Category Archives: Boxing Articles

When Everyone Knew Who The Heavyweight Champion Was

The Boxing Kings:
When American Heavyweights Ruled The Ring
By Paul Beston
Rowman & Littlefield
356 Pages

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

From the time of John L. Sullivan up to the reign of Mike Tyson just about everybody knew who the Heavyweight Champion of the World was. It was the most prestigious of all sporting titles and the man who held it was one of the most famous, if not the most famous man on the planet. From 1885 up to 1990 only 30 men were able to claim that title.

Being the Heavyweight Champion went beyond just winning fights. Unlike other sports, the Champ did not compete as part of a team. This was a solitary accomplishment that was the epitome of rugged individualism. It took more than just physical prowess to win the title, it also took strength of character and a determined will.

People who have come to the sport of boxing in recent years have no idea what an important figure the Heavyweight Boxing Champion was to past generations. In that period I doubt there was a boy alive who didn’t at one time dream of holding the title. The history of those men who did reach that goal is a very rich one that often mirrors society as a whole. While many books have been written about individual title holders, there has been a need for a broad history of the era when everyone knew the names John L. Sullivan, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, and many others.

People who have come to the sport of boxing in recent years have no idea what an important figure the Heavyweight Boxing Champion was to past generations.

Now, thanks to Paul Beston, the Managing Editor of City Journal, that need has been filled. In The Boxing Kings: When American Heavyweights Ruled The Ring Mr. Beston tells the story of these unique individuals with insight and respect while at the same time not glossing over their weaknesses. If you are not already familiar with this history there is no better book for you to learn from. If you are an experienced boxing fan you will find this work refreshing and informative. I consider myself to be a bit of a boxing expert and I still found much that was new to me while reading this lively narrative.

It was interesting to find out that John L. Sullivan, who is well known for drawing the color line when it came to defending the title against black challengers, was one of the first people in the ring to congratulate Jack Johnson, the first black champion, when he defeated Jim Jeffries. Sullivan also rode on the railroad car with Johnson and his black supporters after the fight. There may have been an ulterior motive for Sullivan’s actions, but it is still surprising to read about this considering the time in which it took place.

There is so much more. Johnson, who is seen today as a man who stood up and broke through the color line drew one of his own and would not defend the title against some of the finest “colored” heavyweights of his day. Johnson, with his extreme behavior, not only offended whites but finally even blacks who did not find him a good example for their children. To quote the author, “As a black man living on his own terms-not those of whites, not those of blacks, and not those of Booker T. Washington or W.E.B. DuBois-Johnson had no home in the America of his time. But he didn’t have to make the choices he made.”

Mr. Beston moves through the years concisely but without giving short shrift to any of the personalties involved.

Mr. Beston moves through the years concisely but without giving short shrift to any of the personalties involved. In the case of Jack Dempsey, a man who would become one of the most beloved figures in the history of sports, we learn he had his problems stemming from his not having served in the military during WWI. It was a stain that would haunt the great champion for years. Yet, even with that baggage his magnetism provided for the first million dollar gates in history. Dempsey also brought boxing out of the shadows and into the mainstream.

Mr. Beston shines in this book in that he not only has done painstaking research, but he is also a great writer who never gives his readers a dull moment. In a chapter entitled The Substitutes he covers the period between Dempsey and Joe Louis. For many this time is looked upon as a lull between two great champions, but it was actually a fascinating period. It was during this time that two of the champions were not from the United States, making it truly a world championship. As that world was slipping into chaos it appeared the Heavyweight Championship was too. Max Schmelling won the title on a foul, the only fighter ever to do so. Gangsters were becoming heavily involved in the game, and there was even a question of whether or not Jack Sharkey threw his fight with Primo Carnera.

It took Joe Louis to bring stability and honor to the sport. While reading Mr. Beston’s chapter on the Louis years one is filled with joy and sadness. Louis was not only arguably the greatest heavyweight of all time, but also one of the most important figures of the 20th Century when it came to unifying the nation and breaking down racial barriers. Louis does not receive the credit he deserves for all he accomplished. He is given his due here. As Mr. Beston writes “Louis was a light in black America’s darkness, and a generation would never forget him for it.” When reading that line I can’t help but think of how Muhammad Ali would later mock the aging champion.

Louis was the first black golfer to play in a PGA event, another wall he broke through. I have to admit I was almost bought to tears reading about Joe’s days after boxing. This man who had done so much for boxing and for his country was hounded for years by the IRS and relegated to being a greeter in LasVegas. Paul Beston gives this great man the respect he earned and deserves.

Mr. Beston brings us Rocky Marciano, the Brockton Blockbuster. Marciano possessed the grit, determination, and sheer will that allowed him to overcome his physical shortcomings to become the only undefeated champion in history. He was also a hero to working class America. Following Rocky, Floyd Patterson’s rise to the throne ushered in a period when boxing appeared to be fading away. Then along came the colorful and handsome Swede Ingemar Johnson who briefly shot some adrenaline into the veins of the sport. We see Sonny Liston, the man whose stare paralyzed opponents and whose lifestyle made him unwanted as champion. Mr. Beston gives us insight into this complicated man who is almost impossible to understand. If boxing were the works of Shakespeare, then Liston would be one of the “problem plays”.

In reading the chapter on Muhammad Ali, the man who certainly saved boxing but at at a cost, I can’t help but think of how different things would have been if Ali had made some other choices. His decision to become part of a radical black separatist movement that preached racial hatred was so at odds with the unifying movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. This charismatic young champion could have done so much to further race relations but chose to take a different path. It is ironic he is looked upon as a great Civil Rights leader when he preached separation of the races. Mr. Beston gives us much insight into Ali’s career, but I think he could have a whole book just on this one subject where he would be able to delve more deeply into this subject.

Paul Beston closes his history with the years following Ali and ends with Lennox Lewis taking over as champion. In these chapters he discusses the bitterness of Larry Holmes and even made me feel some sympathy for Mike Tyson. He gives his thoughts on why the Heavyweight Champion is no longer a recognizable figure.

Paul Beston’s work is truly worthy of the Championship Crown.

I read a lot of books on boxing. There are a number of good ones out there. However, some are well researched but poorly written and not well edited, while others are plain awful. In The Boxing Kings we have the rare book that is well researched, well written, lively, informative, and fully conveys the author’s love for the sport while taking an honest view of it. If books were fighters some would be tomato cans, some journeymen, some contenders, and a very few would be Champions. Paul Beston’s work is truly worthy of the Championship Crown. I highly recommend it.

