All posts by Mike Silver

Earnie Shavers: Monster Puncher—or Monster Myth?

By 

Mike Silver

 

He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts… for support rather than illumination.                                     –Andrew Lang (1844-1912) 

         

Ali vs Shavers

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. 

        

Quarry vs Shavers

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. 

    

Lyle vs Shavers

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”. 

      

Holmes vs Shavers

Two years later Shavers fought Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship. For six rounds he tried mightily to land his haymaker but kept missing. Then, suddenly, in a brief moment of carelessness Holmes left himself open and one of Shaver’s wild swings connected to the side of his jaw. Holmes fell hard and landed flat on his back.

     Holmes had never been knocked down. He was hurt but was up at the count of six and survived the round. Holmes continued his domination over the next three rounds. In the 11th round, with Shavers sucking wind and barely able to hold up his hands, the referee stopped the fight. Holmes told reporters that Shavers was the hardest puncher he had ever faced.

     A huge deal was made of Holmes getting off the canvas and surviving the 7th round. It really was much ado about nothing. In their two fights totaling 23 rounds it was the only round Holmes lost. But it was a heavyweight title fight and the big punch had come out of nowhere to nearly upset the applecart. That is exactly why people are drawn to heavyweights. You never know when the big punch might land. And it is why people were drawn to the popular Shavers whose very presence in the ring generated a certain amount of excitement, as is the case with all big punchers, no matter what weight class they compete in.  

     The following week the cover of Sports Illustrated featured a photo of the fight with the headline “Can’t Keep A Good Man Down: Holmes Comes off the Deck to Overpower Shavers”. So in trying to build up Holmes the press had to build up Shavers as well. The fact of the matter is that despite hurting Holmes with his best punch he was unable to finish him. The hype over that one punch was blown way out of proportion. But the sport needed something to get excited about in the post Ali era. (Ali had announced his retirement a year earlier). The new heavyweight king by comparison was a competent but colorless champion who ruled over a division depleted of talent. 

     Earnie Shavers gave us some of boxing’s most memorable moments. He is a class act and a credit to the sport. But his reputation as a great puncher is based on a lucky punch KO of Ellis, a fight that he lost (Ali), one spectacular knockdown (Holmes), and comments by several former opponents who beat him. That alone is not enough to place him among the greatest heavyweight punchers. Let the facts speak for themselves.

Mike Silver is the author of “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science” (McFarland Publishing) and “Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing. A Photographic History” (Lyons Press).



The Amazing Harry Greb’s Amazing Year

SMOKESTACK LIGHTNING: HARRY GREB, 1919                                                                                             

By Springs Toledo

Amazon Kindle Edition $7.99

Book review by Mike Silver

   If asked to name the greatest boxer who ever lived most boxing historians would most likely place Sugar Ray Robinson in the top spot. That is always a good choice. But it is not the only choice. There are, perhaps, three or four other boxers whose spectacular record of accomplishment makes them worthy of consideration. 

     In his latest literary effort Springs Toledo makes a very strong case for a boxer who just may have been the greatest who ever lived—Harry Greb. In a career that spanned 13 years (1913 to 1926) the legendary “Pittsburgh Windmill” fought a phenomenal 294 professional boxing contests often against the greatest boxers of his era. His record shows only 19 losses (eight official losses and 11 newspaper decisions). Most occurred either early or late in his career.

Harry Greb, both as an athlete and a person, is one of the most fascinating and charismatic characters of the 20th century. 

       For those readers lucky enough to have read Toledo’s previous works this paean to a truly great fighter exposes us once again to the author’s colorful and engaging writing style. Toledo is passionate about his subject, and rightly so. Harry Greb, both as an athlete and a person, is one of the most fascinating and charismatic characters of the 20th century. 

     In conveying to the reader why Greb deserves his place at the pinnacle of boxing’s Mt. Rushmore Smokestack Lightning: Harry Greb, 1919 focuses on the most amazing and mind boggling year of any prizefighter of any era. In just 96 pages Toledo offers enough evidence and detail to cause the reader to shake his head in disbelief at what no normal human being would seem capable of doing. 

    From January 1st to December 31st 1919—while Greb was ranked the number one middleweight contender—he stormed through twenty-one cities in eight states and fought forty-five times. (Today forty-five fights would constitute an entire 10 to 15 year professional boxing career). “Greb was on track for well over 60 had scheduled bouts not been cancelled because of either injuries to himself, or an opponent’s nerve.”

     In one year Greb “thrashed five Hall of Famers ten times, personally sought out the middleweight champion in New York City, ran two light heavyweight champions out of the ring, called out Jack Dempsey every chance he got, manhandled heavyweights, and barely lost a round while suffering unspeakable injuries.” According to Boxrec.com Greb won all 45 bouts.

      Toledo’s books—and this one is no exception—contain far more than boxing history. They are absorbing and richly detailed character studies as well. He delves into aspects of Greb’s private life outside of the ring, describing injuries to a pre-adolescent psyche that may have contributed to his extraordinary and highly unorthodox boxing style. 

    

Harry Greb

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. 

THE MAGIC MAN TALKS BOXING: MY INTERVIEW WITH MARLON STARLING

Marlon Starling Interviewed by Mike Silver for Boxing Over Broadway 

    

Marlon Starling

Former welterweight champion Marlon Starling was the fifth boxer from Connecticut to win a world title. Louis “Kid” Kaplan, Pinky Silverberg, Batt Battalino and Willie Pep all won their titles during the golden age of Connecticut boxing from the 1920s to the 1940s. During that time the “Nutmeg State” was home to many other outstanding boxers including Lou Bogash, Ted Lowry, Chico Vejar, Julie Kogon, Johnny Cesario, Vic Cardell, Larry Boardman and Bernie Reynolds.   

     Marlon Starling is far removed from that era, nevertheless he could accurately be described as “old school”. There were few soft touches during his ascent to the title. He accomplished his goal the old fashioned way—he earned it. Along the way be became one of the top professional boxers of the 1980s.   

      Before turning pro Marlon reportedly won 97 of 110 amateur bouts. His professional career spanned 11 years (1979-1990). He lost only 5 of 52 professional fights and stopped 27 opponents.  Only one of his five career losses (all by decision) resulted in a unanimous verdict. He drew in two other bouts.

In an era of tough welterweight competition Marlon Starling stood out among his peers.

     Marlon won his first 25 fights before losing a split 12 round decision to future welterweight champion Donald Curry in 1982. He defeated his next six opponents (flattening four of them) and looked very impressive stopping hard punching Jose Baret and outpointing Kevin Howard over 12 rounds. 

     The rematch with Curry for the world title resulted in another decision loss for Starling. The Dallas hotshot seemed to have Marlon’s number. But showing the patience and persistence that was the hallmark of his stolid fighting style Marlon got back on track with wins over Lupe Acquino, Floyd Mayweather, Sr., Simon Brown and Pedro Vilella. 

     In 1987 he defeated Mark Breland in a torrid battle for the WBA welterweight title, stopping the former Olympic champion in the 11th round. Less than a year later he won the WBC welterweight belt with a 9th round TKO of England’s Lloyd Honeyghan.  

    Moving up in weight Marlon challenged IBF middleweight champion Michael Nunn but lost a majority 12 round decision. Four months later, on August 19th, 1990, in the final fight of his career, Marlon lost the welterweight title to Maurice Blocker via another majority decision. 

    In an era of tough welterweight competition Marlon Starling stood out among his peers. Let’s read what he has to say about his career.

Interview:

Mike: Marlon, let’s start by talking about some of your most important fights. In 1982 you lost a split 12 round decision for the North American welterweight title to Donald Curry. It was your first loss in 26 professional fights. A year later you lost a 15 round unanimous decision to Curry, this time for the world title. Was he your most difficult opponent?

Marlon: Not difficult. Donald Curry was my most challenging opponent. That’s because Donald was a boxer like me. He did nothing great, but everything good. That was the kind of fighter I was. It was like fighting a mirror image of me. I mean he wasn’t a dynamite puncher. He didn’t have a great hook, didn’t have a great left jab, but everything was good. 

Mike: Often when boxers have similar styles it doesn’t make for an exciting fight. In fact, the New York Times reporter called it a “dull” fight. 

Marlon: I believe I won that first fight. I mean I didn’t get the decision but I know in my heart I won that first fight. But at the time Don Curry was a big Bob Arum fighter so he got the decision. The second fight was a different story. I lost that second fight more than he won it. Curry prepared himself better than I did for the second fight, even though I was prepared. He won a very close 15 round decision. My trainer kept saying ‘back him up, back him up’. But the problem was I couldn’t back him up. He was a little stronger than me in that fight. So he retained the title. I got out of the ring that day and for the first time in my career, maybe after 30 fights, said to myself ‘Wow, that guy beat me!’ And that was something that was tough for me to cough up.” 

Mike: You didn’t let that defeat slow you down. Over the next two and a half years you won 10 of 12 fights culminating in your 11th round TKO victory over Mark Breland on August 22, 1987 for the welterweight championship. Before turning pro in 1984 Mark Breland had won every amateur title including an unprecedented five New York Golden Gloves championships and an Olympic gold medal.

Marlon: I knocked him out but I still got the worst ass whippin’ I ever took. His jab hurt like most guys right hand, and he was hitting me with that jab. His jab broke my nose. I should have boxed the man, worked my way in, feint the man, and do all this, but at the time I wanted that world championship. I got it, but I had to pay to get in. My strategy was to wear him down with body punches. Once I got inside I was banging that body. I didn’t like to pay the price but I had to.  

