Mike Silver has been deeply involved with boxing for well over half a century. He started as a kid training in the legendary Stillman’s Gym, served on the New York State Boxing Commission, and even took a crack at promoting fights. Where he has left an indelible mark is with his writing about the sport. His book The Arc Of Boxing: The Rise And Decline Of The Sweet Science is the finest book ever written on how the fine art of boxing has regressed to something that is all but unrecognizable today.
He followed that up with Stars In The Ring: Jewish Champions In The Golden Age Of Boxing: A Photographic History, a detailed look back on the history of Jewish fighters that includes the period when boxing was very much a Jewish sport.
Mike has also penned hundreds of interesting and at times controversial articles for many boxing publications and web sites (Note: Mike Silver is a frequent contributor to Boxing Over Broadway).
In his latest book, The Night The Referee Hit Back, Mr. Silver brings us a selection of those essays along with a number of interviews with some of the last of the old school boxers. Thumbing through the pages of this volume is like getting an advance degree in boxing theory. Mike brings you back to the days of the real boxing gyms in his opening piece, Boxing In Olde New York: Unforgettable Stillman’s Gym. He not only knows the history of this iconic establishment, he was actually there when it was in full swing. You can smell the cigar smoke and hear the tattooing on the speed bags. With his pen (or keyboard) Mike paints a word picture that if it were in a frame would be a George Bellows lithograph.
Mike Silver is not one to shy away from controversy and he holds strong opinions. You may not always agree with him, in fact he may get your blood pressure to rise, but you cannot fault him for not putting forth very strong arguments in defense of his positions.
Among the articles that have raised a few eyebrows is The Myth Of The Thrilla In Manilla. Mike is not afraid to go against the conventional wisdom that this was an all-time great fight, and rather makes the point that if this was a fight between two guys named Smith and Jones instead of Ali and Frazier it would have been seen as what it really was; a good brawl between two shot and over the hill fighters. He makes plenty of other arguments in defense of his opinion but I will leave those for the readers to explore on their own. Agree or disagree, you will be fascinated by what he has to say.
Three essays hold significant historical importance; Don’t Blame Ruby: A Boxing Tragedy Revisited, where the author looks at the third Emile Griffith vs Benny Kid Paret fight and what the true cause of Paret’s death was. A lot more went on here than is generally believed, and Ruby Goldstein was falsely scapegoated by those who were looking for easy answers.
Reading this piece is like looking at a deposition for a trial, and I can tell you, Mike would have been a very convincing expert witness for the prosecution.
In Foul Play In Philly, Mike makes a connection between what happened the night Rocky Marciano won the title from Jersey Joe Walcott and the evening in Miami when Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston. Similar shenanigans went on in the corners of both champions on each occasion. Was there a connection? Reading this piece is like looking at a deposition for a trial, and I can tell you, Mike would have been a very convincing expert witness for the prosecution.
The third historically significant article is Ali vs Shavers: The Morning After. In many ways this is a sad one to read as in it Mike lays out facts of just how many terrible head shots Ali took from Shavers that night. If Muhammad wasn’t already damaged enough to ensure he would suffer from CTE a few years later, this all but certainly sealed his fate.
There are many more gems in this collection that include stories about people as varied as Teddy Roosevelt, Woody Allen, a kangaroo, and Marlon Brando. All make for an enjoyable journey through the sport of boxing.
As great as the essays are, Mike really shifts into high gear with his interviews of boxers of the past. Not only does this selection include great fighters, but also boxers who are deep thinkers about the profession. The five he spoke with were active in the period from the 1930s to the 1970s, a huge part of the Golden Age of Boxing. What makes these conversations even more enlightening is the fact that Mike Silver knows what questions to ask. These aren’t just simple question and answer sessions but rather more along the lines of a Brian Lamb interview in that Mike knows how to prod the fighters into opening up about their thoughts on what it took to be a skilled fighter and how they viewed some of their toughest opponents.
The fighters Mike spoke to were Archie Moore, Carlos Ortiz, Tiger Ted Lowry, Curtis Cokes, and Emile Griffith. The insights contained in these conversations are priceless. Ted Lowry talks about his controversial loss in his first fight with Rocky Marciano, his exhibition match with Joe Louis, and what it was like being a black soldier in the segregated military during World War Two.
Archie Moore describes what it was like to fight Charley Burley, “He was like a threshing machine going back and forth.” and the importance of practicing moves in front of a mirror. Moore also gives a list of the ingredients that go into being a successful fighter. When Mike asks the secret to Archie’s boxing longevity, the Old Mongoose responds, ” Well, I knew how to fight.” He has much more to say about the subject, and every word is fascinating.
Reading his discussions with Carlos Ortiz and Curtis Cokes is like sitting in on a master class on the Art Of Boxing. These men are geniuses when it comes to describing the sport they excelled in. The subtleties they talk about show just how much thought went into becoming a good boxer. A couple of examples:
Carlos Ortiz on advice to a young fighter, “Boxing is to hit and not get hit. And if you go into the ring with that thought in mind you’ll be OK. But don’t go out there to impress the public by showing them how much you can take or how hard a punch you can take. That’s not the case in boxing. Boxing is I hit you, you don’t hit me, over and over again. It’s a skill that you apply.”
Curtis Cokes on footwork, “I think today’s fighters forget about footwork. I worked everyday on my footwork, turning left and right, backing up, going forward. I turned to my left to be outside of my opponent’s right hand, and then I’d swing to my right to be outside of his left jab. Learning how to box is a slow process but you try to learn something everyday.”
These comments are much like Shakespeare’s advice to actors in Hamlet, when speaking through the Dane, in just a couple of paragraphs he gives the basics of acting. That is what is contained in Curtis and Carlos’s advice to boxers. It is pure gold, and there is much more of it in these interviews.