 

 

Rest In Peace Jake LaMotta

The Bronx Bull Passes At 95

by Bobby Franklin

It has often been observed when someone has lived a long life that they have outlived their friends. Sometimes longevity is measured by how many doctors they have buried. In the case of Jake LaMotta who died last week at the age of 95, he managed to outlive his reputation. If Jake wasn’t, he certainly was very close to being a sociopath. He was a vicious guy who struck fear into all who knew him when growing up. Growing up during the rough years when LaMotta was a kid in New York City was tough. It led a lot of young men to a life of crime. Most were very tough and quick with their fists. But with Jake, he carried it further. For example, when robbing a jeweler he knew, he wasn’t satisfied with just scaring the guy and running off with the goods. No, he also had to nearly beat the man to death with a pipe. He also physically abused his wives. Jake truly seemed to take pleasure in causing physical harm to others. He had a sadistic streak in him. This character trait, if I may call it that, was featured in the Martin Scorsese film The Raging Bull. It is an ugly story about a vicious and cruel man.

The movie made LaMotta a household name again long after his boxing days were over. He never disputed his characterization as depicted in the movie. A few years earlier he had written a book with the same title and in it he didn’t hold back about his life. It isn’t that he was proud of what he had done, but he didn’t exactly appear to be ashamed by it either.

I first met Jake at a boxing writer’s dinner in New York City in 1971. I was a kid but remember the time well. I was seated next to a boyhood friend of LaMotta’s by the name of Toppy who also ended up in the Scorsese movie. He asked me if I would like to meet Jake. Well, of course I would. I was fanatical about boxing at the time and getting to meet one of the great champions was something that was very exciting for me.

Robinson vs LaMotta

Jake was moving about the room and made his way to our table. Toppy introduced us and Jake shook my hand. He was smoking a cigar and had a very aggressive personality. He was telling jokes and enjoying the attention. But, what I remember most was how tense Toppy and the other people at the table became. This was a 49 year old LaMotta. He was still relatively young and still a pretty edgy guy. I found out after he left the table the reason everyone was so tense. They were afraid of saying something that would set the former champ off. They al knew him well and knew how unstable he still was. Years later when I saw the movie Goodfellas the Joe Pesci character Tommy immediately reminded me of the LaMotta I met that night in 1971.

Strangely enough, even after the movie Raging Bull came out, somewhere along the line Jake turned from vicious sociopath into a elder statesman of boxing. I have to admit when I would see him years later wearing his cowboy hat he did look like a lovable character. I guess that can happen if you live long enough.

Vicki and Jake

I am not writing this to speak ill of the dead. I honestly believe Jake would not have a problem with this as he was always honest about who he was. I might also add that Jake was not a bully in the sense Mike Tyson was. Jake was crazy but, unlike bullies in the Tyson mold, he had no quit in him. He could not be intimidated physically. Tyson’s will could be broken, not so for LaMotta. I am not sure if that was guts or insanity, but for anyone in boxing it is a trait that is very much admired.

LaMotta is often underappreciated for his boxing skills. His reputation as a slugger is well deserved, but he was also a brilliant tactician. Contrary to popular belief, Jake did not just walk in with his chin sticking out. He was a master at rolling with punches. If you look closely at many of his fights you may at first think he is absorbing some brutal punches. Look a little closer and you will see how he is moving his head as those punches are landing. This head movement lessens the impact of the blows. Jake likened it to the way a baseball player will pull back his glove when catching a ball in order to better absorb the force of the ball.

Jake was also a master at feinting, parrying, and slipping punches. And, it should be noted, he had an excellent left jab. He showed how effective the jab could be when throw from a crouch. Yes, LaMotta was a true artist in the ring.

He was the top middleweight contender for years before getting a title shot. There are a couple of versions of the story why he didn’t get a shot earlier. They are similar. One has it that Jake wouldn’t play ball with the mob. The other has it that the mob wanted nothing to do with him as he was too crazy. At any rate, they finally did business. The deal was Jake would throw a fight against Billy Fox and then later get a title shot. He did throw the fight but not very convincingly. Nineteen months later he finally got his chance at the title, winning the belt from Marcel Cerdan. Jake was past his prime at this point in his career. He would hold on to the title for less than two years before losing it to his old rival Sugar Ray Robinson. He would fight off and on for just a few more years before retiring.

Jake LaMotta will most likely be remembered fondly by many. He certainly should be remembered as a great fighter and one of the top Middleweight Champions of all time. However, we should not forget that being a champion in the ring does not necessarily make you one out of it.

The Royale Comes Out Swinging

The Royale

At The Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Lowell

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

The Royal, directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, this year’s season opener at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, is a fast paced work that doesn’t let up for a moment during its 80 minutes. Very loosely based on Jack Johnson’s fight against Jim Jeffries it is the story of Jay “The Sport” Jackson who is the first black man to challenge for the Heavyweight Championship of the World.

Toran White and Thomas Silcott. Photo by Meghan Moore.

Jay Jackson is played by Thomas Silcott who brings us into the ring with and into the mind of the confident but conflicted challenger. Playwright Marco Ramirez has given him plenty to work with in this thought provoking play, and Silcott has an amazing presence on the stage. The dialogue is crisp and sharp like an action filled boxing contest. Ramirez not only gives us insight into what a fighter is thinking about while in the ring, but also deals with the wider implications of of having a black man win the white dominated championship in 1910.

Silcott has an amazing presence on the stage.

This conflict is sharpened by a conversation Jackson has with his sister Nina played by Ramona Lisa Alexander. Nina warns Jackson that his victory could result in violence against blacks across the nation, and she suggests subtly that it may be better for everyone if he lost. She feels that things are moving too fast and questions if Jackson is putting his personal gain ahead of his people. It is an intense back and forth that has the power of a hard fought boxing match.

Toran White, Mark W. Soucy, and Thomas Silcott.
Photo by Meghan Moore.

Mark W. Soucy plays the fast talking white promoter Max who also serves as reporter and commentator for the two boxing matches that take place in the play. His sharp dialog keeps the adrenaline flowing. As a ballyhooer he puts Don King to shame. You can feel the excitement build listening to him. He’s good.

George Bennett Watson as Wynton, Jackson’s trainer, and Toran White who plays Fish, Jackson’s opponent in the opening scene as well as his sparring partner for the big fight, are both excellent in their roles which are a bit lower octane but no less important. Wynton has been around the game for some time and seems a bit uncomfortable with the social implications of the fight. Fish is excited to be a part of such a great event but also is naive and is the character who elicits sympathy from the audience. Both actors are strong and very competent in their roles.

Lighting (Karen Perlow) and sound (David Remedios) are used very effectively. A scene where Jackson is hitting the heavy bag while his shadow is cast against the side and back of the stage is very powerful. Mr. Ramirez has said that he sees boxing as a percussive sport and incorporates a hip hop rhythm into the play. Something that works very well.

Ramona Lisa Alexander and Thomas Silcott.
Photo by Meghan Moore.

