Forgotten Champions: Johnny Coulon
By Marty Mulcahey from Max Boxing
To say Johnny Coulon was full of tricks, both in and out of the ring, would be a grievous understatement. The cunning Canadian had to use every resource at his disposal. After all, the pint-sized Coulon won the world bantamweight title despite never reaching the 118 pound weight limit. Yet, he managed to retain the world title for nearly half a decade, and remained a force in boxing more than fifty years after his title reign. Coulon lived for boxing without being consumed by it, from his pro debut at age 15 until his death seventy years later. While researching Coulon, one word sprang to mind over and over again...vibrant.
The diminutive Coulon ranks among the giants in the minds of some of boxing’s most respected chroniclers. Legendary Ring magazine founder Nat Fleischer, a foremost historian who saw every champion of worth from 1905 to 1972, rated Coulon as his sixth best bantamweight ever. Charley Rose, another well respected historian, ranked him at number seven all-time. Historians of more recent vintage concur, such as Herb Goldman, who put Coulon as his eighth all-time bantamweight, while Tracy Callis ranks Coulon at number 10. The International Boxing Research Organization has Coulon evaluated as their 12th greatest bantamweight ever. A sizable feat for a fighter who retired nearly ninety years ago.
Johnny Coulon was born in Canada, of two American parents, Emile and Sarah Coulon, on February 12th,1889 in Toronto. Even by early 20th century standards little Johnny was small, never scaling more than 118 pounds his entire life, and he stopped growing at the five foot mark. Despite his short stature, Coulon was a natural athlete, and he grew up in a boxing family. His father was known as Pop Coulon and he managed boxers. He started to teach Johnny how to box at age eight. He did not begin to train in earnest until age fourteen, when his cousins (one was George “Elbows” McFadden, who lost a title fight against the great Joe Gans) turned pro and began to teach him more than the basics. A year later Coulon was swapping punches for pay in the tough Chicago circuit.
Despite being born in Canada, Johnny grew up as a quintessential Chicagoan, adopting the city which nurtured him into a world champion. His parents moved to Chicago a couple of years after Johnny was born, and he grew up in the Logan Square area of the Windy City. Coulon's pro debut was unplanned, as he was plucked from the crowd by the promoter, who asked his father if Johnny could step in for a boxer who had not shown up. Reluctantly, Coulon stepped into the White City Arena ring, but six rounds later he had his first professional kayo at age 15. That was in January of 1905, and two years later, after 24 wins without a loss, Coulon was fighting for the American portion of the bantamweight title.
It was a meteoric rise for Coulon, and he had gained a reputation as a crowd pleasing battler, knocking out 14 of his 25 opponents. While his official record displays 95 professional bouts, Coulon estimated that he took part in over 200 contests, from which he gained a wealth of experience, and about as many tricks as Harry Houdini. He credited some wins to great conditioning, “Statistics show boxers live longer than any other athletes. The worst thing I ever did to my health was smoke some corn silk as a boy.” The longer boxers allowed Coulon to find the holes in their game, the easier it was for him to employ his skills to pick them apart as the rounds wore on. Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Goldman remembers fighting Coulon. “I was in a trance. He kept hitting me on top of the head and I couldn't put my derby on for a week, until my lumps went down.”
Two years into his pro career, Coulon was still undefeated. There were a couple no decisions mixed in, and he picked up the nickname of 'The Chicago Spider” for an ability to seemingly hit opponents with eight arms instead of two. Coulon and his father, who managed him, then took a risk and traveled to Milwaukee. There they engaged fellow undefeated prospect Young Fitzgerald, and Coulon was able to outwit Fitzgerald over ten rounds (in Fitzgerald's hometown). The win advanced Coulon into a fight against Kid Murphy, for the vacant American bantamweight title. Murphy was three years older than Coulon, and he used that physicality to push and maul his way to a ten round decision over the still maturing Coulon. Unable to make space for precise punches, Coulon worked the body on the inside but was not able to separate himself from Murphy or on the scorecards.
The Murphy loss was the first setback of Coulon's career, but one which he would have the opportunity to avenge three times over. The duo met again a year later, after Coulon had beaten Young Fitzgerald twice more, in Peoria Illinois. They met twice in a three week span, January 8th to the 29th, with Coulon winning both bouts by ten round decisions.
This time he was able to fend off Murphy on the inside, thrusting his shoulder into Murphy's jaw to gain enough separation to launch a quick flurry. Coulon had faster hands, and when given space it showed. With the first win over Murphy, Coulon gained recognition as American bantamweight champion. He was reportedly the youngest man to ever win an American title, still eleven months shy of his nineteenth birthday. The rubber match with Murphy was equally one sided, and became Coulon's first defense of the title.
The bantamweight title of the 1910's era was fragmented, with America and Europe both sporting claimants to the title. Wins over Kid Murphy and Young Fitzgerald had propelled Coulon to the forefront in America, and a third win over Murphy in 1909 (this time by fifth round kayo) cemented his claim to champion status. From 1908, after his win over Kid Murphy, to 1914, Coulon was recognized as the best fighter below 118 pounds. In 1910, most bestowed recognition upon Coulon as the world bantamweight champion when he outpointed England's Jim Kendrick. In that fight, Coulon knocked Kendrick down in the 4th and 8th round, and never lost control of the ten round bout. A month later, Coulon knocked Kendrick out in the 19th round, to remove any lingering doubt to his dominance.