Emile Griffith’s remarks on his fights with Joey Archer will make you smile. He tells Mike it was fun, “The reason I say it was fun fighting Joey Archer is because we were like two boxers trying to outsmart each other. He’s doing something to me this round and I come back the next round and I do the same things back to him. It was like a chess game. But Joey was a very good young man.” In those few lines you see the intricacies of the art of boxing along with the respect fighters had for each other.
Griffith’s comments on his fights with Monzon are also interesting. Most people don’t remember it, but in their second fight most people felt that Griffith deserved the decision. Emile also talks about how he couldn’t deal with the “extra step” he had to contend with when fighting Jose Napoles. There is so much more, the fights with Paret, Rodriguez, Tiger, Benvenuti and many others.
When you read these interviews it is more than just words on a page, you feel you are sitting in on the conversations as the voices come to life. Mike’s knowledge and insight is unparalleled. He brings you back to the days of great writers such as Bob Edgren and Jimmy Cannon.
It is no secret that I am partial to the work of Mike Silver, but that is because he is very, very good at what he does. I am a tough critic when it comes to “boxing experts” of which there are many self-proclaimed but very few who rise above mediocrity today. Mike knows boxing, it flows through his veins. He has a keen eye and a lifetime of experience. If you want an education in the Art of Boxing, Mike Silver is the man to read. You may get riled at some of what he writes, and whether or not he changes your mind on certain aspects of the sport, he will make you think more deeply about your views.
You will also find yourself deeply entertained by many of the essays, especially the title piece. And yes, the referee did hit back.
The Night the Referee Hit Back can be ordered from Amazon.com
A Few Pearls of Wisdom from My Interview with the Great Archie Moore
On February 26, 1983 I had the great good fortune to meet and interview the legendary Archie Moore. The former light heavyweight champion (1952-1962) had amassed one of the greatest records in boxing history. After a long and arduous 17 year campaign Archie finally won the championship in his 177th professional fight. He fought from 1935 to 1963 and retired with an outstanding 186-23-10 won-lost-draw record (including one no contest). It is safe to say his extraordinary number of knockout victories—131—will never be eclipsed.
Archie was in New York City to present an award to one of his former opponents, Charley Burley. Burley was just one of at least a score of genuinely great boxers that Moore fought during his illustrious career. Many of the names in that record read like an entire HOF roster: Cassius Clay (Moore made it a point to say that he never fought Muhammad Ali since the future heavyweight champion had not yet changed his name at the time they fought), Rocky Marciano, Ezzard Charles, Charley Burley, Jimmy Bivins, Holman Williams, Bert Lytell, Lloyd Marshall, Harold Johnson, Eddie Booker and Teddy Yarosz, to name a few. If Archie Moore were fighting today he would be heavyweight champion after already having won both the middleweight and light heavyweight titles.
Although his formal education ended in high school, Archie never stopped learning. He was a worldly individual and full of the wisdom of life experiences. He possessed an analytical mind and was intensely curious about a wide range of topics. Mostly self-educated Archie was, without question, one of the most remarkable, charismatic and accomplished characters I have ever met—in or out of boxing.
Archie was an artist in the truest sense of the word.
As author Joyce Carol Oates has so accurately stated—“The brilliant boxer is an artist, albeit in an art not readily comprehensible, or palatable, to most observers”.Archie was an artist in the truest sense of the word. In 1955 the near 40 year old Moore challenged Rocky Marciano for the heavyweight championship of the world. Although knocked out in the 9th round Moore put up a rousing fight, even dropping Rocky hard in the 2nd round for a short count. This is how the New York Times reported it the following day: “Moore…gave an exhibition of boxing skill that, even in defeat, was almost as thrilling and moving as the display of awesome power that eventually brought the victory to Rocky.” When this sport was still worth our time and attention Archie Moore’s name stood out like a brilliant shining star.
Here is the interview:
MS: Archie, you are in New York to honor one of your former opponents, the great Charley Burley. So I think it’s appropriate to begin with him. You lost a unanimous 10 round decision to Burley and were knocked down four times. What happened?
AM: Charley Burley had a very deceptive style of fighting. He just tricked me. He tricked me because we both boxed similar but whereas mine was an apparent forward movement Burley’s was a continuous serpentine movement. He was like a threshing machine going back and forth. His body would sometimes lean over towards you and he’d pull it back just in time. Hitting him solid was almost impossible. But what made him so dangerous was that he could punch from any angle. He was never off balance although he appeared to be off balance on many occasions.
MS: You had one of the longest careers of any boxer who ever lived. You fought in five separate decades—the 1930s to the 1960s. What was the secret of your boxing longevity?
AM: Well, I knew how to fight. I was also a master of pace. It was very important to know how to force pace and set a pace. As a result very few people could make me fight out of my system of fighting. Eddie Booker, Lloyd Marshall and Charley Burley made me fight out of my system. In my winding up years Marciano was one, as was Durelle. I had to fight out of my system to get back into that fight. Another boxer I had trouble with was Jimmy Bivins. Jimmy knocked me out the first time we met because he had such a deceptive reach. Although he was no taller than I was (5’ 11”)his arms touched below his knees. When he pulled his arms up they looked no longer than mine, but when he reached them out he hit me with the hook.
MS: Well, you obviously learned from your mistake because you defeated Bivins four times after that. Looking over your amazing record I noticed that the great Ezzard Charles defeated you three times during your prime fighting years. Did Ezzard make you fight out of your system of fighting?
AM: No…no. He just outfought me. Ezzard was always in superb condition. He was a nice standup fighter and an expert boxer. Whereas he was not a terrific puncher, but he was a good puncher with both hands.
MS: Archie, you are acknowledged to be one of boxing’s all-time knockout artists. Are great punchers born or can a boxer increase power by perfecting such things as balance, leverage, and timing?
