If looks could win fights Jack Palance would have been heavyweight champion of the world. His face appeared as if it were cut out of stone and he had the persona to go with it. While well liked, he was known as someone who didn’t pull his punches, figuratively or literally. At 6’3”’ and 200 pounds, he was built lean and hard and was an imposing figure.
He was born Volodymir Ivanovich Palahniuk on February 18, 1919 in Lattimer Mines, Pennsylvania to Ukrainian immigrants. At an early age he decided he didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps working as a coal miner. After 39 years working in the mines his father died of black lung disease. As a young man it bothered him that his mother was forced to buy groceries at the company store when the same goods could be had for cheaper in nearby establishments.
A natural athlete, Jack earned a football scholarship to the University of North Carolina but dropped out after two years. It was then that he decided to take up boxing. He fought under the name of Jack Brazzo and reportedly won his first 15 fights with 12 coming by way of knockout. I was unable to verify this record, but it is a fact that he took on future heavyweight contender Joe Baski in 1938 losing a four round decision. It was after the Baski loss that Palance left boxing for a career in acting. He later recalled, ”…Then I thought, ‘You must be nuts to get your head beat in for $200.’ The theater seemed a lot more appealing…”.
His career was sidetracked by WWII. He was seriously injured when bailing out of a B-24 Liberator that had caught fire. He required facial surgery for wounds he received. When later asked if the plastic surgery had enhanced his looks he responded “If it is a ‘bionic face,’ why didn’t they do a better job of it?” After the war he returned home and to the coal mines. He then enrolled at Stanford University where he earned a degree in journalism. He worked for a time as a sportswriter while resuming his acting career having now changed his name to Jack Palance.
In 1956 he got to put his boxing experience to work when he starred in the Playhouse 90 production of Requiem For A Heavyweight. Most people remember the movie version that had Anthony Quinn in the leading role. With a screenplay written by Rod Serling, another former boxer, the Playhouse 90 performance was aired live on television on October 11th of that year. Co- starring Ed and Keenan Wynn along with Kim Hunter, this version is different from the big screen production.
The character Quinn played was named Mountain Rivera, while Palance’s was Mountain McClintock. Palance brought a more nuanced tact to the role of the over the hill boxer who now had to find his way in the world outside of the ring. His experience as a boxer certainly aided in his being able to dig more deeply into the role. The two versions show the fighter suffering from pugilistica dementia, while also struggling with his loyalty to his manager who wants him to continue boxing even after being warned by a doctor that one more fight could kill him. It’s a touching and tragic story enhanced by the grim fact it is something that happens time and again in boxing.
While aired live, the performance was saved on film and is available on Amazon and Youtube. I highly recommend it both for the outstanding acting done by Palance and the hard-hitting screenplay by Serling. While the big screen version is an excellent movie, Quinn’s Rivera tends too much to the pathetic side and sinks into caricature while Palance’s McClintock has a depth and realism that makes for a very moving performance. While Quinn’s character remains under the spell of his manager, Palance’s McClintock struggles to break away in a pursuit to regain his self-respect. Palance brings complexity to the role, for which he won an Emmy. It is interesting to watch the two versions and compare them.
Palance went on to have a legendary career in film, while never feeling at home with the Hollywood crowd. A life long vegetarian and health fanatic he stayed fit all of his life. In 1991 while accepting the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Curley in City Slickers he brought the audience to its feet when at age 73 he dropped to the floor and did one armed pushups.
I wish more information was available about his boxing career, but there is no doubt that any of his opponents would have felt at least a brief chill when looking across the ring at Jack Palance.
While a genuine tough guy, Jack liked to spend his free time painting and writing poetry and fiction. On November 10, 2006 Jack Palance passed away at the age of 87 of natural causes. A true original, he will never be forgotten.
Recently, I received an email from my friend boxing historian Mike Silver, the author of The Arc Of Boxing. Mike included a link to a Youtube video of the second Kid Gavilan vs Johnny Bratton fight. He described the bout as one of the best he has seen and commented emphatically, “This is BOXING.” After that ringing endorsement I had to take a look for myself. Mike certainly was right. The fight was indeed entertaining as well as a textbook example of how much boxing has devolved over the years.
Kid Gavilan and Johnny Bratton fought three times during the period from 1951 to 1953. In their first fight Gavilan won the NBA World Welterweight Championship from Bratton.In their third fight the Kid defended the title against Johnny. Their second fight was a ten round non-title affair.
Rare today, non-title fights were not unusual years ago. They would take place when the fighters would come in over the weight limit of the division the title holder was in. This was prearranged and the fans knew they were not going to see the champion risk his belt. It was a way for a title holder to stay busy without risking his title. It was also an opportunity for someone not rated high enough to get a chance at fighting a champ and, even in losing, be able to enhance his reputation by showing he could stay in there with the best.
The second Gavilan/Bratton fight was a bit unusual as the two had fought for the title just six months earlier. In that fight, held on May 18, 1951, Bratton fought with a broken jaw from the fifth round on but lasted the full distance while losing a decision. Just six months later on November 11, 1951 the two would meet again, this time in a non-title fight. And what a fight it was.
You might think Bratton would have been a bit gun shy after having taken such a licking in their first encounter, but at the opening bell he came out with guns blazing. Of course, Gavilan was their to meet fire with fire, and this led to a very “entertaining” fight. It also was a display of two ring wise boxing veterans plying their craft.
For the first three rounds Johnny tried matching Gavilan’s speedy combinations. This led to some great exchanges but The Kid was getting the best of them. In the 4th round Bratton changed tactics and started looking to counterpunch. He had more success with this strategy. Gavilan was a very rhythmic fighter and Johnny was trying to break that rhythm by making moves to throw the Champ off his game. Bratton even mimicked Gavilan’s trademark bolo punch in an effort to rattle him. In the seventh round the two tried to outdo one another while digging into their bags of tricks. Gavilan used head feints and a shuffle (yes, this move was around long before Ali trademarked it), and Bratton at one point pointed to the crowd in order to distract the Kid. Neither fell for the tactics but it is fun to watch them trying to one up each other.
There a few things that really stand out in this fight. Things that you will not see today or for that matter ever again in boxing. In the entire 10 rounds the fighters only clinched two times, and neither of these was a hug fest. They also went to the ropes on just one occasion. This fight, like so many from the age of boxing when it was an art form, took place almost entirely in mid-ring.
It was in the eighth round when Bratton was stepping back from Gavilan that he went against the ropes. He immediately responded by neutralizing a left hook the Champ was throwing by placing his right hand on the inside of Gavilan’s elbow as he stepped away from the ropes. This was one of two times that the referee intervened, and even that action by the third man was not needed as the two were breaking on their own.
It is also a pleasure to watch how these two artists used their left jabs. Today, most fighters hold their hands up against their faces in what makes them look like they are wearing ear muffs. It is impossible to throw a decent jab from that position, not that any of them seem interested in throwing jabs anyway. Both Johnny and the Kid used a classic stance where the left hand is held low and out in front of them while the right hand is kept open and held high in order to parry the opponent’s punches, their chins stay tucked into the shoulder. Having the left in this position allows for the punch to travel a shorter distance while also leaving the option of turning it into a hook or an uppercut, and for the real masters, a hook off the jab. It is also a great defensive position as Bratton showed in the 8th round when he was able to disarm Gavilan by grabbing the inside of his elbow and walking him away from the ropes. The left can also be raised in a stiff arm fashion to deflect a punch. They both employed feints in an effort to get the other to lead, knowing that a fighter is most vulnerable when he is throwing a punch.
It’s funny, but at one point the referee took a round away from Gavilan for holding and hitting. This was odd as I wasn’t able to see anything close to holding and hitting. I think the ref was feeling unneeded and wanted to justify being paid.
At the end of the ten rounds the decision was announced as a draw. If not for the referee taking away the round from Gavilan, the champ would have won the fight.
The two would meet one more time in November of 1953, this time for the title. Gavilan won a one-sided decision over fifteen rounds. The press reported that Bratton was thoroughly beaten by the 12th round but he held on until the final bell.
I highly recommend viewing the second fight between these two excellent fighters. You can watch it a number of times, and as with any great work of art you will notice new things each time you see it. And Mike was right, it is a very entertaining fight.
For anyone following the Boston boxing scene in the late 1960s and 1970s the name Johnny Coiley will certainly ring a bell. John was an outstanding amateur fighter who turned pro in 1969. He was a slick boxer with a decent punch who went on to win the New England Middleweight Championship.
