Obie Walker: Enfant Terrible

By Clarence George on September 1, 2016
Obie Walker: Enfant Terrible
He first fought in the Land of Camembert under the name of "Bébé Goudron" ("Tar Baby").

Did “The Brown Bomber” avoid “The Black Boxcar”? Apparently, but so did Primo Carnera and Max Schmeling, among other worthies…

“I hits and there they are on the floor.”—Obie Walker

Born on September 19, 1911, in Cochran, Georgia (also, unfortunately, the birthplace of the unspeakable Ronald Gray), 5’8” heavyweight Obie Walker fought out of Atlanta from 1929 to 1946 (though out of the ring from ‘42 to ‘45), racking up an impressive record of 81 wins, 56 by knockout, 17 losses, not one by knockout, five draws, and two no contests, an average of eight fights a year.

And that’s just the official record. According to “Bearcat Obie” himself, he had at least 90 back-of-the-barn bouts by the time he outpointed George Godfrey at the Arena in Philly on October 9, 1933, thus becoming the “colored” heavyweight champion of the world, a title he lost on July 20, 1935, outpointed by Larry Gains at Welford Road Stadium in Leicester, England. (Gains was the last man to hold the “colored” title, as it became void after Joe Louis scored the Heavyweight Championship of the World by knocking out Jim Braddock in the eighth at Comiskey Park in Chicago on June 22, 1937.)

Speaking of across the Pond, Walker was particularly popular in France, very much boxing’s answer to Jerry Lewis, fighting 22 times in France, Switzerland, and the UK (though there was some initial, perhaps racially motivated, reluctance to allow him to fight in England, according to Hall of Fame sportswriter Dan Parker). Trained by Argentine heavyweight Norman Tomasulo and promoted by Hall of Famer Jeff Dickson, he first fought in the Land of Camembert under the name of “Bébé Goudron” (“Tar Baby”) on February 3, 1934, knocking out Louis Verbeeren in the first at Salle Wagram in Paris after first battering him “into a swaying, tottering wreck.” Between that win and losing on points to Jack London (Brian’s father) at Tigers Rugby Football Ground in Leicester on June 15, 1936, his last overseas bout, Walker won all but three, 14 by stoppage. And that’s leaving aside the consensus that he was robbed in his bout with Gustave Limousin, who, at least officially, won on points at Palais des Sports in Paris on October 29, 1934, “balm for having taken such a terrific beating—a type of Latin charity which Obie failed to appreciate.” Walker knocked him out in the fifth at the same venue on October 5, 1935.

According to an Associated Press story of that August 13, “Georgia’s husky gift to the French ring” liked fighting more than anything else, as indicated by what happened in Paris just three days after the Verbeeren bout, when Action Française and other right-wing groups protested the perceived corruption and malfeasance of Prime Minister Edouard Daladier, a leftist, the anger mainly the result of the government’s apparent involvement in the notorious Stavisky Affair (fraudulent financier Alexandre Stavisky appeared to have shot himself on January 8, 1934, but the right was probably correct in thinking that he’d been murdered to prevent him implicating senior political officials). The demonstration turned violent, with several rioters killed by the police, and Daladier resigned the next morning. “I didn’t want to do nothin’,” said Walker, “but I saw three fellows fightin’ a cop and I figured as long as there was a fight on I couldn’t go wrong with the law, so me and the cop went to work until there wasn’t no more riot.”

Gutsy on Obie’s part, as those European between-the-wars riots were no joke. Ernest Hemingway reported for the Toronto Star Weekly on September 30, 1922, for instance, on a mob that sought to destroy an equestrian statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I situated on the Cologne side of the Hohenzollern Bridge. “During the attack on the statue, a policeman appeared and tried to quiet the mob,” wrote Papa. “The mob threw the policeman into the river. In the cold, swift swirl of the Rhine against the base of the bridge, the policeman hung on to one of the abutments and shouted up that he knew who was in the mob and would see that they were all punished. So the mob swarmed down and tried to push the policeman loose into the current. It meant drowning for the policeman to let go—and he hung on. Then the mob chopped his fingers loose from the stone with the hatchet with which they had been attacking the statue.”

“Fightin’s about the same anywhere,” said Obie, and he had plenty of bouts back home. Perhaps the first name he took on was Unknown Winston, knocking him out in the fourth at the City Park Arena in Miami on November 5, 1930. They fought three more times, Walker winning two by stoppage and drawing once. He fought Bearcat Wright three times, winning two on points and drawing once, Elmer Ray nine times, winning three, losing four, and drawing two, and Leroy Haynes three times, winning all.