Mike: You also had a huge edge in professional experience—45 pro fights and 287 rounds to his 18 fights and 76 rounds. And you had fought tougher competition. 

Marlon: Yes, my experience was a factor but also my professionalism, my conditioning and my willingness not to quit. But you know what? Mark Breland became one of my best friends. We talk every other week. He is a good man. I respect him to the utmost. 

Mike: You fought a rematch with Breland eight months later that ended in a 12 round draw. Most observers thought you deserved the decision.  

Marlon: Mark was a bit better in the second fight. I was better too and got hit less this time. I deserved to win that fight but he was an Arum fighter and they didn’t want him to lose. 

Mike: Your victory over Breland won you partial recognition as welterweight champion. England’s Lloyd Honeyghan had defeated your nemesis Donald Curry two years earlier and was recognized as champion by a rival sanctioning group. In early 1989 you and Honeyghan met to unify the title. You stopped him in the 9th round.  Tell me about that fight: 

Marlon: Now Lloyd Honygan was a whole different ball game. I knew I was going to beat him up.  

Mike: I recently watched a tape of the Honeyghan fight and you weren’t doing much for the first 3 or 4 rounds. Was that part of your strategy? 

Marlon:  The first two rounds I was just getting his technique…see what he’s doing…getting his timing down…getting his moves down. Lloyd was a good puncher but what good is a puncher if he ain’t gonna hit you? It’s all about hit and don’t get hit. I didn’t want to get careless. One time I did get careless and he hit me on top of the head and buckled my feet a little bit. Lloyd was a southpaw and every time he threw that right jab I’d counter with a right cross. If I showed him a feint and he put that left hand out I countered with the right. By the 5th or 6th round if I said jump he’d jump. He was actually waiting for it to happen. I mean by the 5th round I had this guy scared to punch. I was not what you’d call a knock out fighter but I’d get your attention with everything I’d throw. 

Mike: Honeyghan had a big reputation coming into that fight, running up a string of impressive victories including a TKO of Donald Curry. Do you consider the Honeyghan fight your greatest career accomplishment? 

Marlon: Most fans would think that but Lloyd Honeyghan was one of my easiest fights ever as a professional. I mean he played right into my hands. Maybe I was just so eager and wanted to get him so bad. I was sharp that night. I would rather get knocked out than take a beating like he did. Nobody needs to take a beating like that. I know he wore that fight for a long time.” 

Mike: About a year after your victory over Honeyghan you put on 10 pounds and challenged middleweight champion Michael Nunn. You lost a 12 round decision. That was the only time you ever fought as a middleweight. 

Marlon: I was at the point where I said to myself there is nobody else in the world that can beat me at welterweight so I moved up a weight class to fight Nunn. What did I have to lose? He wasn’t a big puncher and I believed I could beat this guy even though he was undefeated and a southpaw. But he was a little quicker than I thought and a lot taller. That’s not an excuse why I lost that fight. In the middle of the third or fourth round I had him in the corner and I took my gloves and I like dug them into his face and he said to me, ‘c’mon man fight fair’. I decided to just get in there and box him.  I turned the fight into a sparring session. I didn’t go get him like I should have. That particular day he was a little sharper than I was. He won that fight because he worked harder. But you know what? After the fight we went out and had dinner together. 

Mike: Who trained you?

Marlon: My first trainer was Johnny Duke. He trained me as an amateur and in my early years as a pro. For a little while Eddie Futch trained me but we had a falling out and I let Eddie go. After that Freddie Roach, who worked with Eddie, became my trainer. But for most of my career my trainer was Marlon Starling. They just had to keep me in line with the training regimen. Whatever happened in my career happened for a reason. When I got with Freddie I finished with Freddie. He didn’t have to do a lot to get me ready—just sharpen me up. We were friends. 

Mike: What do you think of today’s top fighters? Do any of them stand out? 

Marlon: I watch the fights on TV now and then but I couldn’t tell you. There are too many champions. If one of them walked by me I would ask ‘who was that?’ I mean when I was fighting I knew everybody in the top ten. Now I don’t know who they are. That doesn’t mean I’m trying to degrade anybody. I just don’t know. But from what I see when I do watch the fights a lot is missing. They have a title but they don’t have the skills.

Mike: What is missing?

Marlon: I don’t see things that they should have been taught to do years ago. Listen, you can win a title with a three punch combination— left jab, right cross, left hook. You don’t see too many people throwing that combination. You don’t even see a double jab. If you throw a punch you have to bring it back from where you threw it, because if you don’t I’m going to make you pay for it. If you throw that right hand out you’ve got to bring it right back to your face. A lot of times I see a fighter throw the right and it comes back to his chest. I will counter punch you all day if you do that. You’ll be afraid to throw punches if I was in the ring with you. If all you know is “fight” I can beat you. I’m not going to fight you. I’m going to box you and win. Most of the guys when under pressure all they know is “fight”. They don’t know the professionalism of being a good boxer. Anybody could fight. Dogs fight. You’ve got to outthink the other fighter. What I mean by outthink is that sometimes you have to outfight your opponent. I’m not fighting with a guy that punches like hell. I’m going to box you, until you get tired, and then I’m going to fight you. I was a thinking fighter. I didn’t fight the fighters and I didn’t box the boxers. 

      “Today’s boxers have more toughness than knowledge. You can be tough. I love to fight the tough guys because they don’t have the knowledge. A good right hand, a good jab, and a good left hook. You have those three punches you can go places. If you don’t have a great jab it’s like training with one arm. Everything works off the jab, at least as far as I’ve been taught.”

Mike: I noticed in reviewing your fights that you rarely got trapped on the ropes or in the corner. 

Marlon: Ring generalship. Like I told people – ‘this is my house (the ring)’. I live here. I know that square. I got radar in back of me telling me ‘you’re coming close to the ropes, you’re coming close to the corner.’ You had to know these things.” 

Mike: You were very strong at 147 pounds. You had huge shoulders and a powerful physique. Many fighters today lift weights to increase strength. Did you ever lift weights as part of your training routine?  

Marlon: No, never. You know lifting weights tighten you up. I got most of my strength and power from punching the bag and training.”

Mike: You were sometimes criticized for showboating during a fight. In fact, your occassional clowning may have cost you the first Curry fight. Did you do it to play to the audience or confuse your opponent? 

Marlon: I don’t showboat. It’s all right if you do a move and knock the guy out– then it’s all right. But if something doesn’t happen then you’re accused of showboatin’. Sometimes it’s just in your rhythm. You couldn’t tell me ‘Oh Marlon do the Starling Stomp.’  I mean it wasn’t planned.  I was just in the moment. Emotions come with this sport. I wasn’t trying to showboat. I was just trying to be me trying to get what I can get out of this guy. 

Mike: In 1980, in only your sixth pro fight, you had the misfortune of fatally injuring your opponent Charley Newell. He never recovered from the brain injury and passed away nine days later. In spite of this tragedy you made the decision to continue with your career. 

Marlon: I had previously fought him in an amateur fight when he was in prison. Charley Newell was a bully on the street but to me he wasn’t a bad person. We fought at the Civic Center in Hartford. I think it was January 9th. I hit him with a combo and knocked him out. I was working a job at that time and I went to work the next morning and I got a call that Charley Newell had passed away and that really bothered me. My parents always worried about what’s going to happen to me. I never worried about it. I came back for his funeral and his parents came up to me. His mother said to me ‘my son passed away doing something that he loved to do, don’t ever stop what you want to do.’ What she told me gave me the confidence to continue with my career. 

Mike: Tommy Hearns was welterweight champion while you were an up and coming prospect. You weren’t ready to take him on but you did spar with him while he was preparing for the Sugar Ray Leonard fight in 1981. What did you learn from that experience?   

Marlon: I got an offer to go to Vegas to work as a sparring partner and help Hearns get ready for Leonard. It was an opportunity for me to see what I could do with the ‘big boys’ out there. I sparred with Tommy and he broke my jaw but they knew I got the better of that sparring session. How do I know? They kept Milton McCrory far away from me after that. (Author’s Note: Milton McCrory, a future champion, was Hearns’s stablemate and a rising star in the welterweight division).  

Mike: A few years after that sparring session you were ready to challenge Hearns or Leonard but you never fought them. Why not?

Marlon: Marlon Starling fought everyone out there. The reason why I didn’t fight Leonard or Hearns is because my name wasn’t that big. I trained with Tommy but they just didn’t want to take a chance and give up something they had. That’ why they didn’t fight me…they couldn’t make a lot of money fighting me. 

Mike: Marlon, you lost the welterweight title to Maurice Blocker in your very last bout on August 19, 1990. The 12 round majority decision was very close and could have gone either way. You were only 30 years old and still a top rated welterweight. Why did you decide to retire? 

Marlon: I don’t think he won but it wasn’t one of my best fights. I quit the ring because the promoters and managers were making more money than me and they weren’t taking the punches.

Mike Silver is the author of The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science and Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing. Both books are available on Amazon.com.


END

BOXING’S FIVE DECADE MEN

BOXING’S FIVE DECADE MEN  

By

Mike Silver   

    

Barkley vs Duran

A few weeks ago I had the good fortune to meet up with the great Roberto Duran. The legendary four division world champion was the guest of honor at the annual Ring 10 Veteran Boxers Association benefit. It was a rare public appearance for the now 67 year old warrior. Yes, 67! As expected, Duran’s presence electrified the 400 plus fans in attendance. 