The fight scenes are different in that instead of having the boxers throw staged punches at each other they face the audience and punch towards them while also using the noise of stomping feet and claps to represent punches. It is a novel and very effective way to stage a fight and the accompanying dialog along with superb lighting allows us to step into the minds of the fighters.

 

The Royale is a boxing play but it is much more. In these heavily politicized times I am always fearful that a playwright will, as they too often do, preach to the audience about how it should think. Mr. Ramirez instead choses to leave us with questions. This is far more effective in helping bring us together to find common ground.

Whether or not you are a boxing fan, The Royale is a play that you should not miss.

The Royale
Through October 8
The Merrimack Repertory Theatre
Lowell, MA
MRT.org 978.654.4678

 

Tony Shucco One Of Boston’s Greatest: He Should Never Be Forgotten

North End Native Defeated Five World Champions

by Bobby Franklin

Tony In His Prime

I remember getting to know Tony Shucco when I was a young amateur boxer training at the New Garden Gym in Boston. He would climb the stairs to the fourth floor of the legendary gym many a day to watch the fighters work out. He was usually quiet, but it was obvious he enjoyed being there. Boxing had been and still was his life.

It is sad that such a great fighter, a man who defeated five world champions including two heavyweight champs, is not better remembered. Tony was among the best boxers to fight out of Boston and deserves to be recognized for that.

Not long ago I spoke with his daughter Angela and she allowed me to look at a box filled with letters, photographs, and news clippings of her father’s career. She is very proud of her father and hopes more people will learn about his career.

Tony Shucco was born June 13, 1911 and grew up in Boston’s North End where he lived most of his life. His original name was Anthony Sciucco, but he changed it to the more easily pronounced Shucco when he began boxing.

The Man About Town

After an outstanding amateur career that consisted of nearly a hundred bouts and numerous championships, Tony moved onto the professional stage with his first bout taking place in 1928. He would remain undefeated for 18 fights before dropping a decision to the great Johnny Indrisano at the Boston Arena. At this time Tony was campaigning as a welterweight but would begin moving up through the weight classes. And, like so many great boxers who start off at lower weights, he retained the speed and skills that are rarely seen in the heavier fellows.

Tony was a brilliant boxer who possessed one of the best left jabs in the business. Though he rarely weighed over 180 pounds he fought many of the leading heavyweights of his day. He defeated Natie Brown, Lee Ramage, Tuffy Griffiths, and two heavyweight champions, Jack Sharkey and James J. Braddock. He also scored wins over champions Maxie Rosenbloom, Bob Olin, and Lou Brouillard.

Tony Shucco was a solid top contender for years and it is unfortunate he never got a shot at a title. He certainly had the credentials for it, but back in those days there were so many outstanding fighters competing you really needed to be connected to get a shot.

Packing For A Fight In Germany

In 1938 Tony traveled to Europe where he had an English representative by the name of Tom Hurst. He was a making a name for himself across the Atlantic with fights in England, Ireland, and Germany. In letters he wrote home he began signing his name “English” Tony Shucco. While there he became close friends with American Flyweight Champion Jackie Jurich who was also represented by Hurst. The clouds of war were starting to gather and it was difficult being separated form his wife Etta and young son Anthony, so Tony returned home. He was immensely popular with the European fans and surely could have built a great reputation on the Continent had he continued fighting there.

Tony Missing His Family

When he returned to the States he dropped a close decision to top rated heavyweight Bob Pastor and then went on a winning streak. It is at this point in Tony’s career where he just couldn’t catch a break. In 1940 Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis agreed to defend his title in Boston. The logical opponent for Joe would have been Tony Shucco who was on a six fight winning streak. Tony was back from Europe, in good shape, and full of confidence. Unfortunately, the title shot was given to Al McCoy who had lost three of his last six fights including two consecutive losses leading up to the Louis fight. I am not sure why McCoy was chosen over Tony, but it should have been Shucco in the ring on that December night.

Jackie Jurich with Tony Shucco

I am not arguing Tony would have beaten Louis as there wasn’t a man on the planet who could have taken Joe back then. But, I will make the case Shucco had the style to give the Brown Bomber some trouble. It is also highly possible Tony could have lasted the distance. It is a shame he did not get the opportunity to fight for boxing’s biggest prize against its greatest champion. I can guarantee you he would have been remembered for that and would have made Boston proud.

It is interesting to note that after the loss to Pastor, Tony continued without a loss until he retired in 1942. In spite of this great record he would never get that elusive shot at the title.

In 1944 Tony embarked on a comeback. He had seven bouts winning three, losing two, with one ending in a draw. He retired for good in 1944.

Boxing’s Elder Statesman

When I got to know Tony he was showing the effects of the punches he took later in his career. I remember being told at the time that his managers, one of whom was a relative that I shall not name, kept him fighting to cash in on his reputation. At this point Tony’s legs were not what they used to be and he was taking punches he easily would have avoided as a younger man. Once again, that dark side of boxing reared its ugly head.

I spent many an afternoon talking with Tony in the New Garden Gym. He aways stressed the importance of the left jab to me. He would say “Kid, keep hitting ‘em with the left, and every once in a while toss in a right so they don’t get bored.” He also stressed to me to always fight fair. He told me “Even if the other guy pulls stuff on you never sink to his level.”

There is a sign at the corner of Bowdoin and Cambridge Streets in Boston that names it “Anthony Sciucco Square”. There are two things wrong with this sign. One, it is a Gold Star sign that is meant to remember a fallen soldier. Two, it should read Anthony “Tony Shucco” Sciucco Square, and have a pair of boxing gloves on it. Maybe some politician will read this and correct that oversight.

Tony Shucco passed away February 26, 1983. It was an honor to know this great man. I know his family is very proud of him. It is time Boston rediscovers him. He was one of its greatest athletes, and a man who always fought fair even though he wasn’t treated that way.

Video: Shucco vs Lydon:

Dempsey vs Sharkey: Protect Yourself At All Times

Did Dempsey Hit Sharkey Low?

by Bobby Franklin

On September 23, 1926 Jack Dempsey lost the Heavyweight Championship of the World to Gene Tunney. Dempsey had been inactive for three years before the bout while Tunney had been racking up wins and staying sharp. After the bout there was a clamor for a rematch, but things were a bit different in those days. Even a former champion had to earn his right to a return title bout.

Dempsey, while champion, had agreed to fight Harry Wills but the fight fell through when the promoters failed to come up with Dempsey’s guarantee. Instead, Dempsey went on to face Tunney. Meanwhile, Boston heavyweight Jack Sharkey was compiling a solid record of wins including beating Harry Wills by disqualification. Though Jack won by a foul because Wills was repeatedly backhanding the him, the outcome was never in doubt as Sharkey had administered a severe beating to Wills before the fight was called in the 13th round. This paved the way for a Dempsey vs Sharkey bout with the winner to face Gene Tunney for the title.