John was never in a dull fight, using his rapier like left jab to keep his opponents at bay and also as a way to set up his solid right hand. Sixteen of his 24 wins came via stoppage.
Fighting most often at the Boston Arena he also made stops in Taunton, MA; Portland, Maine; and the Boston Garden. His biggest win was over veteran Mike Pusateri for the New England title. The two had fought to a draw in their first encounter, and Johnny pulled out the win in their rematch. Things were looking good for the Cambridge middleweight as he had developed a loyal following of fans.
Meanwhile, in New Orleans another young prospect was making a career for himself. Tony Licata, trained by the legendary Bill Gore and managed by Lou Viscusi, was also compiling an impressive record. Licata was a smart boxer/puncher whose lightening fast combinations earned him the moniker “Machine Gun Tony.” He began his pro career a little ahead of Coiley and was facing stiffer competition than the New England Champ.
In 1971 John Coiley’s manager agreed to have his young prospect travel to New Orleans, Licata’s hometown, to face Machine Gun Tony. The wisdom of taking this fight could be questioned. While both fighters had identical records when it came to the numbers, with Licata undefeated in 24 fights with 1 ending in a draw, and Coiley with 24 fights, no losses, and one draw, their level of competition was vastly different.
Out of the opponents Coiley faced only two had winning records. By far his biggest and most impressive win was over Mike Pusateri, and that was a major victory for him. Licata had also defeated Pusateri.
Out of Licata’s 29 opponents, only five had losing records and these were fighters he faced early in his career. By the time he was signed to fight Coiley he had wins over such solid fighters as Gene Wells, Walter Opshinsky, Danny McAloon, Luis Vinales, Dave Adkins, and a knockout victory over Lowell’s very tough Larry Carney.
Despite this vast difference in the quality of their opposition, Johnny’s manager still agreed to the fight with Licata, and on October 27, 1971 they fought over ten rounds with Tony winning a one sided decision. John was cut under his left eye in the fight.
Soon after returning to Boston, Coiley’s manager was offered a return fight with Licata by promoter Sam Silverman. The Coiley team immediately accepted the fight, despite the fact that Johnny was still cut under his eye. The fight would take place just six weeks after the New Orleans battle, hardly enough time for the cut to fully heal so that he could train in earnest for the fight. The wound prevented Coiley from sparring in preparation for the fight for fear it might worsen the injury. The only ring work he got was 3 rounds with a heavyweight a week before the contest. In contrast, Licata put in 70 rounds and was injury free.
Why on earth would Johnny’s manager agree to the rematch so soon after their first bout and under these conditions? The answer is he shouldn’t have. This was gross mismanagement, the kind that results in bad things happening to young fighters. It is boxing malpractice. John was clearly out of his league when he fought Licata the first time. He was given a boxing lesson in New Orleans where Machine Gun Tony’s superior experience showed. There was no shame in losing to a fighter of Licata’s talent in his hometown, Coiley needed to reset and work his way up facing the type of opponents Licata did with his career. Instead, he was back in on short notice with the man who was his better.
At the time, I spoke with people who were close with Licata’s management team. They told me Tony had actually carried Coiley for the ten rounds in their first match. Their strategy was to get a rematch in Boston where they felt Licata would get more exposure and be able to advance his career. His trainer Bill Gore had trained Willie Pep and had connections in the Northeast. It was a smart move on their part abetted by the horrible decision by Coiley’s manager.
As for the rematch, it was sad to watch. It was held at the Hynes Auditorium in Boston. Tony gave it his all this time. That, combined with the fact that Johnny was poorly trained for the fight and still injured from the first fight, led to a blowout. Tony gave Coiley a beating for seven rounds. In the eighth he dropped him with a left hook. The knockdown was so forceful it caused a bone separation in John’s lower back. In the ninth John would once again hit the canvas. In serious trouble he would now be saved by referee Jimmy McCaron who stopped the fight.
Coiley was shattered by the loss both physically and emotionally. He was back in the ring less than four months later stopping Danny Perez in Boston. That would be the last time his hand would be raised in victory. He had six more bouts after that, being kayoed five times with one fight ending in a draw. I saw him kayoed in Waltham, MA by Stan Johnson. It was an even more brutal beating than the one he got from Licata. This punishment took a severe toll on him that would last for the rest of his life.
Think about it, in less than four years John Coiley was knocked out five times. That’s like having been in five auto accidents resulting in brain trauma. The difference here is the fact that these injuries were not the result of accidents but of a manager who never put the health and safety of his fighter first.
The rematch with Licata was tragic enough, and perhaps it could be chalked up to stupidity, but to continue throwing John in the ring when he was no longer able to properly defend himself was criminal. And for what, a few bucks?
Boxing is different than other sports. Mismanagement in baseball or golf results in losing and embarrassment. In boxing it results in brain injuries and even death. Put a baseball player in over his head and he will look bad and then be sent back to the minor leagues. In boxing fighters get thrown in again for another beating.
There is no excuse for what was done to a handsome and intelligent twenty-one year old middleweight from Cambridge, MA in 1971. Unfortunately, since it is boxing this scene has been and will continue to be repeated over and over again.
Boxing Paintings: The Big Three From An Artist’s Point of View
From ancient times to the present, the visual and emotional drama that is inherent in the sport of boxing has always attracted and inspired artists. Statues, friezes, vase paintings, and murals depicting boxing scenes and boxers have been discovered in ancient Crete, Greece and Rome. Many are on display in the great museums of the world. One of the earliest known images is a stone slab relief, discovered in Baghdad, which shows two boxers with taped leather hands. It is estimated to be 5000 years old.
In more recent times important American artists have produced an impressive volume of work devoted to the sport. Three of the most famous boxing paintings of the 20th century were done by American artists. They are Dempsey and Willard by James Montgomery Flagg; Dempsey and Firpo by George Bellows, and Brown Bomber by Robert Riggs. Each of these compelling masterpieces depicts a scene from an iconic heavyweight championship contest.
Three of the most famous boxing paintings of the 20th century were done by American artists.
A great painting, like a great boxing match, can be appreciated on many different levels. There are layers and nuances to each—some obvious and some not so obvious. I can analyze a fight much easier than I can analyze a painting. So, I thought it might be interesting to seek out the expert analysis of an accomplished artist and hear what he had to say about the aforementioned paintings.
One of my dear friends is renowned artist Sol Korby. Sol is an award winning painter and illustrator. After service in World War II Sol was employed by various advertising agencies, and subsequently for most of the leading book publishers including Time Inc., Dell, Ace, Fawcett and Avon. (A sampling of Sol’s amazing creations can be viewed at: SolKorbyIllustrations.com)
Sol is ageless. At 90 years plus he is still active and productive, working in his studio almost every day. He is also familiar with boxing’s colorful history. In fact, his work includes a number of boxing subjects. I was anxious to hear what he had to say about each painting.
But first a brief history of the artists and their subjects:
“Notice how Flagg put a cloud in the sky and how he silhouetted Dempsey’s head against the white cloud to emphasize Dempsey’s importance.” –Sol Korby
Dempsey and Willard (6’ x 19’): James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960), was a popular and prolific artist best known for his World War I recruiting poster of Uncle Sam pointing to the viewer (inspired by a British recruitment poster showing Lord Kitchener in a similar pose) with the caption “I Want YOU for U.S. Army”. The Dempsey and Willard mural is 6 feet high by 19 feet wide and is by far the largest of the three paintings. It depicts heavyweight champion Jess Willard and challenger Jack Dempsey in a scene from the July 4, 1919 title fight. Dempsey was 60 pounds lighter than the 6’ 6 ½” 250 pound champion. It didn’t matter. In a savage beat down Dempsey floored Willard seven times in the opening round. The game champion withstood a terrible beating until his corner finally threw in the towel before the start of the 4th round. The electrifying “Manassa Mauler” would hold the title for the next seven years and become the greatest sports superstar of the roaring twenties.
The mural was commissioned by Jack Dempsey and completed in 1944. It was prominently displayed on the wall of his popular Broadway bar and restaurant. Although invited to participate in the celebrity packed unveiling Jess Willard declined to attend. He wired Dempsey, saying, “Sorry I can’t be there. But I saw enough of you 25 years ago to last me a lifetime.”
After the restaurant closed in 1974, Dempsey and his wife Deanna donated the painting to the Smithsonian’s National Gallery of Art in Washington D. C. where it is on permanent display.