Walker outpointed Tony Galento at the Arena in Philly on April 17, 1933 (though the decision “was unpopular and disputed by writers,” according to Galento biographer Joseph G. Donovan), and a “nervous” Maurice Strickland at The Ring in London on February 9, 1936, but was outpointed by Willie Reddish at the Municipal Stadium in Philly that September 22 (his first fight back in the States) and by Jack Trammell at the Municipal Auditorium in St. Louis on January 18, 1938 (his first loss since Reddish). It was on July 13 that year at Fort Benning that he knocked out Oscar Jenkins in the 10th in his one and only fight. Jenkins, a late replacement for Oscar Matthews, died five days later, a direct result of the Obie beatdown. And it was that November 30 that he scored Texas’ “colored” heavyweight title by knocking out Tiger Jack Wright in the 12th at the City Auditorium in Galveston.

Curiously, Obie stopped 6’7½” Leonard Dixon, aka The Philly Skyscraper, by second-round TKO at the Arena in Leiperville, Pennsylvania, on June 29, 1933, and 5’5” Mickey Taylor (who fought in all eight weight divisions) by second-round TKO in Paterson, New Jersey, that July 20.

But what about the name, Joe Louis? “Next year you look around and see where at is Obie Walker,” said Obie in ‘35. “Let Louis clean up the States—that’ll be easy. I’ll clean up Europe. Then we’ll get together and see what for. I don’t care who I fight as long as I can fight Louis in the end.”

Despite Walker’s, “I ain’t been asked…and I ain’t askin’,” Jeff Dickson offered Louis co-manager John Roxborough $15,000 (about $265,000 today) for Louis to challenge Walker for the “colored” title that June 13 in Paris. “Not enough money for the trip,” said Roxborough. “Besides, the date conflicts with Louis’ fight June 25 with Primo Carnera. However, if Dickson wants the match at a later date and is willing to pay enough for it, Louis will fight Walker.”

Never happened. Did “The Brown Bomber” avoid “The Black Boxcar”? Apparently, but so did Primo Carnera and Max Schmeling, among other worthies. Perhaps it was because he was known to hang around carnivals, offering to “lift both the strongman and the heaviest weight at the same time.” Or maybe because he fought “speedily and energetically, unleashing a series of machine-gun-like short jabs which have punched the hope out of many a European heavyweight prospect.” Or perhaps it was because he was ambitious, wanting “to be the boss man in the fightin’ business.”

“Walker became the toast of Paris,” wrote sportswriter Ed Danforth in the July 5, 1938, edition of The Atlanta Georgian. “He knocked cold every topnotcher he met on the continent. Max Schmeling shrewdly dodged him, the best of the Englishmen, too, sidestepped the squatty brown man who carried lightning bolts in both fists. Competent critics say he could have knocked out Schmeling, Joe Louis, and Jim Braddock in one night within the space of 10 rounds.”

Draw it mild, Mr. Danforth. Still, Obie was avoided.

Walker last won on May 1, 1940, beating Frank Lumpkin by split decision at the Memorial Stadium in Columbus, Georgia. He didn’t fight again until June 24, 1941, Elmer Ray beating him by unanimous decision at the City Auditorium in Galveston, his last bout until a one-fight comeback on March 19, 1946, when he was outpointed by Elza Thompson at Dorsey Park in Miami.

The man who bore “no small resemblance to a bank safe” died in Atlanta on May 4, 1989, age 77. His grave, apparently, isn’t adequately marked.

Even ultra-tough George Chuvalo was stopped, and twice, first by Joe Frazier, then by George Foreman, but nobody ever stopped Obie Walker. And yet…his grave isn’t suitably marked.

Ça alors!

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  1. Clarence George 05:15pm, 09/05/2016

    I think you’re right, Nicolas, that Walker and Gains did what they had to do to make a living, but I also think that they spent too much time at the European ball.

    I have no doubt Louis avoided Walker, as well as many other worthy black fighters, partly because they were formidable, but mainly because such bouts would have done little to advance his career or fatten his wallet.  I also don’t have the slightest doubt that Louis would have beaten Walker, quite possibly by KO.  The Bomber was in a class by himself, as was recognized very early on.