Going into the fight Sharkey had gone unbeaten in his last 13 bouts with wins over such men as George Godfrey, Jimmy Maloney, and Mike McTigue. Sailor Jack was brash, cocky, colorful, and a bit erratic. He was also supremely confident he would beat Dempsey. The oddsmakers agreed with him making Sharkey a 7-5 favorite.

The public was very enthused with this matchup as 82,000 fans showed up at Yankee Stadium on July 21, 1927 to witness the fight. Celebrities were there in abundance including Admiral Richard Byrd, Composer Irving Berlin, Flo Ziegfeld, and theatrical producer David Belasco. The gate was an amazing $1,083,530.00, the largest for a non title fight. Dempsey received $252,759.00 and Sharkey’s share was $208,803.00, huge money for the time.

Both fighters were in great shape, but Sharkey was seven years younger and hungry for a title shot. While Dempsey had showed signs of slowing down he was, well, he was still Jack Dempsey and not one to take lightly. The Manassa Mauler was in there to win.

After receiving instructions from referee Jack O’Sullivan the bout began. Sharkey came out very strong in the first round and had Dempsey hurt almost immediately. Sharkey was fighting beautifully, using a very effective right uppercut and a marvelous jab to keep Dempsey off balance. He continued beating Dempsey to the punch for six rounds and it only appeared to be a question of whether or not Sharkey would win by kayo or decision. It did not look good for the former champ.

Though taking a beating, Dempsey was tenacious. He was also doing a very effective job of going to Sharkey’s body. Jack Dempsey knew he couldn’t stand up straight and trade head shots with Sharkey, so he did what he did best, he fought out of his famous crouched attacking the midsection. While Dempsey was hurting Sharkey with those body shots, he was paying a heavy price having to absorb Sharkey’s uppercut and solid left jab. It is overlooked, but Sharkey had one of the best left jabs in the history of the heavyweight division.

As I have written, it just appeared to be a matter of time until the fight went to Jack Sharkey. However, if you watch closely you can see how the body punches were starting to bother Sharkey. As a matter of fact, he came into the ring wearing his trunks quite high in anticipation of Dempsey banging away to the breadbasket. He could use the high waist line as a way to argue Dempsey’s blows were low and hope the referee would warn him to keep his punches up. Sharkey had won three fights in addition to the Wills fight by disqualification. Was it possible he was using that as an ace in the hole in case things weren’t going well? If he did it certainly backfired on him.

At the bell for the seventh round Dempsey stepped up his attack on Sharkey’s body. If you look closely at the film you can see Sharkey was being bothered by those blows. With about thirty seconds gone in the round Dempsey landed lefts and rights to the body. He landed a right hand to Sharkey’s body that appears to land just about at the belt line. Now remember, Sharkey wore his trunks high so this would be in legal territory. Even if his trunks were worn at normal height the belt line is still fair game.

Here’s my take on this controversial fight; Sharkey was being worn down by Dempsey’s relentless body punching. He had hit the former champ with everything he had and Dempsey just would not slow up. Sharkey had thrown a lot of punches. Combine that with the brutal body punches he absorbed and, even though he was way ahead in the bout, he was wearing down. The final right hand Dempsey landed to the body hurt Sharkey a lot. That’s when Sailor Jack made the fatal mistake of dropping his hands and turning to the referee to complain he had been hit low. The second Dempsey saw that opening he fired off a left hook to the face that floored Sharkey. Referee O’Sullivan counted the Gob out.

Now, that punch may have felt low to Sharkey because it was a brutal shot, but I think Jack had had enough of getting hit to the body and was going to try for the disqualification win. The mistake he made was in complaining to the referee while still on his feet. If he had dropped to the canvas and grabbed his groin he may have gotten somewhere with the complaint. Dropping his hands while within punching range of the great Jack Dempsey was about the dumbest thing he could have done. Sharkey broke the first rule of boxing, “Protect yourself at all times.”

Jack Dempsey would go on to have a rematch wth Gene Tunney in what would turn out to be another controversial fight that became known as The Long Count. Sharkey would also be involved in a controversial fight when he took on Max Schmeling for the title vacated by the retirement of Gene Tunney. In this bout Sharkey would lose by a disqualification when Max claimed to be hit by a low blow. Schmeling was a little smarter than Sharkey as he dropped to the canvas before complaining to the referee. Things may have been different if Jack had one the same with Dempsey.

Jersey Joe and Muhammad

Walcott and Ali
A Contrast

It was a tragic irony that Ali ended up worse off than any of those who came before him.

Muhammad Ali used to enjoy making fun of his predecessors. He would mock them for being punchy. I remember seeing him do this in front of Joe Louis. Ali would put his finger to his nose pressing it flat and then speak while slurring his speech pretending to stumble around on unsteady feet. He would talk about how guys like Louis and the other champs took too many punches, couldn’t box as well as “The Greatest”, and ended up with their brains scrambled. He bragged how that would never happen to him because he was so much smarter and better than they were.

Holmes vs Ali

It was a tragic irony that Ali ended up worse off than any of those who came before him. By the time he was training for the Larry Holmes fight Ali was already showing serious signs of brain damage. Watching interviews and training footage as he was preparing for that bout you can hear him slurring his speech. His coordination was deteriorating as seen in his difficulty hitting the speed bag. Ali was 38 years old at the time and would lose by stoppage to Holmes. It was a sad sight.

Why did this happen to such a great “boxer”? Let’s compare him to another former champ who was still fighting when he was in his late 30s; Jersey Joe Walcott.

Jersey Joe was 37 years old when he won the Heavyweight Championship by knocking out Ezzard Charles. He would defend it against Charles before going on to lose it to Rocky Marciano in a fight in which Walcott was leading on the scorecards when he was kayoed in the 13th round.

Walcott also had given Joe Louis more than he could handle a few years earlier when he lost a highly disputed decision to the Brown Bomber. He dropped Louis twice in that bout. Louis would win a rematch by knockout, but not before hitting the canvas one more time.

Jersey Joe was a master of the Art of Boxing.

Ali got a lot of laughs making fun of the greats of the past. He not only went after them for supposedly being punchy, but he also demeaned their skills. Well, if Walcott was lacking in skills and Ali was so brilliant why is it Jersey Joe retired with his faculties still intact while Ali ended up a mental and physical wreck? You just have to watch footage of the two men in action and you will see what made the difference. Walcott was a brilliant technical boxer. He could move, he could punch, he was always in good physical shape (except for the times earlier in his career the he was so poor he couldn’t eat properly). He also knew how to avoid taking punishment. Jersey Joe was a master of the Art of Boxing. Watching him move across the canvas is something to behold. Walcott could feint, he could parry, he was always in position and on balance. He would turn and start to walk away from his opponent and then suddenly turn back with a lethal combination. Witness his knock out of Ezzard Charles where Joe very nonchalantly steps in with a half hook, half uppercut to win the title. Just amazing.

