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The Gods of War By GhettoWizard

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The Tenth God of War: Charley Burley

By Springs Toledo

The evening sun is sinking over the Oakland section of Pittsburgh like a great red fist in protest of defeat. An elderly man sits in a wheelchair on a front porch. There’s a scrapbook on his lap under hands gnarled by years of work and war. The hands are large. Melancholy eyes fill with yesterdays and begin to close behind his glasses as he nods off. Pages of his life come alive during these twilight dreams, and in a few moments he is burning with youth again, strong again, walking the avenue in a long coat with a cocked Stetson hat and Florsheim shoes. “Hey champ,†ghosts from the past say as he saunters by.

He was never the champ, but the whole city knows he should have been, would have been… had he only been given a chance.

Fight films click on in his head.

“I JUST WANTED TO FIGHT…â€

Elmer “Violent†Ray stood 6’2, weighed about 200 lbs, and wrestled alligators in Florida for fun. With arms like bazookas, he hit hard enough to be counted among The Ring’s 100 Greatest Punchers of all time. His manager was Tommy O’Loughlin. A new fighter had recently joined O’Loughlin’s stable …a welterweight.

In 1946, Ray would drive white heavyweight contender Lee Savold into the canvas like a tent stake and was given a wide field to graze alone as a result. For years, Joe Louis wouldn’t even get in the ring with him for an exhibition.

But the welterweight did.

He agreed to spar with Elmer Ray, despite the fact that he stood only 5’9 and weighed little more than 150 lbs. Ray was a crowding, bobbing and weaving type of fighter who hurled his bulk at his opponent as if his mother’s dignity was at stake. Witnesses stated that the heavyweight threw every grenade in his arsenal but may as well have been moving in slow motion because the smaller man slipped every shot. Frustrated, Ray sought to impose his will by other means and shoved the welterweight through the ropes and onto the ring apron where he landed with a thud. All four corners of the gym noted it; the heavy bags stopped jumping on chains, the speed bags stuttered to a stop, and skip ropes dropped to the floor as a small crowd of fighters interrupted their workouts and drifted over. Managers left jabbering receivers of pay phones dangling and followed trainers to watch the welterweight climb back into the ring. The heavyweight didn’t know any better, he thought he had him now. Stomping forward with his big right hand cocked, he launched it …but it was slipped …and countered. The welterweight landed a right cross into the area of the human countenance where it says “good nightâ€, and a left hook followed it. Elmer Ray crashed to the canvas and took an involuntary mid-afternoon nap, mid-ring.

Ray posted big wins over name fighters and became the world’s number-one ranked heavyweight contender in early 1947, but if anyone asked him who hit him the hardest, his answer was always the same: a welterweight by the name of Charley Burley.

SHAKEN, NOT STIRRED

The first crown Charley Burley went after was affixed to the head of the great Henry Armstrong. Harry Otty’s critical biography Charley Burley and the Black Murderers’ Row recounts how Burley was told by Armstrong’s management that Armstrong would not give him a title shot because he was moving back down to the lightweight division. It wasn’t true. Armstrong made a record number of welterweight defenses and Burley never got his opportunity. Fellow Pittsburgher Fritzie Zivic fought Burley three times, earning a dubious decision in the first contest and then losing twice afterwards. Although he was ranked behind Burley, it was Zivic who got the title shot against Armstrong. And it was Zivic who went to comedic lengths to avoid facing Burley again as champion –he bought Burley’s contract and became his manager. Only after he lost the title did he sell Burley’s contract to Tommy O’Loughlin for $500. This happened in 1941. Zivic’s successor, Freddie “Red†Cochrane declined to fight Burley even though Burley offered to fight him for free.

Early in 1942, Al Abrams of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Tommy O’Loughlin wired an offer of $7500 to light heavyweight champion Billy Conn’s manager for a fight with Burley in Minneapolis. The offer was laughed at. Conn might have remembered those early sparring sessions in Pittsburgh that were the talk of the black community.

Middleweights were no braver. There is a persistent rumor that holds that Marcel Cerdan considered facing Burley when he arrived to the American shore, but after seeing Burley beat up on his sparring partners, he lost interest. Burley was forced to contend for frivolous titles like the so-called “Colored Middleweight Title†and the “California State Middleweight Title†against other African American fighters almost as great and just as forgotten as he is.

Burley’s mother was Irish, but he wasn’t quite white enough; and he was far too good for his own good, so public challenges were unmet, phone calls unanswered, and managers went deaf the moment his name was uttered. “I’d go anywhere to fight anybody,†Burley said, “if they’d get somebody for me I’d fight them. I just wanted to fight …I knew I could have held my own against anybody, that’s the God’s truth.†O’Loughlin took that at face value. He figured that if the iron of three divisions wouldn’t face Burley, perhaps the giants would. To really turn heads, he decided to pit Burley against a 6’3 journeyman in JD Turner who had just gone the distance with Conn. After obtaining permission from the Athletic Commission of Minnesota for Burley to fight a heavyweight based on the reasoning that Burley was having difficulty finding willing opponents in his own weight class, Burley climbed through the ropes to face a man who was 68½ lbs heavier. It was a physical mismatch and a novelty. It was also a rout. In the opening seconds, Burley landed a right cross that crossed the eyes and rattled the teeth of Turner. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that from that moment to the end of the sixth round, Burley was “his master, punching and batting the big Texan at will.â€

JD Turner didn’t answer the bell for the seventh round. “That little sucker,†he said, “–knocked me cold. I woke up in the dressing room.â€

A week later, O’Loughlin walked into the Pennsylvania Boxing Commission to get another waiver, this one to overcome a local rule forbidding fighters weighing less than the light heavyweight limit from facing opponents who “greatly outweigh them.†Burley, ranked fourth in the welterweight division, was looking for a fight against Harry Bobo, a 6’4, third-ranked heavyweight whose nickname was “The Paralyzerâ€.

THE WILD WEST

Nothing came of that. So he went west, where the wild things were. In the 1940s, California was the scene of an alternative boxing universe where Burley joined African American fighters like Eddie Booker, Lloyd Marshall, Jack Chase, Bert Lytell, and Aaron “Tiger†Wade. Budd Schulberg dubbed the group of them “Black Murderers’ Row†and boxing historian Harry Otty added Holman Williams and Cocoa Kid to their mythical ranks. These eight fighters faced each other 61 times. Burley came out of their round-robin tournaments with the best record, going 10-5-1 with one no-contest. All of them were notoriously tough and durable and none of them managed to win by knockout more than once in bouts with the others –except for Burley who managed three.

Sugar Ray Robinson was no more eager than any other champion to face these fighters, but he did use Cocoa Kid and Tiger Wade as sparring partners in the late 1940s. Tiger Wade was semi-retired when he separated Robinson’s sixth and seventh ribs during a session in 1948. Inactive and thirty-six years old, Cocoa Kid dropped a peaking Sugar Ray with an overhand right in the gym during the summer of 1949. This occurred after Robinson, according to the Long Beach Press-Telegram, was accused by a promoter of “evading his obligations†and breaking an agreement to fight Cocoa Kid in April.

…In other words, Sugar Ray ran out on Cocoa Kid.

His problems facing and/or handling these fighters are documented. But then, Robinson’s greatness is unquestionable. Wade found out the hard way after signing to fight Robinson for real in 1950. After going down five times inside of three rounds including one airborne trip out of the ring, Wade’s career ended with him on his hands and knees after Robinson landed a déjà vu shot to his ribs.

Robinson fought a faded Tiger Wade, but not Charley Burley. In the early forties, a young Ray Robinson was himself an avoided prospect, so Burley’s manager Tommy O’Loughlin tried to set up an eliminator between Robinson and Burley. No dice. “Sugar Ray would never fight him,†O’Loughlin told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1981, “I know. I tried to make the match several times.â€

Burley defeated Tiger Wade when it mattered, when Wade was dangerous, in March 1944. After that he faced the dangerous Jack Chase, an experienced fighter who was called “Young Joe Louis†early in his career. Chase may have had meanness in his method, but Burley didn’t like Chase. Paul Lowry of the Los Angeles Times watched Chase miss with his jab repeatedly while Burley snaked and weaved away in a manner that reminded Lowry of “The Irish Lullaby†Jimmy McLarnin. After he landed a series of consecutive rights, Chase fell flat on his face. He instinctively tried to crawl to his feet as the referee counted over him, but “collapsed and had to be helped to his corner.†Chase hadn’t been knocked out in over seven years.

Charley had by this time settled in San Diego and was working in an aircraft factory when he got the call to face master mechanic Archie Moore. He barely trained. Early in the first round, Moore was suddenly stretched on the canvas thinking that Burley had a lug wrench in his right glove. He went down three more times in rounds three, four, and eight –the last time by a jab, and finished the fight about as steady as an autumn leaf. Moore’s famous cross-armed defense was solved easily by the straight right hands of Burley, which closed Moore’s eye and swelled up the left side of his face. Moore was amazed: “He outboxed me,†he said, “that’s something I couldn’t understand, because nobody had ever done that before.â€

An added insult came on the wings of gossip; Moore had heard that Burley was up playing cards and drinking whiskey the night before the bout.

Like many other great fighters from the golden era of the Sweet Science, Burley would have whirlwind campaigns where he would fight several serious opponents in a short span of time. Compare this to today’s version of greatness. Consider Manny Pacquiao in 2008. Pacquiao defeated Juan Manuel Marquez in March, David Diaz in June, and Oscar De La Hoya in December. The weight jumping is impressive, but Burley would fight giants without gaining a pound. Pacquiao took three good scalps and had a great year, but he also had three and a half months and five months off between them. Burley beat up Archie Moore fifteen days after knocking out Jack Chase, and he knocked out Chase thirteen days after outpointing Tiger Wade.

Defeating three great fighters inside of five weeks is the mark of a complete fighter. Some said Charley Burley was a perfect fighter.

By the time he unwrapped his hands for the last time and hung up the gloves, he had been openly avoided by at least four champions in three divisions. In a ninety-eight bout career that spanned from 1936-1950, he faced down four of his peers in the International Boxing Hall of Fame including Moore, Fritzie Zivic, Billy Soose, and the master-boxer of Murderers’ Row Holman Williams.

And despite the monsters he faced –the bangers, the speed demons, the technicians, and the giants, he was never stopped...

“…Never stopped,†a dozing Charley Burley murmurs as film clutter splays in his mind and a sound like a rattling projector rouses him. A car drags a tailpipe as it passes by his front porch. The old man wipes his eyes and returns to the present, to the familiar hum of traffic on Penn Lincoln Parkway, to the cool evening breeze. Street lights announce that the red sun has gone down to defeat, although tomorrow will see it rise new, blazing majestically. There’s reassurance in that. In a moment, the screen door will open and Julia will bring a blanket for his lap.

Boxing’s greatest uncrowned champion looks to the darkening sky with hope, and then looks down at his hands… and clenches a fist.

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The Ninth God Of War: Willie Pep

By Springs Toledo

“He was the best boxer I ever saw.â€

~ Sugar Ray Robinson

Stillman’s gym was founded in 1920, the same year that the New York State Legislature passed James J. Walker's landmark bill legalizing boxing. Legend has it that Benny Leonard and a troupe of Jewish fighters left Grupp’s gym after Billy Grupp got drunk and blamed Jews for everything from the war to the weather. According to trainer Ray Arcel, Stillman’s gym originally wasn’t a boxing gym, but it became one for two reasons. First, a throng of admirers followed Benny Leonard into the gym to watch him train, and second, because manager Lou Ingber was no fool –he charged admission.

By the 1940s, Lou Ingber became Lou Stillman for simplicity’s sake. Jack Curley sat at the front door collecting fifty cents a head. The “modest entranceâ€, A.J. Liebling recounted, “is the kind of hallway you would duck into if you wanted to buy marijuana in a strange neighborhood.†The gym was open from 12 to 4pm every day including Christmas. Fight fans of all sizes and shapes came in – shifty-eyed characters chewing toothpicks, high school students playing hookey, and old ex-pugs with nowhere to go. Every day a hundred pairs of feet would walk up a wide wooden stairway to the main floor where two rings loomed, where bass lines reverberated on light bags like precursors to hip hop records, and sweat, liniment, and cigarette smoke filled the air. Fifteen rows were set up for spectators to watch the greatest array of champions ever assembled in one place: Ike Williams, Sugar Ray Robinson, Billy Conn, and Joe Louis were only a few who trained at this gym.

Lou Stillman was no sweetheart. “Big or small, champ or bum,†he said, “I treated ‘em all the same way –bad.†Charles Dickens described Ebenezer Scrooge as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner.†Stillman didn’t need no stinkin’ scribbler to describe him. He described himself –as “a grouch, a crab, a cranky guy who never smiled.†And he did better than Scrooge, he justified it with a .38 caliber pistol he carried in plain sight. No one was spared his bad disposition –not the connected managers or even the wise guys they were connected to.

Almost no one…

One of the fighters was a wisp of an Italian who smiled often, razzed anyone for a laugh, and had more trouble at home with his wife than he had in almost any of his 241 career bouts. History would crown him as the greatest defensive boxer who ever lived.

“Stillman loved me,†this fighter recalled years later.

…

On November 20th 1942, Madison Square Garden was filled to the rafters. Chalky Wright, 30, was the veteran of 177 professional bouts when he stepped into the ring for the third defense of his featherweight crown. Bouncing on his toes across the ring was the Italian, a 20-year old kid from Hartford, Connecticut. Due to age restrictions, the kid had to lie to boxing officials to get the title shot. He told them he was 21. A loud and raucous Italian contingent from the kid’s neighborhood filled half the arena, shouting and hurling curses Chalky’s way. When the first bell clanged, the challenger sprinted out of his corner to center ring, put his dukes up ...and disappeared. By the second round it was clear that his paisans in the crowd were doing Chalky a favor by confirming for his ears what defied his eyes and escaped his fists. The kid fought like a figment of Wright’s imagination, offering only mirages in lieu of mayhem like a laughing ghost.

