Ten-Count for Jack Obermayer

By Robert Mladinich on June 25, 2016
Ten-Count for Jack Obermayer
The only things he liked as much as boxing was vintage diners and locomotives.

In the end it was reported that he attended 3,514 live shows in 49 states and over 400 cities…

Jack “KO JO” Obermayer, a ubiquitous ringside presence at boxing shows large and small for six decades, passed away on the morning of June 25 after a long illness. He was 72 years old. Obermayer had survived a liver transplant nearly a decade ago, only to later be afflicted with the spinal cancer that took his life. 

Showtime commentator Steve Farhood, who has been ringside in one capacity or another for 38 years, recalls meeting Obermayer in his earliest days on the boxing beat.

“What made KO JO unique among the fraternity of boxing writers was that he loved the sport so much, he would often go to the smallest club shows in the most remote locations,” said Farhood.

“As a result, he went to fights in virtually every state and hundreds of cities, which became his trademark.”

Another Obermayer trademark was his colorful diner reports from the road. The only things he liked as much as boxing was vintage diners and locomotives.

While en route to a boxing show, he thought nothing of making a 50-mile detour for one of his beloved eateries, which would become as much a part of his fight report as the fights themselves.

Obermayer also kept stacks of spiral notebooks dating back more than a half century that served as his personal diaries. They chronicled each and every fight on a show, whether it was at Madison Square Garden, a nightclub parking lot or a high school gym.

He had easy access to those notebooks, and could be easily called upon for a scouting report on a four- or six-round fighter who might have last entered the ring several years earlier.

“Long before Boxrec.com, Jack could tell you all of the nuances of a four-round fighter who never got past that stage in his career,” said longtime boxing figure Mike Marley. “He was a walking, talking boxing encyclopedia.”

While serving in a U.S. Army engineer battalion in Vietnam from 1966 to 1967, Obermayer was such a rabid boxing fan he wrote a letter to Lew Eskin, who was then the publisher of “Boxing Illustrated” magazine.

Obermayer told Eskin if he made it home, he would like nothing better than to write for his magazine.

During that time he also used one of his military leaves to travel to Bangkok, Thailand, to see Walter McGowan lose his WBC flyweight title to Chartchai Chionoi by ninth round TKO on December 30, 1966. The very next day, Obermayer flew back to Vietnam to celebrate the New Year with his colleagues.

Obermayer never got a full-time job with Eskin, but he became a constant contributor to the magazine and a top archivist in the sport. He was also one of the only people that was welcomed into the fold of the mysterious Malcolm “Flash” Gordon, who published the now treasured “Tonight’s Boxing Program” in the 1970s. 

In 2005 Obermayer was thrilled to have attended a card in Cheyenne, Wyoming, which marked the 48th state in which he saw a live show. At that time, the only states in which he had not sat ringside were South Dakota and Alaska. The Wyoming show was his 2,950th, and Obermayer was determined to — and ultimately did — break the 3,000 mark.

In the end it was reported that he attended 3,514 live shows in 49 states and over 400 cities.

“Pete Rose had over 4,000 hits in baseball, which is played every day, and he’s not in the Hall of Fame for reasons that occurred off the field,” said longtime photographer Teddy B. Blackburn, who Obermayer affectionately referred to as “Buttons” because Blackburn once showed up at a 1980s show missing a button on his shirt.

“KO JO managed to attend over 3,000 fight cards, which are not held every day. To me that makes him worthy of the Hall of Fame. Everyone looked forward to Jack’s road reports, especially the way he described the diners and his favorite dishes.” 

“I’ve been going to fights since 1963,” said the always enthusiastic Obermayer in 2005, who then looked eternally youthful at the age of 61.

“My first show ever was the Cassius Clay-Doug Jones fight at the old [Madison Square] Garden. The day the tickets went on sale, I was eighth in line. I said I wanted two ringside seats, but was told the best available seats were in the twelfth row.

“It was a learning experience. I’ll never forget that night. The place was packed, it was a great fight, and there were cops on horseback. I always loved boxing, but from that day on I was hooked on being there live.”

Obermayer was most often accompanied on his travels by Jeff Jowett, whom he affectionately referred to as Jowett Boy.

