With the recent publication of Tris Dixon’s book Damage: The Untold Story Of Brain Trauma In Boxing (Hamilcar Publications), a discussion has been reopened about how dangerous boxing is and what should be done about making it safer, or less dangerous. When this excellent book first appeared I thought it would create a much bigger stir as it is an exhaustive study of the years of research into the affects of blows to the head that cause what was once called punch drunkenness, now called CTE or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. The book lays bare the brutality of the sport and the severe and permanent damage caused to the brains of those who participate in it.
I was at first taken aback by the lack of conversation over what happens to those who spend years in the ring, but I now realize that the truth is hard to face, especially when it is about something people love. Boxing is a highly emotional sport and those who are intoxicated by its primal attraction find it hard to justify their love for it with the reality of what is actually going on in the ring. It is easier to just shut one’s eyes than confront the truth.
For those who are willing to talk about it, there are those who say it is okay because fighters know the risks when they go into the profession. There are others who acknowledge the dangers and seek ways to better protect boxers. Very few call for an outright ban as that would not put an end to the sport but rather drive it underground.
Though there is much more research concerning brain trauma available now, the arguments over whether or not people should be allowed to beat each other up for the pleasure of spectators has been going on for decades.
In the bareknuckle days most contests were illegal and had to be held while staying one step ahead of the law. That did not deter these fights from occurring and drawing large audiences. Eventually, boxing found respectability when practiced in private clubs when they were billed as exhibitions. But the public desire to watch these matches meant there was much money to be made, and as the 20th Century moved towards the Roaring 20s, boxing began to be legalized in more and more places and promoters built major fights into huge attractions drawing upwards of a million dollars and more.
Boxing gloves are actually a weapon, not a safety device.
It was during this transformation that the boxing glove was introduced and billed as a way of making the sport safer and more civilized. This was the complete opposite of what the gloves did. In truth, they made the sport much more dangerous and lethal. Boxing gloves are actually a weapon, not a safety device. Add to wearing the gloves the taping of hands, and the fists are turned into weapons that deliver much more force than a bare fist could ever come close to. The reason for this is the bare fist will break when making forceful contact with the skull; the taped and gloved hand will not. The glove does not protect the brain, it protects the hand. In fact, if you want to make boxing less dangerous the best way would be to ban the boxing glove and any type of protection for the hand. I have been saying this for years.
Recently, I came across an article by Red Smith published in the New York Times on September 11, 1974. In it Smith writes about a conversation he had with the actor James Cagney about boxing. He cites a letter from Cagney referring to a time the two met at Champion Ingemar Johansson’s training camp. In it Cagney wrote, “When we met at the Johansson training camp some years back, I struck you a glancing blow, with the suggestion that we take the gloves off fighters to try to eliminate the concussions caused by the padded mitts. The expression on your face was wonderful to behold, and I kind of had an idea that you were looking at a guy with three heads instead of two.”
Cagney, who had brothers who were physicians had learned a bit about brain injuries from them and was onto something about the “padded mitts”.
He also went on to say, “I worked with a lot of former fighters in the picture business, and I saw the results of getting belted about the head. You know, scar tissue once formed after a concussion continues to grow. That’s why it’s progressive encephalopathy.”
Cagney continued, “If you ever hit anybody on top of the head with a bare fist, you wouldn’t try again in a hurry.
Cagey saw what many of us who have spent a lot of time around boxers have seen, but most do not want to face, boxing causes irreparable brain damage. Cagney continued, “If you ever hit anybody on top of the head with a bare fist, you wouldn’t try again in a hurry. You would learn boxing and body‐punching, and, that’s what I’m after. Gloves sacrifice the brain to preserve the metacarpals. Did you read about the last days of Lew Tendler, that great old lightweight, in a wheelchair with the classic symptoms of Parkinson’s disease?”
Notice how he mentioned Tendler showed the classic “symptoms” of Parkinson’s, not that he had the disease. It is now known that fighters do not develop Parkinson’s Disease from boxing, but rather something described as Boxing Related Parkinson’s Syndrome. This is caused by blows to the head.
It is interesting that a movie actor speaking in the early 1970s would have this knowledge, but it makes sense for a few reasons. First, Cagney had been around boxers all of his life and witnessed first hand the effects of the sport on them. Second, having doctors for brothers he was in tune with the medical aspect of what happens to the brain when it is repeatedly hit, and third, Cagney, being an actor, was an observer of human behavior as well as a highly intelligent man who could look beyond the surface when thinking about such matters. It’s hard to argue with his comments.
The boxing glove has allowed the sport to become extremely punishing to the human brain.
It is often said boxing is the most basic of sports as it pits two opponents against one another with nothing other than their fists. That is hogwash, it pits two well trained athletes against one another with lethal weapons in both hands. The boxing glove has allowed the sport to become extremely punishing to the human brain. For those who are looking for a way to make boxing less dangerous, listen to James Cagney. Let’s focus on protecting the brain, not the hands.
The wealth of information contained in this remarkable book is more important than 100 medical papers about brain damage in boxing because it is written in layman’s language and exposes the personal stories behind the cold statistics and scientific jargon. Its words should serve as a clarion call for action on behalf of the athletes for whom boxing is not so much a choice as a calling. In bringing attention to this serious topic Tris Dixon does not seek to abolish boxing—although there is a strong case to be made for that both medically and morally—but to try and make a dangerous sport less dangerous by shining a light on a subject that is too often ignored or neglected by the boxing establishment.