This was the artistry of “Will o’ the Wispâ€, the nom de guerre of Willie Pep.

A "Will o’ the Wisp" is a mysterious light or a mischievous spirit that was believed to lead travelers onto false paths. It is of British origin. Pep preferred “Will o’ the Wop.â€

According to the New York Times, Wright was forced to “hold his fire through most of the battle to avoid appearing ludicrous as Pep stuck and stabbed and broke and ran.†Wright, a puncher, became Wright the plodder, coming in to greet stinging lefts and rights while his own courtesies sailed windily over a head or shoulders, beside an ear or past an arm. For the first four rounds it seemed that the only peril for Pep was catching a cold from the draft.

In the fifth, sixth, and seventh rounds, Wright caught up and pummeled him on the ropes. In the ninth round, Wright launched a right cross and Pep ducked and caught it on the top of his head. “This guy punched so hard that he could hit you on top of your head and daze you,†remembered Pep, “and I’ve got a pretty hard head.†Pep surprised everyone when he took over again before the end of the round, at times interrupting his evasive artistry to turn and outslug the champion. Both judges and the referee saw Chalky Wright win only four of the fifteen rounds.

Willie Pep became the new featherweight champion of the whole wide woild –at least in New York.

Four years and forty-seven fights later, Pep stopped Sal Bartolo in the twelfth round to take the National Boxing Association world featherweight title. Then the champion shattered any illusions that the legendary Manuel Ortiz had about standing taller than a bantamweight, and defeated Chalky Wright three more times. The last time he faced a badly faded Wright, he ended his misery in three rounds. “Willie,†Chalky said afterwards, “I had enough of you. I give up.â€

In January 1947 he climbed a set of stairs that almost turned out to be a stairway to heaven. Pep was a passenger on a tin can flight from Miami to Hartford during a snowstorm. The plane crashed near Millville, New Jersey and three passengers were killed. The featherweight champion, his left leg snapped like a twig and his back broken in two places, woke up in a hospital bed with three quarters of his frame in cast. Willie was lucky to be alive and few had any illusions that he’d fight again. But Willie was the master of the illusion, and wasn’t about to let this one master him: “I’m through,†he said, “—I’m through flying at night!â€

In June, he was back in the ring. In July he fought five times. On October 29th 1948, he stepped through the ropes with a record that shined like no boxer's record ever will again. Willie Pep was 134-1-1. But on that night the deadly serious Sandy Saddler loomed over Pep like a telephone poll over a hydrant. Pep’s dazzling record didn’t even constrict his pupils. He proceeded to ignore Willie’s feints, spins, and set-ups, and waded right in and hit him hard with power coming up in bolts from the balls of his feet. Pep was shockingly knocked out in four rounds. “Out†–said Saddler. It was Archie Moore who was the architect behind Saddler’s defeat of Willie Pep. And he did it at Stillman’s gym. “He wanted me to stay on top of him and give him no leverage,†Sandy told Peter Heller, author of “In This Corner.†Sandy would punch whenever Pep tried to relax. He’d set his sights on every fleeting glimpse and fading shadow in that ring that wasn’t wearing a bow tie –then fire.

Pep’s trainer was Bill Gore of Providence, RI. This was the man who took not only the natural athleticism –the timing, the speed, but also the nervous energy of a teenage Guglielmo Papaleo and built a foundation of skill underneath it. Pep was a savant. Gore was the strategist behind him, watching films, analyzing the nightmare style of Sandy Sandler, devising a battle plan to win the rematch.

That rematch between Saddler and Pep is considered one of the greatest fights of the 20th century. Pep, only three years away from a ghost ride in the sky, and four months removed from a devastating knockout, followed orders. The New York Times reported that Saddler was a 5 to 7 favorite on the books, but ate thirty-seven consecutive jabs in the first round. He was a “baffled and bewildered†slugger shadow boxing in Madison Square Garden. But then, Sandy’s long arms were like whips and whips can take a cigarette out of a mouth at twelve feet if handled by an expert. Sandy managed to cut Willie below his left eye and above and below his right eye. In the fourth round he landed a straight left, in the ninth, a straight right, in the tenth round a right to the jaw that saw Pep teetering like a drunk. In the fourteenth it was a left hook, then another right. Pep somehow shook it off and “gave no quarter… pelting Saddler with every blow known to boxing.†In the last round, it was Pep who was “fighting Saddler all over the ring.â€

It was the greatest triumph of his career. It remains one of the greatest triumphs in the history of the ring.

…

Thanksgiving Day 2006, Rocky Hill, Connecticut. In a room at the West Hill Convalescent Home, Willie Pep finally kept still long enough for mortality to land a shot. His mischievous spirit emerged from a body stooped with age …and climbed a stairway.

The stairway was not the familiar four steps leading into a boxing ring, nor did it lead into a plane like the one he boarded sixty years earlier. It was a golden one, as brilliant as the belt he wore for so long, so long ago. It was a wide one, wider than that wooden stairway headed up to a certain gym in the New York City of his dreams.

It was a stairway lined with many who departed before him –more than a few ex-wives, two great featherweight rivals he never forgot, and the curmudgeon who loved him, Lou Stillman.

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The Eighth God Of War: Benny Leonard

By Springs Toledo

“To be a Jew is a destiny.â€

~ Hedwig Baum

The Jews of medieval Spain were famous for their fencing skills.

Fencing, like boxing, evolved out of brutal origins into a sport that retained its aggressiveness but added gentility. The fencer salutes his opponent. The boxer extends a glove. The combatants in both sports engage one another under a clear set of rules to show dominance, and the similarities do not end there. Fencing relies on foreknowledge. A fencer will look for patterns in his opponent’s reactions and invite that reaction with the idea of countering it with an effective thrust. The boxer does the same. Competing well in either sport relies on reaction-time and speed, agility, coordination, and self-confidence. The ability to mount an attack while being acutely aware of defense is critical. Strategy is critical.

Legend has it that a bare knuckles boxer from the 18th century named Daniel Mendoza (1763-1836) was descended from those Jewish fencers and incorporated some of their skills into his fighting style. What is more certain is that the man who preferred to be announced as “Mendoza the Jew†was a true pioneer of the Sweet Science and helped redefine it as a thinking man’s sport, using strategies such as jabbing, side-stepping, and blocking to compensate for his small size. In an era where fighters had more cauliflower ears than eyebrows, his style was more refined, even graceful. Mendoza revolutionized boxing.

Like a stone tossed into history’s pond, his influence rippled across a century into the golden era of Jewish-American boxing…

And what an era it was. Between 1910 and 1940 there were twenty-seven world champions of Hebrew descent. At the end of the Roaring Twenties, a time when boxing was a major sport and clubs were everywhere, fighters with names like Goldstein, Rosenbloom, and Schwartz were the dominant ethnic group filling the ranks. Many of them came out of the lower East Side of Manhattan, the rough-and-tumble sons of immigrants who had poured in from Eastern Europe during the 1880s clinging to hope and carrying mezuzahs. Their parents had fled persecution. They fled from no body.

One of them lived on Eighth Street, the son of a garment presser.

There was nothing intimidating about the appearance of the man born Benjamin Leiner. Standing only 5’5 with features that could be considered handsome in a delicate sort of way, he called to mind David strumming a lyre more than he did the Samson-like Mendoza. As a proud product of a culture that publically frowned on prizefighting, he would take pains to hide his profession from his parents, out of respect. But he would not hide his identity. Jews beamed when they saw the familiar six-pointed star emblazoned on his trunks. In time, he became more than a champion –he became Benny Leonard, the “Great Bennah,†“the Ghetto Wizard,†the shayner Yid who convinced many graying heads under prayer shawls to embrace the muscular Judaism of the prize ring.

5 July 1920, Benton Harbor. The fifth round of the world lightweight champion’s fourth defense was underway and Benny Leonard had his hands full with Charley White.

White boasted a record of 73-9-4 and had already defeated five Hall of Famers over fifteen years as a professional. He had a left hook that was a thing to fear and it distracted Leonard from applying the boxing brilliance he was already known for at age twenty-four.

Leonard shot a pristine left jab to the head of the charging challenger, who responded with a right hook followed by four more rights to the face. All those rights were a set-up. While Leonard was roughly lulled into expecting another right, he almost went nighty-night when a left hook slammed into his chin. The champion fell through the ropes and landed hard on the ring apron. Ray Pearson of the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that the dazed boxer couldn’t get up because his legs were “dangling over the lower ropes while his shoulders reclined outside the hemp.†The referee counted to four before Leonard’s corner men managed to push him back into the ring. White got all over him like a cheap suit.

Before the ninth round, Charley White was doing so well he may have been daydreaming about whether Leonard’s championship belt would have to be taken in or let out when he won it. Meanwhile, Leonard was engrossed in mathematical calculations. He was inviting and gauging White’s biggest weapon so he could make it work against him. White’s daydream was even encouraged by the champion who began the ninth round with what the New York Times described as a “light exchange.†But Leonard had his eureka moment. He found it in simple geometry; specifically, a line inside an arc. When he saw White setting up to throw his left hook, Benny quick-stepped inside it and fired a straight right hand. White teetered for a moment, pondering who it was that put the jawbone of a lion into the offending glove and then collapsed to his hands and knees. He got right back up like a good yeshiva student, but the rabbi threw a sequence of textbook shots and sent him sprawling again.

White was up at the count of eight and Leonard sent him through the ropes, shaking off a grudge he’d been nursing for four rounds.

It was a thoroughly beaten man who climbed back into the ring. Another right welcomed him. Down he went. Up he got. The fifth time he went down, he got comfortable. His left-hook, so fearsome only moments earlier, lay inert on the canvas. It was the first time Charley White was counted out in over 140 fights.

The arena went wild. According to the New York Times, barriers were torn down and seats were broken as a mass of humanity pushed its way toward the ring. Several spectators were trampled and the police could not hold back the crowd from the champion’s corner. Leonard was forced to stand in the ring for almost thirty minutes and receive the hearty handshakes and congratulations of a multitude.

10 February 1922, Madison Square Garden. Benny Leonard’s nose was bleeding in the fourth round after it was dented inwards by a right cross. Worse than that, his hair was mussed up. To a man celebrated in the press for his primping vanity, this was downright rude. Rocky Kansas, an Italian slugger out of Buffalo, New York who had lost only 4 times in 53 decision bouts, was fighting wild but landing big shots.

Benny Leonard was fighting Rocky Kansas on Rocky Kansas’s terms; much like pundits from another generation accused another Leonard of doing in his first fight with Roberto Duran. The currency with which both paid for their choice of strategy was in bumps and bruises. As the fourth round ticked by, Benny was visibly weakening under the strain, and Kansas encouraged his decline by battering his body in clinches and throwing haymakers at range. Leonard’s sharpshooting skills were on display anyway as he shrewdly countered Kansas with short lefts to the stomach. It was a thrilling slug fest. By the eleventh, the tide was turning. Leonard’s investment downstairs was taking a toll on Kansas, and his neck became an accordion stretching from sneak-jabs. Kansas went down for a count of nine after absorbing a right over the heart and Leonard stepped in for the finishing touches. According to the Los Angeles Times, he “worked around the Italian like a cooper around a barrel, nailing him with lefts to face and body.â€

Leonard took a decision in a thriller. The two would meet again five months later, only this time Rocky Kansas, a 2010 International Boxing Hall of Fame inductee, would not see the final bell. “He whipped, he whipped me,†Kansas would say after he was stopped, “and oh can he hit.â€

THE SOUTHPAW

Color-coordinated searchlights were installed at Yankee Stadium in July, 1923 to direct the crowd to the different subway transit lines after the second Benny Leonard-Lew Tendler title fight. It was the first time in history that such a lighting system was used for boxing after dark. The crowd numbered almost 65,000 –the largest since Jack Dempsey fought Georges Carpentier in Jersey City in 1921. Twenty dollars got you ringside. Leonard was a 2 to 1 favorite due mainly to his superior boxing ability, strategic capability, speed, and hitting power. Philadelphian challenger Lew Tendler was the other best lightweight on the planet. He had only one advantage –but it was an alarming one…

Lew Tendler was a southpaw.

From the moment that breed crawled backwards out of the primordial ooze, campaigns have erupted throughout history against them. And why not? The English word “sinister†is derived from the Italian “sinistra†which means “from the left†or “evil.†There is indeed something unnatural about them. They seem to exist as a mirror-image of the right-handed population, operating like Bizarro configurations that do everything backwards. To be sure, the left-handed among us may argue that it could just as well be the right-handed who are mirror-images for them; but this is America. Majority rules. It’s a right-handed world. Need proof? Watch a southpaw write with a ballpoint pen. They don’t pull it across the page; they push it, and smudge ink all over their hand. They put belts on upside down. And they can be downright dangerous. Congress should ban their unfit hands from handling sharp items never designed for them –such as scissors. Prefer blood on your bread? Ask one to cut the loaf. And if you see a left-hander in the cockpit of heavy machinery, run for your life.

Boxing managers recognize the danger. “Them southpaws,†jibed Jim Wicks, “should be drowned at birth.†For decades a left-handed novice would be converted to the conventional stance. Some trainers still do, although most see real advantages for southpaws.

And there are. Approximately 12% of people are left-handed. This means that southpaws are far more acclimated to sparring with conventional boxers than conventional boxers are to southpaws. Conventional fighters are often confused by southpaws because the left-handed attack comes from opposite angles. Some would even argue that they are inherently stronger. The greatest active fighter today happens to be a southpaw, but it was Lew Tendler who was the first great, and quite possibly the best southpaw in boxing history.

