Battling Bozo: The Life & Times Of Alabama's Clown Prince Of Boxing

CHATTANOOGA, TN — Business was slow two days before Christmas 1949 and, leaning against a cheap drugstore walking cane on the sidewalk in front of the used car dealership, James Curtis Hambright didn’t need his eyesight to know he didn’t have any customers.

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Hambright’s hearing was still sharp as ever and the lingering silence in the razor-thin Tennessee air was his barometer. Years of training taught him to follow footsteps whether he could see them or not and, thus, his wisdom and remaining senses served him right that day.

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Indeed, Hambright was completely blind in both eyes at 40 years old — the unfortunate result, supposedly, of his final professional fight more than a decade prior. Maintaining what was left of his dignity, though, he braved the bitter cold in a threadbare suit and tie, with his damaged eyes shielded from the frigid elements by a pair of black wireframe sunglasses.

Low temperatures were in the 20s that day in Chattanooga and few customers had the need for a scraggly tree so late in the busy holiday season.

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More than a decade after his untimely retirement, Hambright was described by an unnamed Associated Press wire reporter as a “serious man,” who used the quarters and crumpled up dollar bills he earned from selling wispy firs to pay his modest tuition bill at Tennessee Temple Bible College, where he was studying to be a Baptist minister.

He told any passerby or reporter who gave him the time of day that God led him to the ministry after sending him a message — through the loss of his eyesight — that his boxing days were over and it was time to start considering the bigger picture.

The seminary where Hambright studied was founded by Lee Roberson — the celebrated pastor of Highland Park Baptist Church and a noted advocate of vagrants and misanthropes in need of a second chance and sanctuary from the mean streets of post-Depression Chattanooga.

And it was Roberson who took the time to confirm to the anonymous scribe on assignment that December day that, yes, the tall, frail-looking man hocking evergreens in one of the seediest parts of town was once one of the greatest light heavyweight fighters of his day.

The wire reporter’s presence in tracking down the forgotten pugilist reportedly generated buzz among the bored neighborhood youths, who were already well acquainted with Hambright’s past heroics inside the ring and who subsequently coaxed the somber man into reflecting on his career.

It’s worth noting that multiple accounts paint Hambright as a kind of adopted mascot for neighborhood kids, but newspaper reports show he was also taken under the wing of a group of young men who worked at the used car lot and attended the nearby Bible college.

So much so, in fact, that the studious young men generously purchased the trees for Hambright to sell and keep the profits.

Standing around in the cold, and after some prodding by the Associated Press journalist and kids from the neighborhood, Hambright ultimately relented and invited the gaggle back to the nearby boarding house where he stayed. Once inside his quiet little room, Hambright felt around and fished out a dog-eared volume that listed him among the best light heavyweight fighters in America.

At one time, according to many reports, he was ranked the no. 3 light heavyweight in the world.

He told those gathered round that he had fought an exact total of 522 boxing matches in his career — a number he pridefully cited to anyone who would listen — with documented records actually showing that only 105 of those bouts were in the professional ranks.

Still, he handed the weathered 1931 Collyers Yearbook to one of the boys to read aloud: “Battlin’ Bozo: Dixie’s 20-year-old Harry Greb” — a nod to the “Pittsburgh Windmill,” who held the American light heavyweight championship from 1922 to 1923.

But this had been a lifetime ago for the defeated-fighter-turned-aspiring-minister as he sat in his cramped boarding room reflecting on youthful ambitions and his time as one of the most entertaining boxers in his class, all while lamenting the present lack of recognition for his contributions to the sport. A little more than decade after the sun set on his career, Hambright was one of only a few left who could truly recall his greatness.

“I remember the time I was fighting a guy and we were sparring around,” Hambright told his visitors. “I reached over and tapped him on the shoulder and told him to wait a minute. I stepped back, cocked my arm, wound up, and laid him on the floor. The fans liked it.”

That was Battling Bozo in a nutshell.

Despite his lack of eyesight, he was still the same broad-shouldered figure who, a decade before, wowed audiences from all over with his gags and ever-whirling right hand. This was a noted tactic he used to distract chumps before he stunned them with a left uppercut followed up with a harder and more calculated right hand under the chin as a finisher.

