The gospel according to Phony Joe

By Pete Ehrmann on February 18, 2016
The gospel according to Phony Joe
Phony Joe Percente took credit for blinding Roosevelt in his left eye in a sparring session.

Genuine Joe Percente did give Battling Nelson four epic scraps before the latter became lightweight champion of the world…

It was bad enough that whoever stole the identity of Joe Percente first besmirched it in the ring where the old-time Milwaukee lightweight had punched out a reputation as an honest, all-out battler.

But then faux Joe compounded the fraud by sticking “Reverend” in front of his counterfeit name and traveling the Bible Belt spouting a gospel predicated on more preposterous lies.

Contrary to what his pulpit pounding imposter claimed, the real Joe Percente was never lightweight champion of the world. Not the bantamweight champion, either, nor the boxing coach and hunting pal of President Teddy Roosevelt, or a high rolling bootlegger and gambler, and henchman of Al Capone.

Genuine Joe — born Giuseppe Pashente in Italy on Leap Day, 1876 — did give Battling Nelson four epic scraps before the latter became lightweight champion; and in fact Percente deprived himself of a stunning knockout victory over the famously durable Dane on December 7, 1900. George Siler, who refereed the bout, recalled it in his book “Inside Facts on Pugilism.”

“Joe could hit like a pile driver, but was a rattle-headed fighter and was apt to lose battles by hitting an opponent when down,” wrote Siler. “It took Joe one round to size (Nelson) up, and in the second he knocked him cold with a wallop on the jaw. Joe was in good fighting humor when he scored the knockdown, and, instead of stepping back as he was ordered he sneaked in behind me and handed Nelson another wallop, which cost him the fight [by disqualification].”

Percente won a rematch by decision in Milwaukee on November 15, ’01, and The Milwaukee Journal reported “Nelson saved himself twice by going down on his knees to avoid punishment.”

Their third fight was a draw, and in their final meeting in ‘02 Nelson got the decision. Ancient news reports say Percente once knocked Nelson cold in a sparring session at Barnickel’s gym in Milwaukee.

Against Henry Howard, who had 20 pounds on him, Percente hit him so hard on the right bicep in the second round (after having been floored several times in the first) it broke Howard’s arm and the fight was over.

Joe’s fights with turn-of-the-century lightweights Jake Magmer, Perry Queenan, Harry Fails and others were corkers, win or lose. In ’01 he seemed to have handled Adam Ryan in their 10-round bout in Kenosha, only to have referee Sig Hart award the decision to the latter.

“Percente seemed dazed but with true Italian characteristics he seized a chair and started for the referee,” reported the Kenosha News. “His friends rushed into the ring and pulled Joe back into his corner. It was with trouble that the police of the city kept the angry crowd from taking vengeance on the man who had robbed (Percente) of a hard-earned victory.”

One day in late 1902, Percente collapsed while doing roadwork. Working in a paint store had given him Painter’s Cholera, a form of lead poisoning. Doctors said his heart was permanently affected and told him to quit boxing. After a few more bouts in which he was far from his old self, Joe listened and in ’03 he started hawking newspapers on a busy corner in downtown Milwaukee.

The other guy picked the wrong place to debut his Joe Percente impersonation a year later. The real Joe was so well known in Oshkosh, about 75 miles from Milwaukee, that the phony was promptly arrested and run out of town. He took his act to several other Wisconsin cities, claiming to have had 137 fights against the likes of Nelson, George Dixon and Terry McGovern (Real Joe never fought the latter pair). After losing a desultory bout to an unknown in La Crosse, he drifted to Iowa, set up shop as a boxing instructor and was jailed for stealing cigars from a bowling alley.

Over the ensuing years occasional red flags went up in the press about the fraudulent Percente. But they were outnumbered by headlines like the one in the February 25, 1908 Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania Record: “Percente did not live up to reputation.” The story said ersatz Joe “put up one of the poorest fights ever given before the local club” in losing to Joe Gorman the night before, and that he would have to “go faster than he did last night to show the local boys that he was ever in Battling Nelson’s class, which he claims.”

The discovery that it wasn’t the real Percente knocked out by Johnny King in Memphis on March 24, ’09 almost killed boxing in Tennessee, where it’d just been legalized.

No wonder that back in Milwaukee it was reported, “Joe Percente says that he is a peace loving person but he would like to meet the fellow who has taken his name. Joe adds, however, that he would not have minded so much if the other fellow would have made anything more of it than he did.”

If it was any consolation, Real Joe became better known than ever as dean of Milwaukee newsies. He spearheaded numerous collections for charity, and when he found a woman’s purse containing a week’s wages in cash his determination to find her and give it back made headlines.

After he developed severe rheumatism in 1928 and could no longer work, Joe’s fellow newsies raised enough money to send him to Hot Springs, Arkansas for treatment. But he died on March 10 at 51.

By then his imposter had been traveling the sawdust trail for several years “administering right crosses, uppercuts and rabbit punches for the devil to absorb.”

In appearances at backwater tabernacles throughout the south and southwest in the ‘30s, Phony Joe claimed to have had 300-plus fights and added the famous names of Pedlar Palmer, Young Griffo, Kid McCoy and even Stanley Ketchel to the list of his opponents. He once said he won the lightweight crown by knocking out Battling Nelson in London; sometimes he said it was the bantamweight title.

He took credit not only for teaching Teddy Roosevelt how to box, but also for blinding Roosevelt in his left eye in a sparring session. Phony Joe also said he guided Teddy on his post-presidential big game hunting expedition to Africa, and bagged a couple lions himself. Roosevelt’s eye was in fact rendered sightless in a sparring match, but it was a young military attaché in the other corner, not Phony Joe. There is no record of a Joe Percente in TR’s African entourage.

How did Phony Joe get religion in the first place? In 1925 the Indianapolis News reported he had been “converted a year ago at a revival conducted in Evansville by Jack Cardiff, another former fighter.” Curiously, the same Cardiff beat Phony Joe in a bout in Hazleton, Pennsylvania on April 23, 1908.

In his standard “From Prize Ring to Pulpit” harangues, Phony Joe didn’t mention Cardiff. While he was running big gambling houses in Evansville and Chicago, he said, a banker friend embezzled $75,000 and lost it in one of Joe’s establishments. The friend was arrested and hung himself in jail. Wracked with guilt, Phony Joe was on his way to drown himself in the river when “suddenly there appeared out of the blackness a face, a kindly, friendly face; the face of the Lord Jesus Christ! These words came: ‘Follow me and I will make you my witness.’ In a twinkling, the load had dropped.”

Later he dropped other loads, adding gangster and bootlegger to his résumé, a partners-in-crime relationship with Al Capone and a stretch at the federal pen in Atlanta for bank robbery or violating the Volstead Act (he said each on different occasions) that never happened either.

On December 14, 1941, reported the Paris, Texas News, “The Reverend Joe Percente, formerly a lightweight champion, refereed a series of boxing matches in Bonham Street Athletic Club for benefit of the Children’s Emergency Home.” His trail petered out after that.

Phony Joe once boasted he’d saved more than 1,100 souls. I’d like to think his own eternal salvation was contingent upon getting past the rock-fisted slugger whose name he copped. If that’s how it went down, the Rev. Percente didn’t stand a chance in hell.

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  1. Your Name 01:42pm, 03/22/2016

    according to my father the Italian spelling of my grandfathers name was Pashanti came over on a cattle boat solo age 9 mother was apparently widow came saved money and sent for him nuns apparently took care of him in interim.

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