AM: Those ingredients you just mentioned are conclusive; all are an admixture as such as you just described, especially timing.
MS: Who were some of the great punchers Archie Moore fought?
AM: Charley Burley was a terrific puncher, although to look at him you would not know it. His build fooled everybody. Burley’s legs were skinny, he was not extra wide of shoulder, he was small in weight and his height was the same as mine. But that man could get more leverage into a punch than anyone I ever fought. Another great puncher was Curtis “Hatchetman” Sheppard who once missed a punch to the jaw and broke a man’s collar bone. Lloyd Marshall was the snappiest hitter of them all. He could knock you out with either hand. Ron Richards was a tough hitter. Marciano was a very hard puncher—a bludgeoning type of hitter—super conditioned by Charlie Goldman. He was 100% aggression. There were others but I’d have to look at the record because I forget.
MS: Archie I think it’s fair to say that since you were still fighting at an age when most other boxers were long retired you had to utilize every advantage, mental, physical and psychological, in order to maintain your edge over much younger opponents. Can you give an example?
AM: In 1955 I fought Nino Valdez in Las Vegas, Nevada. At the time Nino was the top ranked heavyweight. He was 6’ 4’ tall and weighed about 215 pounds. It was a 15 round bout and the winner was promised a bout with Marciano for the heavyweight title. The fight was staged at an outdoor arena in the late afternoon. As the sun began to settle on the west side of the ring I was sitting in my corner facing the sun and noticed that Nino was sitting with his back to the sun. The bell rings and I move to maneuver and before any activity starts I’ve already got my head under his chin and I’m muscling this big guy around. I face him into the sun and I keep turning him to the sun. He’s trying to get back around and I keep cutting him off. I’m always maneuvering him back to face the sun which was very bright. And all the while I keep spearing him with the left hand and keep twisting and twisting and turning him and try as he could, he could never make me turn into the sun. The sun was of course bothering him and I kept thumping him with the left jab. Hard stiff stiff jabs.Pretty soon his eyes began to lump up. One eye closed up completely and the other was closing fast. By this time the sun was going down and the fight was coming to a close. I won 14 out of 15 rounds.
MS: What does Archie Moore think of today’s boxers?
AM: “I think modern day fighters do not get proper basic training.Boxing is based on disciplined training and disciplined repetition. Do you know the best friend a fighter has when coming up? (Archie pointed to a large floor length mirror). A very important part of training is practicing your moves in front of the mirror. But most fighters never come in contact with the mirror until they start to jump rope. Since they skip rope in front of a mirror why don’t they shadow box in front of a mirror? You can do that at home. You go through the motions. You learn how to duck. I can see where I’m going to hit my opponent. Am I at the right distance from him? I can hit him over the heart. I can hit him in his liver. I can step aside and hit him in the kidney. Go over the top, whatever.
MS: After your victories over Joey Maxim for the title you defended it against Harold Johnson. This was your fifth meeting with Johnson, who you already had outpointed three times. In this fight you were behind on points when you knocked Harold out in the 14th round.
AM: Harold Johnson was a great fighter. A picture book boxer. I was just his nemesis the same way that Ezzard Charles was my nemesis. Joey Maxim was a difficult boxer to fight because he knew so much about defense. Joe was 99% defense. And Joe was very durable and tough.
MS:What are the ingredients that go into making a successful prizefighter and what advice would you offer to a young boxer asking for guidance and direction?
AM: The first ingredient is discipline. Discipline and desire. It is said that desire is the candle of intent and motivation is the match that lights it, and that candle must be kept burning.Once you make up your mind to go all the way to the top in boxing, first of all, go and get the best qualified instructor to teach you of the things you need to know. It should be someone you like, someone that you can deal with and someone you can listen to and obey. It should also be someone that you have trust in. Otherwise, somewhere down the line you’re going to have a breakup, a mix-up, or an argument and you lose a friend. Because the person who is your instructor, your trainer, your teacher, he’s closer to you than your father.
MS: Trying to find a qualified trainer nowadays is easier said than done. The number of expert boxing instructors, as compared to years ago, has diminished. What can be done about that?
AM: As far as the area of improving the skills of boxers is concerned, I have developed a whole new system of teaching the basic boxing techniques. It is a new and revolutionary technique. I taught it to George Foreman and we went down to Jamaica and won the title with it. I thought George had untapped reservoirs of strength and it was up to me to channel it.
MS: Can you describe your revolutionary system and how it works?
AM: I could readily describe it but I prefer not to at this time.
MS: OK. Let’s change the subject. Who in your opinion was the greatest pound for pound boxer you have ever seen.
(Author’s note: Archie did not answer immediately, taking about ten seconds to consider his answer)
AM: Henry Armstrong. Here is a man who won the featherweight, lightweight and welterweight titles all in the same year, and the men he beat to win those titles were great fighters in their own right.
MS: What about Sugar Ray Robinson?
AM: When Ray was active there was nobody any smoother. Watching Ray fight was like drinking a nice…soft…drink. I enjoyed watching Ray Robinson fight because I appreciate beauty in athletics. I enjoyed watching Oscar Robertson move on the basketball court, Jim Brown on a football field, Andretti in an automobile, Willie the Shoe ride the horses. Everybody had their way of doing things with skill. These are skilled men and there’s nothing I like better than skill. When a guy does something, and does it well, I admire that. There’s never been anybody more graceful, skillful with a rope than Ray and I’ve seen some awfully good rope skippers. I would rather see Ray Robinson punch a speed bag than watch the average guy go out and fight a six round fight. Ray was a skillful man, he was a game man. In his time there was nobody more beautiful than he was, although there were one or two guys that might have beaten Ray in their time. I would like for someone to say, personally, that I think Charley Burley could have beaten Ray in Ray’s best time. But people hate to go out on a limb.
