“Philadelphia” Jack O’Brien: Jack the Giant Killer

By Norman Marcus on August 2, 2013
“Philadelphia” Jack O’Brien: Jack the Giant Killer
Jack O'Brien first fought the heavyweight champion, Tommy Burns, in Los Angeles in 1906.

His role model in the ring was the ex-heavyweight champion, the great Jim Corbett. Jack tried to model his private life after “Gentleman Jim” too…

Lost in the fog of time, Jack O’Brien sits in the dim light of boxing history. Born and raised in Philadelphia, O’Brien turned pro in 1896. He was 5’10” tall and his fighting weight was around 160 lbs. Jack fought in three divisions in his sixteen-year career, middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight. He fought some real giants of the square ring. Win or lose he usually gave a good account of himself.

His legal name was James Francis Hagen but “Philadelphia” Jack O’Brien had a better ring to it. After all, boxing has always been part show business. A sharp ring name is still a good way to help fill those seats and make a buck.

His role model in the ring was the ex-heavyweight champion, the great Jim Corbett. Jack tried to model his private life after “Gentleman Jim” too. He did a pretty good job of it. He hobnobbed with Philadelphia society. Jack was seen at the opera and the symphony on South Broad Street. He was also an accomplished violinist. O’Brien was a frequent guest at the Union League, where local aristocrats such as Anthony J. Drexel Biddle enjoyed his company. So much so that Jack fought three exhibition bouts against his friend Biddle, who fancied himself a tough guy. Biddle considered O’Brien “a fine character, a man of very good influence in the community.”(Of course Biddle said the same thing about promoter Tex Rickard, when he was brought up on statutory rape charges in 1922!) O’Brien however can best be described as an “iron hand inside a velvet glove.” He lived in two very different worlds. And just like Corbett, he was able to pull it off.

The man was a true ring artist. He was a quick two-handed puncher whose best weapons were a left jab and an overhand right. Jack could defend himself and counterpunch with the best of them. He was not known as a hard hitter but his hands were so fast and his endurance was such that the quantity of his punches made up for the quality. In the end, he won over a third of his fights by KO. The Ring Magazine’s Nat Fleischer called O’Brien “One of the fastest and most scientific fighters of his day.” He ranked Jack the number two light heavyweight of all time.

He won the light heavyweight title from Bob Fitzsimmons at the Mechanic’s Pavilion in San Francisco on December 20, 1905. Scheduled for 20 rounds, O’Brien stopped the champion in the 13th round. But Jack wasn’t really interested in that title and never defended it. The light heavyweight division has always been the stepchild of boxing. Instead, he challenged little Tommy Burns, the heavyweight champion. The two men met on November 28, 1906 in Los Angeles. The referee that night was the famous ex-heavyweight champion of the world Jim Jeffries. Shortly before the day of the fight, Jefferies was interviewed and asked who he thought would win. Amazingly, he publicly stated that he thought “OBrien was the better man.” I guess Tommy didn’t read the newspapers, because “Burns bloodied O’Brien’s nose and the latter literally ran away for the remainder of the 20 rounds.” Jack’s performance must have been better than the newspapers reported, because the bout ended in a draw!

A year later the two men fought again on May 8, 1907 at the Naud Junction Pavilion in Los Angeles. This rematch also went 20 rounds but Burns took this one easily by decision.

A little more than a year later, on June 10, 1908 in Philadelphia, O’Brien took on Jack Blackburn. In his prime Blackburn was a lightweight known as the “Philly Comet.” He was a ring artist himself with good hand speed, a dangerous jab and left hook. The crowd expected a good show.

Outside the ring, Blackburn was known to on occasion use a straight razor to win an argument. He later served time in state prison for manslaughter. After his ring career was over, he trained future champions Jackie Fields and “Jersey” Joe Walcott. But his real claim to fame was the time he spent educating the great Joe Louis. Time ran out for Blackburn with his sudden death in 1941.