The first chapters reveal a litany of neurological studies that emphatically link boxing to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is a medical term for brain damage caused by repetitive concussive and/or sub concussive blows to the head. At least 70 years before Dr. Bennet Omalu famously discovered and published his findings on chronic traumatic encephalopathy in American football players, neurologists in the 1920s and 1930s had already made that same connection as it relates to professional boxers. At that time CTE was known to the general public by a different name—“punch drunk”. The term was used to describe boxers “who were losing their faculties in the form of slurred speech, awkward movement, memory loss, and other degenerative behavioral changes.” Eventually scientists and neurologists stopped using the pejorative “punch drunk” and replaced it with the more elegant sounding “dementia pugilistica”, which is just another name for CTE.
That would mean from the beginning of the last century to the present thousands upon thousands of boxers have been afflicted with varying degrees of brain damage.
Subsequent studies indicated the condition was not confined to any specific population of prizefighter. “It was not just the old fighters who suffered from it”, writes Dixon. “Nor, as the early research showed, was it just novices, sparring partners, and fall guys. Some fighters were burnt out before others, some fought long, hard careers, some were ‘punchy’ after a dozen fights.” Most alarming of all was a consensus by the scientists that approximately 90% of all professional boxers were affected in some way. That would mean from the beginning of the last century to the present thousands upon thousands of boxers have been afflicted with varying degrees of brain damage.
CTE is a progressive condition that slowly but surely gets worse over time. Dixon describes the ongoing research that is attempting to understand why some boxers develop symptoms early and others seem able to function normally until their 50s or early 60s when they suddenly drop off the cliff, so to speak, and quickly descend into a haze of mental confusion and premature senility even though the boxer has retired from the ring and repeated head traumas are at an end.
In addition to explaining the science, Dixon does not shy away from questioning the moral ambiguities of the sport. He quotes Dr. Ernst Jokl, whose book The Medical Aspects of Boxing (1941) is considered a seminal work for its time: “Of all the major sports, boxing occupies a special position since its aim is that of producing injuries, more particularly to the brain…similar injuries occur in sports other than boxing, e.g., in football or wrestling. But here they are accidents rather than sequale of intentional acts. Only in boxing are traumatic injuries unavoidable even if the rules are adhered to.”
Second-impact syndrome, which can result in permanent brain damage, is a common occurrence in many prizefights and sparring sessions…
Dixon notes that in recent years researchers have determined that one of the most dangerous aspects of both boxing and football is second impact-syndrome “when someone suffers a second concussion while still suffering from the first.” Second-impact syndrome, which can result in permanent brain damage, is a common occurrence in many prizefights and sparring sessions yet “is not widely discussed in boxing when it should be a regular part of the conversation…[it] is one of the most serious threats to brain injury, both in the long and short term. In second-impact syndrome, the first hard hit has done more damage than anyone suspects and then the boxer takes a follow-up shot and life can be irreparably changed. A fighter can be hurt in sparring and still not be healed by fight night, when disaster can strike.” The danger is compounded in the presence of an incompetent referee or ringside physician. Dixon laments the fact that boxing does not have the equivalent of the “tap out” in mixed martial arts (MMA) contests. But the “I am willing to be carried out on my shield” mentality is embedded into the culture of this ancient sport and in the minds of its fighters. Even so, modern gloved boxing was never meant to be a human demolition derby or a fight to the death.
His (Ali’s) family did not want to believe or admit that boxing was the cause.
Of course no book on brain injuries in boxing would be complete without mentioning the most famous boxer of them all—Muhammad Ali. Dixon devotes several chapters to Ali, starting when Ali began to show symptoms of CTE while still fighting. By his early 40s (a few years after he retired) Ali’s hand tremors, slowing of his speech and movement noticeably worsened. His family did not want to believe or admit that boxing was the cause. They claimed that he had Parkinson’s disease and his condition had nothing to do with boxing. While it’s possible that in later years he may have developed Parkinson’s disease Dixon quotes several prominent doctors who state unequivocally that boxing was the primary cause of Ali’s infirmity.
Ali actually suffered from Parkinson’s syndrome, which is destruction by trauma to the same parts of the brain that are destroyed by someone who develops Parkinson’s disease. It is not the same as Parkinson’s disease and has a different cause.
Ali actually suffered from Parkinson’s syndrome, which is destruction by trauma to the same parts of the brain that are destroyed by someone who develops Parkinson’s disease. It is not the same as Parkinson’s disease and has a different cause. CTE, which can cause Parkinson’s syndrome, is identified at autopsy by the presence of tau protein in the brain. Tau gradually breaks down brain cells, causing the reduced state fighters find themselves in while they’re still alive. Dr. Robert Cantu, one of the world’s foremost neurosurgeons, and senior advisor to the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee states that “CTE is a highly serious issue itself, but it could also be an accelerant to other neurological illnesses”, something he is almost certain of. “Of the great fighters who died and were diagnosed with dementia, Parkinson’s, ALS, or Alzheimer’s over the years, there is not only a chance that it was just CTE misdiagnosed, but it could have triggered different medical problems. You’ve got dementia, Alzhiemer’s, Parkinson’s but you got it twenty or thirty years earlier. But there are pure cases of CTE, and in those cases they’re probably not an accelerant, just the result.” Dr. Ann McKee, another renowned neuropathologist interviewed by Dixon, “has checked more than twenty-five boxers’ brains and has yet to see one that has not had CTE from fighting.”
