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The Fight | Article

Jack "Chappie" Blackburn (1883-1942)

"I remember Chappie saying, 'Don't go for the knockout yet. Keep jabbing him off balance so he can't get that right in, and for God's sake keep your left arm high.' I wish I had listened to him." — Joe Louis after his first fight against Schmeling, 1936


Charles Henry Blackburn was known as Jack to most, and as "Chappie" to his friend Joe Louis. Blackburn discovered boxing in Indiana in his teens; one story suggests that he was hired as a sparring partner for a day, and nearly knocked out his opponent. A lightweight at 135 pounds, he fought well against larger men. Sparring in the gym with Jack Johnson, Blackburn managed to give the future heavyweight champion a bloody nose. Although he won much more than he lost, his career as a lightweight was frustrated by his inability to secure a title fight.

Derailed By Murder
In January 1909 an argument about his common-law wife escalated into a shooting in which another man was killed. Blackburn was sentenced to 15 years in prison for murder, but he was released on good behavior before he had served five. The incident left him with an ugly scar down the left side of his face. In his first fight following his incarceration, Blackburn won a decision in six rounds, but age caught up to him. He retired in his mid-thirties, then made a failed comeback attempt two years later, retiring for good in 1923.

Connection With Louis
After his competitive career ended, Blackburn worked as a trainer in Chicago gyms and lived a life of heavy drinking and violence. One day John Roxbirough and Julian Black introduced him to a potential trainee, a young fighter named Joe Louis. As Louis remembers it, "[Blackburn] said, 'You know, boy, the heavyweight division for a Negro is hardly likely. The white man ain't too keen on it. You have to really be something to get anywhere... And you got to listen to everything I tell you. You got to jump when I say jump, sleep when I say sleep. Other than that, you're wasting my time." Louis promised his obedience and Blackburn said, "OK, Chappie." From that moment on, "Chappie" was the nickname each man had for the other.

The Fine Points of Boxing
Blackburn prepared Louis for each of his fights, explaining each opponent's strengths and weaknesses. In his corner, Blackburn would pace the fight, telling Louis when to bide his time and tire the other boxer and when to go for the knockout. Louis learned the fine points of boxing technique -- balance, accuracy, and strategy -- from his trainer. Blackburn also taught Louis the psychological aspects of boxing. Raising a brick at Louis, the fighter naturally ducked. "See what I'm trying to teach you?" Blackburn asked. "Pretend you have a brick in your fist. Naturally the guy's gonna duck, then you hit him with the other hand."

Rough Character
Despite his success as a trainer, Blackburn continued to drink heavily. And he still carried a gun. Louis remembered a visit to Louisiana when Blackburn brought a gun to the fight. "This is the South," he told Louis. In 1935 Blackburn was arrested again after allegedly shooting at another man following a brawl. Two bystanders, an elderly man and a young girl, were shot; the man died from his injury. Three months before the first Louis-Schmeling fight, Blackburn was found not guilty.

A Tough Defeat
After Schmeling handed Louis his first professional defeat, Blackburn told reporters, "[Louis] got believin' all you newspaper boys say about him -- that he ain't human. Mr. Schmeling learned him something." Privately, he shed tears in Louis' dressing room. Schmeling remembers a visit after the fight: "Jack Blackburn, his face serious, came into the room and elbowed his way over to me. He was very down about his man losing, but he shook my hand and said, 'You were great, Max!'"

Father, Teacher, Friend
Louis eventually won the heavyweight title and defended it successfully twenty times, with Chappie in his corner. In 1942, Blackburn fell ill and was in the hospital for the twenty-first title defense; his assistant, Mannie Seamon took his place. Not long after that victory, Blackburn died of a heart attack. Louis was devastated: "I guess I thought I'd be heavyweight champion forever and Chappie would always be with me. Chappie had been another father, a teacher, and a friend, so when you think about it, I lost three people, not one." Louis and his wife named their first child -- Jacqueline -- after Chappie Blackburn.

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