Johnny Coulon
The Great Little Champion From Logan Square

By Enrique Encinosa

[Click here for Coulon's record]

I met Johnny Coulon in early 1965. I was fifteen and Coulon was seventy-six. At first glance he did not impress. The Johnny Coulon that shook my hand that cold day in Chicago, was a milk-white little man who wore a white shirt, dark pants and a bowtie. He had eyes like berries on a bush and his voice was soft and friendly.

I was a young kid in love with boxing and Johnny Coulon fit me like an old shoe. The little guy was not only a topnotch trainer, but living boxing history. He had known every heavyweight champion since the Great John L. Sullivan, had been bantamweight champion of the world, had trained hundreds of fighters and was a revered celebrity in Chicago during the sixties. At seventy-six he could leave a ring by jumping over a top rope, landing softly on his feet. He celebrated a birthday by walking the length of the gym on his hands.

He was born in Canada in 1889, but grew up in turn of the century Chicago, where as a prelim fighter he became known as "The Cherry Picker from Logan Square." He turned pro at sixteen and was champion at twenty-one. His career, managed by his father, Pop Coulon, stretched from 1905 to 1920. The hall-of-famer is listed as losing only four times in ninety-seven fights, but he claimed to have fought over three hundred pro fights.

"A lot of my fights never made the record books," he told me, as I began pumping him for information on boxing lore, " I fought in small shows all over Illinois and Indiana. I fought in Terre Haute four or five times and not one of those fights made the record books. I also fought in Gary, South Bend, Streator and other places, like county fairs. Not even half of my fights are listed. There was a tavern near Logan Square that had a ballroom in the back and they used to run weekly shows. I think they charged twenty cents at the door and the place held maybe three hundred. My average purse for those fights was four dollars, but back then you could live on ten dollars a month. I fought at least twenty times in that ballroom, in 1905 and 1906, and not one of those fights ever made the books. During those two years I also toured eight weeks with a circus, fighting all comers for four rounds. I was paid eight dollars a fight. I had maybe twenty five fights in those eight weeks. Not one made the record books. "

Johnny Coulon fought all the top little men of his time. He traded leather with Pete Herman, Jim Kendrick, Frankie Burns, Kid Williams, Frankie Conley, Harry Forbes and Kid Murphy. A good fighter he beat was Charlie Goldman, a tough bantam who went on to become Rocky Marciano's trainer. Coulon won the crown from Jim Kendrick in nineteen rounds . A fighting champion, the record books tell that in 1912 Johnny Coulon beat two top contenders, Frankie Conley and Frankie Burns, in two twenty rounders that both went the distance. The Cherry Picker packed forty rounds of fighting in fifteen days.

"There were a lot of tough fighters in my time," he once told me, "when I fought Kendrick I was sick, weak with a stomach ailment. When Conley fought me, he sprained his wrist real bad, but kept fighting even though he grunted in pain every time he hit me. Conley was tough but he was made to order for my style. I would jab him to the body, jab him to the head and use the jab to set up the right hand. And Conley was a sucker for the right hand. I was not a great puncher, but I would time him coming in and shoot the right hand down the middle and I would score every time."

The gym was located at 1154 E. 63rd Street, on the South Side of Chicago. The L Train rumbled past the third floor windows. There was a single ring, a half dozen bags of different types, a locker room and clean showers. Johnny and his wife, Marie, ran a clean pugilistic emporium. Mrs.Coulon did not allow cursing or smoking . Visitors were allowed as long as they behaved themselves in a proper manner. Sonny Liston was expelled on his first day at the gym, then apologized and became a very good friend of Johnny and Marie.

The gym, which opened during the twenties, had been host to boxing legends. Dempsey, Louis and Marciano had sparred within these walls. Ali would often used the gym to keep himself toned during his exile years. I found myself sparring in a ring where Sugar Ray Robinson had once trod.

At the time I embarked on a modest amateur career, the well known fighters at Coulon's included former junior welterweight champion Eddie Perkins (74-20-4) who was managed by Coulon, and Light-heavyweight contender Allen Thomas. Perkins, a steelworker, was a clever little boxer with a good chin. Thomas was a southpaw who fought Mauro Mina, Bob Foster and several other topnotchers. Other pro leather slingers included Ben Black, who lost to Cleveland Williams, and Fred Askew, who was one of George Foreman's early victims.

