Joe Choynski: One Last Breath of Fire

By Mike Casey on December 13, 2013
Joe Choynski: One Last Breath of Fire
Bob Fitzsimmons said Joe Choynski “was the most devastating puncher I ever faced."

In an era when fighters fought each other many times, Jim Corbett, Jim Jeffries and Jack Johnson had the good sense to engage Choynski only once…

In 1943, the year of his death at the age of seventy-five, Joe Choynski had one last rage against the dying light. He did what old men do when they can no longer hit their tormentors. He got up out of his chair and painted physical pictures with sweeps of his arms and animated impressions of how he could move back in the glory days.

It was the mention of Bob Fitzsimmons that set old Chrysanthemum Joe in motion, pulling him away from his glass of wine and the sunshine that bathed the living room window of his Cincinnati home. There was no love lost between Fitz and Joe. Choynski called Bob a “cur” and didn’t give a damn who knew it.

Whatever had happened between the two men all those years before will now forever remain a mystery. But there was a certain poison in Choynski’s long rant about Fitzsimmons. Was it old age and a touch of senility? Was it jealousy? There was a lot of surmise attached to Joe’s complaints, which always weakens a man’s argument.

With dark passion, Choynski said: “Fitzsimmons wasn’t the kind of person you could trust. He’d tell you one thing to your face and then stick a knife in your back. It happened to me many times. He did the same thing to Kid McCoy and Tommy Ryan.

“Of course, I don’t like to say these things publicly because after all, Bob is dead and can’t talk back. I know that if our positions were reversed, with me buried under six feet of dirt and Fitzsimmons here by this window relishing the warm sun, I would expect him to hold his tongue about me. But those are personal things.”

Having got that off his chest, Choynski decided to shovel some more dirt on top of Bob anyway. Reaching for a record book and flipping through the pages, Joe said: “Take for example Fitzsimmons’ fight with Gus Ruhlin. The book shows that Ruhlin was stopped in the fifteenth round. But it doesn’t say what condition Fitzsimmons was in at the time.

“I’ll tell you, I was there and I know. He was bathed in his own blood. His eyes were swollen into slits and his nose was smashed. Ruhlin was stalking him, getting ready to knock him out, when Fitz let go a desperate punch which, luckily for him, landed squarely.

“In his match with Tom Sharkey, Fitz was saved by the bell because his manager had a deal with the timekeeper who pulled the handle some thirty seconds before he should have. And Jim Corbett had him on the floor at Carson City and was winning in a cakewalk when Fitz tagged him with the solar plexus punch.”

Well, what do we make of that thin argument? Jersey Joe Walcott was beating Rocky Marciano until Rocky was rude enough to land that smashing right in the thirteenth. Guys like Rocky and Fitz do have a habit of forgetting their manners.

No matter. Choynski promptly changed tack and charged on to his own fight with lucky old Bob. “The record book shows that we boxed a five round draw in Boston. The date, I think, was June of ’94. I hit him with a short inside right to the mouth and he dropped like he was dead. I walked back to my corner knowing that he wasn’t going to get up. The round wasn’t a full minute old when all of a sudden the bell rang.

“I spun round and, to my amazement, I saw Martin Julian, Bob’s manager, picking Fitz up. Police swarmed into the ring and their chief waved his arms over his head. That was the signal that the bout had been stopped. To this day, I still wonder if the fight would have been stopped if it were I, not Fitzsimmons, lying on the floor.”

Choynski’s account implies that he knocked down Fitzsimmons in the fifth round of the bout and that the police stopped the fight shortly afterwards. According to Fitz, however, the knockdown occurred in the third round, and note that Bob gives Choynski every credit: “In the third round, he caught me with a left hook on the chin. I saw the blow coming, it was an overhand snaky looking thing.

“I didn’t think it packed much steam, but when it struck my jaw I lost all sensation and my head filled with sparkling stars. I remember nothing more about the fight, although they told me later I just beat the count of ten and held my own for the remaining two rounds. Choynski and I never hit it off well together as friends, but he was the most devastating puncher I ever faced. The man was remarkable in every sense of the word.”

The fight was long in the past by the time Choynski reminisced in 1943. Perhaps his memory had dimmed, perhaps it had become selective or perhaps the pent-up poison had distorted it. Whatever, the old man had to spit some blood and get it all out. The days were growing shorter.

