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Youtube Boxing

Studying The Art Of Boxing

With
YouTube

By Bobby Franklin

Boxing was once a great art. Unfortunately, it is now a lost art. The practitioners of this once noble form, men such as Johnson, Robinson, Dempsey, Louis, Leonard (Benny and Sugar Ray), Moore, Tunney, and so many others, were the Michelangelos and DaVincis of their craft. And while the likes of the great Florentines will never be seen again, so it is with the Old Masters of Boxing.

Boxing was once a great art. Unfortunately, it is now a lost art.

Leonardo has been dead for hundreds of years, but we can still gaze upon his work in museums around the world. The sculpture, painting, and architecture of Michelangelo is still very much with us. To gaze upon the David in Florence or the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican is a moving experience. These great works and so many others still speak to us and leave us in awe, so much so that it is almost impossible to think of the men who created them as being dead. They live on through their work and the influence it continues to have on us.

While I may be bordering on hyperbole to compare boxing with such great masters in the classical arts, when it comes to the world of sports I can think of no other that encapsulates the art spirit as much as boxing. So, how are we able to experience and appreciate what is now a lost art? You certainly cannot hang the Louis/Conn fight on a wall in a museum. We can read about these great practitioners and learn what interesting lives they led, but in order to truly experience what they accomplished we have to see it.

The art form boxing is closest to is dance, something that is beautiful because of its motion. You can look at a photograph of Nureyev gliding through the air in much the same way you can see one of Ray Robinson executing a perfectly timed left hook, but that only gives a view of a split second in time of their performances. To truly appreciate what these great talents did you have to see them in action. Thanks to Thomas Edison and his invention of moving pictures many of these great works have been preserved on film. However, it was not until recently that we were able to gain access to so much of this material. Yes, thousands of hours of footage were recorded but it was very rare that we ever got to see any of it. That is until the advent of YouTube.

Robinson vs Fullmer

YouTube is the Smithsonian of boxing. For anyone interested in looking back at the years when boxing was a true art form, YouTube is the Holy Grail. It is beyond belief what can be seen there. Not only is there film of great masters dating back to the 19th Century, but much of it has been restored and even corrected for problems with the speed at which it was originally shown making these pieces even better then when they were originally shown.

Where is all this footage coming from? I have no idea, but there are a lot of people out there who are digging it up and sharing it with the rest of us. They are the caretakers and archeologists of this history, and their work is invaluable. Because of them we are now able to finally view the great Sam Langford in action. I can watch Jake LaMotta training at the original Bobby Gleason”s Gym. Do a search for “D’Amato, Dundee, and Ali training” and you will be a fly on the wall listening in while the two great trainers exchange comments while watching Ali spar. You can see Gene Tunney in a playful sparring match with James J. Corbett. But most of all you can go back and watch some of the great fights of all time, some you may have only read about. You can watch them as often and whenever you want to, and quite often you may find they are a bit different from what you have read about them. I found this to be the case when I watched the first Joe Louis v Billy Conn bout.

Now that we have this great museum of boxing masters available for us to watch in our homes how do we best appreciate them? As with all great art, you can enjoy it  just by watching them. But, to really delve into the art it is best to learn more about what you are watching. There are many ways to learn what I call “Boxing Theory”, understanding what is happening on a deeper level when watching these artists. Looking at the Mona Lisa is a moving experience, but as you learn more about the subtleties and different interpretations of it you gain so much more. Great art truly appreciated often leaves us asking more questions the more we view it. This is true of boxing.

Seeing how there are no courses on “Boxing Art Appreciation” it is up to us to take the autodidactic route. Finding books that work as guides that lead us to uncover more and more of these treasures is a good place to start. Good books on boxing will also cue you in on what to look for when watching a classic fight. It will also give you historical context which is very important. As with any art, it is important to view it with a proper perspective of when it was created. Seeing Jack Dempsey in the ring with Jess Willard is much more interesting when you know what led up to him being there.

Paul Beston’s The Boxing Kings: When American Heavyweights Ruled The Ring is an excellent overview of a great period in boxing history. As you read each chapter you can then go to YouTube to watch footage of the men Mr. Beston has written about. Reading and watching in tandem makes it a truly wonderful experience.

To delve more deeply into the techniques of the old masters I would recommend Mike Silver’s The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science. Reading this work along with viewing the fights all help you to better understand that is happening in the ring.

