Book Review: “The Duke: The Life and Lies of Tommy Morrison by Carlos Acevedo”
Hamilcar Publications, 208 Pages, $18.99
Reviewed by Mike Silver
In 1989 a handsome and charismatic twenty year old undefeated professional boxer named Tommy “The Duke” Morrison was on a fast track to super stardom. But all was not as it seemed. “With his bleached pretty-boy look, his genuine charm, and his heartland roots” writes
Acevedo,“Morrison was billed as a wholesome All-American type, despite an unsavory background that included any number of misdeeds, if not misdemeanors…Like Tyson, Morrison could not restrain his tumultuous nature—not for long, anyway.”
Tommy’s early career had all the earmarks of a “Tysonesque” buildup. That was no coincidence since his manager at the time was Bill Cayton, the entrepreneur who was also Mike Tyson’s first manager. In his first year as a pro Morrison was matched with one tomato can after another resulting in 20 straight wins, including 17 by knockout (15 in two rounds or less). The build-up was intended to impress the masses and get him lucrative television bouts and eventually a shot at the heavyweight championship.
Despite the pushover competition, it was obvious that Morrison had a ton of natural talent and potential. As an amateur he was rated among the USA’s best heavyweights. He possessed good instincts, fast hands, and technical skills superior to most heavyweights. But what really set him apart was his explosive left hook. In addition, his PR team told the press that Tommy was a great nephew of the legendary movie star John Wayne (real name Marion Morrison aka “The Duke”). Whether true of not, the claim—never verified—added to his mystique.
One year after turning pro Morrison’s knockout binge and photogenic visage caught the eye of Sylvester Stallone who decided to give the young fighter a co-starring role in Rock V. The notoriety vaulted him into the public consciousness but it was the beginning of the end for Tommy, although no one at the time could predict just how bad the train wreck was going to be.
Aside from his usual recreational drug use, there is evidence that Morrison had begun taking steroids.
It was not just the Hollywood parties and endless parade of young women who found the attractive—and willing—movie star/athlete irresistible.Aside from his usual recreational drug use, there is evidence that Morrison had begun taking steroids. The drug, popular with body builders and macho actors, was used by Morrison to maintain enough bulk to cope with oversized heavyweights.Six months later he resumed his boxing career. His body now appeared more muscular and defined and fifteen pounds heavier. Thereafter he never weighed less than 220 pounds for a fight.
Steroid use by an athlete has both physical and mental side effects. Unstable behavior, including lack of impulse control and poor judgement has been documented. If someone already has these tendencies they can be exacerbated. Injecting steroids can also negatively affect stamina over the long haul because the increase in muscle mass requires more oxygen to counter fatigue. This could have been the case in Morrison’s disastrous fight with former Olympic heavyweight champion Ray Mercer on October 18, 1991. At the time Morrison was undefeated in 27 fights with 23 wins coming by KO. He was the favorite to defeat Mercer (17-0).
The referee, who seemed to be half asleep, stood by impassively while Mercer connected with nine punches, with the last three rendering Morrison unconscious. Only the ropes kept Morrison from falling.
Morrison dominated the first four rounds, outpunching and out boxing Mercer. But in the fifth round he suddenly seemed tired. In the midst of an exchange Mercer caught Morrison with a series of punches that drove him into the ropes. What happened next was one of the most disturbing endings to a bout ever seen. The referee, who seemed to be half asleep, stood by impassively while Mercer connected with nine punches, with the last three rendering Morrison unconscious. Only the ropes kept Morrison from falling. While still unconscious he was hit with six additional full power shots before the referee finally pulled Mercer off. It was a devastating defeat.
Tommy began his comeback 4 months later and over the next year knocked off eight opponents. The winning streak led to a match with former heavyweight champion George Foreman. In the best shape of his life, Tommy avoided going for the knockout, and instead used his superior speed and a jab and move strategy to win a unanimous 12 round decision. It was an impressive victory but just two fights later disaster struck once again when underdog Michael Bentt stopped Tommy in the first round after dropping him three times. Bentt was supposed to be a safe tune-up for an upcoming bout with heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis. The Lewis bout was cancelled. Not only did Tommy lose out on a 7.5 million payday, he also lost his manager who walked away from Tommy after the loss.
It was at this point that Morrison’s private life began to spin out of control. Convicted of drunk driving and drug possession (it was not the first time) he served 14 months in prison. Resuming his career Morrison took on an assortment of professional losers whose sole purpose was to fatten the records of prospects and contenders. Acevedo: “Now more than ever, it seems, Morrison and the boxing underbelly are intertwined like characters in the final, bleak pages of McTeague, handcuffed to each other(one of them a corpse) in Death Valley, California, waiting for the blistering sun to render its impersonal judgement.”
Boxing’s lack of uniform standards, even at the height of the AIDS epidemic, did not require blood tests.
If being an ex-con, a drug addict, a bigamist (yes, he was married to two woman at the same time), and an alcoholic wasn’t bad enough, in 1996 the Nevada Boxing Commission lifted Morrison’s license when a blood test revealed he had the HIV virus. The commission refused to give out details, but shortly thereafter Morrison held a news conference and revealed he had contracted HIV because of a “permissive, fast and reckless lifestyle.” One person who knew Morrison said he actually had gotten AIDS in 1989 but had remained silent in order to continue fighting. Boxing’s lack of uniform standards, even at the height of the AIDS epidemic, did not require blood tests. (Eventually with all the publicity about Morrison several states did adopt mandatory testing for AIDS).
As Morrison’s physical condition continued to deteriorate so did his mind. His thinking became increasingly delusional and paranoid, including bizarre claims of possessing powers of teleportation. Continued drug use and CTE just made things worse. Tommy eventually convinced himself he did not have the AIDS virus, claiming the blood tests gave a false positive result. But as long as he refused to be retested no boxing commission in the U.S. would license him to fight.
Incredibly, ten years after his last fight, and still refusing to be retested, Morrison was granted a license to fight in 2007 at the Mountaineer Casino Racetrack in West Virginia. He knocked out a fighter with a 4-2 record in the second round. One year later he travelled to the Dominican Republic and stopped another obscure opponent in the third round. After a proposed match in Canada was cancelled when Morrison refused the boxing commission’s request for a blood test he finally hung up his gloves for good.
But Acevedo does acknowledge that Morrison was a fine athlete with “the fastest hands of any heavyweight since a prime Mike Tyson.”
Morrison ended his career with a record of 48-3, with 42 knockouts. The record is deceiving. Acevedo: “On the surface, this ledger is impressive, but boxing is a sport in which nothing should be taken at face value. From the day he turned pro, Morrison epitomized the smoke-and-mirror world of boxing where the line between athletic event and consumer fraud is often thinner than a lightbulb filament”. But Acevedo does acknowledge that Morrison was a fine athlete with “the fastest hands of any heavyweight since a prime Mike Tyson.” He also pays tribute to “the kind of heart [guts] often lacking among his peers” and notes the lethal quality of his left hook that combined with an exciting style that made him a perennial fan favorite.
In August 2013, Morrison’s mother told ESPN that Tommy had “full-blown AIDS” and was “in his final days.” She also stated that Morrison had been bedridden for over a year. Tommy Morrison died on September 1, 2013. He was 44 years old.
Carlos Acevedo is that rare talent who inhabits the best of both worlds. He is a magnificent wordsmith whose knowledge and understanding of the “sweet science” is apparent on every page.
There are some very talented authors who have written colorfully about boxing but come up short in their actual understanding of the technical aspects of the sport; and there are other authors whose writing ability is mediocre at best, but whose knowledge of the art of boxing in all its varied nuance is matched by very few. Carlos Acevedo is that rare talent who inhabits the best of both worlds. He is a magnificent wordsmith whose knowledge and understanding of the “sweet science” is apparent on every page. That was my impression after reading his first book “Sporting Blood: Tales From the Dark Side of Boxing”. This work is no exception.
Mike Silver’s books include “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-A Photographic History”; His most recent book is “The Night the Referee Hit Back: Memorable Moments From the World of Boxing”.
This past week the world lost a giant of musical theater, the legendary lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim. One of the quotes attributed to Sondheim struck a chord with me.
“The dumbing down of the country reflects itself on Broadway. The shows get dumber, and the public gets used to them.”
If we replace the word Broadway with Boxing the quote can just as easily apply to the current boxing scene:
“The dumbing down of the country reflects itself in every aspect of boxing. Boxing gets dumber and the public gets used to it”.
