Joe Grim: The Human Punching Bag Who Never Won a Fight
by B. R. Bearden
In boxing, as in any sport, the fans remember the winners and often forget the losers. To be sure, some who lose amid the roar of the crowd gain fame in their defeat. Witness Billy Conn's loss to Joe Louis. But Conn was a superb boxer; light heavyweight champion and member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame. We remember his loss in a way that, rather than detracting from how good he was, instead enhances his memory. He was the light heavyweight who "almost" beat the best heavyweight champion of them all. He was a winner who had a memorable loss.
But what of a loser who had nothing but memorable losses? In point of fact, what of boxer who lost every single fight he ever fought, at least 63 bouts? Other than the families of these record-padding stepping stones, nobody can name the men who played the part of the perpetual victim. Except for one; Joe Grim.
Grim was born in Avellino, Italy in 1881 and named Saverio Giannone. At some point in his early life his family moved to America and at some point young Saverio decided to become a boxer. Dropping his family name he entered the ring, and boxing legend, as Joe Grim. It was a name suited to his style of fighting, for his career was truly grim. Appended to that suitable choice of a moniker were such titles as "the human punching bag", "The Indestructible Man of Pugilism", "The Iron Man", and "The Indian rubber man". For in a sport of give and take, Joe was the ultimate taker.
As Nat Fleischer would say of him, "Grim could neither box nor punch but he possessed an abundance of courage, in fact, too much for his own good. He was slow on his feet and even slower in his thought process. Though he had none of the assets that go to make a good fighter, for many years he was a great drawing card only because of his staying powers and his raw courage. His ability to absorb punishment was incomparable."
Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, and an avid boxing fan born in the era of Grim, said, "If he ever won a fight, it is not on record. He was neither a boxer nor a fighter in the true sense of the word. He was wide open; a blind man could hit him."
Joe Grim began his career in 1903 with a match against Philadelphia Jack O' Brien, future Hall of Famer. It was a six round contest between O'Brien's punching ability and Grim's toughness. O'Brien broke the knuckles of his right hand trying to stop the unknown kid who came in wide open, throwing windmill punches the ring posts could duck. The fight was a No Contest both by official score and by any method of judging a bout, but it ushered in the bizarre, side-show career of Joe Grim.
Grim's notoriety grew with each succeeding fight. He took terrible beatings from the greatest fighters of his era yet always ended his fights by walkingto the ropes and shouting to the crowd, "I am Joe Grim! Nobody can knock me out!"
It wasn't from lack of trying. The best punchers of the first two decades of the 20th century from lightweight to heavyweight took their turns trying to put the Indian Rubber Man down for the count. Philadelphia Jack O'Brien, Joe Walcott, Joe Gans, Jack Johnson, Johnny Kilbane, Sam McVey, Tommy Sullivan, and Battling Levinsky all took their shots, some more than once. They could put him down, they just couldn't make him stay down.
In Grim's 4th fight he was matched with the great Joe Walcott, the famed welterweight champion. He took a shellacking but was still standing after six rounds.
In his next fight he stepped in with Bob Fitzsimmons, former World Heavyweight Champion and current World Light Heavyweight Champion. For six rounds Ruby Robert used every punch known to pugilism to try to finish Grim. He drove in the body blows which had dropped Jim Corbett and won Fitz the title but Grim's rock-hard body accepted them without complaint. In those six furious rounds Bob knocked Grim down sixteen times! And sixteen times, Grim got back up. He even managed to land the last blow of the fight, a kind of "I'm still here" message to his tormentor. As Robert E. Howard described it, he then reeled to the ropes and, grinning through torn lips, shouted his defiance into the crowd, "I am Joe Grim! I fear no man! I challenge that bigga Jeem Jeff' fora da title".
But Jim Jeffries, heavyweight champion already on the verge of retiring undefeated, wasn't interested in fighting an unknown who had just lost his 5th straight fight without a win to the mix. Instead, the promoters set Grim up with Joe Gans, World Lightweight champion and future HOF inductee. Gans weighed in at 138 to Grim's 165 but extra weight was all Grim had in his side of the scales; that and his amazing resilience. The Old Master Gans had no difficulty dealing with the roundhouse swings and the wide open stance of the Italian. He worked inside and battered Joe to a sixth round No Decision which every paper dubbed a totally one-sided victory. Three months later they tried it again, meeting in a 10 round fight, and the only difference was the extra four rounds of pounding Grim absorbed.
Word of Grim spread and people flocked to see who would knock him out first. A succession of fighters tried, some more than once, but come the final bell, Joe Grim would still be standing and able to hurl his challenge to the world, "Nobody can knock me out!"
Twenty or so fights, and losses, into his career Joe Grim laced up to meet future heavyweight champion Jack Johnson in July, 1905. Jack was looking for his shot at the title, but in March he'd lost a 20 rounder to Marvin Hart and he needed something to minimize the loss. A knockout win over the man nobody else could knockout would surely make the boxing crowd take notice. Even though Johnson weighed 210 to only 165 for Grim, there were still doubts he could put the human punching bag away. Confident of his punch, Johnson had wagered heavily that he'd knock the man out.
