By Pete Ehrmann
On August 25, 1931, the middleweight champion of the world successfully defended his title at Borchert Field and moved a step closer to becoming the middleweight champion of the world.
It sounds like double-talk, but it's actually true. When William "Gorilla" Jones won a 10-round decision at the Orchard over Tiger Thomas, it was a match for the "colored middleweight championship" held by Jones. And it was also a first-round elimination bout in a National Boxing Association tournament to crown a new 160-pound champion following the abdication of Mickey Walker.
Jones would go on to win the NBA title four months later in Milwaukee—where not much more than a year earlier he was barred by decree of the autocratic commissioner whose decisions about which boxers were fit to grace Wisconsin rings were based on his starkly black and white view of the situation.
"We have a rule on our books that negroes cannot box in this state," Walter Liginger announced upon becoming chairman of the state athletic commission when professional boxing was legalized here in 1913. "Negro boxers have done more to put boxing in disrepute than all the white boxers in the game, and whenever there is a scandal, invariably there is a colored gentleman involved."
Liginger was hung up on Jack Johnson, whose woolly 1908-15 reign as heavyweight champion and unabashed preference for white women of loose virtue caused a lot of frothing at the mouth by people who figured that all black people looked and acted alike.
It was 1922 before there was another black world champion (light heavyweight Battling Siki), and in 1926 there was Tiger Flowers, who held the middleweight belt for almost a year before losing it to Mickey Walker.
When Walker voluntarily gave up the title on June 19, 1931 to fight as a heavyweight. Milwaukee boxing promoter Billy Mitchell proposed to the NBA, which governed boxing in most US states, that a tournament be held in Milwaukee to determine the new champion. Permission was granted on the ground that the Cream City was the stomping ground of two of the top contenders, Tait "The Cudahy Adonis" Littman and Frankie Battaglia, who'd moved here from Canada.
Wisconsin rings had finally been desegregated by Liginger the year before, and there were plenty of black middleweights anxious to joust for the vacant title. In addition to Jones and Thomas, the list included Ham Jenkins, Snowflake Wright, Jack McVey, Roy Williams, Angel Cliville, and Rudy Marshall (who promoter Mitchell thought was white until informed otherwise). "One thing for sure is that there will be plenty of color to the tournament," cracked veteran boxing manager Tom Walsh.
The best and most controversial of the black contenders was the Memphis-born Jones, who had started boxing in 1926 and was said to come by his nickname either because of his dark skin and long arms, or because of his "jungle dance" in the ring, or because there had been another Gorilla Jones from Memphis before him.
"He has never been knocked out," wrote Sam Levy about Jones in the Milwaukee Journal. "His record is studded with KO victories. Several times he and his opponents have been chased from the ring, referees charging the boys with stalling. That's because Jones' style does not meet with the (approval) of some officials and commissions. Then too, there have been times, many times, when Jones has gone into the ring handcuffed. By this I mean he has been unable to open fire because he was under orders not to. If he violated such an agreement, he was threatened with boycott."
In 1936, Dick Collum of the Minneapolis Journal wrote:
"Experts in boxing who judge Jones by form rather than by the record agree he has been the only truly brilliant middleweight since Mickey Walker renounced the championship. He has been a flawless boxer and a terrific puncher. His courage is not questioned and he is high in ring generalship – all in all, a nearly perfect fighting machine.
"Yet, he has seldom fought up to his true ability and he has always been regarded as a safe man for any well known white middleweight to meet, a most considerate fellow who could be trusted. Through the many years in which he has been the world's best middleweight, he has fought below his best in most of his important engagements."
Jones himself didn't deny it. "I've done some business in fights," he told Russ Lynch of The Milwaukee Journal. "A colored boy had hard going. If I wanted a match with a good white boy I had to say 'Yes.' I had to live, Mr. Lynch, and sometimes I said 'Yes,' and I always kept my word."
Since black fighters weren't afforded many opportunities to fight for world championships, they had their own "colored" titles, and Jones won his by beating Jack McVey in 1929.
Many in the crowd of almost 5,000 at Borchert Field thought he was lucky to keep it against Tiger Thomas.
"There were many squawks when the decision was announced," reported the Wisconsin News, "and it was quite a few minutes before [ring announcer Rusty Hagen could go on with his announcements."
According to the News's Jim Delaney, Thomas was the aggressor, "carrying the fight to his 10-pound lighter opponent, but judges saw fit to give Jones a lot of credit for his excellent blocking and his ability to counter Thomas's swings."
He was referring to ringside judges Ben Steinel and Louis Schultz. Referee Julius Fidler voted for Thomas.
The city's other daily newspapers sided with the judges. "Jones gave the fans a treat with his masterful handling of Thomas," said the Milwaukee Sentinel. "At times it appeared as though Gorilla wasn't doing much fighting, but it was only his cleverness that furnished that idea to the fans."
The Journal called it "a close fight" and said, "After gaining an early lead Jones slowed up in the sixth. He tried to coast but the Tiger clawed away, punching the Gorilla all over the ring. Realizing that Thomas was pulling up on even terms, Jones went back to work in the closing rounds."
In the other two 10-round elimination bouts in the orchard that night, Tait Littman beat Ham Jenkins and Clyde Chastain beat Rudy Marshall.
The tournament continued through the end of 1931 at the Milwaukee Auditorium. Jones won successive elimination matches against Chastain, George Nichols, Frankie O'Brien and Henry Firpo, and then won the NBA title on January 25, 1932 by stopping Italy's Oddone Piazza in six rounds.
Richie Mitchell, Milwaukee's greatest boxing idol, probably hit it on the nose when he said that Jones "could have beaten every man in the tournament on the same night. He was that much better than any of them."
But as champion and after, Jones had more fights in which his less-than-full throttle performances left an odor so rank that Journal sports editor Russ Lynch would recall him in 1947 as "the 'crookedest fighter' the ring has even seen."
By then such fulminations were of no matter to the Gorilla. Though he'd lost the fortune he'd made in the ring—along with the big cars, expensive wardrobe and the pet tiger cub he walked around on a leash—on too many unlucky rolls of the dice, Jones spent his later years in the lap of luxury, perhaps literally.
Jones was chauffeur for and according to some a bed partner of Hollywood sex symbol Mae ("A hard man is good to find") West. He lived in the Los Angeles house she bought for him, when the man whose march to the technicolor middleweight title started at Borchert Field died in 1982.
When ramped up to its full wattage, Jones' brilliance in the ring was unmistakable. That's why he's in both the International and World Boxing Halls of Fame today.