Joe Grim: How to Take It and Then Some

By Mike Casey on September 3, 2013
Joe Grim: How to Take It and Then Some
Jack Johnson shook his head, “I just don't believe that man is made of flesh and blood.”

For a silver lira or less, Joe Grim would demonstrate his mettle by running headlong into the iron door of his local church…

Down through the corridors of time, boxing has spawned some remarkably tough and resilient men. Joe Grim was very definitely one of the toughest. While the more technically inclined exponents of the game were inflicting traditional damage in the way of cut eyes, broken noses and sore ribs, Joe was thinking laterally and leaving a trail of bruised fists and dented egos. A generation of fearsome punchers walked away in amazement after vain attempts to knock out the defiant Grim. Breaking rocks in the midday sun was more fun than trying to break Joe.

Grim plied his trade in the shadow of great world champions. He wanted nothing more than to beat the mighty Jim Jeffries, even though Joe didn’t often beat anyone else.

It was the mental scars meted out by Grim that hurt his conquerors the most, compelling them to try and make sense of it. Joe took a ferocious pounding from Jack Johnson over six rounds before sticking out his tongue at the finish and calling the Galveston Giant a bum. Jack shook his head at his cornermen and said, “I just don’t believe that man is made of flesh and blood.”

The tributes flooded in for Joe Grim, tributes that were very different from the norm. Irish Joe Thomas would say, “You might as well hit a sandbag.” Irish Joe wasn’t normally one to get discouraged. He took Stanley Ketchel into the thirty-second round of a titanic slugfest in Colma, California, in 1907.

When Grim was a young boy in Italy, he had a novel way of earning money from tourists. Much more inventive than his contemporaries, the rugged youngster didn’t opt for the boring business of showing visitors the beauty spots or giving them the heads-up on the best places to eat.

For a silver lira or less, he would demonstrate his mettle by running headlong into the iron door of his local church. Joe’s face would balloon with various bumps and bruises as his act became a regular feature, but his friends would recall in amazement how he would never be so much as dazed.

History does not tell us how many tourists were impressed by this curious act of masochism or how many were forced to scoot behind the nearest tree to bring up their breakfast.

America

When most folks come to America in search of their dreams, they are looking to buck the odds and not be beaten down. Joe Grim, with typical perversity, openly invited America and her best fighters to beat him into the ground.

He had been born Saverio Giannone on March 16, 1881, the eighth of nine children, but quickly learned that the fast and urgent world of America didn’t have much truck with long and complicated names. Joe Grim was short and simple and entirely appropriate.

Joe went to work as a bootblack and had a little stand near the Broadway Athletic Club in Philadelphia. He loved boxing and spent his evenings sitting in the ten-cent seats in the gallery watching the fights. His loyalty and enthusiasm paid off one night when the management asked for a volunteer from the audience to substitute for a fighter who hadn’t shown up.

Joe jumped at the chance and soon showed the stunned audience what he could do. For one thing, he could fall down many times from thunderous blows to the head and body and keep getting up without taking a count. Much as he loved his boxing, Grim was utterly ignorant of its subtleties and technicalities. He simply couldn’t fight in the traditional sense.

What made him additionally remarkable, however, was that he was never cursed with a loser’s mentality. He tried his utmost every time, bragged unashamedly that he would knock his opponent out and quite genuinely believed that he would do so.

Joe became an instant hit at the Broadway Athletic Club for his astonishing courage and comical antics. He would smile and chuckle all the time as he bounced up from shuddering knockdowns like a mischievous rubber ball. Club promoter Lew Bailey was soon managing him, impressed by Grim’s equally shining talent for marketing himself to his adoring faithful. After every hideous thrashing, Joe would make a speech in which he would throw out a challenge to world champion, Jim Jeffries.

Big Jeff, in his delightfully sober way, became convinced that this little fellow Grim, all 5’ 7” and 150 lbs. of him, was a plain and simple madman. Even Sam Langford didn’t want to fight Jeffries and Sam could actually fight.

Undeterred, Joe Grim plowed on, his fame spreading like wildfire as the larger boxing clubs began to employ his very special services. He was never short of willing opponents. While the astute Jeffries had the good sense to steer a wide berth of Grim’s carnival, plenty of other marquee names couldn’t resist the insatiable urge to massage their egos by trying to knock out the man who simply wouldn’t be flattened.