He put many-a man on the canvas with that cartoonish gimmick, but years later sat grasping at faded memories through the ether, hoping to milk for himself and anyone willing to listen the last bit of satisfaction remaining from a life lived mostly in the win-loss column.

Hambright’s story is pulled straight from a storybook, which was noted by at least one reporter during the fighter’s lifetime — a tumultuous existence that saw him rise from rags to riches, before hurdling headlong back into obscurity and poverty.

But, as Patch previously reported, it was the recent news that Hambright would be inducted into the Alabama Boxing Hall of Fame that inspired this lengthy independent dive into his life and boxing career.

“Bozo was, by all accounts, one of the true characters of the sport,” legendary boxing trainer Jay Deas told Patch of Hambright. “But he was a good fighter, as well. Some of his wins and some of his draws were against some of the best of the time. He was right there with them and beat some really good fighters. As much as there was the sizzle, there was also the steak.”

Deas, the founder of Northport’s Skyy Boxing, is an icon of the Sweet Science in his own right after managing and promoting fighters like Tim Mitchell, Earl Monroe, and, yes, former WBC Heavyweight Champion Deontay Wilder.

But Deas is also passionate about preserving the history of the sport he loves, so has dedicated much of his time and energy to promoting the Alabama Boxing Hall of Fame, which will soon induct Battling Bozo Hambright as part of the Old Timer category in its newest class.

“I first heard about him maybe 20 years ago,” Deas told Patch. “We would get a lot of trophies from Winner’s Choice in Northport and we were getting some things from there and a lady said her husband’s uncle boxed.'”

This isn’t anything new to Deas, he explained, pointing out that he often hears stories from those who had relatives box during their military service or in amateur bouts in back yards with their friends. However, Deas — who rightfully considers himself an Alabama boxing historian — was stunned at first learning about the since-forgotten fighter.

“I’ve heard all kinds of crazy stories,” he said, before mentioning that little had been preserved of Hambright’s life, apart from his nearly century-old boxing record and a few anecdotes. “He had over 100 professional fights and I’m there wondering how I had never heard of him.”

And this, dear reader, is where our story begins.

A Clown Is Born

James Curtis Hambright was born in St. Clair County’s Pell City on Jan. 30, 1909, to parents of German ancestry, according to one of the few living family members contacted by Patch.

As previously mentioned, little else is known about his parents or his upbringing apart from how difficult it was being raised during such a hard-scrabble era.

But financial pressure, coupled with an insatiable hunger to survive, can do strange things to a person, especially one who has yet to discover and harness an internal burning desire to fight.

A gangly yet athletic youth by all accounts, Hambright enjoyed sandlot baseball and first took up boxing at the Birmingham Boys Club when he was a skinny kid in need of direction. And it’s in his childhood in the Magic City that we can, somewhat, accurately trace the origins of his famous nickname.

It’s worth noting, though, that this brief chapter also presents the first of several colorful unsolved mysteries relating to Hambright.

Indeed, Birmingham Times reporter Jack House in a 1936 article wrote that the nickname “Battling Bozo,” was supposedly first coined by Birmingham Boys Club Superintendent Dave Evans when he first met a knobby-kneed Hambright in his gym.

“Come here, you Bozo,” Evans reportedly said to the 11-year-old Hambright, before telling House years later that he planned to keep on exclusively referring to Hambright as “Bozo” as long as either of them were living.

Still, there is another origin story about the nickname that raises even more questions about its true source.

Indeed, the other tale came from his time as a 10-year-old batboy for the Birmingham Barons, at a time when the team filled the stands at Rickwood Field in Ensley.

It’s a story Hambright relayed himself to Macon News sports editor Luther Thigpen in 1953, years after his fighting days had ended.

“I was backing up the batting practice pitcher during a warm-up and a ball got loose and hit me on the foot,” Hambright told the newspaperman. “When I started jumping up and down, holding the foot, somebody said ‘Look at that bozo jump.'”

Thigpen wrote that the nickname stuck, especially after someone — presumably Evans of the Birmingham Boys Club — began referring to the lanky kid with the small head and boyish face by his childhood nickname once he entered the boxing ring as a young man.

As a quick side note for those unfamiliar with the history of the sport, boxing entered one of its true golden ages shortly after the turn of the 20th Century.

