Word has reached us that Doug Jones, the former light heavyweight and heavyweight contender of the early 1960s, passed away recently at the age of 80. Prior to Muhammad Ali’s three and a half year exile that began in 1967 Doug Jones gave the fighter then known as Cassius Clay his toughest fight. On March 13, 1963, before a sold out Madison Square Garden crowd of 18,732 fans, Clay struggled to win a close but controversial 10 round decision over his persistent foe.
Opinion was split as to who deserved to win. Many fans in the Garden and those watching the bout at 40 closed circuit locations thought Jones had done enough to edge Clay who chalked up his 18th straight victory. Doug’s record fell to 21-3-1. (Eleven months and two fights later Cassius would upset Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight title).
Interviewed 20 years later the defeat still rankled Jones. “Clay ran like a thief”, he said. “I carried the fight to him. Suppose I went the other way, what kind of fight would it have been? Clay didn’t hit me with any solid punches. There wasn’t any real power in his punches.”
Few boxers at his weight have engaged in so many tough fights against top competition in so short a time as Doug Jones. He was a talented boxer with a powerful right hand but what separated him from the crowd was his incredible toughness and heart. Doug had an extensive and successful amateur career during military service in the Air Force. (He was alternate light heavy for the 1956 U.S. Olympic team).
Doug turned pro in 1958 with a four round decision over Jimmy McNair. He was rushed much too quickly yet managed to survive and attain contender status in spite of Madison Square Garden matchmaker Teddy Brenner’s tendency to destroy up and coming talent through horrible matchmaking. Doug only had 10 pro fights when he fought his first main event against tough former New York Golden Gloves champ Juan Pomare. After two more victories he took on hard punching Philadelphia prospect Von Clay in back to back10 rounders. His next outing was a nationally televised bout against former middleweight champion Bobo Olsen. Doug ended matters with a left right combination in the 6th round. He followed up with knockouts of Floyd McCoy and Pete Rademacher before taking on Von Clay for the third and final time winning via a 10th round TKO.
Up next was top heavyweight contender Eddie Machen. Doug lost the decision and five months later faced Harold Johnson for the undisputed light heavyweight title. Doug never stopped trying but with only 20 pro bouts under his belt he was just too inexperienced to take the measure of the great boxer and lost a unanimous 15 round decision. On October 20, 1962 Doug was matched with a 9 bout pro named Bob Foster. He stopped the future light heavyweight champion in the 8th round. (Previously Doug had defeated Bob twice in the amateurs while both were in the Air Force).
Although he rarely weighed more than 190 pounds the rest of Doug’s career was spent fighting heavyweights. A dramatic 7th round KO of top ranked Zora Folley (a few months earlier he dropped a decision to Folley) moved Jones into the ranks of heavyweight contenders and led to his match with young Cassius. Doug’s manager Alex Koskowitz and his trainer Rollie Hackmer decided the best strategy was for Doug to slip past Clay’s jab while constantly pressuring him, upset his rhythm, and land the right.
Jones at 188 pounds and 6 feet tall was 14 pounds lighter and three inches shorter but was significantly faster than Clay’s previous opponents. In the first round Clay was sent back on his heels by Jones’s right cross. He was tagged solidly again in the 4th and 7th rounds. Clay responded with swift combinations and it was anybody’s fight going into the ninth round. Clay turned it on in the final round landing frequently with combinations to seal his victory.
After splitting two fights with Billy Daniels, Doug’s tenure as a heavyweight contender ended with an 11th round TKO loss to George Chuvalo on October 2nd 1964. During the fight Chuvalo centered his attack on Doug’s body and many punches strayed into foul territory. As a result of the punishment Doug suffered a hernia and was out of action for close to a year. His last chance for a title ended with a 15 round loss to WBA heavyweight champion Ernie Terrell on June 28, 1966. By the time up and coming Joe Frazier knocked him out in the 6th round on February 21, 1967 Doug was pretty much used up and punched out. If he needed any more convincing to retire it was provided six months later by young Boone Kirkman who TKO’d him in six. The Harlemite ended his career with a 30-10-1 (20 KOs) record. He appeared in 11 nationally televised bouts.
Doug was an unlucky fighter. He came along at the wrong time when Harold Johnson was light heavy champ. If not for that Doug was a good bet to have won that title but he chose to go for the big money and take on heavyweights. Never an easy opponent at any time during his nine year pro career, he would be a terror among the light heavyweights of today. They did not come any tougher than Doug Jones.
Mike Silver is the author of The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science (McFarland Publishers) and Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing, A Photographic History (Lyons Press).
“He’s in front of you, in back of you. He’s all over the damn place. But he never stood toe to toe with you.”
The date was June 5, 1953. Thirty year old former featherweight champion Willie Pep, one of boxing’s all-time greats, was in trouble. For eight rounds the 3700 fans in Madison Square Garden and a national television audience of several million had been treated to another brilliant performance by the man who defined the art of boxing. The elusive “Will o’ the Wisp” was giving Brooklyn’s tough Pat Marcune a boxing lesson when the tenor of the bout abruptly changed. Moments before the round was to end Marcune bounced a left hook off Pep’s brow that opened a deep gash.
During the one minute rest period the ringside physician visited Pep’s corner. He took one look and advised the referee to halt the fight if the cut continued to bleed. Pep’s seconds worked frantically to patch him up. At the bell starting the ninth round an inspired Pat Marcune charged out of his corner intent on ending the bout. Pep, fearing the bout would be stopped, planted his feet to get more leverage into his punches. He had to try and stop Marcune before the cut reopened. The round was the most competitive of the fight.
At the conclusion of the round the doctor climbed into the ring again to take another look at Pep’s damaged brow. He nodded to the referee indicating the bout could continue. Marcune, way behind on points but on the verge of a huge upset, knew what he had to do—but he had to do it quickly.
A victory over Willie Pep was a rare happening. In 13 years and 184 previous fights only three opponents had been able to chalk up a win. Would 25 year old Pat Marcune’s name be added to the list? He possessed a modest but respectable record that included 36 wins against 11 losses and 2 draws. Over the past year he had shown steady improvement. Leading up to the bout Marcune had scored impressive victories over Tito Valles, Bill Bossio, Eddie Compo and former featherweight champion Lauro Salas. In May 1953 he was rated the 10th best featherweight in the world by The Ring magazine.
Marcune was expected to give a credible showing, but very few thought he had a chance to win. Nevertheless, he’d already achieved a victory of sorts. For no matter what else he accomplished the highlight of Pat Marcune’s boxing career would always be his ten round bout with Willie Pep. How many people can say they fought one of the greatest boxers who ever lived?
Willie Pep is no longer with us, but I am happy to report that Pat Marcune is alive and well. I caught up with the 90 year old former featherweight contender in his home on Staten Island where he lives with his daughter. (Pat’s wife passed away in 2013). Despite his age and the wear and tear of 60 professional bouts Pat is spry and alert. He even jogs three times a week to keep in shape. Of course the first question I asked was about the Pep fight.
“I pressed him the entire fight but Pep was very shifty and very difficult to hit”, said Marcune. “He’s in front of you, in back of you. He’s all over the damn place. But he never stood toe to toe with you.
“I was a young kid and Pep was on his way out. But he was a great boxer. I don’t think I could ever duplicate him. A win over Pep would have put me in line for a title shot but that was not my main goal when I turned pro in 1949. I just wanted to fight the main event in Madison Square Garden. That was the big thing. To be champ would be something, but, like Brando said in On the Waterfront, ‘I coulda been somebody. I coulda been a contender’. I wanted to be a contender, but most of all I wanted to top the card at the most famous arena in the world.”
Within four years of his professional debut Pat had accomplished both goals. He became a contender and also topped the card at the Garden not once but twice (vs. Lauro Salas 13 weeks earlier).