“Statistics from CompuBox, which compiled the punch stats from 47 of Ali’s 61 professional fights, revealed he was hit 8,877 times.”
Dixon tells us that in 1981 a CAT scan of Ali’s brain was taken just before his last fight. It showed the type of atrophy that show up in 50 percent of boxers with more than 20 bouts—a percentage far higher than in the general population. This type of abnormality is found four times as frequently in boxers as in non-boxers. In the latter half of his 20 year career Ali absorbed a huge number of punches: “Statistics from CompuBox, which compiled the punch stats from 47 of Ali’s 61 professional fights, revealed he was hit 8,877 times.” That number does not include all the hits he took in countless rounds of sparring. Ali had stayed too long and paid a terrible price. At the time of his death at the age of 74 in 2016 Ali “had been unwell for 3 decades.” His brain damage was severe, and it was all due to boxing—not Parkinson’s disease as has so often erroneously been credited for his condition. Had Ali donated his brain for research the diagnosis of CTE would have been confirmed, as it has with the dozens of deceased boxers (and many more football players) who willed their brains to science. Instead, the most recognizable face on the planet was propped up as an advocate to find a cure for Parkinson’s disease. All well and good, but what he should have been was the poster person for brain damage in boxing.
Frankie (Pryor) told Dixon she wished that Ali’s family had publicly acknowledged the reason behind the icon’s demise as that could have helped countless more fighters understand what happened to them.
Frankie Pryor knows about CTE first hand. She is one of several wives of former champions who were interviewed by Dixon. Frankie’s late husband, Aaron “Hawk” Pryor, was one of the greatest fighters of the past 50 years. But, like so many others, he became a boxing casualty. Frankie told Dixon she wished that Ali’s family had publicly acknowledged the reason behind the icon’s demise as that could have helped countless more fighters understand what happened to them. “It was kind of always my one regret because the one fighter who had the notoriety and could have brought a lot of attention to this was Ali”, she said. “And then they went off on this Parkinson’s thing…I don’t think it was done maliciously. Maybe Lonnie [Ali’s wife] didn’t fully understand the impact, but just to say, ‘it wasn’t boxing, it was Parkinson’s.’ No it wasn’t.”
How sad for this tragic sport that there is no Muhammad Ali Center for patients and family members who are dealing with boxing induced brain damage.
There is a research center named for Ali in Phoenix, Arizona—the Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center. It is described as “a comprehensive resource center for patients and family members dealing with Parkinson’s disease.” That is the legacy the champ’s family prefers. But what does that legacy mean to the legions of damaged boxers who, like Ali, are suffering the debilitating effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy? How sad for this tragic sport that there is no Muhammad Ali Center for patients and family members who are dealing with boxing induced brain damage.
Nevertheless, research into the causes and treatment of CTE continues thanks to the efforts of Dr. Robert Cantu, Dr. Ann McKee, and Dr. Charles Bernick. They are at the forefront of the science seeking to detect and track the earliest and most subtle signs of brain injury in those exposed to head trauma. A remedy to treat, or perhaps even reverse, the damage done by the tau protein is a long way off. Many of the studies will not bear fruit for another 10 or even twenty years. In the meantime what can be done to limit the damage? The answer: Plenty, but only if there is the will to change. Among the changes that Dixon says should be considered are glove size, reducing exposure by limiting the number of rounds and their duration, better education for referees and ringside physicians, and the use of head guards.
Dixon points out “the lack of detailed education with trainers, through commissions or sanctioning bodies. No memos have gone out since CTE was confirmed.
There are many people and organizations in the professional boxing world that are not anxious to accept the findings of the scientists or do anything of significance that might make the sport less dangerous. Dixon points out “the lack of detailed education with trainers, through commissions or sanctioning bodies. No memos have gone out since CTE was confirmed. Nothing changed, yet this—punch–drunk syndrome—was boxing’s problem before it was anyone else’s.” In the words of Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player, WWE wrestler, and founder of an organization called the Concussion Legacy, “Fighters are on their own…If you compare boxing to what’s happening in football or other sports there’s virtually no one looking out for the athletes…Without a centralized organization, there’s nowhere for boxers to get educated, no go to source, no self-help manuals, and no union.” Absent a centralized organization or boxers’ union (don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen) the major promoter/entrepreneurs are in control. Referees and ringside officials are licensed by state boxing commissions but they are paid by the promoter. This is a clear conflict of interest as the promoter has a vested interest in seeing that a promising fighter under contract to him does not lose. Referees and ringside physicians should be completely independent of having anything to do with a promoter or sanctioning organization. Dr. Margaret Goodman, a respected former ringside physician for the Nevada Boxing Commission, explained how a promoter’s influence can determine who officiates: “If you [the ringside physician] stop a fight or recommend a fight should be stopped from a promoter that has big connections with the commission, you’re never going to work another fight again. Same thing for the referees. Same thing for the judges…there are too many outside influences, and the overall health of the sport has not improved as much as it could from those factors as well, which most people don’t take into account.” No one wants to see a boxer seriously injured but with no effective oversight in place the pervasive greed and corruption of promoters and sanctioning organizations takes precedence over any concern for the boxer’s health.