It’s easily overlooked, after all, that the Sweet Science broke the color barrier well before other professional sports, thanks to the likes of icons like the “Galveston Giant” Jack Johnson.

Then, through the 1920s, boxing immortalized names like Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Harry Greb and others, thanks to the magic of radio bringing big prize fights to listeners across the country.

Hambright no doubt was part of this first generation to fall in love with the beauty of boxing over the airwaves. He then capitalized on his passions by thumping the heavy bags and sparring anyone willing to step into the ring during those crucial formative years in the dank gym at the Birmingham Boys Club.

While his actual motivation for going all-in on boxing will never truly be known, what’s also fascinating is the persona that he quickly developed from those early days, which produced a colorful, heroic entertainer who chose laughter over brutish intimidation as his trademark.

For whatever the reason, be it familiarity or entertainment value, “Bozo” was the name Hambright chose to fight under for his professional debut against Billy Pyburn — a middleweight from Mobile who was knocked out in nine of his 12 professional bouts and retired without ever having won a match.

But on the night of July 12, 1926, Pyburn fought Hambright to one of his three career draws over four rounds at the old Birmingham Athletic Club. Few records exist of the fight and the ones that do fail to capture the events of a night that would go on to serve as an important footnote for Hambright.

The Birmingham News at the time noted that the fight was “a man-killing affair which was called a draw. Both boys handed out plenty of punishment, but Battling Bozo appeared to be a glutton at taking it.”

After all, it was the professional debut for both boxers, who met up again for a rematch exactly two weeks later in the same venue. The follow-up saw Pyburn handed the first of his nine professional losses, as the judges awarded Hambright his inaugural professional win by scorer’s decision after four rounds.

Oddly enough for the two fighters, though, this would all come full circle years later.

Nevertheless, Hambright saw early success fighting out of the Birmingham Athletic Club after his rematch win over Pyburn, going on to win five fights and reaching a draw in his next six bouts before venturing out of familiar territory and hitting the road.

Nothing lasts forever, though.

Longtime Tuscaloosa News journalist Mark Hughes Cobb probably doesn’t know it, but he’s the last living scribe to have written anything about Tuscaloosa’s Stallworth Lake Casino, having penned an in-depth feature on the forgotten venue in 2011. Somewhere in the vicinity of where the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater sits today, it would be this bygone venue where Hambright had his first professional fight outside of the Magic City.

And this would be the site of Hambright’s first career road knockout on July 21, 1927 — a three-round TKO of fellow Birmingham fighter Bud West in his first, and only, recorded professional fight.

A confident Hambright then returned to the Stallworth Lake Casino a few months later on Oct. 20, where he was handed his first professional loss by Montgomery’s Red Wilson — an obscure fighter who tallied only eight pro fights in his career, with only one of his handful of wins coming by way of newspaper decision against Hambright that evening on the banks of the Black Warrior River.

Wilson and Hambright the next year would fight to a draw in their only other matchup, but by then, Battling Bozo’s star was already shining brighter than most of his contemporaries.

“He was really something,” Jay Deas reflected. “Back in those days, they certainly fought a lot more and they basically stayed in shape by fighting, so it wasn’t unusual for two guys to fight two, three, four, even six times, because they were trying to make a living. And if you look at Bozo’s career, it goes right through the Great Depression. And in those days, if you could stay busy and fight a lot, you could maybe scratch out a living.”

Indeed, Hambright was a contemporary of another rags-to-riches fighter, James J. Braddock, the “Cinderalla Man,” who achieved immortality in the ring and was portrayed by Russell Crowe in the Academy Award-winning titular film.

Few may realize, too, that Hambright was mentioned in passing in the 2005 book “Cinderella Man” by author Mike DeLisa. Indeed, on page 142 of a revised edition of the book, DeLisa describes the meteoric rise of celebrated light heavyweight contender Corn Griffin, who Braddock heroically defeated on an empty stomach and with no prior training as the first of his giant steps in a historic comeback to claim the title.

In noting the Alabama fighter, though, DeLisa wrote: “Griffin’s reputation was based on a series of knockouts over fighters with names like Battling Bozo and Mugs Kerr.”

