His birth name was Joseph Jaworski, but by the time he started fighting for a living in the early 1920s he changed it to Joe Jawson. And then he was known as “Iron Jaw” Jawson, because not even the hardest-punching lightweights could knock him off his feet until, after over 100 fights, Billy Petrolle did it.
He wasn’t a great fighter or even the best lightweight in his hometown, but Milwaukee Journal sportswriter George F. Downer pegged it right when he wrote in 1924: “Joe Jawson always gives the fans a run for their money and is deserving of the good opinion which they hold of him. The clean-cut, slashing style of Jawson in the ring compels admiration from real lovers of boxing.”
That slashing style was trouble for champions Sammy Mandell, Pinkey Mitchell and Mushy Callahan, and such top-ranked 135-pound contenders as Petrolle (who had a couple tough 10-rounders with Jawson before he became the only man to knock him out, in 1927), Tommy O’Brien, Sailor Friedman, and Milwaukee’s greatest lightweight, Richie Mitchell.
Two years after Mitchell, the older brother of charter junior welterweight champion Pinkey, had come within a second of knocking out Benny Leonard for the title in their classic fight at Madison Square Garden, flooring Leonard after being knocked down three times himself in the first round, he and Jawson put on what Journal boxing writer Sam Levy called “a bout the equal of which may never be duplicated” in Milwaukee.
Mitchell won in 10 rounds, but he was floored in the fourth and tested to the limit by, to quote Levy, “one of the most tenacious youngsters that ever trod a local ring canvas – Joe Jawson, the Wells St. tiger.”
Afterwards, Mitchell, nursing a bruised left hand, called Jawson “the gamest kid I have ever seen. My record shows that I have cracked better lightweights than Jawson, and they have taken the count. But Jawson could not even be floored. I think I was lucky to finish without breaking the bones in either mitt. I thought I was punching a concrete block.”
I knew nothing about any of this some 40 years later, when my brothers and I would take the Number 10 bus to N. 24th and W. Wells St., walk a block south to the mammoth Milwaukee Eagles Club, get a green slip from the secretary’s office entitling us to use the pool and gym because we were Art Ehrmann’s kids (our dad was editor of The Eagle Magazine), and present it to the gnarled, gnome-like old guy in the cage right inside the Bath Dept. door.
Joe Jawson would squint at the paper for several moments, and then say, “Erdman? O.K.,” and pass us through.
By May, 1965, he’d been checking membership cards and handing out towels there long enough for the Eagles Club to throw him a testimonial dinner and give him a plaque. (“Presented to Joe Jawson,” it said, “for examples of sportsmanship and clean living he has set for the youth of our community.”)
And by then I was the “Wisconsin Correspondent for Ring Magazine,” as it said on the stationary a printer friend of my Dad’s made as a gift for me after I started, at age 14, sending in the meager news from around the state for the “Boxing in Wisconsin” (which I misspelled as “Wisconson” for the first two years, even after Nat Fleischer kept fixing it in print) column in the agate “Rings Around the World” section in back of the magazine.
But it was in a different magazine, Boxing International, where I saw a letter from oldtime lightweight contender Ever Hammer responding to an article in a previous issue in which Benny Leonard had said that the hardest fight of his career had been against Hammer in 1916.
Leonard had said the same thing in The Ring magazine back in 1924, calling Hammer “the nearest thing to Battling Nelson I ever tackled.”
So when they organized the tribute to Joe Jawson, who fought a torrid 10-rounder against Hammer on a boat on Lake Michigan outside of Chicago on March 24, 1922, because boxing was illegal then in Illinois, and they wanted to fly in Jack Dempsey as a special guest, my Dad said what would surprise and delight Joe even more would be to see Ever Hammer again after all those years.
He got the address from my boxing magazine, and they brought Hammer to Milwaukee from Los Angeles. I got to eat dinner with Ever at the Ambassador Hotel before taking him across the street to the Eagles Club. [On the way we stopped off at my grandfather’s nearby apartment. “Pappy” Ehrmann was in his 80s then, and could only hear if you shouted at him. When I introduced the great Ever Hammer to him, Pappy said it was wonderful to meet him, and that he’d heard so much about him from me. Then Pappy and I went into an adjoining room separated from the living room where Ever waited only by a curtain hung in the doorway. “PETEY,” yelled Pappy loud enough to be heard out in the street, because he thought everybody was as deaf as him — “WHO THE HELL IS THAT GUY?” Pappy was a bowler. I should’ve brought Carmine Salvino.]
At the upstairs banquet room in the Eagles Club I stood by the door as my Dad, the emcee, opened Joe’s scrapbook and started to read from the clippings about the famous fight on the USS Commodore 43 years earlier when Joe and Ever “had almost torn each other apart,” and “Hammer’s left ear was hanging by a thread after the 10-rounder.”
When he finished, Dad gave me the high sign, I brought Ever into the room, and he and Joe hugged and cried like long-lost brothers. It was as thrilling as their fight must have been.
Every time I presented one of those green slips to him after that, Joe would smile so big his eyes would disappear, call me “Peter-Boy,” and insist on laboriously climbing the long stairway to the Eagles gym on painfully arthritic legs to give me lessons in punching the speedbag.
The last time I saw him was a few years later, at Miseracordia Hospital. My Dad was there recovering from minor surgery, and when I was visiting him he told me Joe was in a room down the hall. I walked over to say hello. Joe was dying of cancer, and I stayed for just a few awkward minutes, making abysmal teenage small talk.
I wish now that I could go back there, hold his hand and tell him that as far as I was concerned, being “Iron Jaw” Jawson was a greater thing than being President of the United States.