MS: Is there anything about your boxing life you would have changed or done differently?
AM: I’d have like to have made some money and have more financial gain out of boxing. You see aboxer’s wish is to be independent. This is a profession. I like to be without obligations to other people but I was obligated. But I was mindful of whom I borrowed money from and I was careful not to get mixed up with people who would be embarrassing to you at a time when they wanted to collect.
MS: Thank you for your time Archie.
(Mike Silver is the author of Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing and The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science. Both books are available on Amazon.com)
Jerry Izenberg has been covering boxing for sixty-five years, forty-five of which have been spent with the Newark Star Ledger. He has also covered fifty Kentucky Derbies, and has attended and reported on all fifty Super Bowls. In his latest book, Once There Were Giants, he looks back at what he calls The Golden Era of Heavyweight Boxing, the period that began with Sonny Liston’s destruction of Floyd Patterson and ended when Mike Tyson decided to make a dinner out of Evander Holyfield’s ear.
Mr. Izenberg covers a lot of ground in his book in which he discusses the many characters that populate the world of boxing. I had the opportunity to talk with him by phone from his home in Henderson, Nevada.
The 86 year old veteran sports writer still sounds strong and sharp as we begin our conversation. In his book Mr. Izenberg gives a brief but detailed history of mob involvement in the sport. I assumed he kept his distance from these rough characters. He tells me “Not always. I wasn’t a partner. I used them as much as I could. Their information was much more reliable.”
I mention Cus D’Amato, the man who proclaimed himself to be the White Knight riding into town to clean out the crooks from the sport . That is proving to be a myth as Mr. Izenberg points out in his book and reiterates in our conversation. “Cus was mobbed up as well. That’s what was so ludicrous. He would say ‘I’m fighting the mob, I’m fighting the mob’.” “Well, what about Charlie Black whose real name was Charles Antonucci? He was the cousin of Fat Tony Salerno who would become the boss of the Genovese Crime family. Any foreign fighter had to have an agent when he came over to fight in this country Charlie Black would act as one.”
As Mr. Izenberg points out this was useful for Cus when he brought over Brian London and Ingemar Johansson to fight Patterson. Fat Tony Salerno also served as protection for D’Amato. In contrast to what Cus wanted people to believe he was just replacing one mob with another.
I bring up the point that boxing was more competitive when the old mob was running it. “Frankie Carbo who was a murderer and a thug nevertheless would have been a great commissioner. He never could lose and on that basis he picked the fights he wanted. He had the winner no matter what.” This often resulted in great fights.
D’Amato used his power to protect his fighters from tough opponents making for much less competitive matches. Cus was worse? “Well he was different. He was so crazy, he was absolutely nuts. This facade of fighting the mob ruined the best part of Jose Torre’s career. He would have been one of the great middleweights of all time if given the chance to fight better opponents.”
Mob control of boxing ended about the time Liston won the title. Scandals and investigations had pretty much broken the back of organized crime in the sport. “There were still mob guys who had fighters, but there was no cabal. That’s why the era was so good. You could fight whomever you wanted to fight.”
There was another reason the era was so good: Mr. Izenberg asks rhetorically, “Look, how many good trainers are left? Show me somebody who could go through school without a teacher. That’s what is at the heart of the problem.”
We move on to the subject of the second Ali/Liston bout that was originally scheduled to take place in Boston but was canceled three days before when Ali was diagnosed with a strangulated hernia. “ Liston was in shape for that fight. I would have picked him. I don’t think he’d ever been in better shape then he was for that fight and it was impossible at his age to get back into that shape, he couldn’t do it”
The match was rescheduled for Lewiston, Maine and now lives on in infamy. I ask Mr. Izenberg what happened up there. “He (Ali) could have shoved him. He could have hit him with a middle finger and he would have gone down because he was so off balance. He made a decision when he was down. He looked up and saw this maniac who wouldn’t go to a neutral corner standing over him and he thought ‘If I get up he’ll kill me’.”
Jumping ahead a number of years we turn to the rivalry between Ali and Joe Frazier. When it comes to the verbal abuse Frazier took from Ali, the name calling and insults such as “Uncle Tom” and calling him a Gorilla. Mr. Izenberg tells me “It never healed. They had a phony reconciliation but it never healed.” On the anniversary of the Manilla fight Mr. Izenberg contacted a number of people involved with the fight to do a “then and now” story. In Mr. Izenberg’s conversation with Ali, the former champ told him, “I was just trying to sell tickets. Tell him if I offended his family I’m sorry.”
When Mr. Izenberg called Frazier to discuss the fight he mentioned Ali’s apology. Joe’s response: “He said that to you? Tell him to take his apology and stick it up his ass.” It is also interesting that Frazier mentioned the famous story about the young Cassius Clay first going to a boxing gym because his new bicycle was stolen. Joe said to Mr. Izenberg “He got a bicycle. I was working in the fields when he got that bicycle. I never had a bicycle.”
Mr. Izenberg tells me Beaufort, SC was named the Hunger Capitol of America. “It really (Ali and Frazier) was a case of the Black Middle Class and the Black Poverty Class.”
Some thoughts on other Ali fights: “Ali/Frazier II was a terrible fight that could have gone either way.” The Ali/Shavers fight: “I think it was the worse beating he (Ali) ever took. He admitted to me he was unconscious on his feet. Ali was too tough for his own good.” The Thriller in Manilla: “They were fighting for the championship of each other, and it was never settled.” And on Ali staying in the game too long, “I always thought he should have quit after Zaire (the Foreman bout).”
As we wind down our conversation he tells me “You can’t find better stories in the universe than in boxing. You have to write it for the names. Names like Goodtime Charlie Friedman and Willie The Beard Gilzenberg.”
