Wild Man Joe fought 'em all, including gorilla

April 14, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

When Wild Man Joe O'Connell went looking for a fight, nobody was safe, including Joe himself. You could look it up. Pro boxers, street fighters, carnival brawlers, he took 'em all on. Plus, not to be overlooked, a gorilla and a kangaroo who should have known better.

For the record, Joe says the gorilla and the kangaroo were the roughest fights he had. But that's just his word. Nobody's asked the gorilla or the kangaroo their side of it.

"I just liked to fight," Joe was explaining yesterday. He's 72 now, and battling strictly with health problems these days. He says he'll beat them. He always said he'd beat any opponent, and usually he was right. Sometimes in spite of himself.

Coming out of Pigtown in the 1940s, he fought scores of professional fights. He did this even though he despised training and found creative ways to avoid it. Lou Annello, a part-time fight manager and barber, was his manager. He'd send Joe out to run. Joe would run a block, catch a city bus, and ride around for a while until he'd catch another bus back. Then he'd hop off the bus, find a faucet, and splash water all over himself to look sweaty.

"Thing is," he was saying, with the wisdom of hindsight, "that's what probably hurt me the worst. I lost lots of fights when I was way ahead, 'cause I ran out of gas. But I tell you, I was never scared."

Not scared of fighting, he means. But airplanes terrified him. Once, he had to fly out to California to box Oscar Wakefield. He was so scared, they had to lock Joe in a baggage room so he wouldn't jump out.

But he fought tough guys, and mostly beat 'em, and hardly ever saw much money. Got $350 when he fought the top middleweight contender, Lee Sala, back in '47. Got a few hundred that he never saw when a buddy borrowed it to get into a crap game. Once, for his biggest payday, he was supposed to get $1,800, but wound up seeing only $150.

"You were happy just to get a payday," Joe said, stretched out in his daughter's living room yesterday on West Lombard Street, in Pigtown. Payday? One time, he fought a 10-round exhibit out at Fort Howard for a pack of cigarettes. And Joe didn't even smoke.

But he makes a good point about scrapping just to keep food on the table. He came from a family with grandparents who had 23 children, including four sets of twins. Joe's mother died when he was 10, and the family sent him to St. Mary's Industrial School, where Brother Benedict encouraged a lot of kids to work out their aggressions in the ring.

He left St. Mary's at 16, went to work shoveling coal on Ridgely Street, and slept in a room over the company office. Got 15 cents for every ton of coal he unloaded. There were 28 baskets to the ton. He built a lot of muscles.

Lou Annello found him on the street and convinced him to give professional boxing a shot. Skip the amateurs, he said. Joe trained four days, then went into the ring. Got stopped in eight rounds, but found he loved the hitting.

"Kill or be killed," he said yesterday. That was his style. Fought with such ferocity, the crowds loved him. Fought with such single-minded intensity, one time he entered the ring down in Washington, took off his robe, and quickly realized from crowd reaction that he'd forgotten to put on his trunks.

"I just looked down and said, 'Oh, my God, I ain't got no pants on,'" he remembered.

Carnival came to town once, they offered a dollar a round to fight a kangaroo. Joe found this enthralling. He practically leaped into the ring, wearing a ferocious scowl. The kangaroo wore boxing trunks and big tennis shoes. Also, a muzzle.

Joe went after him. The kangaroo jumped over his head. Joe turned and kept chasing him. Finally, he nailed him.

"I was sorry I ever hit him," he says now. "The kangaroo got mad as hell. He hit me with his tail. He hit me so hard, I was stuttering for two days."

Best thing about his fight with the gorilla: It was over pretty quickly. Joe should have stuck to humans, where he knew his stuff. He sparred with Archie Moore, during Archie's glory days. Beat some tough guys. Got kissed in the boxing ring by Marilyn Monroe one time.

Yesterday, lying in a hospital bed at his daughter's, he remembered the good times and smiled. The fight's a little tougher now: heart troubles and cancer. Joe says he'll beat 'em. He always went in expecting to win, and almost always did.

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