Every fight fan has his favorite fights. Some are those that were seen live either in person on on television. Others have been viewed on film and usually include classics such as Ali v Frazier I and Louis v Schmeling II. But those would be included on any list of “great” fights.
In Jerry Fitch’s latest book, he does not compile another list of the greatest fights. What he does is to look back at a lifetime, over 50 years of watching fights, and chooses his “favorite” fights. Yes, some of his favorites are also some of the great fights of all time, but there are many included in this collection that became favorites for other reasons. It is that difference that makes this book so enjoyable. In fact, after reading it I started to look back at my own history of watching fights and recalled how many fights I saw on the local level that would rank on my list of favorites.
In 25 chapters, Jerry describes the fights he fondly remembers and gives his reasons for why they stand out in his memory. Living in Cleveland, he had the good fortune to be in a place that had an active boxing scene over the years. He has written a book on the history of Cleveland boxing as well as biographies of two great fighters from that city, Johnny Risko and Jimmy Bivins. Jerry has earned the title “Cleveland’s Mr.Boxing”.
His list does have some of the all time great fights on it. He has chapters on Ali vs Frazier I, the first Leonard/Duran fight, the first Louis/Conn fight, and the fight where Rocky Marciano won the title from Jersey Joe Walcott. His take on these fights is very interesting, and there is no doubting Jerry is an “old school” boxing guy.
While reading his views on experiencing these well known battles is a treat, the book gets really interesting when Jerry writes about some of the lesser known matches between figures that never made to the top. Or fights that would never be considered great, but certainly are interesting. He has a fine eye for picking out the matches.
One favorite of mine, for obvious reasons, is the first fight between the exciting Akron, Ohio middleweight Doyle Baird and Boston favorite Iron Mike Pusateri, held in Cleveland in 1971. Baird had established himself as a world class fighter having fought a draw with champion Nino Benvenuti in a non title fight, scoring a win over Don Fullmer, and going ten rounds with Emile Griffith while losing a decsion. As any Boston boxing fan from that era will tell, Iron Mike Pusateri was one tough battler.
Jerry’s descriiption of the fight is terrific, but he also gets into some of the background of the promotion as well as telling a funny story about a fan he was seated next to. It’s all part of the charm of this book.
Another reason for choosing a fight as his favorite has to do with his personal boxing history. Most real fight fans will remember the first pro boxing match they ever attended. In Jerry’s case it was the third fight between Carmen Basilio and Johnny Saxton which was held in Cleveland. This welterweight title fight was the rubber match between the two combatants, and Jerry admit it was anti-climatic, but it was very exciting to have his first live boxing experience be a championship fight.
Some of the other fights discussed in the book are the 2nd bout between local fighters Billy Wagner and John Griffin, Cassius Clay vs Doug Jones, Danny Lopez and Bobby Chacon, Ali vs Wepner, and Palomino vs Muniz I.
There is even a very interesting chapter on a fight card Jerry attended in Palm Springs, CA where the main event had to be delayed because the ring was swarmed by grasshoppers.
This is Jerry’s fifth book, and he is to be credited with doing much to keep alive the memory of the great history of boxing. In choosing to include a number of local fight cards in this collection he has seen to it that the guys who never made it big are still remembered for the wonderful fights they put on before smaller crowds. Some of these fight cards were more exciting than many of the big pay per view fights that fans laid out big money to see.
After reading Jerry’s book I hope you too will think back on those fights you saw at the local arenas, and come to appreciate how hard those fighters fought for the short money. While Boston boxing fans have never witnessed an infestation of grasshoppers before a main event, I am sure you will have many of your own stories to tell about nights at ringside. Jerry Fitch shows us just how interesting so many of those memories are.
Fighters have always weighed in before a fight. This ritual used to take place the day of the fight, usually in the early afternoon. With heavyweights it wasn’t as important as with the other divisions as there is no limit on what weight the big guys can fight at. In the other categories it used to be watched closely because if a fighter did not come in below the limit for his division he would be forced to shed the extra pounds within a couple of hours. If he didn’t, the fight could be canceled, he could agree to pay a fine, or, if it was a title fight, the two camps could agree to go on with the bout without having the championship on the line.
With the heavyweights, it was more of a case of seeing what kind of shape the fighters were in. It was a bit like predicting earnings before a company makes its quarterly financial report. If a company exceeds expectations, its stock will rise, if not, the stock will take a hit. In a heavyweight fight a fighter coming in overweight, or even too light, could have an effect on the odds.
Today, the weigh-in is quite different. While in the past it was expected the fighters would enter the ring weighing pretty close to what the scales said earlier that day. Now fighters step on the Toledo a day or two before the bout and can put on as much as ten, fifteen, or more pounds by fight time. Quite often you will see one fighter who looks much bigger than another. That’s because he is.
Another difference is in how the ritual of the weigh-in is conducted. Throughout most of boxing’s history it was a fairly serious affair. Both fighters would appear and take turns stepping up to be weighed while the other looked on. A doctor would give each a brief examination, and then the two would shake hands and wish each other luck while photographers snapped pictures. With rare exception, great sportsmanship was displayed as each showed respect for the other.
Somewhere along the line, probably starting with Cassius Clay vs Sonny Liston in 1964, this ritual began to take on a circus atmosphere. While what happened that day in Miami was very unusual for the times, and remained rare for a number of years, it has now gotten even worse and has become the norm. Fighters hurl obscenities at each other while pushing, shoving, and throwing wild punches. It has devolved into something more like pro wrestling. It’s also interesting to see today’s fighters standing on the scales and striking body builder poses, another thing taken from wrestling. At its best it is silly, but it is more often childish and demeaning to the sport and its participants.
I suppose it is just another reflection of the changes we see in society. As for me, I would like to see a return to the old decorum that made us look with respect upon the athletes who were going to step into the ring that night. Clowns may be funny in a circus, but for those of us who looked at boxing as a serious profession, it is depressing to witness. Could you imagine Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Ray Robinson, or the hundreds of other great champions behaving like that?
“Primo Carnera’s a nice chap, and he’s got lots of heart, a lot more than I thought he had. I pleaded with [referee] Donovan to stop the fight.”
Colleen Aycock’s latest bookconclusively shatters the negative stereotype of Max Baer as he was depicted in Cinderella Man and many of his other movies. Perhaps someday a movie aboutthe real Baer, the one Colleen so convincingly describes in The MagnificentMax Baer: The Life of the Heavyweight Champion and Film Star, will be made.
Compellingly written with David W. Wallace and exhaustively researched, Colleen’s latest book is a terrific account of an intriguing and unforgettable prizefighter’s life inside and outside the ring. A must-read for boxing fans, boxing historians, and lovers of biography.
In an interview with Aycock, the first question I asked her was What Made Max Baer, well, Max Baer?“Max was seen as a clown, but he was a clever clown, much smarter than given credit for,” she said. “He tried to make the sport nicer, and the crowds loved his laughter, his stories, and his charisma, not to mention his powerful fist and unpredictable behavior. And he always stood strong for children and the just.”
Next question: Why has Max beenportrayedinfilms, such as The Harder They Fall and Cinderella Man, as“a villain?” “Hollywood is Hollywood,” Aycock replied, “and to make a good film you need a hero and a villain.”
She continued: “Because early in his boxing career Max had killed a man in the ring, Frankie Campbell, the story gave Max a ‘killer’ image and that’s what Hollywood came looking for: a good-looking man (he was beautiful) who could pass a screen test and who had a reputation as a killer, though in reality he was the opposite. Unfortunately, that ‘killer image’ was usually virtually in all of the films he made, or that were made about him, even in western comedies.”
(After Campbell’s death, Aycock writes, Baer “was an emotional wreck. It was a personal battle he would fight for the rest of his life” . . . New YorkMirror columnist Dan Parker added, “Had it not been for the tragedy, his killer instinct would have made Baer [the] greatest.”)
Asked How Baer would do against today’sheavyweights? Colleen said, “In boxing skill, Max was a slugger with a good chin—in the chronological line between Dempsey and Louis. The question is like asking ‘How would Joe Louis fare against the moderns?’ We have to remember that Louis in his prime beat Max.
“In entertainment value, Max would win hands down. I would love to see Max in the ring today—it would be entertaining as hell, and the millions of dollars he would draw would be difficult to predict.”
Colleen’s book contains eighteen chapters, among them “The Screwball Championship Fight, Galento, 1940” and “Glamour Boy in Hollywood, 1933 to 1958.” In the Baer-Galento chapter I recall seeing highlights of it on “Greatest Fights of the Century,” which aired from 1948 to 1954, with Jim Stevenson as narrator. I knew what to expect.
Before the Galento fight Baer spoke with Lou Nova, a victim of “Two Ton” Tony’s tactics in their 9/15/39 battle. For some reason the referee allowed Galento to repeatedly thumb Nova in the right eye. (Watch it on YouTube. It’s definitely cringe-worthy!)
Baer told Nova, who was stopped in the 14th round and later hospitalized, he had fought Galento incorrectly, that the way to fighthim was, Colleen quotes Baer as saying, “’at long range and go directly to the head . . . [Galento] couldn’t be beaten in a clean fight because he was one of the dirtiest . . .’”
Before Max left Nova’s hospital room, Lou looked at him and said, “’You’re the man who can beat Tony Galento.’”