Pat Marcune fought in an era when boxing had eight undisputed world champions in eight traditional weight classes. Eight champions! The idea seems almost quaint today but that’s the way it was for over half a century before a gaggle of competing quasi-official “sanctioning organizations” in cahoots with rapacious promoters took control of the business in the late 1970s and destroyed forever boxing’s traditional infrastructure. Perhaps most obscene of all, the boxers are forced to pay hefty “sanctioning fees” out of their own pocket for the “privilege” of fighting for an organization’s title belt. Since the 1980s hundreds of obscure boxers of dubious quality have fought for a title. The only people happy about that are the leeches who run the sanctioning organizations. Currently there are over 90 “world champions” spread across 17 weight classes. Even the most enthusiastic boxing fan cannot name more than a few of them.
How different it was during Pat Marcune’s day when everyone knew the names of the champions and top contenders. The featherweight title (126 pound limit) was ruled by the awesome Sandy Saddler, a ring great who won the title from Pep in 1949, but lost it back to him in 1950. Saddler subsequently defeated Pep twice in rematches. Rocky Marciano, the indestructible “Brockton Blockbuster”, was heavyweight champ. The ageless wonder Archie Moore was king of the light heavyweights and Cuban’s colorful Kid Gavilan ruled the welterweights. The incomparable Sugar Ray Robinson, as close to a perfect fighter the sport has ever seen, had recently given up the middleweight title to enter show business. A tournament involving the four top rated contenders was underway to determine a new champion.
These were the waning years of boxing’s great golden age of talent and activity that spanned the 1920s to the 1950s, an era when champions and contenders achieved their status the old fashioned way—they earned it. There were no shortcuts to a title shot or contender status. Pat Marcune had 44 fights before engaging in his first ten rounder.
“Today guys are winning titles with just nine fights, or whatever it is”, said Pat. “That’s ridiculous. I’d be glad to fight a guy for the title who just had nine fights. They’re beginners.”
I asked Pat how he was able to avoid the debilitating neurological damage suffered by so many ex-professional boxers. “I knew how to fight” he said. “The reason I’m talking like this is that I never took that kind of punishment. I was an aggressive fighter but I tried to avoid getting hit. Today’s fighters take too many punches. I don’t think they get the proper trainers. They’re all gone.
“The fighters I see on television couldn’t compare with the fighters in my time”, he said. “They were tougher and more talented. Today’s fighters are not hungry enough. Remember Ike Williams? There were so many good fighters. I would see them in Stillman’s gym. Guys like Beau Jack, Rocky Marciano, Roland LaStarza and Archie Moore. Pep was on top of all of them. Him and Ray Robinson.”
Pat did his roadwork on the Coney Island boardwalk. “From the boardwalk I’d run down to Ocean Parkway, then to Seagate and back. I used to meet Herbie Kronowitz and Vinnie Cidone and other boxers doing their roadwork on the boardwalk. I miss those days.”
One of the fondest memories of his fighting days was the huge block party his Coney Island neighbors threw for him when he knocked out Brooklyn rival Tommy Pennino, who was an undefeated Golden Gloves champ.
As often happens with opponents who were once bitter ring rivals, Pat maintained a decades long friendship with former featherweight contender Bill Bossio. Their first bout on March 8, 1950 was so exciting promoters brought them back six more times, including three semi-final eight rounders in the Garden. They were tied at 3 wins apiece when Marcune won their last fight in 1952 by a split 10 round decision at Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway Arena.
Pat is also proud of the friendship he maintained with heavyweight contender Roland La Starza and light heavyweight champ Archie Moore. He met both while training in Stillman’s gym in the early 1950s and stayed in touch with them for years.
Despite the good memories he is also mindful of the downside of his brutal profession. “I got destroyed by the fight game”, he said. “Lost the sight in one eye, got my nose busted, busted my ears. I’ll show you a picture of what I looked like before I started fighting”. He produced a photo of a strikingly handsome young man in a Coast Guard uniform. Pat at the age of 17. He had just enlisted in the Coast Guard in the spring of 1945.
Pat realized he was passed his prime as a fighter after consecutive losses to featherweight contender Miguel Berrios and future junior lightweight champion Harold Gomes. He announced his retirement in 1956. His final stats were 38 wins against 19 losses and 3 draws. Twenty of his victories had come via knockout.
Needing a steady source of income to support his wife and infant son, Pat opened up a retail jewelry establishment. He operated the business for several years before selling it and taking a job with the Port Authority of New York, working in their maintenance department for 20 years.
Although Pat no longer worked for the Port Authority when America was attacked on September 11, 2001, he was quick to respond. He used his PA badge to gain access to Ground Zero where he volunteered to be part of “the bucket brigade” that helped to remove tons of debris. He believes the throat cancer he was diagnosed with a few years ago may have been caused by his exposure to the toxins at the site. Fortunately his cancer never progressed beyond stage one and he is now free of the disease.
Less fortunate was his son Patrick, an officer with the New York City police department. Patrick was a first responder and worked for weeks at Ground Zero. Like so many other first responders he later became sickened by the toxic dust clouds and developed a variety of illnesses, including respiratory disease and cancer. Previously robust and healthy, Patrick was constantly ill in the years that followed 9/11and passed away from cancer in 2009 at the age of 55. His father wears a replica of his son’s policeman’s shield on a chain around his neck.
Oh, I almost forgot! I want to tell you what happened in the crucial tenth round of Pat’s bout with the peerless Willie Pep. At the close of the ninth round Pat was hurt by a flurry of punches. He wasn’t fully recovered when the bell rang for the start of the tenth round. Pep quickly backed him against the ropes and was landing shots but Pat wouldn’t go down. The round was only 14 seconds old when the referee—former featherweight champion Petey Scalzo—jumped in between the fighters and called a halt, awarding the bout to Pep. The following day The New York Times, while acknowledging Pep’s superior boxing skills reported that “the Coney Island warrior gave a fine display of courage as he absorbed Willie’s punches.”
To no one’s surprise Pat objected to the stoppage. To this day be believes the referee purposely acted hastily to end the bout because Pep, in jeopardy of losing on a tko, had the right connections and he did not. But it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is how he lived his life after his boxing career ended.
Pat Marcune never won a world championship but to his everlasting credit when his city suffered a horrific terrorist attack, he did not hesitate to step up to the plate, as did his noble son, to give selflessly of himself in the service of others. If that’s not the definition of a true champion, I don’t know what is.
Note: Boxing historian Mike Silver is the author of “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science” (McFarland Publishing, 2008), and most recently “Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing: A Photographic History” (Lyons Press, 2016)
The ultimate goal of every professional boxer is to win a world title, but running a close second is the opportunity to be featured in a main event at the world’s most famous sports arena—Madison Square Garden. During the Golden Age of boxing, from the 1920s to the 1950s, the honor of topping a card in “the Garden” was an achievement to be savored for the rest of a boxer’s life.
A brief historical note: There have been four Madison Square Gardens. The first dates to the late 1870s. But the building that is most synonymous with boxing’s glory days—and the one most fondly remembered by those who experienced it—was the third version that occupied an entire block on New York’s Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th streets. Garden III stood as a monument to the sport from 1925 to 1967. It was demolished in 1968 and replaced by the current Madison Square Garden located 16 blocks south at 33rd street and Seventh Avenue.
Gaining entry into boxing’s holy of holies was a privilege not easily attained. Certain standards had to be met. Even the undercard boxers had to have records that warranted an invitation. Boxers who fought main events in other arenas might only qualify for a six round preliminary or eight round semi-final in the Garden. To appear in the featured bout of the evening was equivalent to starring in a Broadway theatrical production.
Because of the arena’s status, and the importance of boxing to the popular culture at that time, the result of a Garden main event made news throughout the world. For every boxer lucky enough to appear in a Garden main event the knowledge that a good showing—win or lose—could mean an invitation back and another good payday spurred them to put forth their best effort.
On the night of August 9th, 1946 Ruby Kessler, a 19 year old welterweight out of Brooklyn’s Coney Island neighborhood, was prepared to do just that.
Ruby’s journey to a featured bout at the world’s most famous arena began three years earlier when he knocked out Ray Ramirez in the first round at the Fort Hamilton arena in Brooklyn. It was an auspicious beginning for the 135 pound boxer. Ruby had followed his older brother Milton into the ring. In fact, on the same night that Ruby scored his first pro victory Milton fought in the main event.