      The fighter nicknamed “Manos de Piedre” (Hands of Stone) engaged in 119 bouts and knocked out 70 opponents. While those stats are indeed impressive (especially the number of knockouts) they are not unique. Boxers who accumulated 100 or more bouts were quite common during the first half of the twentieth century. In addition, 55 other pro boxers have knocked out 70 or more opponents. But, in spite of that, Roberto Duran’s record stands out for another reason that very few can match: He is one of only three boxers in the entire history of the sport who fought in five consecutive decades.

           What qualities did these boxers possess that allowed them to survive for so many years in their brutal profession? I came to the conclusion that the first ingredient had to be a deep understanding of their craft. All three were well schooled in the finer points of boxing technique.  That quality was further enhanced by the seasoning they gradually acquired during their first decade of competition. On top of that they had to be flexible enough to make the necessary adjustments as they aged. It also helped that all three had great chins. 

       These boxers weren’t just great athletes—they were very smart athletes. They were able to compensate for deteriorating speed and reflexes by combining experience with superior athletic intelligence and excellent defensive strategies. Even near the end of their careers they were rarely knocked out or subject to a sustained beating. It was a method utilized to great success by two former champions who stretched their careers to the maximum and are among the dozen master boxers who just missed the five decade mark: Welterweight champion Jack Britton (1904-1930) and light heavyweight champion Archie Moore (1935-1963). Both used an amalgam of those four skill sets—athletic intelligence, flexibility, superior defensive strategies, and vast experience— to keep them in the game long after their contemporaries had retired. 

      I could have added another master boxer to the list, the former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson. But despite his having fought in five consecutive decades (1897-1930) there were several gaps in his record. Johnson remained active up to his winning the title in 1908. But from 1911 to 1930 there were seven years in which he did not engage in a single prizefight. I felt this was too much inactivity, even for a five decade man, so I decided that only a fighter with not more than three separate years without a fight could qualify. Those ground rules would have applied to George Foreman as well. Big George fought in four separate decades (1964-1997) but was idle from 1978 to 1986, so even if he had fought into a fifth decade that lengthy stretch of inactivity would disqualify him.   

   In chronological order here are the three members of the exclusive “Five Decade” club:

KId Azteca

Kid Azteca: Professional career 1929 to 1961. Won-lost-draw record: 192-47-11, including 114 wins by knockout . 

   A legend in Mexico, and one of that country’s greatest fighters, the 5’8” 147 pound welterweight had his first pro bout when Herbert Hoover was president, Babe Ruth was still belting out home runs for the Yankees, and Gene Tunney was heavyweight champion. When, 32 years later, he entered the ring at age 47 for his last pro bout Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were the home run kings for the Yankees, Floyd Patterson was heavyweight champion, and John F. Kennedy was president. But longevity is not the only item that distinguishes Azteca’s boxing career. He was a top ten title contender for seven years. Between October 1933 and May 1941 (40 months) Azteca was ranked as high as the #1 world welterweight contender by The Ring magazine. 

      

Kid Azteca

Kid Azteca earned his rating with wins over contenders Joe Glick, Young Peter Jackson, Eddie Kid Wolfe, Baby Joe Gans, the Cocoa Kid, Izzy Jannazzo, Morrie Sherman and future middleweight champion Ceferino Garcia (two out of three). In 1939 he lost a close decision to future welterweight champion Fritzie Zivic. After losing twice to Zivic in return matches Azteca finally gained a victory in 1947. Other notable opponents were Jackie Wilson, Baby Casanova, Bep Van Klaveren, Leon Zorrita and former lightweight champion Sammy Angott. Most of his fights took place in Mexico City but he also appeared in Los Angeles, Texas and South American rings. There are no gaps in his record—he engaged in at least one or more fights every year from 1929 to 1961. 

    Throughout his life Kid Azteca remained hugely popular among his countrymen and even appeared in several movies produced in Mexico. Unfortunately there are no films of him in action. Nevertheless, I don’t think it would be a stretch, considering his career and high rating, to say that Azteca possessed an outstanding defense. Fighters who are “catchers” or who engage in too many wars are worn out quickly and cannot sustain a career anywhere near that length of time.

Roberto Duran

Roberto Duran:  Professional career 1968 to 2001. Won-lost record: 103-16, including 70 wins by knockout. 

     The street urchin who emerged from the slums of Panama to become one of the sport’s greatest and most charismatic champions turned pro at the age of 16. Five decades later, on July 14, 2001, in the final fight of his career, the 50 year old legend lost a unanimous 12 round decision to 39 year old Hector Camacho. 

     The Roberto Duran who lost to Camacho was many years passed his prime. He was not the same fighter who took down Ken Buchanan, Estaban DeJesus, Sugar Ray Leonard, Ray Lampkin, Pepino Cuevas and Iran Barkley. Nevertheless, he could still display the subtle boxing moves and ring smarts that kept him from being dominated by much younger opponents. 

       Roberto Duran was one of the greatest punchers in the history of the lightweight division. But, as sometimes happens with exciting punchers who can also box, their cleverness often goes unrecognized or underappreciated. Duran had a world of natural ability but he also was intelligent enough to understand that there was far more to this sport than throwing punches at an opponent. There is a telling quote in Kelly Nicholson’s excellent article on Duran (“The Panamanian Devil”, International Boxing Research Journal, September 2018): “As to the motivation for his career, Duran would say shortly before the first fight with Leonard, ‘I got into boxing to learn it…I didn’t enter the ring to get out of the gutter. Those are stories. I got into it because I like it.” 

       Duran’s nascent career benefited tremendously from the expert teaching of his two old school master trainers Freddie Brown and Ray Arcel. These two professors of pugilism had nearly 100 years of combined experience. They answered his desire to learn as much as possible about his craft, smoothed out the rough edges, and made him even more dangerous. They taught him the tricks of his trade and the result was that Duran eventually developed into the type of throwback fighter that is virtually extinct today. 

     Watch a video of any Duran fight after 1974 and you will see that even in his dotage he never gets trapped on the ropes, often rides with and slips punches aimed at his head and performs subtle feints to lure his opponents into making mistakes that are paid for with damaging and accurate counter punches (especially to the body). As he moved up in weight and as he aged Duran’s punch was not as devastating as it had been during his eight year tenure as lightweight champion. As a result, he had to rely more on his strategic boxing skills. To watch Roberto Duran fight is to experience a textbook lesson in the lost art of boxing. He is one of the few genuine ring greats who still walks among us. 

Sweet Saoul Mamby

Saoul Mamby: Professional career 1969 to 2008. Won-lost-draw record; 45-34-6, including 18 wins by knockout.  

     It is virtually impossible to go through an entire professional boxing career and expect to come through relatively unscathed. But if anyone came close to achieving such a goal that person would be Saoul Mamby, which is all the more remarkable since he had his last professional fight at the age of 60!

      Just as there are born punchers I believe there are also born boxers. What I mean is that some neophyte boxers seem to grasp the concepts of on balance defensive boxing more readily than most. Perhaps it’s a genetic disposition that tells them it is better to give than to receive. 

      Saoul Mamby never thought it a good idea to receive a punch in exchange for the opportunity to land one of his own. He did not seek a knockout victory, although if presented with the opportunity his solid right cross was capable of dropping an opponent. His basic strategy involved keeping his hands up to protect his chin, using a busy left jab to keep an opponent off balance, and always keep moving. He never threw a right hand punch unless he deemed it safe to do so. It was a style that didn’t win fans but it kept him from taking a sustained beating. Jim Corbett would have approved.    

     Mamby’s defensive prowess was put to the test when he faced a prime Roberto Duran on May 4, 1976 in a non-title 10 round bout. The lightweight champion tried mightily to make Mamby his 49th knockout victim. Duran won the unanimous decision but he did not come close to scoring a knockout. Six months later Mamby faced another test when he crossed gloves with the formidable former champion Antonio Cervantes who had knocked out nine of his previous ten opponents. Like Duran, Cervantes could not find his elusive opponent’s chin and had to settle for unanimous decision.  

         His first attempt to win a title occurred in 1977 and resulted in a controversial split decision loss to the WBC Super Lightweight champion Saensak Muangsurin. The fight took place in Thailand, the champion’s home turf. Mamby believed he was the victim of a hometown decision.

  

Saoul Mamby

  Three years later, in his second try for the 140 pound title, he challenged Sang Hyun Kim of Korea. Once again he found himself fighting in his opponent’s backyard. Not willing to take any chances on a hometown decision the 32 year old challenger displayed a more aggressive style and was intent on ending the fight before it went to a decision. In the 14th round, Mamby saw an opening and landed a powerful right cross on Kim’s jaw that dropped him for the full count.    

    Winning a world title seemed to energize Mamby and in his first defense he stopped former lightweight champion Estaban De Jesus in the 13th round. Four more successful defenses followed before he lost a controversial 15 round split decision to Leroy Haley. After outpointing Monroe Brooks he was given a chance to regain the title from Haley but lost another close decision. In 1984, in his final title challenge, he fought Billy Costello for the super lightweight championship and lost a 12 round unanimous decision. 

     By the 1990s Mamby was losing more often (he won only five of his last 17 bouts) but, win or lose, he continued to frustrate opponents. Mamby finally announced his retirement   on May 19, 2000 in Greensboro, North Carolina. He was 52 years old. 

     Eight years later Mamby attempted a comeback. After being told that no boxing commission would dare license a 60 year old prizefighter Mamby found a place that would—the Cayman Islands. On March 8, 2008 he lost a 10 round decision to a 31 year old boxer with dismal 6-26 won-lost record. As usual Saoul emerged unscathed. As of today there are no plans for a comeback. 

End

Mike Silver is the author of The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science and Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing. Both books are available on Amazon.com.

