“Poor Tommy Jackson, I wish there was some other way for him to make a living.” —Jimmy Cannon
Only a cameo role in The Sweet Science, magnum opus of A.J. Liebling, now preserved in a plush Library of America hardback, keeps former 1950s heavyweight conundrum Tommy “Hurricane” Jackson from being forgotten. Even so, the fact that Jackson lingers in the public record because of Liebling remains something of a mixed blessing. Although Liebling was once committed to “lowlife” (which was what New Yorker editor Harold Ross called the curbside dispatches he published by Joseph Mitchell, Meyer Berger, and Liebling), he was still an Ivy League product, a high-society epicure, and the husband of Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist Jean Stafford, ex-wife of poet laureate Robert Lowell. His arch portrait of Jackson in The Sweet Science, as Joyce Carol Oates has pointed out, borders on pitiless. Just as Liebling could rarely bring himself to acknowledge organized crime, flesh-peddling managers, fixed fights, or even disintegrating ex-pugs walking on their heels, he was unable to see Jackson as a troubled figure whose distress regularly manifested itself in the ring and out.
For Liebling, “Hurricane” was just a prop for one of his clever conceits. “On the night of the fight, I was more excited than I had been before any match for years, and for purely subjective reasons,” Liebling wrote about the evening Jackson faced Nino Valdes in Madison Square Garden. “If the animal won, it meant that the Sweet Science was mere guesswork, requiring not even a specialized intelligence.”
In a few years, even state athletic commissions—notoriously remiss, often unscrupulous, always obtuse—saw what Liebling could not: that Tommy Jackson was more than just a quirky fighter; he was a danger to himself.
Tommy Jackson was born in Sparta, Georgia, in 1931 but grew up in Far Rockaway, Queens, where he was raised by a single mother. As a child, he was bullied by neighborhood riffraff and likely suffered from a learning disability. For most, if not all, of his adult life, Jackson remained illiterate, a bleak detail newspapers rarely failed to mention. Inspired by a film-showing of Joe Louis–Jersey Joe Walcott II, Jackson impulsively devoted himself to boxing. He wound up training under Ham Willoughby at the 103rd precinct PAL in Jamaica, Queens. After a short amateur career, Jackson turned pro on July 14, 1952. “I come up the hard way,” Jackson told the New York Daily News when he first crashed the limelight, “and I’m gonna stay up. My mother, she never had anybody help her. Eight children she raised, four boys and four girls and they all get married but me. I’m gonna help her.”
In 1954, Jackson lived up to his nickname in New York, upending Rex Layne, Clarence Henry, and Dan Bucceroni in successive fights at the Eastern Parkway Arena in Brooklyn. With his oddball style, windmill philosophy, and inhuman capacity to absorb punishment, Jackson was an instant crowd favorite who alternately amused and outraged a hard-bitten city with his antics, including stunts that some newshawks mistakenly considered showboating. Between rounds, Jackson would occasionally forgo the customary stool and, instead, perform aerobics/calisthenics/isometrics in the corner, underscoring both his indefatigability and his hyperactive nature. His frenzied approach in the ring—even during rest periods—gave the impression of a man who might one day erupt, like the Great Whatsis in Kiss Me Deadly. (If Jackson had been born fifty years later, he would have been a prime candidate for Adderall.) In addition, Jackson specialized in bizarre non sequiturs and free-association quips, which gave him a certain amount of charisma during the bland Eisenhower era, when fighters were distinguished primarily by the color of their trunks on black and white telecasts. Sometimes Jackson was even outspokenly glum about his career. “My managers all did wrong and they know it,” he said, after losing his only title shot, in 1957. “They pushed me along pretty fast. My time was up, that’s all.”
A whirlwind approach kept the TV audience spellbound, but it hardly covered up his inadequacies. While Jackson was fast and aggressive, he was also a technical catastrophe. No amount of tutoring from Whitey Bimstein or Freddy Brown could keep Jackson from looping his punches, stumbling over himself, or leading with his chin. Nor could his storied trainers teach him to punch with power or precision. And defense? Jackson had an unusual outlook on taking punishment. “I like to get hit,” he said. “It makes me feel good and feel strong.” Indeed, when Jackson fought, there was an undercurrent of masochism that was difficult to ignore.
But, for a brief moment, Jackson seized the spotlight with a ragged, two-handed assault that virtually eliminated downtime in the ring. Billy Brown, matchmaker for the International Boxing Club, marveled at this lanky dynamo who did nothing but attack, attack, attack. “I never saw a heavyweight so active,” Brown said, “never saw such a wild man who never stopped punching.”