The Nevada State Journal reported the six-rounder this way: “Jack O’Brien tonight defeated Jack Blackburn, colored, in a six round bout before the National Athletic Club. O’Brien knocked Blackburn down in the opening round and in the final round and had the colored man hanging on to avoid punishment. The bout was one of the fastest ever seen in this city.”

Jack continued to meet the cream of the three divisions. He took on the notorious middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel on March 26, 1909 at the National A.C. in New York. Nat Fleischer wrote, “O’Brien’s defensive skill and ring craft warded off many of the boring-in attacks by Ketchel.” The bout ended in a close loss after 10 for O’Brien, who was knocked down in the final round and saved by the bell. Many sportswriters felt that Jack had squeaked by with a win or at least a draw.

He next took on the new heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson in a six-rounder on May 19, 1909 at the National A.C. in Philadelphia. The “World Heavyweight Title was at risk because this was a no-decision bout.” The Philadelphia Inquirer reported, “Three or four times during the mix-ups, O’Brien was roughed to the floor, and once he got tangled in the ropes.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer scored for Johnson. Wilkes-Barre Times Leader had O’Brien winning three rounds, with two even, and the fifth round to Johnson… The New York Times ruled it a draw. Wire reports in multiple newspapers had it a draw. The Trenton Times reported that the referee (Jack McGuigan) stated he thought O’Brien the winner by a shade… Others gave him the decision solely for the splendid showing he made against such a tremendous physical handicap.” Johnson outweighed O’Brien by fifty pounds!

On June 9, 1909 Jack fought a rematch with Ketchel at the National A.C. in Philly. In this fight the aging O’Brien was no match for Ketchel, losing in a TKO3.

Jack fought the best middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight champions of his time. He lost to Stanley Ketchel twice, beat Bob Fitzsimmons for the light heavyweight title and fought a draw with Jack Johnson. In addition, he beat many top contenders of the era. Men such as Joe Butler, Kid Carter, Young Peter Jackson, Joe Choynski, Fireman Jim Flynn, Dixie Kid and Black Bill just to name a few.

O’Brien retired with a final record of 146-16-14 with 56 KOs.

He later operated a gym at 1658 Broadway in New York City during the 1920s and ‘30s. Middleweight champion Harry Greb was one of the fighters that trained and sparred with O’Brien at this gym. Greb was known as a very dirty fighter. Elbows, headbutts, rabbit punches etc. were all part of his arsenal. It would have been interesting to see how O’Brien’s speed and ring knowledge stood up to Greb’s barroom style. Some early film was shot of the two men stalking each other in the ring. Sadly the film has gone missing.

O’Brien continued to keep his hand in the sport. Check out the film of the first Dempsey-Tunney fight in Philadelphia in 1926. You can spot O’Brien in Dempsey’s corner. He was the champ’s chief second for this fight. But even O’Brien couldn’t stop what happened. Dempsey “forgot to duck” and lost the title to Tunney.

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Tommy Burns-Philadelphia Jack O'Brien #1 - Nov 28 1906

Boxing greats - harry greb and jack o,brien

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  1. Jane Henry 11:58am, 11/04/2014

    Found this article very interesting as I’m always looking for as much new photos / film / news about Philadelphia Jack O’Brien as possible, he was a relation of mine and I’m very proud of all he achieved all those years ago!
    Does anybody know if he ever married? I can’t find anything relating to this.

  2. Clarence George 12:54pm, 08/31/2013

    Nightmarish, as you can see:


  3. Clarence George 12:52pm, 08/31/2013

    Beaujack:  I looked today for Fiss, Doerr & Carroll.  If I’m right, it’s been replaced by a monstrosity called the Newman Vertical Campus, part of Baruch College.  So much for continuity, tradition, and history…not to mention good taste.

  4. Clarence George 08:39pm, 08/03/2013

    That’s right—Johnson died a few days before the Louis-Conn fight.  Boy, those two (Johnson and Louis) really didn’t care for each other, did they?

