ALL TIME BOXING RANKINGS AND FEATURE ARTICLES BY PROFESSIONAL JOURNALIST & BOXING HISTORIAN, MIKE CASEY
JOE FRAZIER MOVES IN ON BUSTER MATHIS, MADISON SQUARE GARDEN, 1968.
“All-time rankings are no different from current rankings in the way they fidget and shift and change shape.They just evolve more slowly. Our knowledge of old and new fighters increases as time goes on, and our gut instinct begins to relay new messages that sometimes conflict with the old. Any so-called historian will very quickly lose credibility if he is too blind or too stubborn to recognise a necessary changing of the guard.” - Mike Casey
ALL RANKINGS HERE ARE BASED PRIMARILY ON CAREER ACHIEVEMENT AND QUALITY OF OPPOSITION RATHER THAN WHO BEATS WHO. THEY ARE SUBJECT TO REVISION AS AND WHEN THE AUTHOR SEES FIT.
BOXERS RANKED IN MORE THAN ONE WEIGHT CLASS ARE RANKED THUS BY BALANCING THEIR CAREER ACHIEVEMENT AND THEIR ACHIEVEMENTS IN EACH DIVISION.
MIKE CASEY IS A PROFESSIONAL JOURNALIST AND WRITER ON MANY SUBJECTS, AS WELL AS A P.R. CONSULTANT. HE IS A BOXING HISTORIAN OF 40 YEARS' EXPERIENCE AND A MEMBER OF THE INTERNATIONAL BOXING RESEARCH ORGANIZATION (www.ibroresearch.com)
HE LIVES IN FOLKESTONE, ENGLAND, AND HAS ENDURED A VOLATILE MARRIAGE WITH HIS BANK ACCOUNT FOR MORE THAN 30 YEARS.
SEE ALSO: THE COMPLETE WRITING SERVICE BY MIKE CASEY AT https://sites.google.com/site/thecompletewritingservice/
SEE ALSO: MIKE CASEY’S GOLD AND VINTAGE COLLECTIONS OF MODERN ARTWORKS AT SAATCHI ART http://www.saatchiart.com/account/artworks/93559
MIKE CASEY (C) 2013
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FEATURE ARTICLES BY MIKE CASEY AT BOXING.COM:
CALIFORNIA CALLING FOR JOEY GIAMBRA
One steady and reassuring fact of our troubled times is that good fathers still produce good sons. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but a father who cares will generally produce a good ‘un who makes him proud.
As a member of various fight groups and boxing associations, I regularly encounter the sons of former boxers, trainers and managers who speak glowingly of their fathers’ achievements in both soft and tough language. In a nice kind of way, it’s a bit like going back to school. You don’t dare tell them that your daddy could whip their daddy.
On Facebook, where the trite and the narcissistic compete for attention, a welcome breath of fresh air is my possibly mad pal, Jesse Reid Jr, who loves the LA Dodgers, celebrates every Yankee loss and refreshes my sleepy eyes each morning by posting a quite deliciously graphic picture of his girl of the day. A proud smoker, drinker, curser and rock ‘n’ roll dude, Jesse doesn’t do political correctness and would very quickly tell you where to go if you ever said a bad word about his dad.
No wonder, since father Jesse Reid has been one of our most prolific trainers over the years, handling such star names as Rodolfo Gonzales, Roger Mayweather, Bruce Curry, Gaby and Orlando Canizales, Frank Tate, Calvin Grove, Darrin Van Horn and Dingaan Thobela.
It was equally gratifying to me when my editor Robert Ecksel recently shared a message received from Joey Giambra Jr. Now there is a name that will ring a loud and welcome bell for those who know their history.
Joey is the son of former contender, Joey Giambra, whose slick skills saw him defeat some of the world’s best middleweights in a 77-fight career at the tail end of boxing’s celebrated golden age.
Here is the gist of what Joey Jr wrote: “My dad is being inducted into the California Boxing Hall of Fame in October with George Foreman, Carmen Basilio, Harold Lederman, etc.
“This will be my dad’s seventh different hall of fame induction. He is already in the World Boxing Hall of Fame. He is called and recognized as the uncrowned middleweight champion.
“I’m so very much proud of him. He is a great ambassador of our great sport. Always clean living and never in trouble, dad raised me and my kid sister all by himself. He suffered a major stroke, pneumonia and a pulmonary embolism at the age of 78. He ‘died’ twice at the hospital while in the intensive care unit for over four months. His recovery has taken everything from us including our home and money due to medical bills, but this great champion beat all this.
“His life story is incredible and a TV series or a movie should be done on this great man and his life in boxing when it was controlled by the Mafia. He was told that if he fought for the Mob, he would get a title shot in the way of Jake LaMotta. But my father’s honesty and integrity and his belief in doing the right thing made him decline the offer.”
Joey Jr claims that his father was close to being ‘hit’ by the mob for refusing to throw a fight against Joey Giardello, but says that his father’s honesty won him a cancellation and the grudging respect of Mafia dons Vito Genovese and Carlo Gambino.
Giambra’s great rivalry with Giardello always stirs the interest of older fans and younger historians who enjoy revisiting the ‘fabulous fifties’, when boxing and baseball teemed with Italian-American talent. In the fight game’s rich and bountiful middleweight division, the ‘G Men’ of New York became a permanent fixture and were known and admired by the boxing fraternity for their slick and worldly skills.
Giambra from Buffalo and Giardello from Philadelphia by way of Brooklyn, became leading and perennial contenders for the middleweight championship. In 1952 they battled each other twice within a month, trading unanimous decisions as Giardello triumphed in Brooklyn and Giambra got even in Buffalo.
Six years later the two Joeys met up again for their third and final contest at the old and wonderful Cow Palace in San Francisco, with Giambra winning a split verdict. But it was Giardello who had the last laugh when he finally landed the world championship after sixteen years of hard campaigning with a points victory over Dick Tiger in 1963.
Joey Giambra, for all his talent, for all his lovely and artful boxing, never even got a shot at the middleweight championship. He lost just ten of his 77 fights against consistently stellar opposition. Five of those losses came in his last eight fights when he was fading but still artful enough to mess the best men around. Giambra was never knocked out.
As well as his 2-1 series win over Giardello, Giambra defeated Danny Womber, Bernard Docusen, Al Andrews, Rocky Castellani, Gil Turner, Chico Vejar, Ralph (Tiger) Jones, Rory Calhoun and that most fearsome hitter, Florentino Fernandez.
Joey Giambra Jr has every good reason to puff out his chest when the conversation turns to his clever old man, who is now a defiant 82. Long may father and son keep punching.
JOE GRIM: HOW TO TAKE IT AND THEN SOME
Down through the corridors of time, boxing has spawned some remarkably tough and resilient men. Joe Grim was very definitely one of the toughest. While the more technically inclined exponents of the game were inflicting traditional damage in the way of cut eyes, broken noses and sore ribs, Joe was thinking laterally and leaving a trail of bruised fists and dented egos. A generation of fearsome punchers walked away in amazement after vain attempts to knock out the defiant Grim. Breaking rocks in the midday sun was more fun than trying to break Joe.
Grim plied his trade in the shadow of great world champions. He wanted nothing more than to beat the mighty Jim Jeffries, even though Joe didn’t often beat anyone else.
It was the mental scars meted out by Grim that hurt his conquerors the most, compelling them to try and make sense of it. Joe took a ferocious pounding from Jack Johnson over six rounds before sticking out his tongue at the finish and calling the Galveston Giant a bum. Jack shook his head at his cornermen and said, “I just don’t believe that man is made of flesh and blood.”
The tributes flooded in for Joe Grim, tributes that were very different from the norm. Irish Joe Thomas would say, “You might as well hit a sandbag.” Irish Joe wasn’t normally one to get discouraged. He took Stanley Ketchel into the thirty-second round of a titantic slugfest in Colma, California, in 1907.
When Grim was a young boy in Italy, he had a novel way of earning money from tourists. Much more inventive than his contemporaries, the rugged youngster didn’t opt for the boring business of showing visitors the beauty spots or giving them the heads-up on the best places to eat.
For a silver lira or less, he would demonstrate his mettle by running headlong into the iron door of his local church. Joe’s face would balloon with various bumps and bruises as his act became a regular feature, but his friends would recall in amazement how he would never be so much as dazed.
History does not tell us how many tourists were impressed by this curious act of masochism or how many were forced to scoot behind the nearest tree to bring up their breakfast.
When most folks come to America in search of their dreams, they are looking to buck the odds and not be beaten down. Joe Grim, with typical perversity, openly invited America and her best fighters to beat him into the ground.
He had been born Saverio Giannone on March 16, 1881, the eighth of nine children, but quickly learned that the fast and urgent world of America didn’t have much truck with long and complicated names. Joe Grim was short and simple and entirely appropriate.
Joe went to work as a bootblack and had a little stand near the Broadway Athletic Club in Philadelphia. He loved boxing and spent his evenings sitting in the ten-cent seats in the gallery watching the fights. His loyalty and enthusiasm paid off one night when the management asked for a volunteer from the audience to substitute for a fighter who hadn’t shown up.
Joe jumped at the chance and soon showed the stunned audience what he could do. For one thing, he could fall down many times from thunderous blows to the head and body and keep getting up without taking a count. Much as he loved his boxing, Grim was utterly ignorant of its subtleties and technicalities. He simply couldn’t fight in the traditional sense.
What made him additionally remarkable, however, was that he was never cursed with a loser’s mentality. He tried his utmost every time, bragged unashamedly that he would knock his opponent out and quite genuinely believed that he would do so.
Joe became an instant hit at the Broadway Athletic Club for his astonishing courage and comical antics. He would smile and chuckle all the time as he bounced up from shuddering knockdowns like a mischievous rubber ball. Club promoter Lew Bailey was soon managing him, impressed by Grim’s equally shining talent for marketing himself to his adoring faithful. After every hideous thrashing, Joe would make a speech in which he would throw out a challenge to world champion, Jim Jeffries.
Big Jeff, in his delightfully sober way, became convinced that this little fellow Grim, all 5’ 7” and 150lbs of him, was a plain and simple madman. Even Sam Langford didn’t want to fight Jeffries and Sam could actually fight.
Undeterred, Joe Grim plowed on, his fame spreading like wildfire as the larger boxing clubs began to employ his very special services. He was never short of willing opponents. While the astute Jeffries had the good sense to steer a wide berth of Grim’s carnival, plenty of other marquee names couldn’t resist the insatiable urge to massage their egos by trying to knock out the man who simply wouldn’t be flattened.
Champions and contenders who should really have known better became obsessed with the challenge of becoming the first man to put Joe Grim down for the ten count. Joe Gans, the brilliant Old Master, tried with everything he had over ten brutal rounds with Grim at Baltimore in 1904. Gans didn’t do too badly, breaking only three of his knuckles as he knocked Grim down seventeen times. But the Italian wonder was still there at the end, mocking the maestro’s punching power and even having the cheek to criticize his stance. How must poor Gans have felt? It was akin to Picasso being asked by a man on the street, “Are you the guy who paints them rinky-dinky pictures of funny shapes?”
Gans shouldn’t have been so hard on himself. Peter Maher, by contrast, could only have felt like going home and drinking himself into oblivion. Perhaps, indeed, he did. Thunder-punching Peter not only failed in his quest to knock Grim out at the Industrial Hall in Philadelphia, but committed the cardinal sin of getting knocked out himself. Dozing fighters have been known to get stiffened by their punching bags, but certainly not punching bags that have mouths and can brag about it. One simply cannot draw a quiet veil over those occurrences.
Fortunately for Peter, Grim’s desperation wallop was a right uppercut that began its journey from the floor and was still south of the border when it crashed into Maher’s wedding tackle and sent him down.
As a witty reporter of the time noted: “Peter then thoughtfully yelled foul and made a blind stagger to his corner.”
Grim was disqualified in one of his rare moments of positive glory and Maher’s blushes were at least spared to a degree.
Many other illustrious names tried their best to wipe the cheeky smile off Joe Grim’s face and put him into a slumber, including Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, Barbados Joe Walcott, Dixie Kid, Johnny Kilbane and Battling Levinsky.
Jack Blackburn, he of the lightning fast hands and withering punching power, should have been given a gold medal for blind perseverance. In three successive bouts, Jack went through the formidable tools of his arsenal and failed to knock Grim into dreamland.
Without doubt, the most celebrated attempt at cracking the Italian iron man was made by a living legend who was reckoned to be able to punch holes in just about anything: the mighty Bob Fitzsimmons. The experts on such matters calculated that Ruby Robert’s scientific knowledge of punching would prove the key to unlocking Mr Grim’s doughty little safe box.
Fitz was training for his light-heavyweight championship match with George Gardiner and agreed to oblige Grim in the meantime. Perhaps Bob felt that such an exercise would be useful for fine-tuning the hammers that ballooned from the end of his formidably muscled arms.
Robert Edgren, that grand boxing writer of bygone days, traveled down to Philadelphia with Fitzsimmons and his party to watch the fight in October, 1903. Edgren wrote: “Like all the others, I expected to see the Italian iron man put away for at least a ten-count. It wasn’t possible to believe he could stand up in front of Fitzsimmons, who had knocked out Corbett, Ruhlin, Sharkey, Maher and scores of other great heavyweights. Fitzsimmons thought the fight was a joke. But he wanted to catch a train home. He was in a hurry. He intended to knock Joe out in a round.”
Fitz tried. How he tried. But he didn’t get his wish. Grim, defiant as ever, made his intentions clear with a little speech before the hammering began. “This Fitz thinks he’s gotta me scared. I tell you, he no gotta this fellow scared. I Joe Grim. I no quit for no man in the world. I fighta da Jeff next time, sure.”
Fitzsimmons didn’t quite know whether to feel amused or insulted by the immovable object he encountered. After giving Joe a ferocious pounding in the opening frame, Bob strolled back to his corner and told ringside reporters, “I hate to hit him – he’s so much fun.”
By the end of the third round, Bob’s expression had changed to one of sheer bemusement. Grim’s face was a mask of blood from the repeated smashes he had taken to nose and mouth. Each time he was hammered to the floor, he simply laughed and stormed back into Fitzsimmons.
There were 17 knockdowns in all. Of the particularly brutal fifth round, Robert Edgren wrote: “Fitzsimmons knocked Grim down three times with blows that sounded like the impact of a mallet on a wedge.”
Not even Ruby Robert’s famous solar plexus punch could keep Joe down. At the beginning of the sixth and final round, Fitzsimmons leaned across and playfully tapped Grim on the head, as if trying to ascertain the apparently unique structure of the Italian’s skull. Joe, of course, survived the session. He even managed a celebratory somersault as he jogged back to his corner and threw out his obligatory challenge to Jim Jeffries.
What was the secret to Joe Grim’s phenomenal resilience? Ace trainer Harry Lenny believed he had part of the answer. Although Lenny had no medical qualifications, he possessed a rare, physiotherapeutic gift for healing aching muscles and bones. Lenny lived at the Forest Hotel in mid-town Manhattan in his later years, offering free treatment to friends and charging fifty bucks to strangers. During the war years, he was said to have secretly treated President Roosevelt.
Lenny trained Grim for around five or six years and could never quite believe the texture of Joe’s skin. “I never in my life felt skin like his. It was smooth as a baby’s belly and it was as pliable as rubber. But the strangest thing about Joe’s skin was the way it secreted a fine oil. I would just touch his arm, shoulder or chest very lightly with my finger, and when I took my finger away there would be a film of this fine oil where my finger had been. I have always believed that Grim’s skin was a big part of his secret. It was like a cocoon protecting him from danger.”
But even Joe’s skin and the exceptional quality of his cranium couldn’t enable him to last out forever. The sad side of the Joe Grim story is the great price he paid for the colossal punishment he took. Sailor Burke finally knocked him out and Sam McVea duplicated the feat. Young Zeringer is sometimes credited with knocking Grim out in three rounds at Pittsburgh in 1904, but that result has always been disputed. It was Joe’s boast, don’t forget, that he couldn’t be put down for the count. The Zeringer fight was stopped by a compassionate referee who became horrified by Grim’s lust for punishment.
Whatever, the strange magic had finally seeped from the bottle and Joe Grim was falling apart. We do not know how many fights he had, because he never kept a record of his own incredible journey. He certainly won no more than five or six. On July 28, 1913, he was admitted to a sanatorium, eventually being discharged and apparently cured of his mental problems. He became a shipyard foreman in New York around 1919, but was said to be mentally broken by the time of his death twenty years later in a hospital at Byberry, Pennsylvania.
The heartening thing is that it is simply impossible to ever forget Joe Grim. It always was. Before a fight with Al Kaufman, Joe was described thus by writer TP Magilligan: “Of all the rich cards of the ring pugilistic, this boy Grim has the lead by seven furlongs.”
DID LANGFORD REALLY CARRY KETCHEL IN 1910 SUPERFIGHT?
It was the Hagler-Hearns clash of its day and the sense of anticipation that swept the boxing world was tremendous. Slammin’ Sam Langford and Michigan Assassin Stanley Ketchel were two of the biggest draws in boxing and two of the sport’s most devastating hitters. Now the titans would fight each other in a curious six-round ‘exhibition’ at the National Athletic Club in Philadelphia.
But why this precursor? Why the hors d’oeuvre before the main course? It was an open secret in many quarters that Stanley and Sam were slated to fight a scheduled 45-round battle for Ketchel’s middleweight championship in San Francisco in the near future. What a prospect that was!
However, one thing that has never changed in boxing is its complicated politics. As the bargaining gets tougher, the negotiations become more entangled and enmeshed in the perennial root of all evil. While California promoter Jim Coffroth’s $30,000 bid for the San Francisco match remained valid, it had been turned into a protracted poker game by two shrewd businessmen.
Forty-five years later in the summer of 1955, Langford’s manager Joe Woodman, still prowling the gyms at the age of eighty-three, gave his bitter recollections of the Ketchel-Langford saga. Said Joe: “Wilson Mizner and Hype Igoe, who co-managed Ketchel at the time, decided to keep Coffroth guessing in hopes he would raise his bid to $40,000, which was the figure they set for a dangerous threat like my Sam.
“Igoe told me he would take the $30,000 if Coffroth held out, but that he wouldn’t accept unless I agreed to the Philadelphia six-rounder. Of course, I was dead against it. We had nothing to gain except a few thousand dollars and we were risking the big opportunity if anything went wrong. But I had no alternative. Mizner and Igoe held all the trumps, they had the title. All I had was Sam, the greatest fighting man who ever sucked a breath.
“Langford never won a world championship because he never got the chance. Had not time been wasted fooling around in Philadelphia and Coffroth’s proposition accepted immediately, Sam would have been middleweight champion of the world. He could have knocked out Ketchel seven nights a week.”
The City of Brotherly Love would never be remembered with great affection by Joe Woodman. “Philadelphia, that night of April 27, 1910, was the last place Sam and I wanted to be,” Woodman said. “But it would have been just plain stupid to be anywhere else.
“We wanted the San Francisco fight, with Ketchel’s title riding on the line and our hunk of Coffroth’s $30,000.”
The poison of the Philadelphia affair never drained from Sam Langford’s system either. Asked in 1950 for his opinion of Ketchel, Sam replied: “Ketchel was nothing, not nearly the man they made him out to be.”
Writer Damon Runyon always insisted that the Assassin was ‘carried’ by Langford that night and that Hype Igoe was instrumental in negotiating an easier ride for Stanley than he might otherwise have had.
Well, dear reader, there are multiple accounts of what happened when Stanley met Sam in Philadelphia, all as varied as multiple lists of our ten greatest middleweights. There is additionally the question of how many reports of the fight were actual eyewitness accounts or creatively distorted impressions designed to add spice to the reader’s enjoyment. Was Sam trying his best or was he protecting his San Francisco investment? Probably a bit of both, since Mr.Ketchel was nobody’s mug.
People came from all over the country for the Ketchel-Langford set-to at Philly’s National Athletic Club. There was a special train of six cars from New York and large parties from Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Washington, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Boston and other major cities.
In an otherwise quiet opening round, an event allegedly occurred that set the more experienced observers twitching with suspicion and roused newspaper sub-editors into producing some unflattering headlines the following morning. It is said by some that Stan was more than a foot out of Sam’s range when Langford let go with a roundhouse right. The blow didn’t seem to have a hope of hitting the target, but then Ketchel moved into range and got hit flush on the cheekbone.
According to one source, the punch brought the Assassin to a staggering halt and his hands dropped to his sides. More than a few people noticed the anxious look on Sam’s face. Unwittingly, he had put his San Francisco investment in jeopardy. What apparently followed was an uncharacteristic act of compassion on the part of one of the ring’s most efficient killers. Langford hurried forward and held Ketchel up. It was some embrace too. Sam didn’t let go until he was satisfied that Stanley had regained his bearings. Joe Woodman described the incident as akin to a mother bird protecting her baby.
But was this really the story of the first round? The New York Times report of the contest, which was very favorable to Sam, carried no reference to such a punch by Langford or of Ketchel being out on his feet and propped up by his opponent. Here is the newspaper’s account of that opening round: “Langford looked to weigh easily ten pounds more than his white opponent, though the latter had the advantage of height and reach.
“For an instant they fiddled after the gong announced the start and then they broke for each other, coming to a clinch. Langford boxed and Ketchel took a chance, literally throwing his left in. It fell short but he tried again, always to be blocked by his clever opponent. Langford feinted and got home a half left swing to the body. More sparring, with Ketchel boring in. A slight let-up in the going and Langford went in with both arms working. He landed a left and right on the body lightly. Ketchel got away with a left on the Negro’s stomach as the round ended.”
From the second round, Sam and Stan upped the pace. Ketchel attacked Langford’s body with ripping hooks, only to be met by sledgehammer jabs and powerful right uppercuts. The action wasn’t sensational, but the boys weren’t exactly waltzing either. Yet an account in the old Boxing and Wrestling magazine tells us that jeers in the opening round led to catcalls and finally a rain of cigar butts and newspapers being tossed into the ring at the end of the third. All those protests and all that debris were strangely absent in other reports of the fight.
According to the New York Times, there had been some hissing at the slow pace of the fight in the opening round, but thereafter the crowd was more than happy with what they were seeing. Their only displeasure was the six-round limit, because they were eager to see more. Both men showed a great willingness to fight. Indeed the crowd ‘cheered wildly’ and ‘yelled like Indians’ as Stanley and Sam tested each other’s mettle.
A hard uppercut from Sam in the third round had brought blood streaming from Stan’s nose, angering the Michigan Assassin and causing him to swing wildly. When he went back to his corner in a temper, Wilson Mizner is said to have told the Assassin: “Take it easy, boy. Take it easy, don’t blow up. Keep throwing your left but take it easy with the right.”
It would seem from that advice that Ketchel too was being dissuaded from trying too hard. Not that Stanley was ever too good at pulling his punches.
The action livened in the fourth when Ketchel shot a tremendous left to Sam’s body. The blow closed Langford’s eyes momentarily and forced his mouth to drop open. The bell prevented Ketchel from doing further damage.
Sam had Stan’s nose bleeding again in the fifth round, but had to withstand a hard right to the jaw for his troubles. In the sixth and final round, Langford slowed quite noticeably and allowed Ketchel to take the initiative and finish the bout strongly. Was this a ploy on Sam’s part or was he simply unable to do any more in the face of Ketchel’s relentless punching? Stanley kept coming on, although he seemed to be slowing too at the finish as his nose bled heavily and stained his body crimson.
Here is the New York Times version of the sixth round action: “Ketchel started furiously and had Langford backing away, dodging and side-stepping to keep out of the road of the slamming Ketchel had ordered for him. It was the sort of a finish that the average crowd likes to see in a limited round go, because it was so full of action.
“Ketchel was showy, but he was not effective. About the middle of the round, Langford stepped in and shoved over a left and right that landed beautifully. Ketchel staggered but was back after the little Negro like a bull.
“Sam kept his hands quieter and Ketchel thought he saw a chance to slip one over. Langford immediately woke up and countered hard enough to crack an inch board. He didn’t follow up, however, in the manner his friends knew he could. Ketchel kept hard at it and was trying like a demon as the bell rang. The crowd cheered him to the roof.”
The New York Times didn’t entirely buy into the theory that Langford’s lethargic finish was intentional as he looked ahead to the riches of the San Francisco match: “Langford was the finished boxer and landed clean and hard on the white man, who was all willingness and determined to finish the black man in short order. Langford lost a clear title to the fight by his slowing up in the last part of the last round.
“He was entitled to a draw, however, and the doubt still remains whether or not he is Ketchel’s master. Up to the last round he demonstrated that fact, but his slowness in the last round took a lot of credit from him. Many thought he was stalling, but only he could tell with any certainty.”
Had Langford carried Ketchel or was it a case of both men applying the brakes in that clever way that top professionals are able to do? Could even a man of Sam Langford’s outstanding talent have carried a fighter of Ketchel’s exceptional thunder and fury? One has to doubt it. For a few rounds, maybe. Possibly even for six rounds if Stanley was half playing along. But nobody carried or toyed with Ketchel for longer than that.
Langford’s position as one of the greatest boxers of all time is almost sacrosanct, although thoroughly deserved. Yet men of such special talent – Muhammad Ali being another classic example – are just as adept at blinding their doting ‘critics’ with bluff as they are at blinding their opponents with science. When Ali got shook up, it was assumed he was bluffing. When he lost a fight on points, it was because the judges had failed to see the genius of his more subtle work.
There is a tendency by many to over compensate men like Langford and Charley Burley for the injustices they suffered. Langford undoubtedly had ‘the handcuffs on’ in many fights that he could have won but didn’t. But Sam, even during his best years, lost a good few other bouts on the square and not always to great fighters. He wasn’t a superman. Nor was Ketchel. No fighter is ever that.
As for the testimony of Joe Woodman, Sam’s ever faithful manager, we must remember that Joe was a master of PR back in the days when tall stories were hard to disprove. Joe maintained for years that Langford decked Jack Johnson in their famous Chelsea fight of 1906, forcing Jack to fight for his very life. Many people fell for this yarn, including seasoned reporters who really should have left the bar a little earlier and done some more digging.
Johnson gave Langford a terrible lacing at Chelsea,although it should be remembered that Sam was still a young and learning fighter at the time. In a letter to The Ring editor Nat Fleischer years later, Jack wrote: “Langford was among the five fighters to whom I gave the worst beatings in all my career. This quintet was composed of Jim Jeffries, Tommy Burns, Sam Langford, Sailor Burke and Frank Childs.”
Was Johnson exaggerating? It seems not. When Fleischer pushed Woodman for the truth, Joe replied: “Langford never dropped Johnson. But I was anxious to fix up another fight between the two and, knowing Jack’s pride, I invented the story of that knockdown to goad him into the ring against Sam again.
“Although it never happened, all the newspapermen believed it. They just never took the trouble to investigate. That knockdown was just a publicity gimmick.”
The likely conclusion of that odd little fight between Langford and Ketchel in Philadelphia is that both men were doing a bit of sensible business. Why knock themselves silly in Philly for six rounds when they could do it over forty-five rounds in San Francisco for a far greater financial reward? Ketchel tried a little harder because Ketchel could never help it. He shouldn’t have decked Jack Johnson – that line wasn’t in the original script - but Jack’s inviting chin was just too much to resist.
In the end, none of it mattered. Six months and three fights later, the Michigan Assassin died from the bullet of another assassin, farmhand Walter Dipley, who came in through the back door at Pete Dickerson’s ranch in Conway, Missouri.
Sam Langford never did get his title shot. The great dream of San Francisco faded away like the Bay City fog.
THE TIGER IN THE NEW YORK JUNGLE: JACK DEMPSEY
Former world heavyweight champion Max Schmeling, always a very astute observer and commentator on the fight game, got talking in his twilight years about the fighters he rated most highly. It wasn’t easy. “Trying to name them all would be a little too much,” Max said with a smile.
“But in alphabetical order, my shortlist of those boxers who will never be forgotten includes Muhammad Ali, Henry Armstrong, Georges Carpentier, Julio Cesar Chavez, George Foreman, Harry Greb, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, Jack Johnson, Ray Leonard, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Carlos Monzon, Archie Moore, Willie Pep, Ray Robinson and Mike Tyson.
“But now I want to add, all by myself, one more name: Jack Dempsey. Despite all the class shown by the others, Dempsey was not only my own idol, he remains for me to this day the greatest of them all. He was the big daddy. He embodied the complete perfection of a professional boxer.
“Jack welded brilliant technique and strategy with a stupendous punch like no other boxer. His punches came packed with the full power of his entire shoulder span. He was a nightmare of an opponent. He hated sharing the ring with anybody else. He appeared to be a fist fighter from another planet. It was no coincidence that they called him the ‘man killer’.
“Writer Joyce Carol Oates, in her famous essay, On Boxing, was right on target when she said that Dempsey’s style of fighting – fast, direct and merciless – as forever put its stamp on the sport of boxing in America and not only there.
“She is also not wrong when she says that today’s boxing matches, compared with those of Dempsey’s, appear to be harmless minuets. By no means do I mean to over-glorify him or above all the first half of the twentieth century in boxing. But the fact is that our fights back then were definitely much tougher, much more brutal.
“I was still boxing with only four and five ounce gloves, and after two rounds they were mostly already torn apart, with only a few patches of tough leather covering my knuckles. The punches were extremely painful..
“Back then there were also only eight weight categories, in which there was, logically, only a single world champion. It was extremely difficult to box your way to the top.”
Back in 1922, when Sam Langford was asked how Harry Wills would do against Jack Dempsey, the question didn’t pose Sam much of a problem. “Well, if he ever fights Dempsey, my money will be on the present champion. Dempsey is the greatest fighter I have ever seen. He hits twice as hard as Jim Jeffries and is as fast in the ring as James J. Corbett.”
Six years before, it was Jack who was in awe of Langford. “No way,” was Dempsey’s simple reply in 1916 when Langford was suggested as his next opponent.
Jack was struggling. One step forward and two steps back. This was the story of his life as he tried to break free from the pack and surge through the fiercely competitive field of his day. He was rarely satisfied with his performances in the ring. Every fight he had seemed to be tough, every move he made in the ring was manual and workmanlike. Nothing flowed. Nothing was coming naturally. Jack was trying to hack it in the unforgiving jungle of New York, and New York was winning.
Back in Ogden, Utah, in February of that year, Dempsey had knocked out the enormous Boston Bearcat with a salvo of punches in the first round. To Jack, that meant everything. Rumor had it that even the Sam Langford hadn’t been able to knock the tough and charismatic Bearcat off his feet. But that was Ogden, Utah, and where the hell was that? Most New Yorkers were more familiar with London.
Only one man gave Dempsey the time of day, and that was the astute and worldly Damon Runyon, who originally hailed from a very different Manhattan in the wilderness of Kansas. Runyon put himself around just as Dempsey did. He had seen Jack fight and had liked what he saw. He told the disillusioned youngster that it was a devil of a job to make an impact in New York and not to give up the fight.
Jack would remember those words and learn their value as he soldiered on, gamely trying to sell himself to the big city whilst hoping to hook up with one good and honest manager who could stay the distance.
Jack Price, who had been handling Dempsey’s affairs, suddenly jumped ship and went back to Salt Lake City, a move that gave Dempsey another headache he didn’t need. Business was very often conducted on a simple handshake at that time, and Dempsey never did have an official contract with any of his managers, including Jack Kearns.
Along came a character called John ‘The Barber’ Reisler to inform the young fighter that he was under new management. Reisler claimed that Price had sold him Dempsey’s non-existent contract. John The Barber also had some fancy ideas about Dempsey’s next opponent, dropping the names of such established killers of the ring as Sam Langford and Gunboat Smith.
Jack couldn’t believe it. This guy Reisler was trying to get him slaughtered. Dempsey protested and still wasn’t happy when the tough John Lester Johnson was finally selected as his next foe. The fight was staged at the Harlem Athletic Club and Dempsey never forgot it. “Johnson had the reputation of being rough and dangerous,” Jack later recalled. “That was an understatement. My bout with him almost finished my career. He socked me like a bulldozer and grunted every time he made contact.”
One ferocious body blow from Johnson in the second round doubled Dempsey up and had him in big trouble. Suspecting that Johnson had cracked a few of his ribs, Jack was in terrible pain for the duration of the fight. Again, however, the young Mauler impressed the crowd by hanging tough and punching back with such success that the assembled sportswriters were divided on who had won.
Dempsey needed time to rest his aching body and contemplate the jam he was in with John The Barber. He took some vacation time and went back to Colorado to see an old friend, but the fresh air and gentle scenery failed to soften the blow of coming back to New York.
John The Barber was still full of lofty ideas and brought up the name of Gunboat Smith again as an opponent. Dempsey was at the end of his tether with such fanciful suggestions, and his mood darkened further when his so-called manager suggested the big punching Frank Moran as an alternative choice. Jack knew he still wasn’t sufficiently prepared for such formidable competition. The pounding he had taken from John Lester Johnson was surely proof of that.
He and John The Barber had a violent argument, which concluded with Jack storming out and making the decision to pack his bags and get out of the great and sprawling city. He couldn’t have dreamed then that one day he would become one of its permanent fixtures and a living legend.
In those stormy days of 1916, it seemed that the grey giant of New York had slain the young tiger and drained him of his resilience. But Jack Dempsey was made of sterner stuff. Over three breathtaking years, he would become the complete fighter and begin his fantastic run to the world championship.
Legendary trainer, Ray Arcel, who lived to see Mike Tyson, saw something in Dempsey that he would never see again in any other heavyweight, something quyite indefinable.. Some years before he died, Arcel said: “Dempsey would have absolutely beaten any fighter who came after him – without a doubt. I know all about Joe Louis and how he knocked guys’ teeth out. I have every respect for Joe – I rate him number two. But Dempsey would have killed Louis, George Foreman, any of those guys. What Jack had was God-given. You can’t develop the kind of talent he had.”
Perhaps that certain something in Dempsey took root in earlier times. Before sampling the punches of New York, he had taken the blows meted out by his hard life in the Old West. He was brought to his knees many times, but always got up.
Around 1911, within the dark and sweaty confines of a copper mine in Bingham Canyon, Utah, the sixteen-year old Jack Dempsey got angry and showed a select audience what the future held for him. The lean and muscled youngster was working quietly on his own when the bully of the crew started throwing dirt at him for a laugh. Dempsey gave his tormentor every chance to desist, but then the bully made his biggest mistake by starting to swing his fists.
Jack began to circle him in the chilling manner that he would circle and snare so many great heavyweights in the years to follow. Fellow miners who had picked up on the commotion began to lay bets as they waited for the first blow to be struck. They didn’t have to wait long. Only one punch was thrown as Dempsey crossed a right to the jaw and knocked his man out.
“Fighting soon followed me into the mining camp,” Jack would later recall. “My powerful fists were my prized assets – my only assets, come to think of it – and no one could take them away from me.”
This was the kind of tough life that Jack Dempsey led, before he even got around to the tough business of prize-fighting in earnest. In the gentler and more accommodating era in which we now live, it is essential that we do not forget the unforgiving, rough-and-tumble canvas on which the fighters of Dempsey’s era had to paint their masterpieces.
There is nothing misty-eyed or romantic about making such comparisons and highlighting the hardships of boxers from early times. For we are certainly not harking back to the ‘good old days’ when everything in the garden was rosy. Ordinary folk in Dempsey’s era had to work insufferably hard in the hope of breaking even, often traveling huge distances to obtain work. Jack and his family uprooted from the ‘feud country’ of West Virginia and hauled themselves all the way out to Manassa, Colorado, for a new life and a new chance. Many other poor families did likewise.
Ill health was dreaded, because so many illnesses were incurable. Diabetes, now so common and manageable, was a killer before the discovery of insulin in 1919. People with mental problems went straight to the asylum, because they surely had to be mad. Captains of industry couldn’t rely on analysts to tell them to wear a coat when it rained. A generation of young men from Boston to San Francisco hacked away at menial jobs in the hope that something better – anything better – would show up.
Jack Dempsey, before he met Jack Kearns and Tex Rickard, before he even became Kid Blackie, was just one young man trapped in this frantic hive of quiet desperation. He traveled for miles, rode hobo-style on the rods of trains, worked at back-breaking jobs and frequently got knocked back. But Dempsey had one crucial ace in the hole. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, he wasn’t drifting aimlessly. He knew his strengths and he knew what he wanted to do.
That initial victory in the Bingham Canyon mine, small and irrelevant in the great scheme of things, had fired Jack. The other miners wanted to shake his hand. Suddenly he was somebody special. He had worked the mine with his older brother, Bernie, but no longer was he seen as Bernie’s kid brother.
Great men, irrespective of their backgrounds, always seem to have crystal vision. Assessing those early days of his life, Dempsey would say, “As I covered ground, moving from place to place and from job to job, I came to the conclusion that I was master of my own fate. I was determined that if I didn’t find a way to become successful, I would make one. As a young man, I saw no limits in what I could do. My options for success were countless. My long range goal was to become a champion – and now I ate, slept and dreamed of it.”
The gods, in their mischief, certainly found many ways of testing Dempsey’s resolve. There was the time when Dempsey sent a fellow hobo flying into the wilderness after a vicious brawl on top of a fast moving freight train, never knowing whether it had literally been a fight to the death.
It had been a battle of survival, one cameo among the many small wars of the hobo jungle. Hungry and desperate men waged such perilous fights constantly in that stark and ferocious era. Never proved, but apparently true, is that Dempsey killed a fellow hobo by throwing him off a train after a fight.
There was another occasion when Jack wasn’t so fortunate, as he later recalled: “I hopped a freight train moving out of Grand Junction, Colorado, one cold afternoon, right after running away from home. I was headed for Delta, forty miles away. I had just grabbed the ladder when a railroad man on top of the freight spotted me.
“He had a long broomstick in his hand, like a cop’s billy. He yelled at me to jump off. I couldn’t. The train had picked up too much speed. So, very systematically, and while the train picked up more speed, he kept belting me with that club and split open my head. I jumped or fell off, crashing face down in the cinders along the way. I thought I’d never stop rolling.
“I walked the forty miles to Delta while the blood dried.”
By 1916, Jack Dempsey was still very much a rough diamond in need of polishing, but the emerging talent was there for all to see as he began to hit the road and take any fights he could get in the sprawling towns of the Old West. He jumped a freight train and rode the rods into Salt Lake City, where he had a great idea.
Jack needed stiffer competition and he knew it. He had been fighting professionally for around two years, knocking over amateurs and semi-pros whose names sparkled far more greatly than their talent: guy like Chief Gordon and Two Round Gillian.
Walking into a gym, Dempsey introduced himself as Kid Blackie and boldly announced that he would fight any man available. But Jack’s reputation was already spreading and he found only a few takers, fighting them for peanuts. He took a job as a porter at the Hotel Utah in return for free food and board, engaging in fights when he could get them. But the competition was drying up fast as many ambitious young fighters began to head East for the real action. Dempsey still didn’t consider himself ready for that kind of move and made the decision to head back to his native Colorado via the rods.
You have to ask yourself how many young fighters today would opt for a less strenuous way of life in such trying circumstances. Dempsey was giving of his best and getting no return. Just a year before, he had lost his earnings of a hundred dollars after his losing fight with the tough Johnny Sudenberg in the brutal heat of Goldfield. When Jack woke up the following morning, stiff and bruised and feeling as if he had been in a stampede, he discovered that his money had gone along with his carefree manager.
Dempsey sucked up all these disappointments, so determined was he to make the grade. The tough life only served to make him a tougher man as he rode the rods back to Colorado by way of the hobo jungles. There were times when he was kicked off the train by rail officials, often in the middle of nowhere. Hanging precariously to the rods, Jack would battle to keep himself warm in the colder months while shutting his eyes to avoid the blinding cinders. Tiredness was his most dangerous foe. The mail trains would hurtle along the track at up to seventy miles per hour and Dempsey would tie his hands and feet to the train’s lower rungs with light chains or anything he could find.
In Colorado, Dempsey would walk into saloons and challenge the local toughs to fight him. Jack won most of these brawls, but the pickings were still lean and he was going nowhere. He had to make the big move. The big move East.
The old lady of New York tried to swallow him up. She picked on the wrong man.
BILLY PETROLLE: THE FARGO EXPRESS AT FULL STEAM
When your nickname includes that most urgent of words, ‘express’, you can’t afford moments of idle contemplation. The wittier scribes will soon be on your back suggesting a more leisurely moniker.
They never got that chance with Billy Petrolle, the glorious Fargo Express from North Dakota. All bells and whistles and full speed ahead was Petrolle, who jammed 163 fights into a rollicking good twelve-year career as he thundered down the track and challenged anyone to keep up with him. Shrewdly managed by Jack (Deacon) Hurley, Petrolle was a bullish, all action fighter and a great body puncher. He was teak tough into the bargain, suffering just three career losses inside schedule, two of those due to bad cuts.
Likeable Billy, who entered the ring with his prized red and green Navajo blanket as a good luck charm, didn’t believe in kicking his heels or stopping to smell the roses. The whoosh of his slipstream quite probably uprooted the roses and blew them to a more peaceful place.
It’s a good thing we didn’t talk about ‘windows in diaries’ back in Petrolle’s peak years of the Roaring Twenties. Billy wouldn’t have had any. Check out his log for 1924, when he had 24 fights. He had 22 fights in 1925, 19 bouts in 1926, 18 scraps in 1927 and another 18 in 1928.
Was Billy just padding his record and making his numbers look attractive? Hardly. From 1922 to 1934, when he finally stopped rolling and entered a very successful retirement, Petrolle claimed the golden scalps of Jimmy Goodrich, Tony Canzoneri, Jimmy McLarnin, Battling Battalino, and handed out a terrible beating to Jack (Kid) Berg.
Petrolle also battled Sid Terris, Sammy Mandell, Barney Ross, Louis (Kid) Kaplan and a good few others. Of the aforementioned names, all but Sid Terris were lineal world champions and Sid was nobody’s fool. He lost just thirteen of 111 fights.
Then there was Justo Suarez, a lesser name, a firebrand of a fighter from Chile, who came to New York and started bombing out opponents in the way he had done back home. The only problem was that Suarez soon got homesick. With Gotham fans gasping for more, Justo went back home to South America and no amount of persuasion could entice him back.
Then Jack (Deacon) Hurley began to work his influential magic. Deacon knew that a match between his boy Petrolle and Suarez would have the fans rocking at Madison Square Garden. By the summer of 1931, when the fight took place, boxing writers were affectionately calling Billy ‘the old man’. But this old express train wasn’t yet ready to be taken to the junkyard and cut up….
Like Deacon Hurley, Harry Lenny was a great fight manager of the era who knew the trade and knew his fighters. Listening to Harry discussing the finer technical points of it all was a joy.
People always wanted to ask him about the wonderful fighters he had seen. Lenny was a measured man who didn’t just blab without prior thought. He was a keen student of the mind and body who had a rare gift for successfully treating aching bones and muscles. At one time, he was believed to have secretly treated President Roosevelt.
When somebody once asked him about punchers and the art of punching, Lenny was typically forensic in his reply: “There are all kinds of punchers. There’s the fellow who numbs you and the one who gives you a sharp shock.
“Joe Louis is what I call a bruising puncher. But he’s not one of those one punch finishers He hit Max Baer over 250 times right on the whiskers and still Max wasn’t unconscious when he was counted out on one knee.
“Jack Dempsey also was a crushing puncher, but it took a lot of punches as a rule for him to finish a man.
“There have been very few one punch finishers in the ring. These birds really are the terrific hitters. Sam Langford was that kind of a walloper and there was a kid down in Baltimore years ago – George (KO) Chaney, a lightweight – who could stiffen his man with one sock.
“When Langford hit you a short, sharp jolt, the lights went out on you and that’s all there was to it.”
Billy Petrolle certainly wasn’t in the punching league of those thunderous gents, but the Fargo Express could still break a man in half and was loved and admired by Harry Lenny for many other reasons. Reasons of heart and courage and bloody defiance. When asked to select the greatest fight he had ever seen, Harry plumped for Billy’s late career epic with Justo Suarez.
“Billy Petrolle was one who possessed every aspect of a great battler,” said Lenny. “Likewise, Suarez had reached the heights through punching power the likes of which no South American visitor to our shores had ever exhibited, except the Wild Bull of the Pampas, Luis Firpo.
“Suarez had gained international fame when he stopped the tough Babe Herman in Beunos Aires with one punch, and perhaps there was no fight in Petrolle’s entire thrilling career in which he had to display more courage, ring science and determination – the will to win – than in this affair with Justo.
“Suarez had come to New York with a willingness to face any of our leading lightweights and it didn’t take long for him to be matched with the top notchers. In quick succession he defeated Joe Glick, Herman Perlick, Bruce Flowers, Ray Miller and Louis Kid Kaplan, whose prowess is well known to followers of boxing.
“When Suarez flattened Flowers, a clever boxer who was well up among the elite, the public’s eyes were opened to the fact that here was a real fighter from down below the equator, one who figured a contender for world honors. He knocked Flowers out in the sixth round, then became homesick and returned to his native land where he stopped Stanley Loyaza and Juan Carlos.
“Suarez was too good to stay in Argentina. For a time efforts were made to bring him back, but he turned down the offers until Jack Hurley, one of the best managers of all time, got busy and induced the Garden to make Suarez an offer to box Petrolle which Suarez couldn’t resist.
“To bring Justo north, the Garden promised him a purse of $200,000 to box in an outdoor world championship fight if he could succeed in defeating Petrolle, and this was too great an inducement for Suarez to ignore. He quickly returned and started training for the mill with Petrolle.
“Came the night of nights, one I shall never forget! During a half century of sports coverage, I have seen thousands of ring contests in all parts of the world. Some I have judged, others I have refereed and still others I attended as a reporter. Of the many that left a lasting impression, this bout ranked among the top ten.”
It isn’t hard to see why Harry Lenny rated the explosive clash between Petrolle and Suarez so highly. The see-saw fight had all the classic ingredients of a battle that burns itself in the memory forever more. It was a bout which old man Billy Petrolle looked for all the world like losing as the dangerous and hungry Suarez tore into action from the opening bell.
Did Suarez have four fists instead of two? It must have seemed that way to Petrolle, who was quickly in danger of being swept away as the hard punching Chilean rained in hard blows. Senor Suarez quite obviously didn’t hold too much stock with the ‘feeling out’ ritual. In Petrolle’s corner, the blood appeared to be slowly draining from the face of the deeply anxious Jack Hurley. The Deacon yelled instructions at his embattled charge, but Billy was too busy getting battered by the hail of leather to give and meaningful thought to his game plan.
That torrid opening session seemed to last a lifetime for the Fargo Express. Another train had crashed head on into him. In later years, Billy would say: “I can’t recall any fight in which I was hit harder and more often than in the first round of that bout.”
Incredibly, Petrolle scored two knockdowns in that violent round, first with a right uppercut and then with a vicious left, yet those fleeting successes seemed almost academic in light of Justo’s overwhelming dominance. Far from being discouraged, the Chilean ripped back at Billy to the extent of nearly ripping right through him.
Returning to his corner, Petrolle got a lashing of a different kind from Hurley, who was beside himself with rage. Not that Billy was too much aware of the verbal grilling. Dazed he might have been, but he was one of the toughest fighters ever at any weight and rarely lost his focus.
Petrolle was truly an individual. Even as the roof was falling in, he continued to sail along quite pleasantly in his own little world, ever light-hearted and optimistic. His inner strength was tremendous. He trotted out for the second right and trotted straight back into the same tornado. Again he survived, despite taking head shots and body punches that would have finished most other fighters.
One can only imagine how exasperated Hurley must have felt when Petrolle came back to his corner humming, Happy Days Are Here Again. It was too much to bear, even for a man of the Deacon’s lengthy experience. Hurley’s face was so white it looked as if it had been painted. “What the hell are you singing about?” he stormed at Petrolle. “You’re taking a shellacking.”
Dead calm and a little puzzled by all the panic going on, Billy said, “Don’t worry. It’s all right now. I’ve got him coming to me. It won’t be long now. I’ll get him. Don’t worry.”
Petrolle’s canny old eye had spotted a shaft of tempting light in the storm that raged around him. Suarez was getting careless in his rush to get the job done and setting himself up for Petrolle’s formidable left hook. It was Billy’s best punch and one of the best in the business.
From the fourth round, the fight began to swing in favor of the Fargo Express. Billy was picking up steam and Justo was expending too much energy for his own good, edging ever closer to the left hook trap. Steely and methodical, Petrolle took control of the fight, pounding Justo’s body with a steady flow of powerful left hooks.
Suddenly it was Suarez on the defensive as the painful body blows began to take their effect. He ducked and swayed and rolled in vain attempts to deflect the punishment, but Billy was now hitting him with unerring accuracy.
A short way into the ninth round, Billy struck the decisive blows with immaculate timing. A meaty left hook to the body and a right to the jaw sent Suarez into a stagger and forced him to lower his guard to leave the perfect opening. Petrolle crashed home a final right to the jaw that sent Justo down with a thump. Referee Patsy Haley’s count was academic, the brave Chilean having had the resistance pounded right out of him.
It had been a bumpy and thrilling ride for the Fargo Express, but he was safely into the station and letting out the last of his steam before a well deserved rest.
A year later, Billy Petrolle got his one and only shot at the lightweight championship at Madison Square Garden. By then he was a grizzled twenty-seven year old veteran and just seven fights away from his retirement. He was outpointed by the little genius that was Tony Canzoneri, who just happened to be in the greatest form of his life that night.
You wonder what some guys have to do to get the pot of gold.
KID GAVILAN AND THE WELTERWEIGHT WHIRLPOOL
CHARLEY GOLDMAN'S BLOODY GOOD IDEA
Trainer Charley Goldman pulled many a rabbit out of the hat during his years of working the corner for more than a thousand fighters. The little genius, who reckoned he’d had more than 300 fight himself all told, was a master of quick thinking and very often had to be with some of his less talented students.
Goldman certainly pulled a masterstroke when he guided Kentucky heavyweight Walter Hafer to a highly unlikely win over Jo Weidin, a protégé of Jack Dempsey, at the Music Hall Arena in Cincinnati on October 18, 1948.
Hafer had a problem that never sits too well with a fighter – he wasn’t all that keen on fighting. After five rounds, he had been decked twice by Weidin and wasn’t enthusiastic about coming up for the sixth. It was time for a pep talk from Goldman.
Charley threw in all the old motivators as he tried to fire up some passion in the lethargic Hafer: “You gotta win this fight, see? Not only is your wife and mom in the arena watching you, but your hillbilly friends who put a wad on you to win. You simply gotta grab the duke!”
Charley should have attached a few more weights to Hafer’s untroubled conscience, because Walter continued to box like a man who was looking for the exit. But he got lucky in the eighth when he cut Weidin’s face. The wheels starting turning in Goldman’s inventive mind. Maybe his boy Walter could still pull it off. Charley motioned to one of his guys and got him to carry a message to Hafer’s fans in the audience. They were given instructions to shout something in unison and shout it loudly when the time came.
Hafer trudged back to his corner and slumped down on his stool, still uninspired. It was apparent to Goldman that Weidin’s blood hadn’t aroused a Great White shark in Walter.
Charley had already arranged the second part of a two-prong plan, but part one was Walter’s requirement to activate it. A final pep talk from Goldman. He had tried mom, the wife and Hafer’s many friends. Now it was time to threaten the kid with the wrath of his manager.
“Walter, I’m gonna tell you something I didn’t feel I had a right to reveal to you. Now I feel I gotta tell you – and it’s this: your manager wired me before the fight that he bet the entire purse that you’d win. Blow the duke an’ you lose his dough as well as your own. Now listen, when you go out for the ninth, re-open Weidin’s cut and smear his face with his own blood.”
Boy oh boy, did Walter come to life. Jabbing and hooking purposefully, he brought the blood oozing from Jo Weidin’s cut. Hafer then made a real old mess of Weidin’s face in the clinches, smearing the blood as creatively as possible. Poor Jo suddenly looked as if he’d been slashed to ribbons in a back alley brawl.
Right on cue, Walter Hafer’s friends, with enormous compassion of course, began yelling at the referee to stop the fight. The grand ruse worked and Walter Hafer got himself a TKO victory.
Little Charley Goldman was quite obviously proud of his work. “I ain’t sure exactly what prompted the timid fighter to do as I instructed,” he said. “Maybe he didn’t want to be shamed in the presence of his wife an’ mother. Maybe he feared his hillbilly friends. Could be he was anxious to save his manager’s and his own bankroll, which – in truth – was entirely safe. Anyway, my scheming brought home the bacon - because the yelling of, ‘Stop the fight!” influenced the referee to do exactly that.”
Even Jack Dempsey saw the funny side of his boy’s defeat. “Dempsey congratulated me for pulling the blood-smearing gag in order to win,” said Goldman. “But his partner, Max Waxman, was so burnt up he wouldn’t talk to me for months.”
Perhaps Max Waxman’s anger was partially sated when Walter Hafer and Jo Weidin met again three months later. Weidin won a unanimous decision.
Hey, come on. We didn’t pretend this was The Waltons.
ZORA FOLLEY: LAST TRAIN TO THE RICHEST PRIZE
He did OK for a while in the one and only chance he got at the heavyweight championship. Zora Folley, the eternal contender, the quiet man of the heavyweights, boxed very nicely for several rounds against Muhammad Ali on the big stage at Madison Square Garden. In the last chance saloon of his career, Zora went after Muhammad and found the champion’s jaw with several crunching rights. This was not the night to play safe and be cagey.
Then Ali upped his game and got serious. The first really meaningful punches flashed out languidly from his athletic frame to produce a sudden knockdown in the fourth round.
Muhammad thought he had won the fight right there and raised his arms, but his celebration was premature as Folley gamely got to his feet and fought back with spirit. The resurgence didn’t last for long and Zora never really looked like a man who believed he could win the heavyweight crown.
In the seventh round, quickly and suddenly, he was unhinged. Before he knew it, he was lying spreadeagled on his stomach, face buried in the canvas, apparently dead to the world. Then he came too with a strange suddenness, a stunned look on his face, like a man waking up in somebody else’s bed and not knowing how he got there. He attempted to rise, but cartwheeled into the ropes and crashed back again for the full count.
It was a bizarre knockout. Did Ali’s finishing punch – a flashing right cross that looked almost innocuous - really shatter old Zora to that extent or was it the long and winding road that had finally tired him out? Some people said that it was all a bit too theatrical and that Folley just wanted to go home.
The big chance had come too late in his career, on March 22nd, 1967, more than thirteen years and 85 fights after his professional debut. When Folley was at his best, Floyd Patterson had avoided him, Ingemar Johansson hadn’t thought of him and Sonny Liston had crushed him. Other hiccups, more of a self-inflicted nature, had also served to keep Zora firmly in the position of perennial contender. Quiet. Reliable. Always there in the top ten. A classy boxer. But one of those men who always missed his flight when it was crucial to be on time.
