DON’T CALL ME BABY FACE
Fighters are made, not born. And Pop Foster, who knew as much about them as any man alive, made Jimmy McLarnin. He started by ordering
a wiry kid of 12 to paint chairs with his left hand, and wound up with a champion of the world
WHEN I was 11 years old my father, Sam McLarnin, gave me two pairs of boxing gloves. I tied the laces together, slung the gloves across the back of my neck and started down the street. Our street was Union Street, not far from the docks in Vancouver. Some people would call it a poor street and some people would call it a tough street, but to me it was a good street because there was always something doing.
It was my idea to keep going down the street, a block at a time, putting on the gloves with a new kid at every corner. I licked the kid at the first corner and started for the second corner wondering if I wasn’t being too conservative. Maybe after I was finished on my street I could branch out to the other streets. Maybe in time I could work my way down to the docks and get one of the ship’s captains to put on the gloves with me. And then I could order the ship’s captain to take me to Seattle or San Francisco and I could tie my gloves around my neck again and go looking for Jess Willard.
At the second corner I met a kid named Wellington Wallace, whose brother Gordon later got to be * a good welterweight. Wellington was a little bigger than I was, but he was the only kid in sight.
He beat my ears off. I took my gloves back and mumbled, “Great stuff, boxing.”
“Yeah,” Wellington said.
“We’ll have to have another,” I said:
“Sure. How about tomorrow?”
I took my gloves home and hung them up for a year. Even though I didn’t know it at the time, I was beginning to learn the first lesson of boxing, the one without which none of the others can mean a thing. A boxer must be made. He cannot be born. Even if he is born as strong as an elephant, as brave as a lion and as swift as a gazelle—and I wasn’t—someone has to teach him to be a boxer. The learning has to come slow and hard and it’s never finished.
I can’t deny that I started out with, or soon acquired, things that are useful to a fighter, things that a lot of kids don’t have to start. My father, who is still alive and vigorous at 90, gave me the constitution of a ring-post. My mother, who died of cancer nine years ago, gave me a Methodist upbringing and I never had to be told that wine, women and song could ruin a boxer because I’d already been told and believed that wine, women and song could ruin anybody.
There were 12 kids in our family. We were always far from rich and seldom very far from poor.
An older brother of mine died in infancy and, as the oldest boy in the family, I sold papers from the time I was old enough to stake out a stand on the Vancouver docks and stubborn enough to hold it. I grew up believing that life was good, but that you had to work for what you got.
I was born on Lostbum Road, in Belfast, on December 19, 1907. As a young man my father had ranched in Alberta and then gone back to Ireland, married and opened a butcher shop.
When I was three he brought the family back to Canada and started farming near Mortlach, Sask., a village about 25 miles west of Moose Jaw. When I was 9 we moved to Vancouver where my father opened a secondhand furniture shop.
It was about three years after this, and a year after Wellington Wallace had helped convince me that boxing could wait, that I met Pop Foster.
At that time, exactly 30 years ago, all I knew about Charles Foster was that he was a Liverpool Irishman getting on for middle age, that he had trouble walking, and that he worked on the docks one or two days a week as a stevedore. I didn’t know he had fought in the Boer War with the Scots Guards and in World War I with the Canadian Overseas Railway Construction Corps, or that he had been blown up at Poperinghe in Belgium and almost lost' both legs.
I’d heard he was interested in fights and fighters, but not that he knew as much about them as any man alive. Pop had been a fighter himself and a good one. He’d been a teacher of fighters and a great one. His own time in the ring went back to bare-knuckle days. Pop was fighting the day John L. Sullivan fought Jake Kilrain and he was fighting the day Bob Fitzsimmons knocked out Jim Corbett. Pop’s uncle, Tom Foster, was lightweight champion of Great Britain when Jem Mace was heavyweight champion. Pop’s father ran a touring boxing circus and Pop traveled with the circus as a booth fighter. A booth fighter took on all comers, at all weights and sizes, and for every round the challenger stayed, the owner of the booth paid out a pound. The booth fighter sometimes took on as many as 15 challengers a day and if he didn’t knock out at least a dozen of them in a round or less he didn’t eat.