Enviable

Blessed with both physical talent and an enviable intellect, Joe Choynski has often been described as the greatest fighter never to win the heavyweight championship. The handsome San Franciscan was a gifted boxer and an amazing character. In appearance, Joe was about as far removed from the stereotype image of a fighter as Oscar Wilde.

Well spoken with a distinctly theatrical and maverick bearing, Choynski was a connoisseur of antiques who didn’t smoke or drink to any great extent and took enormous care of his generous shock of blond hair. This was all a bit too much for those who mockingly christened him “Chrysanthemum Joe”  and muttered about what he might get up to in his private moments.

What nobody ever doubted was Choynski’s grit, determination and all round talent. He was a highly intelligent and erudite man who inherited many of his fiery qualities from his father Isidor, a newspaper owner and columnist,  who also established an antiquarian bookstore in San Francisco’s Gary Street. In a series of columns for the American Israelite, Isidor Choynski repeatedly attacked what he perceived to be the hypocrisies of his San Francisco Jewish community, although he was equally adept at tearing into the Irish, the Chinese and the wealthy Christian merchants of the city.

In December 1874, he wrote: “We are, as Jews, the moneyed people of the state; we are more – we are the brains of the Commonwealth; and yet with all these advantages we are a listless, lazy, lukewarm set of people who can be aroused by nothing short of an earthquake or a Mortara (Edgardo Mortara) abduction case. Synagogues, gorgeous and vast, have we builded for ourselves; ministers have we engaged regardless of expense, and yet are we but Jews in name and not in deed.

“The Sabbath – yes the seventh day, like many other observances, has become obsolete, except to those who still cherish the memory of their parents, or are held to repair to the house of worship by virtue of their being officers of their respective congregations, or by the words of their better halves….”

Fighting

While Isidor Choynski shook people with his writing, son Joe would do likewise with his fighting. Among his fellow boxers, Choynski was hugely respected and feared for his technical ability and punching power. They wondered constantly how a fighter who never weighed more than 175 pounds. could hit so hard. Joe scaled just 162 pounds when he defeated the 230-pound Ed Dunkhorst in their 1898 match. Jim Corbett, not normally one to dish out praise, conceded that Choynski had caught him with more punches than any other opponent.

The mighty Jim Jeffries maintained that no man hit him harder than Joe Choynski during their drawn battle, while Jack Johnson remarked, “Choynski could paralyze you even if he didn’t catch you flush.”

The power of punch generated by Choynski was a conundrum that Jeffries simply couldn’t understand. Big Jeff was still a rising prospect at the time he met Chrysanthemum Joe, but already a formidable cloud on the heavyweight horizon. At 219 pounds, Jeff had a 52-pound weight pull over the 167-pound Choynski.

Said Jeffries: “To this day, I can’t figure out how a runt like him could hurt so damned bad. During our scrap back in ’97, he clipped me with a right that landed high on my cheekbone. I figured my whole face was caved in, and when I tried to feel what was left with my hands there wasn’t any sensation at all.

“I’ll never forget that queer feeling – my body was numb from the neck up. That was the hardest punch I ever took and had it landed a little lower I would have been knocked out for the first time in my life. There is no question that I would have quit fighting then and there. You see, in those days I fought without interest and actually searched for an excuse to hang ‘em up.”

In an era when fighters fought each other many times, messrs. Corbett, Jeffries and Johnson had the good sense to engage Choynski only once.

For Johnson, crossing paths with Chrysanthemum Joe was a particularly painful and protracted experience. It began with a third round knockout defeat and ended with a stint in jail after both men were arrested by the Texas Rangers and placed in the same cell.

Johnson was already a formidable boxer with a picture perfect stance when Choynski belted him out in the third round of their Galveston match, but Jack was still learning and still making tactical errors. The jail time he spent with Choynski and the tricks he learned from the older and wiser pro were instrumental in making Johnson the complete fighter. “A man who can move like you should never have to take a punch,” Joe told Jack.

For Choynski, the win over Johnson was vital. People were saying that Chrysanthemum Joe had seen his best days. He had been a professional for twelve years and had fought tough battles with Corbett, Jeffries, Fitzsimmons, Tommy Ryan, Kid McCoy, Tom Sharkey, Gus Ruhlin, Peter Maher and Joe Walcott.