Colleen writes, “It was a fight of head butts, slashes with laces, thumbs, and gouges.” (No surprise, eh!) Also, she quotes reporter Gayle Talbot of the Asbury Park Press as writing: “’The fat old tavern keeper was sitting on his stool, blowing blood like a harpooned whale, when the bell rang to start the eighth round. His handlers wouldn’t let him go out.’ The only thing the fight proved was that ‘there isn’t a heavyweight in the world today worthy of challenging Joe Louis for the championship.’”
While he was still active in the ring, Baer began his acting career. And why not? He had looks and was a natural ham.
His first film was 1933’s The Prize Fighter and theLady,” co-starring Myrna Loy, probably best known today as the wife of private detective Nick Charles in those great Thin Man movies of the thirties and forties. Prizefighter was a success and so was Baer. Aycock quotes the movie poster: “Watch yourpulse, Girls! A curly haired man is coming into your life. Resist him if you can. Handsome, strong, and alive! Hollywood calls him the male Mae West with a streamline chassis.”
Appearing in the film was then heavyweight champion Primo Carnera, who played a character named Primo. He and Max’s character, Steve Morgan, do battle. Reality intervened seven months after the movie’s release when Carnera and Max fought, in New York’s Madison Square Garden, for the former’s heavyweight title.
During his long career, Max appeared in mostly corny but enjoyable movie comedies, with such actors as William Bendix, Patsy Kelly, Brian Donlevy, and Walter Brennan, among others.
In 1945, he teamed with former light-heavyweight champion “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom in a vaudeville revue. “It was said that the boxers gave up clout for corn,” Colleen writes, “but it was very successful corn . . .”
She quotes reporter Alan Ward of the Oakland Tribune as writing, “. . . unlike other fighters and champions who became broke and bewildered after their ring careers, ‘it is gratifying to realize that here are two who not only are doing well financially but are right up there with chips.’”
In the last decade of his life, Max appeared as a guest in numerous televisions shows, such as “The Milton Berle Show,” “The Perry Como Show,” and “So This Is Hollywood.”
Baer had an important role in Humphrey Bogart’s last movie, 1956’s The Harder They Fall. Tautly directed by Mark Robson and adapted from Budd Schulberg’s memorable novel, the movie co-starred Rod Steiger, Jan Sterling, and Mike Lane. Lane played a Primo Carnera-like character—he was called Toro Moreno—and Max portrayed heavyweight champion Buddy Brannen, a thinly disguised copy of himself.
“When the movie opened in 1956,” Aycock writes, “Primo Carnera sued Columbia Pictures and the book’s author. . . for $1.5 million, charging that both products were an invasion of privacy causing him scorn and ridicule and the loss of respect.”
The HarderThey Fall is a movie that digs deeply into the corrupt side of boxing; and its star, Humphrey Bogart, Colleen says, “fearlessly commented on the social impact of the film, saying he realized ‘a lot of fans are as interested as I am in seeing the bad elements in boxing cleaned up.’”
Colleen rightly believes the portrayal of Max, in 2005’s Cinderella Man, directed by Ron Howard and starring Russell Crowe as James J. Braddock, was a “character assassination.”Craig Bierko, a fine actor, plays Max, who’s wrongly portrayed as a big mouth womanizer unremorseful about his tragic fight with Frankie Campbell.
Aycock said The Magnificent Max Baer is her “heart book [because] it represents my connection to boxing through my father, a professional boxer during the Great Depression.” Abandoned as a teenager in South Texas, her father, Ike, “tried continuing his high school education while working in a dairy for room and board . . . There was a time in the 30s when a town’s entertainment was a make-shift boxing ring city center where men could throw pennies and nickels on the canvas to encourage a challenge. My father stepped into the ring as a young man so he could buy a pair of shoes.
“He always told me, ‘Don’t feel sorry for me, the black boxers had it worse.’ Coming from Mississippi, I admired his feelings for the black boxers at a time when society was still drawing the social color line and racial division was at a boiling point. He told me pointedly, ‘Everyone is equal in the ring.’ It was an early, visible lesson for me in equal rights.”
When Baer advertised for sparring partners in 1934, Colleen writes, “my father took the train to California” to help the big heavyweight prepare for future fights. “He loved Max as many did during that bleak economic times. So I always dreamed of writing a book about Max Baer.”
A regular contributor to the IBRO Journal, Roger Zotti has written two books about boxing, Friday Night World and The Proper Pugilist. Contact him at rogerzotti [at] aol [dot] com for more information about them.
One hundred years ago, on July 4, 1919, in Toledo, Ohio, Jack Dempsey won the Heavyweight Championship of the World from Jess Willard. The fight, which took place under a blazing sun, is remembered for many things. It ushered in the Dempsey era and the making of a legend. The footage of the fight, which is amazingly clear, shows Jack giving the champion a vicious beating. Though he was outweighed by nearly sixty pounds, Dempsey tore into Jess like a hungry lion. He decked Willard seven times in the first round and Jess was on the verge of being counted out when he was saved by the bell. Willard managed to stay on his feet for two more rounds and fought back gamely before retiring as the bell rang for round four.
In 1963 Jack Kearns, who had manage Dempsey at the time he won the title, wrote an article that was published in Sports Illustrated saying Jack’s gloves were loaded when he fought Willard. Dempsey vehemently denied it and sued the magazine for publishing the article. They settled out of court.
There had been bad blood between Kearns and Dempsey for years, andKearns died not long after he wrote the article. It was as if he wanted to get one last shot at the great champion before he shed his mortal coil. He certainly didhat and the controversy has raged on for years.
Much has been written about whether on not Dempsey went into the fight having an unfair advantage, and I am not going to rehash those arguments now. I do want to bring up another mystery that is connected to that day.
In all of the arguments over whether or not Jack’s gloves were loaded that day, one thing that was never done was for there to have been an examination of those gloves. In fact, nobody seems to know for sure what happened tom them.
Not long after the Kearn’s story appeared, former Bantamweight Champion Babe Herman announced that he was in possession of the gloves. He said they were given to him years earlier by a seaman, though he said he couldn’t remember the man’s name. He claimed the man was a close friend of Dempsey’s and also friend of his. He didn’t say how the man got them and didn’t offer and convincing evidence of their authenticity. Babe said that Dempsey knew he was in possession of the gloves and even suggested they be put in a glass case at his restaurant in New York.
This doesn’t add up as there is a newspaper photo that was taken on December 10,1934 that shows Jack Dempsey placing what he claims are the gloves from the fight under the cornerstone of his soon to be built restaurant at the corner of 50th Street and Eight Avenue in New York City. This was directly across from the old Madison Square Garden. In the photo he is accompanied by his wife Hannah and Mayor LaGuardia along with a number of other people. Did Jack forget about this when he was talking with Herman, if indeed such a conversation actually took place.
One of the reasons for examining the gloves would have been to see if there were traces of plaster of Paris in them. Kearns claimed he soaked Dempsey’s taped hands in the substance before the fight. That claim has been pretty much debunked, but checking the gloves would completely rule out that possibility.
Of course, the gloves in the photo very well may not have been the the ones Jack wore that hot July 4th afternoon. It is possible they were just an old pair of boxing gloves and the whole thing was staged for publicity for Jack’s new restaurant. It does seem odd he would bury the gloves rather than put them on display. Perhaps he was getting rid of the evidence, though that wouldn’t have added up since this was almost thirty years before Kearns wrote the story that got things stirred up.
Still, it would be interesting to uncover the gloves. Jack eventually moved the popular restaurant to between 49th and 50th Streets. It doesn’t appear the gloves went along for the ride.
Could they still be buried at that location? It’s very likely. Are they the gloves Jack wore when he beat Willard? I doubt it, but it is possible. There is only one way to find out. Recovering them would be one of the great finds in the archeology of boxing. I say an archeological dig should be ordered for the site. It is time to recover this rare artifact from the reign of one of the greatest kings in the history of boxing. Can you dig it?
“[When the Hogue twins were 31 years old,] they were still young men, but life had taken its toll on them. Shorty was living in a variety of care facilities, and Big Boy, who spent several years in and out of Atascadero Mental Hospital,appeared to have no discernible skills outside of the ring other than cheating at cards.”
The Tragedy of the Hogue Twins
By Harry Otty
Read Corner Publishing
Reviewed by Roger Zotti
Willard Joseph “Big Boy” Hogue and Willis Burton “Shorty” Hogueare their names, and boxing historian Harry Otty has written a meticulously researched, eminently readable, and informative book about them. Enhanced by many photos of the twins, family members, friends, and opponents, it’s titled The Tragedy of the Hogue Twins (REaD Corner).
Harry’s intention is that readers take from his book the realization that“boxing, for all its hype and glamour, is a brutal sport and some of those who fight to entertain the fans don’t make as much money as the Floyd Mayweathers of this world. Most fighters come away with little in the way of tangible rewards and some come out with a lot less than what they went in with— as was the case with Shorty and Big Boy Hogue.”
At first Otty, the author of the acclaimed Charley Burley and the BlackMurderers’ Row, had no idea who the Hogues were, but after extensive research, he says, “I ended up in touch with family members, and then [learned more] about [the twins], and thought theirs was a tale worth telling. [The Hogues] are not well-known outside of the hardcore boxing fraternity, and I thought that was a shame. I think Shorty Hogue belongs in the West Coast Hall of Fame – he beat some great fighters and, perhaps if handled better, could have gone a great deal further than he did.”
