Ron Stander is best remembered for the courage he showed when he challenged Joe Frazier for the heavyweight title in 1972. The fight was stopped after the fourth round with Stander suffering multiple facial lacerations; however, he was never off his feet and had rocked Frazier in the first round.
Stander, who was known as The Council Bluffs Butcher after one of two places he called home; Council Bluffs, Iowa. He also lived not far away in Omaha, Nebraska where the fight with Frazier took place.
Tom Lovgren was a boxing promoter in Omaha and he arranged for the fight to take place there. He was also an enthusiastic supporter of Stander who believed his local hero had a real chance at upsetting Frazier. Tom decided to bring Ron to Boston to train under the guidance of local fight guy Johnny Dunn. Mighty Joe Young a talented heavyweight from Brooklyn, NY was brought in as a sparring partner.
Young was managed by Frank Gioseffi who had been a heavyweight boxer himself in the 1950s. Frank fought on the undercard of the Marciano/Moore fight. Gioseffi later changed his name to Frank Gio and became a successful actor playing in movies and television. He was in Moonstruck, Once Upon In America, King Of New York, and Analyze That among many others.
Frank wasn’t able to make it to Boston with his fighter so I was asked to handle Joe for the training sessions. That was quite an exciting assignment for a teenage kid; working in the camp for a boxer training to fight for the heavyweight championship.
His quietness could be taken as brooding, but in reality he was a very nice guy; very easy going.
I got to know Ron Stander while he was in Boston during that time. At first he was a bit scary and intimidating. His quietness could be taken as brooding, but in reality he was a very nice guy; very easy going.
The ring at the New Garden Gym was quite small, so the sparring sessions turned into spirited affairs. Joe Young was no soft touch and the two of them went at it pretty hard. In an early session Young caught Ron with a left hook that cracked his nose. Not wanting to postpone the bout and risk losing their title chance altogether, Stander and Lovgren opted to use a full face headgear for the rest of the sparring sessions. This protected his nose but limited Stander’s vision while boxing.
After the workouts Dunn and Stander would head downstairs to the Ninety-Nine Club for dinner and pitchers of beer. While a hard worker in the gym, Stander wouldn’t give up his beer.
Tom Lovgren told me he was convinced Stander had a great shot at winning against Frazier based on the time Ron kayoed Earnie Shavers. It was early in both men’s careers with Shavers having a record of 12 wins and 1 loss with 12 knockouts, and Stander being undefeated in 9 fights with 7 knockouts.
Shavers gave Stander a real going over in the first two rounds but Ron withstood the battering. Lovgren told me Ron actually broke his arm during the exchanges. Stander came on in the next two rounds and put Earnie down for the count in round four. Lovgren figured Stander could have a similar performance against Frazier. He even put his money where his mouth was by betting $10,000 on Stander at ten to one odds.
The fight took place on May 25, 1972 in at the Civic Auditorium in Omaha. As expected, Ron came out swinging. In the first round he caught Joe with a right hand that shook the champion. Stander held his own and many gave him that round. The crowd was pumped.
Frazier went to work in the second round and by the third was starting to bust Stander up. By the end of the fourth round the referee intervened and put an end to the fight. Ron ended up with 32 stitches in his face, but he never went down and was swinging until the very end.
For his efforts, Stander’s purse was $100,000 of which he took home about $40,000, the biggest payday of his career. Lovgren lost his bet but not his respect for Stander. He was proud of his fighter as were the fans at the Civic Center who turned out to cheer him on. Ron Stander had nothing to be ashamed of.
Ron Stander passed away on March 8th from complications related to diabetes. He was 77.
Ron’s son Frank told Peter Huguenin of the Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil, “As a father, he was probably one of the greatest guys in the world. He never would spank me. He was very, very gentle and loving to me and my sister. He was kind of a gentle giant. He was a different person when he was in the ring obviously, but he was very loving and caring and just always wanted me to keep it real with my deal and make sure I didn’t ever do anybody wrong and he never did anybody wrong and just be a good, genuine person.”