There are also many autobiographies and instruction books that were written by the fighters from the great era of boxing. For instance, I read Tommy Farr’s autobiography in which he gives a beautiful account of his fight with Joe Louis. After reading it the fight took on a whole new meaning as I watched it.

With great books such as those written by Mike Silver and Paul Beston as your guide you can embark on a wonderful adventure studying the Art of Boxing. Bring a critical eye when watching these films. Look for the subtleties. As with any great art, look beneath the surface, you will find there is so much there. I must warn you though, once you start it will become an addiction.

When Everyone Knew Who The Heavyweight Champion Was

The Boxing Kings:
When American Heavyweights Ruled The Ring
By Paul Beston
Rowman & Littlefield
356 Pages

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

From the time of John L. Sullivan up to the reign of Mike Tyson just about everybody knew who the Heavyweight Champion of the World was. It was the most prestigious of all sporting titles and the man who held it was one of the most famous, if not the most famous man on the planet. From 1885 up to 1990 only 30 men were able to claim that title.

Being the Heavyweight Champion went beyond just winning fights. Unlike other sports, the Champ did not compete as part of a team. This was a solitary accomplishment that was the epitome of rugged individualism. It took more than just physical prowess to win the title, it also took strength of character and a determined will.

People who have come to the sport of boxing in recent years have no idea what an important figure the Heavyweight Boxing Champion was to past generations. In that period I doubt there was a boy alive who didn’t at one time dream of holding the title. The history of those men who did reach that goal is a very rich one that often mirrors society as a whole. While many books have been written about individual title holders, there has been a need for a broad history of the era when everyone knew the names John L. Sullivan, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, and many others.

People who have come to the sport of boxing in recent years have no idea what an important figure the Heavyweight Boxing Champion was to past generations.

Now, thanks to Paul Beston, the Managing Editor of City Journal, that need has been filled. In The Boxing Kings: When American Heavyweights Ruled The Ring Mr. Beston tells the story of these unique individuals with insight and respect while at the same time not glossing over their weaknesses. If you are not already familiar with this history there is no better book for you to learn from. If you are an experienced boxing fan you will find this work refreshing and informative. I consider myself to be a bit of a boxing expert and I still found much that was new to me while reading this lively narrative.

It was interesting to find out that John L. Sullivan, who is well known for drawing the color line when it came to defending the title against black challengers, was one of the first people in the ring to congratulate Jack Johnson, the first black champion, when he defeated Jim Jeffries. Sullivan also rode on the railroad car with Johnson and his black supporters after the fight. There may have been an ulterior motive for Sullivan’s actions, but it is still surprising to read about this considering the time in which it took place.

There is so much more. Johnson, who is seen today as a man who stood up and broke through the color line drew one of his own and would not defend the title against some of the finest “colored” heavyweights of his day. Johnson, with his extreme behavior, not only offended whites but finally even blacks who did not find him a good example for their children. To quote the author, “As a black man living on his own terms-not those of whites, not those of blacks, and not those of Booker T. Washington or W.E.B. DuBois-Johnson had no home in the America of his time. But he didn’t have to make the choices he made.”

Mr. Beston moves through the years concisely but without giving short shrift to any of the personalties involved.

Mr. Beston moves through the years concisely but without giving short shrift to any of the personalties involved. In the case of Jack Dempsey, a man who would become one of the most beloved figures in the history of sports, we learn he had his problems stemming from his not having served in the military during WWI. It was a stain that would haunt the great champion for years. Yet, even with that baggage his magnetism provided for the first million dollar gates in history. Dempsey also brought boxing out of the shadows and into the mainstream.

Mr. Beston shines in this book in that he not only has done painstaking research, but he is also a great writer who never gives his readers a dull moment. In a chapter entitled The Substitutes he covers the period between Dempsey and Joe Louis. For many this time is looked upon as a lull between two great champions, but it was actually a fascinating period. It was during this time that two of the champions were not from the United States, making it truly a world championship. As that world was slipping into chaos it appeared the Heavyweight Championship was too. Max Schmelling won the title on a foul, the only fighter ever to do so. Gangsters were becoming heavily involved in the game, and there was even a question of whether or not Jack Sharkey threw his fight with Primo Carnera.