After he quit fighting, Pop trained and managed
Spike Robson, the great Leeds lightweight who became champion of Britain and Europe. Around the turn of the century the lightweight division was full of giants and Robson fought them all from Jem Driscoll on his own side of the ocean to Joe Gans and Abe Attell over here.
I knew none of these things about Pop Foster then. Nor did I know the bigger things that were later to mean so much to me—his kindness, his quiet simple wisdom, his tenacity and patience, his loyalty and his unshakeable honesty. I wouldn’t have suspected he could have all these qualities and still be as shrewd and hard and demanding as it was often necessary to be if you hoped to come out of a business like ours unhurt and solvent.
On the way home from the Vancouver docks to his rooming house Pop used to stop and pass the time of day with my father. One day a few of us kids were kicking a soccer ball around and Pop and my father stood watching us. If I wasn’t quite the toughest kid on the street, I was the fastest.
After a while we stopped playing and I walked over to where my father and Pop were standing.
“You’ve got a fine pair of legs, Jimmy,” Pop
I thanked him. Pop said, half to me and half to my father: “I could make a boxer of that boy.”
“What kind of a boxer?” my father said.
“The only kind that’s worth making,” Pop said.
“What kind’s that?” my father asked. “A champion.”
“A champion of what?”
“A champion of the world.”
I was flattered although a little sceptical. I couldn’t quite see how I could get to be the champion of the world unless Wellington Wallace found some other street to play on. Still, I thought, maybe after a few pointers from somebody who knew . . .
A few pointers! In Pop’s book there was no such thing as a few pointers. You were either going to be a boxer or you weren’t. If you weren’t going to be a boxer you were better off knowing nothing about it. If you were going to be a boxer then you might as well make up your mind that there weren’t enough hours in the day, enough days in the year or enough years in a lifetime to learn so much about it that you didn’t need to learn still more.
I’m thankful I had sense enough to grasp this point almost from the start. I’ve seen too many fighters—good fighters some of them too—sitting around gymnasiums with no place to go and nothing to do but wait for the next handout to have any doubt about its importance. Most fighters who get that way get that way because their managers were too lazy or incompetent to make them keep learning. Some of them thought they could learn by “experience” what they hadn’t quite learned from practice and from study. They forgot, or never knew, that boxing is one business in which too much experience can be disastrous. Getting hit doesn’t teach you how not to get hit. Getting hit too often slows your reflexes. The more often you get hit, the easier you become to hit, and the easier you become to hit the more often you get hit.
I know fighters who might have been world champions but who ended up punch-drunk simply because they made some mistake as small as holding their left elbows half an inch too high. The difference between an easy winning fight and a disastrous losing fight—which itself can mean the difference to a whole career—can be as slim as the difference between one punch that lands and the same punch that misses. And that difference in turn can be as small as the difference between five miles of roadwork and six miles of roadwork, between 50 minutes a day with the bag and an hour a day with the bag, between carrying a
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shoulder this way and carrying it that way.
According to Pop’s standards perfection was not even remotely attainable. You had to try for it, but no matter how hard you tried for it or how far you got you had no right to be satisfied. Let me tell you about Pop and my left hand.
A few days after Pop had agreed to take me on as a pupil he dropped in on my father’s furniture store. I was repainting some secondhand chairs.
“Do it with your left hand, Jimmy,” he said.
“Gosh, Mr. Foster,” I said, “I can’t paint with my left hand.”
“I know,” Pop said. “That’s why I want you to do it.”
When Pop started on it my left hand was as left-handed as it’s possible for a hand to be. When he finished with it it was the best hand I had. For 16 years Pop talked about my left hand, yammered at it, bullied it, occasionally spoke a few kind words of it, and made me work it, so to speak, bowlegged. I concentrated on my left hand when I punched the bag. I concentrated on it when I sparred. I walked on it. I threw darts with it. I rowed a boat with it. I chopped wood with it. I hauled in fish nets with it. I squeezed a sponge ball with it. My right hand got mixed up in some of these activities too, but Pop made it fairly clear that the right, which was a better hand to begin with, was more or less coming along for the ride.
