I have been intrigued by the great middleweight boxer Mike Gibbons ever since I read that Gene Tunney tried to duplicate his style. “I learned more about boxing by watching Mike Gibbons in the gym than from any other source”, said Tunney. That is high praise from one of boxing’s all time ring scientists. Mike’s younger brother, Tommy, was also a master boxer but was a bit more aggressive and packed a heavier wallop. He is best remembered for surviving 15 rounds with Jack Dempsey in 1923.
Mike Gibbons was known as “The St. Paul Phantom”. The nickname honored his home town and his uncanny defensive skills. Opponents were constantly missing him with their punches. Gibbons was one of the early pioneers of the “sweet science”, wherein footwork, timing, distance and balance were fundamental to the art. According to Boxrec.com, over the course of a 15 year career (1907-1922) Gibbons had 133 bouts. His three official losses occurred when he was past his prime. Among the many outstanding opponents he faced were Harry Greb, Leo Houck, Ted Kid Lewis, Jimmy Clabby, Soldier Bartfield, Al McCoy, Jeff Smith, Eddie McGoorty and Jack Dillon.
Another quality opponent of Gibbons was middleweight contender Augie Ratner of New York. As an amateur Augie won both National A.A.U. and international welterweight titles. He turned pro in 1915. By the time his 104 bout career ended in 1926 Ratner had fought (on multiple occasions) many of the top fighters of his era, including Harry Greb, Ted Kid Lewis, Dave Shade, Jack Delaney, Paul Berlanbach, Jock Malone, Lou Bogash and Bryan Downey.
At the age of 71 Ratner was interviewed in the August 1967 issue of Boxing Illustrated magazine. He told the interviewer that Ted Kid Lewis and Harry Greb were the best fighters he ever faced. “Both were great”, said Ratner. “Lewis could box and he could hit. Greb was not as other men; he started his fights at a fast pace and accelerated it as the fight went on.”
But of all his opponents Ratner considered Mike Gibbons the best boxer he ever fought. “Gibbons was a wonderful boxer,” he said. “Maybe the very best I ever saw. He employed a peculiar footwork—none of the fancy-dan steps some of the moderns use, but a gliding maneuver that proved amazingly effective and energy-conserving. He knew every defensive move in the book, but he was by no means all defense. When he went on the attack, the punches came thick and fast, hard and true. He was a marvel.”
Only one film of Gibbons in action is known to exist—his 1915 10 round no-decision bout with the great Packey McFarland. Sadly the film is not available on YouTube. (Maybe our indefatigable editor can come up with it). But recently I came across another YouTube of Gibbons giving boxing instruction to American soldiers in training during World War I. It is quite impressive and a revelation to those who think boxing back then was crude and unsophisticated. Gibbons is shown demonstrating various punches (including stepping in with “the old one-two”), and also blocking, slipping and countering techniques. These are fundamental moves but rarely seen in today’s world of “I hit you, now you hit me” school of crude and unsophisticated boxing. The rest of the film–Gibbons is only featured in the first few minutes–is just as interesting, as it shows Uncle Sam’s Doughboys getting judo instruction and lessons in bayonet fighting. It is a rare glimpse back in time and well worth the ten minutes it takes to view it.
Note: Boxing historian Mike Silver is the author of “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science” (McFarland Publishing Co.)
 Harry Cleavelin, “Augie Ratner: Champ Without A Crown!”, Boxing Illustrated (February 1967), p. 38-40.
Master Boxer Speaks! My Interview with Curtis Cokes
Curtis Cokes held the welterweight title from 1966 to 1969. He was born and raised in Dallas,Texas, where he still resides. Curtis was a gifted all-around athlete in high school, excelling in baseball and basketball. He earned all-state honors in both sports and briefly played basketball for the Harlem Stars, a professional touring team.
Curtis first laced on the gloves at a local YMCA and was undefeated in 22 amateur bouts before turning pro in 1958. This was at a time when there were eight weight divisions and eight undisputed champions. (How quaint!) By the mid-1960s Curtis had become a top rated welterweight contender. Like all of his contemporaries he acquired contender status the old fashioned way—he earned it. (Also quaint by today’s standards). During his climb to the title he sharpened his considerable boxing skills against the likes of Stefan Redl, Joe Miceli, Kenny Lane, Manny Alvarez, Jose Stable, Stan Harrington, Stanley “Kitten” Hayward, Billy Collins and in three memorable bouts with the great Luis Rodriguez.
The boxing world first took notice of Curtis Cokes when he upset future welterweight champion Luis Rodriguez in 1961. Rodriguez outpointed Curtis in their rematch four months later. The rubber match took place on July 6, 1966 in New Orleans. The bout was the semi-final of a tournament to determine a new welterweight champion. Curtis stopped Rodriguez in the 15th round, thus becoming the only fighter to stop the great Cuban welterweight in his prime. Less than two months later, in the final bout of the tournament, Curtis outpointed Manny Gonzales to win the crown vacated by Emile Griffith.
Curtis Cokes had an elegant and refined boxing style of a type that is all but extinct today. He was adept at both offense and defense but was primarily a counter-puncher— skills that were admired and appreciated by knowledgeable boxing fans. (Films of several of his fights are available on YouTube). After five successful defenses, including impressive KOs over Charlie Shipes and Willie Ludick, he lost the title to the great Jose Napoles on April 4th 1969. With both eyes nearly swollen shut Cokes’ manager told the referee to stop the fight before the start of the 13th round. The rematch, two months later, ended similarly with Cokes unable to continue beyond the 10th round. Curtis fought for three more years before hanging up his gloves. He compiled a 62-14-4 record, including 30 knockouts. Napoles and Hayward were the only fighters to stop him. In 1972 Curtis gave a credible acting performance in “Fat City”, a boxing movie directed by John Huston.
After he retired from boxing Curtis was involved in various business ventures but he always remained close to the sport he loved. In 1980 he wrote, with co-author Hugh Kayser, The Complete Book of Boxing for Fighters and Fight Fans. I consider it the best boxing instruction book of the past 70 years. The book has reportedly sold more than 77,000 copies. He currently owns and operates Curtis Cokes’ Home of Champions Boxing Gym in Dallas where the emphasis is on serving his community through an amateur boxing program geared to keeping young people off the streets.
Today, at the age of 76, Curtis Cokes is healthy and mentally sharp, with an amazing memory for the details of his career. Fortunately, he exhibits no ill effects from his 80 professional bouts—a testament to his superb defensive skills, physical conditioning and knowing when to hang up his gloves. Aside from being an old school fighter Curtis is also an old school gentleman. He is gracious, engaging and warm. Interviewing this Hall of Fame boxer was a delightful experience.
My thanks to mutual friend Ken Burke for providing contact information for Curtis.
Mike Silver: Champ, the purists loved your smooth delivery and emphasis on basic fundamentals such as the left jab, footwork, counter punching and defense. I count myself lucky to have seen you fight on television. When I told a few older fans (who also saw you fight) that I was going to interview you their first words were, “He was a good boxer”. That is how you are remembered—that and your tremendous victories over the great Luis Rodriguez. How do you go about conveying your storehouse of knowledge to the young students at your gym?
Curtis Cokes: Before we start teaching fundamentals that involve throwing and blocking punches, or how to get away from punches, I get their legs in shape. We work on walking and running forward and backward. Footwork is such an important part of the sport. When I played baseball and basketball I knew I had to get my legs in shape because the legs are what carry the body. I think today’s fighters forget about footwork. I worked every day on my footwork, turning left and right, backing up, going forward. I turned to my left to be outside of my opponent’s right hand, and then I’d swing to my right to be outside of his left jab. Learning how to box is a slow process but you try to learn something every day.
MS: Speaking of footwork, in my book, The Arc of Boxing, I asked the great ballet dancer Edwin Villella, who was a champion amateur boxer before he became a ballet star, to explain the similarities between the two disciplines. You cover the same topic in The Complete Book of Boxing. Quoting from your book: “The balance and rhythm of a dancer are also important, for a boxer must be able to move quickly and change his tempo and direction at will…maneuverability is of extreme importance. An almost ballet type of body coordination gives a fighter a distinct edge.”
CC: The balance of a dancer is tremendous, and like a dancer a boxer has to be able to move and dance while maintaining his balance. You have to be able to have good balance to throw your punches. When I played with the Harlem Stars basketball team I used to watch Goose Tatum, how he would get in position and block people out. It was amazing to see him do that so smoothly. Goose Tatum’s coordination and balance was outstanding.
MS: Aside from footwork, what do you see as the main difference between the boxers of your generation and today’s practitioners?
CC: Today it’s all about hitting and that’s all it is…just go out and hit, hit, hit. They don’t learn the fundamentals of boxing. They don’t get a Ph.D. in boxing—how to block, roll, duck, slip and get away from punches– to hit and not get hit. You have to learn the smart part of boxing, because you want to come out of it the same as you went in. Most guys just fight, fight, fight, but “fighting” isn’t “boxing”. It’s an intelligent sport and you have to be smart to be able to succeed in it. If you just go toe to toe it becomes a toughman contest and the toughman wins. It’s not a science anymore. You don’t have to be smart to box anymore. There is no sport called “fighting”, it’s called professional boxing. A big part of the problem is we don’t have the trainers that we used to have. There are not too many people that know how to train fighters.
MS: Who was your trainer?
CC: I had two trainers: Robert Thomas was my first coach and Robert “Cornbread” Smith was the coach with all the experience. He was back in Joe Louis’s day and he was a good trainer. My manager was Doug Lord. Doug was a good manager and he took care of me. He was not only my manager, he was my friend. I knew the boxing game and Doug, who owned an insurance company, knew about business.
MS: You became welterweight champion in your 53rd professional fight. Two months ago a fighter with only 19 pro fights won a welterweight title belt. The fighter he dethroned had all of 24 pro bouts.
CC: I don’t think there are as many fighters available as in my day. Most become champions before they are ready to be champions. To be a champion you’ve got to have fought some of the best fighters in the world. Even if you lose to some of the great guys it’s not a shame to lose to a great fighter. You can learn from the experience. You have to take it step by step. You go from first grade to the tenth grade and then you graduate. Instead of learning the game they want to fight for a title too early even before they learn to tie their gloves on. You’ve got 10 fights and you’re fighting for a title. Back in the day you had to have at least 30 or 40 fights to get the experience before you challenged for a title. Baseball players don’t go to the major leagues until they prove themselves in the minor leagues, then they go to the major leagues. It’s a step by step process. Just because you can hit a guy and knock him out doesn’t mean you can get up there and fight.
MS: As a young boxer did you have any role models that you wanted to imitate?
CC: I learned from two of the best—Joe Brown and Sugar Ray Robinson. I watched those guys when they were fighting. I tried to copy their style. I tried to copy Ray’s style but I worked with Joe Brown. I trained with him when I was a kid and he was lightweight champion of the world. I went to Houston and sparred with him and he told me that I was going to be a champion. Brown would show me how he would throw punches and miss them on purpose to make a guy move his head in the range of his right hand. And I started doing it—I would purposely miss a jab on the outside so my opponent would move his head to the inside where he was in my right hand range. I was a good right hand puncher. I don’t see anybody doing that today. I saw “Kitten” Hayward do it. So did Luis Rodriguez. Emile Griffith did some of that. Those fighters, they were smarter than these guys today who just go out there and hit.
MS: Did anyone else influence your style of boxing?
CC: I sparred with (former middleweight champion) Carl “Bobo” Olson in Honolulu, Hawaii when I went over there to box one time. (Note: Cokes outpointed Stan Harrington on May 21, 1963 in Honolulu). They all told me I was going to be champion of the world one day and they helped me quite a bit. I got Olson’s jab and I got Joe Brown’s movement and his right hand, and I picked up all this stuff from these guys. You have to learn how to box and you have to learn it well. You go to school to learn your ABC’s and you have to learn boxing the same way.
MS: Were feints part of your repertoire?
CC: Oh yes! One of my favorite feints was a silent right hand. I would feint the jab and throw the right hand. My trainer called it a silent right hand because you didn’t know I was going to throw it. You thought I was going to throw the jab, but I’d feint the jab and throw the right hand. Sometimes I would throw a double right hand.
MS: What about body punches?
CC: When I wanted to get your hands down I’d go to the body. I’d hook to the body and hook to the head, or throw a right hand to the body and a right hand to the head. But I wasn’t a vicious body puncher. I went to the head mostly. I was a counter puncher and I would hit guys when they weren’t ready to be hit. I was always in good shape and I could move and take a fairly good punch.
MS: Did you have a favorite combination?
CC: I had a good right uppercut, left hook, right hand combination. I used it to good effect when I knocked out (Luis) Rodriguez. That was one of my favorite punches.
MS: You spoke of learning the finer points of boxing technique from role models early in your career. Two of today’s best fighters are Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao, both of whom fight in your weight class. Would you consider them good role models for young boxers to emulate in terms of their boxing styles?
CC: No, I would not. It would be difficult to learn anything from them. Both are unorthodox boxers with natural styles that work for them. But what works for them would not work for most other boxers. It would be difficult to imitate. They don’t have anything that they can put on paper because they don’t know what they are going to do next. They don’t have a plan. They just go out there and fight and whatever comes to their mind happens automatically. You have to have a plan and you have to have a style. I had a style you could learn from because it was based on solid fundamentals. I threw the one-two-threes, and I threw them correctly. And if you throw punches correctly you will score. And if you do it correctly you will succeed in boxing. Pacquiao and Mayweather are doing something that nobody else can do and you don’t have any trainers today that can show people how to offset what they are doing. There are very few fighters today with the type of skills I would want my kids to watch and imitate. There are some guys I’m impressed with but they are mostly fighting—not boxing. Some of my guys would come to the gym excited after watching a fight on TV and say “did you see that?” I’d say don’t watch that particular fighter. I’d tell them to watch tapes of Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard and see how they use the jab and footwork—certain things that I wanted them to pick up on.
MS: Floyd Mayweather Jr. has done very well with his unorthodox style and extraordinary speed and reflexes. How would he have done if we time travel him back to the 1960s to face the best fighters of your era?
CC: I think he would have done pretty well, but he would have had way more trouble in my day than today because the fighters were much better. They were more knowledgeable. They had a Ph.D. in boxing. These guys today just go in there and fight off the top of their heads. They don’t have a plan and they don’t know what they are doing. They haven’t gone to school.
MS: Could fighters such as Emile Griffith, Luis Rodriguez, Jose Napoles, Carlos Ortiz and Curtis Cokes—all of whom were outstanding orthodox boxers— defeat Mayweather and Pacquaio.
CC: I definitely think that. Today’s champions would have a much harder time to get to a title because they would have to come through fighters of my ability and I think the top guys back in my day learned everything you could learn about boxing.
MS: How would you have fought Floyd? How would you cope with his tremendous speed?
CC: His speed is nothing I hadn’t seen before. You can throw punches and have speed but if there’s nothing there you will hit air. His speed won’t bother me. Luis Rodriguez had tremendous speed and I slowed him down. I would fight Floyd the same way I fought everybody else. I would work with my jab–make him move away from my jab. While worrying about getting away from my jab I would hit with my good right hand and left hook and I’d go home early.
MS: Your first victory over Luis Rodriguez in 1961 was considered quite an upset. At the time he had only one loss in 40 fights.
CC: Rodriguez beat everyone but he had a problem with me. Angelo Dundee (Rodriguez’s manager and trainer) didn’t want the fight. But Luis, to his credit, wanted to fight me. He wanted to fight the best. I don’t blame him. I wanted to fight the best also. In our first fight I outboxed and outmaneuvered him. He was throwing wide punches and I was throwing straight short punches so I got inside of him and beat him to the punch. That first fight in Dallas (August 1961) was easy. I had him down and won a decision. I had a style that bothered him. Angelo tried to change his style to fight me. He wanted him to be more of a puncher with me instead of being a boxer, like he was. But that only made it easier for me to cope with. I was always good at luring guys into my style of boxing, and that’s what good fighters do. You make the guy fight your fight. In our third fight, a month before I won the title, I stopped him in the 15th round. He got hit with a couple of shots and couldn’t come back. Luis had a good chin but I had a good right hand.
MS: You lost the welterweight title to the great Jose Napoles in 1969 and failed to regain the title two months later. What happened in those fights?
CC: Napoles was on his way up and I was on my way out. It was time for me to sit down because I’d been there for a while. In the second fight I broke his ribs. I went to his body real good but it was time for me to go. I’d had my day. I took a few fights I should not have taken. It was time for me to retire. In both of our fights his punches caused my eyes to become very swollen. I couldn’t see. (Cokes’ corner would not let him come out for the 13th round of their first fight). He damaged my right eye real bad.
MS: What would have happened if you had fought Napoles in your prime?
CC: If I fought Jose in my prime we would both have to retire after that fight (laughs).
MS: Luis Rodriguez and Jose Napoles were two of the greatest welterweight champions to ever wear the crown. You fought both of them. Who would have won had they met in their primes?
CC: I really don’t know. That would have been a good fight. Rodriguez didn’t hit as hard as Napoles, but he threw more punches.
MS: The other big superstar of today’s boxing scene is Manny Pacquiao. Would his unorthodox style have given you problems?
CC: He probably would, but if he ran into my good right hand then he would straighten up too. You know, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line and that’s what I would do. I’d throw straight punches and he’d run into my good right hand and my jab. It would be a good fight because I’m not a wild swinger like he is. I throw punches straight and it would probably take me some time to hit him on the chin but when I did we could go home.
MS: Boxing has changed in many ways from the time when you were champion of the world. For example, many fighters have incorporated weightlifting into their training routines. What do you think of that trend?
CC: I used little hand weights of not more than two pounds. I would shadow box with them. I never used the big weights to make muscles. Just two pound weights. I would walk around the house with them. Big muscles slow you down. You don’t want your muscles to be tight and pumped up because you can’t use your arms if they’re pumped like that. Weightlifting is not for boxing. It’s for football players who need the muscles to tackle an opposing player or throw him down. You have to have smooth muscles like a basketball player if you are to throw your punches correctly. The heavy bag is an important tool for creating punching power, not lifting heavy weights.
MS: Speaking of strong punchers let’s discuss two of the best—Tommy Hearns and Roberto Duran.
CC: Tommy Hearns was a good puncher but he didn’t have a real good chin. He needed to work on his defense more than he needed to work on his offense. He was easy to hit. I would have hit him. Duran had to come to you in order to score. He couldn’t stand on the outside and outbox anybody. I’m boxing. I could have beaten both Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran at welterweight.
MS: Let’s discuss some of your other opponents. Before you entered your prime fighting years you lost to Stanley “Kitten” Hayward and Jose Stable. Both fights were televised nationally.
CC: They said Kitten was a welterweight but when I fought him he looked more like a middleweight or small light heavy. He was the strongest boxer I ever fought. I could hit him all day long but he was so big and strong. He caught me with a good shot and had me down three times before they stopped the fight. But I had him down also. Jose Stable was a very good bob and weave pressure fighter. It was my first time fighting on national TV. I started strong but just didn’t fight enough during the last few rounds. Even so, it was a very close decision.
MS: The Hayward fight was a real barn burner and can be seen on YouTube. He does indeed look much bigger than you. In fact Don Dunphy, who was announcing the fight at ringside, comments about the disparity in size. The fight took place in Hayward’s home town of Philadelphia. Do you think there was some funny business with the scale?
CC: Well, it could have been. We were not allowed to weigh in at the same time. I complained about that because he got on the scale and was gone when I arrived. We never did get the chance to watch him get on the scale. I know good and well he was no 147 pounds. But I’m not using that as an excuse. It had nothing to do with him winning the fight because I had beaten big guys like that. He just caught me with a good shot that got me out of there.
MS: You knocked Hayward down with three solid punches just before the bell ended the second round. If you had caught him with those punches a minute earlier do you think the result might been different.
CC: It’s possible. I don’t know if he could have gotten up and recovered in time.
MS: What do you think of the current rule that has fighters weigh-in a day before the fight?
CC: I think it’s better to have a weigh-in on the day of the fight because you’d know for sure you have a 147 pounder against a 147 pounder. If you weigh-in the day before the fight you know you’re not going to get in that ring at 147—probably more like 157.
MS: In 1972 you had a significant role in “Fat City” a major Hollywood movie about boxing. How did that come about?
CC: John Huston, the director, knew about me as a boxer and asked me to audition for the part. It was hard work. You had to remember your lines. If somebody else remembered their lines and did it well and you missed yours they had to reshoot and the actors would get mad. I didn’t have to threaten any of them but they knew not to mess with me because I would shadow box while waiting for the next scene (laughs). It was a nice experience and I had a good time with Stacey Keach, Susan Tyrrell and Jeff Bridges. Those guys helped me quite a bit with my lines. They were tremendous with helping me. I got called for another part but I was in Paris with one of my fighters so I missed it. They wanted me to go to acting school but I was so busy doing my boxing thing with my guys.
MS: Do you have any regrets about your boxing career?
CC: Not at all. I did well in boxing. I started out wanting to be world champion and I accomplished that. I’m in the Hall of Fame. I retired from boxing because it was time for me to go. Nobody took advantage of me. Before I became a pro I attended college for two years. I had a good education. I knew how to take care of myself. I knew how to count my money too. I didn’t need a manager to count my money to me. I counted out my money to him.
“Fights of the Century”—Then…And Now.
The recent Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Manny Pacquiao superfight was only the fifth boxing match in 109 years to be billed as “The Fight of the Century”. The previous century had seen four such matches, with the great boxing promoter George L. “Tex” Rickard responsible for three of them. Tex invented the phrase in 1906 to publicize the Joe Gans vs. “Battling” Nelson lightweight title fight. He made good use of it twice more over the next 15 years for the Jack Johnson vs. James J. Jeffries and Jack Dempsey vs. Georges Carpentier heavyweight title fights. Of course logic would dictate that there could be only one “Fight of the Century” but whoever said the business of boxing was logical? The last fight prior to Pacquiao and Mayweather to be labelled a “Fight of the Century” was the Joe Frazier vs. Muhammad Ali heavyweight championship in 1971.