One cannot help but be moved and disturbed by the author’s accounts of his interviews with these damaged gladiators.
The best parts of the book involve Dixon’s description of his personal interaction with the boxers and their families. One cannot help but be moved and disturbed by the author’s accounts of his interviews with these damaged gladiators. Although the boxers were concerned about the long term effects of their punishing careers most said—and it speaks to the pull of this sport and how central it is to their lives—that they would do it again even if it meant winding up with brain damage.
“Fighters must be made to understand the cumulative toll sparring and boxing takes on them and they need to be prepared to walk away when the time comes.”
Dixon concludes with the following words: “The sport might not be able to save every fighter but it must give them the best chance of saving them from themselves. Fighters must be made to understand the cumulative toll sparring and boxing takes on them and they need to be prepared to walk away when the time comes. That is the hardest part for many fighters, and it’s why the sport should do more to help as they start a new chapter….It’s time boxing confronts its own worst problem, stops ignoring it, and steps up to address it at all levels. This is a sport of courage and it will take bravery but it’s happened in football, soccer, and rugby although it should not be up to other sports to take on boxing’s biggest fight.” It is a fight that is long overdue.
Damage: The Untold Story Of Brain Trauma In Boxing
By Tris Dixon
Hamilcar Publications, 227 Pages, $29.99
Mike Silver’s books include “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science” and “Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing-A Photographic History”; His most recent book is “The Night the Referee Hit Back: Memorable Moments From the World of Boxing”.
The Greater Boston area has been home to two World Heavyweight Champions; John L. Sullivan and Rocky Marciano, neither of whom ever defended the title there. In fact, even though boxing has always been popular in Boston, there has only been one Heavyweight Title fight held in Beantown. That was the 1940 match between the great Joe Louis and Al McCoy. Interestingly, McCoy was a native of Maine and resided in Waterville though he fought often in Boston.
When it was decided Louis would travel to Boston to defend the championship there were two New England fighters who stood out has the prime challengers to take on the Brown Bomber. One was McCoy and the other was Tony Shucco, a Boston native. I’m not sure why McCoy was picked but many old timers told me they believe, because of his style, Shucco would have been able to give Joe a better fight.
The fight took place on December 16, 1940 at the Boston Garden. A crowd of 13,334 showed up to watch as Louis handed out a one sided drubbing to the very game McCoy. The fight ended when the New England fighter was unable to come out for the fifth round.
The Louis of 1940 was pretty much at his peak and is still thought by many experts to have been the greatest heavyweight champion ever. While McCoy was never a threat, Boston fans did get to see the Champ in action. Nobody complained as the outcome was a forgone conclusion.
So that was the only time Joe Louis would be seen in a Boston boxing ring, or was it? Well, no. Joe never again defended the title title in Boston, But he did return for a couple of exciting appearances a few years later. His second and third visits turned out to be more exciting than his fight against Al McCoy. For even though these bouts were labeled as exhibitions, they were in fact hard fought battles. The second bout in particular.
In June of 1948 Joe Louis had his last fight as champion when he kayoed Jersey Joe Walcott in the 11th round. 7 months earlier Walcott had give Louis all he could handle for 15 rounds while losing a decision many believed he deserved to win. Joe wanted to prove he was the better fighter and did. Most thought he would retire after the fight, and Joe wanted to but he was facing financial difficulties stemming from tax problems he was having with the IRS. Instead of calling it quits he went on a barnstorming tour of “exhibitions” where he figured he could pick up some easy money. Still being champion made him more marketable.
On two occasions during his tour Louis stopped in Boston. His opponent in both matches was tough contender Johnny Shkor (pronounced “score”). Shkor was a hard punching 6’4” battler who weighed in at around 220 pounds for many of his fights. He was originally from Baltimore but fought out of Boston where he was managed by Johnny Buckley. He had a career final record of 52 bouts with 31 wins, 19 losses, and 2 draws. 22 of his wins came via knock out. His biggest victory was a 1947 stoppage on cuts of Tami Mauriello which took place at the Boston Arena. Shkor would also go on to face two future champs, Jersey Joe Walcott and Rocky Marciano.
The first encounter between Louis and Shkor took place at the Boston Arena on November 8, 1948 before 5,518 fans. According to Boston Globe sports writer Clif Keane it was a very spirited affair. And even though they fought with 14 ounce gloves Keane wrote “…there was more action in the four rounds than in Louis’ two titular fights with Jersey Joe Walcott…” Late in the fourth round Louis received a gash over his right eye from a clash of heads as Shkor waded into him. Former champ Jack Sharkey worked Shkor’s corner and former Welterweight Champion Jack Britton was the third man in the ring.
A year and a week later the two would go at it again, this time at the Boston Garden. At this point Joe had announced his retirement and, though he denied it, was testing the waters for a title match against the new champion Ezzard Charles.
Their “rematch” was scheduled for ten rounds, and again they wore 14 ounce gloves. Before 8,471 fans they picked up where they had let off. Louis came out strong and dropped Shkor three times in the first three rounds, once in the second and twice in the third. It appeared the fight wouldn’t go further than the four rounds the two went the year before, but Shkor proved tough and durable while Louis was not in top condition. The former champ coasted a bit but still had to keep Johnny in his place as the former sailor was not giving up. Again, the fans got more than their money’s worth. Louis had nothing but praise for Shkor after the fight telling reporters Johnny had improved since their first encounter and should be taken seriously as a contender.