Dempsey and Firpo (51” x 63 ¼”): George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925) was one of the most renowned artists of his generation. His previous boxing paintings and prints, numbering 46 in all, had already won him considerable fame, most notably Stag at Sharkey’s. Bellows was commissioned by the New York Evening Journal to cover the heavyweight title fight between champion Jack Dempsey and Argentina’s Luis Angel Firpo on September 23, 1923 at New York’s Polo Grounds. The fight was witnessed by 90,000 fans who contributed to boxing’s second million dollar gate.
In a wild first round Firpo was dropped seven times and Dempsey twice. The painting captures the dramatic moment when Dempsey is knocked out of the ring by Firpo. As the painting shows, he landed on reporters sitting in the first press row. Controversy erupted when it was claimed Dempsey was unfairly aided by the reporters who proceeded to push him back into the ring (in the painting one reporter’s hand is seen on Dempsey’s back).
Bellows inserted himself in the painting. He is the bald fellow seated on the extreme left. The painting is owned by the Whitney Museum of American Art.
The Brown Bomber (31” x 41”): Robert Riggs (1896-1970) was a painter, printmaker, and illustrator well known in the 1930s for his realistic images of the circus, boxing matches, hospitals and psychiatric wards. The Brown Bomber is the nickname of the great heavyweight champion Joe Louis, who held the title from 1937 to 1949 and defended it a record 25 times. The scene depicts the climactic ending to the historic championship fight between Louis and Germany’s Max Schmeling on June 22, 1938 at Yankee Stadium. Louis was seeking to avenge his knockout loss to Schmeling (the only blot on his otherwise perfect record) that had taken place two years earlier. This fight had huge political and social significance. On the eve of World War II, with Nazi Germany ascending, the world focused their attention on this fight. Louis was not just fighting for himself. To the 70,000 fans in the sold out stadium and millions more listening on radio, the fight symbolized the struggle between democracy and Nazi Germany. Joe Louis’ swift and brutal annihilation of Schmeling in the very first round made him a national hero and cemented his legendary status for all time. The painting is owned by the Taubman Museum of Art, in Roanoke, Virginia.
Of the three paintings, Dempsey and Willard is Sol Korby’s favorite: “I think most people who are interested in art would say Bellows is the best painter of the three, probably because he’s in between Flagg and Riggs. Riggs is too stylized, and Flagg is not stylized at all, and Bellows is right in the middle. Personally, I like Flagg best because his work is realistic. I do that kind of work. I like to see things the way they are in nature. When I do a painting I try to make it as close as possible to nature.
“One of the main differences between Flagg’s mural and the two paintings by Bellows and Riggs, aside from the size, is that the others have action. This painting is not really a fight picture the way you and I know a fight picture. There’s no action. There’s no blood. It’s just the two principle fighters in their typical poses. Flagg depicts the two fighters in their prime and the way they move. Willard is moving forward and he’s got one glove near his chest and the other is down near his thigh. He’s not concerned that Dempsey’s going to hit him. It shows he’s not afraid of him at all. He thinks he can beat Dempsey. It wasn’t until the first couple of punches that Willard really knew he was in for a fight now.
“On the left side of the painting you have the referee standing there. He’s not running towards them. He’s just standing there to balance out the ring post on the right side of the painting. It works as a mural because we’re talking about a painting that’s measured in feet. The other paintings are measured in inches. So you have a painting that’s 6 feet by 19 feet symbolizing their fighting styles. I think he did a fantastic job on it.
“This painting is an example of what I call a David and Goliath theme. Flagg wanted to get that big vs. little effect. You’ve got the small guy, who everybody roots for, and you’ve got the monster who everybody wants to lose. Flagg shows Dempsey at his best in that tiger crouch against this giant. He looks like he’s just about to spring up. You’ll also notice how Flagg put a cloud in the sky and how he silhouetted Dempsey’s head against the white cloud to emphasize Dempsey’s importance.
“Flagg and Dempsey knew each other very well. They traveled in the same circles. He was always in the restaurant.”
“Flagg and Dempsey knew each other very well. They traveled in the same circles. He was always in the restaurant. The end result was a very personal type of painting. Flagg put all his friends in the first row. Not only his friends, but also friends of Dempsey. He’s got different sportswriters and people they associate with, including satirist Damon Runyon, cartoonist Rube Goldberg, promoter Tex Rickard, humorist Bugs Baer and Dempsey’s trainer, Jimmy DeForrest. [note: Flagg, like Bellows, inserted himself into the painting and is seated in the first row]. That’s the intent of this picture. It’s not really a boxing picture like the others because there’s no action in it and there’s no blood and neither is being knocked down.
“Many of Flagg’s friends were in show business. Two of his best friends were comedian W.C. Fields and actor John Barrymore. He used to go out all night with them carousing and drinking and would get home very late. If they weren’t in a play or anything they had nothing else to do, so while they had a lot of time, he had work to do and, tight or not, he could knock off an entire illustration in one afternoon. That’s how fast he was.
“In his painting of Dempsey and Firpo, George Bellows did something very unique”, explains Sol. “He has Dempsey falling back and somebody in the press row with his hand on Dempsey’s back is about to push him back into the ring. Many people today are not familiar with this fight, even though they may have heard the name Jack Dempsey. Looking at the painting for the first time they might think it is Dempsey who knocked Firpo out of the ring. But the one thing that tells you Dempsey won this fight, even though you know he is knocked out of the ring, is to look at his hair. His hair is immaculate. There is not one strand out of place. The guy was knocked out of the ring and his hair didn’t move! Bellows painted it that way to show Dempsey wasn’t even hurt to begin with and, as we know, he got back into the ring and knocked out Firpo in the next round.
“Dempsey had only ten seconds to make it back into the ring before being counted out. Bellows shows the referee starting the count right away. In this way he draws attention to the controversy about whether Dempsey could have gotten back into the ring in time without the help of the people who pushed him back.
“You’ll also notice that at the top of the painting there are lights above the ring and two more lights in the far reaches of the stadium. Bellows didn’t want all that area dark. He wanted to show there was space and distance and he wanted to show where the lighting on both figures is coming from and it works very well. And he has nice little figures in the back all cheering and raising their hands and hats and all those things going on in the ringside to show that everyone is excited about what’s happening.
“Robert Riggs’ painting, The Brown Bomber, takes a little explaining, because this is a violent picture. It is the aftermath of violence. This is really an amazing picture in terms of its composition. Starting with the referee’s outstretched arms, and going clockwise past Louis’s back we see the towel flying into the ring and then the guy who threw in the towel, and then we see the heads and the shoulders of all the people sitting at ringside, which brings us right back to the referee. In other words, it makes a complete oval.
“The title is The Brown Bomber but this painting is not about Joe Louis. This painting is about Max Schmeling!”
“Just off center in the oval, on all fours, is Schmeling. He’s out, completely finished, and Louis is standing over him. If he ever attempts to get up he’s going to be smashed down again. The title is The Brown Bomber but this painting is not about Joe Louis. This painting is about Max Schmeling! The whole thing is about Max Schmeling. He’s in the oval and he’s groping to get up. His head is turned because he wants to see where Louis is and he can’t do anything about it. Look at the people at ringside. They are all looking at him. They are not looking at Louis. Nobody is looking at Louis, including the referee, who is about to stop the fight. This painting is about Max Schmeling. Joe Louis is one of the figures that complete the arc. He’s part of it, but he’s not the main figure in the painting—Schmeling is.
“This is the most violent of the three paintings. Dempsey being knocked out of the ring didn’t hurt him, didn’t bother him. But this one, Schmeling is in agony and there’s no getting away from it.
“Each of these artists had different styles. Flagg paints in a more true to life style. Bellows and Riggs are more stylized and you can see it in everything they do, especially in the heads and figures around the ring and the shapes of the fighters’ bodies. Everything is stylized. But that is the property of the artist. They feel they’re enhancing the subject. An example is Louis’ arm. Riggs paints him with more muscles than Louis ever had. But he wanted that. It shows that Louis had the strength to do what he did, to put Schmeling on all fours on the canvas. He also made Schmeling’s muscles prominent to show he wasn’t just a tomato can. He was a good fighter. He was champion at one time. Louis is not beating some club fighter—this was a champion.”
There you have it, an artist’s take on three magnificent boxing paintings. Sol asked me which one I liked best. Well, here it is almost two weeks later, and I am still trying to decide. All three are so unique and spectacular in their own way. At this point it’s a dead heat. Which one is your favorite?
Mike Silver’s newest book is The Night the Referee Hit Back: Memorable Moments from the World of Boxing. Available from Amazon.com or publisher’s website: Rowman.com
Eugene Criqui was born in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris, France on August 15, 1893. Belleville was a working class village that was later used as the backdrop for a number of motion pictures, including the Oscar winning short The Red Balloon in 1957.