If Jack Dempsey was one of the greatest heavyweights in history, he was also one of the worst judges of talent imaginable. He mooned over Jackson (though the second half of this blurb may have revealed a truth that Dempsey was too diplomatic to admit). “With experience, he’ll be a great fighter,” Dempsey said. “But he’s tough enough now as it is, with his peculiar style.”
“Peculiar.” During his brief stint as a miscast headliner, Jackson would exhaust the dog-eared thesauruses of the collective ringside press. There was daffy and primitive; man-child and screwball; dipsy-doodle and freakish. Then, of course, there was his alternate nickname: “The Animal,” which may have been a double entendre, of sorts, referring not only to his feral ring style but to what was referred to in print, more than once, as his “simple-mindedness.”
Yet the back pages of the Big Apple tabloids belonged to Jackson. The Ring named him “Fighter of the Month” for March 1954 and even featured him on the cover of its November 1955 issue. There is Tommy Jackson, “On Way To Title,” part of The Bible of Boxing patchwork aesthetic of the ’50s and ’60s, which often resembled arts and crafts projects for the blind or the criminally insane. Jackson, of course, was not “On Way To Title,” but to that bleak destination reserved for so many fighters, it almost seemed preordained. No matter what Billy Brown or Jack Dempsey thought, no matter what Nat Loubet wrote in The Ring, it was clairvoyantly clear-cut that Tommy Jackson was one of the accursed.
It was light-heavyweight spoiler Jimmy Slade, a man sometimes visibly disinterested in his chosen vocation, who first derailed Jackson, scoring a clear decision over “Hurricane” at the Eastern Parkway Arena only a month after Jackson had stopped Bucceroni in his star-making performance. (Two weeks before his bout with Slade, Jackson had been arrested for third-degree assault when he walloped a neighbor over a dispute involving a woman. As distracted as he was by nature, Jackson now had to deal with impending legal proceedings. On April 19, Jackson avoided indictment when his victim refused to press charges.)
Then came Nino Valdes, who never received a title shot in his career but was good enough to trample Jackson in less than two rounds at Madison Square Garden. In a grim foreshadowing of the future, the New York State Athletic Commission ordered Jackson to undergo an electroencephalography test after the fight.
Jackson followed his loss to Valdes with a modest winning streak that included a split nod over Slade in a rematch and a pair of decisions over a sadly deteriorated Ezzard Charles. Another points loss against Slade barely stalled his clumsy momentum, and Jackson somehow wound up near the top of the heavyweight heap during the uninspiring mid-1950s, when the division featured names such as Don Cockell, Earl Walls, Bob Baker, Rex Layne, John Holman, Harold Carter, and Wayne Bethea. (This despite the fact that Jackson had been briefly suspended for refusing to go to the hospital after his defeat to Slade.)
Then, on April 27, 1956, Rocky Marciano retired, leaving the heavyweight championship vacant. With Archie Moore the acknowledged number-one contender, Jackson was matched against Floyd Patterson in an elimination bout. The winner would face Moore for the right to succeed Marciano as heavyweight champion of the world. Considering how careful Cus D’Amato was about managing Patterson, this matchup was a clue as to just how talented Tommy Jackson really was. Patterson was only twenty-one years old and not much more than a light-heavyweight, but D’Amato knew that, for all his furious milling, Jackson suffered from a power shortage and was unlikely to hurt his future champion with his artless grinding.
More than eleven thousand spectators gathered at Madison Square Garden on June 8, 1956, to watch Patterson and Jackson, two locals, square off. It was a bruising fight that surprisingly went the distance, partly because Jackson was a human shock absorber, and partly because Patterson entered the bout with a broken finger. His right hand was virtually useless at some points during the fight, and that allowed Jackson to mount a helter-skelter rally late. In the end, the twelve-round split decision Patterson earned seemed askew, and the press lambasted referee Harry Kessler, who had a scoring vote, for tallying in favor of Jackson.
For Jackson, his downturn in the ring was followed by trouble outside of it. On January 7, 1957, Jackson, driving his green Cadillac, struck and killed a pedestrian in Far Rockaway. Although he was cleared of wrongdoing in the death, Jackson was charged with possession of a forged driver’s license. He beat that rap, with a cruel if beneficial judgment from City Magistrate James E. Lopiccolo: “I suppose a fellow like him would be stupid enough to accept a license like that, so I’ll excuse him this time.”
Within a few months, however, Jackson went from a courthouse in Queens to the Polo Grounds in Manhattan. Somehow, a pair of inconsequential wins cemented Jackson as the top contender, and he was set to challenge the newly-crowned Patterson for the heavyweight championship of the world. A talkative Jackson promised to stop Patterson and threatened him with his newly developed “Yagash” punch.