In fact, just about everyone Obermayer and Jowett interacted with in the fight game was assigned a nickname. Matchmaker Eric Bottjer was called “The Creep,” promoter Don Elbaum was “The Bum,” Farhood, was “Fah-huud” in recognition of his Lebanese heritage, and Marley was “Marlowitz” because Marley once told Obermayer of his use of a Jewish moniker to spare himself embarrassment during an amateur fight against a top New England amateur named Johnny Coiley who Marley knew he had no chance of beating.
A native of Staten Island, New York, Obermayer resided in Lindenwold, New Jersey, where he worked part-time at Fight Fax, the non-cyber precursor to Boxrec.com. In his other career, from which he was long retired, he was the office manager of a small plastics firm owned by the father of his ex-wife.

He must have been so effective at his job, his former father-in-law allowed him the time off to engage in his passion of traveling to fights, whether it was by car, rail or train.

“He gave me a lot of freedom. Even after his daughter and I broke up, he was very understanding,” said Obermayer, the twice-divorced father of Ellen and grandfather to several children. At the time of his passing, Obermayer’s longtime partner was a lovely woman named Darlene.

Among Obermayer’s favorite venues were the fabled Blue Horizon (“not just because it is close to home”), and Michael’s Eighth Avenue in Glen Burnie, Maryland, which he said had “great atmosphere because promoter Scott Wagner has gone to great lengths to create it.”

Over the years Obermayer has attended fights at some venues where only a hearty few would trek.

“I was at one show in North Philadelphia, where you had to duck down to get in the door,” he said. “The place had no name, because it was really just a garage.”

He’s also been to fights at large and small venues in Nevada and California, as well as Yankee and Shea Stadiums. Some of his favorite fights occurred at MSG’s Felt Forum in the 1970s.

“They were always matching Puerto Ricans with Dominicans, and there were some wars,” recalled Obermayer. “Many times there were better fights in the stands than there were in the ring.”

Although he was not exactly a curmudgeon, Obermayer, who was of Italian, German, Irish, Polish and Scottish descent, was entranced by all things vintage. He harkened back to a simpler times — especially the days before boxing had multiple titlists and diners advertised new-age eating experiences. 

“I’m kind of a simple guy, and my fascination with diners comes from the fact that they remind me of my teenage years,” he recalled. “My mother would send me off to church, and I would kill the time I was supposed to be in church at the local diner.”

When Obermayer met up with Jowett Boy in Atlantic City in the 1970s, he knew right away that, despite some differences, they were kindred spirits. Both were diehard fans, inveterate record keepers, and aficionados of anything anachronistic. 

“We have totally different personalities, we’re like ying and yang but we mix well,” said Obermayer. “We’ve been traveling together a long time, and still argue about the same things. It’s almost like a boxing marriage.”

Among Obermayer’s favorite old-time fighters were Emile Griffith and Chico Vejar, both of whom he says had names he always thought were “intriguing and cool.”

Among his favorite characters he met over the years were “Gypsy” Joe Harris, Tim Witherspoon, and Ray “Windmill” White, all of whom, he said, “had old time styles and/or great personalities.”

“Tim (Witherspoon) is still a kid at heart,” said Obermayer. “And he’s always got a smile on his face.”

In many ways Obermayer was also a kid at heart.  Jack Hirsch, the former president of the Boxing Writers Association of America, sometimes put Obermayer up at his home when KO JO was in New York for a fight.

One time, in his fight report, Obermayer was critical of the accommodations, but Hirsch said that rather than being offended he bowled over with laughter when he read it.

Another time, Hirsch was congratulating someone about their child graduating from high school and the always blunt Obermayer chimed in, “What’s the big deal? Isn’t that what kids are supposed to do?”

Obermayer always ignored any descriptions of him being a boxing eccentric — or even a character in a sport full of characters. 

“Boxing is my passion, and I’m lucky to have one,” he explained in 2005. “I’m hooked on the sport, whether I’m watching four-round preliminary kids or 12-round title fights. Sometimes I get a bit jaded, and I don’t get as excited over things as I used to.

“The funny thing is that I used to have lots of boxing heroes, but now I’m older than most of them. My three favorite fighters of the modern era are Rocky Lockridge, Bobby Chacon, and (the late) Matthew Saad Muhammad, and I’m older than all of them.”