While Joe kept denying he was heading for a comeback, 10 months later he was in the ring with Champion Ezzard Charles in what was a brutal fifteen round battle won by the Cincinnati Cobra. Louis continued to fight after that but never fought for the title again. Nine fights later he would be kayoed by Rocky Marciano in a fight that is still painful to watch. The great champion stayed on too long.
Boston fans were lucky in 1948 and 1949 to see the great Joe Louis in action, especially since he was in with a guy like Johnny Shkor who gave it his all.
(I want to thank my friend Dan Cuoco for providing me with news clippings from the bouts.)
SURVIVING THE HOLOCAUST CAMPS BY BOXING (1940 – 1945)
By Len Abram
As much as Holocaust stories horrify, they also inspire. Decades of research detail the murderers and their methods, from the industries that produced the poison gas or exploited slave labor, to the rail systems across Europe, with thousands of employees, that transported millions to final destinations.
Luck plays its part in survival stories. But when their fate is in their hands, in some cases literally, the survivors outwit and outlast the system determined to take their lives.
The survivors are the other side of the tragic equation. Their stories inspire hope that courage and faith can overcome evil on a scale still hard to imagine. Luck plays its part in survival stories. But when their fate is in their hands, in some cases literally, the survivors outwit and outlast the system determined to take their lives.
In 1980, the film “Playing for Time,” was based upon Fania Fenelon’s memoir, in which an orchestra at Auschwitz helped Fenelon survive the Holocaust. A Jew in the French resistance, Fenelon was arrested in 1943 and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the work camp in the Auschwitz complex.
Maria Mandl was the SS commander of the women’s camp, where Fenelon was imprisoned. Along with her brutality, Mandl was fanatical about her love of music. Fenelon couldn’t understand murderers appreciating the beauty of music. Mandl was complicit in the deaths of 500,000 women. Fenelon watched Joseph Kramer, commandant of Auschwitz, rush to attend her concerts, after he had killed 24,000 Jews that day.(Kramer was tried, convicted and hanged in 1945, as was Mandl, in 1947.)
As one of the cellists in the orchestra said, “As long as they wanted an orchestra, they couldn’t put us in the gas chamber.” Fenelon too survived, barely. Shipped to Bergen-Belsen in Germany as the Russian army approached Auschwitz. Fenelon was dying when the Allies arrived.She recovered to continue her career.
As with the musicians, boxers also provided the SS officers and guards with distractions from their grisly tasks — and later a war not going well. Boxers fought in the extermination and slave labor camps, trying to survive by boxing for time.
At Auschwitz and at other camps, selection for life or death was based upon a person’s usefulness.
At Auschwitz and at other camps, selection for life or death was based upon a person’s usefulness. The SS was looking for physicians or barbers or even forgers, among other skills. Anyone strong or young was chosen for forced labor.
Boxers were also on the SS list to entertain SS officers and guards.In Europe and America, boxing was as popular as soccer and football are today. American boxers and baseball players were the most highly paid athletes. A championship fight in the 1930s, says boxing historian Mike Silver, drew as much public attention as a Presidential election. The German Max Schmeling beat leading heavyweight contender Joe Louis. Hitler touted Schmeling’s Aryan superiority, until African-American Joe Louis defeated Schmeling in the rematch.
Dutch boxer Leen Sanders (40 wins, 6 KOs, 19 losses, 16 draws) fought, as a middleweight and welterweight across Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. As a Jew, he wore the Star of David on his trunks. When the Nazis occupied the Netherlands, Sanders and his entire family went into hiding. They were betrayed and arrested. In January 1943, the family was shipped to Auschwitz. Sanders’ two children were gassed immediately; Sanders’ wife was murdered in late April. Seven of his siblings, including his brother Bram, and his parents, were also killed. Sanders was performing slave labor in the camp, when he was recognized by a member of the SS, who had seen him boxing in 1936.
Sanders was offered a chance to box and train the guards in boxing. This must have been the critical point for all the boxers who cooperated: to live and fight the evil in their own way or likely die, along with all the others. The Nazis expected no witnesses to their crimes. Fenelon’s memoir was titled as delaying the time, not the liberation she finally experienced. Sanders used his boxing position to help other inmates to survive with food and clothing. As an inmate recalled, Sanders “held his hand over me.” Sanders survived the war by boxing to return to the Netherlands, remarried, and won two more bouts before retiring.
Contemporary fiction is mindful of the connection between boxing and the Holocaust. Szczepan Twardoch’s 2020 novel “The King of Warsaw,” mentions Teddy aka Tadeusz Pietrzykowski (Wins 334, Losses 14, Draws 2), Warsaw city champion, and another fighter who boxed to survive.
As a member of the Polish resistance, Pietrzykowski was imprisoned in a camp for political prisoners named Auschwitz. In 1940, Pietrzykowski was prisoner number 77. Less than a year later when it became a killing center, Harry Haft, another boxer from Poland, was prisoner 144738.