Milt Kessler had turned pro in 1939 and quickly established a reputation as one of the finest young boxers in New York City. He was a classic stand up boxer with quick hands and agile footwork. The Kessler brothers were part of a grand boxing tradition. Jewish boxers were an integral part of the boxing scene, having produced hundreds of title contenders and 29 world champions from the early 1900s to the late 1930s. They hoped to become the second set of Jewish brothers to win world titles. The first were Abe and Monte Attell who ascended to their thrones at the turn of the last century.
Milt compiled an impressive 31-4-2 won-lost-draw record before he was drafted into the Army in 1943. He was one of 4000 American professional boxers who served in the armed forces during World War II.
After being discharged from the army in 1946 Milt decided not to continue his boxing career. By that time Ruby had graduated from preliminary boxer to main bout status. He began the year by winning six in a row before dropping an eight round decision to Patsy Brandino at the Queensboro Arena. But just sixteen days later Ruby scored his most impressive victory by coming off the floor to stop veteran Pat Scanlon in the 7th round of a ten rounder at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field. That victory earned him his first Garden main event. His opponent was Greenwich Village’s tough Tony Pellone. A few months earlier Pellone had scored a major upset by ending Billy Graham’s 58 bout undefeated streak via a controversial ten round decision.
Pellone and Kessler had similar records and were evenly matched but Pellone had an advantage: He was a mob managed fighter. As a “connected” fighter there was always the possibility that the fight judges and the referee would be under orders not to vote for his opponent if the bout went the distance. The day before the fight the odds favored Pellone at 9 to 5. By fight time the odds had increased to 11 to 5 on Pellone. There was no reason for this unless word had gotten out that the fix was in and Pellone could not lose.
In a rousing see-saw fight that the New York Times described as “a bruising battle that held the interest of the crowd right to the final bell” Pellone won a split decision that was greeted with boos by a majority of the fans in attendance.
Irving Kessler, Ruby’s younger brother, believes the decision was preordained. In an interview with the writer he offered as proof the referee’s telling Ruby after the fight, “Sorry Ruby, the best I could give you was a draw”. There is no question the fight was very close but in the end the two judges scored it 5-4-1 for Pellone, with the referee voting a draw. It should not surprise anyone with knowledge of boxing history that the decision might have been fixed. Professional boxing in the 1940s and 1950s was heavily infiltrated by mob elements and fixed fights were not uncommon.
Less than six weeks later Ruby knocked out Pat Foley in the first round. Over the next two months he outpointed Pat Scanlon in ten and finished out the year by stopping former contender Cleo Shans in three. Those victories earned Kessler a second Garden main event. On January 17, 1947, in front of 14,000 fans, Ruby crossed gloves with master boxer Billy Graham. An interesting sidelight to the fight was that both men were trained by Whitey Bimstein. As a result Bimstein decided not to work in either boxer’s corner.
The Graham bout was the most important fight of Ruby’s career. Graham was a highly regarded welterweight contender. Fortunately he was not a mob managed fighter so if the fight went the distance a fair decision would be expected.
A victory over Graham would put Ruby in line for a title shot. But it wasn’t to be. Although every round was closely contested the difference came down to Graham’s vast experience (he had twice as many fights as Kessler). Graham’s accurate counterpunching and superb defensive skills gave him the edge, but Ruby never stopped trying and when tagged would fight back even harder.
Ruby lost the decision but impressed the critics with his tenacity and toughness. Writing for the New York Times, James P. Dawson praised Kessler’s performance: “The Coney Island youngster is one of the most courageous fighters in the welterweight class today and a lad who is dangerous even when staggering around the ring groggily under fire. In ten rounds that sizzled with superb boxing and sparkled with sharp, solid hitting, Graham received the unanimous decision.”
In his next bout Kessler was stopped in the 7th round by lightweight contender Juste Fontaine. Fritzie Zivic, the ex-welterweight champ who was known for his foul tactics, trained Fontaine. He schooled his protégée well in the art of dirty fighting. Kessler was ahead in the scoring but during the bout was repeatedly fouled. Punches below the beltline, hitting with an open glove, thumbing and butting were taking a toll. The bout took place in Philadelphia, Fontaine’s hometown. The referee, obviously favoring the hometown favorite, issued a few warnings but would not disqualify or deduct points from Fontaine. In the seventh round a weakened Kessler was backed against the ropes and taking punishment when the referee intervened and stopped the bout. As the fighters left the ring Ruby’s brothers Milt and Freddy confronted Zivic and an argument ensued. Several punches were exchanged before security stepped in and broke it up.
Ruby was disappointed by the losses but not deterred. Over the next 19 months he fought 16 times. His most notable opponents included former contender Bobby Ruffin (WD-8, Draw-10), former junior welterweight champion Tippy Larkin (LD-8, LD -10) and eighth rated welterweight Charley Fusari (LD-10).
On October 11, 1948 Ruby was knocked out for only the second time in his 57 bout career when he was stopped in the first round by welterweight contender Tony Janiro. Although he was only three weeks shy of his 22nd birthday the loss convinced Ruby it was time to hang up his gloves.
Irving Kessler is 88 years old. He is the only surviving member of the Kessler clan (originally seven brothers and one sister). Irving remembers how proud he was to carry his older brother’s equipment bag to the gym. He attended almost all of Ruby’s fights and recalls “a fearless boxer who would take on anyone. Whereas Milt was a pure boxer who was often compared to the great Benny Leonard, Ruby was a fighter who rarely took a backward step and didn’t mind mixing it up if the situation called for it. He was an excellent boxer and puncher and if you were not a title contender or champ you couldn’t get by Ruby.”
Ruby Kessler left the sport just as television was beginning to mass market boxing to millions of new fans. No doubt his all action style of fighting would have made him a very popular TV boxer.
Following his retirement Ruby partnered with his brother Milt and opened a bar in Brooklyn. Two years later they ran into financial problems and Ruby decided to pick up a payday by fighting again. On December 23, 1950, at the Ridgewood Grove Arena in Brooklyn, Ruby was holding his own against journeyman Joey Carkido when he suffered a deep gash over his left eye that caused the referee to stop the fight in the 6th round. He never fought again. His final stats were 38-17-2. He knocked out 17 opponents and was KO’d 3 times.
In 1955 Ruby handed the bar over to his brother and took a full time job as a sales representative for a liquor company.
Back in the days when boxing was still boxing not everyone got to be a world champion. There was a definite hierarchy of boxing talent and generally eight champions (today there are over 100) for each of the eight (now 17) weight classes. In that unforgiving environment to be competitive with the best took an extra measure of character and talent. Despite never having won a title Ruby Kessler measured up to the task and was an indispensable part of boxing’s greatest generation.
Mike Silver is the author of Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing (2016, Lyons Press) and The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science (McFarland Publishers, 2008).
Research assistance was provided by Irving Kessler.
Boxing is a very ancient sport with a history going back thousands of years. But the origins of modern boxing can be traced to 17th century England where the sport reemerged after a 1000 year hiatus. After the death of Oliver Cromwell the restored monarchy of Charles II (1660-1685) freed England from the yoke of Puritan restraint. As a result, the populace began to enjoy a wide variety of old and new sporting diversions, including boxing. London, with its roiling urban suburbs and large population of poor people, became the perfect spawning ground for a new generation of fistic exponents, although the sport did not properly take off until the following century.
Three hundred years ago the rules for the sport were quite different than today.
Three hundred years ago the rules for the sport were quite different than today. Combatants fought bare-fisted and were allowed to throw an opponent to the ground provided he was grabbed above the waist. A round ended when a fighter was punched, thrown, or wrestled to the ground. The downed fighter was then carried back to his corner by his seconds and given 30 seconds to rest before both fighters had to return to the “scratch mark” (originally their side of a three-foot-square drawn in the center of the ring). If a fighter was too damaged to “come up to scratch” or “toe the mark” within the allotted time, he forfeited the match. The loser was considered “knocked out of time.”