Criqui worked as a pipefitter before becoming a professional boxer in 1910 at the age of 17. From 1910 until 1914, he compiled a record of 68 fights with 45 wins, 9 losses, and 14 draws. Of his wins, 14 came via knockout.
In 1914 Eugene joined the French military and fought in WW I. While serving guard duty during the Battle of Verdun, he was shot by a German sniper. The bullet struck him in the face shattering his jaw. Criqui would spend two years in the hospital recovering from his wounds. During that time surgeons rebuilt his face using wires, plastic, and pieces of sheep’s bone to repair the damage. Given this was in the early part of the 20th Century, it was amazing what the doctors were able to accomplish. After a long and painful recovery, Criqui returned home.
His family and doctors were stunned when he told them he had decided to resume his boxing career. It seemed he must have gone a bit mad to be even considering returning to such a brutal profession after suffering serious injuries. But return he did and what a second career he had.
In his first four years of boxing he had 68 fights but scored just 14 knockouts. In his comeback after the war he had another 68 fights, but this time he scored 42 knockouts in 60 wins. Clearly, he had changed his style. I have read that prewar Eugene had been a slick boxer who was content to go the distance.
After the war, his style turned much more aggressive, and he developed a powerful right hand. Why the change? Well, for one thing, he had grown from a flyweight to a featherweight. But I theorize he was greatly influenced by another great French champion who was also a war hero. If you watch films of Eugene Criqui in his fights after the war you can see his style is clearly patterned on that of Georges Carpentier. The way he holds his left and sets up his opponents for his lethal right hand is right out of the Carpentier playbook.
Georges Carpentier was immensely popular in the United States after the war. He was handsome and a war hero. That fact was not lost on promoters when they matched him against Jack Dempsey who had been accused of evading the draft and sitting out the war. When the two met in 1921 they drew a gate of over a million dollars.
In 1923 promoter Tom O’Rourke brought Criqui to New York to fight Johnny Kilbane for the World Featherweight Title. It could have been that O’Rourke saw some of the Carpentier magic in Criqui. The fight took place at the Polo Grounds. It would be the first time Eugene would fight in the United States, but as with Carpentier, he had a reputation as a war hero and was also known for his exciting knockout power. Because of this, the fight generated excitement, though Kilbane was installed as the betting favorite.
Criqui exceeded expectations when he kayoed the champion in the 6th round with a solid right hand. Now the champion, Eugene was under contractual obligation to defend the title within 60 days against Johnny Dundee. Dundee and Criqui met on July 26, 1923, just 54 days after the Kilbane fight. Dundee dropped Eugene four times on his way to winning a fifteen round decision and the title. This was one of the shortest reigns of any world champion.
It would be Eugene’s last fight in the United States. He would fight just six more bouts. Losing four, including one to Panama Al Brown in Paris. He retired in 1928, having compiled a career record of 136 bouts with 105 wins, 16 losses, and 15 draws. 59 of his wins came via knockout.
It’s a mystery why he never fought in the States again or why he had so few fights after losing the title. It has been said he quit boxing because of injuries to his hands. His jaw certainly held up well as he was only stopped on five occasions.
Eugene went on to have a career as a boxing referee in France. He was the second French boxer to win a world championship, Carpentier being the first. It is unclear why he didn’t fight more often in the United States or why he never got another title shot.
It very well may have been because he had proven himself by coming back from his wounds and attaining the title. Criqui was a courageous soldier and a fearless boxer who overcame a lot to become a world champion. On July 7, 1977, he passed away in a nursing home in Noisy-le-Grand, France. He was 83 years old.
Not a lot has been written about this very interesting champion. In 2017 a biography of Criqui was published in France but has not been translated into English. The title of the book is Gueule De Fer, which translated means Iron Mouth. It would be interesting to know more about his life. Just the little we do know is quite inspirational.
Mike Silver has been deeply involved with boxing for well over half a century. He started as a kid training in the legendary Stillman’s Gym, served on the New York State Boxing Commission, and even took a crack at promoting fights. Where he has left an indelible mark is with his writing about the sport. His book The Arc Of Boxing: The Rise And Decline Of The Sweet Science is the finest book ever written on how the fine art of boxing has regressed to something that is all but unrecognizable today.
He followed that up with Stars In The Ring: Jewish Champions In The Golden Age Of Boxing: A Photographic History, a detailed look back on the history of Jewish fighters that includes the period when boxing was very much a Jewish sport.
Mike has also penned hundreds of interesting and at times controversial articles for many boxing publications and web sites (Note: Mike Silver is a frequent contributor to Boxing Over Broadway).
In his latest book, The Night The Referee Hit Back, Mr. Silver brings us a selection of those essays along with a number of interviews with some of the last of the old school boxers. Thumbing through the pages of this volume is like getting an advance degree in boxing theory. Mike brings you back to the days of the real boxing gyms in his opening piece, Boxing In Olde New York: Unforgettable Stillman’s Gym. He not only knows the history of this iconic establishment, he was actually there when it was in full swing. You can smell the cigar smoke and hear the tattooing on the speed bags. With his pen (or keyboard) Mike paints a word picture that if it were in a frame would be a George Bellows lithograph.
Mike Silver is not one to shy away from controversy and he holds strong opinions. You may not always agree with him, in fact he may get your blood pressure to rise, but you cannot fault him for not putting forth very strong arguments in defense of his positions.
Among the articles that have raised a few eyebrows is The Myth Of The Thrilla In Manilla. Mike is not afraid to go against the conventional wisdom that this was an all-time great fight, and rather makes the point that if this was a fight between two guys named Smith and Jones instead of Ali and Frazier it would have been seen as what it really was; a good brawl between two shot and over the hill fighters. He makes plenty of other arguments in defense of his opinion but I will leave those for the readers to explore on their own. Agree or disagree, you will be fascinated by what he has to say.
Three essays hold significant historical importance; Don’t Blame Ruby: A Boxing Tragedy Revisited, where the author looks at the third Emile Griffith vs Benny Kid Paret fight and what the true cause of Paret’s death was. A lot more went on here than is generally believed, and Ruby Goldstein was falsely scapegoated by those who were looking for easy answers.
Reading this piece is like looking at a deposition for a trial, and I can tell you, Mike would have been a very convincing expert witness for the prosecution.
In Foul Play In Philly, Mike makes a connection between what happened the night Rocky Marciano won the title from Jersey Joe Walcott and the evening in Miami when Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston. Similar shenanigans went on in the corners of both champions on each occasion. Was there a connection? Reading this piece is like looking at a deposition for a trial, and I can tell you, Mike would have been a very convincing expert witness for the prosecution.
The third historically significant article is Ali vs Shavers: The Morning After. In many ways this is a sad one to read as in it Mike lays out facts of just how many terrible head shots Ali took from Shavers that night. If Muhammad wasn’t already damaged enough to ensure he would suffer from CTE a few years later, this all but certainly sealed his fate.
There are many more gems in this collection that include stories about people as varied as Teddy Roosevelt, Woody Allen, a kangaroo, and Marlon Brando. All make for an enjoyable journey through the sport of boxing.
As great as the essays are, Mike really shifts into high gear with his interviews of boxers of the past. Not only does this selection include great fighters, but also boxers who are deep thinkers about the profession. The five he spoke with were active in the period from the 1930s to the 1970s, a huge part of the Golden Age of Boxing. What makes these conversations even more enlightening is the fact that Mike Silver knows what questions to ask. These aren’t just simple question and answer sessions but rather more along the lines of a Brian Lamb interview in that Mike knows how to prod the fighters into opening up about their thoughts on what it took to be a skilled fighter and how they viewed some of their toughest opponents.
The fighters Mike spoke to were Archie Moore, Carlos Ortiz, Tiger Ted Lowry, Curtis Cokes, and Emile Griffith. The insights contained in these conversations are priceless. Ted Lowry talks about his controversial loss in his first fight with Rocky Marciano, his exhibition match with Joe Louis, and what it was like being a black soldier in the segregated military during World War Two.
Archie Moore describes what it was like to fight Charley Burley, “He was like a threshing machine going back and forth.” and the importance of practicing moves in front of a mirror. Moore also gives a list of the ingredients that go into being a successful fighter. When Mike asks the secret to Archie’s boxing longevity, the Old Mongoose responds, ” Well, I knew how to fight.” He has much more to say about the subject, and every word is fascinating.