Benny Leonard’s own prejudices may have been on display over those few years that Tendler had to wait for a title shot. Public clamor grew to fever pitch before the champion finally agreed to meet him in Philadelphia, but that bout was cancelled after Leonard broke a bone in his hand during training. Tendler promptly took the $5,000 forfeit put up by both fighters as a guarantee to show up and fight. Leonard demanded that the money be returned but was rebuffed. Tendler’s manager then propped him up as an alternative claimant to the lightweight throne without consulting the man who kept the seat warm since 1917. Tendler became a mirror image with a make-pretend crown and the Bizarro world of the boxing southpaw was writ large.

Leonard and Tendler met for their first title bout in the summer of 1922. It was a rude introduction. Tendler crossed a left onto Leonard’s right eyebrow in the opening round and blood streamed. Leonard’s shellacked hair was a disaster area in no time at all, and his face resembled a child’s first finger-painting. Before it was over, he’d be missing teeth too.

The second round was Tendler’s.

The third round was Tendler’s.

By the fourth round Benny was wishing that boxing, like polo, would ban lefties from the sport altogether.

Eventually, inevitably, Leonard’s brilliance enabled him to start solving the painful puzzle before him. He began to find the range with lead rights –the foil for the backwards boxers, and started stepping around Tendler to force him to reset. Tendler, who also happened to be one of the greatest body-punchers in history, disrupted Leonard’s progress by sinking a deep left into his stomach. Ringsiders heard Leonard gasp.

The fifth round was Tendler’s.

He took the eighth round as well after landing a left to the head that made Leonard’s knees sag. Benny clinched, spun him, angled off, and threw shots as if he could still see straight. According to the New York Times, there was laughing afoot in the clinch. It was another indication that Leonard was a yiddisher kop; he was talking to the fierce man in front of him –cutting jokes and making remarks to convince Tendler of the lie that he wasn’t hurt. Ringside observers heard him talking to Tendler in the ninth round as well. He was bluffing to buy time.

As the bell clanged for round ten, Leonard smiled and those at ringside saw a gap where a front tooth had been earlier.

Most ringside scribes had the Ghetto Wizard very slightly ahead after twelve rounds, some saw it as a draw. It was a no-decision bout, which meant that Tendler had to knock the champion out to take the title. He didn’t. A relieved king with an uneasy crown admitted that even his royal boxing I.Q. was barely enough: “Southpaws are hard to solve,†he said, “I found difficulty in solving Tendler’s style from the outset.â€

The rematch, held under the blue and white lights of Yankee Stadium on July 24th 1923, was a fifteen round title bout. Babe Ruth was among those cheering at ringside. He witnessed how great a slugger Leonard was, and watched him leave the ring with barely a mark on his face and get hoisted up onto shoulders in the crowd. “Tendler,†Leonard remarked after his most decisive victory over his most dangerous opponent, “is the greatest southpaw and one of the greatest lightweights I have ever seen.†The southpaw also had something to say. It was as sincere as the cut over his eye and the pulp of his nose:

“Benny,†he said, “is a master ring general.â€

With that resounding in the ears of fight fans everywhere, the champion vacated his seven-year rule over a fearsome division, with a wink and a smile.

…The stone that Daniel Mendoza tossed into history’s pond generated a small army of great Jewish fighters in the opening stanzas of the twentieth century. Charley White and Lew Tendler were in those ranks. But it was Benny Leonard who ascended higher than them all, higher than just about any ring general who ever lived, ultimately reaching a place where the reflected brilliance of the Star of David shined upon him …and he upon it.

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The Seventh God of War: Mickey Walker

By Springs Toledo

“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.†~ Mark Twain

Mickey Walker was born with a pug nose; “A throwback from the old breed of game,†said the legendary journalist Westbrook Pegler, “fighting Irish who fought for hours and days and weeks with anything at hand merely to see which was the better man.â€

The man who called himself “Toy Bulldog†was all of twenty-one years old when he challenged Jack Britton for the world welterweight title at Madison Square Garden in 1922. The champion had been fighting professionally since Mickey was a four-year-old sporting a propeller on his cap. Five months earlier, Britton faced the “Ghetto Wizard†Benny Leonard and was in command when Leonard hit him when he was down and got disqualified. Against Mickey Walker, Britton barely won a round. He took a knee about six times and paid homage to conquering youth. Before the decision was even announced Britton knew he’d been beat and so walked over to the opposite corner to congratulate the new champion. “I wish you luck, boy,†he said.

The victor was smiling from ear to ear as if he had shamrocks in his socks. He usually did.

After four defenses of the world welterweight title, he jumped up two divisions to outclass light heavyweight champion Mike McTigue, and then bit off more than even a bulldog could chew when he faced middleweight champion Harry Greb six months later and lost a decision. Mickey withdrew back to the welterweight division and licked his wounds. Exactly six weeks after Greb was safely dead, he re-emerged and took the title from Tiger Flowers.

MICKEY 1, THE WORLD 0

The first time the Toy Bulldog met the Nebraska Wildcat Ace Hudkins was at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in the pouring rain. Walker took the judges’ decision; he did not, however, take the crowd’s decision. The more outspoken among them gave vent to their dissent by throwing bottles and shattering the arc lights overhead. Most of the boxing writers scrambling at ringside preferred the skill displayed by the judges’ pick, even if it was Hudkins who had forced the fight.

Ace Hudkins had been forcing fights almost from the moment he came out swinging from his mother’s womb. He was one of nine siblings from the wrong side of town. We all knew him –he was that kid with ill-fitting clothes and a chip the size of Gibraltar on his shoulder. Frank Roche of the Los Angeles Times met him at his training camp for the return match and said that Hudkins was the kind of man who could “chew iron and spit rust.†His pen trembled just a bit when Hudkins snarled at him, “You can put this down right now, I’ve ruined more fighters than any other guy in the ring today –any other guy in the ring today… nobody can lick me… Maybe Mickey Walker would like to read that.â€

If Walker’s training camp up in the Ventura Hills was a delivery stop for the Times, we can be assured that the sports pages held up in his meaty paws were steady –barring a breeze.

Come fight time, those meaty paws steadily de-clawed the ripping, slashing brawler. Any lingering doubt about Mickey’s supremacy over all middleweights was banished for good when he took every round against Hudkins, save one scored even. The bulldog tamed the wildcat, took it for a walk, yanked its tail, booted it until it screeched, and showed it who’s boss. He did so less like a bulldog and more like a park ranger who set bait and sprung traps in every round. Hudkins’ relentless, devil-may-care attack was reduced to impotence this time. “Come on and fight! Come on!†Hudkins yelled between left hooks that cut his eye and tore his lips. Walker staggered Hudkins repeatedly, picking off his strenuous swings with ease and countering to the body and head with short, powerful shots. It was the worst beating Hudkins absorbed in 103 career bouts. After the final bell, Hudkins was a bloody mess as he lurched over to congratulate his conqueror.

After the fight, the fans went home and read the evening edition of the Times, which blared an alarm: “[stock Market] Crash Severest Recorded in Modern History…Bottom Drops Out.†The date was October 29th 1929, Black Tuesday. The Great Depression had begun.

Feeling blue at the dawn of a new decade? Don’t. Eighty years ago your grandparents had it much worse. Breadlines stretched for blocks as the proud were humbled and the humble were hungry; speakeasies were full, and so weren’t the churches where mothers lit candles and men in suits sobbed in pews. Radio personality Will Rogers remarked that people had to stand in line to get a window to jump out of and speculators were selling space for bodies at the bottom of the East River. Everything in the country seemed to crash at once.

Poor Ace Hudkins teetered but did not himself crash to the canvas the night he faced a peaking Mickey Walker. He crashed later. His boxing career wound down quickly after 1929 and he became a roaring alcoholic. He was sued twice, once for fracturing the skull of a pedestrian and another after his live-in girlfriend accused him of assault; he was arrested no less than ten times for drunk driving and drunken brawls, including one with the police. In 1933, at the height of the Depression, his bank account was shot, and so wasn’t he –twice in the chest.

Meanwhile, Mickey Walker, who at fight’s end sported a pinkish hue on his cheeks from the moderate exercise, would become an artist.

Indeed, Walker’s prudence at Wrigley Field stood in stark contrast to both the feral fighting method of Hudkins and the panic that wrecked Wall Street. He’d need such prudence where he was going. Big investments bring big risks. Big purses do too. It’s nice to get rich but one must be careful when dealing with large sums… or large someones…

The bulldog got out of the yard and went charging into the land of the giants.

SNAPPING AT THE HEELS OF HISTORY

“When I got in the ring and got a look at him,†Mickey Walker recalled about Bearcat Wright, “I nearly fainted before I got out there to throw a punch.†Bearcat Wright was no little middleweight wildcat like Ace Hudkins. He was a big, bad, black heavyweight who stood over six feet tall and weighed a rock solid 210 lbs, by some reports he was over 250. He fought out of Omaha, Nebraska and held wins over faded legends Sam Langford and Jack Johnson. Mickey stood only 5’6 ½ with his shoes on and was outweighed by at least 42 lbs. When they stood facing each other at ring center, Bearcat looked liked he could pick him up like a favorite nephew and give him a kiss.

“It was my idea to fight the big guys,†Mickey said, “The big guys were slower.†In other words, after almost 125 bouts in twelve years, and just as youth and speed were beginning to fade with age, Mickey began fighting heavyweights as a matter of course …because they were easier.

Bearcat Wright took offense to that big idea, and he began his quarrel with Walker the way that every heavyweight should when little guys have aspirations –he went straight at him. A monstrous shot spilled Walker onto the canvas like a bucket of paint. But Walker not only got up, he carried the fight to his opponent from that moment on. Along the way he must have borrowed a ladder because it was Bearcat who went down in the second round. At the last bell, Mickey had the heavyweight cornered and was still snarling and snapping at the bell.

Mickey trotted fearlessly in his new yard. Sometimes so fearlessly he’d forget to be prudent. He’d blow off training, put on his glad rags, and hit the gin mills. On the eve of the Kentucky Derby in 1930 he was scheduled to fight heavyweight Paul Swiderski, but it was called off that afternoon. So off he went pub crawling with a few boxing writers (including Hype Igoe) and “really tied one on.†Negotiations went on without him and ended well. The fight was back on, but half the main event (i.e. Mickey Walker) wasn’t even found until 8pm. No coffee was black enough and no shower cold enough to sober him up before fight time. He wobbled down the aisle; half held up by his manager Doc Kearns and crawled into the ring. Sure, the dailies will tell you that Walker went down several times in round one, but there should be an asterisk attached. Swiderski had less to do with it than the bartenders around Louisville. In the first round, Walker was on one knee and when the count reached nine, the bell suddenly clanged. Kearns had grabbed a water bottle and reached over to hit the bell with thirty seconds still left in the round. An enraged Swiderski ran over and socked Walker in the nose. Bedlam broke out and cops flooded through the ropes. Dizzy Mickey thought he was in a street fight and started swinging at whomever –and popped Kearns on the jaw. The fighter had to drag his manager to the corner.

In the next round Walker was down again, and then the lights went out. It was strongly suspected that Kearns had hired someone to do it. After the delay, Walker went out to blast –and burp– his way to a decision win.

All told, Mickey whipped about sixteen big dogs –“big bums†he called them, including ranked contenders Johnny Risko (sixth) and King Levinsky (fourth). The biggest among them was Arthur De Kuh who was 6’3 and 223 lbs. The best among them, though far from the most popular –was number one contender Jack Sharkey.

22 July 1931, Ebbets Field. Westbrook Pegler watched as Mickey Walker walked confidently past press row and stepped into the ring to face Jack Sharkey. Pegler just sat there and shook his head, not only because of Walker’s age and size, but also because of his lifestyle: “During the last four or five years,†he wrote in the days before the bout, “Mickey has been a member of the night side, so, for one thing, there isn’t enough of him and, for another thing, what there is of him isn’t as good as it would have been if he had always gone to bed at 9 p.m.â€

Pegler didn’t hide his cynicism under a spit bucket. “Naturally,†he quipped, “in promoting the prizefight, the shrewd thing to do is keep on suggesting this remote possibility [that Walker can win] until, by force of reiteration, it becomes a live, tingling hope.â€

His lucid mind then drifted to horses:

“Often times, at a horse track, a party will bet more or less money on some poor weary steed at odds of 50 to 1 or some such figure and, just by wishing alone, will develop a beautiful picture of that horse winning the race by the time they go to the post. Then the horse jumps a few yards and sits down to bat a whisker of hay out of his ear with a hind foot and finishes nowhere at all, but the customer had the fun of hoping, anyway.â€

…Evidently, Pegler didn’t take a trip to Orangeburg, New Jersey to watch Walker train. Now pushing thirty, Walker was in better shape than he’d been in for years. By the end of the first round Pegler’s eyebrows were askew. By the third round, he sat in silence with the rest of the scribes watching his elegant cynicism evaporate under the lights. Yesterday they were laughing behind typewriters, setting their own odds against Walker at 50-1. Today they sat with invisible dunce caps squinting at ring-wise brilliance while twenty-five thousand fans cheered behind them. The short ones stood on their chairs.

In the seventh, Pegler watched Walker come “swinging in under Sharkey’s cautious defensive works with the low roll of a vaudeville baboon on roller skates†and land a right that sent Sharkey stumbling backwards to the ropes. Mickey took a right flush on the chin in the eleventh but shook it off and landed an uppercut that sent Sharkey to the ropes again on rubber legs. For fifteen rounds, he treated giants the way that little guys should –with a persuasive prescription of overhands in combination and in close, where long arms get in the way and short arms rule the day.

Walker’s style was once compared to watching major surgery done with a boat oar. This was the observation of a neophyte who confused aggression with mindlessness. This performance spoke for itself. Mickey was as highly skilled as he was ferocious. He bobbed and weaved while the future heavyweight champion of the world missed and missed again “–in the manner of a man throwing shoes out a window at a singing tomcat,†wrote Pegler. “Walker blocked many of these blows, squatted under many others,†he added, “and soaked up some with a curious rolling away motion which eased the impact.†As the bells tolled and the rounds waned, Sharkey grew desperate.