There was no proscribed time limit to a bareknuckle prizefight. The contest ended only when a boxer either failed to come up to scratch or was disqualified for fouling. After the “New Rules” of 1838 superseded the rudimentary “Broughton’s Rules” fouls included butting with the head, striking a fallen opponent, kicking, gouging the eyes, and biting. Depending on when it ended the length of a bareknuckle fight could be measured in minutes or sometimes hours. Contests ran the gamut from insufferably boring (much wrestling and stalling) to extremely savage, bloody, and sometimes fatal.
Both the rich (including members of the aristocracy) and poorer elements of English society enjoyed betting on the outcome of prizefights. From the 1780s to the 1820s, boxing’s popularity had reached a point where it was considered the country’s national sport. Important bouts attracted thousands of spectators from all walks of life. Some of the best fighters even enjoyed the patronage of a member of the royal family.
Author and historian Tony Gee immerses us into this colorful and fascinating world.
Author and historian Tony Gee immerses us into this colorful and fascinating world. The meticulously researched book was originally published in 1998 and has recently been reissued in both soft cover and kindle version. It remains to this day the quintessential history of the English bareknuckle scene.
Few people are as qualified as Tony Gee to chronicle this history. He is the world’s foremost authority on the bareknuckle era of pugilism and has advised the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Jewish Museum of London and has contributed several articles to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
“Up To Scratch” describes, in exquisite detail, the lives and battles, triumphs and tragedies, of some 70 pugilistic stars of the era. The vignettes are written in chronological order. Included are the exploits of such well-known bareknuckle bruisers as Daniel Mendoza, Tom Johnson, Jem Belcher, James “Deaf” Burke, Tom Sayers and Jem Mace.
While reading the bios of these hard men of the ring I was awestruck by their remarkable endurance and ability to withstand punishment often under the most trying of circumstances. Keep in mind that bareknuckle prizefights were fought outdoors and usually on bare turf. One of the many memorable stories the author describes is an 1827 contest between Ned Savage and Jem Wallace. During the bout a sudden and continuous downpour soaked the spectators and turned the ground into a quagmire. But no one wanted to see the fight called off, so the officials allowed it to continue.
As described by Gee: “The two combatants, covered in mud, waged an even, determined battle for two hours, although action then understandably flagged. At length, after a marathon 127 rounds lasting 147 minutes, Wallace was so completely exhausted that his friends gave in for him. Both men, totally insensible, were conveyed to the Swan, put to bed and bled. (This practice was then customary amongst the medical profession, but how it could help revive a fighter who had often already lost a lot of blood is difficult to comprehend – in fact, sometimes it could only have made matters worse.)” It is this type of detail that is common throughout the book.
One of the most unusual bouts described is a set-to that occurred in 1828. Both protagonists were dwarfs. Each fighter stood less than 4 feet tall and weighed under 100 pounds. “Despite the lack of interest shown by the Fancy, a large crowd was drawn to the event because of its strong novelty value.” The contest ended after 37 minutes.
Tony also describes an 1842 bout between the visiting American giant Charles Freeman, who was measured at 6 feet 9 inches tall (his height often exaggerated to over 7 feet) and the “Tipton Slasher”, William Perry. Other than size Freeman had little to recommend him.
“Unfortunately, like other giants who have attempted to find fistic fame through the years, Freeman’s boxing ability did not quite match up to his imposing physical appearance.” After this fight Freeman never fought again, preferring instead to concentrate on stage performances. The author’s research reveals what happened to the visiting American boxer after he retired from fistic combat: “Less than three years later he died, far from home, a victim of consumption brought on by careless living.”
There are also descriptions of fixed fights, fatal encounters, and behind the scenes maneuverings that shows how little things have changed over the centuries when it comes to the more corrupt and outlandish aspects of the sport.
The book comes to an end with a description of the downfall of bareknuckle boxing and the eventual acceptance of the Marquess of Queensberry rules that mandated boxing gloves and three minutes rounds with one minute of rest in between. As noted by the author; “Whilst its critics rejoiced in the demise of the traditional prize-ring, there were many who mourned the passing of an often corrupt, yet essentially noble, activity.”
In addition to a comprehensive bibliography and index the book is enhanced by several appendices that feature the nicknames of the fighters and another that defines boxing slang that was popular at the time such as “Bottom (Courage and fortitude), “Cove” (fellow), “Claret” (blood), “Fancy” (enthusiasts of a particular amusement, especially followers of the prize-ring), “Mill” (pugilistic encounter between two persons), “Muff” (someone awkward or stupid at an athletic pursuit), and many others.
Tony Gee is a wonderful storyteller. “Up to Scratch” provides a treasure trove of information about the lost world of bareknuckle boxing. It is an insightful look into one of boxing’s most dramatic and colorful eras and should be on the book shelf of every boxing fan in addition to anyone interested in this important aspect of England’s history.
Note: Boxing historian Mike Silver is the author of “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science” (McFarland Publishing, 2008), and most recently “Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing: A Photographic History” (Lyons Press, 2016)
Aside from being an astute observer of the boxing scene Roger Zotti is also an avid film buff, which makes his observations in this little gem of a book all the more interesting. Throughout the book Roger intertwines stories of the sweet science with his vast knowledge of Hollywood filmdom. I don’t know of any other author who can find something in common between the spectacular comebacks of Archie Moore vs. Durelle and Marciano vs. Walcott to the comebacks of film actors Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity and Marlon Brando in The Godfather. But that is the subject of an essay titled “Fistic and Film Comebacks” and it’s what makes The Proper Pugilist: Essays on the Milling Art the perfect book for readers of this site.
Reading this concise collection of 22 short essays (each about three to four pages long) is akin to spending several enjoyable hours in conversation with a master story teller whose expertise and knowledge of his subject is obvious with every sentence. Several essays draw from the author’s personal experience as an enthusiastic young fan of televised boxing in the 1950s. In one essay he writes that his love of film and boxing was encouraged by his Uncle Cheech, citing comments he recorded in a decades old interview. “I love film noire”, says uncle Cheech. “Richard Conte, an Italian boy from New York, and McGraw—Charles McGraw—seemed to be in every film noire ever made. In many of Conte’s movies he was usually returning from somewhere—maybe from jail or from the service. In Cry of the City he gave his best performance. McGraw’s best movie was “The Narrow Margin. Where else but in a Roger Zotti book are you going to find stuff like this?
Where else but in a Roger Zotti book are you going to find stuff like this?
In another essay titled “Dempsey According to Roger Kahn” the author takes issue with Kahn’s impugning the honesty of the referee in the famous Dempsey-Tunney long count fight that appeared in Kahn’s bio of Dempsey. In the same essay is an explanation as to why Dempsey, while heavyweight champion, refused to spar with Ernest Hemmingway.
In “Where Have You Gone Court Sheppard”, he writes about the actor that portrayed Tony Zale in the 1956 film biography of Rocky Graziano. The real Tony Zale was first hired to play himself in the movie but was unable to pull his punches during rehearsals with Paul Newman, who portrayed Graziano. After nearly flattening Newman twice, Zale was let go and replaced with Sheppard. We find out that Sheppard boxed professionally as a light heavyweight from 1937 to 1941 and compiled a 14-2-3 record. He also appeared in over two dozen other films. But even more impressive is that in 1936 he won the St. Louis Golden Gloves title by defeating future ring great Archie Moore in the finals! There are additional information filled stories on Dempsey, Sonny Liston, Stanley Ketchel, Jake LaMotta, Gene Tunney, Jack “Doc” Kearns and lesser known boxers from the 1950s television era such as Coley Wallace, Jimmy Herring, Roy Harris, Walter Cartier and Artie Diamond. Each of the 22 essays is just long enough to keep your interest and eagerly turn to the next story. I found it hard to put down this delightful foray into the colorful nether worlds of Hollywood and boxing.
The Proper Pugilist is a wonderful companion piece to Roger’s other book about boxing—Friday Night World: A Tribute to Fighters of the 1950s. That book is both a homage to the author’s favorite boxers of the 1950s and a memoir about growing up in New Haven, Connecticut, during the fifties era.
Mike Silver is the author of The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science (McFarland Publishers, paperback 2014). His new book, Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing (Lyons Press) will be published in March 2016.
