The nose is the first place to find signs of a fighter’s past, and Jack Tillman’s runs straighter than the streets of downtown Mobile. His bridge runs uninterrupted between two blue-gray wells of confidence. It is almost impossible to imagine that nose bloodied or those eyes swollen up like slotted plums, though it is easy to picture Tillman, who can’t be more than 15 pounds over his fighting weight, stalking the ring, jabbing opponents and waiting for the chance to unwind a right cross they will never even see. The former sheriff’s frame remains muscular and shifts gears with fluidity as a second, then third, then fourth person walks over to his lunch booth to say, “We saw you on TV the other night, ” or, “This town sure could use 100 more like you.”
But a handshake gives Jack Tillman away. Gripping his right hand, fingers wrap perfectly, unnaturally, into bony divots near his wrist, calcium left behind from years of broken carpals and metacarpals. Many of those lumps were sustained during prizefights that he finished, and won, and now they rise like quail eggs from beneath the cuff of his sweater. He blames his hands, those twin Saturday night specials he only ever brandished in the ring, for bringing an end to his fighting days.
Birth of a Boxing Town
Whether in the form of knotted wrists, bent nose or cauliflower ear, boxing forever marks those who dare enter the ring. It can also mark a city. Organized fighting has long been a part of Mobile culture, and while it has left many facedown on the canvas, a special few have used their fists to leave the Bay, see the world and return with golden belts that lend little help to sagging pants. Local gyms and trainers have supplied the area with a number of great fighters, many with legacies that live on well after their boxing days are finished.
- Sponsors -
In 1898, the YMCA opened on the northeast corner of Government and Conception. Photos from the turn of the century show young men boxing, fencing and juggling pins atop the club’s rooftop terrace. Around that time, a black child named Feab S. Williams was born in Mobile. He would later change his name to George Godfrey and twice become the World Colored Heavyweight Champion, in 1926 and 1931. Godfrey spent most of his days above the Mason-Dixon line, earning the nickname “The Leiperville Shadow” while living in Pennsylvania. Nevertheless, he is the first recorded champion to hail from the Port City.
As the sport became more popular in the early 20th century, sailors began entering Mobile with intentions to pay for worthwhile fights. Hungry, poor blacks and whites were the usual participants, but the money soon began inspiring amateurs to test their mettle and eventually lured more experienced Gulf Coast brawlers into town.
Boxing became entrenched for everyday Mobilians around 1930, when the first entry for Littleton’s Gymnasium appears in the city directory. Tommie Littleton, a 35-year-old from the streets of New York City, had a successful career as a middleweight boxer before winding up in Mobile and opening a gym on Conti Street. Born Tommie Impastato, he changed his name because Italians often had trouble finding quality fights at the time. Littleton became a local celebrity by holding exhibitions and publicity stunts, once appearing in “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” for a 12-hour bag punching marathon.
The business of boxing continued at Littleton’s Gymnasium for more than 40 years. When noted journalist Paul Hemphill came through Mobile to profile the gym for the Atlanta Journal in 1969, he noted, “You could walk in there blindfolded and take one whiff, and you would know where you were, because nothing smells quite like an old gymnasium.” In addition to teaching generations of Mobile youth the finer points of hitting a person with their fists, Littleton coached boxing at Spring Hill College. He even stepped back into the ring at age 40, when former World Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey brought a touring stable of boxers through Mobile and needed a last-minute stand-in. Littleton won against his younger, heavier opponent.
The prime of Littleton’s Gym saw some of Mobile’s best fighters rise through the ranks. In the ’50s, locals like Ted “Red” Mosley and Guy Sumlin learned the battlefield between the turnbuckles. The 5-foot-8-inch, 149-pound Sumlin kick-started his boxing career with amateur fights at Sage Armory and Fort Whiting Auditorium before moving onward to New Orleans, then Miami Beach, Madison Square Garden and Wembley Arena in London, where he defeated future welterweight champion Brian Curvis, who was 23-0 at the time. Sumlin’s successes often ran parallel to those of New Orleanian Ralph Dupas, a French Quarter native who would be inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 2000. The two fighters developed an intense rivalry for the Southern Welterweight Championship that captivated the Gulf Coast. The fourth-ranked Dupas ultimately got the best of the seventh-ranked “Pride of Prichard, ” finishing with a 3-1 record that included a split-decision victory in their final bout July 24, 1961. Newspapers from the day listed ticket prices for the Ladd Memorial Stadium grandstands at $2.50, with ringside reservations for $7.50.
Central Fire Station and The Tillman Legacy
While Tommie Littleton grew his business, another pugilist, Gene Tillman, Jack’s father, was building a reputation as a not-so-peaceful peacekeeper in Mobile’s infamous entertainment district.
“My grandfather was an old rough guy who grew up in bars, ” says Keith Everett, Gene’s grandson and nephew to Jack. “Then he was a bouncer in the bars Downtown, one of the baddest bouncers around.” His gruff handiwork eventually led Gene to start taking on challengers around town, often before as many as 8, 000 spectators.
As his reputation spread, Gene rode trains to matches as far away as Houston or Jacksonville, sometimes staying for a month while earning $250 per each 10-round fight.