Walcott vs Charles

Walcott and Ali both had their last fight at the age of 39. Ali had a total of 61 fights while Walcott had 71. Walcott fought professionally for 23 years, Ali for 21 years. Ali was off for three and a half years when he was banned from boxing, so he actually had around 18 years of activity. Walcott was stopped six times. With the exception of the Marciano and Louis fights these stoppages were earlier in his career when he was struggling to survive. Ali was stopped just once, by Holmes; however, he took a lot more punches than Walcott did.

The difference between the two was in their skills. Walcott actually got better with age. Ali deteriorated as he got older. But why?  Ali depended on his speed when he was younger. He was amazingly fast and had great reflexes. As he got older he began to lose that speed, and without it he started taking punches. He did not have the skills to to avoid being hit. He was no Jersey Joe Walcott. In fact, Ali depended on his ability to take punishment in order to win fights. During training sessions he would allow his sparring partners to unload on him. In a bizarre way he seemed to think by taking more punishment he was toughening himself for his upcoming matches. This took a terrible toll on him. Sure it made for exciting fights, but as can be seen in his fights with the likes of George Foreman, Ron Lyle, Ken Norton, Joe Frazier, and very notably, Earnie Shavers, he took some fearful shots. It is no wonder he ended up the way he did.

Jersey Joe Walcott

Walcott, on the other hand, always worked on his defense. He would spend hours in training honing his defensive skills, shadow boxing, working in front of the mirror, watching other fighters. Most importantly, he would work at not getting hit while sparring. When it came to true boxing skills Walcott was miles ahead of Ali. Joe had a full palette to draw from, while Ali was sorely lacking in the finer points of the Manly Art of Self Defense. Walcott was a true master at his trade, in contrast to Ali who had always depended on his physical abilities, first his speed and then his toughness, to carry him through. Walcott was a technician, Ali was a tough guy.

Compare these two champs in their retirement years and you can see the difference. Walcott remained sharp and clear headed. He became the Sheriff of Camden County New Jersey and also served on the boxing commission unit he was 70 years old. From then until his death at the age of 80 he worked helping handicapped and disabled children. His defensive boxing skills served him well as he showed no signs of brain damage.

Muhammad Ali

Ali’s deterioration had already started before he retired from the ring. While he made appearances in his retirement years he had become, to people who were willing to face the truth, a symbol of the dark side of boxing. He had become that which he had mocked. It was almost Shakespearean in that Muhammad Ali would become that caricature of the punch drunk boxer he said would never be.

Jess Willard, The Reluctant Giant

Jess Willard: Heavyweight Champion of the World

by Arly Allen with the assistance of James Willard Mace

McFarland Publishing
300 pp. $35.00

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

Not a lot has been written about Jess Willard. Part of the reason for that is because his championship reign was bookended by two champions who not only are considered all time greats, but who were also very colorful figures. It is unfortunate the Willard story has not been told as it is a very interesting one. That oversight has now been rectified with the very detailed account of the Pottawatomie Giant’s life written by Arly Allen. Mr. Allen was fortunate to have had the assistance of Mr. Willard’s grandson James Willard Mace. He also had access to Jess Willard’s unpublished autobiography. The result is a lively story about a man who, while preferring a peaceful life, was repeatedly finding himself in controversial situations.

Willard only had 22 bouts in his 23 year career, but at least two of those bouts are still argued about by boxing historians to this day. Arly Allen digs deep into the details of both those bouts, the title winning knock out of Jack Johnson and Jess’ loss to Jack Dempsey. Mr. Allen has strong views on both of these fights and he presents plenty of evidence to back up his conclusions. Whether or not he changes minds remains to be seen. He certainly has added much to the discussion. Did Jack Johnson take a dive in the 26th round of the bout in Havana? Were Jack Dempsey’s gloves loaded in Toledo? There isn’t a boxing historian on the planet who doesn’t have an opinion on these controversies. Agree or not, they should all enjoy reading this book.

Johnson vs Willard

Jess was born in Kansas in 1881. The young Willard was tall and lanky and was an excellent athlete who excelled at swimming and running. He was also an excellent horseman. The easy going Kansan hardly seemed the type to go in for boxing. In fact, he didn’t really care for the sport, but did get caught up in the search for a Great White Hope to defeat Jack Johnson. Willard’s size, six foot six and a half coupled with his agility got him noticed. His lack of a killer instinct was also picked up on. It seems Jess found it difficult to throw the full force of his body into punches unless he was hit hard first. He also had an aversion to fighting men smaller than he was as he was afraid he would cause them serious harm. Indeed, Willard did kill a man in the ring. His bout with another big man, William “Bull” Young ended in tragedy when Young died the day after his fight with Jess. Willard was devastated by this event but continued to pursue a career in boxing.

The Jess Willard story is a fascinating one.

Mr. Allen’s research comes up with many interesting facts about Willard’s life. He was repeatedly ending up in court  because of boxing in places where the sport was illegal or not clearly defined, because of financial disputes, and the Young situation where he was charged with manslaughter of which he was acquitted. It becomes clear that Jess was an honest man who, and with good reason, didn’t trust anyone around him. This distrust led him to enter the ring against Jack Dempsey without having solid people in his corner to watch out for him. If he had, the results of that bout may have been different.

In an interesting story leading up to the Dempsey fight Mr. Allen relates how there were three people who thought Jess might very possibly kill Jack that afternoon in the ring. They were Jess, Tex Rickard, and Jack Dempsey himself. Jack wouldn’t make eye contact with Willard when he entered the ring. There is much more and it is all very thought provoking.

From the time Jess won the title in 1915 until his loss to Dempsey in 1919 he only defended the title one time. He did, however, make quite a bit of money by making personal appearances, putting on exhibitions, and investing in a traveling circus. Willard made and lost fortunes over his life time.

Jess Willard

Willard’s blunt manner often got him into trouble. Mr. Allen relates the time Jess was booked for an appearance in Boston. He was to be paid $2,000.00 for one evening, a very substantial amount of money for that time. His visit also coincided with the running of the Boston Marathon. When Jess was asked to appear at the finish line he refused saying that if people wanted to see him they would have to pay. Needless to say, this left a bad taste in the mouths of Bostonians and only a small crowd showed up for his paid appearance. There is a similar story regarding Jess and Harry Houdini. These tales all make for fascinating reading.

There is much for boxing historians to learn from Mr. Allen’s well written book. For instance, I knew that the actor Victor McLaglen had fought Jack Johnson in an exhibition bout when Johnson was champion. I did not know that he also once boxed Bob Fitzsimmons and that he went four rounds with Willard.