If there ever was an individual with the wherewithal, honesty and courage to clean up professional boxing that man would have been Theodore Roosevelt.
by Mike Silver
No U.S. President, past or present, was more associated with the “sweet science” than Theodore Roosevelt.
No U.S. President, past or present, was more associated with the “sweet science” than Theodore Roosevelt. It was not by accident that T.R. developed his interest in boxing. In Roosevelt’s formative years young men from the best families practiced the manly art. In the late 1800s amateur boxing “in gentlemanly fashion” (fought with gloves under Queensberry rules) was included in the athletic programs of Harvard and Yale. (Both institutions were among a handful of colleges that offered boxing instruction to their students). The future President boxed as a 135 pound lightweight while attending Harvard. He entered several tournaments, and though only moderately successful, his courage and tenacity was admired by his classmates.
During one tournament match he was hit hard by his opponent just after the referee yelled “time”. The crowd hissed and shouted “Foul, foul!” Roosevelt is supposed to have cried out “Hush! He didn’t hear.” Years later, during his campaign for the Presidency, his supporters would frequently reference the incident as an example of his extraordinary character.
In his junior year at Harvard (1879) T.R. fought for the university cup against a senior and was “severely punished” according to the New York Times. The Times often reported on the athletic exploits of Ivy League athletes as these schools were considered incubators for the future economic, social and political leaders of America. His opponent was two or three inches taller and had a much longer reach. “When time was called after the last round,” one spectator recalled, “his face was dashed with blood and he was much winded; but his spirit did not flag, and if there had been another round, he would have gone into it with undiminished determination.”
T.R. was at best a fair boxer and athlete, but he loved boxing, and was a steadfast supporter of the sport as long as it remained free of gambling and corruption. In 1896, while serving as police commissioner of New York City, Roosevelt endorsed a bill that legalized boxing in the state. He believed that under the right circumstances boxing had value as a “vigorous healthful sport that develops courage, keenness of mind, quickness of eye, and a spirit of combativeness that fits every boy who engages in it for the daily tasks that confront him.” But the professional side of the sport remained a problem for him. In 1899, during his term as New York’s Governor, boxing was rocked by a number of major betting scandals and fixed fights. The following year he reluctantly signed a bill outlawing professional prizefighting in New York State. (The ban lasted four years).
Roosevelt’s interest in athletics, and specifically boxing, was the result of a lifelong pursuit of what he called “The Strenuous Life.” TR exercised daily and was constantly challenging himself to do better. His favorite sports were boxing, tennis, hiking, rowing, polo and horseback riding. He greatly admired boxers and formed friendships with John L. Sullivan, Bob Fitzsimmons, Battling Nelson and Mike Donovan. Even while occupying the White House (1901-1909) Roosevelt enjoyed boxing with an array of sparring partners, including former professionals, several times each week. By then the President was a full-fledged heavyweight, weighing around 190 pounds
During a sparring session with a military aide Roosevelt took a hard punch to his left eye. He gradually lost sight in the damaged orb, but that information was not made public until many years later. Although the injury failed to dampen his enthusiasm for boxing he thereafter confined his physical jousts to practicing judo, attaining a third degree brown belt.
Of all the fighters Roosevelt knew he was closest to Sullivan
Of all the fighters Roosevelt knew he was closest to Sullivan, who reigned as heavyweight champion from 1882 to 1892. They first met in the mid-1890s when TR was a crusading police commissioner in New York City. Sullivan had retired in 1892 after losing the title to James J. Corbett, but the public’s adulation for “The Great John L.” endured well after his last bout. During that time he earned his living as a professional entertainer and temperance lecturer.
The Patrician Roosevelt and the roughhewn Sullivan, an Irish-American from an urban, working class background, formed a sort of mutual admiration society based on their common interests. They were the same age, and as noted by Sullivan biographer Michael T. Isenberg, “Each worshipped the shrine of masculinity and had, in his different way, been a missionary of the strenuous life; each was his own brass band.”
Roosevelt’s friendship with Sullivan remained strong during and after his Presidency. In later years Sullivan was a frequent guest at Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill Estate. Both of these fascinating and charismatic individuals were perfect symbols of their era. Energetic, confident, assertive and occasionally reckless their colorful personalities embodied the qualities of a country ascending to greatness at the turn of the last century.
The 25th President of the United States would have made a wonderful boxing commissioner but after his “Rough Rider” campaign in Cuba during the Spanish-American War of 1898 bigger and more important responsibilities awaited him. But if there ever was an individual with the wherewithal, honesty and courage to clean up professional boxing that man would have been Theodore Roosevelt.
Mike Silver is the author of “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science” (McFarland Publishers, paperback 2014).
A note of thanks to the daughter of Teddy Atlas for convincing her father to get back to doing what he does best—teaching boxers the (lost) art of boxing. Seven weeks ago Atlas took over the training of Timothy Bradley and the results were nothing short of phenomenal. Bradley said it best in a pre-fight interview; “I finally have a real trainer”. Indeed! Bradley’s ninth round stoppage of Brandon Rios this past Saturday night had “old school” written all over it, complements of “old school” trainer Teddy Atlas. Bradley also stated that Atlas’s schooling taught him more about technique and strategy than ever before. Good for him—and good for boxing.
Atlas’s job was not easy. He had a willing student in Bradley but also a fighter who had been worn out in fights where the strategy was simply to outwork the opponent. Bradley had also made the mistake in the past of exercising with heavy weights to increase his strength and punching power. Of course this misguided approach did just the opposite by making him muscle bound and robbing him of his punching power. Bradley’s overdeveloped pecs and lats are very impressive if he was entered into a body building contest but he can barely dent an egg with his feather like punches. Nevertheless, Atlas recognized a desire by Bradley to do whatever was necessary to turn his boxing career around and was willing to work with him and achieve the desired results.
Trainers take note: Watch the tape of the Bradley vs. Rios fight over and over, including especially the instruction given to Bradley between rounds. What a delight to watch a boxer actually attempt to think and avoid punishment by using tried and true methods of the type that had been effective for almost a century but are virtually forgotten today.
Rios could have tried to counter Bradley’s hit and move strategy but he simply had no answers—and neither did his clueless corner men. Rios kept coming straight ahead and made no attempt at all to cut off the ring, or duck Bradley’s counter punches, or throw more jabs in an attempt to disrupt his rhythm. The pitiful instructions (or lack thereof) he received was typical. In between rounds the microphone picked up Rios’s trainers telling him to “throw more punches…throw faster punches” and of course the oft heard expletive laced “what the f…k are you waiting for!….c’mon go for it!” That’s it. No strategic advice was given at any time. Not even at the basest level. Why are such people even allowed into the corner? Why isn’t there some sort of licensing procedure to make sure trainers have at least a minimum of boxing knowledge. It is so disheartening to see how dumbed down this sport has become.
Compare the above to a sampling of Atlas’s instructions to Bradley between rounds: “Control the outside and don’t stay in one place too long…use your jab and move to your left and then move to the right and set something up…catch him as he comes in and don’t drop your hands…move off to the side after landing your jab..” Atlas kept reminding Bradley to “control the geography of the ring” (meaning use footwork). Obviously these basic boxing moves had been practiced over and over throughout their training sessions. Another move involved Bradley stepping to his left after landing a jab and quickly landing a left uppercut to Rios’s midsection. His incessant body punching eventually brought Rios to his knees in the ninth round and he was counted out. (If Bradley had more power this fight would have ended much earlier). It is worth noting that over 50% of Bradley’s punches were aimed at Rios’s mid-section. This was a common practice among the top fighters of decades past but is virtually unheard of today.
Over the past 20 years, for a variety of reasons, (see the author’s book “The Arc of Boxing” for a full explanation) boxing technique has fallen to its lowest level in over 100 years. Defense has become a lost art along with so much else that is missing at virtually every level. That is why Bradley’s new evasive style, mobile footwork, body punches and his effective and intelligent use of the left jab was like a dose of fresh air—at least to those who can recognize such things.