Pietrzykowski reported intelligence back to the underground and performed acts of sabotage. The commandant at the time was Rudolph Höss, who trained his dog to bite Jewish prisoners and killed one.Pietrzykowski found a way to kill the dog, which the inmates and he, always short on rations, cooked and ate.
The Polish saboteur wasn’t done with Höss, who rode his horse around the camp.Pietrzykowski sabotaged Höss’s saddle, so that the horse threw the commandant. It was assumed to be accident when Höss suffered a broken leg. In 1946, when Höss was on trial, Pietrzykowski testified and watched Höss hanged.
Pietrzykowski didn’t start boxing right away – in the beginning he was assigned to work in a carpenter’s shop. Being fit helped all the former boxers survive the hard labor. His first boxing opponent was Walter Dünning – a German prisoner – who, before the war, was a middleweight vice-champion of Germany.
They fought in their work gloves. Most of the boxing at the camps was done with bare fists.
In March, 1941, Dünning’s fellow inmates suggested, if he liked abusing others, maybe he should try fighting Pietrzykowski. Dünning was 154 pounds. Bantamweights like Pietrzykowski fight between 115 and 118 pounds. Against Dunning, on camp rations and hard labor, Pietrzykowski weighed 88 pounds. They fought in their work gloves. Most of the boxing at the camps was done with bare fists.Dünning stopped the fight when he realized that he was losing, and Pietrzykowski got a loaf of bread and a bar of margarine as a prize. He shared his win with the other inmates.
Boxing became part of Pietrzykowski’s resistance to the occupation. Since he wasn’t Jewish, Pietrzykowski fought Jews and Gentiles, whereas Jewish boxers fought other Jewish boxers, with exceptions. A Jew winning a match against the Master Race would be intolerable. Boxing became popular with the inmates as well as the SS. Pietrzykowski’s victories over German opponents or collaborators boosted morale among his fellow slave laborers.
Pietrzykowski fought around 40 times in Auschwitz and another 20 in Neuengamme, another camp in Germany. He fought Leen Sanders, the Dutch champion, twice. Sanders was his true equal in skill. Pietrzykowski won the second match. Pietrzykowski adjusted his boxing style according to his opponent, some of whom, like Sanders, were professional boxers. By his own account, his bouts against two German professional boxers were vicious, but he won both.
Pietrzykowski’s style was to outwit the opponent, to slip punches and dance away, elusive rather than a toe-to-toe beating of the opponent into submission. He had fans among the SS – and certainly his fellow inmates – who called him “the White Fog.” Pietrzykowski changed his style, however, when the opponent was a Jew. He would try for a draw. The SS might condemn a loser to gassing or shooting – especially if they lost money gambling.
In a remarkable bout for even those surreal times, Pietrzykowski interrupted a prisoner beating another prisoner. With the permission of the SS, he challenged the bully to a bout.The man whom he saved from a beating was a Polish priest, who later gained fame for taking the place of a man condemned to death. In the Catholic Church, the priest is known as Saint Maximilian Kolbe. After liberation, Pietrzykowski returned to join in the rebuilding of Poland. He fought 15 times after the war, winning most of those, and then retired to teach boxing.
Messaoud Hai Victor “Young” Perez was another boxer, who fought to extend his chances for survival – but this time to no avail. A TunisianJewish boxer, Perezbecame the World Flyweight Champion in 1931 and 1932, fighting under his ring name “Young Perez” (Wins 92, KOs 29, Losses 31, Draws 15). Perez was a hero to the Tunisian Jewish community, his life celebrated by that community for decades after his death.
In 1931, he beat an American opponent in Paris to become World Flyweight Champion.Boxing made him rich by his humble background and famous too – thousands of fans, a Peugeot convertible, and dating a movie star.By 1938, with over 160 fights, lately more losses than wins, Perez retired. He was living in Paris when the war started, and meant to return home in Tunis, but got delayed. By then, France had surrendered and the Vichy government cooperated with the Nazis in its war against the Jews.
Perez refused to register as a Jew with the Vichy regime. He posed as a Spaniard and supported himself with odd jobs, including assisting in boxing matches. While he was trying to escape again, he was betrayed and arrested. In September 1943, he was interned in the Drancy camp. There, his fame as champion boxer followed him, and he performed boxing demonstrations for inmates and guards. In October, he was moved to Auschwitz, to a subcamp about six miles from the main camp, a four-day trip in a cattle car with no food or water.
Perez was at Monowitz, the camp where I.G. Farben had a factory producing artificial rubber. Inmates Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel were also there – although it’s unlikely they met.The commandant was an avid boxing fan and Young was his favorite.Boxers were forced to participate in bouts twice a week, in which Nazi officers placed bets. Boxers got a day off to train and an extra bowl of soup for winning. The loser – if an inmate — was executed. Perez fought against taller and heavier German personnel, since no regard was paid to weight class restrictions.
Perez lost his boxing privileges in 1944 for breaking a camp rule. His work after that was digging earthworks against aerial bombardment. In January 1945, with Russian troops closing on Auschwitz, Perez was on the infamous forced march to Germany, where thousands died. Harry Haft and his brother survived that march. Perez was shot and killed on January 20 or 22. Some said that he was killed while getting bread for other inmates on the trek
Salamo Arouch (before the war, Wins 27, KOs27, Losses 0; during the war, estimated Wins 208, KOs 206, Losses 0, Draws 2; after the war, Wins 4, Losses 1, Draws 0) was a Greek middleweight champion with 27 wins (all knockouts).Rounded up by the Nazis in May 1943, his family and he were wedged into a cattle car at Thessalonica, Greece, and transported to Auschwitz.His family members either were gassed immediately or died later – his brother was shot for refusing to remove gold teeth from the dead.