This was a shame, because we yearn to see the nice guys of life win and Zora Folley was a nice man of great class and dignity. Even in battle, he looked elegant, a boxer of skill and economy of movement, almost stately. He wasn’t a knockout specialist and was never big at the box office, but his well rounded skills could generally master all but the elite of his contemporaries. Folley, however, always seemed to lack conviction in the most important bouts of his career.
There were distinct similarities between Zora and his fellow contender, Eddie Machen, and many boxing writers gave a knowing smile when the pair hedged their way to a cautious draw in a 1958 final eliminator for Patterson’s world crown. The inconclusive result seemed so apt.
After Ali at the Garden, Folley pushed on with a career whose ending slowly beckoned. He knocked off journeymen Wayne Kindred and Nick Sosa before closing his 1967 account with a trip to England and a match with Brian London at the Liverpool Stadium. I saw that fight on TV as a boy and remember how disappointed I was. London too had been embarrassed by Ali, and Brian and Zora resembled a couple of guys shuffling around at the Lord Mayor’s show after everyone else had gone home. London won a fair decision, but the world rankings remained undisturbed. Brian and Zora were no longer members of the top club.
Folley went on to draw with Roger Rischer and Al Jones in 1968, but ended his campaign for the year in July with a majority points loss to Oscar Bonavena. When Oscar was climbing the ladder back in 1965, Zora handled him easily at the Garden, knocking him down in the eighth round and posting a comfortable victory. There was also the telling occasion in that first encounter when Folley compassionately held the young bull up as he appeared to be heading for the deck. Imagine what Liston would have done to Oscar in similar circumstances.
Folley was a joy to watch in that fight. Relaxed and fluid, his right hand always guarding his chin and his left held low, he was always in position to jab and hook. He was a cautious boxer, too much so for his own good at times, but he was delightfully easy on the eye as he patiently went about his business, prizing Bonavena’s defense apart with jabs and little feints.
By 1969, Zora was drawing on what little water was left in the well. He regained some of his old consistency with three straight wins over modest opposition in Sonny Moore, Tony Sims and Billy Joiner. Folley was then idle for ten months and it seemed that he had gracefully left the stage on a winning note.
Then he came back for a sad and brutal swansong. He was knocked down six times by Mac Foster in a one round rout for the former Marine in his hometown of Fresno. Foster, badly beaten by Jerry Quarry earlier in the year, was looking to build his confidence again. The mismatch should never have been made. It taught Mac nothing and gave Zora the bookend to his career that he didn’t deserve. His exit from life, a short time later, would be equally sad. It came out of the blue, much like Ali’s knockout punch, just as everything was looking fine.
A very popular citizen in his Arizona hometown of Chandler, Zora became a salesman for Chevrolet and was later picked to fill a vacancy on the city council. But what on earth happened when this clean living family man went to a hotel and started larking about with friends?
Discussing Folley’s bizarre death in 1972, writer Hal Johnson said: “Folley's squeaky-clean image was tarnished in the eyes of some by the intrigue surrounding his death, in 1972. Folley had been visiting a friend and two women in a motel in Tucson.
“As the story went, Folley and his friend engaged in horseplay near the pool, seeing who could throw the other in, and Folley ended up in the pool. One of the women ran to the motel office to report that Folley was badly hurt. Folley was taken to a nearby hospital, where he died about an hour after midnight. He was forty years old.
“A motel clerk told a local reporter that Folley's injuries included a large bump on the forehead, a hole on top of his head, and another wound in the back on his head. People would soon question how Folley could suffer such extensive injuries by simply falling into a pool.
“Over the years, many theories have made the rounds as to how Folley really died, but with the autopsy and police report long lost or destroyed, it appears that the questions surrounding his death will never be put to rest.”
Zora Folley was what we used to call a picture boxer. His was the classic style of the textbook where all the essential fundamentals are in place. He was a stand-up boxer of old-style British correctness, but nicely oiled with American fluidity and easy grace. He boxed beautifully and could deliver the knockout wallop when he saw fit. Folley was always destined for the professional ranks after a glowing Army career in which he won all but three of 62 contests and captured the All Army championship whilst serving in Korea.
He started slowly and unspectacularly as a pro, winning his debut over Jimmy Ingram in the fall of 1953 and then being held to a draw by Cal Chambers. Then Zora suddenly took off and won 17 in a row before his manager Bill Swift reached a little too high too soon. In a 1955 summer match with the lanky and dangerous Johnny Summerlin in Los Angeles, Folley was knocked down in the first round and knocked out in the sixth. The Arizona youngster wasn’t yet ready to tackle the quality men of the division, but the lesson wasn’t learned. Initially it was feared that Summerlin had broken Zora’s jaw.
After rallying back with three wins, Folley was thrown in with another erratic danger man in Young Jack Johnson. It was another painful experience, with Zora retiring at the end of the fifth round with a broken rib. Bill Swift saw the need to calm everything down and stop rushing his prospect. Folley was lightly raced in 1956, winning all six of his fights, and the change of tack resulted in his steady climb up the heavyweight ladder.
He closed his account that year with a points win over Wayne Bethea at the old St. Nicholas Arena in New York, in a fight that marked Zora’s television debut. The viewers were impressed with his classy boxing, and Folley outscored Bethea again at Syracuse just a month later.
An active 1957 campaign saw Bill Swift protecting his fast rising prospect with a busy but sensible eleven-fight campaign against solid but not threatening opposition. The tactics were wise. Folley was gaining in confidence all the time and would soon learn how to beat the top men and break into the elite circle.
Former champ Jack Dempsey noted that Folley was looking good, but Jack added his belief that the stylish Eddie Machen was the better of the two would-be world champions. Eddie, from Portland, Oregon, certainly had more flair and daring than Folley and had zipped up the world rankings with great style. It seemed only logical that Eddie and Zora should meet. In the spring of 1958, by which time both men were top contenders, they clashed at the great old Cow Palace in San Francisco.
The twelve round stalemate resolved nothing and gave world champion Floyd Patterson and his super-cautious manager Cus D’Amato a handy excuse to continue their campaign of picking ‘safe’ challengers. Too respectful of each other, too cute and cagey for their own good, Zora and Eddie canceled each other out and didn’t set the world on fire in the process. Both boys were classic movers and counter-punchers, but all the talent in the world needs some ‘oomph’ and passion to go with it. It was these necessities that Folley and Machen lacked in the defining fights of their careers.
Five months later, Machen traveled to Sweden and suffered a brutal first round knockout at the hands of Ingemar Johansson, a spectacle that chills the blood to this day.
Folley wanted a title match with Patterson, but did Zora deserve it? Did he ever really deserve it during the years of Floyd’s reign? Too often the man from Arizona shot himself in the foot. But let us pause for a moment and consider a pertinent question. Would the Folley or Machen of this era have beaten Patterson in a title match? I don’t believe so.
Machen got his chance against Patterson too late in the day in 1964, a year after Floyd’s second humbling by Sonny Liston. Patterson outpointed Eddie in Sweden and looked very impressive in doing so. I doubt that result would have been much different in 1958 or 1960.
Floyd was inhibited and mentally crushed by Liston, but wouldn’t have been in that frame of mind against Machen or Folley. Patterson was an intelligent boxer, a very dangerous puncher and much more adventurous than Eddie and Zora. Machen, always a circumspect boxer, became even more cautious after the Johansson disaster, while Folley dropped the ball too often at important times.
It is important to stress that the heavyweight division of Folley’s era was still rich in talent, as was just about every other weight class. Top contenders fought each other far more often and therefore suffered more losses. Even Liston, who was knocking everyone silly, had suffered a defeat. Today’s ridiculous elevation of the ‘0’ on a boxer’s record to sacred status would have been laughed at in days gone by. Defeats to opponents of similar ability were regarded as an essential part of a boxer’s education.
Jersey Joe Walcott knew what it was like to overcome adversity, but proved he had the moxy when he threw that picture perfect left hook in Pittsburgh to rip the heavyweight championship from Ezzard Charles. In Folley’s case, there was always the feeling that he would never get over the line, even if the gods had been more charitable to him.
In October, 1958, six months after drawing with Machen, Zora ventured to England for a match with Henry Cooper at the Empire Pool. It was a wonderful battle, but it was Cooper who won a deserved decision. On his return home, Folley got himself back on track and reeled off ten successive victories, including a unanimous decision over Machen in a 1960 rematch.
With Patterson locked firmly into his three-fight series with Johansson, Zora got a fight with Sonny Liston in Denver. Folley went the way of most against Sonny, being almost contemptuously brushed aside in three rounds. Weary of going nowhere fast, Zora had stumbled into the darkest phase of his career.
A couple of wins over Willi Besmanoff and Norman Letcher led to a match at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles with the handsome Argentinian sensation, Alejandro Lavorante.
It was feared that Lavorante, who had huge box office potential, was being rushed. He had only thirteen fights behind him and the general feeling was that a seasoned campaigner like Folley would give the young gun a boxing lesson. But Zora suffered a nightmare as big Alejandro decked him four times and knocked him out in seven rounds.
Folley began to wonder if his big chance at the title was gone. Manager Bill Swift, understandably, was also sensitive and frustrated. For one thing, he was sensitive about Zora being constantly profiled as a ‘cautious’ boxer: “You know,” said Swift, “they slapped Zora with that cautious rap after Liston knocked him out. But they fail to mention that Zora was ahead at the time, so how cautious can you be and still gain the edge?”
Folley persevered. He always did. He was never a sulker or a moaner. “I just want to get the recognition I deserve,” he said. “I have fought more contenders than any other heavyweight around. But how many people know about it?”
Folley needed a big and sustained winning run in order to push his way into the top contender’s spot, but there always seemed to be someone ahead of him in the rankings. In late 1961, Zora returned to England for a rematch with Henry Cooper and stunned the local crowd by knocking out ‘Enry in two rounds.
In 1962, there followed a two-fight series with the tough and talented Doug Jones that seemed to be a microcosm of Folley’s career In August, he outpointed Doug in Denver, but it was the exciting second match that had people talking. At Madison Square Garden, before a TV audience, Zora appeared to be on his way to a repeat victory when he floored Doug in the first round,
The Folley lost his way as his concentration wavered. He was his usual serene self when the fight was at long range, but became visibly uncomfortable when Jones began to close in and fight up close.
Doug had learned a lesson in that first round. It didn’t do to hang your head up in the air without moving it. Describing the fight later, Jones said: “Now Folley is waiting for me to go in. He’s in the rocking chair, ready to pivot in with a right to the chin. He lands a couple and they don’t hurt. I’m a little cocky and I keep pressing. He lets the slingshot go. This time he catches me right, really right. And before I know it, I’m sitting down saying to myself, ‘What are you doing here?’
“In the third, I close ground on Folley and he might as well forget the rocking chair. He isn’t going to get any more chance to sit in. I give him a licking in that round. In the fourth, in the fifth and the sixth. With no punching room, he’s nothing. I’m not afraid of his power anymore, because I know it’s gone out of him. In the sixth I hit him a right and I feel he’s ready to go. In the seventh I put over a left and a right and he sags down. He isn’t going to beat the count – and he doesn’t.”
Between the disheartening setbacks, Folley was always winning lesser fights against generally good opposition. It is an intriguing fact that in his 96 professional bouts, he never did suffer consecutive defeats. By the summer of 1963, however, when he dropped a decision to fellow contender Ernie Terrell, Zora was still taking two steps forward and one step back.
Then it happened - a late career purple patch that saw him go unbeaten in twelve fights. The late charge for championship glory included quality wins over Billy Daniels, George Chuvalo, Oscar Bonavena, Bob Foster and Henry Clark, and a draw with Karl Mildenberger in Germany.
All of which brings us full circle to the big chance against Muhammad Ali, Folley’s late train to the richest prize in sport. Zora was just five days short of his thirty-sixth birthday when he stepped into the ring that night at Madison Square Garden; and for a while there he did OK.
YOUNG GRIFFO: THE SPIRITS MOVED HIM
Kid Lavigne, the great lightweight champion, spoke with typical candor and humor about his fight with the Australian wizard, Young Griffo. Griffo’s God-given skills were breathtaking. He might just have been the cleverest boxer that ever lived.
Lavigne tried everything against Griffo. The Kid boxed Griff, fought him, hustled him and, when all else had failed, simply rushed and ripped at him. Amidst all this frenetic activity, Lavigne noticed that Griffo appeared to remain as still and steady as a fulcrum. Without appearing to move, he dodged punches effortlessly and fired back with accurate and stunning regularity.
The Kid recalled with a smile that he never could figure this out. Like Bugs Bunny or some other mischievous cartoon character, Griff always seemed to be in the right place at the right time without betraying how he got there.
Why was Young Griffo such a wonder? Because few people are born with the outrageous talent and the sheer natural instinct that he possessed. Such was his gift of co-ordination that the managers and trainers of his day were unable to offer technical explanations for his near perfect fluency of movement.
Add to this the very significant fact that Griffo was addicted to alcohol, hopelessly so for long periods of his life, and we begin to see the exceptional man he was. He was very often referred to as a phenomenon, even by writers who didn’t fall victim to prosaic and exaggerated outbursts. It was somewhat bitter irony that Griffo’s love of alcohol made his fistic star shine even brighter. For while his great weakness would wreck him to the point of privation and drive him into insane asylums, it rarely blunted his uncanny sense of anticipation or his radar-like reflexes.
Was Griffo’s great addiction a tragedy? Only he knew that. Alcoholics and binge drinkers constantly veer and stagger between joy and despair, stubborn defiance and contrition. Those with a sublime talent are too often forgiven and tolerated while a trail of destruction piles up in their wake. Their actions hurt many others. Amusing tales of Griffo’s drunken rollickings are plentiful, but many of his friends and guardians were hurt and betrayed along the way. We shall come to the tale of the fatal glass of sherry that lost Griffo an estimated ten thousand dollars in earnings and finally snapped the patience of his good-hearted manager, George Dawson.
In 1936, Joe Humphreys, often referred to as the daddy of all ring announcers, looked back on his great career and named the four greatest fighters he had ever seen. Humphreys’ golden quartet consisted of Griffo, Terry McGovern, Kid McCoy and Battling Nelson.
Humphreys described the prime McGovern as the best and most vicious fighter in history. But there was no doubt in old Joe’s mind as to who was the cleverest. Griffo was that man, above the stellar likes of Joe Gans, Jem Driscoll and Abe Attell.
Said Humphreys: “That stuff about Griffo standing on a handkerchief and daring anybody to hit him in the face is true.”
This was indeed a favourite little practice of Griffo’s, which came in particularly handy in saloon bars when he needed to rustle up some cash for drinks.
Humphreys recalls the time when the boisterous Mysterious Billy Smith came upon Griffo when both were out on the town socialiszing. Griffo was sitting contentedly at the bar and getting nicely oiled.
“Griffo and Smith were on the outs for a time. Smith ankled into a saloon one night and, seeing Griffo at the bar, hurled a spittoon at the Australian. Griffo saw it coming in the looking glass and moved his large head just enough to let it tick his ear. The man was a marvel. He could even slip cuspidors with his back turned.”
Most of us have heard the famous tale of Willie Pep winning a round without landing a punch. Now let us reflect on the four rounds exhibition in America between Young Griffo and another wizard of the age, Pedlar Palmer. It is something of a shame that Palmer is chiefly remembered now for losing his world flyweight championship to Terry McGovern in one brutal round.
At his best, Englishman Palmer was gifted with outstanding reflexes and was lauded as one of the most accurate hitters in the game. Jack Callaghan, one of the foremost authorities of the age on British boxing, rated Palmer the best boxer of all.
When Pedlar Palmer boxed his exhibition with Young Griffo, both fighters came into the ring in a deadly serious frame of mind, knowing that their reputations could be tarnished by a bad display. Here is how Jack Callaghan described their meeting to writer W Buchanan Taylor: “Those who saw that demonstration saw everything that could possibly be known about the science of boxing.
“They boxed four rounds and neither man landed a blow on the other. They were the two quickest thinking boxers ever known and the witnesses of the meeting were of the opinion that, barring a slip or other accident, neither would have ever been able to hit the other.
“It’s a very sad reflection that Griffo came to a tragic end, prematurely. He was a freak and what you were told by Hugh D MacIntosh and Tommy Burns about his extraordinary powers of co-ordination – the exact working of mind and matter – is quite true.”
This must have been music to the ears of W Buchanan Taylor, who had long been fascinated by Griffo. In his rare and fine old book, ‘What Do You Know About Boxing?’ published in the early twentieth century, Buchanan Taylor bravely tackled the eternally fascinating question: Who was the greatest boxer?
Here is an abridged version of what he wrote: “Several eminent boxers with whom I have talked, and who saw the lad in action, give the palm to Young Griffo, the Australian ex-larrikin, who amazed eyewitnesses with his astonishing abilities in and out of the ring. Yet he never was a champion outside his own country.
“He was a young street urchin when he was picked up and given a chance of a three-round bout in Sydney, near which – Millar’s Point – he was born and brought up. Soon after this first fight, he had a battle with the raw ‘uns (bare knucklers), went back to gloves and proceeded to win his contests hand over fist.
“I have heard it vouched for that, in his sense of co-ordination of mind and action, he was practically ‘simultaneous’ in what he did. Hugh D McIntosh told me he had seen Griffo seated at an open air café picking flies out of the air with finger and thumb. This was corroborated by Tommy Burns and it was confirmed by three other patrons of the ring who knew Young Griffo.
“It is true, and well proven, in regard to Griffo’s feats, that he used to bet against anybody hitting him as he stood and remained standing on a handkerchief laid out on the ground.
“Griffo was incurable lazy, doubtless from the fact that boxing was no trouble to him and he knew no master. He drank heavily at times and was once found intoxicated in a saloon a few hours before he was due in the ring. A Turkish bath, plenty of massage and slapping brought him to, and when he turned up to fight Ike Weir, the Belfast Spider, a while later, he hit his opponent on ‘all points of the compass’ as one description has it. Griffo was a ridiculously easy winner.”
The American boxing public couldn’t believe what Griffo could do when drunk. The mind boggles at what he might have done if had had ever been able to take life seriously. There is ever reason to believe that Griffo was every much a ‘natural’ in his scientific knowledge of the sport as was Bob Fitzsimmons.
As I have written before, Fitzsimmons elicited a form of awe from his boxing brethren that somehow went far beyond the norm and transcended the era in which he fought. Bob was a truly seminal and timeless fighter. Jack Dempsey, Sam Langford, Joe Gans and Stanley Ketchel can be placed on the same pedestal from everything we know. So too can Young Griffo. Consider this question: Even with the passing of time, even with the great improvements made to general fitness and longevity, how much more knowledgeable or faster can today’s boxers really become? By how much more can they improve their speed, feinting skills and footwork? Boxing is a unique discipline and the limits of technical perfection must surely be finite unless we abandon dope testing and allow the cheats to run riot.
Griffo made people gasp in the way he dodged punches by a barely visible movement of his head. His defence was virtually impenetrable and his array of feints and shifts was vast. Certain people will tell you that combination punching was an undiscovered art in Griffo’s era, yet reporters frequently commented (sometimes in near disbelief) on the ability of the Australian ace to fire multiple blows in blindingly quick sequences.
Back in 1910, John L Sullivan’s former manager, Billy Madden, took Jim Corbett to task following Corbett’s assertion that flat-footed fighters were disadvantaged. Madden cited Young Griffo as a classic contradiction of this theory: “Griffo is considered by many to be one of the fastest and cleverest boxers who ever donned a glove.
“He hit when flat-footed. I saw him fight twenty rounds to a draw with Kid Lavigne when the Kid was good and Griffo was in poor shape. Griffo scarcely moved out of a six foot circle during the battle, until the close when he began to tire.”
Madden’s reasoning was as follows: “Try yourself, leading at another boxer with your left hand while on your toes, and you will find your head goes forward with the blow, leaving an opening for the other fellow to counter with his right. That is a cross counter. It is what a boxer means by beating his man to the punch.
“Now try the same lead with the feet firmly planted on the floor, left foot and left arm being in a direct line with your opponent’s body. The head is back out of the way whether you land or miss.”
A light puncher, Griffo labored in the era when fights invariably ended in draw decisions in the event of one man failing to knock out the other. Yet at his short-lived peak, with his feathery fists and booze-addled brain, he twice drew with the great Joe Gans, fought three draws with George Dixon and also shared the spoils with Kid Lavigne, Frank Erne and Jack Everhardt.
The record books tell us that Griffo was outpointed by the great and undefeated Jack McAuliffe at the old Seaside Athletic Club in 1894, an honorable defeat that wouldn’t have been a disgrace on any man’s record. But many who saw that battle were of the firm opinion that Griffo had the better of Jack. Referee Maxie Moore was a good pal of McAuliffe, so we draw our own conclusions.
Griffo’s first two fights with George Dixon – the great Little Chocolate - were tremendous struggles, full of skill and intrigue. The spoils were shared on both occasions, first at Boston over twenty rounds in 1894, and then at the Seaside Athletic Club on Coney Island over twenty-five rounds in 1895.
Griffo held an eight-and-half pounds weight advantage over George in their first engagement, but the Australian won many plaudits for his evasive skills. Dixon attacked ferociously with his usual blend of skill, speed and accurate hitting, but Griffo was a revelation as he slipped, rode and parried punches like a mischievous ghost.
Griffo had been taunting Dixon for some time before they met in the ring. Dixon was appearing on stage at the Lyceum Theatre in Philadelphia in the winter of 1894. At a Monday matinee, Griffo was occupying a box seat and looking to liven things up. When Dixon made his entrance, Griffo jumped onto the stage, threw a five dollar bill at George’s feet and challenged Little Chocolate to cover it. Dixon laughed and Griffo’s friends pulled him away.
Later on, however, Dixon and his manager, Tom O’Rourke, encountered Griffo at a local saloon. Griffo told O’Rourke that he was “… only fit to manage niggers anyhow,” and promptly received a blow to the face. The friends of both fighters broke up the unsavory argument.
It was in the second match with Dixon that Griff demonstrated how brilliantly he could perform against all reasonable logic. Trapped in one of his torrid binge-drinking cycles, his preparation for Dixon was almost non-existent. Few believed that the Australian would survive the twenty-five round limit. How he did so, we will never know. Nor will we know how he managed to unleash fast and magnificent combinations that very nearly closed Dixon’s eyes.
In the dying moments of the twenty-fifth round, Griffo seemed to move up to a higher plane that few others could even find. Cornered by Dixon’s fierce, final rally, Griff slipped and ducked every punch that rained in. The entranced crowd at Coney Island could only watch in amazement. Surely, his great gifts had to be innate, immune to any inside or outside agency. Drunks simply don’t fight like that; and most of them, barring a huge slice of luck, would suffer a cracked head from a flying spittoon!
I’m sure that my fellow trawlers of the archives will be familiar with the name of Dan Creedon, the old New Zealand fighter who crossed swords with many battlers of note and contested the middleweight championship with Bob Fitzsimmons.
Creedon agreed to meet Young Griffo in an eight-rounds contest following a fierce difference of opinion that broke out between their respective handlers. The match was laughed at. A middleweight against a lightweight, who might even forget to show up if there was a good bottle of something to be had.
How Creedon must have wished that Griffo had been seduced by a downtown saloon. Dedicated ringside observers kept a count of the number of clean punches landed by Creedon. The count began and ended at one. Dan’s sole success, a desperate punch thrown in a purple rage, gave Griffo a cauliflower ear but didn’t shut his mouth or dilute his magic. Decades before Muhammad Ali, Griff greatly enjoyed baiting his opponents and verbally questioning their talent.
In July 1900, Joe Gans, the Baltimore maestro, finally got one over on Young Griffo and stopped him in eight rounds at the Seaside Athletic Club. The two geniuses had previously battled to a couple of draw decisions, but Griffo was a slowly drowning man by the time of their third clash, his love of alcohol having bitten him particularly hard. It was the year that Griff, who was sailing along pleasantly and relatively sober by his own standards, took a glass of sherry with devastating consequences. It was a moment of weakness that would cost him at least ten thousand dollars in potential earnings.
This was a vast amount of money in 1900. Griffo had been given the kind of earning opportunity that would normally only come the way of the heavyweight champion. All Griff had to do was stand up and fight a string of carefully selected opponents who would not tax him too greatly. It seemed too good to be true and it was. Griffo blew it.
Manager George Dawson was the architect of the lucrative package that would have made Griffo a superstar of his day. John Whitbeck, a Chicago restaurateur and a personal friend of Dawson’s, told the story: “When Griffo came to life the second time and demonstrated by his bouts at the Chicago Athletic Association and Tattersall’s that he was still a premier in his class, Dawson, who had his business interests in charge, was deluged with offers of matches for him.
“Not hard matches but easy exhibitions with a sparring partner and guaranteed purses ranging from $300 to $1,000. Every athletic club of note in the country wanted him. The peculiar conditions under which Griffo entered the ring made a big advertisement for him, and letters and telegrams poured in from all parts of the country. Right after his appearance with Young Kenny at Tattersall’s, engagements had been booked for the time up to the end of April this year, which would have netted him $10,000, and there was a chance for a lot of profitable dates between them. Then some fool friend of Griffo’s insisted on him taking a glass of sherry and it was all off.
“All the sporting fraternity knows how he went to pieces and how Dawson, in disgust, had to cancel all the $10,000 worth of engagements. No pugilist, aside from a heavyweight champion, had such an opportunity to reap such a golden harvest. Those $10,000 engagements were only a beginning. If he had kept sober, Griffo could have virtually coined money for two or three years to come.”
George Dawson had gone to great lengths to drag Griffo from the depths of his drunken despair and give him a fresh start. Dawson had visited Griffo in the insane asylum at Dunning and found him to be surprisingly sane and coherent. There was even a comical side to the visit as Griff gave him a simple message: “For Heaven’s sake, get me out of here. I’m not crazy but I will be if I’m kept here with this mob of lunatics much longer.”
Dawson arranged for Griffo’s discharge and stumped up a $3,000 indemnity fee to the county to cover any damage that the supposed madman might commit upon his release. But things quickly went wrong after a quiet period in which Griffo behaved himself. He was introduced to polite society and kept away from temptation, but the genteel life was not for Griff. The call of the streets and the rough-and-tumble saloons quickly beckoned. He started his old tricks of all-night binging followed by contrite apologies and then greater indiscretions.
George Dawson, utterly exasperated, told friends that giving money to Griffo was akin to throwing it in the sewer.
John Whitbeck scathingly remarked: “Young Griffo is a degenerate of the worst type. It is absolutely impossible to keep him in respectable condition. Given five hundred dollars tonight, he will be broke tomorrow, and no inducement, not even the guarantee of $10,000 for twenty minutes’ work with the gloves, would make him forego a drinking bout with the lowest of levee characters.”
Three years on and it didn’t seem possible. Young Griffo was back in the saddle, as dry as he ever could be and in excellent shape. The rejuvenated Griffo was being described as a physical marvel, having apparently regained all his magnificent skills and innate reflexes.
Everyone had written him off, due to what was politely described at the time as his ‘excessive dissipation’. Griffo had become a physical and mental wreck and his chances of being a top flight fighter again had been thoroughly discounted. He had seemed to change managers as frequently as he could empty his glass at the bar.
Now he was in the care of Sam Tuckhorn, who announced that Griffo was ready to tackle any lightweight in the world. Tuckhorn’s claims were not lightly regarded, for they had the considerably weighty support of Lou Houseman, who knew everything about the fight scene in Chicago and had seen the new Griffo in action.
Said Houseman: “I saw the clever little Australian put through a course of sprouts the other day, and the manner in which he carried himself was astonishing. He appears to be, if anything, faster than he ever was. His footwork, his assault and defense are perfect. Men weighing forty pounds more than ‘the feather’ were handled like novices.
“The boy looks good. His hair has turned a bit gray – small wonder – but his eyes sparkle and his step is young and springy. I saw a certificate in which the doctor states positively that the boy’s heart is as healthy as any he had ever examined, and that there was not a physical flaw to be found anywhere.”
No less impressed by Griffo was the boxing reporter who wrote: “Griffo had his first bout in more than two years a couple of weeks ago in Peoria, Illinois, with Jack Bain. That Griffo was as clever a man with his fists as ever entered the ring, there has never been anyone to dispute, but that he would be able to go in and set a fast and furious clip for eight rounds and finish fresh and strong was more than the most hopeful expected.”
It was the opinion of many experienced ringsiders that Griffo was the greatest natural boxer in the world. He boxed wonderfully against Bain and exhibited powerful and accurate hitting.
Perhaps the most glowing tribute, however, came from referee Lynch who said: “I have refereed all the matches that have taken place in Peoria and I have attended almost all of the big fights, and I unhesitatingly say that I consider Griffo the greatest boxer I ever saw. He is the personfication of cleverness and aggressiveness, and I think he has a chance with any man of his weight in the world.”
Young Griffo, with all the honeymoon verve that comes from the first flush of sobriety, announced that he had cut out ‘the cup that cheers’ after torrid periods of insane asylums, depressing privation and the hobo life.
It didn’t last of course. A drunk never sees the dark side of the moon when he surrenders once more to the old pangs. Somewhere in the archives there is a vivid picture of a dishevelled Griffo sitting on a doorstep, wearing that shredded and haunted expression that a hard life eventually carves into a man’s face. He looks old, but he probably isn’t.
He rests now beneath a simple gravestone in the Bronx.
THE RECOLLECTIONS OF WHITEY BIMSTEIN
There was something quite wonderful about the tough and gnarled characters that sprang from old New York. They were like vivid oil paintings brought to life. Legendary scribe Damon Runyon had enormous fun documenting such men as well as inventing many of his own in his memorable collections of essays and short stories. Runyon, from Manhattan, Kansas, was always destined to flourish in Manhattan, New York.
The buzzing and constantly evolving landscape was a huge and flexible canvas of the permanent and the temporary, the real and the surreal. Where else were the likes of Whitey Bimstein, Ray Arcel, Lou Stillman and Rocky Graziano ever supposed to live?
Even as young men, Bimstein and Arcel, known as the Siamese training twins, had the map of life written all over their faces. Whitey and Ray were never truly apart. Their business partnership, during which time they presided over a large boxing stable teeming with talent, was dissolved in the mid-1930s due to financial problems, but the two aces continued to partner up on different assignments in the years ahead.
Even before the close of the Roaring Twenties, Bimstein had been a trainer and cut man for a near alphabet of illustrious fighters, including Benny Leonard, Paolino Uzcudun, Harry Greb, Primo Carnera, Gene Tunney, Jackie (Kid) Berg, Jack Dempsey, Charley (Phil) Rosenberg, Mickey Walker, Max Baer, Ruby Goldstein, KO Phil Caplan, Georges Carpentier and Maxie Rosenbloom.
A former bantamweight boxer who fought at the famous old Fairmont Athletic Club in New York, Morris (Whitey) Bimstein was born on Manhattan’s Lower East Side on January 10, 1897.
By 1950, when he sat down to reminisce with Barney Nagler of The Ring magazine, Whitey had gained the status of living legend and as permanent a New York fixture as the Empire State Building. He was a veritable fountain of knowledge and it was hard to think of a name fighter who hadn’t passed through his caring hands at some point. Like every great trainer, Bimstein had learned all the necessities about his charges – their strengths, their weaknesses, their good habits and their bad habits. Some were easy to handle, some were difficult and a few were impossible.
Then, of course, there were their likes and dislikes and their little idiosyncrasies. Lou Ambers was the easy going sort who would adapt to any style when sparring. Rocky Graziano preferred to stick to the guys who would fight him and not annoy him with all that fancy, evasive stuff.
As Whitey sat on a small chair at Lou Stillman’s gym, Barney Nagler asked him how many fighters he had trained during his thirty-four years in the business. Bimstein confessed he didn’t know exactly, but took a stab. “Guess about 7,500” he said, “and each one different like day and night. Each one I had to know, ‘cause they ain’t alike, none of them.”
Many fighters, of course, don’t care for training even when they have a great trainer. Jimmy Slattery, the wonderfully gifted but hard living light heavyweight from Buffalo, once told his manager Red Carr that he was going out to buy a hat and didn’t come back for nearly a week. Young Griffo, the Australian genius of defensive wizardry, frequently had to be rescued from drinking dens and sundry other establishments after marathon sessions on the booze.
Bimstein had certainly handled his share of fighters who didn’t mind the actual business of fighting but didn’t take too kindly to all the health and fitness rigmarole of gymnasiums. Two boxers in particular came to mind. “Hardest kid like that,” Whitey said, “was Frankie Jerome. Remember little Frankie? He got killed fighting Bud Taylor in the old Garden, but it wasn’t the fight that killed him.
“Let me tell you about that. Three months before the fight, Jerome drove his car into a wall in Central Park. Never said nothing to anybody about it. He was as game as the gamest in the ring, but, funny thing about him, he didn’t like medicine. He didn’t like doctors. And he didn’t like trainers who used iodine.
“Once he had a scratch on his hand and I wanted to put iodine on it and he screamed. This was a kid that took punches like nobody, but he didn’t like iodine. So when he got hurt by the car, he don’t tell nobody, but keeps fighting with a fracture at the base of the skull. When Bud Taylor hits him he gets killed and everybody raps boxing.
“This here Jerome, he would stay out until two, three in the morning, even when he was training, but he never pulled out of a fight. He loved to fight, but not in the gym. I would say he was as tough to train as they come.”
But then Bimstein had second thoughts about that last statement and said: “Maybe I’m wrong, but let me think about this. I trained a guy named Ted Moore, out of England – he was a lulu.”
Ted Moore was indeed a very tough man and a very persistent fighter. A West Country boy, he hailed from Plymouth in the county of Devon, and campaigned against the toughest boxers of his era between 1919 and 1937. Like most professionals of the era who took on all-comers, Ted’s record of opponents in a 91-fight career was an eclectic mix. He crossed gloves with Frank Moody, Roland Todd, Tommy Loughran, Dave Shade, Jamaica Kid, Bryan Downey, Jock Malone, Tiger Flowers, Kid Norfolk, Tommy Milligan, Max Schmeling and the big-hitting Leo Lomski.
Moore regularly tilted at windmills, including the great Pittsburgh Windmill himself. Recalls Bimstein: “There was the time he was fighting Harry Greb for the middleweight title and we were over in Jersey training. Let’s see, the middleweight limit was 158 pounds then and I had Moore down to 160 pounds, so I watched the fellow very close. The next day, after roadwork, I take Moore onto the scale to weigh him and what do you think? How much do you think he gained overnight? He hit 169.
“I almost hit him with the scale. I said, “What did you do?” He kinda looked away and said, ‘I don’t do nothin’.’ I knew something was wrong. This guy don’t leave the house, but he gains nine pounds overnight. I go searching around and, in those days, we had a bathtub and a shower in this here camp. I look around and I find eight empty beer bottles under the tub. He had drunk the eight bottles of beer.
“It is now two days before the fight and this here guy is eleven pounds overweight. I worked the skin off him the next two days and got him down to weight. Made a great fight with Greb too. Came near winning the title. This fighter was the toughest I ever trained.”
After that first fight with Greb at Yankee Stadium, Ted Moore rolled on in his own sweet way and probably drank plenty more beer before hooking up with Harry again for a ten rounds non-title match in Los Angeles in 1926. Again Moore gave an excellent account of himself, working Greb’s body and looking the likely winner until the inimitable Harry rallied to win the decision.
While Ted Moore and Frankie Jerome were colorful characters who made for colorful stories, there was one fighter of Bimstein’s whose unswerving dedication matched his exceptional talent. There was nobody, Whitey maintained, who could surpass the great lightweight champion Lou Ambers as the perfect pupil.
“I guess my favorite was Lou Ambers. He was the easiest to handle, like Sixto Escobar and Paolino Uzcudun. I had a lot of champs, Escobar and Ambers and Braddock and Graziano. There were others, but I remember Ambers best.
“It was always fun working with Lou. You didn’t have to drive him. My job with him was to keep him from working too much. I remember when he was going to fight Lew Jenkins the second time that Al Weill wasn’t sure he wanted Ambers to keep fighting. Weill said to me to watch Ambers close. I did and I told Al he didn’t have much left.
“Weill went to Ambers and told him, ‘Lou, maybe you shouldn’t fight Jenkins.’ Do you know what? Ambers cried and said he wanted to fight. He knew he could lick Jenkins, even if he got knocked out the first time. Cried like a baby and Weill got soft and let him go in. He got knocked out. It was too bad. There was the best fighter a guy could train.”
Rocky Graziano, said Whitey, was more demanding and much more of a maverick. Even the Army couldn’t tame Rocky, who consistently heard a different bugler to most others. “Not that Graziano was bad, but there was a difference,” Bimstein explained.
“Now, you take Ambers, I could put him in the ring in the gym with anybody. He would adapt his style for the guy. Let the guy run, he would chase him. Let the guy fight, he would fight him. This here Rocky is different. You gotta give him guys who punch with him or he don’t like it. Give him a boxer in the gym and it’s no good.
“Funny thing was how Ambers would get cranky when it came close to a fight. Nice kid, but he would get so cranky you couldn’t go near him. Now, Graziano, he don’t get cranky, never. He gives you that happy-go-lucky impression right till the end. Only thing, Rocky was tough getting into the gym. When I got him in there, he would work hard, but getting him in was tough.”
Man with no name
Like most of his contemporaries from that tough era, the one thing Whitey Bimstein couldn’t abide was a quitter. Ray Arcel never forgave Roberto Duran for his New Orleans surrender against Ray Leonard, and Whitey had a similar experience with a boxer whose identity would remain a secret. “It don’t look right for me to to be giving names about guys that quit,” Bimstein told Barney Nagler.
“This guy was one fight away from fighting for the heavyweight championship when Joe Louis still had it. Maybe that’s why it (the fight) came out the way it did. This here fight was an outdoor one, a big one, and the fellow I was in the corner with liked a lot of people around him. He was a showman, this fellow, and he seemed OK until the fight started.
“After the first round he came back to the corner and said his mouth was cut inside. He said it was a bad cut, so I looked inside and it was a little scratch you could hardly see. I said it was nothin’ but he screamed to get the referee and stop it. He said he’d had enough.
“I fixed up the scratch and pushed him out for the next round. He’s winning the fight, understand, and it don’t seem he’s remembering he’s got a little scratch in his mouth. But when he comes back after the bell, he says again he’s got enough. He wants me to call the referee.
“We’re arguing up and back and then the referee sees there’s something wrong, so he walks over to our corner. He says, ‘Anything wrong?’ and this here fighter’s about to tell the ref he wants to quit when I stick the cotton swab I’m working with in his mouth. He can’t talk, see.
“So he goes out for the next round and after each round he comes back complaining he’s got enough. But he knows he can’t quit sitting down, so he finally thinks up a way to get out of it. By now the cut in the mouth is a little more than a scratch, but not enough to make the difference.
“This here fighter’s bleeding and in this round he decides not to swallow the blood or anything. He saves up a load and finally comes back into our corner. The guy he’s fighting comes in after him and my guy just lays back on the ropes, puts his hands down and lets the blood fall down the side of his mouth.
“Well, then the referee looks at him and thinks he’s hurt bad in the mouth and can’t defend himself. He rushes between the two guys and my guy seems relieved like anything when the referee calls it off.
“I call him every kind of a bum and quitter, but he don’t take it to heart. He just looks at me and says, ‘I didn’t stop it. The referee did. You saw it.’ So I don’t have an answer, but I know deep down this here guy quit cold, a real kioodle. You get guys like that in the fight business.”
When Barney Nagler pressed Bimstein to name the fighter, Whitey declined. “I got a lot of guys fighting for me and I ain’t putting the rap in on nobody. Just think back and it’ll come, the name of this guy, and when it does, maybe you won’t be surprised. It takes a certain kind of a fighter to do that. Real fighters don’t quit.”
Training, advising, castigating, coaxing and consoling. A good trainer needs to be a father, brother and a counselor at all stages during his fighter’s development. Whitey Bimstein excelled in whatever guise was required, as long as his fighters gave him their best effort in return. The little fellow from the Lower East Side was one of the greatest.
THERE WILL BE BLOOD
As a young boy, I can remember reading about how Jack Dempsey would toughen his facial skin by the regular application of brine. This little exercise was as much a part of Jack’s routine as running, punching the bag and walloping his sparring partners.
For those of you who might not know, brine is a strong solution of salt (sodium chloride) and water, which has many healing properties and is probably still the best preventative for cuts and abrasions. Brine is also used to sterilize open wounds and to cure Psoriasis, Osteoporosis, Arthritis, Gout and Herpes sores. Brine baths are also a good way to improve the body’s circulation.
Now think about something. How often did we hear of Jack Dempsey being badly cut and bleeding heavily in his countless fights? Is Joe Louis ever leaking blood from the eyes when we see him in his rampant prime on those great old films? Was Jack Johnson ever badly banged up around the face in his prime?
No, brine isn’t and never was the great and only cure for cut eyes and ripped eyebrows. Old school skills, specifically the knowledge of how to position the head, judge distance and slip punches, were the main preventers of serious facial injuries in times gone by. But it is equally true to say that boxing has also regressed from a purely cosmetic point of view. Facials ain’t what they used to be.
Believe me, I have had plenty of time to check up on this. A recent house move and the joint incompetence of two major telecommunications companies cut me adrift from the Internet for a full month, during which time it seemed far more businesslike to research and write a batch of boxing stories than to allow my dangerously persuasive bartender to lead me astray.
I tell you, my boxing memorabilia got a thorough workout during my time in limbo. One of the more interesting articles I came upon featured the observations of the veteran boxing authority, Jack (Doc) Moore.
As a young boy, I can remember reading about how Jack Dempsey would toughen his facial skin by the regular application of brine. This little exercise was as much a part of Jack’s routine as running, punching the bag and walloping his sparring partners.
For those of you who might not know, brine is a strong solution of salt (sodium chloride) and water, which has many healing properties and is probably still the best preventative for cuts and abrasions. Brine is also used to sterilize open wounds and to cure Psoriasis, Osteoporosis, Arthritis, Gout and Herpes sores. Brine baths are also a good way to improve the body’s circulation.
Now think about something. How often did we hear of Jack Dempsey being badly cut and bleeding heavily in his countless fights? Is Joe Louis ever leaking blood from the eyes when we see him in his rampant prime on those great old films? Was Jack Johnson ever badly banged up around the face in his prime?
No, brine isn’t and never was the great and only cure for cut eyes and ripped eyebrows. Old school skills, specifically the knowledge of how to position the head, judge distance and slip punches, were the main preventers of serious facial injuries in times gone by. But it is equally true to say that boxing has also regressed from a purely cosmetic point of view. Facials ain’t what they used to be.
Believe me, I have had plenty of time to check up on this. A recent house move and the joint incompetence of two major telecommunications companies cut me adrift from the Internet for a full month, during which time it seemed far more businesslike to research and write a batch of boxing stories than to allow my dangerously persuasive bartender to lead me astray.
I tell you, my boxing memorabilia got a thorough workout during my time in limbo. One of the more interesting articles I came upon featured the observations of the veteran boxing authority, Jack (Doc) Moore.
Doc Moore was one of the game’s best managers, matchmakers and trainers, but he preferred to be called a teacher. "Sure, there are millions of trainers today," he explained, "but very few teachers."
Doc had a treasure trove of memories and could remember New York’s famous old St. Nick’s Arena when it was a hockey rink: "Cornelius Fellowes first owned the place, a fine looking man and a real sport. Harry Pollock was the fight promoter then and the manager of Freddie Welsh, Young Corbett - lots of them. A great dude he was; drank champagne, carried a cane and dressed to kill.
“Only time they'd run a fight at St. Nick's would be in the summer, on account of the hockey. The other night I went back there. It was pretty warm inside and no air conditioning. You don't see any rich people going to fights on a night like that. They're home with their air conditioning and television. That's the way it was then. No high-hats and gowns. Just the working man. You know, in the summer the fights at St. Nick's are back with the people they always belonged to - the working man.”
Around the Fall of 1950, after a series of important fights had been curtailed due to facial injuries, Doc Moore expounded on what he believed to be the major reasons for modern boxers spouting more claret than their predecessors.
Interestingly, Moore apportioned part of the blame to the use of headguards during sparring. “The fighters today don’t give their faces a chance to toughen,” said the Doc. “In the gym, they’re inclined to be careless because they figure the headguard will protect them. So they not only fail to let their faces become rough and hardened, but they carry their carelessness into the ring and are too easy to hit.
“Another reason is that fighters use too much Vaseline on their faces, both in training and in the actual fighting. Anybody will tell you that Vaseline softens the skin. In the old days it was no uncommon thing to see a fighter wash his face in brine. It made the skin tough as leather.”
Doc Moore makes a valid point. Look at Dempsey’s face in any good quality photograph of the Mauler and you see a distinctly leathery ruggedness. Remember that before Jack turned professional, he engaged in countless fights in the salt mines and bars of the Old West. He never could tell anyone how many fights he had waged in total. Had he been susceptible to cuts and other facial injuries, his long and violent journey would have been an extremely short one.
Some time ago, my fellow historian Mike Hunnicutt wrote an excellent article on the development of boxing strategies over the years. Mike quoted famous boxing figure, Broadway Charley Rose, explaining the art of in-fighting practiced in the gyms on a daily basis in the early 1910s.
“Fighters back then fought two and three times a week and couldn’t afford to get busted up,” said Rose. “So every day they practiced how to fight on the inside – how to move in and out of clinches.
“Every fighter was taught how to edge their left or front foot towards the right, or edge their right foot forward and over to the left, while simultaneously sloping their head towards the right or left, so that if the two fighters hit heads, they would come in contact with the side of the skull from the ear up which is pretty solid. Even if the skin did break, it wouldn’t affect anything as vital as eyesight. Every fighter practiced these maneuvers in the gym daily until it became habit.”
Says Mike Hunnicutt: “This practice led to better defensive fighters that were less likely to get cut. The great Charley Goldman stated that fighters from his era had tougher skin for two reasons: they didn’t use headgear, and they’d bathe their face in brine.”
Goldman explained: “It doesn’t make sense to train with headgear if you fight without them. I never wore headgear and I must have had 300 fights. I don’t remember getting cut but once. It’s simple. You cover something up, you protect it, it becomes tender. That’s what happens to the skin around a fighter’s eyes.
“The use of brine was prevalent. Fighters such as Terry McGovern would bathe their face with brine before and after every workout. Their skin got to be real leathery. It had to be or those fellows never would have been able to fight 25 and 30 rounds.”
That great ringside doctor of yore, Dr. Vincent Nardiello, noted that other fighters used a solution of water and rock salt to harden their facial skin.
Dr Nardiello, who boxed under the name of Jimmy Sheppard to earn his way through medical school, also had very strong opinions on the use of headguards. “Speaking from my own experience, when I started, there were a few times when I butted heads in the gym, and because I didn’t have a headguard, I felt it plenty. As a result, I made darn sure of my technique the next time. I moved so it wouldn’t happen again. It stands to reason that a fighter would learn the proper technique if they didn’t go in there wearing football helmets ”
Mike Hunnicutt says: “By the late 1910s, all that remained in boxing techniques to be further explored or polished were lateral movement, combination punching, and hand placement. Defense, ring generalship, feinting, counterpunching, slipping and countering, rolling, blocking, body punching, infighting, etc. already had been mastered.”
Forty years later, those latter skills were being forgotten. Doc Moore believed that the noble art of self defense was fading away and becoming lost to the new generation of boxers. “Boxing seems to have become a lost art,” said the Doc. “There’s entirely too much rough-house mauling going on now, and I’d say one half the cuts suffered in the ring are not from punches but from butts. The average fighter operates on a triple threat basis – two hands and a head.
“I remember when a fighter’s seconds went into the ring with nothing more than a towel, smelling salts, cotton and a bottle of collodion or adrenaline in case of cuts. Now he totes a small-sized drugstore along with him – and often it isn’t enough.
“Topliners in the past were seldom busted up. They knew how to take care of themselves Packey McFarland was so brilliant a boxer that it became an international sensation when Kid Burns actually gave him a black eye during a bout in New York. Benny Leonard often finished a bout without even having his hair mussed.
“It was real news when a Mike Gibbons, a Jack Britton, a Johnny Dundee, a Freddie Welsh or a Harry Greb needed patchwork on his face after a fight. Nowadays it’s a story if a fighter, even a champion, doesn’t call in the doctor for a hemistitching job when he leaves the ring.”
Doc Moore mentions some illustrious names here. Packey McFarland, the genius from the Chicago stockyards, was a true scientific master of the ring who became a highly successful and wealthy businessman at the end of his boxing career. There was no great difference between a ring and an office in McFarland’s well organized universe. He was canny and brainy in all matters.
Packey lost only once in well over a hundred professional fights, that one defeat coming when he was a sixteen-year old novice.
His defense at its best was virtually impregnable, he boxed with sublime skill and speed and carried a formidable knockout wallop when the occasion demanded urgency. Quite simply, McFarland was one of the greatest and most complete boxing masters of all time.
Sadly, he was cursed with being a misfit in the era of eight weight divisions. A natural junior welterweight before the creation of that class, Packey alternated between the lightweight and welterweight divisions, beating a golden generation of fighters but never getting the chance to win a world title.
Those who saw McFarland in action never forgot him. Huge crowds marveled at the hard-hitting, ghost-like maestro who possessed the visual tricks and elusiveness of a shadow.
McFarland was his own constant analyst, always looking to improve, always looking to the future. He made an interesting adjustment to his technique to prolong his career and better equip him for the long haul. He took to boxing with only a half-clenched fist, sacrificing his impressive knockout ratio in return for less stress and greater stamina. Unfortunately for his opponents, McFarland’s exceptional talent for hitting without getting hit remained undiminished.
What made McFarland such a wonderfully complete fighter was that he was no backtracking will ‘o’ the wisp. The subtlest of defensive moves always combined seamlessly with equally intelligent and cultured attacks.
Doc Moore’s mention of Mike Gibbons as an elite boxer is also wholly justified. Mike, known as the ‘St Paul Phantom’, was the older brother of the artful Tommy Gibbons, and both boys racked up wonderful professional records. Mike Gibbons, who boxed as a welterweight and middleweight, was a contemporary of McFarland and a spiritual brother in the hard luck department. Mike never won an official world title, but what a splendid boxer he was. It was inevitable that he and Packey would meet at some point and it was a real treat when they did.
The battle of the maestros took place at the Brighton Beach Motordome in Brooklyn on September 11, 1915, and resembled a chess duel with gloves. Nothing could separate the two defensive masters for the first eight rounds, as they feinted, shifted and bluffed like a couple of wary snakes. Referee Billy Job was barely noticeable as all eyes were fixed on two of the great ring scientists and their clever efforts to concoct the winning formula.
Each was occasionally made to look foolish by the other’s brilliance, but it was McFarland who was the calmer and more measured battler. He would often smile at friends in the crowd over Mike’s shoulder, conveying the impression of a man taking a pleasant stroll in the park.
Mike was much more earnest, baring his teeth and often showing his frustration as he attempted to hit something apart from Packey’s gloves. Come the ninth round, McFarland commenced his sprint for home. Gibbons enjoyed an early success as he feinted with the left and then struck Packey with a hard right to the jaw. But McFarland rallied to get the better of a heated mid-ring exchange, landing a left-right combination without return. Packey tucked up and protected himself beautifully as Mike tried to counter.
In the final round, Gibbons had the bearing of a man who knew he had to force the fight to win it. He tried all he knew to pierce the famous McFarland defense, but it was the Chicago ghost who was doing the cleaner scoring. Gibbons took three lefts to the face without return and was also being punished to the ribs. McFarland was anticipating Mike’s return fire and staggered the St Paul man with yet another left.
At the final bell, it seemed to many that the mesmerizing McFarland had done enough to secure victory. He certainly had plenty of supporters. George Holmes of the Oakland Tribune, called the bout for Packey, describing the Chicago man’s performance as ‘wonderful’. Many others disagreed, including the Associated Press, which tabbed the fight 7-2-1 for Gibbons. The New York Times and referee Billy Job called it a draw, which is how the contest is most often recorded today.
No blood was spilled, no doctor was required, no stitches were sewn. Take a look at any picture of Packey McFarland or Mike Gibbons and you won’t see the bashed and pulped face of popular folklore.
It is not that the boxing was without bloodbaths in that more scientific era. We are taking about the fight game after all, which has always been populated by sluggers and slashers and etched in the color of crimson. But fighters as a general rule were taught the mechanics of the game and not encouraged by their trainers to get smashed up senselessly. Career longevity was important in the era of Gibbons, McFarland and Harry Greb. Boxers had to fight far more often to earn decent money. They couldn’t be waiting on the sidelines for too long for needless wounds to heal. By and large, only the heavyweight division offered the stuff of dreams in terms of financial reward. That is why so many natural light heavyweights and middleweights made the heavyweight championship their target.
Harry Greb might have resembled a human windmill, but there was much cleverness within all that thrashing motion, just as there was in Roberto Duran. Skilful shifts of the body and subtle movements of the head are so often missed by observers who only have eyes for the biff-bang aspect. When did Harry or Roberto have to bail out of a fight because of a cut eye or a busted nose? Never.
Mickey Walker couldn’t believe it when the versatile Greb hit him with an incredible punch in their famous middleweight championship fight at the Polo Grounds. Recalled Mickey: “Harry could hit you from impossible angles. Once, after he missed a right to my face, he spun all the way around so that his back faced me. I relaxed my guard and waited for him to turn around. But before I knew what was happening, his left was stuck in my mouth. I still don’t know how he did it, but he hit me while his hands faced in the opposite direction.”
Talk of subtle skill and career longevity brings us to Jack Britton and Johnny Dundee, whose sprawling records must appear mythical to the younger fans of today. Britton, the former welterweight champion from Clinton, New York, known as the ‘Boxing Marvel’, was a classic boxer who knew how to look after himself. Jack notched up 345 recorded fights in a glorious 26-year championship career that ran from 1904 to 1930.
Although best remembered for swapping the welterweight title with English whirlwind Ted (Kid) Lewis in a long running and bitter series, Britton also crossed gloves with a host of other danger men, including Leo Houck, Packey McFarland, Philadelphia Pal Moore, Leach Cross, Lockport Jimmy Duffy, Mike Glover, Mike O’Dowd, Charley White, Bryan Downey, Benny Leonard, Mickey Walker and Dave Shade.
Johnny Dundee, the ‘Scotch Wop’ who came to New York from Sicily, boxed from 1910 until 1932 and logging up 334 fights. Johnny still rates as one of the greatest ever featherweight champions and also held the junior lightweight championship.
Why was Dundee so good? Because he was another boxer of great skill who knew how to protect himself from the punches of the top men of his day. You can’t fail to learn valuable lessons when you are dueling – as Dundee did - with Tony Canzoneri, Sammy Mandell, Rocky Kansas and Jewish aces Benny Leonard and Benny Valger.
