Originally created 02/10/02

Lord of the ring



The legend of Sidney Walker began in the 1930s as a shoeshine boy who set up shop on the corner of Ninth and Broad.

It ended some 70 years later on Miami's South Beach, where he ran the shoeshine concession at the ritzy Fountainbleu Hotel in the years before his death in February 2000.

And somewhere in between, the scrappy 133-pound African-American kid from Waynesboro became boxing legend Beau Jack, two-time lightweight champion of the world.

"He is probably, inside the world of boxing, known for being connected to Augusta more than James Brown," said Tom Moraetes, who runs the Augusta Boxing Club. "Boxing has taken me all over the country, from Detroit to New York to Miami to San Francisco. And everywhere I go, when the boxing community finds out I'm from Augusta, they immediately think of Beau Jack."

Fannie Smith thinks about Beau Jack every day. The 81-year-old South Augusta resident is his older sister.

"I'm still proud of him today," Ms. Smith said. "I had the first pair of boxing gloves he got, but I gave them to one of his sons. Things like that, his children should get. I've got the memories. And I've got lots of stories."

The story began for Beau Jack in the unlikeliest of places, on the hallowed grounds of the Augusta National Golf Club.

The unusual relationship between Jack and some of Augusta National's most prominent figures - including Masters Tournament co-founders Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts - has been chronicled in a pair of books: The Making of the Masters by David Owen and The Masters - Golf, Money and Power in Augusta, Georgia by Curt Sampson.

"There's one man I owe all these good things for, and I want him to get all the credit he can get - Bobby Jones," Jack said in a 1979 Augusta Chronicle story, on the eve of his induction into the Georgia Hall of Fame.

Jack's boxing career began in the 1930s fighting battle royals - five black men in the ring, all blindfolded, with the last man standing declared the winner. The bouts were held at the old Bon Air Hotel as a diversion for Augusta National members.

Legend has it that young Sidney Walker won six straight battle royals and caught the attention of Jones and Roberts.

Longtime Augusta National club steward Bowman Milligan hired Walker as a locker room attendant. Milligan, at the time, claimed to have given him the name Beau Jack.

But according to Jack's sister, Fannie Smith, it was their 109-year-old grandmother who first referred to him by that name.

"The reason I started fighting, I went home and told my grandmother that a boy had taken my shoeshine polish and my money, and I was crying," Walker said in The Masters.

After he fought the boy and knocked him out when he returned one week later, Walker said his grandmother considered him "reborn," and renamed him "Beau Jack."

"Yep. ... That's true. That's how he got the name Beau Jack," Ms. Smith said.

After working at Augusta National for about five years, Jack was given financial backing from club members to help launch his boxing career.

In 1997, an aging Jack told boxing writer Peter Heller that it was Jones who put up $500 and convinced some 50 Augusta National members to contribute $50 each for the young fighter. Cliff Roberts said he was the one responsible for rallying the members' financial support.

Regardless of whom was responsible, Beau Jack's professional career began in 1940, with all but two of his first 28 fights staged in Holyoke, Mass., according to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

In 1941, Jack earned a draw and a victory over a pair of top-10 contenders and caught the eye of New York fight promoters. And it was in the Big Apple where Jack became a boxing legend.

Boxing historians say Jack was a huge hit with the fans because of his boundless energy and relentless, non-stop punching style.

"He had the great chin and great heart," boxing historian Hank Kaplan told The Miami Herald after Jack died from complications of Parkinson's disease. "He would take away the other fighter's science. What a tremendous competitor."

Less than a year after he arrived on the New York fight scene, Jack won the New York "world" lightweight title, beating the legendary Tippy Larkin before a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 18, 1942.

Jack went on to lose the title in May 1943, dropping a 15-round decision to Bob Montgomery, who eventually became his fiercest rival. The 133-pound dynamo reclaimed the title from Montgomery, known as the Philadelphia Bobcat, six months later, before losing it back for good in March 1944.

Five months later, Jack and Montgomery made history when they met for the final time in a non-title bout at Madison Square Garden in August 1944.

Jack won in 10 rounds. More importantly, the fight earned a record $35 million with proceeds going toward the United States' efforts in World War II.

To gain entry to the fight, fans had to purchase a war bond. Jack and Montgomery received $1 as their purse, and Jack later called the fight his proudest moment.

By then, though, Jack's best days were behind him. He fought once more for the lightweight title in July 1948, but was outclassed by fellow legend Ike Williams. The fight was stopped after six rounds.

From there, Jack fought 31 more times over the next seven years. His final bout came on Aug. 12, 1955 in Augusta, when he defeated Williams, now a former champion past his prime, by TKO in nine rounds.

Jack retired with a career record of 83-24-5 with 40 knockouts. He still owns the Madison Square Garden record for most main-event appearances (21). In March 1944, he fought three main events at the storied arena, also a Garden record to this day.

Inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991, Jack spent the final years of his life in Miami Beach, where he trained fighters at Miami's famed Fifth Street Gym in the 1980s before becoming the club's manager.

Back in 1991, at the height of his days as a trainer at the Fifth Street Gym, fight doctor Ferdie Pacheco praised Jack for his boxing knowledge.

"Beau Jack knows boxing," Pacheco told The Miami Herald. "He has an almost religious reverence for boxing. If he can implement what he teaches, some kid would be world champion."

When he landed at the Fountainbleu Hotel in the early 1990s, Jack had come full circle. But no longer was he "The Augusta Shoeshine Boy," as he was known during his New York glory days of the early 1940s.

He was Sidney "Beau Jack" Walker, boxing legend.

"His story is really amazing," Moraetes said. "To come from where he came from, and to get the backing of all those wealthy white people at Augusta National from the pristine sport of golf, and to become one of the greatest fighters of all time is really intriguing."

Reach Rob Mueller at (706) 823-3425.

Who he is: Beau Jack

What he did: The Waynesboro native was a two-time lightweight champion of the world in the early 1940s. He also holds the Madison Square Garden record for most main-event appearances, with 21.

Bet you didn't know: While Jack was managing the shoeshine concession at the Fountainbleu Hotel on Miami's South Beach, Muhammad Ali made it a point to stop by every day he was in town and tip him $100 for a shine.

In his own words: "When you walk up those steps and see that ring - Jesus - you don't see anybody but somebody is there. If you don't get yourself in perfect shape, there are two people waiting for you. The first is death. The next one is you. If you're not ready, you'll go on the rest of your life and you won't know your own self." - Beau Jack, at age 71, in a 1992 Miami Herald story about the famed Fifth Street Gym on South Beach.