After the first selection, Arouch, as inmate 136954, was standing nearly naked in a line of other prisoners, when a German officer arrived. He asked if any of the prisoners were boxers or wrestlers. At 5’6” and 135 pounds, Arouch didn’t convince the officer that he was a boxer. The officer put together an impromptu boxing match right there, drawing a circle in the dirt where Arouch would face his first opponent, another prisoner. Arouch knocked that man out in three rounds.
For two years, Arouch was boxing two or more times a week as entertainment for the German military. Special privileges, an indoor job and extra rations, helped him survive, while around him, was death. Of the 47,000 Jews from his home town taken by the Nazis, only 2,000 survived the war.Arouch was a 135 pounds in his prime, but on camp rations he lost weight. Still, the SS put him in the ring against much larger men. He said he once knocked out a 250-pound opponent in 18 seconds. Arouch’s fancy footwork and style earned him the title of “the Ballet Dancer.”
His opponents were other Jewish inmates or Gypsies, occasionally Nazi guards. The outcomes of the bouts were often deadly for the Jews or Gypsies. “The loser would be badly weakened,” Arouch said. “And the Nazis shot the weak.” The same would be true for Arouch, should he lose. His toughest opponent, he said in an interview, was a German-Jewish boxer named Klaus Silber, an undefeated amateur boxer. The fight was brutal, each man landing on the floor several times. Arouch recovered to knock out his opponent. He never saw Silber again.
Like Fenelon, he was shipped to Bergen-Belsen as the Russian army drew near. Although his family had been murdered and he was alone, he met a young woman from his home town, whom he eventually married. They moved to Israel, where he boxed until he retired from the sport in 1955.He summarized why he fought during the war: “What kept me alive was a burning determination to someday tell the world what I saw at Auschwitz.”
From around 1940 until liberation, Harry (Herschel) Haft (Wins 13, KOs 8, Losses 8) spent five years as a slave laborer and then a boxer in six different camps. Haft arrived in Auschwitz in 1943, sometime after Salamo Arouch, given Haft’s number as inmate 144738. At age sixteen, Haft had grown up in poverty and joined his brothers in smuggling to make a living. The physical demands placed on him at an early age trained him for hardship in the camps and in the ring. Skirting the law, if not breaking it, helped prepare him for finding ways around camp rules, there to weaken and eventually kill inmates.
At Auschwitz, Haft’s first job was as a Sonderkommando, disposing the dead from the gas chambers. The work drove some of the workers to suicide. Haft contemplated his death, when an opportunity to mine coal presented itself at a subcamp at Auschwitz.Haft was strong and handled the hard and dangerous labor. The SS guards at the camp entertained themselves with boxing.
They picked the fighters from among the inmates, and bet on who would survive long enough for the next match. Haft’s physique as a teenager was more impressive to the guards than the skeletal appearance of his opponents, and he was a favored contender. At Jaworzno, the subcamp near Auschwitz, pouring rain turned a field into mud, which became the ring and Haft’s first bout. Another Jewish prisoner was Haft’s opponent, facing each other with bare-knuckled fists. Haft fought hard. He knew what happened to losers. That intensity was his style in the ring, even when he boxed professionally in America. The SS guards called Haft “the Jew Animal.”
An SS officer saw Haft’s skill in the ring. Disillusioned with the war, the officer became Haft’s advocate. He got Haft the boxing bouts to keep him alive for three-and-half years. When Haft complained that his wins meant his opponent would likely be gassed or shot, the officer assured Haft that they would die anyway, now or later.Haft fought 75 times in the camps, often with bare knuckles, against many larger and more powerful opponents.
When the Russians were closing in to the camp, Haft and one of his brothers, all that was left from his family of eight, joined thousands of other inmates, including Young Perez, on the forced march into Germany. Haft escaped death once again – and had to kill to survive.American GIs adopted the young Haft, who weighed 106 pounds, when his fighting weight was around 175. Under Army auspices, Haft recovered his health, boxed and became a local champion. When Haft found his way to New Jersey, his only skills were boxing and surviving.
Haft became a professional light heavyweight and heavyweight boxer. It was a short career, two years and 21 fights. The most important fight of Haft’s career was against Rocky Marciano, soon to be heavyweight champion. Haft contended that gangsters threatened to kill him if he won. He never boxed again.He married, and raised a family in Brooklyn. His story is in a memoir authored by his son, and soon to be released movie called “The Survivor.”
Sanders, Pietrzykowski, Perez, Arouch, and Haft – except for Perez, killed while leaving the camps — survived the war because of their boxing. By boxing for time, they outlasted and outlived their Nazi tormentors. Books and movies have been written and filmed about each, witnesses to one of the great human tragedies. Boxing is about skill, the training and the dedication. It is also about the courage to lift fists, face the foe and never give up.