Dundee also fought Charley (Phil) Rosenberg, Sid Terris, Jack Bernstein, Eugene Criqui, Ritchie Mitchell, knockout specialist George (KO) Chaney, Lew Tendler, Ever Hammer, Willie Ritchie, Mexican Joe Rivers and Charley White.
It is no great surprise that Freddie Welsh lingered in the mind of Doc Moore. Pale and lean as a greyhound, Freddie could fight any which way. Born in Pontypridd, Wales, he grew to be a master boxer who was equally adept at scrapping and spoiling in the trenches.
The principal weapon in Freddie Welsh’s armory was that classic and now largely abused building block, the left jab. Welsh might just have been the best ever exponent of the jab at its straightest and greatest. It made his face a very difficult target to hit.
Back in 1965, Mel Beers wrote a nice little article on Welsh for the sadly long defunct Boxing International magazine. Here is what Beers had to say about the most important punch in the boxer’s repertoire: “The left jab, properly used, is a thing of beauty in motion. It is boxing’s basic punch and those who mastered it usually went on to become world champions or leading contenders. Billy Conn and Willie Pep mastered the jab. So did Abe Attell, Packey McFarland and Benny Leonard. Tommy Loughran was another who built his boxing wizardry around a jab that shot straight and true to any part of the opponent’s anatomy.
“Who had the best left jab of all? It is impossible to say, but after plowing through piles of yellowed newspaper clippings and talking to scores of experts with long memories, the name of Freddie Welsh comes up more than any of the others.”
Freddie Welsh added that perfect left jab to his athleticism, quick mind and natural cleverness. He was also a tough and rugged man into the bargain, using his strength and knowledge to shut down opponents in the clinches.
Doc Moore wasn’t the only veteran of the fight game who had noticed the changing times and attitudes. The multi-talented Jersey Jones was a manager, agent and long-time writer for The Ring magazine who handled a wealth of great fighters through the decades.
Jones had a special affection for Jeff Smith, the great middleweight out of Bayonne, New Jersey, and traveled with Jeff during the closing stages of his lengthy career, which began in 1910 and concluded in 1927.
Jones recalled that a bottle of adrenaline traveled with Smith for two years before it needed to be used: “Smith fought two dozen battles, from one end of the nation to the other, against such opponents as Harry Greb, Martin Burke, Tommy Loughran, Lee Anderson, Cap’n Bob Roper and Tony Marullo, and his face was unmarked.
“I finally opened the bottle of adrenaline when Jeff suffered a slight cut above the right eye in a bout with Happy Howard in New Orleans.”
Jeff Smith is largely forgotten now and shouldn’t be. He was a fantastic middleweight and yet another greatly talented man of a tough era who was never crowned world champion. Apart from those opponents named by Jersey Jones, Jeff also pitted his skills against Jimmy Clabby, Willie Lewis, George Chip, Mike Gibbons, Mike McTigue, Jamaica Kid, the brilliant and ill-fated Les Darcy, Eddie McGoorty, Mike O’Dowd and Gene Tunney.
Now there’s a bunch of guys who could cut you pretty good. But they didn’t cut Jeff Smith too often.
JACK SHARKEY'S ROCKET MACHINE
While boxing is a deadly serious business, fighters throughout the ages have made us laugh by losing their temper or train of thought and lapsing into unintentional auditions for Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Perhaps there is nothing more comical than a steaming angry man who can’t understand why everyone is laughing at his tantrum. Former heavyweight champion Jack Sharkey, a deeply emotional soul, could get as angry as anyone and literally shed tears of frustration. Jack could do strange things when his lid blew and was known as The Weeping Lithuanian for good reason.
On October 12, 1931, at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, the temperamental Sharkey was boxing quite beautifully and reminding people just how good he was when he could keep his mental demons at bay. He was confidently firing punches through the chill air and showing 30,000 shivering spectators his enviable talent as he set about exploding the myth that a 262lb giant called Primo Carnera was invincible.
It couldn’t go on.The gremlins in Jack’s head began to itch and twitch as they yearned to create some havoc. It was time to come out and play and be naughty. They set off a nice little explosive that made the fourth round a wild cocktail of excitement and farce.
It was a round that reminded the fight fraternity how quickly the forces of darkness could take hold of Sharkey’s soul and prevent his great talent from reaching full bloom. Carnera had begun to box quite well and was keeping Jack at bay when Sharkey unleashed a left hook that dumped Primo in a neutral corner.
Those in the know had long cottoned on to the fact that strange things began to happen whenever Carnera was found out and hurled into choppy waters. This time it was a long count that put Dempsey and Tunney in the shade. Visibly hurt and bewildered, Carnera looked to his corner for advice as he hauled himself on to one knee and grabbed the top rope. Up on unsteady feet at the count of ‘six’, he noticed his second gesturing at him madly to go back down.
Primo duly obliged, to the amazement of Sharkey and the crowd. A fine old mess was taking shape, with referee and former heavyweight contender Gunboat Smith right in the middle of it. Sharkey, with much justification, erupted in very Sharkey-like fashion as he tore across the ring to remonstrate with Smith and point out the rule infraction “He went down without being hit,” Jack yelled above the commotion. “He’s disqualified – count him out!”
Gunboat did no such thing as he waved Sharkey away and then waved at Carnera. Gunboat seemed to do a fair bit of waving in those hectic moments, much like a drowning man on a busy beach. He waited for Carnera to complete his leisurely ascent, which some writers timed at 19 seconds.
Sharkey pleaded again to the Gunboat, who would hear none of Jack’s bitter protests. Now Jack’s famous temper boiled over as he hit the self-destruct button and performed a passable imitation of a human rocket. In an incredible fit of pique, he ran across the ring and tried to throw himself right out of it. Fortunately, his path was blocked by his manager, Johnny Buckley,who proved his worth as an excellent shock absorber.
Let us say, for diplomacy’s sake, that Johnny Buckley’s physique was of a somewhat portly nature. All too aware of his fighter’s eccentricity, Johnny had instinctively stepped up onto the ring apron at Jack’s first sign of anger. Sharkey’s rocket, for all its speed and velocity, was denied lift-off as it shot straight into Buckley’s generous supply of suet. There was no way out. Jack had to behave himself and get on with the fight.
Thankfully, he was able to control his rage thereafter as he comprehensively pasted Carnera with clever and intelligent boxing. Suddenly, Jack was the cold and fiercely determined ring mechanic who is still rated by some observers as one of the finest of all the heavyweights when he hit the right switches.
He repeatedly snarled and sneered as he moved in and out and rifled Carnera with hard and accurate blows. Outweighed by nearly 60 pounds, Jack finished the fight powerfully, battering Carnera constantly in the last two rounds. The general consensus was that Primo won just one round that night.
After taking the plaudits, Jack exited the ring by conventional means, but he would never be forgotten for his earlier rush for the showers.
ROCKY, ARCHIE AND THE LOST MAGIC
When Rocky Marciano knocked out Archie Moore on September 21, 1955, it was a truly great fight for the heavyweight championship of the world, waged with heart and soul in the sacred and cavernous shrine of Yankee Stadium. A crowd of more than 60,000 came to pay homage.
Several years later and a good number of years before the ‘Fight of the Century’ between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, some mournful writers were describing the battle between Rocky and Archie as the last great heavyweight championship fight. This, of course, was as much of a nonsense as the tired old saying, ‘They don’t make ‘em like so-and-so anymore.’
There would be other great heavyweight championship fights, and there will be more to come. Such things have a way of working themselves out, even though the wait for something special can be unbearably long.
As to whether the old magic and magnetism will return in equal measure, this writer doubts it. The heavyweight championship – once lauded as the richest prize in sport – might now be irreparably fractured and devalued. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men won’t be able to glue it back together again unless the will to start a revolution is there.
Whether we agree or disagree about old champions versus new champions, big heavyweights, small heavyweights or whether the planets have shifted for better or for worse, the hard fact remains that we haven’t seen a great fight for the undisputed heavyweight title for a depressingly long time. Not officially. Not beyond all doubt and dispute.
Lost is the enormous crackle and anticipation. Lost is the heavyweight championship of the world as a single and undisputed entity. Gone, for the most part, are the big stadiums and the big crowds. The electricity has been substituted by a pleasantly numbing gas that has lowered people’s expectations in tandem with the lowering of quality, depth and competitiveness.
Maybe last night’s fight wasn’t quite as bad as we thought it was, so we keep replaying it in the way that we keep replaying a disappointing album by our favorite artist, desperately searching for the magic that we might have missed the first time around.
Finally, we are forced to admit that we’ve been had. All that pushing and shoving and name-calling before the fight really was better than the fight itself.
Your ordinary Joe doesn’t require a degree in psychology to know when something is special and when it isn’t. Marciano versus Moore (Marciano versus anyone); Frazier versus Ali; Frazier versus Foreman; Foreman versus Ali. These were not just massive fights but massive events which transcended the sport of boxing and captivated the interest of the dilettantes, the neutrals, the detached and even those lofty members of the anti-boxing brigade who blithely justified their presence by explaining that one simply had to be seen at such bashes, darling.
Rocky Marciano and Archie Moore always liked each other. Archie talked up the fight with some unflattering appraisals of Rocky’s ability, but Marciano took it in good humor and neither man insulted the other’s mother. An avid businessman and arch disciple of the dollar, Rocky didn’t mind playing the role of amiable stooge. Moore even pulled Marciano’s leg at the weigh-in, bringing a smile to the champ’s face by whispering, “My, Rocky, you have such beautiful brown eyes!”
The big payday had been a long time coming for Archie, who had been campaigning since 1936, when Joe Louis had yet to begin his great reign. Moore had to make the most of it. He had to give every last drop of himself as both a canny publicist and a fighter. He did fantastically well on both counts.
Everything had to be right for Marciano, especially the ambience of the training camp. Archie set up his headquarters in the peaceful environs of North Adams in Massachusetts, a small town he had fallen in love with nine years before when he had traveled there to knock out Esco Greenwood. An erudite man with a constant thirst for knowledge, Moore knew all about the workings of the mind and body and the importance of achieving a sensible and pleasurable balance. He needed peace and quiet for the biggest challenge of his career and North Adams was a green and pleasant land with clear mountain air.
The local folks embraced Archie enthusiastically and a crowd of some two thousand greeted him on his arrival. Between training, Moore busied himself by attending various local meetings and making a lot of new friends with his easy going nature. He drove himself around in a big red Thunderbird and also took flying lessons. Ah yes, the flying lessons. They very nearly sent promoter Jim Norris, of the International Boxing Club, into a mental nosedive.
Norris wired Moore and said: “I do not want to interfere in any way with your training, but surely this is not a necessary procedure for getting into shape.” Ever the crafty fox, Archie agreed but still occasionally took a turn at the controls with his co-pilot. Bearing in mind Moore’s lust for adventure, Norris was perhaps fortunate that manned space flights were still a thing of the future.
Norris wasn’t the only concerned party. Moore’s apparently casual training routine, most especially his erratic sparring sessions, was a worry others, but the great old pro knew exactly what he was doing “I’ve been fighting for almost twenty years as a pro. I know what to do in a ring. Knocking the stuffing out of my sparring partners doesn’t improve my condition.”
In his fine book, The Ageless Warrior, author Mike Fitzgerald tells us of a visit to Moore’s camp by Jack Murphy of the San Diego Union. Jack seemed to be in two minds about how the fight would go, but leaned towards Moore. Wrote Murphy: “Marciano should win because he is younger, stronger, possesses a fearful punch and has an extraordinary capacity for punishment. Marciano offends the purists because he is a fighter without style. He is graceless, frequently clownishly awkward, and it is embarrassing to see the champion of the world sprawl across the ring after missing a punch. Yet he can punch and take a punch. In this day, and often in times past, nothing more is required. Logic – cold logic – points to a Marciano victory.
“But what is logic when Archie Moore is involved? The point I seek to make is that Moore, in a figurative sense, is about as easy caged as a tiger. Sometimes I get the uneasy notion – call it hunch or superstition - that this is a man who can do anything he sets his mind to. Absolutely anything.”
This was very true of Moore, who believed that the study of life and the science of boxing were interlinked. He would go to any lengths and any part of the world to improve his education. Even as a young rising prospect, Archie was accustomed to globe-trotting, plying his trade wherever he could make money and gain experienced. He greatly enjoyed other lands and cultures, using the knowledge he gained to improve his mental and physical attributes as a boxer.
On a 1940 trip to Australia, Moore was fascinated by the phenomenal strength and stamina of the Aboriginal people, who could traverse miles of rough terrain in impossible heat by simply chewing on dried meat and swallowing only the juice. He would later employ that trick when losing weight for fights.
Moore’s fight against the bigger, hard punching Australian Ron Richards was an early milestone in Archie’s career. After being decked for an early count of nine, he cleverly changed his tactics and gave big Ron a systematic pasting. By the time the fight was halted in the tenth round, the face of Richards was a sorry mess from cuts to his eyes and lips.
Moore became an unlikely hero of the sporting Australians and news of his success soon reached America, where he would begin his slow climb to world championship status. Archie learned the value of patience in dealing with Ron Richards and in subsequently navigating the choppy waters of boxing politics. It would be another twelve years before he knocked down the door and won the light heavyweight championship from Joey Maxim.
Jack Richardson, who managed Archie during the Australian tour, predicted that Moore would ‘win big’ against Marciano. A good few other people felt likewise. The fight was never a dead cert for Rocky in the minds of the boxing cognoscenti.
At the Marciano camp at Grossinger’s in the Catskill Mountains of New York, Rocky trained with his usual single-mindedness and unswerving dedication, cutting himself off from the distractions of the big city and normal life. It was incredible how this hyperactive man could consistently discipline himself in this way. Proper training was a sacred ritual to him, even though the wheels in his head never stopped turning. He was always bubbling with ideas, looking after his precious money, haggling for more than he had and tracking the movements and dealings of manager Al Weill.
Rocky’s relationship with Weill was nearing breaking point as the champion became convinced that he was constantly being short-changed and kept in the dark. Like a nervous mob boss who can no longer identify his true friends, Marciano twitched with uncertainty and boiling anger.
Smart and media aware, Rocky would always present a rosy picture to reporters. Everything was going well and Weill was the best manager any man could have and an honest guy. Privately Marciano was cussing Weill as the son of a bitch who had screwed him again.
In his previous title defense, Rocky had battered Don Cockell to defeat in nine rounds in San Francisco. Only afterwards did Marciano discover that his payday had been raided beforehand. Ten thousand dollars had been skimmed from the promotional profits and apparently paid into Al Weill’s account.
Enough was enough. Marciano would bide his time, beat Moore and then have his revenge. The time was right anyway. He was thirty-two, his back was genuinely troubling him and the fight game was consuming him. Even before the Cockell fight, Rocky had recorded his scrambled thoughts on a scratchpad: “I don’t know – I’m not thinking tough anymore – geared just to fight – not fun to watch – consigned to oblivion – cheese champs – nocturnal night training.”
Somehow, Marciano could shut out all the static in his brain and bash on to further glory. Such tunnel vision is a rare gift and only the true greats have it. Most others unravel at some point and seem almost relieved at being released, especially in today’s far more intrusive and cynical society.
The erstwhile obsession with painting a perfect picture of bliss seems laughable and hypocritical to us now. Worldly observers always knew that Marciano’s world was much more than a simple and perfect concoction of mom, apple pie and family life, just as they knew that Rock Hudson was out of his element in a conventional marriage. But it was easier and less complicated to believe that life was a Gene Kelly musical rather than a gritty drama where even the good guys are hard to like. The odd irony of this fluffy pretence was that it made people tougher, more optimistic and less prone to self pity. When Archie Moore was asked how he got over his juvenile delinquency, he replied, “I grew up.”
As a boxer and thinker, Marciano had grown up spectacularly under the expert tutelage of trainer Charley Goldman. It was Charley and other great trainers who passed on their knowledge to Angelo Dundee. Boxing columnist Lou Eisen recently dropped me a message with some interesting observations along these lines. Said Lou: “My surrogate father Angelo Dundee, I think, belong in the same group with Eddie Futch and the other great trainers. Angelo told me he learned his craft from Charley Goldman, Chickie Ferrara and Ray Arcel. His brother Chris told him in the 1940s to go to Stillmans gym, keep his mouth shut and listen!
“Angelo really loved all of those guys. Goldman helped George Chuvalo for a while too. George told me he learned more in one afternoon with Goldman than he did from anyone else. It was Goldman who told George he was, ‘throwin' punches out the window.’ Charley showed him how to increase his power by shortening up on his punches considerably. If you watch the Quarry fight, you will see it was one short shot that dropped Quarry for ten.
“A friend of mine from high school was an outstanding amateur boxer and world ranked as an amateur. His name was Martin Mezzera. He won two New York Gold Glove tournaments at welterweight. He went to see Angelo in Florida. Angelo told him he was a great amateur but advised him to not turn pro because his defense was bad because his balance was off. He said, "You hit like a mule but in the pro ranks, even a half-decent fighter will wipe the floor with you."
“Martin was upset and turned pro. He only had two pro fights and, like Angelo said, they wiped the floor with him. Years later he saw Angelo again and thanked him for saving his life.”
Men like Angelo Dundee and Charley Goldman could often sound blunt and terse. They were doers, not talkers, but they cared about the welfare of their fighters. Old Charley wasn’t one to blab, but he could pull out a nice quote when people denigrated his star pupil. Moore didn’t miss a beat in his tireless campaign to up the gate and promote his showdown with Rocky as the greatest spectacle ever. The sarcasm came in dollops as he tried to get into Marciano’s head and rile him. According to the gospel of Archie, the fight was a simple question of a skilled surgeon taking on a lumbering ox. “I understand that Rocky has started to take dancing lessons at his training camp,” Moore quipped.
Charley Goldman replied: “The Rock is like Yogi Berra. He doesn’t look too classy, but he hits the ball out of the park and he does OK on offense too.”
Marciano, it seemed, had chased away his inner demons and was now full of confidence. He told his faithful friend, Allie Columbo: “I’m going all out for this one, Allie. I really feel good about it.”
People couldn’t wait for the fight but they had to wait a little longer than originally planned. The contest, scheduled for September 20, 1955, was moved back a day due to the threat of a hurricane. It didn’t matter to Rocky and Archie. They were in the mood to whip up their own special storm.
Neither time nor technology has diminished the quality of the glorious battle that ensued between the master scientist and the deceptively smart street slugger. Moore’s cleverness and cunning continue to shine like a beacon, while Marciano’s sheer relentlessness – picking up speed and momentum like an unstoppable rolling stone – still catches the breath.
The contest started quietly. Foxy Archie was understandably cautious, eager to survey the lie of the land, while Rocky was rarely a fast ‘sudden death’ starter like Jack Dempsey. Delightfully languid and comfortable in his own skin from years of invaluable experience, Archie tried out some jabs as he took stock of the chunky, advancing bull of a man who had seen off 48 opponents and never swallowed the bitter pill of defeat. Compact, solid and shifting forward steadily, Marciano often resembled a little tank in the preliminary stages of a fight, navigating the bumps and testing the incoming fire as he rumbled up to full speed and capability.
Rocky hit a big bump in the second round as he took a beautifully timed smash to the jaw from Archie that brought the Yankee Stadium crowd to its feet. The right hand punch was a fast, flashing jolt, whose sudden arrival caught everyone on the hop including the shocked Marciano. There is a unique roar to a crowd when a people’s champion hits the deck, a roar infused with gasps of horror and morbid intrigue. Nobody wants him to lose but everybody wants to know what it’s like to see.
Rocky went down. He landed on his right knee with both gloves resting on the canvas, much like a little tank in fact that had been flipped halfway over. Moore stood over him, looking quite imperious, still a picture of perfect poise despite the adrenaline that must have been rushing through his veins. It was a happening that seemed to last forever, but which in fact lasted for only four seconds before The Rock was back on his feet. Only Jersey Joe Walcott had dropped him before this and Rocky’s reaction was the same in both cases. He got up as if it hadn’t happened, as if it wasn’t meant to happen.
Marciano’s powers of recuperation were on a par with those of Dempsey. Far from being knocked into a foggy wilderness, Rocky and Jack seemed to come alive after taking a big one. It was their equivalent of an electric shock or a slug of neat whiskey. Moore came to appreciate this when he followed up with another stiff right to Rocky’s jaw. The punch had little or no effect and only Archie knew how that made him feel. With most other opponents, the follow-up wouldn’t have even been necessary.
Twenty-two years later, in Monte Carlo, the will of Rodrigo Valdez would be similarly tested when he would see Carlos Monzon rise from an absolute blockbuster to the button. It takes a lot for the stricken boxer to come back from a knockdown. It sometimes takes more for the boxer who has delivered it.
From that pivotal moment onwards, despite all his skill and guile, Moore was trying to stop a boulder from rolling down a mountain. The marks of his artistry were already etched into Marciano’s rugged face. Rocky had a bruise under his left eye and was suffering from his seemingly obligatory nose bleed. But he kept pressing and punching and defying Archie’s return fire. Moore was firing seriously too, landing with skilfully placed wallops of power and precision.
It was often said that a boxer had to sample Marciano’s defiance and punch resistance in order to fully appreciate the daunting task of trying to beat him. Articles and essays are fine for conveying an impression of a great fighter. A would-be challenger can read those accounts without being hit and feel confident about his chances. But the best writers can’t sufficiently describe the pain and gradual heartbreak of a Marciano, a Dempsey or a Frazier hitting you in the body, smashing a few south of the border or banging you in the arms until you can no longer hold them up. Marciano banged Roland LaStarza so hard in the arms that he broke Roland’s blood vessels.
Picking up pace and momentum all the time, Rocky began to grind down Archie from the third round, firing at every opportunity. The champion was rolling now, the tank was back on track. Moore, with all those years of learning behind him, must have felt mildly insulted. He could understand why Charley Burley had bounced him off the canvas years before. Burley was a fellow scientist who could do things that no trainer can ever teach. He feinted men into fits and knocked them down with punches that came from near impossible angles and distances. Charley astounded Archie and Archie admitted it.
There was nothing apparently astounding about Marciano. Rocky wasn’t teaching Moore anything that Archie didn’t already know. The Old Mongoose knew the punches were coming and where they were coming from. He just couldn’t do anything about it. The chaos theory was mangling logical science. Marciano, in golfing terminology, took all the funky breaks out of a tricky putt by simply hitting it hard and straight. It was route one stuff, but it was oddly beautiful and admirable in its own way. Only he could do it. Legions of imitators in the years ahead would come to grief by trying to do likewise.
It was in the sixth round at Yankee Stadium that Moore was forced to seek his first respite. Powerful rights to the jaw knocked him down for two counts and consigned his magical second round to a far distant place. Gamely, he got up and fought on, denying Rocky the kill. Too eager to finish the fight, the champion missed as much as he scored in his rush for the knockout. Archie had taken some beating by the clang of the bell, but he was still there and still able to continue despite an examination from ringside doctor, Vincent Nardiello.
How did Moore ever get through to the ninth round? His fighting spirit was incredible, as was his fortitude. Like a villain in an old B movie, he kept getting shot full of holes but he wouldn’t die. A year later his willingness would be seriously questioned in his strange encounter with Floyd Patterson for Marciano’s vacant crown. It is unlikely that we will ever know what really happened in that one. Against the rampaging Marciano, Archie’s courage was almost beyond the call of duty. All the time he was being battered, he still searched for the one immaculate blow that would turn everything upside down and land him his biggest fish.
Bulling forward, hooking, swiping and slashing, Marciano was in his own world as he always was. In the glorious heat of battle, he didn’t have to worry about Al Weill, Jim Norris or anyone else who agitated him. There were no devious sub-plots in the ring. All he had to do was keep on hitting the other guy.
Tired, unsteady, yet still maintaining his distinct air of grace, Archie could no longer ward off his tiredness in the seventh. He hit the floor again but referee Harry Kessler ruled it a slip. The gods, it seemed, were giving Moore every possible chance. They gave him another in the eighth when he was cut down by a looping right hander but saved by the bell.
Then the ninth round and the final charge of Rocky Marciano’s career. For one minute and nineteen seconds, Rocky slammed away at Archie until a pair of finishing left hooks sent the challenger sliding down in a corner. Moore’s legs and brain would obey him no more. He made a late attempt to rise but couldn’t extricate himself from the trap.
“I enjoyed the fight,” Archie said afterwards and he meant it. He would enjoy many more before the close of his exceptional career in 1962.
Marciano, with a perfect 49-0 professional record, had one final bomb to deliver. He delivered it with mischievous relish. Seven months after the Moore fight, in the spring of 1956, Rocky announced his retirement, much to the horror of manager Al Weill and Jim Norris. Marciano said he wanted to spend more time with his wife and daughter, but those closest to him knew the real reason. Rocky’s hatred of Weill had finally boiled over.
Norris, gulping at the loss of his biggest box office draw, invited Marciano down to Miami to talk about it. Rocky was very amiable during the somewhat surreal conversation, but also teasing and contradictory. When Norris offered him a million dollars to fight again, Marciano said that money wasn’t the issue. Yet he added that three million might be enough to tempt him back into the ring. Norris told him that kind of money was ridiculous. In that case, Marciano replied, there was no point in any further discussion on the subject.
Everett M. Skehan, in his book, Rocky Marciano, tells of the exchange between Rocky and brother Sonny on their way back from the Norris meeting. “You know something, Rock,” Sonny said, “you never intended to take his offer.”
Rocky laughed. “Are you kidding? Of course I didn’t. I just wanted to see him squirm. That dirty mother.”
It was one last win and perhaps Rocky believed that, theoretically at least, he had rounded off his record at 50-0. But there was nothing wholesome about it. Real life really wasn’t a Gene Kelly musical.
JOEY ARCHER: SKILL AND FINESSE
Everything seemed to be going so well. Then everything stopped. The sparkling career of middleweight contender Joey Archer had ground to a halt. Clever Joey, with his silky, old-school skills, was The Ring’s number one contender to world champion Joey Giardello after outsmarting two of the titans of the division in Rubin (Hurricane) Carter and Dick Tiger.
Archer was on a roll. The trouble was, he was suddenly rolling backwards. By the summer of 1965, the stylish Irish New Yorker had compiled a near perfect record of 44-1. But after outpointing Johnny Torres in February, Joey wouldn’t see action again until November when he would decision what was left of Sugar Ray Robinson. In the more competitive era of the mid-sixties, those nine months of inactivity shunted Archer from first to fourth in The Ring ratings.
Joey Archer, quiet, magical and mysterious to the very end of his career, was also variously described as ‘invisible’ and ‘forgotten’. Artful Joey, for all of his glorious skill and deft moves, never would push his way to the head of the line. ‘Always the bridesmaid, never the bride’ was how the old timers used to describe the great welterweight contender Dave Shade some thirty years before. Joey Archer probably knew what they meant.
As he sat on the sidelines after beating the unrated Johnny Torres, The Ring’s managing editor, Nat Loubet, decided to do some digging. Referring to the Torres win, Loubet said: “One warm-up scrap for a man who was supposed to be a lively candidate for the middleweight championship. One bush fight for a prime attraction to whom the Garden was supposed to have a big interest.”
Loubet then started pitching some tough questions and offering some theories: “Why hasn’t Archer been kept busy? Why has the Garden filed him away among the inactive issues? How can the Garden, catering to ticket buyers, afford to ignore a native middleweight with a vociferous, ticket-buying following?
“It has been charged that Archer has been mismanaged. This is something for Joey and his older brother Jimmy, who is his pilot, to settle between themselves. Jimmy is operating a bar and grill in New York and possibly does not have the time to devote to a thorough job of managing.”
Jimmy Archer, like any good fight manager, was quick to respond to his brother’s predicament, ramming a ton of hard luck stories down the barrel of a cannon and lighting the fuse: “We have been posting $5,000 checks with the New York commission for a title match with regularity. We keep getting them back. Nobody wants to fight a clever Irishman who gave Tiger a boxing lesson.
“If we have to leave the middleweights to get action and money, we are ready. We will sign with Jose Torres (light heavyweight champion), if we are assured of a fight with Wayne Thornton, the number one light heavyweight contender, whom Jose doesn’t desire to fight.
“There are fine middleweights in Europe. You would think that the Garden would bring over Nino Benvenuti, Sandro Mazzinghi or the former bullfighter (Luis) Folledo., for an Archer fight. But the Garden has done nothing.”
With unintended humor, a frustrated Jimmy added: “I have tried to book a fight in Japan but they don’t have middleweights.”
He had searched long and hard in other nooks and crannies too. “I had something going in England and Ireland. But the alleged promotions fell apart. Believe me, I have tried. I now am ready to go before the New York commission and demand the kind of treatment and protection to which Joey is entitled.
“I hope that now, with the Giardello-Tiger fight out of the way, General Krulewitch (commission chairman) will do something in our favor. Up to now, he hasn’t admitted that Joey is alive It is a situation the like of which was supposed to have been eliminated when we got a commissioner in New York.
“We would be better off if Joey were rated number ten.”
Slowly but surely, the gridlock was broken and Joey Archer got his shot at the world middleweight championship in 1966 against Emile Griffith.
Even back in the mid-sixties, the cuties of the game like Joey Archer were beginning to become unfashionable. Many new fans coming into the game wanted to see knockouts, excitement and a few buckets of blood into the bargain. Archer didn’t have a knockout punch and he wasn’t interested in sexing up his image by foregoing his skills and getting involved in slugging matches. To a large degree, Joey got a pass by being swept along by his large contingent of Irish New York supporters, which made him a box office attraction. But even some of his fans would be frustrated by their man’s reluctance to really go for it.
Archer was the Billy Graham of the era, a master of finesse and subtlety, whose tricks were sometimes as hard to catch as those of a magician. Welterweight Billy was another beautiful boxer from New York who beat the very best but came up short at the moment of truth in losing a disputed decision to champion Kid Gavilan. Archer would suffer two such experiences against Griffith.
In 126 fights, Graham lost just fifteen times but posted just 27 knockouts in his 108 victories. The average modern day fan has always had trouble getting his head around a boxing artist who doesn’t knock ‘em dead and thrill. Nicolino Locche, another master craftsman, had a similarly paltry batting average in the KO column. Whether such boxers become champions or not, that average fan still looks at their records, shakes his head and says, “Yeah, but these guys didn’t knock many people out, did they?”
In any event, Joey Archer still enjoyed an outstanding career at the top level and perhaps deserved to win at least one of those decisions over the great Griffith.
Turning professional in 1956, Joey’s progress through the ranks was as serene as his style before his first loss to tough cookie Jose Gonzalez in 1962, which was quickly avenged. Archer systematically picked off some of the best guys around, including Don Fullmer, Mick Leahy, Denny Moyer, Blair Richardson, Farid Salim and the seemingly eternal Holly Mims, who boxed for seventeen years and logged up 102 fights.
Boxing historian Mike Silver saw much of Archer and was always impressed by the grace and skill of the Irish New Yorker. Says Mike: “How does someone who, in Pete Hamill's words, ‘could not break a potato chip with his punch’ get to be the number one ranked middleweight in the world and along the way defeat two of the division's most feared punchers? I'm talking about those two monster middleweights - Rubin (Hurricane) Carter and Dick Tiger.
“He does it by mastering the art of boxing. He develops his jab, footwork, balance and, most of all, strategic thinking. It should also be noted that Archer had one of the best chins in the business. But it was a rare occasion when he was hit with two punches in a row.
“I saw him fight many times. Early in his career he came off a 16 month layoff because of a knee injury. His first fight after the layoff was against rugged Jose Gonzalez. Archer's timing was off and he lost the ten round decision. In the rematch two months later, Archer completely outboxed Gonzalez, even staggering him several times. It was a masterful exhibition of the art of boxing and showed that Archer was a thinking fighter.
“Joey Archer was a throwback to an era when fight fans appreciated a well schooled clever boxer. He was very good but not quite at the level of other Irish boxing masters such as Mike Gibbons, Gene Tunney and Packey McFarland. But really, how many were? In style Joey resembled Gibbons most. The film of Gibbons fighting Packey McFarland bears this out.
“What I find impressive about Joey Archer is that he went as far as he did without possessing a strong punch. And he never let any of his fights degenerate into a slugfest. He foiled those attempts with elusive footwork and his accurate and well timed left jab.”
The two jewels in Joey’s crown would always be his five-star triumphs over Rubin Carter and Dick Tiger. Carter, living fully up to his nickname of ‘Hurricane’, was in his violent prime and putting the fear of death into his fellow pros when Archer came strolling along and outpointed him in October 1963 at Madison Square Garden.
Earlier that year in Pittsburgh, Rubin had smashed out welterweight champion Emile Griffith in one electrifying round. Emile was testing the middleweight waters in a non-title match with a view to jumping up a division. He put that plan on the back burner for another three years after Carter wrecked him. Rampant Rubin had already posted a first round blitz over Florentino Fernandez, rated by Gene Fullmer as the hardest punching middleweight of the era.
My good pal Ron Lipton – referee, writer, historian and umpteen other things besides – says: “The left hook Rubin hit Archer with in the tenth round had a wallop that would have dropped most anyone for a ten count. Joey had iron balls and came to win with a fierce mental attitude.
“Joey’s chin, his willpower and pride were top shelf, as was his balance, jab, timing and ring generalship.”
Archer was a constant irritant to the big hitters and the two-fisted swarmers who were accustomed to sweeping away most others. Ask former champion Dick Tiger, who was doing very nicely in campaigning for a return title tilt with Joey Giardello until Archer popped up with his now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t routine. Since losing the championship to Giardello at Atlantic City in 1963, Tiger had impressively accounted for a couple of tough nuts in Jose Gonzalez and Don Fullmer.
What was it like to fight Dick Tiger? Well, it wasn’t fun. Crawling across broken glass might have been a marginally more preferable option. Ron Lipton sparred with Tiger and the very best middleweights of that golden generation, including Rubin Carter, Emile Griffith, Holly Mims and Jose Gonzalez.
Ron has especially fond memories of his time in the Tiger camp. “While in the basement of the old Garden before the Giardello title fight in ’65, I spent many hours with Dick in and out of the ring. Candy McFarland would box with him before me, and when Tiger was really warmed up, I would use all my skills, conditioning and power to survive him and give him good work.
“Jersey Jones and Jimmy August had brought Tiger through his major successes and in camp his focus was deadly. I knew he would come in on time, ripped, defined and with the bones and couplings of a Terminator.
“He kept me there because I kept turning him, firing on the pivot, and used my skills to avoid his major body attack. At 154lbs, I could not afford to be pinned in the corner by him and have him rip off body shots. He felt and looked like 172lbs with his rubber suit on to lose weight. His thighs and shoulders were like iron.
“His left hook would land on my powerful arms and I would ride out the shots that whistled past my headgear. He jarred me to the roots and now and then I had to take his body shots. Because of my speed of foot, he never landed the really big hook, but he nailed me with right hands that gave me pins and needles in my feet, they were so hard.
“I moved my head well, and unlike a knockdown I suffered once for about a five-count against Rubin Carter, Tiger never floored me. But his left hook felt like it shook loose every organ in my body.
“We were good friends, I got paid and I learned from him. I could make him laugh only after all the work was done, which made me feel great. His focus in training was one of a kind and his eyes in that ring were something to behold. I have never seen such intense focus and a deadpan look except for Joe Louis and Sonny Liston.
“I knew how Dick handled Hank, Fullmer, Carter, Gonzalez, Florentino Fernandez and the rest.
“He was the king of the shootouts if you chose to fight him. There was no one stronger at 160lbs than him, I don’t care what anyone says.”
Against the fleet-footed Archer, at Madison Square Garden in the fall of 1964, Dick often resembled a man trying to catch a fly with two fingers. Referee Zach Clayton scored the bout 6-3-1 in Archer’s favour, while judge Al Berl called it 5-4-1 for Joey. Judge Tony Castellano saw the fight 5-4-1 for Tiger. It was a costly defeat for Dick. Joey Archer was suddenly Giardello’s principal challenger and Tiger had to wait a while longer for his second title reign.
Tiger, much like Sonny Liston and Roberto Duran, couldn’t understand a man who didn’t want to stand fast and have a proper fight. Those guys who danced and jabbed and pirouetted around the ring all night long – how were you supposed to have a proper fight with them? Ever the gentleman, Dick didn’t get spiteful in his post-fight interview but couldn’t help expressing his frustration at chasing the elusive Archer hither and yon for thirty fruitless minutes.
“They kept telling me I’d never get a decision over Archer in New York,” Tiger lamented. “They said I had to knock him out to win.” Some fans booed the decision, but Archer wasn’t bothered. “I fought strictly according to plan,” Joey said. “Only way to beat a guy like Tiger is to box him. And that’s what I did – most of the time. I bet people used to boo Tommy Loughran too.”
Was he hard done by or was he not? Could he - should he - have done more than he did? These were the questions asked of Joey Archer after his two desperately close points defeats to Emile Griffith for the world championship. The title picture had changed by the time Joey got his first shot at the big prize on July 13, 1966, at Madison Square Garden. Old foe Dick Tiger had regained the title from Giardello but then lost it to Griffith. Rubin Carter had hit the skids with losses to Luis Rodrguez, Johnny Morris and Stan Harrington, and would be arrested for triple homicide later that year.
All Archer had to do was beat Griffith to become the king. Ah, that devastating little word, ‘all’. Nobody quite knew how to assess hustling, bustling, artful Emile. He wasn’t a classic boxer and he wasn’t a dynamite puncher. But his very own recipe book was full of spicy ingredients that made him a confoundedly difficult man to beat. He nullified the punchers and cleverly bulled the boxers. One could see how Rubin Carter had destroyed him, but one could also understand why nobody else had found the right key to the lock.
Archer seemed to do everything right in that first match, but did he do enough? Should he have adapted his style when Griff began to figure him out? After losing a 15 rounds majority decision, Joey sat in his dressing room and clenched his fists in frustration. “I thought, I really thought, I had it 9-6 easy,” he told brother Jimmy. In fact the best score that Joey got was a 7-7-1 draw from referee Johnny LoBianco.
“Yeah,” Jimmy Archer concurred, “you did everything you had to do.”
“In a sense Archer had,” wrote Mark Kram in Sports Illustrated. “But in a sense he hadn’t.”
What puzzled Kram was the failure of the brainy, ringwise Archer to play a smart game of chess when Griffith started coming on. Joey had made all the right moves in the early going. Wrote Kram: “Griffith came out throwing punches, hard and often, but Archer, parrying and jabbing with his left in a classic style - he does not waste motion - did not catch much.
“However, as the fight progressed Griffith started to slip under the jab and come up with a right hand that had his head and massive shoulders behind it. He began moving Archer around just as easily as he had physically dominated the heavier Dick Tiger when he beat him for the middleweight title.
“More significant, though, was the fact that Archer did nothing about this. Over 49 fights, of which he has now lost only three, Archer always controlled the direction of the action. His moves were quick and slick, his long left jab precise and constant. But against Griffith he was not as mobile.
“There was no pattern to his fight. He said later that he did this to confuse Griffith, but it was a tactic that cost him. Archer was staggered in the sixth round when Emile raked his fair, smooth face with a left-right combination, and he took a bad cut high over the bone of his right eye when Griffith accidentally butted him on the ropes in the eighth.
“A destructive chunk of machinery when he wants to be, Griffith was all over Archer now, shooting both hands to the body and ramming up and through his taller opponent's guard. The Archer poise was fading. He was not thinking, and he has to think to win. Instead, he chose to trade with Griffith.
"It was not until the 10th, his best round, that Archer put it all together. He spun off the ropes like a matador, his feet moved to music and his jab was always there. The crowd did not roar aimlessly now. But in the 11th Archer reverted to muscle - he does not have much - and Griffith rocked him with a solid right. Archer smartened up some after that, but it was too late.
“Joey needed a big round in the 15th, but Griffith would not let him have it. Had he won it decisively, the Irish (fans) might have been able to build a solid case for Archer, especially in view of the scoring: one judge called it 9-5-1 for Griffith, the other had it 8-7 Griffith and the referee came up with a draw, 7-7-1. But now no one could grouse seriously about the result. Griffith, forever crowding Archer, had been swift and punishing.”
Later on, when Joey’s supporters were commiserating with each other at Jimmy Archer’s bar on 96th Street and Second Avenue, a fire engine screeched to a halt opposite. A longshoreman peering out of the window quipped, “That must be Joey’s disappointment burnin’ up.”
If Archer thought he beat Emile the first time, then he damn well knew he beat the champ in their return go at the Garden in January, 1967. Yet the second verdict was even more of a snub than the first. No majority decision for Emile. This time it was unanimous. ‘Griffith beats Archer in another squeaker’ ran the headline in Boxing illustrated.
Once again, Mark Kram wasn’t convinced, rubbing a little salt in the wound by saying that Archer lost to a man who ‘would rather shop than fight’.
It seemed that everyone had an opinion and a back-handed compliment for Joey’s technique. Griffith’s co-manager, Gil Clancy, said of Archer: "He's the best negative fighter around. He's some guy to fight. He's never there, and he's always ready to run."
Kram, back in the Archer dressing room to hear more hard luck stories, experienced a distinct feeling of déjà-vu: “It seemed as if the three of them had never left the dim room in the belly of the Garden, as if they were wax figures and the room was a museum dedicated to losers.
“Freddie Brown, the trainer who looks like a trainer should, prowled from corner to corner. Jimmy Archer, the brother and manager with a waterfront manner, stood on the edge of the crowd circling the table, his eyes empty. Joey, his long, pale legs swinging slowly, sat on the table and held an ice bag on a cut below his right eye.
“Nothing had changed - same dialogue, same pictures - since Joey had reached out for Emile Griffith's middleweight title last July and lost on a split decision. Yet there was a certain quality to his anger and bitterness that first time, and you could feel it and you wanted to believe him, because he alone had made the evening special, made it hum like a huge electric cable.
“The Archer who brooded (this time) was just performing. Had he performed as well in the ring he would now be the champion.”
Perhaps Joey Archer tried to be too perfect. Perhaps he tried too hard to paint the perfect masterpiece. “You don't win poker pots by thinking up royal flushes,” said Barbara Long, the acerbic boxing critic of The Voice. Barbara liked Joey Archer, but she preferred Joey Giardello and recalled something that Giardello had said to her: “Archer, he just ain’t hungry enough.”
Joey walked away from the game after the second Griffith loss, retiring to a quiet and private life. People kept asking when the handsome Irishman was coming back. He never did. His departure was in keeping with his understated style.
Would things have turned out differently if the post-Dick Tiger version of Archer had challenged Joey Giardello for the championship in 1964? Possibly, but not likely. The chasm between being a great boxer and a nearly great boxer is huge. But how this writer wishes that Joey Archer was jabbing and feinting on the boxing stage of today.
VIDEO: JOEY ARCHER v MICK LEAHY http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEDseAwF3xw&playnext=1&list=PL52FD72C053CD4731&feature=results_main
DOWNSIZE ME: CHILLING LESSONS FROM JOLTIN' JOE
Like the little boy who keeps banging his head against the wall because it feels so good when he stops, I guess I will continue to preach about punching technique and its many intricacies until the day I die. I imagine too that I will continue to be countered by those who insist that Jim Jeffries was an overrated plodder, Jack Dempsey was a crude banger and that even the fleeting Ike Ibeabuchi would have knocked all the old champs into a cocked hat.
How desperately starved of thrills we were before the Klitschko brothers came over the horizon with their mighty and mightily unreal physiques, plodding pace, and the sound of Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobahn’ seemingly in the air. The unfortunate upshot of their ascendancy was the assorted puddings and tubs of lard who followed in their wake in the great ‘big is better’ campaign that wooed both the sensible and the naive and sent them reeling into a drunken stupor. The acolytes of this new age thinking continue to convince themselves that clinical efficiency against low-grade fare maketh a superman.
Just think of how much better off we are now. When Rocky Marciano wandered off into the sunset in 1955, the only guys we had to cheer us up in the years ahead were the cream puff likes of Sonny Liston, Cleveland Williams, George Foreman, Jerry Quarry, Ron Lyle, Earnie Shavers and Mike Tyson.
Thank God for the arrival of the cavalry. Over the hill it came in the form of muscle-bound, slow-mo androids with their big biceps and big bellies and other interesting parts that jiggled and wobbled. Never mind their lack of enthusiasm, lack of endurance and their somewhat inappropriate reluctance to have a fight. These guys were the business because they had muscles like boulders, super-duper nutrition and because they were…. BIG!
How they actually got that big is not that hard to figure out, but the ghastly disease of political correctness and the profusion of lawyers sadly prevents us from being too blunt about it. But no man’s arms should be as wide as his thighs unless he is quaffing some pretty powerful ‘nutrients’.
If white men can’t jump, then big men don’t move around too easily and precious few of them can punch their full weight or indeed even punch correctly. The heavyweight division of today – indeed all divisions – are awash with ‘arm’ punchers. In my lifetime, the very special talent that was the young, 220lb George Foreman was the only ‘super heavyweight’ who could hit like the wrath of God and scare opponents with his shadow. I accept that George wasn’t one of the great technical masters, but he knew how to hit a man properly. That particular Foreman, of course, would not be a super heavyweight in the present era. He would be described as ‘small’, even though I believe that he would wreak just as much havoc. Indeed, I would confidently wager my limited possessions on ‘little’ George very quickly butchering anyone on the current playing field.
Giants in boxing have consistently been members of a curious breed. Rarely are they natural fighters or, more importantly, natural born ‘killers’. It doesn’t require much tapping of the memory wires to compile a list the length of your arm of big men who were not aggressive by nature, couldn’t hit with any great power, couldn’t take a punch and didn’t actually like the business of having a scrap. By and large, these men are the elephants of boxing. Once in a while, they might get angry enough to chase off a lion. But they will always run from a mouse. Why do people find it so hard to understand that in a fight between Wladimir Klitschko and Jack Dempsey, it would be Wlad on the defensive?
Another simple fact – so often forgotten – is that biological logic goes AWOL in the unique environment of the heavyweight division. Weight becomes a considerably less significant factor. The smaller man, assuming he has the essential tools of knowledge, quick thinking and genuine punching power, suddenly sees the scales tipping dramatically in his favor.
Hand speed, good footwork, timing, balance and snap are all essential ingredients of the true puncher and rarely come naturally to men of excessive bulk. One really doesn’t have to be a scientist or a biologist to appreciate the reasons why, even though punching technique is about science and biology. For me, it is a wonderfully intriguing subject to study, one that requires little more than common sense and logic to comprehend.
So why do so many boxing ‘fans’ not bother to learn these concepts or misunderstand them when they do? Many, I am sure, do little more than count the knockouts on a fighter’s record in order to measure his power of punch. Punch stats and the ceaseless stream of other facts and figures have become as much of a curse as a blessing.
Surfing the various boxing forums, I feel my eyes boggling at some of the quaint lists I see of the all-time heavyweight punchers. Joe Frazier, a great sentimental favorite of mine, is a regular people’s choice as one of the top five hitters, which he never was. Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Bob Fitzsimmons and Max Baer are regularly pushed out of the reckoning by the likes of Gerry Cooney, Ron Lyle and even Bernardo Mercado. Let me add quickly that I do not mean to demean the latter three gentlemen. Each could wallop and then some. Cooney, for all the ridiculous hype that surrounded him, had a wrecking ball of a left hook. I can just think of plenty of other fighters who had a lot more.
During the course my career as a journalist and boxing historian, which adds up to 38 years, I have been to countless fights and watched many others on film. I have done the latter for countless hours and in the most intricate detail. I love fighters of all weights and styles but accept that the heavyweights are, and always will be, the ‘wow’ factor of boxing.
That being said, I don’t have to get too heavy in naming the two men I regard as the most knowledgeable, skilful and effective punchers in the history of the dreadnought division: Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis.
It is no coincidence that Jack’s best weight was around 190lbs or that Joe was at his ferocious best between 200-208lbs.
It is a proven fact, like it or not, that fighters of between 190-210lbs generate more measurable power than heavier men.
Dempsey and Louis were natural athletes and possessed natural killer instinct inside the ropes. Both got excellent leverage on their punches, moved intelligently and with specific purpose, and had great timing and hand speed. Bulking up might well have increased their already formidable power, but their other important advantages would have been blunted. In short, they would have sacrificed the significant ingredient of athleticism.
Jack Dempsey cut his teeth on knocking out far bigger men. From the tender age of sixteen, Jack’s famously large and mighty fists were smashing through the toughs of the mining camps, saloon bars and hobo jungles. The bronzed and muscled youngster who would become the Manassa Mauler consistently astounded colleagues and onlookers with his savagery and natural punching power. Not for nothing was Jack known as the man killer.
I have discussed Dempsey’s many attributes in many articles, so let me now come in praise of Joe Louis. With an irresistible combination of speed, timing and explosive power, Joe would prove that he was no less an indiscriminate destroyer. Indeed, he shared Dempsey’s relish for hunting bigger game. The only question to be answered was how Louis would choose to chop and grill it.
Boxing correspondents in Joe’s time were true boxing writers who loved the sport and understood its many shades and hues. Reams were written on style and technique, talent and attitude, by worldly lovers of the game who took the trouble to talk at length to the deep pool of fighters, managers and trainers. Bob Davis was a columnist for the New York Sun who saw all the heavyweight champions from the time of Jim Corbett.
Right from the start, Davis saw something special in Joe Louis. “When he hits, something just has to go,” Davis explained, noting the slight sway and lift of Joe’s legs as he moved into an opponent and started to punch. “Louis has everything – power, weight, marvelous co-ordination and the slash of a rapier in either fist. I watched him fight and watched him train. The kick in his blow is something terrific, for he gets everything in his legs and body into it, all swinging in perfect rhythm as he drives the fist for a vulnerable point.”
New Jersey sports editor Al DelGreco was another fan of the Brown Bomber. “I think that Joe Louis was the greatest heavyweight of all time because he was the greatest offensive leather-pusher I ever saw since 1925 when I first went to fights. He batted out rivals with such swiftness that writers at the ringside couldn’t pick out the finishing blow and by which hand it had been delivered. He had a defensive weakness, true, but when he was in his prime he overcame it with his offensive ferocity.”
Henry Cooper, no mean left hooker during his long reign as British champion, greatly admired Louis. “When I watch his old films, it is his style that I so like. It was sheer economy of movement as he shuffled round, always keeping just out of range with the left going jab, jab, jab until he could unleash that fearsome right that put so many opponents away.”
Columnist Jim Murray loved to write about Joe and did so frequently. Murray once described the Bomber as “…two hundred pounds of tawny fury, the hands so fast they were a blur on cameras that would stop milliseconds of action.”
There was certainly no doubt in Murray’s mind as to how hard Louis could punch. “Louis hit Braddock so hard, the sweat and water from his hair sprayed as far as Row 6. He knocked Paolino Uzcudun’s gold teeth in so many directions, the ring looked as if somebody had stepped on a railroad watch.”
After the brutal dismantling of Uzcudun, the inimitable fight manager Joe Jacobs memorably remarked, “A guy who can break gold with a punch shouldn’t be licensed.”
Joe Louis was highly fortunate, of course, in having that wonderful, battle-scarred sage Jack ‘Chappie’ Blackburn as his trainer. But while Jack’s immense influence on Louis cannot be sufficiently praised, nor can Joe’s natural aptitude ever be underestimated. Let us remember that fighters can only be taught how to think up to a certain point, whatever their degree of talent. Thereafter, instinct must kick in and take over.
Louis was a great thinker and an accomplished planner who could always vary his strategy when required. Jack Blackburn drilled him, just as Jack Grout drilled Jack Nicklaus on the golf range, but the cleverest form of indoctrination still requires an exceptional and versatile talent to start the engine and make it purr to its optimum capability.
Joe Louis was as much of a boxer as he was a puncher, something that cannot be said of too many heavyweight champions. When some critics accused the young Louis of being a ‘dumb fighter’, Jack Blackburn gave a little smile and responded, “There are a lot of fighters smarter than Joe, but that don’t mean anything. Lots of times, smartness and meanness don’t mix and you gotta have the means to be a great fighter.”
‘Quick like’ was Jack’s favorite little way of describing Louis.
Blackburn would have known, for he wasn’t too shabby a fighter himself in his day. Sadly for Jack, he toiled as a lightweight in the less enlightened age of boxing when a legion of talented black fighters never got their just rewards. For all that, Damon Runyon rated Blackburn as one of the five greatest boxers he saw. Like Louis, Blackburn could box and fight. Unlike Joe, Jack was also partial to a good old scrap beyond the confines of the roped square, picking up plenty of facial signatures for his troubles. He was once memorably described as ‘an animated razor scar’.
Damon Runyon wrote of him thus: “Jack Blackburn stood upright and somewhat flat-footed in his boxing prime. He carried his hands up, each always in exact position for the delivery of a blow. His posture was the acme of boxing grace. When he moved his feet, it was for a definite purpose. He made a study of the position of the feet with reference to boxing, and when he advanced or withdrew one foot or the other, it was with all the calculation of a man playing a game of checkers.”
Blackburn, in Runyon’s view, was not as nimble on his feet as Benny Leonard, but Jack had the superior hand speed. “Benny’s hands were not as fast as Blackburn’s, nor were those of any boxer of my observation save one. That is Joe Louis, to whom Blackburn passed on his speed of hands. Louis is slow of foot movement but he is one of the fastest punchers that ever lived.”
If Blackburn had a key word in his early coaching of Joe Louis, it was ‘balance’. Get your balance right, he told the Bomber, and all the other pieces of the jigsaw will click into place. “Chappie had drilled me so much on hitting and balance,” Joe once said, “that they were the main things I thought about. I wasn’t worried so much about the hitting. But getting my balance right was my main problem. As Blackburn said, ‘When you’re hitting right, you’re never off balance’.”
Blackburn instilled much of his own feinting and general boxing ability into Louis during the endless hours they labored in the gym. Jack regarded the Old Master, Joe Gans, as the perfect template, teaching Louis how to advance intelligently on an opponent and never allow the other man to set the pace. The objective was to make the opponent feel anxious, keep him ever guessing and never allow him respite.
By the time all the seeds bore fruit, Joe Louis was as near a perfect fighting machine as there could be, prompting Nat Fleischer to describe him as “…a pugilistic symphony with a tempo geared to bring him across the ring with all the grace of a gazelle and the cold fury of an enraged mountain lion. He combined excellent harmony of movement with crushing power stored in each hand.”
In short, here was a very special heavyweight who could knock out any man of any size – and did.
Buddy Baer stood 6’ 6 ½’’ tall and weighed 237 1/2lbs when he stepped into the ring to challenge Louis for the heavyweight title at Griffith Park in Washington on May 23, 1941. Baer was four-and-a-half inches taller than the Bomber and nearly 36lbs heavier.
Big Buddy was also a lot more serious about his profession than his famous brother, Max. Buddy could box well, hit ferociously and had scored 45 knockout in his 49 wins, against five defeats and a no-decision against Lee Savold.