By the time I turned professional my left hand was passable. It was fast and fairly skilful. I was boxing then, not trying to punch too hard and my left hand was winning fights for me. Just when I was getting fairly pleased with it Pop said it was time I learned to hit with it. So we went on working with my left hand, this time in a different way, until I got so that I could hit with it.
I developed what we called an “up-the-tree” punch. I would dig my left hand into the other fellow’s belly
and when he came down with his guard I would draw my left back a few inches and shoot it over his guard to his chin. When it worked I delivered the up-the-tree punch in what amounted to one continuous motion, without shifting my feet or my balance. Other boxers have had this punch too, but it’s still a good punch to be able to get across with a hand that was not much good in the first place.
Fourteen years after we first went to work on it my left hand won the welterweight championship of the world. It won on a knockout in the first round of a fight in which I didn’t throw a single punch with my right. A couple of years after that Pop and I decided it was time for me to retire. We both felt good about the decision. We took down our hair a little. I told Pop, by no means for the first time, how much I thought of him and he told me, by no means for the first time, how much he thought of me. We both meant it.
There was a little silence and Pop said: “There’s just one thing I’m sorry about, Jim.”
“What’s that, Pop?”
“Your left hand,” Pop said wistfully. “It never did get as good as it should have been, did it?”
The sad and wonderful part of it is that Pop was right.
Pop started my education on a punching bag which he put up in the basement of my father’s store. He sanded and polished the floor and put sawdust on it to speed it up. We’d meet there in the evenings and Pop’s gruff, eager voice would chase me around and around the floor, in and out at the bag, pleading for speed and still more speed. “Faster with the hands, Jim. Faster with the feet. In with the left now, Jim. All right, out again. And faster, Jimmy, you’ve got to do it FASTER!”
I have to confess that at this stage there were moments when I wondered if Pop really knew what he was doing. If I had anything at all to start with it was speed. I couldn’t help wondering why we weren’t spending more time worrying about the things I didn’t have. I know now. To Pop the un-
forgivable crime for a teacher was to teach the letter B before he taught the letter A. The letter A was defense and the essence of defense is speed with your feet, with your hands and with your head. It sounds ridiculously simple. It is ridiculously simple. And yet, to the eternal shame of my profession, defense is not the first thing, or even the second thing or the third thing, that most of the kids who start out in it are taught by most of the men who pass for teachers.
“If they can’t hit you they can’t hurt you.” If Pop said those words to me once he said them 10,000 times.
Battles in the Basement
After I had outgrown in succession the flyweight, the bantamweight and featherweight divisions and started trying for power as well as speed, the pleasant and profitable myth grew up that “Baby Face” McLarnin was a wild Irishman who loved to get in there and slug until somebody fell on his face—by preference the other fellow, but if not him, then me. To that I say, humbly but firmly: “Nuts!” I did try to make my fights good fights. People paid good money to see them and I wanted them to go home happy and to come back again. I did occasionally—through impulsiveness or plain stupidity—neglect the rules of defense. But if I had neglected the rules of defense because I was indifferent to them or thought them unimportant Pop Foster would not have been my manager. Entirely aside from his personal feelings toward me Pop had far too much self-respect to sit in the corner of a boxer who couldn’t or wouldn’t make a pretty good stab at protecting himself.
Occasionally, in those early days in the basement, Pop used to put the gloves on with me himself and have me lead to him. It must have been a remarkable sight—me still a tiny kid, even for 12, weighing no better than 80 pounds and not more than four feet six inches high; Pop 230 pounds, six feet tall and nearly 50. But if Pop’s war wounds had left him slow and awkward from the waist down he was
as quick and agile as a cat from the waist up. He began to show me how to block and feint and how to slip a punch.
You don’t duck a punch, by the way, you slip it. If you duck you can make the other fellow miss badly and make him look bad. But if you learn to slip punches—to turn your head or your torso just far enough to make the punch graze you or miss you by an inch—you are in a much better position to throw your counterpunch. You’re still in close and your balance hasn’t been disturbed.
Pop made me shadowbox and punch the bag with a book balanced on top of my head and I began to learn how to move around quickly and still avoid the abrupt and jerky head movements that can make you lose sight momentarily and sometimes disastrously of an opponent’s eyes or hands. He brought me a 12-pound weight off an old butcher’s scales and tied two leather thongs to it. He sat me on the edge of a chair, put the thongs in my teeth and made me swing the weight back and forth to develop my neck and jaw muscles. I did this almost daily until my retirement.