Introduction of Kid Azteca:


Roberto Duran Gives Master Class On Boxing:

Roberto Duran meets Brighton & Hove ABC from South Coast Productions on Vimeo.

A World Of Professional Amateurs

A WORLD OF PROFESSIONAL AMATEURS            

By Mike Silver

     A few weeks ago I watched an HBO boxing double header featuring two light heavyweight title fights: Sergey Kovalev vs. Eleider Alvarez and Dmitriy Bivol vs. Isaac Chilemba. The bouts confirmed to me that the art of boxing, as I knew it, is dead and unlikely to be revived anytime soon. 

  

  It’s not so much what I saw but what I didn’t see. As in so many other televised contests the sophisticated boxing skills that were once so common among the top echelon of professional fighters 50 or more years ago are absent from today’s champions and contenders. In the title fights mentioned above less than a dozen body punches were exchanged and there was virtually no infighting. There were no double jabs or combinations and no feints, ducking, parrying, or weaving under punches. Footwork was in two directions—forward and back. Absent was lateral movement or circling an opponent. Other than occasionally stepping back out of range to avoid a punch, defense was limited to the usual gloves in front of the face while standing still and waiting to be hit. No attempt was made to slip a punch and counter. Every round was a repeat of the previous because the fighters did not have the experience, training or ring savvy to know how to change tactics. 

Today the difference between the best amateur boxers and the best professional boxers is negligible.

         With few exceptions the majority of today’s top professional boxers all fight the same way. There is very little variety in their fighting styles. Even several years after turning pro it is basically the same style they used as amateurs. In the past that would have been perceived as a weakness when competing against an experienced professional. Today the difference between the best amateur boxers and the best professional boxers is negligible. And that is why, in boxing’s current culture and climate, it is impossible to produce a world champion who merits comparison to the greatest boxers of the 1920s to the 1970s. 

       One of the sport’s current stars is the former two time Olympic gold medalist (2008 and 2012) Vasyl Lomachenko. This extremely talented boxer won his first title in 2014 in only his third professional fight. Over the next four years he added two more divisional titles to his impressive resume. But we will never know how great Vasyl can become because the talent pool in the lighter weight divisions lacks depth. Where are the great fighters to test him? Answer: there are none.   

     Lomachenko is a rare commodity. He reminds us of the very promising professional prospects who often caught our attention during boxing’s golden age. But even if he had been competing during the last vestiges of that era—the 1960s and 1970s—his rise to the top would not have been as rapid or as easy. And there would be no guarantees he would ever win a title. Despite his amazing amateur record he would not have been ready this early in his career (less than a dozen professional fights in four and a half years) for the likes of Sugar Ramos, Vicente Saldivar, Carlos Ortiz, Nicolino Loche, Roberto Duran or Aaron Pryor.

This used to be known as “stick and move” strategy. It is rarely seen today.

     What makes Lomachenko stand out today is his use of extreme speed of punches combined with rapid and constantly shifting footwork that he uses to confuse and befuddle second rate opponents. This used to be known as “stick and move” strategy. It is rarely seen today. I’m grateful to Lomachenko for reviving it. Hopefully it will catch on. After all, a target swiftly moving to and fro is always more difficult to hit than a stationary one. It is a simple concept that doesn’t seem to have penetrated today’s boxers or their trainers. The best way to neutralize a constantly moving target is to either keep your opponent preoccupied with a busy left jab, make him miss, and then counter, or cut off the ring while applying unrelenting pressure. Luckily for Lomachenko there are no outstanding pressure fighters today in the mold of a prime Manny Pacquiao or Julio Ceasar Chavez. Another was Ray “Boom Boom” Manicini who gave the great Alexis Arguello trouble for 13 rounds. Ray wasn’t ready to take on Arguello but if we were to replace Arguello with Lomachenko I think the result would be a win for “Boom Boom”. 

     Forty years ago another gifted professional, Wilfred Benitez, won the junior welterweight title from the great Antonio Cervantes in his 26th professional fight. It is the same title Lomachenko won by stopping Jorge Linares in the 10th round on May 12th 2018. It was Loma’s 12th pro fight. Linares had a decent amount of professional experience but at best he is a slightly better than average boxer. Yet by using an effective jab and quick counters he was able to keep the fight even through nine rounds. Now what do you think would happen if we were to replace Linares with a prime Antonio Cervantes or Wilfred Benitez?  

 Perhaps a boxer with as much natural talent as Lomachenko may have adapted if he had come along 50 or more years ago. But it’s impossible to say. In years past there were so many terrific prospects who faltered when it came time to make the leap from great prospect to great boxer. 

     I don’t say this to demean the current crop of world champions. (At last count there were over 100 spread over 17 weight divisions!) The best of them possess an abundance of natural talent, are in excellent physical condition, have extensive amateur experience, and usually put forth a tremendous effort. It is not their fault that after turning pro they do not receive the type of quality training and competition that would have a positive impact in improving their boxing technique. 

A major reason for the lack of refined skills is the shortage of qualified teacher-trainers who understand and can teach the finer points of boxing technique.

     A major reason for the lack of refined skills is the shortage of qualified teacher-trainers who understand and can teach the finer points of boxing technique. Nevertheless, despite these drawbacks, I think it is important to make comparisons between today’s best and those of decades past if only to gain perspective and to inform and enlighten us as to what it truly means to be a great boxer.  

          Among today’s fighters there are a few who are not of the cookie cutter variety. Lomechenko, Terrance Crawford and Gennady Golovkin are in this category. They are pleasing to watch because they are capable of performing at a higher level than the sea of mediocrity that surrounds them. They bring back memories similar to the type of young talent we used to see years ago. Golovkin is the most “old school” of the three. But an accurate appraisal of their current level of overall skill and experience indicates they are not as well rounded and seasoned as the top contenders and champions of boxing’s golden past. Through no fault of their own they will never be tested in the same way the best fighters of the 1920s to 1970s were tested. They will never experience the type of brutal competition their counterparts in decades past had to contend with while trying to hold onto a title or a top ten rating.   

     Let’s return to the four fighters mentioned at the beginning of this article, all of whom are either current or former light heavyweight champions. How would they have fared against the best light heavyweight champions of the 1970s and early 1980s? (Comparisons to golden oldies like Loughran, Rosenbloom, Lewis, Conn, Moore or Johnson are unnecessary because the answer is too obvious). Does anyone who has seen the following boxers actually believe today’s champions could defeat Bob Foster, Mathew Saad Muhammad, Victor Galindez, John Conteh or Michael Spinks? And what about Richie Kates, Jerry “The Bull” Martin, Yacqui Lopez, Eddie Mustafah Muhammed, Jorge Ahumada, Dwight Braxton, Marvin Johnson and Eddie Davis? These 1970s era light heavyweights did not build up their records fighting 2nd and 3rd rate opponents, as is the norm today. They did not avoid the hard fights. 

All of the above proved to be tough and seasoned professionals capable of giving any great boxer of the past a competitive fight. Aside from the quality of their training and the seasoning they acquired over the course of their careers these accomplished professionals possessed another very important weapon: psychological toughness. A fighter who could combine that type of resilience with superior boxing skills was very, very tough to beat.   

 Of the four light heavyweights  who headlined the HBO show the best of the lot is Alvarez who won his portion of the title by stopping Kovalev in the seventh round. He did very well considering he hadn’t fought in over a year. (Long layoffs and inactivity is another feature of the current boxing scene). I am impressed by Alvarez but also saddened. He is extremely talented, well-schooled in basic boxing technique and is very determined. Had he been more active (only four fights in the last two years) he could have eclipsed Andre Ward as the star of the division. But at the age of 34 and with only 23 pro fights in 11 years the former amateur champion will never have the opportunity to realize his full potential.   

        Another example of unrealized professional talent is Dmitry Bivol. As a successful amateur boxer he engaged in nearly 300 fights, winning a slew of regional titles before turning pro in 2014. Three years later Dimitry won a portion of the world light heavyweight title in only his 12th professional fight. As an amateur he performed at the highest level. Using those same amateur skills he has attained great success in a very short time as a pro. Dmitry won’t be required to improve much beyond his current skill level because the line that once separated top amateur boxers from top professional boxers has become blurred. In his most recent bout he won a dreary 12 round decision against a second rate opponent whose purpose was just to survive the 12 rounds and collect his payday. It would be nice if the four current champs were to engage in a tournament to determine who is best—but don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.  

     Forty years ago Dmitry Bivol would be labelled a hot prospect and maybe in line for a semi-final in Madison Square Garden. But as good as he is Dmitry would not be ready to challenge a prime Victor Galindez, the reigning world light heavyweight champion. At that time 300 amateur fights and 14 pro wins (88 rounds) didn’t make you ready to challenge an outstanding professional boxer whose record showed over 50 pro bouts and 485 rounds.

That futile effort, and his opponent’s stubborn resistance, appeared to dampen Kovalev’s fighting spirit.

        And what of Kovalev—the once mighty “Krusher”?  Three years ago he put up a stirring but losing effort against a very good Andre Ward. That decision could have just as well gone to Kovalev. It was that close. His return bout with Ward seven months later ended in controversy and left many fans puzzled. Slightly ahead on points “The Krusher” took several borderline shots to the midsection. He reacted by draping himself over the ropes. The referee awarded the tko win to Ward. In his recent bout against Alvarez he was also ahead on points. Kovalev tried hard for a KO in rounds five and six but couldn’t put Alvarez away. That futile effort, and his opponent’s stubborn resistance, appeared to dampen  Kovalev’s fighting spirit. He came out for the seventh round looking tired and discouraged. Carrying his left hand dangerously low and moving slowly Kovalev was knocked down by a solid right cross. 

