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Armstrong, Henry (12 December 1912–22 October 1988), boxer, was born Henry Jackson, Jr., near Columbus, Mississippi, the son of Henry Jackson. His mother, whose name is unknown, was a full-blooded Iroquois, and his father was of mixed Indian, Irish, and black ancestry. He was the eleventh child in a family of sharecroppers. When he was four years old his family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where his father and oldest brothers worked in the food-processing industry. His mother died a few years later, after which he was reared by his paternal grandmother. He graduated from Toussaint L’Ouverture Grammar School and Vashon High School, working during his school years as a pinboy at a bowling alley and becoming interalley bowling champion in midtown St. Louis. He gained his first boxing experience by winning a competition among the pinboys....

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Baer, Max (11 February 1909–21 November 1959), world heavyweight boxing champion, was born Maximilian Adelbert Baer in Omaha, Nebraska, the oldest son of Jacob Baer and Dora Baer (maiden name unknown). His father, a cattle dealer and buyer for Swift and Company in Omaha, later moved his family to Durango, Colorado, and then to Livermore, California, where he bought a ranch and raised livestock. Max graduated from elementary school in Livermore and attended high school for one year, then quit school and went to work herding cattle and butchering meat for his father. Later Baer worked in an Oakland, California, factory in which diesel engines were manufactured....

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Braddock, Jim (07 June 1906–29 November 1974), world heavyweight boxing champion, was born James Walter Braddock in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood on the West Side of Manhattan, New York City, the sixth child of Joseph Braddock, an English-born furniture mover, and Elizabeth O'Toole Braddock. Soon after his birth, the family soon moved to Guttenberg (later North Bergen), New Jersey, where he attended St. Joseph Parochial School. His schooling ended at age thirteen after he knocked out another boy in a fight. He worked as a telegraph messenger, errand boy, printer's devil, and teamster and began his amateur boxing career at age seventeen, turning professional at age twenty, in 1926. He was managed throughout his boxing career by Joe Gould, who renamed him “James J. Braddock,” after former heavyweight champions ...

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Carnera, Primo (26 October 1906–29 June 1967), world heavyweight boxing champion, was born in Sequals, a town in northern Italy known for its mosaic industry, the son of Sante Carnera, who worked in that industry, and Giovanna Mazziol Carnera. Primo Carnera's native tongue was the Friulian dialect of northern Italy. His formal education having ended in the third grade, he had limited ability in reading and writing. In his early teens he left home to work for an uncle who lived in Le Mans, France, and earned his living there by performing menial tasks in the building trade. Tall—almost six feet seven inches—and powerfully built, he was working for a traveling circus by the time he was twenty-one years old; he was billed as "Juan the Unbeatable Spaniard," and daily met the challenges of all comers in boxing, wrestling, and weight-lifting....

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Corbett, James John (01 September 1866–18 February 1933), boxer, was born in San Francisco, California, the son of Patrick J. Corbett, an Irish-born owner of a livery stable, and Katherine McDonald. He received some secondary education, first at St. Ignatius College and then at Sacred Heart College, before being expelled from the latter for fighting. At age 13 he became a messenger for the Nevada Bank of San Francisco and by the age of 19 had risen to the post of assistant receiving teller....

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Dempsey, Jack (24 June 1895–31 May 1983), world heavyweight boxing champion, was born William Harrison Dempsey in Manassa, Colorado, the son of Hyrum Dempsey, a rancher and sharecropper, and Mary Celia Smoot. His parents had come to Colorado from West Virginia. The family was poor, and Hyrum Dempsey and his sons worked at a variety of jobs, none of long duration. Jack (who was actually called “Harry” by his family; his working name was derived from the nineteenth-century boxer ...

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Gans, Joe (25 November 1874–10 August 1910), professional boxer, was born Joseph Gans in Baltimore, Maryland. He reputedly was the son of an African-American baseball player, Joseph Butts. His mother’s name is unknown. He was adopted at age four by Maria Gant and her husband. It is not known why he altered his name from Gant to Gans or if in fact previously printed sources had misspelled his adopted mother’s surname. Gans began fighting in 1890 in battle royales, brawls in which several African Americans fought each other for money, with the last one standing declared the winner. These free-for-alls taught him to block, dodge, and lead with his punches. His first real fight was for a $2 side bet; in addition, he collected $5.40 in change from the crowd....

