Few men in history have laid claim to being pioneers that launched boxing
in a nation. There was James Figg in England, proprietor of the first boxing
academy making prizefighting the rage of the Fancy in the British Isles. There
was old timer Bobby Dobbs, instrumental in popularizing boxing in Germany in
And there was John Budinich.
Even boxing historians shrug at the mention of the name. John Budinich is a
forgotten name in ring annals, yet he was a trailblazer whose sketchy life
deserves to be told.
Budinich was born in Chile, sometime in mid 1880’s. He left South America
while a teen, working on merchant boats until he reached New York. The Chilean
had a basic knowledge of English that improved with practice. Budinich worked
as a waiter in New York and Philadelphia while learning the fight game. The
Chilean claimed to have fought several no-decision under-card bouts in both
cities, even working as a sparing partner for Philadelphia Jack O’Brien.
In 1910, John Budinich went south to Havana. He was a compact middleweight
with a likeable personality and a modest amount of cash, enough to rent a
building, equip a gym and advertise a boxing academy.
Boxing in Cuba was non-existent. In 1898 a Cuban lightweight named Emilio
Sanchez boxed several professional bouts in New York but never fought in his
Although boxing was not yet practiced, it was well covered by Havana
newspapers and tabloids of the time. The list of journalists that had covered
fights even included Jose Marti, the great Nineteenth Century writer and Cuban
nationalist, who was a ringside correspondent at the Sullivan-Ryan
Budinich must have been an intelligent businessman. In a land without
trainers or organized boxing, he provided a desired need. Whether his claims
of ring experience were true or not, Budinich did possess enough pro skills
and ring knowledge to be an adequate instructor. Within weeks his boxing
school was packed with eager young men willing to pay gym fees and private
lessons. The group of hopefuls included longshoremen, construction workers,
blacksmiths and a group of well-bred university students, the young sportsmen
of Havana’s society set.
The Chilean evidently possessed some social skills, for within weeks of his
arrival he was appointed boxing instructor at the "Vedado Tennis
Club," teaching the aristocracy how to jab. With a prosperous gym and a
salary at the country club, the enterprising prelim fighter was ready for the
next step in his career as a boxing impresario.
In order for boxing to progress, there had to be fights and paying
audiences. Budinich became a promoter, running amateur shows in dance halls or
private homes with large courtyards. His simon-pure shows were intended to
build up a skill level that would help launch pro careers. Often, he would
In 1912, after promoting several amateur cards to small audiences, Budinich
announced his first pro boxing show at the Payret Theater in downtown Havana.
Since he was the only experienced pro in Cuba, Budinich announced that he
would not only promote, but also fight in the main event bout.
The Chilean was a good boxing teacher and a clever entrepreneur, but not a
good matchmaker. Perhaps the ease with which he handled his inexperienced
students in the gym made him over-confident of his own ability. Instead of
picking a soft opponent, Budinich brought Jack Ryan to Havana. Ryan was a
seasoned welterweight who had traded leather with top fighters, including the
magnificent Joe Gans. It took Ryan two rounds to knock out Budinich.
The Chilean did not despair. In 1915 he once again headlined his own main
event. Once again, his matchmaking was dismal. The opponent was a tough black
heavyweight named John Lester Johnson, a body puncher with solid skills,
destined to break Jack Dempsey’s ribs in a future bout. Johnson stopped
Budinich in four with a wicked body shot.
Budinich decided to stick to training and promoting. He continued to
promote, even touring several cities in Cuba with a crew of young fighters.
One of his prospects was a heavyweight named Anastasio Penalver, proclaimed as
the new "Heavyweight Champion of Cuba," based on a few victories
over other raw novices. John Lester Johnson returned to Havana in 1915 and was
matched to fight Penalver in a main event bout.
The Johnson-Penalver fight was stopped in the second round, towel thrown in
by corner as Johnson pummeled the Cuban. Penalver was not gracious in defeat,
causing an incident after the end of the fight card. The Cuban threatened
Johnson, using a stone as weapon.
In five years Budinich had successfully introduced a sport in a nation.
Although none of his students attained international acclaim or contender
status, Budinich did train a crop of good local heroes, several becoming
trainers after hanging up the gloves. Victor Achan a fair bantamweight, Mike
Febles who also practiced jiu-jitsu, and lightweight slugger Tomas Galiana
were Budinich alumni who went on to become well-known trainers in Cuba.
By 1915, although other gyms had opened and an American named Brandt was
new competition in the promotional level, the Chilean was doing well. Budinich
was not wealthy but his income was enough to live in modest comfort. There was
the gym and the local pros he managed, plus his country club salary and a
small profit from promoting boxing shows at small venues.
The Chilean had a sense of adventure and the great epic of the time was
taking place in Europe, where men were fighting in bloody trenches and tiny
planes engaged in aerial combat over a war torn land. So John Budinich, then
in his early thirties, sold his gym, quit his training job and announced he
was off to France, to wear the Kepi Blanc of the French Foreign Legion
The country club promised him a job upon his return and Budinich gracefully
stated that as soon as the war against the Boche concluded, he would return to
continue training and promoting.
John Budinich never returned to Cuba. The last news received in Havana was
a letter in 1918, in the last months of the war, when the Chilean promised
once more to return to training and promotions. After the letter, nothing more
was heard from John Budinich. Most likely he died in some forgotten barricade,
like Allan Seeger. Had he survived the war it is likely he would have returned
to Havana, where he was a local celebrity. The boxing pioneer disappeared in
history but it is likely that his bones now rest in some war memorial
graveyard in France.
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