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"Philadelphia" Jack O'Brien:
Jack Be Nimble, Jack Be Quick

by Tracy Callis

Jack O'Brien was a highly intelligent fighter who was blessed with fast hands, fast feet, limber arms and shoulders, and wonderful agility. He was not a particularly hard hitter with a single blow but his frequent barrage of punches took their toll on an adversary. Indeed, "Philadelphia" Jack was a skilled and polished technician.

His ability to read his opponent and anticipate his moves was exceptional. As a result, his defensive skills and countering were among the very best ever. Roberts and Skutt (1999 p 150) said, "His strong left jab and solid right were complemented by his skill at blocking punches and countering attacks."

Andre and Fleischer (1991 p 81) called Jack "one of the fastest and most scientific fighters of his day." Pardy (1935 p 28) wrote that O'Brien "was equaled by few and excelled by none" and further said he was "as lithe as a leopard and able to travel half a dozen rounds with the mitts at a pace guaranteed to bewilder."

During his career that lasted sixteen years, O'Brien engaged in more than 175 bouts and suffered only six official losses. Among those he defeated during his career were Bob Fitzsimmons, Joe Choynski, Tommy Burns, Joe Butler, Hugo Kelly, Young Peter Jackson (2 times), Al Kaufmann, Jim Jeffords, Jack "Twin" Sullivan (2 times), Kid Carter, Tom Tracy, Mike Schreck (3 times), Al Neil, Al Weinig (2 times), Billy Stift (2 times), Jack Beauscholte, Charles McKeever (2 times), Ed Denfass, Andy Walsh, Jack Scales (3 times), George Chrisp, Billy Payne (2 times), Martin Judge, Jimmy Handler, Tom McCune, Shorty Ahearn, George Cole (3 times), Hugh McWinters, and Isadore Strauss (2 times).

In addition, he fought many "No Decision" bouts and was the better man against such opponents as Bob Fitzsimmons, Joe Choynski, Tommy Ryan, Joe Walcott, Joe Butler, Peter Maher (2 times), "Fireman" Jim Flynn, Hugo Kelly, Young Peter Jackson, Jack "Twin" Sullivan, Jim Jeffords (4 times), Jack Blackburn, Jack Bonner (5 times), Tommy West, Dixie Kid, Kid Carter, Charles McKeever (3 times), Andy Walsh, Billy Payne (4 times), Jimmy Handler, George Cole (4 times), Black Bill, and Larry Temple (2 times).

Five times during his career, O'Brien fought two men on the same evening.. On another occasion, he boxed six different men one round each on the same night.

He fought in America and he fought abroad. Fleischer (Jan 1937 p 17) wrote that Jack "visited England in 1903. He called himself at the time the American middleweight champion and he trimmed several Britishers quite easily. The Britons thought O'Brien was the real article because of his cleverness, and they took a liking to him, the Britishers naturally favoring science over brute force."

He fought in large rings and small, under good conditions and bad. Of course, with his speed, he was better off in a big area with firm footing. For his fight against scrappy "Fireman" Jim Flynn, Smith (Mar 1936 p 25) reported, "that ring wasn't a bit over twelve feet square inside the ropes" and had "ankle-deep padding." Nevertheless, Jack was better than the "Fireman" in this fight.

"O'Brien met the very best, from lightweights to heavyweights, between 1896 and 1912, kayoed [Bob] Fitzsimmons for the light-heavyweight title and performed the feat of no-decisioning Jack Johnson in six rounds" (see McCallum 1975 p 82).

Stillman (1920 p 71) described Jack, "very scientific and good ring general." He also said O'Brien was "A good straight hitter and if he had been a heavier man, would have been well toward the heavyweight championship."

Jack's knockout win over Bob Fitzsimmons in 1905 earned for him the Light Heavyweight Championship. However, he never defended it. The newly formed weight class was not a particularly popular one at this time and most true light-heavies boxed as heavyweights. So did Jack. Apparently, the title was just an incidental trophy he picked up during his outstanding career.

O'Brien had a taste for the rough and rowdy. He took care of himself well and "mixed it up" splendidly in the ring. But, he appreciated the finer things in life too. He dressed well, played the violin, frequented the symphony and opera, and associated with the social elite of Philadelphia.

His private life was exemplary too. Anthony J. Drexel Biddle and other men of high distinction considered him to be their friend. Stillman (1920 p 71) wrote that he "had as his friends some of the socially prominent men in Philadelphia, who considered him a fine character and a man of very good influence in the community."