Of the five contests mentioned above only 2 managed to actually live up to the tremendous pre-fight build up. Despite the huge social and political ramifications of the 1910 heavyweight championship bout between Johnson and Jeffries the actual fight was a dud. Johnson, still in his prime, easily dominated the previously undefeated former champion (who was making an ill-advised comeback after a five year layoff) before stopping him in the 15th round.
The Dempsey vs. Carpentier extravaganza of 1921 was also hugely significant but for different reasons. Over 90,000 fans—the largest crowd to ever attend a sporting event—watched Dempsey flatten the overmatched Frenchman in less than four rounds. Dempsey vs. Carpentier will never make anyone’s all-time list of great fights but its importance to the economic and cultural side of boxing was monumental. For the first time in history a sporting event had drawn over one million dollars in paid admissions. It was also the first time a championship match was broadcast over the radio. The fight jump started the Golden Age of sports in America and transformed professional boxing into popular entertainment for a mass audience.
As anyone who saw it will attest, the first Ali vs. Frazier fight more than lived up to its pre-fight hype. Like Johnson vs. Jeffries 61 years earlier the event was intertwined with the social and political issues of the times. But unlike that fight it was an intense and exciting struggle between two undefeated heavyweight champions that brought out the best in each man. The combined worldwide audience (live and at theatres showing the fight on closed circuit television in America or telecast for free via satellite throughout the rest of the world) was estimated at over one billion people, in other words about half the planet. Madison Square Garden, the venue for the fight, priced ringside tickets at $150 dollars. The cheapest balcony seat was only $20 dollars. (The wildly inflated ticket prices in Las Vegas for Pacquiao vs. Mayweather ranged from $1500 to $10,000).
So which “Fight of the Century” deserves top honors? I think a very strong case can be made for the 1906 duel between Gans and Nelson, arguably one of the most incredible and disturbing boxing matches ever staged. The battle between “The Old Master” and “The Durable Dane” for the lightweight championship of the world was a fight for the ages. It took place in Goldfield, Nevada, a mining boomtown located halfway between Reno and Las Vegas. The town’s financial bigwigs, flush with money, decided that some kind of spectacular public attraction would draw further attention and generate additional infusions of cash into Goldfield’s mining stock. (Much of what they sold turned out to be worthless mining properties, but that’s another story). A committee of distinguished citizens was formed to come up with proposals. One suggestion was that a giant hole be dug along the main street and filled with free beer. Another idea was to stage a camel race. Enter Tex Rickard, cattle rancher, gambling hall impresario and promoter extraordinaire. Rickard had already made and lost several fortunes. Sensing an opportunity, he proposed an all-star boxing match between two of the world’s best boxers– lightweight champion Joe Gans and his number one challenger “Battling” Nelson. The idea was immediately accepted.
Joe Gans, the first African American boxing champion, won the lightweight championship in 1902. Dubbed “The Old Master” because of his extraordinary skill, he had already cleaned out the lightweight division and was forced to take on welterweights and middleweights to keep active. The only serious challenger to his title was a boxing brute named Oscar Mathew “Battling” Nelson of Chicago, by way of Denmark. Nelson’s other nickname was “The Durable Dane”. He was the type of fighter who thrived on fights beyond 15 rounds. Nelson was a rough customer with a reputation as a dirty fighter. He seemed impervious to punishment and his stamina and relentless style was legendary. His trademark punch was a short left hook aimed at the liver, with thumb and forefinger extended to provide greater penetration. Nelson claimed the “White lightweight championship” and was confident he could defeat Gans in a “fight to the finish”—meaning a fight with no time limit. Such a fight could not end in a decision but would continue indefinitely until one of the contestants was either knocked out, quit or was disqualified.
Fights to the finish, a staple of the bare-knuckle era, were not uncommon in early turn of the century gloved fights, especially in the western states. A bout limited to 15 or 20 three minute rounds would favor Gans. A fight to the finish against iron man Nelson was another matter. Gans, in need of cash, and having run out of challengers who would agree to fight him, consented to a finish fight. He was confident he could knock out Nelson.
Nelson’s almost super human ability to absorb punishment and his endless reserves of stamina was fascinating to some people. Among the curious was Columbia University’s rowing coach Dr. Walter B. Peet. He examined the “Durable Dane” for his endurance and found Nelson’s heart beat to be only 47 beats per minute compared to 72 for the average person. As the good doctor explained it, such a low heartbeat was only found in the “colder blooded animals which survived the days of antiquity and the cold of the Ice Age.” Further consultation with surgeons and the curator of the American Museum of Natural History concluded that measurements of Nelson’s head revealed “the thickest skull bones of any human being since Neanderthal man.” It seemed obvious that “Battling” Nelson would have the advantage in a fight to the finish.
Nelson threatened to pull out of the fight several times unless he received the lion’s share of the purse. Gans, in desperate need of a decent payday, agreed to accept a $10,000 guarantee while Nelson, the challenger, was to receive $20,000. The fight was scheduled for Labor Day, September 3, 1906. (Ever the showman, Rickard displayed the entire $30,000 purse in twenty-dollar gold pieces in full view through a window of a bank in Goldfield).
Aware of Gans’ precarious financial condition and how much he wanted the fight Nelson’s manager made the unprecedented demand that he weigh in three times on the day of the fight (at noon, 1:30 and 3 p.m.) while wearing his trunks, gloves and shoes. It was a blatant attempt to weaken the champion. Gans would have to weigh no more than 133 pounds or else forfeit $5000 of his purse. The great fighter, confident of victory, agreed to all of the demands.
On the day of the fight Gans was quoted in his hometown paper, The Baltimore Sun: “I have given in on every point just to secure this match. I am betting everything I can get my hands on, and I have got to win. I will have the Dane chopped to pieces and asleep inside of 15 rounds”. Nelson told the same paper, “I am going to give Gans an awful beating, and I think he will be begging for mercy long before the twentieth round is reached. I will let Gans wear himself out, and then I’ll come through and get him. Watch me. There will be crepe in Coontown on Labor Day while the Danish descendants are celebrating.”
A week before the fight all hotel rooms were sold out. Late arrivals slept on the ground. Many of the 200 Pullman cars that had been chartered to transport fight fans served as hotel rooms.
The 24 year old Nelson had 70 pro fights under his belt. Gans, eight years older, was a veteran of 187 fights. Both weighed in at 132 ¼ pounds. Gans was favored at odds of 10 to 7.
They entered the ring shortly after 3 p.m. Some 8000 fans filled the wooden arena built especially for the fight. Gate receipts of $76,000 set a new world record for title fights. Among the ringside spectators were a U.S. senator, various mining tycoons, stars of the Vaudeville stage and the son of President Theodore Roosevelt. Before the fight began several telegrams sent by prominent individuals were read to the crowd, including one from Joe’s mother imploring her son to “bring home the bacon”, words that have since entered the American lexicon.
In one last attempt to further undermine Gans’s chances Nelson’s manager, Billy Nolan, argued that Gans should have weighed in wearing bandages on his fists. Gans responded that he would fight without taping his hands. It was a decision he would regret after breaking his right hand on Nelson’s head in the 32nd round.
For security purposes Rickard had arranged for 300 deputy sheriffs, their open vests displaying holstered pistols, to maintain order. To forestall any shenanigans by his crooked manager Gans announced to the crowd that he had instructed referee George Siler to ignore any attempt by his corner to throw in the towel no matter his condition. Nelson told the referee to do the same for him. By mutual agreement only the referee would have the authority to stop the fight. The crowd, evenly divided in their sentiments, cheered both fighters.
As expected Gans dominated the early rounds by easily outboxing Nelson. His accurate and powerful punches drew blood from Nelson’s nose, mouth and ears. Despite the punishment Nelson kept coming forward. Gans was the division’s hardest puncher but no matter how many times he landed Nelson rarely broke ground. The crazed Dane kept boring in, attempting to place his head against Gans’ chest and deliver body blows at close range. More often than not, utilizing his superb footwork, jab and counterpunching skills, Gans was able to keep most of the action at long range, even managing to knock down his rock jawed challenger twice for short counts. In desperation Nelson began butting Gans. Gans protested to the referee. Warnings were issued but no action was taken.
The pace of the fight was relentless. During the minute rest between rounds each man’s seconds waved huge towels in an attempt to offer their fighter some relief from the sweltering desert heat. Finally, in the 10th round, Nelson bloodied Gans’s mouth with a series of punches. After 15 rounds of fighting Gans had lost, at most, two rounds. The pace finally began to slow after the 20th round. There was more wrestling and clinching as the fighters sought to grab a few moments respite before beginning another assault.
By the 30th round both gladiators were showing signs of exhaustion. They had fought under the broiling Nevada sun the equivalent of two grueling 15 round title bouts. Nelson, although bleeding profusely and with his left eye closed, was still the aggressor and was now landing more often. At one point, after missing a swing, he fell through the ropes whereupon Gans, a consummate sportsman, reached down to help him back into the ring. Nelson responded by kicking him in the shins.
As the bout passed the two hour mark there was an increase in stalling and wrestling. Even the fans were showing signs of exhaustion. At the bell signaling the start of the 40th round the crowd was in awe of the fact that both warriors were still standing.
As described in Joe Gans: A Biography of the First African American World Boxing Champion, authors Colleen Aycock and Mark Scott attempt to understand the mental state of the fighters as the bell rang for the 41st round: “It is quite possible that both Gans and Nelson are in a state of clinical delirium at this point, but their bodies are trained to fight on with or without their minds. Dehydrated, battered and bloody, the gladiators may or may not really know where they are.
“Nelson totters like a bull the picador has struck with forty lances. Gans the matador has been gored, fouled, and kicked, but is still waiting to deliver the coup de grace, a blow that will come at the beginning of the 42nd round that almost decapitates Nelson.” And so it finally ends. The iron man is at the end of his tether and on the verge of finally taking the count. Suddenly he strikes Gans with a low blow. Was the punch deliberate? Very likely Nelson sought to foul out instead of suffering the humiliation of a knockout defeat. Gans sank to the floor and was unable to continue. Intentional or not the foul blow was obvious to everyone in the arena and the referee had no choice but to disqualify Nelson and award the bout to Gans. No one objected to the disqualification.
Gans was carried out of the ring but not before announcing to the crowd that he would meet Nelson again in two weeks to prove he could win without being fouled. A cascade of boos and derision descended upon Nelson. He quickly retreated to his dressing room.
The much anticipated rematch would not take place for another two years. It would not carry the label of “Fight of the Century”. By that time Gans, his resistance compromised by his struggle to make weight for their first marathon fight, had contracted tuberculosis. Gans fought the last two years of his career while slowly dying. The man acknowledged to be one of the ten greatest boxers of all time (some say the greatest) passed away in 1910 at the age of 35. His record showed only 12 losses in 196 fights, including 100 wins by knockout.
Battling Nelson, surely one of the toughest and dirtiest fighters who ever lived, would go on to win the lightweight title and defeat the disease ravaged Gans in two subsequent bouts. But he paid an awful price for his shock absorbing style of fighting. The Durable Dane eventually lost his mind and ended his last days in an insane asylum while still training for a comeback.
Is Floyd Mayweather, Jr. an All-Time Great Boxer?
“Floyd’s technical flaws are obscured by his extraordinary speed and athleticism, but on the few occasions when he defended his title against a capable opponent these flaw were exposed.”
If the modern era of professional boxing had begun in the 1980s instead of the 1890s there is no question that Floyd Mayweather, Jr. would rank among the top ten greatest boxers of all-time. But the modern era of professional boxing began over 100 years ago. That is a lot of boxers to consider! Most historians agree the sport’s true golden age, in terms of the numbers of quality boxers competing at the same time, occurred from the 1920s to the 1950s. Floyd Mayweather, Jr. turned pro in 1996. He is undefeated in 48 fights. Yes, his amazing speed, reflexes and keen sense of anticipation have enabled Floyd to win titles in five weight divisions—but could he have attained that same level of success if matched against the best fighters of decades past?
Before I go any further let me establish some ground rules. I do not measure a contemporary fighter’s alleged greatness by the number of title belts he possesses or his won-loss statistics. The out of control title inflation that has plagued the sport in recent decades and the huge number of undefeated records (unprecedented in the history of the sport) built on inferior opposition should deemphasize those factors. Far more important is an accurate analysis of the fighter’s technical skills while at the same time taking into account the quality of his competition.
SEND IN THE CLOWNS
Prior to the 1970s, before an alphabet soup of competing “sanctioning organizations” wrecked boxing’s traditional infrastructure by anointing their own set of champions and contenders (often based on payoffs and corrupt relationships with powerful promoters) the boxing establishment recognized 8 world champions in 8 traditional weight divisions. That was the self-imposed general rule for more than half a century. It wasn’t a perfect system (after all, this is boxing) but for the most part it worked. Boxing fans could easily identify the 8 champions and the 80 “top ten” contenders, all of whom were rated according to merit. Today, thanks to the greed of the quasi-official sanctioning groups (their racket is extorting “sanctioning fees” from every fighter who competes for one of their cheesy title belts) there are over 100 “world champions”. Even dedicated fight fans would be hard pressed to name more than half a dozen. In order to multiply the number of champions—thereby generating more fees—these boxing parasites created nine additional weight divisions (of which at least seven are unnecessary). There are now about 700 “top ten” contenders in 17 weight divisions listed among the four major sanctioning groups. In other words, there are far more opportunities to win a championship than ever before—and also to defend it against a challenger plucked from the thinnest talent pool the sport has ever known.
Floyd Mayweather, Jr. has taken advantage of and benefited from the absurdity by often cherry picking challengers who he surmised would present less of a threat. Against such limited opposition Floyd’s technical flaws are obscured by his extraordinary speed and athleticism. But on the few occasions when he defended his title against a capable opponent these flaws were exposed.
MOMENT OF TRUTH
Although Manny Pacquiao was among the two or three best opponents that Mayweather had ever faced, their recent mega bout came at least five years too late. Both fighters were passed their prime. Mayweather won a very close decision, but their fairly tame encounter failed to provide the answers we seek. It was his bout with Oscar DeLa Hoya eight years earlier, when Floyd was at his absolute best, that does provide the answer.
“In a pugilistic population lacking both seasoning and ring savvy, fighters with superior athletic prowess automatically rise to the top.”
Oscar De LaHoya was the first opponent that Mayweather encountered in his prime who was at or near his level. Oscar was slightly passed his own prime and had fought but once in the previous 20 months but he was still one of the best boxers in the world. The result was a very close split decision victory for Mayweather. Shortly after that bout I interviewed several boxing experts asking for their thoughts on Mayweather. I included their comments in my book, “The Arc of Boxing”. Following are excerpts from those interviews.
Teddy Atlas (one of the sport’s greatest trainers and currently a ringside analyst for ESPN):
“In the old days there were fighters who were good defensively, but the difference was they had the attitude, and the wherewithal, to go and find a way to create an offense that would make it possible to take control of the opponent in a more meaningful way, in a more dominant way, and in a much more productive way.
“Even a recent fighter like Sugar Ray Leonard, who I think was a terrific fighter, would find a way to be aggressive and get to his opponent while at the same time maintaining a responsible defense. He would not just find a way to do enough to just get by.
“In his fight against Oscar De La Hoya, there didn’t seem to be an ability shown to you by Mayweather to create another way to get to him—other than when De La Hoya made it easy for him and just opened the door for him by walking in with no jab and not offering up the answers and the resistance that he should have. The only offense that was created by Mayweather was actually given to him by his opponent.
“Whenever De La Hoya used his left jab this ‘great’ fighter Mayweather looked like he had no answers.”
“Boxing means using your head, using geometry, using the science of angles, the science of adjustments. And all you have to do is make it a kind of landscape where the other guy can’t use what he has. You fight in a place where speed doesn’t come into play. You use your reach to keep your opponent at a certain distance where you can time him. Timing can always get the better of speed when it’s used properly and understood properly. You time your opponent and keep him at the end of your punches. And if you use your reach properly you are not giving him anything to counter. Whenever De La Hoya used his left jab this ‘great’ fighter Mayweather looked like he had no answers. But when Oscar didn’t use his jab and just walked in it looked like Oscar had the problem.
“When De La Hoya forced Mayweather to the ropes he flailed away instead of placing his punches in the right way. You would expect a fighter at that level to find the right places and to know what the right places were, and where they were. De La Hoya threw his punches almost in a hopeful way. Real top guys don’t throw in a hopeful way. They throw their punches in a defined way— in a way that their experience and judgment tells them they need to throw.
You cannot get intoxicated to the point where you are comparing Floyd Mayweather Jr. to the greatest fighters of all time. I’m not taking anything away from Floyd, but I think it’s insulting to the great fighters and to the great history of the sport to make that comparison.”
Mike Capriano, Jr. (Former trainer and manager. Saw his first pro fight in 1938. During the 1950s was head coach for the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps boxing team that won a record number of service championships):
“I think the critics have a misunderstanding of the difference between speed of movement and speed of attack. Those fast and elusive old time boxers we saw always were involved in maintaining the attack. They were always looking for spots to land effective punches. They weren’t runners doing nothing and then jumping in and throwing a flurry of punches. They were different.
“Ali never ran away like Mayweather. Ali was fast but he was moving left to right and looking to hit you with punches. Sugar Ray Robinson was also extremely fast. He was up on the soles of his feet bouncing and moving left to right. But he wasn’t running here and running there. He was interested in making contact with his punches. And Robinson was a very hard puncher.
“Mayweather just wants to punch and run. But against those old time welterweight and middleweight fighters you are not going to do that because they’re going to keep you on the ropes and hit you with clean punches. He could run all he wants but sooner or later he has to come in to make contact with his opponent and then those guys are going to tie him up and grab him, push him into the corner, push him up against the ropes and start ripping punches up.
“When De La Hoya had Mayweather on the ropes he was unable to hurt him or keep him there. You’ve got to be able to slide and move in. De La Hoya doesn’t know how to do that. He doesn’t know how to move under punches. He’s in that crouch but he doesn’t bend under and really get down. He’s slapping Mayweather 100 times with that left hand when he’s got him on the ropes and it’s ineffective.
“What De La Hoya should have done when he had Mayweather on the ropes was to stay right in his middle. He should have had his head right in the middle of his chest. You then take a step back to get leverage and throw an uppercut or hook. De La Hoya did not know how to keep him on the ropes.
“This fight wasn’t any kind of test that establishes the credibility of greatness. They both looked like a pair of ordinary ten round fighters.”
“Neither fighter landed any terrific punches; no right cross combinations or left hooks underneath and over…real punches that dug in. They also did not appear to know how to step in with their punches.
“This fight wasn’t any kind of test that establishes the credibility of greatness. They both looked like a pair of ordinary ten round fighters. They traveled the distance well but, as I’ve said, they are not getting hit by guys that are going to hurt you. The better old timers would feel they’re opponent out for a couple of rounds and then, all of a sudden, ‘bing, bang’ you’d see some dynamite punches coming in.
“Carmen Basilio would have beaten both De La Hoya and Mayweather. They are not in Emile Griffith’s class either. And how about Kid Gavilan? I mean Gavilan’s going to fire punches that make a difference. And he’s strong and he’s pushing you. Gavilan would have Mayweather on the run, up against the ropes. He’d be throwing that bolo and other shots and he’s hurting Mayweather. It’s a different kind of fight.
“Fighters like Joey Archer and Billy Graham are going to box Mayweather. They’d have that left hand out in front and throwing combination punches. They are going to box him. And when Mayweather jumps in to deliver his quick punches he’s not going to hit anybody because they’re going to tie him up and put him back out there. It’s going to be a boxing match. The old pros are looking at him and arranging for where they’re going to attack and they’re setting him up.
“The old timers came to fight. He could do all the running, but they wouldn’t get caught up in his evasive movements. Mayweather has speed, but it is not combined with cleverness. They’d just wait until he’s in position where they could hit him. He’s going to have to fight sometime. The referee is going to tell him ‘look, you’ve got to engage this guy’. We’ve seen fighters run all night and people began booing and carrying on. So he can run around but when he fights a superior pro you’d see a different fight. You won’t see it today because no one knows how to do that. Fighters like Fritzie Zivic gave people college educations. There’s no one around like that today.”
Tony Arnold (Amateur and professional boxer 1949-1957. Former archivist for one of boxing’s largest film libraries):
“What did Mayweather do with his speed? He made De La Hoya chase him. That’s all. He didn’t use his speed like a Willie Pep to maneuver around an opponent’s defenses and hit him with sharp combinations and then move out of the way. I’m talking about using speed in a clever way. Mayweather just used his speed to keep himself from getting hit. And that’s supposed to be a great? There was no real display of skill or strategy.
“Mayweather’s jab is so tentative and ineffective I can’t even call it a jab. His right foot was already going back as he threw it. He was backing off because he’s very cautious and he was worried about a counter punch. The jab was just keeping distance between him and De La Hoya. It wasn’t being used to out box De La Hoya, it wasn’t controlling the fight and it wasn’t even a good defensive move because he wasn’t able to do anything. He just jabbed and backed off. But that tentative jab was enough to keep De La Hoya at long range for much of the fight.
“Mayweather’s strategy was to hit De La Hoya with quick pot shots and dance away and just pile up enough points to stay ahead, which he barley did. I mean the fight was practically even as far as I’m concerned. Mayweather did not set anything up. He didn’t make De La Hoya miss and then counter. He was relying on his speed and luck to land punches. They were just flailing at each other. I didn’t see any smart combinations. I did not see any good calculating counter punching. I never saw either fighter throw a two or three-punch combination. There was no taking advantage of mistakes. There was no looking for opportunities. I don’t think they would have known an opportunity if it fell on them. Mayweather and De La Hoya are not thinking fighters with the skill or experience to know what to look for.
