A small, skinny-looking man wove to the rear of a dimly lit bar on Manhattan's West Side one night in 1941, positioned himself on a. stool and ordered a shot. Two hours later he was still there, gulping down drinks and raising his voice in loud, inconsequential argument. Two hours after that he was climbing uncertainly into the ring at New York's Madison Square Garden to defend his prestige (but not his title) as the Lightweight Boxing Champion of the World.
This unpredictable pugilist was Lew Jenkins of Texas, a fighter called "the Living Death" by some sportswriters of the 1930s, "the Sweetwater Swatter" by others. It is probable that no man in the history of the ring ever wasted as many chances. Lew did most of his training on booze and his roadwork on high-speed motorcycles, yet, pound for pound, few fighters ever packed more wallop than this skinny little Texan.
Brute force rather than finesse was responsible for the knockouts Jenkins scored in more than two-thirds of his winning fights. Brute character enabled Jenkins to defeat Bob Montgomery even though he himself had a broken jaw and dislocated shoulder suffered a week before the bout. When Jerkins flattened former featherweight-title claimant Mike Belloise in 1939, his powerful punches broke several of Belloise's ribs. But it was the February 28 rematch with Lou Ambers in 1941 that marked the climax of Jenkins' hard-hitting career.
The Swatter had won the lightweight championship from Ambers the year before with a three-round knockout. Ambers later claimed that two Jenkins rights to the jaw were delivered after the bell that ended the second round. This may be debatable, but there was no doubt about the lethal legality of the blows that sent Ambers spinning to the canvas four times in the third round to give Jenkins his eighth consecutive knockout and 14th straight win.
Before he met Ambers again, Jenkins had four more fights, among them a loss to Welterweight Henry Armstrong and a draw with Fritzie Zivic in two unprecedented nontitle matches. Meanwhile, Ambers—determined to prove Jenkins' earlier kayo was a fluke—was training vigorously. He was in top shape the night that the inebriated Jenkins staggered into Madison Square Garden half an hour before the fight.
"I was so high when I got into the ring I thought I saw two Lou Ambers's in there," Jenkins says. "Everytime I missed a punch—and there were a lot of misses—I nearly fell down."
Observers sitting upwind of the alcoholic exhalings that wafted out of the ring were unaware of all this. Of 15,402 fans who paid $46,443 to see the skirmish, few had any inkling that the champion was defending his honor while bombed to the eyebrows.
Ambers, who had suffered his first knockout in an eight-year career at the end of their first meeting, weighed in at 140½ pounds against 134 for Jenkins. Since Ambers was overweight, the match could not be called a title bout, but all the ex-champ wanted was a chance to display his superiority, and he seemed to be doing just that throughout most of the second encounter.
Jenkins started the fight as if he intended to finish it in one round. As Ambers left his corner, Jenkins swung with a punch that went wild. Twice more the champion unleashed long rights to the head, but Ambers remained out of range and responded with lightning left counterpunches. The round was scored in favor of the challenger.
The second round began with Ambers plunging both hands into Jenkins' bony frame. He then stepped back and ripped a series of lefts into the champion's face. Jenkins tilted his head and assumed a puzzled, rather hurt air. But the champion's puzzlement was an illusion. A moment later he snapped a right to the jaw that staggered Ambers.
"Ambers did not go down," a ringside wit observed, "but he did a lot of funny things standing up."
What he did mostly was turn tail and stumble toward the ropes, with Jenkins following right behind. There Lew flailed away at Ambers' back until Referee Arthur Donovan stepped between them.
Notwithstanding all this, Ambers came out strong in the third round, shooting a steady stream of lefts into Jenkins' face. Jenkins backed away from the continuing attack through the fourth and fifth rounds.
The sixth was all Ambers until just before the bell, when Jenkins unsheathed one of the hardest punches of the fight, a slashing right to the jaw. Only because Ambers was backed into his corner did he avoid tumbling to the canvas. Between rounds Jenkins told his trainer he would finish off Ambers in the seventh. "It took all this time to sweat the whiskey out of me," he said later.
In the seventh round Jenkins stepped inside and pushed Ambers to the floor with a left. Ambers rose and offered a handshake after the accidental shove, but Jenkins hit him with a right. A lightning left hook tore into Ambers' jaw and left him on his feet but practically helpless. Sensing victory, the Swatter pummeled Ambers with both hands, pounding him to the floor with a right and a left to the head. Ambers' grunt was clearly audible as he slowly crumpled earthward. He struggled upward at the count of eight, but Referee Donovan moved in to stop the annihilation, and Jenkins was declared winner by a knockout in 2:26. Immediately after the fight Ambers' manager announced that his fighter was retiring.
Sitting sweat-soaked in his dressing room after the fight, the winner and now relatively sober champion—a man seldom troubled by modesty—remarked casually: "How come I didn't knock him out as quick as I did last time?"
For the next six weeks Jenkins trained as usual in the bars and taverns of the town. He met Montgomery for the third time in something less than prime condition, lost by a decision and wandered back to the bars.
Lew was finished as a champ, but his life was far from over. He joined the Coast Guard late in 1942, piloted a landing craft and was decorated by the British for his D-day heroism. After the war he reenlisted in the Army, tried the ring once more and, after a couple of years of mediocrity, became a hillbilly singer. Today Lew Jenkins is the greenkeeper at the Antioch golf course in California, where he dodges balls instead of jabs. He never touches hard liquor.