Reading his discussions with Carlos Ortiz and Curtis Cokes is like sitting in on a master class on the Art Of Boxing. These men are geniuses when it comes to describing the sport they excelled in. The subtleties they talk about show just how much thought went into becoming a good boxer. A couple of examples:
Carlos Ortiz on advice to a young fighter, “Boxing is to hit and not get hit. And if you go into the ring with that thought in mind you’ll be OK. But don’t go out there to impress the public by showing them how much you can take or how hard a punch you can take. That’s not the case in boxing. Boxing is I hit you, you don’t hit me, over and over again. It’s a skill that you apply.”
Curtis Cokes on footwork, “I think today’s fighters forget about footwork. I worked everyday on my footwork, turning left and right, backing up, going forward. I turned to my left to be outside of my opponent’s right hand, and then I’d swing to my right to be outside of his left jab. Learning how to box is a slow process but you try to learn something everyday.”
These comments are much like Shakespeare’s advice to actors in Hamlet, when speaking through the Dane, in just a couple of paragraphs he gives the basics of acting. That is what is contained in Curtis and Carlos’s advice to boxers. It is pure gold, and there is much more of it in these interviews.
Emile Griffith’s remarks on his fights with Joey Archer will make you smile. He tells Mike it was fun, “The reason I say it was fun fighting Joey Archer is because we were like two boxers trying to outsmart each other. He’s doing something to me this round and I come back the next round and I do the same things back to him. It was like a chess game. But Joey was a very good young man.” In those few lines you see the intricacies of the art of boxing along with the respect fighters had for each other.
Griffith’s comments on his fights with Monzon are also interesting. Most people don’t remember it, but in their second fight most people felt that Griffith deserved the decision. Emile also talks about how he couldn’t deal with the “extra step” he had to contend with when fighting Jose Napoles. There is so much more, the fights with Paret, Rodriguez, Tiger, Benvenuti and many others.
When you read these interviews it is more than just words on a page, you feel you are sitting in on the conversations as the voices come to life. Mike’s knowledge and insight is unparalleled. He brings you back to the days of great writers such as Bob Edgren and Jimmy Cannon.
It is no secret that I am partial to the work of Mike Silver, but that is because he is very, very good at what he does. I am a tough critic when it comes to “boxing experts” of which there are many self-proclaimed but very few who rise above mediocrity today. Mike knows boxing, it flows through his veins. He has a keen eye and a lifetime of experience. If you want an education in the Art of Boxing, Mike Silver is the man to read. You may get riled at some of what he writes, and whether or not he changes your mind on certain aspects of the sport, he will make you think more deeply about your views.
You will also find yourself deeply entertained by many of the essays, especially the title piece. And yes, the referee did hit back.
The Night the Referee Hit Back can be ordered from Amazon.com
Dr. Wilbert “Skeeter” McClure, the former professional boxer, passed away last week at the age of 81. Between 1958 and 1960, Skeeter McClure won virtually every important national and international amateur boxing championship including Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), Golden Gloves (Chicago and Inter-City), Diamond Belt, Tournament of Champions, and Pan American Games. The crowning achievement to his brilliant amateur career was winning the Olympic Gold Medal in the light-middleweight divisionat the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy.
McClure’s roommate at the Olympics was another Gold Medal winner named Cassius Marcellus Clay. At that point, McClure was considered to be a more accomplished boxer than Clay. But whereas Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali, won the professional heavyweight championship in 1964 and became the most recognized face on the planet, McClure’s once promising professional career stagnated, never living up to expectations. One wonders how things might have turned out had McClure, like Clay, been guided by the savvy Angelo Dundee instead of the incompetents with whom he entrusted his professional boxing career.
It is to McClure’s everlasting credit that he did not let the terrible mismanagement of his professional boxing career stop him from achieving great success in an entirely new profession. McClure had a college degree in literature and philosophy. After his pro career ended, he returned to school where he earned a master’s degree in counseling and, in 1973, a doctorate in psychology from Detroit’s Wayne State University. The Ohio native joined the teaching staff of Northeastern University in Boston, where he taught courses in counseling and psychology for five years. Over the next 20 years, McClure built a successful private clinical practice. In addition, he operated a consulting firm that provided corporations, non-profit foundations, and police departments with education and training in stress management, conflict resolution, team building, and performance evaluation.
The history of his pro boxing career serves as a primer for how to ruin a brilliant young prospect through appallingly careless matchmaking.
Considering his post-boxing success, one might ask if it makes any difference that Skeeter did not win a professional boxing championship. I believe it absolutely does make a difference. McClure dedicated 17 years of his life to the sacrifice and discipline it takes to master the toughest of all sports. He had it within him not only to win a professional boxing title, but also to achieve all-time great status perhaps equal to or even exceeding that achieved by Muhammad Ali. Bad decisions made by the people he trusted to guide him to a title destroyed those dreams. The history of his pro boxing career serves as a primer for how to ruin a brilliant young prospect through appallingly careless matchmaking.
As an Olympic gold medal winner, McClure would be a hot commodity if he were to turn pro today, especially considering that he was a college graduate. But the scenario in 1960 was quite different from today. An Olympic title, while desirable, did not automatically insure a megabuck promotional contract or a lucrative television deal.
After considering several management offers, McClure signed on with a wealthy Ohio businessman whose hobby was managing professional fighters. This person hired a trainer who had been affiliated with Archie Moore, the great light heavyweight champion. Regrettably for McClure, both the businessman and the trainer proved to be clueless in the ability to make appropriate matches for the young phenom.
McClure was drafted into the Army directly after the Olympics, but he was able to turn pro and fight several times while on leave. He won his ninth straight pro fight June 30, 1962 – a 6-round decision over Harold Richardson at Madison Square Garden. Teddy Brenner, the Garden’s matchmaker, was impressed with McClure’s performance and his sterling amateur background. Television was in need of new faces to fill a weekly schedule calling for almost fifty Garden main events per year. So, with a grand total of nine pro fights (5 KOs) and 39 rounds of professional experience, McClure was signed to fight the South American middleweight champion Farid Salim on August 4, 1962 at Madison Square Garden in front of a nationwide television audience. Salim, a rangy 6’ 2” middleweight had lost only two of forty professional fights.
(Note: The following are comments and direct quotes by McClure from his interview with this author that took place in 1998.)
McClure was excited to be headlining at the world famous arena and wanted to be ready for his first major test as a pro.I asked my trainer: ‘Is he a boxer? Does he have fast hands? What’s he got?’ And the answer I received was: ‘I don’t know.’ What the [expletive]! My first TV fight…10 rounds…and the son-of-a-gun doesn’t know anything about my opponent! No one [today] would do that to a fighter with a Gold Medal.”McClure shook his head in disgust. It was the same thing with everyone else I fought. I’d ask: ‘What has he got?’Every first round was a surprise.
“McClure moves with the grace of a young Ray Robinson, hits with authority, and fights back furiously when hurt.”
Despite the lack of advance knowledge, the former Olympian, a 12-to-5 underdog, was more than up to the task. He won a unanimous decision. His superlative boxing skills were a revelation to many who witnessed the bout. One reporter wrote:McClure moves with the grace of a young Ray Robinson, hits with authority, and fights back furiously when hurt. Comparing a boxer with only ten pro bouts to Robinson, the greatest fighter who ever lived, was a huge compliment. More experience before taking on top contenders was all that McClure would have needed in order to realize his full potential.
After four more fights, McClure was rated the eighth best middleweight in the world. But it was all happening too fast. There was little respite from one hard match to the next, all against top opposition. One didn’t have to be a boxing expert to know that McClure was being rushed into matches with fighters he should have avoided at that stage of his career.At some point, the boxer must be tested against a quality opponent to see what he’s got, but the timing has to be right. Unfortunately, instead of being handled like a precious diamond in the rough that needed a master craftsman to cut and polish it, McClure was thrown to the lions while he was still learning the ropes as a pro. Considering his spectacular amateur accomplishments and the tremendous promise shown in his early professional bouts, the ruination of that great potential, through no fault of his own, makes Wilbert Skeeter McClure the most poorly managed fighter in the history of the sport.
This is how it evolved: Six weeks after the bout with Farid Salim, McClure returned to his hometown of Toledo, Ohio and won a unanimous 10-round decision over tough Tony Montano, a 37-bout pro who’d competed with several world ranked boxers. Three weeks after the bout with Montano, McClure was back in the Garden meeting 63-bout veteran Gomeo Brennan. Once again displaying fighting spirit and superb boxing smarts, McClure won a hard-fought 10-round decision over a far more experienced opponent.In early 1963, he returned to Toledo to outpoint former welterweight contender Ted Wright, a veteran of 60 professional bouts.