Perhaps I am being overly optimistic, but are we seeing a trend developing here? Last month we saw two rare demonstrations of some old school boxing skills. First flyweight champion Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez gave a wonderful display of effective aggression while chalking up his 44th straight victory. On the same night Gennady Golovkin, the true middleweight champion, showed how effective a left jab can be when used properly to set up power punches and eventually wear down a tough and determined opponent. (see article on this site: “Stop The Presses! Boxer Wins Fight Using Left Jab!”
Years ago these talented boxers would be considered excellent prospects because they would be competing in a much tougher environment, but today their use of solid but basic boxing techniques makes them stand head and shoulders above a very mediocre field of contenders.
Let’s hope that other boxers and trainers begin to understand that boxing is an art—the art of self-defense. This will not only result in more interesting matches but will make a dangerous sport safer. Two boxers moving toward each other like two trucks in a mindless demolition derby is not boxing.
Mike Silver is the author of “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science” (2014, paperback, McFarland Publishers).
No other sport has produced more memorable quotes or phrases than boxing. I am not referring to the many clever and colorful (and sometimes outrageous) statements uttered over the years by various boxing personalities. Mike Tyson’s obscene rants (obviously stated when he was off his meds) that included such gems as “I want to eat his children” or “I try to push the (nose) bone into the brain” do not qualify for this list. The winning quotes are those that have withstood the test of time and entered into the American lexicon. The following quotes fit these criteria. They have been used by journalists, politicians and people in all walks of life. Yet how many are aware that they emanate from the world of boxing? I’ve saved the best for last, so counting back from 10 to 1 here they are:
“I Shoulda Stood In Bed”—Joe Jacobs (1935)
Joe Jacobs was the prototype of the fast talking cigar chomping fight manager.
Sportswriters loved him as he was always quick with a memorable quote delivered in a staccato New York accent. As described by author David Margolick, Jacobs was “the quintessential Broadway guy, a Damon Runyon character from whom even Damon Runyon, then writing a sports column for the Hearst newspapers, could pick up some pointers.” As a “Broadway guy” Joe invariably slept late but one of the few times he broke
with tradition was when he got out of a sickbed to attend the 1935 World Series between the Tigers and Cubs on a wet cold day in Detroit when the temperature was near freezing. When a reporter asked him about the experience he famously complained, “I shoulda stood in bed”, which is New Yorkese for “stayed in bed”. Shakespeare could not have said it any better.
Shakespeare could not have said it any better
9. “I’ll Moida Da Bum” – Tony Galento The squat 5’9’ 235 pound New Jerseyite with the sledgehammer left hook was one of the most colorful fighters of any era. “Two Ton” Tony was a crude beer guzzling brawler who often used these words to describe what he would do to a future opponent. He said it most
often when referring to heavyweight champion Joe Louis, who he challenged for the title in 1939. In an unusual fit of pique, Louis, angered by Tony’s incessant pre-fight trash talk, decided to punish him. Galento, a stubborn foe, did his best and even managed to drop Louis in the third round. After taking a short count Louis got up even angrier and battered Galento into a bloody hulk before knocking him out in the next round.
8. “We Wuz Robbed”—Joe Jacobs (1932)
Another gem from the irrepressible Joe Jacobs who regularly butchered the King’s English. He spoke the immortal words after heavyweight champion Max Schmeling (whom he managed) lost a controversial decision to Jack Sharkey.
7. “Only In America”—Don King (1975)
The phrase was appropriated by King in the early 70s. But a more accurate phrasing should be “Only in Boxing”. For only in the unregulated “red light district” of sports could a convicted killer and diabolically clever sociopath run roughshod over an entire sport and bring it down to his level.
“The Bigger They Are the Harder They Fall”—Bob Fitzsimmons (1902)
The actual quote is: “The bigger they come the harder they fall.” It has been attributed to former heavyweight champion Robert Fitzsimmons in an interview in 1902, but it probably goes back farther than that. Fitzsimmons (heavyweight champion 1897-99) was one of the hardest punchers of all time. He weighed about 167 pounds in his prime and often beat heavier men, including a 300 pound opponent he flattened in the first round.
5.“Honey, I Forgot to Duck” Jack Dempsey (1926)
President Ronald Reagan was being wheeled into the operating room shortly after taking a bullet in the 1981 assassination attempt on his life. Still conscious, and amazingly maintaining his sense of humor, he looked up at his wife, Nancy, and told her: “Honey, I forgot to duck”. The President was referencing the line Jack Dempsey used to explain his defeat to his wife after he lost the heavyweight championship to Gene Tunney in 1926. Reagan was only 15 years old at the time but the phrase obviously made an impression on the young sports fan and future President of the United States.
4. “We Will Win Because We Are On God’s Side”—Joe Louis (1942)
Heavyweight champion Joe Louis, who had recently enlisted in the still segregated army, spoke these words at a March 1942 War Bond rally in front of 18,000 people in Madison
Square Garden. The great man’s words became a popular slogan and made its way into songs and posters.
3. “He Can Run But He Can’t Hide”—Joe Louis (1946)
Joe’s public comments were as compact and on target as his punches. He could say more in a few words than most people say in 100. On the eve of his rematch with Billy Conn a reporter asked Joe if his lighter and faster opponent’s speed would be a problem. Louis’s answer was prescient. He knocked Conn out in the eighth round.
2. “Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee”—Cassius Clay (1963).
He did and he could!
“I Coulda Been A Contender”—Marlon Brando (1954)
One of filmdom’s most famous lines. It was spoken by actor Marlon Brando in the classic
movie “On the Waterfront”. The words originated from an actual conversation screenwriter Budd Schulberg had with Roger Donoghue, a once promising welterweight who quit the ring after killing an opponent. Donoghue was hired to instruct Brando how to move and act like a former fighter. When Schulberg asked Donoghue if he could have been a champion, the fighter replied, “I don’t know, but I could have been a contender.”
Boxing historian Mike Silver is the author of The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science (McFarland Publishing, paperback 2014).
You do not have to be Italian to enjoy The Real Rockys. In fact, you do not even have to be a boxing fan. Rolando Vitale has written a book that accurately describes a colorful and fascinating chapter of American immigrant history with emphasis on the tremendous contribution of Italian American boxers to the sport of boxing.
You do not have to be Italian to enjoy The Real Rockys. In fact, you do not even have to be a boxing fan.
Few boxing books have been so thoroughly researched and richly detailed. The author begins with a description of the origins of boxing that includes a historical overview of pugilistic activity in ancient Rome, continuing on to the Medieval and Renaissance period, and then to the large scale Italian immigration to America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some of the best parts of the book involve stories of the boxers’ family life and how the privations and poverty of their childhood motivated the drive to become a professional boxer.
The author also includes a description of the inter-racial boxing rivalries that were once so much a part of the sport during its golden age from the 1910s to the 1950s.
Few boxing books have been so thoroughly researched and richly detailed.
But the icing on the cake of this highly informative and lively written book are the 35 separate Appendices—183 pages in all—that are a treasure trove of information available nowhere else. Here is just a sampling: A breakdown and analyses of the most prominent ethnic American groups (Irish, Jewish, Italian, African) in the world’s top ten rankings (as per Ring magazine’s monthly ratings) across all weight categories 1924-1955; The results of head to head contests between Italian American and rival ethnic American boxers listed in the world’s top ten rankings 1924-1955; The names of every Italian, Irish, Jewish and African American champion from 1900 to 1955; A complete list of the nearly 400 title fights involving Italian American boxers; The names of hundreds of prominent Italian American prizefighters who fought using Irish or Anglicized names; Every Italian American Golden Gloves and National AAU amateur champion from 1900 to 1955; Post boxing occupations of the 51 Italian American world champions 1900-55 (including their father’s occupations); Also included are biographies of 50 great Italian boxers and the author’s picks for the top 100 Italian boxers who did not win a title. That is just a sampling. OK, you get the picture. This is a book that is both a historical document and a reference guide. It will be appreciated and enjoyed by anyone interested in learning about a unique and colorful aspect of American immigrant history but also savored by the serious and casual boxing fan. “The Real Rockys” deserves an honored space on every fight fan’s book shelf.
Boxing historian Mike Silver is the author of “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science”
“Floyd’s technical flaws are obscured by his extraordinary speed and athleticism, but on the few occasions when he defended his title against a capable opponent these flaw were exposed.”