Some 3000 people, including Nat Fleischer, future founder of The Ring, paid to see the match in Philadelphia and it would be even money on which fighter was the main draw. In the first three rounds Grim was beaten around the ring. He would drop and the crowd would shout, "Get up Joe!" and Joe would get up, a broad grin on his bloodied face. In the fourth Johnson landed a punch that dropped his opponent to the floor with a thud. Grim waited on hands and knees as the referee counted, then jumped up before the count of "ten". Three more times he went down in the round, three more times he got up. The forth round followed suit, and in his corner, an amazed Jack Johnson declared, "He ain't human."
In the fifth Grim was down six times, three times for a count of eight and three times for a count of nine. Each time he rolled to his belly, climbed to his knees, and waited for the referee to "almost" count him out before rising amid the cheers of the crowd. It wasn't boxing, it was a circus act with the lion tamer letting the lions do their worst, then leaving the cage savaged and bloody to take his bows.
The sixth and final round saw a desperate Johnson trying to win his bets. Jack caught Grim with a right to the chin so hard, as Nat Fleischer said, ". it caused Grim to turn a complete somersault." The referee counted as Grim lay there senseless, some thought dead. It appeared he wouldn't beat the count, but on eight the bell rang, ending the fight and saving Grim from his first knockout. He had been knocked down eighteen times by one of the hardest punchers of his time but he hadn't been counted out. In Grim's mind, the defeat was a victory of the only sort he would ever know. More fights followed and the Iron Man didn't disappoint the fans of that cruder era. He didn't win, but he didn't fail to shout out after the final bell, "I'm Joe Grim! Nobody knocks out Joe Grim!"
His record shows losses at 6 rounds, 8 rounds, 10 rounds, all on points. At least eight times he was taken 20 rounds. Six times he was able to get a draw, but never did he receive the win in 60+ outings.
He was the side-show at the boxing circus, a freak of nature in a time when freaks were allowed to make it any way they could. With public interest piqued, Doctors examined Grim and declared his skull to be of extraordinary thickness, perhaps twice that of the average man. It was deduced he wasn't subject to the concussion effect of the blows which knock out the ordinary fighter, and when he said he didn't feel the punches he was probably telling the truth. His face showed the effects, though; his nose was broken so many times it was no more than a lump of tissue, his ears were cauliflower ruins, he was scarred like an old Tom cat. What effect it had on his mental condition seemed not to concern the people of the times. They paid to see Grim take a beating and refuse to stay down and nobody expected him to win. Grim didn't disappoint on either score.
So how did this drama finally play out? It would be satisfying to say that in the end Grim managed to win one. Satisfying, but not the truth, for in the end The Iron Man was finally knocked out.
A study of Grim's record, which is considered incomplete, shows several knockouts recorded, yet boxing experts such as Fleischer disputed them as actual KOs, saying they were TKOs instead. All accounts of Grim, and the words of Howard and Fleischer, say he wasn't knocked out till late in his career by Sailor Burke, and it was the only true knockout of his career. Yet, a study of his record shows a KO by Burke's name as early as 1906, seven years before Joe's last known bout. It seems unlikely the fans would continue to pay to see The Iron Man who's only claim was he had never been knocked out if in fact he had been (and it was known). He fought Burke at least four times, so it's possible he fought him a final time near the end. However, the record books shows Grim's last fight was with Joe Borrel in 1913 and ended in a knockout. Fleischer was present for the Johnson / Grim fight and knew his boxing history, yet he stated, "It wasn't until the closing stages of his career, when all the punishment he absorbed finally caught up to him, that middleweight Sailor Burke of Brooklyn finally put him down for the finally count."
Howard wrote in 1930, "The many batterings took their toll at last, however, and Grim was knocked out by Sailor Burke, a hard-hitting second-rater who stepped off a ship to turn the trick. Grim's heart was broken."
The possibility exists that both Howard and Fleischer got it wrong, maybe from the same source, and it should be Borrel and not Burke who ended Grim's campaign as the man who couldn't be knocked out. Or a fifth and final fight with Burke was unrecorded. Or perhaps the most likely explanation is the indomitable will of Joe Grim was such that people of his time couldn't believe he'd been knocked out by Burke or anyone else, and it was dismissed as hearsay believed only by those who were there.
But whether it was Burke early or Burke late (or Borrel), all accounts agree there was only one knockout in Grim's career. And though he was a good draw, he made very little money off his encounters with the greats of boxing, often getting as little as $25 a fight. When it was all over, a broke and broken man faded away from the view of the public and died unheralded and destitute in 1939.
Yet to those who remembered, like Fleischer, he was the man who always got up one more time than he went down, the loser who never quit, who always staggered to the ropes and boasted, "I am Joe Grim! Nobody can knock me out!