There was perhaps no harder period to make it big in boxing than in the early 1930s. There was no shortage of men who could fight, partly because of the Great Depression, and partly because of the boxing boom of the 1920s, when youngsters, looking to become the next Jack Dempsey, took up fighting in record numbers. The weak were culled from the ranks, and only the hardest of men prospered—and to succeed in those days meant going from town to town, traveling by rail, fighting all-too frequently, and often burning out while chasing the dream.
And so it is that the following line is a significant accomplishment:
The above notation, under the heading of “World Light Welterweight Title Fights,” appears on page 183 of the Encyclopedia of Boxing. It indicates that Battling Shaw, real name Jose Perez, was one of the few who, at least for one night, realized the dream of an untold number of prizefighters plying their craft in Depression-era America.
The “M” above stands for “Mexico,” and boxing record books acknowledge Shaw as the first world champion born in Mexico. Given the storied history of fighters hailing from that country, it is a distinction that lifts a fighter of modest credentials from the anonymity of a bygone era to a unique place in history. But was Shaw actually born in Mexico? And was the bout with Jadick even a legitimate title fight?
Along with those uncertainties there is also the mystery of how Battling Shaw fell from grace so swiftly. Descriptions of his early conquests, along with the fantastic year he had in New Orleans just before facing Jadick, indicate that Shaw was a steadily improving fighter with a promising future. Yet he won only 8 of his last 24 recorded contests, with only one victory coming against a fighter with a winning record. That leads to another puzzling question: What went wrong for Battling Shaw?
But first, there is the issue of just where Shaw was born. On the day after Shaw’s big win, newspapers across the United States noted Jadick as hailing from Philadelphia, but Shaw’s origins varied depending on the source. In recaps of the fight, the Associated Press was more specific, referring to the fighter as being “formerly of Laredo, Texas, but now of New Orleans.” Yet, the United Press referred to Shaw as “Battling Shaw of Mexico.”
In 1991, a few years before his death, Shaw was interviewed by the Laredo Times. At the time, Shaw was confined to a wheelchair and living in a retirement home in Laredo. The article mentions that The Ring boxing encyclopedia said that Shaw was born in Nuevo Laredo, across the border in Tamaulipas, Mexico. But Shaw flatly contradicted that account. “I was born and raised here,” Shaw said. “I’m a Texas boy.”
Laredo dates back to 1755, when it was founded by Don Tomas Sanchez, a Spanish officer, during an expedition to explore and colonize the Mexican province of Nuevo Santander. In 1836, fifteen years after Mexico won independence from Spain, Texas revolted and won its independence from Mexico, leaving the town in a disputed area, claimed by both Mexico and the Republic of Texas. In 1845, Texas officially joined the United States, and in 1847, after several battles between the two nations, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, officially making the Rio Grande the boundary line. The following year, many Laredo citizens who preferred to remain Mexican moved across the river to form Nuevo Laredo.
According to the Laredo Vital Statistics Office, Shaw, not the history books, is to be believed. His birth certificate, under the name of Jose Perez and dated October 21, 1910, confirms that he was indeed a Texan. How the confusion initially arose is unclear, but given the proximity and history of the cities, the discrepancy is understandable. In addition, Shaw, like all fighters of the era, was often referred to by his family heritage and not his nation of birth.
Baby Arizmendi, who also started out in Laredo, earned his first crack at a title on February 28, 1933—just a week after Shaw beat Jadick—when he fought Freddie Miller for the N.B.A. featherweight crown in Los Angeles. Arizemendi lost the decision to Miller, but he became the first Mexican world champion in history when he defeated Mike Belloise for the NYSAC featherweight title on August 30, 1934.
Like nearly all prizefighters of that era, Battling Shaw came from humble beginnings. He dropped out of elementary school after completing only three years and hustled to earn cash. He shined shoes, delivered newspapers, and worked as a delivery boy for a couple of drug stores before eventually finding steady employment as a soda jerk.