If the modern era of professional boxing had begun in the 1980s instead of the 1890s there is no question that Floyd Mayweather, Jr. would rank among the top ten greatest boxers of all-time. But the modern era of professional boxing began over 100 years ago. That is a lot of boxers to consider! Most historians agree the sport’s true golden age, in terms of the numbers of quality boxers competing at the same time, occurred from the 1920s to the 1950s. Floyd Mayweather, Jr. turned pro in 1996. He is undefeated in 48 fights. Yes, his amazing speed, reflexes and keen sense of anticipation have enabled Floyd to win titles in five weight divisions—but could he have attained that same level of success if matched against the best fighters of decades past?
Before I go any further let me establish some ground rules. I do not measure a contemporary fighter’s alleged greatness by the number of title belts he possesses or his won-loss statistics. The out of control title inflation that has plagued the sport in recent decades and the huge number of undefeated records (unprecedented in the history of the sport) built on inferior opposition should deemphasize those factors. Far more important is an accurate analysis of the fighter’s technical skills while at the same time taking into account the quality of his competition.
SEND IN THE CLOWNS
Prior to the 1970s, before an alphabet soup of competing “sanctioning organizations” wrecked boxing’s traditional infrastructure by anointing their own set of champions and contenders (often based on payoffs and corrupt relationships with powerful promoters) the boxing establishment recognized 8 world champions in 8 traditional weight divisions. That was the self-imposed general rule for more than half a century. It wasn’t a perfect system (after all, this is boxing) but for the most part it worked. Boxing fans could easily identify the 8 champions and the 80 “top ten” contenders, all of whom were rated according to merit. Today, thanks to the greed of the quasi-official sanctioning groups (their racket is extorting “sanctioning fees” from every fighter who competes for one of their cheesy title belts) there are over 100 “world champions”. Even dedicated fight fans would be hard pressed to name more than half a dozen. In order to multiply the number of champions—thereby generating more fees—these boxing parasites created nine additional weight divisions (of which at least seven are unnecessary). There are now about 700 “top ten” contenders in 17 weight divisions listed among the four major sanctioning groups. In other words, there are far more opportunities to win a championship than ever before—and also to defend it against a challenger plucked from the thinnest talent pool the sport has ever known.
Floyd Mayweather, Jr. has taken advantage of and benefited from the absurdity by often cherry picking challengers who he surmised would present less of a threat. Against such limited opposition Floyd’s technical flaws are obscured by his extraordinary speed and athleticism. But on the few occasions when he defended his title against a capable opponent these flaws were exposed.
MOMENT OF TRUTH
Although Manny Pacquiao was among the two or three best opponents that Mayweather had ever faced, their recent mega bout came at least five years too late. Both fighters were passed their prime. Mayweather won a very close decision, but their fairly tame encounter failed to provide the answers we seek. It was his bout with Oscar DeLa Hoya eight years earlier, when Floyd was at his absolute best, that does provide the answer.
“In a pugilistic population lacking both seasoning and ring savvy, fighters with superior athletic prowess automatically rise to the top.”
Oscar De LaHoya was the first opponent that Mayweather encountered in his prime who was at or near his level. Oscar was slightly passed his own prime and had fought but once in the previous 20 months but he was still one of the best boxers in the world. The result was a very close split decision victory for Mayweather. Shortly after that bout I interviewed several boxing experts asking for their thoughts on Mayweather. I included their comments in my book, “The Arc of Boxing”. Following are excerpts from those interviews.
Teddy Atlas (one of the sport’s greatest trainers and currently a ringside analyst for ESPN):
“In the old days there were fighters who were good defensively, but the difference was they had the attitude, and the wherewithal, to go and find a way to create an offense that would make it possible to take control of the opponent in a more meaningful way, in a more dominant way, and in a much more productive way.
“Even a recent fighter like Sugar Ray Leonard, who I think was a terrific fighter, would find a way to be aggressive and get to his opponent while at the same time maintaining a responsible defense. He would not just find a way to do enough to just get by.
“In his fight against Oscar De La Hoya, there didn’t seem to be an ability shown to you by Mayweather to create another way to get to him—other than when De La Hoya made it easy for him and just opened the door for him by walking in with no jab and not offering up the answers and the resistance that he should have. The only offense that was created by Mayweather was actually given to him by his opponent.
“Whenever De La Hoya used his left jab this ‘great’ fighter Mayweather looked like he had no answers.”
“Boxing means using your head, using geometry, using the science of angles, the science of adjustments. And all you have to do is make it a kind of landscape where the other guy can’t use what he has. You fight in a place where speed doesn’t come into play. You use your reach to keep your opponent at a certain distance where you can time him. Timing can always get the better of speed when it’s used properly and understood properly. You time your opponent and keep him at the end of your punches. And if you use your reach properly you are not giving him anything to counter. Whenever De La Hoya used his left jab this ‘great’ fighter Mayweather looked like he had no answers. But when Oscar didn’t use his jab and just walked in it looked like Oscar had the problem.
“When De La Hoya forced Mayweather to the ropes he flailed away instead of placing his punches in the right way. You would expect a fighter at that level to find the right places and to know what the right places were, and where they were. De La Hoya threw his punches almost in a hopeful way. Real top guys don’t throw in a hopeful way. They throw their punches in a defined way— in a way that their experience and judgment tells them they need to throw.
You cannot get intoxicated to the point where you are comparing Floyd Mayweather Jr. to the greatest fighters of all time. I’m not taking anything away from Floyd, but I think it’s insulting to the great fighters and to the great history of the sport to make that comparison.”
Mike Capriano, Jr. (Former trainer and manager. Saw his first pro fight in 1938. During the 1950s was head coach for the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps boxing team that won a record number of service championships):
“I think the critics have a misunderstanding of the difference between speed of movement and speed of attack. Those fast and elusive old time boxers we saw always were involved in maintaining the attack. They were always looking for spots to land effective punches. They weren’t runners doing nothing and then jumping in and throwing a flurry of punches. They were different.
“Ali never ran away like Mayweather. Ali was fast but he was moving left to right and looking to hit you with punches. Sugar Ray Robinson was also extremely fast. He was up on the soles of his feet bouncing and moving left to right. But he wasn’t running here and running there. He was interested in making contact with his punches. And Robinson was a very hard puncher.
“Mayweather just wants to punch and run. But against those old time welterweight and middleweight fighters you are not going to do that because they’re going to keep you on the ropes and hit you with clean punches. He could run all he wants but sooner or later he has to come in to make contact with his opponent and then those guys are going to tie him up and grab him, push him into the corner, push him up against the ropes and start ripping punches up.
“When De La Hoya had Mayweather on the ropes he was unable to hurt him or keep him there. You’ve got to be able to slide and move in. De La Hoya doesn’t know how to do that. He doesn’t know how to move under punches. He’s in that crouch but he doesn’t bend under and really get down. He’s slapping Mayweather 100 times with that left hand when he’s got him on the ropes and it’s ineffective.
“What De La Hoya should have done when he had Mayweather on the ropes was to stay right in his middle. He should have had his head right in the middle of his chest. You then take a step back to get leverage and throw an uppercut or hook. De La Hoya did not know how to keep him on the ropes.
“This fight wasn’t any kind of test that establishes the credibility of greatness. They both looked like a pair of ordinary ten round fighters.”
“Neither fighter landed any terrific punches; no right cross combinations or left hooks underneath and over…real punches that dug in. They also did not appear to know how to step in with their punches.
“This fight wasn’t any kind of test that establishes the credibility of greatness. They both looked like a pair of ordinary ten round fighters. They traveled the distance well but, as I’ve said, they are not getting hit by guys that are going to hurt you. The better old timers would feel they’re opponent out for a couple of rounds and then, all of a sudden, ‘bing, bang’ you’d see some dynamite punches coming in.
“Carmen Basilio would have beaten both De La Hoya and Mayweather. They are not in Emile Griffith’s class either. And how about Kid Gavilan? I mean Gavilan’s going to fire punches that make a difference. And he’s strong and he’s pushing you. Gavilan would have Mayweather on the run, up against the ropes. He’d be throwing that bolo and other shots and he’s hurting Mayweather. It’s a different kind of fight.