Baer had got his shot at the title with a seventh round stoppage of Tony Galento and had also notched wins over Nathan Mann and fellow giant, Abe Simon.
Buddy was rough, tough and durable, and I would accord him an excellent chance of winning a portion of today’s sadly fractured heavyweight championship. When Louis viciously knocked him to the canvas in the sixth round for the third and final time, reporter Sid Feder wrote, “Buddy went down as though one of Washington’s baseball Senators had bounced a ball bat off his head.”
Baer tried his utmost against Joe in a thrilling contest with a controversial finish. But watch the film of that fight carefully when you get the chance and study the Bomber’s punching technique. It is a thing of beauty in its perfect timing and correctness. For all of Buddy’s bravery and the fact that he never stops punching back, he appears to disintegrate piece by piece as the unerringly accurate punishment finally registers and dynamites the last of his resistance.
Let the point be made that Joe was not decimating a crude and lumbering opponent with little idea of the mechanics of the game. Buddy Baer moved very well for a big fellow and sensibly protected his chin with his left shoulder. He punched hard, was fearless in attack and wasn’t hindered by the ponderous footwork that betrays so many giants. Nor was he at all inhibited by the big occasion or the mighty task of trying to topple a boxing legend.
Baer traded confidently with Louis from the opening bell and didn’t back off when Joe spun him with a hard right to the head. It was quickly apparent that Baer’s chin was up to the task as Louis cracked him with another big right and a following left hook to the jaw. Buddy punched back and worked the champion’s body when they clinched. Towards the end of the round, the big man got his big chance.
The Griffith Park crowd roared as a left hook from close range found the mark and knocked Louis through the ropes. The champion clambered back into the ring and fired back as Baer rushed him and tried to capitalize on his golden opportunity. The action was halted when both fighters thought they heard the bell and headed for their corners. Referee Arthur Donovan pointed out the mistake and motioned them to continue, but Baer’s chance had gone and now Joe Louis was more dangerous than ever. Indignity had been added to his already formidable arsenal of weapons
The fight continued to be exciting and competitive through the following rounds, but always there was the feeling that Joe was laying the more solid and impressive foundations. The speed and timing of his punching continues to floor the viewer all these years later. Whether punching short or long, Louis threaded his blows through the tightest angles with marvelous precision. His preparatory work could be alternately quiet and explosive: the constant jabbing that never quite looked as damaging as it was, the short hooks to body and head whose speed could make them look oddly lazy in the way of a spinning wheel, the flashing right crosses to chin and jaw whose thuds carried above the noise of the biggest crowds.
Baer needed all of his fighting spirit in the second round as Joe went to work with that quiet terror that set him apart. Baer rushed Louis and went to the body, then switched upstairs and connected with a left and a right to the head. Joe shot a left-right combination to the jaw and staggered Buddy. Louis then rifled home a series of hard and controlled shots that clearly hurt Baer. Yet the big challenger showed commendable courage and durability in continuing to chase Joe and fire back. At one point Buddy was struck by three smashing rights in succession, yet kept coming.
The crowd loved the action in what one reporter would call ‘a whale of a fight’. Joe was winning the rounds with the superior quality of his work, but Baer was a deliciously loose cannon who never stopped threatening to upset the apple cart. The action slowed in the third round, but Buddy enjoyed some early success in the fourth when he raised a small mouse under Joe’s eye. Baer was still trying to slow Louis by attacking his body, but the challenger had to take some jolting blows for every small success he enjoyed.
The writing on the wall began to appear in the fifth round. After taking a hard left hook, Baer bulled Louis into a corner and opened a cut over the Bomber’s left eye with a hard right. The challenger would win the round with his greater pressure, but more significant was the feeling that Louis was moving up to that higher level that only great champions inhabit. Knowing that more urgent measures were called for, Joe finished the session with a two-fisted assault that was a portent of things to come.
The conclusive sixth round provided chilling evidence of how quickly Louis could pounce and kill off a lively and dangerous foe. It was fitting that Joe had been compared to a mountain lion, for one thought of that stealthy predator and its famous bite to the neck that so suddenly terminates a tussle.
Things still looked pretty rosy for Buddy as he opened the stanza with a left hook to the head. Louis replied by firing three lefts to the body and slamming a right to the jaw. Back came Baer, game as ever, still looking to repeat his sensational success of the opening round. Buddy was still hooking and hustling when Joe maneuvered him into the trap and belted him with a hard left and two solid rights against the ropes. Having worked so hard to keep the fight at close quarters, Baer was suddenly lost at long range as Joe at last had the room to tee off in earnest. Louis was firing almost at will and there was nothing for Buddy to grab and hold on to.
Despite the severity of the beating, Baer still found the heart and resolve to punch back, but then a right from Joe finally unhinged the big man and felled him for a six count. One of boxing history’s greatest finishers was now in his element. Another cracking right sent Baer crashing onto his back for the second knockdown, and this time Buddy only beat the count by a whisker.
The third knockdown was the true masterpiece, as Joe bowled Baer over with a perfectly timed, whiplash right of terrific force. This was the punch that enraged Buddy’s manager, Ancil Hoffman, who claimed that the hammer blow was delivered after the bell. Referee Arthur Donovan ruled that the punch was right on the bell and therefore legitimate. However, ringside reporters noticed that Arthur had turned away from the fighters and was heading to a neutral corner when Louis dropped the final bomb.
Hoffman refused to let Baer out for the seventh round and the challenger was disqualified.
Buddy longed for the chance to put the record straight and prove that he could take Joe Louis. Baer got that chance at Madison Square Garden in January 1942. Louis knocked him out in one round.
Before 18,220 fans at Madison Square Garden on March 27, 1942, big Abe Simon stepped into the ring for the final fight of his career. Scaling 255 1/4lbs, he was a massive, bear of a man who had once used his considerable size and muscle on the gridiron. Abe outweighed Joe Louis by nearly 48 pounds, but already knew the dangers of dueling with the Brown Bomber. Just a year before at the Olympia Stadium in Detroit, Joe had decked Simon four times and stopped him in thirteen rounds.
Coming back for seconds was never a good idea against the prime Louis. But Abe had heart, pluck and a big punch and everyone knew that anything could happen in heavyweight boxing. Simon had knocked out Jersey Joe Walcott in six rounds, beaten Roscoe Toles and drawn with Turkey Thompson. Abe had also waged a thrilling battle of the giants with Buddy Baer, in which he had beaten Buddy severely in the opening round before being stopped in the third.
Simon had a wingspan of 82 ¾ inches and Louis had to get inside it. It didn’t take the champion too long. Abe fought a gutsy battle, recovering well after a second round knockdown to land some heavy punches and enjoy some success at tying Joe up and nullifying his great power.
Louis, by his own later admission, rushed his work in the first three rounds and had to be told to calm down and slow the pace by handler Mannie Seamon.
The simple ploy worked. Jack Blackburn was ailing in hospital with pneumonia that night, but Joe didn’t disappoint his great mentor. He went big game hunting in the fifth round and set the traps with his usual skill. A cracking left hook forced Simon to clutch for safety and then the storm raged. Joe opened a cut under Abe’s right eye and unleashed a ten-punch volley that had the giant from Long Island softening by the second. Simon, brave to the end, continued to march forward and plug away, but then a pair of thunderous right crosses dropped him in his own corner. The bell came to his rescue but only bought him time and pain that he didn’t need.
Louis finished the fight quickly in the sixth round, sending Abe down and out with a final left-right blast. Perhaps Joe had been riled after first snapping Simon to attention with a quick-fire combination in the second round. Big Abe had laughed at him.
That was a silly thing to do to Joe Louis and it didn’t matter how big you were.
VIDEO: JOE LOUIS v BUDDY BAER
JACK JOHNSON AND SAM LANGFORD: THE BATTLE OF CHELSEA, 1906
In 1911, at Olympia in London, the remarkable Sam Langford conceded 50 pounds in weight to Australian hopeful Bill Lang, who came in at 210lbs and carried a big punch along with his high hopes of becoming the heavyweight champion of the world.
After taking a sound and painful beating for five rounds, big Bill got himself disqualified in the sixth for hitting Sam on the chin after he had slipped to the canvas. If this was a crafty tactical move on Lang’s part, it was a very smart one. He might well have been decimated if the fight had gone on.
During Sam’s visit to London, he told the great boxing writer Jimmy Butler, “I’m not the champ. Jack Johnson is that guy and he keeps dodging me.”
Butler, who could never find sufficient praise for Sam, subsequently wrote: “That, as a matter of fact, was the plain and unvarnished truth. Johnson did dodge a meeting with the Boston Tar Baby after their terrific clash at Chelsea, Massachusetts.
“Johnson just scraped home on points after fifteen rounds, but I think he learned enough to realize that if he ever got into the same ring with Langford again, those gigantic arms and shoulders would make short work of sweeping him off his throne.”
Maybe and maybe not. The important thing to remember about these long gone days is that distances were huge before air travel and that stories grew in size as they traveled across the vast continent of America before being catapulted on to Britain.
It is highly doubtful that London-based Jimmy Butler was in Chelsea to see the Johnson-Langford fight of 1906. Even Nat Fleischer, the so-called ‘dean of boxing’, rarely ventured beyond the limits of his native New York to cover fights until he had firmly established The Ring magazine a good number of years later. In the early twentieth century, the boxing hot spots of California, where the likes of Owen Moran, Stanley Ketchel, Battling Nelson and Ad Wolgast were waging tremendous battles, might just as well have been in another country. Reports of those fights had to be trusted as they filtered their way back east.
There is little doubt that Johnson did indeed steer a wide berth of Langford after their one and only confrontation. Another valid point is that Jack beat a very young Sam that day. But did Sam really give Jack such a close call in that Chelsea fight? The rumor persisted for years that Langford had even decked Papa Jack, which offended Johnson greatly and prompted him to issue a series of vehement denials.
In an open letter to The Ring magazine in 1934, Johnson wrote: “I have accounts of the fight from my dear old friend, Tad (legendary sports writer and cartoonist Tad Dorgan) which show how badly Sam Langford was whipped. Please note the account of our fifteen-round fight at Chelsea, Mass., which I am enclosing. The report shows that I gave poor Sam such a severe trimming that he had to find his way into a hospital to recuperate. The records of that fight prove that statement to be correct.
“Langford was among the five fighters to whom I gave the worst beatings in all my career. This quintet was composed of Jim Jeffries, Tommy Burns, Sam Langford, Sailor Burke and Frank Childs.”
To his dying day in 1972, Ring editor Nat Fleischer maintained that Jack Johnson was the greatest of all the heavyweights. Understandably, Nat was eager to get to the bottom of the Johnson-Langford controversy. In his 1958 book, 50 Years at Ringside, Fleischer produced the testimony of his father-in-law, Dad Phillips, who allegedly saw the fight.
Said Phillips: “Jack Johnson decisively defeated Sam Langford. He was complete master of the situation. Jack so far outclassed Langford that for a time, until he purposely eased up on his onslaughts, the fight was one-sided.
“Langford was dropped twice for counts of nine, and he would have been out the first time if referee Martin Flaherty had not slowed up the count. At the end of the fight, Sam had to be taken to a hospital.
“As for Langford dropping Johnson, that’s absurd. Why, he couldn’t land on Jack.”
Sam’s alleged knockdown of Jack continued to bug Nat Fleischer, who had to find the truth from the nearest equivalent of the horse’s mouth. Nat cornered Langford’s former manager Joe Woodman and good-naturedly demanded the true version of events.
According to Fleischer, this was Woodman’s response: “You’ve got me, Nat. Langford never dropped Johnson. But I was anxious to fix up another fight between the two and, knowing Jack’s pride, I invented the story of that knockdown to goad him into the ring against Sam again.
“Although it never happened, all the newspapermen believed it. They just never took the trouble to investigate. That knockdown was just a publicity gimmick.”
All of which brings us back to time, distance, ever evolving stories and the eternally irritating question of knowing who or what to believe. The simple fact is that only the long dead players and supporting cast from that gloriously mystical fight at Chelsea knew what really happened.
The clever men in white coats really do need to shake a leg and invent that time machine.
HENRY COOPER'S ROMAN ADVENTURE
A palace can be a grand and noble institution or a total misnomer for a house of horrors. Henry Cooper discovered this in early 1969 on two of the most vividly contrasting days of his life.
On February 17, Our ‘Enry, as he was affectionately known, took himself off to Buckingham Palace to be invested with the Order of the British Empire for services rendered in knocking people out and being a general pillar of the community.
On March 13, he took himself off to the Palazzo dello Sport in Rome to defend his European heavyweight championship against a seemingly crazed slugger called Piero Tomasoni. Mr. Tomasoni, as Cooper would quickly discover, had a particular affinity for thumping other men in what is sometimes politely referred to as their wedding tackle.
A true specialist of this dark art, Piero could land a bash to the testicles from any given position, even when he was climbing up from a knockdown.
As ‘Enry would later recall, “From Buckingham Palace to the Palazzo dello Sport was about as big a jump as you can make. The only thing they have in common is the palace bit.”
Cooper entered a cauldron that night, describing the vicious and bizarre battle as the roughest and toughest fight of his career. Tomasoni was one of those erratic, middle level fighters who was never going to crash the top ten, having won 33, lost six and drawn five of his 44 fights. Among his defeats were two decision losses to world title challenger Karl Mildenberger and a fifth round TKO to the unpredictable but big punching American, Jim Fletcher.
But Tomasoni was a wild brawler who was always dangerous. You didn’t want a piece of Piero’s action if you were just looking to notch an uncomplicated victory and move on. British fans were already familiar with what might be described as the Italian’s ‘style’. In 1966, he had traveled to the Royal Albert Hall in London and stopped the awkward but fragile Jack Bodell.
Now Tomasoni was out to stop Cooper before a partisan Roman crowd, seemingly by starting at the kneecaps and working his way upwards. ‘Enry soon realized that being married to an Italian girl didn’t count for much. His beloved Albina had attracted much press attention while charming her native brothers and sisters.‘Enry too received a warm reception when he entered the ring. But he was still an invading Englishman when the first bell sounded.
Tomasoni was known as ‘The Axman’ for good reason, as Cooper explained: “He could swing a long, looping right hand punch just the way a man swings an ax. It was a dangerous right hand all right, but it was obvious. He was a strong, rough handful but a class below Mildenberger. In the first round I knocked him down with a good left hook. He got up at the count of eight and, in fairness to him, he might not have known too much of what happened after.
“No mistake, this was a brawl, not a fight. In the second round he just punched anywhere. One of the punches landed so far below the belt it dented the cup over my genitals and I was down on my knees. I’d never been hit so low in all my life, but there was the Dutch referee, Ben Bril, counting over my head!”
Cooper knew that he had to finish his lively challenger as soon as possible and that the left hook was the key to the door. But the carnival was only just beginning when ‘Enry decked Tomasoni for the second time. “In the fourth round, I hit him with another left hook and as he went down he grabbed me and pulled me on the floor.
“As I got up, he hit me on the cup again. The fairground wasn’t in it. The referee warned Tomasoni and then the crowd decided to let rip. Suddenly big blood oranges came whistling down.”
The oranges were soon being joined by bread rolls and salami. Peter Wilson, the stately and sensationalist boxing columnist of the Daily Mirror, who gave the air of being rather a cut above most others, was nearly knocked out by a flying orange to the head. The missile failed to change the way he wrote.
Cooper, with typical professionalism, somehow managed to remain detached from all the distractions and reminded us that he was a merciless executioner when the big chance presented itself. Another cracking left hook sent Tomasoni down for the count in the fifth round. ‘Enry was surprised to be applauded by the Roman crowd, whose ire had apparently been directed at referee Bril.
With his famous dry humor, Cooper described the damage done to his faithful protective cup, which he hadn’t previously needed to replace in thirteen years as a professional. “When I took that belt off after fighting Tomasoni, it wasn’t convex, it was concave! He’d hit me there three times dead centre. If he’d been off centre by a fraction, I would have had bruises on my groin. He was just bashing at the cup and I’ve still got it upstairs at home to prove it. It’s quite a keepsake.”
What a night! But ‘Enry was too much of a gentleman to call it a load of balls.
PHENOMENON: WHY HARRY GREB WAS SO GREAT
Before his first fight with Harry Greb in the spring of 1922, Gene Tunney had an injection of adrenaline chloride in his left eyebrow, which had split open during training. The injury was only the beginning of his problems.
Tunney, the consummate boxer who had sailed so serenely through the ranks, suddenly stumbled into a dark and brutal place on the night of May 23 at Madison Square Garden. Everything fell apart for the man who had so meticulously planned his every move in life. His seemingly robust template for success was mangled and bashed completely out of shape by the perpetual motion machine that was Harry Greb.
Tunney would describe his nightmare in typically clinical detail: “In the first exchange in the first round, I sustained a double fracture of the nose, which bled continually until the finish. Toward the end of the first round, my left eyebrow was laid open four inches. I am convinced that the adrenaline solution that had been injected so softened the tissue that the first blow or butt I received cut the flesh right to the bone.
“In the third round another cut over the right eye left me looking through a red film. For the best part of twelve rounds, I saw this red phantom-like form dancing before me. I had provided myself with a fifty per cent mixture of brandy and orange juice to take between rounds in the event I became weak from loss of blood. I had never taken anything during a fight up to that time. Nor did I ever again.
“It is impossible to describe the bloodiness of this fight. My seconds were unable to stop either the bleeding from the cut over my left eye, which involved a severed artery, or the bleeding consequent to the nose fractures. Doc Bagley, who was my chief second, made futile attempts to congeal the nose bleeding by pouring adrenaline into his hand and having me snuff it up my nose. This I did round after round. The adrenaline, instead of coming out through the nose again, ran down my throat with the blood and into my stomach.
“At the end of the twelfth round, I believed it was a good time to take a swallow of this brandy and orange juice. It had hardly gotten to my stomach when the ring started whirling around. The bell rang for the thirteenth round; the seconds pushed me from my chair. I actually saw two red opponents. How I ever survived the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth rounds is still a mystery to me. At any rate, the only consciousness I had was to keep trying. I knew if I ever relaxed, I would either collapse or the referee would stop the brutality.”
Like so many others before and after him, Tunney thought he knew how to jam the works of Greb’s threshing machine until the chopping and the slicing began. In a sense, Gene did. He knew all about the machine’s cutting capability, speed and violence. What he didn’t fully appreciate was the cleverness and guile that came with it.
Tunney took a savage and prolonged beating, the kind with which we are no longer familiar and would no longer be allowed. So infuriated was Gene that he retired to his bed with his sore body and applied his formidable intellect to devising a game plan for his revenge.
Some men just look like fighters. They don’t have to make a fist, strike a pose, strut around the place or talk the talk. One look into their eyes, one scan of their features, and you know they’ve got the right stuff.
Harry Greb, like the great Stanley Ketchel before him, looked like a fighter all over. The tight eyes, the harshly scraped hair and the lean body told you at a glance that Greb was a man apart even in the toughest sport of all.
Legions of great pretenders have discovered to their disappointment that you cannot buy, steal or fake what is only given to the chosen few. A mean look and a hard attitude won’t protect you from a harsh dose of reality if you are not cut from the right cloth.
There have been a great many fighters who have tried to imitate Harry Greb and inherit his impregnable armor and fighting heart. Most of them are tucked away and forgotten in boxing’s vast A to Z archives with maybe ten or twelve fights on their log.
Harry Greb had a dozen fights in a year alone, he was going slow. Nicknamed the Pittsburgh Windmill because of his perpetual motion style, Harry was no less fast and furious in the rate at which he swelled his astonishing ring record. When he was all done, he had jammed 299 fights into the short space of fourteen years, having fought everybody who was somebody in a golden era of teeming talent. Don’t go looking for any padding on Greb’s record. You won’t find it.
For those interested in the finer details of decimal points, Greb averaged 21.5 fights a year, and only the Grim Reaper finally stopped him in 1926. Boxers of Harry’s era had to fight frequently to earn any meaningful money, and winning a world championship didn’t necessarily buy them a ticket to a more leisurely lifestyle. The heavyweight champion was just about the only guy who could afford to take a walk on easy street. The difference between the average annual salary of Harry Greb and Jack Dempsey was immense.
A perfect illustration of this fact is that between winning the middleweight championship from Johnny Wilson in 1923 and losing it to Tiger Flowers in 1926, Greb defended his title six times and had fifty other fights besides.
As for the list of illustrious fighters he faced, many of them in ongoing series and most of whom he defeated, we can only shake our heads at the sheer breadth and depth of talent. Harry bounced around the weight divisions like a mischievous rubber ball, whipping the cream of his own class, thrashing top quality light heavyweights and heavyweights and even roughing up Dempsey in their famous sparring sessions of 1921.
Greb defeated George Chip, Al McCoy, Jeff Smith, Mike McTigue, Eddie McGoorty, Tiger Flowers, Gunboat Smith, Battling Levinsky Jimmy Slattery and Maxie Rosenbloom.
He was two and one over the brilliant Tommy Gibbons, and also split a pair of decisions with Tommy’s gifted brother, Mike, the legendary Minnesota ace whose marvelous defensive skills won him the nickname of the St Paul Phantom.
In four out of five meetings with that other master boxer, Tommy Loughran, Greb was the boss.
Harry twice bested heavyweight contender Bill Brennan and was also too good for one of the greatest light heavyweights of all in the Hoosier Bearcat, Jack Dillon. Giant killer Jack also specialized in terrorizing bigger men, but he was past his best after a torrid career and Harry was all over him in their two meetings.
n their second match at the Toledo Coliseum in Ohio in 1918, Greb administered a terrific thrashing to Dillon. The local newspaper reported that Harry pounded Jack’s nose to a pulp, staggered him and overwhelmed him.
Tunney was undoubtedly Harry’s master in their wonderful five-fight rivalry, though not as comprehensively as the history books suggest. Historians and researchers have lately credited Greb with the newspaper decision in their fourth fight at Cleveland, which would make Gene the three to two winner in their series. After their final scrap, Greb reportedly visited Tunney’s dressing room and good-naturedly barked, “I never want to fight you again.”
Right from the start of his career, Greb was forever on the move and looking for the next fight. In 1915, while still serving his boxing apprenticeship, he engaged in successive fights with Billy Miske and the dangerous Jack Blackburn, who would go on to achieve greater fame as the master trainer of Joe Louis.
Even the loss of sight in one eye failed to curb Greb’s enthusiasm or dull his ability. Historians disagree on which fight caused the injury, but it is most commonly believed that Harry suffered a detached retina in the first of two vicious fights with Kid Norfolk. Greb kept the injured eye a secret from all but his wife and closest friends, finally consenting to its removal in a private operation in Atlantic City. A perfectly matching glass eye was substituted, attached to the eye muscles by sheep tendons.
However, a further operation later on proved too much even for Harry’s great heart. Shortly after his second title match with Tiger Flowers, Greb underwent an operation to remove facial scars sustained in an automobile accident and from his multitude of tough fights. He died on the operating table on October 27, 1926.
Writers, fans and fellow opponents came to praise Harry Greb when he was alive, and they praised him when he died. Incredibly, more than eighty years after his passing, Harry’s name is still writ large on the boxing landscape.
Many of today’s fighters use Greb as the ultimate reference when the talk turns to giving every last drop and fighting to the death. His name is mentioned in reverence in cult TV programs. The International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO) voted him the greatest middleweight of all time in a 2006 poll. Many fight fans and experts also rate him tops in the pound-for-pound stakes.
The accolades are endless and the conclusion is crystal clear. In the era of five-minute fame, Harry Greb has become an icon for all the ages, a roguish and familiar ghost we are happy to have in our house as a permanent guest. Not because of sentiment, but because he earned the right to be there.
Perhaps the explanation for Greb’s enduring and universal appeal really isn’t that complex. Even when he was alive and kicking in the roaring twenties, Harry seemed timeless and oddly ethereal. He was rock ‘n’ roll thirty years before the term was invented, and yet he wasn’t. He was too special and too indefinable to be shoe-horned into any era or hitched to any passing trend.
Greb loved to fight and he loved to live. He did both with total conviction and commitment. Once in your life, if you are lucky, you get to brush against such an individual. You can feel the electric and sense the danger, but you know to your frustration that you can never step into that special zone and be that man.
How did Harry Greb do it? Where did the energy and the passion come from? How could he keep punching long after others were spent from their efforts? There are no convenient answers to such questions in the case of rare talents. They are just meant to be.
Contemporary writer Frank G Menke said of Harry, “The only thing he ever seems to do in training for battles is to get himself a new haircut and a fresh shave. Sleep is something he gets – when he thinks about getting it.”
In 1926, the Oakland Tribune gave its readers an update on Harry’s strenuous preparations for an imminent fight: “Harry Greb, middleweight champion of the world, is shooting pool in Los Angeles today and will top his training in the south tonight at a dance. It is quite likely that Harry will exercise tomorrow in a taxi cab and arrive here Monday in perfect condition for his ten-round fight with Jimmy Delaney at the Auditorium Wednesday night.”
Now, it should be pointed out that tales of Harry’s fast living and lack of application were greatly exaggerated. Great stories always are. Like so many other super busy fighters of his generation, Greb didn’t have to put in extra time at the gymnasium because he spent most of the time fighting for real against opponents of exceptional quality.
Outside the ring he was a happily married man who enjoyed the social life but who was seldomly reckless. Too many late nights and too much alcohol abuse would never have allowed him to maintain his incredible fitness and stamina levels. Take a look at that film clip of Harry working the speed bag. He is as lean and as taut as a greyhound.
Fellow fighters spoke of Harry Greb in awe. Gene Tunney observed, “Greb could move like a phantom and had ring cunning far beyond estimates made of him in the press.”
Such was Tunney’s admiration for Harry, he was a pall bearer at Greb’s funeral.
Jack Dempsey described Greb as the fastest fighter he ever saw. Irish ace Jimmy McLarnin said, “If you thought I was great, you should have seen Harry Greb.”
It would be interesting to know how Harry regarded such flattery. Quite possibly, he lapped it up. More probably, he wondered what all the fuss was about.
He certainly had a sense of humor and seemed to admire honesty and candor in others. During some lusty infighting in one of his two wars with Tiger Flowers, Greb suffered the rare experience of being caught off guard. As he was going through his usual repertoire of punching, thumbing and cussing, he was taken aback by Tiger’s polite request not to take the Lord’s name in vain. “I thought he was kidding,” Harry said later, “but I’ll be damned if he didn’t mean it.”
Greb had even more devilish fun with fellow great, Mickey Walker. Mickey, the pugnacious Toy Bulldog, was the reigning welterweight champion when he stepped up to challenge Harry for his crown on July 2, 1925, before a crowd of 50,000 at the Polo Grounds in New York. The two warriors waged one of the greatest fights ever seen at the famous venue, with Greb coming through after a terrific rally in an unforgettable fourteenth round.
Slightly lagging at that point in the fight, Harry suddenly nailed Mickey with a big right that had the Toy Bulldog hurt and tottering. Walker backed into his own corner and swayed glassy-eyed as Greb unloaded punch after punch.
Then there followed a magical moment. Mickey shook his head, water spraying from his black hair, and cracked Harry on the chin with a big right. The heaving crowd went wild. As Damon Runyon reported, “A roar rolled up out of the bowl under Coogan’s Bluff that must have echoed over all Harlem and Washington Heights.”
The pace of the fight had been tremendous throughout and Walker closed strongly to win the final round. But it wasn’t enough. Greb had once again prevailed with his almost unique mix of ferocity, speed, guile and cleverness.
It was all too much for referee Eddie Purdy, who twice fell and injured a knee joint in trying to keep up with the whirling dervishes.
But the great rivalry didn’t end with the clang of the final bell. Greb and Walker met up later at the Guinan club, a noted New York nightclub of the time, where they drank champagne and chatted to the glamorous owner and hostess, Texas Guinan. Happy and well oiled by the time they hit the night air at around two or three in the morning, Harry and Mickey began discussing their fight for the first time.
It was then that Mickey put his foot in it, offering the opinion that he would have won the match if Greb hadn’t thumbed him. “It was the worst thing I could have said,” Walker recalled. “I didn’t mean it as an insult.”
Greb obviously did see it as an insult and replied, “You bum, I could lick you if I had no hands.” Harry offered to beat Walker again right where they stood. Greb couldn’t wait to get his coat off, but it got stuck around his elbows as he pulled too hard and Walker belted him with a terrific uppercut. Mickey always bragged thereafter that he won their unofficial return.
The two men got lucky. The only person around at that hour was a massive Irish beat cop called Pat Casey, whom Walker described as being as big as Primo Carnera. Familiar with Greb and Walker and their idea of a good night out, Casey waived the incident and told them to get off home.
Walker enjoyed ribbing Greb but always acknowledged Harry’s superiority as a fighter, placing him on the gold standard with Stanley Ketchel and Jack Dempsey.
Mickey never forgot one incredible incident from the Polo Grounds classic. “Harry could hit you from impossible angles. Once, after he missed a right to my face, he spun all the way around so that his back faced me. I relaxed my guard and waited for him to turn around. But before I knew what was happening, his left was stuck in my mouth. I still don’t know how he did it, but he hit me while his hands faced in the opposite direction.”
It is no exaggeration to describe Harry Greb as a force of nature, much like his middleweight brothers in history, Stanley Ketchel and Carlos Monzon. These are the men who have to rush to get things done, because generally they have to pay the piper a lot sooner than the rest of us. They seem to know, somewhere in their souls, that they are fleeting spirits
Ketchel was shot to death when he was twenty-four. Greb died at thirty-two and Monzon was gone at fifty-two. It is easy to become maudlin about such things and trot out the old Marvin Gaye line about the good dying young.
But in all truth, do we really enjoy watching wild horses grow old?
FLOYD BEATS SONNY!
Boxing writers and historians are well accustomed to being rudely embarrassed when it comes to the poisoned chalice of predicting the outcome of a big fight. A big slice of humble pie often follows your not-so-confident pronouncement on how it will go and who will win.
One consolation is to surf the archives and remind yourself of some of the illustrious ‘experts’ who tripped and stumbled before you did. A classic example of this is the polling on the first fight between heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson and challenger Sonny Liston at Comiskey Park in Chicago on September 25, 1962.
The preface of this famous clash has been somewhat twisted over the years to give us the impression that the all conquering Liston was an overwhelming favorite of the fight fraternity to win the contest and win it quickly. That wasn’t the case and much of that perception has to do with how Patterson’s profile as a boxer has been similarly warped by time.
Invariably he is described now as a good boxer, fast and skilful with a good punch and excellent hand speed, but too fragile to be a member of the all time elite. I have no argument with any of that, but what is forgotten is that Patterson was primarily a puncher and a very heavy puncher at that. He went out there to knock his opponents out, not to finesse his way to a decision.
Take a look at the left hook that nearly ripped Ingemar Johansson’s head off. Take a look at the frightening punches that made many ringsiders fear that Floyd might have killed Henry Cooper in their 1966 London battle of the left hookers. Patterson was no Dempsey, Louis or Marciano for hitting power. But the quiet man from New York was no cream puff operator either.
It was Floyd’s punching power and speed of hand that led many observers to believe that he would survive his usual knockdown or two to knock Liston out.
We know now, with the eternal benefit of hindsight, that Patterson was a mentally shattered man even before he stepped into the ring against Liston, crushed by the huge weight of expectation and a chat with President Kennedy that left Floyd feeling like Gary Cooper in High Noon.
There are different versions of what was said during that conversation, but it ended with Patterson giving a duty-bound commitment to defend his title against the man who was ludicrously perceived to be a threat to all things good and American.
No punch was required by big Sonny to seal Floyd’s fate. The champion had sealed it himself in his mind. The fight was over before it began. His getaway car was parked outside the stadium, stocked with food and refreshments, dark glasses and a false beard. A man who thinks he’s going to win doesn’t make preparations of that nature.
Now let us skip back and examine The Ring magazine poll of writers, fighters, managers and trainers. Patterson had some heavyweight backers and they weren’t all thinking with their hearts. Ring editor Nat Fleischer said, “Liston is rugged but he has never faced an opponent as fast or as shifty as Floyd. Considering the contrasting styles, clouting vs. shiftiness and Liston’s performance against Eddie Machen, who went the limit of 12 rounds with him, my vote goes to Patterson.”
Fleischer’s colleague Dan Daniel was also troubled by Sonny’s labored performance against Machen. Dan believed he had seen a bad sign in a Liston sparring session. “If he landed his left, he dropped it. This could be fatal. Patterson will retain the title with a knockout around the tenth.”
Big Tom McNeeley, who had been batted around quite a bit by Floyd in an unsuccessful title challenge, said, “I fought Patterson and was knocked out by him. I think that the champion is too fast and clever for Liston, even though Sonny is a terrific puncher.”
Veteran writer and broadcaster Sam Taub, of the Daily Sports Bulletin, wasn’t too impressed with Liston at all: “I feel that Floyd Patterson’s speed will be too much for Sonny Liston to handle. Floyd moves too fast and punches too fast for the flat footed challenger. I do not know Floyd’s plan of battle so I can’t predict just when, but I feel the champion will knock out Liston.”
Former champion Ingemar Johansson thought that Liston was too slow to be true. Said Ingemar, “I’ve studied several motion pictures of Liston’s bouts and feel that Sonny is too slow for Patterson. Liston’s lack of speed was so marked that at first I thought the projector was at fault and I asked to have it speeded up.
“I didn’t like Liston’s body balance, his timing of combinations and the way he slings his left hook. The champion’s speed will be the deciding factor.”
Jack (Deacon) Hurley, the veteran manager and promoter, was also confident that Patterson would retain the championship. “Liston may be bigger and heavier and very impressive looking. But he is too slow, for one thing, and he is flat footed. The champion will keep the title.”
Baseball legend Casey Stengel, who was managing the Mets at the time, was more circumspect: “I am inclined to pick Patterson. I have noticed that he fights best when he gets hurt. However, he had better see to it that he doesn’t let Liston hurt a little too much.”
Former middleweight champ Rocky Graziano was having none of this. “Liston can hit an opponent once when that opponent is as strong and fresh as himself and take all the fight out of him. That’s what he did with Cleveland Williams. Sonny is no Joe Louis, but who needs to be these days? I like a heavy hitter.”
So do I, Rock. Call this writer crazy if you will, but the pick here is Liston by first round knockout.
CHARLEY AND THE TALENT FACTORY: CHARLEY GOLDMAN
Charley Goldman was such a tiny man that people used to think he was Rocky Marciano’s mascot when they entered the ring together. It didn’t matter to Charley, who was very comfortable in his skin. He had already proved himself one of the best trainers in the business and he was a very useful fighter too back in his youth.
Goldman, standing just over five feet tall, had been a bantamweight socker in old New York for fourteen years between 1904 and 1918, crossing gloves with all time greats Frankie Burns, Johnny Coulon and Kid Williams, and going the distance with that murderous hitter from Baltimore, George (KO) Chaney.
While Marciano bridled increasingly at the demands made of him by manager Al Weill, Charley Goldman would be forever revered by The Rock. It was Charley who taught him how to box, how to move and how to hit with maximum effect.
Great fighters have always had great trainers. Jack Dempsey had Teddy Hayes and Jimmy DeForest. Joe Louis had Jack Blackburn and Mannie Seamon. Marciano had Charley Goldman, but that last combination marked the slow burn-out of a fantastic era whose magic and quality we will probably never see again.
So proficient did Rocky become at learning his lessons that he could quickly spot those who hadn’t. Writer Jimmy Breslin told of the day when Marciano was watching a film of Tony DeMarco going after Carmen Basilio. Rocky suddenly saw something and shouted, “Run that part over – I want to show you something.” He had spotted DeMarco throwing a left hook and then following up with a right before first moving his feet into position. The right missed Basilio by a good foot.
“I don’t know what they ever taught this kid,” Marciano said. “See how bad he missed that punch? He didn’t step in. The first thing Charley Goldman ever taught me was to always figure a guy to be going away from you when you punch.
“I was only a four round fighter and I knew that. And this kid here is a champion of the world at the time they took this film. He doesn’t know the first thing about how to use his feet. It’s a crime he never had Charley Goldman to teach him.”
It’s a crime that Charley Goldman and the other great trainers of boring’s golden age aren’t around these days in the era of instant stardom, half-learned lessons and meaningless soundbites from inept cornermen. The messiahs have long gone and the bible seemingly has been replaced by a cheap instruction card containing a few handy bullet points.
In 1961, Charley was fidgeting about in the lobby of the Hotel Westbury in Toronto, not sure of what he had to do or whether his services were even required. Floyd Patterson’s heavyweight title defense against Tom McNeeley was just a few short hours away.
“I was supposed to help train McNeeley or something,” Goldman told Jimmy Breslin. “But I’m not even going to work in the corner. They only brought me around as a publicity stunt, being that I trained Marciano.”
Breslin asked Charley if he had done anything at all for McNeeley. “Well, in Boston I had to take him in the hotel and try to show him how to put his feet. He don’t know how to balance himself. But I couldn’t get it done in a hotel.”
Breslin suggested that it was a little late in the day for McNeeley to be learning how to position his feet. “It’s too much for me to understand,” Goldman said. “I mean, I ain’t the smartest guy in the world, but I know that if you’re going to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world, the least you could do is learn how to fight first. This fellow don’t even know how to stand on his own two feet. I just hope he doesn’t get hurt bad.”
Tom McNeeley was knocked down eight times before Patterson’s hand was raised.
Where Have You Gone Charley Goldman screams the poignant title of chapter six in Mike Silver’s excellent book, The Arc of Boxing (The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science). Therein, Mike discusses the ‘finer points’ of boxing with Tony Arnold, a former amateur and professional boxer from 1949 to 1957, and Bill Goodman, a licensed cornerman with the New York State Athletic Commission from 1957 to 1966.
Here is what Bill Goodman says: “It all started to break up in the mid-1950s. The better trainers died off, got freezed out, got disgusted or just gave it up. They lost interest. The people who knew how to teach the finer points were disappearing, and there was nobody to pass it on to the next guy.
“The types of trainers that have been around for the past 25-35 years are not of the same caliber as the old timers. They can teach boxing but they cannot teach the finer points of boxing. I emphasize that wording – the finer points of boxing.
“For example, fighters have become more susceptible in recent years to cuts caused by unintentional head butts. To avoid that situation, a right-handed boxer should always have his face turned slightly to the right when he leads off with a left jab so that his left ear, not his face, is angled toward the opponent. You’ve always got to show the smallest target that you can. As you move in, your opponent will naturally drop his head and if you are facing him incorrectly sooner or later you will butt heads.”
Now here is what Tony Arnold tells Mike Silver about throwing the left hook properly: “When you throw a left hook your left foot and hip has to be turned with the punch all with the same motion. It is your shoulder and upper back muscles driving the punch – not your hand. Your hand is just the delivery. You extend your hand as little as possible and you’d be surprised how much power you can generate into a short punch by just turning your body. That’s what was taught and that’s what I learned. The old time contenders learned how to execute a punch and could throw a good left hook.”
What Charley Goldman knew – what all the great trainers knew – were those little gems of wisdom that are quite obvious when pointed out but so easy to miss. When the crouching, awkward Arturo Godoy returned to his corner after the first round of his first fight with Joe Louis in 1940, Goldman told Arturo to crouch still lower. “Put your nose down like you was smellin’ the floor and punch up at the fella.”
So effectively did Godoy punch upwards for the next fourteen rounds that one of the judges gave him the fight by a 10-5 margin.
The diligent and wonderfully talented lightweight, Lou Ambers, was a great favorite of his manager Al Weill and certainly benefitted from the boxing intelligence of Charley Goldman. When Lou was training for his return title challenge to the fading Tony Canzoneri, Goldman imparted some precious advice.
“Pugilistically speaking, Canzoneri's washed up. But you got to make him work early. Keep him on one breath all the time. When he takes a breath go right in on him and keep him holdin’ that breath while you punch. He’ll fall apart. Don’t let him start takin’ big deep breaths or you’ll be in trouble. No breaths at all or little short ones. That’s how to fight him.”
Lou Ambers was a great student as well as a great fighter. He did as Charley told him and beat Canzoneri to win the world championship. Lou did his work for the Canzoneri return at Madam Bey’s famous training camp. With typical enthusiasm, he described his daily routine.
“I’d get up in the morning about seven o’clock. I’d run about three or four miles, come back, take a shower. Nine o’clock I’d have my breakfast – a couple of eggs, not fried, broiled, and maybe some bacon and some other things they had, and then I’d take a walk, lazy around the room awhile, read or do something. At about ten o’clock I’d take a little hike for myself.
“After I took that hike I came back and I’d go up the stairs and lay down, try to sleep for about an hour. Then I’d get up about one o’clock. I’d come down and go to the gym and start training. I’d train for about an hour, an hour and a half, sparring, punching the bag, skip rope and all that stuff. I’d box two or three rounds, then I’d punch the heavy bag maybe one or two rounds, then I’d punch the small bag, then I’d jump rope one or two rounds.
“I’d do all together about ten, twelve rounds, then take my shower, get a rubdown, and I’d call it quits that day. Every night nine o’clock I went to bed.”
The great trainers of that era made their fighters as rounded as they could possibly be and brought them along at the right pace. Everything was meticulously planned to bring the boxer to his optimum physical and mental peak in time for the fight. The truly special fighters – the ambitious, the thinkers, the innovators – would then supplement that knowledge with little ideas and habits of their own.
Jack Johnson almost resented Mother Nature for making his left arm weaker than his right, so he worked tirelessly on his left arm to balance out the differential as much as was possible. Rocky Marciano relieved the tedium of roadwork by throwing a football with his left arm. Rocky credited that little exercise for significantly improving the strength and power of his port side
Harry Greb played a lot of handball, which added even greater versatility to his gifts of hand speed and being able to hit an opponent from seemingly impossible angles. Just recently I wrote an article about Harry and got an interesting response from historian Chuck Johnston, who knows a thing or two about this old game of ours.
Here is what Chuck told me: “Luckett Davis, a prolific compiler of boxing results and records who looked through an enormous amount of newspapers on microfilm, told me in a letter that Harry Greb did quite a bit of roadwork and played a lot of handball to keep in shape. He added that nine miles of roadwork at a time wasn't unusual for Greb. While Greb didn't spar much, Luckett speculated that this didn't hurt him because he fought so frequently.
“Luckett thought that playing lots of handball may have enabled Greb to land
telling blows despite throwing punches from all angles. When mentioning Greb
throwing punches from all angles, Luckett brought up Rocky Marciano's tendency
to do the same thing, adding that the Rock certainly had much more punching
It might not be known by some of today’s boxing fans that Nat Fleischer, founder and editor of The Ring magazine, was also a very competent referee and judge. Fleischer reminded us back in 1927 that in the eternal triangle of manager, promoter and trainer, it was the trainer who got the least amount of recognition. That fact still holds true today, yet a trainer who knows his business is arguably the most important cog in the wheel.
Fleischer was scathing of poor trainers and their inability to take into consideration the physique and constitution of the man they have in hand. “They hold to certain stereotyped rules, which they indiscriminately apply, both to him of sedentary habit whose training should be entered upon very gently and carefully, and to him, who, accustomed to much outdoor exercise, is already half fit.
“At the same time they keep working their patient as if he were a piece of mechanism till the training becomes so wearisome and monotonous that a pleasurable interest in the preparation is impossible.”
From Teddy Hayes to Jack Blackburn and Mannie Seamon, from Whitey Bimstein to Charley Goldman and Eddie Futch, the great trainers got to know the physical and mental capabilities of their fighters and how best to prepare and improve them. Conditioning was merely the first step in that process.
Technical flaws were found and corrected from the beginning and not allowed to become habitual. Offensive and defensive tricks of the trade were instilled into pupils, whether pertaining to footwork or being able to punch correctly and with the maximum economy. Slipping and ducking, riding and rolling with punches would be thoroughly taught by a trainer of Charley Goldman’s ability. Feinting and body punching were regarded as other essential requirements of a boxer’s portfolio of skills.
Golden prospects were brought along at a sensible pace and not rushed into fights against dangerous opponents. The noble art of hitting without being hit was the order of the day.
Tommy Loughran, the great light heavyweight champion, was almost obsessive in his quest to make himself an impossible target for his opponents. Loughran had wall-to-wall mirrors to study himself, various diagrams for footwork, and analyzed every single move and punch in constant preparation for his opponents and their styles, strengths and weaknesses. To master slipping and rolling, his trainer Joe Smith would throw fast punches at Tommy’s face while Loughran stood near a wall.
Some of the great trainers were almost amateur physicians in their great knowledge of the human anatomy. Nat Fleischer regarded this as a crucial advantage: “The trainer should be able to analyze the weakness of his charge and to correct any deficiency in his make-up. If the fighter’s chin is weak, by a process of exercises the trainer can remedy that defect. Improper breathing and incorrect exercises should all be curbed and the right method installed before the boxer prepares for his professional career.
“That is why the trainer plays an important part in the development of a young boxer. In him is entrusted the future of this charge and if he is not qualified to handle him, then he will be the means of ruining the prospects of a promising boxer. A stockbroker cannot become a trainer overnight and the trainer could not qualify as a broker without preliminary experience.”
Charley Goldman, with all his magic, with all his vast experience and with liberal shots of dry humor, guided the rough diamond that was Rocky Marciano to the top of the mountain with almost saintly care and patience. After Rocky’s first gym try out, Goldman told him, “If you done anything right, I didn’t see it.” In fact wise old Charley had seen plenty. He just didn’t want Marciano to know it yet.
Allied to Goldman’s knowledge was Rocky’s ability to think on his feet and learn quickly. One day when he was lifting weights and barbells, a weightlifter told him, “If I was you, I’d be careful. You’ve got to know what you’re doing with these things. If you don’t you could get muscle-bound. Lifting weights the wrong way could ruin a guy like you for boxing.”
Marciano never lifted weights again. Harold Johnson and many other great fighters were sworn off them by their trainers. Weights were a no-no then and they should be a no-no today. They ruin a boxer’s suppleness and certainly don’t improve his athleticism.
When Rocky was still raw and impossibly awkward, Charley Goldman frustrated him by not allowing him to spar for five days. Goldman instructed the youngster to work the heavy bag, shadow box and skip rope, but no sparring. When Marciano protested, Charley said, “You got so much to learn, it ain’t funny.”
As Rocky labored, Goldman would note down the technical faults. He did plenty of writing too. It was a question of where to begin? Marciano lacked proper punch leverage, he was right hand happy, didn’t have anything in the way of a left hook and he couldn’t fire combinations. He was wild, off balance and couldn’t position his legs correctly. But the kid had one important building block – he could hit. So began Goldman’s steady programme of education.
Rocky couldn’t get enough of being tested in sparring sessions. He had some furious sessions with the promising Cesar Brion and big slugger Gene Gooney. Charley was seeing signs of improvement all the time, but he needed to teach his charge how to fight on the inside and how to develop a damaging left hook. Further lessons in leverage, footwork and balance would gradually increase Rocky’s already gifted power.
The one thing Goldman couldn’t cure was Marciano’s crude overarm right, which amused other trainers who kept asking Charley what the hell kind of punch it was. Again, Goldman had recognized something. He had recognized that while that peculiar punch would have been the death of most other fighters, it was a uniquely effective weapon in Rocky’s armory. The blow kept knocking other guys dead, so why worry about it anymore? Charley famously christened the punch ‘Suzi Q’.
At the peak of his training powers, it was as if Goldman had his own little radar secreted in the famous and omnipresent little derby hat that he quite probably wore in bed. Archie Moore would say that he needed no more than thirty seconds to assess another fighter. Goldman could do likewise.
Before Marciano’s winning fight against Carmine Vingo, Charley said, “Vingo’s young and tough and the kid can punch. But he fights flat footed and stands up straight. If he don’t make no changes, he’ll be all right for Rocky.”
The glory days passed rapidly and suddenly they were gone. When Jimmy Breslin caught up with Charley Goldman around 1964, the little magician was a man out of time. He was training the tall Florida prospect Tony Alongi, who had a decent career and drew with Jerry Quarry and George Chuvalo before retiring from the game in 1967.
But Tony Alongi was no Marciano and no Jerry Quarry either. Goldman was worried about the kid’s long neck: “He only has a size sixteen collar. You know them fighters with long necks and them long pointy chins. They cost you more for smellin’ salts than they do for food.”
Goldman was in his late seventies and had led a tough life in an eternally uncertain profession; but even as he struggled to remember the names of some of the kids in the gym, he saw what many others had yet to see.
He saw that the golden times were over and the talent pool was beginning to dry up fast. Even the rough diamonds like Rocky Marciano weren’t coming down the trail anymore, hitching rides on trucks and walking for blocks in the hot sun to get to the gym. Life had become easier and young men were no longer so hungry. The ace trainers of yore, little Charley’s brothers, had died or gone grumbling into their retirement.
Somebody once asked Charley Goldman why he had never married, since he quite obviously had a keen eye for the ladies. “I prefer my life a la carte,” he replied.
Too many trainers and fighters these days settle for a set menu, the house wine and a good little wife who tells them they’re never wrong.
VIDEO: ROCKY MARCIANO v ROLAND LaSTARZA http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wDbNLDVSkR4
DO NOT GO GENTLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT: CARMEN BASILIO
There is probably nothing quite so poignant in boxing as the words and actions of a fighter who has reached the end of the line.
He makes every defiant gesture and reaches for every excuse to convince himself that the clock really hasn’t struck twelve.
Try persuading Evander Holyfield even now that he is through as a top notch performer and he would likely give you twenty reasons why it ain’t so.
In an age where everything has to fit snugly into a convenient pigeon-hole and be earmarked with an all-embracing term, this condition has come to be known as denial. As ever in this life, it isn’t as simple as that.
For every fighter who knows deep down that he is kidding himself, there is another proud brother who believes one hundred per cent that he is right and the rest of the world is wrong.
A well meaning lecture on the fruits of an alternative lifestyle is not the desired medicine at such a delicate time. Boxers do not care for being patronized.
Tell your dad he’s too old to climb a ladder and he is unlikely to thank you for being considerate. Tell a worn out fighter he’s finished and you might need to visit your dentist.
It is easy to climb into another man’s mind and make monumental decisions on his behalf about his mental state. Shrinks with fake diplomas on their walls do it every day and make a nice old living out of it. We are all occasionally guilty of rushing to judgment in the great urgency to find a definitive conclusion.
What is easily forgotten is that fighters measure themselves by their own exceptionally high standards. The prime years of their lives are all about raising the bar and going the extra mile. When the glory days are over, many find it infernally difficult to re-adjust their barometers to that cozy level at which the rest of us measure our tolerance.
One good crack in the mouth will give you a small idea of the mighty chasm that divides an ordinary man from a warrior.
When time was called on former middleweight and welterweight champion Carmen Basilio in his second match with Gene Fullmer at Derk Field in Salt Lake City, the demons were unleashed from Carmen’s normally kind soul. His craggy, swollen face ablaze with anger, he protested bitterly to referee Pete Giacoma, as eager ringside photographers jostled to capture the erupting volcano. Somewhere in the archives, there is a glorious picture of Basilio lunging at Giacoma with tired arms and a jutting face of bruises and welts.
Carmen didn’t stop there. Trainer Angelo Dundee, Fullmer’s manager Marv Jensen and even the local cops were in his firing line as the fury poured out. Beaten and trapped in the Mormon fortress of Fullmer’s native Utah, Basilio must have felt that God, Old Nick and anyone else who has a say in the great scheme of things were all out to do him in at the same time.
It was the twelfth round of a brutal battle in the summer of 1960, and a lot of people were saying that Carmen’s turbulent and exciting career was over and urging him to retire.
Basilio has never forgotten the day. Forty-five years on, the volcano is no longer spouting, although it continues to spit out the occasional defiant drops. It was still burning fiercely in the early seventies, when Carmen discussed his rivalry with Fullmer with his usual, admirable candor.
“Both fights I was stopped,” he told writer Peter Heller, during an interview for Heller’s marvelous book, In This Corner….!
“The first fight was in fourteen rounds and I said to the referee ‘Jeez, you let me lose the fight all the way through, then you stop it in the fourteenth. Why didn’t you just let me go for another round and lose the decision?’ And the same thing happened out in Salt Lake City.
“I was losing but this fight was stopped in the twelfth. I hit Fullmer with a good left hand, turned southpaw on him in the eleventh round just before the bell rang and I shook him. Now he comes out for the twelfth round and he throws a right hand. It just went over my ear, didn’t even hit me, and the referee stepped in between us and stopped the fight.
“I said, ‘Why, you son of a….’ I really started calling him names. I said, ‘He didn’t even hit me and you stopped the fight. What’s the matter, you afraid I’m going to do some damage to him because I turned southpaw on him and I just shook him at the end of the other round?’
“I was really hot about that. I thought the least he could have done was let it go on. He (Fullmer) didn’t hit me and I wasn’t hurt. I had all my senses. But that’s the way it goes. Even though I was behind on points, I could have finished the fight and just lost the decision. I was never knocked out. Nobody ever counted ten over me. And I was only down twice in all my career. I had a little bit of pride about not being stopped.”
Basilio had pride, period. And he had it in abundance throughout his roller-coaster career. Allied to courage, tenacity and an indomitable will to win, it made up the engine room of a fighter who was never top of the class at any one thing but still pounded his way to the pinnacle of the mountain.
Two savage wins over Tony DeMarco for the welterweight championship and a couple of five-star ring classics with Sugar Ray Robinson had confirmed Basilio’s reputation as one of the toughest pound-for-pound fighters of the age.
Carmen stormed through in his epic fights with DeMarco, winning both wars in grandstand fashion in the twelfth round.
When he stepped up a weight class to challenge Robinson, Basilio was never more of an irresistible force. It was a wonderful fight and a majestic performance by the fiery underdog.The fifteen rounds seem to race by at every viewing, each a master class in skilful boxing, power hitting and courage in the face of adversity.
There is a particularly unforgettable sequence in the eleventh round, where Basilio pins Ray to the ropes and drives home a fusillade that seems to last for an eternity.
When Robinson regained the title at the Chicago Stadium the following year, Carmen still gave him the fight of his life, despite battling with a closed left eye from the sixth round.
If the Robinson fights represented the apex of Carmen’s career, the brawls with Fullmer for Gene’s NBA middleweight title were effectively the last hurrah. It was somehow appropriate that they were marathon examinations of heart and soul. Basilio could never have bowed out quietly and he certainly could never have surrendered. The great scriptwriter in the sky wouldn’t have consented to that kind of ending.
Carmen tried everything he knew to outmuscle and outsmart a bigger and stronger bull. In many ways, he was trying to smash through a younger and more awkward mirror image. Gene was similarly rough, tough and infuriatingly dogged. He just kept steaming forward all night long, and only the great Robinson had derailed him with a left hook in a million.