Champions and contenders who should really have known better became obsessed with the challenge of becoming the first man to put Joe Grim down for the ten-count. Joe Gans, the brilliant Old Master, tried with everything he had over ten brutal rounds with Grim at Baltimore in 1904. Gans didn’t do too badly, breaking only three of his knuckles as he knocked Grim down seventeen times. But the Italian wonder was still there at the end, mocking the maestro’s punching power and even having the cheek to criticize his stance. How must poor Gans have felt? It was akin to Picasso being asked by a man on the street, “Are you the guy who paints them rinky-dinky pictures of funny shapes?”

Gans shouldn’t have been so hard on himself. Peter Maher, by contrast, could only have felt like going home and drinking himself into oblivion. Perhaps, indeed, he did. Thunder-punching Peter not only failed in his quest to knock Grim out at the Industrial Hall in Philadelphia, but committed the cardinal sin of getting knocked out himself.

Dozing fighters have been known to get stiffened by their punching bags, but certainly not punching bags that have mouths and can brag about it. One simply cannot draw a quiet veil over those occurrences.

Fortunately for Peter, Grim’s desperation wallop was a right uppercut that began its journey from the floor and was still south of the border when it crashed into Maher’s wedding tackle and sent him down.

As a witty reporter of the time noted: “Peter then thoughtfully yelled foul and made a blind stagger to his corner.”

Grim was disqualified in one of his rare moments of positive glory and Maher’s blushes were at least spared to a degree.

Many other illustrious names tried their best to wipe the cheeky smile off Joe Grim’s face and put him into a slumber, including Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, Barbados Joe Walcott, Dixie Kid, Johnny Kilbane and Battling Levinsky.

Jack Blackburn, he of the lightning fast hands and withering punching power, should have been given a gold medal for blind perseverance. In three successive bouts, Jack went through the formidable tools of his arsenal and failed to knock Grim into dreamland.

Celebrated

Without doubt, the most celebrated attempt at cracking the Italian iron man was made by a living legend who was reckoned to be able to punch holes in just about anything: the mighty Bob Fitzsimmons. The experts on such matters calculated that Ruby Robert’s scientific knowledge of punching would prove the key to unlocking Mr. Grim’s doughty little safe box.

Fitz was training for his light-heavyweight championship match with George Gardiner and agreed to oblige Grim in the meantime. Perhaps Bob felt that such an exercise would be useful for fine-tuning the hammers that ballooned from the end of his formidably muscled arms.

Robert Edgren, that grand boxing writer of bygone days, traveled down to Philadelphia with Fitzsimmons and his party to watch the fight in October, 1903. Edgren wrote: “Like all the others, I expected to see the Italian iron man put away for at least a ten-count. It wasn’t possible to believe he could stand up in front of Fitzsimmons, who had knocked out Corbett, Ruhlin, Sharkey, Maher and scores of other great heavyweights.

Fitzsimmons thought the fight was a joke. But he wanted to catch a train home. He was in a hurry. He intended to knock Joe out in a round.”

Fitz tried. How he tried. But he didn’t get his wish. Grim, defiant as ever, made his intentions clear with a little speech before the hammering began. “This Fitz thinks he’s gotta me scared. I tell you, he no gotta this fellow scared. I Joe Grim. I no quit for no man in the world. I fighta da Jeff next time, sure.”

Fitzsimmons didn’t quite know whether to feel amused or insulted by the immovable object he encountered. After giving Joe a ferocious pounding in the opening frame, Bob strolled back to his corner and told ringside reporters, “I hate to hit him – he’s so much fun.”

By the end of the third round, Bob’s expression had changed to one of sheer bemusement. Grim’s face was a mask of blood from the repeated smashes he had taken to nose and mouth. Each time he was hammered to the floor, he simply laughed and stormed back into Fitzsimmons.

There were 17 knockdowns in all. Of the particularly brutal fifth round, Robert Edgren wrote: “Fitzsimmons knocked Grim down three times with blows that sounded like the impact of a mallet on a wedge.”

Not even Ruby Robert’s famous solar plexus punch could keep Joe down. At the beginning of the sixth and final round, Fitzsimmons leaned across and playfully tapped Grim on the head, as if trying to ascertain the apparently unique structure of the Italian’s skull. Joe, of course, survived the session. He even managed a celebratory somersault as he jogged back to his corner and threw out his obligatory challenge to Jim Jeffries.

Secret

What was the secret to Joe Grim’s phenomenal resilience? Ace trainer Harry Lenny believed he had part of the answer. Although Lenny had no medical qualifications, he possessed a rare, physiotherapeutic gift for healing aching muscles and bones. Lenny lived at the Forest Hotel in midtown Manhattan in his later years, offering free treatment to friends and charging fifty bucks to strangers. During the war years, he was said to have secretly treated President Theodore Roosevelt.