Jack idolized Jim Corbett and according to McCallum (1975 p 87), he "patterned his style after Gentleman Jim's - jab, run, parry." Pardy (1935 p 29) confirmed that Jack adopted methods used by Jim Corbett and Kid McCoy and was "one of the craftiest ring generals and masters of science that ever donned a glove." Haldane (1967 p 120) observed, "O'Brien was regarded as a great ring scientist, even in days when standards were much higher than they are today."

"His footwork and the elusive fashion in which he used his head when slipping punches" reminded boxing fans of Jim Corbett. Others saw a version of Kid McCoy in "his ability to tease, bewilder and lure an opponent into leaving an opening for a knockout shot" (see Pardy, 1935 p 29). Hmmm, "Philadelphia" Jack sounds much like Muhammad Ali of more recent years.

Boxing historian, Chuck Hasson, of IBRO (International Boxing Research Organization) said this about O’Brien (2002, private correspondence), "Philadelphia Jack was a very complicated character. He was very fast and skillful and took on all comers. He probably took on more black boxers than anyone (white) from his era. Yet he was an enigma who said outrageous things to anger reporters and boxing people.

At an appearance in San Francisco after winning the Light Heavyweight title from Fitz he stated that he would draw the 'color line' to a thunderous ovation of the people attending the affair - because he knew that this is what they wanted to hear. Yet he continued to fight black opponents.

It is well known that O'Brien was involved in some ‘questionable’ bouts (i.e. Kid McCoy, Fitz (first fight) and some others). And when he was pressed for his explanation of the charges he fed more fuel to the fire by stating that 'ALL' of his matches in his career had been fixes. For whatever reason he made that statement, many of the reporters of the day and even later boxing historians 'believed' such an outrageous claim.

There is no doubt in my mind that O'Brien said this just to enrage, even more, the critics who just did not understand the way things were sometimes done and the reasons for it. Of course O'Brien did not arrange the results of 'all' his bouts but he did bring a number of them under much question.

My opinion of O'Brien is that he should be remembered as the closest thing to Jim Corbett during the period and that he took on all comers (black or white)."

Bromberg (1962 p 56) wrote, "Fancy pants, powderpuff puncher, backpeddlar, and an old man with it all. That's how the vest-wearing, cigar-smoking smart guys of Manhattan had derided Philadelphia Jack O'Brien."

Some observers contended Jack lacked knockout punching power but those who knew him were well aware that, in his prime, O'Brien "could drop an antagonist for the full count with a deadly precision" (see Pardy, 1935 p 29). This was demonstrated against Bob Fitzsimmons, Al Kaufmann, Joe Butler, Jim Jeffords, Jack "Twin" Sullivan, Yank Kenny, Al Neil and others.

O'Brien cleverly outfoxed the tough and dangerous Al Neil in their first fight at San Francisco in January of 1900 but a little "home cooking" surfaced and the bout was called a draw. In their second meeting in June of 1902 at Chicago, Jack took no chances and let fly with his dynamite and finished Neil in round three. Harry Gilmore, former Lightweight Champion of America, called the O'Brien-Neil fight the "sweetest fistic morsel he ever digested" and raved about O'Brien's punching power.

In spite of his astonishing record and victories over such men as Bob Fitzsimmons, Tommy Burns, Joe Choynski, Al Kaufmann, Joe Butler, and Hugo Kelly, O'Brien is surprisingly best known for his fight of March 26, 1909 at New York against Stanley Ketchel. Stanley landed a desperate right to the jaw o= the Philadelphia fighter and the fight ended with O'Brien flat on his back but saved by the bell.

What is not widely known is that shortly before the fight, Jack was two pounds over the agreed weight limit and Willus Britt, Ketchel's manager, insisted that there would be no fight if O'Brien did not lose the extra weight. So, Jack immediately worked out vigorously, lost the two pounds, and boxed the contest.

"That the quick-reducing stunt weakened O'Brien to some degree goes without saying. But, confident in his speed, endurance and ring craft, he figured he could stem Ketchell's rushes off for the scheduled ten rounds" (see Pardy 1935 p 45).

For most of the fight, O'Brien made Ketchel look foolish with his golden boxing skill. Ketchel was furious in his attack but Jack was magnificent in his defense. Jack's straight left played havoc with Stanley's face as he rushed in. Andre and Fleischer (1991 p 219) asserted that "O'Brien's defensive skill and ring craft warded off many of the boring-in attacks by Ketchel."