I agree that boxing is the most colorful sport to write about, and Jerry Izenberg has lived through it’s best times. He tells me “This is the first, last, and only boxing book I will write.” I hope he is like most fighters who tell us they are retiring and don’t. I am sure that in addition to the wonderful stories he has included in Once There Were Giants, he has many more tales to tell.
Driving up to Jim McNally’s gym in North Reading on a cloudy Tuesday in April I am on the phone with the former professional boxer explaining why I am running late. In the course of our brief conversation I find out Jim’s father Bernie, who was a hard punching heavyweight fighting out of Cambridge during the 1940s, trained at the Cambridge YMCA. My father, who was a professional wrestler, worked out there at the same time. We spent some time going over mutual acquaintances our father’s had and soon realized they must have known each other. Another of those it’s a small world experiences.
I arrive at Jim McNally Boxing a short while later. The sign outside of the former industrial building says Old School Fitness. Jim greets me as I enter and I immediately feel as if we have known each other for years. He looks like he’s at his fighting weight and could go ten rounds without a problem.
Gentleman Jim, as he was known during his fighting days, had an impressive professional career racking up 19 wins against only 1 loss. His quest for glory came to an end due to an injury received in an auto accident. Before turning pro Jim had an outstanding amateur career, He won the NE AAU heavyweight title in 1975 and 1976, then won the light heavyweight title in 1977 which took him to the National Finals in Hawaii. Yes, I was feeling just a bit envious. Jimmy also lost a split decision to future World Heavyweight Champion Tony Tubbs in the 1976 Calgary Games. Not bad for a local kid.
After ending his boxing career McNally went to Northeastern University then on to serve 4 years with the Wilmington Police Department, 7 years with the Secret Service, and finally a 22 year career with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). After his years of public service Jim opened the boxing gym, returning to the sport he had never lost his passion for.
As we continue our talk, gym members start showing up for their workouts. Jim tells me he doesn’t have a firm schedule for classes, “I run a class every four minutes” he tells me. What I observe is something not seen in a lot of boxing gyms today, something that is much more old school. As each aspiring boxer comes into the gym he or she goes right to work. They wrap up their hands and start going through the boxer’s workout. Shadow boxing, heavy bag, speed bag, calisthenics, skipping rope. I am impressed by how self-motivated they all are, but I am not surprised as Jim has instilled that drive in all of them.
As I listen to a couple of young students drumming the speed bag with a steady rat-a-tat, I ask Jim how long they have been training at his gym. “Just a couple of months for one and a little longer for the other.” They look like old pros as their hands move in rapid fashion against the small bag.
I mention to Jim how many boxing gyms either do not have any speed bags or, if they do, discourage the use of them.
This sport is rhythm, your own rhythm.
“This sport is rhythm, your own rhythm.You learn rhythm on the speed bag.” I couldn’t agree more.
The McNally Boxing Gym has a regulation size canvas floored ring in which I observe trainer Gene Beraldi doing pad work with a number of the members. I am not a big fan of the punch mitts, but the trainers at McNally’s are not just standing flatfooted in front of the boxers letting them plant punches. Instead, they are moving around the ring forcing them to use footwork and accuracy. That’s the old school touch.
As I look around I see an familiar face from years back. It is Danny Cronin who is here training his sons. Danny and I go back to the New Garden Gym days and we immediately start to reminisce about the old times. Danny was a very successful pro and one of the hardest punchers to ever lace on the gloves. Jim chimes in to say how his mother told him
“Boxing made your nose look better, it was kind of pointy.”
“Boxing made your nose look better, it was kind of pointy.”
The young people who come to McNally’s Gym not only get to experience what it is like to be in an old school boxing gym, they also learn lessons bout life, which is something boxing, when taught properly, instills in people. I like very much something Jim said while we were talking,
“Boxing is about overcoming obstacles – obstacles you put in your own way.”
“Boxing is about overcoming obstacles – obstacles you put in your own way.”That statement is true on so many levels.
As the time winds down for my visit I ask the young pugs who have just finished working out how they feel about the workout. “It’s fun.” “I feel tired but good.” I can tell by the smiles on their faces they have all had a great time. I can also see the admiration they have for Jim McNally who has time for all of them.
Jim, who has been going through some tough times with the loss of one brother and a cancer diagnosis for another tells me “Thank God for my gym. If I didn’t have this I don’t know what I’d do.” In almost Buddhist fashion, the good Jim gets from his gym is returned by him a hundred fold to those who come there. McNally, who sparred a couple of hundred rounds with Marvin Hagler, proved his toughness years ago. Everyday he shows his goodness.
Jim McNally’s Gym is located at 48 Main Street, North Reading. For more information call 978-664-1900. People of all ages are welcome.
Curtis Cokes held the welterweight title from 1966 to 1969. He was born and raised in Dallas,Texas, where he still resides. Curtis was a gifted all-around athlete in high school, excelling in baseball and basketball. He earned all-state honors in both sports and briefly played basketball for the Harlem Stars, a professional touring team.
Curtis first laced on the gloves at a local YMCA and was undefeated in 22 amateur bouts before turning pro in 1958. This was at a time when there were eight weight divisions and eight undisputed champions. (How quaint!) By the mid-1960s Curtis had become a top rated welterweight contender. Like all of his contemporaries he acquired contender status the old fashioned way—he earned it. (Also quaint by today’s standards). During his climb to the title he sharpened his considerable boxing skills against the likes of Stefan Redl, Joe Miceli, Kenny Lane, Manny Alvarez, Jose Stable, Stan Harrington, Stanley “Kitten” Hayward, Billy Collins and in three memorable bouts with the great Luis Rodriguez.