“Floyd Mayweather, Jr. has a great deal of natural ability but it hasn’t been brought out the way it was with fighters of years ago. I don’t think he jabs enough. And he doesn’t take advantage of opportunities.”
“Mayweather is quicker than the other guy, he throws faster punches, he maneuvers around, but he doesn’t show any real skills. I didn’t see any real feinting or good head movement. I never saw him slip and counter. Not once. I didn‘t see any skill in that area at all. He’s got so many flaws.”
Bill Goodman (Licensed corner man with the New York Athletic Commission 1957-66. A student of the boxing scene for over 60 years):
“Floyd Mayweather, Jr. has a great deal of natural ability but it hasn’t been brought out the way it was with the fighters of years ago. I don’t think he jabs enough. And he doesn’t take advantage of opportunities. He ducks and slips punches but instead of taking advantage of what he just did he lets it go by. He doesn’t follow up. He makes some pretty moves, and looks nice doing it, but nothing happens. He doesn’t fire. Mayweather throws one left hand and he stops punching. He doesn’t follow it up with 2-3-4 left jabs like they did years ago. Consequently, he doesn’t get a barrage going, he doesn’t get any momentum.
“Mayweather is very fast, but he does not compare to those better welterweights that were around years ago. How can you compare him to a guy like Tommy Bell from the 1940’s? It’s night and day. Of course someone who doesn’t know Tommy Bell would see a number of losses on his record and not be impressed. But look at who he fought! Bell fought anybody and everybody. Like most fighters he stayed around a lot longer than he should have, but in his prime he would have licked both Mayweather and De La Hoya with one hand tied behind his back.
“Even a guy like Gil Turner, who was a 1950’s welterweight contender, wouldn’t have any trouble with either Mayweather or De La Hoya. Isaac Logart and Gene Burton wouldn’t have any problem with them either. Not only were these contenders well educated; they put their education to use. They fought frequently and kept busy—and they were better fighters.
“They talk about Mayweather’s speed, but he isn’t as fast and as skillful as Bernie Docusen who fought Sugar Ray Robinson for the title in 1948 and gave him plenty of trouble. Would you say Mayweather’s going to give Ray Robinson as a welterweight plenty of trouble?
“There’s no comparison. But you go and tell that to a young boxing fan today and they think you’re a psycho.”
What these authentic boxing experts are saying (and I emphasize the word “authentic”) is that Floyd Mayweather, Jr. despite his obvious talent, is not in the same league as the best champions and contenders of previous decades. To the untrained eye Mayweather appears to be a great fighter because his dazzling speed is more than enough to dominate second and third rate opponents. But when faced with an opponent that he could not totally dominate with his speed Floyd’s stylistic flaws were revealed.
Part of the problem many people have in evaluating the quality of today’s champions is that since the 1990s the line separating the skills of top amateur and top professional boxers has become blurred. Most of today’s champions have extensive amateur backgrounds. But they are not exposed to the same type of professional apprenticeship common to fighters of the past. The majority win a title belt before their 20th pro contest and have fought less than 150 rounds (the averages years ago were 40 to 70 fights and about 400 rounds). There is no chance to gain the kind of bout-to-bout education and experience that empowered the early greats. This is why there remains a hint of lingering amateurism in the fighting styles of most of today’s champions. They do not need to master the finer points of professional boxing technique because the competition does not demand it. In addition, most of today’s trainers do not have enough knowledge or background to teach the old moves. Body punching, feinting, drawing a lead to set up a counterpunch, proper use of the left jab, bobbing and weaving, infighting, timing and mobile footwork are among the lost boxing arts. These days an athlete with superior speed and size rules the roost because no one has the experience, training and knowhow to effectively counter those purely physical qualities.
It is right that Mayweather owns the “pound for pound best” title because in a pugilistic population lacking both seasoning and ring savvy, fighters with superior athletic prowess automatically rise to the top—and Floyd just happens to be the most physically gifted fighter. But at age 38 Floyd’s legs have lost their spring, his speed is a smidgen slower, and his endurance is not what it once was. Without the sophisticated skill set of a seasoned old pro to fall back on (think Archie Moore, Emile Griffith and Roberto Duran) Floyd, like Roy Jones Jr. before him, will soon be vulnerable against even those second rate opponents he used to chew up and spit out. Is Andre Berto that opponent? (They are scheduled to fight on September 12th). Again, Floyd has chosen wisely from the weakest of the herd. On paper a Berto victory looks nearly impossible. Once very promising, the 31 year old with a 30-3 record is now damaged goods because of steroid use and ill-advised weight training that have diminished his speed and punch. Nevertheless, against an aging fighter anything is possible and don’t think Floyd doesn’t know it. If he is unable score an early KO an attempt will be made to steal rounds and score points with occasional flurries. At this point in his career pacing is very important. Don’t be surprised if Floyd fails to impress.
There is no denying the fact that Floyd Mayweather, Jr. is a very good fighter. His whippet speed and finely honed fistic instincts might have stymied some of the ring greats from boxing’s golden age—but not for long. They would have made the necessary adjustments. If Floyd was born 50 years earlier he might have developed the ring generalship and cleverness that is missing from his otherwise impressive repertoire. Those qualities would have been an absolute necessity if he were to compete successfully against the top fighters of the past. But even then Floyd’s success would not have been guaranteed in that fierce competitive jungle. What is certain is that without these added dimensions Floyd would not have been able to establish a legitimate claim to greatness.
Note: The reader is encouraged to read Mike Silver’s book “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science” for additional comparisons and analyses between the best boxers of today and those of decades past.
The Real Rockys: A History of the Golden Age of Italian Americans in Boxing 1900-1955 by Rolando Vitale.
Reviewed by Mike Silver
You do not have to be Italian to enjoy The Real Rockys. In fact, you do not even have to be a boxing fan. Rolando Vitale has written a book that accurately describes a colorful and fascinating chapter of American immigrant history with emphasis on the tremendous contribution of Italian American boxers to the sport of boxing.
You do not have to be Italian to enjoy The Real Rockys. In fact, you do not even have to be a boxing fan.
Few boxing books have been so thoroughly researched and richly detailed. The author begins with a description of the origins of boxing that includes a historical overview of pugilistic activity in ancient Rome, continuing on to the Medieval and Renaissance period, and then to the large scale Italian immigration to America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some of the best parts of the book involve stories of the boxers’ family life and how the privations and poverty of their childhood motivated the drive to become a professional boxer.
The author also includes a description of the inter-racial boxing rivalries that were once so much a part of the sport during its golden age from the 1910s to the 1950s.
Few boxing books have been so thoroughly researched and richly detailed.
But the icing on the cake of this highly informative and lively written book are the 35 separate Appendices—183 pages in all—that are a treasure trove of information available nowhere else. Here is just a sampling: A breakdown and analyses of the most prominent ethnic American groups (Irish, Jewish, Italian, African) in the world’s top ten rankings (as per Ring magazine’s monthly ratings) across all weight categories 1924-1955; The results of head to head contests between Italian American and rival ethnic American boxers listed in the world’s top ten rankings 1924-1955; The names of every Italian, Irish, Jewish and African American champion from 1900 to 1955; A complete list of the nearly 400 title fights involving Italian American boxers; The names of hundreds of prominent Italian American prizefighters who fought using Irish or Anglicized names; Every Italian American Golden Gloves and National AAU amateur champion from 1900 to 1955; Post boxing occupations of the 51 Italian American world champions 1900-55 (including their father’s occupations); Also included are biographies of 50 great Italian boxers and the author’s picks for the top 100 Italian boxers who did not win a title. That is just a sampling. OK, you get the picture. This is a book that is both a historical document and a reference guide. It will be appreciated and enjoyed by anyone interested in learning about a unique and colorful aspect of American immigrant history but also savored by the serious and casual boxing fan. “The Real Rockys” deserves an honored space on every fight fan’s book shelf.
Boxing historian Mike Silver is the author of “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science”
Boxing’s Ten Greatest Quotes
by Mike Silver
No other sport has produced more memorable quotes or phrases than boxing. I am not referring to the many clever and colorful (and sometimes outrageous) statements uttered over the years by various boxing personalities. Mike Tyson’s obscene rants (obviously stated when he was off his meds) that included such gems as “I want to eat his children” or “I try to push the (nose) bone into the brain” do not qualify for this list. The winning quotes are those that have withstood the test of time and entered into the American lexicon. The following quotes fit these criteria. They have been used by journalists, politicians and people in all walks of life. Yet how many are aware that they emanate from the world of boxing? I’ve saved the best for last, so counting back from 10 to 1 here they are:
“I Shoulda Stood In Bed”—Joe Jacobs (1935)
Joe Jacobs was the prototype of the fast talking cigar chomping fight manager.
Sportswriters loved him as he was always quick with a memorable quote delivered in a staccato New York accent. As described by author David Margolick, Jacobs was “the quintessential Broadway guy, a Damon Runyon character from whom even Damon Runyon, then writing a sports column for the Hearst newspapers, could pick up some pointers.” As a “Broadway guy” Joe invariably slept late but one of the few times he broke
with tradition was when he got out of a sickbed to attend the 1935 World Series between the Tigers and Cubs on a wet cold day in Detroit when the temperature was near freezing. When a reporter asked him about the experience he famously complained, “I shoulda stood in bed”, which is New Yorkese for “stayed in bed”. Shakespeare could not have said it any better.
Shakespeare could not have said it any better
9. “I’ll Moida Da Bum” – Tony Galento The squat 5’9’ 235 pound New Jerseyite with the sledgehammer left hook was one of the most colorful fighters of any era. “Two Ton” Tony was a crude beer guzzling brawler who often used these words to describe what he would do to a future opponent. He said it most
often when referring to heavyweight champion Joe Louis, who he challenged for the title in 1939. In an unusual fit of pique, Louis, angered by Tony’s incessant pre-fight trash talk, decided to punish him. Galento, a stubborn foe, did his best and even managed to drop Louis in the third round. After taking a short count Louis got up even angrier and battered Galento into a bloody hulk before knocking him out in the next round.
8. “We Wuz Robbed”—Joe Jacobs (1932)
Another gem from the irrepressible Joe Jacobs who regularly butchered the King’s English. He spoke the immortal words after heavyweight champion Max Schmeling (whom he managed) lost a controversial decision to Jack Sharkey.
7. “Only In America”—Don King (1975)
The phrase was appropriated by King in the early 70s. But a more accurate phrasing should be “Only in Boxing”. For only in the unregulated “red light district” of sports could a convicted killer and diabolically clever sociopath run roughshod over an entire sport and bring it down to his level.
“The Bigger They Are the Harder They Fall”—Bob Fitzsimmons (1902)
The actual quote is: “The bigger they come the harder they fall.” It has been attributed to former heavyweight champion Robert Fitzsimmons in an interview in 1902, but it probably goes back farther than that. Fitzsimmons (heavyweight champion 1897-99) was one of the hardest punchers of all time. He weighed about 167 pounds in his prime and often beat heavier men, including a 300 pound opponent he flattened in the first round.
5.“Honey, I Forgot to Duck” Jack Dempsey (1926)
President Ronald Reagan was being wheeled into the operating room shortly after taking a bullet in the 1981 assassination attempt on his life. Still conscious, and amazingly maintaining his sense of humor, he looked up at his wife, Nancy, and told her: “Honey, I forgot to duck”. The President was referencing the line Jack Dempsey used to explain his defeat to his wife after he lost the heavyweight championship to Gene Tunney in 1926. Reagan was only 15 years old at the time but the phrase obviously made an impression on the young sports fan and future President of the United States.
4. “We Will Win Because We Are On God’s Side”—Joe Louis (1942)
Heavyweight champion Joe Louis, who had recently enlisted in the still segregated army, spoke these words at a March 1942 War Bond rally in front of 18,000 people in Madison
Square Garden. The great man’s words became a popular slogan and made its way into songs and posters.
3. “He Can Run But He Can’t Hide”—Joe Louis (1946)
Joe’s public comments were as compact and on target as his punches. He could say more in a few words than most people say in 100. On the eve of his rematch with Billy Conn a reporter asked Joe if his lighter and faster opponent’s speed would be a problem. Louis’s answer was prescient. He knocked Conn out in the eighth round.
2. “Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee”—Cassius Clay (1963).
He did and he could!
“I Coulda Been A Contender”—Marlon Brando (1954)
One of filmdom’s most famous lines. It was spoken by actor Marlon Brando in the classic
movie “On the Waterfront”. The words originated from an actual conversation screenwriter Budd Schulberg had with Roger Donoghue, a once promising welterweight who quit the ring after killing an opponent. Donoghue was hired to instruct Brando how to move and act like a former fighter. When Schulberg asked Donoghue if he could have been a champion, the fighter replied, “I don’t know, but I could have been a contender.”
Boxing historian Mike Silver is the author of The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science (McFarland Publishing, paperback 2014).
TEDDY’S MASTER CLASS
A note of thanks to the daughter of Teddy Atlas for convincing her father to get back to doing what he does best—teaching boxers the (lost) art of boxing. Seven weeks ago Atlas took over the training of Timothy Bradley and the results were nothing short of phenomenal. Bradley said it best in a pre-fight interview; “I finally have a real trainer”. Indeed! Bradley’s ninth round stoppage of Brandon Rios this past Saturday night had “old school” written all over it, complements of “old school” trainer Teddy Atlas. Bradley also stated that Atlas’s schooling taught him more about technique and strategy than ever before. Good for him—and good for boxing.
Atlas’s job was not easy. He had a willing student in Bradley but also a fighter who had been worn out in fights where the strategy was simply to outwork the opponent. Bradley had also made the mistake in the past of exercising with heavy weights to increase his strength and punching power. Of course this misguided approach did just the opposite by making him muscle bound and robbing him of his punching power. Bradley’s overdeveloped pecs and lats are very impressive if he was entered into a body building contest but he can barely dent an egg with his feather like punches. Nevertheless, Atlas recognized a desire by Bradley to do whatever was necessary to turn his boxing career around and was willing to work with him and achieve the desired results.
Trainers take note: Watch the tape of the Bradley vs. Rios fight over and over, including especially the instruction given to Bradley between rounds. What a delight to watch a boxer actually attempt to think and avoid punishment by using tried and true methods of the type that had been effective for almost a century but are virtually forgotten today.
Rios could have tried to counter Bradley’s hit and move strategy but he simply had no answers—and neither did his clueless corner men. Rios kept coming straight ahead and made no attempt at all to cut off the ring, or duck Bradley’s counter punches, or throw more jabs in an attempt to disrupt his rhythm. The pitiful instructions (or lack thereof) he received was typical. In between rounds the microphone picked up Rios’s trainers telling him to “throw more punches…throw faster punches” and of course the oft heard expletive laced “what the f…k are you waiting for!….c’mon go for it!” That’s it. No strategic advice was given at any time. Not even at the basest level. Why are such people even allowed into the corner? Why isn’t there some sort of licensing procedure to make sure trainers have at least a minimum of boxing knowledge. It is so disheartening to see how dumbed down this sport has become.
Compare the above to a sampling of Atlas’s instructions to Bradley between rounds: “Control the outside and don’t stay in one place too long…use your jab and move to your left and then move to the right and set something up…catch him as he comes in and don’t drop your hands…move off to the side after landing your jab..” Atlas kept reminding Bradley to “control the geography of the ring” (meaning use footwork). Obviously these basic boxing moves had been practiced over and over throughout their training sessions. Another move involved Bradley stepping to his left after landing a jab and quickly landing a left uppercut to Rios’s midsection. His incessant body punching eventually brought Rios to his knees in the ninth round and he was counted out. (If Bradley had more power this fight would have ended much earlier). It is worth noting that over 50% of Bradley’s punches were aimed at Rios’s mid-section. This was a common practice among the top fighters of decades past but is virtually unheard of today.
Over the past 20 years, for a variety of reasons, (see the author’s book “The Arc of Boxing” for a full explanation) boxing technique has fallen to its lowest level in over 100 years. Defense has become a lost art along with so much else that is missing at virtually every level. That is why Bradley’s new evasive style, mobile footwork, body punches and his effective and intelligent use of the left jab was like a dose of fresh air—at least to those who can recognize such things.
Perhaps I am being overly optimistic, but are we seeing a trend developing here? Last month we saw two rare demonstrations of some old school boxing skills. First flyweight champion Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez gave a wonderful display of effective aggression while chalking up his 44th straight victory. On the same night Gennady Golovkin, the true middleweight champion, showed how effective a left jab can be when used properly to set up power punches and eventually wear down a tough and determined opponent. (see article on this site: “Stop The Presses! Boxer Wins Fight Using Left Jab!”
Years ago these talented boxers would be considered excellent prospects because they would be competing in a much tougher environment, but today their use of solid but basic boxing techniques makes them stand head and shoulders above a very mediocre field of contenders.
Let’s hope that other boxers and trainers begin to understand that boxing is an art—the art of self-defense. This will not only result in more interesting matches but will make a dangerous sport safer. Two boxers moving toward each other like two trucks in a mindless demolition derby is not boxing.
Mike Silver is the author of “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science” (2014, paperback, McFarland Publishers).
The President Boxer
The President Boxer
If there ever was an individual with the wherewithal, honesty and courage to clean up professional boxing that man would have been Theodore Roosevelt.
by Mike Silver
No U.S. President, past or present, was more associated with the “sweet science” than Theodore Roosevelt.
No U.S. President, past or present, was more associated with the “sweet science” than Theodore Roosevelt. It was not by accident that T.R. developed his interest in boxing. In Roosevelt’s formative years young men from the best families practiced the manly art. In the late 1800s amateur boxing “in gentlemanly fashion” (fought with gloves under Queensberry rules) was included in the athletic programs of Harvard and Yale. (Both institutions were among a handful of colleges that offered boxing instruction to their students). The future President boxed as a 135 pound lightweight while attending Harvard. He entered several tournaments, and though only moderately successful, his courage and tenacity was admired by his classmates.
During one tournament match he was hit hard by his opponent just after the referee yelled “time”. The crowd hissed and shouted “Foul, foul!” Roosevelt is supposed to have cried out “Hush! He didn’t hear.” Years later, during his campaign for the Presidency, his supporters would frequently reference the incident as an example of his extraordinary character.
In his junior year at Harvard (1879) T.R. fought for the university cup against a senior and was “severely punished” according to the New York Times. The Times often reported on the athletic exploits of Ivy League athletes as these schools were considered incubators for the future economic, social and political leaders of America. His opponent was two or three inches taller and had a much longer reach. “When time was called after the last round,” one spectator recalled, “his face was dashed with blood and he was much winded; but his spirit did not flag, and if there had been another round, he would have gone into it with undiminished determination.”
T.R. was at best a fair boxer and athlete, but he loved boxing, and was a steadfast supporter of the sport as long as it remained free of gambling and corruption. In 1896, while serving as police commissioner of New York City, Roosevelt endorsed a bill that legalized boxing in the state. He believed that under the right circumstances boxing had value as a “vigorous healthful sport that develops courage, keenness of mind, quickness of eye, and a spirit of combativeness that fits every boy who engages in it for the daily tasks that confront him.” But the professional side of the sport remained a problem for him. In 1899, during his term as New York’s Governor, boxing was rocked by a number of major betting scandals and fixed fights. The following year he reluctantly signed a bill outlawing professional prizefighting in New York State. (The ban lasted four years).
Roosevelt’s interest in athletics, and specifically boxing, was the result of a lifelong pursuit of what he called “The Strenuous Life.” TR exercised daily and was constantly challenging himself to do better. His favorite sports were boxing, tennis, hiking, rowing, polo and horseback riding. He greatly admired boxers and formed friendships with John L. Sullivan, Bob Fitzsimmons, Battling Nelson and Mike Donovan. Even while occupying the White House (1901-1909) Roosevelt enjoyed boxing with an array of sparring partners, including former professionals, several times each week. By then the President was a full-fledged heavyweight, weighing around 190 pounds
During a sparring session with a military aide Roosevelt took a hard punch to his left eye. He gradually lost sight in the damaged orb, but that information was not made public until many years later. Although the injury failed to dampen his enthusiasm for boxing he thereafter confined his physical jousts to practicing judo, attaining a third degree brown belt.
Of all the fighters Roosevelt knew he was closest to Sullivan
Of all the fighters Roosevelt knew he was closest to Sullivan, who reigned as heavyweight champion from 1882 to 1892. They first met in the mid-1890s when TR was a crusading police commissioner in New York City. Sullivan had retired in 1892 after losing the title to James J. Corbett, but the public’s adulation for “The Great John L.” endured well after his last bout. During that time he earned his living as a professional entertainer and temperance lecturer.
The Patrician Roosevelt and the roughhewn Sullivan, an Irish-American from an urban, working class background, formed a sort of mutual admiration society based on their common interests. They were the same age, and as noted by Sullivan biographer Michael T. Isenberg, “Each worshipped the shrine of masculinity and had, in his different way, been a missionary of the strenuous life; each was his own brass band.”
Roosevelt’s friendship with Sullivan remained strong during and after his Presidency. In later years Sullivan was a frequent guest at Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill Estate. Both of these fascinating and charismatic individuals were perfect symbols of their era. Energetic, confident, assertive and occasionally reckless their colorful personalities embodied the qualities of a country ascending to greatness at the turn of the last century.
The 25th President of the United States would have made a wonderful boxing commissioner but after his “Rough Rider” campaign in Cuba during the Spanish-American War of 1898 bigger and more important responsibilities awaited him. But if there ever was an individual with the wherewithal, honesty and courage to clean up professional boxing that man would have been Theodore Roosevelt.
Mike Silver is the author of “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science” (McFarland Publishers, paperback 2014).