Sure, the reference in the book was a loss for Hambright — the pair ultimately would fight to one draw, with two fights ending in favor of Griffin — but the sinewy slugger fighting out of Birmingham made sure to earn some notable notches in his own belt before it was over.

Bozo Rising

Well before his professional decline, Battling Bozo Hambright logged an eye-popping 59 fights over just three years from 1930-33. The brunt of his career, these were the halcyon days for the slugger and he made the most of them by putting up a record of 37-9-11, with one No Contest decision over three years.

He was the stuff of legend, so much so that boxer and blues pianist Champion Jack Dupree boasted of knocking him out in a 1973 book — a claim that can’t be validated in either fighter’s professional records.

It’s also a staggering statistic that underscores the earlier point made by Jay Deas, who said so many elite boxers from that era took every challenge they could. This wasn’t for the pride or headlines, but simply to pay the bills and stay in the game, all while laboring under the blue-collar hope that they would get their big break at the title.

Don’t believe me on how hard that would have been?

Think about it this way: Deontay Wilder, the most beloved professional boxer from Tuscaloosa County who achieved more in the sport than any three or four local contemporaries combined, has fought a total of 46 professional fights … to date.

Tyson Fury, the reigning WBC heavyweight champion who just pocketed a massive fight after winning the belt from Wilder, has a career record of 34-0-1, with his only draw coming to Wilder on Dec. 1, 2018.

Even “Iron” Mike Tyson, the youngest-ever heavyweight champion and widely considered the greatest mauler of the post-Muhammed Ali Era, still comes up one fight short of the historic three-year run by Hambright with his 59 documented professional fights

And friends, during this era, Hambright was good.

Really good.

During his three-year stretch where he logged the most fights per year, from 1930-1933, there were even a couple of stretches that saw Hambright get in the ring for three professional bouts in a single month. For context in the modern era, even the hungriest up-and-coming professional fighters may only fight a half-dozen bouts a year, if that.

But if you’re reading the papers from those days, Hambright’s first big fight from his busiest era came against New Yorker Julius “Yale” Okun.

Finishing with a career record of 59-25-7, Okun was a comparatively smaller fighter, standing just under six feet tall. He was tenacious, though, and logged wins over both “Cinderella Man” Jim Braddock and Corn Griffin, while also carding a draw against “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom in 1925.

But Hambright wasn’t a slouch and his fight with Okun stands as the first meaningful victory in a storied career, which came before a full house at Birmingham’s Legion Field on the Fourth of July in 1930 when the high temperature topped 94 degrees that day ahead of the outdoor fight.

Going into the bout, Hambright had won his last five fights, while Okun sought redemption after a decision loss to Harry Smith two weeks before.

Okun managed to go the distance with Hambright on the Fourth of July, but ultimately lost the 10-round fight by newspaper decision.

Hambright won his next four fights following the win at Legion Field, which set the stage for his biggest fight to date — a match against the New York State Athletic Commission and Ring Magazine light heavyweight champion “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom.

Like Okun, Rosenbloom was a compact fighter when compared to the lanky Hambright, as the two squared off in their first of four historic fights — a series Rosenbloom ultimately dominated if you’re simply looking at the records.

The first match between the two highly touted sluggers was hosted at Legion Field and went the distance before a sellout crowd that was reportedly the largest turnout for a boxing match in Alabama history up to that point.

The Birmingham News awarded its newspaper decision for the 10-round fight to Rosenbloom, but the win was a controversial one, with the Associated Press scoring the fight as a draw, while United Press International said Hambright won the match.

A rematch was then set for the following February, which did little to settle the rivalry.

Indeed, the second Rosenbloom/Hambright fight on Feb. 9, 1931, in Birmingham’s City Auditorium ended in a draw from the Birmingham News. According to newspaper accounts, Rosenbloom and Hambright each won three rounds, while the remaining four were deadlocked.

Despite the seemingly uneventful first two installments of their rivalry, it would be the third fight between the two light heavyweights that would go down as one of Hambright’s greatest moments.

The September following the second fight, the two men squared off in a non-title match hosted at Atlanta’s Municipal Auditorium, with one newspaper account saying that Rosenbloom made the trip to the Deep South for some extra ring work and “some easy money.”

While the fight went the distance and was officially scored as a draw, newspapers across the country gave the win to Hambright — a stat that is not reflected in his official record.