Anyone who has seriously studied boxing history is aware the sport has always reflected the society that surrounds it. That still holds true for today. Just consider one aspect—music. The great golden age of Jazz, musical theater, the Big Band Era and Rock and Roll, all coincided with the golden age of boxing from the 1920s to the 1950s.When the heavyweight championship of the world mattered far more to society than it does today celebrity boxers such as John L. Sullivan, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Patterson, Liston, Ali and Tyson were not just important to the sport, they were also pop culture icons who were reflective of the era in which they fought. Today’s pervasive junk culture, where mediocrity is celebrated and flash over substance is the norm, has infested virtually every aspect of society and our lives, including boxing. It’s very appropriate to the times that most people–outside of those who still follow this sport–cannot name the current heavyweight champion, or the one who preceded him.
“Today’s world champions and contenders are at the lowest caliber it has ever been in over 100 years”.
If you want to dumb down and ruin a professional sport, then boxing should be your template. No other sport has experienced the type of out of control anarchy that has plagued professional boxing for the past several decades. Aside from the industry’s lack of integrity, coherence, or respect for its fans, the boxing skill (or lack thereof) of the majority of today’s world champions and contenders are at the lowest caliber it has ever been in over 100 years.
Case in point: The recently televised super bantamweight (weight limit 122 pounds) “unification” title fight between Stephen Fulton, the WBO (World Boxing Organization) champion, and Brandon Figueroa, the WBC (World Boxing Council) champion.
“Skills common among champions in decades past, are impossible to acquire today”.
I’m not blaming the boxers for their lack of skills. It’s not their fault. Every fight today, with rare exception, is a dumbed down facsimile of what a match between top professional boxers used to look like. Fulton and Figueroa had the heart, desire and conditioning but lacked the subtle skills of a seasoned professional boxer. Such skills, common among champions in decades past, are impossible to acquire today. Aside from a dearth of competent trainers today’s boxers are not exposed to the type of competition that over time would add to their experience and improve their performance. From the 1920s to the 1960s boxers had, on average, 60 or more professional fights before getting the opportunity to fight for a world title. A boxer with less than 20 fights was still considered a work in progress. Today the average number of fights to a title is 10 to 20. Going into their fight Figueroa and Fulton had only 19 and 22 fights respectively. Sixty years ago their limited professional experience might have entitled them to an eight round preliminary match in the old Madison Square Garden—if they were lucky. A title fight pitting these novices against the then current world bantam or featherweight champions (think Eder Jofre, Rubin Olivares, Alexis Arguello) would never even be contemplated.
“Fulton and Figueroa, like so many others, are not being taught properly”.
Even taking into account their lack of professional experience it was apparent that Fulton and Figueroa, like so many others, are not being taught properly. Instead of moving about the ring with the speed and footwork expected of featherweights they fought like amateurish heavyweights trying to overwhelm the other with power punches. Feinting, timing and judgement of distance were absent from their limited repertoire. There was no lateral movement. Both fighters were stationary targets and easy to hit. They did not step in with their punches but kept charging towards each other like two rams butting heads. When they closed and became entangled it was obvious that no one had taught them how to clinch. There were very few combinations thrown. They just mostly flailed away with “hail Mary” punches intended to knock out their opponent. When one landed it was usually by accident.
Neither fighter displayed any coherent plan or strategy. As a result, the fight quickly deteriorated into a messy and artless brawl with every round looking exactly like the one that preceded it. If you saw one round you saw the entire fight. There was no change in tactics or adjustment in style because neither boxer was capable of doing that. The only intelligent comment made by one of the five incessantly yammering ringside commentators was that “they’re fighting like ‘rock ‘em, sock ‘em robots’”.No doubt it was meant as a compliment, but is an apt description of boxers devoid of any cleverness or what used to be referred to as “ring guile”. As is often the case with today’s boxers they were getting hit far too often with punches that could have been easily avoided. Defensive moves in the form of parrying, ducking, sliding, slipping, weaving or simply taking a step back were nonexistent. According to CompuBox punch stats they threw a combined total of 1462 power punches (described as any punch not a jab) of which over two-thirds landed—far too many. Yet only 354 jabs were attempted, with barely 10% landing. If either fighter had employed an effective jab more often it could have changed the course of the fight.
“The disappearance of the left jab is one of the more disturbing aspects of the dumbed down quality of contemporary boxing.”
Just as a comparison I watched a video of the Rueben Olivares vs. Alexis Arguello featherweight title bout from 1974 and counted up the number of jabs thrown by Olivares, one of the greatest punchers of the past half century. I stopped counting by the sixth round since Olivares had already thrown 216 jabs, 50 more than Fulton had attempted for the entire 12 rounds. The disappearance of the left jab is one of the more disturbing aspects of the dumbed down quality of contemporary boxing.
If there is anything positive to say about this fight it is that both men were evenly matched. In the end Fulton was awarded a majority decision and thus unified the WBC and WBO super bantamweight titles. But don’t open the champagne bottles just yet. We should not confuse a “unification” fight with a fight for the “undisputed” title. The current IBF (International Boxing Federation) super bantamweight champion is Murodjon (let’s call him Muro) Akhmadaliev of Uzbekistan. In addition to the IBF title Muro also owns the WBA “Super World Super Bantamweight” title. No, that is not a typo. The word “Super” appears twice to differentiate it from the plain “Super” WBA title which appears to be vacant at this time. Adding another version of the same 122 pound title gives the WBA an opportunity to charge another “sanctioning fee” when the time comes to crown the next “super, super” world champion. What this means is that the WBA recognizes not one, but two versions of their same 122 pound world title. It is a clever subterfuge. More titles mean additional fees can be deducted from the boxer’s purse for the “privilege” of fighting for an organization’s title belt. All four sanctioning groups are guilty of the same behavior. It’s why this farcical but dangerous sport currently has about 90 world champions (no one is sure of the exact number) spread over 18 weight divisions, at least 7 of which are unnecessary. Over the past 40 years millions of dollars in sanctioning fees have flowed into the coffers of the WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO with nothing of value being returned to the sport. One can never underestimate the arrogance and crass stupidity of these useless boxing parasites who continue to feed off of the blood, sweat and tears of the boxers they exploit.
Mike Silver’s books include “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-A Photographic History”; His most recent book is “The Night the Referee Hit Back: Memorable Moments From the World of Boxing”.
The wealth of information contained in this remarkable book is more important than 100 medical papers about brain damage in boxing because it is written in layman’s language and exposes the personal stories behind the cold statistics and scientific jargon. Its words should serve as a clarion call for action on behalf of the athletes for whom boxing is not so much a choice as a calling. In bringing attention to this serious topic Tris Dixon does not seek to abolish boxing—although there is a strong case to be made for that both medically and morally—but to try and make a dangerous sport less dangerous by shining a light on a subject that is too often ignored or neglected by the boxing establishment.
The first chapters reveal a litany of neurological studies that emphatically link boxing to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is a medical term for brain damage caused by repetitive concussive and/or sub concussive blows to the head. At least 70 years before Dr. Bennet Omalu famously discovered and published his findings on chronic traumatic encephalopathy in American football players, neurologists in the 1920s and 1930s had already made that same connection as it relates to professional boxers. At that time CTE was known to the general public by a different name—“punch drunk”. The term was used to describe boxers “who were losing their faculties in the form of slurred speech, awkward movement, memory loss, and other degenerative behavioral changes.” Eventually scientists and neurologists stopped using the pejorative “punch drunk” and replaced it with the more elegant sounding “dementia pugilistica”, which is just another name for CTE.
That would mean from the beginning of the last century to the present thousands upon thousands of boxers have been afflicted with varying degrees of brain damage.
Subsequent studies indicated the condition was not confined to any specific population of prizefighter. “It was not just the old fighters who suffered from it”, writes Dixon. “Nor, as the early research showed, was it just novices, sparring partners, and fall guys. Some fighters were burnt out before others, some fought long, hard careers, some were ‘punchy’ after a dozen fights.” Most alarming of all was a consensus by the scientists that approximately 90% of all professional boxers were affected in some way. That would mean from the beginning of the last century to the present thousands upon thousands of boxers have been afflicted with varying degrees of brain damage.
CTE is a progressive condition that slowly but surely gets worse over time. Dixon describes the ongoing research that is attempting to understand why some boxers develop symptoms early and others seem able to function normally until their 50s or early 60s when they suddenly drop off the cliff, so to speak, and quickly descend into a haze of mental confusion and premature senility even though the boxer has retired from the ring and repeated head traumas are at an end.
In addition to explaining the science, Dixon does not shy away from questioning the moral ambiguities of the sport. He quotes Dr. Ernst Jokl, whose book The Medical Aspects of Boxing (1941) is considered a seminal work for its time: “Of all the major sports, boxing occupies a special position since its aim is that of producing injuries, more particularly to the brain…similar injuries occur in sports other than boxing, e.g., in football or wrestling. But here they are accidents rather than sequale of intentional acts. Only in boxing are traumatic injuries unavoidable even if the rules are adhered to.”