In that era it was tough to unseat a champion, and in many of the bouts the title would only change hands if the champion lost via stoppage. This was because no decisions were often rendered on the evening of the fight, and the following days newspapers would render a decision that was accepted by most bettors. Coulon benefited in one such bout, in October 1912, where the N.Y Times reported that Kid Williams was “Too clever for Coulon, Bantamweight champion is defeated by slight margin.” Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune favored Coulon, who saw him do more work in the last two rounds to edge out a decision. A majority of the papers had Coulon winning the fight, but it does show why most titles were only ceded by the certainty of a kayo. During his reign, Coulon was estimated to have lost only three times, by newspaper accounts, between early 1907 and mid 1914, the period that encapsulated his title reign as American and World Bantamweight champion.
Standing out in that title reign were two twenty round defenses that came only fifteen days apart. In those fights, Coulon defeated Frankie Conley and Frankie Burns, traveling from New Orleans to California to do so. First Coulon won a twenty round decision over Conley in Vernon, California, who looked to stand a full head taller than Coulon in pictures. The NY Times ran the headline, “Conley gets a severe beating,” which seems about right if the five blows to one ratio was accurate, and a picture of Conley after the fight showing both eyes nearly swollen shut suggest it is true.
Two weeks later Coulon arrived in New Orleans and similarly dispatched of Frankie Burns, weighing five pounds more, who could not match his pace in the latter half of the fight. As the rounds wore on, the bigger Burns slowed, and Coulon began to time and counterpunch an oft off balance foe.
The title was taken from Coulon by the previously mentioned “Kid” Williams, who stopped Coulon in the third round. The champ was never in the fight, and he did not connect with a combination in the three rounds. The Vernon newspaper reported, “Johnny Coulon, bantamweight champion of the world, lost his title tonight to "Kid" Williams of Baltimore who knocked him out with a stiff right-hand punch to the chin in the third round of their twenty-round contest. The fighting was all William's own from the start.” The fight could have ended in the second round, but Coulon was saved by the bell. The fight was shockingly one-sided, and Coulon accepted that his skills had left him, so he retired from the ring. Of course, most boxing retirements are short lived, and so was Coulon's.
After a two year absence, Coulon returned, and lost three of his first four fights against solid fighters. Always smart, Coulon downgraded the level of opposition and picked up some wins before running into future champion Pete Herman. Again, Coulon was stopped in the third round; this time his father threw in the towel. A New Orleans paper reported, “Coulon had regained his feet, but seemingly was unable to continue the fight. He was assisted to his corner, and his manager asserted that he had suffered a fractured kneecap in the fall. Later he was carried from the ring." Again Coulon took a couple years off, but returned in 1920 by the lure of good money fights in Paris. European champion Charles Ledoux knocked him out in the sixth round, as “The spectators howled with glee. Coulon, a shadow of his former self, was completely outclassed by the Frenchman. ”
This time Coulon was done for good. After an easy kayo win to end his fighting days on a high note, he remained loyal to boxing. For a time, Coulon became more known for his vaudeville act then his boxing. The 100 pound Coulon was able to stop any man from lifting him off his feet, by simply applying his finger to a nerve behind the ear that runs along the neck. Paris doctors were mystified by the trick, and the King and Queen of Belgium were among those unable to budge Coulon. No shame in that since world heavyweight champions Jack Dempsey, Primo Carnera, Sonny Liston, Max Baer, Gene Tunney, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, and innumerable other boxers were similarly frustrated by their inability to lift the aging man. Coulon was smart outside the ring, and had invested his money (reportedly seventy-five thousand dollars) from boxing well.
Growing tired of touring with vaudeville acts, he opened a gym in 1923 at 63rd street on Chicago's famed South Side. It quickly became the best in Chicago, and every heavyweight champion from Jack Dempsey on trained there when in Chicago. For the next 50 years, Coulon could be found there every day, where he trained, mentored, and even managed Eddie Perkins to a world title. With that, Coulon became the first former champion to manage another man to the world title, and he became friends with many of the greatest boxers. Coulon was a pallbearer for heavyweight legend Jack Johnson, and often retold stories of his times with champions like Ali, Dempsey, Liston, Ray Robinson, or even Ernest Hemingway to reporters who visited the gym.
Coulon was distinguished in many ways. During World War I he served in the U.S Army, and traveled to Europe where he trained servicemen in self defense and boxing. He even taught boxing to German POW's. They heard of his presence, and asked if Coulon could spare some of his time when not training English, French, and American men.
Most of all he cared for kids, and he appeared in Chicago courts to speak out for or take custody of children through programs at his gym. His gym hosted Catholic Youth Organization and Police Athletic League boxing events. He married Marie in 1921, and the pair operated the gym, side by side, where Johnny reportedly bounced over the top rope well into his sixties. The long, happy, and vibrant life of Johnny Coulon came to an end on October 29th, 1973, when he died at a nursing home at age 84.
Recognition of Coulon's achievements was given by Canada in 1955 when he was inducted into their Sports Hall of Fame, and in 1999 the International Boxing Hall of Fame followed suit. Buried in St. Mary's Cemetery, the champ was finally lifted off his feet, by a phalanx of champions, to rest in eternal peace.