He landed low blows. Mickey ignored them.

He put his hands up to protect his face. Mickey switched the attack to the body.

He stood straighter or leaned back to draw on his height advantage. Mickey jumped.

Sharkey, known for a high level of skill in a division never so acclaimed in that department, was facing a superior ring general hell-bent on exploding the stubborn myth that bigger means better.

After the bout, the humbled heavyweight was unusually gracious. Mickey Walker, he said, “is a great little fighter and don’t let anyone tell you he can’t hurt.†Walker was still chomping at the bit. “I could fight fifteen more like it right now,†he said as his eyes twinkled over a contagious smile, “I thought I won all right but that don’t matter.†The official result of the bout was a draw, but it was Walker who gave Sharkey a “pretty thorough licking†outscoring him “by the difference between fifteen dollars and fifteen centsâ€; so said the scribe who compared Mickey to a poor weary steed only the week before.

Westbrook Pegler may not have realized it yet, but he had just witnessed Mickey Walker’s greatest performance; and the assumption here is that Pegler promptly became an enthusiastic convert to the cause of short people, fighting Irish, and long odds.

The next afternoon he was almost certainly spotted ten miles west, jumping up and down at Jamaica Racetrack… where he lost his shirt.

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The Sixth God of War: Archie Moore

By Springs Toledo

“Time is a strange brew.â€

~ Archie Moore

Archie Moore may have needed smelling salts to revive him after hearing that he was finally getting a crack at the light heavyweight title after 160 professional bouts. He was lucky he didn’t break his hip when he fell. The “Old Mongoose†turned thirty-six years old four days before he stepped into the ring against champion Joey Maxim during the Yuletide season of 1952.

Moore was aging all right, but he was an aging puncher, and that meant something. His legs were stuck in cement, which only made it easier to plant his feet and launch the dynamite in his fists. Do you remember your grandfather’s vice-grip of a handshake? Men get stronger as they age.

Moore was always a powerful fighter and partially because of that, an avoided fighter. He had been ranked as a middleweight from 1940 through 1944 and ranked as a light heavyweight for the next eight years. Two of his most dangerous opponents had already retired by the time he fought Maxim: Charley Burley in 1950 and Eddie Booker in 1944. Neither of them was able to get a world title shot and all three had to take jobs outside of boxing at one time or another: Burley at an aircraft plant, Booker as a red cap porter, and Moore as a night watchman. “I am often asked why, when both Burley and Booker beat me, neither one got to the top whereas I did,†the introspective Moore said, “Well, I guess it’s the way I sized things up. I felt I had two opponents –other boxers and Father Time.†Discouragement, he said, “can KO a boxer even before he has a chance to step into the ring.â€

Moore may have had a main event against Father Time, but he never forgot those preliminary brawls early in his career. After a three month, seven fight jaunt in Australia in 1940 he dropped anchor in California at the age of twenty-three and joined the round-robin ranks of other great black boxers then campaigning on the west coast. Moore and the set remembered as ‘Murderers’ Row’ fought among themselves like lions for peanuts not far enough from the San Diego Zoo. All told, Archie Moore, Charley Burley, Eddie Booker, Jack Chase, Lloyd Marshall, Tiger Wade, Bert Lytell, as well as Holman Williams and Cocoa Kid fought each other 79 times. Archie’s record against them was 10-5-3 with 4 knockouts, which was about as good as it got.

Those internecine wars furnished each of them with a wealth of experience but their purses weren’t even enough to furnish a house …and they opened no doors.

A frustrated Charley Burley hung up the gloves and took a job as a garbage man for the city of Pittsburgh. Eddie Booker retired after an eye injury got progressively worse. Bert Lytell had his last fight when he was just twenty-seven years old. In 1951 he was at Grossinger’s gym in New York sparring with world middleweight champion Randy Turpin before Turpin’s rematch with Sugar Ray Robinson. Jack Chase, Lloyd Marshall, Holman Williams, Tiger Wade, and Cocoa Kid retired in their mid-30s due to fading skills, a devastating loss, or both.

Bitterness was a contagion for ignored fighters like the Mongoose and Murderers’ Row. Perhaps Moore’s greatest triumph was an emotional one. He had developed ulcers that ruptured the day after a brutal bout with Booker and landed him in the hospital for thirty-eight days. He was close to death. After self-diagnosing the spiritual causes of his ailment, he picked up a mirror and saw a face etched with tension. It was the face of millions of African American men seething under the surface, held down by invisible chains. Moore found that he was holding on to negative feelings in his heart and it had done a number not only on his health, but on his character. He wrote his own prescription for healing remedies that predated the New Age movement by three decades –he listened to jazz, learned to take therapeutic naps, mastered his pseudo-scientific theories of “breathology,†“escapism,†and “relaxism†and overcame what ailed him.

It was an achievement that stands as a monument to inspire us all. Moore went deep into an internal cave and battled the dragons lurking in his own humanity. What emerged was a philosopher-king who took hold of a grand mission and slung it on his back. He would not only honor an old promise made to his aunt to refrain from drinking, smoking, or “doing anything shameful in the ring,†he also made a new one to himself. Before George Foreman was even born, Archie Moore would ignore time and its creaking warnings and force his way through the gates of a kingdom that was rightfully his.

“I know I can beat Maxim,†he told reporters, “I always did believe I could beat him.â€

A.J. Liebling agreed. Moore reminded him of “a supreme exponent of bel canto who sees himself crowded out of the opera house by a guy who can only shout.†The perennial top contender took matters into his own hands and began writing letters to sports editors all over the country. “I pleaded, I cursed,†he remembered, “I demanded a shot at Maxim's crown.†Joey Maxim’s manager was the go-to man and it just so happened that Maxim’s manager was Doc Kearns, the same Doc Kearns who once managed Jack Dempsey and Mickey “Toy Bulldog†Walker. By this time Kearns had snow on the roof, but his greediness was evergreen; he finally yielded and allowed a title shot but only after he received a guaranteed purse of $100,000 for Maxim. Moore signed, even though his end turned out to be a measly $800.

Most fight fans knew what was what and who was who and the odds reflected that –twelve to five against the champion. Losing was unthinkable for Moore, who remembered well the trials of Charley Burley. “I’ve been waiting a long time,†he said with quiet intensity, “I’ve got to win.â€

He had another reason to win, another motivation that fluttered deep inside of him. He took the time to make arrangements for his divorced parents to sit ringside at the arena in St. Louis. A man who banishes bitterness from his heart does funny things, and this man forgave them for sending him away to his aunt and uncle when he was barely a year old. “I just wanted my father and my mother to see me win the title, together,†he told Sports Illustrated in 1989. “I wanted to look down on them, next to each other, at that moment. And I did.â€

Moore then turned his attention to the king on his throne, on his throne.

The bell rang. In a few minutes it became clear that it was ringing for one and tolling for the other. A right hand dented Maxim’s square jaw in the first round and he forced a clinch. Maxim, born Giuseppe Antonio Berardinelli, had a repeating left jab that recalled a Maxim machine gun; thus the name. As the all-time knockout leader (Moore had at least 131 career KOs) applied his hardware and demonstrated superior technical know-how, Maxim’s own considerable skills were neutralized and his jab shot blanks. After the seventh the champion was hurt in every round. “Time and again,†said the Associated Press, “Moore unleashed the full fury of almost a decade of frustration as the ‘uncrowned champion.’â€

Kearns may have finagled a $100,000 retirement fund for the inevitable dethronement of his boy, but some of those funds had to be earmarked for medical bills. Joey Maxim was gashed and swollen when his crown fell off. Moore caught that crown with nimble hands. His manager attempted to lift him in the air to celebrate but Moore would have none of it. “Just slip my robe on my shoulders,†he ordered, “There's nothing to get excited about. I could've won this thing 12 years ago if I'd had the chance.â€

Only minutes after his victory, the new old champion announced his intentions. “I’m going to put some life in the division. Any contender who deserves a chance will get it.†And the Old Mongoose was every bit as good as his word. His predecessors’ sins of avoidance were spotlighted by Moore who faced all-comers including Maxim, twice.

With this remarkable victory, Moore was escorted out of what he called “the murky twilight†and into the radiance of fame and celebrity. It was long overdue. The charismatic light heavyweight king was interviewed often and would not allow the public to forget the names of those fierce, forgotten men he faced in his youth. He would tip his crown to them and his humanity shined when he did.

It is poignant when you think about it. But for his longevity and acute single-mindedness, the name ‘Archie Moore’ would surely have been added by history to the ranks of Murderers’ Row –as another great coulda’ been. Instead, he became the unlikeliest of destiny’s children, an old man spanking top contenders for the sheer fun of it.

Late wars followed his ascension to the purple, including the street fight against Yvon Durelle and memorable campaigns in the heavyweight division against Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali. The names on Moore’s resume read like graffiti at the Roman Pantheon. One of those names was Jimmy Bivins whom he had beaten three times. When asked who was the greatest of the eleven world champions he faced, Bivins told The Ring, “the one guy who stands out –and he stands out in everyone’s mind –is Archie Moore. I thought he was the greatest fighter in the world. He could punch and he could box. But he could really punch. He wasn’t afraid of nobody.â€

Archie came out of boxing’s golden era, when men fought more often for less money and the working conditions were more hazardous than they are today, to say the least. He managed to defeat world-class middleweights, light heavyweights, and heavyweights, though he was essentially only a natural middleweight with a paunch. He overcame six Hall of Famers. The record should read seven; a prime Willie Pastrano escaped with a hotly disputed draw after Archie chased him around the ring on forty-five year old legs. That was in 1962. Archie had his first professional fight in 1935.

Many civilians cannot understand why anyone would choose Archie’s profession for a living, and even fighters themselves would be hard-pressed to explain how a man could fight 220 times over twenty-eight years. Placing one’s health and wellbeing at such risk so often for so long seems to be utter folly, if not madness. Moore was an exception that proved the rule. He was the antique that out-performed newer models, a well-mannered eccentric who would show up at weigh-ins resplendent in a top hat and tuxedo, twirling a walking stick. At times he’d step onto the scale buck naked. And even had he been a bit mad, there was a touch of genius in it –the old man’s showmanship compounded the staggering skillfulness of his craft and boosted box-office receipts.

In the end, Archie Moore’s motivation was neither madness nor money.

It was love.

“Boxing is magnificent,†he told a journalist late in life, his eyes softening with affection. “It’s beautiful to know. Oh, the price can be very dear. You’ve got to marry it. And so I did. Boxing was my lover. It was my lady.â€

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The Fifth God Of War: Roberto Duran

By Springs Toledo

“Yield to the god.â€

~ Virgil, the Aeneid

The battered and bloodied world welterweight champion Barney Ross glowered at his three corner men as the thirteenth round was about to begin. “If you stop this fight,†he said, “I’ll never talk to you the rest of my life.†In the opposite corner, a surging Henry Armstrong sprang out of his corner at the bell. Trainer Ray Arcel, a cotton swap in his mouth, watched the last three rounds with Ross’s words echoing in his ears and a prayer on his lips. He prayed not that Barney would win, but that Barney would survive.

The defeated boxer was brought back to the hotel where Arcel put hot towels on his swollen face and tended to his wounds. He stayed with him for four days and four nights.

That was 1938. Arcel was already in the fight game twenty years. He was in New York City at the beginning, when a troupe of great Jewish boxers left Grupp’s gym in Harlem and walked nine blocks north to Stillman’s gym. Arcel would teach hundreds of young men how to fight, including twenty world champions. His first was Frankie Genaro in 1923. His last was fifty years later.

Arcel met Freddie Brown at Stillman’s. Brown grew up on Forsythe Street in the Lower East side not three miles from Benny Leonard’s house. He began training in the 1920s and had what A.J. Liebling described as the unmistakable appearance of old fighters: “small men with mashed noses and quick eyes†and a chewed-up stogie stuck on his lip that contrasted nicely with the clean cotton swap of Arcel.

MANGOS

Twenty-year-old Roberto Duran’s American debut was at Madison Square Garden. Thirteen thousand, two hundred and eleven ticket-buyers watched him lay out Benny Huertas like a door mat in sixty-six seconds. Dave Anderson covered the fight for the New York Times. “Remember the name –,†he advised.

A startled Ray Arcel saw that stone fist land on Huertas’ temple from an aisle seat. As the Panamanian left the ring on his way to the dressing room he startled the old man again with a polite greeting for him and his wife. A month later Duran would be introduced to Freddie Brown and the triumvirate would be complete.

“When I came into his camp in 1972, he was just a slugger until I taught him finesse,†Brown remembered. A slugger? Duran was worse than that. He was a savage. Duran was a Roman wolf-child placed in a civilizing school where the arts of war were taught by ancient masters. Like Agrippina summoned Seneca to tutor a young Nero, Duran’s manager summoned Arcel. Arcel brought in Freddie Brown. It took not one, but two eminent trainers to tame Duran, and Brown bore the brunt of it –camping outside of his door to chase away the girls, waking him up early in the morning to do his roadwork, locking the cupboards.

The two old men never did completely civilize their pupil, though they did better than Seneca –Nero became emperor and used Christians as human torches to light the streets of Rome. Duran listened, and because he listened his mind was filled with a century’s worth of ring knowledge.

In 1972 Duran indecently assaulted lightweight champion Ken Buchanan and snatched his crown. His reign of terror lasted six years and twelve title defenses.

“The only guy we had like him,†Brown told Pete Hamill, “is Henry Armstrong.†Arcel trained Armstrong after Ross retired and understood the intricacies of explosive boxing. Both trainers knew the value of intelligence in the ring. “Boxing,†said Arcel whenever the subject came up, “is brain over brawn…if you can’t think, you’re just another bum in the park.†Duran was not only “one of the most vicious fighters we’ve ever had,†said Brown, he was “one of the smartest.â€

George Herbert once said that “a great ship asks deep water.†Roberto Duran didn’t ask, he invaded the welterweight division when it was as deep as it ever was. Waiting for him were two bangers in Pipino Cuevas and Thomas Hearns, defensive specialist Wilfred Benitez, boxer Carlos Palomino, and the smiling celebrity who lorded over them all –the boxer-puncher Ray Leonard.