The boxing world first took notice of Curtis Cokes when he upset future welterweight champion Luis Rodriguez in 1961. Rodriguez outpointed Curtis in their rematch four months later. The rubber match took place on July 6, 1966 in New Orleans. The bout was the semi-final of a tournament to determine a new welterweight champion. Curtis stopped Rodriguez in the 15th round, thus becoming the only fighter to stop the great Cuban welterweight in his prime. Less than two months later, in the final bout of the tournament, Curtis outpointed Manny Gonzales to win the crown vacated by Emile Griffith.
Curtis Cokes had an elegant and refined boxing style of a type that is all but extinct today. He was adept at both offense and defense but was primarily a counter-puncher— skills that were admired and appreciated by knowledgeable boxing fans. (Films of several of his fights are available on YouTube). After five successful defenses, including impressive KOs over Charlie Shipes and Willie Ludick, he lost the title to the great Jose Napoles on April 4th 1969. With both eyes nearly swollen shut Cokes’ manager told the referee to stop the fight before the start of the 13th round. The rematch, two months later, ended similarly with Cokes unable to continue beyond the 10th round. Curtis fought for three more years before hanging up his gloves. He compiled a 62-14-4 record, including 30 knockouts. Napoles and Hayward were the only fighters to stop him. In 1972 Curtis gave a credible acting performance in “Fat City”, a boxing movie directed by John Huston.
After he retired from boxing Curtis was involved in various business ventures but he always remained close to the sport he loved. In 1980 he wrote, with co-author Hugh Kayser, The Complete Book of Boxing for Fighters and Fight Fans. I consider it the best boxing instruction book of the past 70 years. The book has reportedly sold more than 77,000 copies. He currently owns and operates Curtis Cokes’ Home of Champions Boxing Gym in Dallas where the emphasis is on serving his community through an amateur boxing program geared to keeping young people off the streets.
Today, at the age of 76, Curtis Cokes is healthy and mentally sharp, with an amazing memory for the details of his career. Fortunately, he exhibits no ill effects from his 80 professional bouts—a testament to his superb defensive skills, physical conditioning and knowing when to hang up his gloves. Aside from being an old school fighter Curtis is also an old school gentleman. He is gracious, engaging and warm. Interviewing this Hall of Fame boxer was a delightful experience.
My thanks to mutual friend Ken Burke for providing contact information for Curtis.
Mike Silver: Champ, the purists loved your smooth delivery and emphasis on basic fundamentals such as the left jab, footwork, counter punching and defense. I count myself lucky to have seen you fight on television. When I told a few older fans (who also saw you fight) that I was going to interview you their first words were, “He was a good boxer”. That is how you are remembered—that and your tremendous victories over the great Luis Rodriguez. How do you go about conveying your storehouse of knowledge to the young students at your gym?
Curtis Cokes: Before we start teaching fundamentals that involve throwing and blocking punches, or how to get away from punches, I get their legs in shape. We work on walking and running forward and backward. Footwork is such an important part of the sport. When I played baseball and basketball I knew I had to get my legs in shape because the legs are what carry the body. I think today’s fighters forget about footwork. I worked every day on my footwork, turning left and right, backing up, going forward. I turned to my left to be outside of my opponent’s right hand, and then I’d swing to my right to be outside of his left jab. Learning how to box is a slow process but you try to learn something every day.
MS: Speaking of footwork, in my book, The Arc of Boxing, I asked the great ballet dancer Edwin Villella, who was a champion amateur boxer before he became a ballet star, to explain the similarities between the two disciplines. You cover the same topic in The Complete Book of Boxing. Quoting from your book: “The balance and rhythm of a dancer are also important, for a boxer must be able to move quickly and change his tempo and direction at will…maneuverability is of extreme importance. An almost ballet type of body coordination gives a fighter a distinct edge.”
CC: The balance of a dancer is tremendous, and like a dancer a boxer has to be able to move and dance while maintaining his balance. You have to be able to have good balance to throw your punches. When I played with the Harlem Stars basketball team I used to watch Goose Tatum, how he would get in position and block people out. It was amazing to see him do that so smoothly. Goose Tatum’s coordination and balance was outstanding.
MS: Aside from footwork, what do you see as the main difference between the boxers of your generation and today’s practitioners?
CC: Today it’s all about hitting and that’s all it is…just go out and hit, hit, hit. They don’t learn the fundamentals of boxing. They don’t get a Ph.D. in boxing—how to block, roll, duck, slip and get away from punches– to hit and not get hit. You have to learn the smart part of boxing, because you want to come out of it the same as you went in. Most guys just fight, fight, fight, but “fighting” isn’t “boxing”. It’s an intelligent sport and you have to be smart to be able to succeed in it. If you just go toe to toe it becomes a toughman contest and the toughman wins. It’s not a science anymore. You don’t have to be smart to box anymore. There is no sport called “fighting”, it’s called professional boxing. A big part of the problem is we don’t have the trainers that we used to have. There are not too many people that know how to train fighters.
MS: Who was your trainer?
CC: I had two trainers: Robert Thomas was my first coach and Robert “Cornbread” Smith was the coach with all the experience. He was back in Joe Louis’s day and he was a good trainer. My manager was Doug Lord. Doug was a good manager and he took care of me. He was not only my manager, he was my friend. I knew the boxing game and Doug, who owned an insurance company, knew about business.
MS: You became welterweight champion in your 53rd professional fight. Two months ago a fighter with only 19 pro fights won a welterweight title belt. The fighter he dethroned had all of 24 pro bouts.