An All Time Great Champion And Decent Man Is Taken From Us
By Bobby Franklin
Last Saturday night I was logging onto the internet to check my email when I saw on the newsfeed the headline “Marvin Hagler, Former Middleweight Champion, Has Died”. It couldn’t be true I thought. The story said his wife Kay had posted the news on Marvin’s Facebook Page. Knowing the unreliability of social media and how rife for rumors it is I assumed some person with a sick mind had started the rumor and things would be cleared up soon.
Unfortunately, I was wrong. Soon, other media sources also reported the story. The Champ had died unexpectedly at, or near, his home in Bartlett, New Hampshire. The indestructible Marvelous Marvin Hagler, winner of 62 fights with 52 knock outs was gone. He was only 66 years old and appeared fit enough to still go fifteen rounds at a moments notice. It just couldn’t be.
In 1967 Marvin’s mother moved the family from Newark, NJ to Brockton, MA. Newark had been torn by riots and she wanted a better life for her children. Soon after settling in Brockton Marvin found the Petronelli’s gym and began a career in boxing that would take him to the National A.A.U. Championship and then onto to a spectacular professional career culminating in winning the World Middleweight Championship.
The road to the title was not an easy one. Hagler had a few strikes against him when it came to his quest for a title shot. He lacked connections, he was very good and he was a southpaw. Those at the top avoided him at all costs.
Another thing about Hagler; he was never satisfied. No matter how much he improved he believed he could be better and he kept working at it.
But Marvin had another quality, he was determined and unrelenting. He knew he would be champion some day and he kept working at it. Rising early mornings he would do his roadwork. After finishing running he would spend the day working his job at roofing and construction. Evenings he would be in the gym working to perfect his technique. Another thing about Hagler; he was never satisfied. No matter how much he improved he believed he could be better and he kept working at it.
Fighting for short money Marvin took on the likes of Bennie Briscoe, Willie Monroe, Bobby Watts, Eugene Cyclone Hart, Kevin Finnegan, Mike Colbert, Doug Demmings, Sugar Ray Seales, and Johnny Baldwin. He lost only two times and in both those cases he returned to decisively beat his opponent. And remember, this was all before becoming champion.
It wasn’t until his 49th bout and after six years of fighting that he finally landed a title shot. On November 30, 1979 he got his chance against Champion Vito Antuofermo. After fifteen rounds it appeared to all who had seen the fight that Marvin had won the crown. Unfortunately, two out of the three judges did not see it that way and the fight was ruled a draw allowing Vito to retain the title.
Hagler was crushed but he did not let it stop him. He went on to rack up three more wins and then challenged Alan Minter for the title in London, Minter’s home town. Alan had previously won the championship from Antuofermo.
Marvin did not leave it to the judges this time. He destroyed Minter inside of three rounds. Finally, the title was his, but he was not allowed to celebrate. The British fans rioted and Hagler was lucky to get out of the ring without being injured or worse. He was denied the joy of being presented with the championship belt in the ring.
Marvin would go on to successfully defend the title 12 times with only one challenger, Roberto Duran, going the distance with him. To say he was dominant would be an understatement. He had no soft touches in his title defenses. He took on the best and showed what a true champion was made out of.
It was in his thirteenth defense that he agreed to fight Sugar Ray Leonard. Leonard’s career was everything Marvin’s was not when it came to getting breaks. His first pro fight was a televised main event. He made money from day one and was carefully guided to the championship, and he was a media darling. He had retired three years earlier but decided to make a comeback when he perceived Hagler was starting to show signs of slowing down a bit.
The fight was held in La Vegas, the site of the robbery in Marvin’s challenge to Antuofermo. The terms were all set in Leonard’s favor, from the location, to having a large ring, to the distance of the fight being reduced from 15 to 12 rounds. In spite of all this and with Marvin coming off wars in his two previous fights, against Hearns and Mugabi, he appeared to have won the fight. But once again two of the three judges did not see it that way and Leonard was given the decision and the title.
Again, Marvin was crushed by this theft. The title had been stolen from him. It was believed that he would come back and fight Leonard again, but Leonard did not immediately agree to a rematch. He decided he would leave Marvin dangling. However, Hagler did something not expected and very wise; he walked away from the game. He knew he had defeated Leonard. He had accomplished everything he set out to do in boxing. He had to do it all the hard way, but Marvin knew how to work hard. He left the sport with his head high and his mind intact and a healthy bank account. Not many do.
The adjustment to a life away from boxing was at first a bit rocky, but after some struggles and a divorce Marvin found his stride, He moved to Italy where he made movies. He remarried and bought a second home in the quiet town of Bartlett, New Hampshire. The intensity with which he had to live and fight for so many years was now in the past. Watching interviews with him that were done in recent years you see a content man. He had no demons haunting. He was happily married to his wife Kay for thirty years and they had a great life together. They traveled extensively making personal appearances. The fans still admired him.
Marvin was truly the last of the great throwback fighters. He was without a doubt an all time great. He could have fought in any era and been champion. While it can be argued that some of the greats of the past could have beaten him, it cannot be said for certain that any of them would have.
Marvin Hagler was also a throwback in another sense. He never gave up his dignity, he was always classy and decent. Hagler never let setbacks keep him down, nor did he ever embrace a victim mentality , a way of thinking that is so common today. He was able to channel his disappointments and anger into positive forces that contributed to his successes. I doubt his like will ever be seen again, and we are the lesser because of it.
Rest In Peace Champ. You were taken too soon and will be missed.
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.