As noted by so many, Hambright was as good of an entertainer as he was a fighter, with his comic brand of boxing giving fans something to smile about during the height of the Great Depression.

One scribe even noted that while Rosenbloom was also a celebrated boxing clown in his own right, the New York brawler couldn’t hold a candle to the hard-fisted goofball from Alabama.

Wire service reporter Claire Burcky wrote of the fight:

“Rosenbloom’s own clowning tactics were put to shame by Battling Bozo. Fortunately for the New Yorker, it was a non-title bout, else Bozo would be champion today. He took the decision by a wide margin. … It goes without saying that Battling Bozo is one of the South’s most popular figures in the fight game. He always packs the fight clubs. Fans take great delight in seeing him literally slap the heads off rugged heavyweights, at the same time carrying on a rapid-fire conversation with friends sitting below him at the ringside.”

It was a banner night for the beloved Bozo, but the laughter would be short-lived as Rosenbloom had nothing to smile about when the pair met the following November in Kansas City’s Convention Hall for their fourth and final match.

Rosenbloom proved the more serious fighter that night, battering Hambright over 12 rounds on his way to a win by unanimous decision. This signaled the beginning of the end for Hambright, who came up just short in his quest for a light heavyweight title.

And, as expected, things didn’t get any easier after that.

Despite winning four of his next five fights against underwhelming competition, 1932 proved a disappointing year for Hambright. Over this regrettable year, he went 3-4-7, which included a 10-round draw with Corn Griffin at Fort Benning, Georgia, on Oct. 25, 1932.

After a pair of losses for Hambright and a draw, he once again met Griffin for a 10-round rematch at the Georgia military base in May 1933, with the fight going the distance and ending in yet another draw.

But Bozo kept on fighting.

Unfortunately, though, 1934 was no better for Hambright, who struggled to win fights against subpar competitors with meagre résumés.

This is no more evident than his April 2, 1934, match against Tony Galento — a fighter out of New Jersey who went on to an impressive career record of 78-26-6.

Author Joseph G. Donovan recalled the circumstances of the fight in his book “Galento The Great,” where he penned the underdog tale of Galento and wrote of his work as a nightclub bouncer before being offered a fight against Hambright after two other challengers fell through.

Donovan wrote of the fight:

“… on April 3rd, Tony fought Battling Bozo, a string-bean heavyweight, who was then managed by Pa Stribling. Bozo proved a dud as an opponent for Galento. He went down twice without being hit and finally the referee ordered them to restart the contest. Bozo dropped under a barrage of punches and his purse was held up. Galento was cleared of any wrong-doing and after the usual probe by the New Jersey brass hats, Bozo got his pay — $75.”

Indeed, despite his lack of success in the twilight of his boxing career, Hambright was fortunate to have Pa Stribling in his corner.

A legendary trainer, promoter and referee, Stribling was the father of the celebrated and promising boxer W.L. “Young” Stribling.

By all accounts, Young Stribling was a brilliant fighter who tallied a record 101 knockouts by the time he was 24 years old. And many nights, it was Young Stribling who headed up the fight card, with Hambright often relegated to the undercard.

Young Stribling’s life was tragically cut short by an automobile accident in 1933 in Macon, Georgia. He was only 28 years old, but would eventually be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1996.

His death no doubt had a profound impact on Stribling and his next-best fighter, who was already showing signs of wear after logging dozens of professional fights.

Despite the poor performance, Hambright slugged his way through the next couple of years before 1936 — a year that saw Hambright lose seven straight fights on his way to a 2-7-1 record.

It was during this painful stretch that Hambright announced plans to retire, setting his final match against a familiar opponent: Billy Pyburn.

Following a 10-round win by newspaper decision over Ed Kaiser in Birmingham a little more than two weeks prior, Hambright and Pyburn squared off in the Magic City’s Fairview Arena — nearly 10 years after the two first met in their professional debuts.

Pyburn was described as a polite and clean-cut businessman, who had entered the ring following Hambright’s fight with Kaiser and challenged him to a rematch. A keen promoter, this was likely orchestrated by Hambright for the publicity as he began to think about life after boxing and going out on a positive note.

