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Charmed Life

Fighting Chance

Sam Holden

By Charles Cohen | Posted 1/15/2003

For weeks, for months, for years, Joe Bukowski has waited through numerous nights bartending on the Block at strip clubs like the Circus and the the Plaza. He's waited through endless evenings of pounding music, nonstop chatter, ever-present cigarette smoke, perfume that smells like car air-freshener, and stone-faced men who come in midday to buy a woman a drink.

He's been waiting for the day when he can get his name on a boxing card again and do his dance in the ring as Jewel Box Joe. And his time may be near once again: When he turns 50 next month, Bukowski hopes to celebrate by donning some gloves, climbing into the ring, and facing an opponent. Maybe it will be at the Teamsters Hall in Dundalk, or maybe at Bohagher's in Fells Point. He doesn't really care about the locale--the important thing is that he gets to fight. Even if he doesn't have time to train properly , he says he'll take the bout.

"I've been fighting, man, all my life, you know what I mean?" says the Baltimore native.

Bukowski has some people working to make his 50th birthday wish come true--guys like boxer Eddie Van Kirk and Ed "the Fighting Realtor" Sauerhoff, a longtime real-estate agent, fight promoter, and founder of the Baltimore Boxing Club.

Sauerhoff calls Bukowski, a "tough guy," someone who compensates for his lack of formal training with guts, brawn, and a street reputation. Jewel Box Joe is a great draw to have on a card, Sauerhoff says: "He's got a lot of people who want to see him fight." The problem is, the promoter says, is that it's hard to find someone his age or skill level willing to fight him.

The last time Jewel Box Joe was supposed to fight was February 2002. Sauerhoff had arranged a full evening's worth of matches that would feature talent from boxing clubs all over town. Bukowski was listed on promotion posters as part of a special attraction: old guys still fightin'. Though the other two old guys--Johnnie "Irish" Radiagan of Bowie, 55, and "Junk Yard" Johnnie Hall of Pasadena, 56--were only supposed to act as coaches at the event, they were featured on the poster along with Jewel Box Joe, who was pictured at the bottom, his leg-of-lamb-sized right fist at the ready.

But the night turned out to be a disaster. Many of the boxers didn't show up, including Bukowski's opponent, because the event's date was changed at the last minute. Fans who paid $20 a pop to see him in the ring were not too happy.

Since then, Jewel Box Joe has paced behind the bar at various Block establishments. He got his start in Baltimore's red-light district when he was 16 through a friend whose father owned the Jewel Box strip club. He started out working the door but eventually moved behind the bar--although Bukowski is big in an old-fashioned Bluto kind of way, he doesn't come off as a bouncer type. He dabbled in amateur boxing, taking advantage of the small gym above the Jewel Box then owned by fight promoter Eli Hanover.

One night on the job behind the bar about 30 years ago, Bukowski got in a fight with a customer, who broke his jaw. The customer came back with a gun and shot him in the shoulder.

Although he eventually recovered, he never found time to box again--that is, until five years ago, when his good friend Eddie Van Kirk encouraged him to take another shot at entering the ring.

He did and got beat. But he kept with it and eventually won the Maryland State Master Class Heavyweight Championship belt in 2000, when his opponent didn't show up for the match. That glory was short-lived, however. In 2001, he lost to a former Golden Glove amateur, an old, experienced fighter from the 1960s and '70s whom Sauerhoff calls a ringer.

Jewel Box was able to go two rounds with him but was too exhausted for the third. "I wasn't in shape the last few times. Hopefully this time I'll be in shape," Bukowski says. "As long as you're in shape and you keep your hands up, you're all right. If you're not in shape, your hands will just drop."

On a recent afternoon at the Plaza, Bukowski is working behind the bar. The Plaza isn't much wider than a rowhouse-basement club room. Everything is painted black and nothing hangs on the walls except mirrors. There are no customers; the only people in the bar are five dancers dressed in orange thongs, glow-in-the-dark halter tops, tartan miniskirts, and librarian glasses. They smoke cigarettes and one at a time halfheartedly take the tiny stage behind the bar to dance. Most don't get even a quarter of the way through a song before rejoining the other girls in conversation.

Meanwhile, Bukowski explains why he wants to fight another match for his 50th birthday. "For my children," he says, then rattles off the ages of the eight children he has had by three different women.

This exercise grabs the women's attention.

"You're every man's dream," yells one. "Every man wants to be a JoJo. He has a girlfriend and a lover."

"What, am I being set up here?" he yells back.

These women are his biggest fans, both around the bar and around the ring. Many have worked with him for years. Wendi Abrams, for example, says she has worked on the Block for 13 years--but only when Bukowski is bartending.

"He's got a lot of girls that know him and trust him, and that's why we follow him," she says. "Down here you want to trust who you're working with. You want to know that you're safe, that your money is safe."

Although Abrams had seen Bukowski fight in bars before, she says the first time she saw him in the ring a few years ago she was surprised at "how good he was as a boxer, considering his age and everything."

Another dancer, Kelly--a throwback to voluptuous World War II-era pinup girls who declines to give her last name--admires the fact that Bukowski boxes to give his children a positive image of their father. "He's got eight beautiful children, and I guess that makes him feel good that they see him box," she says. "It's like he's a role model and his dreams are becoming a reality."

Bukowski's impromptu spokeswomen explain how hard it is to get in shape while working seven days a week, and how difficult it can be to find the time to train when raising eight kids. If he can find the time to work out, he'll be in shape, and he'll hopefully be ready to roll his opponent with ease next month. If not, Bukowski will draw on his determination, his courage, and his on-the-job experience and he'll swing with all he's got.

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