That’s the Ron Stander I remember from back in Boston in 1972.
Stander would continue fighting after the loss to Frazier. He stepped in with the likes of Ken Norton, Scott LeDoux, James Tillis, Jeff Merritt, and Gerrie Coetzee. He was never able to pull out the big win, but always gave it his all.
He retired in 1982 with a career record of 37 wins (28 by knockout), 21 losses, and 3 draws. After leaving the ring he worked as a machine operator at Vickers Inc. He made a decent living and was a good father and grandfather, well loved by his family and in his community of Council Bluffs where he lived until his death.
Ron Stander may not have been the most talented of fighters, but he was among the toughest. More importantly, he is remembered as a good man, something much more important than being a champion.
Former New England Heavyweight and Light Heavyweight
Champion Passes at the Age of 81
By Bobby Franklin
Marion Conner had a magical smile. When you would see him flash it, it was hard to believe this man had a career in the most violent sport there is. Yet, there was a kindness to his face that belied his career as a professional prizefighter. On January 12, 2022 Marion Conner passed away. He had been suffering for a number of years from dementia brought on from his years in the ring.
Marion was born in 1940 in Canton, Ohio. From an early age he was athletically gifted and participated in swimming, basketball, track, and football, but it was boxing that captured his imagination. I first met Marion Conner in 1965. I was a ten-year-old boy, and my father had taken me to some sort of sporting show.
At the time, I was a very shy kid, but for some reason loved to watch boxing on TV. When my father asked me if I would like to meet a real boxer in person, though a bit nervous, I jumped at the chance. He brought me over to this very handsome fellow with the friendliest smile. It was such a thrill for me to meet Marion Conner, and he made me feel like his friend. We squared off for a photo, and I never forgot that moment and the nice person who made me feel so important.
About two years later, I would attend my first professional boxing card. It was on December 18, 1967. My father brought me to the Boston Garden where we were seated a couple of rows behind former Governor Foster Furcolo. As I sat there, I saw my friend Marion Conner step into the ring with the number one heavyweight contender, Joe Frazier. I now had a personal connection right into that ring, and I was so proud of how my friend handled himself. Outweighed by thirty pounds and in with one of the all-time greats, Marion did not give an inch. He was not an opponent. He was in there to win and go on to become world champion.
Unfortunately, he had run into one of boxing’s greatest fighting machines. Not only had Marion been decked, but the referee went down as well. When you look at a picture taken right after the fight, you can see the disappointment etched in Marion’s face. He had come to win and felt he had let everyone down. Well, he hadn’t let me down. He showed this now 12- year-old what courage and determination was all about. To me, he was a winner and a champion, and I was proud of him.
Forty-five years later I would meet Marion Conner once again when he came to Boston to receive an award. We got to have another picture taken, and you can still see that wonderful smile on his face. We talked about his boxing career and how it still pains him that he never became a world champion. How thrilled he was to have met such greats as Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, and Jersey Joe Walcott. His time living in Roxbury and training at the New Garden Gym, a gym I would later work out at as I tried my hand at a boxing career. His friendship with New England Boxing Champ Larry Carney and how much he respected Larry.
When I asked him about his fighting style, he told me he was an aggressive body puncher with a very strong left hook to the head and wore his opponents down. As an amateur, he had competed as a southpaw and was turned around when he became a pro. In his first fight with Tom McNeeley, Marion credits a part of that win to switching to lefty midway through the bout. Boxing scribe Mike Marley remembers the bout that way as well.
When our discussion turned to his fight with Joe Frazier I was surprised to learn from Marion that his handlers told him to trade left hooks with Joe Frazier. That wasn’t very wise advice. I believe Marion’s best chance would have been to use his speed and a sneak right hand.