While working the fountain, Shaw met several fighters from Mexico, including Carlos Garcia, a featherweight from Mexico City, who invited Shaw to train at the gym. Before long, he was sparring with his new friends, and when a group of fighters went to San Antonio for a show, Shaw tagged along. He caught a break when one of the fighters turned up sick, and made his debut as a substitute, going the full four round distance. Although he took a beating, Shaw showed cleverness and pluck, two attributes that would eventually take him to the top.
It was in San Antonio that he acquired the ring name of Battling Shaw. “They were saying Che or ‘Que Che’ for Jose. In English, I guess it was easier to say Shaw,” he remembered many years later. “It was a good name, Shaw, for a fighter, but there was already one named Billy Shaw. So, I became Battling Shaw.”
Shaw fought frequently in his first few years as a pro, traveling between Laredo and San Antonio. In Laredo, he fought at the Fort McIntosh Bowl, the site of a US military base, where he learned to box under the guidance of an old Army trainer. He progressed rapidly, and within a couple of years, he was looking for bigger pastures. Twice he left Laredo in search of success—moving to Detroit and Los Angeles in 1929 and 1930—only for homesickness to end his travels. After returning from California, he fought frequently in Nuevo Laredo before spending several months in Mexico City during the summer and fall of 1931, facing some of the best fighters Mexico had to offer.
After returning to Laredo, Shaw heard that Ray Kiser, a lightweight from Tulsa, was a hit in New Orleans, his attention was piqued. Shaw had convincingly beaten Kiser the previous May, and figured if Kiser was doing well there, so could he. Shaw got in touch with Emile Bruneau, a young manager who was looking to land a main-event fighter. He sent Bruneau newspaper clippings of his victories in Laredo, along with a request for a bout with Kiser, which was promptly arranged.
The New Orleans fight scene was modest but busy when Shaw arrived in February of 1932. There were shows at the Coliseum Arena and Hi-Li Fronton, which featured top local talent as well as solid, if not spectacular, visiting attractions, along with smaller cards at the Courthouse Arena. The major promoter in town was Martin Burke, a former light heavyweight contender, who had worked as a sparring partner for Jack Dempsey. Burke had big ambitions as a promoter and had announced his intention to develop a local lightweight that might eventually challenge Tony Canzoneri. It all sounded good to Shaw, who signed a three-year contract with Bruneau only a few days after arriving in the city.
On February 22, 1932, Shaw lost a 10-round decision to Kiser. Despite the result, locals were impressed by Shaw and he quickly became a regular headliner at the Coliseum Arena. He rattled off six victories in a row, including dramatic come-from-behind knockouts over Ervin Berlier, a southpaw spoiler, and Joe Ghnouly, a highly regarded junior lightweight from St. Louis. Shaw also scored a decision over quick and clever Davey Abad, who had recently given the Kid Chocolate all he could handle in Havana.
Shaw was a crowd pleaser because of his bob-and-weave style, his ability to soak up punishment without wavering and because he could change the course of a fight at any moment with his power. At the same time, it was clear that if he didn’t land his big right hand, he could be outboxed, which is what happened in a rematch with Abad a month after their first fight.
Unlike today, where any defeat can frequently derail a fighter, Shaw was still very much in the mix as far as Martin Burke was concerned. And with the victory, Davey Abad put his name into contention for bigger matches as well. With Ghnouly and Kiser also holding favorable impressions with boxing fans in New Orleans, Burke unveiled his next plan: a four-man elimination tournament over the last two weeks of August for a shot at Johnny Jadick’s junior welterweight crown. Shaw rose to the challenge, gaining revenge over Kiser in a punishing give-and-take contest in the semis, before soundly thrashing Ghnouly in the finals.
Shaw showed an added wrinkle to his attack against Ghnouly. Known for his destructive right hand, Shaw had used his left mainly to jab and hook to the body, but not as a punishing weapon upstairs. The left had been broken some time ago, and with Shaw fighting so often (sometimes twice a month), it had failed to heal properly. With so much on the line, Bruneau brought in a doctor to inject a numbing agent to freeze the hand in the dressing room prior to the bout. With his left unleashed, Shaw was a far more complete fighter.