Second-impact syndrome, which can result in permanent brain damage, is a common occurrence in many prizefights and sparring sessions…
Dixon notes that in recent years researchers have determined that one of the most dangerous aspects of both boxing and football is second impact-syndrome “when someone suffers a second concussion while still suffering from the first.” Second-impact syndrome, which can result in permanent brain damage, is a common occurrence in many prizefights and sparring sessions yet “is not widely discussed in boxing when it should be a regular part of the conversation…[it] is one of the most serious threats to brain injury, both in the long and short term. In second-impact syndrome, the first hard hit has done more damage than anyone suspects and then the boxer takes a follow-up shot and life can be irreparably changed. A fighter can be hurt in sparring and still not be healed by fight night, when disaster can strike.” The danger is compounded in the presence of an incompetent referee or ringside physician. Dixon laments the fact that boxing does not have the equivalent of the “tap out” in mixed martial arts (MMA) contests. But the “I am willing to be carried out on my shield” mentality is embedded into the culture of this ancient sport and in the minds of its fighters. Even so, modern gloved boxing was never meant to be a human demolition derby or a fight to the death.
His (Ali’s) family did not want to believe or admit that boxing was the cause.
Of course no book on brain injuries in boxing would be complete without mentioning the most famous boxer of them all—Muhammad Ali. Dixon devotes several chapters to Ali, starting when Ali began to show symptoms of CTE while still fighting. By his early 40s (a few years after he retired) Ali’s hand tremors, slowing of his speech and movement noticeably worsened. His family did not want to believe or admit that boxing was the cause. They claimed that he had Parkinson’s disease and his condition had nothing to do with boxing. While it’s possible that in later years he may have developed Parkinson’s disease Dixon quotes several prominent doctors who state unequivocally that boxing was the primary cause of Ali’s infirmity.
Ali actually suffered from Parkinson’s syndrome, which is destruction by trauma to the same parts of the brain that are destroyed by someone who develops Parkinson’s disease. It is not the same as Parkinson’s disease and has a different cause.
Ali actually suffered from Parkinson’s syndrome, which is destruction by trauma to the same parts of the brain that are destroyed by someone who develops Parkinson’s disease. It is not the same as Parkinson’s disease and has a different cause. CTE, which can cause Parkinson’s syndrome, is identified at autopsy by the presence of tau protein in the brain. Tau gradually breaks down brain cells, causing the reduced state fighters find themselves in while they’re still alive. Dr. Robert Cantu, one of the world’s foremost neurosurgeons, and senior advisor to the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee states that “CTE is a highly serious issue itself, but it could also be an accelerant to other neurological illnesses”, something he is almost certain of. “Of the great fighters who died and were diagnosed with dementia, Parkinson’s, ALS, or Alzheimer’s over the years, there is not only a chance that it was just CTE misdiagnosed, but it could have triggered different medical problems. You’ve got dementia, Alzhiemer’s, Parkinson’s but you got it twenty or thirty years earlier. But there are pure cases of CTE, and in those cases they’re probably not an accelerant, just the result.” Dr. Ann McKee, another renowned neuropathologist interviewed by Dixon, “has checked more than twenty-five boxers’ brains and has yet to see one that has not had CTE from fighting.”
“Statistics from CompuBox, which compiled the punch stats from 47 of Ali’s 61 professional fights, revealed he was hit 8,877 times.”
Dixon tells us that in 1981 a CAT scan of Ali’s brain was taken just before his last fight. It showed the type of atrophy that show up in 50 percent of boxers with more than 20 bouts—a percentage far higher than in the general population. This type of abnormality is found four times as frequently in boxers as in non-boxers. In the latter half of his 20 year career Ali absorbed a huge number of punches: “Statistics from CompuBox, which compiled the punch stats from 47 of Ali’s 61 professional fights, revealed he was hit 8,877 times.” That number does not include all the hits he took in countless rounds of sparring. Ali had stayed too long and paid a terrible price. At the time of his death at the age of 74 in 2016 Ali “had been unwell for 3 decades.” His brain damage was severe, and it was all due to boxing—not Parkinson’s disease as has so often erroneously been credited for his condition. Had Ali donated his brain for research the diagnosis of CTE would have been confirmed, as it has with the dozens of deceased boxers (and many more football players) who willed their brains to science. Instead, the most recognizable face on the planet was propped up as an advocate to find a cure for Parkinson’s disease. All well and good, but what he should have been was the poster person for brain damage in boxing.
Frankie (Pryor) told Dixon she wished that Ali’s family had publicly acknowledged the reason behind the icon’s demise as that could have helped countless more fighters understand what happened to them.
Frankie Pryor knows about CTE first hand. She is one of several wives of former champions who were interviewed by Dixon. Frankie’s late husband, Aaron “Hawk” Pryor, was one of the greatest fighters of the past 50 years. But, like so many others, he became a boxing casualty. Frankie told Dixon she wished that Ali’s family had publicly acknowledged the reason behind the icon’s demise as that could have helped countless more fighters understand what happened to them. “It was kind of always my one regret because the one fighter who had the notoriety and could have brought a lot of attention to this was Ali”, she said. “And then they went off on this Parkinson’s thing…I don’t think it was done maliciously. Maybe Lonnie [Ali’s wife] didn’t fully understand the impact, but just to say, ‘it wasn’t boxing, it was Parkinson’s.’ No it wasn’t.”
How sad for this tragic sport that there is no Muhammad Ali Center for patients and family members who are dealing with boxing induced brain damage.
There is a research center named for Ali in Phoenix, Arizona—the Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center. It is described as “a comprehensive resource center for patients and family members dealing with Parkinson’s disease.” That is the legacy the champ’s family prefers. But what does that legacy mean to the legions of damaged boxers who, like Ali, are suffering the debilitating effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy? How sad for this tragic sport that there is no Muhammad Ali Center for patients and family members who are dealing with boxing induced brain damage.
Nevertheless, research into the causes and treatment of CTE continues thanks to the efforts of Dr. Robert Cantu, Dr. Ann McKee, and Dr. Charles Bernick. They are at the forefront of the science seeking to detect and track the earliest and most subtle signs of brain injury in those exposed to head trauma. A remedy to treat, or perhaps even reverse, the damage done by the tau protein is a long way off. Many of the studies will not bear fruit for another 10 or even twenty years. In the meantime what can be done to limit the damage? The answer: Plenty, but only if there is the will to change. Among the changes that Dixon says should be considered are glove size, reducing exposure by limiting the number of rounds and their duration, better education for referees and ringside physicians, and the use of head guards.
Dixon points out “the lack of detailed education with trainers, through commissions or sanctioning bodies. No memos have gone out since CTE was confirmed.
There are many people and organizations in the professional boxing world that are not anxious to accept the findings of the scientists or do anything of significance that might make the sport less dangerous. Dixon points out “the lack of detailed education with trainers, through commissions or sanctioning bodies. No memos have gone out since CTE was confirmed. Nothing changed, yet this—punch–drunk syndrome—was boxing’s problem before it was anyone else’s.” In the words of Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player, WWE wrestler, and founder of an organization called the Concussion Legacy, “Fighters are on their own…If you compare boxing to what’s happening in football or other sports there’s virtually no one looking out for the athletes…Without a centralized organization, there’s nowhere for boxers to get educated, no go to source, no self-help manuals, and no union.” Absent a centralized organization or boxers’ union (don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen) the major promoter/entrepreneurs are in control. Referees and ringside officials are licensed by state boxing commissions but they are paid by the promoter. This is a clear conflict of interest as the promoter has a vested interest in seeing that a promising fighter under contract to him does not lose. Referees and ringside physicians should be completely independent of having anything to do with a promoter or sanctioning organization. Dr. Margaret Goodman, a respected former ringside physician for the Nevada Boxing Commission, explained how a promoter’s influence can determine who officiates: “If you [the ringside physician] stop a fight or recommend a fight should be stopped from a promoter that has big connections with the commission, you’re never going to work another fight again. Same thing for the referees. Same thing for the judges…there are too many outside influences, and the overall health of the sport has not improved as much as it could from those factors as well, which most people don’t take into account.” No one wants to see a boxer seriously injured but with no effective oversight in place the pervasive greed and corruption of promoters and sanctioning organizations takes precedence over any concern for the boxer’s health.
One cannot help but be moved and disturbed by the author’s accounts of his interviews with these damaged gladiators.