’On November 16, 1966, tragedy struck when Marion met rugged Greatest Crawford of Brooklyn, NY at the Canton Memorial Auditorium. Marion had an outstanding record of 30 fights, 23 wins, six losses, and one draw going into this fight. Crawford, who was 26 years old, was knocked out in the ninth round and was taken to a hospital after efforts to revive him failed. He underwent surgery to remove a blood clot in his brain but succumbed to the injury on November 17, 1966. The tragedy of that night took the fire out of Marion.
Marion’s wife, Emma, told me he was never the same after that fight. He would now let up when he had an opponent hurt. In his rematch with Herschel Jacobs, Marion had Jacobs cut but then backed off out of fear of hurting him. His post-Crawford record of 7-17-1 shows just what an effect the sad outcome of that fight had on him.
During his career, Marion Conner fought many of the top names in an era when boxing was still a sport with many great fighters. Look at his record, and along with Joe Frazier, you will see many familiar names. Henry Hank, Herschel Jacobs,
Tom McNeeley, Jimmy Dupree, Levan Roundtree, Mark Tessman, Billy Tisdale, Billy Douglas, and Ronnie Harris, to name just a few. It is also something to note that Joe Frazier had 37 bouts against 30 different opponents. Only two of them were light heavyweights, one being Bob Foster and the other Marion Conner. Quite an exclusive club to be in. It has been a long time since that ten year old boy first met the boxer with the warm smile, but he was still the man I remember so well from that day. When heard he had died I felt very sad. I know he is still smiling. There was something very special about him.
Marion and his lovely wife Emma had just celebrated their 60th Wedding Anniversary in November. Emma was his strength, and their’s was a wonderful love story. In his later years Marion devoted much time at the Food Ministry at the Community Life Church Of God In Christ. He was a good man.
This past week the world lost a giant of musical theater, the legendary lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim. One of the quotes attributed to Sondheim struck a chord with me.
“The dumbing down of the country reflects itself on Broadway. The shows get dumber, and the public gets used to them.”
If we replace the word Broadway with Boxing the quote can just as easily apply to the current boxing scene:
“The dumbing down of the country reflects itself in every aspect of boxing. Boxing gets dumber and the public gets used to it”.
Anyone who has seriously studied boxing history is aware the sport has always reflected the society that surrounds it. That still holds true for today. Just consider one aspect—music. The great golden age of Jazz, musical theater, the Big Band Era and Rock and Roll, all coincided with the golden age of boxing from the 1920s to the 1950s.When the heavyweight championship of the world mattered far more to society than it does today celebrity boxers such as John L. Sullivan, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Patterson, Liston, Ali and Tyson were not just important to the sport, they were also pop culture icons who were reflective of the era in which they fought. Today’s pervasive junk culture, where mediocrity is celebrated and flash over substance is the norm, has infested virtually every aspect of society and our lives, including boxing. It’s very appropriate to the times that most people–outside of those who still follow this sport–cannot name the current heavyweight champion, or the one who preceded him.
“Today’s world champions and contenders are at the lowest caliber it has ever been in over 100 years”.
If you want to dumb down and ruin a professional sport, then boxing should be your template. No other sport has experienced the type of out of control anarchy that has plagued professional boxing for the past several decades. Aside from the industry’s lack of integrity, coherence, or respect for its fans, the boxing skill (or lack thereof) of the majority of today’s world champions and contenders are at the lowest caliber it has ever been in over 100 years.
Case in point: The recently televised super bantamweight (weight limit 122 pounds) “unification” title fight between Stephen Fulton, the WBO (World Boxing Organization) champion, and Brandon Figueroa, the WBC (World Boxing Council) champion.
“Skills common among champions in decades past, are impossible to acquire today”.