         What surprised me was that Kovalev, after arising from the first knockdown, did not appear to know what to do.  But a quick review of his record explained why. In nine years Kovalev had fought only 143 professional rounds. Seventeen of his 28 knockout victims never made it past the second round. A seasoned pro in the same situation would have known how to tie up his opponent in a clinch or bob and weave his way out of trouble, or at least make the attempt. Kovalev, used to knocking out inferior opposition, didn’t know what to do when the situation was reversed. He remained an open target and was quickly dropped twice more before the referee stopped the fight.

             If the reader is interested additional information related to the topic of this article is contained in the author’s book, “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science” (McFarland Publishing). It is available on Amazon. 

Mike’s other book is “Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing”, also available on Amazon.  

 

   

.





https://youtu.be/PXy3VHC0obY

INSIDE THE RING WITH TEDDY ATLAS and ESPN 

By

Mike Silver

Timothy Bradley and Teddy Atlas

Considering the level of ignorance, incompetence and sophistry that has taken over virtually every aspect of today’s schizophrenic professional boxing scene it was a revelation of sorts—not to mention a breath of fresh air—to discover the recently televised (ESPN) series of five master classes conducted by world renowned boxing teacher-trainer Teddy Atlas. The program’s title, Inside the Ring, doesn’t do justice to the quality of “insider” information and knowledge that is imparted in each of the five segments totaling 47 minutes. Atlas, a protégé of the legendary Cus D’Amato, is the former trainer of Mike Tyson, Michael Moorer, Timothy Bradley and a slew of other notable champions and contenders. For over 20 years he also served as a ringside commentator for ESPN’s televised boxing cards.

With the premier of Inside the Ring (first televised in May and June) Teddy’s role as teacher, historian and boxing psychologist is fully realized. The program brought together Atlas and one of the best boxers in the world, the undisputed super lightweight champion Terence Crawford whose current record shows 33 victories and no losses. Last month Terence added a welterweight title belt to his already impressive resume. 

With both men seated in a boxing ring they reviewed filmed highlights of five of Crawford’s most important fights and discussed how each contributed to the progression of his boxing skills. At its core this program is an engaging and enlightening conversation between an accomplished boxer and a master trainer as they examine and explain the various technical subtleties and strategies on display.  

What transpires is a wonderful “teacher and student” vibe in which the audience becomes privy to aspects of boxing technique that are seldom revealed or understood.

Inside the Ring makes good use of the fight films, often reverting to slow motion so the audience can more readily see what is being described and analyzed. Atlas’s insightful observations, interspersed with Crawford’s astute comments, are both eye opening and entertaining. The mutual respect each has for the other is obvious. Crawford comes off as personable and intelligent. In explaining to Atlas why he decided on a certain strategy Crawford reveals himself to be a thinking fighter who can easily articulate his methodology. What transpires is a wonderful “teacher and student” vibe in which the audience becomes privy to aspects of boxing technique that are seldom revealed or understood.

Teddy Instructing Michael Moorer

Each episode also includes Atlas and Crawford standing up to demonstrate a significant move or counter move that was utilized during the course of a match. Some of the topics discussed include how timing can nullify speed, how to handle a taller opponent, the importance of footwork for defense, or why Crawford was getting hit by an opponent’s left jab. There is a wonderfully revealing moment during the viewing of Crawford’s breakthrough bout with Yuriorkis Gamboa, a talented fighter with as much boxing skill as Crawford but of late hampered by inactivity and age. A slow motion replay shows Crawford getting tagged with a solid right cross. It was Gamboa’s best punch of the fight. Atlas explains that Gamboa set up the punch with a feint and a “throwaway left hook” that distracted Crawford and left him open. Lesson learned. 

This type of real boxing knowledge is like imbibing a cool glass of sweet lemonade on a hot summer day.

This is as far away as one can get from the mindless “rock ‘em sock ‘em” robotic style of too many of today’s poorly coached boxers. Every moment of Inside the Ring is filled with information that relates to tactics and strategy. Thankfully the overused and simplistic “punch stats” aka “CompuBox” numbers are never mentioned. Atlas and Crawford are less concerned with counting up the number of punches than with understanding and explaining what created the situations for those punches to find (or not to find) their targets in the first place. As opposed to the usual mundane and hyperbolic verbiage that accompanies most televised fights, exposure to this type of real boxing knowledge is like imbibing a cool glass of sweet lemonade on a hot summer day. 

As of today there are no plans to continue the series. That is unfortunate because ESPN is in possession of a treasure that is not being utilized to its fullest extent. That treasure is Atlas’s extraordinary knowledge and teaching skills combined with ESPN’s vast collection of boxing films from the 1890s to the present. 

Not only would such a program improve the boxing IQ of every fan, it would improve the overall quality of the sport!

How great would it be to experience Atlas analyzing and interpreting the boxing techniques, strengths, and weaknesses of the sport’s biggest stars of the past and present in the setting described above? I have no doubt that such a program would do much to revive, or at the very least improve, the lost art of boxing. It would be a shame if this program was just a one shot deal thus depriving us of future insights into the mysteries of the sweet science. Not only would such a program improve the boxing IQ of every fan, it would improve the overall quality of the sport! In other words, it would be a gift that would keep on giving. 

Boxing historian Mike Silver is the author of The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science and Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing. Both are available at Amazon.com

A Few Pearls of Wisdom from My Interview with the Great Archie Moore

A Few Pearls of Wisdom from My Interview with the Great Archie Moore

By 

Mike Silver

On February 26, 1983 I had the great good fortune to meet and interview the legendary Archie Moore. The former light heavyweight champion (1952-1962) had amassed one of the greatest records in boxing history. After a long and arduous 17 year campaign Archie finally won the championship in his 177th professional fight. He fought from 1935 to 1963 and retired with an outstanding 186-23-10 won-lost-draw record (including one no contest). It is safe to say his extraordinary number of knockout victories—131—will never be eclipsed.  

Archie was in New York City to present an award to one of his former opponents, Charley Burley. Burley was just one of at least a score of genuinely great boxers that Moore fought during his illustrious career. Many of the names in that record read like an entire HOF roster: Cassius Clay (Moore made it a point to say that he never fought Muhammad Ali since the future heavyweight champion had not yet changed his name at the time they fought), Rocky Marciano, Ezzard Charles, Charley Burley, Jimmy Bivins, Holman Williams, Bert Lytell, Lloyd Marshall, Harold Johnson, Eddie Booker and Teddy Yarosz, to name a few. If Archie Moore were fighting today he would be heavyweight champion after already having won both the middleweight and light heavyweight titles. 

Although his formal education ended in high school, Archie never stopped learning. He was a worldly individual and full of the wisdom of life experiences. He possessed an analytical mind and was intensely curious about a wide range of topics. Mostly self-educated Archie was, without question, one of the most remarkable, charismatic and accomplished characters I have ever met—in or out of boxing.  

Archie was an artist in the truest sense of the word.

As author Joyce Carol Oates has so accurately stated—“The brilliant boxer is an artist, albeit in an art not readily comprehensible, or palatable, to most observers”.  Archie was an artist in the truest sense of the word. In 1955 the near 40 year old Moore challenged Rocky Marciano for the heavyweight championship of the world. Although knocked out in the 9th round Moore put up a rousing fight, even dropping Rocky hard in the 2nd round for a short count. This is how the New York Times reported it the following day: “Moore…gave an exhibition of boxing skill that, even in defeat, was almost as thrilling and moving as the display of awesome power that eventually brought the victory to Rocky.” When this sport was still worth our time and attention Archie Moore’s name stood out like a brilliant shining star. 

Here is the interview:

MS: Archie, you are in New York to honor one of your former opponents, the great Charley Burley. So I think it’s appropriate to begin with him. You lost a unanimous 10 round decision to Burley and were knocked down four times. What happened?

AM: Charley Burley had a very deceptive style of fighting. He just tricked me. He tricked me because we both boxed similar but whereas mine was an apparent forward movement Burley’s was a continuous serpentine movement. He was like a threshing machine going back and forth. His body would sometimes lean over towards you and he’d pull it back just in time. Hitting him solid was almost impossible. But what made him so dangerous was that he could punch from any angle. He was never off balance although he appeared to be off balance on many occasions. 

MS: You had one of the longest careers of any boxer who ever lived. You fought in five separate decades—the 1930s to the 1960s. What was the secret of your boxing longevity?

AM: Well, I knew how to fight. I was also a master of pace. It was very important to know how to force pace and set a pace. As a result very few people could make me fight out of my system of fighting. Eddie Booker, Lloyd Marshall and Charley Burley made me fight out of my system. In my winding up years Marciano was one, as was Durelle. I had to fight out of my system to get back into that fight. Another boxer I had trouble with was Jimmy Bivins. Jimmy knocked me out the first time we met because he had such a deceptive reach. Although he was no taller than I was (5’ 11”)his arms touched below his knees. When he pulled his arms up they looked no longer than mine, but when he reached them out he hit me with the hook. 

MS: Well, you obviously learned from your mistake because you defeated Bivins four times after that. Looking over your amazing record I noticed that the great Ezzard Charles defeated you three times during your prime fighting years. Did Ezzard make you fight out of your system of fighting?

AM: No…no. He just outfought me. Ezzard was always in superb condition. He was a nice standup fighter and an expert boxer. Whereas he was not a terrific puncher, but he was a good puncher with both hands.