The best parts of the book involve Dixon’s description of his personal interaction with the boxers and their families. One cannot help but be moved and disturbed by the author’s accounts of his interviews with these damaged gladiators. Although the boxers were concerned about the long term effects of their punishing careers most said—and it speaks to the pull of this sport and how central it is to their lives—that they would do it again even if it meant winding up with brain damage.
“Fighters must be made to understand the cumulative toll sparring and boxing takes on them and they need to be prepared to walk away when the time comes.”
Dixon concludes with the following words: “The sport might not be able to save every fighter but it must give them the best chance of saving them from themselves. Fighters must be made to understand the cumulative toll sparring and boxing takes on them and they need to be prepared to walk away when the time comes. That is the hardest part for many fighters, and it’s why the sport should do more to help as they start a new chapter….It’s time boxing confronts its own worst problem, stops ignoring it, and steps up to address it at all levels. This is a sport of courage and it will take bravery but it’s happened in football, soccer, and rugby although it should not be up to other sports to take on boxing’s biggest fight.” It is a fight that is long overdue.
Damage: The Untold Story Of Brain Trauma In Boxing
By Tris Dixon
Hamilcar Publications, 227 Pages, $29.99
Mike Silver’s books include “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-A Photographic History”; His most recent book is “The Night the Referee Hit Back: Memorable Moments From the World of Boxing”.
Mike Silver Talks With Teddy Atlas About His New Boxing Instructional Videos
Teddy Atlas is a world renowned trainer and boxing commentator. Over the course of his 40 plus year career Teddy has mentored and taught scores of top amateur and professional boxers, including world champions Wilfredo Benitez, Mike Tyson, Simon Brown, Michael Moorer, Timothy Bradley, Joey Gamache, Barry McGuigan and Alexander Povetkin. He is also one of the sport’s most popular and respected broadcasters, having worked for ESPN as both an analyst and color commentator for over 20 years.
Although Teddy is no longer actively training boxers his expertise and wisdom is now available to everyone via a series of exceptional instructional videos. They are the next best thing to having Teddy right in front of you teaching you everything from the basics to more sophisticated “tricks of the trade” (not to mention the many life lessons that are always interwoven into Atlas’s memorable teaching style). Whether you are a boxer, armchair fan, trainer or just someone who is curious to know more about this ancient sport, you can have no better guide than Teddy Atlas.
So far three instructional video programs have been released and have proven to be extremely popular. They are: The Fundamentals of Boxing; The Peek-A-Boo Style of Boxing; 14 Signature Punches From All of The Greats. Nine more programs are planned, each covering a different aspect of the sweet science. Each video program is broken into separate segments that total about 3 hours.
Following are excerpts from an interview I recently conducted with Teddy to discuss the videos and his plans for future tutorials.
Mike: Whose idea was it to do these videos?
Teddy:The owners of Dynamic Striking.com contacted my daughter and asked if I would be interested in doing a boxing instructional video. They are the biggest makers of instructional fight videos in the world. A lot of the videos are about the MMA [Mixed Martial Arts] world, but they have some boxing and they wanted to get more involved with that.
After the initial success of the first one we found out there is a base out there that is interested and wants to learn.
Mike: Was the idea to do just one video?
Teddy: I thought so, but after seeing how successful the video was they suggested to keep doing them on specific areas of boxing. After the initial success of the first one we found out there is a base out there that is interested and wants to learn. So we started off with one, and now we’ve done four. The plan is to do eight more after that.
Mike:You’ve spent 45 years teaching the finer points of the sweet science. Will you still be involved in personally training boxers?
Teddy: I’m not inclined to train fighters so easily anymore. It takes a lot out of me. I’ve always been saying on ESPN for 25 years that when a fighter enters the ring they leave with less of themselves. What I never said was, it’s the same for a trainer. At least it’s been that way for me over the years. There is such a strong bond between trainer and fighter. You lose a piece of yourself physically, emotionally, even spiritually. You lose faith in people sometimes. You put so much into them they sometimes disappoint you in such a close proximity. So I’m not inclined to so readily say yes, anymore.
Mike: Who was the last boxer you trained?
Teddy: I was asked to come out of retirement about three years ago to train light heavyweight Oleksandr Gvozkyk. We won a world title against a really good puncher, Adonis Stevenson. Following that fight I was asked to train some marquee fighters. I’ve been saying no to them for the most part because it’s hard to want to make that commitment because of all of the things that float around that commitment that I know will go into it—going away from home, being in camp, the physical, mental and emotional demands of being responsible for a person.
Mike:Doing the videos, at this stage of your career, seems like a good idea because in a very real sense you will still be teaching.
Teddy: Cus D’Amato said I was born to teach. I don’t know, but I’ve been doing it since I’m 19 years old. I was training Wilfredo Benitez when I was like 21. Not that I deserved it, but I was with Cus D’Amato, so I got that opportunity. If I told you some of the names of fighters I trained before I was 24 you’d shake your head. They’re all world champions, or guys who just fought for a world title and came up short. I became a commentator for 25 years with ESPN. I still work for them doing SportsCenter stuff, and I was fortunate enough to be put into the Hall of Fame as a broadcaster. But with all of that I’m still a teacher. Like Cus said, when you’re a teacher you teach. It’s always in you, it never leaves you. Because what is teaching? Teaching is really an opportunity, a privilege, and its work. It is a responsibility that could be a burden, like I just pointed out, but it’s also a privilege because you get a chance to make somebody better. You get a chance to help somebody in this world. That’s pretty good.
Mike: Modern technology has made it possible for you to reach a much wider audience who will benefit from your knowledge even if you’re not doing one on one teaching anymore.
Teddy: Like I just explained to you, I was reticent to do it anymore. I was keeping myself out of it. So this opportunity with Dynamic Striking comes along and my daughter talked me into it.She reminded me that this was a chance to do what I do best without having to go to camp, without having to have that personal involvement with the fighter that has worn me out. She explained to me that instead of helping one person I could help thousands who could learn something the right way, hopefully. They can improve on their interest in the sport, on their partaking of the sport, whether it’s a professional or an amateur, or a parent that wants their kid to learn the fundamentals properly, or a white collar guy who wants to work out but wants to do it the right way, not the wrong way. So she reminded me that here is an opportunity that came knocking on my door to continue teaching where I was inclined not to teach anymore.
Unlike other sports where you have to have a background in that sport, in boxing anyone can be a trainer. I couldn’t wind up on the sideline coaching a football team in the NFL because I don’t have that background.
Mike: It is my belief, and I’ve written about it, that we do not have nearly enough competent trainers who know how to teach the finer points of boxing technique.
Teddy:It’s true. Unlike other sports where you have to have a background in that sport, in boxing anyone can be a trainer. I couldn’t wind up on the sideline coaching a football team in the NFL because I don’t have that background. I don’t belong there, even though I may know the basics of the sport. But you can do that in my sport. I’m not saying they have to spend 8 years apprenticeship up in Catskill away from everything with Cus D’Amato, who was my mentor, and who had a great boxing mind. But the opportunities to do that aren’t even there anymore, to be quite honest. There should be some apprenticeship served. I look around and I see too many of these so called trainers without a background that are teaching fighters, so therefore the teaching is inappropriate. It is not correct in a lot of ways. So here is an opportunity, while I can still do it, without having to pick up the responsibility of the personal relationship with a fighter that I talked about earlier. I can still be able to teach people in a way that is fundamentally correct, and in a way that’s been lost in the sport to a certain degree because we do not have the teachers we should have. We have some good ones, but we have some that are not.
Mike: Are the lessons in these tutorials the same that Cus taught you in the eight years you were with him?
Teddy: Yes and no. I learned the nuts and bolts from Cus, the ABCs, the laws, the rules. There are laws in life and there are laws in boxing. You break the law in boxing you don’t get a ticket, you don’t get jail time, you get punched in the face. So you learn the basics and you have that foundation, and then with experience you start to add certain things.
Mike: What are some examples of the “nuts and bolts” of boxing?
Teddy: Moving your head after your last punch and covering back fast with your hands; keeping your chin down; keeping a slight bend in your knees; sharing the weight on both legs. You don’t put it all on one leg, or even 60% on one leg, it has to be 50-50 on both legs. Why? So you’re available to react without a millisecond lost. The weight is on the balls of your feet so you are ready to move while having the benefit of balance. You have to learn all those things and more, and you eventually advance.
Mike: The second video in the series explains the peek-a-boo style of boxing that Cus made famous. It was used to great effect by former champions Floyd Patterson, Mike Tyson and Jose Torres.