I’m not blaming the boxers for their lack of skills. It’s not their fault. Every fight today, with rare exception, is a dumbed down facsimile of what a match between top professional boxers used to look like. Fulton and Figueroa had the heart, desire and conditioning but lacked the subtle skills of a seasoned professional boxer. Such skills, common among champions in decades past, are impossible to acquire today. Aside from a dearth of competent trainers today’s boxers are not exposed to the type of competition that over time would add to their experience and improve their performance. From the 1920s to the 1960s boxers had, on average, 60 or more professional fights before getting the opportunity to fight for a world title. A boxer with less than 20 fights was still considered a work in progress. Today the average number of fights to a title is 10 to 20. Going into their fight Figueroa and Fulton had only 19 and 22 fights respectively. Sixty years ago their limited professional experience might have entitled them to an eight round preliminary match in the old Madison Square Garden—if they were lucky. A title fight pitting these novices against the then current world bantam or featherweight champions (think Eder Jofre, Rubin Olivares, Alexis Arguello) would never even be contemplated.
“Fulton and Figueroa, like so many others, are not being taught properly”.
Even taking into account their lack of professional experience it was apparent that Fulton and Figueroa, like so many others, are not being taught properly. Instead of moving about the ring with the speed and footwork expected of featherweights they fought like amateurish heavyweights trying to overwhelm the other with power punches. Feinting, timing and judgement of distance were absent from their limited repertoire. There was no lateral movement. Both fighters were stationary targets and easy to hit. They did not step in with their punches but kept charging towards each other like two rams butting heads. When they closed and became entangled it was obvious that no one had taught them how to clinch. There were very few combinations thrown. They just mostly flailed away with “hail Mary” punches intended to knock out their opponent. When one landed it was usually by accident.
Neither fighter displayed any coherent plan or strategy. As a result, the fight quickly deteriorated into a messy and artless brawl with every round looking exactly like the one that preceded it. If you saw one round you saw the entire fight. There was no change in tactics or adjustment in style because neither boxer was capable of doing that. The only intelligent comment made by one of the five incessantly yammering ringside commentators was that “they’re fighting like ‘rock ‘em, sock ‘em robots’”.No doubt it was meant as a compliment, but is an apt description of boxers devoid of any cleverness or what used to be referred to as “ring guile”. As is often the case with today’s boxers they were getting hit far too often with punches that could have been easily avoided. Defensive moves in the form of parrying, ducking, sliding, slipping, weaving or simply taking a step back were nonexistent. According to CompuBox punch stats they threw a combined total of 1462 power punches (described as any punch not a jab) of which over two-thirds landed—far too many. Yet only 354 jabs were attempted, with barely 10% landing. If either fighter had employed an effective jab more often it could have changed the course of the fight.
“The disappearance of the left jab is one of the more disturbing aspects of the dumbed down quality of contemporary boxing.”
Just as a comparison I watched a video of the Rueben Olivares vs. Alexis Arguello featherweight title bout from 1974 and counted up the number of jabs thrown by Olivares, one of the greatest punchers of the past half century. I stopped counting by the sixth round since Olivares had already thrown 216 jabs, 50 more than Fulton had attempted for the entire 12 rounds. The disappearance of the left jab is one of the more disturbing aspects of the dumbed down quality of contemporary boxing.
If there is anything positive to say about this fight it is that both men were evenly matched. In the end Fulton was awarded a majority decision and thus unified the WBC and WBO super bantamweight titles. But don’t open the champagne bottles just yet. We should not confuse a “unification” fight with a fight for the “undisputed” title. The current IBF (International Boxing Federation) super bantamweight champion is Murodjon (let’s call him Muro) Akhmadaliev of Uzbekistan. In addition to the IBF title Muro also owns the WBA “Super World Super Bantamweight” title. No, that is not a typo. The word “Super” appears twice to differentiate it from the plain “Super” WBA title which appears to be vacant at this time. Adding another version of the same 122 pound title gives the WBA an opportunity to charge another “sanctioning fee” when the time comes to crown the next “super, super” world champion. What this means is that the WBA recognizes not one, but two versions of their same 122 pound world title. It is a clever subterfuge. More titles mean additional fees can be deducted from the boxer’s purse for the “privilege” of fighting for an organization’s title belt. All four sanctioning groups are guilty of the same behavior. It’s why this farcical but dangerous sport currently has about 90 world champions (no one is sure of the exact number) spread over 18 weight divisions, at least 7 of which are unnecessary. Over the past 40 years millions of dollars in sanctioning fees have flowed into the coffers of the WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO with nothing of value being returned to the sport. One can never underestimate the arrogance and crass stupidity of these useless boxing parasites who continue to feed off of the blood, sweat and tears of the boxers they exploit.