MS: Archie, you are acknowledged to be one of boxing’s all-time knockout artists. Are great punchers born or can a boxer increase power by perfecting such things as balance, leverage, and timing?

AM: Those ingredients you just mentioned are conclusive; all are an admixture as such as you just described, especially timing. 

MS: Who were some of the great punchers Archie Moore fought?

AM: Charley Burley was a terrific puncher, although to look at him you would not know it. His build fooled everybody. Burley’s legs were skinny, he was not extra wide of shoulder, he was small in weight and his height was the same as mine. But that man could get more leverage into a punch than anyone I ever fought. Another great puncher was Curtis “Hatchetman” Sheppard who once missed a punch to the jaw and broke a man’s collar bone. Lloyd Marshall was the snappiest hitter of them all. He could knock you out with either hand. Ron Richards was a tough hitter. Marciano was a very hard puncher—a bludgeoning type of hitter—super conditioned by Charlie Goldman. He was 100% aggression. There were others but I’d have to look at the record because I forget. 

MS: Archie I think it’s fair to say that since you were still fighting at an age when most other boxers were long retired you had to utilize every advantage, mental, physical and psychological, in order to maintain your edge over much younger opponents. Can you give an example?

AM: In 1955 I fought Nino Valdez in Las Vegas, Nevada. At the time Nino was the top ranked heavyweight. He was 6’ 4’ tall and weighed about 215 pounds. It was a 15 round bout and the winner was promised a bout with Marciano for the heavyweight title. The fight was staged at an outdoor arena in the late afternoon. As the sun began to settle on the west side of the ring I was sitting in my corner facing the sun and noticed that Nino was sitting with his back to the sun. The bell rings and I move to maneuver and before any activity starts I’ve already got my head under his chin and I’m muscling this big guy around. I face him into the sun and I keep turning him to the sun. He’s trying to get back around and I keep cutting him off. I’m always maneuvering him back to face the sun which was very bright. And all the while I keep spearing him with the left hand and keep twisting and twisting and turning him and try as he could, he could never make me turn into the sun. The sun was of course bothering him and I kept thumping him with the left jab. Hard stiff stiff jabs.  Pretty soon his eyes began to lump up. One eye closed up completely and the other was closing fast. By this time the sun was going down and the fight was coming to a close. I won 14 out of 15 rounds. 

MS: What does Archie Moore think of today’s boxers?

AM: “I think modern day fighters do not get proper basic training.  Boxing is based on disciplined training and disciplined repetition. Do you know the best friend a fighter has when coming up? (Archie pointed to a large floor length mirror). A very important part of training is practicing your moves in front of the mirror. But most fighters never come in contact with the mirror until they start to jump rope. Since they skip rope in front of a mirror why don’t they shadow box in front of a mirror? You can do that at home. You go through the motions. You learn how to duck. I can see where I’m going to hit my opponent. Am I at the right distance from him? I can hit him over the heart. I can hit him in his liver. I can step aside and hit him in the kidney. Go over the top, whatever. 

MS: After your victories over Joey Maxim for the title you defended it against Harold Johnson. This was your fifth meeting with Johnson, who you already had outpointed three times. In this fight you were behind on points when you knocked Harold out in the 14th round. 

AM: Harold Johnson was a great fighter. A picture book boxer. I was just his nemesis the same way that Ezzard Charles was my nemesis. Joey Maxim was a difficult boxer to fight because he knew so much about defense. Joe was 99% defense. And Joe was very durable and tough. 

MS:  What are the ingredients that go into making a successful prizefighter and what advice would you offer to a young boxer asking for guidance and direction?

AM: The first ingredient is discipline. Discipline and desire. It is said that desire is the candle of intent and motivation is the match that lights it, and that candle must be kept burning.  Once you make up your mind to go all the way to the top in boxing, first of all, go and get the best qualified instructor to teach you of the things you need to know. It should be someone you like, someone that you can deal with and someone you can listen to and obey. It should also be someone that you have trust in. Otherwise, somewhere down the line you’re going to have a breakup, a mix-up, or an argument and you lose a friend. Because the person who is your instructor, your trainer, your teacher, he’s closer to you than your father. 

MS: Trying to find a qualified trainer nowadays is easier said than done. The number of expert boxing instructors, as compared to years ago, has diminished. What can be done about that?

AM: As far as the area of improving the skills of boxers is concerned, I have developed a whole new system of teaching the basic boxing techniques. It is a new and revolutionary technique. I taught it to George Foreman and we went down to Jamaica and won the title with it. I thought George had untapped reservoirs of strength and it was up to me to channel it. 

MS: Can you describe your revolutionary system and how it works?

AM: I could readily describe it but I prefer not to at this time.

MS: OK. Let’s change the subject. Who in your opinion was the greatest pound for pound boxer you have ever seen. 

(Author’s note: Archie did not answer immediately, taking about ten seconds to consider his answer)

AM: Henry Armstrong. Here is a man who won the featherweight, lightweight and welterweight titles all in the same year, and the men he beat to win those titles were great fighters in their own right. 

MS: What about Sugar Ray Robinson?

AM: When Ray was active there was nobody any smoother. Watching Ray fight was like drinking a nice…soft…drink. I enjoyed watching Ray Robinson fight because I appreciate beauty in athletics. I enjoyed watching Oscar Robertson move on the basketball court, Jim Brown on a football field, Andretti in an automobile, Willie the Shoe ride the horses. Everybody had their way of doing things with skill. These are skilled men and there’s nothing I like better than skill. When a guy does something, and does it well, I admire that. There’s never been anybody more graceful, skillful with a rope than Ray and I’ve seen some awfully good rope skippers. I would rather see Ray Robinson punch a speed bag than watch the average guy go out and fight a six round fight. Ray was a skillful man, he was a game man. In his time there was nobody more beautiful than he was, although there were one or two guys that might have beaten Ray in their time. I would like for someone to say, personally, that I think Charley Burley could have beaten Ray in Ray’s best time. But people hate to go out on a limb. 

MS: Is there anything about your boxing life you would have changed or done differently?

AM: I’d have like to have made some money and have more financial gain out of boxing. You see a  boxer’s wish is to be independent. This is a profession. I like to be without obligations to other people but I was obligated. But I was mindful of whom I borrowed money from and I was careful not to get mixed up with people who would be embarrassing to you at a time when they wanted to collect.

MS: Thank you for your time Archie. 

(Mike Silver is the author of Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing and The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science. Both books are available on Amazon.com)


https://youtu.be/c7qFsEmK1gE

Book Review: “Murderers’ Row: In Search of Boxing’s Greatest Outcasts”

By Springs Toledo

Foreword by Eddie Muller

Tora Book Publishing, 297 Pages

Reviewed by Mike Silver

“It was midnight when eighteen-year old Archie Moore jumped off a freight train at Poplar Bluff, Missouri. He ran four blocks to catch a truck that was to bring him back to Civilian Conservation Corps camp 3760. It was the summer of 1935….” So begins Murderers’ Row: In Search of Boxing’s Greatest Outcasts by Springs Toledo. To say that this book is just about the lives of eight of the greatest boxers to never win a world title is like saying John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is just about a poor family in Depression era America. Springs Toledo has written not only a terrific boxing yarn, but an important social and historical document as well.

“To say this book is just about the lives of eight of the greatest boxers to never win a world title is like saying John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is just about a poor family in Depression era America.”

Imagine you are the world’s greatest pianist but the powers that control the concert world will never let you play Carnegie Hall no matter how many great reviews and accolades you receive. Now imagine you are the top rated contender in the toughest and most brutal of all sports but no matter what you accomplish you are denied your ultimate goal—the opportunity to fight for a world championship. That was the situation for eight extraordinarily talented black professional boxers: Charley Burley, Holman Williams, Lloyd Marshall, Eddie Booker, Bert Lytell, Aaron “Little Tiger” Wade, Jack Chase and The Cocoa Kid. At various times during the late 1930s and through most of the 1940s they were all top rated contenders in several weight divisions. Yet not one of the reigning world champions would get into the ring with them. They were denied a shot at the title for reasons that included race, economics and the mob.

In this masterfully crafted and thoroughly researched paean to eight largely forgotten ring greats we not only learn about the amazing athletic achievements of these gifted artists, but also how their futile attempts to land a well-deserved title shot impacted their lives and the lives of their families.

Eddie Booker

In the early decades of the last century boxing was the only major professional sport that was open to African-American athletes. It was also one of the few professions that gave blacks access to the type of wealth and fame that would have been unthinkable a generation earlier. For the poorest segments of society boxing was seen as a way to escape poverty and attain riches and fame. Nevertheless, the black man’s status as a second class citizen was a burden that extended into the sport of boxing as it did everywhere else. Racism played its part but so did economics. If someone offers a champion enough dough to risk his title against a tough challenger you’ve got a match—most of the time. But if there is a good chance a popular champion will lose his title to a fighter who is less of a drawing card—and many a top black fighter did not have the same following as a popular but less talented white champion—a promoter would be less inclined to put on the match. Yet, as Toledo points out, sometimes even the right price was still not enough to entice a champion into the ring with these dark destroyers.

It was common knowledge that having the right “connections” could help ease the way to a title shot. A mob managed boxer had a better chance at lucrative matches in major arenas than an independent. Realizing that their only chance to secure a title fight involved handing over their careers to the organized crime figures who controlled big time boxing, a few decided to go that route. But in making a bargain with the devil these proud warriors paid a heavy price that included being ordered to throw fights.

“Abused and cheated and unable to make a decent living, some turned to drink, further eroding their spirit and their skills”.