In the Salt Lake City slugfest, Fullmer produced one of his greatest performances as he took charge from the early going. The two contestants barged and banged into each other throughout, trading shots and giving blood for the cause. Both suffered cuts that required stitches.
Basilio was too wired and too close to boiling point from the outset and quickly began to unravel in the underlying battle of psychology. Carmen complained to referee Giacoma about Fullmer’s butting, a ploy that tough men only resort to when their talent is draining away.
Basilio was further irritated by the antics of Gene’s manager, Marv Jensen, who kept priming his charge by calling out numbers that represented specific punches. It was bad enough for Carmen that this awkward so-and-so Fullmer couldn’t seem to miss him. It was even worse that the punches were pre-set and being triggered by a guy who fancied himself as a quarterback.
Basilio summoned enough of his old fire to make a contest of it for eight rounds, but Gene began to jolt him badly thereafter. Sensing that his opponent was weakening, Fullmer came on strong and fired in hurtful jabs to the face and punishing body blows.
Carmen wilted from a terrific right to the chin in the eleventh, and he was clutching desperately in the final frame as Gene tried to break free and land the decisive blows that would end the fight. A big right to the stomach and another right to the jaw convinced referee Giacoma that he had seen enough.
If Giacoma believed that Basilio was all done, he soon discovered otherwise. In the midst of the tirade that followed, Carmen waved a fist at the third man and cried, “I’ll give you one!”
Basilio was still raging when police offers led him back to his corner.
After the fight and the fracas, those who cared for Carmen encouraged him to call it quits. It was typical of the feisty man from Canastota, New York, that he chose his own path and stubbornly pressed on.
In 1961, he showed some encouraging return to his old form with successive points victories over Gaspar Ortega and former welterweight champ, Don Jordan. But a final fling at Paul Pender’s middleweight crown proved a step too far.
Basilio’s grit and perseverance were still there, but the magic had escaped the bottle and he was well outpointed.
He hung up his gloves and went back to his adored wife and family. No change of heart. No sad or tacky comeback. No spiteful swipes at the young tigers that were passing him in the fast lane.
It seemed that Carmen knew after all when the time was right to get out.
WHEN BOY GREEN ROCKED JOHN H. STRACEY
If you ever fancy a mischievous wager, try telling your boxing pals that Jim Watt knocked out John H Stracey inside a round. In vain will your friend scour the professional records of each boxer in his search for that shattering result. But it did indeed happen, in the British Amateur Boxing Association lightweight final of 1968, when southpaw Jim poleaxed John H with a thunderous left to the jaw. Some amateurs are never quite the same again after a reverse of that nature. Fewer go on to win professional championships.
But John H Stracey was made of stern stuff and imbued with an indomitable will to win. Seven years later, in the cauldron of Mexico City, he survived a first round knockdown to win the world welterweight championship from the great Jose Napoles and become the golden boy of British boxing
Watt didn’t do too badly either. In 1979, before his adoring fellow Scots, he won the WBC lightweight crown by stopping Colombia’s Alfredo Pitalua at the famous Kelvin Hall in Glasgow. In subsequent defences, tough and canny Jim outpointed the highly touted Howard Davis Jr. and stopped Sean O’Grady. In losing the title to Nicaraguan legend Alexis Arguello, Jim achieved the rare feat of going all 15 rounds with the man they called El Flaco Explosivo (The Explosive Thin Man).
But this story is of Stracey, his exciting career of ups and downs and how the golden boy from London’s East End came to clash with a no-nonsense all-out action man from the famous Cambridgeshire fighting town of Chatteris: Dave ‘Boy’ Green.
Some fighters blend so perfectly in combat that you could be forgiven for thinking that they were born to one day fight each other. I got that impression when Dave stopped John H in the 10th round at Wembley on March 29, 1977, in one of the best British domestic fights I have ever seen.
From the time the bout was made the boxing fraternity was hooked and eagerly anticipated the outcome, for the pairing of Green and Stracey represented much more than a simple domestic dispute. Billed as a world championship eliminator, the contest was a timely collision between two immensely exciting world class fighters.
Stracey was a former world welterweight champion, a proud hero who had been dethroned all too soon in the eyes of many, but still a top contender. Green was his heir apparent, the young rising prospect who was still gunning for such honours and threatening Stracey’s superiority as Europe’s best welterweight.
In view of their respective roles, it was ironic that while Stracey was a man without a title, Green was the British and European junior welterweight champion. Dave had earned those titles the hard way, but he knew that championship success in the more prestigious welterweight division would bring him greater recognition.
Not that Dave ‘Boy’ Green was the kind of fighter you could ever fail to recognise. Like that other famous ‘Boy’ from Britain’s Fen country, Eric Boon, Dave’s fighting style left you in no doubt as to why he was known as the ‘Fen Tiger’. The exciting Boon had been similarly fiery some 40 years before, winning the British lightweight championship and posting 93 victories in a 120-fight career.
From the very beginning, Green was full of fire and brimstone, a tough and aggressive boxer-fighter who never stopped coming forward. Although he scored many quick victories early in his career, he was not a true knockout puncher against top class men, but rather a persistent and hurtful hitter who ground down opponents by the sheer cumulative effect of his blows. He traded largely on raw strength, courage and a fiery spirit that drove him through the punishment and pain barriers.
In his first meteoric year of 1975, Dave clinched a place among Britain’s top three junior welterweights with a run of 10 successive victories, including a crushing win over the dangerous Alan Salter.
Green was deceptively clever at manoeuvring a man into position and despatched hurt opponents in swift and ruthless fashion. As he progressed, Dave also added a very effective jab to his armoury and often outjabbed far cleverer men.
First and foremost, however, Green came to fight, and his simple formula continued to prove stunningly successful. In 1976, he surpassed his achievements of the previous year by notching a further dozen victories and annexing two titles.
His rapid progress was enthusiastically monitored by coachloads of his supporters, who cheered him to one triumph after another as he barnstormed his way to the top. The skilful and evasive Billy Waith was worn down in 11 rounds in an eliminator for the British junior welterweight title, and champion Joey Singleton was subsequently deprived of his belt in another stirring encounter.
In both fights, Green showed the qualities of a champion fighter, but as ever it was his implacable will to win that stuck in the mind. It was a natural trait that perhaps was most evident when he won the vacant European title rom the brave Frenchman, Jean Baptiste Piedvache, in a memorable battle at the Royal Albert Hall.
In Piedvache, Dave met a tough and courageous man with a similarly plucky will to win. The Frenchman refused to be intimidated by Green and frequently punished Dave with vicious counter punches. Such a resilient and defiant adversary might have disheartened other fighters accustomed to dominating their opponents, but Green’s determination never wavered and Piedvache was a beaten man after nine rounds.
Perhaps Dave Green didn’t become discouraged in such circumstances because he didn’t know how to. He was a natural punching machine with great fitness and stamina levels. He could keep the blows coming even in his most trying moments.
In his last fight before meeting Stracey, Green was as frustrated as any man could be by the deft skills of the veteran Argentinian craftsman, Mario Guilloti. Yet for 10 laborious rounds, Dave patiently kept throwing all manner of blows to earn the referee’s decision.
Boxing observers questioned Green’s ability to defeat a man of Stracey’s superior all-round skill and experience, but it is unlikely that such doubts bothered Dave to any great extent. Locked into his own pleasant little world, he was a superbly confident and refreshingly uncomplicated character who believed in taking each fight as it came and not dwelling on history. Besides, Guilloti was Guilloti, not Stracey. Spoilers are notoriously good at making hot prospects look bad. Willie Pep had learned that lesson many years before when he had became entangled in the web of the infuriatingly contrary Sammy (The Clutch) Angott.
One factor in Green’s favour was that Stracey had been inactive for the past nine months after losing his world welterweight championship to Carlos Palomino. It was John’s most painful and protracted defeat and marked the sensational fall of a hugely popular and marketable fighter.
Like Green, Stracey exuded that special magnetic appeal that captured the public’s imagination. Fiercely determined, the Cockney kid from Bethnal Green was a colourful, hard hitting stylist who fought his way to the top by combining his talent with the brand of admirable grit with which Green could identify.
It was this latter quality that drove John to victory in fights that many experts felt he would lose. He frequently looked vulnerable, but he was so tenacious in full flight that his opponents rarely had the chance to hit back. Unlucky defeats to Marshall Butler, Bobby Arthur and Cubby (Top Cat) Jackson blotted John’s early record, but he quickly matured and progressed and was soon producing the moves of a world class fighter. He travelled to France to wrest the European title from the rough, tough Roger Menetrey and suddenly the world championship was in Stracey’s sights.
Nevertheless, when he was matched with the legendary Jose Napoles in Mexico City, few gave John a chance of becoming Britain’s first world welterweight champion since Ted (Kid) Lewis in the Roaring Twenties. The doubts seemed justified in a frightening first round, as the ageing but still brilliant Napoles brought his countrymen to their feet by flooring Stracey with a blurring combination of punches.
Memories of past British failures on foreign soul flooded the mind as John hit the canvas, but he clambered up and doggedly refused to be overwhelmed. His self-belief was so strong that not even a legend could beat him that day. Courageously, he surged back and five rounds later the Mexican crowd was muted as John rifled punches at the defenceless Napoles to score one of the greatest away victories ever achieved by a British fighter.
It was a victory of the heart that made Stracey a national hero, and for a while there was no stopping him. Three months later he barrelled his way to another memorable win when he halted the clever Hedgemon Lewis. When Stracey sang with the crowd and waved a giant Union Jack at the conclusion of that fight, he had the confident look of a man who would reign for a long time to come.
The good times didn’t last. Stracey’s next fight against the talented and dangerously underrated Carlos Palomino was regarded as a relatively easy title defence, a cue for further celebration and patriotic indulgence. But Palomino emerged as a smart and accomplished professional who ignored the chants of the partisan crowd to outpunch and outgame John in 12 bruising rounds.
All at once the joy of the last heady year had been cancelled out by the accurate punches of the unsung underdog. It was distressing to watch Stracey being buckled by body blows in the closing stages of that fight, and while he licked his wounds during the subsequent months one wondered if he could ever regain the old fire and enthusiasm.
The Green fight was to be the acid test for John, and one had to admire him for coming straight back against a fellow world ranked opponent after such a traumatic defeat. He had dismissed the option of a ‘safe’ opponent, knowing that a big victory over Green would guarantee a quick return against Palomino. Stracey certainly appeared to have recaptured his old fighting spirit and felt sure he could beat Dave. But then the ‘Fen Tiger’ was equally confident of his chances.
As the countdown to the big battle began, so the sense of excitement grew. Inevitably, the 1939 lightweight title clash between Eric Boon and Arthur Danahar was recalled, for that famous duel had also brought together two men from the tough fighting areas of Chatteris and Bethnal Green. On that occasion, Boon’s strength and punching power had prevailed over the superior skills of Danahar, but would the pattern be the same again?
The general belief was that Stracey, despite his long layoff, would still be too good for Green; but as the two fighters came out for the first round on that electric Wembley night, it was the ‘Fen Tiger’ who stole the thunder with a whirlwind start. Within seconds, the crowd of 10,600 had something to cheer as Green discarded caution and charged into Stracey, forcing John back with a furious and continuous assault. It was an opening attack that lacked finesse, the initial onslaught of a man high on adrenaline and relieved to be let loose after weeks of disciplined training.
The punches came hard and fast, most of them directed at the body, and Stracey grimaced as they struck home. John looked worried and confused as he was chased around the ring, and his attempts to fend off his tormentor were swamped by the oncoming flood of aggression.
Although both fighters missed badly as the melee became wilder, Green continued to score heavily with most of his punches, while Stracey struggled to land his first significant blow. John needed a moment’s respite to regain his rhythm and timing, but he was caught in the eye of the storm and could only smother and try to survive.
Green, in his eagerness to maintain the advantage, was twice cautioned by referee Harry Gibbs, but Dave was so engrossed in his mission that he continued to pile forward at a frantic pace. Already Stracey’s left eye was beginning to swell, but he displayed great courage in remaining upright and trying to fight back.
The second round was almost identical to the first as Green continued to steam forward, the tempo so fast that the fighters were still lashing punches at each other after the bell. Stracey remained defiant, though he was still taking a shellacking. By the third round, he at last saw the light at the end of the tunnel and began to score with his own punches. But he was still facing a tough uphill climb as Green applied relentless pressure, throwing punch after punch with his customary ferocity, frequently compelling John to seek refuge against the ropes.
The ‘Fen Tiger’ was a willing prisoner of that magic trance that grips the top athletes in the heat of competition, when they become oblivious to everything but their opponents. So immersed was he in the job at hand that when referee Gibbs grabbed him by the hair and yanked him off Stracey for a serious lecture about dangerous use of the head in the fourth round, Dave barely seemed to notice. Again and again he swept forward, finding the mark with roundhouse rights to the head and clumping swings to the body.
Yet strangely, it was during that heated and hectic fourth round that Stracey’s revival began to gather momentum. Green’s punches and the prospect of defeat seemed to spark John into life as he began to counter with some solid blows. This provoked Green into launching another fierce attack in the fifth round, and once again the going was torrid for Stracey as he was buffeted from one side of the ring to the other and denied the chance of mounting any sustained rally.
However, in the sixth and seven rounds the fight became more evenly balanced as Green inevitably slowed, allowing Stracey to stand his ground more and place his punches. John was suddenly able to use his jab to greater effect and succeeded in checking Dave’s rushes with bursts of fine uppercuts and hooks.
An already thrilling battle thus blossomed into a truly classic confrontation, as Stracey came out of the wilderness to challenge Green’s superiority and close the points gap. The eighth and ninth rounds were bitterly contested as the battered but rejuvenated Stracey planted himself in mid-ring and gamely traded punches with Green, frequently beating him to the punch. There were brief moments during those rounds when Dave appeared to flag a little, but each time he came blazing back with a fresh assault.
Stracey could never quite cope with the sheer persistence of the ‘Fen Tiger’, nor his underrated versatility. For Green was more than an unimaginative, slam-bang merchant. He attacked in different ways, sometimes behind ramrod left jabs or clubbing rights, other times by simply mauling his way inside in whatever way he could.
Yet courageous Stracey had reduced Green’s lead considerably and the fight was now very close. Both fighters were marked around the eyes, but it was Stracey’s injured left eye that determined the outcome. The tenth round was still in its early stages when the eye finally closed, severely hampering John’s vision and throwing him straight back into choppy waters again. His desperation was clearly apparent and provoked Green into mounting another vicious onslaught.
This time John could not hold the ‘Fen Tiger’ off. Stracey was offering only token resistance now and being hit repeatedly by the looping, almost overarm right that Green called his ‘muck spreader’. The deceptive punch seemed to take several trips around the houses before it found its target, yet more than a few good men felt its wallop.
Referee Gibbs stopped the action to ask Stracey if he wanted to continue and John nodded as every great fighter does in that kind of predicament. But he was now defenceless, and after taking further punishment he was rescued by a timely act of compassion from Gibbs.
It was a moment of magnificent glory for Green and one of painful frustration for Stracey. The one bad thing about a great fight is that one’s joy for the winner is tinged by pity for the loser. The consolation for John H. Stracey was that he finished on his feet, which was typical of the man. In more than 50 professional fights, he was never counted out.
Jim Watt would forever remain the only man to achieve that feat!
VIDEO: DAVE (BOY) GREEN v JOHN H. STRACEY
MIKE CASEY'S ALL TIME DIVISIONAL RANKINGS
01. Jack Dempsey (USA)
02. Joe Louis (USA)
03. Jack Johnson (USA)
04. Rocky Marciano (USA)
05. Muhammad Ali (USA)
06. Gene Tunney (USA)
07. Jim Jeffries (USA)
08. George Foreman (USA)
09. Joe Frazier (US
10. Lennox Lewis (England)
11. Sam Langford (Canada)
12. Sonny Liston (USA)
13. Larry Holmes (USA)
14. Mike Tyson (USA)
15. Ezzard Charles (USA)
16. Bob Fitzsimmons (England)
17. Evander Holyfield (USA)
18. Joe Jeannette (USA)
19. Harry Wills (USA)
20. Max Baer (USA)
01. Gene Tunney (USA)
02. Ezzard Charles (USA)
03. Archie Moore (USA)
04. Philadelphia Jack O'Brien (USA)
05. Tommy Loughran (USA)
06. Jack Dillon (USA)
07. Maxie Rosenbloom (USA)
08. Billy Conn (USA) (USA)
09. Tommy Gibbons (USA)
10. Jack Delaney (Canada)
11. Young Stribling (USA)
12. John Henry Lewis (USA)
13. Bob Foster (USA)
14. Harold Johnson (USA)
15. Michael Spinks (USA)
16. Paul Berlenbach (USA)
17. Georges Carpentier (France)
18. Tiger Jack Fox (USA)
19. Jimmy Slattery (USA)
20. Joey Maxim (USA)
01. Harry Greb (USA)
02. Stanley Ketchel (USA)
03. Sam Langford (Canada)
04. Ray Robinson (USA)
05. Carlos Monzon (Argentina)
06. Bob Fitzsimmons (England)
07. Mickey Walker (USA)
08. Marcel Cerdan (France)
09. Mike Gibbons (USA)
10. Freddie Steele (USA)
11. Charley Burley (USA)
12. Jake LaMotta (USA)
13. Tony Zale (USA)
14. Dick Tiger (Nigeria)
15. Marvin Hagler (USA)
16. Tommy Ryan (USA)
17. Tiger Flowers (USA)
18. Teddy Yarosz (USA)
19. Holman Williams (USA)
20. Gene Fullmer (USA)
01. Thomas Hearns (USA)
02. Charley Burley (USA)
03. Wilfred Benitez (Puerto Rico)
04. Mike McCallum (Jamaica)
05. Nino Benvenuti (Italy)
06. Sandro Mazzinghi (Italy)
07. Emile Griffith (USA)
08. Ray Leonard (USA)
09. Ronald (Winky) Wright (USA)
10. Terry Norris (USA)
11. Felix Trinidad (Puerto Rico)
12. Julian Jackson (Virgin Islands)
13. Shane Mosley (USA)
14. Oscar De La Hoya (USA)
15. Ralph Dupas (USA)
16. Denny Moyer (USA)
17. Koichi Wajima (Japan)
18. Freddie Little (USA)
19. Ki Soo Kim (South Korea)
20. Ayub Kalule (Uganda)
01. Ray Robinson (USA)
02. Henry Armstrong (USA)
03. Joe Walcott (Barbados)
04. Mickey Walker (USA)
05. Barney Ross (USA)
06. Jack Britton (USA)
07. Ted (Kid) Lewis (England)
08. Emile Griffith (USA)
09. Ray Leonard (USA)
10. Jose Napoles (Mexico)
11. Jimmy McLarnin (Ireland)
12. Carmen Basilio (USA)
13. Thomas Hearns (USA)
14. Harry Lewis (USA)
15. Lou Brouillard (Canada)
16. Kid Gavilan (Cuba)
17. Tommy Ryan (USA)
18. Dixie Kid (USA)
19. Young Corbett III (USA)
20. Fritzie Zivic (USA)
01. Nicolino Locche (Argentina)
02. Packey McFarland (USA)
03. Barney Ross (USA)
04. Aaron Pryor (USA)
05. Wilfred Benitez (Puerto Rico)
06. Antonio Cervantes (Colombia)
07. Julio Cesar Chavez (Mexico)
08. Tony Canzoneri (USA)
09. Jack (Kid) Berg (England)
10. Duilio Loi (Italy)
11. Carlos Ortiz (Puerto Rico)
12. Kostya Tszyu (Australia)
13. Floyd Mayweather Jnr (USA)
14. Johnny Jadick (USA)
15. Tippy Larkin (USA)
16. Oscar De La Hoya (USA)
17. Carlos Hernandez (Venezuela)
18. Frankie Randall (USA)
19. Bruno Arcari (Italy)
20. Eddie Perkins (USA)
01. Joe Gans (USA)
02. Benny Leonard (USA)
03. Henry Armstrong (USA)
04. Roberto Duran (Panama)
05. Tony Canzoneri (USA)
06. Freddie Welsh (Wales)
07. Packey McFarland (USA)
08. Barney Ross (USA)
09. Lou Ambers (USA)
10. Battling Nelson (Denmark)
11. Ike Williams (USA)
12. Carlos Ortiz (Puerto Rico)
13. Alexis Arguello (Nicaragua)
14. Jack Blackburn (USA)
15. Lew Tendler (USA)
16. Sammy Mandell (USA)
17. Beau Jack (USA)
18. Sammy Angott (USA)
19. Joe Brown (USA)
20. Pernell Whitaker (USA)
01. Alexis Arguello (Nicaragua)
02. Sandy Saddler (USA)
03. Johnny Dundee (USA)
04. Kid Chocolate (Cuba)
05. Manny Pacquiao (Philippines)
06. Bobby Chacon (USA)
07. Frankie Klick (USA)
08. Flash Elorde (Philippines)
09. Azumah Nelson (Ghana)
10. Benny Bass (USA)
11. Tod Morgan (USA)
12. Brian Mitchell (South Africa)
13. Samuel Serrano (Puerto Rico)
14. Genaro Hernandez (USA)
15. Hiroshi Kobayashi (Japan)
16. Rafael (Bazooka) Limon (Mexico)
17. Ben Villaflor (Philippines)
18. Tony Lopez (USA)
19. Alfredo Escalera (Puerto Rico)
20. Rocky Lockridege (USA)
01. Jim Driscoll (Ireland)
02. Willie Pep (USA)
03. Sandy Saddler (USA)
04. Abe Attell (USA)
05. Henry Armstrong (USA)
06. Johnny Dundee (USA)
07. Young Griffo (Australia)
08. Johnny Kilbane (USA)
09. Owen Moran (England)
10. Vicente Saldivar (Mexico)
11. Alexis Arguello (Nicaragua)
12. Terry McGovern (USA)
13. Tony Canzoneri (USA)
14. George Dixon (Canada)
15. Kid Chocolate (Cuba)
16. Louis (Kid) Kaplan (USA)
17. Freddie Miller (USA)
18. Chalky Wright (USA)
19. Salvador Sanchez (Mexico)
20. Eder Jofre (Brazil)
01. Eder Jofre (Brazil)
02. Ruben Olivares (Mexico)
03. Carlos Zarate (Mexico)
04. Pete Herman (USA)
05. Kid Williams (USA)
06. Panama Al Brown (Panama)
07. Manuel Ortiz (USA)
08. Terry McGovern (USA)
09. George Dixon (Canada)
10. Owen Moran (England)
11. Fighting Harada (Japan)
12. Johnny Coulon (Canada)
13. Joe Lynch (USA)
14. Bud Taylor (USA)
15. Jeff Chandler (USA)
16. Frankie Burns (USA)
17. Memphis Pal Moore (USA)
18. Sixto Escobar (Puerto Rico)
19. Pete Sanstol (USA)
20. Lupe Pintor (Mexico)
01. Jimmy Wilde (Wales)
02. Pancho Villa (Pjilippines)
03. Pascual Perez (Argentina)
04. Jimmy Barry (USA)
05. Fidel La Barba (USA)
06. Benny Lynch (Scotland)
07. Midget Wolgast (USA)
08. Horacio Accavallo (Argentina)
09. Frankie Genaro (USA)
10. Miguel Canto (Mexico)
11. Ricardo Lopez (Mexico)
12. Peter Kane (England)
13. Johnny Buff (USA)
14. Pone Kingpetch (Thailand)
15. Fighting Harada (Japan)
16. Chartchai Chionoi (Thailand)
17. Masao Ohba (Japan)
18. Hiroyuki Ebihara (Japan)
19. Efren Torres (Mexico)
20. Michael Carbajal (USA)
POUND FOR POUND
01. Ray Robinson (USA)
02. Bob Fitzsimmons (England)
03. Henry Armstrong (USA)
04. Sam Langford (Canada)
05. Harry Greb (USA)
06. Joe Gans (USA)
06. Jimmy Wilde Wales)
08. Benny Leonard (USA)
09. Jack Dempsey (USA)
10. Eder Jofre (Brazil)
11. Willie Pep (USA)
12. Joe Louis (USA)
13. Muhammad Ali (USA)
14. Jack Johnson (USA)
15. Roberto Duran (Panama)
16. Stanley Ketchel (USA)
17. Tony Canzoneri (USA)
18. Mickey Walker USA)
19. Ezzard Charles (USA)
20. Archie Moore (USA)
FEATURE ARTICLES BY MIKE CASEY AT BOXING.COM
ALL ARTICLES WRITTEN BY MIKE CASEY UNLESS STATED
WILLIE PEP: THE LAST THROW OF THE DICE
Mother Nature, being the contrary old lady she is, doesn’t allow us to cut out the bad bits of our journey along the mortal coil and replace them with more attractive scenarios. If she did, we would invent a separate planet for corrupt politicians and place it some distance beyond Neptune. We would also take a compassionate red pen and draw a cut-off line on the records of Willie Pep and Sugar Ray Robinson well before the sacred scriptures became stained by embarrassing and unnecessary defeats.
Willie and Ray started pushing leather professionally in 1940. Ray retired in 1965 after dropping his fifth decision in eleven fights. Willie retired in 1966 after losing a unanimous six round verdict to one Calvin Woodland in Richmond, Virginia. Pep was fighting mainly six and eight rounders by that time as he and Robinson mourned their glory days and persisted with the theory that if they journeyed far enough into the future they might just catch the past coming around again.
In the early fall of 1958, when he still had some magic left in the bottle, Willie nearly found himself a time hole to slip through. On September 20 at the Boston Garden, before his adoring New England fans, Pep took his last throw of the dice and got a tantalizing final glimpse of the glittering prize that was once his.
He didn’t do at all badly either until Father Time scythed off his legs. Willie’s ten-round non-title match with featherweight champion Hogan (Kid) Bassey was one of those cruel affairs where the long distance runner thinks he’s doing just fine until he realizes that the finish line seems to be moving away from him at a matching speed.
Hogan Bassey was a very good fighter. Willie Pep, at thirty-six and with 229 fights on his log, was still better - but only in a sprint race, not a marathon. Nevertheless, the already legendary Will o’ the Wisp put on an exceptional show before his strength and endurance gave out.
Willie had been a model of dedication in the run-up to the fight, whipping himself into great physical shape with a busy campaign of twelve fights in eight months throughout New England. Pep knew that victory over Bassey would likely force the champion to put his title on the line in a return go. A crowd of 10,409 came to cheer Willie on, including some four thousand from his hometown of Hartford.
For five rounds, Pep was beautiful. The years seemed to fall off him as he demonstrated all his old speed, cleverness and trickery. He glided hither and yon, changing directions and switching angles, hooking and jabbing Bassey, turning him and locking him up in the clinches. When Hogan was able to entice Willie into an exchange, Pep got the better of it.
Bassey, however, like so many great Nigerian fighters, was a tough, strong, durable warrior of a man. He never lost heart and never stopped hunting Willie down. All the time, Hogan was punching to the body and sapping his opponent’s strength. Pep slowed down and must have begun to count the remaining minutes in a tough seventh round when Bassey began to switch from body to head with hard rights to the jaw. One such blow caught Willie off balance and sent him slipping to the canvas.
Pep had nine minutes to get through when that round ended. From the long distance runner’s perspective, it was nearer nine miles. In the eighth round, the old magician reached into his bag of tricks for the last time to jig and bluff his way through another grinding session.
Bassey knew he had his man Hogan tore from his corner at the bell for the ninth round and a looping right to the jaw sent Pep to the canvas. The crowd knew that there would be no sudden twist to the tale, no sensational comeback. The real Willie Pep, the boxing master of rare brilliance, was ten years back in the past making some poor fellow look inadequate.
The shell of Willie Pep got up at the count of eight and waited for Hogan Bassey to drop the guillotine once and for all. Rushing in and punching with both hands, Bassey sent Willie tumbling across the lower strand of the ropes with half his body outside the ring. He tried bravely to extricate himself, but couldn’t do so before referee Jimmy McCarron completed the ten count – or so it seemed to the crowd. McCarron insisted that Pep had got himself upright in the required time, but it didn’t matter. McCarron halted the fight anyway as Willie tottered on legs of rubber.
The scorecards told the frustrating story, with Pep ahead by scores of 79-77, 75-77 and 77-75. Some years later, Willie reflected on the fight and said, “You’re thirty-six years old, you’ve been around, and you’re not as quick as you are when you’re twenty-six. Things change a little bit.”
Things change a lot.
NO STARDUST FOR BRAVE ZIGGY
In the spring of 1969, Dave (Ziggy) Zyglewicz was in the right place at the right time. He was the ‘Rocky’ of the moment, a suitable case for slaughtering or unexpected heroics. With Muhammad Ali still bogged down in his argument with the Army, Joe Frazier was the recognised heavyweight champion in six states and looking for a tune-up title defence against an obliging opponent before the more serious business of meeting Jerry Quarry in the summer.
Ziggy was the tune-up. His 28-1 record with some exciting knockout victories along the way looked very attractive indeed if you didn’t take a magnifying glass to it. It was a careful record. A cleverly constructed record. Dave’s handlers seemed to know exactly how far their boy could go before an enormous weight fell on him.
Ziggy’s victories had come over a ragbag of OK fighters and jaded ‘name’ fighters such as Sonny Moore, Billy Daniels, Willi Besmanoff, Bill McMurray and Everett Copeland.
Billy Daniels, who had his big moment in 1964 when he won a split decision over Doug Jones, slid so dramatically thereafter that his losses nearly caught up with his wins before he retired with a 23-22-4 log.
Bill McMurray might be described as a cut above the rest or perhaps two cuts. Bill cut the fast rising Thad Spencer for a seventh round TKO win in 1966, but would achieve greater fame eight years later by cutting George Foreman in a sparring session and forcing a postponement of Big George’s rumble with Muhammad Ali.
Otherwise, McMurray spent a generally punishing professional career getting bashed about by Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston, Ken Norton, Boone Kirkman and Earnie Shavers.
Such facts, of course, don’t really matter when you are a designated ‘Rocky’. Dave Zyglewicz was white, marketable, exciting and willing. He was a man who liked to fight and trade punches. He promised he would trade punches with Joe Frazier. A lot of worldly people in the business rolled their eyes and took a gulp.
Ziggy, a New Yorker residing in Houston, would commit his act of bravery beyond the call of duty before his adopted hometown fans at the Sam Houston Coliseum. Former fight manager Harlan Haas, who was covering the contest for The Ring magazine, couldn’t resist waxing lyrical when he wrote: “The sun went down. The skyscrapers cast an eerie shadow and a black cloud hung over the Coliseum which housed the Joe Frazier-Dave Zyglewicz get-together. A perfect setting for murder.
“Well, a murder didn’t take place but nearly did. What happened to Zig was that he got caught cold and never had an opportunity to get untracked. He was knocked out in 96 seconds and now, on June 23 in New York, Joe Frazier will meet Jerry Quarry.”
Ziggy, a former heavyweight champion of the Atlantic Fleet, had tried his best and kept his promise of meeting Frazier head on. Joe blocked an opening left and right from his challenger but Ziggy kept coming before being nailed by Frazier’s trademark left hook. The blow to the temple dropped Ziggy and brought a pained and surprised expression to his face. Never before had he been knocked off his feet as a pro.
Courageously, he clambered up at the count of six and carried on battling, bringing hope to the crowd as he charged at Joe and made the champion wince with a right to the head. Ziggy switched his attack to the body, blocked a left hook from Frazier but then stumbled into a minefield.
Three meaty jolts to the body had the challenger seriously hurt and he tried to avoid further punishment by going into a crouch and weaving his head. Then he attempted a left hook against one of the best left hookers in the business and was beaten to the draw by a classic Frazier delivery that carried its familiar crunch.
It was the knockout blow. Ziggy hit the deck like a drunken sailor, his body stiff, his eyes glazed. Referee Jimmy Webb made it official and waved his arms as the doleful decimal was tolled.
In the aftermath, Frazier told reporters that he wasn’t surprised that Ziggy came out fighting. “That is the kind of man he is. It wasn’t easy because the guy was out there throwing his best at me. No fight is easy.”
Likeable and frank, Ziggy made no excuses for himself. “After I went down that first time, everything was a blank,” he said. “I guess I was in there on instinct after that.”
‘Rocky’ had rolled, as everyone thought he would. But he had won a lot of hearts with his honest attempt.
JOEY GIAMBRA'S CHANGE OF PLAN
In the rich and bountiful middleweight division of the fifties and sixties, the ‘G Men’ of New York became a permanent fixture and were known and admired by the boxing fraternity for their slick and worldly skills.
Joey Giardello, from Philadelphia by way of Brooklyn, and Joey Giambra from Buffalo seemed to fight every five minutes and became leading and perennial contenders for the middleweight championship.
In 1952 they battled each other twice within a month, trading unanimous decisions as Giardello triumphed in Brooklyn and Giambra got even in Buffalo. Six years later the two Joeys met up again for their third and final contest at the old and wonderful Cow Palace in San Francisco, with Giambra winning a split verdict. But it was Giardello who had the last laugh when he finally landed the world championship after sixteen years of hard campaigning with a points victory over Dick Tiger in 1963.
Joey Giambra, for all his talent, never even got a shot. He lost just ten times in a 77-bout career against consistently stellar opposition; and five of those losses came in his last eight fights when he was fading but still artful enough to mess the best men around. Giambra was never knocked out.
In the summer of 1961, twelve years after starting out as a pro, Joey was talking excitedly about a new outlook and a new fighting style. No longer would he trade solely on skill and finesse. He was rolling the dice, letting rip and taking more chances. It seemed to be working, but it was in fact the beginning of the end of a long journey.
Desperation had set in, as it does when a sliding golfer begins to fiddle with a tried and tested swing or treat himself to a new putter to cure that dreaded nervous condition known as the ‘yips’. Arnold Palmer embraced all manner of gimmicks in his bid to shoo Father Time away from his door. Tony Jacklin ended up plugging his ears when he began to hear every pin drop in a hushed crowd.
Joey Giambra simply let it all hang out. It was late in the day. He had to go for it. “Chasing champs can wear you out,” he said. “You know how far back I began hollering for a title fight? When Bobo Olson was the champ. In 1955. I fought Olson over the weight. It was a TV fight in San Francisco. I was in the Army at the time and couldn’t train the way a civilian can. At that, I deserved the decision.
“Well, Bobo wouldn’t give me a chance at the championship and neither would Sugar Ray Robinson after he got the title from Bobo on his comeback. Fullmer, Pender, Tiger – they’ve all seen my calling card. No soap.”
Giambra explained his new, no-nonsense approach eagerly: “From the cosy, lay-back boxing I did for so long, I’ve gone in for open hammer-and-tongs stuff. It may lose a fight for you here and there but you make friends, influence people. You begin to get the kind of publicity you need.
“This spring Yama Bahama was scheduled to fight Farid Salim on a national TV fight in New York. Yama got sick and I got a hurry-up call. Now Salim was a tall fellow with a good left hand and an awkward style. If I had boxed him my old way, I likely could have won but the fight would have been a stinker.
“Instead I ripped and tore. I knew I was playing into his hands, yet I also knew it would make a good impression. I wasn’t wrong. He got the decision but a short while later the TV circuit needed somebody for Florentino Fernandez at Miami Beach. They thought of me.
“Maybe you caught me on the air with Fernandez. Again, I didn’t go in for smart, stick-and-run manoeuvring. I planted my feet firmly and banged him with the most stinging shots I had, left hooks, right uppercuts, right crosses. He was game and rough, but I got through. I concentrated on his schnoz, which stands out like a headlight. I scored so often and bloodied him up so much, the referee had to stop it.
“This, friends, is the new Joey.”
Proud fighters, proud golfers, proud footballers and proud baseball players. All develop tunnel vision as age begins to nibble at their special talents. The ‘new Joey’ had already been pushing leather for too long in a torrid era of competition when only the special few could still be contending for major honours in their mid-thirties. Joey Giambra was thirty and an ‘old’ fighter. The Fernandez win was his last. Joey lost successive decisions to Denny Moyer, Luis Rodriguez and Joe DeNucci and then retired. He came in at short notice against DeNucci and put up a splendid battle before losing a split verdict.
Some time before, Giambra had said defiantly, “Some day, some champ is going to break down and give Pal Joey a chance.”
Some champ never did. It was over. Joey G from Buffalo never fought again.
LOU AMBERS: THE HERKIMER HURRICANE
The nickname was always something of a misnomer. It implied that its owner was a relentless, devil-may-care slugger with scant regard for the finer points of boxing. But Lou Ambers, the bustling, fair-haired Herkimer Hurricane from upstate New York, was always much more than that.
Lou continues to shine out from those stark and haunting fight films of some seventy years ago, youthful and vibrant, wearing that oddly contradictory little expression of uncertain innocence.
Bouncing up on his toes against a vast and black backdrop, buoyed by the excited yells and cheers from the massive crowds of the day, Ambers is always in punching range. His judgement of distance, like so many of the ring mechanics from the great school of his era, is uncannily and consistently correct. He jabs, he hooks, he throws the booming left uppercut for which he is so well renowned.
His hands are held low for maximum hooking leverage and he feints constantly with his head and shoulders, like a wily cobra about to apply its deadly bite. His hand speed, like that of Tony Canzoneri, Barney Ross and so many of his skilful brethren, is something to behold. Left hooks and right crosses flash out so fast that it is sometimes difficult for the eye to appreciate their true impact and value. He slips jabs by moving his head to one side or by pulling it out of range by the slightest fraction.
Lou Ambers was special, a great fighter and a great and willing student. He wasn’t the most accomplished of the lightweight champions, but his style and attitude made him the favourite of many. According to his manager, Whitey Bimstein, Lou was a dream to work with. Manager Al Weill, tough and unyielding as they came, also had a soft spot for Ambers.
One day in 1950, Bimstein broke off from a hard day’s work at Lou Stillman’s gym in New York to reflect on a long and successful career of training fighters. Whitey had been at it for some thirty-four years by that time and estimated that he had tutored some 7,500 boxers. Lou Ambers was his favourite.
“It was always fun working with Ambers,” Bimstein said. “You didn’t have to drive him. My job with him was to keep him from working too much. I remember when he was going to fight Lew Jenkins the second time that Al Weill wasn’t sure he wanted Ambers to keep fighting. Weill said to me to watch Ambers close. I did and I told Al he didn’t have much left.
“Weill went to Ambers and told him, ‘Lou, maybe you shouldn’t fight Jenkins.’ Do you know what? Ambers cried and said he wanted to fight. He knew he could lick Jenkins, even if he got knocked out the first time. Cried like a baby and Weill got soft and let him go in. He got knocked out. It was too bad. There was the best fighter a guy could train.
“Not that Rocky Graziano was bad, but there was a difference. Now, you take Ambers. I could put him in the ring in the gym with anybody. He would adapt his style for the guy. Let the guy run – he would chase him. Let the guy fight – he would fight him. This here Rocky is different. You gotta give him guys who punch with him or he don’t like it. Give him a boxer in the gym and it’s no good.
“Funny thing was how Ambers would get cranky when it came close to a fight. Nice kid, but he would get so cranky you couldn’t go near him.”
Lou Ambers was a hard working, dedicated man who was loyal to his loved ones and loyal to his chosen profession. Hurled by fate into one of the twentieth century’s toughest eras, he toiled long and hard for glory and suffered his share of bad luck along the way.
When Lou finally realised his dream and won the lightweight championship, he said joyously, “Now I can buy that new home for my widowed mother and help out my brothers and sisters.”
Ambers was born Luigi Giuseppe D’Ambrosio on November 8, 1913, in Herkimer, New York. A tough life quickly took shape after Lou’s father, a saloon keeper, lost his business after the great Wall Street crash of 1929.
There seemed little doubt about what direction Lou’s life would take. He got into regular fights as a little boy and later admitted that he didn’t always know why. He just knew that he enjoyed scrapping and remained in love with the fight game for the rest of his life. To his dying day, Lou never denigrated the sport. While some retired fighters ruminate and theorise on the sense of two men punching each other - having gladly grabbed their slice of the cake - Ambers would only shake his head in wonderment and say, “Oh, Jesus, I loved to fight.”
Lou cut his teeth in the bootleg shows of his day, earning anything from five to fifteen dollars for a fight. He reckoned he fought every two or three weeks, and when he came home he eased the pressure on his mother by paying the family bills.
Eager to learn and improve his boxing technique, Ambers valued the education he received from the multitude of little fight clubs frequented by scores of young hopefuls. The going was tough, because most of the young men possessed only a rudimentary knowledge of the game and their simple objective was to come out punching and hurl everything in the locker. Lou admitted to being a wild one himself, but he gradually learned to broaden his skills and correct his technical faults.
By the time he officially turned professional in 1932, he had already had countless fights and was ready for more serious competition. He flew through the ranks, losing just one of more than 50 fights as he established himself as a top lightweight contender within three years.
Then manager Al Weill went to work, as only Al could. Never the shy or retiring sort in the art of presenting a fighter’s case, Weill began pitching and nagging the authorities on behalf of his young sensation. The New York Commission had installed Ambers as the number one contender for the championship held by Barney Ross, a move that was seen by many as too premature. Other contenders such as Sammy Fuller and Harry Dublinsky were knocking at the door, and Lou’s critics were arguing that Ambers had yet to fight men of such calibre.
Al Weill kept hustling for his boy, and there were few better at that game. Weill was greatly fond of Lou and took an active and personal interest in most of the young fighters who came under his wing.
Son Marty Weill, talking of his father years later, said, “The public is familiar with the finished product, the champion. It doesn’t know what a fabulous job Al Weill did in taking these eighteen-year olds off the streets and making not just men, but champions. He not only saw to it that they learned a skill but an entire new way of life.
“When was the last time you made an eighteen-year old go to bed at 8pm, stick to a job, let alone a rugged training routine? The man that did those things, Al Weill, had to be a psychologist as well as tougher and stronger than any of the fighters he managed.
“The boxers listened because they knew he was something more than a manager to them. He was a father. As to Weill’s seeing to it that the fighters received the money due them, and that he advised them wisely, none of his champs were financially forced into making a comeback once they gave up boxing.
“Al Weill took his fighters in and adopted them as sons. He supported them financially, even to giving them money to send home to their folks. Al saw to it that new boys were given a place to stay, money for clothes, weekly expenses and a meal ticket to a neighbourhood restaurant.
“Al would pay the trainer, gym expenses, cornermen and transportation out of his own pocket and let the fighter keep the purse. He didn’t want the youngsters to get discouraged.”
In a quiet and discreet manner, Weill also helped those fighters who got themselves into trouble. Boxers in general have never been the shrewdest of investors and Lou Ambers burned his fingers when he plunged a sizeable chunk of his money into a bankrupt laundry. Pulling various strings behind the scenes, Weill recouped Lou’s money. More importantly, wise old Al would later talk Ambers out of quitting boxing after a tragic event at a crucial time in his career.
Harry Dublinsky and Sammy Fuller were blocking Lou’s path to the lightweight championship, so Weill made the matches and Lou took care of the business. Both fights were held at boxing’s Mecca of Madison Square Garden, the perfect showcase for Ambers to make his statement of intent.
Lou didn’t disappoint. Harry Dublinsky, from Chicago, was gorgeously described by one reporter as, ‘lanky, slabsided and industrious’. Harry tried his best to be industrious against Ambers but was hypnotised and rattled throughout by the youngster’s accurate left hand and jarring straight rights. Lou took a comfortable decision and now he had to knock over only one more skittle to get his shot at the world title.
Sammy Fuller was a tough, rugged battler from Boston, but he could barely make an impression on Ambers during their fast-paced, 15-rounds bout before a crowd of 10,000. Reporters hailed Ambers as one of the brightest lightweight talents to come along in years as he constantly dazzled and outwitted Sammy with clever, two-fisted attacks.
All night long, Fuller was prevented from mounting a significant rally by a stream of fast jabs and lightning right crosses. When he finally found the mark in the last round, shaking Lou with some big rights and opening a gash over his left eye, Sammy was way behind in the points tally.
Barney Ross, restless and ever ambitious, had relinquished his lightweight crown in the meantime, but the man Ambers had to overcome was no less talented or daunting. That man was the wonderful Tony Canzoneri. Lou and Tony were matched for the vacant championship at the Garden in May 1935, with Canzoneri proving too wily for the maturing youngster and posting a convincing points victory. Lou was dropped twice in a torrid third round but showed pluck and talent in taking Tony all the way.
That first championship failure was a valuable learning experience for Ambers. It taught him, among other things, that hero worship should never be taken too far. Lou had done some sparring with Canzoneri and had come to idolise the great man. Ambers would admit that the idolatry made him nervous on the night and prevented him from fighting to his full capabilities.
Lou would have to wait sixteen months for his next crack at the title. It was a typical sign of his times that he engaged in fourteen bouts during that period, seeing off the stellar likes of Fritzie Zivic, Frankie Klick and Baby Arizmendi.
One win, however, came at a terrible price. On March 17, 1936, Ambers stopped Tony Scarpati at the Broadway Arena in Brooklyn, knocking Scarpati down in the seventh round. Lou and Al Weill were departing the ring a short while later, happy with another victory after Scarpati had failed to answer the bell for the eighth round. It didn’t seem a big deal, but it turned out that Tony had been badly hurt. He died from his brain injuries three days later.
“It broke my heart,” Ambers recalled. Despondent, Lou wanted to quit the game and it was Weill who calmed him down and told him to take a rest. The fatherly talk worked. Ambers went back to the Broadway Arena to decision Pete Mascia in a benefit match for the Scarpati family and was on his way again.
Lou was ready for Tony Canzoneri when the two men clashed again at Madison Square Garden on September 3, 1936. Lou was still only twenty-two, but now a much worldlier and more seasoned ring mechanic. Canzoneri, at thirty, was already being described as an old man of the ring. In that tougher era, where the competition was fierce in all weight classes, fighters became old men very quickly.
It was the night that Tony’s fabulous but demanding career finally began to catch up with him. The great little campaigner still possessed all his old cunning and his marvellous feinting skills, but the steam was beginning to go out of his legs in distance fights.
Ambers took full advantage of his second chance at a legend, this time parking his admiration for Canzoneri to one side and putting pressure on the champion from the outset. Hungry and ambitious, Lou seized the initiative from the opening bell and befuddled Tony all the way with a steady flow of stinging punches. Wily Canzoneri was still clever and fast with his hands and nailed Ambers with some solid shots, but he could never balance the scales against Lou’s flashing jabs, hooks and uppercuts. Ambers won a convincing, unanimous decision and Tony’s face at the finish was cut and swollen. Brave and defiant as ever, the dethroned champ said, “I needed that fight under my belt – I’ll get him next time.”
Tony Canzoneri didn’t get Lou Ambers the next time. Lou was the champ and in the prime of his life as a fighter. He had learned much and worked hard to secure the prized bauble and he was determined to keep it locked in his grasp.
Lou was buzzing and everyone could see it. Writer Drew Middleton described him as “… a rough hewn little gent with the energy of a bumblebee and the persistency of a mosquito.”
In the rubber match at Madison Square Garden on May 7, 1937, Canzoneri tried his heart out in what would prove to be his last throw of the dice at world championship level. But the crowd of 11,000 at the Garden and almost everyone else seemed to know that old Tony wasn’t going to throw a seven. The newspapers in the run-up to the fight had been lavish in their praise of Canzoneri’s magnificent career, almost eerily so. The many knowing articles were advanced tributes to a man about to make his last stand. Many reporters expressed their sympathy and concern for Tony taking the bout. Their fears were well founded.
The fight was a rout for Ambers. One official handed in a 15-0 shutout for Lou. The Associated Press score sheet awarded the verdict to the champion by a score of 12-2-1.
Courageous Canzoneri took what many experienced onlookers believed to be the worst beating of his long career. A closed eye and a cut over the bridge of his nose told a different tale to the story that Tony gave reporters afterwards. “Ambers was much improved but I can still lick him,” said the old champ. “He hit me with a lot of backward slaps that should not have counted.”
Ambers hit Canzoneri with plenty more than slaps. Lou was altogether faster and more aggressive, forcing the pace and showing great accuracy with his punches. His evasive skills were often sublime as he repeatedly made Tony miss with that famously fast and powerful right hand that had done for so many in his heyday.
Ambers had proved conclusively that he was the world’s top lightweight, but there was no time to bask in his reflected glory. Fighters of Lou’s era simply didn’t have that luxury. Just take a look at any world champion’s record from sixty or more years ago. Jammed between the championship defences, you will invariably see any number of non-title matches. Most of these men had day jobs. Prize money was minimal in the lower weight divisions. If a fighter wanted to earn serious money, he kept fighting.
Ambers had ten bouts over the next eleven months and only one was a defence of his crown. Nor was he fighting guys who were meant to fall over quickly.
After notching a pair of decisions over Howard ‘Cowboy’ Scott, Lou retained his championship with a points win over previous conqueror Pedro Montanez. Within two months of that triumph, Ambers was back in the ring and going on a run that saw him rack up non-title wins over Charley Burns, Frankie Wallace, Lou Jallos, Jimmy Vaughn (twice), Jimmy Garrison and Baby Arizmendi.
Ambers couldn’t stop winning. Then he lost. And he lost to a whirlwind of a fighting man in Henry Armstrong. While Lou was a busy, bustling fighter, the incredible Armstrong took the concept of workrate to seemingly impossible levels. Homicide Hank, as he became famously known, was a furious two-fisted warrior with a slow heartbeat who would quicken his pace and crank up the pressure with each round. When others would be praying for their second wind, Armstrong would just be getting into his rhythm. He was too ferocious for Ambers on the night of August 17, 1938 at the Garden, taking Lou’s championship on a split decision.
It was some testament to Hank’s punch rate that he forfeited four rounds on fouls and still won the day.
Armstrong’s fouling was always a subject for heated discussion. Hank was a wise bird who knew as many tricks as Fritzie Zivic in that department, but the intent of many of his infractions was debatable. Like Marciano, he set a vicious pace and was entirely in his own world for much of the time once the wheels were rolling.
Nevertheless, Armstrong’s proclivity for winging ‘em south of the border would play a massive part in the outcome of his eagerly awaited return match with Ambers.
Lou had to wait a full year for the chance to regain his prized crown, and he earned that chance in the old-fashioned way by staying busy. By the time he hooked up with Homicide Hank again on August 22, 1939, Ambers had posted nine successive victories.
One could imagine Henry McLemore, a staff correspondent for the United Press, rubbing his hands and licking his chops before hitting the keys of his typewriter after the second fight between Ambers and Armstrong. When something gets under a writer’s skin, as referee Arthur Donovan got under Mr McLemore’s, there is nothing quite so pleasurable as driving home the point with a good old lashing of sledgehammer wit.
Thus McLemore wrote: “Arthur Donovan is the new lightweight boxing champion of the world. He is a bit fat for the title, particularly in the head. But he won it in Yankee Stadium last night. He won it for Lou Ambers by rendering a decision as questionable as a mongrel’s paternity.”
Never had Mr Donovan applied the rules of boxing quite so stringently, and a lot of bemused and angry reporters and fans were left wondering why. He took the second, fifth, seventh, ninth and eleventh rounds from Armstrong for fouling, and even Hank’s prodigious industry could not overturn so severe a handicap. Ambers became the world champion again by a unanimous decision.
It was a great pity that the contest was marred by controversy, as it featured two wonderful scrappers staging a magnificent fight. But for the penalties he incurred, Hank would undoubtedly have won. Lou, however, was no less impressive for his clever work and his fighting spirit.
Hank was ever relentless in his attacks, which just kept coming in waves. Yet throughout the terrific milling, Ambers was meeting the champion with a constant output of jabs, hooks and uppercuts.
Armstrong made a slow start to the fight, but found his momentum by the third round and began firing on all cylinders. Lou was all too happy to engage Hank and the two fighters ripped punches at each other at a formidable rate. Their heads banged together frequently in the furious exchanges and Hank picked up an injury to his right eye. He returned the favour when he cut Lou’s left eye in the fourth.
Such was the pace of the battle that the two warriors began to show tiredness in the eighth round, although only by their own exceptional standards. The crowd at Madison Square Garden loved what they were seeing. It was a stirring encounter between two naturally talented men whose styles and fighting pride blended perfectly.
There were no knockdowns, but Lou was very nearly felled in the fourteenth round when Hank spotted a fleeting opening and opened up with a terrific volley before Ambers could raise his guard. Armstrong’s sustained assault lasted for very nearly a minute as Lou staggered and tried to find a way out of the storm.
Outside the ring, Al Weill and Hank’s trainer Eddie Mead weren’t content to leave the fighting to their boys. Al and Eddie became embroiled in a heated argument over referee Donovan’s points deductions from Armstrong. Weill finally blew and shouted at Mead, “You’d better watch out if you keep that up!”
Armstrong and Ambers knew the fight was up for grabs by the time they came out for the fifteenth and final round. Neither man would let up as they dug each other with body shots on the ropes. Lou tagged Henry with a right to the face but took a solid right to the jaw in return.
Ambers suddenly had a phase where he caught Armstrong with a succession of lefts, while Hank misfired and seemed to be losing his way. But the wonderful Armstrong always found something when he needed to. He lost his mouthpiece after taking a couple of stiff rights, but steamed back at Ambers and was winging shots to Lou’s body at the bell.
The pro-Ambers crowd had no problems with the decision in their man’s favour, but trainer Eddie Mead was raging about the treatment to his man Armstrong by referee Donovan.
It was gorgeous grist to the mill from Eddie. “I’ll blow up boxing in this town,” he threatened. “Armstrong was penalised for every low tap, but Ambers was elbowing and thumbing throughout the fight and wasn’t even given a warning.”
Meads, of course, didn’t blow up boxing in New York. The old Empire State continued to flourish, the Garden continued to bloom and Henry Armstrong went on to become a living legend.
Lou Ambers, the Herkimer Hurricane, typically blew on to the next assignment. The Hurricane would meet a tornado of a man called Lew Jenkins further down the road, but let us not spoil a good yarn with that sad tale.
STANLEY KETCHEL: WAY OF THE GUN
Nobody knew why middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel carried his favourite guns with him wherever he went. It is quite possible that nobody dared to ask.
Ketchel the fighter was easy to assess: a burning ball of energy, all cunning skills and thrills, punching all the time, never giving an inch. He was the Michigan Assassin. He was the Slasher. There were all sorts of apt and glorious names for Ketchel the fighter.
But who could figure out Ketchel the man? He wasn’t right and most people knew it. Almost certainly psychotic, Stanley’s demeanour from one day to the next was almost impossible to predict. Would he be smiling or sneering? How long before the lid blew off again and what would he do when it did?
After shooting a friend in the foot during a rage, Ketchel wept tears of remorse as he picked the man up in his arms and rushed him to a doctor. Stanley’s mood swings would constantly rocket from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other.
This was the man known as ‘Steve’ to his closest friends.