Book Review: The Proper Pugilist: Essays on the Milling Art by Roger Zotti
Review by Mike Silver
Aside from being an astute observer of the boxing scene Roger Zotti is also an avid film buff, which makes his observations in this little gem of a book all the more interesting. Throughout the book Roger intertwines stories of the sweet science with his vast knowledge of Hollywood filmdom. I don’t know of any other author who can find something in common between the spectacular comebacks of Archie Moore vs. Durelle and Marciano vs. Walcott to the comebacks of film actors Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity and Marlon Brando in The Godfather. But that is the subject of an essay titled “Fistic and Film Comebacks” and it’s what makes The Proper Pugilist: Essays on the Milling Art the perfect book for readers of this site.
Reading this concise collection of 22 short essays (each about three to four pages long) is akin to spending several enjoyable hours in conversation with a master story teller whose expertise and knowledge of his subject is obvious with every sentence. Several essays draw from the author’s personal experience as an enthusiastic young fan of televised boxing in the 1950s. In one essay he writes that his love of film and boxing was encouraged by his Uncle Cheech, citing comments he recorded in a decades old interview. “I love film noire”, says uncle Cheech. “Richard Conte, an Italian boy from New York, and McGraw—Charles McGraw—seemed to be in every film noire ever made. In many of Conte’s movies he was usually returning from somewhere—maybe from jail or from the service. In Cry of the City he gave his best performance. McGraw’s best movie was “The Narrow Margin. Where else but in a Roger Zotti book are you going to find stuff like this?
Where else but in a Roger Zotti book are you going to find stuff like this?
In another essay titled “Dempsey According to Roger Kahn” the author takes issue with Kahn’s impugning the honesty of the referee in the famous Dempsey-Tunney long count fight that appeared in Kahn’s bio of Dempsey. In the same essay is an explanation as to why Dempsey, while heavyweight champion, refused to spar with Ernest Hemmingway.
In “Where Have You Gone Court Sheppard”, he writes about the actor that portrayed Tony Zale in the 1956 film biography of Rocky Graziano. The real Tony Zale was first hired to play himself in the movie but was unable to pull his punches during rehearsals with Paul Newman, who portrayed Graziano. After nearly flattening Newman twice, Zale was let go and replaced with Sheppard. We find out that Sheppard boxed professionally as a light heavyweight from 1937 to 1941 and compiled a 14-2-3 record. He also appeared in over two dozen other films. But even more impressive is that in 1936 he won the St. Louis Golden Gloves title by defeating future ring great Archie Moore in the finals! There are additional information filled stories on Dempsey, Sonny Liston, Stanley Ketchel, Jake LaMotta, Gene Tunney, Jack “Doc” Kearns and lesser known boxers from the 1950s television era such as Coley Wallace, Jimmy Herring, Roy Harris, Walter Cartier and Artie Diamond. Each of the 22 essays is just long enough to keep your interest and eagerly turn to the next story. I found it hard to put down this delightful foray into the colorful nether worlds of Hollywood and boxing.
The Proper Pugilist is a wonderful companion piece to Roger’s other book about boxing—Friday Night World: A Tribute to Fighters of the 1950s. That book is both a homage to the author’s favorite boxers of the 1950s and a memoir about growing up in New Haven, Connecticut, during the fifties era.
Mike Silver is the author of The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science (McFarland Publishers, paperback 2014). His new book, Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing (Lyons Press) will be published in March 2016.
UP TO SCRATCH: Bareknuckle Fighting and Heroes of the Prize-Ring
by Tony Gee
Foreword by Sir Henry Cooper OBE, KSG
Book review by Mike Silver
Boxing is a very ancient sport with a history going back thousands of years. But the origins of modern boxing can be traced to 17th century England where the sport reemerged after a 1000 year hiatus. After the death of Oliver Cromwell the restored monarchy of Charles II (1660-1685) freed England from the yoke of Puritan restraint. As a result, the populace began to enjoy a wide variety of old and new sporting diversions, including boxing. London, with its roiling urban suburbs and large population of poor people, became the perfect spawning ground for a new generation of fistic exponents, although the sport did not properly take off until the following century.
Three hundred years ago the rules for the sport were quite different than today.
Three hundred years ago the rules for the sport were quite different than today. Combatants fought bare-fisted and were allowed to throw an opponent to the ground provided he was grabbed above the waist. A round ended when a fighter was punched, thrown, or wrestled to the ground. The downed fighter was then carried back to his corner by his seconds and given 30 seconds to rest before both fighters had to return to the “scratch mark” (originally their side of a three-foot-square drawn in the center of the ring). If a fighter was too damaged to “come up to scratch” or “toe the mark” within the allotted time, he forfeited the match. The loser was considered “knocked out of time.”
There was no proscribed time limit to a bareknuckle prizefight. The contest ended only when a boxer either failed to come up to scratch or was disqualified for fouling. After the “New Rules” of 1838 superseded the rudimentary “Broughton’s Rules” fouls included butting with the head, striking a fallen opponent, kicking, gouging the eyes, and biting. Depending on when it ended the length of a bareknuckle fight could be measured in minutes or sometimes hours. Contests ran the gamut from insufferably boring (much wrestling and stalling) to extremely savage, bloody, and sometimes fatal.
Both the rich (including members of the aristocracy) and poorer elements of English society enjoyed betting on the outcome of prizefights. From the 1780s to the 1820s, boxing’s popularity had reached a point where it was considered the country’s national sport. Important bouts attracted thousands of spectators from all walks of life. Some of the best fighters even enjoyed the patronage of a member of the royal family.
Author and historian Tony Gee immerses us into this colorful and fascinating world.
Author and historian Tony Gee immerses us into this colorful and fascinating world. The meticulously researched book was originally published in 1998 and has recently been reissued in both soft cover and kindle version. It remains to this day the quintessential history of the English bareknuckle scene.
Few people are as qualified as Tony Gee to chronicle this history. He is the world’s foremost authority on the bareknuckle era of pugilism and has advised the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Jewish Museum of London and has contributed several articles to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
“Up To Scratch” describes, in exquisite detail, the lives and battles, triumphs and tragedies, of some 70 pugilistic stars of the era. The vignettes are written in chronological order. Included are the exploits of such well-known bareknuckle bruisers as Daniel Mendoza, Tom Johnson, Jem Belcher, James “Deaf” Burke, Tom Sayers and Jem Mace.
While reading the bios of these hard men of the ring I was awestruck by their remarkable endurance and ability to withstand punishment often under the most trying of circumstances. Keep in mind that bareknuckle prizefights were fought outdoors and usually on bare turf. One of the many memorable stories the author describes is an 1827 contest between Ned Savage and Jem Wallace. During the bout a sudden and continuous downpour soaked the spectators and turned the ground into a quagmire. But no one wanted to see the fight called off, so the officials allowed it to continue.
As described by Gee: “The two combatants, covered in mud, waged an even, determined battle for two hours, although action then understandably flagged. At length, after a marathon 127 rounds lasting 147 minutes, Wallace was so completely exhausted that his friends gave in for him. Both men, totally insensible, were conveyed to the Swan, put to bed and bled. (This practice was then customary amongst the medical profession, but how it could help revive a fighter who had often already lost a lot of blood is difficult to comprehend – in fact, sometimes it could only have made matters worse.)” It is this type of detail that is common throughout the book.
One of the most unusual bouts described is a set-to that occurred in 1828. Both protagonists were dwarfs. Each fighter stood less than 4 feet tall and weighed under 100 pounds. “Despite the lack of interest shown by the Fancy, a large crowd was drawn to the event because of its strong novelty value.” The contest ended after 37 minutes.
Tony also describes an 1842 bout between the visiting American giant Charles Freeman, who was measured at 6 feet 9 inches tall (his height often exaggerated to over 7 feet) and the “Tipton Slasher”, William Perry. Other than size Freeman had little to recommend him.
“Unfortunately, like other giants who have attempted to find fistic fame through the years, Freeman’s boxing ability did not quite match up to his imposing physical appearance.” After this fight Freeman never fought again, preferring instead to concentrate on stage performances. The author’s research reveals what happened to the visiting American boxer after he retired from fistic combat: “Less than three years later he died, far from home, a victim of consumption brought on by careless living.”
There are also descriptions of fixed fights, fatal encounters, and behind the scenes maneuverings that shows how little things have changed over the centuries when it comes to the more corrupt and outlandish aspects of the sport.
The book comes to an end with a description of the downfall of bareknuckle boxing and the eventual acceptance of the Marquess of Queensberry rules that mandated boxing gloves and three minutes rounds with one minute of rest in between. As noted by the author; “Whilst its critics rejoiced in the demise of the traditional prize-ring, there were many who mourned the passing of an often corrupt, yet essentially noble, activity.”
In addition to a comprehensive bibliography and index the book is enhanced by several appendices that feature the nicknames of the fighters and another that defines boxing slang that was popular at the time such as “Bottom (Courage and fortitude), “Cove” (fellow), “Claret” (blood), “Fancy” (enthusiasts of a particular amusement, especially followers of the prize-ring), “Mill” (pugilistic encounter between two persons), “Muff” (someone awkward or stupid at an athletic pursuit), and many others.
Tony Gee is a wonderful storyteller. “Up to Scratch” provides a treasure trove of information about the lost world of bareknuckle boxing. It is an insightful look into one of boxing’s most dramatic and colorful eras and should be on the book shelf of every boxing fan in addition to anyone interested in this important aspect of England’s history.
Note: Boxing historian Mike Silver is the author of “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science” (McFarland Publishing, 2008), and most recently “Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing: A Photographic History” (Lyons Press, 2016)
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’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 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.
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.
“I Fought Willie Pep”
by Mike Silver
“He’s in front of you, in back of you. He’s all over the damn place. But he never stood toe to toe with you.”
The date was June 5, 1953. Thirty year old former featherweight champion Willie Pep, one of boxing’s all-time greats, was in trouble. For eight rounds the 3700 fans in Madison Square Garden and a national television audience of several million had been treated to another brilliant performance by the man who defined the art of boxing. The elusive “Will o’ the Wisp” was giving Brooklyn’s tough Pat Marcune a boxing lesson when the tenor of the bout abruptly changed. Moments before the round was to end Marcune bounced a left hook off Pep’s brow that opened a deep gash.
During the one minute rest period the ringside physician visited Pep’s corner. He took one look and advised the referee to halt the fight if the cut continued to bleed. Pep’s seconds worked frantically to patch him up. At the bell starting the ninth round an inspired Pat Marcune charged out of his corner intent on ending the bout. Pep, fearing the bout would be stopped, planted his feet to get more leverage into his punches. He had to try and stop Marcune before the cut reopened. The round was the most competitive of the fight.
At the conclusion of the round the doctor climbed into the ring again to take another look at Pep’s damaged brow. He nodded to the referee indicating the bout could continue. Marcune, way behind on points but on the verge of a huge upset, knew what he had to do—but he had to do it quickly.
A victory over Willie Pep was a rare happening. In 13 years and 184 previous fights only three opponents had been able to chalk up a win. Would 25 year old Pat Marcune’s name be added to the list? He possessed a modest but respectable record that included 36 wins against 11 losses and 2 draws. Over the past year he had shown steady improvement. Leading up to the bout Marcune had scored impressive victories over Tito Valles, Bill Bossio, Eddie Compo and former featherweight champion Lauro Salas. In May 1953 he was rated the 10th best featherweight in the world by The Ring magazine.
Marcune was expected to give a credible showing, but very few thought he had a chance to win. Nevertheless, he’d already achieved a victory of sorts. For no matter what else he accomplished the highlight of Pat Marcune’s boxing career would always be his ten round bout with Willie Pep. How many people can say they fought one of the greatest boxers who ever lived?
Willie Pep is no longer with us, but I am happy to report that Pat Marcune is alive and well. I caught up with the 90 year old former featherweight contender in his home on Staten Island where he lives with his daughter. (Pat’s wife passed away in 2013). Despite his age and the wear and tear of 60 professional bouts Pat is spry and alert. He even jogs three times a week to keep in shape. Of course the first question I asked was about the Pep fight.
“I pressed him the entire fight but Pep was very shifty and very difficult to hit”, said Marcune. “He’s in front of you, in back of you. He’s all over the damn place. But he never stood toe to toe with you.
“I was a young kid and Pep was on his way out. But he was a great boxer. I don’t think I could ever duplicate him. A win over Pep would have put me in line for a title shot but that was not my main goal when I turned pro in 1949. I just wanted to fight the main event in Madison Square Garden. That was the big thing. To be champ would be something, but, like Brando said in On the Waterfront, ‘I coulda been somebody. I coulda been a contender’. I wanted to be a contender, but most of all I wanted to top the card at the most famous arena in the world.”
Within four years of his professional debut Pat had accomplished both goals. He became a contender and also topped the card at the Garden not once but twice (vs. Lauro Salas 13 weeks earlier).
Pat Marcune fought in an era when boxing had eight undisputed world champions in eight traditional weight classes. Eight champions! The idea seems almost quaint today but that’s the way it was for over half a century before a gaggle of competing quasi-official “sanctioning organizations” in cahoots with rapacious promoters took control of the business in the late 1970s and destroyed forever boxing’s traditional infrastructure. Perhaps most obscene of all, the boxers are forced to pay hefty “sanctioning fees” out of their own pocket for the “privilege” of fighting for an organization’s title belt. Since the 1980s hundreds of obscure boxers of dubious quality have fought for a title. The only people happy about that are the leeches who run the sanctioning organizations. Currently there are over 90 “world champions” spread across 17 weight classes. Even the most enthusiastic boxing fan cannot name more than a few of them.
How different it was during Pat Marcune’s day when everyone knew the names of the champions and top contenders. The featherweight title (126 pound limit) was ruled by the awesome Sandy Saddler, a ring great who won the title from Pep in 1949, but lost it back to him in 1950. Saddler subsequently defeated Pep twice in rematches. Rocky Marciano, the indestructible “Brockton Blockbuster”, was heavyweight champ. The ageless wonder Archie Moore was king of the light heavyweights and Cuban’s colorful Kid Gavilan ruled the welterweights. The incomparable Sugar Ray Robinson, as close to a perfect fighter the sport has ever seen, had recently given up the middleweight title to enter show business. A tournament involving the four top rated contenders was underway to determine a new champion.
These were the waning years of boxing’s great golden age of talent and activity that spanned the 1920s to the 1950s, an era when champions and contenders achieved their status the old fashioned way—they earned it. There were no shortcuts to a title shot or contender status. Pat Marcune had 44 fights before engaging in his first ten rounder.
“Today guys are winning titles with just nine fights, or whatever it is”, said Pat. “That’s ridiculous. I’d be glad to fight a guy for the title who just had nine fights. They’re beginners.”
I asked Pat how he was able to avoid the debilitating neurological damage suffered by so many ex-professional boxers. “I knew how to fight” he said. “The reason I’m talking like this is that I never took that kind of punishment. I was an aggressive fighter but I tried to avoid getting hit. Today’s fighters take too many punches. I don’t think they get the proper trainers. They’re all gone.
“The fighters I see on television couldn’t compare with the fighters in my time”, he said. “They were tougher and more talented. Today’s fighters are not hungry enough. Remember Ike Williams? There were so many good fighters. I would see them in Stillman’s gym. Guys like Beau Jack, Rocky Marciano, Roland LaStarza and Archie Moore. Pep was on top of all of them. Him and Ray Robinson.”
Pat did his roadwork on the Coney Island boardwalk. “From the boardwalk I’d run down to Ocean Parkway, then to Seagate and back. I used to meet Herbie Kronowitz and Vinnie Cidone and other boxers doing their roadwork on the boardwalk. I miss those days.”
One of the fondest memories of his fighting days was the huge block party his Coney Island neighbors threw for him when he knocked out Brooklyn rival Tommy Pennino, who was an undefeated Golden Gloves champ.
As often happens with opponents who were once bitter ring rivals, Pat maintained a decades long friendship with former featherweight contender Bill Bossio. Their first bout on March 8, 1950 was so exciting promoters brought them back six more times, including three semi-final eight rounders in the Garden. They were tied at 3 wins apiece when Marcune won their last fight in 1952 by a split 10 round decision at Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway Arena.
Pat is also proud of the friendship he maintained with heavyweight contender Roland La Starza and light heavyweight champ Archie Moore. He met both while training in Stillman’s gym in the early 1950s and stayed in touch with them for years.
Despite the good memories he is also mindful of the downside of his brutal profession. “I got destroyed by the fight game”, he said. “Lost the sight in one eye, got my nose busted, busted my ears. I’ll show you a picture of what I looked like before I started fighting”. He produced a photo of a strikingly handsome young man in a Coast Guard uniform. Pat at the age of 17. He had just enlisted in the Coast Guard in the spring of 1945.
Pat realized he was passed his prime as a fighter after consecutive losses to featherweight contender Miguel Berrios and future junior lightweight champion Harold Gomes. He announced his retirement in 1956. His final stats were 38 wins against 19 losses and 3 draws. Twenty of his victories had come via knockout.
Needing a steady source of income to support his wife and infant son, Pat opened up a retail jewelry establishment. He operated the business for several years before selling it and taking a job with the Port Authority of New York, working in their maintenance department for 20 years.
Although Pat no longer worked for the Port Authority when America was attacked on September 11, 2001, he was quick to respond. He used his PA badge to gain access to Ground Zero where he volunteered to be part of “the bucket brigade” that helped to remove tons of debris. He believes the throat cancer he was diagnosed with a few years ago may have been caused by his exposure to the toxins at the site. Fortunately his cancer never progressed beyond stage one and he is now free of the disease.
Less fortunate was his son Patrick, an officer with the New York City police department. Patrick was a first responder and worked for weeks at Ground Zero. Like so many other first responders he later became sickened by the toxic dust clouds and developed a variety of illnesses, including respiratory disease and cancer. Previously robust and healthy, Patrick was constantly ill in the years that followed 9/11and passed away from cancer in 2009 at the age of 55. His father wears a replica of his son’s policeman’s shield on a chain around his neck.
Oh, I almost forgot! I want to tell you what happened in the crucial tenth round of Pat’s bout with the peerless Willie Pep. At the close of the ninth round Pat was hurt by a flurry of punches. He wasn’t fully recovered when the bell rang for the start of the tenth round. Pep quickly backed him against the ropes and was landing shots but Pat wouldn’t go down. The round was only 14 seconds old when the referee—former featherweight champion Petey Scalzo—jumped in between the fighters and called a halt, awarding the bout to Pep. The following day The New York Times, while acknowledging Pep’s superior boxing skills reported that “the Coney Island warrior gave a fine display of courage as he absorbed Willie’s punches.”
To no one’s surprise Pat objected to the stoppage. To this day be believes the referee purposely acted hastily to end the bout because Pep, in jeopardy of losing on a tko, had the right connections and he did not. But it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is how he lived his life after his boxing career ended.
Pat Marcune never won a world championship but to his everlasting credit when his city suffered a horrific terrorist attack, he did not hesitate to step up to the plate, as did his noble son, to give selflessly of himself in the service of others. If that’s not the definition of a true champion, I don’t know what is.
Note: Boxing historian Mike Silver is the author of “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science” (McFarland Publishing, 2008), and most recently “Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing: A Photographic History” (Lyons Press, 2016)
Doug Jones, Boxer Who Gave a Young Cassius Clay His Toughest fight, Dies at 80
Word has reached us that Doug Jones, the former light heavyweight and heavyweight contender of the early 1960s, passed away recently at the age of 80. Prior to Muhammad Ali’s three and a half year exile that began in 1967 Doug Jones gave the fighter then known as Cassius Clay his toughest fight. On March 13, 1963, before a sold out Madison Square Garden crowd of 18,732 fans, Clay struggled to win a close but controversial 10 round decision over his persistent foe.
Opinion was split as to who deserved to win. Many fans in the Garden and those watching the bout at 40 closed circuit locations thought Jones had done enough to edge Clay who chalked up his 18th straight victory. Doug’s record fell to 21-3-1. (Eleven months and two fights later Cassius would upset Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight title).
Interviewed 20 years later the defeat still rankled Jones. “Clay ran like a thief”, he said. “I carried the fight to him. Suppose I went the other way, what kind of fight would it have been? Clay didn’t hit me with any solid punches. There wasn’t any real power in his punches.”
Few boxers at his weight have engaged in so many tough fights against top competition in so short a time as Doug Jones. He was a talented boxer with a powerful right hand but what separated him from the crowd was his incredible toughness and heart. Doug had an extensive and successful amateur career during military service in the Air Force. (He was alternate light heavy for the 1956 U.S. Olympic team).
Doug turned pro in 1958 with a four round decision over Jimmy McNair. He was rushed much too quickly yet managed to survive and attain contender status in spite of Madison Square Garden matchmaker Teddy Brenner’s tendency to destroy up and coming talent through horrible matchmaking. Doug only had 10 pro fights when he fought his first main event against tough former New York Golden Gloves champ Juan Pomare. After two more victories he took on hard punching Philadelphia prospect Von Clay in back to back10 rounders. His next outing was a nationally televised bout against former middleweight champion Bobo Olsen. Doug ended matters with a left right combination in the 6th round. He followed up with knockouts of Floyd McCoy and Pete Rademacher before taking on Von Clay for the third and final time winning via a 10th round TKO.
Up next was top heavyweight contender Eddie Machen. Doug lost the decision and five months later faced Harold Johnson for the undisputed light heavyweight title. Doug never stopped trying but with only 20 pro bouts under his belt he was just too inexperienced to take the measure of the great boxer and lost a unanimous 15 round decision. On October 20, 1962 Doug was matched with a 9 bout pro named Bob Foster. He stopped the future light heavyweight champion in the 8th round. (Previously Doug had defeated Bob twice in the amateurs while both were in the Air Force).
Although he rarely weighed more than 190 pounds the rest of Doug’s career was spent fighting heavyweights. A dramatic 7th round KO of top ranked Zora Folley (a few months earlier he dropped a decision to Folley) moved Jones into the ranks of heavyweight contenders and led to his match with young Cassius. Doug’s manager Alex Koskowitz and his trainer Rollie Hackmer decided the best strategy was for Doug to slip past Clay’s jab while constantly pressuring him, upset his rhythm, and land the right.
