Marty Jakubowski | Jeff Manes~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 1, 2014 6:19AM
“Tony Zale grew up in the searing, stinking heat of the steel town of Gary, Indiana and fought his way out to become one of the greatest middleweight boxing champions of all time.”
— The first paragraph of Antoni Florian Zaleski’s obituary
Tony Zale wasn’t the only tough and talented Polish-American prizefighter from Northwest Indiana. In more recent times, a streetwise kid from Robertsdale, born Martin George Jakubowski, won more than 100 professional bouts. But he didn’t fight his way out of the ‘hood, he chose to stay and make it a better place.
Our interview took place at Whiting Community Center. Today, Marty Jakubowski is superintendent of the Whiting Parks Department.
Jakubowski, 44, lives in Whiting with his wife, Teresa. They have two daughters ages 22 and 17 and a son who is 14.
“Rockefeller built this place in 1923,” Jakubowski began. “He dedicated it to the World War I soldiers coming back. Until this year, we ran and maintained this building as a community center. The YMCA is going to take over the program.”
Tell me more about your job.
“We still have Whiting Lakefront Park, the beach, the trail system and the small pocket parks in the city. We bought Whihala Park about three years ago from Lake County.”
Did you attend Whiting or Hammond Clark High School?
Memories of growing up in the Robertsdale-Whiting area?
“We lived on the 1900 block of Warwick Avenue right across from a place we called Four-side Square. It was just an empty lot. We played baseball, football and soccer from morning until night. It was a real mix in that area. We had Irish, Slovak, German, Hispanics... .”
But it wasn’t all fun and games on the street. I remember when you came within an eyelash of losing your career and even your life.
“Yeah, I got stabbed in the back and it pierced my lung. Hey, I was no angel growing up. I had some gang-banger friends who approached me and said, ‘Hey, we gotta problem. Will you help us out?’ A guy got me before I got him. It is what it is. I had five or six pro fights at the time.”
When did you take an interest in boxing?
“In 1979, when the new boxing gym opened up in Whiting.”
What years did your professional career span?
“I tuned pro in ‘87 and fought pretty much until ‘99. In 2003 or ‘04, I had a few more fights. But I really should have stopped in ‘96 or ‘97. I wasn’t doing it because I was excited about it anymore, I was doing it for the money.”
How long did you go undefeated?
“I was 38-0.”
Your first loss?
“The first time I fought Julio Cesar Chavez. He was like 86-0. Pound for pound, Chavez was probably the greatest fighter in the world at the time.
“Up until then, the most I was ever paid for a fight was like 1,500 bucks. They offered me $25,000. So, I think I’m rich, you know. I only had a couple weeks’ notice. Not that it would’ve mattered. Chavez was determined; he punched hard. He did everything great.”
He was the world champion. Did you get any punches in?
“Yeah, I actually won the first round. That’s because he doesn’t warm up until the third round. The referee stopped the fight in the sixth. I was never off my feet, but I was hurt. It was a great experience. We fought in Las Vegas. I fought for Don King. I met Marc Ratner.”
“He was the boxing commissioner in Las Vegas at the time. Ratner approached me before the fight and said, ‘Hey, uh, we don’t expect you to come here and lay down.’”
“Ahem. I told Ratner something to the effect, ‘You do your job and I’ll do mine.’ After that, my relationship with Marc Ratner was very cordial — once I straightened him out.”
Back in the day, you’d fight several times a week.
“I learned how to box on the job, in front of a crowd, no head gear, with judges. Unfortunately, fighters can’t do that anymore.”
“Because the commissions are controlling boxing. These guys have never boxed, probably not even a street fight. And they’re gonna tell boxers when they can fight and who they can fight? It has turned into a ridiculous circus. Small town boxing has just about been wiped out.”
Marty, I know a guy who has coached practically every high school sport there is. Like you, he’s small but mighty. He was a collegiate wrestler and played college football. He competes in 100-mile cross country races while in his 60s. When he was in college, his thesis was “The Sissification of America.”
“Man, I’m a fan of that guy already. We have become sissified. No one loses, everybody gets to win. You know what? That ain’t real life, man. There are winners and losers. That’s a fact, Jack. And they wonder why kids sit around and play video games all day.”
Your greatest asset as a professional fighter?
“Defense. I was a good counter puncher. I also had good people around me who knew the sport.”
Toward the end of his career, another great area fighter, Angel Manfredy, was a lightweight like you. The outcome if you two would’ve gone toe to toe while both in your prime?
“Several people have asked me that very same question. I’ve thought about it. I’m a pretty honest guy. If both of us had our best day, it could have went either way. Angel was a better puncher, but his defense wasn’t the greatest. Believe me, I would’ve had to have packed a lunch to beat Angel.”
You actually fought your younger brother in an official professional bout.
“Yeah, we ended up in North Dakota together and my original opponent didn’t pass the physical. My promoter came up to me and said, ‘Hey, Marty, they nixed the fight.’ My brother — half looped up — shouted, ‘I’ll fight him!’”
“I made him quit in the fifth round with a body shot. Hey, he was hung over. I knew if I gave him a good shot to the stomach it was all she wrote.”
You not only fought throughout the United States, you fought in other countries.
“Yeah, I fought in Mexico, Canada, Africa, Denmark, Germany, China... .”
Because of boxing, the kid from Whiting got to see the world.
“Let me tell you, I wouldn’t change one thing. I learned a lot. I got to meet governors, congressmen, millionaires, billionaires ... Pete Visclosky knows my name. I met Tony Zale and had my picture taken with him. Being a street kid from Whiting coming from a single-parent broken home, there’s no way all those things would’ve happened to me if it wasn’t for boxing.
“And you know what? I can start up a conversation with someone who is homeless. Boxing draws them all, from the Donald Trumps to the winos on the street and everybody in between. Folks are folks, you know what I mean? No matter what color. No matter how much money they got. People are good. And my wife putting up with me? My Teresa has Mother Teresa beat. I got great kids and a good job. My life is good.”
Folks are folks.
Well said, Marty Jakubowski.