At one end of the gym, in the southern side of the room, where long windows faced the elevated tracks of the L Train, Johnny Coulon had his personal office. In Christmas, holiday postcards framed the doorway. Among the cards there were best wishes from European royalty, senators, movie producers, actors and writers. Coulon knew everyone. Ernest Hemingway had visited Coulon's and insisted on sparring with the local pugs. LeRoy Neiman had sketched boxers working out. A cult movie of the sixties, "Medium Cool," filmed scenes at the gym, where Coulon briefly appeared, a tiny old man captured forever on celluloid.

Johnny Coulon was a special man not only for his fame as a former champion and first rate trainer. In a brutal trade he was a man of ethics. When a local community center was about to close up for lack of funds, the one man who stood to benefit from such a closure was Johnny Coulon. He knew that a dozen fighters, seeking a new gym would increase his monthly revenue of dues. Instead of ignoring the situation and waiting for new clients, Johnny Coulon sat in his office for hours, calling members of the chamber of commerce, aldermen, reporters. Within hours, Johnny had politicians and blue blood socialites donating money to the center. Coulon even wrote a personal check and helped promote an amateur boxing show and a benefit dinner to raise funds for the competition. The community center stayed open. Such a gesture was not unusual for the Cherry Picker. The night he won the crown from Kendrick, Johnny donated a thousand dollars, a large sum of money in those days of nickel beer, to the Working Boys Home of Chicago.

When Johnny Coulon opened his gym, in the early twenties, the neighborhood had been blue collar Irish and Polish. By the time I joined the gym, the area was pure black ghetto. The four or five of us from other ethnic backgrounds commuted from the suburbs, a concept that never thrilled our parents. To Coulon, ethnic or racial background did not matter. He treated everyone the same, with a Victorian courtesy dating back to the turn of the century. As a result, when the Chicago race riots of the sixties burned down and looted whole city blocks of the South Side, Coulon's gym was neither burned nor ransacked, a true symbol of respect. Johnny was not only "color blind," he could boast of having been a close friend of Jack Johnson., had frequented Johnson's inter-racial restaurant the "Café De Champion," and had even been a pallbearer at the great champion's funeral.

" Johnson," he once told me, "was a very smart man. The papers said some horrible things about him, and he was very hurt by the whole situation, although he put on this public display of not caring., but he did. His first wife was pretty and a real nice lady. She killed herself. The second wife was a working girl from a bordello. I liked him but I did not approve of his lifestyle. He smoked cigars and drank wine and champagne. An athlete should not do those things."

"His restaurant, " Coulon described, "was known as the "Café Du Champion, " and it was located on thirty-first street. It was not open for long, because Johnson had all the legal problems and his first wife, Etta, killed herself on an upstairs apartment. The Café was impressive. It had several rooms, expensive gold plated cuspidors, burgundy wallpaper and green silk curtains. The food was very good, mostly steak and chicken dishes served on good china. He had entertainment, from local talent and early jazz bands to violin players. The Cafe was like Johnson, gaudy and fun. You know, back in those days almost everyone dressed in dark suits, but Johnson would have tailors make him suits in bright colors, like mustard or mint green. They were expensive suits and they looked sharp on him. He was a dandy, but I felt sorry for him. He had demons."

Coulon was also known for a trick he performed for celebrities. Tacked on the gym walls were several portraits of heavyweights like Primo Carnera and Sonny Liston attempting to lift the 110 pound former champion. It was a clever trick, for as a giant would attempt to lift him, little Johnny would place a hand on the man's neck and press gently. Whatever nerve he touched was enough to incapacitate the lifter. Men twice Johnny's size attempted to lift him, but always failed. Although I asked him where he had learned this unusual skill, he never said, but did tell me that he had toured with a vaudeville group, where he made a profitable living giving boxing exhibitions and daring members of the audience to lift him on the stage.

Nothing good lasts forever. The little Cherry Picker from Logan Square died on October 29, 1973. I was just married and living on the East Coast, so I missed the funeral. An old pug told me that Johnny was buried with honors, at a funeral attended by writers, senators, society people and a lot of men with broken noses and mashed up ears. The pallbearers did not strain much lifting the coffin with the remains of the little champion, but as the box disappeared into the snow, tears ran down scarred faces.

Upcoming Fights
Current Champs
Monthly Boxing Journal
Home Page
[Return to Top] [Return to Table of Contents]