only things Lew Jenkins ever got or learned came through fighting.
He was one of those hard-luck, hardscrabble kids that this country
produced in considerable quantity during the 1930s but Jenkins was
blessed with a quicker right hand than most and was able to turn fisticuffs
into something like a real living.
It started when he was a kid, the second oldest of seven children,
following the cotton harvest from one end of Texas to the other with
his family, sleeping in tents because it cost $5 a month to rent a
house and they didn’t have an extra $5 to spare for such luxuries.
Some of his first fights were next to a pie shop in Sweetwater
where the winner would be awarded a pie.
Lew’s father died when the boy was 16 so Lew joined a traveling carnival
as a boxer, taking on all comers. On a good night he might clear a
couple of dollars. The carnival folded its tents after a couple of
years so Lou joined the Army, a natural enough move for a fighting
man. He won the Fort Bliss title and came back to Texas,
where he fought for money in New Orleans or Houston
or Wherever, or for fun in a bar or honky tonk.
“You may have guessed that Lew Jenkins was not one of this planet’s
gentle creatures,” the late Larry K. King wrote of Jenkins in 1968.
“He drank whiskey as if Prohibition had wired him it was coming back
on the next train. The reckless way he roared around on his motorcycle
might have caused the Hell’s Angel’s to shave, find work and join
the JayCees. If you thought you could best Lew Jenkins at anything
back in those days – dice or brawling or barking at the moon – why,
he would give you a chance to put your money where your mouth was.”
This is further evidence of dyanamite in small packages. Lew Jenkins
was 5-foot-7 and a shade under 130 pounds before lunch. He was once
described as looking like “a floor mop walking on its stick end.”
As such, Jenkins was considered a perfect foil for Lightweight Champion
Lou Ambers, who need a warm-up bout before going on to bigger game.
We can assume that someone must have told Jenkins he was a sacrificial
lamb in his appearance at Madison Square Garden on that May night
in 1940, but there is not a scrap of evidence that he believed it.
Why should he have? He’d won his last 14 fights, the last eight by
knockout. The Sweetwater Swatter swatted Ambers around for three rounds
before knocking him out and taking the title. Then we went out and
had 15 quick ones at a local bar.
“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 the skinny little Texas,” Robert W. Neubert wrote of Jenkins
for Sports Illustrated in 1968.
Sportswriter Red Smith described Jenkins’ bout against a skillful
boxer named Tippy Larkin that ended with Jenkins commenting on Larkin,
“That man was the most knocked-out man I ever knocked out.”
Jenkins lost the title to Sammy Angott on a 15-round decision less
than two weeks after the bombing
of Pearl Harbor. He kept fighting, not for titles, but for paychecks
and for fun. He drank as much as he fought and thought nothing of
mixing the two. In a non-title rematch with Ambers, he admitted to
seeing double after several hours of pre-fight preparation at a bar.
It took him until the eighth round to dispatch Ambers that time, by
which time Jenkins was almost sober but not quite modest, wondering
aloud, “How come it took me longer to knock him out this time?”
Lew joined the Coast Guard in 1942, his outfit participating in landings
on Sicily and Salerno, in Burma and at Normandy on D-Day. Lew was
a fighting man, but he wasn’t fighting in this war. He was transporting
troops to do the fighting, and bringing back the ones who didn’t make
it. He agonized over being on the sidelines during the fight that
really mattered. His last professional bout was on April 14, 1950,
when he knocked out Beau Jack in the sixth round.
Jenkins enlisted in the Army again in 1950, and this time he ended
up where a fighting man wanted to be, in the thick of it in ther Korean
War. His courage there earned him the Silver Star. He returned home,
quit drinking and settled down, by all accounts a model citizen. He
died in 1981 at the age of 64 and is buried in Arlington National
Cemetery, a fitting site for a fighting man like Lew Jenkins.
© Clay Coppedge
September 15, 2014 Column
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