Hype Igoe, a great New York boxing writer and raconteur, enjoyed a close friendship with Ketchel, falling under the wild child’s spell like so many others. Sensible men who follow life’s rules have a guarded admiration for dangerous men who don’t. Ketchel was swashbuckling, freewheeling, a man forever on fire and ready to storm on to the next adventure.
Igoe was Ketchel’s unofficial manager when Stanley first came to New York, protecting his young tiger, indulging him, waiting always for the next exciting eruption and perhaps knowing that the end game would be premature and violent.
Ketchel’s way was the way of the fist and the way of the gun. He didn’t do diplomacy. He didn’t sit down and fill in ten different forms when he wanted something. It was fitting that he lived and died in his chosen time. Today’s society would control him, section him, neuter him and quite possibly drive him to suicide or a Jimmy Cagney-style ‘top of the world, ma’ exit.
Hype Igoe was left with many a colourful memory of Stanley, such as the time he nearly shot a sarcastic waiter. Recalled Hype: “ I nearly died of anxiety in Wheeling, West Virginia, one morning, when we went to breakfast in the Clark House.
“One of the waiters gave Ketchel a snippy answer about the kind of eggs and bacon they had on tap and I saw Steve reach for the gun under the table cloth.”
Ketchel was in a foul mood. He had broken his left hand in his recent fight with Frank Klaus and the pain from the swelling was driving him to despair. Igoe knew that he had to do some fast thinking to avoid a disaster. “I bit into my thin water glass and cut my mouth purposely, and with blood running from my lips I yelled for Ketchel to see me to the wash room.
“He stuck his gun in his waistband and hustled me off. I insisted that I was bleeding to death and he must hustle me to a doctor. Anything to get away from that waiter. The ruse worked.”
However, Igoe would learn that friendship never got in the way of business with Ketchel. Returning from a trip to Philadelphia, Hype was sitting in a Pullman drawing room when Stanley came in and threw two of his pistols on the table. “I want to talk a little business to you, Hype. I think I prefer having Wilson Mizner manage me from now on.”
That was it. No debate, no room for discussion
“That’s fine,” said Igoe.
On October 15 1910, at Pete Dickerson’s ranch in Missouri, Stanley Ketchel broke an old western rule he had always observed. Distracted by the charms of waitress Goldie Smith, Stan sat with his back to the kitchen door and paid with his life.
Goldie was the girlfriend of farmhand Walter Dipley, with whom Ketchel had already clashed. Stan had earlier riled Dipley after scolding him for beating a horse. Now Dipley was enraged by Ketchel’s flirting with Goldie
His gun across his lap, Stan was blind to Dipley coming through the door and taking aim with a rifle. Fatally, Ketchel thought he was having his leg pulled when Dipley commanded him to throw up his hands. Stan got up and was in the act of turning when Dipley fired a .22 calibre bullet into Ketchel’s back, directly beneath the right shoulder blade. The bullet surged upwards and punctured a lung.
Stan fell to the floor. Dipley left the room but then returned to snatch up Stan’s revolver and give the fallen idol a crack over the head with the weapon before fleeing.
Ketchel died at six minutes past seven that evening at the Springfield hospital. His friend Pete Dickerson had organised a special train and taken three physicians on board. They had performed an operation on Stanley earlier, but had failed to locate the bullet.
When the shock and the grief went away, people who had taken the rollercoaster ride with Stanley Ketchel knew that a rocking chair on a porch would have been a far crueller end for him.
ARCHIE MOORE: FROM AUSTRALIA TO SAN DIEGO
When the young globetrotting Archie Moore went ‘down under’ to meet the Aborigines of Australia in 1940, it was definitely a case of “G’day mate, let’s get slim.”
Moore, a coming middleweight at the time, was concerned about his weight as he approached an important fight with Ron Richards at the Sydney Stadium. Richards was something of a national hero in Australia, a three-weight champion (middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight) with an impressive 85-19-7 record.
People would constantly wonder in the years ahead how Archie could lose weight so quickly before a fight without seeming to lose his strength and endurance. He learned the secret whilst staying at a ranch in the Megalong Valley, about 70 miles outside Sydney.
There he made his first contact with the Aboriginal people and he was at once impressed at how they lived in perfect harmony with their gods and nature. He was also intrigued by his discovery that there appeared to be no such thing as a fat Aborigine.
Moore explained: “I heard stories of how they were capable of crossing hundreds of miles in the desolate Australian bush country with only a pouch of dried meat. It dawned on me they must derive their staying power from their diet or living habits, and probably both.
“On those fantastic long treks through the wilderness, they got by on the strength they received by chewing the dried meat. The essence of the meat was the secret. They swallowed no bulk but chewed and chewed on a piece of jerked beef until every last drop of juice was extracted, and then chewed some more. As for water, they were known to go days without it.
“If they got by on the juices of what they ate, so could I. If it was possible for me to keep my strength just with the liquid that entered my body from chewing my food, why did I have to swallow the bulk? I tried it. I chewed each piece of medium rare steak until there was not a drop of moisture left and then discarded what was left. After a week I found I was as strong as ever and had lost two pounds. Two pounds of too, too solid flesh.”
One has to admire Moore’s commitment. To discard the actual meat of a piece of meat is almost a criminal act to all but vegetarians. But the future champion of the world admitted that he found his new regimen tough. “May I point out that chewing without swallowing is not easy? It is agony and it will nearly drive you crazy not to swallow a succulent cut of meat. And at first I was a constant back-slider, gulping down an occasional morsel, but my will to lose weight was stronger than my taste buds, and now I can use this method with no qualms.”
In the early going of his fight against Ron Richards, Archie must have wondered if his magic diet had turned him into Clark Kent instead of Superman. Moore was quickly decked by a counter punch and took a count of nine. When he arose, that clever brain that would make him a legend began to go to work, no doubt boosted by the pure meat juice with which he had filled his tank.
“I shifted from my usual shell defense to a crab defense. Face covered, one eye peeping under a thumb, and forearms and elbows taking all the punches. Slowly I came out of it and began to box him very carefully, highly defensively.
“I kept moving, moving, never letting him get set and never keeping myself stationary either. In the third round I managed to nuisance jab him so much I got his nose bleeding. In the fourth I moved up with my jabs and cut him over both eyes. The fifth and sixth rounds found me worrying these wounds, and in the seventh he made a tremendous rally, but I was able to hold him in check. During the eighth I managed to open up a few more cuts on his lips and ear and he looked a mess. In the tenth round they stopped the fight.”
The following morning, Archie awoke to find that the sports headlines were all about him. “Richards was a triple crown holder, so beating him in those days was like beating Joe Louis in the States. I had become a name fighter.”
Archie won another five fights in Australia, including a second victory over Ron Richards, before returning home to San Diego with a glowing reputation as a man to be watched in the middleweight division. Moore enhanced his status when he fought a ten rounds draw with the ranking Eddie Booker at the San Diego Coliseum in February, 1941.
The ill-fated Booker, known as ‘Black Dynamite’, was a revelation in his own right, a beautiful boxer whose career was sadly cut short by detioriating eyesight. Eddie lost just eight of his 79 fights. Hank Kaplan, one of the great trainers and historians, rated Booker as the tenth greatest middleweight of all.
Moore was moving up fast and was set to fight the cream of a crowded and multi-talented division. What happened next, however, could have quite easily killed him. Raking leaves and enjoying the sunshine one pleasant afternoon, Archie was suddenly crippled by pain.
Recalled Moore: “It was as if a knife had been thrown swiftly into my stomach I doubled over in pain. Sharp, agonizing darts of pain in my abdomen. The next thing I remember was being driven to the hospital.
“A young doctor, John Pollack, was assigned to me, and I was suffering such intense pain he had to force me to lie flat. Dr Pollack said I had a perforated ulcer and would have to have an immediate operation. With all the pain, I almost flipped lying there, for I felt that abdominal surgery would be the end of Archie Moore, fighter.
“Back in some corner of my mind a memory fought to get out. I recalled meeting a fighter who had resumed boxing after an operation for appendicitis. And he told me he had asked the doctor to make the incision a certain way – to cut along the muscles and separate them rather than cut through.
“I pleaded with my doctor almost incoherently to make a similar incision, but he did understand and he did perform the operation just that way. Many people seated at ringside have noticed the scar shaped like a hockey stick on my stomach, and it is the result of Dr Pollack making the incision down the solar plexus and then sideways.”
Those painful days must have seemed endless for Archie. His boxing career had been going so well. He wanted to fight again. He wanted to get back on track. “I was in the hospital for 38 days. I weighed 163lbs when I entered the hospital and was discharged weighing 108. I found out I had survived peritonitis. At that time it was fatal in a great number of cases, since drugs like penicillin were not in common use, if at all.
“I think I beat peritonitis by having a body that was extremely fit. Following peritonitis I developed pneumonia, a common side effect.”
If Moore thought his problems were over, he couldn’t have been more mistaken. The gods were far from finished playing their cruel game. His failure to put on significant weight was the next big worry.
“My weight went up slowly from 108 to 120, but I couldn’t seem to gain any more than that. Slowly, ounce by ounce, I gained another 15lbs, but then my weight stayed exactly at 135. It was most puzzling. I was eating and resting but not gaining weight.”
It wasn’t long before Archie got the answer to the puzzle. Returning from the beach one day, he was once again doubled over by abdominal pain. This time his assailant was acute appendicitis. As we like to say these days, you couldn’t make it up.
“I was admitted to the hospital without delay. I was told I had to be operated on immediately and I was assured this operation was not as complicated as the previous one and I would be up and walking around in a matter of days. I was dubious, but they were right. Very shortly after that I gained weight rapidly and in no time at all I was up to 155.”
Archie Moore the fighter was finally ready to fight again. With the grim and unswerving determination he had shown in the hospital, Moore hacked away for the next eleven years in arguably the most competitive era of all before knocking down the door and taking the light heavyweight championship from Joey Maxim.
Countless fights. Multiple eliminators. Kicked around, delayed and held in check by by the powers that be. But Archie did it and then gave everyone his own polite version of the one finger salute by reigning for over a decade.
Must have been something he ate.
VIDEO: ARCHIE MOORE v HAROLD JOHNSON
DON JORDAN: ASSASSIN FOR HIRE
Was he making it all up? Apparently not. Don Jordan, former welterweight champion of the world, had led a violent and turbulent life right from the start. Nevertheless, the cold and detached way in which he recounted his dirty deeds was quietly bone-chilling.
In 1969, Jordan sat down to discuss his career as a boxer and his early years in his native Dominican Republic with author Peter Heller. Jordan coughed out the details with all the apathy of a computer processing a market report.
“Do you really want to know the truth about the Dominican Republic?” he asked Heller. “It’s dog eat dog. It’s a jungle. That’s how I learned to fight. I was what you call a hired assassin. I was paid to kill people for a living. I did it. I was happy. It was a way of living. I was killing people when I was ten years old. What’s wrong with it?
“I killed thirty people in one month. Then my people tell me, ‘Think what you do. Do you know these people?’ I said, “I never seen them. It’s just for money. They said, ‘Think how these people feel. Study these people.’ And when I’d blow somebody’s brains out, I’d watch his face. It used to bug the shit out of me. The expression and anxiety in their face, the structure of it. I knew what they meant by it. You cannot kill a human and forget his face. You never forget a man you kill.
“We used bamboa, poison dart, straight in the neck. Put fluid in the brain, it kills the body very quick. The police didn’t give a damn. They didn’t want to fight because they didn’t want to get killed. They look for you, but they don’t try to find you.”
Don Jordan fought professionally from 1953 to 1962, winning 51, losing 23 and drawing one of his 76 fights. The reason these figures add up to 75 instead of 76 is because of an odious ‘no contest’ in Jordan’s last fight against Battling Torres at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles on October 5, 1962. Decked in the first round by a seemingly innocuous punch, Jordan didn’t get up and was suspended for life by the California State Athletic Commission. Don had more than a morsel of history when it came to not trying his best.
His prime years coincided with the reign of mobsters Frankie Carbo, Blinky Palermo and Joe Sica, a time when many top fighters ‘belonged’ to certain camps. Jordan won the welterweight championship from Virgil Akins in 1958, defending successfully against Akins and Denny Moyer before losing the crown on a unanimoys decision to Benny (Kid) Paret at Las Vegas in 1960.
Discussing the Paret fight with Peter Heller, Jordan said, “I gave it to him. I beat him 13 rounds without trying, then suddenly I quit fighting, I quit. The deal was in. He had to win. And I never got a rematch. Back east they didn’t want it because I can whip him. They said, ‘You’re dead as far as we’re concerned. Back here we’ve got things moving.’ That’s why I never got a rematch. Paret was under the Carbo brothers, Frank and Nick Carbo, out of Miami. I was with the McCoy family.”
It was perhaps inevitable that Don Jordan should die as violently as he lived. He took the final count on April 13, 1997, having been in a coma for some seven months after being assaulted and robbed in a Los Angeles parking lot. He was 62.
“What’s wrong with killing a human?” he had asked Peter Heller. “The first time you kill someone, you throw up, you get sick as a dog. Your guts come out, you cry, you throw up. The second time, no feeling.”
Jordan’s killers quite probably viewed life and death from the same perspective.
ALEJANDRO LAVORANTE: ROCKET TO THE MOON
Between the violent rush of Luis Angel Firpo and the beefy menace of Oscar (Ringo) Bonavena, there was another Argentinian heavyweight ace who looked the part in every way and aimed his rocket firmly at the richest prize in sport.
Alejandro Lavorante, handsome, athletic and hard punching, soared into the upper echelon of the world top ten before tragically crashing to earth in what seemed like the blink of an eye.
Everything seemed so bright and wonderful in the spring of 1961 after Lavorante had stunned fight fans by knocking out Arizona’s highly ranked Zora Folley in seven rounds, decking Zora four times. The spectacular victory sent Alejandro zooming to fourth spot in the world heavyweight ratings and made him big news and a man to be feared by his peers. Was it a victory that flattered to deceive? Was this young and charismatic kid as good as he appeared to be?
Folley was at a low ebb in his career, having campaigned unsuccessfully for a shot at world champion Floyd Patterson. Zora had beaten fellow top contender Eddie Machen and a host of other quality opponents, but Floyd’s challengers were seldom selected on merit by his hugely protective manager, Cus D’Amato. Folley was quietly dangerous. Sonny Liston was loudly dangerous. One wonders how Ingemar Johansson ever got through D’Amato’s quality control system. Then Folley got bombed out in three rounds by Liston and was sent reeling all the way back to square one.
It didn’t matter. Boxing is a perfect microcosm of life in its fickle nature and people only had eyes for the new boy on the block. He was big, he was handsome and he could hit.
Jack Dempsey had spotted Lavorante’s talent on a sojourn to Venezuela, where Jack saw the Argentinian youngster in several amateur fights in Caracas. Alejandro’s countryman, Alex Miteff, a solid world class operator in a ten year career running from 1957 to 1967, didn’t want to fight Lavorante in the amateurs because the handsome one was ‘too tall’ at 6’ 3”.
There had been some decent Argentinian heavyweights since Luis Angel Firpo, but none with Firpo’s charisma and clout. There was Jorge Bresca, Cesar Brion (who fought Joe Louis) and Abel Cestac. Probably the best of the bunch was Vittorio Campolo, who certainly was tall at 6’ 4” and hit the beam at around 235lbs. Vittorio knocked out Tom Heeney, defeated Arthur De Kuh and drew and lost against Johnny Risko. A points loss to Tommy Loughran and knockout defeats to Ernie Schaaf and Primo Carnera eventually encouraged Campolo to return to his native land.
Lavorante’s arrival on the stage was timely for Argentinian boxing. In The Ring ratings of September, 1961, shortly after Alejandro knocked out Folley, there were only three other Argentinians holding top ten positions in the eight weight divisions: welterweights Jorge Fernandez and Federico Thompson and the dethroned and fading flyweight great, Pascual Perez.
Lavorante generated tremendous excitement in Argentina. Simon Bronenberg, the country’s leading sports writer and editor of the time, said of Alejandro: “He is not as ferocious as was Firpo. He is not as heavy a hitter, nor has he the powerful build of Firpo, but we know he is a good, all round talented fighter. We have high hopes he will get a chance to fight for the heavyweight title.
“He is no playboy. Like Firpo, he takes his work seriously. He is not a spendthrift, and in that respect he resembles Luis. The big difference between him and Firpo is that Luis took it for granted he was a great fighter and didn’t like to train. Lavorante loves working in the gymnasium and in the outdoors.”
Manager Paul (Pinky) George, a colorful character of the era, had gambled $600 on bringing Lavorante to Los Angeles and supervising his progress after hearing Jack Dempsey’s appraisal of the budding star. That progress was far too fast, despite Pinky’s attempts to justify it. Talk about a fast track programme.
Everyone was rushing. The urge to hurry Lavorante along was almost manic. That’s what hits you like a hammer when you mull over his brutally short and meteoric career. In only his fifth fight, he was matched with Roy Harris, who had bravely failed in his challenge against Patterson. But Roy knew his stuff and he knew too much for Alejandro in posting a unanimous points victory.
Nevertheless, the express train kept charging along. Lavorante was having only his fourteenth fight and still had much to learn when he knocked out Folley at the Olympic Auditorium. The smell of money blurred everyone’s thinking. George Parnassus, matchmaker at the Olympic, offered Floyd Patterson $500,000 to fight Alejandro. Floyd replied that he would only accept a million for that assignment. It was all happening and Lavorante had only Sonny Liston, Eddie Machen and Henry Cooper ahead of him on the contenders list. Boxing was about to witness its own version of the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade.
Pinky George, who had managed two other heavyweight contenders in Johnny Paychek and Lee Savold, never needed any encouragement to talk and he couldn’t stop talking about his boy Alejandro. “We’re shooting for the moon,” said Pinky. “This fighter is only a kid. He has just turned twenty-five. I overmatched him against Harris and knew he was not ready, but it was the only way to hurdle the fence. Lavorante threatened to return to his native land unless I matched him with some outstanding heavyweights so that he could prove he was not a dub.”
That might well have been true, but a good and responsible manager doesn’t allow a young prospect to dictate terms. After Folley, Alejandro racked up another five wins in five months before losing a hotly disputed decision to fellow contender George Logan in George’s hometown of Boise. Undeterred, Lavorante knocked out Von Clay in two rounds just three weeks later.
Then Pinky George shot for the moon. He matched Alejandro with Archie Moore. By 1962, Archie was in the autumn phase of his long and fabulous career and was beginning to look like a man on his last legs. He had been pushing leather since 1936. He was old. He was creaking. He was pudgy. A juicy target for a young lion.
But Moore had a veritable encyclopaedia of knowledge stored in that wise old head of his, and he utilised it to the maximum in giving Lavorante the most painful and protracted education of his boxing life. Alejandro was stopped in the tenth round at the L.A. Sports Arena, but that bare statistic is akin to saying that the Light Brigade suffered a bit of a loss at the Battle of Balaclava.
Lavorante was carried from the ring on a stretcher. The pictures of him being helped onto his stool, his trunks a bloody mess, are still hard to look at. He looked as if he had been pulled from a mangled car.
Right to the end of his career, the meticulous Moore did his own scouting and kept mental and written notes on what he saw. He was the Sherlock Holmes of boxing in his attention to detail. Publisher Bert Sugar once invited Archie to the The Ring magazine’s office and sat him in a quiet place so that he could check his fight record. Sugar wanted to be sure that The Ring’s version didn’t contain any inaccuracies. He was astonished by Archie’s recollection of who he had fought umpteen years ago, where he had fought them and what exactly had happened.
When Lavorante knocked out Von Clay, Moore was at ringside to witness the quick demolition. Most onlookers could only see thunder and lightning around Alejandro. Archie could see the green edges. He said: “It doesn’t take me more than thirty seconds to size up a fighter. In this case I was afforded almost two minutes to contemplate other matters.”
So why was Lavorante thrown back into the fire in against Cassius Clay less than three months later? Where were the calm and sensible heads? It seemed that Pinky George and everyone involved with Alejandro, had become blind to what was going on. Greed had prevailed. The boy from Argentina had become a side of marketable beef. Best to get the most out of him before he went off.
In the young and lithe Clay, Lavorante met the real king in waiting and was completely outsped and outboxed. His head repeatedly jerked back by accurate jabs, Alejandro was systematically taken apart and knocked out in five rounds. In two punishing fights, the combined punches of a fading legend and a coming legend had pushed the Argentinian to the edge of the abyss.
Just two months after the Clay defeat, on September 21, 1962, Alejandro was matched with John Riggins at the Olympic Auditorium. On paper it was a far more sensible match, a ‘cooling off’ fight against an in-and-outer who had won just three of his last ten bouts. For the best part of five rounds, Lavorante boxed well and was winning handily. Then Riggins caught him with one of ‘those’ punches. These are the punches that are not necessarily spectacular but are the equivalent of adding one brick too many to a towering and unstable structure.
Thirty-two years before, at the Recreation Park in San Francisco, Max Baer threw such a punch at Frankie Campbell and realised instinctively its significance. Said Max: “In the second round I started to get desperate. I swung harder but missed by an even greater distance than I had missed in the first round. I threw one right so hard that when I missed by at least two feet I lost my balance and slipped to the floor. The crowd laughed and I felt like a fool.
“But that slip turned out to be very important. Frankie thought he had knocked me down, so he immediately turned his back and headed for the nearest neutral corner.
“I jumped up without taking a count and lunged toward him. He must have heard me coming because he started to spin around. As he turned, I aimed a right at his head, which caught him high on the jaw. As I recall, he was not completely turned toward me when the punch landed.
“Frankie didn’t go down. In fact he didn’t appear hurt at all. He resumed sticking his long left in my face as he had been doing since the fight began. But to this day, I still think that the punch which caught him on the jaw when he was partly turned around did the damage.”
The damage led to Frankie Campbell’s death.
The right hand with which John Riggins struck Alejandro Lavorante sent the youngster spinning into a disarray from which he never recovered. Alejandro came up for the sixth round, but his resistance and reflexes were gone. He wobbled from the slightest punches before a left hook dropped him for the full count.
All that was left was Lavorante’s exemplary fighting spirit. Within the coma that enveloped him on his arrival at the hospital, he seemed to be fighting a private and quite titanic battle against the Grim Reaper. It was a battle that lasted for nineteen months. Complex brain surgery was performed and Alejandro could actually stand up and speak at one point, although he could never open his eyes.
He finally died in Mendoza, Argentina on April 1, 1964. Time should not forget him.
WHEN EDER JOFRE ROCKED L.A.
California was rocking. It was the summer of 1960 and nothing could be finer than watching big time boxing in the Golden State. The exciting fights kept coming and so did the exciting fighters.
George Parnassus, matchmaker at the Olympic Auditorium and known as the Silver Fox of boxing, was using all of his flair and imagination to give fight fans what they wanted to see. Los Angeles was the magical candy store of boxing where all sizes and flavours of goodies were on sale. Parnassus was celebrating his third anniversary as the Olympic’s matchmaker and he couldn’t have invented a better track record for himself.
Georgie-Porgie, as he was affectionately known, had staged nine world championship matches, twice smashed the California gate receipts record and brought in the best boxing stars from Mexico, England, France, Italy, Germany, Cuba, Venezuela, Japan, Argentina and the Philippines.
Thrilling the fans were such marquee names as Jose Becerra, Alphonse Halimi, Carlos Ortiz, Battling Torres, Carmen Basilio, Art Aragon, Hogan (Kid) Bassey, Ricardo (Parajito) Moreno, Raton Macias, Davey Moore Ike Chestnut, Archie Moore and Tony Anthony.
Then came the Boy from Brazil. On August 18, the brilliantly gifted Eder Jofre made his American debut at the Olympic against a tough and hard punching Mexican who few others cared to fight: Jose Medel. The 12 rounds match would see the winner challenge the one bantamweight in Mexico who stood above Medel, world champion Jose Becerra.
Now Becerra could punch. He had knocked out 42 opponents in his 66 wins and had lost only three times in his 73 fights. Those who had tracked Jofre’s relentless progress through the ranks were already beginning to salivate at the prospect of a head-on collision between the Mexican king and his Brazilian heir apparent. The young Eder had won all of his 36 fights, 23 inside the distance.
Against the teak tough Medel, Jofre truly came of age, showing the L.A. fans his wonderful ability as an all round boxer and puncher who could win a fight any way he had to.
There didn’t seem to be an element of the game at which the Brazilian didn’t excel. As well as skill and power, Jofre was one of the ring’s great thinkers who combined excellent speed and timing with almost saintly patience. A tall man for a bantamweight, he never looked awkward in the semi-crouch from which he plotted and fired his artillery. Ever jinking, bobbing and weaving, he was able to co-ordinate his thoughts and actions seamlessly and with devastating effect.
It was Eder’s preference to play a chess match with his opponent, assessing the other man’s strengths and weaknesses and drawing his early fire before beginning the systematic process of breaking him down.
But if the game plan went out of the window and an old-fashioned fight was called for, Jofre was no less efficient at biting the bullet and getting the job done. He possessed an uncanny ability to adapt and adjust his style in the heat of battle, his cool brain working out the logistics and formulating the appropriate game plan.
In 1960, Eder was still a masterpiece in progress, the paint yet to fully dry on a work of art that would be compared to a miniature Sugar Ray Robinson in the years to follow. But the picture we had was still pretty good to be going on with.
That was a good thing for Jofre, because Jose Medel was not the sort of fellow to obligingly step aside for anyone. Canny, dangerous and brave in the trenches, Medel came into the ring at the Olympic determined to shunt Jofre off the rails and set up an all-Mexican battle with Becerra.
Georgie-Porgie Parnassus had done it again. The fans were treated to a classic and savage battle of skill, hard hitting and endurance as Jofre displayed his talent as a magnificent two-handed fighter. Medel spat defiance all the way, hitting back with hard punches and showing his mettle.
The two great bantamweight cocks traded blows for the best part of ten thrilling rounds before Eder lowered the boom. Bleeding from the nose, Jofre struck Medel with a perfect right cross that sent the Mexican warrior to his knees. It was all but over. Jose was saved by the bell at the count of six, but his handlers wouldn’t allow him out for the eleventh round.
However, there was a twist to the story. Twelve days later, another Mexican firebrand rose up to throw a spanner in the works when Eloy Sanchez, a recent loser to Medel, sensationally knocked out Jose Becerra in the eighth round of a non-title match. It was a victory that stunned the boxing world and stunned Becerra into retirement.
On November 18, 1960, Jofre returned to the Olympic to win the N.B.A. version of the world championship when he knocked out Eloy Sanchez in six rounds.
The king was dead. Long live the king.
EARLY TRAIN TO BROKEN JAW: SONNY LISTON
The omens were not good when a young Sonny Liston caught the train from St Louis to Detroit in the fall of 1954. What was to follow was a bitter-sweet saga of hilarity and poignancy, one of those teasing stories that people love to relate in the years that follow when they are pulling the Devil’s tail from a safe distance.
Big and tough, a good boxer with a great jab and genuine punching power, Liston was making steady progress as an unbeaten professional as he headed for his eighth fight against the erratic but dangerous local boy, Marty Marshall on September 7th. It wasn’t a big fight and it didn’t have the smell of future significance.
Liston was coming along nicely, but he had yet to blossom into the almost mythical man killer who would scare the life out of opponents and worry even President Kennedy. Sonny had won five of his first seven fights by decision and wasn’t setting off any alarm bells. All that most people wanted to know was whether the second match between Rocky Marciano and Ezzard Charles in ten days time would be as thrilling as the first.
Up to then, Liston had felt safe and assured in the ring because he had felt safe and assured outside it. Now the people he trusted weren’t with him. Manager Frank Mitchell told Sonny to catch an early train to Detroit on his own. Mitchell and Liston’s other handlers would follow on the next day.
By the time of the weigh-in, Mitchell and his colleagues were still absent. Alone in his dressing room, Liston taped his own hands. Nothing felt right and nor did Sonny. There was no hustle-bustle, no comforting voices, no slaps on the back and words of encouragement
Liston later explained: “If you’re cold inside, you can’t get started. A fighter’s got to think one thing before a fight – getting as evil as he can. I had too many things on my mind. I was mad at my manager instead of Marty Marshall, the guy I was gonna fight. Besides, you need somebody to tell you what to do and what to look for. Monroe Harrison, my trainer, always used to yell, ‘Watch out, he might be carrying a gun!’ But Monroe wasn’t there either.
When you are feeling disoriented and out of time, the last thing you need to meet is a madman. Marty Marshall had a funky ring act and he was dangerous with it. He liked to jump up in the air occasionally. He liked to whoop and holler. Then he like to hit you hard.
Sonny had never met the like of him and just couldn’t get into ‘killer’ mode. “He was hollerin’ and going on and I knocked him down,” Liston recalled. “He got up and I was laughing. He caught me with my mouth open and broke my jaw – least I thought it was broke. If you can’t close your mouth, you know something’s wrong.
“That was in the fourth round. In the sixth he pops me again and the jaw busts again in a different place. It felt funny fighting with my mouth open, but it didn’t bother me none until later on after the fight.”
Liston lost a split decision, but the real pain was still to come. “I walked the streets all night, it hurt so bad. I finally went to the hotel doctor and he gave me some pills and charged me $20. Back in St Louis, I got my mouth wired up. I know I’m going to be out of action for six months. I had to eat with a straw for five weeks. But when I ask the manager for the $20 for the pills, he says, ‘Oh no, that comes off your end.’ Then I got mad.”
It was a lesson learned and Liston the man emerged from it. No more Mr Nice Guy. No more managers and handlers who couldn’t do their jobs properly. No more tolerance of clowns who came into the ring for a laugh. Seven months later, Sonny knocked down Marshall four times and stopped him in six rounds.
Ever economical with his words, Liston summed up the new deal with quiet menace: “I was like a baby learning to walk. You got to have somebody hold you up at first. Now I don’t need anybody but the referee – to pull me off somebody.”
VIDEO: SONNY LISTON v CLEVELAND WILLIAMS
LOWER EAST SIDE STORY: THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ROCKY AND JAKE
After all the punches had been thrown and all the cuts and bruises had healed, Jake LaMotta was in the mood to look back and reflect on the good and bad things about his life. He recalled a hot summer afternoon on the Lower East Side in New York, where a crowd was watching two boys fighting in the street.
“These two kids were a lot alike,” said Jake. “They were 12 years old. They were tough. In their kind of poverty you had to be tough to live and carry your head up. They fought bitterly for one solid hour, without gloves or rules, while the crowd cheered, egging them on. Only when it seemed as if they were both going to drop from exhaustion did someone in the crowd break it up and call it a draw.
“One of those kids was Rocky Graziano. The other was me, Jake LaMotta. We both became middleweight champions of the world.
“It got to be a pattern. I came to expect that in the course of a day I would get into at least a couple of fights. After a while I didn’t bother much about arguing. My fists would settle any argument. My hands got very sore from punching other guys’s heads.”
Getting to the meat of it, LaMotta said: “The road to the title almost broke my heart. To get a chance at the championship, I had to make a deal with the fight mob, the crooked managers, just as Rocky had gone along with the same kind of wise guys, just as many other fighters have gone along with a system that makes it almost impossible for a fighter to be both independent and successful.”
Rocky Graziano didn’t go quite so deep or wax quite so lyrical about the toughness of his early life. He almost parodied it. “You take a look at my face or Jake LaMotta’s face, and everybody else’s face in the fight game, and you’ll know that it’s a tough business. Anyone that becomes a fighter has got to be wacky or crazy.
“When you’re playing football, you got twenty-six guys on your side, when you’re playing baseball you got twenty-whatever guys on your side, basketball you got a gang of guys on your side. When you’re in the ring, you’re all alone, baby.”
There were several significant differences between Graziano and LaMotta. One of the most important of these was that Rocky, for all his fiery resistance to authority, was kinder at heart than Jake and had a more temperate streak. Rocky was also a curiously honourable man who drew his own special line in the sand and wouldn’t be pushed beyond its boundary.
LaMotta said that Graziano went along with the bad guys. But not to the extent that Jake did. When a certain guy called up Rocky at Stillman’s gym and offered him $50,000 to throw a fight, Graziano told him to ‘go take a crap’. His mistake was not reporting the matter to the boxing authorities, for which he received a suspension. When LaMotta was offered $100,000 to throw his 1947 fight with Billy Fox, Jake accepted. Reluctantly so, but he took the money in return for a title shot later on.
The difference between Jake LaMotta and Rocky Graziano was the difference between Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Frank was always flattered by the attention of The Mob and attracted to the gangster lifestyle and folklore. He reasoned, perhaps to make himself feel better about it, that it wasn’t wise to argue with such men.
Yet the debonair Martin coolly punched a hole that old chestnut one day at the Cal Neva Club at Lake Tahoe. Dino was having a bite to eat when a wise guy sat down at his table and asked him if he would do a favour or two for some friends who would show their appreciation. The guy reached across to grab one of Martin’s French fries and Dino slapped his hand and rebuffed the offer. The wise guy never came around again and nor did any of his friends.
Graziano never denied his wrongdoings or punching a bunch of guys along the way. But he made it a law not to hit anyone old or frail and he certainly didn’t smash or club an innocent person to the brink of death in a frenzied attack.
LaMotta very nearly nipped his boxing career in the bud after a vicious and sustained street assault on a shop owner who had done him no harm. Jake wrapped a lead pipe in newspapers and hid in an alley before springing on the man and knocking him to the ground. The badly hurt man kept moaning and LaMotta kept hitting him until the moaning stopped. The man lived but began to haunt Jake’s mind.
After a spell at the Coxsackie correctional facility in upstate New York, an obsessed LaMotta returned to the scene of his crime, repeatedly walking past the shop owned by the man he could have killed. It became a tortuous ritual, a penitence of sorts. The man was never there. Then Jake finally caught a glimpse of him.
“He was paler than I remembered him, grayer and weak-looking, but alive. I stopped and stared, unable to believe it for a moment. Then I thought, ‘Maybe he’ll look up and recognise me’. I went away, trying not to run. I have never passed that shop again.”
JOSE URTAIN: THE PICTURESQUE PUNCHER
Whatever the era, it’s always the same pattern with heavyweight prospects. Nothing happens for ages and then – like the legendary London bus – three or four come along at the same time.
Is Seth Mitchell the man to topple one or both of the Klitschko brothers? How far will David Price and Tyson Fury progress? Will the 31-0 Denis Boytsov finally do something daring before hair starts growing out of his ears?
Back in 1970, we were all getting excited by a couple of bombers who were destroying opponents as ruthlessly as Lee Marvin destroyed tequila.
Mac Foster, out of Fresno, California, and Jose Urtain, from the Basque region of Spain, began to tingle the blood of fight writers and fans alike. Both men had a suitable air of mystery and menace about them, but it was Urtain who captured the imagination of American scribes who had heard colourful tales of a super strong man lurking in the Spanish hills, waiting to burst onto the world stage.
The memories of Ingemar Johansson’s decimation of Floyd Patterson were still vivid. Would this slugger Urtain come to America and put a stick of dynamite under world champion Joe Frazier?
Everything bubbled up very nicely. Urtain made the cover of The Ring’s July 1970 issue and was hailed as the strongest man in boxing. It was mischievously suggested that he might even be a superman. He was pictured lifting up cars, holding enormous rocks over his head and casually draping goats around his shoulders. Even Oscar Bonavena and George Foreman couldn’t do that kind of stuff.
However, Ring editor Nat Fleischer cautioned us not to jump the gun until we had seen more of the Spanish sensation. For now, said Nat, the stone-lifting publicity was fun enough to be going on with. “It is singular and picturesque,” he wrote soberly.
Urtain piled up 27 consecutive knockout victories over tame opposition before his seemingly impregnable suit of armour suddenly began to rust and fall apart. He knocked out Germany’s Peter Weiland to win the European title, but the rather messy victory was no garden party for the Spanish puncher.
Weiland was a character but he was nobody’s pushover. He would sometimes wear his favourite hairpiece into the ring, said to weigh all of four or five pounds, which sat atop his head with all the grace of a cowpat. Peter was sufficiently weighty without add-ons, scaling just over 232lbs for Urtain and putting up brave resistance before going under in the seventh round.
But Jose had been found wanting and he seemed to tire very quickly. One could almost hear a collective murmur of, ‘Ah-hah!’ from those observers who knew their stuff. The move up in class against an opponent not afraid to hit back had not been the quick massacre for Urtain that many had predicted.
The tipping point had been reached. A desperate 15-rounds struggle followed against another German, Juergen Blin, who decked Urtain before Jose scraped home on a razor thin and debatable decision. Urtain showed courage and improved stamina, but the cat was out of the bag. He was struggling to beat fellow Europeans who, in the fiercely competive furnace of the seventies, were light years behind America’s elite.
World Boxing magazine reported, “The muscular Spaniard started in typical Urtain style; overpowering Blin and trying for a quick knockout. Blin reeled under the shattering impact of Urtain’s blows, but he was smart enough and cool enough under extreme fire not only to ride out the storm, but to drop Urtain for the first time in his career – in the eighth round, with a tremendous right to the jaw.
“Urtain’s eyes rolled like lemons on a slot machine as he took an eight count.”
Jose’s frustration was then compounded by an embarrassing third round disqualification defeat against modest Alfredo Vogrig, and worse was to come. A certain Henry Cooper was Urtain’s next challenger for the European championship in old London town.
It was time to cut through the hype and calm things down. After the close call against Blin, World Boxing ran an article in which it asked a timely question of Urtain: Can he really fight. “Sooner or later,” wrote the author, “every European heavyweight worth his salt has got to be tested by ‘Ol ‘Enry. And if the Spanish Lion could get past Cooper, well, then we’ll stamp him, ‘Approved’. But not untiul then!”
Urtain didn’t get past 36-year old Cooper. The Spaniard was constantly tormented and bashed by a slamming left jab that former challenger Billy Walker described as having the accuracy of a Greenwich Time signal. Jose came up for the ninth round, but his handlers pulled him out before another punch could be thrown. His right eye was shut and his nose was badly damaged.
After ‘Enry finally retired from the game, Urtain came again and regained the crown by stopping Jack Bodell in two rounds, but was then dethroned by old tormentor Juergen Blin.
Urtain was a game man and a thrilling puncher, but he was never the next superman of boxing. Nor was Mac Foster. Five months before Urtain was mauled by Cooper, Mac travelled from California to New York with a gleaming record of 24 knockout wins in as many fights to face his first acid test against Jerry Quarry. Chilling tales followed in Mac’s wake, such as the time he knocked Sonny Liston cold in a sparring session.
Quarry, it seemed was the right opponent at the right time. He was glamorous, world ranked at number four, a box office smash, but perceived as ‘damaged goods’ after his disappointing loss to Jimmy Ellis in the WBA knockout tournament. Ah, the best laid plans! It was big Mac who got damaged and badly so. Jerry wrecked him in six rounds.
“It has become the vogue to build fighters on weak stilts,” wrote ringside reporter, Dan Daniel.
Mac Foster and Jose Urtain gave us plenty of thrills for as long as the lasted, but they never disturbed the sleep of champion Joe Frazier. Now, sadly, all three men are sleeping. Jose died on July 21st, 1992 at just 49; Mac passed on July 19th, 2010, at 68; and Smokin’Joe, bless his glorious fighting soul, left us on November 7th last year at 67.
WHY FREDDIE MILLS CAN'T REST IN PEACE
First there was Jack the Ripper and then there was Jack the Stripper; two London serial killers, some 80 years apart, whose crimes stopped as suddenly as they had started and whose identities were never known.
Between 1959 and 1965, the bodies of at least eight young women, all prostitutes, were found in or around the River Thames after being stripped naked and brutally murdered. The public wondered, with its usual morbid fascination, when the next victim would be found. Then the killings ceased. There never was a ninth murder. The Stripper, much like the Ripper before him, had seemingly vanished into the London night air.
Did he consider his mission to be accomplished? Was he himself murdered? Did he commit suicide? The latter two questions began to be asked by amateur sleuths and conspiracy theorists who believed Jack the Stripper to be former world light heavyweight champion, Freddie Mills.
Mills died suddenly in mysterious circumstances that have never been satisfactorily explained. In July 1965, a few months after the body of the last Stripper victim was found, Freddie’s body lay dead in the back of his car outside his own restaurant in a Soho alley. He had been shot in the head and a small calibre rifle was positioned between his knees. Police concluded his death was a suicide, but his family maintained he had been murdered.
Professor David Wingate, resident medical officer at Middlesex Hospital the night Mills’s corpse was brought in, concluded from his medical examination that someone had taken the gun off Freddie and shot him with it. Interestingly, Professor Wingate was not called to give evidence at the Coroner’s inquest.
Mills was a husband and father but also rumoured to be bisexual and possibly facing a public indecency charge at the time of his death. All sorts of stories began to emerge and people believed what they believed. Freddie, it was reported in some quarters, had been having a private affair with singer Michael Holliday, a very popular Bing Crosby sound-alike of the era. When a depressed Holliday took his own life, Mills was driven to followed suit.
That relationship might have been further complicated by Holliday’s links with the notorious gangster twins, Ronald and Reginald Kray, who were decent and well known amateur boxers before settling on their less conventional career path. Ronnie Kray was a known homosexual and super sensitive about it. Reggie Kray suffered a conventional marriage but reportedly also preferred the company of men.
Another suitably juicy theory is that Freddie killed himself in a fit of depression because Chinese gangsters were trying to take over his restaurant business.
Just over 10 years ago, ‘reformed’ South London gangster Jimmy Tippett did a pile of research for a book on Freddie Mills which, to the best of my knowledge, was never published.
Mills, said Tippett, was scurrying around gangland asking where he could get hold of a pistol. Gangsters believed there was somebody Freddie wanted to ‘sort out’ and offered to take care of the matter on his behalf. But Mills insisted he wanted the pistol personally. Finally, a desperate Freddie managed to loan a rifle from a friend at a fairground.
Here is what Jimmy Tippet was reported as saying: “In those days the members of the boxing fraternity were like a Masonic circle. A lot of people who were close to Freddie, including my father, are still unwilling to talk about exactly what was said during those times, and those who are won't say anything on the record. But I have been told that Freddie feared the police were closing in on him for the Stripper murders and decided to take his own life rather than face trial. He had apparently been suffering from dizzy spells and bouts of depression for some time.”
Mills, it was said, was unable to control his violent inner self at the point of sexual climax.
The police investigation into the death of Mills was headed by Leonard 'Nipper' Read, the detective who subsequently arrested the Kray twins and helped to secure them life sentences in prison. Read stuck to his belief that Mills had committed suicide, but insisted Freddie was not Jack the Stripper.Read explained the confusion by revealing that the chief suspect was, like Mills, was a married man and former boxer in his forties who also happened to committed suicide in mid-1965. That man has never been named.
Tippet investigated Read’s claims but found little to link the chief suspect to the murders.
If you thought the death of Sonny Liston was a mystery, the Freddie Mills saga is something else. It won’t go away and it keeps growing legs. Old and second hand legs mainly. Every time these stories re-surface, my objectivity is challenged as my blood rises and my natural allegiance to boxing kicks in. “Why,” I think, “can’t poor old Freddie Mills be left to rest in peace?”
Others, rightly or wrongly, continue to wonder if ‘poor old Freddie Mills’ was the guy who got away with it.
SERGIO, JULIO AND BASIC INSTINCT
We know instinctively why we like some people. We don’t always know why we dislike others. Their names make us grimace, their presence sets us itching. The devil within us all makes us think the most unpleasant thoughts.
Several years ago, the devil came out to play in the doyen of golf commentators, Peter Alliss. A colleague of Alliss in the commentary box complimented Japanese golfer Shigeki Maruyama on his eternally cheerful attitude to the game. Come rain or shine, good shot or bad shot, the bouncy and ebullient Mr Maruyama always had a big smile on his face.
“Yes,” Alliss observed dryly, “makes you want to smack him in the mouth, doesn’t it?”
The remark struck a cord and I couldn’t stop laughing, even though Shigeki Maruyama does indeed seem the nicest of fellows. There is just a certain something about some people that makes us think, “Oh please, turn it off for a bit!”
Such feelings are strangely heightened when it comes to a fight, because we know that the guy we like will hopefully do the smacking on our behalf and save us the trouble. The man in the opposite corner, the subject of our indefinable frustration, might well be an upright citizen, an absolute pillar of his community and a tireless worker for numerous charities. But we still feel that curious sense of gratification when he takes a good one in the kisser.
I got to thinking about the not so better angels of our nature when somebody recently asked me if I wanted Julio Cesar Chavez Jr to beat Sergio Martinez in their much anticipated match-up on September 15th. “No,” I replied, immediately feeling a guilty compulsion to justify my answer.
I’m sure, or indeed I hope, that Julio Cesar Chavez Jr is every bit as pleasant as Shigeki Maruyama. The young Mexican ace is doing everything asked of him and doing it efficiently. He can’t help his birthright. He can’t help the fact that his father is a living legend and the best pal of a living nuisance in WBC boss Jose Sulaiman, who has spent more than 40 years extolling the values of democracy and fair play under his richly ironic job title of ‘lifetime president’.
However, everything about this cosy, triangular relationship gives off a bad smell. Just how much is Junior protected beyond the bounds of fair play? It is not an unreasonable question to pose after all we have seen and heard. He has cruised to a very comfortable 46-0 record against very comfortabl and largely inoffensive opposition, yet still he appears to have required some highly dubious assists. He had ‘trouble’ giving urine tests against Andy Lee and Marco Antonio Rubio. Junior also tested positive for Furosemide against Troy Rowland, sacrificing a unanimous points victory for a no contest.
When we get to the night of September 15, will the blue collar fans in the bars of New York, Boston, San Francisco and London be pulling for Julio Cesar Chavez Jr or Sergio Martinez? I suspect the latter in most cases.
It seems almost sacrilegious to question a Mexican’s street credit, but Junior to me always looks like a man who would be more at home strolling the streets of Monte Carlo. You do wonder if he secretly wanted to be a film producer, artist or architect and never dared tell dad.
Dad, of course was a great champion with a splendid record, winning ‘world’ titles in six weight divisions. No doubting Chavez Sr’s pedigree. Yet isn’t it strange how his controversial fights against Meldrick Taylor, Pernell Whitaker and Frankie Randall get the most airplay and the most discussion?
Chavez Sr was a damn tough champion to dislodge in his latter days, his great talent and courage having a lot to do with that. But there was always Uncle Jose too, the godfather in the shadows, making one feel that the great Julio Cesar would always be helped to his feet if he stumbled and fell.
He is a hugely respected boxing legend and quite justifiably so. But he doesns’t evoke the gut affection we felt for Vicente Saldivar, Ruben Olivares, Chucho Castillo or Marco Antonio Barrera.
In the fourth series of the excellent TV series Mad Men, an ongoing saga of the New York advertising gurus of the sixties, one of the best episodes (The Suitcase) is set on the night of the return match between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston.
The office clears out as everyone goes off to watch the fight, leaving our hero Don Draper alone with assistant Peggy Olson. Halfway through getting outrageously drunk together, Don bunches his shoulders and makes motions with his fists as he tells Peggy why he likes Sonny. “Liston just goes about his business, works methodically. Cassius has to dance and talk.”
This was how most people felt in the turbulent days of 1965, and it had more to do with basic instinct than the political minefield that Ali had entered. Liston was an old fashioned fighter. He got the job done. He was no longer the dangerous man killer, the street thug who had mugged nice Floyd Patterson. Now Sonny was the ex-champ, the guy who had paid his dues on the street, an ageing rogue rather than a vicious villain.
He threw punches and he knocked guys out. Everything was easy to understand with Sonny. But this guy Ali, with his mouth and his twinkling toes – what was all that about? Marciano didn’t do all that stuff, nor did Louis or Dempsey. Basic instinct forgives an awful lot when it is roused. Suddenly we like the guy who got into trouble on the Chicago streets and we turn our noses up at the Olympic gold medallist who moaned about getting his nice bicycle stolen from outside his nice house in Louisville.
Even from the comfort of your lounge, you could smell Liston’s sweat. Ali seemed to walk on perfumed water in the way that Gene Tunney and Jim Corbett did before him. Sugar Ray Leonard, Oscar De LaHoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr would later join the brigade of those whose boxing skills we admired but who we yearned to push into a swamp.
For Tunney, boxing was primarily a business and Gene couldn’t help the fact that he just happened to be a brilliant at it. He had his Plan A in place from the beginning, never required a Plan B and soared to the giddy heights fantastically. The highest of honours – the heavyweight championship itself – preceded a highly successful business career, marriage to a very wealthy woman and rubbing shoulders with the social and political elite.
But Tunney, who could never resist dropping the odd quote from the literary greats to remind people that he was much more than a pug, wasn’t as loved as Ronald Reagan would be. Whatever your politics, there was always something reassuringly homespun about Ronnie. He loved jelly beans, didn’t pretend to be Einstein and you could imagine him talking sports with your pals and getting the giggles over something silly.
You couldn’t really imagine Gene Tunney dropping into your local bar, sinking a few beers and gobbling peanuts. He would always have that certain look of disdain on his face that so enraged Tommy Loughran. Basic instinct in boxing quickly sniffs out such people and does not take kindly to them.
Gene’s unfortunate habit of making a compliment sound like a thinly veiled insult never ceased to grate with Loughran. In 1928, former welterweight legend Jack Britton, considered to be an excellent judge of fighters, offered his opinion on Loughran. Said Jack, “There’s only one fighter in the game I wouldn’t bet against in a fight with Tunney. And you’ll probably laugh when I mention his name. Tommy Loughran. You know, you can’t knock out a fellow or beat him if you can’t hit him.”
To this, Tunney allegedly replied, “I understand that Tommy is a very nice fellow and a gentleman. But as to fighting – ah! That’s different!”
Loughran quietly seethed over the fact that Tunney had got to the fading and distracted Jack Dempsey first in 1926. Never shy in promoting his own credentials, Tommy said, “I licked Dempsey in his training camp and I know I could have knocked him out in a real fight, but Tunney had the jump and got the chance. I came near beating Tunney when I was just a novice and I know I can take him now because all he can do is back away and counter.”
As a person, Tunney impressed Loughran even less. “Who does he think he is?” Tommy barked. “He wasn’t born any better than I was. He never could fight and I can. He didn’t win the war and neither did I.”
It seems that Loughran’s nose was put out of joint when he clashed with Tunney at a classy hotel in Newark, where Gene believed he was the exclusive guest of honour. Tunney was shocked to see Loughran and a few other fighters in the lobby. The story goes that Gene approached Tommy and gave him a somewhat frosty handshake. The ensuing conversation reportedly went as follows:-
“What are you doing here, Tommy?”
“Just waiting around.”
“I’m awfully glad to see you in a place like this.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Why, I mean that it is good to see some of the boxers in respectable places. It will help the public get a different opinion of the business if they see boxers in places like this.”
Loughran was apparently boiling by this point and replied, “You don’t know how to act in a respectable place and I do. If I didn’t, I’d let you have one.”
Today, De LaHoya and Mayweather Jr view the sport of boxing in much the same cold and dispassionate way as Tunney did. Do they actually enjoy fighting? Yes, they very probably do in the sense that being number one at anything they do in life is an essential drug for them. All are very good fighters too, and, make no mistake, very brave. But you get the feeling it doesn’t come easy. It is something they have to do. They are naturally talented but not naturally enthusiastic. Having a fight is simply a means to an end.
Sugar Ray Leonard certainly slotted into this category. We were always made to feel hugely privileged when Ray signed for a fight, which he did with increasing infrequency as time went on. Reggie Gutteridege, the late and lamented commentator, once observed that seeing Leonard getting hit was like watching Bambi getting mugged. Reggie rated Ray very highly, yet plainly couldn’t resist saying what many others were thinking.
By outpointing Marvin Hagler in 1987, Leonard defeated a massively respected five-star general of the blue collar regiment. The decision in Ray’s favour was seen as fair by many and unfair by many others. But there was no doubt which of the two men touched our hearts and became the enduring hero for all seasons. Private, dignified and fiercely dedicated to his trade, Hagler imprisoned himself in the same spartan training conditions as his spiritual Brockton brother, Rocky Marciano. Leonard glittered for the glitterati and traded in gold, but boxing fans in general preferred Marvin’s uncut diamonds.
I phoned my father after that fight and we disagreed on the decision. I had been a big Hagler fan all the way through his career, but I believed that Ray had edged him. “Tell you what, though,” my father said, “in 20 or 30 years from now, it is Hagler who will be most fondly remembered. Leonard will be respected but grudgingly so.”
Now think for a moment about all those classic battles posted by your favourite fight groups on Facebook and other social websites. Hagler, Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns keep coming up. On the rare occasions Leonard makes an appearance, it is usually his losing fight against Roberto in Montreal.
De LaHoya and Mayweather similarly raise our hackles. Oscar, before taking a walk on the wild side, was the perfectly packaged product of our slick and synthtic age, a company press release brought to life, impossibly appropriate and obliging in every way and no doubt smelling of roses when he broke wind. In corporate mode, he was drilled not to offend, not to utter one mildly controversial opinion.
I am reminded of a comment by David Crosby on why he was never a great fan of the Eagles. “Because they never took a chance,” Crosby replied.
Is it any wonder that a ‘product’ like De LaHoya – for that is effectively what he was and is – eventually implodes? Whatever we thought of him before as a person, we think less of him now. A bad boy who gets caught wearing his girlfriend’s lingerie might just get away with it with the aid of some quick thinking bluster. A ‘good’ boy caught doing the same thing is going to get ribbed about it for the rest of his days. Never tell people you’re teetotal if you keep a bottle of whiskey in your bedside drawer.
Basic instinct isn’t always right. It can often make us nail our flag to the wrong mast and pledge our allegiance to a guy we would never invite over for Sunday lunch. But it’s there inside us all and it’s what makes us human.
My basic instinct makes me greatly admire Sergio Martinez, not merely because he will start as the underdog against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. Sergio is no poster boy and nobody’s favourite son. He is a throwback pro’s pro, a dog with a bone who won’t let go of it. I admire his like, because not being a spectacular fighter means putting in a lot of extra work and grinding all the time. Knowing that the seas weren’t going to part for him, Martinez went on the road and broadened his ring education against a variety of opponents.
Sergio wouldn’t have been a world champion 30 or 40 years ago, which reminds us of how far the quality bar has slipped. He would have been one of those nuisance contenders who would have always been capable of springing an upset. Henry Hank, Joey Archer, Jose Gonzalez and Mustafa Hamsho were never world champions, but nor did anyone want to fight them.
Honed in the tough Argentinian school, where young fighters are carefully nurtured but expected to learn their trade thoroughly, Martinez went on to make a major pest of himself in European rings before moving to the States and completing his methodical climb to the top. In the UK, he showed his ability to exploit a weak link in an opponent when he twice defeated the highly touted Richard Williams.
