WAIL! The CyberBoxingZone Journal
September 2000 issue

A Boxing Pioneer Lost in History

By Enrique Encinosa

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 1910.

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 own country.

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 bare-knuckle contest.

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 also referee.

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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