A veteran of 23 amateur fights, of which he won 16, Obermayer never had any illusions about turning pro even though he patterned his stance after Joey Archer.

“I’m very happy doing what I’m doing,” he laughed. “I don’t think the boxing world is any better or worse off over the fact that I never turned pro.”

While there might not be any lingering significance as to whether or not Obermayer fought professionally, he left quite a legacy, especially among longtime ringside cognoscenti. He was the recipient of an award from the Boxing Writers Association of America for Long and Meritorious Service, and was a member of the New Jersey and Pennsylvania Boxing Halls of Fame.

Despite being extremely frail, Hirsch was thrilled to see Obermayer earlier this month at the International Boxing Hall of Fame induction weekend in Canastota, New York.

“He made it to Canastota despite his condition,” said Hirsch. “I looked at it as his last hurrah because somehow he found the strength to come.” 

Hirsch last saw Obermayer ringside at the Errol Spence vs. Chris Algieri fight at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn in April 2016. Obermayer was seated in the second row of the press section, despite often being a few rows further back. 

At one point he turned around and asked Hirsch if he thought he was placed there out of sympathy. Hirsch said yes.

“Jack was a boxing guy through and through,” said Hirsch. “He thought nothing of traveling several hours one way to a small live show, sometimes a few times a week. No one else can come close to that. He was a true boxing junkie.”

Knowing the end was near, Hirsch and boxing historian Neil Terens drove three hours to see Obermayer five days before he died. When the visit was ending, Hirsch said goodbye, kissed Obermayer on the forehead, and told him he loved him.

Obermayer, who was not known for his sentimentality, gave Hirsch two pats on the behind the way ballplayers do after scoring a run.

“Take care of yourself,” said KO JO.

“He had made several comebacks in the past,” said Hirsch. “But when we left that day I knew that was the last time I would see KO JO alive — at least in this lifetime. It was only fitting that he died on the day of a big show at the Barclays (Keith Thurman vs. Shawn Porter). Somehow I think there is some significance to that.”

Services will held from 2:00 pm to 4:00 pm and 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm on Thursday, June 30, at the Harmon Funeral Home, 571 Forest Avenue, Staten Island, NY, phone 718-442-5056.

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  1. JEFF DUNNING 11:54am, 07/16/2016

    Great tribute…kind of reminds me of myself being that I would go to so many fights, wherever. Army 64’, letters to writers, etc. I got on with my life but surly would have been with Jack if not. God now be kind to the Man…RIP

  2. Sean Matheny 01:50pm, 06/26/2016

    What a great guy who knew more about boxing than nearly anyone alive.  RIP buddy….I’ll sure miss our talks at the Steel Trolley Diner!

    Wonderful memorial to KO-JO Bob.

  3. Lindy Lindell 10:23am, 06/26/2016

    This is a wonderful tribute, Bob.  Heartfelt and strong on specifics.  After Don Elbaum was obliged to take an enforced absence from the game—and then returned to the Felt Forum unannounced, Jack reported in “Flash Gordon’s Tonight’s Boxing Program” that he didn’t see Elbaum, but that there had been a “Bum sighting.”

  4. Pete 09:17am, 06/26/2016

    Fine job, Bob.

  5. Bob Canobbio 11:07pm, 06/25/2016

    Jack worked a few fights on the CompuBox keys on the ‘90’s and often said to me: Bob, you need to send me to a show in Alaska. I need to get there. I would tell him if CompuBox goes to Akaska, you’re on the keys. RIP KO JO

  6. peter 06:21pm, 06/25/2016

    This is a wonderful tribute to a one-of-a-kind type of guy. There will never be another one like him. Jack MUST be inducted into ALL of the Boxing Hall of Fames—not just in NY, Philly and New Jersey. Let’s make it happen! I still have his hand-written letters from the 1960s when we wrote about our favorite fighters—Emile Griffith, Eder Jofre, Jose Stable, Howard Winstone, Jose Legra, Ismael Laguna, Antonio Amaya, Frankie Narvarez, Oscar Bonavena…

  7. Gordon Analla 03:44pm, 06/25/2016

    Gotta love a guy like that!  Hope I can make it to heaven and talk fights with him.  RIP.

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