MALICE

By the end of 1979 a clash between Leonard and Duran was almost certain. Duran had already retired former welterweight champion Palomino in a dominant performance, while Leonard stopped Benitez and took his title. They fought separately on the Larry Holmes-Ernie Shavers undercard and Leonard’s trainer Angelo Dundee watched the Duran bout very carefully. “Duran is thought of as a rough guy, but he’s not rough,†he observed, “he’s smart and slick.â€

Arcel, 81 and Brown, 73 were watching Leonard as well, though they were very familiar with his style and how to beat it. They had already trained about thirty world champions between them, while the fifty-eight year old Dundee had nine on his resume. In fact, Dundee’s novitiate was at Stillman’s gym where he handed towels to the two masters he now matched wits with.

The posturing began soon enough. At Gleason’s gym, Leonard was watching Duran skip rope when Duran spotted him and began lashing the rope with uncanny speed –while squatting. At a press conference at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, Leonard was cuffed by Duran, who claimed that Leonard put his hand near his face. Two days before the fight, both men were at an indoor mall in Montreal and Duran learned just enough English to yell “two more days! Two more days!†Leonard blew a kiss and Duran charged at him and had to be restrained.

Duran was getting mean, but it was Leonard who had every physical advantage in his favor. He was younger, faster, taller, and bigger. “I’m not Ali,†he insisted to the pundits, “Sure, maybe at the start I was trying to do his shuffle or his rope-a-dope, but not now.†In his last two outings, Duran looked pudgy as he struggled against two comparative novices before stopping them. The previous three welterweights he faced went the full ten rounds. Never before had three opponents in a row gone the distance with him and there was chatter about not only his power at 147 lbs. but his motivation. Duran himself admitted that he was not always committed to training and his trainers did too, though a warning was attached: “When you’re fighting smear cases and you’re the best fighter around, it’s hard to be interested, but now he’s inspired and when he’s inspired, he’s relentless,†Arcel said, “Leonard can’t beat this guy.â€

The odds makers disagreed. Duran was a 9-5 underdog.

Leonard was confident enough (and good enough) to ask permission from an aging Sugar Ray Robinson to borrow “Sugar.†But he couldn’t have anticipated how many lumps he’d get from a man who had more in common with fighters from Robinson’s era than he ever would. As Leonard made his way toward the ring on June 20th 1980, Roberto Duran shadow boxed his own demons in the red corner. Both were in the best condition of their lives, but one of them exuded almost preternatural malevolence.

Arcel had already promised that we’d witness “the darndest fight†we’ve “ever seen†–and we did.

Duran had promised to use “old tricks†against Leonard. Old tricks. Freddie Brown’s fingerprints were all over the Duran-Leonard fight. He trained Duran at Grossinger’s Resort in the Catskills, where he worked with Rocky Marciano in the fifties and Joey Archer in the sixties. Brown had more tricks than a cathouse, such as how to hold an opponent in the crook of the arm to stop incoming shots and create the perception that the opponent was doing nothing. Then there was the “Fitzsimmons shift.†Dundee himself might never have heard of it, but he saw it alright: “…if [Duran] missed you with an overhand right,†he observed, “he’d turn southpaw and come back with a left hook to the body.†Duran can be seen executing this against Leonard in the fifth, seventh, and eighth rounds. Bob Fitzsimmons invented it and used it to implode heavyweight champion Gentleman Jim Corbett in 1897. It’s a peach of a move; and it’s older than Ray Arcel himself.

Stone Hands controlled the action in this career-defining bout, but make no mistake, his savvy was no less a deciding factor than his savagery; and the Sugar Man pushed him almost beyond his limits. The crowd was his. Every now and then a thin and solitary Nicaraguan with a mustache could be seen standing up from his seat and waving a little Panamanian flag. It was Alexis Arguello, another fan of the great Duran.

MYTHS

Duran’s strategy was drilled into him. He was instructed to be elusive against the jab, close the distance, crowd Leonard, and hammer the body. Leonard’s aggressive strategy was not expected. It made things more not less difficult to cope with for precisely the reasons that Dundee had alluded to –good little guys don’t beat good big guys. “In this fight, Duran’s not the puncher,†he added, “my guy is.†Their respective knockout percentages over their previous five fights confirmed this: Duran’s was 40%, Leonard’s was 100%. Leonard stated that he planned on “standing and fighting more than expected.†“They all think I’m going to run. I’m not,†he said to New York Magazine, “I’m not changing my style at all… he’ll be beaten to the punch…those are the facts,†he continued, “What’s going to beat Roberto Duran is Sugar Ray Leonard.â€

Dundee substantiated this in his autobiography. Leonard’s strategy became certain from the moment that he watched the films and deconstructed Duran’s style. Duran, he said, was a “heel-to-toe guy. He takes two steps to get to you. So the idea was not to give him those two steps, not to move too far away because the more distance you gave him, the more effective he was. What you can’t do in the face of Duran’s aggression was run from it, because then he picks up momentum. My guy wasn’t going to run from him.â€

So there you have it.

Leonard’s strategy in Montreal was deliberate, and sound. After the fight, Dundee and Leonard revised history and a willing press has gone along with it ever since. We’ve been spoon-fed a fable that has long since crystallized into orthodox boxing lore. It is the archetypal image of the Latin bully who “tricked†the All-American Hero into an alley fight, and it sprang from the idea that Leonard “did not fight his fight†because Duran challenged his masculinity. The problem is that it is at complete odds with statements made by Leonard and Dundee about Leonard’s clear physical advantages and the strategy that would be formed around those advantages. It contradicts Dundee’s earlier statements about Duran’s high level of skill and it contradicts statements that both had made immediately after the bout –before they had time to think about posterity: “You’ve got to give credit to Duran,†Dundee told journalists, “he makes you fight his fight.†When asked why he fought Duran’s fight, Leonard said he had “no alternative.â€

Since then, Leonard’s loss to Duran has been cleverly spun, re-packaged, and sold at a reduced price. It’s time to find our receipt and exchange a fable for the facts. And the facts begin with this: when both fighters were at their best, Duran was better.

MEMENTO MORI

Duran’s record now stood at 72-1 (56). As he simmered down in the aftermath, the magnitude of what had just happened set in. He knew that Leonard was great. At the post-fight press conference he was asked if Ray Leonard was the toughest opponent he ever faced. Duran, his face scuffed and swollen, hesitated and thought for a moment. “Si,†he softly said, “…si.â€

And then something changed. Whatever it was that raged inside Roberto Duran –a legion of devils, his hatred of Leonard, the memory of a child begging on the streets of Chorrillo– faded from that moment.

He became more sedate. After thirteen years of pasion violenta and after a victory that is almost without equal in the annals of boxing history, he fell like all who forget that they are mortal; and his humiliation would be so complete that it would obscure everything else.

Old embers would flare up only sporadically after the fateful year of 1980. Three times more he would remind the world of his greatness against men that no lightweight in his right mind would ever face. By then his trainers had walked away and soon retired for keeps. They joined us and watched a melting legend fight youngsters. As the curtain slowly dropped on a career that would span over thirty years, there was little left that recalled what he was; just some old tricks in an arsenal ransacked by age and an unbecoming appetite.

But what he was should not be eclipsed.

It should be remembered.

When the splendor that was Sugar Ray Leonard had the whole sports world squinting, Freddie Brown and Ray Arcel applied that old school method in the shadow of Stillman’s gym. They brought the Panamanian to a peak of human performance so perfect in its blend of science and ferocity that it would never be approached again –by Duran or anyone else.

Fifteen rounds unveiled a god of war.

After the final bell, a jubilant Duran leaps into the air. Before he lands he sees Leonard daring to raise his arms in victory and the coals of his eyes burn. He shoves and spits at his adversary, then stalks toward the ropes at ringside and grabs his crotch as he hurls Spanish epithets. Arcel tries to calm him down. Leonard’s brother Roger rushes him and is knocked flat with one shot. The announcer shouts “le nouveau--†into the microphone, and victorious, the raging champion is hoisted up above the crowd –above the world, still cursing the vanquished.

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The Fourth God Of War: Ezzard Charles

By Springs Toledo

“He has shown you, o man, what is good.

And what does the Lord require of you?

To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.â€

~ Micah 6:8

Lou Ambers landed a shot to the jaw and as Tony Scarpati went down, his head bounced off the canvas. He died three days later. “Every once in a while,†Ambers remembered, “I’d look in that corner and I’d see like a picture of Tony, God rest his soul.†Sugar Ray Robinson had a grim premonition before fighting Jimmy Doyle and lived to regret going through with that bout. “I was busted up,†Robinson said after Doyle died, “and for a long time after that I could fight just hard enough to win.†Twenty-year-old Sam Baroudi had another kind of premonition. In the summer of 1947, he knocked out Glenn Newton Smith in the ninth round. Smith collapsed in the dressing room and succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage.

Six months later Baroudi fought light heavyweight Ezzard Charles.

Baroudi had never been stopped in any of his fifty-two previous bouts. He was fighting out of a crouch in the tenth round when Ezzard landed three hard shots to the head which caused his eyes to glaze. A left to the body sent him down. He was carried out of Chicago Stadium on a stretcher and died five hours later. The boxer who did it was distraught.

The day after the fight a middle-aged man arrived in Chicago from Akron, Ohio to claim the body. It was Baroudi’s father. “This was a terrible accident,†he told Ezzard, “our family bears no bitterness at all towards you. Don’t give up on your career.†A charity match was set up at Ezzard’s request and a certified check of $15,880 was given to the Baroudi family. Ezzard donated his entire purse.

Reluctantly, the number-one light heavyweight contender continued with his career, but he would never again compete in his natural division. He’d only fight heavyweights, as if afraid of injuring men his own size. A.J. Liebling got the impression that he suffered from emotional blocks in the heat of battle, and saw in him an “intuitive aversion to violence†that would “set in like ice on a pond.†Once feared for his “black-out†punches, his clean KO percentage of 44% before the Baroudi fight dropped to 28% after it.

His popularity dropped with it.

Ghosts, guilt, and the evaporation of the ‘killer instinct’ –these are symptoms almost every boxer deals with after their hands kill an opponent. For Ezzard Charles the symptoms were acute.

He was named after Dr. Webster Pierce Ezzard, the obstetrician who delivered him in 1921, and was raised by his grandmother Maude Foster and a great grandmother named Belle Russell who was born a slave. They taught him to pray, to read the Bible every day, and place no value on human applause.

Ezzard had a smile that was radiant enough to melt ice, but he wasn’t raised to be charismatic. As the press found out soon enough, a conversation with him could be about as mutual as brushing your teeth. He wasn’t raised to avoid a challenge either, and he didn’t, though others failed to extend him the same courtesy. He was ducked for years by the same light heavyweight champions who ducked Archie Moore despite the fact that he cleaned out the contenders, including Moore. His prime ended with no laurels and no belts; it ended with Sam Baroudi’s last breaths.

Ezzard is most remembered for the beatings he took in two wars against Rocky Marciano. The stand he made was unexpected; he fought hammer and tong, even giving up reading his books because they had become “a distraction.†“Rough and crude,†he told Budd Schulberg, “I gotta be rough and crude.†After the first fight, photographs of his face were presented in eighteen different degrees of contortion at the end of Marciano’s fists in LIFE. “This Is What Charles Took†proclaimed the title.

By 1955, symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) were becoming evident. “Looking back now,†recalled Ray Arcel, who watched him train at Stillman’s gym, “it’s easy to see that Ezzard was in the early stages of the illness that eventually killed him. But at the time I just thought he was getting older. He wasn’t able to do the things he’d always done. He’d get tired. His coordination wasn’t there.†It affected his legs first, which explains why this once versatile technician struggled with stumblebums as his career waned. The crowds booed.

Sportswriters picked up on his childhood nickname of “Snooky†and started calling him “Snooks,†but with disdain, not affection. Television audiences missed his prime. Most never saw what he was –what he was before the face of Sam Baroudi looked at him behind every opponent’s guard, what he was before his body began to betray him. They saw only an aging fighter struggling to hold on to his dignity and perhaps win more than he lost, and that is the image that has persevered for decades.

That image is a false one and should be undone. At his best, this unpretentious man was one of history’s supreme boxer-punchers. In his capable hands, ‘the manly art of self-defense’ was baptized by fire into something godly …and this is his transfiguration.

INHERITING THE EARTH

At the beginning of his fistic career, sportswriters called him the “Cincinnati Schoolboy,†but with affection, not disdain. With a fledgling record of 17-1, he faced Hall of Famer and former middleweight champion Teddy Yarosz. Yarosz’s record was 106-16-3. The fact that the clever Yarosz had beaten a parade of dangerous fighters made no difference. Ray Arcel himself was in his corner; but that made no difference either. Yarosz only landed “about three good lefts†and Ezzard cruised to a decision win. In January of 1942 he fought a former light heavyweight champion in Anton Christoforidis (35-10-6) and handed him his first stoppage loss, shocking everyone except for those in Cincinnati who already knew great he was. In March, he fought to a draw with a third former champion, Ken Overlin (130-19-7). Overlin took a split decision over him the previous year –when Ezzard was a junior at Woodward High School.

His principal remembered seeing him arrive for classes with a shiner or two the morning after a fight. It impressed him how Ezzard was almost always on time, though he was moonlighting.

In May, when he fought the feared and avoided Charley Burley (51-5) in Pittsburgh, he had to short-change training to cram for his final examinations.

Burley was installed as a 10-8 favorite.