Obtaining first-hand information from the Hogue family was challenging for Harry: “With the Charley Burley book I wanted people to know a little more about him outside of boxing, so I relied on friends and family for stories and insights . . . Getting the same insight on the twins’ lives as I got with Charley Burley wasdifficult, as there were no siblings left to talk about them. There were a couple of nephews, a grandson and a daughter, but the daughter was not willing to communicate. The snippets of information I did get from the family often led to other avenues to explore. It was a slow process.”
Hailing from Jacumba, California, “Big Boy” was a welterweight, Shorty a middleweight. They had outstanding amateur boxing careers and turned professional on March 3, 1939. In their debuts at the San Diego Coliseum, Shorty stopped Al Jimenez in the third round and Big Boy garnered a six-round decision over George Romero.
Big Boy’s first name opponent was veteran Bobby Pacho, who had fought Henry Armstrong, Eddie Booker, Turkey Thompson, Fred Apostoli, and Fritzie Zivic, among others. In their June 22, 1939, bout, Big Boy earned a ten-round decision.
Shorty’s former sparring partner, a rising middleweight named Archie Moore—yes, the Archie Moore—was his first opponent of merit. They battled on December 29, 1939, at the San Francisco Coliseum. Moore’s 38-3-3 record didn’t faze Shorty, who won a six-round decision over the future light heavyweight champion.
Their rematch took place in 1941, at the San Diego Coliseum, before 4,000 fans. Harry brings the fight to life with his vivid description of the tenth and final round: “The tenth started with Archie staggering Shorty once more, but the determined twin came back yet again to swamp Moore with a constant cascade of leather. The aggression, determination and sheer volume of punches was enough for referee Benny Whitman to cast his vote in favor of Shorty.”
When the decision was announced, Harry writes, “The reaction would have been the same had the call gone the other way. Afterward promoter Benny Ford called the fight the greatest he had ever seen in a San Diego ring.”
Their third bout took place in 1942, again at the San Diego Coliseum, and Archie had his revenge, stopping Shorty in two rounds.
Shorty, who fought from 1939 to 1943, compiled a 52-11-2 record. Big Boy battled from 1939 to 1943, was inactive from 1944 to 1951, and returned to the wars in 1952, retiring after two TKO losses. His record was50-19-7.
During their boxing careers the twins didn’t duck anyone.Big Boy fought the likes of Aaron Wade, Eddie Booker, Jack Chase, and Charley Burley, all members of the feared Black Murderers’ Row, while Shorty battled Booker (four times), Lloyd Marshall (two times), and Burley.
How good was the Row? Many champions and contenders ducked them, including Sugar Ray Robinson, whom Burley said he’d fight for nothing,the great Henry Armstrong, Freddie Cochrane, and Rocky Graziano.
In his book Murderers’ Row, boxing historian Springs Toledo quoted what former middleweight champion Jake LaMotta said about the Row: “When those bombers got the chance against a white kid on the square, they sure tried their best to show what they could do, because they all had a dream that maybe they’d get enough of an audience clamoring for them so that someday some promoter would give them the chance they deserved and they’d get a shot at the real money.”
And how good were the Hogues? Harry quotes Archie Moore who praised them as “’two of the greatest prospects in my time. They had everything needed to be world champions. Well, maybe one thing was missing—patience.’”
Brace yourself for the book’s last chapters, which chronicle the twins’ horrific downward spiral. Shorty never recovered from his TKO loss, in early 1942, to the mighty Burley. He fought eight more times that year, winning only twice. His six losses were by KO.
After his last fight that year he joined the Navy, but his military career was short-lived. His behavior was unstable and “diagnosed by the Naval medical staff [as] ‘traumatic encephalopathy.’” . . . “Come April 9, 1943, Shorty Hogue . . . was now also ex-naval reserve . . . mentally unfit for military service, physically no longer able to continue in his chosen profession, and with no discernible skills, [he] was consigned to the scrap heap at 22.” Shortydied in his sleep, at Sleepy Valley Rest Home, on November 29, 1971. He was 50 years old.
Big Boy didn’t fare any better. In his final fifteen outings, he was stopped ten times. After retiring in 1952, he lived a trouble-filled life.
Jumping ahead to 1964 and Big Boy’s arrest: The police decided to hold [him] until he had ‘sobered up,’ Otty writes, “but he never did. Just before midnight, an officer went in to check on the prisoner. He found Big Boy hanging in his cell. He had used his own belt to end his life. He was only 43.
“It appears that the symptoms of ‘punch drunk syndrome’”—dementia pugilistica—”[had affected] Big Boy as much as Shorty; the difference was that Shorty had received an official diagnosis,” Otty writes, adding that “[reporter Nelson Fisher] in one paragraph summed up [the Hogue twins’] lives and careers almost perfectly: ‘If their boxing careers were crowned by success and popularity, their lives after they put away the gloves were as contrastingly unfortunate, eventually tragic.’”
Over the years many boxing writers and scholars have inspired Harry: “Like most boxing historians. I have read a great deal of books, essays, newspaper reports, and I would say I was most likely influenced by all of them in one way or another.”
Boxing historians Kevin Smith and Jerry Fitch rank high as authors who persuaded Harry he “could/should do it” himself. Says Harry: “I read a good deal of Jerry’s essays in the 1980s and 90s and really liked his stuff on the Cleveland greats (Jimmy Bivins, Lloyd Marshall, Joey Maxim, etc.) and Kevin Smith’s work on the great black fighters opened my eyes to just how deep and wide the history of the sport was. Boxing historian and author John Ochs was a fantastic help once I had the book compiled and (almost) ready to publish.”
Harry commends “the many members of the IBRO who have written fantastic histories and biographies on some of the greats from our sport (and some of the not so well-known, too). I think that is what makes the organization so good – the breadth and depth of knowledge is amazing, and more people should join up!”
A contributing writer for the IBRO Journal, Roger Zotti has written two books on boxing, Friday Night World and The Proper Pugilist. He can be reached at rogerzotti [at] aol [dot] com. You’ll make him happy by emailing him and saying nice things about his writing.”
Cleveland Williams Never Should Have Been Allowed To Face Ali
By Bobby Franklin
In the opening sequence of the movie Requiem For A Heavyweight, a young Cassius Clay is seen throwing a punches during a fight. The view of the action is seen through the eyes of his opponent Mountain Rivera, played by Anthony Quinn, a washed up former contender who is now being used as an opponent and as a way for his unscrupulous manager Maish Rennick, played by Jackie Gleason, to keep squeezing a few more dollars out of him. It is a tragic story about a fighter on the way out being milked by the creeps that infest the world of boxing. The movie is fiction, but the real life world of boxing is not much different from what is depicted in it.
The story of Cleveland Williams and his fight against Muhammad Ali fits the ugly narrative of Requiem For A Heavyweight pretty closely. In fact, what was done to Williams was much worse than what was done to the fictional Rivera. First, some background.
When asked what fight shows Muhammad Ali at his absolute peak, most boxing aficionados will point to the champ’s bout against Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams. That choice makes sense when you look at the fight without knowing the background of the challenger and his physical condition at the time of the fight. It also adds up if you only look at Ali’s performance and don’t examine Williams’ moves during the fight.
The fight took place on November 14, 1966 at the Astrodome in Houston, Texas. Ali had won the title on February 25, 1964 with a stunning upset over Sonny Liston. A little over a year later he again defeated Liston, this time by a first round knockout in Lewiston, Maine. Muhammad vowed to be an active champion and he lived up to that promise. Over the next year leading up to the Williams bout, Ali fought five times defending the title both in the United States as well as in Europe. He decisively defeated all the opponents put in front of him. The list includes Floyd Patterson, George Chuvalo, Henry Cooper, Brian London, and Karl Mildenberger. These opponents may not make it to anyone’s list of all time greats, but they were the leading contenders at the time. Ali was not one to duck an opponent.
During the reign of Floyd Patterson, most of the top contenders were denied a shot at the title. Things were different with Ali as champ. Talented and confident, he was willing to take on all comers. But unfortunately, as 1966 was closing out there really weren’t any outstanding contendersthat stood a chance against Muhammad. The young crowd which included Jerry Quarry, Joe Frazier, Oscar Bonavena, and Thad Spencer were still a few years away from being ready to challenge for the title. Ali had been going through the former champs and contenders that were now beginning to age. There had been an effort to make a match against Ernie Terrell who claimed the WBA Heavyweight Championship, but terms for a contract had not been able to be worked out. Ali would go on to face Terrell the following year. He would also give Zora Folley a chance in 1967 in what would be Muhammad’s last fight before being exiled from boxing over his refusal to be inducted into the United States Army.
In the meantime, the name Cleveland Williams was tossed into the mix. A resident of Houston, Williams had a reputation as a very hard puncher. At the time, Ali had been so successful at not getting hit it was thought he might have a weak chin. After all, Henry Cooper had decked him with a left hook. Even though he was not a ranked contender, the fight was sold on the basis of Cleveland’s punching power. While Ali would certainly be the favorite, Williams had a “puncher’s chance,” at least that’s what the promoters convinced the public of.