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”.
Foreword by Elmore Leonard. Da Capo Press, 334 pages. 2001.
By Len Abram
Six-plus decades after its publication, W. C. Heinz’s novel “The Professional,” about a young middleweight boxer preparing for his first championship fight, has reached classic status, that is, a standard for a book about boxing, and a model for the art of writing itself.
The young man, Eddie Brown, and his aged manager, Doc Carroll, are reaching for the dream in boxing, a championship. The novel covers the month in training camp before the big fight. Boxer and manager are facing the riskiest moment in their careers, decided in one hour on a Friday night at Madison Square Garden. They won’t get another chance.
To Frank Hughes, the sports writer covering the training and the fight, this is the “Moment of Truth.” At this point in a bull fight, fighters face the bull, drop the cape, and rush forward with a sword. They are committed to victory or goring. Classics are often about courage. In “The Professional,” to behave with courage may be more important than winning or losing.
How the boxer, manager, and trainers prepare and withstand the challenges to their big fight is the center of the story. The novel, set in the 1950s, offers a glimpse into boxing at its peak, the so-called Golden Age of the sport before its decline.
If he hadn’t done this novel, Heinz had achieved enough success as a writer to be remembered. First and foremost, he was a newspaper man, a journalist. His sports writing has been anthologized. His biography of football legend Vince Lombardi went through 15 printings. Heinz’s second novel was the basis for the hit movie MASH, and later a popular TV series.
Journalists find his column “Death of a Racehorse” a model for a restrained, powerful elegiac to a race horse, injured and euthanatized. The brevity and eloquence of the column, some say, compare favorably with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Elmore Leonard, who wrote a forward to the novel, credits Heinz as his major influence. Heinz’s prose has been praised by the dean of boxing writing, A. J. Liebling and his fiction by Ernest Hemingway. Like the reporter Frank Hughes, Heinz felt a special connection to the ring and the practitioners of the sweet science, Liebling’s classic description of boxing.
As for Hemingway, who praised “The Professional” as the best novel about boxing and the best first novel by anyone, the two men were colleagues and friends. In World War II, they were correspondents with American forces fighting in Europe. In the last days of the war, they shared a house in Germany.Hem, as Heinz called him, and Heinz wrote their dispatches from there for American magazines, like Collier’s. Hemingway even borrowed Heinz’s portable typewriter to write one.
Close as they were, Heinz did not learn his writing style from Hemingway.
Close as they were, Heinz did not learn his writing style from Hemingway. They both trained as journalists to report the facts, restraining biases, to show readers what they didn’t have access or ability to see, to decide for themselves. Hence, their style of writing is crisp, where what people say and do count, and less what people think, unless it emerges as speech or action.
For example, before the fight, Brown is interviewed on television by a woman talk show host. Doc Carroll at first resists the interview, not trusting the media, but gives in. The outcome for him is one of the few adjectives, “dreadful.” Heinz’s scene is just the facts, but they show character, Brown’s naivete and the host’s nastiness.
“Now, Eddie Brown, you’re married, aren’t you?”
“Do you have any children?”
“We have a boy.”
“How old is he?”
“Do you want him to become a fighter?”
(Eddie explains that his epileptic son cannot do contact sports. The TV woman overstates her condolences to get to her real bias: she doesn’t like boxing or boxers.)