Standing on the third floor of Central Fire Station, his current workplace in Downtown Mobile, Everett can close his eyes and imagine the place just as it was when boxers like his grandfather trained in the upstairs gym. A TV blares the Military Channel from where the ring stood. A kitchen entrance has invaded the spot where the heavy bag once hung, though the firemen’s pole occupies the same circle in the corner and remains in use. When a coworker remarks what a “bad dude” Gene was rumored to be, Everett finishes the story. “He was, but he eventually started going to church. He got out of the bars and got straight.” In 1936, after more than 120 career fights, Gene Tillman traded in his boxing gloves for work gloves and a job on the city refuse truck.
Following in one of the Port City’s oldest traditions, the boys in the Tillman clan pursued the same career as their patriarch. They honed their craft on the third floor of Central Fire Station, the same place Gene had 30 years prior, under the same watchful eye of trainer Paul Bonham. While a few Tillmans would have respectable amateur runs, including Kenny “Chief” Tillman who won gold in the 1974 Junior Olympics, no one on the Gulf Coast reached the level of Gene’s son, Jack, as a fighter. Everett, who says he finished his own brief career with a 20-2 record, recalls watching in amazement while his uncle put on a show as a teenager.
“One day, when Jack was still just a six-round fighter, he was here sparring in the gym with Willie ‘Buzzsaw’ Crosby, who was already a good fighter and reminded you a little of Joe Frazier, ” he says. “Well, Willie started pressing on Jack hard, and all of a sudden, Jack knocked him out — knocked him cold as a witch. That day, Jack knocked out four guys. He kept swapping partners, and he punched every one of them out.”
Jack, for his part, tells his stories with less amusement than those who watched his career from outside the ring. He accumulated a 53-6-1 record on the way to winning the North American Welterweight Title, claiming almost half of his victories via knockout.
“I was a counterpuncher, ” he says, without bravado. “I’d stand in the middle of the ring and lean, jab and wait, force the other guy to make a move. I had a lot of knockouts for that reason.”
Like his predecessors, Jack developed rivalries with the best brawlers New Orleans had to offer, thanks in part to the promoting efforts of his brothers. Top-10 bouts against Percy Pugh or Baltimore’s Vernon Mason consistently packed out the Mobile Civic Center in the early ’70s. Jack defeated Billy Backus for the North American Welterweight Title in 1973, when the ring served as the eye of the storm within a hostile Baltimore Civic Center. After a loss in London to eventual welterweight champion of the world John H. Stracey, a fight that pulverized Jack’s already broken hands, the Semmes native called an end to his boxing days and began a life of civic service.
Jerry Tillman, Jack’s older brother, continued as a key Gulf Coast fight promoter for decades. In the mid-1980s, Jerry befriended a relative newcomer to Mobile’s boxing scene, Eddie Surrett, who had taken interest in the sport after his son joined the Murphy High School boxing club. With Surrett coaching and Jerry promoting, Mobile again became one of the principal boxing cities on the Gulf Coast. Some 30 years after Littleton told the Atlanta Journal, “Nobody’ll fight anymore. You get some hungry kid to fight, soon as he gets the wrinkles out of his stomach he quits, ” the cravings returned to Mobile youth.
Surrett’s Gym: Fighting to Continue
Surrett’s outdoor gym in some ways resembles an experienced prizefighter. It is stealthy, ducking behind a privacy fence not 50 feet off of Government Street, and resilient, continuing to function after two young miscreants set ablaze the building which housed most of the equipment. Located next to Eddie’s Chevron, the coarse boxing ring and two punching bags serve as the centerpiece of a junkyard filled with stacks of secondhand tires, a collection of fan blades spinning listlessly in the breeze, heaps of nondescript machinery and a sleepy Rottweiler named Rock.
“I would say the best boxing years in Mobile were from ’85 to ’95, ” Surrett says. “We had quite a few fighters. I had a stable full that was going overseas and everywhere to fight. Pete (Taliaferro) was probably the best out of all of them.”
Taliaferro, an orthodox lightweight, competed for three major world titles throughout the first half of the 1990s.
Pushed by Jerry Tillman’s promoting, Taliaferro and Randall “Kid Galahad” Yonker, another title-winning Surrett fighter, became the main draws as Mobile’s boxing scene crept westward to the Fairgrounds and ABBA Shrine Center. After those two, the majority of Surrett’s stories tell of heartbreak, of contenders unable to cut themselves loose from the distractions that have wrecked boxers since the sport began. Surrett and Tillman started “Toughman” competitions at the Fairgrounds, described by one of Everett’s firefighting pals as “a bunch of roughnecks wanting a place to drink and fight.”
Surrett says his gym has been out of use for the past year, due in part to the difficulty of convincing boys to choose boxing over more popular sports like football and basketball. “We don’t have the amateur clubs around here that we used to have, ” he says, echoing a gripe Littleton voiced in that 1969 article. “When I got in it, Bayou La Batre had an amateur club. Saraland had a couple of clubs. Mobile had a couple. Prichard, too. We don’t have those anymore.”
“But there’s still a lot of talent around, ” Surrett adds.
While his boss handles a phone call, one of Surrett’s employees at the Chevron station rolls a machine across the parking lot and says he’s still working on his punches, hoping to be the Bay area’s next contender.
text by Ellis Metz