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Heenan, John Carmel (02 May 1835– October 1873), boxer, was born in West Troy, New York, the son of Irish immigrants Timothy Heenan, a foreman at the federal arsenal, and Mary Morrissey. After completing elementary school, John Heenan trained as a machinist’s apprentice. In 1852, while still a teenager, he set off for the gold rush in California. There he prospected and worked as a laborer in a foundry, swinging a sledgehammer twelve hours a day for the Pacific Mail Steamship Company in Benicia. The work produced a well-muscled body, and he began engaging in prizefights as the “Benicia Boy.” In 1857 Heenan returned to New York and obtained work as a political strong-armer during elections. He was rewarded with a position in the customs office. His continued pugilistic endeavors won him acclaim as a local favorite....

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Jeffries, James Jackson (15 April 1875–03 March 1953), professional boxer, was born in Carroll, Ohio, the son of Alexis C. Jeffries, a lay Free Methodist evangelist, and Rebecca Boyer. The family moved in 1882 to a farm in East Los Angeles, California. By the age of fifteen, Jeffries was the best wrestler in a crowd of his rough friends. At age sixteen, he began work as a boilermaker for the Lacey Manufacturing Company of Los Angeles. According to legend, he engaged in his first professional fight in 1893 when he accepted the challenge of an African American named Hank Griffin, a fellow worker who bet a fistful of gold coins that he could defeat anyone in the factory. Jeffries knocked him out in the fourteenth round....

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Johnson, Jack (31 March 1878–10 June 1946), the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion, was born Arthur John Johnson in Galveston, Texas, the son of Henry Johnson, a janitor and former slave, and Tiny (maiden name unknown). Johnson’s parents were poor, churchgoing people. He received five or six years of elementary schooling and apparently left home several times during his youth. However, he always returned to live with his parents in Galveston, where he worked on the docks. His first known boxing experience was in “battle royals,” in which several black youths were placed in the ring simultaneously and flailed away until only one remained. By 1899 he had engaged in a number of orthodox, but obscure, professional matches and was gaining a local reputation as a boxer....

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Lee, Canada (03 May 1907–09 May 1952), actor, theater producer, bandleader, and boxer, was born Leonard Lionel Cornelius Canegata in New York City, the son of James Cornelius Canegata, a clerk, and Lydia Whaley. Lee’s father came from a wealthy and politically prominent family in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, whose ancestors had adopted a Danish surname. Lee’s grandfather owned a fleet of merchant ships; the family also raced horses. James Canegata shipped out as a cabin boy at eighteen, settled in Manhattan, married, and worked for National Fuel and Gas for thirty-one years. Lee grew up in the San Juan Hill section of Manhattan’s West Sixties and attended P.S. 5 in Harlem. An indifferent student, he devoted more energy to fisticuffs than to schoolwork. Lee studied violin from age seven with composer J. Rosamund Johnson, and at age eleven he was favorably reviewed at a student concert in Aeolian Hall; his parents hoped he would become a concert violinist....

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Luckett V. Davis

Louis, Joe (13 May 1914–12 April 1981), boxer, was born Joseph Louis Barrow near Lafayette, in Chambers County, Alabama, the son of Munroe Barrow, a farmer, and Lillie Reese. His father was committed to a mental institution in 1916, and his mother later married again to Pat Brooks. The family, which included eight children, moved to Detroit, Michigan, when Louis was ten years old, and he attended school there until dropping out at age seventeen. As a boy he worked in a food market and delivered ice and coal. A friend, Thurston McKinney, introduced him to boxing, and he had his first amateur fight in 1932. Discouraged after a bad beating, he worked briefly at the Ford Motor Company but soon returned to boxing and became a highly successful amateur. He won fifty of fifty-four amateur fights and, in April 1934, became the American Athletic Union national light heavyweight champion. He dropped the name “Barrow” by accident, by incorrectly filling out an amateur application card, and was always known thereafter in boxing as simply “Joe Louis.”...