    All genuine respect for Max Baer, but I don’t see him remotely in Louis’ league.  In any event, he certainly didn’t deserve a rematch.

    P.S.  Requiescat in pace, Hugh O’Brian.

  2. nicolas 02:54pm, 09/05/2016

    CLARENCE: I think that people like Walker and gains went to Europe because at least as one might say ‘they could gain employment there’. I remember reading somewhere that while some promoters back then did not mind a black fighter on the main event, they did not want them on the undercard, and referred to it as “no black coal”. Remember that the EBU even made George Godfrey the heavyweight champion of the world, It is possible that during his rise to the heavyweight division, Louis did duck such fights as Walker, though I suspect with his height advantage he would have beaten him, and who knows, even stopped him. But it seems to me, that Louis’s rise was the first one planed from day one, as if he had been a big star in the Olympics. He certainly did not fight as many black fighters as other black fighters were forced to do. He fought Schmelling the first time with less than two years experience, and won the title within about three years. While Louis might not have been a cherry picker as some accused Floyd Mayweather of doing, Louis’s management may have been very careful in picking the cherries. Norman Marcus has been one who has accused that management team of having avoided a return with Max Baer.

  3. Clarence George 01:35pm, 09/05/2016

    Much appreciated, Peter, so glad you liked it.

    No footage of Obie that I’m aware of.  There’s not even much in the way of photos, and I’ve never come across any memorabilia whatsoever.  By the way, the photo here is the best of a cheeseparing selection.  Look at that there trapezius!

  4. Peter 09:55am, 09/05/2016

    Another Fistic Gem. After reading about Obie I’d love to see him fight. In fact, I’m going to Google right now to see if there is a clip. But I doubt it.

  5. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 07:56pm, 09/02/2016

    Clarence George-Thanks for the info….it appears that the the Empress Dowager Cixi was “active” into advanced age as was Empress Wu whose favorite boy toy was a “long limbed” youth whose daytime job was described as peddlar.

  6. Clarence George 05:53pm, 09/02/2016

    You might be interested, Irish, in Sir Edmund Backhouse.  What a rascal!  Many years ago, I read Hugh Trevor-Roper’s bio of him, “Hermit of Peking,” which was quite good.

  7. Clarence George 05:05pm, 09/02/2016

    Too kind, Mr. Jaeckel.  Big fan, by the way.

    A favorite of mine, Obie was indeed formidable.

    Best,

    John Milford

    P.S.  Requiescat in pace, Mr. Fuji.

  8. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 05:02pm, 09/02/2016

    Clarence George-Per BOXREC.com, during his career he KOd ten guys making their debuts….the only debutante he didn’t KO was the guy he fought in his debut. Still and yet, it must have been a realtime culture shock for some of the guys he clobbered during his time in Paris. Which reminds me, just saw a thing on the Smithsonian Channel about Empress Wu of China. Lot’s of intrigue and murder along the way, but all in all, I get the distinct feeling that she “cowgirled” her way to the throne.

  9. Richard Jaeckel 03:26pm, 09/02/2016

    Given the years of activity, Mr. Walker’s record is incredible. To have so many knockouts and to never have been stopped during that era says a lot about his grit and mettle. Another thoughtful and engaging piece by the inimitable Mr. George, an anachronism in all of the right ways.

  10. Clarence George 11:30am, 09/01/2016

    Thanks very much, Irish, glad you liked it.

    Definitely a racial component, but I also think that Obie would have been harder to ignore if he’d fought less in Europe, which was quite rightly seen as a backwater, at least as far as boxing was concerned.  Same is true of Larry Gains.

    I know exactly what you mean about guys with these prison-yard physiques.  I mean, what could you do?  As James Bond said of Oddjob, “Faced by such a man, one could only go down on one’s knees and wait for death.”  And of Donovan Grant, Bond “had no illusions about being able to beat this terrific man in unarmed combat.”  That said…007 killed both of ‘em!

  11. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 08:52am, 09/01/2016

    Clarence George-Thanks for another gem! Do you think that they would let this guy spoil the fun back in the Thirties. He had the wrong skin tone by several shades and hues, about as black as Jack Johnson, I’d say. Light skinned, seemingly pleasant, and unfailingly respectful Joe Louis was just right , thank you. Some of these fireplugs with 20 plus inch necks are damn near impervious to being KOed, I see them out in public and I wonder just what it would take to get the job done, clearly not a bare knuckled fist.

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