Choynski’s celebrated marathon with Corbett took place on a barge in Benicia Harbor in California and went to the twenty-seventh round before Gentleman Jim prevailed. It was such a brutal and bloody battle that the referee tried to stop it on several occasions and declare a draw. Corbett broke both of his hands, while Choynski’s face bled so heavily that sand was thrown into the ring to soak up the blood. One of Joe’s lips was badly ripped, the hanging flesh severed by scissors.

People talked about that savage battle for years to come, just as they did about Choynski’s knockout of Johnson. In his engrossing book, Unforgivable Blackness, author Geoffrey C. Ward gives us an insight of the Johnson fight from Choynski’s perspective. Here is how Joe saw it: “We both did a lot of dancing. Johnson was awfully long and reachy and I remember that I had a hard time getting my punches to his face. When the third round started, I decided to take a chance.

“I felt that if I lost the fight, it would hurt my prestige and I couldn’t afford that. I walked out for that round with my guard high to tempt Johnson to lead for my ribs. He bit like a hungry bass at the bait and as he did I lashed out with all my weight for his jaw with my left hook, which, pardon me for saying so, was the equal of any man’s punch bar none. It landed just below the temple.”

Sliding

The big punch sent Johnson falling into Choynski’s arms and then sliding face down on the canvas. He rolled onto his back and took the full count. Then the Texas Rangers climbed into the ring brandishing their guns and arrested both combatants for engaging in an illegal fight.

Joe and Jack were arrested and locked up in the same cell and a grand jury was named to consider indictments against both men. Nothing came of it. It was all a largely pointless game of political chess which irritated county sheriff Henry Thomas. The tough but fair Thomas allowed Choynski and Johnson to go home at night and to spar with each other before a grateful crowd to while away the daylight hours.

It was during those sparring sessions that Joe passed on his wisdom to Jack, teaching the younger man how to lead and feint. Forty-two years after their battle, old man Choynski was still generous in his comments about Johnson:  “About that time I knocked him out… I must be honest about that. Jack was only a kid at the time and he made a mistake leading into me. I watched him do that for a couple of minutes and then I pulled back…”

Pulling back to just the right degree gave Joe the leverage and spring he needed to deliver that big crack to the temple. “That was the exact target I had in mind from the second the fight started, He went down like a stunned ox.”

Although the knockout punch gave Choynski’s career fresh impetus, it was also a political error. In 1901, the line that separated an official fight from an exhibition in Texas was somewhat blurred and all too easy to breach in the heat of the moment. Explained Choynski: “Texas Rangers were stationed all around the ring. We were warned in advance that if we violated the Texas anti-prizefight law, we would be arrested.

“To get around it, the bout was billed as an exhibition – like a vaudeville act. If I hadn’t knocked out Johnson, there would have been no arrests. I should have had more sense than to hit him so hard, but when I saw the opening I just couldn’t resist the temptation. Jack and I spent thirty days in jail, talking to reporters and posing for photographs. The food was terrible - wormy bread and moldy beans. We were dog sick most of the time.”

Two geniuses

Of all the fighters he fought and personally saw in action, two geniuses stood out in Choynski’s mind as being above the rest. Both were pure boxing masters and both were Australian. The first was the graceful Peter Jackson. The second was the graceless Young Griffo, who frequently boxed the ears off men whilst in a pleasantly drunken stupor.

Choynski sparred with Jackson in many exhibitions. Asked what made Jackson so great, Joe replied: “Oh, everything. The way he boxed and punched and picked off blows in the air. In my opinion, he was the perfect prize fighter. I respected Jeffries as a great warhorse, but Jackson was vastly superior to Jeff in every department, save for brute strength. There is no question that he would have slaughtered Jeffries and knocked him out somewhere over a 25-round distance.”

The flawed but brilliant featherweight Young Griffo astounded Choynski, who affectionately described the Australian wizard as “a dopey kid with a funny build.” Joe, like most others, couldn’t help shaking his head when trying to describe how Griffo could manage to do the wonderful things he did.