A few weeks after the tournament, Jadick was still exploring other options, namely trying to draw Canzoneri into putting his lightweight belt on the line. After Canzoneri proved a difficult target, Jadick set his sights on Kid Chocolate, with a potential big money title-defense in Havana on the table. Nothing came of that either, and Jadick finally agreed to meet Shaw in New Orleans on February 20, with the Times-Picayune reporting that the junior welterweight championship would be on the line.
While Jadick was making up his mind, Shaw took on Lou Terry, a hard-hitting lightweight from St. Louis in early October. On this occasion, rather than call in a doctor, Bruneau injected Shaw’s hand, leaving the fighter feeling dizzy. An easy target for his opponent’s wild right hand swings, Shaw lost badly. After a doctor’s consultation revealed the fracture would need at least a month to heal, Bruneau sent Shaw to Laredo to rest. Back at full strength, Shaw met Terry again in late November, decisively turning the tables in winning a one-sided decision.
On February 7, only two weeks before facing Jadick, Shaw traveled to St. Louis for a third meeting with Ghnouly, this time coming out on the wrong side of the cards. Having beaten Ghnouly so thoroughly in their previous meeting, the result was a surprise. Shaw later explained that he was unable to acclimate himself with the frigid conditions in St. Louis.
On February 20, 1933, Battling Shaw finally got his shot at Jadick. The fight was a thrilling contest and an almost perfect mesh of styles, pitting the cagey skills of Jadick against the pressure and punching ability of Shaw. The master at long range, Jadick was successful in spearing Shaw with jabs and tagging his hard-charging opponent on the way in with fancy combinations. But Shaw was dangerous each time he closed the distance, and he consistently tagged Jadick on the inside with hard hooks, especially to the body.
The fight ebbed back and forth, with each man having his moments, until Shaw broke through in the sixth with a hard overhand right. The punch opened a nasty gash over Jadick’s left eye, and the Philadelphian was bothered by the blood for the remainder of the bout. Jadick still had his chances, scoring with jabs and occasionally making his overeager opponent miss badly, but he was almost strictly on the defensive in the later rounds. Shaw had the best of the ninth, chasing Jadick all over the ring, and may have clinched the win in the final round when he staggered Jadick with a left hook.
The decision was close, with two judges having Shaw in front by 4 rounds to 3, with 3 even, and referee Jimmy Moran all square at 4-4, with 2 even. Although Shaw was hailed as the new champion the next day, Johnny Jadick spoiled the party. “I vacated that title long ago,” Jadick told writer Bill Keefe. “I am a legitimate lightweight … there were no suitable opponents and if Shaw can realize any profit out of the title he is welcome to it.”
Jadick’s decision to give up the title had gone out over the wire nationally on February 6. “Now that I have relinquished claim to the junior welterweight crown, I stand ready to fight any lightweight in the world,” he said.
It’s almost certain that the Louisiana commission, the New Orleans press, and promoter Burke were aware of the title situation—but the news was not mentioned by the Times-Picayune in the lead-up to the bout. A non-title fight would no doubt have negatively impacted the gate, so local interests very well could have been at play. And considering Jadick had agreed to the bout before he abdicated his title, Louisiana interests may have felt justified in considered the announcement irrelevant to their promotion.
Giving up the title seems like a strange move on the surface, but unlike modern times, where there is no difference in prestige between the 135lb and 140lb championships, in 1933 the junior welterweight class was considered a “synthetic” division. It had been established only a decade earlier, but never fully caught on, and in September 1932, the National Boxing Association rescinded recognition of the weight class.
Jadick’s home state of Pennsylvania continued to recognize the title, but refused to acknowledge Shaw’s claim. On February 27, Robert J. Nelson of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission released the following statement:
“Since there has been some controversy about the title, I feel that the public should be advised that the alleged championship bout between Jadick and Battling Shaw in New Orleans on February 20, could not have been for the title because the bout was subsequent to Jadick’s relinquishing the junior welterweight title.”
