebacks in ring history.
Jack launched a sustained, two-fisted attack to win the day,
which seemed to take Berlenbach completely by surprise and knock the resistance
right out of him in those final, decisive frames.
While Delaney couldn’t floor Berlenbach as in their previous
fights, Jack did everything but. Most remarkable was that Jack’s left hand
should play such an instrumental role in inflicting the decisive damage. Only on
returning to his dressing room did he discover that he had suffered a small
fracture in his left thumb.
He employed the left hand with consistent accuracy and crunching
effect in his big surge. Right uppercuts and powerful left hooks to the jaw were
the weapons that began to unhinge Berlenbach and eat into his points lead, with
the champion looked increasingly fragile and uncertain from the eleventh round.
That round almost certainly marked the turning point of the
fight, as Delaney found the mark with a smashing right uppercut to the stomach
that seemed to suck the wind from Paul’s sails and drain him.
Jack sensed that he had turned the tide and began his powerful
run to home base, suddenly charged with new life and verve. He had dropped the
previous four rounds and seemed to be finding Berlenbach’s withering power too
hot to handle. With that pivotal eleventh round, however, the Brooklyn crowd
knew that an already engrossing fight had taken a new twist.
Berlenbach very nearly went under in the fourteenth round when
Delaney caught him with a big right to the jaw that dipped his knees. With the
big crowd cheering Jack on, Paul made a grab for the ropes and then fell into
the temporary shelter of a clinch.
Berlenbach was a mightily brave and gutsy champion. He took a
tremendous pounding in those final rounds but weathered the storm with great
courage and spirit. Paul never gave up and Delaney still needed to employ his
evasive skills as the champion mounted defiant charges. Blood flowed from a cut
to Berlenbach’s left eye through the last four rounds, which seemed to impair
The fifteenth and final round proved another torrid session for
Paul and he needed all his heart and guile to survive it. Jack drilled a left to
the head and a terrific right to the body that staggered Berlenbach. Then
another short right, travelling just inches, found Paul’s chin and came close to
sending him down.
Still the champion fought back gallantly, and the two men were
hitting each other hard at the bell. Commissioner James A Farley announced that
the decision was unanimous for the new champion, Jack Delaney, and the crowd
gave Jack a tremendous ovation.
Jack Delaney made just one defence of his light-heavyweight
championship before his harsh graduation to the heavyweight division. With one
of his superbly executed right uppercuts, he knocked out Jamaica Kid in three
The talk had already begun in certain quarters that Jack might be
matched with Harry Wills. Writer Grantland Rice argued that such a move would
yield a very bad result for Delaney.
Mr Rice summed up the odds against Jack when he wrote: “If Jack
Delaney had Paul Berlenbach’s stamina, rugged strength and his top weight, he
would be the next heavyweight champion.
“Here is Jack Delaney with almost everything – a great boxer, a
hard hitter, fast, cool and cunning in his generalship. But for the most
important fight of his career, in perfect condition, he weighed in at 166lbs.
“They will tell you that Bob Fitzsimmons weighed even less. But
Bob Fitzsimmons was a physical freak. Weighing only 160 or slightly more, he had
much larger arms and a bigger chest than Jack Delaney at 166. And Dempsey,
weighing 188, had forearms and upper arms as fully large as Harry Wills,
“Delaney has everything but weight and ruggedness. Gene Tunney
put on 20 pounds after he had passed his twenty-fifth year by living and
training in the open.
“Delaney, at twenty-six, might add at least ten pounds in a year,
but with all his speed and skill, his beauty and grace of action, he isn’t going
to win any heavyweight championship at 170lbs.”
Grantland Rice was right. Jack Delaney didn’t even come close
when he started swinging with the big boys. But Jack was undoubtedly a great
light-heavyweight. Everybody said it back in the days before his name
mysteriously faded from consideration.
Writing in 1959, The Ring’s Ted Carroll concluded his thoughts on
Delaney as follows: “Rated strictly as a light-heavyweight, Jack Delaney’s
credentials as the best 175-pounder of them all are very strong. As a skilful
boxer, he yielded nothing to such artists as Loughran, Conn, McTigue or anyone
else you care to name.
“For sharp-shooting power punching, he has had no equal in his
class. He was for a time regarded as the outstanding fighter in the ring.
Retiring in 1932, his last years were unfortunate. Plagued by illness, he passed
away at the early age of forty-nine in 1948.
“In any estimate of light-heavyweight champions, it is difficult
to rank any of them on a par with Jack Delaney at his best.”
This writer cannot be so generous, placing Delaney 15th
among the elite 175-pounders. Jack might have been just a little too methodical
and programmed for the smarts of Tommy Gibbons and Billy Conn or for the
lightning attacks of the hard punching Georges Carpentier. The slippery
funkiness of Michael Spinks might also have puzzled Jack to a points defeat.
But surmise and conjecture merely lead us down the same old
infuriatingly inconclusive path. Jack Delaney in his peak form was an
exceptionally outstanding fighter and never a wise man to bet against!
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