Patterson and Jackson met on July 29, 1957, at the Polo Grounds, where more than eighteen thousand braved the heat and the threat of rain to watch Patterson defend his title for the first time. From the opening bell, Jackson was violently outclassed. He was dropped in the first and second rounds and took a sustained beating for the remainder of the fight. Halfway through the bout, Jackson was bleeding from the nose and noticeably swelling. Referee Ruby Goldstein peered at Jackson closely after the eighth round. In the ninth, Patterson floored Jackson again and only a minute had elapsed in the tenth when Goldstein intervened as Jackson absorbed another combination. It was the rare mercy stoppage during an era when sympathy was in short supply and fighters expected the professional courtesy of a definitive loss. (Just consider the fact that, in less than two years, Goldstein would allow Patterson to hit the canvas seven times in one round against Ingemar Johannsson before finally, belatedly stepping in.) Even the crowd jeered at what it considered a hasty ending. But Goldstein was grimly vindicated when Jackson was hospitalized from injuries he suffered during the fight. “Where could Jackson have gone except to the hospital?” Goldstein asked. “I think 99 of every 100 people agreed with me.”
If the mysterious “Yagash” punch ever landed, no one came forward as a witness to it. In the limited future, Jackson would have precious few chances to connect with his fanciful blow. Four months later, an ordinarily cautious Eddie Machen battered Jackson from the proverbial pillar-to-post en route to a tenth-round TKO most notable for its one-sidedness. After suffering a knockdown in the first round, Jackson went on to shake, shiver, and shudder for the remainder of a fight that was nothing more than an open torture session.
So lopsided was the beating that Robert Christenberry, head of the New York State Athletic Commission, publicly implored “Hurricane” to retire. Not to be outdone, the California Athletic Commission suspended Jackson on the heels of his battering to Machen. “He will undoubtedly cause injury to himself of a serious nature were he to continue boxing as he did the other night,” said Dr. Dan O. Kilroy, chairman of the CAC. In New York, Christenberry announced that he would honor the West Coast ban, effectively putting an end to the career of Tommy Jackson, who could no longer fight in the moneymaking capitals of boxing. The National Boxing Association—along with all its member states—eventually followed suit as well.
Having seen his living stripped from him virtually overnight, Jackson fulminated to the press. Even Whisper magazine, a pulphouse specialty, got an earful from Jackson. “I’m a professional fighter,” Jackson said about his exile. “I never worked at any other trade in my life. I’m 26 years old, as strong as a bull, and if you take a good look at me, you won’t see a scar or cauliflower ear or anything else that fighters is supposed to have.”
That may have been true, but Jackson also had taken enough punishment in his last two outings to cause even laissez-faire regulators to flinch. Combined with his erratic behavior, which could no longer be chalked up to eccentricity, these recent pastings pointed to a diminished future.
Already Jackson had an inkling of the coming hardship. “I’ve been a pretty foolish guy in the past, made a lot of mistakes and got mixed up with the wrong kind of people,” he said. “I found out the boys and girls who made a big fuss over me when I was up there couldn’t see me for dust when things went a little bad. From now on, I trust only in God. God and my mother.”
A few headline slots in Madison Square Garden and a single shot at the title did not make for a lucrative career. Especially for a man who seemed, at times, at the mercy of the world. Jackson moved on to backwaters and continued fighting. He brought his mystifying style to Sherbrooke, Quebec; Montgomery, Alabama; Boise, Idaho; and Steubenville, Ohio. In his last fight, he was stopped by Hans Kalbfell in Germany. Canada and England both barred Jackson from fighting. Once the number-one-ranked heavyweight in the world, Jackson retired with a record of 34-9-1.
In 1961, Jackson resurfaced momentarily after he struck a woman in the street with his Cadillac. A year later, he was arrested for assault, when he battered a partygoer whom he believed was paying too much attention to his date. His career was something he recalled with bitterness. “I sit in the house and I think about the past,” he said, “all the managers I had, five or six of them, how they took me along so fast, how I never had enough sense to back off, and I would get teed off. Then I go to sleep.”
Finally, “The Hurricane” vanished. For a little while, he worked as a shoe-shiner before driving a gypsy cab in Queens. He had been recovering from a stroke when he was hit by a car, a frail man, now married to a schoolteacher, and living in South Jamaica. His death, on February 20, 1982, brought him back into the limelight once again. They all recalled “The Hurricane,” whose brief run as a contender bewildered some and enthralled others, whose distinction as a challenger to the heavyweight title made him a historical footnote, whose open confusion appalled empathetic newspapermen such as Jimmy Cannon and Milton Gross. Then they forgot about him all over again, suggesting a quote from Jackson himself about the promise of the future. “There’s no such thing as a has-been. The only has-been is somebody that’s not in the world anymore. If you’re still alive, you can’t be a has-been, only a gonna-be.”
Jackson was fifty years old when he died.