“Fighters like Joey Archer and Billy Graham are going to box Mayweather. They’d have that left hand out in front and throwing combination punches. They are going to box him. And when Mayweather jumps in to deliver his quick punches he’s not going to hit anybody because they’re going to tie him up and put him back out there. It’s going to be a boxing match. The old pros are looking at him and arranging for where they’re going to attack and they’re setting him up.
“The old timers came to fight. He could do all the running, but they wouldn’t get caught up in his evasive movements. Mayweather has speed, but it is not combined with cleverness. They’d just wait until he’s in position where they could hit him. He’s going to have to fight sometime. The referee is going to tell him ‘look, you’ve got to engage this guy’. We’ve seen fighters run all night and people began booing and carrying on. So he can run around but when he fights a superior pro you’d see a different fight. You won’t see it today because no one knows how to do that. Fighters like Fritzie Zivic gave people college educations. There’s no one around like that today.”
Tony Arnold (Amateur and professional boxer 1949-1957. Former archivist for one of boxing’s largest film libraries):
“What did Mayweather do with his speed? He made De La Hoya chase him. That’s all. He didn’t use his speed like a Willie Pep to maneuver around an opponent’s defenses and hit him with sharp combinations and then move out of the way. I’m talking about using speed in a clever way. Mayweather just used his speed to keep himself from getting hit. And that’s supposed to be a great? There was no real display of skill or strategy.
“Mayweather’s jab is so tentative and ineffective I can’t even call it a jab. His right foot was already going back as he threw it. He was backing off because he’s very cautious and he was worried about a counter punch. The jab was just keeping distance between him and De La Hoya. It wasn’t being used to out box De La Hoya, it wasn’t controlling the fight and it wasn’t even a good defensive move because he wasn’t able to do anything. He just jabbed and backed off. But that tentative jab was enough to keep De La Hoya at long range for much of the fight.
“Mayweather’s strategy was to hit De La Hoya with quick pot shots and dance away and just pile up enough points to stay ahead, which he barley did. I mean the fight was practically even as far as I’m concerned. Mayweather did not set anything up. He didn’t make De La Hoya miss and then counter. He was relying on his speed and luck to land punches. They were just flailing at each other. I didn’t see any smart combinations. I did not see any good calculating counter punching. I never saw either fighter throw a two or three-punch combination. There was no taking advantage of mistakes. There was no looking for opportunities. I don’t think they would have known an opportunity if it fell on them. Mayweather and De La Hoya are not thinking fighters with the skill or experience to know what to look for.
“Floyd Mayweather, Jr. has a great deal of natural ability but it hasn’t been brought out the way it was with fighters of years ago. I don’t think he jabs enough. And he doesn’t take advantage of opportunities.”
“Mayweather is quicker than the other guy, he throws faster punches, he maneuvers around, but he doesn’t show any real skills. I didn’t see any real feinting or good head movement. I never saw him slip and counter. Not once. I didn‘t see any skill in that area at all. He’s got so many flaws.”
Bill Goodman (Licensed corner man with the New York Athletic Commission 1957-66. A student of the boxing scene for over 60 years):
“Floyd Mayweather, Jr. has a great deal of natural ability but it hasn’t been brought out the way it was with the fighters of years ago. I don’t think he jabs enough. And he doesn’t take advantage of opportunities. He ducks and slips punches but instead of taking advantage of what he just did he lets it go by. He doesn’t follow up. He makes some pretty moves, and looks nice doing it, but nothing happens. He doesn’t fire. Mayweather throws one left hand and he stops punching. He doesn’t follow it up with 2-3-4 left jabs like they did years ago. Consequently, he doesn’t get a barrage going, he doesn’t get any momentum.
“Mayweather is very fast, but he does not compare to those better welterweights that were around years ago. How can you compare him to a guy like Tommy Bell from the 1940’s? It’s night and day. Of course someone who doesn’t know Tommy Bell would see a number of losses on his record and not be impressed. But look at who he fought! Bell fought anybody and everybody. Like most fighters he stayed around a lot longer than he should have, but in his prime he would have licked both Mayweather and De La Hoya with one hand tied behind his back.
“Even a guy like Gil Turner, who was a 1950’s welterweight contender, wouldn’t have any trouble with either Mayweather or De La Hoya. Isaac Logart and Gene Burton wouldn’t have any problem with them either. Not only were these contenders well educated; they put their education to use. They fought frequently and kept busy—and they were better fighters.
“They talk about Mayweather’s speed, but he isn’t as fast and as skillful as Bernie Docusen who fought Sugar Ray Robinson for the title in 1948 and gave him plenty of trouble. Would you say Mayweather’s going to give Ray Robinson as a welterweight plenty of trouble?
“There’s no comparison. But you go and tell that to a young boxing fan today and they think you’re a psycho.”
What these authentic boxing experts are saying (and I emphasize the word “authentic”) is that Floyd Mayweather, Jr. despite his obvious talent, is not in the same league as the best champions and contenders of previous decades. To the untrained eye Mayweather appears to be a great fighter because his dazzling speed is more than enough to dominate second and third rate opponents. But when faced with an opponent that he could not totally dominate with his speed Floyd’s stylistic flaws were revealed.
Part of the problem many people have in evaluating the quality of today’s champions is that since the 1990s the line separating the skills of top amateur and top professional boxers has become blurred. Most of today’s champions have extensive amateur backgrounds. But they are not exposed to the same type of professional apprenticeship common to fighters of the past. The majority win a title belt before their 20th pro contest and have fought less than 150 rounds (the averages years ago were 40 to 70 fights and about 400 rounds). There is no chance to gain the kind of bout-to-bout education and experience that empowered the early greats. This is why there remains a hint of lingering amateurism in the fighting styles of most of today’s champions. They do not need to master the finer points of professional boxing technique because the competition does not demand it. In addition, most of today’s trainers do not have enough knowledge or background to teach the old moves. Body punching, feinting, drawing a lead to set up a counterpunch, proper use of the left jab, bobbing and weaving, infighting, timing and mobile footwork are among the lost boxing arts. These days an athlete with superior speed and size rules the roost because no one has the experience, training and knowhow to effectively counter those purely physical qualities.
It is right that Mayweather owns the “pound for pound best” title because in a pugilistic population lacking both seasoning and ring savvy, fighters with superior athletic prowess automatically rise to the top—and Floyd just happens to be the most physically gifted fighter. But at age 38 Floyd’s legs have lost their spring, his speed is a smidgen slower, and his endurance is not what it once was. Without the sophisticated skill set of a seasoned old pro to fall back on (think Archie Moore, Emile Griffith and Roberto Duran) Floyd, like Roy Jones Jr. before him, will soon be vulnerable against even those second rate opponents he used to chew up and spit out. Is Andre Berto that opponent? (They are scheduled to fight on September 12th). Again, Floyd has chosen wisely from the weakest of the herd. On paper a Berto victory looks nearly impossible. Once very promising, the 31 year old with a 30-3 record is now damaged goods because of steroid use and ill-advised weight training that have diminished his speed and punch. Nevertheless, against an aging fighter anything is possible and don’t think Floyd doesn’t know it. If he is unable score an early KO an attempt will be made to steal rounds and score points with occasional flurries. At this point in his career pacing is very important. Don’t be surprised if Floyd fails to impress.
There is no denying the fact that Floyd Mayweather, Jr. is a very good fighter. His whippet speed and finely honed fistic instincts might have stymied some of the ring greats from boxing’s golden age—but not for long. They would have made the necessary adjustments. If Floyd was born 50 years earlier he might have developed the ring generalship and cleverness that is missing from his otherwise impressive repertoire. Those qualities would have been an absolute necessity if he were to compete successfully against the top fighters of the past. But even then Floyd’s success would not have been guaranteed in that fierce competitive jungle. What is certain is that without these added dimensions Floyd would not have been able to establish a legitimate claim to greatness.
Note: The reader is encouraged to read Mike Silver’s book “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science” for additional comparisons and analyses between the best boxers of today and those of decades past.