Londoner Williams was a nice looking stylist who seemed to play most of the right notes, but there was clearly something missing in his attitude and application. He was quite painfully exposed by Martinez. In the States, Sergio continued his workmanlike progress, losing a majority decision to Paul Williams, besting Kelly Pavlik and then blasting out Williams in the second round of their rematch with a terrific bolt from the blue.
In his recent and almost surgical dismantlings of British challengers Darren Barker and Matthew Macklin, Martinez has served notice that he has no intention of lightly surrendering everything he has worked for.
Basic instinct, of course, should never be allowed to corrupt the integrity of one’s judgement, which is why I would love to spin this story at its conclusion by predicting a Chavez victory. Writers rather enjoy doing that. Junior is the younger man and the bigger man. According to recent reports, he is still walking around at over 180 lbs. The amount of beef that boxers are allowed to carry into the ring on fight nights has a bad whiff all of its own and simply must be addressed sooner or later.
However, it is my belief that the man from Argentina will defeat the man from Mexico. Junior is not a major league hitter at this level, while Sergio, like most world-class Argentineans, does not get knocked out. He certainly has more ring knowledge than his youthful opponent, which is why I believe Martinez will gather more points over the 12 rounds than Chavez Jr.
My fervent wish is that Sergio will be awarded the official decision for doing so.
MARTINEZ v CHAVEZ JR: VIDEO OF FULL FIGHT
ROCKY AND THE WIRE
Scouring the quite considerable terrain of the Catskills for cash might at first seem as mad an idea as trying to pull a gold nugget out of your local stream. But somewhere in them thar New York hills, it is said that a fair number of Rocky Marciano’s jealously guarded dollars are still waiting to be found in umpteen cunningly buried cans.
Rocky’s love of money was no secret and his ability to hold on to it was equal to the power in that smashing right hand he called Suzi Q. He didn’t carry too much of the green stuff own him either, often fishing in his pockets to rustle up a dime. Rocky liked to travel light. He once asked his good pal Rocky Graziano if he could borrow his toothbrush. If Marciano had been so inclined, he could have written the ultimate guide on how to travel anywhere without spending any money.
Rocky even invented his own special little tools to circumnavigate the trickery of such damnable money-sucking institutions as phone booths. A quite hilarious tale of the champ’s ingenuity was related by Everett M Skehan in his intriguing 1983 biography of The Rock, titled simply, ‘Rocky Marciano’.
The story concerns one of Rocky’s simplest but most sacred devices – The Wire. This was a state-of-the-art piece of kit. Under no circumstances could The Wire be loaned out, tampered with or mislaid.
Then somebody mislaid it. One otherwise fine day at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, Rocky broke from a meeting to make some phone calls in the crowded lobby. Having grown weary of operators who didn’t reverse the charges as he requested, the champ called upon his special weapon. The Wire had been constructed with great love and care. It was quite literally a piece of wire which Rocky had fashioned to exactly the right size and shape for inserting in the change slot and tripping the mechanism that would return his money.
However, even The Wire had its bad days. Marciano, who was known to assault phone booths and phones that didn’t behave themselves, gradually began to lose his temper as repeated forays into the change slot failed to trip the mechanism. It didn’t help that he had to keep breaking off to put on his best cheesy smile and wave hello to well wishers who kept tapping on the booth.
A calm interlude was required. Before chatting to some waiting reporters, Rocky handed The Wire to his pal, George DiMatteo, for safe keeping. George was a streetwise guy, which was why Rocky had never explained The Wire’s importance to him. George would have seen at once that the clever gizmo was a call phone’s worst nightmare.
In the real world, DiMatteo wondered what the hell The Wire was and casually shoved it in his back pocket. When Rocky had concluded his business with the reporters, he needed to make another phone call and asked George for The Wire.
“What wire?” DiMatteo asked.
“The wire,” Rocky said. “You know, the one I gave you to hold for me.”
“Well, no, Rock, it was cutting a hole in my pocket, so I threw it away.”
Marciano nearly went into orbit. “You threw that fucking wire away? You threw it away?”
“Well, I didn’t think it was that important, Rock,” DiMatteo said. “What the hell’s a little piece of wire? I’ll get you another one.”
Marciano grabbed him by the shirt, shouting now. “You threw that wire away? I don’t believe it. How the hell could you do something like that, George?”
A large and intensely fascinated audience was now looking on, no doubt wondering if the devastating loss of ‘The Wire’ could be a threat to national security.
One could imagine an incandescent Rocky finding himself a quiet corner and contemplating the ghastly prospect of paying for his next phone call.
ROCKY MARCIANO VIDEO
ROBINSON AND BASILIO: FIRE AND ICE AT YANKEE STADIUM
Winners are expected to be gracious and Carmen Basilio bit his tongue behind an impish smile. With a patch over his left eye and eight stitches sewn into his tough old brow, Basilio looked like a mischievous pirate as he spoke to reporters about Sugar Ray Robinson. “He hit me low,” said Carmen, “but it didn’t matter in the end, so why make an issue of it? Let’s just say he did it unintentionally.”
Oh, the sweet taste of victory! Everything was right in Carmen Basilio’s world. In his typical, rock ‘’n’ roll fashion, the gritty onion farmer from Chittenango in upstate New York had pounded out a split decision over Robinson to win the middleweight championship.
The icing on the cake was that Carmen had carved his name in the great shrine of Yankee Stadium, where his good friend Mickey Mantle would become a baseball legend. Now Basilio was the king, the man who called the shots. How he loved that! The early word was that Robinson was undecided about a return match, so Carmen made it clear that he wouldn’t wait too long for Robbie to make up his mind. “We’re driving now,” Basilio said, gesturing at co-managers Joe Nelro and Johnny DeJohn.
Carmen believed he won the fight without question, despite the handicaps of gashes and lumps around his eyes and a cut nose. Johnny DeJohn chipped in and added, “If Carmen doesn’t get cut in the fourth, he knocks out Robinson. The next time he knocks him out sure.”
A poll of 47 sports writers at ringside returned a 26-17-4 vote for Basilio.
“I have no squawks,” said Robinson. “There were two judges and a referee. I abide by their decision. I don’t know whether I’ll ever fight again.”
Basilio never had much time for Ray Robinson and didn’t particularly care who knew it. Even now, at 85 years of age, Carmen’s preferred term of reference for the long deceased Sugar Ray is ‘that bastard’.
It should be noted that Basilio has always had a hard-edged sense of humour and a tough way of talking. But there was genuine resentment of Robinson, whose lofty demands at the negotiating table ruffled the feathers of many opponents.
Carmen never doubted or denigrated Ray’s fighting abilities, but the respect didn’t go beyond the roped square. A straight and forthright man, Basilio perceived Robinson as aloof and arrogant, claiming that Robbie once snubbed him when they walked past each other on Broadway.
Then there was Ray the businessman, who could make some eye-watering demands. He insisted on 45% of the receipts for defending his championship against Carmen, which hardly endeared him to his earthy challenger. After much haggling and bluffing, a bristling Basilio was forced to give up five percentage points and accept a 20% slice of the cake.
Even at that stage in his career, the free-spending Robinson needed the money. His take would amount to nearly $500,000, but that was still fourteen thousand shy of what the Internal Revenue Service wanted from him.
Love, hate, respect and plenty of hard-hitting exchanges. RichardBurton and Elizabeth Taylor would give us many thrilling moments in the years ahead, but Robinson and Basilio made for a much more exciting and turbulent marriage. Six months later, after a trial separation, they would even have a second fling.
There is no condition that says you have to be a contemporary of your favourite fighters. Sometimes it’s better if you’re not. I was just two years old when Robinson and Basilio clashed for the first time on September 23, 1957. I learned of them and their two savage brawls from old copies of Boxing News and Ring magazine and from the colourful stories my father used to recount to me.
As I grew older, I would save my money to buy films and historical books, dig feverishly into library archives and learn everything I could about the great fighters of yesteryear.
If you collect old issues, take a look at The Ring’s middleweight line-up for September, 1957. There was Gene Fullmer from West Jordan, Utah; Rory Calhoun from White Plains; the ‘G’ men, Joey Giardello from Philadelphia and Joey Giambra from San Francisco; Ellswoth ‘Spider’ Webb from Chicago; Charley Joseph from New Orleans; Del Flanagan from St Paul; and Bobby Boyd from Chicago. Frenchman Charley Humez was the only non-American contender.
Right at the top were Basilio, the new champion, and Robinson, the deposed king, both men fighting out of New York. Their inter-state rivalry was just one of the factors that made their meetings so explosive. As men and as fighters, they were vividly contrasting characters, and their careers made great reading for a young boy like me who was just beginning to appreciate the appeal of the sport.
Each man had reached the pinnacle in his own way, and their wonderful rivalry would demonstrate why the middleweight division has long been revered as the most exciting weight class in boxing. Their first duel is generally ranked as the more thrilling of their two 15-round classics, and it presented a battle of courage, skill and power between two magnificent champions.
Basilio was the king of the welterweights, about to indulge in the age-old practice of stepping up a weight in an attempt to land a second title. Robinson, brilliant beyond words and already a legend, was the man he had to beat.
How does one assess Sugar Ray Robinson without drowning in a sea of superlatives? Ray was a natural, bestowed of so many gifts. Was he incomparable? Well, ‘incomparable’ is a very powerful word which covers an awful lot of territory, but one could certainly understand why the question was so frequently posed. Grizzled old timers who wouldn’t hear a word said against Joe Walcott, Stanley Ketchel and other heroes of their day, would sometimes forget themselves and laud Robinson as the greatest fighting machine they had ever seen.
A boxer’s record taken at face value doesn’t always reveal the true story of the boxer. A simple fact of life so often missed by the amateur statisticians is that points values accorded to wins and losses, irrespective of the quality of opposition, do not paint the full picture. If they did, Young Stribling would be up there with the greatest heavyweights. Yet we know that the King of the Canebrakes doesn’t belong in that special company.
In the case of Sugar Ray Robinson, however, we can safely say ‘look at the record’ and know that we are not being deceived. His glittering achievements against top quality opponents are stacked high for all to see. Going into his fight with Basilio, Ray was a seventeen-year veteran of the ring with nearly 150 bouts behind him. He had won the welterweight title in 1946 and defended it five times before moving up to middleweight. As a 147-pounder, Robinson had been a revelation, losing only once to perennial rival Jake LaMotta.
The complete technician, Ray possessed blinding hand speed, one-shot punching power in either hand, deft skills and excellent durability. His wonderful poise and balance became the focus for many instructional articles. Even in distress, Robinson never seemed to look awkward or ungainly. He had already established himself as one of history’s greatest pound-for-pound fighters, yet he was to become greater, to the point where his career began to read like fiction.
He had won the middleweight championship four times and had nearly annexed the light-heavyweight crown from Joey Maxim at Yankee Stadium, before punishing heat and sheer exhaustion had forced Ray to retire after thirteen rounds.
What magnified the Robinson legend was that this incredible run was punctuated by a spell of nearly three years out of the ring. Ray had quit boxing after the Maxim defeat in December, 1952, and had looked anything but the old master in his second comeback fight when he dropped a decision to Ralph ‘Tiger’ Jones.
Robinson’s response to that setback was to win his next four fights and then knock out Carl ‘Bobo’ Olson to regain the middleweight championship at the Chicago Stadium in December, 1955. To put that achievement in perspective, it is probably true to say that Ray was already marginally on the slide when he first won the middleweight crown from La Motta in 1951.
Robinson was a class act outside the ring too, if only superficially. He surrounded himself with the best that life could offer and was faithfully followed by a sizeable entourage that included even a personal manicurist. But the big money was leaking away as fast as Ray could earn it. By 1964, his only companions were two cornermen as he drove to a fight against journeyman Clarence Riley in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
Robinson was thirty-seven when he hooked up with Basilio for the first time, yet still a dangerous and highly accomplished ring mechanic. The old consistency had ebbed from Ray’s ageing body, but the old magic could still be employed sparingly and to devastating effect. Just four months before, he had unleashed a picture perfect left hook to knock Gene Fullmer into oblivion. Nobody had ever put the tough Fullmer down for the full count. Nobody ever did so again.
Crossing swords with a fighter of Robinson’s calibre and actually relishing the experience was second nature to Carmen Basilio. Reputations didn’t scare Carmen. He had paid his dues the hard way. If you know your boxing, you will know of Basilio’s 15-round war with Kid Gavilan, his two stupendous brawls with Tony DeMarco and the bad blood of his three meetings with Johnny Saxton.
Carmen, the craggy-faced, twenty-nine year old ex-Marine, seemed incapable of having an easy and uncomplicated fight. The Gavilan defeat, in September, 1953, marked Basilio’s first attempt at the welterweight crown, and the disappointment of losing before his fellow New Yorkers in Syracuse only served to harden his resolve. He was a big underdog that night, yet remained convinced he had won the fight.
His desire to win sometimes bordered on the maniacal, and in wresting the championship from DeMarco at Boston in 1955, Carmen walked through a firestorm to reach his goal. The Basilio-DeMarco fights were brutal and bloody tests of endurance, which showcased the quintessential Basilio: a slugger of remarkable courage and resilience who fought as if his very life depended on the outcome.
To those who didn’t know the human being inside the fighter, Carmen’s ritual of dropping to one knee after a fight and thanking the man upstairs for protecting both combatants was strangely out of character for someone who attacked his opponents with an unrelenting fury. Fighters who are all fire and brimstone inside the ropes are often presumed to be naturally wild and wayward men, but this was not the case with Basilio. Away from his violent trade, Carmen enjoyed the quiet life, fishing and hunting and taking care of his family.
It took the sound of the bell and the roar of the crowd to change Carmen Basilio’s personality, and then he was a demon. His indomitable spirit was arguably his most important asset and it proved invaluable against the great Robinson. Carmen wasn’t nearly as skilled as Ray and the tale of the tape was no less daunting for the challenger. Robbie had significant advantages in height, reach and weight. At 160lbs, he had a six-and-a-half pound pull on Basilio.
Yet writer Harry Grayson had a fascinated liking for what he saw in Carmen: “Basilio is bandy-legged and anything but a stand-up boxer. The guy from Chittenango gets hit more than is good for him. He’s a bleeder, particularly about the eyes. He left hooks from the hip because he can’t generate power from the shoulder, protecting his head by dipping it to the right. But Carmen can fight and at the finish it is our idea that it will be Basilio shocking the ageing Robinson with left hooks to the head, sapping his strength inside, slowing his reflexes.”
New York, New York!
The ring was pitched near second base at Yankee Stadium on that fall night of 1957 and Carmen Basilio didn’t have to worry about lack of support from the folks upstate. On the eve of the fight, the boxing fans of central New York began spilling into the great city, seemingly from everywhere. They came from Chittenango, Syracuse, Canastota, Oswego, Binghamton, Ithaca, Seneca Falls and Geneva. Hundreds more made their way from the north country towns of Watertown, Alexandria Bay and Clayton.
From the opening bell the electricity in the air crackled as their Carmen went to work, countering Robinson’s superior attributes with dogged determination and ceaseless aggression. The pace set by both men was torrid and it remained so. The repeated roars of the 38,000 crowd were thunderous as Robbie and Carmen tested each other’s mettle, the advantage constantly shifting as first one and then the other would suddenly erupt with a big charge. So many punches were exchanged, often at a breathtaking rate.
One could see the concentration, the sweat and the strain, the blood that suddenly trickled from Basilio’s left eye. Neither man knew how to fall down. They hit each other to the head and body with their best blows and still they remained standing. It was a desperately close battle throughout, in which neither fighter held the dominant role for long.
In a bout of such marvellous quality it is normally difficult to isolate the highlights, since every moment is a rushed and blurred delight. The brain is unable to discriminate as it tries to keep pace. Yet there were periods in this classic encounter when Basilio and Robinson surpassed expectations and carried their battle for supremacy to an even higher level.
The eleventh round was simply magnificent, a round to watch over and over, a kick in the pants for every cynic who grows to doubt the human spirit.
It started so well for Robbie. Weary, worldly and still looking to pull the trigger, he began to jolt Carmen with powerful jabs and then uncorked a right cross that somehow managed to look both lightning fast and contemptuously casual as it crashed home to the jaw. Robinson began to fire in earnest as Basilio wavered, whipping home lefts and rights and shaking the game challenger with a big left hook. But Carmen wouldn’t or couldn’t go away. He ducked and weaved and wobbled and swayed, but he kept coming in. Then he tipped the scales dramatically.
Like a boy tired of being hit over the head by a bigger tormentor, Basilio almost broke into a jog as he seized his chance to get even and tore at Ray with both fists. Trapping Robinson on the ropes, Carmen unloaded with a volley of lefts and rights in a tremendous drive. Ray simply couldn’t spring free of the trap as he tried desperately to block and parry the incoming blows. Basilio’s ferocious assault capped a round of huge quality and excitement, yet still the proud Robinson was lashing back at the bell after finally hustling himself out of the firing line.
Robinson was renowned for his blazing rallies in the face of adversity, especially when he was most tired and hurt. He would often take to his stool after a hard round with the sudden collapse of a man who had taken a bullet in the back, yet it was folly to ever assume that the master was at death’s door.
Ray came again in the twelfth, another golden round that was a story in itself. Robinson in full cry was a joy to behold. The punches would come with speed and precision from all angles as he cut loose in a style that was all his own, his straightened hair flying wildly. He ripped blows to Carmen’s head and body with whiplash effect, forcing the challenger to duck and roll as his head snapped back. A right to the head had Basilio listing, but Ray couldn’t find the big knockout punch that had so suddenly terminated the hopes of Gene Fullmer.
The chalk and cheese marriage of styles was a constant fascination as Ray and Carmen continued to rage at one another in the home stretch. Basilio’s attacking style was of a far more brutal nature than Robinson’s. Ray was such a special artist that he could even make raw aggression look graceful. Carmen was his classic counterpart, red of tooth and claw, raw and rambunctious, showing the strain of every muscle and sinew.
He would look awkward, he would miss with a wild swing here and there, he would sometimes shunt himself onto the wrong track. But always he would keep punching and pursuing, with a ferocity that compensated for his deficiencies. It was impossible not to marvel at his courage and perseverance and his capacity to absorb and overcome the controlled fury of possibly the greatest all round ring mechanic the game has ever seen.
The crowd at Yankee Stadium roared its appreciation as Carmen and Ray ignored their increasing weariness in those epic closing rounds and put the finishing touches to a memorable brawl.
At one point in the thirteenth, the years seemed to catch up with Robinson as he clutched Basilio around the waist, head down, close to exhaustion. But legends don’t die easily and Ray brought the crowd to its feet with a thunderous left hook to the jaw that jerked Carmen’s head back and dipped his knees. There were those at ringside who felt that the challenger might have been saved by the bell as Robinson manoeuvred him to the ropes and tried to apply the kill.
Basilio had yet to pay his full dues, as Robbie launched another fierce flurry in the fourteenth. A right hand smash to the ribs doubled Carmen up, but again he weathered the storm and survived. Tough as he was, he knew that even a spent Robinson had the guile and the power to take him out with a single punch. Never did Basilio need to concentrate more than in the deep waters of those closing minutes, when Ray’s slashing hooks and crosses were winging in from every direction. Carmen crouched and weaved and fired back whenever he could as his fans willed him home.
It was still anybody’s fight when the two warriors answered the bell for the final round. Even though the grand battle had yet to run its course, the names of Robinson and Basilio had already become forever linked.
In those last three minutes, the fighters drew on their remaining reserves and slugged their way home, each trying to outdo the other and snatch the vital round that would probably win the fight. Neither would be subdued, but the irrepressible Basilio seemed to have the advantage as he kept boring in relentlessly. All night long he had worked intelligently, switching his attack as he punished Robinson with head shots and well placed body punches.
Those final minutes must have seemed an eternity to Carmen and Ray, yet to the enthralled spectator they were fleeting seconds that were terminated all too soon by the bell. Two wonderful fighters had given their all, and now they had to suffer the tortuous minutes that bridge the end of hostilities and the announcement of the decision.
Referee Al Berl cast his vote for Robinson by nine rounds to six, but was outweighed by judges Bill Recht and Artie Aidala who scored the fight 8-6 and 9-5-1 respectively for Basilio. Carmen’s blood-and-guts heroics had landed him his second world championship by a split decision.
The first instalment of the Basilio-Robinson story had been written into the record books, but there would be another night and a different outcome.
Not that joyous Carmen was thinking ahead in the immediate afterglow of that wonderful September night. He was the champion and he was driving!
VIDEO: SUGAR RAY ROBINSON v CARMEN BASILIO
TERRY DOWNES: THE ENGLISH U.S. MARINE
Despite two hip replacements, bladder cancer and the ravages of arthritis in both legs, former world middleweight champion Terry Downes remains cheerful, humorous and gorgeously candid at the age of 75. The old slashing London wit is still intact and his views on the fight game are refreshingly simple and blunt.
“How can you change two blokes fighting, eh? They can’t do nothing except fight. There are only so many ways to hit each other. They ain’t got ray guns or nothing. The will to win matters so much.
“With boxing you can’t mess around. You can’t be a bit of a fighter. You can be a bit of a football player or a bit of a cricketer. You can play a game of tennis for a lark. But you can’t have a bloody lark at boxing.”
So how was it that Terry Downes, this most Londonese of Londoners, became a U.S. Marine all thoser moons ago? It is some story. The Downes family emigrated to the States back in the fifties when Terry was already a capable amateur boxer. He would go on to compete for the U.S. in the 1956 Olympic trials before returning to England.
The American adventure alone would make a good book.Terry had this bright idea, which only ‘Downsey’ the incomparable raconteur can make sound plausible.
“Having figured out a dozen good reasons why I should join the U.S. Marines, a final clincher came when I learned you could get six weeks wages for joining up. That appealed to me. And when I heard I was going to Paris Island, South Carolina, it conjured up romantic notions like a beach at Hawaii. This was really living it up, But, brother, did I make a ricket! This Paris Island was worse than hell, bang in the middle of swamps.
“A big Baltimore join-up campaign had conned about 100 geezers, besides me, to become glamorous Leathernecks, and on the train to camp we’re all playing craps and chatting our load about being the crack Baltimore platoon and all that jazz. Then we came to reality.
“As the train doors opened and we ambled out onto the track, these Marine instructors are coming at us like fiends. They were yelling blue murder, clumping guys around the head, treating us like fodder, and I’d find I’m trying to reject the treatment. But it’s a lost cause. You either swallow it and take the punishment or go through a bigger hell.
“The discipline was murderous. You honestly couldn’t make a film of it and make it look bad enough to be true. Two guys committed suicide while I was there, which gives you an idea of what we went through.”
However, with typical ingenuity, Downes turned the nightmare to his advantage after a potentially life-wrecking altercation with his sergeant at roll call. The sergeant was thrown by Terry’s London accent and asked him where he came from. “Baltimore, sir,” Downes replied.
Wrong answer. The sergeant pushed him over and Terry had lost his sense of humour when he got to his feet. “If you wanna fight me,” he roared at the sergeant, “there’s a ring over there!”
Now, you just don’t say things like that to your sergeant in the U.S. Marines, and Downes fully expected a death sentence to follow. But the sarge was game for the challenge and super smart too. He appointed his own champion to fight Terry, a black and muscular giant from a nearby line of ‘Jock Strappers’ – the platoon’s exceptionally large and powerful athletes.
Holding his nerve, Downes boxed smartly, tired the big fellow out and then put him down and out with a body punch. Respect had been won and life in the Marines became a tad more bearable and nicely profitable into the bargain.
Calling on all his old street knowledge, Downes became the Sergeant Bilko of Paris Island and soon set up a thriving black market, somehow acquiring food, equipment and other luxuries whose quality was way above standard Marine fare.
It is perhaps no surprise that Downes got along well with that other rascal of the era, Willie Pastrano. The two men biffed each other to a state of near physical collapse in their epic fight for Willie’s light heavyweight title at the King’s Hall in Manchester in 1964, but the banter between them went on for years.
Some time before Pastrano died, Terry’s name came up in conversation. “Hey,” Willie said with a smile, “tell Downsey that I’m still better looking than he is!”
FIRST CLASS TRAVELLER: CARLOS ORTIZ
Dave Charnley was a very talented and tough English lightweight of the fifties and sixties whose great misfortune in life was to be a contemporary of the great lightweight champion, Joe Brown. In two title challenges against the wily campaigner they called ‘Old Bones’, Charnley was stopped in six rounds in Houston and then outpointed in a classic 15-rounds contest at Kensington in London. It was scant consolation to Dave that the second battle was awarded the Ring magazine’s Fighter of the Year award for 1961.
The hard luck nature of Charnley’s honourable career was cruelly and perfectly encapsulated in his knockout victory over Brown in their third and final contest at the King’s Hall in Manchester in 1963. It was a good win and Brown’s name was still a glittering addition to any man’s record. But it didn’t matter any more. Joe was no longer the champion.
There was another odd twist of fate in Dave Charnley’s career. Before his trilogy with Brown, Dave caught a tartar when he ran into the young ace who would later topple ‘Old Bones’ from his throne. Charnley must have wondered where in tarnation Carlos Ortiz had come from. Dave was on a roll as he barrelled towards his first shot at Brown. Few expected Ortiz, clever but relatively inexperienced, to upset the apple cart on the historic night of October 10th, 1958.
The fight was the main attraction of promoter Jack Solomons’ ‘Night to Remember’ commemorating the last boxing promotion at London’s famous old Harringay Arena, which had opened in 1936. The fistic stars of the past came out in their best evening dress and Max Baer and Rinty Monaghan got up into the ring to engage in a playful sparring session.
Then came the shock. Charnley was not quite his usual self after a bout of illness, but there was no mistaking the talent of the young Ortiz as he plotted his way to a well deserved points victory.
Writing in The Ring, James Butler reported: “Charnley punched solidly to the body, but where Ortiz piled up a points victory was that he refused to wilt. In fact he came back so quickly with right crosses that the man from Dartford could never settle down.
“Ortiz, only 22, is one of the brightest little fighting men we’ve seen from America for some time.”
Carlos Ortiz was always smart, a man with a plan who had total faith in his ability to reach his destination. He knew fear like any other fighter, but constantly challenged that most formidable of emotions by meeting it square on. He wasn’t supposed to beat Joe Brown, any more than he was supposed to have beaten the dangerous Len Matthews three years earlier. Matthews, the experts said, would demolish Ortiz. Len was a big favourite to win that fight before his hometown fans in Philadelphia. Ortiz stopped him in six rounds.
Globetrotting Carlos grew accustomed to being told that he would come unstuck if he kept wandering into other people’s back yards. Yet he went to London to beat Charnley and Maurice Cullen, travelled to Manila to see off Arthur Persley and Flash Elorde, and trekked to Japan to take care of Kazuo Takayama and Teruo Kosaka. Ortiz earned a draw with fellow great Nicolino Locche in Argentina and turned back the challenge of Sugar Ramos in the intimidating cauldron of the El Toreo Bull Ring in Mexico City.
Ortiz knew what it was like to move around. When he was six years old, his family uprooted from Puerto Rico and moved to New York. The transition was tough and not immediately successful for Carlos. He described himself as ‘a bad kid’ who gave his parents plenty to worry about. But Gotham was soon in the blood of Ortiz.
Like Emile Griffith, who migrated from the Virgin Islands, Carlos would steep himself in the great city and become a big crowd favourite at Madison Square Garden in the golden years to come. Not that he was ever allowed to get too full of himself. To his colleagues in the famous and predominately Irish task force of the Fighting Sixty-Ninth of New York, where he served as a sergeant, Carlos continued to be known as ‘Charley O’Brien’.
Ortiz knew the value of a dollar and the good sense of straightening himself out and finding a purpose in life. After becoming world champion, he recalled the early days: “My old man made less than ninety dollars a month. Do you wonder, then, why I sock my money away? I was a bad kid who gave my parents trouble both in Puerto Rico and in New York, but I got over that after I joined the Police Athletic League and took up boxing. Today I’m better adjusted to my better surroundings and home in the Bronx. We don’t squander our money, but we live according to our means.”
Ortiz made rapid progress after joining the Police Athletic League under the guidance of his first manager, Ed Ferguson. By 1953, Carlos was a member of the Boys Club team and won his first 135lb international championship in London. He quickly added the Metropolitan AAU title to his collection and was sailing along very pleasantly with no thoughts of turning professional. How a generation of lightweights must have wished that he had remained among the Simon Pures.
Ortiz’s limited amateur experience didn’t stop him from making fast progress up the pro rankings. He matured quickly into a clever and adept fighter, strong and capable in most departments of the game. He could box, punch and defend himself ably when the game plan called for greater caution against the division’s superior hitters.
Carlos was unbeaten in his first 27 pro fights, finally tasting defeat when he dropped a split decision to Johnny Busso at Madison Square Garden in the summer of 1958. Ortiz avenged that loss just three months later, before travelling to London and posting his upset win over Charnley.
My father once told me of a promising young amateur from that era who was eager to turn pro and figured it would be a good idea to test the water by sparring with Charnley. The experience was a rude awakening for the wide-eyed youngster. He said he couldn’t recall being banged in the body so hard and very quickly revised his career plans. These were the top class men that Carlos Ortiz was starting to beat. But he would be frustrated by a couple of other tough pros before earning his championship stripes.
There was never the best of blood between Ortiz and that feisty little man from Muskegon, Michigan, Kenny Lane. When Carlos went down to Miami Beach in December, 1958, he wasn’t at all happy about what transpired. Lane walked off with a majority decision and Carlos believed he had been gypped. He was ready for Kenny when the two men were re-matched six months later for the vacant junior welterweight crown at Madison Square Garden.
Lane couldn’t get through two rounds as Ortiz went to work in coldly determined fashion. Carlos decked Kenny in the opening round and didn’t let up in the second. Ortiz caught Lane with a peach of a right to the eye, opening such a serious cut that the doctor had to stop the contest. Carlos would describe that punch as the hardest right hand he had thrown since turning professional.
At that time, however, the junior welterweight crown was not a greatly prized bauble, and Ortiz regarded the victory as little more than a stepping stone to the lightweight championship. He wanted Old Bones Joe Brown before Old Bones got too old, but tricky business in the junior welterweight class would keep Carlos tied up for almost another two years. The man mostly responsible for the delay was the outstanding Italian, Duilio Loi.
Carlos defended his title against Loi at the Cow Palace in San Francisco in June 1960, winning a split decision in the first of a trilogy between the two modern greats. It would mark the only time that Ortiz would beat the brilliant Italian, who would lose just three of his 126 professional fights.
Their second match in the noisy furnace of the famous San Siro Stadium in Milan also split the three officials, with Loi getting the nod. Fans of both fighters were equally divided on who won these closely contested battles. In San Francisco, Carlos had won with the help of a knockdown that many considered to be a slip, although he was the stronger man in the home stretch.
At the San Siro, before a massive pro-Loi crowd of 65,000, it was the Italian who came on in the closing stages. Duilio fought a shrewd battle throughout, confusing Ortiz by cleverly switching tactics as the fight progressed. Loi was very much the canny counter puncher in the early rounds as Carlos pressed the action. After eight rounds, Ortiz seemed to be on his way to victory as Duilio began to slow.
With the crowd urging on their hero, Loi found his second wind and assumed the role of attacker as he scored repeatedly with hard body punches to have Carlos tucking up and retreating. The Italian was coming off better in the quality exchanges and showing his full range of deft skills as he bobbed and weaved under the champion’s blows and found the mark with accurate jabs and hooks. When Carlos fired back, Loi took many of the punches on his arms and gloves.
Ortiz never stopped firing in his efforts to turn the fight around, but the battle was lost and so was his junior welterweight crown. Carlos returned to the San Siro for the rubber match with Loi in June 1961, but came up short again as the Italian fox won unanimously. A proud man, Ortiz felt bad about the two defeats and continued to question who was really the better fighter. The silver lining in his black cloud was that he was free to go back to the vastly more respected lightweight division and realise his great dream. He hammered out a pair of decisions over top contenders Doug Vaillant and Paolo Rosi and then went to Vegas to take on Joe Brown.
It was a landslide. There was no room for complaints, no opportunity to lambast the referee and judges for being blind, incompetent or downright crooked. The scorecards had been announced and they were enough to make even a worldly old pro wince with embarrassment. Referee Frankie Van scored the fight 74-60. Judge Bud Trayner tabbed it 74-58 and Dave Zeno completed the set with a tally of 74-66.
It was the night that Old Bones Joe Brown finally turned into the tortoise that got whipped by the hare. After a six-year reign and eleven defences of his lightweight championship, Joe had been bumped emphatically off his throne by the dashing young prince of Puerto Rico. It was the twenty-first day of April in 1962.
Carlos Ortiz had travelled to the Convention Center Las Vegas for the hardest fight of his life and ended up strolling past one of the greats of the game at a canter. Now Carlos was in his dressing room, bursting with that strange mix of joy and magnanimity that comes with the adrenaline rush of winning.
“Joe is not the same fighter of two, three or four years ago when I was coming up, but he deserves a return bout. He is a great fighter and was a very good champion.”
There was no return because Joe Brown was suddenly old and could no longer win the big ones. He would drop a decision to Luis Molina in his next fight and perform erratically thereafter.
While Joe’s old bones would continue to creak, young Carlos Ortiz would prove a worthy successor as one of history’s greatest lightweights. The twenty-five year old stylist possessed a shrewd boxing brain, an excellent jab, a good range of skills and solid punching power. In his full pomp, he would come to be a commanding ring general.
Ortiz had one other vital component in his armoury, an essential quality that is so often misunderstood and misused: Arrogance. That important ingredient has to be brewed and fermented to exactly the right measure. It must co-exist in harmony with self-discipline and sober judgement.
After beating Joe Brown, Carlos claimed he knew he was going to win from as early as the first round. If that was the case, then the cool and intelligent challenger never gave the game away. He befuddled Joe all night long with fast and accurate jabbing, never allowing the champion to set himself and unloose his heavy artillery. When Joe tried some old tricks, Carlos kept a rein on his temper and stuck to his game plan.
“Joe hit me after the bell in the sixth round,” Ortiz would recall. “I told myself, ‘Don’t get mad now’.” Both fighters slugged away at each other beyond the bell as referee Frankie Van tried to prise them apart. With a mountain to climb, Brown simply couldn’t find a way to trap and slow Carlos. Bleeding from a cut to his left eye from the challenger’s damaging jab, Joe was virtually shut out of the fight and acknowledged as much. “I just couldn’t get off the ground. I think the real Joe Brown could whip Carlos Ortiz. But Carlos was smarter tonight than I thought he was.”
Ortiz had won and he had won the smart way. “When I was a kid,” Carlos said, “I read about how Billy Conn had Joe Louis beaten, only to get too cocky and get flattened. But not me, I told myself. Box and win. That is just what I did in the Brown fight.”
Ortiz couldn’t crow loud enough after beating Old Bones. “I beat Brown because I was in the finest physical condition of my life,” said Carlos. “I won the title because I went after him right from the start and at once proved to him that the only way he could retain the championship was to knock me out. I trained for the toughest fight of my career. It turned out to be the easiest. I want to prove that I am a fighting champion. I can adjust my style to offset that of any opponent.”
In the years ahead, Carlos would prove both points in style as the confidence of being a world champion enabled him to raise his impressive game to a new level. Challengers would never have to come looking for Ortiz. He was more than happy to pay them a visit. But New York and Puerto Rico would still get their share of the champion between his treks to other boxing nations.
After making his first successful title defence with a fifth round knockout of Teruo Kosaka in Tokyo, Carlos returned to his roots when he gave former foe Doug Vaillant a title tilt at the Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan in April 1963. Twenty thousand fans came to see Carlos give a commanding and dazzling performance. He made a big statement of intent in the opening minute of the battle when he knocked Vaillant down with a left hook. Doug was a courageous and determined challenger and fought back furiously for the remainder of the round. He kept in the fight through the first five heats, but it was Carlos who was scoring with the more authoritative punches.
Carlos forged ahead, but Vaillant never stopped trying. Doug made a big effort to sway things his way in the tenth as he winged shots to the body of Ortiz. But Vaillant’s desperation showed as the fight wore on and Ortiz kept up his steady pressure. Referee James J Braddock, the old heavyweight champ, issued five warnings to Doug for low punching and took away a point for butting.
Everything was going the champion’s way by the eleventh. Carlos was employing his jab beautifully and with telling effect. He was also besting Doug on the inside with some lusty body punching. When Ortiz came out for the twelfth, he knew his man was ripe for the taking. Carlos charged from his corner and pounded Vaillant with body blows, decking the challenger twice and nearly knocking him out before the bell. Vaillant tottered back to his stool on unsteady legs, a man buying himself a mere minute of respite before his execution. He was down twice more in the thirteenth and being pummelled against the ropes when referee Braddock rescued him.
The big crowds continued to turn out wherever Carlos Ortiz journeyed. He was a national hero who waged war with other national heroes before screaming crowds in vast stadiums. The atmosphere was rarely anything less than electric at an Ortiz fight. When Carlos made the first of two defences against junior lightweight champ Flash Elorde at the Rizal Memorial Coliseum in Manila in February 1964, the champion was also taking on a partisan crowd of 60,000. Many top class fighters have wilted and withered under that kind of pressure. Not Ortiz.
Calm and collected as ever, Carlos ignored a gash to his right eye in the second round and dealt with everything the game and talented Elorde could dish out. A clever and exciting fighter, Flash looked a lively and dangerous challenger in the early going as he counter punched skillfully and navigated his way around Ortiz’s jab by ducking and weaving and rifling the champion with solid combinations to head and body.
But Carlos had reached that wonderful point in his prime where he seemed to know that he couldn’t be taken. He began to slow Elorde with some vicious uppercuts to the body in the fifth round, piling up valuable points thereafter and carving out a good lead. Flash was unable to close the widening chasm and his spirited rally in the thirteenth round proved to be his last throw of the dice.
There was always a noticeable little jig in Ortiz’s step when he knew he was close to closing the show, and he sprang from his corner at the beginning of the fourteenth to finish the job. He drove Elorde to the ropes with a series of powerful blows and was battering the challenger with big lefts and rights when referee James Wilson stopped the fight. Flash, courageous as ever, was still fighting back and protested Wilson’s decision. “I had to stop the fight or he would have killed you,” Wilson replied.
“The kid was fast, real fast - he was a whip!” So said Ortiz of the new kid in town, Panama’s flashy and impressive Ismael Laguna. Carlos made that discovery to his considerable cost. When he changed back into his street clothes and departed the Estadio Nacional in Panama City in October 1965, Ortiz was no longer wearing his crown. The young whip had whipped him in the climax to a seemingly endless nightmare.
Carlos and Panama City just didn’t go together. Ortiz didn’t like the food and then the local water gave him a bad attack of diarrhoea. The fight was postponed for a month and the extra time didn’t improve the defending champion’s chances.
Carlos was still unwell and nowhere near the weight limit on the eve of the fight. A long session in a steam bath resolved that problem, but he was too weak mentally for the lithe and ambitious Laguna. By his own admission, Ortiz simply couldn’t cope with the challenger’s incredible speed of hand and foot. The decision and the lightweight championship went to Panama.
It was a different story seven months later when Carlos regained the title by scoring a unanimous points victory over Ismael in San Juan. But the greatly talented Laguna was far from finished as a major player and would come back to haunt Ortiz nearly two years later in the best of their three fights at Madison Square Garden.
Carlos had his share of adventures on the way to that one. In a bizarre title defence against former featherweight champion Sugar Ramos in Mexico City, Ortiz became the innocent victim of incredible circumstances. The Mexican supporters erupted when their man Sugar floored Carlos in the second round, but their joy turned to despair and derision when referee and former light heavyweight king Billy Conn stopped the fight in Ortiz’s favour in the fifth after Ramos had sustained a cut eye.
The World Boxing Council (WBC) wasn’t at all pleased. It ruled that Conn had stopped the bout improperly and had given Ortiz the benefit of a long count in the second round. In the days of only two controlling bodies in the sport (and most of us thought that was two too many), Carlos was stripped of his WBC title and left with the recognition of only the World Boxing Association, the Ring magazine and almost everyone else on the planet.
If these events bothered Ortiz, he was too professional to allow them to affect his ring performances. It is true to say that he hadn’t been in top form against Ramos, but Carlos would respond by going on the roll of his career over his next three fights. He successfully defended his WBA crown with another fourteenth round stoppage of Flash Elorde at Madison Square Garden, and then blasted Ramos to defeat in the fourth of their eagerly awaited rematch in San Juan. The challengers were being steadily picked off and sent packing. Even Kenny Lane got another chance and was unanimously outpointed. Now Carlos could turn his attention to Ismael Laguna again. And Laguna and his army of fans were coming to Shea Stadium.
The atmosphere crackled at Shea on the Wednesday night of August 16, 1967 when Ortiz and Laguna entered the ring. Puerto Rican and Panamanian flags waved among the crowd of 18,000 fans as they anticipated a very special match-up. The odds were even, Laguna having blossomed into a much more mature and rounded fighter since his defeat to Carlos in Puerto Rico. The challenger had compiled a 7-1 score since that match, a points loss to Flash Elorde being more than compensated for by quality wins over contenders Carlos Hernandez, Percy Hayles, Daniel Guanin, Frankie Narvaez and Alfredo Urbina.
Ortiz was a champion at the top of his game and eager to underline his superiority over the panther-like youngster who had dazzled him in the heat of Panama City. Carlos did so magnificently, finding the range early and nailing Laguna with beautifully accurate shots all the way through. The champion marked his territory in the second round when he staggered Ismael with a powerful left-right combination to the jaw. It seemed that Ortiz hit the jackpot every time he threw the right. He forced Laguna’s knees to dip with a big shot in the fourth and cracked the challenger on the jaw with another peach of a blow in the eighth.
What was now noticeable, however, was that Carlos was having to pace himself more carefully as he approached his thirty-first birthday. Having gained the upper hand, he allowed Laguna back into the fight in the middle rounds as the spirited challenger let fly with his impressive repertoire of punches. The Panamanian fans grew increasingly excited as it appeared that their man was coming on strong and heading back to the top of the tree.
But quality champions always have quality moves in reserve. Sensing the danger, Ortiz came to life again in the tenth round and re-employed his damaging right cross to regain control of the fight. He jolted Ismael in that round and again in the eleventh, and the challenger’s best rallies could not offset the champion’s skill and guile in the home stretch. The decision was unanimous for Carlos, by scores of 10-4-1, 10-4-1 and 11-3-1.
Ortiz had made the last successful defence of his crown. His desire waning, he would lay off for ten months before losing his title to Carlos (Teo) Cruz on a tight decision in the Dominican Republic. There would be other battles for Carlos thereafter, but of far less significance. A ten-fight winning streak that began in 1969 was eventually snapped by a sad and meek surrender to Ken Buchanan in 1972.
But the important work had been done. Ortiz had put his numbers on the board and established himself as one of the great lightweights. Like good wine, he travelled well.
VIDEO: CARLOS ORTIZ v BATTLING TORRES
BROWNSVILLE: IT'S IN THE BLOOD
Special Guest Article by Ted Sares
“Home to Abe ‘Kid Twist’ Reles and ‘Pittsburgh Phil’ Strauss, two of the Jewish mob’s most feared henchmen, Brownsville was where lighthearted kvetching and the shouts of pushcart vendors faded into the muffled screams of the mafia hit. In the hands of Louis ‘Lepke’ Buchalter and ‘Big Al’ Anastasia, Murder Inc. turned the business of crime into a vast, well-oiled enterprise.”—From “Bummy Davis vs. Murder Inc.: The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Mafia and an Ill-Fated Prizefighter”
“We both went to P.S. 396…He’s a couple years older than me, so I wasn’t a friend of his or anything. He was a loner. Actually, all I remember about him is that he was big for his age and that he always had a bag of cookies with him.”—Riddick Bowe speaking of Mike Tyson
”[Brownsville] never promised you anything. It was up to you to find your niche and make a life for yourself, to find your thing and grab it with both hands.”—Eddie Mustafa Muhammad
“Though he was born and raised in Brownsville, Jacobs doesn’t have the same flash and swagger of other boxers who came from that neighborhood.”—Tim Smith
Brownsville is a dreary residential neighborhood located in Brooklyn, New York. At one time, Brownsville was one of city’s most infamous slums, and it still remains essentially ignored by gentrification and marked with intense violence. Some call it “the hood that New York left behind.” Nevertheless, a lot of “famous” people came from there: the composer Aaron Copland, Rev. Al Sharpton, Willie Randolph, Lloyd World B. Free, Larry King, Nelson George, John Gotti, The Three Stooges (Moe, Larry and Curly, and later Shemp Howard), and others too numerous to name. But when it comes to boxers, there must be something in the water that produce the greats who drank it, including Benny “Schoolboy” Friedkin, Al “Bummy” Davis, explosive Mike Tyson, troubled Riddick Bowe, introspective Floyd Patterson, and savvy Eddie Mustafa Muhammad. Also calling Brownsville home are combustible (but now less so) Zab Judah, his brother Daniel Judah, Shannon Briggs, Junior Jones, Mark Breland, and more recently Curtis “Showtime” Stevens (21-3) and recovering Daniel “The Golden Child” Jacobs (22-1). Yuri Foreman, who once won the WBA super welterweight title, reportedly has been seen drinking the same Brooklyn water.
As an amateur, Danny Jacobs won his fourth New York Daily News Golden Gloves Championship (one short of Breland’s record). Danny has not fought since March 2011, when he knocked out Robert Kliewer in one round. These days, he’s waging another battle; he’s fighting for more than a belt. In May, Danny was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, an aggressive life threatening cancer that manifested itself in a quarter-sized tumor, wrapped around his spine, which damaged his nerves and caused partial paralysis in his legs. He is now on a long and difficult road back. However, given his background, where he is from, and the water he was drinking, Danny’s odds are pretty good.
Al “Bummy “Davis, who grew up when Brownsville was predominantly Jewish, developed into a tough, street-smart young man, and became well known in a neighborhood that was famed as the home of Murder Inc. He was a slugger with a lethal left hook and an old school record of 65-10-4 with 47 KOs. Named to The Ring magazine’s list of 100 Greatest Punchers of All Time, he was murdered in 1945 when he was drinking with his friends in Dudy’s Bar in Brownsville and four armed robbers walked in. “Bummy” attacked the robbers, knocked one of them down, was shot three times, but still managed to chase the other three. During the pursuit, he was shot a fatal fourth time. Bummy upheld the Brownsville reputation to the very end.
FROM HELL: BATTLING NELSON IN THE OLD WEST
The story is old but it still chills the blood upon its retelling. Ad Wolgast, the former lightweight champion of the world was out doing his running when a curious patrol cop stopped him by the roadside. Wolgast was an incongruous addition to the sprawling landscape and the cop knew it.
“Hey, Ad, what are you doing?”
“Doing my training for the Nelson fight,” Wolgast replied, “and I’m gonna lick the son of a bitch!”
Nothing wrong with that, you might think. Just another pumped up fighter getting in the zone. Except that Wolgast was training for a fight with Battling Nelson that had taken place years before.
Ad was lucky that day. The cop was kind and cared about his welfare. Other figures of authority were not so compassionate to the great old champion as he descended slowly into madness in the later years of his hard life. He was once savagely beaten by a couple of would-be toughs who wanted to brag to their friends that they had thrashed the great Ad Wolgast.
Ad was already suffering from significant brain damage before his violent fighting career was over. The man they called the Michigan Wildcat knew no other way to fight than to attack his prey with hell-for-leather, kamikazi-like rushes. He would rip into his opponents and smash away with everything he had. Over the years, the injuries piled up. Wolgast suffered numerous breakages to his hands, arms and ribs. He broke a bone in his right arm in his 1914 fight with Freddie Welsh and fought Cy Smith a year later with a damaged right hand. In a 1916 brawl with Chet Neff at the Dreamland Rink in Seattle, Ad’s ears were so badly bashed up that he later required surgery.
By the time Ad finally quit fighting in 1920, his mind was scattered to the point where he still believed he was back in the glory days. California promoter Jack Doyle was appointed his official guardian and allowed Wolgast to train for imaginary fights.
No amount of fights were enough for Wolgast, even though he had tested his mettle against just about everybody who was somebody during his fourteen-year, 142-fight career. Indeed, Ad’s record is a handy shortcut for getting a line on who was who in a tough era that teemed with outstanding talent. The Wildcat waged war with Owen Moran, Frankie Neil, Abe Attell, Harlem Tommy Murphy and Matty Baldwin. He duelled with Mexican Joe Rivers, Willie Ritchie, Leach Cross, Frankie Burns and Ever Hammer.
Yet it was the incredible Oscar ‘Battling’ Nelson who penetrated and lingered in Ad’s clouded and tortured mind after all the years had passed and all the wars had been fought. Nelson continued to haunt a great many of his opponents in similar fashion. It didn’t matter whether he had beaten them or they had beaten him. The impression he burned on men was indelible.
There was nothing strikingly obvious in Battling Nelson’s physique or countenance that marked him out as the extraordinarily tough and resilient man that he was. Yet his nickname of the Durable Dane was thoroughly fitting. He was blond, lean and muscular, but certainly not a physical superman or an immediately daunting vision to behold. The genuinely tough men rarely are. They are simply hard and unyielding all the way through, blessed with that fighting spirit and special armour that is simply indefinable.
Nelson couldn’t compare to George Chuvalo for his ability to stay upright. Bat was knocked down and sent reeling many times. He didn’t have the rugged and uniquely oily skin of the astonishing Joe Grim, which staved off cuts and welts. Nelson, like Wolgast, spilled more blood and collected more bruises than was good for him. But just once in his magnificent career was Bat Nelson knocked out, and only then after fourteen years of brutally hard campaigning. The brilliant Englishman,Owen Moran, known simply as Fearless and a kindred spirit of Nelson in his quietly terrifying demeanour, turned the unique trick when he aced Bat in the eleventh round of their 1910 battle in San Francisco.
By that time, Bat had given and received the kind of punishment that we can only imagine in the mercifully more compassionate era of the present day. He was getting involved in storybook brawls from the earliest stages of his career and making headlines in other ways too. He scored one of the fastest knockouts in history when he despatched William Rossler in just twelve seconds at Harvey, Illinois, in 1902. But it seemed that Nelson always had to pay the piper for those rare occasions when he had it easy.
In December of that year, he locked horns with Christy Williams at Hot Springs in Arkansas in a free-hitting brawl which featured a remarkable fifty-one knockdowns. Nelson decked Christy forty-two times but visited the canvas nine times himself before posting a seventeenth round knockout.
It soon became apparent that Nelson was a dangerous man of destiny who cared little for his welfare in his dangerous pursuit of glory. Such are the special and sometimes frightening qualities that separate the true fighting men from the safe and the compliant. There are no safety nets for such warriors, no carefully structured career paths or get-out clauses, no pension plans to soften a sudden fall. They measure their distance from the starting gate and simply run pell-mell for the finish line.
This potent drug in Nelson’s system would never be flushed from his bloodstream, as he readily acknowledged during the latter stages of his career when he kept coming back for more against all good advice. “You just can’t quit, that’s all,” Bat explained. “They say a criminal is drawn back irresistibly to the scene of his crime. Well, so is a fighter drawn back to the old rings, to the old crowds and to the old excitement.”
On the march
By 1904, Battling Nelson was on the march. In September of that year, he survived a shuddering knockdown to take a 20-rounds decision from the formidable Mexican Aurelio Herrera in a punishing fight at Butte, Montana. Bat ran into something of a soul brother in the ferocious Herrera, who attacked with similar viciousness and could hit with terrific force.
Two months after that unrelenting slugfest, Nelson stopped Young Corbett in ten rounds at San Francisco, which secured Bat a match with the skilful Jimmy Britt for the vacant world lightweight crown. Britt proved too slick for Bat in boxing his way to a points victory at the Mechanics Pavilion in San Francisco, but Nelson had arrived in the big time and his reputation as a man to be feared had spread far and wide.
To Bat, fighting meant one thing: winning at all costs and bringing into play any tactics that would get the job done. He was dangerously reckless, to himself and to his opponents, but was unswerving in his belief that fighting was a dog-eat-dog business.
Nelson would willingly sacrifice his head to draw fire and test his adversary’s power of punch. He would batter his way forward, firing all the time and weakening the other man with persistent body punching. Bat’s left hook was a debilitating weapon and he would extend his thumb and forefinger upon delivery to heighten its penetration.
Much is made of how Harry Greb and Sandy Saddler would beef up their attack with imaginative twists of the Marquis of Queensberry rules. Nelson was a master of such guerrilla warfare, although considerably less subtle and apologetic. Gouging, elbow smashes to the face and the odd knee to the groin were all among the spicy ingredients that Bat added to his eclectic recipe.
Nelson was ready when he got his second chance at Jimmy Britt in the great old fight town of Colma on the San Francisco peninsula in 1905. Colma was always a fittingly eerie location for life and death battles. To this day, its seventeen cemeteries still occupy more than seventy per cent of its land area.
Nelson tried everything he knew to put Britt in the ground, but masterful Jimmy boxed and side-stepped beautifully for the first sixteen rounds as Nelson chased and hustled and tried to goad the champion into trench warfare. In the eighteenth, Britt made his big mistake. Nelson charged out of his corner in another attempt to trap his evasive foe and make some kind of definitive impact.
Bat got his break. Staggering Jimmy with a hard left, Nelson jumped on his man with a hail of follow-up blows. In his distress, Britt allowed himself to be sucked into the eye of the storm as he began to trade. Opening up with both fists, he tried to slow the manic Nelson by punishing his body with a volley of punches. It was a situation in which Bat revelled. Far from being discouraged, he upped his work rate and soon had Britt’s knees buckling as the crowd roared. Nelson was a terrific in-fighter who simply wouldn’t relent once he had established his foothold. Britt, the ring scientist, the beautiful boxer, was suddenly swinging wildly and crudely in his final fling at taming the madman who seemed to be eating him from the waist up.
In later years, ringsiders would describe this frenetic round of ceaseless hitting as one of the toughest and most violent in ring history. It ended spectacularly when Nelson nailed Britt with a right to the heart and knocked him out with a final left hook.
There is a commemorative plaque in the once thriving mining town of Goldfield to the Herculean struggle that took place there between Battling Nelson and Joe Gans in September, 1906. Just a simple plaque, baking in the sun and the deadly quietness.
On one of my trips there in 1980, almost seventy-four years to the day after that great fight, I remember a trucker jumping down from his rig and announcing to the local coffee shop proprietor that it was 102 degrees that morning and rising. Even the natives were having trouble staying upright in the unforgiving heat. I kept wondering how two men of even the exceptional qualities of Nelson and Gans could have fought each other for some forty rounds in that furnace.
At that time, Goldfield was a wondrous and rollicking hub of activity, the biggest town in Nevada with a population of some thirty thousand. Stores and saloons abounded. The biggest saloon was Tex Rickard’s Northern, whose mighty bar required eighty tenders to man it. The imposing Goldfield Hotel was the most opulent establishment of its kind between Kansas City and San Francisco.