Jones at 188 pounds and 6 feet tall was 14 pounds lighter and three inches shorter but was significantly faster than Clay’s previous opponents. In the first round Clay was sent back on his heels by Jones’s right cross. He was tagged solidly again in the 4th and 7th rounds. Clay responded with swift combinations and it was anybody’s fight going into the ninth round. Clay turned it on in the final round landing frequently with combinations to seal his victory.
After splitting two fights with Billy Daniels, Doug’s tenure as a heavyweight contender ended with an 11th round TKO loss to George Chuvalo on October 2nd 1964. During the fight Chuvalo centered his attack on Doug’s body and many punches strayed into foul territory. As a result of the punishment Doug suffered a hernia and was out of action for close to a year. His last chance for a title ended with a 15 round loss to WBA heavyweight champion Ernie Terrell on June 28, 1966. By the time up and coming Joe Frazier knocked him out in the 6th round on February 21, 1967 Doug was pretty much used up and punched out. If he needed any more convincing to retire it was provided six months later by young Boone Kirkman who TKO’d him in six. The Harlemite ended his career with a 30-10-1 (20 KOs) record. He appeared in 11 nationally televised bouts.
Doug was an unlucky fighter. He came along at the wrong time when Harold Johnson was light heavy champ. If not for that Doug was a good bet to have won that title but he chose to go for the big money and take on heavyweights. Never an easy opponent at any time during his nine year pro career, he would be a terror among the light heavyweights of today. They did not come any tougher than Doug Jones.
Mike Silver is the author of The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science (McFarland Publishers) and Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing, A Photographic History (Lyons Press).
Book Review: “Murderers’ Row: In Search of Boxing’s Greatest Outcasts”
By Springs Toledo
Foreword by Eddie Muller
Tora Book Publishing, 297 Pages
Reviewed by Mike Silver
“It was midnight when eighteen-year old Archie Moore jumped off a freight train at Poplar Bluff, Missouri. He ran four blocks to catch a truck that was to bring him back to Civilian Conservation Corps camp 3760. It was the summer of 1935….” So begins Murderers’ Row: In Search of Boxing’s Greatest Outcasts by Springs Toledo. To say that this book is just about the lives of eight of the greatest boxers to never win a world title is like saying John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is just about a poor family in Depression era America. Springs Toledo has written not only a terrific boxing yarn, but an important social and historical document as well.
“To say this book is just about the lives of eight of the greatest boxers to never win a world title is like saying John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is just about a poor family in Depression era America.”
Imagine you are the world’s greatest pianist but the powers that control the concert world will never let you play Carnegie Hall no matter how many great reviews and accolades you receive. Now imagine you are the top rated contender in the toughest and most brutal of all sports but no matter what you accomplish you are denied your ultimate goal—the opportunity to fight for a world championship. That was the situation for eight extraordinarily talented black professional boxers: Charley Burley, Holman Williams, Lloyd Marshall, Eddie Booker, Bert Lytell, Aaron “Little Tiger” Wade, Jack Chase and The Cocoa Kid. At various times during the late 1930s and through most of the 1940s they were all top rated contenders in several weight divisions. Yet not one of the reigning world champions would get into the ring with them. They were denied a shot at the title for reasons that included race, economics and the mob.
In this masterfully crafted and thoroughly researched paean to eight largely forgotten ring greats we not only learn about the amazing athletic achievements of these gifted artists, but also how their futile attempts to land a well-deserved title shot impacted their lives and the lives of their families.
In the early decades of the last century boxing was the only major professional sport that was open to African-American athletes. It was also one of the few professions that gave blacks access to the type of wealth and fame that would have been unthinkable a generation earlier. For the poorest segments of society boxing was seen as a way to escape poverty and attain riches and fame. Nevertheless, the black man’s status as a second class citizen was a burden that extended into the sport of boxing as it did everywhere else. Racism played its part but so did economics. If someone offers a champion enough dough to risk his title against a tough challenger you’ve got a match—most of the time. But if there is a good chance a popular champion will lose his title to a fighter who is less of a drawing card—and many a top black fighter did not have the same following as a popular but less talented white champion—a promoter would be less inclined to put on the match. Yet, as Toledo points out, sometimes even the right price was still not enough to entice a champion into the ring with these dark destroyers.
It was common knowledge that having the right “connections” could help ease the way to a title shot. A mob managed boxer had a better chance at lucrative matches in major arenas than an independent. Realizing that their only chance to secure a title fight involved handing over their careers to the organized crime figures who controlled big time boxing, a few decided to go that route. But in making a bargain with the devil these proud warriors paid a heavy price that included being ordered to throw fights.
“Abused and cheated and unable to make a decent living, some turned to drink, further eroding their spirit and their skills”.
Toledo takes the reader behind the scenes and reveals the sordid underbelly of boxing. Abused and cheated and unable to make a decent living, some turned to drink, further eroding their spirit and their skills. Most poignant is the story of The Cocoa Kid (real name Lewis Hardwick). He was the son of a Puerto Rican mother of Spanish descent and an African American father. The Cocoa Kid had over 246 professional fights. For eighty-one months between 1933 and 1947, he was a top contender in the lightweight, welterweight, and middleweight divisions. No champion dared face him in his prime, not Barney Ross, not Henry Armstrong. By the late 1950s Cocoa was wandering Times Square, homeless and suffering from dementia. Admitted to a hospital, he didn’t know who he was. Fingerprints sent to the Navy (he was a veteran) identified him. He died alone and forgotten on December 2, 1966.
The other stories are just as compelling, if not as tragic. Aaron “Little Tiger” Wade, least known of the group, was for a time rated the third best middleweight in the world. A squat 5’5” powerhouse he defeated Archie Moore, Cocoa Kid and Bert Lytell. Faced with the pressure to throw fights he became a bit unstable and battled alcoholism for much of his career, sometimes fighting when drunk. Wade’s story ends well. In his mid-40s he became a born again Christian, stopped drinking, reunited with his family and took a full time job at the Gallo Wine warehouse (a job that certainly tested his resolve). He also began studying for the ministry, eventually opening a store front church in the Fillmore district of San Francisco that served the poor of his community.
“All told, Marshall and the other Murderers’ Row contingent defeated a dozen future and former champions from featherweight to heavyweight no less than 17 times.”
Lloyd Marshall, one of the most feared fighters of his era, whipped Jake La Motta, Joey Maxim and Ezzard Charles—three future champions at middleweight, light heavyweight, and heavyweight. All told, Marshall and the other Murderers’ Row contingent defeated a dozen future and former champions from featherweight to heavyweight no less than 17 times.
What makes this book such an enjoyable experience to read is Toledo’s descriptive and colorful writing style. He not only knows his boxing history, he understands the nuances of boxing technique. In his segment on Charley Burley, who many consider the best of the golden eight, he writes: “Charley Burley’s style was as complex as tax law. An uncanny sense of timing and distance allowed him to find blind spots and he would often leap into shots that carried enough force to anesthetize anyone, including full blown heavyweights.”
Burley tried for years to get a shot at Sugar Ray Robinson’s welter or middleweight titles. Robinson, along with Joe Louis and Henry Armstrong, had proved to be the exception to the rule. These great black fighters managed the rare accomplishment of becoming cross over stars whose extreme popularity cut across racial lines. No doubt if someone offered enough money to Ray he would have complied, but it would have taken more than a small fortune to entice him into the ring against as formidable a challenger as Burley.
Since they were so often dodged by the top contenders and champions the best way for the elite eight to keep active and earn a payday was to fight each other as often as possible. And fight each other they did!—no less than 62 times. “It was a frenzy”, writes Toledo, “a free-for-all, a battle royal from the bad old days.” They matched up so evenly that a win in one fight could not guarantee the same result in a rematch. In the words of boxing scribe Jim Murray, who witnessed many of these classic encounters, they “put on better fights in tank towns than champions did in Yankee Stadium.”
The last of the Murderers’ Row had his final fight in 1951. Eventually their names drifted off into obscurity. As Springs Toledo points out, they would have remained mostly forgotten if not for Archie Moore. The wonderful “Old Mongoose” would have been counted as a Murderers’ Row member had he not won the light heavyweight title in 1952, at the age of 36, in his 171st pro fight. During the long and frustrating road to a title shot Moore was exposed to more than his share of boxing’s corruption and injustices. He knew that fate had been kinder to him than his former Murderers’ Row opponents.
“They would have remained mostly forgotten if not for Archie Moore.”
It is to Moore’s credit that he resurrected their names out of sympathy and respect. Beginning in the 1960s, whenever he was interviewed about his own remarkable career, Moore made it a point to mention them by name. Although he couldn’t correct the injustices done to them, he could at least make the world aware of their greatness. After all, who would know that better than Archie Moore? All eight were good enough to fight on even terms or better against him.
It was Budd Schulberg who first referred to several of the elite eight (in addition to other notable black fighters) as “That murderer’s row of Negro middleweights carefully avoided by title holders” in an article for Esquire in 1962. Since then authors Alan Rosenfeld and Harry Otty have given us two outstanding biographies of Charley Burley. And now thanks to Spring Toledo’s contribution the story of the Murderers’ Row is complete. “Consider me something of a private investigator”, he writes, “inspired by the memories of Archie Moore and hired by ghosts.” I have no doubt those ghosts are very pleased with the result.
Mike Silver is the author of The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science and Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing. All are available at Amazon.com
A Few Pearls of Wisdom from My Interview with the Great Archie Moore
A Few Pearls of Wisdom from My Interview with the Great Archie Moore
On February 26, 1983 I had the great good fortune to meet and interview the legendary Archie Moore. The former light heavyweight champion (1952-1962) had amassed one of the greatest records in boxing history. After a long and arduous 17 year campaign Archie finally won the championship in his 177th professional fight. He fought from 1935 to 1963 and retired with an outstanding 186-23-10 won-lost-draw record (including one no contest). It is safe to say his extraordinary number of knockout victories—131—will never be eclipsed.
Archie was in New York City to present an award to one of his former opponents, Charley Burley. Burley was just one of at least a score of genuinely great boxers that Moore fought during his illustrious career. Many of the names in that record read like an entire HOF roster: Cassius Clay (Moore made it a point to say that he never fought Muhammad Ali since the future heavyweight champion had not yet changed his name at the time they fought), Rocky Marciano, Ezzard Charles, Charley Burley, Jimmy Bivins, Holman Williams, Bert Lytell, Lloyd Marshall, Harold Johnson, Eddie Booker and Teddy Yarosz, to name a few. If Archie Moore were fighting today he would be heavyweight champion after already having won both the middleweight and light heavyweight titles.
Although his formal education ended in high school, Archie never stopped learning. He was a worldly individual and full of the wisdom of life experiences. He possessed an analytical mind and was intensely curious about a wide range of topics. Mostly self-educated Archie was, without question, one of the most remarkable, charismatic and accomplished characters I have ever met—in or out of boxing.
Archie was an artist in the truest sense of the word.
As author Joyce Carol Oates has so accurately stated—“The brilliant boxer is an artist, albeit in an art not readily comprehensible, or palatable, to most observers”.Archie was an artist in the truest sense of the word. In 1955 the near 40 year old Moore challenged Rocky Marciano for the heavyweight championship of the world. Although knocked out in the 9th round Moore put up a rousing fight, even dropping Rocky hard in the 2nd round for a short count. This is how the New York Times reported it the following day: “Moore…gave an exhibition of boxing skill that, even in defeat, was almost as thrilling and moving as the display of awesome power that eventually brought the victory to Rocky.” When this sport was still worth our time and attention Archie Moore’s name stood out like a brilliant shining star.
Here is the interview:
MS: Archie, you are in New York to honor one of your former opponents, the great Charley Burley. So I think it’s appropriate to begin with him. You lost a unanimous 10 round decision to Burley and were knocked down four times. What happened?
AM: Charley Burley had a very deceptive style of fighting. He just tricked me. He tricked me because we both boxed similar but whereas mine was an apparent forward movement Burley’s was a continuous serpentine movement. He was like a threshing machine going back and forth. His body would sometimes lean over towards you and he’d pull it back just in time. Hitting him solid was almost impossible. But what made him so dangerous was that he could punch from any angle. He was never off balance although he appeared to be off balance on many occasions.
MS: You had one of the longest careers of any boxer who ever lived. You fought in five separate decades—the 1930s to the 1960s. What was the secret of your boxing longevity?
AM: Well, I knew how to fight. I was also a master of pace. It was very important to know how to force pace and set a pace. As a result very few people could make me fight out of my system of fighting. Eddie Booker, Lloyd Marshall and Charley Burley made me fight out of my system. In my winding up years Marciano was one, as was Durelle. I had to fight out of my system to get back into that fight. Another boxer I had trouble with was Jimmy Bivins. Jimmy knocked me out the first time we met because he had such a deceptive reach. Although he was no taller than I was (5’ 11”)his arms touched below his knees. When he pulled his arms up they looked no longer than mine, but when he reached them out he hit me with the hook.
MS: Well, you obviously learned from your mistake because you defeated Bivins four times after that. Looking over your amazing record I noticed that the great Ezzard Charles defeated you three times during your prime fighting years. Did Ezzard make you fight out of your system of fighting?
AM: No…no. He just outfought me. Ezzard was always in superb condition. He was a nice standup fighter and an expert boxer. Whereas he was not a terrific puncher, but he was a good puncher with both hands.
MS: Archie, you are acknowledged to be one of boxing’s all-time knockout artists. Are great punchers born or can a boxer increase power by perfecting such things as balance, leverage, and timing?
AM: Those ingredients you just mentioned are conclusive; all are an admixture as such as you just described, especially timing.
MS: Who were some of the great punchers Archie Moore fought?
AM: Charley Burley was a terrific puncher, although to look at him you would not know it. His build fooled everybody. Burley’s legs were skinny, he was not extra wide of shoulder, he was small in weight and his height was the same as mine. But that man could get more leverage into a punch than anyone I ever fought. Another great puncher was Curtis “Hatchetman” Sheppard who once missed a punch to the jaw and broke a man’s collar bone. Lloyd Marshall was the snappiest hitter of them all. He could knock you out with either hand. Ron Richards was a tough hitter. Marciano was a very hard puncher—a bludgeoning type of hitter—super conditioned by Charlie Goldman. He was 100% aggression. There were others but I’d have to look at the record because I forget.
MS: Archie I think it’s fair to say that since you were still fighting at an age when most other boxers were long retired you had to utilize every advantage, mental, physical and psychological, in order to maintain your edge over much younger opponents. Can you give an example?
AM: In 1955 I fought Nino Valdez in Las Vegas, Nevada. At the time Nino was the top ranked heavyweight. He was 6’ 4’ tall and weighed about 215 pounds. It was a 15 round bout and the winner was promised a bout with Marciano for the heavyweight title. The fight was staged at an outdoor arena in the late afternoon. As the sun began to settle on the west side of the ring I was sitting in my corner facing the sun and noticed that Nino was sitting with his back to the sun. The bell rings and I move to maneuver and before any activity starts I’ve already got my head under his chin and I’m muscling this big guy around. I face him into the sun and I keep turning him to the sun. He’s trying to get back around and I keep cutting him off. I’m always maneuvering him back to face the sun which was very bright. And all the while I keep spearing him with the left hand and keep twisting and twisting and turning him and try as he could, he could never make me turn into the sun. The sun was of course bothering him and I kept thumping him with the left jab. Hard stiff stiff jabs.Pretty soon his eyes began to lump up. One eye closed up completely and the other was closing fast. By this time the sun was going down and the fight was coming to a close. I won 14 out of 15 rounds.
MS: What does Archie Moore think of today’s boxers?
AM: “I think modern day fighters do not get proper basic training.Boxing is based on disciplined training and disciplined repetition. Do you know the best friend a fighter has when coming up? (Archie pointed to a large floor length mirror). A very important part of training is practicing your moves in front of the mirror. But most fighters never come in contact with the mirror until they start to jump rope. Since they skip rope in front of a mirror why don’t they shadow box in front of a mirror? You can do that at home. You go through the motions. You learn how to duck. I can see where I’m going to hit my opponent. Am I at the right distance from him? I can hit him over the heart. I can hit him in his liver. I can step aside and hit him in the kidney. Go over the top, whatever.
MS: After your victories over Joey Maxim for the title you defended it against Harold Johnson. This was your fifth meeting with Johnson, who you already had outpointed three times. In this fight you were behind on points when you knocked Harold out in the 14th round.
AM: Harold Johnson was a great fighter. A picture book boxer. I was just his nemesis the same way that Ezzard Charles was my nemesis. Joey Maxim was a difficult boxer to fight because he knew so much about defense. Joe was 99% defense. And Joe was very durable and tough.
MS:What are the ingredients that go into making a successful prizefighter and what advice would you offer to a young boxer asking for guidance and direction?
AM: The first ingredient is discipline. Discipline and desire. It is said that desire is the candle of intent and motivation is the match that lights it, and that candle must be kept burning.Once you make up your mind to go all the way to the top in boxing, first of all, go and get the best qualified instructor to teach you of the things you need to know. It should be someone you like, someone that you can deal with and someone you can listen to and obey. It should also be someone that you have trust in. Otherwise, somewhere down the line you’re going to have a breakup, a mix-up, or an argument and you lose a friend. Because the person who is your instructor, your trainer, your teacher, he’s closer to you than your father.
MS: Trying to find a qualified trainer nowadays is easier said than done. The number of expert boxing instructors, as compared to years ago, has diminished. What can be done about that?
AM: As far as the area of improving the skills of boxers is concerned, I have developed a whole new system of teaching the basic boxing techniques. It is a new and revolutionary technique. I taught it to George Foreman and we went down to Jamaica and won the title with it. I thought George had untapped reservoirs of strength and it was up to me to channel it.
MS: Can you describe your revolutionary system and how it works?
AM: I could readily describe it but I prefer not to at this time.
MS: OK. Let’s change the subject. Who in your opinion was the greatest pound for pound boxer you have ever seen.
(Author’s note: Archie did not answer immediately, taking about ten seconds to consider his answer)
AM: Henry Armstrong. Here is a man who won the featherweight, lightweight and welterweight titles all in the same year, and the men he beat to win those titles were great fighters in their own right.
MS: What about Sugar Ray Robinson?
AM: When Ray was active there was nobody any smoother. Watching Ray fight was like drinking a nice…soft…drink. I enjoyed watching Ray Robinson fight because I appreciate beauty in athletics. I enjoyed watching Oscar Robertson move on the basketball court, Jim Brown on a football field, Andretti in an automobile, Willie the Shoe ride the horses. Everybody had their way of doing things with skill. These are skilled men and there’s nothing I like better than skill. When a guy does something, and does it well, I admire that. There’s never been anybody more graceful, skillful with a rope than Ray and I’ve seen some awfully good rope skippers. I would rather see Ray Robinson punch a speed bag than watch the average guy go out and fight a six round fight. Ray was a skillful man, he was a game man. In his time there was nobody more beautiful than he was, although there were one or two guys that might have beaten Ray in their time. I would like for someone to say, personally, that I think Charley Burley could have beaten Ray in Ray’s best time. But people hate to go out on a limb.
MS: Is there anything about your boxing life you would have changed or done differently?
AM: I’d have like to have made some money and have more financial gain out of boxing. You see aboxer’s wish is to be independent. This is a profession. I like to be without obligations to other people but I was obligated. But I was mindful of whom I borrowed money from and I was careful not to get mixed up with people who would be embarrassing to you at a time when they wanted to collect.
MS: Thank you for your time Archie.
(Mike Silver is the author of Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing and The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science. Both books are available on Amazon.com)
INSIDE THE RING WITH TEDDY ATLAS and ESPN
Considering the level of ignorance, incompetence and sophistry that has taken over virtually every aspect of today’s schizophrenic professional boxing scene it was a revelation of sorts—not to mention a breath of fresh air—to discover the recently televised (ESPN) series of five master classes conducted by world renowned boxing teacher-trainer Teddy Atlas. The program’s title, Inside the Ring, doesn’t do justice to the quality of “insider” information and knowledge that is imparted in each of the five segments totaling 47 minutes. Atlas, a protégé of the legendary Cus D’Amato, is the former trainer of Mike Tyson, Michael Moorer, Timothy Bradley and a slew of other notable champions and contenders. For over 20 years he also served as a ringside commentator for ESPN’s televised boxing cards.
With the premier of Inside the Ring (first televised in May and June) Teddy’s role as teacher, historian and boxing psychologist is fully realized. The program brought together Atlas and one of the best boxers in the world, the undisputed super lightweight champion Terence Crawford whose current record shows 33 victories and no losses. Last month Terence added a welterweight title belt to his already impressive resume.
With both men seated in a boxing ring they reviewed filmed highlights of five of Crawford’s most important fights and discussed how each contributed to the progression of his boxing skills. At its core this program is an engaging and enlightening conversation between an accomplished boxer and a master trainer as they examine and explain the various technical subtleties and strategies on display.
What transpires is a wonderful “teacher and student” vibe in which the audience becomes privy to aspects of boxing technique that are seldom revealed or understood.
Inside the Ring makes good use of the fight films, often reverting to slow motion so the audience can more readily see what is being described and analyzed. Atlas’s insightful observations, interspersed with Crawford’s astute comments, are both eye opening and entertaining. The mutual respect each has for the other is obvious. Crawford comes off as personable and intelligent. In explaining to Atlas why he decided on a certain strategy Crawford reveals himself to be a thinking fighter who can easily articulate his methodology. What transpires is a wonderful “teacher and student” vibe in which the audience becomes privy to aspects of boxing technique that are seldom revealed or understood.