Despite the N.B.A.’s stance on the title, Jadick’s actions and the statement of the PSAC, an outright dismissal of Shaw’s claim to a world title would be a mistake. Many boxing historians, uninterested in sifting through the politics of the sport, believe that when recognizing championship lineage, the soul determining factor should be “the man who beat the man.”
Still only 22 years old at the time of his triumph over Jadick, Shaw appeared well-positioned for a profitable run. With a sturdy jaw and a relentless style, he was just the sort of fighter promoters loved. He was building a following in New Orleans, and many of the major fight centers, including Madison Square Garden were interested in his services.
Eventually, after much wrangling, Tony Canzoneri and Shaw agreed to meet in New Orleans. The fight was held on May 21, 1933, at Heinneman Park, the local baseball ground, on a hot sunny afternoon before 5,285 spectators. Shaw had his moments, and at one stage had a bloodied Canzoneri on the run, but his inexperience proved to be his undoing. He was dropped late in the seventh, and again in the eighth, and though he fought valiantly in lasting the distance, the decision in favor of Canzoneri was a formality at the end.
Battling Shaw would never be the same fighter again. In Laredo, some wondered if Canzoneri had “ruined” him. Years later, Shaw would admit that it had been a taste for the good life that had sent his career careening quickly downhill. Shaw earned a cool $5,000 for the Canzoneri fight, and he quickly went about spending cash in the cabarets of Nuevo Laredo, regularly staying out long into the night. “I thought the world was mine,” Shaw reminisced when looking back on his career, before adding, “I started fooling around. It was the women.”
Shaw kept fighting regularly, returning to New Orleans for matches with Harry Dublinsky and old rival Ray Kiser in July. He lost both bouts decisively. They were typically grueling Shaw contests, although something was missing from the former champion. This was clear in the Kiser bout, when Shaw, who had always worked feverishly in the clinches, was forced to hold on the inside, while at other times, he backed away to buy time.
Shaw continued his career in Laredo, and after easily stopping Jimmy Murphy, he was battered over 10 rounds by Tracey Cox—a rough customer from Indiana—on September 6, 1933. “I wasn’t the aggressive fighter I used to be,” Shaw told the Laredo Times. “I need a rest and I am going to take it. Maybe after that it will be a different story.”
He was all set to head off to a ranch, with the intention of “getting the fight racket off his mind,” when he received an offer to fight Willard Brown in Dallas. Unable to heed his own advice, Shaw headed to Dallas, where Brown knocked him out in four rounds. So poor was his performance that George White of the Dallas Morning News called Shaw a “set-up” for Brown, and went on to write, “From the moment Shaw climbed through the ropes it was obvious he was only a shadow of his former self.”
Shaw would try again, taking a few easy fights in Mobile, before returning to New Orleans in June of 1934. Shaw was again matched with Willard Brown. In building Shaw’s chances up to the local press, Bruneau acknowledged that “fast living” had caused Shaw to hit the skids, but he assured the paper that his fighter was back in form. The fight proved to be another disaster, with Shaw failing to escape the opening round after being dropped four times.
A few years later, Raul X. Gonzalez, editor of the Laredo Times, lamented the fighter’s precipitous tumble. “A natural boxer, and yet after every fight you could see him throwing money away as fast as he won it.” According to Gonzalez, during the latter part of his career, Shaw “indulged in much drink and paid no attention to training.”
But Gonzalez was happy to report that Shaw was now settled and working in Tampico for the government. By 1938 Shaw was a motorcycle cop in Mexico City, but he soon returned to Laredo to work for the local police. In 1943 he married Luz Ramirez.
When the Laredo Times caught up with him in 1991, he and Luz were living at a nursing home in Laredo. “Being a fighter was very good to me,” he said proudly. “It was great. Muy grande great.”
Jose “Battling Shaw” Perez died on August 27, 1994, at the age of 83.