Ezzard outpunched him.

New York City was abuzz about the defeat of Burley and the name of his conqueror was spoken with reverence in the hallowed halls of Stillman’s gym. As for the conqueror, Ezzard hurried back home to Cincinnati in time to graduate with his class. He also got his car keys back. His grandmother had taken them away for two weeks after Ezzard, one of the most dangerous fighters alive –missed his curfew. With grandma smiling again, the proud high school graduate hopped a train back to Pennsylvania to prove that the win over Charley Burley was no fluke.

The return bout was even money.

Ezzard outboxed him.

No man alive had defeated Burley twice in a row. Ezzard did it with a combination of power shots off the front foot and sheer ability off the back foot. Even Arcel was in awe. Those two victories, he said, were “the first time I realized Charles was a great boxer.†His next four victories were almost as impressive and launched him into serious contention for both the middleweight and light heavyweight crowns. Four straight knockouts of serious fighters (three of whom were never counted out in a combined total of 92 fights) were tough to ignore. It was the summer of ’42, Ezzard Charles had come of age, and managers were hiding under their hats. It took fellow-great Jimmy Bivins to alleviate anxieties with a decision win; and then Lloyd Marshall cooled him off with an eighth round stoppage.

Within two years the “School Boy†would evolve into “The Cincinnati Cobra†and strike through his natural habitat like no one ever had before or probably ever will again. Atop the heap of casualties was a mongoose: Archie Moore could neither outslug nor outwit this cobra despite three desperate tries. Ezzard also avenged his losses to Jimmy Bivins (four times) and Lloyd Marshall (twice, by knockout).

In a ten year span he faced down a platoon of ring generals in three divisions eighteen times, and then dethroned an idol whose color photograph was tacked to his bedroom wall –Joe Louis. The newspapers were forced to finally acknowledge something insiders always knew, that Ezzard Charles was a “much better fighter than the world had thought he was.†And that wasn’t all. When Ezzard won a decision over Louis, he became universally recognized as the linear heavyweight champion. It was September 27th 1950.

Sixty-five-year-old Maude Foster’s phone rang that night. On the other end was Ezzard:

“Grandma, I won it for you and the Lord.â€

“God made you a champion,†she said, “and don’t forget to thank Him out loud.â€

He didn’t forget.

DAYS OF GRACE

As his undiagnosed debilitation began to cripple him a few years later, Ezzard Charles’ win-loss ratio tilted sharply for the worse. His last professional bout was in the summer of 1959, the very summer that Lou Stillman closed up his legendary gym on Eighth Avenue.

Citizen Ezzard’s decline only continued. Within two years he had no job, no telephone, and a house that was about to be foreclosed. His garage was empty after he sold his cars to buy food for his family. He managed to get a job working with disadvantaged youth for Mayor Daley’s Youth Foundation in Chicago; though after 1967 he couldn’t even walk the block from his house to get there because the disease had begun to stiffen his legs. It was only the beginning. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a neuromuscular disease that affects the brain’s ability to send messages to muscles, including those used for respiration. Half of ALS patients die within 18 months of diagnosis. There is no known cure.

“Oh, it’s tough all right,†Ezzard said as his health trials began, “not being able to walk like I used to or talk so well. It’s a feeling you sort of have, of being all by yourself. That no one can help you.â€

Ironies abounded. His doctors told him that boxing may have actually benefitted his health by delaying the progression of a disease that had begun to develop in his childhood. Long after his days of war, Ezzard found himself doing sit-ups and struggling again with the existential loneliness of a man who fights alone. Only now the sit-ups were an agonizing part of physical therapy, and the garish lights of the arena were turned off.

A police officer and friend named John McManus turned those lights back on.

With the help of Joe Kellman and Ben Bentley he organized an event to raise money and defray the mounting medical bills of the ex-champion. “The Ezzard Charles Appreciation Night†was held on November 13th 1968 in the Grand Ballroom of Chicago’s Sherman Hotel. For $15 the guests were treated to a sit-down dinner and fight films that they themselves could request through the Chicago Daily Tribune. Many bent noses were in the crowd of 1300 –several of them bent by the guest of honor. Rocky Marciano, whose nose he split into a canyon, was a featured speaker. “I never met a man like Ez in my life,†he said as he turned and looked into the eyes of his old foe, “Ez, you fought me about the very best of anybody. I couldn’t put you down and I don’t believe anybody can put you down. You’ve got more spirit than any man I ever knew.â€

It was a glorious night. The benefit would raise about $15,000 for Ezzard. It was almost the same amount to the dollar that Ezzard raised for the Baroudi family after that tragedy twenty years earlier.

Boxing made a triumphant return into Ezzard’s life and like a good corner man in a tough fight, it gave him a lift off the stool.

His stool was a wheelchair now. As he struggled to stand up at the podium, Marciano and Archie Moore rushed to his side and lifted him to his feet. “This is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me,†he could only whisper, “I just want to say ….thank you. Thank you...â€

Eventually the disease silenced him. Then it paralyzed him. He lay on his back for fifteen months in the Veteran’s Administration Hospital as his body wasted away. He had his memories; Grand memories that only former fighters are privileged to have, other memories that only the cursed among them must endure. Less than a mile north was Chicago Stadium, where the image of Sam Baroudi collapsed again and again.

As leaves fell to the ground outside the window during the last autumn of his life, the man whose photograph once hung on his wall appeared at the door of room B-804. Joe Louis stood for a moment, and then walked over to the bed. “I could lick you now, champ,†he said gently, “…I could lick you now.â€

Ezzard Charles smiled. The radiance of it filled the room.

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The Third God of War: Henry Armstrong

By Springs Toledo

“Batten down the hatches…!â€

~ Chambers Journal, 1883


Henry Armstrong’s grandmother was a slave in Mississippi. She was owned by his Irish grandfather whose eyes twinkled at the sight of her. Their son grew up and married a woman who was half-Cherokee. Her name was “America.†The couple had fifteen children. The eleventh, Henry, inherited his father’s short stature and his mother’s strength and work ethic.

The family moved to St. Louis when he was still a small child. At sixteen years old, he put on his father’s cap and overalls and walked down to the Missouri-Pacific Railroad and got a job –driving spikes with a sledgehammer like John Henry. One day a fateful gust of wind carried a discarded newspaper to his feet: “KID CHOCOLATE EARNS $75,000 FOR HALF HOUR’S WORK,†the headline declared. He quit the job, ran home, and told his grandmother that he was fixing to be a champion of the world. She looked him up and down and said “you ain’t no Jack Johnson!â€

And she was right. The kid with the baggy overalls and a hammer in his hand would become something else, something greater than Jack Johnson.

Henry Armstrong would become a force of nature in the boxing ring. Like those boll weevils that came up and under his family’s crops back on the plantation, he’d come up and under his opponent’s guard and do to ribs what those critters did to crops. Like the Tombigbee River that overran its banks and killed their cattle, he’d flood his opponent. Press row would watch his relentless attack and compared it to a hurricane…

It began as a tempest in a teapot in 1931, when the underfed teenager lost three out of his first four professional fights. Over the next five years he fought seven draws and suffered eight more setbacks, but stronger frames were getting knocked over. Quite suddenly his elements converged with swirling momentum, and the forecast turned severe for anyone in his path. Between January 1937 and October 1940, Armstrong posted 59 wins, 1 heavily disputed loss, 1 heavily disputed draw, and 51 knockouts. In only three years and ten months, Armstrong fought 61 times. That’s exactly how many fights Muhammad Ali had over the length of his career; and they weren’t scale versions of “bums of the month†either –his blows had multiple contenders and seven Hall of Famers spinning sideways in the ring.

Armstrong reached peak intensity the same year that one of the most powerful natural events in recorded history slammed into the east coast of the United States.

The Great Hurricane of 1938 made landfall on September 21st and cut a swath through Long Island, New York, and New England. Only a junior forecaster saw it coming, but his frantic relay was slapped down by his superiors at the U.S. Weather Bureau who wrongly expected the storm system to continue on a seaward path. So there was no notice, no preparation. It hit Long Island at a record speed and changed the landscape of the south coast forever. Over the next three days, the Blue Hills Conservatory in Massachusetts measured peak gusts at 186 mph and 50 foot waves crashed into the Gloucester shoreline. By the time it was over and the statistics were computed, seven hundred people had died, 63,000 were left homeless, and 2 billion trees were uprooted.


“Hurricane Henry†cut another kind of swath –through three weight divisions. His three managers, the famous Al Jolson, film noir actor George Raft, and Eddie Mead, came up with an idea to pilot him toward three crowns. In an era where boxing recognized only eight kings, toppling three of them would be an unparalleled feat …if he could do it.

This is what it would take, they told Henry, to compete with the rampaging Joe Louis in a depressed market. “It sounds pretty good to me,†he replied.

THE WORLD FEATHERWEIGHT TITLE, 29 October 1937

Petey Sarron had been a professional for a dozen years and looked it, wrote Paul Mickelson, “his eyes are cut, his ears are hard and flat, and he’s broken his left hand three times, his right once.†He also happened to be the National Boxing Association featherweight champion, and in his prime at twenty-nine.

Madison Square Garden’s 1937-1938 boxing season opened with Sarron matched up against the twenty-four-year-old Armstrong for recognition as the world featherweight champion. Sarron trained at Pioneer’s gym in Manhattan while Armstrong trained at Stillman’s gym, which may partly explain the 2½ to 1 odds favoring the challenger –that or the fact that he was on a fifteen fight knockout streak. “This talk don’t scare me,†Sarron said, “I’m used to it. I found out in America, Africa, and Europe that nobody can beat me at 126 pounds.†Sarron was confident that Armstrong would fade. He reminded all and sundry that while he himself had gone fifteen rounds fifteen times, the challenger never had. “Armstrong isn’t fighting a punk this time,†he said.

The veteran may have been expected to let youthful joie de vivre sap itself and then take over, but he defied that idea and waded boldly in to meet Armstrong on his own terms. He even managed to outland him with left hooks in the first round. He won the next few as well by inviting Armstrong to open up and then countering him. Armstrong made the mistake of trying too hard against a man who knew too much –he got stars in his eyes, went for a spectacular knockout, and got stars in his eyes. His wound-up shots breezed by the moving target although when they did happen to connect, they hurt. Before long, Sarron’s ribs began rattling like wind chimes under the blustering body attack, and by the fifth round his shutters were blown open. Armstrong mercilessly lashed him in a corner until the bell rang.

A heavy right landed downstairs to begin the sixth and Sarron faced another surge. “Recovering somewhat,†The New York Times reported, “Sarron jumped at Armstrong and traded willingly with him.†His pride only preceded his fall. Armstrong shot a left to the body and then launched an overhand right that crashed on the champion’s jaw. Sarron “slumped to his knees and elbows†as if looking for a storm cellar under the ring, and was counted out.

Petey Sarron fought a total of 151 times. The record indicates that he was stopped only once. Armstrong called the signature shot that did it “the blackout.â€

THE WORLD WELTERWEIGHT TITLE, 31 May 1938

Armstrong’s managers intended to take the three world championship belts in an orderly fashion, but Al Weill, manager of the lightweight champion Lou Ambers, asked for a rain check. Welterweight king Barney Ross wasn’t about to give up a payday because of stormy weather.

With a record of 72-3-3, Ross was an established master-boxer who, like Sarron, was never stopped. Born in New York City’s lower East Side, he stood second only to Benny Leonard among the celebrated Jewish champions who reigned from the 1910s through the 1930s and virtually disappeared after that. Barney Ross (nee Barnet David Rasofsky) was the last of the great ones.

As a welterweight, he had not lost since the “Irish Lullaby†Jimmy McLarnin defeated him in 1934 –and Ross beat him before that bout and again after it. By the time he signed to face Armstrong, ennui had settled in because of the lack of challenges. He’d sneak tokes of a Chesterfield in the rubdown room and swig straight vodka at night after training. Not this time. Ross’s best fighting weight was 142 lbs and that was precisely what the scale said at the weigh-in. It was also the contractual limit for this match.

Armstrong was having problems with the scale; simply put, he was no welterweight. In a sport where boxers ritualistically dried out, weighed in on the day of the fight, and then gorged at supper, Henry hurried to the scale with a belly full of water and beer, weighed in at only 133 lbs, and made off for the nearest toilet.

The vast Jewish contingent in New York bet heavily on Ross, who entered the ring as a 7 to 5 favorite. The fistic fraternity was polled and Ross was favored by Jew and Gentile alike, 50-36, to outbox the smaller man.

Every radio in the lower East Side was blaring as Barney Ross glided out of his corner at the opening bell. Working behind a varying jab and boxing at angles, Ross’s eyes were wide open in the early rounds as he strained to measure the bobbing and weaving whirlwind. Armstrong’s body attack was withering –he turned his fist around, crashed it into the champion’s ribs, and mixed it with left hooks and overhand rights. Ross’s strategy was to step inside the eye of the storm –inside the looping shots, and shift Armstrong off balance. The strategy was masterfully executed and Ross can be seen on film pivoting and turning Armstrong, but two problems soon became painfully clear. First, Ross assumed that his superior size would matter. It didn’t. The second was a question of pace. Henry could keep a hellish pace indefinitely. Barney could not. By round seven, the featherweight champion was overpowering the welterweight champion. Ross was still throwing that right uppercut-left hook combination, but he was wavering like a weather vane in November.

It has become a convention among boxing historians to accede that the twenty-eight year old Ross got old in that bout, that he could no longer move as lively as he once did. That claim ignores what the film confirms –Armstrong’s physical strength and pressure wore Ross out, just like it did Sarron. By the end of the tenth round, Barney Ross was in big trouble.