The fight drew a live audience of 35,460 fans to the Astrodome, setting a record at the time for the largest crowd to witness an indoor fight. Gross receipts were $461,290 plus revenue from television and radio. The hype had worked.
As for the fight. Ali certainly looked impressive as he moved around Williams landing punches at will while never getting hit a serious blow in return. It was all over at 1:08 of the third round after Williams had been dropped on four occasions, three times in the second round and once in the third before the referee stopped the carnage. It was one of the most one-sided fights in heavyweight championship history.
Did Ali look magnificent that night? Without a doubt he did. He had the grace of a ballet dancer, the speed of a middleweight, and reflexes that were phenomenal. He was poised and relaxed. However, this was not a great win for him. While it is breathtaking to watch him in action against Williams, it must also be taken into account the caliber of his opposition. This is also not the fight to use when arguing how great Ali was. For while Ali had been staying very active in the years leading up to the fight, things were a bit different for Williams.
And The Ugly Side Of Boxing
Cleveland Williams was born on June 30, 1933 in Griffin, Georgia. He has stated he began his professional boxing career at the age of fourteen, lying about his age in order to get a license to box. When his real age was discovered he had to put his career on hold. A few years later he moved to Florida where he began boxing again.
According tom BoxRec, his first official pro fight was against Lee Hunt on December 11, 1951. He won by a knockout in the 2nd round. He went on to win 28 in a row with 25 victories by knockout. All his fights were in the South. He proved to have terrific punching power but, with the exception of Omelio Agramonte who was long past his prime, had not beaten any significant opposition.
The win against Agramonte did earn him a chance to fight in New Yorkwhere he took on Sylvester Jones who was in only his tenth fight. This was a four round preliminary bout and Cleveland was dropped twice on his way to losing a decision. The fight was on the undercard of the Marciano/LaStanza Heavyweight Title fight.
Williams returned to Florida and ran off five more wins including a knock out over Jones. He was now matched against Bob Satterfield in Miami Beach. Williams was a late substitute for Satterfield’s original opponent. Even though he had a 25 pound weight advantage, Williams was knocked cold by Satterfield in the third round and it took several minutes to revive him.
Again, Williams resumed his career and ran up a series of wins. His next big chance would be against top contender Sonny Liston. It was April 15, 1959 and Liston stopped him in the third round. The two would fight again a year later and Liston would win by kayo in the second round.
Williams did not give up and had his best years in 1961 and 1962. During this time he scored wins over such fighters as Alex Miteff, Wayne Bethea, Alonzo Johnson, and Ernie Terrell. He also held Eddie Machen to a draw. There was now some talk of him getting a shot at the title. In a rematch with Terrell he lost a decision and in the meantime a young upstart named Cassius Clay had wrested the title from Sonny Liston.While Clay was winning the title in 1964, something major was also happening in the life of Cleveland Williams, something major and tragic.
On the night of November 29, 1964 Williams was stopped by a Texas State Police officer for suspicion of driving while intoxicated. What ensued is somewhat disputed, but the two got into a struggle and during the altercation the officer’s 357 Magnum was fired sending a bullet through Williams’s body ripping through his intestines and right kidney, lodging against his right hip. He was taken to a hospital where he died three times on the operating table. He lost a kidney and the bullet remained in his body. He shrank down to 155 pounds and had several more operations over the next 7 months. During his time in the hospital, Williams’s co-manager, Bud Williams, told him not to worry about the cost of his care as it was all being covered. Williams was not told by Adams that a tally was being kept and that Cleveland would be held liable for the expenses.
Cleveland Williams proved to be an amazing patient. In spite of all the damage he sustained from the shooting, he was determined to fight again. This was not a wise decision for a man who had been through what he had, but even though he now had only one kidney and a bullet still lodged in him, his managers encouraged him to continue boxing. They knew they could still make money with him. He began regaining his strength by working on his manger’s ranch. The manager, Hugh Benbow had bought out Bud William’s share of Cleveland’s contract and now was fully in charge. Williams regained much of his muscle mass and once again looked formidable, but the nerve damage had caused permanent harm to his reflexes. Just imagine, having your insides shot to pieces from a 357 Magnum and then stepping back into the ring just a little over a year later. That is just what Cleveland did.
On February 8, 1966 Williams faced Ben Black, a fighter with only four bouts on his record. He scored a first round kayo. He then went on to fight Mel Turnbow, Sonny Moore, and Tod Herring. He won all three but Turnbow dropped him during their match.
Based on these four wins and some amazing promoting by Hugh Benbow, Williams was now signed to fight Muhammad Ali for the title. Benbow must have had some real pull with the press as it was written that Ali’s camp was afraid of having him take on The Big Cat. It was claimed the only way Benbow could get them to agree was to convince them Williams was still suffering from his injuries from the shooting. To believe Ali only took the bout because he felt he was facing a semi invalid is ridiculous. However, it is true that Williams was in no condition to fight.
I looked back at the ratings during Cleveland Williams years boxing. Ring Magazine only rated him in the top ten during four years: 1961, 1962, 1963, and 1964. He was never ranked higher than number four, and was unranked at the time of his fight with Ali. His reputation was based on his punching power and the fact that Sonny Liston had called him one of the hardest punchers he had ever faced. His biggest fights were his losses to Liston, the victory, later reversed, over Ernie Terrell, and a draw with Eddie Machen.
On the night of the Ali fight, Williams was served with papers from lawyers representing his former manager Bud Adams. The suit being filed claimed Adams was owed $67,615.00 by Williams for the money that was spent while Cleveland was in the hospital. This meant that his purse for the fight would be attached and he would end up with pocket change after the bout. On top of having partial paralysis in his right hip, only one kidney, and a bullet pressing against his hip, Williams now knew he would make no money for the fight. He had to step into the ring that night against one of the greatest fighters of all time dealing with that burden. It was like a scene out of The Harder They Fall.
When you watch the fight, instead of focusing on Ali pay attention to Cleveland Williams. At the opening bell you can see how stiff his legs are. He actually stumbles a bit as he moves out from his corner. His legs have very little muscle mass. When he misses with a left hook he stumbles. He might look powerful, but the man still should have been in a rehab working on his reflexes and coordination. For Ali, this was more like working out on a heavy bag than fighting a man.
What Williams did was remarkable in coming back from death. He worked hard and restored his muscles, but he had been torn apart physically and emotionally. He never, never, should have been in a boxing ring.
Calling this Muhammad Ali’s greatest fight is a travesty. Ali had many great fights, but judging his greatness off of this one is plain silly. I asked boxing historian Mike Silver, the author of The Arc of Boxing about this and he said: “To say that Ali’s knockout of a damaged Cleveland Williams was his greatest performance is like saying the greatest performance of Larry Holmes’ career was his fight against a damaged Muhammad Ali. Both Ali and Williams were “shot” fighters (Williams literally) and were incapable of offering serious resistance.” He is correct. To Ali’s credit he never bragged about this victory.
Williams quit boxing after this fight, but broke and without a way to earn a living he made a comeback two years later. He fought from 1968 to 1972 when he retired for good. He ended up losing his remaining kidney and had to have dialysis treatments twice a week for the rest of his life. Boxing promoters and managers milked him for all they could get out of him and then left him to fend for himself.It is an ugly story, but one not uncommon in boxing.
Cleveland Williams died at the age of 66 broke and sick. He was killed when hit by a car while returning home from a dialysis treatment, marking a tragic ending to a tragic life.
Next time you are watching the Ali/Williams fight and in awe of how “great”Ali looks in it, just take some time to think about what condition Cleveland Williams was in that night. Also consider the type of people who inhabit the world of professional boxing. These are people who would throw an invalid into the ring with a great fighter and then take him for all he’s worth. Instead of watching that fight and getting all excited about Ali’s performance, you should feel sick when you know what really happened that night.
He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts… for support rather than illumination.–Andrew Lang (1844-1912)
Rating the top-ten heavyweight punchers of all-time would be easy if we just added up the number of knockouts on a boxer’s record.But that would be a mistake. Without evaluating the quality of the level of competition the statistics are irrelevant. A fighter whose record lists many knockouts over third rate stumblebums is less impressive than one who has faced many more quality opponents and scored fewer knockouts.
Possessing knockout power is a huge asset but more important is how effective the boxer is in applying power to achieve the victory. Three months ago Deontay Wilder, possessor of perhaps the hardest right hand punch of any active heavyweight, was lucky to walk away with a draw decision against Tyson Fury. Wilder was by far the superior puncher but he had no strategy other than just throwing punches and hoping one would land. One of those rights finally landed and dropped Fury in the 12th round but Wilder couldn’t finish him off.
Superior boxing technique combined with a heavy punch is a dangerous combination. The most obvious example is former light heavyweight champion Archie Moore. During his remarkable 28 year boxing career Moore knocked out a record 131 opponents. Many years ago I interviewed one of his opponents. Willi Besmanoff was a heavyweight contender who had fought both Archie Moore and Sonny Liston. In December 1959 Besmanoff fought a prime Sonny Liston and was stopped on cuts in the seventh round. Willi absorbed some fearsome shots but did not go down. It was the first time in 66 bouts he’d been stopped. Five months later he fought Archie Moore. Besmanoff was knocked down in the 10th round and was taking a beating when the referee intervened and stopped the fight.