Ahead of the match, Hambright told reporters that win, lose or draw, he planned to hang it up for good following the fight with Pyburn. He also expressed plans to enter professional wrestling and said he would make the move to Kansas City to train.

In what would be his final professional win, Hambright made easy work of Pyburn, knocking him out in the fifth round. It would be his last taste of victory.

While insisting prior to the fight that he intended to retire, Hambright showed following the win that he couldn’t stay away and ended his career on an unceremonious note with four consecutive losses — three of which came by way of knockout.

Hambright’s final fight, however, appears to be the one that he carried the reminders of for the rest of his life.

Tuscaloosa native Dummy Robinson is one of Alabama’s most interesting obscure boxers.

Robinson was both deaf and mute, which was the reason for his nickname, but was able to carve out a somewhat successful career, finishing with a professional record of 28-22-2.

Dummy Robinson in 1933 also logged a second-round knockout of another obscure fighter named Dummy Nix, which stands as one of Jay Deas’ favorite Alabama boxing factoids.

In the June 5, 1937, match with Hambright, though, Robinson showed no mercy and brutally pounded the taller fighter on his way to a seventh-round knockout. Years later, family members of Hambright claimed that during this last fight, Robinson put too much resin on his gloves, which ultimately resulted in Hambright completely losing his eyesight within weeks of the fight.

“As I looked at it, I was fighting for the fun of it,” Hambright ironically told a Macon (Ga.) News reporter in 1941 when asked if he had any regrets about never winning the light heavyweight title. “I didn’t go out there to knock anybody out. I just got out there and had a good time and did my best to win. When you get to bearing down for a championship fight all the fun of fighting is gone. I’d rather not have fought than do it as drudgery.”

After The Bell

Mike Hambright is one of Battling Bozo’s few surviving relatives.

While he never met his once-famous kin, Mike Hambright recalled colorful stories that were shared with him when he was growing up.

“He had a hard life, I know that,” he told Patch.

Despite his rough upbringing, though, it’s worth noting that Battling Bozo Hambright amassed a small fortune during his boxing career, with one newspaper account saying he had earned over $200,000 during his decade in the professional ranks.

But managing money and being a businessman were not strong qualities for Hambright, who reportedly had countless ventures fail both during and after his boxing career.

In one humorous anecdote, Mike Hambright recalled a story he was told about Battling Bozo once owning a restaurant that was doing poorly and struggling to get business through the door. So, in an attempt to gin up interest, Battling Bozo ordered his waitresses to go topless — never mind the optics or city ordinances barring such practices.

No written record confirms this tale, obviously, but it does seem to track with Hambright’s documented struggles with money.

Indeed, Hambright was penniless and completely blind in his late 30s.

Unable to make ends meet, Hambright mostly depended on the generosity of those who fondly remembered his fighting days. Residents of Macon, Georgia, for example, held a charity benefit in the spring of 1941 to raise money for the down-and-out fighter.

This stint in the Peach State was short-lived for Hambright, who then made the move to Chattanooga in the hopes of better fortunes.

Unfortunately, this proved no more fortuitous than anything else he had attempted outside of the ring, apart from the very brief resurgence in interest following the aforementioned Associated Press story that told of Hambright selling Christmas trees on a cold sidewalk in Tennessee.

The 1950s then saw Hambright return to Birmingham, still holding on to the hope that he could make a living as a Baptist preacher. The city was an unforgiving place, though, with its skyscrapers veiled in a rusty haze from the numerous steel mills nearby.

Hambright couldn’t see the smog, though, and was regularly spotted walking his 82-pound service dog, Tim, along the busy city streets.

Author J.D. Weeks in his book “North Birmingham: A City Of Its Own,” recalled meeting Hambright around this time and escorting the blind man around town.

“I had the job to lead him around the downtown North Birmingham area, since I had been the Birmingham Post newspaper delivery boy earlier,” Weeks wrote. “We walked up and down 27th Street and some of the avenues and I led him in and out of the businesses and he told them about the revival meetings at the church. Most of the people knew who he was and there was a very lively discussion about his fights in Birmingham when we went in the garage area of Al Dement Chevrolet.”

After failing to make a living as a preacher and then pencil salesman on the streets of Birmingham, good fortune briefly shined on Hambright, who was given the opportunity to attend adult training school down the road in Talladega to learn how to run a grocery store.