Only his heart and Armstrong’s favor allowed him to finish on his feet. Late in the fight, arguments abounded in both corners. Ross’s chief second had the towel in hand and was ready to throw it in when Ross warned “–don’t do it. I’m not quitting.†The referee came over and Barney had to make a promise to alleviate the official’s conscience. “Let me finish like a champion,†he said, “and I promise I’ll never fight again.†In the other corner Armstrong wanted to knock him out. “I don’t want to crucify him,†he said, “I don’t want to hurt him no more.â€

Armstrong would later claim that his seconds had gotten a signal to carry Barney for the last four rounds, and that the two champions had a conversation during a clinch that went something like this:

Armstrong: “How you feel, Barney?â€

Ross: “I’m dead.â€

Armstrong: “Jab and run, and I’ll make it look good.â€

As the last bell clanged, Barney embraced Henry. “You’re the greatest,†he said. Close to it… Armstrong emerged from a battle against one of the finest boxers of the Golden Era with nothing more than a bruised knuckle.

THE WORLD LIGHTWEIGHT TITLE, 17 August 1938

New York’s own Lou Ambers was as tough as old boots. Known as the “Herkimer Hurricane,†he was a trainer’s dream, sighed Whitey Bimstein, because the closest thing he had to a vice was going to the movies. Ambers was also a supremely skilled in-fighter whose pride still swelled his chest decades later, “Oh Jesus,†he said in retirement, “I loved to fight.â€

Ringside seats for the Ambers-Armstrong title fight at Madison Square Garden cost $16.50, same-day admission was $1.15, and soon eighteen thousand were fidgeting in the seats. A collision of two hurricanes was imminent. Would Armstrong emerge with three simultaneous crowns? The odds said 3 to 1 that he would.

Al Jolson plunked down a grand that said Ambers wouldn’t even see fifteen rounds. But Ambers was ready. “I’ll cut up Henry Armstrong so badly,†he predicted, “the referee will have to stop the fight.†Reporters chewed on their pencils at this. “Don’t worry about me,†he snapped, “wait until we’ve gone 15 rounds and then ask Armstrong how he liked it.â€

The two champions were standing toe-to-toe and slugging it out for a full minute by round two as the crowd screamed and hats flew. Ambers clinched effectively inside and landed sneak shots, but it was Armstrong who caught him pulling back in the fifth round with a long right. Ambers tumbled down. The referee counted to three when the bell rang and his corner men rushed out to revive him. In the next round, Armstrong threw combinations that didn’t end. Down went Ambers again.

He took an eight count but nodded to his chief second, who by now had the spit bucket over his head.

Then Ambers found an answer; as Armstrong bent forward and barreled in, he stood his ground and shot uppercuts one after another. Armstrong hurled punches low and the referee penalized him four rounds while Ambers knocked his mouthpiece out twice and severely split his lip. It was a war. In the fourteenth, Armstrong landed a right and Ambers reeled across the ring like a drunk chasing his hat, but he wouldn’t go down again.

Armstrong said it as the “bloodiest fight I ever had in my life.†The canvas, according to Henry McLemore in press row, “resembled a gigantic butcher’s apron†and the fight was almost stopped. “I’m not going to bleed no more,†he promised the referee, and then spat out his mouthpiece and got back to work. He ended up swallowing about a pint of his own blood along with the iodine and collodion used to congeal the cut in his mouth. Delirium set in sometime in round fifteen.

In Lou Amber’s dressing room, McLemore suspected that the fighter’s screws were punched loose. Lou sat naked, covered with welts, his eye an egg, croaking the old favorite “I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl That Married Dear Old Dad†–and talking ragtime. Swaying to and fro, he was still ducking overhands that weren’t coming anymore. “Whoop-a-doopy!†he said as McLemore made tracks for the other dressing room. Armstrong couldn’t even remember the fifteenth round. His handlers would tell him later how they had to peel him off of Ambers. A strange calm swept over him as he sat nursing a swollen left eye, five cuts over both eyes, and a mangled lip that would take fifteen stitches. Flashbulbs exploded in his face.

Hurricane Henry had reached his peak –the fistic equivalent of a category five. After storming three divisions and dethroning three champions in less than a year, the man was spent …and the boxing landscape would never be the same.

On 52nd Street the next morning, yellow cabs honk their discontent and clusters of pedestrians bustle to work outside Madison Square Garden. A gust carries a newspaper through space and time, sailing, swirling until it lands at the feet of a tall and rangy teenager in Central Park. “TRIPLE CHAMPION!†he reads, and his eyes flash with ambition. He finishes stretching and starts running down the winding bicycle path, against the wind.

He never needed catchweights and fought in an 8 division era. Zinggggggggggggggggggggg

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The Second God Of War: Sugar Ray Robinson

By Springs Toledo

A junk wagon pulled by a clopping nag lurches down 110th street in New York City. Beside it walks a peddler whistling a Cab Calloway tune, his eyes jaundice yellow. In the distance a bouncing figure approaches out of Central Park. It is a young man about seventeen, boxing shadows in steady stride. He stalls and skips in place, shoulders hunched, chin down, and lets fly a shoe shine combination that ends with lightning left hooks. Spinning off the last of them he runs on into Harlem, into the morning sun.

In the afternoon, he heads over to Grupp’s gym on 116th street. Old-time fighters loiter there, bound together by an uncommon past –“All they did was talk boxing,†he would remember, “and all I did was listen.†Harry Wills would teach him balance, Soldier Jones the difference a good jab can make. Among them is William Ward, who fought under a name dreaded in the 1920s –Kid Norfolk. Ward regales him with war stories about the blood-spattered men of a bygone era.

The phenomenon that would become Sugar Ray Robinson began at the feet of masters, and was forged from the inside out. The future was his.

YEAR ONE~

He still had jumpy legs after his professional debut on the undercard of the Henry Armstrong-Fritzie Zivic title fight at Madison Square Garden. Showering quickly, he hurried upstairs from the dressing room to see his idol make the twentieth defense of the world welterweight title. What he saw he never forgot. Armstrong, the Triple Champion the press was calling invincible, was bludgeoned, jabbed blind, and cracked with short shots until he had nothing left but courage. Zivic was ruthless. “I pulled my trunks up and went to work on him,†he recounted, “I busted him up, cut him here and cut him there…when the eye was cut, I’d rub it with the laces to open it a little more.â€

In the cab ride home to Harlem, the young lightweight had vengeance on his mind. “Mom,†he said “I want to fight Zivic. I’ll fix him for the way he beat Armstrong.†His mother was having none of it –“Junior, I don’t want you ever to fight Zivic.â€

Four days later, Junior was in Georgia to add a second round technical knock out to his budding record, and after that he had matches in Philadelphia, Detroit, New Jersey, and Washington DC as often as three times a month. His opposition was unusually tough. His fifth opponent as a professional was Norment Quarles, a one-time protégé of Jack Dempsey. Quarles had faced several champions in 108 professional bouts –yet couldn’t finish half the eight scheduled rounds against this prodigy. Four days after that he was back at the Garden handing Oliver White his first stoppage loss in 50 fights.

It is said that in Philadelphia even the winos know how to hook off a jab. Robinson was already good enough to flatten Philly fighters like they were barley in a field or grapes in a press. Jimmy Tygh, an aggressive lightweight who had never been stopped in 60 bouts was stopped twice –once cleanly and once after falling down five times. Mike Evan’s career was in recovery when a left hook left him in a stupor in June 1941.

Robinson was back in Philadelphia in July to risk his 20-0 record against a seasoned veteran with 80 fights, the National Boxing Association world lightweight champion Sammy “The Clutch†Angott.

It should not have been so easy.

Robinson was expected to be overmatched in close against a man with the fighting style of a squid, but he soon found answers. In the second round he sprang back and threw a looping right hand that parked on Angott’s chin. Down he went. His eyelids fluttered for six seconds before he got to his knees and then his feet as the count reached nine. Robinson said that the only reason Angott woke up was because his head was near the time-keeper’s hammer as it pounded on the ring apron. Angott had some success with left hooks to the body, but the long range blasts were too much and he lost a wide decision.

Many were now convinced that the victor, who had just turned twenty, was already the best fighter in the world. And despite his being acknowledged as the next logical challenger for Lew Jenkins’ lightweight crown, it was Angott who got the title shot, and the title.

With an uneasy crown atop his head, “The Clutch†whipped two top contenders and then got whipped himself in another non-title bout against Robinson. Angott tried again a few years later, and got whipped again.

By September 1941, the boxer the scribes were calling Ray “Sugar†Robinson faced U.S. sailor Marty Servo, who was undefeated in 44 fights. Like Angott, Servo was the boss on the inside, but Robinson slid back and lit him up at range. To the delight of the Philadelphia crowd, Servo fought as if Robinson was an English king and he a cranky colonist. Like the Liberty Bell Servo’s head was rung (though unlike that national treasure, it never cracked) and his revolution was thwarted.

On Halloween night, speed and talent glided into the ring at Madison Square Garden to confront a diabolical 142 fight veteran. The chance to beat the conqueror of Henry Armstrong had arrived.

No pundit worth his weight in smelling salts would have confused Fritzie Zivic’s style with artistry, while Robinson’s fights were already being compared to recitals. Barney Nagler quipped that he “boxed as though he were playing the violin.â€

If he had a violin, Zivic would have snatched it and broken it across his knees.

To boxing historians, the mere mention of Fritzie’s name conjures up a rag-bag of felonious tricks. “I’d give ‘em the head, choke ‘em, hit ‘em in the balls… I used to bang ‘em up pretty good,†Zivic proudly conceded, “You’re fighting, you’re not playing the piano you know.â€

In the first round, he scraped the inside of his gloves so hard against Robinson’s face that the laces felt like “steel wool.†He also had a way of uncannily forcing his opponent to head butt himself by looping his lead hand around the back of the neck in a clinch and jamming his opponent’s head into the top of his own. Then he’d looked to the referee with an unconvincing plea in his eyes. Robinson couldn’t believe what was happening. At the end of the round, he flopped on the stool in his corner. George Gainford splashed him with a sponge and said “don’t let him get close –keep him away with the jab.†He did as he was told and things got easier. Fritzie was impressed: “Everything I done, he done better†–everything legal that is.

Not only did Robinson avenge his idol, he began to outshine him. Henry Armstrong was fading while Robinson’s learning curve became a straight line pointing to heaven. “Year One†saw 26 victories, including the defeat of a world lightweight champion, an undefeated future world welterweight champion, and a former world welterweight champion. Two of them were Hall of Famers in their prime. Robinson wasn’t yet near his, but he didn’t have to be.

…

By the close of the decade, he would ascend to the welterweight throne. Jimmy Doyle would die at his hands, and traumatized, he would never again ignore his instincts or listen to anyone who disagreed with him. To insiders and former friends he became a prima donna, out of reach and obsessed by self-interest. More than a few hated his guts, though none could deny the greatness of a fighter whose record soared to a breathtaking 128-1-2 with 84 knockouts.

Sugar Ray Robinson is usually remembered today for winning the world middleweight title five times, but that accomplishment isn’t half the story. What prevented him from taking Joey Maxim’s world light heavyweight title on a blistering summer day in 1952 was nothing human. With an insurmountable lead on the scorecards after thirteen rounds, he collapsed with heat stroke. “God wanted me to lose!†a delirious Robinson declared in the dressing room at Yankee Stadium, “God beat me!†The truth wasn’t far off.

Had circumstances –boxing politics and the weather, been different, might he have been the first and only fighter in history to win the lightweight, welterweight, middleweight, and light heavyweight world titles? The answer is clear enough to force a startling conclusion.

Despite all his accolades, the man born Walker Smith Jr. is even greater than we know.

~YEAR TWENTY-FIVE

“Whom Fortune wishes to destroy,†Publilius wrote, “she first makes mad.†At forty-four years old, Sugar Ray Robinson had his 200th professional bout. “I am telling you I am going to win the title again,†he insisted. He planned to do it the old-fashioned way, by challenging a top middleweight contender in fourth-ranked Joey Archer.

The books had Robinson a 2 to 1 underdog against Archer for the Pittsburgh bout. It was his fourteenth fight in 1965, four of which he had lost. Nat Fleischer said what is always said at the end of a boxer’s professional life: “His legs are gone.†Once rivaling fellow Harlemite “Bojangles†Robinson, those gams still looked good, even if they were about as light and lively as the winter blues. That aura of beautiful danger surrounded him as he ascended into the ring, conked and svelte like the days of old …but Robinson knew better.

Aging ex-champions always know, even when they lie to themselves, or go mad with delusions. Grandeur seems to dangle over their graying heads like a star on a string, but they can’t jump anymore to reach it, and their gloves, like arthritic hands, can no longer hold it. It all slips away; until the earth-bound god-in-denial is publically humiliated.

As the bell tolled the end of ten one-sided rounds in the Civic Arena, a battered Robinson embraced Joey Archer. Archer escorted him to his corner and he stood facing it with his head bowed. And then something happened. The fans at ringside who had been hollering “Joey! Don’t hit him!†over the last few rounds began standing up and drifting over to Sugar Ray’s corner. First a scattered few and then dozens of fans gathered beneath him, applauding with something that approached deep reverence. Robinson’s eyes met theirs and the ovation washed over him. His defeat was being sanctified.

Fickle Fortune had changed her mind… this fighter would not be condemned to humiliation, not now, not ever.

The next afternoon he was stretched across a bed at the Carlton House Hotel, his aching head propped up on a pillow. No man had ever stopped him. The time had come to stop himself. With reporters scribbling on notepads, he quietly concluded his career.

Harry Markson, the director of boxing at Madison Square Garden called him a few weeks later. “Ray,†he said, “it just doesn’t seem right that a man of your stature should be allowed to retire so quietly… we’d like to throw a farewell party for you that will pay you the tribute you deserve. What do you say?†It was dubbed “Farewell to Sugar Ray†and scheduled just before the main event on December 10th 1965 at 9:30pm.