“Besmanoff’s answer reveals the difference between a knockout puncher and a knockout artist.”
I asked Besmanoff who hit harder, Sonny Liston or Archie Moore? “Liston was the stronger, a very powerful man”, said Besmanoff. “But his punches were not aimed that carefully. Moore knew exactly when and where to hit you, and he hit you where it hurt the most. Liston’s punches were more powerful but Moore’s punches were more accurate and damaging.”Besmanoff’s answer reveals the difference between a knockout puncher and a knockout artist.
Even if we had a machine that could measure the power of every boxer’s punch (I’m sure Wilder would rate very high) it would still not give us the answers we seek. A powerful punch is but one of several tools in a boxer’s arsenal. What good is that tool if a fighter cannot or will not utilize it to its fullest potential?
There are four criteria that must be considered when evaluating a heavyweight’s rating as a puncher. Fist we start by analyzing the quality of his competition. Next we determine how many KOs were scored over opponents who were rarely, if ever, stopped. A Third consideration is the ability to maintain effective punching power into the late rounds. This quality can be influenced not just by the fighter’s endurance but also his psychological makeup. How does he react when his punches are not having the desired effect? Is he capable of adjusting his strategy when things are not going his way?
The fourth requirement is that a great puncher also has to be a great finisher. Once an opponent is hurt he will know how to end the fight quickly and efficiently. The textbook example of this can be found in any film of a Joe Louis KO victory, especially his one round annihilation of Max Schmeling and his 13th round knockout of Billy Conn.
“These are qualities that cannot be measured by statistics or a cleverly edited highlight video. Too often opinion is influenced by frivolous hype that lacks context and depth.”
These are qualities that cannot be measured by statistics or a cleverly edited highlight video.Too often opinion is influenced by frivolous hype that lacks context and depth. Search the internet under the topic “Greatest Heavyweight Punchers” and every list that comes up will include Earnie Shavers. Of course Earnie possessed awesome power. That fact is not in dispute. His right cross was a frightening weapon—when it connected. But I cannot rate him among the top-ten all time heavyweight punchers, or even the top 20, for that matter. Before you blow a gasket keep in mind the four criteria mentioned earlier. We are not just considering raw power, but the effective use of that power to achieve victory against quality opposition on a consistent basis. If Sandy Koufax, the great baseball pitcher, had never learned to control his fastball, his full potential would never have been realized. Pure speed was not enough, just as raw power is not enough unless it can be used effectively to achieve the desired result.
“The problem for Earnie was that throughout his career he remained a second rate boxer with a first rate punch.”
The problem for Earnie was that throughout his career he remained a second rate boxer with a first rate punch. When we combine that flaw with his serious stamina issues the true measure of his greatness (or lack thereof) as a puncher comes into clear focus. The key to defeating Earnie was not to let him hit you, which wasn’t that difficult if you were a skilled boxer. But even if he did hit you with his best punch and you stood up and fought back, as happened on at least five different occasions, it was Earnie who was stopped.
Shaver’s greatest victory was his first round KO of former champion Jimmy Ellis in 1973. It was that win that thrust Shavers onto the world stage. He came into that fight with a 44-2 won- loss record that included an astounding 42 wins by knockout. Thirty-seven of those victims never made it past the 4th round. Nevertheless, even though the 33 year old Ellis was at least a year past his prime he was a pronounced favorite to win. The odds makers weren’t fooled. An examination of his record revealed his 42 KO victims had a total of 334 losses (and nearly half by knockout).
Ellis was very confident, as he should have been—maybe too confident. He came out punching in the first round and had Shavers in trouble right away. In desperation Shavers threw a right uppercut that landed flush on Ellis’s chin sending him sprawling to the canvas where he was counted out.
I don’t think Shavers’ management expected their fighter to win. They were well aware of his limitations. Early in his career, in his 15th fight, he was flattened by Ron Stander, a tough undefeated comer with nine straight wins. A decision was made not to take any chances after that loss and instead pad his record by carefully matching him against opponents who were used to losing. Until he met Ellis the only recognizable name on his record was Vicente Rondon, a former light heavyweight titlist whose previous two fights were quick knockout losses to Ron Lyle and Bob Foster. Shavers, fighting in his home town, was awarded the decision but was unable to catch Rondon with a solid punch.
After his stunning win over Ellis, Shavers was matched against top ranked Jerry Quarry. The Madison Square Garden crowd expected fireworks and they were not disappointed. Quarry opened up right away and knocked Shavers to the canvas with a series of lefts and rights. He was up at the count of nine and then retreated to the ropes. Quarry was landing punches without a return when the referee intervened and stopped the fight at 2:21 of the first round.
One year after his debacle against Quarry, Shavers returned to New York, this time fighting in the Garden’s adjacent smaller arena. His opponent was an ordinary but tough journeyman boxer named Bob Stallings, whose record was an uninspiring 21 wins and 24 losses. Stallings was able to avoid Shavers’ bombs on the way to winning a unanimous decision. It was only the second time Shavers had gone ten rounds and his lack of endurance was evident as he barely made it to the final bell.
Three weeks after losing to Stallings he fought a 10 round draw with Jimmy Young. After three more victories against modest opposition he faced his next big test against top ranked Ron Lyle. The two power punchers staged a free swinging brawl that saw Lyle come off the floor to outlast Shavers and stop him in the sixth round.
“Now that Shavers was meeting a better class of boxer he was scoring far fewer knockouts.”
Now that Shavers was meeting a better class of boxer he was scoring far fewer knockouts. Whereas prior to his loss to Quarry his KO ratio was 91 per cent, in his subsequent 41 fights he scored only 23 knockouts for a 56 per cent ratio. During that time he knocked out only one rated contender while going the 10 round distance with Henry Clark, Leroy Boone, James Tillis and Walter Santemore—not exactly household names. These last two were able to avoid Shaver’s equalizer and outpoint him. But he did show improvement in knocking out Clark in a rematch and stopping Howard Smith and Roy Williams, all three of whom were decent heavyweights.
On the rare occasions when a fighter was crazy enough, or tough enough, to exchange blows with Shavers the chance for a successful outcome improved if they could get beyond the 5th round. Bernardo Mercado, and Tex Cobb did just that. They took Shavers’ best shots and eventually stopped him in the 7th and 8th rounds respectively. Cobb was asked what it was like to be hit by Shavers. “The first right he threw missed and landed on my shoulder”, said Tex.“It felt like someone had dropped a bowling ball on my shoulder”.
Ken Norton was the only rated contender, other than Jimmy Ellis, that Shavers was able to defeat. Nearing the end of his career Norton seemed ready to accept defeat as soon as the bell rang. Perhaps it was the memory of his brutal knockout at the hands of George Foreman five years earlier that froze him into inaction against another big puncher. In a suicidal move Norton quickly retreated to the ropes where he presented Shavers with his dream target—a stationary fighter who would not fight back. After two knockdowns the fight was stopped in less than two minutes of the first round.
In his prime Shavers lost to Larry Holmes (twice), Jerry Quarry, Ron Lyle, Bob Stallings, Bernardo Mercado and Tex Cobb and couldn’t take out a light heavyweight (Rondon) who in his previous fight was flattened in two rounds by Bob Foster.
So what is the explanation for so many people believing Earnie Shavers is an all-time great puncher? I believe it can be traced to the hype surrounding two of his most important fights, both of which, ironically, he lost.
In 1977 Shavers fought Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship.It was a fight that should never have taken place. At 35 Ali was washed up but refused to accept reality. Making matters worse, he barely trained for the fight. Ali came into the ring weighing 225 pounds, the heaviest of his career. He was fleshy and out of shape. The “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” days were long gone.
If Ali had come into the ring in shape even at that late stage of his career he could have stopped Shavers in the eighth or ninth round. The key was to not let Shavers control the pace of the fight and rest when he wanted. But Ali had to rest as much as Shavers. The image that everyone remembers from the fight was The Greatest being rocked again and again by Shaver’s horrific punches as they slammed into his head. I counted at least 17 full force overhand rights that landed. At one point Ali nearly went down. It was amazing that he stood up under these punches. Only his ring guile, incredible chin, and Shaver’s lack of stamina kept him from being knocked out. It was the worst head beating of Ali’s career and did much to accelerate his descent into pugilistica dementia. At the end of 15 sickening rounds Ali was awarded the unanimous decision. Many fans thought the decision should have gone to Shavers.
When he was interviewed after the fight an exhausted and hollow eyed Ali made the memorable comment that added fuel to the growing respect for Shaver’s punching power: “Ernie hit me so hard, he shook my kinfolk back in Africa”.
Two years later Shavers fought Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship. For six rounds he tried mightily to land his haymaker but kept missing. Then, suddenly, in a brief moment of carelessness Holmes left himself open and one of Shaver’s wild swings connected to the side of his jaw. Holmes fell hard and landed flat on his back.
Holmes had never been knocked down. He was hurt but was up at the count of six and survived the round. Holmes continued his domination over the next three rounds. In the 11th round, with Shavers sucking wind and barely able to hold up his hands, the referee stopped the fight. Holmes told reporters that Shavers was the hardest puncher he had ever faced.