Teddy: The peek-a-boo was pure Cus D’Amato. People are interested in it. It’s part of the history of the sport. So when we did the peek-a-boo video of course I drew it directly from the blueprints of what Cus taught me and gave me, and instilled in me. But from there we advanced to other techniques.
Mike: In the video program titled 14 Signature Punches from All the Greats you explain and demonstrate some of boxing’s most effective “signature” punches that are identified with certain boxers. One of my personal favorites is the one called “The Walk Off”.
Teddy:Jersey Joe Walcott [heavyweight champion 1951-1952] had this move where he would hitch up his trunks and start to walk off to the side a little bit. What the hell is that? Probably a habit he picked up, maybe a wasted habit? No it’s not wasted. It was thought out. It was developed. It was designed for a reason. The natural instinct of the person in front of him was to relax just for a moment…just for a moment. Like you have in nature when an animal, say a snake, a python, will make you relax just for a second and then–bang! Strike and it’s over. Well it’s the same thing. Jersey Joe would adjust his trunks and take a little walk off to the side, and you relax a little bit, you start to follow him and you don’t even realize you’re following him. And you start to follow him and– bang! He’s got you. Like the python. He’s got you. Sometimes it doesn’t even register with the spectators who see it. They think, “Oh, it just happened”. But it didn’t just happen. It happened because Walcott made it happen. You don’t knock great guys out by accident. Like Sugar Ray Robinson said, “I’ve got to dress them up before I take them out”. And that’s what Walcott did. He adjusted his trunks a little bit, he started moving his shoulders, walked like he was just taking a casual walk in the park, and then all of a sudden he synchronized the slip of his shoulders with that left uppercut and he caught Ezzard Charles—a great fighter—and knocked him out.
Mike: I’ve seen film footage of that fight but never quite understood what Walcott was doing until you explained it.
Teddy: Walcott had all those little subtleties, nuances, instinctive things that he knew he could do from experience. He knew how to walk the tightrope. He knew to take something that looked risky, and take the risk out of it. All that was left was the ingenuity and the genius of it that gave him that little edge.Life’s about overcoming, about finding a way. That’s what boxing’s about. I try to bring those things to this video series as it relates to boxing.
Mike: What is another example of a boxer’s “signature punch”
Teddy: Hector Camacho’s “trip hammer” jab. Camacho was a helluva fighter. He had great, great speed, and great boxing ability. His jab was very effective, but he did it different than anyone else’s. Nobody even noticed it. I liken it to a trip hammer. He didn’t turn it over, he just dropped it. He just dropped it! And what did that do? Well It saved him probably 2 tenths of a second. It sounds like nothing, but it’s everything. It got him there just a little quicker, without some of that excess motion, but he still threw it straight. He didn’t give any warning. So the basics were still there, but his genius, his instincts took it to a different place. I let my experiences do the same thing for me as a teacher.
Mike: What other instructional videos are planned?
Teddy: The next one is called Keys to the Door. Itshould be up in about two weeks. It’s all about the jab.
There are cave paintings found in Ethiopia that go back thousands of years depicting boxers and you always see the lead hand extended.
Mike: Why is it called Keys to the Door?
Teddy: The title is appropriate because the jab is the key that opens the door. It’s the lantern that lights the way. There are cave paintings found in Ethiopia that go back thousands of years depicting boxers and you always see the lead hand extended. There’s a reason for that. Even way back then they knew there had to be a science to it. There had to be something that was more than just the brawn. The jab shows the way. If it was just the brawn all the creatures would have been the ones that were in charge. But they weren’t in charge; they were the ones that were on the grill being cooked. Man used his brain to give him the edge and figure out the advantages. There were tribes that weren’t necessarily the most physical but they were the ones that lived a little better. They were the ones that won the battles they had to win. They were a little smarter and had a little more ingenuity. It’s the same with boxing. The guys who were big and strong and came in there throwing haymakers did not have the edge against those who were a little smarter and had a little more ingenuity.
Mike: So what you’re saying is the jab is probably as old as boxing itself?
Teddy: Apparently. Even back then they knew there had to be a jab to lead the way. There had to be science connected to the physical that would give them an edge. I explain some of the history in these tutorials and why the jab has been around since the beginning of boxing. Without the jab it wouldn’t be called boxing. It would be called slugging. It would be called throwing or chucking, but it wouldn’t be boxing. It is boxing for a reason, and a big part of that reason is the jab. The jab is what makes it possible for you to do everything else. It is part of the militia that clears the way, which gets there first so you can come in with the artillery. Something has to clear the way. Something has to set up the way for the tanks to come in—that’s the jab.
Mike: I’ve never heard the jab described that way, but it makes perfect sense.
Teddy: How many guys out there know there’s 14 different ways to throw a jab? Not too many.
Mike: What’s an example of using the jab in a different way?
Teddy: Say you are about to throw a jab but you realize your opponent is set. What does that mean? That means he’s looking to counter you. Don’t throw it. So what do you do? You throw a little feint and you freeze him, then you quickly step just six inches off to the left, and you throw it from there—different place, different position, different result. Instead of getting hit, you land, and he doesn’t land. It’s just one example of a different kind of way to throw the jab.
A lot of people forget that when Tyson was Tyson–when he was good–he out jabbed taller guys.
Mike: I’ve seen fighters you’ve trained do that move, including Mike Tyson.
Teddy: A lot of people forget that when Tyson was Tyson–when he was good–he out jabbed taller guys. How? He was shorter than most of his opponents. How did he out jab a taller guy? He did it by learning how to slip a punch, taking away the guy’s reach, so now he could jab inside it.
Mike: A boxer who knows how and when to use a jab certainly has an edge over one who does not.
Teddy: I make the following point when I introduce the video before I get into the ring and show it. Can you imagine Muhammad Ali without a jab? I can answer that—no. Could you imagine Floyd Mayweather Jr. without a jab? Go back to the great golden era; can you imagine Willie Pep without a jab? No, you couldn’t. Can you imagine George Foreman without a jab? Everyone saw the big shots that took Joe Frazier off the ground to win the heavyweight title. The jab set up that big uppercut. The jab kept him off balance, the jab never let him recover, the jab discombobulated him.
Mike: Your videos have proven to be a valuable resource for anyone interested in boxing. Thank you Teddy for continuing to teach, inform and entertain.
Teddy:I’m blessed and grateful that people are going out there and purchasing it. They’re interested in the topics and I’m hoping they’ll understand the truth of it.
Ed. Note: The Teddy Atlas instructional videos can be purchased and downloaded from Dynamic Striking.com. The cost is $97 dollars per program.
Mike Silver’s newest book is The Night the Referee Hit Back: Memorable Moments from the World of Boxing. Available from Amazon.com or publisher’s website: Rowman.com
Boxing Paintings: The Big Three From An Artist’s Point of View
From ancient times to the present, the visual and emotional drama that is inherent in the sport of boxing has always attracted and inspired artists. Statues, friezes, vase paintings, and murals depicting boxing scenes and boxers have been discovered in ancient Crete, Greece and Rome. Many are on display in the great museums of the world. One of the earliest known images is a stone slab relief, discovered in Baghdad, which shows two boxers with taped leather hands. It is estimated to be 5000 years old.
In more recent times important American artists have produced an impressive volume of work devoted to the sport. Three of the most famous boxing paintings of the 20th century were done by American artists. They are Dempsey and Willard by James Montgomery Flagg; Dempsey and Firpo by George Bellows, and Brown Bomber by Robert Riggs. Each of these compelling masterpieces depicts a scene from an iconic heavyweight championship contest.
Three of the most famous boxing paintings of the 20th century were done by American artists.
A great painting, like a great boxing match, can be appreciated on many different levels. There are layers and nuances to each—some obvious and some not so obvious. I can analyze a fight much easier than I can analyze a painting. So, I thought it might be interesting to seek out the expert analysis of an accomplished artist and hear what he had to say about the aforementioned paintings.
One of my dear friends is renowned artist Sol Korby. Sol is an award winning painter and illustrator. After service in World War II Sol was employed by various advertising agencies, and subsequently for most of the leading book publishers including Time Inc., Dell, Ace, Fawcett and Avon. (A sampling of Sol’s amazing creations can be viewed at: SolKorbyIllustrations.com)
Sol is ageless. At 90 years plus he is still active and productive, working in his studio almost every day. He is also familiar with boxing’s colorful history. In fact, his work includes a number of boxing subjects. I was anxious to hear what he had to say about each painting.