“He was a terrible drunk. I saw him chop up George Dixon, Joe Gans and Kid Lavigne and I still don’t believe what my eyes saw.”

It was the equally disbelieving Lavigne who said of Griffo: “He was like a dozen arms. He threw a hodful of arms at me every time I went after him. I’d start out and would lead one that looked as if it ought to land and send the Australian over the ropes. So far as I could see, Griffo never moved. But I didn’t see much, for as soon as I led and started in, six or eight gloves would land on my nose and knock my head back so that I was looking at the ceiling.”

Choynski said: “They talk about once-in-a-lifetime miracles. This Griffo was remarkable. It is my opinion that the world will never again see a boxer who approached Griffo’s genius. If he were heavier, say about 160 pounds, he could easily have held the heavyweight championship of the world. I realize that might sound like a ridiculous statement, considering that 225-pound Jim Jeffries held the title at that time. But Griffo was great enough to offset Jeff’s 65-pound weight advantage and stab him to pieces.”

His recollections complete, Choynski took a sip of his wine and seemed to mellow a little. Perhaps he was already considering how some of his more caustic observations might look in print.

Whatever their feelings for one another, however fierce their rivalries, men of the same generation tend to stick together in an oddly affectionate alliance. Fitzsimmons, Corbett and Jeffries would always be Choynski’s brothers in arms.

“One point I want to make clear,” said Chrysanthemum Joe. “For all these weird stories, there was a solid factual basis. They were a master race of fighting men. I’m proud I was one of their generation.”

Mike Casey is a Boxing.com writer and Founder & Editor of ALL TIME BOXING at https://sites.google.com/site/alltimeboxingrankings. He is a freelance journalist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).

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  1. bikermike 07:16pm, 05/21/2015

    Another great Boxing History lesson…Thanks Mr Casey

  2. Mike Casey 04:46am, 01/08/2014

    Yes, Tex, very true.

  3. Tex Hassler 05:42pm, 12/20/2013

    People who do not study boxing history can never gain any real boxing knowledge. Choynski could punch as hard as any 6 ft 6 inch 260 pound heavy weight and perhaps harder than most. He was one of the truly great fighters who never became champion.

  4. Mike Silver 04:52pm, 12/14/2013

    Your articles read like a great movie you just don’t want to end. Great info Mike. Joe Choynski would have been light heavyweight champ if that division existed in his prime.

  5. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 08:21am, 12/14/2013

    Mike Casey-It took an honest to goodness boxing historian who contributes this high quality work to Boxing.com to recognize this original Hebrew Hammer….just wondering what Nat Fleischer had to say about Choynski through the years.

  6. Mike Casey 07:10am, 12/14/2013

    No, Nicolas, not in the least.

  7. NYIrish 06:19am, 12/14/2013

    Standard Casey. Great history freshly presented illuminating a character from the past. Now I know about Joe Choynski. He’s not just a name in the record books. Tip of the hat, Mike!

  8. nicolas 04:40am, 12/14/2013

    A wonderful article, beautifully written, perhaps Mr. Casey’s best. Regarding the fight that Choynski had with Johnson. In Johnson’s autobiography, sadly not a very great read, Johnson wrote that his fight with Choynski only ended in a victory for Choynski because after Johnson was decked, the referee declared Choynski the victor before the police moved in to arrest both of them.Also the story that while in Prison Choynski taught Johnson how to be a better boxer is also not mentioned in Johnson’s book. I myself have always wondered if that story of Choynski teaching Johnson the finer points was meant to suggest that Johnson’s boxing skills would not have developed had it not been for this ‘particular white man’. Finally, I have to ask if this beautiful article is not in some way been influenced by one of the other boxing contributors here Mr. George Thomas Clark.

  9. Mohummad Humza Elahi 02:11am, 12/14/2013

    Great read, great article!  A damn shame barely any footage exists, would be incredible to watch.

  10. Gordon 10:09am, 12/13/2013

    Another amazing piece from Mike. You are the memory of the sweet science. Choynski was the sweetest of the sweet scientists. That half step back load up the back leg was very big with Emanuel Steward. Thanks Mike.

  11. Clarence George 09:19am, 12/13/2013

    Commenting on Mike Casey’s articles has really become an exercise in redundancy.  After all, they’re always excellent…including this one on Choynski.

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