Once he completed the program, Alabama Rehabilitation Services in 1959 reportedly set him up with his own grocery store at 615 25th Street North — now the site of a quiet neighborhood.

Bozo Hambright’s Grocery, it was called.

Indeed, shortly thereafter in 1961, Hambright was cited for begging in downtown Birmingham when police stopped him from selling pencils in front of a Birmingham fire station.

Hambright told a judge that this was the only way he could earn a living, but was ordered to move along and out of the fire zone. It was yet another painful defeat.

Hambright’s final two decades were lived in quiet obscurity in the Birmingham area, with his final wish being to see himself enshrined in the “Alabama State Hall of Fame” — the precursor to the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.

Sometime in the late 1970s, around the time he was honored in 1979 in Acts of the General Assembly of the State of Alabama, Hambright was finally given consideration and nominated for the Alabama State Hall of Fame.

Hambright’s chances of induction provided a fleeting sense of hope and redemption for the former top contender and the Birmingham Post-Herald reported that he regularly called the sports department of the newspaper during this time to ask about his chances of getting in the Hall of Fame.

Sadly, the newspaper reported that the phone calls stopped once Hambright learned that he hadn’t made the cut.

“Ol’ Bozo could hold his own against any of ’em,” Woodlawn native Cliff Nation told the Birmingham Post-Herald following the news. “He was fast as lightning. A real entertainer, Bozo was. It’s a shame the State Hall of Fame doesn’t recognize Bozo. He’s entitled to be in it, especially with the record he had.”

Hambright’s brother-in-law Ralph Sullivan also discussed the slight with the Birmingham Post-Herald and pointed out how hard Hambright took the news.

“I can’t tell you how much that hurt Bozo,” Sullivan said in 1980. “When Bozo was nominated, Beatrice and I were living in Indian Harbor Beach, Fla. Bozo was thrilled. He called us down there and told us he was up for it. We were pulling for him. When word came that he didn’t make it. Bozo was very disgusted, very low. He felt he was going to make it and then the bottom fell out. I know there’s not much that can be done about it now, but if it could it would be most appreciated by the family and many friends Bozo has left behind.”

James Curtis “Battling Bozo” Hambright died in March 1980 following a quiet battle with cancer.

He was 71 and survived by his wife, Odelle, two stepsons, a brother and two sisters.

Hambright was buried under a large oak tree in Birmingham’s Forest Hill Cemetery, the Birmingham Post-Herald reported, with the funeral service attended by a small group of family and mourners.

“Bozo was so full of life and cheerful when he was nominated,” his sister Beatrice Sullivan, of Alabaster, recalled immediately after Hambright’s funeral. “He often told me how he’d hoped to get into the Hall of Fame. But deep down Bozo had that feeling of knowing he may not make it … We always called Bozo ‘Actor’ back then. He was a happy-go-lucky boy. He said he made a million-and-a-half in the ring and gave it all away. He did. He loved to help people who needed help. He was a wonderful brother and a wonderful friend to a lot of people.”

Attempts to contact the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, which snubbed Hambright prior to his death, have been unsuccessful as of the publication of this story.

While few living, if anyone, can truly recall the heyday of Battling Bozo Hambright, the Alabama Boxing Hall of Fame does plan to honor the late fighter, who will soon take his rightful place among the greatest boxers in state history.

As Patch previously reported, the Alabama Boxing Hall of Fame’s next induction ceremony will take place in 2024 as part of a live fight card, with the date and venue to be announced soon.

“That’s the great thing about the Alabama Boxing Hall of Fame and why it’s my passion project,” Jay Deas told Patch. “It’s about giving recognition to these guys a lot of people may not know about. But [Hambright] now falls in the same Hall of Fame as Joe Louis, Evander H0lyfield, Ernie Shavers and Deontay Wilder. For a small state, we have an amazingly rich history in boxing.

“It’s such a huge deal,” he added. “So, when they get inducted it’s a generational thing and they are so appreciative. The Evander Holyfields of the world are in Hall of Fames all over the place, but for some of the other guys, like Bozo, this will be the highlight of their lives.”

Ryan Phillips is an award-winning journalist, editor and columnist. Send news tip and all inquiries to

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