But first a brief history of the artists and their subjects:
“Notice how Flagg put a cloud in the sky and how he silhouetted Dempsey’s head against the white cloud to emphasize Dempsey’s importance.” –Sol Korby
Dempsey and Willard (6’ x 19’): James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960), was a popular and prolific artist best known for his World War I recruiting poster of Uncle Sam pointing to the viewer (inspired by a British recruitment poster showing Lord Kitchener in a similar pose) with the caption “I Want YOU for U.S. Army”. The Dempsey and Willard mural is 6 feet high by 19 feet wide and is by far the largest of the three paintings. It depicts heavyweight champion Jess Willard and challenger Jack Dempsey in a scene from the July 4, 1919 title fight. Dempsey was 60 pounds lighter than the 6’ 6 ½” 250 pound champion. It didn’t matter. In a savage beat down Dempsey floored Willard seven times in the opening round. The game champion withstood a terrible beating until his corner finally threw in the towel before the start of the 4th round. The electrifying “Manassa Mauler” would hold the title for the next seven years and become the greatest sports superstar of the roaring twenties.
The mural was commissioned by Jack Dempsey and completed in 1944. It was prominently displayed on the wall of his popular Broadway bar and restaurant. Although invited to participate in the celebrity packed unveiling Jess Willard declined to attend. He wired Dempsey, saying, “Sorry I can’t be there. But I saw enough of you 25 years ago to last me a lifetime.”
After the restaurant closed in 1974, Dempsey and his wife Deanna donated the painting to the Smithsonian’s National Gallery of Art in Washington D. C. where it is on permanent display.
Dempsey and Firpo (51” x 63 ¼”): George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925) was one of the most renowned artists of his generation. His previous boxing paintings and prints, numbering 46 in all, had already won him considerable fame, most notably Stag at Sharkey’s. Bellows was commissioned by the New York Evening Journal to cover the heavyweight title fight between champion Jack Dempsey and Argentina’s Luis Angel Firpo on September 23, 1923 at New York’s Polo Grounds. The fight was witnessed by 90,000 fans who contributed to boxing’s second million dollar gate.
In a wild first round Firpo was dropped seven times and Dempsey twice. The painting captures the dramatic moment when Dempsey is knocked out of the ring by Firpo. As the painting shows, he landed on reporters sitting in the first press row. Controversy erupted when it was claimed Dempsey was unfairly aided by the reporters who proceeded to push him back into the ring (in the painting one reporter’s hand is seen on Dempsey’s back).
Bellows inserted himself in the painting. He is the bald fellow seated on the extreme left. The painting is owned by the Whitney Museum of American Art.
The Brown Bomber (31” x 41”): Robert Riggs (1896-1970) was a painter, printmaker, and illustrator well known in the 1930s for his realistic images of the circus, boxing matches, hospitals and psychiatric wards. The Brown Bomber is the nickname of the great heavyweight champion Joe Louis, who held the title from 1937 to 1949 and defended it a record 25 times. The scene depicts the climactic ending to the historic championship fight between Louis and Germany’s Max Schmeling on June 22, 1938 at Yankee Stadium. Louis was seeking to avenge his knockout loss to Schmeling (the only blot on his otherwise perfect record) that had taken place two years earlier. This fight had huge political and social significance. On the eve of World War II, with Nazi Germany ascending, the world focused their attention on this fight. Louis was not just fighting for himself. To the 70,000 fans in the sold out stadium and millions more listening on radio, the fight symbolized the struggle between democracy and Nazi Germany. Joe Louis’ swift and brutal annihilation of Schmeling in the very first round made him a national hero and cemented his legendary status for all time. The painting is owned by the Taubman Museum of Art, in Roanoke, Virginia.
Of the three paintings, Dempsey and Willard is Sol Korby’s favorite: “I think most people who are interested in art would say Bellows is the best painter of the three, probably because he’s in between Flagg and Riggs. Riggs is too stylized, and Flagg is not stylized at all, and Bellows is right in the middle. Personally, I like Flagg best because his work is realistic. I do that kind of work. I like to see things the way they are in nature. When I do a painting I try to make it as close as possible to nature.
“One of the main differences between Flagg’s mural and the two paintings by Bellows and Riggs, aside from the size, is that the others have action. This painting is not really a fight picture the way you and I know a fight picture. There’s no action. There’s no blood. It’s just the two principle fighters in their typical poses. Flagg depicts the two fighters in their prime and the way they move. Willard is moving forward and he’s got one glove near his chest and the other is down near his thigh. He’s not concerned that Dempsey’s going to hit him. It shows he’s not afraid of him at all. He thinks he can beat Dempsey. It wasn’t until the first couple of punches that Willard really knew he was in for a fight now.
“On the left side of the painting you have the referee standing there. He’s not running towards them. He’s just standing there to balance out the ring post on the right side of the painting. It works as a mural because we’re talking about a painting that’s measured in feet. The other paintings are measured in inches. So you have a painting that’s 6 feet by 19 feet symbolizing their fighting styles. I think he did a fantastic job on it.
“This painting is an example of what I call a David and Goliath theme. Flagg wanted to get that big vs. little effect. You’ve got the small guy, who everybody roots for, and you’ve got the monster who everybody wants to lose. Flagg shows Dempsey at his best in that tiger crouch against this giant. He looks like he’s just about to spring up. You’ll also notice how Flagg put a cloud in the sky and how he silhouetted Dempsey’s head against the white cloud to emphasize Dempsey’s importance.
“Flagg and Dempsey knew each other very well. They traveled in the same circles. He was always in the restaurant.”
“Flagg and Dempsey knew each other very well. They traveled in the same circles. He was always in the restaurant. The end result was a very personal type of painting. Flagg put all his friends in the first row. Not only his friends, but also friends of Dempsey. He’s got different sportswriters and people they associate with, including satirist Damon Runyon, cartoonist Rube Goldberg, promoter Tex Rickard, humorist Bugs Baer and Dempsey’s trainer, Jimmy DeForrest. [note: Flagg, like Bellows, inserted himself into the painting and is seated in the first row]. That’s the intent of this picture. It’s not really a boxing picture like the others because there’s no action in it and there’s no blood and neither is being knocked down.
“Many of Flagg’s friends were in show business. Two of his best friends were comedian W.C. Fields and actor John Barrymore. He used to go out all night with them carousing and drinking and would get home very late. If they weren’t in a play or anything they had nothing else to do, so while they had a lot of time, he had work to do and, tight or not, he could knock off an entire illustration in one afternoon. That’s how fast he was.
“In his painting of Dempsey and Firpo, George Bellows did something very unique”, explains Sol. “He has Dempsey falling back and somebody in the press row with his hand on Dempsey’s back is about to push him back into the ring. Many people today are not familiar with this fight, even though they may have heard the name Jack Dempsey. Looking at the painting for the first time they might think it is Dempsey who knocked Firpo out of the ring. But the one thing that tells you Dempsey won this fight, even though you know he is knocked out of the ring, is to look at his hair. His hair is immaculate. There is not one strand out of place. The guy was knocked out of the ring and his hair didn’t move! Bellows painted it that way to show Dempsey wasn’t even hurt to begin with and, as we know, he got back into the ring and knocked out Firpo in the next round.
“Dempsey had only ten seconds to make it back into the ring before being counted out. Bellows shows the referee starting the count right away. In this way he draws attention to the controversy about whether Dempsey could have gotten back into the ring in time without the help of the people who pushed him back.
“You’ll also notice that at the top of the painting there are lights above the ring and two more lights in the far reaches of the stadium. Bellows didn’t want all that area dark. He wanted to show there was space and distance and he wanted to show where the lighting on both figures is coming from and it works very well. And he has nice little figures in the back all cheering and raising their hands and hats and all those things going on in the ringside to show that everyone is excited about what’s happening.
“Robert Riggs’ painting, The Brown Bomber, takes a little explaining, because this is a violent picture. It is the aftermath of violence. This is really an amazing picture in terms of its composition. Starting with the referee’s outstretched arms, and going clockwise past Louis’s back we see the towel flying into the ring and then the guy who threw in the towel, and then we see the heads and the shoulders of all the people sitting at ringside, which brings us right back to the referee. In other words, it makes a complete oval.
“The title is The Brown Bomber but this painting is not about Joe Louis. This painting is about Max Schmeling!”
“Just off center in the oval, on all fours, is Schmeling. He’s out, completely finished, and Louis is standing over him. If he ever attempts to get up he’s going to be smashed down again. The title is The Brown Bomber but this painting is not about Joe Louis. This painting is about Max Schmeling! The whole thing is about Max Schmeling. He’s in the oval and he’s groping to get up. His head is turned because he wants to see where Louis is and he can’t do anything about it. Look at the people at ringside. They are all looking at him. They are not looking at Louis. Nobody is looking at Louis, including the referee, who is about to stop the fight. This painting is about Max Schmeling. Joe Louis is one of the figures that complete the arc. He’s part of it, but he’s not the main figure in the painting—Schmeling is.