Each episode also includes Atlas and Crawford standing up to demonstrate a significant move or counter move that was utilized during the course of a match. Some of the topics discussed include how timing can nullify speed, how to handle a taller opponent, the importance of footwork for defense, or why Crawford was getting hit by an opponent’s left jab. There is a wonderfully revealing moment during the viewing of Crawford’s breakthrough bout with Yuriorkis Gamboa, a talented fighter with as much boxing skill as Crawford but of late hampered by inactivity and age. A slow motion replay shows Crawford getting tagged with a solid right cross. It was Gamboa’s best punch of the fight. Atlas explains that Gamboa set up the punch with a feint and a “throwaway left hook” that distracted Crawford and left him open. Lesson learned.
This type of real boxing knowledge is like imbibing a cool glass of sweet lemonade on a hot summer day.
This is as far away as one can get from the mindless “rock ‘em sock ‘em” robotic style of too many of today’s poorly coached boxers. Every moment of Inside the Ring is filled with information that relates to tactics and strategy. Thankfully the overused and simplistic “punch stats” aka “CompuBox” numbers are never mentioned. Atlas and Crawford are less concerned with counting up the number of punches than with understanding and explaining what created the situations for those punches to find (or not to find) their targets in the first place. As opposed to the usual mundane and hyperbolic verbiage that accompanies most televised fights, exposure to this type of real boxing knowledge is like imbibing a cool glass of sweet lemonade on a hot summer day.
As of today there are no plans to continue the series. That is unfortunate because ESPN is in possession of a treasure that is not being utilized to its fullest extent. That treasure is Atlas’s extraordinary knowledge and teaching skills combined with ESPN’s vast collection of boxing films from the 1890s to the present.
Not only would such a program improve the boxing IQ of every fan, it would improve the overall quality of the sport!
How great would it be to experience Atlas analyzing and interpreting the boxing techniques, strengths, and weaknesses of the sport’s biggest stars of the past and present in the setting described above? I have no doubt that such a program would do much to revive, or at the very least improve, the lost art of boxing. It would be a shame if this program was just a one shot deal thus depriving us of future insights into the mysteries of the sweet science. Not only would such a program improve the boxing IQ of every fan, it would improve the overall quality of the sport! In other words, it would be a gift that would keep on giving.
Boxing historian Mike Silver is the author of The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science and Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing. Both are available at Amazon.com
A World Of Professional Amateurs
A WORLD OF PROFESSIONAL AMATEURS
By Mike Silver
A few weeks ago I watched an HBO boxing double header featuring two light heavyweight title fights: Sergey Kovalev vs. Eleider Alvarez and Dmitriy Bivol vs. Isaac Chilemba. The bouts confirmed to me that the art of boxing, as I knew it, is dead and unlikely to be revived anytime soon.
It’s not so much what I saw but what I didn’t see. As in so many other televised contests the sophisticated boxing skills that were once so common among the top echelon of professional fighters 50 or more years ago are absent from today’s champions and contenders. In the title fights mentioned above less than a dozen body punches were exchanged and there was virtually no infighting. There were no double jabs or combinations and no feints, ducking, parrying, or weaving under punches. Footwork was in two directions—forward and back. Absent was lateral movement or circling an opponent. Other than occasionally stepping back out of range to avoid a punch, defense was limited to the usual gloves in front of the face while standing still and waiting to be hit. No attempt was made to slip a punch and counter. Every round was a repeat of the previous because the fighters did not have the experience, training or ring savvy to know how to change tactics.
Today the difference between the best amateur boxers and the best professional boxers is negligible.
With few exceptions the majority of today’s top professional boxers all fight the same way. There is very little variety in their fighting styles. Even several years after turning pro it is basically the same style they used as amateurs. In the past that would have been perceived as a weakness when competing against an experienced professional. Today the difference between the best amateur boxers and the best professional boxers is negligible. And that is why, in boxing’s current culture and climate, it is impossible to produce a world champion who merits comparison to the greatest boxers of the 1920s to the 1970s.
One of the sport’s current stars is the former two time Olympic gold medalist (2008 and 2012) Vasyl Lomachenko. This extremely talented boxer won his first title in 2014 in only his third professional fight. Over the next four years he added two more divisional titles to his impressive resume. But we will never know how great Vasyl can become because the talent pool in the lighter weight divisions lacks depth. Where are the great fighters to test him? Answer: there are none.
Lomachenko is a rare commodity. He reminds us of the very promising professional prospects who often caught our attention during boxing’s golden age. But even if he had been competing during the last vestiges of that era—the 1960s and 1970s—his rise to the top would not have been as rapid or as easy. And there would be no guarantees he would ever win a title. Despite his amazing amateur record he would not have been ready this early in his career (less than a dozen professional fights in four and a half years) for the likes of Sugar Ramos, Vicente Saldivar, Carlos Ortiz, Nicolino Loche, Roberto Duran or Aaron Pryor.
This used to be known as “stick and move” strategy. It is rarely seen today.
What makes Lomachenko stand out today is his use of extreme speed of punches combined with rapid and constantly shifting footwork that he uses to confuse and befuddle second rate opponents. This used to be known as “stick and move” strategy. It is rarely seen today. I’m grateful to Lomachenko for reviving it. Hopefully it will catch on. After all, a target swiftly moving to and fro is always more difficult to hit than a stationary one. It is a simple concept that doesn’t seem to have penetrated today’s boxers or their trainers. The best way to neutralize a constantly moving target is to either keep your opponent preoccupied with a busy left jab, make him miss, and then counter, or cut off the ring while applying unrelenting pressure. Luckily for Lomachenko there are no outstanding pressure fighters today in the mold of a prime Manny Pacquiao or Julio Ceasar Chavez. Another was Ray “Boom Boom” Manicini who gave the great Alexis Arguello trouble for 13 rounds. Ray wasn’t ready to take on Arguello but if we were to replace Arguello with Lomachenko I think the result would be a win for “Boom Boom”.
Forty years ago another gifted professional, Wilfred Benitez, won the junior welterweight title from the great Antonio Cervantes in his 26th professional fight. It is the same title Lomachenko won by stopping Jorge Linares in the 10th round on May 12th 2018. It was Loma’s 12th pro fight. Linares had a decent amount of professional experience but at best he is a slightly better than average boxer. Yet by using an effective jab and quick counters he was able to keep the fight even through nine rounds. Now what do you think would happen if we were to replace Linares with a prime Antonio Cervantes or Wilfred Benitez?
Perhaps a boxer with as much natural talent as Lomachenko may have adapted if he had come along 50 or more years ago. But it’s impossible to say. In years past there were so many terrific prospects who faltered when it came time to make the leap from great prospect to great boxer.
I don’t say this to demean the current crop of world champions. (At last count there were over 100 spread over 17 weight divisions!) The best of them possess an abundance of natural talent, are in excellent physical condition, have extensive amateur experience, and usually put forth a tremendous effort. It is not their fault that after turning pro they do not receive the type of quality training and competition that would have a positive impact in improving their boxing technique.
A major reason for the lack of refined skills is the shortage of qualified teacher-trainers who understand and can teach the finer points of boxing technique.
A major reason for the lack of refined skills is the shortage of qualified teacher-trainers who understand and can teach the finer points of boxing technique. Nevertheless, despite these drawbacks, I think it is important to make comparisons between today’s best and those of decades past if only to gain perspective and to inform and enlighten us as to what it truly means to be a great boxer.
Among today’s fighters there are a few who are not of the cookie cutter variety. Lomechenko, Terrance Crawford and Gennady Golovkin are in this category. They are pleasing to watch because they are capable of performing at a higher level than the sea of mediocrity that surrounds them. They bring back memories similar to the type of young talent we used to see years ago. Golovkin is the most “old school” of the three. But an accurate appraisal of their current level of overall skill and experience indicates they are not as well rounded and seasoned as the top contenders and champions of boxing’s golden past. Through no fault of their own they will never be tested in the same way the best fighters of the 1920s to 1970s were tested. They will never experience the type of brutal competition their counterparts in decades past had to contend with while trying to hold onto a title or a top ten rating.
Let’s return to the four fighters mentioned at the beginning of this article, all of whom are either current or former light heavyweight champions. How would they have fared against the best light heavyweight champions of the 1970s and early 1980s? (Comparisons to golden oldies like Loughran, Rosenbloom, Lewis, Conn, Moore or Johnson are unnecessary because the answer is too obvious). Does anyone who has seen the following boxers actually believe today’s champions could defeat Bob Foster, Mathew Saad Muhammad, Victor Galindez, John Conteh or Michael Spinks? And what about Richie Kates, Jerry “The Bull” Martin, Yacqui Lopez, Eddie Mustafah Muhammed, Jorge Ahumada, Dwight Braxton, Marvin Johnson and Eddie Davis? These 1970s era light heavyweights did not build up their records fighting 2nd and 3rd rate opponents, as is the norm today. They did not avoid the hard fights.
All of the above proved to be tough and seasoned professionals capable of giving any great boxer of the past a competitive fight. Aside from the quality of their training and the seasoning they acquired over the course of their careers these accomplished professionals possessed another very important weapon: psychological toughness. A fighter who could combine that type of resilience with superior boxing skills was very, very tough to beat.
Of the four light heavyweightswho headlined the HBO show the best of the lot is Alvarez who won his portion of the title by stopping Kovalev in the seventh round. He did very well considering he hadn’t fought in over a year. (Long layoffs and inactivity is another feature of the current boxing scene). I am impressed by Alvarez but also saddened. He is extremely talented, well-schooled in basic boxing technique and is very determined. Had he been more active (only four fights in the last two years) he could have eclipsed Andre Ward as the star of the division. But at the age of 34 and with only 23 pro fights in 11 years the former amateur champion will never have the opportunity to realize his full potential.
Another example of unrealized professional talent is Dmitry Bivol. As a successful amateur boxer he engaged in nearly 300 fights, winning a slew of regional titles before turning pro in 2014. Three years later Dimitry won a portion of the world light heavyweight title in only his 12th professional fight. As an amateur he performed at the highest level. Using those same amateur skills he has attained great success in a very short time as a pro. Dmitry won’t be required to improve much beyond his current skill level because the line that once separated top amateur boxers from top professional boxers has become blurred. In his most recent bout he won a dreary 12 round decision against a second rate opponent whose purpose was just to survive the 12 rounds and collect his payday. It would be nice if the four current champs were to engage in a tournament to determine who is best—but don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.
Forty years ago Dmitry Bivol would be labelled a hot prospect and maybe in line for a semi-final in Madison Square Garden. But as good as he is Dmitry would not be ready to challenge a prime Victor Galindez, the reigning world light heavyweight champion. At that time 300 amateur fights and 14 pro wins (88 rounds) didn’t make you ready to challenge an outstanding professional boxer whose record showed over 50 pro bouts and 485 rounds.
That futile effort, and his opponent’s stubborn resistance, appeared to dampen Kovalev’s fighting spirit.
And what of Kovalev—the once mighty “Krusher”?Three years ago he put up a stirring but losing effort against a very good Andre Ward. That decision could have just as well gone to Kovalev. It was that close. His return bout with Ward seven months later ended in controversy and left many fans puzzled. Slightly ahead on points “The Krusher” took several borderline shots to the midsection. He reacted by draping himself over the ropes. The referee awarded the tko win to Ward. In his recent bout against Alvarez he was also ahead on points. Kovalev tried hard for a KO in rounds five and six but couldn’t put Alvarez away. That futile effort, and his opponent’s stubborn resistance, appeared to dampenKovalev’s fighting spirit. He came out for the seventh round looking tired and discouraged. Carrying his left hand dangerously low and moving slowly Kovalev was knocked down by a solid right cross.
What surprised me was that Kovalev, after arising from the first knockdown, did not appear to know what to do.But a quick review of his record explained why. In nine years Kovalev had fought only 143 professional rounds. Seventeen of his 28 knockout victims never made it past the second round. A seasoned pro in the same situation would have known how to tie up his opponent in a clinch or bob and weave his way out of trouble, or at least make the attempt. Kovalev, used to knocking out inferior opposition, didn’t know what to do when the situation was reversed. He remained an open target and was quickly dropped twice more before the referee stopped the fight.
If the reader is interested additional information related to the topic of this article is contained in the author’s book, “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science” (McFarland Publishing). It is available on Amazon.
Mike’s other book is “Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing”, also available on Amazon.
BOXING’S FIVE DECADE MEN
BOXING’S FIVE DECADE MEN
A few weeks ago I had the good fortune to meet up with the great Roberto Duran. The legendary four division world champion was the guest of honor at the annual Ring 10 Veteran Boxers Association benefit. It was a rare public appearance for the now 67 year old warrior. Yes, 67! As expected, Duran’s presence electrified the 400 plus fans in attendance.
The fighter nicknamed “Manos de Piedre” (Hands of Stone) engaged in 119 bouts and knocked out 70 opponents. While those stats are indeed impressive (especially the number of knockouts) they are not unique. Boxers who accumulated 100 or more bouts were quite common during the first half of the twentieth century. In addition, 55 other pro boxers have knocked out 70 or more opponents. But, in spite of that, Roberto Duran’s record stands out for another reason that very few can match: He is one of only three boxers in the entire history of the sport who fought in five consecutive decades.
What qualities did these boxers possess that allowed them to survive for so many years in their brutal profession? I came to the conclusion that the first ingredient had to be a deep understanding of their craft. All three were well schooled in the finer points of boxing technique.That quality was further enhanced by the seasoning they gradually acquired during their first decade of competition. On top of that they had to be flexible enough to make the necessary adjustments as they aged. It also helped that all three had great chins.
These boxers weren’t just great athletes—they were very smart athletes. They were able to compensate for deteriorating speed and reflexes by combining experience with superior athletic intelligence and excellent defensive strategies. Even near the end of their careers they were rarely knocked out or subject to a sustained beating. It was a method utilized to great success by two former champions who stretched their careers to the maximum and are among the dozen master boxers who just missed the five decade mark: Welterweight champion Jack Britton (1904-1930) and light heavyweight champion Archie Moore (1935-1963). Both used an amalgam of those four skill sets—athletic intelligence, flexibility, superior defensive strategies, and vast experience— to keep them in the game long after their contemporaries had retired.
I could have added another master boxer to the list, the former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson. But despite his having fought in five consecutive decades (1897-1930) there were several gaps in his record. Johnson remained active up to his winning the title in 1908. But from 1911 to 1930 there were seven years in which he did not engage in a single prizefight. I felt this was too much inactivity, even for a five decade man, so I decided that only a fighter with not more than three separate years without a fight could qualify. Those ground rules would have applied to George Foreman as well. Big George fought in four separate decades (1964-1997) but was idle from 1978 to 1986, so even if he had fought into a fifth decade that lengthy stretch of inactivity would disqualify him.
In chronological order here are the three members of the exclusive “Five Decade” club:
Kid Azteca: Professional career 1929 to 1961. Won-lost-draw record: 192-47-11, including 114 wins by knockout .
A legend in Mexico, and one of that country’s greatest fighters, the 5’8” 147 pound welterweight had his first pro bout when Herbert Hoover was president, Babe Ruth was still belting out home runs for the Yankees, and Gene Tunney was heavyweight champion. When, 32 years later, he entered the ring at age 47 for his last pro bout Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were the home run kings for the Yankees, Floyd Patterson was heavyweight champion, and John F. Kennedy was president. But longevity is not the only item that distinguishes Azteca’s boxing career. He was a top ten title contender for seven years. Between October 1933 and May 1941 (40 months) Azteca was ranked as high as the #1 world welterweight contender by The Ring magazine.
Kid Azteca earned his rating with wins over contenders Joe Glick, Young Peter Jackson, Eddie Kid Wolfe, Baby Joe Gans, the Cocoa Kid, Izzy Jannazzo, Morrie Sherman and future middleweight champion Ceferino Garcia (two out of three). In 1939 he lost a close decision to future welterweight champion Fritzie Zivic. After losing twice to Zivic in return matches Azteca finally gained a victory in 1947. Other notable opponents were Jackie Wilson, Baby Casanova, Bep Van Klaveren, Leon Zorrita and former lightweight champion Sammy Angott. Most of his fights took place in Mexico City but he also appeared in Los Angeles, Texas and South American rings. There are no gaps in his record—he engaged in at least one or more fights every year from 1929 to 1961.
Throughout his life Kid Azteca remained hugely popular among his countrymen and even appeared in several movies produced in Mexico. Unfortunately there are no films of him in action. Nevertheless, I don’t think it would be a stretch, considering his career and high rating, to say that Azteca possessed an outstanding defense. Fighters who are “catchers” or who engage in too many wars are worn out quickly and cannot sustain a career anywhere near that length of time.
Roberto Duran:Professional career 1968 to 2001. Won-lost record: 103-16, including 70 wins by knockout.
The street urchin who emerged from the slums of Panama to become one of the sport’s greatest and most charismatic champions turned pro at the age of 16. Five decades later, on July 14, 2001, in the final fight of his career, the 50 year old legend lost a unanimous 12 round decision to 39 year old Hector Camacho.
The Roberto Duran who lost to Camacho was many years passed his prime. He was not the same fighter who took down Ken Buchanan, Estaban DeJesus, Sugar Ray Leonard, Ray Lampkin, Pepino Cuevas and Iran Barkley. Nevertheless, he could still display the subtle boxing moves and ring smarts that kept him from being dominated by much younger opponents.
Roberto Duran was one of the greatest punchers in the history of the lightweight division. But, as sometimes happens with exciting punchers who can also box, their cleverness often goes unrecognized or underappreciated. Duran had a world of natural ability but he also was intelligent enough to understand that there was far more to this sport than throwing punches at an opponent. There is a telling quote in Kelly Nicholson’s excellent article on Duran (“The Panamanian Devil”, International Boxing Research Journal, September 2018): “As to the motivation for his career, Duran would say shortly before the first fight with Leonard, ‘I got into boxing to learn it…I didn’t enter the ring to get out of the gutter. Those are stories. I got into it because I like it.”
Duran’s nascent career benefited tremendously from the expert teaching of his two old school master trainers Freddie Brown and Ray Arcel. These two professors of pugilism had nearly 100 years of combined experience. They answered his desire to learn as much as possible about his craft, smoothed out the rough edges, and made him even more dangerous. They taught him the tricks of his trade and the result was that Duran eventually developed into the type of throwback fighter that is virtually extinct today.
Watch a video of any Duran fight after 1974 and you will see that even in his dotage he never gets trapped on the ropes, often rides with and slips punches aimed at his head and performs subtle feints to lure his opponents into making mistakes that are paid for with damaging and accurate counter punches (especially to the body). As he moved up in weight and as he aged Duran’s punch was not as devastating as it had been during his eight year tenure as lightweight champion. As a result, he had to rely more on his strategic boxing skills. To watch Roberto Duran fight is to experience a textbook lesson in the lost art of boxing. He is one of the few genuine ring greats who still walks among us.
Saoul Mamby: Professional career 1969 to 2008. Won-lost-draw record; 45-34-6, including 18 wins by knockout.
It is virtually impossible to go through an entire professional boxing career and expect to come through relatively unscathed. But if anyone came close to achieving such a goal that person would be Saoul Mamby, which is all the more remarkable since he had his last professional fight at the age of 60!
Just as there are born punchers I believe there are also born boxers. What I mean is that some neophyte boxers seem to grasp the concepts of on balance defensive boxing more readily than most. Perhaps it’s a genetic disposition that tells them it is better to give than to receive.
Saoul Mamby never thought it a good idea to receive a punch in exchange for the opportunity to land one of his own. He did not seek a knockout victory, although if presented with the opportunity his solid right cross was capable of dropping an opponent. His basic strategy involved keeping his hands up to protect his chin, using a busy left jab to keep an opponent off balance, and always keep moving. He never threw a right hand punch unless he deemed it safe to do so. It was a style that didn’t win fans but it kept him from taking a sustained beating. Jim Corbett would have approved.
Mamby’s defensive prowess was put to the test when he faced a prime Roberto Duran on May 4, 1976 in a non-title 10 round bout. The lightweight champion tried mightily to make Mamby his 49th knockout victim. Duran won the unanimous decision but he did not come close to scoring a knockout. Six months later Mamby faced another test when he crossed gloves with the formidable former champion Antonio Cervantes who had knocked out nine of his previous ten opponents. Like Duran, Cervantes could not find his elusive opponent’s chin and had to settle for unanimous decision.
His first attempt to win a title occurred in 1977 and resulted in a controversial split decision loss to the WBC Super Lightweight champion Saensak Muangsurin. The fight took place in Thailand, the champion’s home turf. Mamby believed he was the victim of a hometown decision.
Three years later, in his second try for the 140 pound title, he challenged Sang Hyun Kim of Korea. Once again he found himself fighting in his opponent’s backyard. Not willing to take any chances on a hometown decision the 32 year old challenger displayed a more aggressive style and was intent on ending the fight before it went to a decision. In the 14th round, Mamby saw an opening and landed a powerful right cross on Kim’s jaw that dropped him for the full count.
Winning a world title seemed to energize Mamby and in his first defense he stopped former lightweight champion Estaban De Jesus in the 13th round. Four more successful defenses followed before he lost a controversial 15 round split decision to Leroy Haley. After outpointing Monroe Brooks he was given a chance to regain the title from Haley but lost another close decision. In 1984, in his final title challenge, he fought Billy Costello for the super lightweight championship and lost a 12 round unanimous decision.
By the 1990s Mamby was losing more often (he won only five of his last 17 bouts) but, win or lose, he continued to frustrate opponents. Mamby finally announced his retirement on May 19, 2000 in Greensboro, North Carolina. He was 52 years old.
Eight years later Mamby attempted a comeback. After being told that no boxing commission would dare license a 60 year old prizefighter Mamby found a place that would—the Cayman Islands. On March 8, 2008 he lost a 10 round decision to a 31 year old boxer with dismal 6-26 won-lost record. As usual Saoul emerged unscathed. As of today there are no plans for a comeback.
Mike Silver is the author of The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science and Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing. Both books are available on Amazon.com.
