"Iron Man" Joe Grim found fame with a thick skull
After one of the world's most famous athletes showed his stuff in Milwaukee 107 years ago Jan. 5, a Journal sports reporter pronounced him "a nerveless, brainless, freak of human idiocy."
Those were layman's terms, of course, but a few years earlier medical experts came to virtually the same conclusion about Joe Grim after studying the 150-pound boxer to determine what made him virtually impervious to punishment in the ring and a source of great frustration to the many big-name and brawnier boxers whose best shots Grim invited and took without going down for the count.
"Joe Grim, the Italian pugilist, is able to stand the terrible beatings to which he has lately been subjected simply owing to the fact that he is in possession of a very small brain," declared Dr. Carleton Simon, noted early 20th century psychiatrist and criminologist whose subjects also included assassin of President William McKinley, Leon Czolgosz, in 1903.
"He is of such a low order of intelligence that his nerves, which carry the news to his brain when he is hurt, find a very chilly reception. Now, to grasp the idea that he has been hurt at all, and then not able to take hold of it with one-half the sense of pain of a human being of ordinary intelligence, Grim will have to be almost killed before beaten into insensibility."
In 300-plus professional fights, Joe Grim was knocked down frequently and usually battered and bloodied. Newspapers called him "The Human Punching Bag," though Grim himself preferred the nickname "Iron Man." He won only a handful of fights, and according to the record book only once did he take the 10-count – a result Grim laid to skullduggery instead of the other guy's punches.
"He was the greatest physical freak the prize ring ever knew," wrote Jack Kofoed in The Ring magazine in 1930. "Grim offered his body as a target to fighters who outweighed him by many pounds. He has the strangest claim to glory that an athlete ever made."
And Grim reveled in it. When the final bell clanged and he had gone the distance again, Grim would do a somersault in the ring and then proclaim to loud cheers, "Me 'Iron Man' Grim! No one knock Joe out!"
Among those who tried were heavyweight champions Jack Johnson and Bob Fitzsimmons, and fellow Boxing Hall of Famers Joe Gans, Joe Walcott, Philadelphia Jack O'Brien and Peter Maher, most of whom had at least 30 pounds on him. Johnson and Fitzsimmons knocked him down more than a dozen times each but couldn't keep Grim on the deck.
"I don't believe that man is made of flesh and blood," said Johnson after their six-round fight in 1905.
Before his bout with Fitzsimmons three years before that, Grim reportedly let the former heavyweight and middleweight champion know that knocking him out was a pipe dream by having someone hit him as hard as possible across the chest with a baseball bat.
"Grim was knocked to the floor," wrote Kofoed, "but staggered to his feet at once and remarked, with his perpetual smile: 'Go tell Bob about that!'"
Joe's impregnable noggin made its first impression on audiences when he was a boy in Avellino, Italy, where he was born Saverio Giannone in 1881. He became the biggest and most lucrative tourist attraction in town by nonchalantly picking himself up and dusting himself off after taking a running start and ramming his skull into the steel doors of the local cathedral. His family moved to Philadelphia when Joe was 10, and he used his unusual talent for absorbing punishment with a smile first in street fights and then in local boxing clubs.
Back then there were no boxing commissions to prevent a guy from making a living by letting his opponents play Whack-a-Mole on him, and by the time Grim made his one and only appearance in Milwaukee his renown was so great that it was written that if Young Mahoney could succeed where everyone else had failed by putting him down for the count, "the world would be sprawling at his feet (and) it would be European trips and peanut dinners" for the Racine middleweight boxer.
A native of Germany who fought under an Irish name, Mahoney had his own reputation for invincibility when he squared off against Grim at the Panorama on North 6th and West Wells Streets on Jan. 5, 1906. In fact, he was called "The Iron-Jawed Plumber" because he had never been stopped either, and when he wasn't boxing he made ends meet by unplugging toilets. But unlike Grim, Mahoney's sole interest in the ring wasn't remaining perpendicular. He liked to brawl and had a fair punch.
He gave it his best shot, according to the Journal's man at ringside, landing "a thousand and some odd blows upon every part of the Italian's anatomy"; but the fight local boxing fans had been "dreaming, eating and sleeping about" ended up a bust because "the Italian had no more spunk than a rabbit and, as far as fighting is concerned, quit like a dog."
Wearing light blue-and-pink boxing trunks, Grim was "about the most ungainly being that has ever stepped through the ropes," reported the Journal. "Clumsy, unbalanced, awkward and shack-footed, he truly (was) a sorry sight. The Italian did not land a single clean blow during the entire fight. Only three times ... did he collect his shallow wits long enough to hit, and then Mahoney beat him to it easily. Mahoney landed hard enough on the swarthy fighter to lift him out of the ring. Right on the point of the jaw would some of his uppercuts land, but (Grim) came back smiling."
After eight monotonous rounds Mahoney got the decision and Grim did his somersault and yodeled his traditional defiance. The next day he strolled around town without a mark on him indicating that he had been used for target practice the night before. "...There is yet time for someone to discover Grim's weak spot," posited the newspaper, "but it will probably be a man with an ax."
A pug called Sailor Burke didn't use an ax, but still got credit for inflicting the first 10-count on Grim when they fought on May 21, 1906. It happened in the third round of their fight in Brooklyn after Grim had been knocked down several times. To his dying day, Grim claimed it was a frame-up.
"...When I went down in the third round, somebody turned off the lights in the house while I was on the canvas," he said in a 1936 interview with Jack Cuddy of the United Press. "I was up on my feet at the count of three, looking for Burke in the dark. By the time the lights was turned on the referee had counted me out. Gamblers had arranged the whole thing. They cleaned up. But I wasn't knocked out!"
Grim also lamented in the interview that he had been born 25 years too soon. "With (Joe) Louis and the other fighters they got around nowadays it would have been easy pickin's and big money for me," he said.
Pea-sized as it was, the Iron Man's brain obviously turned out not to be immune to all those punches after all. Grim's last days were spent in a Philly mental asylum, where he died at age 53 on Aug. 18, 1939.
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