“This is the most violent of the three paintings. Dempsey being knocked out of the ring didn’t hurt him, didn’t bother him. But this one, Schmeling is in agony and there’s no getting away from it.
“Each of these artists had different styles. Flagg paints in a more true to life style. Bellows and Riggs are more stylized and you can see it in everything they do, especially in the heads and figures around the ring and the shapes of the fighters’ bodies. Everything is stylized. But that is the property of the artist. They feel they’re enhancing the subject. An example is Louis’ arm. Riggs paints him with more muscles than Louis ever had. But he wanted that. It shows that Louis had the strength to do what he did, to put Schmeling on all fours on the canvas. He also made Schmeling’s muscles prominent to show he wasn’t just a tomato can. He was a good fighter. He was champion at one time. Louis is not beating some club fighter—this was a champion.”
There you have it, an artist’s take on three magnificent boxing paintings. Sol asked me which one I liked best. Well, here it is almost two weeks later, and I am still trying to decide. All three are so unique and spectacular in their own way. At this point it’s a dead heat. Which one is your favorite?
Mike Silver’s newest book is The Night the Referee Hit Back: Memorable Moments from the World of Boxing. Available from Amazon.com or publisher’s website: Rowman.com
Dr. Wilbert “Skeeter” McClure, the former professional boxer, passed away last week at the age of 81. Between 1958 and 1960, Skeeter McClure won virtually every important national and international amateur boxing championship including Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), Golden Gloves (Chicago and Inter-City), Diamond Belt, Tournament of Champions, and Pan American Games. The crowning achievement to his brilliant amateur career was winning the Olympic Gold Medal in the light-middleweight divisionat the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy.
McClure’s roommate at the Olympics was another Gold Medal winner named Cassius Marcellus Clay. At that point, McClure was considered to be a more accomplished boxer than Clay. But whereas Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali, won the professional heavyweight championship in 1964 and became the most recognized face on the planet, McClure’s once promising professional career stagnated, never living up to expectations. One wonders how things might have turned out had McClure, like Clay, been guided by the savvy Angelo Dundee instead of the incompetents with whom he entrusted his professional boxing career.
It is to McClure’s everlasting credit that he did not let the terrible mismanagement of his professional boxing career stop him from achieving great success in an entirely new profession. McClure had a college degree in literature and philosophy. After his pro career ended, he returned to school where he earned a master’s degree in counseling and, in 1973, a doctorate in psychology from Detroit’s Wayne State University. The Ohio native joined the teaching staff of Northeastern University in Boston, where he taught courses in counseling and psychology for five years. Over the next 20 years, McClure built a successful private clinical practice. In addition, he operated a consulting firm that provided corporations, non-profit foundations, and police departments with education and training in stress management, conflict resolution, team building, and performance evaluation.
The history of his pro boxing career serves as a primer for how to ruin a brilliant young prospect through appallingly careless matchmaking.
Considering his post-boxing success, one might ask if it makes any difference that Skeeter did not win a professional boxing championship. I believe it absolutely does make a difference. McClure dedicated 17 years of his life to the sacrifice and discipline it takes to master the toughest of all sports. He had it within him not only to win a professional boxing title, but also to achieve all-time great status perhaps equal to or even exceeding that achieved by Muhammad Ali. Bad decisions made by the people he trusted to guide him to a title destroyed those dreams. The history of his pro boxing career serves as a primer for how to ruin a brilliant young prospect through appallingly careless matchmaking.
As an Olympic gold medal winner, McClure would be a hot commodity if he were to turn pro today, especially considering that he was a college graduate. But the scenario in 1960 was quite different from today. An Olympic title, while desirable, did not automatically insure a megabuck promotional contract or a lucrative television deal.
After considering several management offers, McClure signed on with a wealthy Ohio businessman whose hobby was managing professional fighters. This person hired a trainer who had been affiliated with Archie Moore, the great light heavyweight champion. Regrettably for McClure, both the businessman and the trainer proved to be clueless in the ability to make appropriate matches for the young phenom.
McClure was drafted into the Army directly after the Olympics, but he was able to turn pro and fight several times while on leave. He won his ninth straight pro fight June 30, 1962 – a 6-round decision over Harold Richardson at Madison Square Garden. Teddy Brenner, the Garden’s matchmaker, was impressed with McClure’s performance and his sterling amateur background. Television was in need of new faces to fill a weekly schedule calling for almost fifty Garden main events per year. So, with a grand total of nine pro fights (5 KOs) and 39 rounds of professional experience, McClure was signed to fight the South American middleweight champion Farid Salim on August 4, 1962 at Madison Square Garden in front of a nationwide television audience. Salim, a rangy 6’ 2” middleweight had lost only two of forty professional fights.
(Note: The following are comments and direct quotes by McClure from his interview with this author that took place in 1998.)
McClure was excited to be headlining at the world famous arena and wanted to be ready for his first major test as a pro.I asked my trainer: ‘Is he a boxer? Does he have fast hands? What’s he got?’ And the answer I received was: ‘I don’t know.’ What the [expletive]! My first TV fight…10 rounds…and the son-of-a-gun doesn’t know anything about my opponent! No one [today] would do that to a fighter with a Gold Medal.”McClure shook his head in disgust. It was the same thing with everyone else I fought. I’d ask: ‘What has he got?’Every first round was a surprise.
“McClure moves with the grace of a young Ray Robinson, hits with authority, and fights back furiously when hurt.”
Despite the lack of advance knowledge, the former Olympian, a 12-to-5 underdog, was more than up to the task. He won a unanimous decision. His superlative boxing skills were a revelation to many who witnessed the bout. One reporter wrote:McClure moves with the grace of a young Ray Robinson, hits with authority, and fights back furiously when hurt. Comparing a boxer with only ten pro bouts to Robinson, the greatest fighter who ever lived, was a huge compliment. More experience before taking on top contenders was all that McClure would have needed in order to realize his full potential.
After four more fights, McClure was rated the eighth best middleweight in the world. But it was all happening too fast. There was little respite from one hard match to the next, all against top opposition. One didn’t have to be a boxing expert to know that McClure was being rushed into matches with fighters he should have avoided at that stage of his career.At some point, the boxer must be tested against a quality opponent to see what he’s got, but the timing has to be right. Unfortunately, instead of being handled like a precious diamond in the rough that needed a master craftsman to cut and polish it, McClure was thrown to the lions while he was still learning the ropes as a pro. Considering his spectacular amateur accomplishments and the tremendous promise shown in his early professional bouts, the ruination of that great potential, through no fault of his own, makes Wilbert Skeeter McClure the most poorly managed fighter in the history of the sport.
This is how it evolved: Six weeks after the bout with Farid Salim, McClure returned to his hometown of Toledo, Ohio and won a unanimous 10-round decision over tough Tony Montano, a 37-bout pro who’d competed with several world ranked boxers. Three weeks after the bout with Montano, McClure was back in the Garden meeting 63-bout veteran Gomeo Brennan. Once again displaying fighting spirit and superb boxing smarts, McClure won a hard-fought 10-round decision over a far more experienced opponent.In early 1963, he returned to Toledo to outpoint former welterweight contender Ted Wright, a veteran of 60 professional bouts.
Amazingly, despite his limited professional experience, he was good enough to be competitive with these seasoned veterans, even outpointing them, but every fight was tough. He certainly wasn’t being overprotected, that’s for sure. In fact, in his 33 professional fights, only five opponents had losing records.As if to emphasize this point, in his next fight, on October 18, 1963, McClure was matched against the great former welterweight champion Luis Rodriguez in yet another nationally televised fight from Madison Square Garden.
Rodriguez was a substitute for Jose Gonzales, a granite-chinned contender who six months earlier had withstood the bombs of “Hurricane” Carter and stopped the feared puncher on a cut in the sixth round. When Gonzales was injured in training, he pulled out of the scheduled bout with McClure; Luis replaced him. A bout with Gonzales would have meant another punishing contest for McClure, but taking on Rodriguez made even less sense.
McClure didn’t have to ask about Rodriguez. The great Cuban boxer was a former welterweight champion and one of the ten best fighters in the world. His only losses in 55 bouts were against Emile Griffith and Curtis Cokes. Rodriguez was capable of beating the world’s top welterweights and middleweights. He had scored a stunning ninth-round knockout of middleweight contender Denny Moyer in his most recent fight. Luis had a total of 430 professional rounds compared to McClure’s mere 14 fights and 85 rounds.