THE MAGIC MAN TALKS BOXING: MY INTERVIEW WITH MARLON STARLING
Marlon Starling Interviewed by Mike Silver for Boxing Over Broadway
Former welterweight champion Marlon Starling was the fifth boxer from Connecticut to win a world title. Louis “Kid” Kaplan, Pinky Silverberg, Batt Battalino and Willie Pep all won their titles during the golden age of Connecticut boxing from the 1920s to the 1940s. During that time the “Nutmeg State” was home to many other outstanding boxers including Lou Bogash, Ted Lowry, Chico Vejar, Julie Kogon, Johnny Cesario, Vic Cardell, Larry Boardman and Bernie Reynolds.
Marlon Starling is far removed from that era, nevertheless he could accurately be described as “old school”. There were few soft touches during his ascent to the title. He accomplished his goal the old fashioned way—he earned it. Along the way be became one of the top professional boxers of the 1980s.
Before turning pro Marlon reportedly won 97 of 110 amateur bouts. His professional career spanned 11 years (1979-1990). He lost only 5 of 52 professional fights and stopped 27 opponents.Only one of his five career losses (all by decision) resulted in a unanimous verdict. He drew in two other bouts.
In an era of tough welterweight competition Marlon Starling stood out among his peers.
Marlon won his first 25 fights before losing a split 12 round decision to future welterweight champion Donald Curry in 1982. He defeated his next six opponents (flattening four of them) and looked very impressive stopping hard punching Jose Baret and outpointing Kevin Howard over 12 rounds.
The rematch with Curry for the world title resulted in another decision loss for Starling. The Dallas hotshot seemed to have Marlon’s number. But showing the patience and persistence that was the hallmark of his stolid fighting style Marlon got back on track with wins over Lupe Acquino, Floyd Mayweather, Sr., Simon Brown and Pedro Vilella.
In 1987 he defeated Mark Breland in a torrid battle for the WBA welterweight title, stopping the former Olympic champion in the 11th round. Less than a year later he won the WBC welterweight belt with a 9th round TKO of England’s Lloyd Honeyghan.
Moving up in weight Marlon challenged IBF middleweight champion Michael Nunn but lost a majority 12 round decision. Four months later, on August 19th, 1990, in the final fight of his career, Marlon lost the welterweight title to Maurice Blocker via another majority decision.
In an era of tough welterweight competition Marlon Starling stood out among his peers. Let’s read what he has to say about his career.
Mike: Marlon, let’s start by talking about some of your most important fights. In 1982 you lost a split 12 round decision for the North American welterweight title to Donald Curry. It was your first loss in 26 professional fights. A year later you lost a 15 round unanimous decision to Curry, this time for the world title. Was he your most difficult opponent?
Marlon: Not difficult. Donald Curry was my most challenging opponent. That’s because Donald was a boxer like me. He did nothing great, but everything good. That was the kind of fighter I was. It was like fighting a mirror image of me. I mean he wasn’t a dynamite puncher. He didn’t have a great hook, didn’t have a great left jab, but everything was good.
Mike: Often when boxers have similar styles it doesn’t make for an exciting fight. In fact, the New York Times reporter called it a “dull” fight.
Marlon: I believe I won that first fight. I mean I didn’t get the decision but I know in my heart I won that first fight. But at the time Don Curry was a big Bob Arum fighter so he got the decision. The second fight was a different story. I lost that second fight more than he won it. Curry prepared himself better than I did for the second fight, even though I was prepared. He won a very close 15 round decision. My trainer kept saying ‘back him up, back him up’. But the problem was I couldn’t back him up. He was a little stronger than me in that fight. So he retained the title. I got out of the ring that day and for the first time in my career, maybe after 30 fights, said to myself ‘Wow, that guy beat me!’ And that was something that was tough for me to cough up.”
Mike: You didn’t let that defeat slow you down. Over the next two and a half years you won 10 of 12 fights culminating in your 11th round TKO victory over Mark Breland on August 22, 1987 for the welterweight championship. Before turning pro in 1984 Mark Breland had won every amateur title including an unprecedented five New York Golden Gloves championships and an Olympic gold medal.
Marlon: I knocked him out but I still got the worst ass whippin’ I ever took. His jab hurt like most guys right hand, and he was hitting me with that jab. His jab broke my nose. I should have boxed the man, worked my way in, feint the man, and do all this, but at the time I wanted that world championship. I got it, but I had to pay to get in. My strategy was to wear him down with body punches. Once I got inside I was banging that body. I didn’t like to pay the price but I had to.
Mike: You also had a huge edge in professional experience—45 pro fights and 287 rounds to his 18 fights and 76 rounds. And you had fought tougher competition.
Marlon: Yes, my experience was a factor but also my professionalism, my conditioning and my willingness not to quit. But you know what? Mark Breland became one of my best friends. We talk every other week. He is a good man. I respect him to the utmost.
Mike: You fought a rematch with Breland eight months later that ended in a 12 round draw. Most observers thought you deserved the decision.
Marlon: Mark was a bit better in the second fight. I was better too and got hit less this time. I deserved to win that fight but he was an Arum fighter and they didn’t want him to lose.
Mike: Your victory over Breland won you partial recognition as welterweight champion. England’s Lloyd Honeyghan had defeated your nemesis Donald Curry two years earlier and was recognized as champion by a rival sanctioning group. In early 1989 you and Honeyghan met to unify the title. You stopped him in the 9th round.Tell me about that fight:
Marlon: Now Lloyd Honygan was a whole different ball game. I knew I was going to beat him up.
Mike: I recently watched a tape of the Honeyghan fight and you weren’t doing much for the first 3 or 4 rounds. Was that part of your strategy?
Marlon:The first two rounds I was just getting his technique…see what he’s doing…getting his timing down…getting his moves down. Lloyd was a good puncher but what good is a puncher if he ain’t gonna hit you? It’s all about hit and don’t get hit. I didn’t want to get careless. One time I did get careless and he hit me on top of the head and buckled my feet a little bit. Lloyd was a southpaw and every time he threw that right jab I’d counter with a right cross. If I showed him a feint and he put that left hand out I countered with the right. By the 5th or 6th round if I said jump he’d jump. He was actually waiting for it to happen. I mean by the 5th round I had this guy scared to punch. I was not what you’d call a knock out fighter but I’d get your attention with everything I’d throw.
Mike: Honeyghan had a big reputation coming into that fight, running up a string of impressive victories including a TKO of Donald Curry. Do you consider the Honeyghan fight your greatest career accomplishment?
Marlon: Most fans would think that but Lloyd Honeyghan was one of my easiest fights ever as a professional. I mean he played right into my hands. Maybe I was just so eager and wanted to get him so bad. I was sharp that night. I would rather get knocked out than take a beating like he did. Nobody needs to take a beating like that. I know he wore that fight for a long time.”
Mike: About a year after your victory over Honeyghan you put on 10 pounds and challenged middleweight champion Michael Nunn. You lost a 12 round decision. That was the only time you ever fought as a middleweight.
Marlon: I was at the point where I said to myself there is nobody else in the world that can beat me at welterweight so I moved up a weight class to fight Nunn. What did I have to lose? He wasn’t a big puncher and I believed I could beat this guy even though he was undefeated and a southpaw. But he was a little quicker than I thought and a lot taller. That’s not an excuse why I lost that fight. In the middle of the third or fourth round I had him in the corner and I took my gloves and I like dug them into his face and he said to me, ‘c’mon man fight fair’. I decided to just get in there and box him.I turned the fight into a sparring session. I didn’t go get him like I should have. That particular day he was a little sharper than I was. He won that fight because he worked harder. But you know what? After the fight we went out and had dinner together.
Mike: Who trained you?
Marlon: My first trainer was Johnny Duke. He trained me as an amateur and in my early years as a pro. For a little while Eddie Futch trained me but we had a falling out and I let Eddie go. After that Freddie Roach, who worked with Eddie, became my trainer. But for most of my career my trainer was Marlon Starling. They just had to keep me in line with the training regimen. Whatever happened in my career happened for a reason. When I got with Freddie I finished with Freddie. He didn’t have to do a lot to get me ready—just sharpen me up. We were friends.
Mike: What do you think of today’s top fighters? Do any of them stand out?
Marlon: I watch the fights on TV now and then but I couldn’t tell you. There are too many champions. If one of them walked by me I would ask ‘who was that?’ I mean when I was fighting I knew everybody in the top ten. Now I don’t know who they are. That doesn’t mean I’m trying to degrade anybody. I just don’t know. But from what I see when I do watch the fights a lot is missing. They have a title but they don’t have the skills.
Mike: What is missing?
Marlon: I don’t see things that they should have been taught to do years ago. Listen, you can win a title with a three punch combination— left jab, right cross, left hook. You don’t see too many people throwing that combination. You don’t even see a double jab. If you throw a punch you have to bring it back from where you threw it, because if you don’t I’m going to make you pay for it. If you throw that right hand out you’ve got to bring it right back to your face. A lot of times I see a fighter throw the right and it comes back to his chest. I will counter punch you all day if you do that. You’ll be afraid to throw punches if I was in the ring with you. If all you know is “fight” I can beat you. I’m not going to fight you. I’m going to box you and win. Most of the guys when under pressure all they know is “fight”. They don’t know the professionalism of being a good boxer. Anybody could fight. Dogs fight. You’ve got to outthink the other fighter. What I mean by outthink is that sometimes you have to outfight your opponent. I’m not fighting with a guy that punches like hell. I’m going to box you, until you get tired, and then I’m going to fight you. I was a thinking fighter. I didn’t fight the fighters and I didn’t box the boxers.
“Today’s boxers have more toughness than knowledge. You can be tough. I love to fight the tough guys because they don’t have the knowledge. A good right hand, a good jab, and a good left hook. You have those three punches you can go places. If you don’t have a great jab it’s like training with one arm. Everything works off the jab, at least as far as I’ve been taught.”
Mike: I noticed in reviewing your fights that you rarely got trapped on the ropes or in the corner.
Marlon: Ring generalship. Like I told people – ‘this is my house (the ring)’. I live here. I know that square. I got radar in back of me telling me ‘you’re coming close to the ropes, you’re coming close to the corner.’ You had to know these things.”
Mike: You were very strong at 147 pounds. You had huge shoulders and a powerful physique. Many fighters today lift weights to increase strength. Did you ever lift weights as part of your training routine?
Marlon: No, never. You know lifting weights tighten you up. I got most of my strength and power from punching the bag and training.”
Mike: You were sometimes criticized for showboating during a fight. In fact, your occassional clowning may have cost you the first Curry fight. Did you do it to play to the audience or confuse your opponent?
Marlon: I don’t showboat. It’s all right if you do a move and knock the guy out– then it’s all right. But if something doesn’t happen then you’re accused of showboatin’. Sometimes it’s just in your rhythm. You couldn’t tell me ‘Oh Marlon do the Starling Stomp.’I mean it wasn’t planned.I was just in the moment. Emotions come with this sport. I wasn’t trying to showboat. I was just trying to be me trying to get what I can get out of this guy.
Mike: In 1980, in only your sixth pro fight, you had the misfortune of fatally injuring your opponent Charley Newell. He never recovered from the brain injury and passed away nine days later. In spite of this tragedy you made the decision to continue with your career.
Marlon: I had previously fought him in an amateur fight when he was in prison. Charley Newell was a bully on the street but to me he wasn’t a bad person. We fought at the Civic Center in Hartford. I think it was January 9th. I hit him with a combo and knocked him out. I was working a job at that time and I went to work the next morning and I got a call that Charley Newell had passed away and that really bothered me. My parents always worried about what’s going to happen to me. I never worried about it. I came back for his funeral and his parents came up to me. His mother said to me ‘my son passed away doing something that he loved to do, don’t ever stop what you want to do.’ What she told me gave me the confidence to continue with my career.
Mike: Tommy Hearns was welterweight champion while you were an up and coming prospect. You weren’t ready to take him on but you did spar with him while he was preparing for the Sugar Ray Leonard fight in 1981. What did you learn from that experience?
Marlon: I got an offer to go to Vegas to work as a sparring partner and help Hearns get ready for Leonard. It was an opportunity for me to see what I could do with the ‘big boys’ out there. I sparred with Tommy and he broke my jaw but they knew I got the better of that sparring session. How do I know? They kept Milton McCrory far away from me after that. (Author’s Note: Milton McCrory, a future champion, was Hearns’s stablemate and a rising star in the welterweight division).
Mike: A few years after that sparring session you were ready to challenge Hearns or Leonard but you never fought them. Why not?
Marlon: Marlon Starling fought everyone out there.The reason why I didn’t fight Leonard or Hearns is because my name wasn’t that big. I trained with Tommy but they just didn’t want to take a chance and give up something they had. That’ why they didn’t fight me…they couldn’t make a lot of money fighting me.
Mike: Marlon, you lost the welterweight title to Maurice Blocker in your very last bout on August 19, 1990. The 12 round majority decision was very close and could have gone either way. You were only 30 years old and still a top rated welterweight. Why did you decide to retire?
Marlon: I don’t think he won but it wasn’t one of my best fights. I quit the ring because the promoters and managers were making more money than me and they weren’t taking the punches.
Mike Silver is the author of The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science and Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing. Both books are available on Amazon.com.
The Amazing Harry Greb’s Amazing Year
SMOKESTACK LIGHTNING: HARRY GREB, 1919
By Springs Toledo
Amazon Kindle Edition $7.99
Book review by Mike Silver
If asked to name the greatest boxer who ever lived most boxing historians would most likely place Sugar Ray Robinson in the top spot. That is always a good choice. But it is not the only choice. There are, perhaps, three or four other boxers whose spectacular record of accomplishment makes them worthy of consideration.
In his latest literary effort Springs Toledo makes a very strong case for a boxer who just may have been the greatest who ever lived—Harry Greb. In a career that spanned 13 years (1913 to 1926) the legendary “Pittsburgh Windmill” fought a phenomenal 294 professional boxing contests often against the greatest boxers of his era. His record shows only 19 losses (eight official losses and 11 newspaper decisions). Most occurred either early or late in his career.
Harry Greb, both as an athlete and a person, is one of the most fascinating and charismatic characters of the 20th century.
For those readers lucky enough to have read Toledo’s previous works this paean to a truly great fighter exposes us once again to the author’s colorful and engaging writing style. Toledo is passionate about his subject, and rightly so. Harry Greb, both as an athlete and a person, is one of the most fascinating and charismatic characters of the 20th century.
In conveying to the reader why Greb deserves his place at the pinnacle of boxing’s Mt. Rushmore Smokestack Lightning: Harry Greb, 1919 focuses on the most amazing and mind boggling year of any prizefighter of any era. In just 96 pages Toledo offers enough evidence and detail to cause the reader to shake his head in disbelief at what no normal human being would seem capable of doing.
From January 1st to December 31st 1919—while Greb was ranked the number one middleweight contender—he stormed through twenty-one cities in eight states and fought forty-five times. (Today forty-five fights would constitute an entire 10 to 15 year professional boxing career). “Greb was on track for well over 60 had scheduled bouts not been cancelled because of either injuries to himself, or an opponent’s nerve.”
In one year Greb “thrashed five Hall of Famers ten times, personally sought out the middleweight champion in New York City, ran two light heavyweight champions out of the ring, called out Jack Dempsey every chance he got, manhandled heavyweights, and barely lost a round while suffering unspeakable injuries.” According to Boxrec.com Greb won all 45 bouts.
Toledo’s books—and this one is no exception—contain far more than boxing history. They are absorbing and richly detailed character studies as well. He delves into aspects of Greb’s private life outside of the ring, describing injuries to a pre-adolescent psyche that may have contributed to his extraordinary and highly unorthodox boxing style.
At the very beginning of Greb’s sensational run he married the love of his life, Mildred Reilly, a beautiful and feisty vaudeville actress with a personality that complemented his own. The book appropriately begins with their marriage in Pittsburgh on January 30th 1919. As the author notes: “Marriage steadied but did not quite civilize Greb, who went on to build his legend around what he did to heavyweights, around a slogan he’d repeat again and again: “anybody, anyplace, anytime.” It was not unusual for him to fight two and three times in a week.
Greb did not allow anything to interfere with his drive to prove himself the greatest fighter on the planet. The honeymoon would have to wait. He had a fight scheduled in Cleveland the day after his wedding with tough middleweight contender Tommy Robson for a $1000 dollar payday.
He easily defeated Robson who, like all of Greb’s opponent’s, could not solve or fathomThe Windmill’s style. “How does he do it”, asked Robson. “How can any man of his weight dance and leap and keep on top of you the way he does without becoming exhausted? And he can go twenty rounds the same way. He is the biggest freak in the ring.” Indeed, Greb never seemed to tire and actually got stronger and faster as a bout progressed. One newspaper described him as “the leaping, bounding, elusive Greb, who kept both of his long arms going like flails.” The next day Harry returned to Pittsburgh and his bride.
Before he eventually won the middleweight championship from Johnny Wilson in 1923 Greb had boldly issued challenges to the light heavyweight and heavyweight champions. Both avoided him.Along the way he hung the only loss on future heavyweight champion Gene Tunney who was savaged over 15 rounds. Prior to the bout Tunney was warned “he is not a normal fighter. He will kill you”. To force a bout with heavyweight champion Dempsey (which never materialized) Greb sought out two of his top challengers, Tommy Gibbons and Bill Brennan and defeated both.
He issued a public challenge to 6’ 6” 245 pound Jess Willard and said he’d donate the purse to the Red Cross.
In his persistent quest to win the heavyweight championship (despite rarely weighing more than 170 pounds) Greb went to extreme lengths to prove he was worthy. He issued a public challenge to 6’ 6” 245 pound Jess Willard and said he’d donate the purse to the Red Cross. He also opened negotiations with Luis Firpo and said he’d fight the number one ranked heavyweight contender Harry Wills “in an arena or a gym just to prove that the best African-American heavyweight in the world wasn’t much.” As noted by the author, “All of them towered over him and outweighed him by at least fifty pounds, which suggests that Greb either had screws loose or was a misanthrope raging against all men, including himself.”
Toledo goes on to say, “People who knew Greb said he needed to fight often, that he thrived on his marathon plan of meeting them all, one after the other.” He typically asked for two things—“fair terms” and “the hardest guy.” While he was pleasant and friendly and loyal outside of a boxing ring, inside the ring he was an unstoppable force of nature the likes of which had never been seen before or since.
Late in his career tragedy dogged the great fighter. Four months before Greb won the middleweight title in 1923 his young wife succumbed to tuberculosis. She was just 22 years old. That same year he began to go blind in his right eye due to an injury received in a bout. He eventually lost the sight in the eye but continued to fight. Attempts to get Greb a shot at Dempsey’s title were still going on in July 1925, “when he was half blind and fighting with his head tilted to the right.”
Even half blind Greb scored some of the greatest victories of his career.
Even half blind Greb scored some of the greatest victories of his career. “But he was losing his bearings; his boundless energy now crossed with sorrow, was like a scattershot.” Perhaps to compensate for his fading vision and gain an edge he often abused the rules and risked disqualification. He became reckless outside the ring as well. There was a drunken nightclub brawl, affairs with chorus girls, breach of promise law suits, and the loss of his middleweight championship in 1926 to Tiger Flowers by a controversial split decision. At 32, and after nearly 300 professional fights, the streaking comet that was Harry Greb was finally slowing down.
Less than two months after losing the rematch to Flowers by another split decision Greb was involved in a car accident that fractured a bone near the base of his skill. Ten days later surgery to repair the injury went wrong and he died the following day.
Ninety-two years after his death the legendary fighter remains an object of fascination and mystery. Smokestack Lightning reveals the legend in all his glory and helps to unravel some of the mystery and, if possible, provokes even greater admiration and awe for the one and only Pittsburgh Windmill.
Mike Silver is the author of The Arc of Boxing:The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science (McFarland Publishers 2008) and Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing (Lyons Press 2016). Both are available at Amazon.com.
Earnie Shavers: Monster Puncher—or Monster Myth?
He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts… for support rather than illumination.–Andrew Lang (1844-1912)
Rating the top-ten heavyweight punchers of all-time would be easy if we just added up the number of knockouts on a boxer’s record.But that would be a mistake. Without evaluating the quality of the level of competition the statistics are irrelevant. A fighter whose record lists many knockouts over third rate stumblebums is less impressive than one who has faced many more quality opponents and scored fewer knockouts.
Possessing knockout power is a huge asset but more important is how effective the boxer is in applying power to achieve the victory. Three months ago Deontay Wilder, possessor of perhaps the hardest right hand punch of any active heavyweight, was lucky to walk away with a draw decision against Tyson Fury. Wilder was by far the superior puncher but he had no strategy other than just throwing punches and hoping one would land. One of those rights finally landed and dropped Fury in the 12th round but Wilder couldn’t finish him off.
Superior boxing technique combined with a heavy punch is a dangerous combination. The most obvious example is former light heavyweight champion Archie Moore. During his remarkable 28 year boxing career Moore knocked out a record 131 opponents. Many years ago I interviewed one of his opponents. Willi Besmanoff was a heavyweight contender who had fought both Archie Moore and Sonny Liston. In December 1959 Besmanoff fought a prime Sonny Liston and was stopped on cuts in the seventh round. Willi absorbed some fearsome shots but did not go down. It was the first time in 66 bouts he’d been stopped. Five months later he fought Archie Moore. Besmanoff was knocked down in the 10th round and was taking a beating when the referee intervened and stopped the fight.
“Besmanoff’s answer reveals the difference between a knockout puncher and a knockout artist.”
I asked Besmanoff who hit harder, Sonny Liston or Archie Moore? “Liston was the stronger, a very powerful man”, said Besmanoff. “But his punches were not aimed that carefully. Moore knew exactly when and where to hit you, and he hit you where it hurt the most. Liston’s punches were more powerful but Moore’s punches were more accurate and damaging.”Besmanoff’s answer reveals the difference between a knockout puncher and a knockout artist.