Amazingly, despite his limited professional experience, he was good enough to be competitive with these seasoned veterans, even outpointing them, but every fight was tough. He certainly wasn’t being overprotected, that’s for sure. In fact, in his 33 professional fights, only five opponents had losing records.As if to emphasize this point, in his next fight, on October 18, 1963, McClure was matched against the great former welterweight champion Luis Rodriguez in yet another nationally televised fight from Madison Square Garden.
Rodriguez was a substitute for Jose Gonzales, a granite-chinned contender who six months earlier had withstood the bombs of “Hurricane” Carter and stopped the feared puncher on a cut in the sixth round. When Gonzales was injured in training, he pulled out of the scheduled bout with McClure; Luis replaced him. A bout with Gonzales would have meant another punishing contest for McClure, but taking on Rodriguez made even less sense.
McClure didn’t have to ask about Rodriguez. The great Cuban boxer was a former welterweight champion and one of the ten best fighters in the world. His only losses in 55 bouts were against Emile Griffith and Curtis Cokes. Rodriguez was capable of beating the world’s top welterweights and middleweights. He had scored a stunning ninth-round knockout of middleweight contender Denny Moyer in his most recent fight. Luis had a total of 430 professional rounds compared to McClure’s mere 14 fights and 85 rounds.
McClure knew that he was not ready for Rodriguez. He told his manager and trainer that he thought they were crazy for accepting him as an opponent at this stage of his career.We argued for two days, said McClure. I was just so tired of all this crap. Isolated in a remote New Jersey training camp, the young fighter was fatigued and disgusted. But, his handlers eventually convinced him to accept the match, saying that his weight advantage of nine pounds would give him an edge.
Meeting a fighter of Rodriguez’s stature in his 15th professional bout was both negligent and stupid. Compare it to the early career of future middleweight champion Marvin Hagler who turned pro after winning the National AAU light-middleweight championship in 1973. In Hagler’s 15th pro bout, he won a 10-round decision over Sugar Ray Seales, the 1968 Olympic gold medalist. It was Seale’s first defeat in 22 bouts. Hagler’s next two opponents had a combined record of 5-14-3.Another future middleweight champion, Roy Jones Jr., a light middleweight Silver medalist in the 1988 Olympics, had a spectacular amateur record similar to McClure’s.In his 15th pro bout, Jones KO’d Lester Yarbrough who came into the ring with a 12-16-1 record and would win only one of his next 34 bouts. Neither of these future pro champions faced the type of brutal competition that McClure had to contend with during his first two years as a pro.
Of course it was a forgone conclusion that Skeeter would lose. Once again displaying the heart and talent of a true champion, and despite being dropped for the first time, the overmatched Olympian actually gave Rodriguez a tough fight. The Cuban won a unanimous 10-round decision, but he had to work hard for the victory. Even Rodriguez was impressed. Give that kid another year, he said, and he’ll be champion.
After that fight, Skeeter should have taken a rest and then taken on a series of lesser opponents, while at the same time perfecting his professional skills. Instead, Brenner insisted on a rematch two months later. After all, their first televised fight was exciting and interesting so why not do it again? McClure’s management should have refused the rematch.It is a truism in the unforgiving world of professional boxing that a quick rematch between an inexperienced boxer and an old pro is just asking for trouble. The old pro will use his vast experience to figure out what to do in the rematch while the inexperienced boxer will be at a distinct disadvantage. And that is exactly what happened. Rodriguez adjusted his strategy and concentrated his attack on McClure’s body to slow him up and bring down his guard.In Round 6, Rodriguez dropped McClure for an 8-count with a solid left hook to the jaw. Once again McClure got up and fought his heart out. He was able to win a few rounds but lost another unanimous decision in a punishing fight. Putting McClure into the ring with Luis Rodriguez for his 15th and 16 fight was not just bad matchmaking, it bordered on criminal negligence.
A young boxer doesn’t walk away from a series of tough and punishing fights without paying a price. If it happens often enough there will come a time in the abused boxer’s professional life when something changes within him.It can happen after one vicious beating, or it can take place over the course of several tough fights with too little time to rest between them. The change can be dramatic, or it can be subtle and unrecognizable except to an experienced trainer or someone close to the boxer. The damage is both physical and psychological. Eventually the law of diminishing returns takes effect as progress ends and potential is blunted.
The boxing portion of this story could very well end here even though Skeeter went on to fight 14 more times over the next four years. Five months after the Rodriguez debacle, there was a 10-round decision loss to future light-heavyweight champion Jose Torres (another Garden fight McClure needed like a hole in the head); only two fights in 1965, and in 1966, a pair of back-to-back 10-rounders spaced two months apart with murderous-hitting middleweight contender Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. McClure lost a decision in the first bout and fought to a draw in the second. The cost of those two fights added to the erosion of this once brilliant prospect. The decline was underscored four months later when he lost a 10-round decision to unrated Harold Richardson, the same fighter he previously had beaten easily. It was McClure’s 24th professional fight and his fifth loss. Comparisons to Sugar Ray Robinson were long past. He had been put in too deep too early, and sunk.
Yet, it took a while for this proud and intelligent boxer to finally accept the inevitable, to acknowledge that the boxing part of his life was ended. In 1967, after being stopped for the first time in his career by Johnny Smith and then losing a lackluster 10-round decision to England’s Johnny Pritchett, McClure hung up his gloves. His record was 23-7-1 (11 KOs). Three years later, feeling the itch to give it one more try, he had two more fights and then retired for good.
Although a large part of the blame for McClure’s failed boxing career goes to his managers, the person who was most responsible for ruining him was Teddy Brenner, the powerful Madison Square Garden matchmaker.
Although a large part of the blame for McClure’s failed boxing career goes to his managers, the person who was most responsible for ruining him was Teddy Brenner, the powerful Madison Square Garden matchmaker. Both Brenner and Harry Markson, the director of the Garden’s boxing department, were uninterested (or perhaps incapable) of using the resources, reputation, and influence of the world’s most famous arena to its fullest capacity. Developing and nurturing new talent was not a priority with them. There are people who mistakenly hail Brenner as a great matchmaker. The facts do not support that opinion. During his tenure at the Garden (1959 to 1977), Brenner made some good matches, but he did far more damage by destroying the careers of at least a score of very promising young fighters, including McClure, by overmatching them against superior opposition before they were ready. This pattern was repeated far too often. Brenner knew better but just didn’t care.If the result of a match ended up ruining a prospect, so be it. It was of no concern to either Brenner or Markson. Their weekly paychecks arrived whether they put on a good show or not. They would also abuse their power by favoring certain “house fighters” handled by compliant managers who never argued with Brenner’s choice of opponent. Making matters worse, the marketing skills of Brenner and Markson were negligible. The great arena was running on its reputation and interest was dwindling. One time, near the end of their tenure, in a fit of pique they revoked the press privileges of a journalist who dared to criticize one of their awful matches in print. So much for freedom of the press.
In those days the prestige of appearing in a main event at Madison Square Garden was second only to winning a world title. Even when matched against an opponent that was all wrong for their fighter, managers were reluctant to turn down a Garden main event. But it didn’t have to be that way. In Los Angeles, during the same period, promoters George Parnassus and Eileen Eaton were carefully developing and nurturing local talent and making the sport hugely popular without benefit of a national television sponsorship. But because this is an article in tribute to Wilbert McClure, I won’t go into further details about the destructive nature of Brenner and Markson’s arrogance and incompetence. Suffice it to say that boxing suffered as a result.
Reminiscing some thirty years later, McClure was philosophical about his ill-starred professional career.I was bitter back in 1967, the then 59-year old grandfather admitted to me. McClure was still handsome and looked twenty years younger. But now I’ve come to terms with it. I believe everything that happened was supposed to be in my life, both before and after. When you think about it, maybe the experience helped me to save some lives. I’m probably a more well-rounded psychologist because of my experience in the [boxing] business.
McClure was not prone to self-pity, nor did he live in the past. His positive attitude helped him to start over in an entirely new field. But boxing was not totally out of his life.
McClure was not prone to self-pity, nor did he live in the past. His positive attitude helped him to start over in an entirely new field. But boxing was not totally out of his life. From 1995 to 1998, he served as chairman of the Massachusetts Boxing Commission where one of his chief priorities was the athletes’ safety. He especially was concerned about over-the hill-boxers who can no longer properly defend themselves yet still are allowed to fight. The boxing community, said McClure, especially the state commissions, ought to have more courage lifting the licenses of fighters who cannot and should not do it anymore. During my tenure as chairman, I was threatened with lawsuits by managers because we suspended those boxers who couldn’t fight anymore.