Toledo takes the reader behind the scenes and reveals the sordid underbelly of boxing. Abused and cheated and unable to make a decent living, some turned to drink, further eroding their spirit and their skills. Most poignant is the story of The Cocoa Kid (real name Lewis Hardwick). He was the son of a Puerto Rican mother of Spanish descent and an African American father. The Cocoa Kid had over 246 professional fights. For eighty-one months between 1933 and 1947, he was a top contender in the lightweight, welterweight, and middleweight divisions. No champion dared face him in his prime, not Barney Ross, not Henry Armstrong. By the late 1950s Cocoa was wandering Times Square, homeless and suffering from dementia. Admitted to a hospital, he didn’t know who he was. Fingerprints sent to the Navy (he was a veteran) identified him. He died alone and forgotten on December 2, 1966.

Cocoa Kid

The other stories are just as compelling, if not as tragic. Aaron “Little Tiger” Wade, least known of the group, was for a time rated the third best middleweight in the world. A squat 5’5” powerhouse he defeated Archie Moore, Cocoa Kid and Bert Lytell. Faced with the pressure to throw fights he became a bit unstable and battled alcoholism for much of his career, sometimes fighting when drunk. Wade’s story ends well. In his mid-40s he became a born again Christian, stopped drinking, reunited with his family and took a full time job at the Gallo Wine warehouse (a job that certainly tested his resolve). He also began studying for the ministry, eventually opening a store front church in the Fillmore district of San Francisco that served the poor of his community.

“All told, Marshall and the other Murderers’ Row contingent defeated a dozen future and former champions from featherweight to heavyweight no less than 17 times.”

Lloyd Marshall, one of the most feared fighters of his era, whipped Jake La Motta, Joey Maxim and Ezzard Charles—three future champions at middleweight, light heavyweight, and heavyweight. All told, Marshall and the other Murderers’ Row contingent defeated a dozen future and former champions from featherweight to heavyweight no less than 17 times.

What makes this book such an enjoyable experience to read is Toledo’s descriptive and colorful writing style. He not only knows his boxing history, he understands the nuances of boxing technique. In his segment on Charley Burley, who many consider the best of the golden eight, he writes: “Charley Burley’s style was as complex as tax law. An uncanny sense of timing and distance allowed him to find blind spots and he would often leap into shots that carried enough force to anesthetize anyone, including full blown heavyweights.”

Charley Burley

Burley tried for years to get a shot at Sugar Ray Robinson’s welter or middleweight titles. Robinson, along with Joe Louis and Henry Armstrong, had proved to be the exception to the rule. These great black fighters managed the rare accomplishment of becoming cross over stars whose extreme popularity cut across racial lines. No doubt if someone offered enough money to Ray he would have complied, but it would have taken more than a small fortune to entice him into the ring against as formidable a challenger as Burley.
Since they were so often dodged by the top contenders and champions the best way for the elite eight to keep active and earn a payday was to fight each other as often as possible. And fight each other they did!—no less than 62 times. “It was a frenzy”, writes Toledo, “a free-for-all, a battle royal from the bad old days.” They matched up so evenly that a win in one fight could not guarantee the same result in a rematch. In the words of boxing scribe Jim Murray, who witnessed many of these classic encounters, they “put on better fights in tank towns than champions did in Yankee Stadium.”

The last of the Murderers’ Row had his final fight in 1951. Eventually their names drifted off into obscurity. As Springs Toledo points out, they would have remained mostly forgotten if not for Archie Moore. The wonderful “Old Mongoose” would have been counted as a Murderers’ Row member had he not won the light heavyweight title in 1952, at the age of 36, in his 171st pro fight. During the long and frustrating road to a title shot Moore was exposed to more than his share of boxing’s corruption and injustices. He knew that fate had been kinder to him than his former Murderers’ Row opponents.

“They would have remained mostly forgotten if not for Archie Moore.”

It is to Moore’s credit that he resurrected their names out of sympathy and respect. Beginning in the 1960s, whenever he was interviewed about his own remarkable career, Moore made it a point to mention them by name. Although he couldn’t correct the injustices done to them, he could at least make the world aware of their greatness. After all, who would know that better than Archie Moore? All eight were good enough to fight on even terms or better against him.

It was Budd Schulberg who first referred to several of the elite eight (in addition to other notable black fighters) as “That murderer’s row of Negro middleweights carefully avoided by title holders” in an article for Esquire in 1962. Since then authors Alan Rosenfeld and Harry Otty have given us two outstanding biographies of Charley Burley. And now thanks to Spring Toledo’s contribution the story of the Murderers’ Row is complete. “Consider me something of a private investigator”, he writes, “inspired by the memories of Archie Moore and hired by ghosts.” I have no doubt those ghosts are very pleased with the result.

Mike Silver is the author of The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science and Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing.  All are available at Amazon.com

 

Doug Jones, Boxer Who Gave a Young Cassius Clay His Toughest fight, Dies at 80

By

Mike Silver

Doug Jones

Word has reached us that Doug Jones, the former light heavyweight and heavyweight contender of the early 1960s, passed away recently at the age of 80. Prior to Muhammad Ali’s three and a half year exile that began in 1967 Doug Jones gave the fighter then known as Cassius Clay his toughest fight. On March 13, 1963, before a sold out Madison Square Garden crowd of 18,732 fans, Clay struggled to win a close but controversial 10 round decision over his persistent foe.

Opinion was split as to who deserved to win. Many fans in the Garden and those watching the bout at 40 closed circuit locations thought Jones had done enough to edge Clay who chalked up his 18th straight victory. Doug’s record fell to 21-3-1. (Eleven months and two fights later Cassius would upset Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight title).

Interviewed 20 years later the defeat still rankled Jones. “Clay ran like a thief”, he said. “I carried the fight to him. Suppose I went the other way, what kind of fight would it have been? Clay didn’t hit me with any solid punches. There wasn’t any real power in his punches.”

Few boxers at his weight have engaged in so many tough fights against top competition in so short a time as Doug Jones. He was a talented boxer with a powerful right hand but what separated him from the crowd was his incredible toughness and heart. Doug had an extensive and successful amateur career during military service in the Air Force. (He was alternate light heavy for the 1956 U.S. Olympic team).

Jones Lands A Left Hook On Cassius Clay

Doug turned pro in 1958 with a four round decision over Jimmy McNair. He was rushed much too quickly yet managed to survive and attain contender status in spite of Madison Square Garden matchmaker Teddy Brenner’s tendency to destroy up and coming talent through horrible matchmaking. Doug only had 10 pro fights when he fought his first main event against tough former New York Golden Gloves champ Juan Pomare. After two more victories he took on hard punching Philadelphia prospect Von Clay in back to back10 rounders. His next outing was a nationally televised bout against former middleweight champion Bobo Olsen. Doug ended matters with a left right combination in the 6th round. He followed up with knockouts of Floyd McCoy and Pete Rademacher before taking on Von Clay for the third and final time winning via a 10th round TKO.

Up next was top heavyweight contender Eddie Machen. Doug lost the decision and five months later faced Harold Johnson for the undisputed light heavyweight title. Doug never stopped trying but with only 20 pro bouts under his belt he was just too inexperienced to take the measure of the great boxer and lost a unanimous 15 round decision. On October 20, 1962 Doug was matched with a 9 bout pro named Bob Foster. He stopped the future light heavyweight champion in the 8th round. (Previously Doug had defeated Bob twice in the amateurs while both were in the Air Force).

Although he rarely weighed more than 190 pounds the rest of Doug’s career was spent fighting heavyweights. A dramatic 7th round KO of top ranked Zora Folley (a few months earlier he dropped a decision to Folley) moved Jones into the ranks of heavyweight contenders and led to his match with young Cassius. Doug’s manager Alex Koskowitz and his trainer Rollie Hackmer decided the best strategy was for Doug to slip past Clay’s jab while constantly pressuring him, upset his rhythm, and land the right.

Jones at 188 pounds and 6 feet tall was 14 pounds lighter and three inches shorter but was significantly faster than Clay’s previous opponents. In the first round Clay was sent back on his heels by Jones’s right cross. He was tagged solidly again in the 4th and 7th rounds. Clay responded with swift combinations and it was anybody’s fight going into the ninth round. Clay turned it on in the final round landing frequently with combinations to seal his victory.

After splitting two fights with Billy Daniels, Doug’s tenure as a heavyweight contender ended with an 11th round TKO loss to George Chuvalo on October 2nd 1964. During the fight Chuvalo centered his attack on Doug’s body and many punches strayed into foul territory. As a result of the punishment Doug suffered a hernia and was out of action for close to a year. His last chance for a title ended with a 15 round loss to WBA heavyweight champion Ernie Terrell on June 28, 1966. By the time up and coming Joe Frazier knocked him out in the 6th round on February 21, 1967 Doug was pretty much used up and punched out. If he needed any more convincing to retire it was provided six months later by young Boone Kirkman who TKO’d him in six. The Harlemite ended his career with a 30-10-1 (20 KOs) record. He appeared in 11 nationally televised bouts.

Doug was an unlucky fighter. He came along at the wrong time when Harold Johnson was light heavy champ. If not for that Doug was a good bet to have won that title but he chose to go for the big money and take on heavyweights. Never an easy opponent at any time during his nine year pro career, he would be a terror among the light heavyweights of today. They did not come any tougher than Doug Jones.

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


“I Fought Willie Pep”

by Mike Silver

“He’s in front of you, in back of you. He’s all over the damn place. But he never stood toe to toe with you.”