A huge deal was made of Holmes getting off the canvas and surviving the 7th round. It really was much ado about nothing. In their two fights totaling 23 rounds it was the only round Holmes lost. But it was a heavyweight title fight and the big punch had come out of nowhere to nearly upset the applecart. That is exactly why people are drawn to heavyweights. You never know when the big punch might land. And it is why people were drawn to the popular Shavers whose very presence in the ring generated a certain amount of excitement, as is the case with all big punchers, no matter what weight class they compete in.
The following week the cover of Sports Illustrated featured a photo of the fight with the headline “Can’t Keep A Good Man Down: Holmes Comes off the Deck to Overpower Shavers”. So in trying to build up Holmes the press had to build up Shavers as well. The fact of the matter is that despite hurting Holmes with his best punch he was unable to finish him. The hype over that one punch was blown way out of proportion. But the sport needed something to get excited about in the post Ali era. (Ali had announced his retirement a year earlier). The new heavyweight king by comparison was a competent but colorless champion who ruled over a division depleted of talent.
Earnie Shavers gave us some of boxing’s most memorable moments. He is a class act and a credit to the sport. But his reputation as a great puncher is based on a lucky punch KO of Ellis, a fight that he lost (Ali), one spectacular knockdown (Holmes), and comments by several former opponents who beat him. That alone is not enough to place him among the greatest heavyweight punchers. Let the facts speak for themselves.
Mike Silver is the author of “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science” (McFarland Publishing) and “Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing. A Photographic History” (Lyons Press).
If asked to name the greatest boxer who ever lived most boxing historians would most likely place Sugar Ray Robinson in the top spot. That is always a good choice. But it is not the only choice. There are, perhaps, three or four other boxers whose spectacular record of accomplishment makes them worthy of consideration.
In his latest literary effort Springs Toledo makes a very strong case for a boxer who just may have been the greatest who ever lived—Harry Greb. In a career that spanned 13 years (1913 to 1926) the legendary “Pittsburgh Windmill” fought a phenomenal 294 professional boxing contests often against the greatest boxers of his era. His record shows only 19 losses (eight official losses and 11 newspaper decisions). Most occurred either early or late in his career.
Harry Greb, both as an athlete and a person, is one of the most fascinating and charismatic characters of the 20th century.
For those readers lucky enough to have read Toledo’s previous works this paean to a truly great fighter exposes us once again to the author’s colorful and engaging writing style. Toledo is passionate about his subject, and rightly so. Harry Greb, both as an athlete and a person, is one of the most fascinating and charismatic characters of the 20th century.
In conveying to the reader why Greb deserves his place at the pinnacle of boxing’s Mt. Rushmore Smokestack Lightning: Harry Greb, 1919 focuses on the most amazing and mind boggling year of any prizefighter of any era. In just 96 pages Toledo offers enough evidence and detail to cause the reader to shake his head in disbelief at what no normal human being would seem capable of doing.
From January 1st to December 31st 1919—while Greb was ranked the number one middleweight contender—he stormed through twenty-one cities in eight states and fought forty-five times. (Today forty-five fights would constitute an entire 10 to 15 year professional boxing career). “Greb was on track for well over 60 had scheduled bouts not been cancelled because of either injuries to himself, or an opponent’s nerve.”
In one year Greb “thrashed five Hall of Famers ten times, personally sought out the middleweight champion in New York City, ran two light heavyweight champions out of the ring, called out Jack Dempsey every chance he got, manhandled heavyweights, and barely lost a round while suffering unspeakable injuries.” According to Boxrec.com Greb won all 45 bouts.
Toledo’s books—and this one is no exception—contain far more than boxing history. They are absorbing and richly detailed character studies as well. He delves into aspects of Greb’s private life outside of the ring, describing injuries to a pre-adolescent psyche that may have contributed to his extraordinary and highly unorthodox boxing style.
At the very beginning of Greb’s sensational run he married the love of his life, Mildred Reilly, a beautiful and feisty vaudeville actress with a personality that complemented his own. The book appropriately begins with their marriage in Pittsburgh on January 30th 1919. As the author notes: “Marriage steadied but did not quite civilize Greb, who went on to build his legend around what he did to heavyweights, around a slogan he’d repeat again and again: “anybody, anyplace, anytime.” It was not unusual for him to fight two and three times in a week.
Greb did not allow anything to interfere with his drive to prove himself the greatest fighter on the planet. The honeymoon would have to wait. He had a fight scheduled in Cleveland the day after his wedding with tough middleweight contender Tommy Robson for a $1000 dollar payday.
He easily defeated Robson who, like all of Greb’s opponent’s, could not solve or fathomThe Windmill’s style. “How does he do it”, asked Robson. “How can any man of his weight dance and leap and keep on top of you the way he does without becoming exhausted? And he can go twenty rounds the same way. He is the biggest freak in the ring.” Indeed, Greb never seemed to tire and actually got stronger and faster as a bout progressed. One newspaper described him as “the leaping, bounding, elusive Greb, who kept both of his long arms going like flails.” The next day Harry returned to Pittsburgh and his bride.
Before he eventually won the middleweight championship from Johnny Wilson in 1923 Greb had boldly issued challenges to the light heavyweight and heavyweight champions. Both avoided him.Along the way he hung the only loss on future heavyweight champion Gene Tunney who was savaged over 15 rounds. Prior to the bout Tunney was warned “he is not a normal fighter. He will kill you”. To force a bout with heavyweight champion Dempsey (which never materialized) Greb sought out two of his top challengers, Tommy Gibbons and Bill Brennan and defeated both.
He issued a public challenge to 6’ 6” 245 pound Jess Willard and said he’d donate the purse to the Red Cross.
In his persistent quest to win the heavyweight championship (despite rarely weighing more than 170 pounds) Greb went to extreme lengths to prove he was worthy. He issued a public challenge to 6’ 6” 245 pound Jess Willard and said he’d donate the purse to the Red Cross. He also opened negotiations with Luis Firpo and said he’d fight the number one ranked heavyweight contender Harry Wills “in an arena or a gym just to prove that the best African-American heavyweight in the world wasn’t much.” As noted by the author, “All of them towered over him and outweighed him by at least fifty pounds, which suggests that Greb either had screws loose or was a misanthrope raging against all men, including himself.”
Toledo goes on to say, “People who knew Greb said he needed to fight often, that he thrived on his marathon plan of meeting them all, one after the other.” He typically asked for two things—“fair terms” and “the hardest guy.” While he was pleasant and friendly and loyal outside of a boxing ring, inside the ring he was an unstoppable force of nature the likes of which had never been seen before or since.
Late in his career tragedy dogged the great fighter. Four months before Greb won the middleweight title in 1923 his young wife succumbed to tuberculosis. She was just 22 years old. That same year he began to go blind in his right eye due to an injury received in a bout. He eventually lost the sight in the eye but continued to fight. Attempts to get Greb a shot at Dempsey’s title were still going on in July 1925, “when he was half blind and fighting with his head tilted to the right.”
Even half blind Greb scored some of the greatest victories of his career.
Even half blind Greb scored some of the greatest victories of his career. “But he was losing his bearings; his boundless energy now crossed with sorrow, was like a scattershot.” Perhaps to compensate for his fading vision and gain an edge he often abused the rules and risked disqualification. He became reckless outside the ring as well. There was a drunken nightclub brawl, affairs with chorus girls, breach of promise law suits, and the loss of his middleweight championship in 1926 to Tiger Flowers by a controversial split decision. At 32, and after nearly 300 professional fights, the streaking comet that was Harry Greb was finally slowing down.
Less than two months after losing the rematch to Flowers by another split decision Greb was involved in a car accident that fractured a bone near the base of his skill. Ten days later surgery to repair the injury went wrong and he died the following day.
Ninety-two years after his death the legendary fighter remains an object of fascination and mystery. Smokestack Lightning reveals the legend in all his glory and helps to unravel some of the mystery and, if possible, provokes even greater admiration and awe for the one and only Pittsburgh Windmill.
Mike Silver is the author of The Arc of Boxing:The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science (McFarland Publishers 2008) and Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing (Lyons Press 2016). Both are available at Amazon.com.
Argentina has not exported a lot of boxers, but the ones that have come from the land of Carnival have been very talented. In 1923 Lus Angel Firpo traveled to New York City to challenge Jack Dempsey for the heavyweight title. The Wild Bull of the Pampas was knocked out by Jack in the second round, but before being stopped he managed to knock Jack clean out of the ring.
Pascual Perez won an Olympic Gold medal in 1948 and went on to become the first world champion from Argentina when he won the title in 1952. Two other world champions would follow in his footsteps, middleweight Carlos Monzoon and light heavyweight Victor Galindez. Heavyweight contender Oscar Bonavena and light heavyweight Jorge Ahumada were also from Argentina.
All of these boxers were very skilled, withMonzoon and Perez often mentioned as all time greats. Each of them either won or challenged for world titles.
Gregorio Peralta was another Argentine who knew his way around a boxing ring. Born in 1935, Goyo began boxing as an amateur while in the navy. He won numerous titles before turning pro in 1958. Gregorio was immediately a rising star and very popular. In his first 16 bouts he was only defeated once and that was by decision to Justo Benitez. He would go on to defeat Benitez three times.