When asked to evaluate today’s fighters McClure’s response was precise. You cannot become skilled and polished if you are fighting two or three times a year. When you’ve got fighters challenging for a world title with 15 pro fights, you know you’ve got a problem. It makes it difficult to appraise the top boxers of today based on what they have accomplished. It is not scientifically sound, accurate, or fair. I feel sorry for Roy Jones Jr. because he hasn’t fought a great or even a very skillful opponent yet. So he cannot be placed in the pantheon of great middleweights because it takes great opponents to make great fighters.
McClure also said that welterweight champ Oscar de La Hoya, although still a work in progress, was lucky that there were no Kid Gavilans around to test him.Put Oscar in the ring with Gavilan when he was champion, or a Ray Robinson when he was champ or a Tony Zale. Those guys were tough, man. There isn’t any way in the damn world you’re going to hurt them…and they will hurt you badly. It is a lesson that Skeeter learned the hard way.
Wilbert “Skeeter” McClure, a gracious and intelligent man, made his mark both inside and outside of the boxing ring. But most importantly, he lived his life with meaning and purpose.
Mike Silver’s newest book is The Night the Referee Hit Back: Memorable Moments from the World of Boxing. Available from Amazon.com or publisher’s website: Rowman.com:
Today, I was in downtown Boston for an appointment, and when I was finished with my meeting I thought I would take a walk over to Friend Street where the old New Garden Gym was located. The site of the first New Garden is now a parking lot, but the building that housed the second one is still standing at 254 Friend Street and has been converted into condos.
It was quite hot today as it has been for much of this summer. The sun was shining and the sky was beautiful, but the heat was scorching. I remember many times heading into Friend Street for a workout on such a day back in the 1970s. I didn’t have air conditioning in my car so the ride in was not the most comfortable. I used what we called 4/60 air conditioning. That’s when you roll down all the windows and go 60 miles an hour to try and stay cool. It didn’t always work that well in Boston traffic.
By the time I would arrive at the gym I was not in need of a warmup as I already had a good sweat going. I would climb the three rickety flights of stairs up to the 4th floor where the tiny gym was located. I don’t think many if any boxing gyms back then had air conditioning. They couldn’t afford it. I also think the old time trainers figured it would only make the fighters soft.
When the New Garden Gym moved to its second location across the street from where it originally stood, it had to be downsized a lot in order to fit into a much smaller area. The full ring would not fit in the new space, so it was cut in half. It made for some close quarters when sparring. In fact, after having boxed in that ring for quite a few months, I was not prepared for what would happen when I had my first amateur fight.
The night I climbed into the ring in Somerset, MA and the bell rang it was the first time I was in a regulation size ring. I felt like I had walked into a ballpark. It seemed enormous, and that’s because it was at least twice the size of the New Garden ring. I also recall the surface feeling very soft under my feet, almost like walking on sand. This could have been because there was too much padding under the canvas, or more likely because the floor of the ring on Friend Street had nothing under its canvas.
Most days when you went to the gym Al Clemente and Johnny Dunn would be there. At that time they were the two best known trainers in the Boston area. The door to the place was at about the midpoint of the rectangular shaped space. If you looked to the right when walking in you would spot Al and Johnny at the far end near two windows and a pay phone. There were actually four windows there but two were blocked by lockers.
You would think such a small space that high up in a building on a sweltering summer day would be a sweat box, and while it wasn’t cool it was actually quite bearable. The reason for this was those two windows which were kept wide open. It turns out that when the old gym across the street was torn down and left as a parking lot, it left an open space over which you could see the Expressway and not far beyond that was Boston Harbor on the other side of the North End.
In the afternoon the sun would have moved to the west which was to the back of the building, and a nice ocean breeze would usually kick up. Now, of course, that breeze would pick up a few extra ingredients on its way from the harbor to the confines of the pugilistic academy we were all training in. There would be the salt air along with the aromatic delights of authentic Italian cooking taking place in the North End, but there was also the fragrant exhaust produced from the perpetual traffic jam on the Expressway. By the time it all wafted in through the window next to Al Clemente it was quite the mixture. It then combined with the smell of cigar smoke and lineament that was ever present in the gym.
Most of you who have only lived in today’s sterile environment are probably gagging at the thought of this, but in my memory it is a sweet perfume and I would give anything to be there breathing it in again. To those of us spending a hot afternoon working out on Friend Street it was as refreshing as being on the beach.
It is said that smell is the sense that holds the strongest memories. If I could, I would bottle the scent that used to permeate the New Garden Gym back in the 1970s so whenever I wanted to remember those wonderful times in that broken down old gym I would just have to take a whiff and be back there again. I have never been in a gym since that comes close to the charm of that old place. I sure do miss it.
Held A Prime Joe Louis To A Fifteen Round Split Decision
By Bobby Franklin
In 1937 Joe Louis won the World Heavyweight Championship from James J. Braddock. Over the next 12 years he defended the title 26 times, a record. Of those 26 defenses only three went the full 15 round distance, and out of the three opponents who took him to the closing bell, two were kayoed in rematches. The third, Tommy Farr, only fought Joe once.
Farr is remembered for the courageous and tough battle he put up against Joe. There have been some who have said he deserved the decision, but that is not true. In Tommy’s own account of the fight he said Louis clearly beat him. Unfortunately, Farr never got a rematch and the big payday it would have brought him. Louis was willing, and actually wanted to fight him again, but as I have written in an earlier column, the sleazy people who populate boxing sabotaged Tommy’s shot. Most notably, Joe Gould who took over his management in the United States.
In Joe’s last two title defenses he fought Jersey Joe Walcott. In their first fight Walcott took Louis the entire fifteen rounds decking the champion on the way to losing a split decision. In the rematch Louis kayoed Walcott in the 11th round and then retired after the fight.
There was one other man who managed to take Louis the fifteen round route. This man also was the only man other than Walcott to hold Joe to a split decision. While the Louis that Walcott faced was nearing the end of his career and was past his prime, the man who gave the champ such a difficult time of it did so in 1940 when Joe was at the peak of his career.
Oddly, out of the three men who took Louis the distance this man is the least remembered. His name was Arturo Godoy and he was quite the fighter.
Godoy was a seasoned veteran when he fought Louis. Hailing from Chile, Arturo had a long run and was fighting his 71st fight when he stepped in to challenge for the title. with two wins over Tony Galento as well as victories over Luis Firpo, Jack Roper, and Tommy Loughran, Godoy had a reputation for being a tough customer. He also was extremely strong and had a very unorthodox style. This combined with unending stamina made him a force to be reckoned with.
When the fight was announced it was not considered to be a difficult one for the champion. It was held at Madison Square Garden on February 9, 1940 before a crowd of 15,567 people. What that crowd got to see was a fight that wasn’t pretty to look at but turned out to be Louis’s toughest challenge up to that point.
Godoy fought from a very, very low crouch while crowding Joe and not giving him punching room. At times Arturo crouched so low that he was practically sitting on the canvas. It is no secret Louis had trouble with opponents who fought out of a crouch. Max Schmeling had kayoed hims a few years earlier fighting in that way, and Tony Galento had decked him when he threw a left hook from a crouch.
At the end of 15 rounds the scorecards were announced and the decision was split with Joe coming out on top. The referee and one judge had it in Joe’s favor 10-5 and 10-4 respectively white the other judge had Arturo on top by 5-10. United Press saw it as a draw. The crowd booed the decision, but that may have been more about the poor performance from Louis as it was from the feeling that Godoy actually won.
No matter the fairness of the decision, the fact is Godoy gave Joe a very tough night. So, why is this bout not remembered in the way the Farr fight is? Well, for one thing, Joe never fought Tommy again while he stepped right back into the ring with Arturo just four months later. Louis called the first Godoy fight “The worst fight I ever had”, and he wanted to show he was better than how he performed that February evening.
One thing about Louis, he always performed better in rematches, and the Godoy fight was no exception. Joe and trainer Jack Blackburn went to work in the gym and came up with a strategy for dealing with Godoy’s awkward style, and when the bell rang at Yankee Stadium on June 20, 1940 before a crowd of 27, 286 fans it was a different Joe Louis who came out against the challenger.
Employing a lethal right uppercut and keeping his punches very short and inside, Joe went to work busting up the game Chilean challenger. By the 8th round Godoy’s face looked like what the Associated Press called “barbecued beef”. Godoy had been dropped once near the end of the 7th round and again twice in the 8th before the referee called a halt to the carnage. Godoy tried to push past the referee and continue fighting and had to be restrained, but then went over and congratulated Louis. After the fight Joe said “That’s the worse beating I ever gave a man”.