The Jess Willard story is a fascinating one. He was a decent man who managed to get the public to turn hot and cold for and against him. He always felt he could beat Dempsey and even when nearing the age of forty he campaigned for a rematch. That bout would have happened if he had not been stopped by Luis Firpo. An interesting note, the Firpo bout was held at Boyle’s Thirty Acres in New Jersey, the site of the Dempsey v Carpentier bout. The fight drew nearly 100,000 people, approximately 10,000 more than the Dempsey / Carpentier fight. Willard received nearly $210,000.00 for the fight. That is an astronomical amount for the time.

There is so much more to this book. Willard was champ during WW I and during flu epidemic. The stories of his real estate and farming investments, his sixty year marriage to Hattie and the lovely family they raised all make for fascinating reading. Jess Willard deserves the attention of boxing fans and this book is the place to start. He was not just the guy who held the title between Johnson and Dempsey. He was a deeply interesting man.

Tommy Farr The British Champ Was A Handful For Joe Louis But Never Got A Rematch. Why?

Tommy Farr
The British Champ Was A Handful
For Joe Louis But Never Got A Rematch. Why?

In a recent conversation I had the subject of Joe Louis’s bout against Tommy Farr came up. Farr was Joe’s first opponent after he had won the title by knocking out Jimmy Braddock, and it was expected he would do the same to the Welsh boxer. Tommy surprised everyone by extending Louis for the full fifteen rounds and looking pretty good while doing it.

Tommy Farr

It was Farr’s first fight in the United States. He had earned the title shot by scoring wins over Ben Foord, former champ Max Baer, and Walter Neusel. All of these bouts took place in London. Farr, who was from Tonypandy, Wales was an unknown quantity when he stepped into the ring with Louis on August 30, 1937. While his record was impressive he had not been seen by the American fans. Farr also got off to a bit of a rough start with the American press not being quite up to speed with the wisecracking New York reporters. In the end, and after a four day rain delay, promoter Mike Jacobs was still able to get almost 39,000 fans to show up at Yankee Stadium for the bout.

Farr vs Louis

It turned out there was much more to Tommy Farr than expected. The Welshman turned in an excellent performance keeping Joe off balance with an educated left hand and and good combinations. He even rocked the champion a couple of times. He did something that was rarely seen against Joe Louis; he was able to be competitive with the left jab. Evidence of this can be seen in photos of Louis taken after the bout where his right eye is quite swollen. Of course, the Brown Bomber did pretty well with his own jab busting up both of Farr’s eyes, and in the end Joe won a unanimous decision,

There are fight fans who insist Tommy was robbed that night, but in watching clips of the fight and reading accounts of it I have no doubt Joe Louis deserved the decision. Even Farr never complained about it. But Tommy certainly showed himself to not only be a very tough and courageous fighter, he also proved to be quite the skilled boxer who was the ultimate professional. He remained cool and composed throughout the fight. While Louis won by a fairly comfortable margin, many of the rounds were close.

So, the question that is often asked is why didn’t Farr get another shot at the title? I’ve heard it said that Joe’s management wanted nothing to do with Farr after having seen Joe extended by him. I don’t buy that. I am confident Louis would have gladly given him a rematch.

Braddock vs Farr

Now this is where things get a bit interesting. After the Louis fight Tommy remained in the states, and five months later he fought Jimmy Braddock. Farr lost a close and controversial decision to the former champ in what would be Braddock’s last bout. Not long after this Farr, wth prodding from promoter Mike Jacobs, took on Joe Gould as his manager. The very same Joe Gould who also managed Jimmy Braddock.

I recently read Tommy Farr’s autobiography, a very enjoyable book, and in it he talks about how, with Gould’s encouragement, he traveled to Hollywood where he started partying with the big names in the movie industry. He spent time at the home of Bing Crosby. Became friends with Clark Gable and Victor McLaglen and many others. He even spent time with the ten year old Shirley Temple who wanted to hear all about the Louis fight.

Farr also made some lady friends while out west. He would arrive at a bar frequented by many of these stars early in the evening so as not to miss out on having time with them. I’m sure he wasn’t sitting there drinking ice water. Now, why on Earth would a fight manager want his charge spending time living it up, especially after he had become a hot commodity off of his great performance against Louis? Farr should have and could have returned to Great Britain where he would have received a hero’s welcome, racked up a number of wins, and worked himself back into another shot at Louis for a big payday. Most people agreed he was robbed against Braddock, so that would not have been an obstacle after he scored a few wins. A second Farr Louis fight would also have been a big attraction.

But instead, he took on Max Baer in a rematch. Farr, who was now not in the best of shape, lost a one sided decision against the man he had beaten quite handily just a year earlier. Max dropped him three times in the fight. He then lost decisions to Lou Nova and Red Burman. After these losses Tommy returned to Britain never to fight in the United States again.

Tommy Farr with Family

In the course of a year the Welshman went from giving one of the greatest Heavyweight Champions the fight of his life to being handed the proverbial one way ticket to Palookaville. He had ended his relationship with the man, Joby Churchill, who had been with him from the beginning of his career and took up with a man, Joe Gould, who’s now retired fighter, Braddock, owned ten percent of Joe Louis’s future purses. (The agreement with the Louis camp struck in order for Joe to get a title shot at Braddock). Gould now sends his new fighter off to the land of wine, women, and song instead of getting him into serious training for a campaign at another shot at the title.

Here’s my theory for why all that went on. While Louis and his team had no fear of losing a rematch with Farr, and knowing how Joe was, he most likely would have welcomed another go at it with Tommy. Joe Gould was afraid Farr may pull off an upset in a rematch. If that were to happen it would be a heavy financial hit for Braddock, and probably Gould. Joe Gould had a great motive for seeing Farr was removed form the picture, and I believe that is why he led Tommy down the road of self destruction.

Tommy Farr was a terrific boxer. A brave and dedicated fighter who deserved better. He showed what he was made of against Louis. It was his misfortune to have walked into the lion’s den. His great showing against Louis turned out to be a liability for him.

Farr would have just a few more fights in his homeland before WWII broke out. In 1950, in need of money, he made an ill advised comeback. The Tommy Farr story should have had a much happier ending. Instead, it is just another one in a long list of boxing tragedies. https https

Frazier vs Ellis 1970

Jimmy Showed Incredible Courage

by Bobby Franklin
It was 1970 and Muhammad Ali was still in boxing exile. Ali had been deprived of a license to box by the commissions in all fifty states. The Ring Magazine continued to recognize Ali as the champion arguing a title can only change hands in the ring.