In his 17th bout, Peralta was matched with Peruvian Mauro Mina. Mina was arguably the greatest fighter to come from South America. Goyo was stopped in the 8th round. This was only one of three times he was stopped in what would be a career that consisted of 116 fights. He went on to defeat Mina in a rematch, being one of only three men to beat Mina and the only one to defeat Mina in his prime.His other stoppages were on cuts to Willie Pastrano in a title fight, and in the 10th round against George Foreman in their second fight. In almost 20 rounds against the much larger Foreman, Gregorio was never knocked off his feet.
Peralta had an educated left hand, that he put to good use while throwing jabs and hooks.
Gregorio Peralta was a very cagy boxer. He moved around the ring in a very relaxed fashion and used feints and head movement. Peralta had an educated left hand, that he put to good use while throwing jabs and hooks. He would often lead with the hook firing it from a straight up position similar to what Conn did in his first fight with Louis. Another tactic he used was to move in behind a jab and then step forward moving his right foot ahead of his left. This would put him into a southpaw stance for just a moment where he would unleash a combination. It was quite an effective strategy which he used in his first fight with Foreman. Always remaining loose, it was very difficult to hit him with a solid shot.
In 1963, after compiling a very solid record in South America, Peralta made his debut in the United States where he was matched against World Light Heavyweight Champion Wille Pastrano. The bout, held in Miami, was a non-title affair. Gregorio was very impressive while easily defeating Willie over ten rounds.
He would then go on to defeat top contender Wayne Thornton twice before getting another match with Pastrano, this time for the title. The fight was held in the champion’s home town of New Orleans, and there was some controversy over how it ended. Peralta was reportedly ahead on points when he was cut over his left eye. The referee stopped the bout at the end of the fifth round. Peralta’s manager claimed the referee, while examining the cut, used his fingers to make it worse. Gregorio never made any excuses for the loss, only saying he felt he could have gone on.
In his next 43 fights Peralta suffered only one loss (to heavyweight Oscar Bonavena) but never got another chance at the title. It was a case of being too talented for his own good. Though he had begun to grow out of the light heavyweight division, he never became a full fledged heavyweight. Today he would be a cruiserweight.
He and Bonavena fought to a draw in a rematch which led to talk ofgetting a fight with then WBA Heavyweight Champion Jimmy Ellis. That certainly would have been an interesting fight and Goyo would have had a real shot at winning the title. Instead, he was matched with up and coming contender George Foreman. Big George had only 15 fights at the time, but was winning them in devastating fashion. He was also taller and heaver than Peralta.
On February 16, 1970, when Gregorio stepped into the ring to face Foreman, he looked more like an actor making his entrance onto the stage for a performance in a play by Shakespeare than a man about to engage in the most violent of sports. The Argentine with the movie star good looks had his hair carefully combed. He was calm and walked around the ring smiling. When introduced he took bows while holding his hand out. Maybe he thought he was at one of the Broadway Theaters. His performance after the bell rang that night would have certainly gotten him a Tony Award nomination as he put on a brilliant display of boxing skills.
Big George, as was his fashion back then, came out strong looking to end matters quickly. Goyo had other ideas and avoided Foreman’s charge likea matador avoids a bull. For the first five rounds Peralta relied mostly on his left hand. He was not dancing away from George as much as he was taking steps around him. Gregorio would through quick hooks to the head and body and then clinch when things became dangerous, Peralta used his left hook and his switch to southpaw move to neutralize Foreman’s power. George was getting in good shots, many to the kidneys. Gregorio’s hooks to the body took some of the steam out of big George, but the future champ was still pounding away himself. In another nod to the stage, at the end of a number of rounds Peralta would take a bow and extend his arm out as if expecting an ovation for his performance. He deserved one.
In the fifth round Peralta opened a cut over George’s left eye. In the sixth round, Goyo started landing with his previously dormant right hand. It had turned into a very interesting fight, a classic between a wily old veteran and a powerful up and comer.
In the end, Peralta’s need to use defensive tactics to hold George off cost him the decision, though the crowd booed when Foreman was announced the winner. The decision was fair but the scoring was ridiculously one sided. It was a much closer fight than what the judge’s cards would have you believe. It was a marvelous performance by Peralta. It’s also a very interesting fight to watch.
The two would meet again seven months later, and this time Foreman would stop Peralta in the tenth round, but not before once again having difficulty with him.
Gregorio would continue campaigning as a heavyweight. He moved to Spain where he beat Jose Manuel Urtain and Gerhard Zech among others. There was talk of a fight with Muhammad Ali but that never materialized; however; the two did put on an exhibition match in Barcelona.
As his career was winding down Peralta dropped a decision to Ron Lyle, and in his last fight Goyo fought a draw with Lyle. That was in 1973.
Eventually, he moved back to Argentina where he ran for political office. A soft spoken yet charismatic man, he was well loved in his home country. His final record in the ring stands at 119 total bouts, 98 wins (60 knockouts), 9 losses (3 by stoppage), and 9 draws, a remarkable career. He was one of those fighters who would have easily been a world champion if the timing had been better, though I get the feeling he might have preferred a career on the stage.
Gregorio Peralta answered his final bell on October 3, 2001. He was only 66 years old. The newspapers reported he died from heart failure brought on by other health issues. It was also reported he had been suffering from Alzheimers Disease, though it is more likely it was CET from his years in the ring. He should not be forgotten.
Marlon Starling Interviewed by Mike Silver for Boxing Over Broadway
Former welterweight champion Marlon Starling was the fifth boxer from Connecticut to win a world title. Louis “Kid” Kaplan, Pinky Silverberg, Batt Battalino and Willie Pep all won their titles during the golden age of Connecticut boxing from the 1920s to the 1940s. During that time the “Nutmeg State” was home to many other outstanding boxers including Lou Bogash, Ted Lowry, Chico Vejar, Julie Kogon, Johnny Cesario, Vic Cardell, Larry Boardman and Bernie Reynolds.
Marlon Starling is far removed from that era, nevertheless he could accurately be described as “old school”. There were few soft touches during his ascent to the title. He accomplished his goal the old fashioned way—he earned it. Along the way be became one of the top professional boxers of the 1980s.
Before turning pro Marlon reportedly won 97 of 110 amateur bouts. His professional career spanned 11 years (1979-1990). He lost only 5 of 52 professional fights and stopped 27 opponents.Only one of his five career losses (all by decision) resulted in a unanimous verdict. He drew in two other bouts.
In an era of tough welterweight competition Marlon Starling stood out among his peers.
Marlon won his first 25 fights before losing a split 12 round decision to future welterweight champion Donald Curry in 1982. He defeated his next six opponents (flattening four of them) and looked very impressive stopping hard punching Jose Baret and outpointing Kevin Howard over 12 rounds.
The rematch with Curry for the world title resulted in another decision loss for Starling. The Dallas hotshot seemed to have Marlon’s number. But showing the patience and persistence that was the hallmark of his stolid fighting style Marlon got back on track with wins over Lupe Acquino, Floyd Mayweather, Sr., Simon Brown and Pedro Vilella.
In 1987 he defeated Mark Breland in a torrid battle for the WBA welterweight title, stopping the former Olympic champion in the 11th round. Less than a year later he won the WBC welterweight belt with a 9th round TKO of England’s Lloyd Honeyghan.
Moving up in weight Marlon challenged IBF middleweight champion Michael Nunn but lost a majority 12 round decision. Four months later, on August 19th, 1990, in the final fight of his career, Marlon lost the welterweight title to Maurice Blocker via another majority decision.
In an era of tough welterweight competition Marlon Starling stood out among his peers. Let’s read what he has to say about his career.
Mike: Marlon, let’s start by talking about some of your most important fights. In 1982 you lost a split 12 round decision for the North American welterweight title to Donald Curry. It was your first loss in 26 professional fights. A year later you lost a 15 round unanimous decision to Curry, this time for the world title. Was he your most difficult opponent?
Marlon: Not difficult. Donald Curry was my most challenging opponent. That’s because Donald was a boxer like me. He did nothing great, but everything good. That was the kind of fighter I was. It was like fighting a mirror image of me. I mean he wasn’t a dynamite puncher. He didn’t have a great hook, didn’t have a great left jab, but everything was good.
Mike: Often when boxers have similar styles it doesn’t make for an exciting fight. In fact, the New York Times reporter called it a “dull” fight.
Marlon: I believe I won that first fight. I mean I didn’t get the decision but I know in my heart I won that first fight. But at the time Don Curry was a big Bob Arum fighter so he got the decision. The second fight was a different story. I lost that second fight more than he won it. Curry prepared himself better than I did for the second fight, even though I was prepared. He won a very close 15 round decision. My trainer kept saying ‘back him up, back him up’. But the problem was I couldn’t back him up. He was a little stronger than me in that fight. So he retained the title. I got out of the ring that day and for the first time in my career, maybe after 30 fights, said to myself ‘Wow, that guy beat me!’ And that was something that was tough for me to cough up.”
Mike: You didn’t let that defeat slow you down. Over the next two and a half years you won 10 of 12 fights culminating in your 11th round TKO victory over Mark Breland on August 22, 1987 for the welterweight championship. Before turning pro in 1984 Mark Breland had won every amateur title including an unprecedented five New York Golden Gloves championships and an Olympic gold medal.