CC: I don’t think there are as many fighters available as in my day. Most become champions before they are ready to be champions. To be a champion you’ve got to have fought some of the best fighters in the world. Even if you lose to some of the great guys it’s not a shame to lose to a great fighter. You can learn from the experience. You have to take it step by step. You go from first grade to the tenth grade and then you graduate. Instead of learning the game they want to fight for a title too early even before they learn to tie their gloves on. You’ve got 10 fights and you’re fighting for a title. Back in the day you had to have at least 30 or 40 fights to get the experience before you challenged for a title. Baseball players don’t go to the major leagues until they prove themselves in the minor leagues, then they go to the major leagues. It’s a step by step process. Just because you can hit a guy and knock him out doesn’t mean you can get up there and fight.
MS: As a young boxer did you have any role models that you wanted to imitate?
CC: I learned from two of the best—Joe Brown and Sugar Ray Robinson. I watched those guys when they were fighting. I tried to copy their style. I tried to copy Ray’s style but I worked with Joe Brown. I trained with him when I was a kid and he was lightweight champion of the world. I went to Houston and sparred with him and he told me that I was going to be a champion. Brown would show me how he would throw punches and miss them on purpose to make a guy move his head in the range of his right hand. And I started doing it—I would purposely miss a jab on the outside so my opponent would move his head to the inside where he was in my right hand range. I was a good right hand puncher. I don’t see anybody doing that today. I saw “Kitten” Hayward do it. So did Luis Rodriguez. Emile Griffith did some of that. Those fighters, they were smarter than these guys today who just go out there and hit.
MS: Did anyone else influence your style of boxing?
CC: I sparred with (former middleweight champion) Carl “Bobo” Olson in Honolulu, Hawaii when I went over there to box one time. (Note: Cokes outpointed Stan Harrington on May 21, 1963 in Honolulu). They all told me I was going to be champion of the world one day and they helped me quite a bit. I got Olson’s jab and I got Joe Brown’s movement and his right hand, and I picked up all this stuff from these guys. You have to learn how to box and you have to learn it well. You go to school to learn your ABC’s and you have to learn boxing the same way.
MS: Were feints part of your repertoire?
CC: Oh yes! One of my favorite feints was a silent right hand. I would feint the jab and throw the right hand. My trainer called it a silent right hand because you didn’t know I was going to throw it. You thought I was going to throw the jab, but I’d feint the jab and throw the right hand. Sometimes I would throw a double right hand.
MS: What about body punches?
CC: When I wanted to get your hands down I’d go to the body. I’d hook to the body and hook to the head, or throw a right hand to the body and a right hand to the head. But I wasn’t a vicious body puncher. I went to the head mostly. I was a counter puncher and I would hit guys when they weren’t ready to be hit. I was always in good shape and I could move and take a fairly good punch.
MS: Did you have a favorite combination?
CC: I had a good right uppercut, left hook, right hand combination. I used it to good effect when I knocked out (Luis) Rodriguez. That was one of my favorite punches.
MS: You spoke of learning the finer points of boxing technique from role models early in your career. Two of today’s best fighters are Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao, both of whom fight in your weight class. Would you consider them good role models for young boxers to emulate in terms of their boxing styles?
CC: No, I would not. It would be difficult to learn anything from them. Both are unorthodox boxers with natural styles that work for them. But what works for them would not work for most other boxers. It would be difficult to imitate. They don’t have anything that they can put on paper because they don’t know what they are going to do next. They don’t have a plan. They just go out there and fight and whatever comes to their mind happens automatically. You have to have a plan and you have to have a style. I had a style you could learn from because it was based on solid fundamentals. I threw the one-two-threes, and I threw them correctly. And if you throw punches correctly you will score. And if you do it correctly you will succeed in boxing. Pacquiao and Mayweather are doing something that nobody else can do and you don’t have any trainers today that can show people how to offset what they are doing. There are very few fighters today with the type of skills I would want my kids to watch and imitate. There are some guys I’m impressed with but they are mostly fighting—not boxing. Some of my guys would come to the gym excited after watching a fight on TV and say “did you see that?” I’d say don’t watch that particular fighter. I’d tell them to watch tapes of Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard and see how they use the jab and footwork—certain things that I wanted them to pick up on.
MS: Floyd Mayweather Jr. has done very well with his unorthodox style and extraordinary speed and reflexes. How would he have done if we time travel him back to the 1960s to face the best fighters of your era?
CC: I think he would have done pretty well, but he would have had way more trouble in my day than today because the fighters were much better. They were more knowledgeable. They had a Ph.D. in boxing. These guys today just go in there and fight off the top of their heads. They don’t have a plan and they don’t know what they are doing. They haven’t gone to school.
MS: Could fighters such as Emile Griffith, Luis Rodriguez, Jose Napoles, Carlos Ortiz and Curtis Cokes—all of whom were outstanding orthodox boxers— defeat Mayweather and Pacquaio.
CC: I definitely think that. Today’s champions would have a much harder time to get to a title because they would have to come through fighters of my ability and I think the top guys back in my day learned everything you could learn about boxing.
MS: How would you have fought Floyd? How would you cope with his tremendous speed?
CC: His speed is nothing I hadn’t seen before. You can throw punches and have speed but if there’s nothing there you will hit air. His speed won’t bother me. Luis Rodriguez had tremendous speed and I slowed him down. I would fight Floyd the same way I fought everybody else. I would work with my jab–make him move away from my jab. While worrying about getting away from my jab I would hit with my good right hand and left hook and I’d go home early.
MS: Your first victory over Luis Rodriguez in 1961 was considered quite an upset. At the time he had only one loss in 40 fights.
CC: Rodriguez beat everyone but he had a problem with me. Angelo Dundee (Rodriguez’s manager and trainer) didn’t want the fight. But Luis, to his credit, wanted to fight me. He wanted to fight the best. I don’t blame him. I wanted to fight the best also. In our first fight I outboxed and outmaneuvered him. He was throwing wide punches and I was throwing straight short punches so I got inside of him and beat him to the punch. That first fight in Dallas (August 1961) was easy. I had him down and won a decision. I had a style that bothered him. Angelo tried to change his style to fight me. He wanted him to be more of a puncher with me instead of being a boxer, like he was. But that only made it easier for me to cope with. I was always good at luring guys into my style of boxing, and that’s what good fighters do. You make the guy fight your fight. In our third fight, a month before I won the title, I stopped him in the 15th round. He got hit with a couple of shots and couldn’t come back. Luis had a good chin but I had a good right hand.