Round after round, Stanley rushed, O'Brien countered with the stabbing left, and then slipped away. Then, with only seconds remaining in the bout, Ketchel caught the slowing O'Brien with the deadly shot that dropped him. In spite of this, Fleischer (1940 p 70) reported that "the consensus of morning and evening newspapers showed that the reporters present had declared O'Brien the winner by a shade."

Mike Delisa, IBRO member and outstanding boxing historian and researcher for The Cyberboxingzone, commented about O’Brien (2002, private correspondence), "O'Brien brought a high degree of intelligence to his craft. Above all else, he was a thinker in the ring. His later work -- a book on technique and his training of amateur fighters, indicates that he continued to think about the science of the sport long after he retired."

Dan Cuoco, Historian and Director of IBRO, had the following comments about O’Brien (2002, private correspondence), "Philadelphia Jack O'Brien was an exceptional fighter. In 182 professional fights he only lost seven times. A natural middleweight, O'Brien took on the best middleweights, light-heavyweights and heavyweights of his era. He was a master boxer-puncher with a better than average punch. He had a slashing jab that was hard and accurate. He usually followed his hard jabs with blinding right hands to either an opponent's chin or neck. He cut many an opponent to ribbons with just his jab. He was very adept at eluding blows by bobbing, weaving and slipping punches. He was a deft counter-puncher who made his opponents pay with his swift combinations after slipping their punches. He was fast on his feet and always positioned himself away from his opponent's best punch. He was also an underrated body puncher." Dan rated O’Brien as the #5 All-Time Light-Heavyweight.

Another member of IBRO, the excellent historian, Laurence Fielding, also spoke highly of O’Brien and rated him as the #2 All-Time Light-Heavyweight (1994, private correspondence).

Billy McCarney, veteran of forty years in boxing and manager of Luther McCarty, ranked Jack as the #1 All-Time Middleweight and called him "the most masterful boxer I have ever seen in the ring." He added, "The ring work of O'Brien will always live in my mind" (The Ring, 1926 p 4).

In their All-Time Light-Heavyweight rankings, Nat Loubet ranked O'Brien as #1, Nat Fleischer ranked him as #2, and Charley Rose ranked him as #3. In a poll of old-timers conducted by John McCallum (1974 p 322), O'Brien ranked as the #4 All-Time Light-Heavyweight. In the opinion of this writer, O'Brien was the #3 All-Time Middleweight, the #5 All-Time Light-Heavyweight, and the #9 All-Time "Pound-for-Pound" fighter in ring history.

Jack was elected to the Ring Boxing Hall of Fame in 1968 and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1994.


Andre, S. and Fleischer, N. 1991. A Pictorial History of Boxing. Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publishing Group

Bromberg, L. 1962. Boxing's Unforgettable Fights. New York: The Ronald Press Company

Cuoco, D. 2002. Private correspondence.

Delisa, M. 2002. Private correspondence.

Fleischer, N. Jan 1937. "American Fighters Abroad" (contained in The Ring magazine, Jan 1937 pp 16 17). New York: The Ring Publishing Corp.

Fielding, L. 1994. Private correspondence.

Fleischer, N. 1940. 50 Years At Ringside. New York: Greenwood Press, Publishers

Haldane, R. 1967. Champions And Challengers. London: Stanley Paul & Company, Ltd.

Hasson, C. 2002. Private correspondence.

McCallum, J. 1974. The World Heavyweight Boxing Championship. Radnor, Pa: Chilton Book Company

McCallum, J. 1975. The Encyclopedia of World Boxing Champions. Radnor, Pa: Chilton Book Company

McCarney, B. Mar 1926. "Billy McCarney Names Greatest Fighters of All Time; McCarty Best Heavyweight" (contained in The Ring magazine, Mar 1926 pp 4 5 15). New York: The Ring Publishing Corporation

Pardy, G. Oct 1935. "Philadelphia Jack O'Brien" (contained in The Ring magazine, Oct 1935 pp 28-31, 44-45). New York: The Ring Publishing Corp.

Roberts, J. and Skutt, A. 1999. The Boxing Register. Ithaca, NY: McBooks Press

Smith, E. Mar 1936. "Stories of Ring Celebrities" (contained in The Ring magazine, Mar 1936 pp 24 25 45). New York: The Ring Publishing Corp.

Stillman, M. 1920. Great Fighters and Boxers. New York: Marshall Stillman Association

Philadelphia Jack O'Brien
The Lineal Lightheavyweight Championship

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Rocky Marciano
Jack McCauliffe
Kid McCoy
Terry McGovern
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John L. Sullivan
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