“He’s the greatest fighter there ever was, and for me that’s saying something.†Muhammad Ali said that night, “When I was a little kid I’d watch Sugar Ray Robinson on the TV, and when I started fightin’ I copied his moves …and I still do. When I go into the ring now he’s on my mind.â€

The crowd was on its feet as he made his way down the aisle. They were still cheering as he climbed into the same ring where he began his career twenty-five years earlier, where he avenged an idol and became a greater one.

Four former middleweight kings were announced and soon they stood in the corners surrounding their common opponent. Among them were Carmen Basilio, Gene Fullmer, Carl “Bobo†Olson, and Randy Turpin who flew in all the way from England. Barbara Long of the Village Voice mused that they “could have rushed him and got him good,†and “tough old Carmen looked like he was entertaining the thought.†They closed in on him slowly –or warily, and lifted him up. Sugar Ray’s smile reflected the lights; and he extended his open hands not unlike a messiah.

At the end, he stood illuminated in a single spotlight, his terrycloth robe dazzling white. All were moved. The African Americans scattered throughout the crowd were more than moved. For them it was a spiritual experience. The man had his faults, to be sure, but the image of this champion was a reflection of something larger than himself –the strength and passion and brilliance of his people. It still is. With tears streaming down his face, he began to speak, and then faltered. A young man in the crowd was heard to whisper “Talk to me, daddy.†An elderly man said, “Let us hear you son,†and wept openly. The boxer’s voice trembled as he spoke into the microphone: “I’ll miss the applause that makes a guy get up off that stool one more time.â€

Ducking his head, Sugar Ray Robinson slipped through maroon ropes that served as boundaries for his kingdom. He stood on the apron staring at the top rope for a moment, then kissed it and descended from the ring.

The gods themselves throw incense.

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The God of War

By Springs Toledo

Next him… [a] scepter’d king,

Stood up, the strongest and the fiercest spirit

… now fiercer by despair.

~ Paradise Lost, bk. II, l. 44

19 April 1924, Boston. Trolleys spark and screech as they rumble down the split on Huntington Avenue. Fedoras bob past the Boston-Albany Railroad yard and darkened storefronts, clamber out of Model Ts, and hurry across the street after dinner at Sunning Restaurant. Everyone seems to converge at the main entrance of the Mechanics Building where they funnel in like sand through the narrow of an hourglass. Inside the sprawling Victorian façade is a great hall. There, beneath the balconies and sloping orchestra sections, a boxing ring looms in the light. The buzzing crowd glances downward as they squeeze between rows.

Tension is building around that empty ring.

Three preliminary bouts opened the card that cool spring evening. Local boys duked it out until bragging rights belonged to Somerville, East Boston, and South Boston. Chances are excellent that all six of them were white. William Ward wasn’t. He was as black as Newgate’s knocker, and about as ominous as the old English prison behind it. At the age that you were building forts in the woods or playing stick ball in the street, he was blindfolded, fighting and bleeding against a dozen other black boys in battles royal. As an adult, he lived to knock heads –black, white and every hue in the middle in undocumented contests down in Panama before punching his way through American ranks.

He was dangerous, this man who fought under the name “Kid Norfolk.†He trained at Grupp’s gym on 116th street in New York and was a superior counterpuncher with a piston jab. His back was a wall, his legs stout, and he understood leverage as well as future juggernauts Marciano, Frazier, and Tyson. Despite blasting his way up to the third rung of the light heavyweight ladder, insiders knew that Gene Tunney wasn’t going near him. Hall of Famers Billy Miske and Tiger Flowers took a risk and were defeated. Former white hopes Arthur Pelkey and Gunboat Smith joined them. Standing only 5’9, he was strong enough to whip Big Bill Tate three times. Tate was 6’6½ and 235 lbs. Only five months earlier, Kid Norfolk manhandled the world-famous Battling Siki before a crowd of 12,000 at Madison Square Garden. By fight’s end Siki was choking on his own blood.

Every eye in the house is on him as he emerges into view and walks down the aisle, deadly serious. He is aware of the crowd’s thoughts, their prejudices, but after putting his life on the line ninety-six times in similar venues, he has learned to detach from such incidentals and disconnect fear. Kid Norfolk stands in the middle of the ring bowing low to the crowd …then waits.

Two nights before, he stepped off the New York train at South Station. A large contingent of African Americans from the South End stood on the platform waiting for him. Harry Greb was on the same train. The middleweight champion probably saw the cheering crowd as he walked by carrying his own bags, unnoticed. He wouldn’t have cared. Greb feared no crowd, no color, and no man. Like Norfolk, he was unconcerned with weight divisions and found it amusing when he was afforded an opportunity to attack someone he stood eyes-to-chest with. Greb had already thrashed several heavyweights. Within two months he’d face a fighter who stood 6’6 and win every round.

These giant-killers had already crossed paths in August 1921 for “one of the fastest and most grueling†battles that Pittsburgh ever saw. Norfolk outweighed Greb by 17½ lbs and landed shots with such force that the iron-jawed champion was spinning on Queer Street in the opening minutes. A manager of a preliminary boxer who had come upstairs for the main event was astonished: “Never before have I seen two first-rate boxers rip and tear as they did,†he recounted to the newspapers, “how Greb ever survived that first round is beyond me.†Norfolk dropped Greb in the third “like a sack of oats†and both men were cut and bleeding as they came out for the last round. But that was the least of it. The victory may have cost Greb an eye.

In those days, boxing gloves resembled leather mittens; barely five ounces with movable thumbs. Bill Paxton identified the first Greb-Norfolk bout as the one where the Pittsburgh native first suffered an injury to his retina. Medical science hadn’t advanced enough to prevent eventual blindness, so Harry kept it a secret and fought on –ruthlessly, to offset his handicap. Since then he had fought forty times and defeated three of the greatest light heavyweights who ever lived, ruining the virgin records of Tommy Gibbons (39-0-1) and Gene Tunney (41-0-1), and defeating the great “Phantom of Philly†Tommy Loughran. The right field of his vision was swimming when he seized these victories. By the time he arrived in Boston for the rematch against Kid Norfolk, he was completely blind in his right eye.

No one else knew what Norfolk had done. But Greb did.

He walks toward the ring, steps up the stairs and slips through the ropes. A corner man stands behind him and takes his robe as the fighter scuffs the soles of his shoes in the resin box. Greb is wearing green trunks, his hair in well-oiled retreat from the mug below.

Had Harry stayed employed at Westinghouse and become an electrician he may have been passable as a Rudolph Valentino stand-in. Alas, as it was, old scar tissue swelled his eyebrows, his nose had more dents than a backyard jalopy, and the rare times that he smiled for a photograph he looked like he was about to eat your liver with fava beans. Valentino may have had the “look-at-me†physique of a movie star, but the cabled muscles up and down Greb’s arms, and a torso like ribbed plaster made it clear what he was –a fighter not a lover.

He was also a widower. This night marked thirteen months and one day since Greb’s wife Mildred died at home in Pittsburgh. He stood by her bedside, watching her go.

Referee Jack Sheehan stands between both boxers and eyes them nervously. Both Greb and Norfolk look right through Sheehan, one glaring at the other and the other glaring back. They know who the threat is in this ring and the bespectacled guy in the middle, in the way, ain’t it.

What follows is less a match and more a firestorm. The most feared light heavyweight in the world rushes out of his corner and forces the middleweight champion into the ropes. Greb clips him with a short hook to the chin. They clinch. Norfolk’s strategy becomes clear early: he’s shooting to the body to slow Greb’s demon speed. Two go south of the beltline. Regis Welsh of the Pittsburgh Post is ringside watching Greb retaliate “by clubbing and mauling [Norfolk] about.†In the second round, Greb is swarming all over his man from every angle and turns Norfolk around with lefts and rights to the body. Norfolk suddenly puts his head down and charges, ramming Greb headlong through the ropes and out of the ring. He lands sideways in the press section.

The crowd is beside itself as Greb climbs back into the ring and tears into Norfolk. In the third, Greb realizes that Norfolk is too strong and tries boxing at range, jabbing hard and landing the better shots, though he is still being forced backward. It’s an alley fight in the fourth round. State boxing officials in attendance don’t know what to do –both men are “wrestling, clubbing, charging, and butting†and the referee is losing control. The African-American’s mouth is running red as the fifth begins and the crowd is standing on chairs yelling “let ‘em fight the way they want!†Norfolk bangs the left side of Greb’s ribs while Greb attacks at full speed. Welsh watches Norfolk hook three hard shots to Greb’s groin though he carries on as if waiting for a chance to get even. Norfolk is now holding and hitting as Greb tries to wrest free and attack from the outside. Soon Greb is doing it too, grabbing Norfolk by the neck and punching the daylights out of him with his free hand.

The bell –which Welsh notes might have been salvaged from some old church belfry, clangs, and Norfolk throws a left hook anyway. Greb responds in kind before walking back to his corner, looking menacingly over his shoulder.

The old church bell clangs again. Norfolk drives the smaller man to the ropes when Greb suddenly spins off and lands a combination upstairs. Norfolk again tries to physically prevent Greb from getting outside, holding and whacking away while Greb mauls and maneuvers. The referee is now impotent in his attempts to prevent what has become a free-for-all. After the sixth round ends, Norfolk half-turns toward his corner and then unleashes a right hand. It’s a flagrant foul and the third such offense. Greb has had enough. Enraged, he whirls in with punches flying while Norfolk gets down low and rips shots to the body. A pop bottle flies in from a balcony and shatters at their feet as state officials and policemen jump into the ring to break the fighters up and escort them to their corners.

The great hall shakes as thousands of feet stamp and the largest indoor crowd in Boston to date howls to the rafters. Greb is content. He knows he won at least four of the first six rounds. The referee seems to climb out from under the ring and hastily announces Norfolk as the winner “due to a foul by Greb†–then flees the scene. A wave of humanity surges forward demanding to know what happened. The boxing commissioner stands up, spreads his arms and states that it was Norfolk, not Greb who was “the real offender†and plans to override the verdict. Meanwhile, Norfolk takes his gloves off and moves toward Greb, who is still seated on his stool.

Greb gets up to meet him…

Greb got up to meet him. As rough as he was on anyone who got into the ring with him, Greb’s willingness to meet African-Americans on equal terms was unusual. Tommy Loughran and Gene Tunney were not so willing; both publically upheld the unofficial color-line. Jack Dempsey declined to risk the heavyweight title against a black man, despite his posturing about fighting Harry Wills when fans wondered aloud what the problem was. Jack Johnson himself ducked those contenders who shared his complexion when he was champion. Greb was an exception. The middleweight king was not only half-blind, he was color-blind. “All men,†he may have quipped, “bleed equal.â€

The next morning’s dailies declared his clash with Kid Norfolk to be “the fastest and most curious contest ever in a Boston ring†and “one of the toughest, roughest, and ugliest battles ever staged here or elsewhere.†A breathless Regis Welsh called it the “grandest, roughest, go-as-you-please milling anyone has ever seen anywhere.†For Greb, it was nothing new. Greb turned professional in 1913, when boxing only wished it could crawl up from the cesspit into the red-light district. Hell-raisers like Battling Nelson and Ad Wolgast fought that year, after going forty rounds in perhaps the most vicious brawl of the 20th century. Leather mittens, no groin protectors, no mouth guards, twenty rounds –there were few cuties in the sport during those days.

Greb came out of that era, enduring hardships that would dissuade many boxers today from leaving the dressing room.

Earlier in his career, Greb was kneed to the genitals during a bout and had to be carried from the ring; he was once assaulted by a corner man, and bitten on the glove by a frustrated opponent who plum ran out of ways to cope with his windmill attack. Another opponent’s teeth missed his glove and clamped on his arm. A headcase entered the ring with a live boa constrictor draped around his neck and then proceeded to aim for his eyes with both thumbs. He fought with a broken bone in his right hand and a broken arm five fights later. In 1916 he fought the second round against Kid Graves after the radius in his left arm had been broken in half. He couldn’t continue, but won that round.

The year after he faced Kid Norfolk in Massachusetts, he fought not only his opponent but the referee as well. The referee was Marvin Hart –former world heavyweight champion. Greb got himself arrested and fined $100.

Trolling three divisions looking for fights over a thirteen year career, he got them, 300 of them. That’s 2,595 professional rounds –three times as many as Roberto Duran, and more than Julio Cesar Chavez, Oscar De La Hoya, Pernell Whitaker, Ray Leonard, Larry Holmes, and Lennox Lewis combined. The heads that sat on his mantle included approximately twelve world champions, nineteen title-holders, and thirteen inductees of the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

He was a formless fighter of the nightmarish strain. In his prime, opponents found themselves beset on all sides by what seemed to be three attackers at once. When punched at, he seemed to be nowhere, but when punching, he seemed to be everywhere. No film of Greb in action has been found, but there is the testimony of witnesses. John Van Swearingen, who died in 1983, worked as a second in Greb’s corner during the early 1920s. He never forgot the spectacle of Greb’s shots coming in so ferociously and “with such accelerated velocity that you could not see the punches being thrown.†All that anyone in the audience or in the corner could see “was the head of the opponent ratcheting backwards from three to five times incrementally.†Swearingen tells history that Greb was “absolutely the most lightning fast man with his fists that I, or anyone else I've ever talked with, has ever seen."

…

Forty minutes after Greb-Norfolk II, the great hall of Boston’s Mechanics Building is quiet. A janitor pushes a broom before crumpled programs, whistling “Tin Roof Blues.†Two officials stand murmuring at ringside, one of them running his fingers up under his hat. He shakes his head in disbelief at the night’s carnage and the other sniffs a response; his shoe grinding the end of a cigarette into the floor. They bid each other goodnight and depart.

An invisible hand switches off the overhead lights; a full moon peers through arched windows cutting the darkness and illuminating dust. Footsteps fade and then a door clangs shut, echoing off elegant walls. The empty boxing ring looms in the stillness… a pagan shrine splashed with blood.

The great and terrible Harry Greb would be dead within three years.

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