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Original Issue

The Ironclad Punching Bag

Prizefighters with the capacity to absorb punishment, whether or not they can dish it out, are generally crowd favorites. All the world loves the gutsy underdog who can take a beating and still come up for more. So it was natural that everyone loved Joe Grim.

A turn-of-the-century lightweight, born Saverio Giannone, Grim was the wonder of his time. Records of his earliest fights are sketchy, but it is generally believed he never fought below his weight division; certainly, no record of such a fight can now be found. On the other hand, he was always going in over his weight. And he was always being slugged to the canvas, only to bounce up and come in for more.

A New York columnist once extolled this Italian-born fighter's tenacity and courage. "Joe Grim had participated in perhaps 500 bouts," he wrote, "but a little more than half have been recorded. After getting up from a knockdown, the thick-necked pug—who stood but five-foot-seven—would get up, grin and clap his gloved hands together, mocking applause for his rival, and resume fighting with added fury."

For all his endurance, Grim was a surprisingly light puncher who apparently scored only three knockouts in his career. On the other hand, he was kayoed only three times. Because he was impervious to all but the hardest blows, he seldom bothered to block punches or to roll with them. His style was to tear in and keep swinging, hit or miss. Sometimes, after a particularly tough fight, he would turn handsprings or dance a jig before leaving the ring. The fans ate it up.

On occasion, to goad a cautious boxer into action, Grim would stick out his tongue or his chin and invite his opponent to take a free shot. "Hit me good, not a tap," he would say. Boxers who fell for the invitation usually found themselves being outfought and looking silly when they couldn't floor him.

Cartoonist and boxing Writer Robert Edgren once said of Grim, "Knocking the Iron Man down with fists is a waste of time and effort, for he keeps getting up. To drop Grim for a long count, a boxer—if permitted—should use a crowbar or a baseball bat."

Grim's professional debut in 1903 was an auspicious one, in its way. During that first year he took on four men who at various times held no fewer than six world titles. There was Barbados Joe Walcott (later to become world welterweight champion), Philadelphia Jack O'Brien (light heavyweight champ), Joe Gans (lightweight) and Bob Fitzsimmons (middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight). Fitzsimmons dropped Grim repeatedly—some say 17 times—in their fight and stared goggle-eyed at the young lightweight as he kept struggling to his feet.

One reason Grim consistently rated such topflight opposition was his utility as a human punching bag. He didn't hit hard enough to worry opponents excessively, and he made such a good and durable target. And there was always the possibility of knocking him out and gaining notoriety for the feat.

Grim's b√™te noire, the man who played Tony Zale to his Rocky Graziano, was Sailor Burke, a savage puncher of the era who fought him four times with pulverizing results. In their first bout in 1905 the Sailor won in three rounds. In May of the following year Grim met Burke again, and after being staggered and dropped repeatedly through the first two rounds, he was kayoed in the third—his first knockout. Grim protested the decision and offered to fight Burke again, which he did exactly one month later. The script was identical. Burke kept flooring Grim, only to see the smaller boxer rise to his feet. For six rounds they traded blows and—despite the knockdowns—it went for no decision. Burke was disgruntled. "I don't know how he stood the six rounds," he said. "I want another crack at him."

Grim obliged. The following April they fought another six-rounder that was notable chiefly for the carnage and Grim's tenacity. In the end the referee called it a draw.

Grim's achievement, such as it was, could never be repeated today. Modern regulations usually require a knockout anytime a fighter is felled three times in one round, and any fighter with as many adverse decisions as Grim would probably be banned from the ring. Neither would Grim's appalling mismatches have been tolerated today. One opponent was Heavyweight Jack Johnson, who outweighed Grim by about 50 pounds. They met on July 24, 1905 and Johnson, of course, battered Grim all over the ring. Estimates of how many times Grim went down range as high as 20, this in six rounds. Grim was still on his feet at the end though his face was a bloody mess and it was called "no decision." Johnson told him, "For a little man, you sure can take big punches." Grim responded by doing a somersault.

Some of Grim's engagements were true endurance affairs. He fought numerous 20-rounders, including 12 in 1908—10 of them in a row—going the distance each time. Thus, in a single year's fighting (with several six-rounders thrown in), he had amassed as many rounds of competition as most of today's fighters manage in a lifetime.

Although he fought occasionally afterward, 1908 was Grim's last year of serious competition. He went to Europe in 1910, appearing in several exhibition matches and one furious 12-rounder with Sam McVey, an American heavyweight who knocked him out for only the second time in his career. ("I was stale," Grim told reporters.) Returning to the United States, he turned promoter and matchmaker, and with a partner started an arena in Philadelphia. After putting together a few cards, Grim took off for Calgary for a match with Luther McCarty, the 6'4", 205-pound current "white hope" being built to try for Johnson's title. McCarty managed to knock out Grim for the third and last time in the fourth round of their brawl. Grim came back to Philadelphia, promoted some more fights, lost his club and closed out his ring career.

In later years Grim's amazing durability came to the attention of the medical profession, and he was asked to undergo tests to determine the source of his tolerance for punishment. Doctors looked him over closely, and he was finally released from the hospital with a $500 check for his trouble. The report was less than informative. It said Joe Grim was, after all, only human.