Gentleman Jack

Just because we published The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: Heroes & Icons doesn’t mean we stopped our research on its roster. A case in point is “Gentleman” Jack Claybourne, one of the first African-American wrestlers to tour nationally, or at least in those parts of the country that accepted him. When I wrote the Claybourne profile, the earliest match I found for him was in 1932; now I have some clippings courtesy of Dave Cameron and Irish Johnny Griffin that showed he was wrestling in 1931 in Iowa. He would have been about 21 at the time.

Jack Claybourne gets some height against Frank Valois.

It’s a small point, to be sure, but we want to be as historically accurate as possible, especially with Claybourne, who was a true trailblazer well before the more well-known Bobo Brazil. (And he was born in Missouri, despite what some Internet sites say about Kentucky).

Legendary Missouri promoter Gust Karras, to whom skin color meant nothing, got Claybourne into the business and was still praising him as “greased lightning” to sportswriter Jim Chemi in 1953. Another legit scribe grabbed a measuring tape and found Claybourne got six and a half feet off the ground when he delivered a dropkick. My favorite description of him came from the Los Angeles Times, and I’m not sure why it didn’t make the cut for the book: “As hard to pin as a rubber ball because he doesn’t seem to have shoulders.”

Times being what they were, Claybourne’s brilliance was curbed by Jim Crow; he wrestled outside of the contiguous United States almost as often as he performed in them, and achieved his greatest distinction in Hawaii in 1948-49. Little wonder why. I have a promo piece from 1940 that declares him to be the “Voice of the Jungle,” having entered into wrestling when big-game hunters in Africa found he had an uncanny knack for tracking down lions. But his sister-in-law, to whom I spoke, said Claybourne came from a generation and culture that simply didn’t challenge that nonsense.

Claybourne suffered a dislocated shoulder in a 1952 match with Manuel Cortez in Boston and it’s clear that years of travel and health issues were starting to drag him down. He was mostly tag teaming with Luther Lindsay, Don Leo Jonathan, and Buddy Jackson by then. Several clippings from the Buffalo-Toronto area report that he couldn’t pass the ring physical and had to be scratched from the night’s action. It’s unclear how much the injuries caused the depression that led him to commit suicide in 1960.

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