Whiskey, Women, and Motorcycles: The Career of Lew Jenkins

06.01.06 - By Craig Parrish: Lew Jenkins was one of the most naturally talented, tough as nails Fighters the boxing world has ever seen. He was also one of it’s greatest Hell-Raisers, widely known for his infamous run-ins with Police, lack of training, womanizing, and getting in the ring so drunk he could barely stand. Lew Jenkins was born in Texas in 1916. His family was farm laborers and they spent many years living in wagons and tents, traveling from farm to farm to harvest cotton..

As a young child he was too small to carry a cotton sack and would walk the rows ahead of his Father, stacking small piles of cotton for harvest, working until his fingers were infected and bleeding. It was the Depression, and although his Father was a hard working man, the family could never seem to get ahead. After his Father died in 1932, young Lew started looking around for a better way to make a buck.

The early years of heavy farm labor had made him a tough kid, and he discovered the rough and tumble world of “Carnival Boxing”. He would take on all comers, and if his opponent defeated them they would receive 25% of the ticket sales. If they failed, they received nothing “but a whipping” as Jenkins later said. Jenkins weighed 120 pounds. He fought an average of one to four bouts a night, every night.

He joined the Army but continued to fight on his leave time around Dallas. He typically made 5 or 10 dollars a match, depending on the number of rounds. In 1938 he won 18 fights but lost 5. In 1939, he was 13-3. He was starting to make pretty decent money at this point, but his bad habits were also starting to accumulate. And accelerate. Lew had a passion for whiskey and cigarettes, nightclubs, and women. He later stated “ I never did go to sleep, never did eat right, never trained at all hardly. I just completely wore myself out”. For the poor kid from Texas, money in his pocket was a new thing and the party would never end.

In 1940, the rough and tumble Jenkins got his shot. He had realized that he needed to slow down a bit and actually train for the bout. A longtime smoker, Jenkins actually quit for a few weeks and trained hard for the fight. However, in the week before the fight Lew “fell of the wagon” and broke all the rules. Somehow he managed to show up for his title fight with Lou Ambers, and his big right hand was still intact. He KO’d Ambers in the 3rd round and became the Lightweight Champion of the World. Now with the Championship belt in his hand, Jenkins’ bad habits and free spending got even worse. He bought cars and motorcycles. He bought a plane. He bought a racehorse. He would go out to a nightclub and spend $1000 in a single night. He was the Champ and everything was on him. He was making Fifteen to Twenty thousand dollars per fight, and he spent it as fast as he got it.

His training habits got worse and worse, to the point of non-existent. He was knocked out in the 6th round by the legendary Henry Armstrong in July, but battled back to KO Lou Ambers again on the 7th in February, 1941. He then lost a decision to Bob Montgomery. At this time, Jenkins was involved in a serious motorcycle accident in New Jersey. He sped off the road and fell about 60 feet, landing in a tree. He received 3 broken vertebrae in his neck. He had the Doctor place a removable cast on his neck as he was preparing for a title defense against Sammy Angott. The injury was so painful he could do no road work at all, but he showed up for the Angott fight, took the brace off his neck, and went in to lose a 15 round decision. His days as Champion were over. He was 25 years old.

In 1942, the downward spiral got even worse. Jenkins lost 9 of 10 bouts, mainly to a series of unknown fighters. His drinking and nightlife were out of control and were taking their toll, and he often had a quart of whiskey stashed in his water pail in the ring corner. After a series of arrests and “beatings from cops”, he went into the Coast Guard to serve during World War II. Military life did little to slow down Ambers, as now instead of fighting in the ring his fights were in the street. He was discharged in 1945. With nothing but Boxing to fall back on, Lew got back into the ring. He fought sporadically over the next five years, fighting mainly second rate fighters. His last fights of note came in 1950, his final year, when he lost a decision to Carmen Basilio and was KO’d by Beau Jack.

Now at 34, Jenkins was desperate. His boxing career was over, and quite frankly had been for a long time. He was broke, “drank down”, and at rock bottom. He had really only known two things since leaving the cotton fields of Texas, fighting and the Service. With nowhere left to go, nobody to turn to, and no other way out, Jenkins re-enlisted in the Army. And as unlikely as it seems, joining the Army with the Korean conflict looming actually saved his life.

Lew Jenkins became a decorated soldier in the Army during the Korean conflict and credited it for his salvation. Trapped behind enemy lines will all his comrades dying around him, Jenkins vowed that if he made it out he would change his ways. He was as good as his word. Jenkins became a career soldier and retired from the Army in 1963 with the rank of First Sergeant. He became a dedicated Husband and Family man, and finally seemed to find the peace that his raging spirit had been searching for so many years. The thrill of the ring was gone, the money was gone, but at the end he conquered his demons once and for all. He passed away in 1981.

Lew Jenkins’ career record was 65-39-5 with 47 knockouts. Although he had quite a few losses, one has to wonder what the man’s career might have been if he had actually trained properly. After his career was done, he later said “when I was through, I was just drank down and wore to a nub. And I hadn’t even learned to fight”. At 47 knockouts, he unquestionably had a lot of power. His is the age-old tale of a kid who came from nothing, had a huge rise, and a even bigger fall. Fortunately, this kid pulled himself back up again. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1999.

Article posted on 06.01.2006

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