Meanwhile, two other fighters laid claim to a portion of the title. the argument being since Ali could not fight they were deprived of a shot at the championship. In 1967 the WBA sponsored a tournament to find a successor to Ali. Joe Frazier was invited to participate but declined. Jimmy Ellis did take part though he was considered a long shot at winning. He proved the pundits wrong when he went on to win the tournament by defeating Leotis Martin, Oscar Bonavena, and Jerry Quarry. If memory serves me right, Jimmy was the underdog in all three fights.

Frazier went on to win his share of the title with a knock out win over Buster Mathis. Joe’s portion of the crown was sanctioned by the New York State Athletic Commission and a few other governing bodies.

Five months after winning the WBA title Jimmy Ellis traveled to Sweden to defend it against Floyd Patterson. Patterson had taken part in the original tournament but lost a close decision to Jerry Quarry in a semi final match. Ellis, fighting with a broken nose sustained in the first round, won a hard fought 15 round decision over the former two time champion. Because of the damage to his nose Jimmy had to take some time off. When he was better there were proposals for fights against Henry Cooper and Gregorio Peralta, but neither materialized.

During the same period Frazier defended his portion of the title four times defeating Manuel Ramos, Oscar Bonavena, Dave Zyglewicz, and Jerry Quarry. Frazier was staying active and sharp.

The public, now not sure if Ali would ever return to the ring, began to clamor for a unification bout between Frazier and Ellis. You see, back then people were used to there being only one heavyweight champion at a time and having the title divided up just didn’t seem right.

At some point in late 1969 Ali had made a statement that he would never fight again. It was at this point Nat Fleischer, the editor at Ring Magazine, announced he would recognize the winner of an Ellis Frazier fight the undisputed champion.  Fleischer was the most respected voice in boxing and what he said carried a lot of meaning.

The bout was set for February 16, 1970 to take place at Madison Square Garden. As was the norm at the time it was to be a fifteen round affair, fifteen rounds or less.

Ellis entered the ring weighing 201 pounds to Joe’s 206 pounds. This was the heaviest weight Jimmy had ever fought at. Frazier was a 6 to 1 favorite though many in the press gave Ellis a very good chance at winning; after all, he had overcome the odds time and again. He also had something else going for him. Jimmy had tremendous power and speed in his right hand. He had dropped the iron jawed Bonavena twice with that punch. In two fights against Frazier lasting a total of 25 rounds Bonavena was never even staggered.

Both contestants entered the ring looking confident and fit. Ellis did look bigger than in previous encounters, but also looked strong. Frazier was lean and energized.

When the bell rang for the first round it was apparent what Ellis’s strategy was and why he came in at the heavier weight. Jimmy came out with a puncher’s stance. He feet were wider apart than usual, and even though he was moving, he was more setting himself up to be able to throw power shots as Joe came at him.

During that first round Ellis through dynamite at the bobbing and weaving Frazier. Frazier was hit on a number of occasions by the one/two combos Jimmy threw but none of the shots caught him squarely on the chin. While Ellis won the opening stanza Frazier had landed some telling left hooks to the body. Yank Durham, Joe’s trainer had taught his pupil years earlier the old boxing adage, “If you kill the body the head will die” and Joe learned the lesson well.

In the second round Frazier came out on fire. He was extremely aggressive and started crowding Jimmy. Ellis was able to tie him up but it took a lot of strength to do so. He was also taking more hooks to the body from Joe. It is also interesting to see Frazier throwing and landing the occasional left jab.

By round three Frazier was running on all cylinders. While Jimmy was still trying to land the one/two combos he was being kept busy just fending off Joe’s murderous assault. Frazier was firing off brutal combinations to the head and body. His attack was furious and by the end of the round Ellis had been staggered and his legs were very heavy.

Between rounds Jimmy was taking deep breaths while Joe looked like he had hardly broken a sweat.

The fourth round saw Frazier at his murderous best. Jimmy came out and immediately threw two right leads in a desperate attempt to turn the tide of battle. Frazier rolled under both of them and then went to work. He started with a vicious body attack and then moved to the head. At this point Ellis had lost the ability to move much on his legs. With about a minute left in the round Joe backed Jimmy up against the ropes and dropped him with a left hook. Ellis was up at nine and was now fighting on sheer courage.

Jimmy was trying hard to land that one good punch but he had nothing left. As the fighters moved to mid ring Joe stepped to his right and unleashed a brutal left hook to Jimmy’s chin. Ellis went down flat in his back. As the referee, Tony Perez, counted over him the bell rang. By some miracle Ellis staggered to his feet and walked to his corner. It was at this point, against protests from Ellis, that Angelo Dundee called the fight off. It was the right and decent thing to do. Jimmy’s courage could have gotten him killed.

Frazier would go on to defend his title against Bob Foster and then Muhammad Ali. Jimmy Ellis would continue fighting taking on Ali and much later have a rematch with Frazier. He would never again fight for the title.

The Fighting Kessler Brothers

By Mike Silver

The ultimate goal of every professional boxer is to win a world title, but running a close second is the opportunity to be featured in a main event at the world’s most famous sports arena—Madison Square Garden. During the Golden Age of boxing, from the 1920s to the 1950s, the honor of topping a card in “the Garden” was an achievement to be savored for the rest of a boxer’s life.

A brief historical note: There have been four Madison Square Gardens. The first dates to the late 1870s. But the building that is most synonymous with boxing’s glory days—and the one most fondly remembered by those who experienced it—was the third version that occupied an entire block on New York’s Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th streets. Garden III stood as a monument to the sport from 1925 to 1967. It was demolished in 1968 and replaced by the current Madison Square Garden located 16 blocks south at 33rd street and Seventh Avenue.

Gaining entry into boxing’s holy of holies was a privilege not easily attained. Certain standards had to be met. Even the undercard boxers had to have records that warranted an invitation. Boxers who fought main events in other arenas might only qualify for a six round preliminary or eight round semi-final in the Garden. To appear in the featured bout of the evening was equivalent to starring in a Broadway theatrical production.

Because of the arena’s status, and the importance of boxing to the popular culture at that time, the result of a Garden main event made news throughout the world. For every boxer lucky enough to appear in a Garden main event the knowledge that a good showing—win or lose—could mean an invitation back and another good payday spurred them to put forth their best effort.

On the night of August 9th, 1946 Ruby Kessler, a 19 year old welterweight out of Brooklyn’s Coney Island neighborhood, was prepared to do just that.

Ruby Kessler

Ruby’s journey to a featured bout at the world’s most famous arena began three years earlier when he knocked out Ray Ramirez in the first round at the Fort Hamilton arena in Brooklyn. It was an auspicious beginning for the 135 pound boxer. Ruby had followed his older brother Milton into the ring. In fact, on the same night that Ruby scored his first pro victory Milton fought in the main event.