Even if we had a machine that could measure the power of every boxer’s punch (I’m sure Wilder would rate very high) it would still not give us the answers we seek. A powerful punch is but one of several tools in a boxer’s arsenal. What good is that tool if a fighter cannot or will not utilize it to its fullest potential?
There are four criteria that must be considered when evaluating a heavyweight’s rating as a puncher. Fist we start by analyzing the quality of his competition. Next we determine how many KOs were scored over opponents who were rarely, if ever, stopped. A Third consideration is the ability to maintain effective punching power into the late rounds. This quality can be influenced not just by the fighter’s endurance but also his psychological makeup. How does he react when his punches are not having the desired effect? Is he capable of adjusting his strategy when things are not going his way?
The fourth requirement is that a great puncher also has to be a great finisher. Once an opponent is hurt he will know how to end the fight quickly and efficiently. The textbook example of this can be found in any film of a Joe Louis KO victory, especially his one round annihilation of Max Schmeling and his 13th round knockout of Billy Conn.
“These are qualities that cannot be measured by statistics or a cleverly edited highlight video. Too often opinion is influenced by frivolous hype that lacks context and depth.”
These are qualities that cannot be measured by statistics or a cleverly edited highlight video.Too often opinion is influenced by frivolous hype that lacks context and depth. Search the internet under the topic “Greatest Heavyweight Punchers” and every list that comes up will include Earnie Shavers. Of course Earnie possessed awesome power. That fact is not in dispute. His right cross was a frightening weapon—when it connected. But I cannot rate him among the top-ten all time heavyweight punchers, or even the top 20, for that matter. Before you blow a gasket keep in mind the four criteria mentioned earlier. We are not just considering raw power, but the effective use of that power to achieve victory against quality opposition on a consistent basis. If Sandy Koufax, the great baseball pitcher, had never learned to control his fastball, his full potential would never have been realized. Pure speed was not enough, just as raw power is not enough unless it can be used effectively to achieve the desired result.
“The problem for Earnie was that throughout his career he remained a second rate boxer with a first rate punch.”
The problem for Earnie was that throughout his career he remained a second rate boxer with a first rate punch. When we combine that flaw with his serious stamina issues the true measure of his greatness (or lack thereof) as a puncher comes into clear focus. The key to defeating Earnie was not to let him hit you, which wasn’t that difficult if you were a skilled boxer. But even if he did hit you with his best punch and you stood up and fought back, as happened on at least five different occasions, it was Earnie who was stopped.
Shaver’s greatest victory was his first round KO of former champion Jimmy Ellis in 1973. It was that win that thrust Shavers onto the world stage. He came into that fight with a 44-2 won- loss record that included an astounding 42 wins by knockout. Thirty-seven of those victims never made it past the 4th round. Nevertheless, even though the 33 year old Ellis was at least a year past his prime he was a pronounced favorite to win. The odds makers weren’t fooled. An examination of his record revealed his 42 KO victims had a total of 334 losses (and nearly half by knockout).
Ellis was very confident, as he should have been—maybe too confident. He came out punching in the first round and had Shavers in trouble right away. In desperation Shavers threw a right uppercut that landed flush on Ellis’s chin sending him sprawling to the canvas where he was counted out.
I don’t think Shavers’ management expected their fighter to win. They were well aware of his limitations. Early in his career, in his 15th fight, he was flattened by Ron Stander, a tough undefeated comer with nine straight wins. A decision was made not to take any chances after that loss and instead pad his record by carefully matching him against opponents who were used to losing. Until he met Ellis the only recognizable name on his record was Vicente Rondon, a former light heavyweight titlist whose previous two fights were quick knockout losses to Ron Lyle and Bob Foster. Shavers, fighting in his home town, was awarded the decision but was unable to catch Rondon with a solid punch.
After his stunning win over Ellis, Shavers was matched against top ranked Jerry Quarry. The Madison Square Garden crowd expected fireworks and they were not disappointed. Quarry opened up right away and knocked Shavers to the canvas with a series of lefts and rights. He was up at the count of nine and then retreated to the ropes. Quarry was landing punches without a return when the referee intervened and stopped the fight at 2:21 of the first round.
One year after his debacle against Quarry, Shavers returned to New York, this time fighting in the Garden’s adjacent smaller arena. His opponent was an ordinary but tough journeyman boxer named Bob Stallings, whose record was an uninspiring 21 wins and 24 losses. Stallings was able to avoid Shavers’ bombs on the way to winning a unanimous decision. It was only the second time Shavers had gone ten rounds and his lack of endurance was evident as he barely made it to the final bell.
Three weeks after losing to Stallings he fought a 10 round draw with Jimmy Young. After three more victories against modest opposition he faced his next big test against top ranked Ron Lyle. The two power punchers staged a free swinging brawl that saw Lyle come off the floor to outlast Shavers and stop him in the sixth round.
“Now that Shavers was meeting a better class of boxer he was scoring far fewer knockouts.”
Now that Shavers was meeting a better class of boxer he was scoring far fewer knockouts. Whereas prior to his loss to Quarry his KO ratio was 91 per cent, in his subsequent 41 fights he scored only 23 knockouts for a 56 per cent ratio. During that time he knocked out only one rated contender while going the 10 round distance with Henry Clark, Leroy Boone, James Tillis and Walter Santemore—not exactly household names. These last two were able to avoid Shaver’s equalizer and outpoint him. But he did show improvement in knocking out Clark in a rematch and stopping Howard Smith and Roy Williams, all three of whom were decent heavyweights.
On the rare occasions when a fighter was crazy enough, or tough enough, to exchange blows with Shavers the chance for a successful outcome improved if they could get beyond the 5th round. Bernardo Mercado, and Tex Cobb did just that. They took Shavers’ best shots and eventually stopped him in the 7th and 8th rounds respectively. Cobb was asked what it was like to be hit by Shavers. “The first right he threw missed and landed on my shoulder”, said Tex.“It felt like someone had dropped a bowling ball on my shoulder”.
Ken Norton was the only rated contender, other than Jimmy Ellis, that Shavers was able to defeat. Nearing the end of his career Norton seemed ready to accept defeat as soon as the bell rang. Perhaps it was the memory of his brutal knockout at the hands of George Foreman five years earlier that froze him into inaction against another big puncher. In a suicidal move Norton quickly retreated to the ropes where he presented Shavers with his dream target—a stationary fighter who would not fight back. After two knockdowns the fight was stopped in less than two minutes of the first round.
In his prime Shavers lost to Larry Holmes (twice), Jerry Quarry, Ron Lyle, Bob Stallings, Bernardo Mercado and Tex Cobb and couldn’t take out a light heavyweight (Rondon) who in his previous fight was flattened in two rounds by Bob Foster.
So what is the explanation for so many people believing Earnie Shavers is an all-time great puncher? I believe it can be traced to the hype surrounding two of his most important fights, both of which, ironically, he lost.
In 1977 Shavers fought Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship.It was a fight that should never have taken place. At 35 Ali was washed up but refused to accept reality. Making matters worse, he barely trained for the fight. Ali came into the ring weighing 225 pounds, the heaviest of his career. He was fleshy and out of shape. The “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” days were long gone.
If Ali had come into the ring in shape even at that late stage of his career he could have stopped Shavers in the eighth or ninth round. The key was to not let Shavers control the pace of the fight and rest when he wanted. But Ali had to rest as much as Shavers. The image that everyone remembers from the fight was The Greatest being rocked again and again by Shaver’s horrific punches as they slammed into his head. I counted at least 17 full force overhand rights that landed. At one point Ali nearly went down. It was amazing that he stood up under these punches. Only his ring guile, incredible chin, and Shaver’s lack of stamina kept him from being knocked out. It was the worst head beating of Ali’s career and did much to accelerate his descent into pugilistica dementia. At the end of 15 sickening rounds Ali was awarded the unanimous decision. Many fans thought the decision should have gone to Shavers.
When he was interviewed after the fight an exhausted and hollow eyed Ali made the memorable comment that added fuel to the growing respect for Shaver’s punching power: “Ernie hit me so hard, he shook my kinfolk back in Africa”.
Two years later Shavers fought Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship. For six rounds he tried mightily to land his haymaker but kept missing. Then, suddenly, in a brief moment of carelessness Holmes left himself open and one of Shaver’s wild swings connected to the side of his jaw. Holmes fell hard and landed flat on his back.
Holmes had never been knocked down. He was hurt but was up at the count of six and survived the round. Holmes continued his domination over the next three rounds. In the 11th round, with Shavers sucking wind and barely able to hold up his hands, the referee stopped the fight. Holmes told reporters that Shavers was the hardest puncher he had ever faced.
A huge deal was made of Holmes getting off the canvas and surviving the 7th round. It really was much ado about nothing. In their two fights totaling 23 rounds it was the only round Holmes lost. But it was a heavyweight title fight and the big punch had come out of nowhere to nearly upset the applecart. That is exactly why people are drawn to heavyweights. You never know when the big punch might land. And it is why people were drawn to the popular Shavers whose very presence in the ring generated a certain amount of excitement, as is the case with all big punchers, no matter what weight class they compete in.
The following week the cover of Sports Illustrated featured a photo of the fight with the headline “Can’t Keep A Good Man Down: Holmes Comes off the Deck to Overpower Shavers”. So in trying to build up Holmes the press had to build up Shavers as well. The fact of the matter is that despite hurting Holmes with his best punch he was unable to finish him. The hype over that one punch was blown way out of proportion. But the sport needed something to get excited about in the post Ali era. (Ali had announced his retirement a year earlier). The new heavyweight king by comparison was a competent but colorless champion who ruled over a division depleted of talent.
Earnie Shavers gave us some of boxing’s most memorable moments. He is a class act and a credit to the sport. But his reputation as a great puncher is based on a lucky punch KO of Ellis, a fight that he lost (Ali), one spectacular knockdown (Holmes), and comments by several former opponents who beat him. That alone is not enough to place him among the greatest heavyweight punchers. Let the facts speak for themselves.
Mike Silver is the author of “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science” (McFarland Publishing) and “Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing. A Photographic History” (Lyons Press).
100 years ago: The Law That Gave Birth to the Modern Era of Boxing
100 years ago: The Law That Gave Birth to the Modern Era of Boxing
From 1895 to 1919 professional boxing was either tolerated or outlawed in various cities and states, including New York. The Frawley law, passed in 1911, had created the New York State Athletic Commission to oversee the sport. Some 40 boxing clubs operated under its purview. In 1917, after a boxer was fatally injured in a bout, reformers convinced the legislature to repeal the Frawley law and abolish boxing in the state. The ban lasted for three years. In 1920, after much political maneuvering, professional boxing returned to New York with the passage of The Walker Law.
Boxing, despite its ups and downs, had always been popular with the general public. Now, on the cusp of the Roaring Twenties, what it needed to realize its full potential was a powerful and stabilizing organizational structure with tighter controls over the sport and greater safety measures. The Walker Law was the answer. Most importantly, it allowed New York City to quickly regain its position as the boxing capital of the world.
Named after its sponsor, state senator and future New York City mayor (1926-31), James J. (Jimmy) Walker, the law brought back the State Athletic Commission but with enhanced rules and guidelines. One hundred years ago, on May 24, 1920, it was signed into law by Governor Al Smith and took effect on the first day of September.
Three commissioners appointed by Governor Smith supervised the sport. The new law mandated the licensing of all persons officially connected with boxing bouts—boxers, managers, promoters, matchmakers, corner men, referees and judges. All shows required a physician in attendance. Matches could not exceed 15 rounds. Within a short time dozens of armories, arenas and stadiums began presenting boxing cards on a regular basis. There certainly was no shortage of boxers. By March of 1924 New York State had licensed 6,123 professional boxers.
Any person who violated the rules of the commission or engaged in behavior considered detrimental to boxing would risk losing his license. It was the intention of the commission to improve the public’s perception of boxing by attempting (albeit with mixed results) to curtail the influence of gamblers, criminals and other undesirables.
Of course a prime reason for legalizing professional boxing was the tax revenues that would be realized via licensing fees and a 5 percent tax on the gross receipts of every boxing card. Three months after the first professional bouts were staged under the new law, the sport had already paid $75,000 into the New York state treasury.
Politicians in other states saw opportunity for increased tax revenues, jobs, and political patronage if they followed New York’s example and legalized boxing under government auspices. Hugely motivating was the 1921 heavyweight title bout between champion Jack Dempsey and the dashing French challenger Georges Carpentier. The bout drew 90,000 fans and nearly 2 million dollars in paid admissions, breaking all previous records in both attendance and gate receipts. Whereas in 1917 only 23 states had officially legalized the sport, by 1925 the number was up to 43. They all used the template of the New York Commission as a guide.
During the 1920s boxing reached unprecedented levels of popularity, even eclipsing baseball in terms of live attendance figures and newspaper coverage. Heavyweight title fights became the most lavish and anticipated spectacle in sports. In 1926 and 1927Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney drew over 100,000 people for each of their two title fights in Philadelphia and Chicago.
The social, artistic, and cultural dynamism of the Roaring Twenties, in concert with the media’s focus on celebrities (especially sports heroes and movie stars), glamorized boxing and made Jack Dempsey the first boxing superstar of the twentieth century. But due credit must be given to Tex Rickard whose promotional genius and reputation for integrity was instrumental in revitalizing the sport. Rickard made his headquarters in New York City and his success was responsible for the building of a new and much larger Madison Square Garden in 1925. Under his watch boxing gained a respectability it had never known before. It was Rickard who transformed boxing into popular entertainment for a mass audience. The business of sports entertainment would never be the same.
The Walker law also was a catalyst for others to hitch their star to boxing. In 1922 Nat Fleischer, a 33 year old sports editor for several New York papers, launched The Ring magazine with Tex Rickard serving as silent partner (Fleischer acquired full ownership in 1929). For the next 50 years “The Bible of Boxing” was the sport’s most important and authoritative trade publication. Fleischer often spoke out against corruption within the sport and advocated for standard physical exams and rules. The Ring “top ten” ratings of contenders for every weight class became a monthly feature of the magazine and under Fleischer’s stewardship was a trusted resource for everyone interested in the sport.
Dempsey, Tunney, Rickard, Walker, Fleischer, The Ring magazine, Madison Square Garden, New York City—the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. They all came together in the 1920s to create boxing’s greatest decade. But none of it would have been possible without the passage of the law that allowed it to happen.
Mike Silver’s newest book is “The Night the Referee Hit Back: Memorable Moments From the World of Boxing” (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, June 2020).
Hemingway, Spider Kelly, and the (Lost) Art of Boxing
“Spider Kelly taught all his young gentlemen to box like featherweights, no matter whether they weighed one hundred and five or two hundred and five pounds.”
The above quote appears on the first page of Ernest Hemingway’s first major novel, The Sun Also Rises, published in 1926. Hemingway often based his characters on real people. John A. (Spider) Kelly was not a fictional character. He was the boxing instructor at Princeton University for 34 years (1902 to 1936). One of the main characters in the novel, a former collegiate boxing champion, is described as having been trained by Kelly at Princeton.
By all accounts Spider Kelly, a former professional boxer, was an excellent teacher-trainer.Hemingway’s sentence is further proof of that. It would do well for today’s trainers to follow Spider Kelly’s example. At a body weight of 119 to 126 pounds a featherweight boxer has to rely on speed and mobility rather than strength and power. He must strive to remain an elusive target while still capable of landing more punches than his opponent. But before he learns how to throw a punch the beginner must be taught proper balance. Like a dancer, a boxer has to maintain balance while quickly changing tempo and direction. Effective footwork is not possible without proper balance. Building on that foundation the student boxer works up to more sophisticated defensive and offensive skills, including knowing what to do when an opponent makes a certain move.
Three of the greatest boxers who ever lived, Benny Leonard, Sugar Ray Robinson and Willie Pep, were all trained in this manner and used those foundational skills to reach spectacular heights. But any boxer trained in this manner has an advantage over one who was not.
So why do most of today’s boxers, irrespective of their weight division, fight like slow lumbering heavyweights who are looking for a knockout with every punch? We see it all the time. They plod forward or back (rarely circling), throw ill-timed punches, and appear to have no coherent strategy.What used to be called “ring guile” or “craftiness” is missing. Classic defensive techniques such as ducking, slipping, weaving or parrying (common tactics used by the top boxers of past decades) are virtually non-existent. They become easy targets by remaining stationary after delivering a volley of punches. The most common defensive maneuver is to raise the gloves in rope-a-dope fashion and wait for the opponent to stop punching. Very few know how to effectively use the most fundamental punch in a boxer’s repertoire–the jab. Forget about feinting with a purpose or drawing a lead, or knowing how to slip and slide or clinch. Those words are not even in the vocabulary. And whatever happened to body punching?
In between rounds the corner’s instruction to the boxer is the oft heard and expletive laced “throw more punches!” –which is akin to a basketball coach imploring his team to “put the ball in the basket!”
Boxing may be the only sport where the further back you go, the better the athletes are.
This dumbed down version of boxing is not new. The overall skill level of boxers has been in decline for several decades. Boxing may be the only sport where the further back you go, the better the athletes are. In fact, it would be more accurate to rename the sport “fighting” because boxing, as many of us “old timers” knew it, no longer exists. There are a number of reasons for this but first and foremost is the lack of qualified teacher-trainers.
I don’t blame the boxers. It is not their fault. They have the potential to be much better than they are because the ability is there. I blame the trainers who cannot teach what they themselves do not know. Yes, there are a few exceptions. Among contemporary boxers three names come to mind—Gennady Golovkin, Vasyl Lomachenko and Terence Crawford. These very talented athletes display some of the old school moves. Lomachenko (who took ballet lessons as a youth) has excellent footwork. Golovkin has a fine left jab and knows how to set up his power punches. He also understands the value of body punching. Crawford’s speed and instincts are impressive but he tries too hard for a knockout and still has much to learn. If we could time travel these boxers back 60 or more years ago they would have been considered promising prospects. Despite their obvious talent, they are not yet at the level where we would place them among the elite boxers of that era. Perhaps with more experience and exposure to better competition they could have won a world championship back then. But the road taking them to a title bout would have been far more difficult than the one they have traveled. Why? Because in every decade from the 1920s to the 1950s there were dozens of Golovkins, Lomachenkos and Crawfords vying for a contender slot. The competition was brutal. To win one of the eight title belts was truly an extraordinary achievement.
So where have all the good trainers gone?
What happened was that boxing’s mentoring system for turning out the next batch of well-schooled trainers began to break down in the decade following the end of World War II. By the late 1950s hundreds of neighborhood arenas, boxing’s farm system for developing new talent, had closed shop because they could not compete with free televised boxing almost every night of the week. Post war prosperity and the G.I. Bill further thinned the ranks of potential professional boxers. Gym memberships declined causing many to close. In the big cities the ranks of master teacher-trainers, never a huge number, began to be depleted. They either retired or left the sport to pursue other occupations and took their knowledge with them.
By the 1970s only a handful were left. This caused a disconnect in the mentoring system. A few dinosaurs continued to teach into the 1980s—Eddie Futch, Angelo Dundee, Cus D’Amato, and Mike Capriano—but they were the last of the breed. The next generation of trainers (who came of age after the 1980s) were not of the same caliber and lacked the knowledge and experience of the old school masters. Most of them were part time instructors who held full time jobs during the day and taught boxing in the evenings. In time mediocre fighters became mediocre trainers. It is no surprise that the two best teacher-trainers today are Teddy Atlas and Freddie Roach. Atlas was mentored by Cus D’Amato and Roach was trained by Eddie Futch.
OK. Enough complaining. Is there anything that can be done to improve boxers’ skills in the absence of quality teachers? (I won’t even attempt to address the insane organization of professional boxing. That mess is beyond help).
Over the past 40 years I have collected dozens of boxing instruction books from the mid-1800s to the present. Most have some useful information but I was always on the lookout for a manual that was all encompassing. My search ended with the discovery of two indispensable books that should be required reading and study for every current or wannabe trainer and boxer.
The greatest boxing instructional book ever written is the 286 page Naval Aviation Physical Training Manual of Boxing, published in 1943.It was prepared by and for the officers in charge of the instruction of Boxing in Naval Aviation.Keep in mind this book was published at the height of World War II. As explained in the introduction, boxing was part of Naval Aviation training because it was thought to “quickly acclimate the body and mind to the violence and shock so foreign to modern day youth, yet so absolutely essential to fighting men.” Boxing, it was felt, helped the cadet make that transition. I am astounded by the thoroughness of this book. You will not get better and more detailed instruction anywhere else. Example: It not only describes in detail every conceivable punch and defensive maneuver but also dozens of long forgotten combinations and coaching hints. The book was obviously written by very capable boxing trainers (although none are identified by name). It includes many photos and is available on Amazon but costs about $130 dollars. For those serious about seeking knowledge it’s worth every penny.
The second outstanding instructional book I recommend is Boxing: A Self-Instructional Manual by Edwin L. Haislet, first published in 1940 and re-issued in 1982. Haislet was assistant professor of physical education, boxing coach University of Minnesota, and director of the Northwest Golden Gloves Tournament. Before I discovered the Navy book this was my gold standard for instructional manuals. It is 120 pages, illustrated, and is an excellent source of valuable information. A reprint selling for $30 dollars is available on Amazon.
I would also strongly recommend anyone interested in why and how the sport devolved over the past thirty years to read my first book, “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science”.It contains extensive commentary by several top trainers, including Atlas and Roach.
If there were a course given to certify and license boxing trainers (and there certainly should be) these three books would be required reading.
One final note: Thanks to You Tube we have access to films of some of the greatest boxers of the twentieth century. It would be beneficial if these films were studied, but understanding would be enhanced if the aforementioned books were read first. There are scores of videos to choose from. I have selected five—one each from the 1920s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s to serve as an example of the type of artistry in boxing that no longer exists.
Mike Silver’s newest book is The Night the Referee Hit Back: Memorable Moments From the World of Boxing.