But the heat didn’t keep too many people in the shade when Battling Nelson squared off with Joe Gans. Bat knew exactly what he was up against in the man they called the Old Master. Gans wasn’t merely a revelation, he was a genuine boxing revolutionary, a man of multiple skills whose planning and strategy were far ahead of his time. To this day, Joe is still reckoned by many to be one of the most complete and accomplished ring mechanics there has ever been.
Just as one struggles to highlight a significant weakness in the perfect welterweight package that was Sugar Ray Robinson, so the ghost of Gans continues to teasingly invite us to spot the slightest smears in his make-up. There were certainly none to make a great fuss about, save for his general fitness, which was not on a par with that of his great all-time rivals Benny Leonard and Roberto Duran.
Joe contracted tuberculosis late in his career, and it is not known when exactly the true effects of that then deadly illness began to sap his strength and strip him of his powers. Those powers were awesome. A master at holding the centre of the ring and handling any given situation, Gans was a sublime boxer and a tremendous hitter. He was one of the first genuine combination punchers and his speed of hand and foot was arguably unexcelled. He could counter punch with precision, work the body and was a wizard at slipping, feinting and blocking.
At Goldfield, Joe fought heroically against Nelson and prevailed in controversial circumstances. Gans had already reigned long and successfully as world champion and was still claiming the title. Nelson begged to differ.
Everything was loaded against the Old Master beforehand. Joe was haggled down to accepting a very small percentage of a big purse against Bat, and then there followed another cynical ploy by Nelson’s handlers just before fight time. Gans had made 133 pounds stripped, as agreed. But then came a further clause that required him to weigh 133 in his full fighting togs at ringside.
He was already an ill man and now he was significantly weight-weakened. As one of the most ferocious marathon fights in boxing history played out, Joe demonstrated his astonishing skill and courage. In the later rounds, weakened by the heat and Nelson’s relentless punching, Joe was forced to lean across the ropes between rounds and vomit.
The brutal contest was a titanic battle of wills, in which the science of Gans was pitted against the all out aggression and high octane punching of Nelson. Joe’s clever mind calculated the most prudent game plan, which he followed with his usual, measured discipline. Bat rushed him as only Bat knew how, but the Old Master was always one step ahead of the game as he jabbed solidly and made himself an elusive target.
Ringsiders marvelled at Joe’s footwork and the cool way in which he feinted Nelson into making errors. A 20-rounds fight that day would have been a stroll in the park for Gans and a comfortable points victory. But this was the long haul territory in which the tireless Nelson revelled and excelled. Many lesser men would have been demoralised into giving up the chase, yet the stinging punches of Gans seemed to refresh and galvanise Bat like splashes of cold water. He just kept coming, never missing a chance to hammer away with his renowned half-arm punches when he could get inside.
Was this man Nelson human? That was the question that even the worldly Gans must have been asking himself as the brutal fight wore on. The correctness of Joe’s punching was a thing of beauty as he snapped back Bat’s head with monotonous regularity. What right minded human being could have possibly enjoyed such punishment? Everything about Nelson’s demeanour conveyed the message that he was in his own special heaven.
Both men had been severely beaten and drained by the time they staggered into the home stretch beneath the Goldfield sun, but Nelson’s sheer persistence now had Gans teetering on the brink of defeat. After forty-one torrid rounds, Joe had to feel his way back to his corner like a blind man as the last reserves of his strength leaked away. Nelson had him. Gans reeled and stumbled around the ring in the forty-second as Nelson eagerly rushed for the kill. But then Bat delivered the punch that would deprive him of certain victory and make him resentful of Gans for a long time afterwards.
The controversial blow was Bat’s speciality and he had delivered it perfectly so many times before: a half scissor hook to the liver whose journey seldom amounted to more than six inches. It was a terrible, paralysing blow, and Joe dropped like a man who was dying. Then referee George Siler dropped a bomb of his own. After hesitating, he ruled the blow illegal and declared Gans the winner on a foul. Nelson was furious and dedicated himself to levelling the score.
He had to wait patiently for two years before exacting his revenge and knocking out the jaded genius in seventeen rounds at Colma. Three months later, at the same venue, Bat confirmed his position as the world’s top lightweight when he knocked out Joe in the twenty-first. Over two years and the incredible span of eighty rounds, the two titans of the game had finally concluded their business.
For all the punches he had taken, the injuries he had sustained and the blood he had spilled, Battling Nelson had still to approach the cathedral of his marathon wars in the Old West. There, at Point Richmond in California on February 22 1910, he would scale the giddiest heights of all against a man of similarly unshakeable resolve in Ad Wolgast.
The descriptions of that long and violent fight continue to ricochet and echo through the corridors of time. Historian Nat Fleischer described it simply as ‘a truly Homeric engagement’.
Nelson tried his heart out against Wolgast that day, but the Durable Dane finally slammed into the buffers against a mirror image of bloody-minded tenacity. Bat started fast, which he didn’t usually do, probably goaded by Wolgast’s pre-fight taunts. The two men detested each other and Nelson would scathingly refer to Wolgast in later years as “… the cheapest man I ever met.”
The rules of boxing simply vanished as the two warriors tore at each other with the apparent blessing of referee Edward Smith. Nelson shook Wolgast with some meaty rights in the early rounds as Ad countered and concentrated on pounding Bat’s body in close. The fighters butted each other all the way through, punched low, gouged each other’s eyes and threw in more than the occasional elbow smash to the face for good measure. In the sixteenth round, Nelson locked Wolgast’s head with his left arm and banged him to the kidneys with a succession of vicious rights.
But nothing would deflect Ad from his task. He was the younger man by six years at twenty-two, while Bat was already a grizzled veteran at twenty-eight. After thirty-seven rounds of savage fighting, Nelson was all but done and even referee Smith didn’t want to see any more. He asked the champion if he wanted to continue, but Bat typically waved him away. The head and body shots from Wolgast had reduced Nelson to a pitiful state. His legs could barely hold him up and blood ran from his nose and ears. Finally, after nearly collapsing from a Wolgast smash to the chin in the fortieth round, Bat was rescued and the fight was halted.
Both courageous battlers were smeared in blood at the end. Both were bruised and swollen. Battling Nelson could barely see out of the two slits of his eyes. The gruesome vision he presented said everything about his fighting heart and spirit.
He looked as if he had been in a gunfight. And how else was a devil-may-care gunslinger supposed to look in the thunderous theatre of the Old West?
VIDEO: BATTLING NELSON v OWEN MORAN
DEVILISHLY DANGEROUS: SANDY SADDLER
It is virtually certain that Joe ‘Sandy’ Saddler was too worldly and intelligent a man to expect the boxing world to come and pay him homage when he concluded his wonderful career.
Saddler had long been aware of the general perception of him. He was the ugly duckling of the game, the powerful and sometimes ungainly brute who gatecrashed the party and kicked sand in everyone’s face. His formidable ring achievements were too graphically emphatic to ever be denied, but they were greeted with that strangely muted reaction that comes from grudging admiration. His face didn’t fit, his style didn’t obligingly slot into any one category.
Saddler, the tall and almost skeletal man from Boston, had won in all parts of the world and defeated the champions of seven different countries. As well as campaigning in his homeland, his tireless pursuit of the featherweight championship took him to Cuba, Panama, the Philippines, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Venezuela and Argentina. Sandy had beaten the great Willie Pep in three of their four epic meetings and notched 145 wins in 163 fights. Yet charisma and popularity, those two most precious and winning of attributes, had never wrapped their arms around Sandy and carried him to the hearts of the boxing fraternity.
The fans preferred to talk about the phenomenon that was Sugar Ray Robinson or the perpetual punching machine that was Henry Armstrong. Sugar Ray could do it all and had everyone in raptures. Young and old people alike couldn’t say enough about the Harlem Flash, who possessed gifts that were not normally accorded to mere mortals. Old timers from the era of the great Joe Gans were hailing Robinson as the most complete and sensational fighter who had ever graced the stage.
The fans loved Armstrong because they have always loved a fighter who keeps punching to the end. Homicide Hank was a tornado of a man who could blow everything from his path on his best night. Like Sugar Ray, Armstrong was easy on the eye and a thrilling jolt to the heart. When Henry was through, he had 100 knockouts on his slate and everybody loved to talk about that magical figure. They didn’t talk too much about Sandy Saddler’s 103.
But then Sandy wasn’t easy on the eye and was rarely thrilling. He was just a rock hard man with all the necessary tools who got the job done anyway he had to. If he couldn’t knock out opponents with the fists that carried power in equal abundance, he would outscore and out-hustle them with skill and cunning. He had other weapons in his well stocked armoury too, straight from the Harry Greb box of tricks and the Fritzie Zivic school of artful violence. A fight to Saddler was a battle of survival in which a man needed every edge he could get for himself. If that meant a spot of wrestling and thumbing, not to mention the occasional back-hander, so be it.
Everything about Sandy looked tough and hard. Towering and lean, his skin was stretched taut over his frame like latex. He often resembled a bird of prey when he was on the hunt, hovering menacingly as he assessed his target before swooping with the next two-fisted attack. To the hurt and reeling opponent under fire, Saddler must have seemed all arms and gloves, all elbows and sharp bones.
As if to confirm his role as boxing’s villainous misfit, fate decreed that Sandy’s greatest opponent would be the sublime boxer of the age in Willie Pep, the genius who made world class men look inadequate with his innate and unmatchable skills. Pep breezed past them all until he stumbled into Saddler’s quirky minefield.
Saddler got out of the starting blocks fast when he turned professional just before his eighteenth birthday in 1944, fighting frequently and quickly establishing himself as a comer. His character was tested in only his second fight, when he suffered the lone knockout of his career to the dangerous Jock Leslie. Sandy was counted out in the third round at the Hartford Auditorium in Connecticut, yet there was no period of recuperation or re-assessment. He was plying his trade in what was arguably boxing’s most competitive era, when young prospects looking to get a foothold on the ladder simply couldn’t afford the luxury of long layoffs and self-analysis. It seems incredible to us now that Saddler packed twenty-two fights into his first professional year after starting in March. He went 20-2 with a third round knockout of Midget Mayo on December 26 and was on his way.
In 1946, Saddler dropped a ten rounds decision to former NBA champion Phil Terranova, but then Sandy began to claim some significant scalps as he moved inexorably towards his celebrated quartet of fights with Pep. Travelling down to New Orleans, Saddler stopped future lightweight champ Joe Brown in three rounds. Sandy fought a draw with Jimmy Carter and then decisioned Orlando Zulueta at the Sports Palace in Havana.
Sandy suffered a points reverse to Chico Rosa in Honolulu, but came into his first fight with Pep on the back of three successive knockouts over Kid Zefine, Aquilino Allen and Willie Roache. As he prepared for Pep, Saddler had a shrewd and valuable ally in his training camp in Archie Moore. The Old Mongoose was still awaiting his own shot at world championship glory, but had already amassed a treasure trove of boxing knowledge.
Always frank and fair in his appraisal of other fighters, Archie didn’t kid Saddler about the toughness of his assignment. Moore acknowledged that Pep was one of the fastest and cleverest ring mechanics in the game, but pointed out the oft-forgotten fact of life that the very best are still beatable. Archie reminded Saddler that he was the one who carried the big punch and urged him to jump on Willie early and stay on him with intelligent pressure. Moore sparred with Saddler, handing out tips on the art of slipping and blocking and always looking for any significant chinks in his friend’s armour that the wily Pep might exploit.
Sandy was a willing student, having dedicated his life to the toughest sport of all. He didn’t smoke or drink or place any unnecessary stress on his body. Even in the ring, he was always looking to protect himself as best he could and was grateful for Moore’s extensive lessons in how to tuck up under fire and present the smallest possible target.
Saddler was ready for Pep by the time they climbed into the Madison Square Garden ring on the night of October 29 1948. Following Archie Moore’s advice to perfection, Sandy stayed tight to Willie, negating the boxing master’s need to move and gain sufficient leverage for his famously accurate punches. The result of that fight stunned the boxing world. Willie Pep, the great untouchable, was knocked out in the fourth round. Genuinely knocked out. As Saddler always liked to put it, “I knocked him stoned.”
Nor was the sensational ending a one-punch fluke. Saddler had served notice of the imminent execution by flooring Pep twice in the third round before putting him down for the count in the fourth. The damage was there for all to see on Pep’s face, his right eye closed and his nose bleeding.
My father has often told me of how the result of that fight shot around the world and induced utter disbelief in many. “It was hard to grasp the reality of it,” he said. “Pep had only lost once in 135 fights before that, a streak that hasn’t been equalled since. It seemed that nobody could even get near him, never mind knock him out. And Willie could punch too. He wasn’t just a fancy Dan.”
Sandy Saddler was at the top of his game and eager to prove that he was a worthy champion. Less than a month later, he gave another brutal exhibition of his power in a non-title match against Tomas Beato at the Bridgeport Armory. Decking Beato three times in the opening round, Sandy stopped his man in the second with a nose-breaking left hook.
When Saddler hooked up with Pep again at the Garden in February 1949, the enthusiastic crowd was witness to the final true masterpiece of Willie’s fabulous career. Sandy’s crowding reaped little reward on that occasion as Pep boxed beautifully to win a unanimous decision by round scores of 10-5, 9-5-1 and 9-6.
Years later in his retirement, Saddler would talk admiringly of Pep’s astonishing skills and how he could turn an opponent in the blink of an eye. Much as he admired Willie, however, Sandy wouldn’t let him go away. Nineteen months would pass before their rubber match at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx in September 1950, but Saddler kept himself firmly in Pep’s sights as he reeled off twenty-four straight wins during that time. Sandy took a points verdict from Harold Dade, stopped Paddy DeMarco in nine rounds and then annexed the vacant junior-lightweight title with a split decision over old foe Orlando Zulueta at the Cleveland Arena.
Saddler made a successful defence by halting Lauro Salas in nine rounds at the same venue and went on to best Jesse Underwood, Miguel Acevedo, Johnny Forte and Leroy Willis before renewing his hostilities with Pep.
The third fight with Willie had an unsatisfactory conclusion and failed to settle the question of who was the better man. Pep retired with a shoulder injury at the end of the seventh round, but had come on strong after taking a nine count in the third to lead by a good margin on all three scorecards. But Sandy felt good about the fight and had the air of a man who knew that the balance of power was swinging his way. He had learned how to beat Pep and kept digging Willie to the head and body with those meaty shots that never seemed quite as destructive as they actually were.
Being world champion again didn’t quench Saddler’s thirst for action. Right to the end, he loved to keep fighting and keep mixing it. Over the next twelve months, he added another fourteen fights to his swelling record and retained his junior-lightweight crown with a second round knockout of Diego Sosa.
If you enjoy looking through the archives for old fight photos, then go hunting for the famous picture of Willie Pep after his fourth fight with Saddler at the famous old Polo Grounds. You will see one of the all-time great shiners, an absolute peach of a black eye that would have frightened King Kong. Sandy and Willie did just about everything it was legally possible to do in the foul-filled finale of their memorable series.
It was typical of these tough men that they were never really able to see what all the fuss was about. Pep never called Saddler a dirty fighter. Saddler had nothing but praise for Pep’s God-given talent. It just irked Sandy that he was the target of the critics when the talk turned to dirty tactics.
Here is how Saddler saw the third and fourth fights with Pep in a seventies interview with writer, Peter Heller: “The third fight, Pep knew I could punch. He knew that. When I got on top of Pep, when I started to punch him, he would grab my arm. I’m trying to pull my arms away so I can punch him. Now, what was so dirty about that? The man grabbed my arms and I pulled my arms away so I could punch, and he’s holding the other one and I’m banging with one hand. I just got right on top of him, just beat him, not unmercifully, but I just beat him good. Some people say he quit, but I just banged him something terrible. The fourth fight, he was just in there slipping an ducking until I caught up with him.”
Like many fighters looking back, Sandy was a little loose with the truth about these brawls. With both men going at each other hell for leather, the apportioning of blame was virtually pointless. And Pep was doing a lot more than slipping and ducking in that fourth fight, even though Saddler’s heavier artillery finally won the day. Willie’s shiner began to bloom in the second round, when he sustained a bad cut to the right eye and was floored by a Saddler left. But Pep rallied superbly before the end of the session, rocking Sandy with a big right and then pot-shotting him with thirteen unanswered blows.
The fight was a bizarre cocktail of the bad and the beautiful, as memorable moments of skilful fighting blended with plain old-fashioned bar room brawling. Twice the men wrestled each other to the canvas, in the sixth and eighth rounds. Never forgetting the priceless advice he received from Archie Moore, Sandy kept hustling and bustling Willie, slowly wearing him down with hurtful shots to the head and body.
By the end of the ninth round, Pep was all in. Slumped forward on his stool, he seemed to be looking for someone or something to pump fresh oxygen into his lungs and fresh ambition into his heart. The Polo Grounds began to rumble with the familiar and knowing sound that precedes a fighter’s imminent surrender. There were all sorts of things going on. Even Pep’s handlers didn’t seem to know if Willie was coming out for the tenth, while ructions at ringside were adding to the general confusion. Saddler’s manager, Jimmy Johnston, was up on his feet, claiming that judge Artie Aidala was being influenced in his thinking by Dr Vincent Nardiello, the boxing commission physician.
Then the sideshow was over and the bit players were suddenly irrelevant. Willie Pep was through. The fight was over and Sandy Saddler was still the world featherweight champion.
Between the last fight with Pep and his retirement from an eye injury in 1957, the great Sandy Saddler still had the hunger to engage in twenty-three more contests. He defended his featherweight championship twice more, unanimously outpointing Teddy ‘Redtop’ Davis at Madison Square Garden and stopping Flash Elorde in thirteen rounds at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. But it was an exciting non-title match against big puncher Tommy Collins that underscored Sandy’s reputation as a danger man who could never be written off. Rough and tough he might well have been, but Saddler was not a bully who ran for shelter when the other man starting shelling back.
The fight with Collins took place at the Boston Garden in 1952 and an upset seemed to be in the air when Tommy decked Sandy in the opening round. Collins shook his man again in the third, but Tommy was one of those fragile bangers who didn’t possess the steel and know-how that Saddler had forged over years of tough campaigning. Sandy rolled with the early thunder and then fired back to floor Collins twice in the fifth to force the referee’s intervention.
With retirement came, the long waiting game for Sandy Saddler. The wait for acceptance. For better or for worse, Willie Pep had become his strange partner in marriage. It was Pep who was introduced as one of the great featherweight champions whenever he stepped up into the ring to take a bow in guest appearances. It was Saddler who followed him as a polite after thought.
Saddler admitted to feeling bitter about this on more than one occasion. He liked Pep a lot. The two men remained good friends. It was the Pep Effect that riled Sandy. It was Saddler’s view that he deserved at least equal ranking with his old adversary. Pep’s supporters always countered with the same argument: the plane crash argument.
In January 1947, Willie had suffered serious injuries in an airplane crash, so much so that his boxing career appeared to be over. That was nineteen months before his first fight with Saddler and many contend that Pep was never quite the same brilliant fighter from that point on.
True? The question is near impossible to answer in his case. With most boxers, we would pose the question, “Was he still as good?” Willie was so outrageously exceptional that we need to ask, “Was he still as brilliant?”
Was Sandy Saddler the better man with his 3-1 advantage in those four fights? Which Willie Pep did he beat? Whose achievements were greater over the span of their long and outstanding careers?
Unfortunately, the questions keep coming when we attempt to rank the titans of the game in an all-time perspective. Fighting Harada twice defeated Eder Jofre at the peak of their respective powers, but was Harada the superior bantamweight? Most would surely refute that suggestion.
It sometimes takes decades for the accomplishments of great fighters to be absorbed and properly judged. Wherever Sandy Saddler stands in the pantheon of great featherweights, the one sure fact is that his star continues to slowly rise with the passage of time. Several years ago, The International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO) voted Willie Pep the greatest of all featherweights, but there was Saddler suddenly at number two: sneaking up and still pursuing Willie with all his old, devilish verve.
Maybe these two wonderful giants of the ring aren’t finished with each other yet!
VIDEO: SANDY SADDLER v WILLIE PEP
A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE: MAX BAER
It has been said that heavyweight legend Jim Jeffries rarely punched his full weight because of his genuine fear that he might kill an opponent. Such was Jeff’s strong and practical mind, he was able to live with that fear and still show us enough to become one of the greatest champions, never afraid to apply the kill.
On August 25, 1930, at the Recreation Park in San Francisco, Max Baer literally killed an opponent in Frankie Campbell with a thunderous salvo of punches that went unchecked by a dozing referee.
Max was twenty years old and it is virtually certain that the tragedy removed his great body of its killer streak and continued to burrow away in his mind.
Did guilt eat away the best of Max Baer as a fighter? He went into that bout in a rare state of mind. He was enraged. His friend and trainer, Tillie ‘Kid’ Herman, had switched allegiance at the last moment and become Frankie Campbell’s chief second. Nothing much happened in the first four rounds of the fight, as Max and Frankie battled on even terms, taking two rounds each. As Baer came out for the fifth round, Tillie Herman jeered him and a devil was let loose.
No longer was Baer slothful and cautious. He simply let rip with everything he had as he chased and punched Campbell to the ropes. Frankie was suddenly trapped and would undoubtedly have fallen in normal circumstances from the big right cross that thundered off his chin. But his suddenly limp body had no place to collapse and rest. That blow alone was believed to have knocked Campbell out, but many more blows followed. Baer kept firing and struck his hapless opponent with at least another half dozen full-blooded shots to the head.
Referee Toby Irwin, one of the most experienced officials in the game and an ex-fighter, was seemingly oblivious to Campbell being out. Curiously, Frankie’s seconds appeared to be similarly hypnotised by the crashing burst of violence. There was no fluttering towel, no shouts and yells from them to stop the fight.
The anguished cries to halt the slaughter came from the crowd of 15,000, aghast at the blood that pumped from Frankie’s nose and mouth before he finally hit the deck.
A brawl had been expected between the two young Californian prospects and the rules had been relaxed accordingly. It was agreed beforehand that fouls would not be recognised unless they were deliberate. A fighter incapacitated by a low punch would have all the time he needed to recover, even if it were necessary to start a preliminary bout in the meantime. There was always the dreadful possibility that things would get out of hand.
Campbell was moved to the Mission Emergency Hospital in San Francisco and later to St Joseph’s, where he died at noon the following day.
Max Baer, even at that early stage in his career, was being hailed as one of the greatest punchers the heavyweight division had ever seen. We can only theorise on how he felt about that.
It was years before Max could talk about the fight in detail. When he finally opened up, he said the following: “Frankie Campbell was fast and clever. I knew in the opening seconds of the fight that I was finally in with an opponent who would be a real test. I knew that if I could get past Frankie, I could honestly call myself a good fighter.
“I started to throw right hands at him. But all I could hit was air. Frankie just ducked or easily danced out of range. When I tried to move inside to get at his body, he pinned my arms against his sides. I could only glare angrily at him and growl, ‘Stop holding and start fighting!’. But Frankie was a real pro. He ignored me. The serious expression on his face never changed.
“In the second round I started to get desperate. I swung harder but missed by an even greater distance than I had missed in the first round. I threw one right so hard that when I missed by at least two feet I lost my balance and slipped to the floor. The crowd laughed and I felt like a fool.
“But that slip turned out to be very important. Frankie thought he had knocked me down, so he immediately turned his back and headed for the nearest neutral corner.
“I jumped up without taking a count and lunged toward him. He must have heard me coming because he started to spin around. As he turned, I aimed a right at his head, which caught him high on the jaw. As I recall, he was not completely turned toward me when the punch landed.
“Frankie didn’t go down. In fact he didn’t appear hurt at all. He resumed sticking his long left in my face as he had been doing since the fight began. But to this day, I still think that the punch which caught him on the jaw when he was partly turned around did the damage which caused.... which caused.... well, you know what I mean.”
The big question!
Max Baer is wished back to the present day by a rich and eager young psychiatrist who has been dying to ask him the big question. Max is his old self when he appears. Not the prematurely grey and wrinkled man who succumbed to a heart attack at the age of fifty.
He stands tall and broad and young again, the big shoulders and slim waist encased in the finest clothes, the big familiar grin creasing the rugged and handsome face.
The psychiatrist pumps Maxie’s hand, sweeps him into the consulting room and sits him down. How the young ace of the mind-bending fraternity has been looking forward to this moment!
He fires away. “Maxie, I’ve got to know. How come you blew the Braddock fight?”
Unable to curb his enthusiasm, he pre-empts Baer’s reply by offering him a multiple choice of deeply esoteric answers. Maxie blinks, thinks and then smiles and shrugs. “Hell, Doc, I guess I just wasn’t in the mood. But I do know of this jumping little joint down the street where the dancing girls are really cute. You wanna come check it out with me?”
The psychiatrist drops his clipboard, knocks over his glass of water and reels from the room stunned. He takes to the drink, stops shaving and showering and is never the same again.
For various reasons, of course, our little scenario here can never happen. For one thing, we end up sympathising with the rich young psychiatrist, which simply won’t do. But the trip to fantasyland does serve to remind us how Max Baer would fall from the sky like a bomb on today’s cripplingly complex and over-analytical society.
God knows, Maxie was enough of a conundrum back in the simpler and more innocent times of his own era in the 1930s, when he would frequently answer the bell looking like Superman and behaving like Ollie Hardy.
Why did Baer lose to Braddock? Probably, indeed, because Max wasn’t in the mood, any more than Roberto Duran felt like playing ring-a-rosy with Ray Leonard in New Orleans or Sonny Liston relished another night at the ballet with Muhammad Ali in Lewiston. The deep thinkers and conspirators do have a tendency to see dark and sinister shapes that are nothing more than shadows.
All these years later, it remains hard to determine whether Max Baer, the Livermore Larruper from California, was a man-child or simply childlike. He was certainly a jarring and fascinating misfit, blessed or cursed (depending on one’s point of view) with a playful and mischievous mind that was eternally ill at ease in the mighty house of its Adonis-like body. He was a Great White Shark who wanted to clown with the other fish in the sea instead of eating them. To those who receive their cerebral pictures in black and white, that kind of contradiction is simply incomprehensible.
Unlike Duran, Liston or countless other great fighters who have inexplicably blanked out on the big night, Max Baer’s irrationality represented a constant and bewildering state of mind. The larking and the clowning became so familiar that boxing fans eventually learned not to question it in any great depth. The mystery where Max was concerned was what sparked him to those rare bursts of genius when he would suddenly erupt like an angry god and display all his thundering majesty.
How great he could have been! We all know it and we all still wonder how magnificent Max Baer could have become if his wonderful potential had been truly realised. We marvel at his wasteful defeats as much as his thrilling victories. The warm glow we feel for Jim Braddock is tempered by the immense frustration of watching Baer leaking away his chance of joining the elite band of all-time heavyweights. The thrill we get from the precision punching of Joe Louis is offset by the knowledge that Baer could have done so much better before his anti-climatic surrender against Joe at Yankee Stadium.
It is reckoned that Louis hit Max flush with some 250 shots to the jaw before the Clown Prince went down in the fourth round and tamely took the count, still looking fresh and thoroughly aware of his surroundings. That chilling fact alone speaks volumes for Baer’s famous resilience. But what if he had hit back in earnest that night? What would have happened then?
The questions are academic in Max’s case because his brain didn’t work in that way. Whatever the molecular construction of his control centre, it wasn’t the ten-cent model that he self-effacingly made it out to be. In Baer’s simple book of life, everlasting glory was a small reward for personal injury. Being a handsome, glorious slab of beef was one thing. Getting chopped and grilled for other people’s pleasure was quite another.
Yet he had the talent and, more significantly, he had the killer instinct when he chose to bring it out of mothballs. Legions of big men have lacked that latter, essential quality. Max Baer at his best was a revelation: wild, arrogant, dismissive and destructive. When he rose up in anger, he made other heavyweights look as small as children and other punchers look positively ineffectual. In that respect, he was very much the precursor of another big man who would come blasting out of California some forty years later.
Max Baer was the early and fatally flawed template of George Foreman: bigger and more powerful than all the other boys but missing the vital components of dedication and consistent hunger that were so inherent in Big George’s make-up. When Baer used his hammer-like right hand to pummel Max Schmeling to defeat in the tenth round at Yankee Stadium on June 8, 1933, it was with all the authority and conviction of a man beating upon a boy. As we all know, Schmeling was no boy. He was a great fighter and a former world champion with a tremendous right hand punch of his own, who would go on to memorably derail Joe Louis three years later.
Against Baer, Schmeling frequently resembled a leopard trying to inconvenience a lion. Baer almost casually shrugged off the German’s best shots to the chin, sometimes appearing amused by them as he lolled against the ropes. Foreman, in his menacing pomp, would so often treat his opponents with the same world-weary disdain. When the boot then shifted to the other foot, the opponent would be jerked and flung around the ring like a rag doll.
A lot of stories have been written about Max Baer the joker. It is understandable. The stories make us laugh and Max could be a very funny man. He made some serious pocket money at it in his double act with Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom. But let us now look at Max Baer when he dropped the mask of the clown and got serious.
The fog of the Jim Braddock fight, forever lingering and freshly celebrated again only recently, has all but hidden the big-shouldered and big punching young killer that Max Baer appeared to be as the thirties dawned on a depressed and tired America. Baer’s impact on the equally flat heavyweight boxing scene was nothing short of terrific.
His destruction of Schmeling, a quite frightening spectacle even in those more tolerant times of the sport, was dissected and discussed for days afterwards by a fight fraternity that was suddenly buzzing again. Sensational reports and prosaic essays were written about Max’s thunderous punching power and his apparent immunity to punishment.
What threw opponents and boxing journalists alike was the often indefinable pattern of Baer’s game plan in the ring, if indeed he ever had one. Long periods of docile quietness would suddenly be smashed by eruptions of breathtaking violence. Backhanded slaps and low punches would be excused with seemingly sincere apologies and embarrassed grins, only to be followed by vicious blows that exploded to head and body. Bouts of lethargy would be broken by sustained attacks, in which he would lash out like a sleeping man who had just had a fly dropped in his mouth by a prankster. Baer mixed so many ingredients into his crazy cocktail that it was impossible to tell whether the mixture was planned or purely accidental.
Schmeling was so distracted that his normally acute Teutonic mind was tricked completely down the wrong garden path. As he said of Baer in the aftermath: “He wasn’t hurting me so I got careless and opened up. Wham, I thought a house had fallen on me.”
Baer played a cat-and-mouse game throughout the fight, changing gears constantly as he attacked, idled, played and tormented, before lowering the boom with sudden viciousness.
Jack Dempsey, who had taken Baer under his wing and promoted the fight, obviously believed he had struck gold when he said of Max: “It seems to me that the possibilities in this California youngster are only starting to be uncovered. As great a puncher as Schmeling couldn’t hurt Baer. And until last night I hadn’t seen anyone fighting today who could out-wallop the German. Baer hits with terrible power. As he moves along, it seems natural to expect that his boxing will improve and the importance of his bouts will steady him. He has in himself the ability to become one of the great heavyweights of the ring.”
Baer’s performance similarly astounded the massive Yankee Stadium crowd of 65,000. His punches were often as wild as his freewheeling spirit as he advanced in stop-start bursts, but nothing coming back from Schmeling could significantly check the oddly languid flow of creeping menace.
Baer opened fast, ripping punches at the German ace for the first four rounds without reaping any great dividends. Schmeling was a tough and durable man and determinedly rode out the early storm to make his mark.
He found Baer’s jaw repeatedly with cracking rights, but must surely have felt a sinking of the heart at seeing no telling result for his efforts. Baer seemed impervious to the punishment as he continued to fight in spurts, often resembling a mildly bored man taking a stroll through tedious scenery.
Schmeling displayed admirable resilience, and as the fight wore on one could understand his conviction that he had taken the cream of Baer’s Sunday best and could no longer be hurt. Then Baer came to life again in the ninth, savagely so. Going for the kill, he missed with some wild shots but then drove Schmeling to the ropes and connected with a couple of big punches to the head. Again, the former world champion took the punishment well, but then he found himself trapped in a corner at the end of the round as Baer opened up and fired away. He was still slamming punches at Schmeling after the bell and the German waved a hand in feeble protest as he walked unsteadily back to his corner.
Baer sensed the time was right for the big onslaught as the tenth round opened. He attacked Schmeling from the outset with a vicious fusillade of lefts and rights, but Schmeling continued to show his great character in rolling with the storm. His gameness, alas, only delayed his brutal fall. Baer backed off, seemingly admiring his handiwork, but then shot home a big right that staggered Schmeling. Baer continued to fire, knocking the German down with a final, booming right to the jaw. The roar of the crowd was so loud that referee Arthur Donovan had to read the timekeeper’s lips in picking up the count.
Courageous to the end, Schmeling hauled himself to his feet and straight back into the line of fire. Baer was baring his teeth and dipping and swaying his body to give his blows greater leverage for the final act. There was always a strange element of cruelty to Baer the executioner, perhaps part imagined because his mainly closeted mean streak contrasted so jarringly with his madcap image. Much like Jack Nicholson’s dark portrayal of The Joker, one expected a tasteless gag to accompany the withering brutality.
Punching short and long with his big right, Baer pasted Schmeling with a final barrage before referee Donovan rescued the German as he clutched desperately to the ropes
Writer Edward J Neill described the crowd as ‘thunderstruck’ at the finish. Just about everyone was convinced they had seen the re-birth of the young Jack Dempsey. Henry McLemore wrote: “Boxing got its shot in the arm last night, the same sort of shot it received on that scorching afternoon on the banks of the Maumee, when the killer that was Jack Dempsey stepped to the heavyweight heights over the battered, bleeding hulk of Jess Willard. The Californian has all the fine qualities necessary for the make-up of a dominating ring champion. He’s magnificent to gaze upon. He’s wild, irresponsible, conceited and – most important of all – he packs a wallop that makes him a menace from the first gong to the last.”
At 6’ 2’’and just over two hundred pounds, Ernie Schaaf was often described as a giant in the days of smaller heavyweights. Ernie was also a very accomplished boxer and a respectable puncher who had climbed the ranks with quality victories over Paolino Uzcudun, Tony Galento, Young Stribling, Jim Braddock, Tuffy Griffiths and Tommy Loughran.
In December 1930, Schaaf met Baer at Madison Square Garden and handed Max the most comprehensive points beating that many locals could recall. Significantly, perhaps, it was Baer’s first fight since knocking out Frankie Campbell.
People were beginning to wonder about Max Baer, the hot young prospect from California, the new Dempsey. Did he have the mental fortitude to accompany his physical attributes? After the Schaaf defeat, Max had gone on to lose three of his next five fights.
Baer simply had to make good when he got his second chance at Schaff at the Chicago Stadium on August 31, 1932. The odds were in big Ernie’s favour and he certainly looked the part. He was a splendid physical specimen that night at 209 1/2lbs, and the 7/5 choice of the bookies. Max came into the ring at an even 200lbs and the eager crowd at the grand venue wondered which Max Baer they had come to see. Was he still the ferocious young banger with the potential to write his name large into the history books? There could be no more erratic, temperamental performances if he were to truly step into the shoes of the mighty Dempsey.
For eight rounds, the fight was slow and uneventful, prompting referee Tommy Thomas to call for more action. This wasn’t an unusual demand from a referee in bygone days when assorted shenanigans were rife. No boxer has ever won an Oscar for acting when faking his best effort. Check out Willie Pep’s facial contortions in his farcical dance with Lulu Perez and you will get the point. Max and Ernie looked happy enough just to be there, but the waltz was terminated violently by Baer’s sudden charge for the home plate in the ninth round.
The Larruper started larruping and a tremendous slugfest ensued in mid-ring. The fighters were toe-to-toe and were hitting each other with their best shots when Max went up a gear and rifled a succession of lefts and rights to the jaw that sent Schaaf to the ropes. Suddenly there was no return fire from Ernie and the sound of the bell only served to prolong his torture in the lion’s den.
Baer went for the kill in the tenth round, knowing that Schaaf could do nothing to repel him. Ernie’s problem had been apparent in the earlier rounds when his very best punches had failed to shake or significantly shift Max. Baer had often smiled as the punches bounced off his head, full of confident swagger as he engaged Schaaf in toe-to-toe warfare.
The tenth and final round was brutal as Baer walked straight into Ernie and started to blaze away. The big conundrum from California was indeed magnificent to gaze upon when he got serious and summoned the full firepower of those guns that hung from his mighty shoulders. Max began to unloose big left and right hand shots to the chin and Schaaf was suddenly in no man’s land as he was driven into the ropes and then harried out to mid-ring, where he reeled and staggered in a fog that wouldn’t clear. Ernie went back to the ropes where he tried to hide and hustle, but the powerful Baer just kept letting rip with jarring punches that were all accurately delivered.
The beating was sustained and the round seemed endless before Schaaf finally fell from a smashing right. He was out to the world, but referee Thomas didn’t take up the count as the bell had sounded almost as soon as Ernie hit the floor.
Schaaf was unconscious for a good five minutes. His seconds dragged him back to his corner, where they splashed his face with cold water and raised his feet into the air to try and revive him. Baer’s reaction to the frightening scene was a small and fascinating microcosm of his dual personality. He looked utterly bewildered, seemingly unable to comprehend the damage he had inflicted.
Six months later, at Madison Square Garden, Ernie Schaaf was knocked out in thirteen rounds by the light-punching goliath Primo Carnera, suffering a brain haemorrhage and dying four days later. Theories abounded on the origin of the haemorrhage and many believed that the heavy fists of Max Baer had been the catalyst.
Max, of course, never did become the next Jack Dempsey. Life was too short and there were too many other things to do. The Clown Prince won the world championship, but his systematic destruction of Carnera was more comparable to the chaos of a Marx Brothers movie than the massacre of Toledo.
Late in his career, when the squat, wrecking ball arms of Tony Galento were trying to knock him through the floor of the Roosevelt Stadium in New Jersey, Max still couldn’t quit clowning around. At one point in that memorable pier sixer, he stepped back and gave Tony a comical bow.
The pressure was off Baer by that time and he had perfected the act with which he felt most comfortable: thunderous clouts with a smile. The smile infuriated Two Ton Tony and the clouts prevented him from coming up for the eighth round.
Even in cruise mode, Max Baer was pretty damn good. And perhaps that’s the way he preferred it. Who can really say whether he was a fool or a wise man?
VIDEO: MAX BAER v MAX SCHMELING
ROCK 'N' ROLL: DANNY 'LITTLE RED' LOPEZ
Growing up, I loved Danny ‘Little Red’ Lopez. I loved the way he fought and I loved the way he looked with that tall and rangy frame and that eternal glint in his eye of the natural born hunter. The moustache that later accompanied the famous shock of bushy red hair would perfectly complement the appearance of an old-style gunfighter out of time, blazing a trail with flesh and bone instead of pig iron.
Danny Lopez shot down plenty of guys in the ring, from fellow prospects in the early days to bullish and fearless young challengers who came to dethrone the tall and laconic world champion that Lopez became in his wildly exciting prime. What made those showdowns so thrilling was that Danny was in no way the untouchable Western hero of movie folklore. He was a carefree Doc Holliday who would take a bullet or two himself and sometimes hit the barn door before the man.
Back in 1974, I recall the agonising wait here in England for the result of the dream match at the LA Sports Arena between Danny and the brilliant young Bobby Chacon. It was a hugely anticipated shootout between the featherweight young guns of the West Coast. While Lopez had been born at Fort Duchesne in Utah, he had based himself in the Los Angeles suburb of Alhambra. Chacon hailed from Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley. I was a fan of both fighters, but Danny was my favourite.
In the comparatively dark and information-starved age of the seventies, boxing results could take longer to cross the ocean than migrating birds. Then I saw it in the paper. Chacon had stopped Lopez in the ninth round. Boxing in the UK was already taking a back seat to other sports by thsat time and that was all the detail I got. No report, no explanation. It was tough going back in those pre-Internet days. I am reminded of the old anachronistic joke where two prehistoric cavemen trudge for days in search of food. One turns to the other and says, “I wish some clever bastard would hurry up and invent the wheel.”
How I wished I had been among the throng of 16,027 that sat enthralled at the Sports Arena. Lopez and Chacon were little men but mighty big ticket sellers. A further 2,671 closed circuit TV fans were in attendance at the Olympic Auditorium just a few blocks away.
The reports in the trade magazines didn’t make pleasant reading for a Lopez rooter. Danny was already a wonderful battler at that stage in his development, but the fast and dangerous Chacon was better. The best punches that Lopez could offer failed to deter Bobby or check his impressive advance. Danny kept pressing but kept eating Bobby’s stiff jabs and right crosses.The crisp and sharp blows opened a slit over Lopez’s right eye in the second round, which required the constant attention of his handlers thereafter. Chacon really was a very special talent at that age, and I have always wondered how much greater he could have been if his stop-start career had not been plagued and pulled apart by his inner demons.
Bobby controlled the fight all the way and had the look of a very confident fighter as he bounded from his corner at the start of the ninth round. He met Danny in the centre of the ring and sent him to the ropes with a heavy right. Lopez was clearly in trouble and Chacon was on him in a flash, driving in two more rights and a left that sent Danny tumbling onto the bottom strand of the ropes. Another series of punches sprung the Alhambra youngster from his temporary trap and deposited him on the canvas.
The one lesson Danny Lopez taught us in this fight was that he was never dead in his own mind. Always he got up. Always he fought back. He rose to fight back against Chacon, but a fusillade of blows sent Danny reeling and propelled him into the ropes on the opposite side of the ring. Referee John Thomas had seen enough and halted the contest.
Lopez had lost for the first time in 24 fights and was typically forthright in defeat. “He was tough inside,” he said of Chacon, “a lot better than I thought he was. He didn’t hurt me until he dropped me. Then he hurt me pretty good.”
Danny was just twenty-one and had yet to reach maturity. He was under the featherweight limit at 123 1/2lbs and knew the problem. “I didn’t come in heavy enough. He was just a little bit too strong.”
Honest words from the man who would be king just two years later.
It was past midnight at the Accra Sports Stadium in Ghana, yet the temperature was still well into the eighties. A pulsating record crowd of more than 100,000 people only served to stoke the shimmering furnace. Tribal drums boomed and the people cheered as they awaited the arrival of their hero, WBC featherweight champion David ‘Poison’ Kotei.
To step into that kind of cauldron and challenge such an immensely popular champion must send a shiver down the spine of the bravest man, even though most boxers feel obliged to deny any feelings of fear and intimidation.
Yet if there was fear in the heart of Danny Lopez in that heady atmosphere, then it did not reflect in his performance. The twenty-four year old challenger had waged most of his battles in his hometown of Los Angeles, and it was a long flight and something like eight inoculations from Los Angeles to Ghana.
But Lopez was one of those exceptional men who could win wherever the plane set him down. He possessed that special brand of fighting spirit that sometimes drives a man beyond the boundaries of common sense and safety. You could cut Danny, you could outbox and maybe even outpunch him, but you couldn’t destroy his will to win.
Against Kotei, Lopez was a revelation, a tireless puncher who shut his ears to the partisan crowd and pounded his way to the greatest victory of his career. It was hard to believe he was a man in a foreign land, a man deprived of the invaluable presence of his trainer, mentor and friend, the 72-year old fox Howie Steindler.
Howie’s age and health prevented him from making the trip, and the absence of such a wise old general might have had a telling effect on any other young fighter. Not Lopez.
I was approaching manhood when Danny was carving a big name for himself on the West Coast of America. For many years, there was a section in The Ring magazine titled, ‘In Sunny California’, which I would scan religiously in the early seventies for reports on Danny’s fights.
A big puncher, Lopez was also easy to hit, and so many of his fights seemed to be the see-saw, drama-laden slugfests that appeal to a thrill- seeking youngster. His background was no less colourful. For the first eight years of his life, Danny was raised on an Indian reservation in the north-eastern region of Utah. Then his parents broke up and he and his elder brother Ernie, who was to become a top class welterweight, went their separate ways: Ernie to a boys ranch and Danny to adoptive parents.
The youngsters kept in touch, and when Ernie started campaigning as a professional in California, Danny decided that he too would be a boxer.
The strong right hand that was to account for so many opponents in years to come rapidly attracted attention as Danny won a number of Utah amateur titles. Then he joined brother Ernie in Los Angeles under the astute tutelage of Howie Steindler. Ernie ‘Red’ Lopez would fall just short of world championship glory. Danny ‘Little Red’ Lopez would go all the way.
Danny’s name quickly became synonymous with the Southern California fight scene. He began his career in dynamic fashion as he racked up three successive first round victories and won his next 18 fights by knockout or stoppage. Japan’s Genzo Kuresawa became the first man to take him the distance in early 1974.
Some of Danny’s early bouts were fiercely contested, and his 1972 win over the fiery Arturo ‘Turi’ Pineda was characteristically violent and short-lived. The battle between the undefeated prospects filled the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, and featured three rounds of exciting slugging before Lopez struck with the decisive punches in the fourth to register a dramatic victory.
A year later, Danny was involved in a similar brawl of rapidly changing fortunes against Japan’s Kenji Endo. Floored and shaken by a hard right from Endo in the opening round, Lopez rallied from near disaster to deck his opponent just before the bell. In the second round, Danny continued to demonstrate his excellent recuperative powers by scoring a further three knockdowns to notch another epic win. As he moved up in class, Lopez learned the age-old lesson that higher calibre opponents cannot always be despatched in such quick and spectacular fashion. His points win over Genzo Kuresawa and a subsequent tenth round TKO of Memo Rodriguez marked the beginning of a tough 1974 campaign, which saw his world title aspirations severely dented by the defeat to Bobby Chacon.
Danny’s career seemed to waver uncertainly after that setback, and his hopes of rebounding up the rankings were further damaged by two more frustrating defeats. He knocked out Masao Toyoshima in three rounds but then experienced a cruel stroke of luck in a gruelling fight with the rugged Japanese battler, Shig Fukuyama. Danny was stopped in the ninth round after being temporarily blinded by medication that had been applied to an eye cut.
Lopez then dropped a points decision to the skilful and underrated veteran, Octavio ‘Famoso’ Gomez, but the positive aspect of these reverses was that they probably taught Danny more about the tough trade of fighting than most of his earlier triumphs.
He kept plugging away and was soon rolling again. Stoppage victories over former world bantamweight champion, Jesus ‘Chucho’ Castillo and Antonio Nava, followed by a sixth round knockout of Raul Cruz, were rewarded by a golden match with the great Ruben Olivares for the North American title in December 1975. The fading but still dangerous Olivares was looking to maintain his status as a serious contender, having lost his WBC championship to David Kotei just three months before.
Lopez idolised the legendary Mexican but was no less destructive as he knocked out Ruben in seven rounds. It was an important victory for Danny, one that confirmed beyond doubt that his career was truly back on course.
It wasn’t all plain sailing. It never was with Lopez. Olivares was a 10 to 8 favourite and started with a rush as he decked Danny in the opening round, in what many believed was a slip. Lopez blazed straight back and sent Ruben tumbling just 30 seconds later with a short right. Danny kept firing and knocked Olivares down for the second time with a left hook.
The Lopez bombardment continued in the second round, when Ruben was caught by a combination of lefts and rights and hit the canvas for the third time. But the old champion could still put on a show and he surged back into the fight in the third, scoring with classy combinations to open a two-inch cut over Danny’s right eye.
Lopez, however, in his own cliff-hanging way, controlled the fight. A big right to the chin unhinged Olivares for keeps in the seventh round, referee Dick Young counting out Ruben at the 1.59 seconds mark.
“Ruben was my hero when I was an amateur,” Danny later said. “Beating him has to make a fellow feel like he had defeated Muhammad Ali. But I am sure Ruben wasn’t what he once was. I have to admit I didn’t beat Olivares at his peak.”
In his next bout against the young and unbeaten Sean O’Grady, it was Danny’s turn to play the role of the experienced campaigner against the rising star. Lopez proved far too hard punching and resourceful for O’Grady, recording a fourth round win at the Inglewood Forum.
Lopez was edging nearer a world championship confrontation with Kotei. Danny’s vast improvement was evident in his revenge win over Octavio Gomez in April 1976. Defending his North American crown, Lopez needed just three rounds to dispose of Gomez, an exceptional result that earned ‘Little Red’ a match with the chunky Canadian slugger, Art Hafey, in an official eliminator for the WBC title.
Hafey was one of a group of colourful featherweights who added excitement to the West Coast scene of the seventies, but Lopez confirmed he was the best of them all as he produced another sparkling display of power punching to stop Art in seven rounds. It was Danny’s 31st win in 34 fights and the interest he had generated since turning professional had made him one of the sport’s most colourful and popular fighters.
By contrast, David Kotei was still something of a mystery man, despite his fabulous victory over Olivares. To all but the most studious of boxing fans, the Ghanaian had seemingly come out of nowhere to jump to the top of the division.
He had been unranked in some quarters when matched with Olivares, yet Kotei had travelled to the great man’s favourite hunting ground of Los Angeles and shown himself himself to be a strong, skilful and resilient fighter in scoring an upset points decision.
Earlier in his career, David had not been overly impressive in winning five and losing two of seven fights in Australia, but he had also shown tantalising glimpses of his potential. He knocked out the hard punching Tunisian Tahar Ben Hassan in one round to win the All-African featherweight title, and took the Commonwealth crown from the tough and durable Scotsman, Evan Armstrong, on a tenth round retirement.
The late Danny Vary, who worked Armstrong’s corner for the fight, threw considerable light on Kotei’s talent, describing the young prospect as one of the best featherweights he had ever seen.
Kotei subsequently proved that he was also good enough to hold on to the world title. After dethroning Olivares, David twice successfully defended the championship before taking on Lopez. Kotei displayed an effective jab and threw damaging hooks and uppercuts to stop Japan’s Flipper Uehara in twelve rounds in Accra, and then halted Shig Fukuyama in three rounds in Tokyo.
Although the Lopez camp was confident of victory against Kotei, it was the defending champion who started favourite when the two fighters stepped into the ring on the night of November 6, 1976. Any champion is tougher to beat when he is fighting on home territory and Kotei appeared to be just reaching his peak at the age of twenty-five.
Even though Lopez seemed to relish fighting under pressure, it was generally believed that he faced too tough a task on this occasion; and so it seemed as the first bell brought Kotei from his corner in express fashion.
Firing accurate punches from both hands, he surprised Lopez with the suddenness of his attack, and Danny looked shaken as the champion’s blows rifled through his guard. Lopez tried to rally and scored with several good blows, but he couldn’t seem to avoid Kotei’s stinging jab and solid rights.
Kotei seemed intent on scoring a quick victory and continued to gamble his energy in the second and third rounds as he maintained a fast pace and punished Danny with hurtful jabs and right crosses. Lopez, never a fast starter, was still trying to settle and seek a way past David’s jab. But the challenger’s progress was thwarted by stiff counter punches whenever he moved into range.
The puzzle was set for Danny and he could only charge on and try to smash down the barricades. It was his style to go forward, whatever the consequences. He began to enjoy some success in the fourth round as he bravely walked through Kotei’s punches to score with his own lefts and rights.
But the strong champion continued to dominate the battle and Lopez was struck by some fierce punches as he gamely tried to turn the tide. A left hook opened a cut below Danny’s left eye and his chances of victory already seemed to be receding.
In fact Lopez was in his element. One could almost see him reaching for a can of spinach, like a desperate Popeye tied to the rail track. The muscles flexed and the punches came faster with added steel as Danny dug in and gradually battered his way back into the fight. Walking through the stiff, spearing jabs of Kotei, Lopez forced the champion to retreat in the fifth round as the balance of power began to subtly shift.
The sixth round was savagely fought as Lopez braced himself, bulled his way through Kotei’s pounding jabs and engaged the champion in a torrid slugging exchange. The drama heightened when a ferocious right hand shot from Danny opened a cut on David’s right eyebrow.
Lopez erupted again in the eighth round, winging punches at Kotei, while the ninth was another glorious showcase of both men’s courage as they ignored the blood that ran freely from their cuts and stood their ground to deliver vicious combinations.
Both men were concentrating their punches to the head as they sought the decisive blows that would free them from the furnace into which they had hurled themselves.
Maintaining his relentless pursuit of Kotei, Lopez was again caught by solid blows in the tenth round. But he kept hammering away with his own punches, trying all the time to trap the champion. English referee Harry Gibbs, one of the finest, cautioned Danny for careless headwork, but in the main the slugfest was cleanly fought, for all the blood and ferocity it exuded.
Kotei was now going through a stormy phase and his task was further handicapped when his lip was split by one of Danny’s punches. David looked groggy in the eleventh round as he slipped to the canvas, and Lopez now appeared to be in definite command as he kept up his pursuit of his wounded prey.
Gamely, Kotei tried to match punches with Lopez in the twelfth, but the challenger possessed the greater strength and won another important round. Kotei was now desperately tired and Lopez swarmed into him in the thirteenth round, hustling and punching all the time and winning the session handily. Every round was packed with incident and suspense and now even the minute intervals had their share of excitement.
At the end of the thirteenth, referee Gibbs asked the ringside doctor to inspect Kotei’s cuts, and after a few tense moments the doctor ruled that David was fit to box on. Then the interval was prolonged when the Lopez camp noticed a split in Kotei’s right glove, and new gloves had to be laced on the champion. The extra time might have helped Kotei had he not already expended so much energy, but he still looked desperately weary and badly beaten as he came out for the fourteenth round.
He showed immense heart in carrying the fight to Lopez, but now the wavering champion’s punches lacked their former speed and power. Free of the heavy pressure he had been subjected to in the earlier rounds, Danny was now able to place his blows more accurately. He repeatedly jarred Kotei with precise counter punches as the champion struggled to remain upright.
David walked slowly and painfully back to his corner at the end of the round and one wondered how he could possibly endure the final three minutes. Yet that certain feeling of pride and glory that comes from being a world champion can lift the spirits of even the most tired and battered of men.
Kotei launched a final flurry in the fifteenth, one last hurrah as his crown slipped from his head. It spoke volumes for his fortitude that he was still willing to trade punches with a man who specialised in toe-to-toe warfare. But the champion’s final fling could not match the power of Danny’s grandstand drive to the finish line. There were moments in those last minutes of battle when Kotei looked set to crumble in the face of the Lopez offensive, but the plucky champion survived to hear the final bell.
The decision for Lopez was unanimous and the stunned thousands in the Accra Sports Stadium were downcast over the sad fall of their hero. But Africa is a warrior nation and the new chieftain was respected accordingly.
The cheers that rang out for Danny Lopez were a mass salute to a young man who had travelled so far and battled so hard to realise his dream; and to an incredible fight in which two men of abundant courage had added another memorable page to the glittering history of the featherweight division.
VIDEO: DANNY LOPEZ v ROBERTO CASTANON