Milt Kessler had turned pro in 1939 and quickly established a reputation as one of the finest young boxers in New York City. He was a classic stand up boxer with quick hands and agile footwork. The Kessler brothers were part of a grand boxing tradition. Jewish boxers were an integral part of the boxing scene, having produced hundreds of title contenders and 29 world champions from the early 1900s to the late 1930s. They hoped to become the second set of Jewish brothers to win world titles. The first were Abe and Monte Attell who ascended to their thrones at the turn of the last century.

Milt Kessler

Milt compiled an impressive 31-4-2 won-lost-draw record before he was drafted into the Army in 1943. He was one of 4000 American professional boxers who served in the armed forces during World War II.

After being discharged from the army in 1946 Milt decided not to continue his boxing career. By that time Ruby had graduated from preliminary boxer to main bout status. He began the year by winning six in a row before dropping an eight round decision to Patsy Brandino at the Queensboro Arena. But just sixteen days later Ruby scored his most impressive victory by coming off the floor to stop veteran Pat Scanlon in the 7th round of a ten rounder at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field. That victory earned him his first Garden main event. His opponent was Greenwich Village’s tough Tony Pellone. A few months earlier Pellone had scored a major upset by ending Billy Graham’s 58 bout undefeated streak via a controversial ten round decision.

Pellone and Kessler had similar records and were evenly matched but Pellone had an advantage: He was a mob managed fighter. As a “connected” fighter there was always the possibility that the fight judges and the referee would be under orders not to vote for his opponent if the bout went the distance. The day before the fight the odds favored Pellone at 9 to 5. By fight time the odds had increased to 11 to 5 on Pellone. There was no reason for this unless word had gotten out that the fix was in and Pellone could not lose.
In a rousing see-saw fight that the New York Times described as “a bruising battle that held the interest of the crowd right to the final bell” Pellone won a split decision that was greeted with boos by a majority of the fans in attendance.

Irving Kessler, Ruby’s younger brother, believes the decision was preordained. In an interview with the writer he offered as proof the referee’s telling Ruby after the fight, “Sorry Ruby, the best I could give you was a draw”. There is no question the fight was very close but in the end the two judges scored it 5-4-1 for Pellone, with the referee voting a draw. It should not surprise anyone with knowledge of boxing history that the decision might have been fixed. Professional boxing in the 1940s and 1950s was heavily infiltrated by mob elements and fixed fights were not uncommon.

Less than six weeks later Ruby knocked out Pat Foley in the first round. Over the next two months he outpointed Pat Scanlon in ten and finished out the year by stopping former contender Cleo Shans in three. Those victories earned Kessler a second Garden main event. On January 17, 1947, in front of 14,000 fans, Ruby crossed gloves with master boxer Billy Graham. An interesting sidelight to the fight was that both men were trained by Whitey Bimstein. As a result Bimstein decided not to work in either boxer’s corner.

Ruby Kessler and Billy Graham

The Graham bout was the most important fight of Ruby’s career. Graham was a highly regarded welterweight contender. Fortunately he was not a mob managed fighter so if the fight went the distance a fair decision would be expected.
A victory over Graham would put Ruby in line for a title shot. But it wasn’t to be. Although every round was closely contested the difference came down to Graham’s vast experience (he had twice as many fights as Kessler). Graham’s accurate counterpunching and superb defensive skills gave him the edge, but Ruby never stopped trying and when tagged would fight back even harder.

Ruby lost the decision but impressed the critics with his tenacity and toughness. Writing for the New York Times, James P. Dawson praised Kessler’s performance: “The Coney Island youngster is one of the most courageous fighters in the welterweight class today and a lad who is dangerous even when staggering around the ring groggily under fire. In ten rounds that sizzled with superb boxing and sparkled with sharp, solid hitting, Graham received the unanimous decision.”

In his next bout Kessler was stopped in the 7th round by lightweight contender Juste Fontaine. Fritzie Zivic, the ex-welterweight champ who was known for his foul tactics, trained Fontaine. He schooled his protégée well in the art of dirty fighting. Kessler was ahead in the scoring but during the bout was repeatedly fouled. Punches below the beltline, hitting with an open glove, thumbing and butting were taking a toll. The bout took place in Philadelphia, Fontaine’s hometown. The referee, obviously favoring the hometown favorite, issued a few warnings but would not disqualify or deduct points from Fontaine. In the seventh round a weakened Kessler was backed against the ropes and taking punishment when the referee intervened and stopped the bout. As the fighters left the ring Ruby’s brothers Milt and Freddy confronted Zivic and an argument ensued. Several punches were exchanged before security stepped in and broke it up.

Ruby was disappointed by the losses but not deterred. Over the next 19 months he fought 16 times. His most notable opponents included former contender Bobby Ruffin (WD-8, Draw-10), former junior welterweight champion Tippy Larkin (LD-8, LD -10) and eighth rated welterweight Charley Fusari (LD-10).

On October 11, 1948 Ruby was knocked out for only the second time in his 57 bout career when he was stopped in the first round by welterweight contender Tony Janiro. Although he was only three weeks shy of his 22nd birthday the loss convinced Ruby it was time to hang up his gloves.

Irving Kessler is 88 years old. He is the only surviving member of the Kessler clan (originally seven brothers and one sister). Irving remembers how proud he was to carry his older brother’s equipment bag to the gym. He attended almost all of Ruby’s fights and recalls “a fearless boxer who would take on anyone. Whereas Milt was a pure boxer who was often compared to the great Benny Leonard, Ruby was a fighter who rarely took a backward step and didn’t mind mixing it up if the situation called for it. He was an excellent boxer and puncher and if you were not a title contender or champ you couldn’t get by Ruby.”

Ruby Kessler left the sport just as television was beginning to mass market boxing to millions of new fans. No doubt his all action style of fighting would have made him a very popular TV boxer.

Following his retirement Ruby partnered with his brother Milt and opened a bar in Brooklyn. Two years later they ran into financial problems and Ruby decided to pick up a payday by fighting again. On December 23, 1950, at the Ridgewood Grove Arena in Brooklyn, Ruby was holding his own against journeyman Joey Carkido when he suffered a deep gash over his left eye that caused the referee to stop the fight in the 6th round. He never fought again. His final stats were 38-17-2. He knocked out 17 opponents and was KO’d 3 times.

In 1955 Ruby handed the bar over to his brother and took a full time job as a sales representative for a liquor company.

Back in the days when boxing was still boxing not everyone got to be a world champion. There was a definite hierarchy of boxing talent and generally eight champions (today there are over 100) for each of the eight (now 17) weight classes. In that unforgiving environment to be competitive with the best took an extra measure of character and talent. Despite never having won a title Ruby Kessler measured up to the task and was an indispensable part of boxing’s greatest generation.

Mike Silver is the author of Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing (2016, Lyons Press) and The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science (McFarland Publishers, 2008).

Research assistance was provided by Irving Kessler.