“I am sorry to learn that. I truly am, and I’m sure we all are.”
“Thank you. He’ll be allright.”
“But if he were perfectly healthy, would you want him to be a fighter?”
“That’s hard to say.”
“Is it hard to say? Don’t you really mean that you have your doubts, and having them, you wouldn’t want your son to be a fighter. Is that right?”
In the novel, television in the 1950s is an inevitable force in American life, but not positive for boxing. A person does not have to be a Luddite to see that a technological advance brings unintended outcomes – witness the cell phone.
According to Doc Carroll, television changes the fight game. He laments that fans now stay in their living rooms to watch a fight rather than lining up at Madison Square Garden.
According to Doc Carroll, television changes the fight game. He laments that fans now stay in their living rooms to watch a fight rather than lining up at Madison Square Garden. In addition, fans used to attend local venues, like at community centers, to watch local amateurs, who learned boxing from local fight clubs. Now fans can watch bouts with talent from all over the country without leaving home or a local bar. Eddie Brown started his boxing career locally with Golden Gloves. Where would new talent come from to be nurtured, trained, and in Doc’s case, managed?
Unstated but likely too, what would happen to Frank Hughes’s career? He’s a sports writer, in dozens of newspapers with eight million readers. Television will take audiences away from print media. In one study, newspaper subscriptions are only 30% of the what they were in 1950.
Regardless of these concerns, the novel celebrates high achievement. Beyond ability, dedication is the first requirement for the professional. Eddie Brown’s life for nine years and ninety fights has been focused on mastering his sport.
But Doc knows, there’s more to the professional than dedication and experience. Control over the body, sharpening the conditioning and reflexes, improving strength and eliminating weakness, these are all essential, but not complete. Brown is the Pro because of one more virtue.
The professional controls emotion.Boxing, as champion Benny Leonard said, is a game of chess; not brain over brawn, but brain in charge of brawn. “Excitement is for amateurs,” says Doc. The professional learns “to control excitement without killing it.” So, too, a writer like Heinz has learned to control and focus emotion, harnessing his feelings behind solid sentences, without flair or fanfare.
Dedication. Restraint. Control. These make the professional fighter or a writer or any person. Sports are a theater for the human condition. Boxing for Heinz is the main event.
Chris Jones, a young writer for Esquire magazine, says, “With Bill Heinz in my corner, always, I inched forward in the writing game.”
Tami Mauriello began his boxing career in 1939 fighting as a welterweight. He went undefeated in his first 24 fights before losing to the great Billy Soose by a split decision. He then went on an eight fight winning streak while moving up to the light heavyweight ranks where he earned a title shot in a bout with Gus Lesnevich. In only his second loss, Tami was robbed of the title coming out in the short end of a very unpopular decision.
Three months later the two would fight again and this time Lesnevich won a unanimous decision over Mauriello. After this loss Tami began his move into the heavyweight ranks. In his debut fight at the new weight he demolished Jay D Turner in the first round. Turner had nearly forty pounds on Tami but was no match for him.
Mauriello continued successfully campaigning at the heavier weight in hopes of landing a shot at champion Joe Louis. WWII put things on hold for Joe who was serving in the Army. Meanwhile, having scored wins over Gunnar Barland, Tony Musto, Red Burman, and a draw with Bob Pastor, In 1942 Tami was matched against Jimmy Bivins for the Interim Heavyweight Title. The fight with Bivins was a spirited affair with Jimmy gaining a 10 round split decision and the Interim Title.
Tami was back in the ring soon after scoring four wins including victories over Lou Nova and Lee Savold, he got another shot at Bivins. This time Jimmy won by a majority decision.
Mauriello would have to wait a few years before getting another crack at a title, but he stayed busy. He fought 26 times before finally getting his shot at Joe Louis. Out of those 26 fights Tami won 24, losing only to Joe Baski and Lee Oma. He avenged the Oma defeat. He also beat Gunnar Barland, Lee Savold, and Lou Nova again, as well as knocking out British Champ Bruce Woodcock. He now was signed to fight Joe Louis.