McClure knew that he was not ready for Rodriguez. He told his manager and trainer that he thought they were crazy for accepting him as an opponent at this stage of his career.We argued for two days, said McClure. I was just so tired of all this crap. Isolated in a remote New Jersey training camp, the young fighter was fatigued and disgusted. But, his handlers eventually convinced him to accept the match, saying that his weight advantage of nine pounds would give him an edge.
Meeting a fighter of Rodriguez’s stature in his 15th professional bout was both negligent and stupid. Compare it to the early career of future middleweight champion Marvin Hagler who turned pro after winning the National AAU light-middleweight championship in 1973. In Hagler’s 15th pro bout, he won a 10-round decision over Sugar Ray Seales, the 1968 Olympic gold medalist. It was Seale’s first defeat in 22 bouts. Hagler’s next two opponents had a combined record of 5-14-3.Another future middleweight champion, Roy Jones Jr., a light middleweight Silver medalist in the 1988 Olympics, had a spectacular amateur record similar to McClure’s.In his 15th pro bout, Jones KO’d Lester Yarbrough who came into the ring with a 12-16-1 record and would win only one of his next 34 bouts. Neither of these future pro champions faced the type of brutal competition that McClure had to contend with during his first two years as a pro.
Of course it was a forgone conclusion that Skeeter would lose. Once again displaying the heart and talent of a true champion, and despite being dropped for the first time, the overmatched Olympian actually gave Rodriguez a tough fight. The Cuban won a unanimous 10-round decision, but he had to work hard for the victory. Even Rodriguez was impressed. Give that kid another year, he said, and he’ll be champion.
After that fight, Skeeter should have taken a rest and then taken on a series of lesser opponents, while at the same time perfecting his professional skills. Instead, Brenner insisted on a rematch two months later. After all, their first televised fight was exciting and interesting so why not do it again? McClure’s management should have refused the rematch.It is a truism in the unforgiving world of professional boxing that a quick rematch between an inexperienced boxer and an old pro is just asking for trouble. The old pro will use his vast experience to figure out what to do in the rematch while the inexperienced boxer will be at a distinct disadvantage. And that is exactly what happened. Rodriguez adjusted his strategy and concentrated his attack on McClure’s body to slow him up and bring down his guard.In Round 6, Rodriguez dropped McClure for an 8-count with a solid left hook to the jaw. Once again McClure got up and fought his heart out. He was able to win a few rounds but lost another unanimous decision in a punishing fight. Putting McClure into the ring with Luis Rodriguez for his 15th and 16 fight was not just bad matchmaking, it bordered on criminal negligence.
A young boxer doesn’t walk away from a series of tough and punishing fights without paying a price. If it happens often enough there will come a time in the abused boxer’s professional life when something changes within him.It can happen after one vicious beating, or it can take place over the course of several tough fights with too little time to rest between them. The change can be dramatic, or it can be subtle and unrecognizable except to an experienced trainer or someone close to the boxer. The damage is both physical and psychological. Eventually the law of diminishing returns takes effect as progress ends and potential is blunted.
The boxing portion of this story could very well end here even though Skeeter went on to fight 14 more times over the next four years. Five months after the Rodriguez debacle, there was a 10-round decision loss to future light-heavyweight champion Jose Torres (another Garden fight McClure needed like a hole in the head); only two fights in 1965, and in 1966, a pair of back-to-back 10-rounders spaced two months apart with murderous-hitting middleweight contender Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. McClure lost a decision in the first bout and fought to a draw in the second. The cost of those two fights added to the erosion of this once brilliant prospect. The decline was underscored four months later when he lost a 10-round decision to unrated Harold Richardson, the same fighter he previously had beaten easily. It was McClure’s 24th professional fight and his fifth loss. Comparisons to Sugar Ray Robinson were long past. He had been put in too deep too early, and sunk.
Yet, it took a while for this proud and intelligent boxer to finally accept the inevitable, to acknowledge that the boxing part of his life was ended. In 1967, after being stopped for the first time in his career by Johnny Smith and then losing a lackluster 10-round decision to England’s Johnny Pritchett, McClure hung up his gloves. His record was 23-7-1 (11 KOs). Three years later, feeling the itch to give it one more try, he had two more fights and then retired for good.
Although a large part of the blame for McClure’s failed boxing career goes to his managers, the person who was most responsible for ruining him was Teddy Brenner, the powerful Madison Square Garden matchmaker.
Although a large part of the blame for McClure’s failed boxing career goes to his managers, the person who was most responsible for ruining him was Teddy Brenner, the powerful Madison Square Garden matchmaker. Both Brenner and Harry Markson, the director of the Garden’s boxing department, were uninterested (or perhaps incapable) of using the resources, reputation, and influence of the world’s most famous arena to its fullest capacity. Developing and nurturing new talent was not a priority with them. There are people who mistakenly hail Brenner as a great matchmaker. The facts do not support that opinion. During his tenure at the Garden (1959 to 1977), Brenner made some good matches, but he did far more damage by destroying the careers of at least a score of very promising young fighters, including McClure, by overmatching them against superior opposition before they were ready. This pattern was repeated far too often. Brenner knew better but just didn’t care.If the result of a match ended up ruining a prospect, so be it. It was of no concern to either Brenner or Markson. Their weekly paychecks arrived whether they put on a good show or not. They would also abuse their power by favoring certain “house fighters” handled by compliant managers who never argued with Brenner’s choice of opponent. Making matters worse, the marketing skills of Brenner and Markson were negligible. The great arena was running on its reputation and interest was dwindling. One time, near the end of their tenure, in a fit of pique they revoked the press privileges of a journalist who dared to criticize one of their awful matches in print. So much for freedom of the press.
In those days the prestige of appearing in a main event at Madison Square Garden was second only to winning a world title. Even when matched against an opponent that was all wrong for their fighter, managers were reluctant to turn down a Garden main event. But it didn’t have to be that way. In Los Angeles, during the same period, promoters George Parnassus and Eileen Eaton were carefully developing and nurturing local talent and making the sport hugely popular without benefit of a national television sponsorship. But because this is an article in tribute to Wilbert McClure, I won’t go into further details about the destructive nature of Brenner and Markson’s arrogance and incompetence. Suffice it to say that boxing suffered as a result.
Reminiscing some thirty years later, McClure was philosophical about his ill-starred professional career.I was bitter back in 1967, the then 59-year old grandfather admitted to me. McClure was still handsome and looked twenty years younger. But now I’ve come to terms with it. I believe everything that happened was supposed to be in my life, both before and after. When you think about it, maybe the experience helped me to save some lives. I’m probably a more well-rounded psychologist because of my experience in the [boxing] business.
McClure was not prone to self-pity, nor did he live in the past. His positive attitude helped him to start over in an entirely new field. But boxing was not totally out of his life.
McClure was not prone to self-pity, nor did he live in the past. His positive attitude helped him to start over in an entirely new field. But boxing was not totally out of his life. From 1995 to 1998, he served as chairman of the Massachusetts Boxing Commission where one of his chief priorities was the athletes’ safety. He especially was concerned about over-the hill-boxers who can no longer properly defend themselves yet still are allowed to fight. The boxing community, said McClure, especially the state commissions, ought to have more courage lifting the licenses of fighters who cannot and should not do it anymore. During my tenure as chairman, I was threatened with lawsuits by managers because we suspended those boxers who couldn’t fight anymore.
When asked to evaluate today’s fighters McClure’s response was precise. You cannot become skilled and polished if you are fighting two or three times a year. When you’ve got fighters challenging for a world title with 15 pro fights, you know you’ve got a problem. It makes it difficult to appraise the top boxers of today based on what they have accomplished. It is not scientifically sound, accurate, or fair. I feel sorry for Roy Jones Jr. because he hasn’t fought a great or even a very skillful opponent yet. So he cannot be placed in the pantheon of great middleweights because it takes great opponents to make great fighters.
McClure also said that welterweight champ Oscar de La Hoya, although still a work in progress, was lucky that there were no Kid Gavilans around to test him.Put Oscar in the ring with Gavilan when he was champion, or a Ray Robinson when he was champ or a Tony Zale. Those guys were tough, man. There isn’t any way in the damn world you’re going to hurt them…and they will hurt you badly. It is a lesson that Skeeter learned the hard way.
Wilbert “Skeeter” McClure, a gracious and intelligent man, made his mark both inside and outside of the boxing ring. But most importantly, he lived his life with meaning and purpose.
Mike Silver’s newest book is The Night the Referee Hit Back: Memorable Moments from the World of Boxing. Available from Amazon.com or publisher’s website: Rowman.com:
“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.
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).
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’s newest book is “The Night the Referee Hit Back: Memorable Moments From the World of Boxing” a collection of the author’s best articles and interviews from the past 40 years.
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.