The date was June 5, 1953. Thirty year old former featherweight champion Willie Pep, one of boxing’s all-time greats, was in trouble. For eight rounds the 3700 fans in Madison Square Garden and a national television audience of several million had been treated to another brilliant performance by the man who defined the art of boxing. The elusive “Will o’ the Wisp” was giving Brooklyn’s tough Pat Marcune a boxing lesson when the tenor of the bout abruptly changed. Moments before the round was to end Marcune bounced a left hook off Pep’s brow that opened a deep gash.

Pat Marcune

During the one minute rest period the ringside physician visited Pep’s corner. He took one look and advised the referee to halt the fight if the cut continued to bleed. Pep’s seconds worked frantically to patch him up. At the bell starting the ninth round an inspired Pat Marcune charged out of his corner intent on ending the bout. Pep, fearing the bout would be stopped, planted his feet to get more leverage into his punches. He had to try and stop Marcune before the cut reopened. The round was the most competitive of the fight.

At the conclusion of the round the doctor climbed into the ring again to take another look at Pep’s damaged brow. He nodded to the referee indicating the bout could continue. Marcune, way behind on points but on the verge of a huge upset, knew what he had to do—but he had to do it quickly.

A victory over Willie Pep was a rare happening. In 13 years and 184 previous fights only three opponents had been able to chalk up a win. Would 25 year old Pat Marcune’s name be added to the list? He possessed a modest but respectable record that included 36 wins against 11 losses and 2 draws. Over the past year he had shown steady improvement. Leading up to the bout Marcune had scored impressive victories over Tito Valles, Bill Bossio, Eddie Compo and former featherweight champion Lauro Salas. In May 1953 he was rated the 10th best featherweight in the world by The Ring magazine.

Marcune was expected to give a credible showing, but very few thought he had a chance to win. Nevertheless, he’d already achieved a victory of sorts. For no matter what else he accomplished the highlight of Pat Marcune’s boxing career would always be his ten round bout with Willie Pep. How many people can say they fought one of the greatest boxers who ever lived?

Willie Pep is no longer with us, but I am happy to report that Pat Marcune is alive and well. I caught up with the 90 year old former featherweight contender in his home on Staten Island where he lives with his daughter. (Pat’s wife passed away in 2013). Despite his age and the wear and tear of 60 professional bouts Pat is spry and alert. He even jogs three times a week to keep in shape. Of course the first question I asked was about the Pep fight.
“I pressed him the entire fight but Pep was very shifty and very difficult to hit”, said Marcune. “He’s in front of you, in back of you. He’s all over the damn place. But he never stood toe to toe with you.

“I was a young kid and Pep was on his way out. But he was a great boxer. I don’t think I could ever duplicate him. A win over Pep would have put me in line for a title shot but that was not my main goal when I turned pro in 1949. I just wanted to fight the main event in Madison Square Garden. That was the big thing. To be champ would be something, but, like Brando said in On the Waterfront, ‘I coulda been somebody. I coulda been a contender’. I wanted to be a contender, but most of all I wanted to top the card at the most famous arena in the world.”

Within four years of his professional debut Pat had accomplished both goals. He became a contender and also topped the card at the Garden not once but twice (vs. Lauro Salas 13 weeks earlier).

Pat Marcune fought in an era when boxing had eight undisputed world champions in eight traditional weight classes. Eight champions! The idea seems almost quaint today but that’s the way it was for over half a century before a gaggle of competing quasi-official “sanctioning organizations” in cahoots with rapacious promoters took control of the business in the late 1970s and destroyed forever boxing’s traditional infrastructure. Perhaps most obscene of all, the boxers are forced to pay hefty “sanctioning fees” out of their own pocket for the “privilege” of fighting for an organization’s title belt. Since the 1980s hundreds of obscure boxers of dubious quality have fought for a title. The only people happy about that are the leeches who run the sanctioning organizations. Currently there are over 90 “world champions” spread across 17 weight classes. Even the most enthusiastic boxing fan cannot name more than a few of them.

How different it was during Pat Marcune’s day when everyone knew the names of the champions and top contenders. The featherweight title (126 pound limit) was ruled by the awesome Sandy Saddler, a ring great who won the title from Pep in 1949, but lost it back to him in 1950. Saddler subsequently defeated Pep twice in rematches. Rocky Marciano, the indestructible “Brockton Blockbuster”, was heavyweight champ. The ageless wonder Archie Moore was king of the light heavyweights and Cuban’s colorful Kid Gavilan ruled the welterweights. The incomparable Sugar Ray Robinson, as close to a perfect fighter the sport has ever seen, had recently given up the middleweight title to enter show business. A tournament involving the four top rated contenders was underway to determine a new champion.

These were the waning years of boxing’s great golden age of talent and activity that spanned the 1920s to the 1950s, an era when champions and contenders achieved their status the old fashioned way—they earned it. There were no shortcuts to a title shot or contender status. Pat Marcune had 44 fights before engaging in his first ten rounder.
“Today guys are winning titles with just nine fights, or whatever it is”, said Pat. “That’s ridiculous. I’d be glad to fight a guy for the title who just had nine fights. They’re beginners.”

I asked Pat how he was able to avoid the debilitating neurological damage suffered by so many ex-professional boxers. “I knew how to fight” he said. “The reason I’m talking like this is that I never took that kind of punishment. I was an aggressive fighter but I tried to avoid getting hit. Today’s fighters take too many punches. I don’t think they get the proper trainers. They’re all gone.

“The fighters I see on television couldn’t compare with the fighters in my time”, he said. “They were tougher and more talented. Today’s fighters are not hungry enough. Remember Ike Williams? There were so many good fighters. I would see them in Stillman’s gym. Guys like Beau Jack, Rocky Marciano, Roland LaStarza and Archie Moore. Pep was on top of all of them. Him and Ray Robinson.”

Pat did his roadwork on the Coney Island boardwalk. “From the boardwalk I’d run down to Ocean Parkway, then to Seagate and back. I used to meet Herbie Kronowitz and Vinnie Cidone and other boxers doing their roadwork on the boardwalk. I miss those days.”
One of the fondest memories of his fighting days was the huge block party his Coney Island neighbors threw for him when he knocked out Brooklyn rival Tommy Pennino, who was an undefeated Golden Gloves champ.

As often happens with opponents who were once bitter ring rivals, Pat maintained a decades long friendship with former featherweight contender Bill Bossio. Their first bout on March 8, 1950 was so exciting promoters brought them back six more times, including three semi-final eight rounders in the Garden. They were tied at 3 wins apiece when Marcune won their last fight in 1952 by a split 10 round decision at Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway Arena.

Pat is also proud of the friendship he maintained with heavyweight contender Roland La Starza and light heavyweight champ Archie Moore. He met both while training in Stillman’s gym in the early 1950s and stayed in touch with them for years.

Despite the good memories he is also mindful of the downside of his brutal profession. “I got destroyed by the fight game”, he said. “Lost the sight in one eye, got my nose busted, busted my ears. I’ll show you a picture of what I looked like before I started fighting”. He produced a photo of a strikingly handsome young man in a Coast Guard uniform. Pat at the age of 17. He had just enlisted in the Coast Guard in the spring of 1945.

Pat realized he was passed his prime as a fighter after consecutive losses to featherweight contender Miguel Berrios and future junior lightweight champion Harold Gomes. He announced his retirement in 1956. His final stats were 38 wins against 19 losses and 3 draws. Twenty of his victories had come via knockout.

Needing a steady source of income to support his wife and infant son, Pat opened up a retail jewelry establishment. He operated the business for several years before selling it and taking a job with the Port Authority of New York, working in their maintenance department for 20 years.

Although Pat no longer worked for the Port Authority when America was attacked on September 11, 2001, he was quick to respond. He used his PA badge to gain access to Ground Zero where he volunteered to be part of “the bucket brigade” that helped to remove tons of debris. He believes the throat cancer he was diagnosed with a few years ago may have been caused by his exposure to the toxins at the site. Fortunately his cancer never progressed beyond stage one and he is now free of the disease.

Less fortunate was his son Patrick, an officer with the New York City police department. Patrick was a first responder and worked for weeks at Ground Zero. Like so many other first responders he later became sickened by the toxic dust clouds and developed a variety of illnesses, including respiratory disease and cancer. Previously robust and healthy, Patrick was constantly ill in the years that followed 9/11and passed away from cancer in 2009 at the age of 55. His father wears a replica of his son’s policeman’s shield on a chain around his neck.

Oh, I almost forgot! I want to tell you what happened in the crucial tenth round of Pat’s bout with the peerless Willie Pep. At the close of the ninth round Pat was hurt by a flurry of punches. He wasn’t fully recovered when the bell rang for the start of the tenth round. Pep quickly backed him against the ropes and was landing shots but Pat wouldn’t go down. The round was only 14 seconds old when the referee—former featherweight champion Petey Scalzo—jumped in between the fighters and called a halt, awarding the bout to Pep. The following day The New York Times, while acknowledging Pep’s superior boxing skills reported that “the Coney Island warrior gave a fine display of courage as he absorbed Willie’s punches.”

To no one’s surprise Pat objected to the stoppage. To this day be believes the referee purposely acted hastily to end the bout because Pep, in jeopardy of losing on a tko, had the right connections and he did not. But it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is how he lived his life after his boxing career ended.

Pat Marcune never won a world championship but to his everlasting credit when his city suffered a horrific terrorist attack, he did not hesitate to step up to the plate, as did his noble son, to give selflessly of himself in the service of others. If that’s not the definition of a true champion, I don’t know what is.

Note: Boxing historian Mike Silver is the author of “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science” (McFarland Publishing, 2008), and most recently “Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing: A Photographic History” (Lyons Press, 2016)