Most observers felt that even an older Joe Louis who had recently returned from the Army and had won a long awaited but disappointing rematch over Billy Conn, would have no trouble with Tami. Yet, they also knew Mauriello possessed dynamite in his right hand, and there were distant memories of what Max Schmeling had done to Joe back in 1936, kayoing the Brown Bomber with overhand rights. Joe had learned from that loss, but could the fact that he had slowed down over the past ten years coupled with his inactivity because of the war make him vulnerable once again? That, coupled with the fact that Tami was a legitimate contender, was enough to make the match interesting to fans.
On September 18, 1946 the two stepped into the ring at Yankee Stadium before a crowd of 38,494 fans. The fight would last just a little over 2 minutes but there were fireworks.
Tami came to win and he went right after Joe. Many believe what happened in the opening seconds of the first round was just a lucky punch by Mauriello, but if you watch the film closely you will see Tami had a plan, though one he was able to follow through to completion.
At the bell the two came out of their corners with Joe stalking the challenger and Tami circling to his left. After just a few seconds Mauriello threw a wide left hook with caught Joe’s attention. While Louis was distracted by that punch, Tami let go with solid straight right hand catching the Champion flush on the jaw. Louis shaken by the punch andappeared briefly to be hurt. The crowd went wild sensing a massive upset was in the works. However, Joe quickly regained his composure and tore into Mauriello who desperately tried to land a follow up right hand.
Joe then settled down and started landing short hard shots on Tami who went down twice, but all the time he fought back ferociously. At the 2:02 mark of the round the fight was over. The crowd felt they got their money’s worth, and Tami would always be remembered for his booming right hand shot that connected.
It has to be noted that this was not a lucky punch. Tami’s use of the decoy left hook was a strategy that nearly worked. He drew Joe’s attention with the move which set up the opening for the right hand he threw. Mauriello was a very, very good fighter, and he knew what he was doing. He just couldn’t follow up against the great Joe Louis.
Tami continued fighting until 1949 when he retired with a record of 82-13-1 including 60 wins by knockout. He was only stopped on 4 occasions. Movie fans will remember seeing him in the classic movie On The Waterfront alongside Marlon Brando and Lee J. Cobb.
Tami Mauriello passed away on December 3, 1999 suffering from dementiacaused by boxing, the fate that most fighters end up dealing with. He will always be remembered for his match with Louis, but should also get the respect he deserves for the stellar boxing career he had. Tami’s right hand would tear up today’s so-called heavyweight boxing division.
Jeanette Zacarias Zapata took her last breath on September 2, three months, two weeks, and five days after having been brutally knocked out by Cynthia Lozano in a boxing match in Reynosa, Mexico. That fight held on May 14 was Zapata’s first bout since being stopped on November 9, 2018 at the Jose Sulaiman Arena in Monterrey, Mexico when she was only 15 years old and fighting as a professional.
When you read the news accounts of her death last week it will be reported that she died from blows received in a fight on Saturday night in Montreal, Canada. While it is true the right cross delivered by Marie Pier Houle was the final blow she would ever be hit with, her death was no accident.
If you watch footage of her loss to Cynthia Lozano from back in May you will see eerie similarities in the way the two fights ended. In both, Zapata is trapped in a corner and seems not to have the skills to defend herself. In the fight in Mexico she sinks to the canvas in a way that would be seen this past week in Montreal. The difference between the Montreal bout and the fight in Monterrey is that after some time passed, the fallen Zapata was able to be revived. Revived to be allowed to fight again, or rather be used again by promoters looking to build up the record of an up and coming “prospect”.