    Professor Heckler’s Flea Circus!  Here you go:  http://ephemeralnewyork.files.wordpress.com/2009/11/hubertsfleacircus.jpg

    Anyway, Beaujack, I’m delighted that your outstanding memories are enshrined here at Boxing.com.

  5. beaujack 08:03pm, 08/03/2013

    CG, I too love history and historic sites…Judge Crater was before my time
    and my parents would talk about the mystery of his disappearance in 1930…I love to be involved with fighters of the past.
    ‘For Example. In the 1940s my dad took me to Hubert’s Flea Circus on E42 St, near B’way where the oldtime Champion Jack Johnson was appearing. We went downstairs to see an old Jack Johnson wearing a beret ,punching a bag and shaking hands with the guests. I shook his hand along with my dad, and others. At that time I a young boy, didn’t understand the significance of “lil Arthur”, but I soon learned his greatness in boxing history. About a few years later Jack Johnson died
    in an auto crash driving to see the second Louis /Conn fight.
    The stars of the Hubert Flea Circus were trained fleas pulling a small chariot around…Hubert"s was next door to a large deli called Grant’s
    where my dad would take me to before the Friday night bouts at the old MSG…Wonderful days for a youngster like me. Yessir !

  6. Clarence George 06:04pm, 08/03/2013

    Beaujack:  This is from my personal collection (no, no remuneration is necessary).  Judge Crater disappeared on August 6, 1930, after leaving Billy Haas’ Chophouse, which was at 332 West 45th Street.  As you can see, it’s now a dreary parking lot.  Thought you’d appreciate it, given your knowledge of and affection for old New York.


  7. Clarence George 03:18am, 08/03/2013

    Another gem of a reminiscence, Beaujack.

    Fiss, Doerr & Carroll was indeed on East 24th, between Lex and Third—http://www.flickr.com/photos/_lgbt_urban_sophisticates_/743090904/in/photostream/.  I don’t know what’s left of the structure, but I’ll look into it—any excuse to go back in time to old New York.

  8. beaujack 09:14pm, 08/02/2013

    Nice article about Phil. Jack O’Brien. An interesting moment happened to me in the 1940s. While walking on I believe E.24st in NY City, I happened to pass a building with a bronze sign on the wall. It said this was the site of the Fisk and Doerr Horse Stables ...Reading about Stanley Ketchel and his times before, I recalled this was the place where Stanley Ketchel fought
    Phil Jack O’Brien in 1909 when the fight ended with the unconscious O’Briens head laying in the resin box at the end of the fight…Reading that sign was an eery feeling for me visualizing that event in 1909.

  9. George Thomas Clark 10:43am, 08/02/2013

    To see a little more of O’Brien and Greb, Google Greb and watch a nine-minute video of his training, which includes some light sparring with Greb.  Also offers great footage of Greb and Mickey Walker signing their fight contract.

  10. Matt McGrain 08:12am, 08/02/2013

    He gets the rough end of the stick sometimes, O’Brien, but sometimes with good reason - I believe it was the first Burns fight that was a straight up fix.  Burns reneged at the handshake and O’Brien just took off around the ring like a scared hare.  But I agree that he’s under-rated.  The work he did at middle gets forgotten - he entered the division when it was being dominated by Walcott and Ryan and got a result against both men.  Not many can say that.  But it was looking into his domination of the series with Sullivan that impresses me most - there’s a guy who got by purely on science against bigger and smaller men but just got out-boxed.  Kelly, Burns, West, Choynski…guy was a brilliant fighter.

    Nice to see the spotlight upon him.

  11. Lee 08:06am, 08/02/2013

    Wasn’t it O’Brien’s successor Jack Dillon that was known as The Giant Killer…?

  12. Clarence George 06:19am, 08/02/2013

    Nice write-up, as usual, on another in a long line of outrageously neglected or forgotten boxers.

    In his first fight with Ketchel, didn’t his head wind up in a bucket of resin?  And he lost to the great Sam Langford:  “When he appeared upon the scene of combat,” said O’Brien of “The Boston Tar Baby,” “you knew you were cooked.”

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