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Moore, Archie (13 December 1913?–09 December 1998), boxer, was born Archibald Lee Wright, the son of Thomas Wright, a farm laborer and drifter, and Lorena Wright. He always insisted that he was born in 1916 in Collinsville, Illinois, but his mother told reporters that he was actually born in 1913 in Benoit, Mississippi. His father abandoned the family when Archie was an infant. Unable to provide for him and his older sister, his mother gave them into the care of an uncle and aunt, Cleveland and Willie Pearl Moore, who lived in St. Louis, Missouri. Archie later explained why he was given their surname: “It was less questions to be called Moore.” He attended all-black schools in St. Louis, including Lincoln High School, although he never graduated. His uncle and aunt provided him with a stable upbringing, but after his uncle died in a freak accident around 1928, Moore began running with a street gang. One of his first thefts was a pair of oil lamps from his home, which he sold so that he would have money to buy boxing gloves. He later recalled of his stealing: “It was inevitable that I would be caught. I think I knew this even before I started, but somehow the urge to have a few cents in my pocket made me overlook this eventuality” (Moore, p. 19). After he was arrested for attempting to steal change from a motorman's box on a streetcar, he was sentenced to a three-year term at a reform school in Booneville, Missouri. He was released early from the school for good behavior after serving twenty-two months....

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Sharkey, Jack (26 October 1902–17 August 1994), world heavyweight boxing champion, was born Josef Paul Zukauskas (the name he gave when he entered the U.S. Navy) in Binghamton, New York. His name at birth has been the source of much confusion; it has been given incorrectly in boxing record books and elsewhere as John Zukauskay, John Coccoskey, and Joseph Paul Cukoschay. His parents were Lithuanian immigrants; his father was a mechanic by occupation. Sharkey attended school until the eighth grade, when a family financial crisis forced him to seek employment. He worked in a shoe factory and as a construction worker, a glassblower, and a railroad brakeman before joining the navy....

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Stribling, Young (26 December 1904–03 October 1933), heavyweight and light-heavyweight boxer, was born William Lawrence Stribling, Jr., in Bainbridge, Georgia, the son of William Lawrence Stribling and Lily Braswell Stribling. Together with his father, his mother, and his younger brother, Herbert, Young Stribling (as he was always known) toured the world in a vaudeville act called the Four Grahams from 1908 until 1917. The senior Stribling and his wife combined acrobatics and repartee on the stage, and the two children were clowns. As the boys grew, they engaged in a farcical boxing routine in which the climax had the smaller boy usually knocking out the larger and older one....

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Sullivan, John L. (12 October 1858–02 February 1918), heavyweight champion boxer, was born John Lawrence Sullivan in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Irish immigrants Michael Sullivan, a laborer, and Catherine Kelly. Sullivan attended primary and grammar schools and a specialized school for training clerks, but he was noted much more for his strength and athletic prowess than for scholastic aptitude. His formal education ended when he was about fifteen years old. Weighing 200 pounds at age seventeen, he worked as an apprentice at plumbing, tinsmithing, and masonry, and he played semiprofessional baseball. In 1878 he was cajoled into a fight at a public variety entertainment and quickly knocked out his opponent. Within the next year he successfully engaged in several exhibitions and soon achieved a considerable reputation as a fighter....

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Tunney, Gene (25 May 1897–07 November 1978), world heavyweight boxing champion, was born James Joseph Tunney in New York City, the son of Irish immigrants John Tunney, a longshoreman, and Mary Lydon. One of five children, Tunney grew up in modest circumstances on Perry Street in Greenwich Village. He attended St. Veronica’s Parochial School and graduated from LaSalle Academy in 1915....

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Willard, Jess (29 December 1881–15 December 1968), world heavyweight boxing champion, the son of Myron Willard and Margaret Willard (maiden surname unknown), was born in St. Clere, Pottawatomie County, Kansas. His father, a Civil War veteran, died before he was born, and his mother was remarried in 1891 to Elisha Stalker. Willard grew up on Stalker's ranch and received only a few years of schooling. Developing to unusual size, approximately six feet six inches and 225 pounds, he was employed during his teenage and young adult years as a breaker and trainer of horses; he also worked in a livery stable and ran a wagon train. In 1908 he married Harriet “Hattie” Evans, whom he had known since childhood....

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Zale, Tony (29 May 1913–21 March 1997), world middleweight boxing champion, was born Anthony Florian Zaleski in Gary, Indiana, the fourth son and the sixth of seven children of Joseph Zaleski, a steel mill worker, and Catherine Zaleski (maiden name unknown), both Polish immigrants. His father died in a traffic accident when he was two years old, but his mother and oldest brothers held the family together. Zale graduated from Froebel High School and then went to work in a Gary steel mill....