Lenny trained Grim for around five or six years and could never quite believe the texture of Joe’s skin. “I never in my life felt skin like his. It was smooth as a baby’s belly and it was as pliable as rubber. But the strangest thing about Joe’s skin was the way it secreted a fine oil. I would just touch his arm, shoulder or chest very lightly with my finger, and when I took my finger away there would be a film of this fine oil where my finger had been. I have always believed that Grim’s skin was a big part of his secret. It was like a cocoon protecting him from danger.”

But even Joe’s skin and the exceptional quality of his cranium couldn’t enable him to last out forever. The sad side of the Joe Grim story is the great price he paid for the colossal punishment he took. Sailor Burke finally knocked him out and Sam McVea duplicated the feat. Young Zeringer is sometimes credited with knocking Grim out in three rounds at Pittsburgh in 1904, but that result has always been disputed. It was Joe’s boast, don’t forget, that he couldn’t be put down for the count. The Zeringer fight was stopped by a compassionate referee who became horrified by Grim’s lust for punishment.

Whatever, the strange magic had finally seeped from the bottle and Joe Grim was falling apart. We do not know how many fights he had, because he never kept a record of his own incredible journey. He certainly won no more than five or six. On July 28, 1913, he was admitted to a sanatorium, eventually being discharged and apparently cured of his mental problems. He became a shipyard foreman in New York around 1919, but was said to be mentally broken by the time of his death twenty years later in a hospital at Byberry, Pennsylvania.

The heartening thing is that it is simply impossible to ever forget Joe Grim. It always was. Before a fight with Al Kaufman, Joe was described thus by writer T.P. Magilligan: “Of all the rich cards of the ring pugilistic, this boy Grim has the lead by seven furlongs.”


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. Johnathan Lee Iverson 12:03pm, 05/05/2015

    Tremendous read! I sort of hurt just scrolling through the details. I suppose some men are just made extra special. Keeps the other “super” men humble. I’d love to see some in depth research done on the physiology of such fighters.

  2. Mike Casey 12:20pm, 09/04/2013

    Dan: Didn’t know that, but I’m not surprised!
    Irish: Yes, I think Joe could have been better if a good trainer had cared for him. He was something of a freak show and the damage it did to him in the end was quite terrible. Haven’t read the York report, Frankie, but I intend to. Psychology is such a huge part of our game and indeed most sports and professions.

  3. Dan Cuoco 12:04pm, 09/04/2013

    Mike, If I’m not mistaken, Grim made Ripley’s “Believe it or Not”  40 or so years past.

  4. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 10:01am, 09/04/2013

    Mike Casey-Which reminds me…. did you read the recent article published in the University of York student newspaper regarding psychopathy and boxing?

  5. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:56am, 09/04/2013

    Mike Casey-During a time when Italo-Americans were subject to pervasive discrimination in our society which.probably factored heavily into the way he conducted himself and pursued his career in boxing….maybe masochism played a big part as well…just looking at the photo above I say if properly trained his career would have taken a much different and decidedly more positive trajectory.

  6. Mike Casey 08:36am, 09/04/2013

    Thanks kindly for your comments, gents.

  7. Clarence George 07:20am, 09/04/2013

    I see, Kurt, that my woeful ignorance has offended you beyond my capacity to repair.  I trust a firing squad has been summoned, but that I’ll be at least allowed the courtesy of a final meal of my choice?  If so, I request choucroute garnie.

    A visual aid to assist you in the preparation:

    http://thespiritofabsinthe.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/choucroute-garnie.jpg

    I thank you for your kind attention.

  8. Dan Cuoco 06:50am, 09/04/2013

    Mike, thanks for remembering one of the toughest guys to ever step in a ring. Terrific recap of his amazing career.

  9. Kurt 05:11am, 09/04/2013

    Never heard of Joe Grim??  Wow

  10. Ted 04:17am, 09/04/2013

    I’ll co-sign with CG.

  11. Clarence George 02:37am, 09/04/2013

    Sort of like a knockdownable George Chuvalo.

    Never heard of Joe Grim, Mike, and am awfully glad of the introduction.

  12. Mohummad Humza Elahi 01:05am, 09/04/2013

    Great article, really remarkable that even The Fitz couldn’t put him away.  Sadly, he reminds me of Audley Harrison but with punch resistance!

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