August 2, 2022 Akshanth Gunda

Gunboat Jack

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Long before Bengaluru became the ‘Silicon Valley of India’, it was an epicentre of boxing mania and one African-American boxer, who made India his home, ruled the streets. 

Bangalore had seen interest in boxing grow during the 1930s with the arrival of foreign soldiers. The majestic Opera House, at the intersection of Brigade Road & Residency Road, once upon a time was a thriving boxing arena. 

Boxers from all over the world flocked to Bangalore, and the city was the site of numerous fights that were sold out up until the end of the Second World War. Gunboat Jack was one of the most elite fighters who came to India in this period. 

He was a legend, a mystery man just like his name. Rumour is, that he was an American seaman who dived off a ship in Madras, and got the nickname ‘Gunboat’ and ‘Jack’ for his propensity for engaging in street brawls using a car-jack.

Whatever his strange past, Gunboat Jack rose to legendary status in Bangalore. He was renowned for his superb technique, ability to defeat the finest boxers, and for his exciting crowd-pleasing stunts.

He was born James Cozley in Lawrence, Massachusetts and had an illustrated career as ‘Champion of East’, rising from welter to light-heavyweight category. If he hadn’t left America, many believed he would have dominated the world of boxing. 

During fights, fans would chant his name and cheer his moves. He was renowned for his deep expertise in ringcraft, which he used to deceive opponents into dropping their guards so he could land powerful blows with either fist.

Such was his power that in 1936, Len Barrow, one of his rivals, died from concussion after receiving a knockout blow from Jack in Jabalpur. Grief-stricken Jack frequently visited the hospital to see his ailing opponent. 

Known as Gentleman in the circuit, Jack was also a reckless speedster who usually performed for the Bombay Circus or festivals in Madras, performing dangerous stunts on his motorcycle inside an iron cage at lightning speed. 

He is one of the earliest men to bring “Well of Death” stunts to India. He also fathered a daughter in Karachi – Shirin Bobby – who later was known as Princess Amina – one of the widely known belly dancers in the world. 

Soon enough, Jack was on the brink of going broke due to his unrestrained and brash lifestyle. In Bangalore, the once-famous boxer ended up working as a bouncer at Basco’s bar and spending the evenings panhandling.

When a missionary asked him how is he getting along with the ring of life, the legendary boxer answered “I have been knocked out again and again by the devil – through gambling, booze and sex”

In his sunset days, he was said to have worn a large hat and sat by himself on a bench on the Brigade Road and spent his days as a street preacher. Eventually he was able to go back to America a few months before his death. 

Gentleman Gunboat Jack’s rise and fall in colonial India—from an African-American navy officer to a living legend—is an amazing example of one of Bangalore’s most fascinating, but little-known, periods of history.

Sources:

Bombay Chronicles, Bangalore Mirror, Samyuktha Harshitha / Suttha Muttha. boxrec.com, personal archive of Kim Mae Colzie. Joliba Heritage and Culture 

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