So, to answer the question of why Arturo is not remembered in the way Tommy Farr is for his galant 15 round go against Joe Louis is because Farr never fought Joe again so, as most likely would have happened, he did not get kayoed by him. While Joe got revenge on Arturo just 4 months later and proved beyond a doubt who the superior fighter was.
Never the less, Godoy deserves to be remembered for the incredible battle he gave Joe Louis on a February night in 1940. He was the only man to take the prime Louis fifteen rounds to a split decision, and that was a monumental feat.
Arturo Godoy fought for over ten more years after the Louis fight. He ended his career in 1951 with an outstanding record of 127 fights, 91 wins (51 by KO), just 22 losses, 12 draws, and 2 no contests. He passed away in his home country of Chile in 1986 at the age of 73.
Godoy was a popular and exciting personality who lit up a room. He was well liked in the states and loved in Chile. I’m sure Joe Louis never forgot him.
“Spider Kelly taught all his young gentlemen to box like featherweights, no matter whether they weighed one hundred and five or two hundred and five pounds.”
The above quote appears on the first page of Ernest Hemingway’s first major novel, The Sun Also Rises, published in 1926. Hemingway often based his characters on real people. John A. (Spider) Kelly was not a fictional character. He was the boxing instructor at Princeton University for 34 years (1902 to 1936). One of the main characters in the novel, a former collegiate boxing champion, is described as having been trained by Kelly at Princeton.
By all accounts Spider Kelly, a former professional boxer, was an excellent teacher-trainer.Hemingway’s sentence is further proof of that. It would do well for today’s trainers to follow Spider Kelly’s example. At a body weight of 119 to 126 pounds a featherweight boxer has to rely on speed and mobility rather than strength and power. He must strive to remain an elusive target while still capable of landing more punches than his opponent. But before he learns how to throw a punch the beginner must be taught proper balance. Like a dancer, a boxer has to maintain balance while quickly changing tempo and direction. Effective footwork is not possible without proper balance. Building on that foundation the student boxer works up to more sophisticated defensive and offensive skills, including knowing what to do when an opponent makes a certain move.
Three of the greatest boxers who ever lived, Benny Leonard, Sugar Ray Robinson and Willie Pep, were all trained in this manner and used those foundational skills to reach spectacular heights. But any boxer trained in this manner has an advantage over one who was not.
So why do most of today’s boxers, irrespective of their weight division, fight like slow lumbering heavyweights who are looking for a knockout with every punch? We see it all the time. They plod forward or back (rarely circling), throw ill-timed punches, and appear to have no coherent strategy.What used to be called “ring guile” or “craftiness” is missing. Classic defensive techniques such as ducking, slipping, weaving or parrying (common tactics used by the top boxers of past decades) are virtually non-existent. They become easy targets by remaining stationary after delivering a volley of punches. The most common defensive maneuver is to raise the gloves in rope-a-dope fashion and wait for the opponent to stop punching. Very few know how to effectively use the most fundamental punch in a boxer’s repertoire–the jab. Forget about feinting with a purpose or drawing a lead, or knowing how to slip and slide or clinch. Those words are not even in the vocabulary. And whatever happened to body punching?
In between rounds the corner’s instruction to the boxer is the oft heard and expletive laced “throw more punches!” –which is akin to a basketball coach imploring his team to “put the ball in the basket!”
Boxing may be the only sport where the further back you go, the better the athletes are.
This dumbed down version of boxing is not new. The overall skill level of boxers has been in decline for several decades. Boxing may be the only sport where the further back you go, the better the athletes are. In fact, it would be more accurate to rename the sport “fighting” because boxing, as many of us “old timers” knew it, no longer exists. There are a number of reasons for this but first and foremost is the lack of qualified teacher-trainers.
I don’t blame the boxers. It is not their fault. They have the potential to be much better than they are because the ability is there. I blame the trainers who cannot teach what they themselves do not know. Yes, there are a few exceptions. Among contemporary boxers three names come to mind—Gennady Golovkin, Vasyl Lomachenko and Terence Crawford. These very talented athletes display some of the old school moves. Lomachenko (who took ballet lessons as a youth) has excellent footwork. Golovkin has a fine left jab and knows how to set up his power punches. He also understands the value of body punching. Crawford’s speed and instincts are impressive but he tries too hard for a knockout and still has much to learn. If we could time travel these boxers back 60 or more years ago they would have been considered promising prospects. Despite their obvious talent, they are not yet at the level where we would place them among the elite boxers of that era. Perhaps with more experience and exposure to better competition they could have won a world championship back then. But the road taking them to a title bout would have been far more difficult than the one they have traveled. Why? Because in every decade from the 1920s to the 1950s there were dozens of Golovkins, Lomachenkos and Crawfords vying for a contender slot. The competition was brutal. To win one of the eight title belts was truly an extraordinary achievement.
So where have all the good trainers gone?
What happened was that boxing’s mentoring system for turning out the next batch of well-schooled trainers began to break down in the decade following the end of World War II. By the late 1950s hundreds of neighborhood arenas, boxing’s farm system for developing new talent, had closed shop because they could not compete with free televised boxing almost every night of the week. Post war prosperity and the G.I. Bill further thinned the ranks of potential professional boxers. Gym memberships declined causing many to close. In the big cities the ranks of master teacher-trainers, never a huge number, began to be depleted. They either retired or left the sport to pursue other occupations and took their knowledge with them.
By the 1970s only a handful were left. This caused a disconnect in the mentoring system. A few dinosaurs continued to teach into the 1980s—Eddie Futch, Angelo Dundee, Cus D’Amato, and Mike Capriano—but they were the last of the breed. The next generation of trainers (who came of age after the 1980s) were not of the same caliber and lacked the knowledge and experience of the old school masters. Most of them were part time instructors who held full time jobs during the day and taught boxing in the evenings. In time mediocre fighters became mediocre trainers. It is no surprise that the two best teacher-trainers today are Teddy Atlas and Freddie Roach. Atlas was mentored by Cus D’Amato and Roach was trained by Eddie Futch.
OK. Enough complaining. Is there anything that can be done to improve boxers’ skills in the absence of quality teachers? (I won’t even attempt to address the insane organization of professional boxing. That mess is beyond help).
Over the past 40 years I have collected dozens of boxing instruction books from the mid-1800s to the present. Most have some useful information but I was always on the lookout for a manual that was all encompassing. My search ended with the discovery of two indispensable books that should be required reading and study for every current or wannabe trainer and boxer.
The greatest boxing instructional book ever written is the 286 page Naval Aviation Physical Training Manual of Boxing, published in 1943.It was prepared by and for the officers in charge of the instruction of Boxing in Naval Aviation.Keep in mind this book was published at the height of World War II. As explained in the introduction, boxing was part of Naval Aviation training because it was thought to “quickly acclimate the body and mind to the violence and shock so foreign to modern day youth, yet so absolutely essential to fighting men.” Boxing, it was felt, helped the cadet make that transition. I am astounded by the thoroughness of this book. You will not get better and more detailed instruction anywhere else. Example: It not only describes in detail every conceivable punch and defensive maneuver but also dozens of long forgotten combinations and coaching hints. The book was obviously written by very capable boxing trainers (although none are identified by name). It includes many photos and is available on Amazon but costs about $130 dollars. For those serious about seeking knowledge it’s worth every penny.
The second outstanding instructional book I recommend is Boxing: A Self-Instructional Manual by Edwin L. Haislet, first published in 1940 and re-issued in 1982. Haislet was assistant professor of physical education, boxing coach University of Minnesota, and director of the Northwest Golden Gloves Tournament. Before I discovered the Navy book this was my gold standard for instructional manuals. It is 120 pages, illustrated, and is an excellent source of valuable information. A reprint selling for $30 dollars is available on Amazon.
I would also strongly recommend anyone interested in why and how the sport devolved over the past thirty years to read my first book, “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science”.It contains extensive commentary by several top trainers, including Atlas and Roach.
If there were a course given to certify and license boxing trainers (and there certainly should be) these three books would be required reading.
One final note: Thanks to You Tube we have access to films of some of the greatest boxers of the twentieth century. It would be beneficial if these films were studied, but understanding would be enhanced if the aforementioned books were read first. There are scores of videos to choose from. I have selected five—one each from the 1920s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s to serve as an example of the type of artistry in boxing that no longer exists.
Mike Silver’s newest book is The Night the Referee Hit Back: Memorable Moments From the World of Boxing.