Some questions that should be answered: Was she given a thorough examination after being kayoed in Mexico? Was a brain scan performed? Was medical information about her condition known by the promoters in Montreal? Had the promoters seen footage of that loss? If so, did they have any concerns about her fitness to fight? And most importantly, why did they allow someone so young who had suffered such a terrible beating so soon before to fight?
Marie Pier Houle is an undefeated pro with a record of 4 wins, no losses, and one draw. At 31 years of age she is a fully matured adult woman who was facing a pudgy teenager. Houle, a native of Quebec, has been fighting since June of 2019. It is clear from watching the fight that Houle completely outclassed Zapata. The teenager from Mexico was clearly just an “opponent” for the local favorite Houle.
There’s no getting around what happened here. A poor teenage girl from Mexico is talked into turning pro at the age of 15. She has five fights, all in Mexico, winning only two. She is stopped twice, the second stoppage being the brutal knock out in Monterrey. A couple of months later she is brought up to Montreal to fight a hometown favorite on the undercard of a World Boxing Council sanctioned title fight. It is worth noting the WBC was founded by Jose Sulaiman. The same Jose Sulaiman whose name adorns the stadium in Mexico where Jeanette Zacarias Zapata once fought. The WBC is now run by Sulaiman’s son Mauricio Sulaiman. It is widely known that the WBC is a corrupt organization that uses its power to extort money from boxers in the form of sanctioning fees. These fees are taken out of the purses of the fighters. The safety of boxers has never been a priority for the people who run the organization. They have become quite wealthy off of the blood of fighters over the years.
Boxing has always been a seedy sport populated by thugs and lowlifes. This was accurately portrayed in the movie The Harder They Fall, starring Humphrey Bogart. As terrible as the characters in the movie are, they look like den mothers compared to what is going on today. The current crop of sleaze that control boxing have sunk to levels never before thought possible; they are now using poor adolescent girls as fodder for their for- profit entertainment business. What’s worse, the public is paying to watch this perversion.
Last week Jeanette Zacarias Zapata should have been hanging out with friends and doing the things teenage girls do. Instead, she was being led into a boxing ring after suffering a traumatic brain injury. She was being led to her death. She, like so many others, was nothing but fodder to be used to build up a new prospect.
We are told Zapata was cleared by a doctor to fight. What real doctor would clear a kid who was recently knocked out so badly that she lay on the floor for minutes without moving? That is the very definition of a brain injury. That is the very definition of neglect.
The following statement was issued by the Mexico based WBC:
“The president of the WBC, Mauricio Sulaiman and the entire boxing family affiliated with the WBC, as well as all boxing, mourns this irreparable loss. We send our deepest condolences to the family and friends of Jeanette. May she rest in peace.”
How caring, “The entire boxing family”. More like the Manson Family. I can just feel the love.
I don’t know a lot about the personal background of the young Zapata. I very much doubt she came from an upper middle-class family. Odds are she was poor. She most likely wanted to improve her lot in life and was sold a bill of goods about how boxing could be her way to a better life. Her parents, if they were still in the picture, probably bought into the narrative as well.
Like drug dealers giving kids their first taste of drugs to get them hooked, boxing people looking for opponents sell them on the narcotic called boxing while sweet talking them into how they will one day achieve fame and fortune in the ring. To a fifteen year old this would sound great. The reality is quite different.
For those who say “Hey, these people know the risks they are taking. It’s their choice”, I would ask if they would let their adolescent son or daughter be used like this? Do you really think a young teenager is capable of weighing all the dangers involved in getting involved in such a profession? Would you really want your child being watched out for by the likes of the Sulaimans and others like them? Would you allow your child to step back into a boxing ring just less than three months after suffering a traumatic brain injury? Would you ever allow them to fight again?
Jeanette Zacarias Zapata will soon be forgotten. Boxing and the animals who run it will still prosper. Fans will still get their kicks out of watching kids suffering brain injuries for entertainment. Fighters will continue to die, but this rotten profession will live on. It’s sickening.
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.