ALL TIME BOXING RANKINGS AND FEATURE ARTICLES BY PROFESSIONAL JOURNALIST & BOXING HISTORIAN, 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.
SEE ALSO: THE COMPLETE WRITING SERVICE BY MIKE CASEY AT https://sites.google.com/site/thecompletewritingservice
MIKE CASEY (C) 2015
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MIKE CASEY'S ALL TIME DIVISIONAL RANKINGS
01. Jack Dempsey (USA)
02. Muhammad Ali (USA)
03. Joe Louis (USA)
04. Jack Johnson (USA)
05. Rocky Marciano (USA)
06. Jim Jeffries (USA)
07. George Foreman (USA)
08. Joe Frazier (USA)
09. Sonny Liston (USA)
10. Lennox Lewis (England)
11. Mike Tyson (USA)
12. Gene Tunney (USA)
13. Larry Holmes (USA)
14. Ezzard Charles (USA)
15. Sam Langford (Canada)
16. Bob Fitzsimmons (England)
17. Evander Holyfield (USA)
18. Joe Jeannette (USA)
19. Max Baer (USA)
20. Max Schmeling (Germany)
01. Gene Tunney (USA)
02. Ezzard Charles (USA)
03. Archie Moore (USA)
04. Harry Greb (USA)
05. Tommy Loughran (USA)
06. Philadelphia Jack O'Brien (USA)
07. Bob Foster (USA)
08. Michael Spinks (USA)
09. Jack Dillon (USA)
10. Maxie Rosenbloom (USA)
11. Billy Conn (USA)
12. Tommy Gibbons (USA)
13. Jack Delaney (Canada)
14. John Henry Lewis (USA)
15. Harold Johnson (USA)
16. Jimmy Bivins (USA)
17. Lloyd Marshall (USA)
18. Young Stribling (USA)
19. Paul Berlenbach (USA)
20. Georges Carpentier (France)
01. Harry Greb (USA)
02. Carlos Monzon (Argentina)
03. Bob Fitzsimmons (England)
04. Stanley Ketchel (USA)
05. Ray Robinson (USA)
06. Mickey Walker (USA)
07. Marcel Cerdan (France)
08. Marvin Hagler (USA)
09. Charley Burley (USA)
10. Mike Gibbons (USA)
11. Jake LaMotta (USA)
12. Tony Zale (USA)
13. Dick Tiger (Nigeria)
14. Tommy Ryan (USA)
15. Tiger Flowers (USA)
16. Freddie Steele (USA)
17. Teddy Yarosz (USA)
18. Holman Williams (USA)
19. Gene Fullmer (USA)
20. Bernard Hopkins (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. Emile Griffith (USA)
07. Jose Napoles (Mexico)
08. Ray Leonard (USA)
09. Jack Britton (USA)
10. Ted (Kid) Lewis (England)
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. Julio Cesar Chavez (Mexico)
03. Packey McFarland (USA)
04. Barney Ross (USA)
05. Aaron Pryor (USA)
06. Wilfred Benitez (Puerto Rico)
07. Antonio Cervantes (Colombia)
08. Tony Canzoneri (USA)
09. Jack (Kid) Berg (England)
10. Duilio Loi (Italy)
11. Carlos Ortiz (Puerto Rico)
12. Eddie Perkins (USA)
13. Kostya Tszyu (Australia)
14. Floyd Mayweather Jnr (USA)
15. Johnny Jadick (USA)
16. Tippy Larkin (USA)
17. Oscar De La Hoya (USA)
18. Carlos Hernandez (Venezuela)
19. Frankie Randall (USA)
20. Bruno Arcari (Italy)
01. Benny Leonard (USA)
02. Joe Gans (USA)
03. Roberto Duran (Panama)
04. Henry Armstrong (USA)
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. Flash Elorde (Philippines)
08. Frankie Klick (USA)
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. Willie Pep (USA)
02. Sandy Saddler (USA)
03. Jim Driscoll (Ireland)
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. Manuel Ortiz (USA)
04. Fighting Harada (Japan)
05. Carlos Zarate (Mexico)
06. Pete Herman (USA)
07. Kid Williams (USA)
08. Panama Al Brown (Panama)
09. Terry McGovern (USA)
10. George Dixon (Canada)
11. Owen Moran (England)
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 (Philippines)
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. Henry Armstrong (USA)
02. Bob Fitzsimmons (England)
03. Ray Robinson (USA)
04. Harry Greb (USA)
05. Eder Jofre (Brazil)
06. Sam Langford (Canada)
07. Mickey Walker (USA)
08. Roberto Duran (Panama)
09. Tony Canzoneri (USA)
10. Benny Leonard (USA)
11. Joe Gans (USA)
12. Joe Walcott (Barbados)
13. Jimmy Wilde Wales)
14. Jack Dempsey (USA)
15. Muhammad Ali (USA)
16. Willie Pep (USA)
17. Joe Louis (USA)
18. Jack Johnson (USA)
19. Ezzard Charles (USA)
20. Archie Moore (USA)
VINTAGE 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