Ball Muscles Are Bad
At our house we didn’t have enough money for the steaks, lamb chops, fresh vegetables and fruit that are good for a boxer. Pop persuaded me that at least I ought to give up the things that are bad for a boxer. I swore off candy and ice cream with a feeling of great nobility and terrible loss. Barring an occasional slip I stayed off them too.
I was a good swimmer, a good ball player and a good soccer player and I liked all those sports. Before I was 15 I gave them up too. A boxer needs perfect condition, but it has to be a special kind of condition, with a special muscle bulge here, a special absence of muscle there and a special set of reflexes which would be of no particular use to anybody but a boxer. Baseball muscles or swimming muscles are worse than no good at all to a boxer, and so when the other kids went swimming I punched the bag and when the other kids were getting up a ball game I was doing roadwork. I never had but one girl friend in my life. This is one aspect of my lost boyhood, at least, that I can look back on with no trace of regret because she’s still my girl and we’re raising three more like her.
I knew some other kids who were fighting as amateurs. I sparred as often as I got a chance with George Ainsworth, whom I later fought a couple of times, or with Primo Duncan, who was the bantamweight champion of British Columbia, or with Billy Thompson, who later got to be the paperweight champion. Although it doesn’t appear in my record, and even Pop didn’t get to hear about it until a long time afterward, I fought my first fight in public soon after my 12th birthday.
The fight was at a smoker at the Second Division Artillery Club on Vancouver’s East Granville Street. I went down there alone on a dark winter night. It was a long walk and near the end of it I had to cross the Georgia Street viaduct. The viaduct was long and dark and full of shadows. In every shadow I was sure there was a Chinaman hiding with a long curved knife.
I fought four rounds to a draw that night with a kid named Clarence Robinson. I don’t remember much about the fight but I do remember that I simply couldn’t face that lonely walk back across the viaduct. The streetcar fare was six cents. I thought that it would be undignified to ask for six
cents so I asked the promoter, Roughhouse Charley Bums, for a dime. He gave me a dollar and I was a pro before I held my first amateur card.
There was a Jekyll-Hyde air to this whole phase of my career. My mother disapproved of boxing, so to spare her feelings and also keep myself out of trouble I boxed at the next two or three smokers under the name of Jimmy Lane. I got a kick out of fighting in those days, although there was one night in Nanaimo when I had serious doubts.
I had an amateur card by then, so there was none of that nasty nonsense about money, but the promoters had promised everybody on the card a steak dinner after the show. As I’ve said, we didn’t have steak at our house very often and I was looking forward to it. In the first round I broke my left thumb. In the fourth round I broke my right thumb. The steak turned out to be pretty tough. I sat there sawing away at it holding the knife between the first and second fingers of my right hand and the fork between the first and second fingers of my left. I kept dropping the knife and fork and the steak kept skidding away from me. I was too proud to let anybody help me.
When I was 13 I quit school. I quit for three reasons. I wasn’t much of a student. I was trying to earn a dollar a day selling papers, but by the time
The Caribou— Shmoo of the North Country
I got out of school and got down to the docks there were some days when I wasn’t bringing home more than 20 or 30 cents. And finally I had come to understand at least something of what was involved in becoming a professional boxer and had made up my mind that I could do it.
The school I quit was Strathcona School. It was a fine school run by fine people. When I explained to Mr. Brown, the principal, that I wanted to quit because I felt it was time I started earning steady money he didn’t give me a lot of high-minded arguments. He got me a job. I ran an elevator at the Columbia Paper Company for $8 a week. I took home $7.
In the next couple of years I fought another dozen amateur bouts. I lost only one of them, a wildly disputed decision to Mickey Gill which I later reversed.
Just after my 16th birthday Pop told me he was ready to start taking me after that world championship we’d spoken of four years before. I said I was ready to start too.
In the next chapter of his life story Jimmy McLarnin tells how he and Pop Foster went to the U. S to get a start, how they sometimes were hungry, how the money started to come in. At one time it seemed as though Jimmy was washed up at 19. ic