At only five feet tall and weighing 110 pounds—roughly the size of a modern American 14-year-old—ex-fighter Johnny Coulon would bet men twice his size that they couldn’t lift him off the ground. All across the country, men lined up to accept this improbable challenge. When even the brawniest of takers would lay hands on Coulon’s small frame, he would feign a struggle. This was the sleight of hand, concealing the illusionist’s real move, which was to press gently on a nerve in the back of the other man’s neck. True to his claim, Coulon became an immovable object. It was as if his feet had fused with the earth below. Not even heavyweight champ Sonny Liston, also known as “The Big Bear,” could budge the diminutive former-champ.
But it was the bet that Coulon lost that cemented his name in the annals of one Chicago charity.
Coulon was born in 1889 in Toronto, Canada, to American parents and raised in turn-of-the-century Chicago. Known as “The Cherry Picker from Logan Square,” he reigned as the bantamweight king of the world after besting England’s Jim Kendrick in March 1910.
In 1914, a fighter named Kid Williams began pestering the defending champ to meet him in the ring. Coulon’s boxing career was arguably on a downward trajectory at this time. Not confident in his physical preparedness at the time, Coulon refused. But Williams continued to taunt Coulon, offering him $500 for a shot at the title. Coulon was still unmoved—and still unmovable. So, Williams sweetened the pot to $1,000. Finally, Coulon relented—one condition: “You give me $1,000 to fight you and I’ll give the money to a Chicago charity,” he responded. Coulon selected the Working Boys Home on the West Side, known today as Mercy Home for Boys & Girls. Williams agreed, and a match was set for June 9, near Los Angeles.
It’s said that it’s not the size of the man in the fight, but the size of the fight in the man. Williams was an inch taller than Coulon and outweighed him by six pounds. But remembering his challenger’s taunting, and the kids back at the Working Boys Home, Coulon entered the ring with plenty of fight that day.
In addition to the nearly 11,000 spectators on hand to watch the fight, Coulon had the boys back at the Mercy Mission rooting wildly for their hero. Yet Coulon’s fighting spirit wouldn’t be enough to best the upstart and future boxing hall of famer. Williams knocked Coulon to the mat in the second round with a wild right that landed just over his left ear.
Mercifully, the bell sounded as the ref reached eight, sparing Coulon for the moment. But midway into third round, Williams put Coulon down for good with a blow to the same spot.
It was the first time in his career that Coulon was down for the count. “Coulon had been bowled off his pins before,” the Chicago Tribune reported, “but always had bounded to his feet before the referee had tolled off one second.”
This time, however, he would fail to lift himself from the canvas.
Coulon would fight again occasionally over the years that followed, but the defeat was effectively the end of his professional boxing career.
A month after his loss to Williams, he met Fr. C.J. Quille, president of the Working Boys Home, at the Mission’s old oak door on Jackson Blvd. In Coulon’s pocket, a $1,000 gold certificate, which he handed to Fr. Quille, saying that he came to deliver the promise he had made to the boys. He’d never regain his title, but for the boys at the Mission, he was still their champion, and a giant among heroes.
“Johnny Coulon might not be bantamweight champion of the world,” the Chicago Tribune wrote, “but to the boys of the Working Boys home in Chicago, he is the greatest fighter that ever laced on a pair of padded mitts.”
Coulon went on to serve in the U.S. Army during World War I, training troops in the art of the fight. A year after his official retirement from boxing in 1920, he returned to Chicago and opened what would become a legendary boxing gym on East 63rd Street. With his new wife Marie serving as business manager, Coulon’s gym hosted many legends over the years, including Sonny Liston, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jack Dempsey, Ernie Terrell, Joe Louis, Gene Tunney and Muhammad Ali, who kept in shape at Coulon’s during his exile years in Chicago. Ali also worked out in a boxing gym located in the basement at Mercy Home.
The artist LeRoy Neiman, a boxing fan who lived in Chicago as both a student and faculty member of the Art institute, also visited Coulon’s often. As did boxing aficionado Ernest Hemmingway, who sparred there with local amateurs.
It was in these same post-professional years that Coulon toured the country, making a living performing his stage act and spectacular feats of strength, cementing his legend as the tiny boxer few could lift. He remained remarkably fit throughout his life. At 76, he could leap nimbly over the top ropes of the ring. And he once celebrated birthday by walking the length of his gym on his hands.
Coulon died in 1973 at the age of 84, and was buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Evergreen Park, IL. When his widow sold the gym in 1981, it was moved to the West Side and renamed Windy City. It closed in 2006.
Mark Schmeltzer is a Chicago-based writer who works in non-profit communications.