MS: You lost the welterweight title to the great Jose Napoles in 1969 and failed to regain the title two months later. What happened in those fights?
CC: Napoles was on his way up and I was on my way out. It was time for me to sit down because I’d been there for a while. In the second fight I broke his ribs. I went to his body real good but it was time for me to go. I’d had my day. I took a few fights I should not have taken. It was time for me to retire. In both of our fights his punches caused my eyes to become very swollen. I couldn’t see. (Cokes’ corner would not let him come out for the 13th round of their first fight). He damaged my right eye real bad.
MS: What would have happened if you had fought Napoles in your prime?
CC: If I fought Jose in my prime we would both have to retire after that fight (laughs).
MS: Luis Rodriguez and Jose Napoles were two of the greatest welterweight champions to ever wear the crown. You fought both of them. Who would have won had they met in their primes?
CC: I really don’t know. That would have been a good fight. Rodriguez didn’t hit as hard as Napoles, but he threw more punches.
MS: The other big superstar of today’s boxing scene is Manny Pacquiao. Would his unorthodox style have given you problems?
CC: He probably would, but if he ran into my good right hand then he would straighten up too. You know, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line and that’s what I would do. I’d throw straight punches and he’d run into my good right hand and my jab. It would be a good fight because I’m not a wild swinger like he is. I throw punches straight and it would probably take me some time to hit him on the chin but when I did we could go home.
MS: Boxing has changed in many ways from the time when you were champion of the world. For example, many fighters have incorporated weightlifting into their training routines. What do you think of that trend?
CC: I used little hand weights of not more than two pounds. I would shadow box with them. I never used the big weights to make muscles. Just two pound weights. I would walk around the house with them. Big muscles slow you down. You don’t want your muscles to be tight and pumped up because you can’t use your arms if they’re pumped like that. Weightlifting is not for boxing. It’s for football players who need the muscles to tackle an opposing player or throw him down. You have to have smooth muscles like a basketball player if you are to throw your punches correctly. The heavy bag is an important tool for creating punching power, not lifting heavy weights.
MS: Speaking of strong punchers let’s discuss two of the best—Tommy Hearns and Roberto Duran.
CC: Tommy Hearns was a good puncher but he didn’t have a real good chin. He needed to work on his defense more than he needed to work on his offense. He was easy to hit. I would have hit him. Duran had to come to you in order to score. He couldn’t stand on the outside and outbox anybody. I’m boxing. I could have beaten both Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran at welterweight.
MS: Let’s discuss some of your other opponents. Before you entered your prime fighting years you lost to Stanley “Kitten” Hayward and Jose Stable. Both fights were televised nationally.
CC: They said Kitten was a welterweight but when I fought him he looked more like a middleweight or small light heavy. He was the strongest boxer I ever fought. I could hit him all day long but he was so big and strong. He caught me with a good shot and had me down three times before they stopped the fight. But I had him down also. Jose Stable was a very good bob and weave pressure fighter. It was my first time fighting on national TV. I started strong but just didn’t fight enough during the last few rounds. Even so, it was a very close decision.
MS: The Hayward fight was a real barn burner and can be seen on YouTube. He does indeed look much bigger than you. In fact Don Dunphy, who was announcing the fight at ringside, comments about the disparity in size. The fight took place in Hayward’s home town of Philadelphia. Do you think there was some funny business with the scale?
CC: Well, it could have been. We were not allowed to weigh in at the same time. I complained about that because he got on the scale and was gone when I arrived. We never did get the chance to watch him get on the scale. I know good and well he was no 147 pounds. But I’m not using that as an excuse. It had nothing to do with him winning the fight because I had beaten big guys like that. He just caught me with a good shot that got me out of there.
MS: You knocked Hayward down with three solid punches just before the bell ended the second round. If you had caught him with those punches a minute earlier do you think the result might been different.
CC: It’s possible. I don’t know if he could have gotten up and recovered in time.
MS: What do you think of the current rule that has fighters weigh-in a day before the fight?
CC: I think it’s better to have a weigh-in on the day of the fight because you’d know for sure you have a 147 pounder against a 147 pounder. If you weigh-in the day before the fight you know you’re not going to get in that ring at 147—probably more like 157.
MS: In 1972 you had a significant role in “Fat City” a major Hollywood movie about boxing. How did that come about?
CC: John Huston, the director, knew about me as a boxer and asked me to audition for the part. It was hard work. You had to remember your lines. If somebody else remembered their lines and did it well and you missed yours they had to reshoot and the actors would get mad. I didn’t have to threaten any of them but they knew not to mess with me because I would shadow box while waiting for the next scene (laughs). It was a nice experience and I had a good time with Stacey Keach, Susan Tyrrell and Jeff Bridges. Those guys helped me quite a bit with my lines. They were tremendous with helping me. I got called for another part but I was in Paris with one of my fighters so I missed it. They wanted me to go to acting school but I was so busy doing my boxing thing with my guys.
MS: Do you have any regrets about your boxing career?
CC: Not at all. I did well in boxing. I started out wanting to be world champion and I accomplished that. I’m in the Hall of Fame. I retired from boxing because it was time for me to go. Nobody took advantage of me. Before I became a pro I attended college for two years. I had a good education. I knew how to take care of myself. I knew how to count my money too. I didn’t need a manager to count my money to me. I counted out my money to him.