Marlon: I knocked him out but I still got the worst ass whippin’ I ever took. His jab hurt like most guys right hand, and he was hitting me with that jab. His jab broke my nose. I should have boxed the man, worked my way in, feint the man, and do all this, but at the time I wanted that world championship. I got it, but I had to pay to get in. My strategy was to wear him down with body punches. Once I got inside I was banging that body. I didn’t like to pay the price but I had to.
Mike: You also had a huge edge in professional experience—45 pro fights and 287 rounds to his 18 fights and 76 rounds. And you had fought tougher competition.
Marlon: Yes, my experience was a factor but also my professionalism, my conditioning and my willingness not to quit. But you know what? Mark Breland became one of my best friends. We talk every other week. He is a good man. I respect him to the utmost.
Mike: You fought a rematch with Breland eight months later that ended in a 12 round draw. Most observers thought you deserved the decision.
Marlon: Mark was a bit better in the second fight. I was better too and got hit less this time. I deserved to win that fight but he was an Arum fighter and they didn’t want him to lose.
Mike: Your victory over Breland won you partial recognition as welterweight champion. England’s Lloyd Honeyghan had defeated your nemesis Donald Curry two years earlier and was recognized as champion by a rival sanctioning group. In early 1989 you and Honeyghan met to unify the title. You stopped him in the 9th round.Tell me about that fight:
Marlon: Now Lloyd Honygan was a whole different ball game. I knew I was going to beat him up.
Mike: I recently watched a tape of the Honeyghan fight and you weren’t doing much for the first 3 or 4 rounds. Was that part of your strategy?
Marlon:The first two rounds I was just getting his technique…see what he’s doing…getting his timing down…getting his moves down. Lloyd was a good puncher but what good is a puncher if he ain’t gonna hit you? It’s all about hit and don’t get hit. I didn’t want to get careless. One time I did get careless and he hit me on top of the head and buckled my feet a little bit. Lloyd was a southpaw and every time he threw that right jab I’d counter with a right cross. If I showed him a feint and he put that left hand out I countered with the right. By the 5th or 6th round if I said jump he’d jump. He was actually waiting for it to happen. I mean by the 5th round I had this guy scared to punch. I was not what you’d call a knock out fighter but I’d get your attention with everything I’d throw.
Mike: Honeyghan had a big reputation coming into that fight, running up a string of impressive victories including a TKO of Donald Curry. Do you consider the Honeyghan fight your greatest career accomplishment?
Marlon: Most fans would think that but Lloyd Honeyghan was one of my easiest fights ever as a professional. I mean he played right into my hands. Maybe I was just so eager and wanted to get him so bad. I was sharp that night. I would rather get knocked out than take a beating like he did. Nobody needs to take a beating like that. I know he wore that fight for a long time.”
Mike: About a year after your victory over Honeyghan you put on 10 pounds and challenged middleweight champion Michael Nunn. You lost a 12 round decision. That was the only time you ever fought as a middleweight.
Marlon: I was at the point where I said to myself there is nobody else in the world that can beat me at welterweight so I moved up a weight class to fight Nunn. What did I have to lose? He wasn’t a big puncher and I believed I could beat this guy even though he was undefeated and a southpaw. But he was a little quicker than I thought and a lot taller. That’s not an excuse why I lost that fight. In the middle of the third or fourth round I had him in the corner and I took my gloves and I like dug them into his face and he said to me, ‘c’mon man fight fair’. I decided to just get in there and box him.I turned the fight into a sparring session. I didn’t go get him like I should have. That particular day he was a little sharper than I was. He won that fight because he worked harder. But you know what? After the fight we went out and had dinner together.
Mike: Who trained you?
Marlon: My first trainer was Johnny Duke. He trained me as an amateur and in my early years as a pro. For a little while Eddie Futch trained me but we had a falling out and I let Eddie go. After that Freddie Roach, who worked with Eddie, became my trainer. But for most of my career my trainer was Marlon Starling. They just had to keep me in line with the training regimen. Whatever happened in my career happened for a reason. When I got with Freddie I finished with Freddie. He didn’t have to do a lot to get me ready—just sharpen me up. We were friends.
Mike: What do you think of today’s top fighters? Do any of them stand out?
Marlon: I watch the fights on TV now and then but I couldn’t tell you. There are too many champions. If one of them walked by me I would ask ‘who was that?’ I mean when I was fighting I knew everybody in the top ten. Now I don’t know who they are. That doesn’t mean I’m trying to degrade anybody. I just don’t know. But from what I see when I do watch the fights a lot is missing. They have a title but they don’t have the skills.
Mike: What is missing?
Marlon: I don’t see things that they should have been taught to do years ago. Listen, you can win a title with a three punch combination— left jab, right cross, left hook. You don’t see too many people throwing that combination. You don’t even see a double jab. If you throw a punch you have to bring it back from where you threw it, because if you don’t I’m going to make you pay for it. If you throw that right hand out you’ve got to bring it right back to your face. A lot of times I see a fighter throw the right and it comes back to his chest. I will counter punch you all day if you do that. You’ll be afraid to throw punches if I was in the ring with you. If all you know is “fight” I can beat you. I’m not going to fight you. I’m going to box you and win. Most of the guys when under pressure all they know is “fight”. They don’t know the professionalism of being a good boxer. Anybody could fight. Dogs fight. You’ve got to outthink the other fighter. What I mean by outthink is that sometimes you have to outfight your opponent. I’m not fighting with a guy that punches like hell. I’m going to box you, until you get tired, and then I’m going to fight you. I was a thinking fighter. I didn’t fight the fighters and I didn’t box the boxers.
“Today’s boxers have more toughness than knowledge. You can be tough. I love to fight the tough guys because they don’t have the knowledge. A good right hand, a good jab, and a good left hook. You have those three punches you can go places. If you don’t have a great jab it’s like training with one arm. Everything works off the jab, at least as far as I’ve been taught.”
Mike: I noticed in reviewing your fights that you rarely got trapped on the ropes or in the corner.
Marlon: Ring generalship. Like I told people – ‘this is my house (the ring)’. I live here. I know that square. I got radar in back of me telling me ‘you’re coming close to the ropes, you’re coming close to the corner.’ You had to know these things.”
Mike: You were very strong at 147 pounds. You had huge shoulders and a powerful physique. Many fighters today lift weights to increase strength. Did you ever lift weights as part of your training routine?
Marlon: No, never. You know lifting weights tighten you up. I got most of my strength and power from punching the bag and training.”
Mike: You were sometimes criticized for showboating during a fight. In fact, your occassional clowning may have cost you the first Curry fight. Did you do it to play to the audience or confuse your opponent?
Marlon: I don’t showboat. It’s all right if you do a move and knock the guy out– then it’s all right. But if something doesn’t happen then you’re accused of showboatin’. Sometimes it’s just in your rhythm. You couldn’t tell me ‘Oh Marlon do the Starling Stomp.’I mean it wasn’t planned.I was just in the moment. Emotions come with this sport. I wasn’t trying to showboat. I was just trying to be me trying to get what I can get out of this guy.
Mike: In 1980, in only your sixth pro fight, you had the misfortune of fatally injuring your opponent Charley Newell. He never recovered from the brain injury and passed away nine days later. In spite of this tragedy you made the decision to continue with your career.
Marlon: I had previously fought him in an amateur fight when he was in prison. Charley Newell was a bully on the street but to me he wasn’t a bad person. We fought at the Civic Center in Hartford. I think it was January 9th. I hit him with a combo and knocked him out. I was working a job at that time and I went to work the next morning and I got a call that Charley Newell had passed away and that really bothered me. My parents always worried about what’s going to happen to me. I never worried about it. I came back for his funeral and his parents came up to me. His mother said to me ‘my son passed away doing something that he loved to do, don’t ever stop what you want to do.’ What she told me gave me the confidence to continue with my career.
Mike: Tommy Hearns was welterweight champion while you were an up and coming prospect. You weren’t ready to take him on but you did spar with him while he was preparing for the Sugar Ray Leonard fight in 1981. What did you learn from that experience?
Marlon: I got an offer to go to Vegas to work as a sparring partner and help Hearns get ready for Leonard. It was an opportunity for me to see what I could do with the ‘big boys’ out there. I sparred with Tommy and he broke my jaw but they knew I got the better of that sparring session. How do I know? They kept Milton McCrory far away from me after that. (Author’s Note: Milton McCrory, a future champion, was Hearns’s stablemate and a rising star in the welterweight division).
Mike: A few years after that sparring session you were ready to challenge Hearns or Leonard but you never fought them. Why not?
Marlon: Marlon Starling fought everyone out there.The reason why I didn’t fight Leonard or Hearns is because my name wasn’t that big. I trained with Tommy but they just didn’t want to take a chance and give up something they had. That’ why they didn’t fight me…they couldn’t make a lot of money fighting me.
Mike: Marlon, you lost the welterweight title to Maurice Blocker in your very last bout on August 19, 1990. The 12 round majority decision was very close and could have gone either way. You were only 30 years old and still a top rated welterweight. Why did you decide to retire?
Marlon: I don’t think he won but it wasn’t one of my best fights. I quit the ring because the promoters and managers were making more money than me and they weren’t taking the punches.
Mike Silver is the author of The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science and Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing. Both books are available on Amazon.com.