It took Joe Louis to bring stability and honor to the sport. While reading Mr. Beston’s chapter on the Louis years one is filled with joy and sadness. Louis was not only arguably the greatest heavyweight of all time, but also one of the most important figures of the 20th Century when it came to unifying the nation and breaking down racial barriers. Louis does not receive the credit he deserves for all he accomplished. He is given his due here. As Mr. Beston writes “Louis was a light in black America’s darkness, and a generation would never forget him for it.” When reading that line I can’t help but think of how Muhammad Ali would later mock the aging champion.

Louis was the first black golfer to play in a PGA event, another wall he broke through. I have to admit I was almost bought to tears reading about Joe’s days after boxing. This man who had done so much for boxing and for his country was hounded for years by the IRS and relegated to being a greeter in LasVegas. Paul Beston gives this great man the respect he earned and deserves.

Mr. Beston brings us Rocky Marciano, the Brockton Blockbuster. Marciano possessed the grit, determination, and sheer will that allowed him to overcome his physical shortcomings to become the only undefeated champion in history. He was also a hero to working class America. Following Rocky, Floyd Patterson’s rise to the throne ushered in a period when boxing appeared to be fading away. Then along came the colorful and handsome Swede Ingemar Johnson who briefly shot some adrenaline into the veins of the sport. We see Sonny Liston, the man whose stare paralyzed opponents and whose lifestyle made him unwanted as champion. Mr. Beston gives us insight into this complicated man who is almost impossible to understand. If boxing were the works of Shakespeare, then Liston would be one of the “problem plays”.

In reading the chapter on Muhammad Ali, the man who certainly saved boxing but at at a cost, I can’t help but think of how different things would have been if Ali had made some other choices. His decision to become part of a radical black separatist movement that preached racial hatred was so at odds with the unifying movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. This charismatic young champion could have done so much to further race relations but chose to take a different path. It is ironic he is looked upon as a great Civil Rights leader when he preached separation of the races. Mr. Beston gives us much insight into Ali’s career, but I think he could have a whole book just on this one subject where he would be able to delve more deeply into this subject.

Paul Beston closes his history with the years following Ali and ends with Lennox Lewis taking over as champion. In these chapters he discusses the bitterness of Larry Holmes and even made me feel some sympathy for Mike Tyson. He gives his thoughts on why the Heavyweight Champion is no longer a recognizable figure.

Paul Beston’s work is truly worthy of the Championship Crown.

I read a lot of books on boxing. There are a number of good ones out there. However, some are well researched but poorly written and not well edited, while others are plain awful. In The Boxing Kings we have the rare book that is well researched, well written, lively, informative, and fully conveys the author’s love for the sport while taking an honest view of it. If books were fighters some would be tomato cans, some journeymen, some contenders, and a very few would be Champions. Paul Beston’s work is truly worthy of the Championship Crown. I highly recommend it.

 

 

The Fighting Kessler Brothers

By Mike Silver

The ultimate goal of every professional boxer is to win a world title, but running a close second is the opportunity to be featured in a main event at the world’s most famous sports arena—Madison Square Garden. During the Golden Age of boxing, from the 1920s to the 1950s, the honor of topping a card in “the Garden” was an achievement to be savored for the rest of a boxer’s life.

A brief historical note: There have been four Madison Square Gardens. The first dates to the late 1870s. But the building that is most synonymous with boxing’s glory days—and the one most fondly remembered by those who experienced it—was the third version that occupied an entire block on New York’s Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th streets. Garden III stood as a monument to the sport from 1925 to 1967. It was demolished in 1968 and replaced by the current Madison Square Garden located 16 blocks south at 33rd street and Seventh Avenue.

Gaining entry into boxing’s holy of holies was a privilege not easily attained. Certain standards had to be met. Even the undercard boxers had to have records that warranted an invitation. Boxers who fought main events in other arenas might only qualify for a six round preliminary or eight round semi-final in the Garden. To appear in the featured bout of the evening was equivalent to starring in a Broadway theatrical production.

Because of the arena’s status, and the importance of boxing to the popular culture at that time, the result of a Garden main event made news throughout the world. For every boxer lucky enough to appear in a Garden main event the knowledge that a good showing—win or lose—could mean an invitation back and another good payday spurred them to put forth their best effort.

On the night of August 9th, 1946 Ruby Kessler, a 19 year old welterweight out of Brooklyn’s Coney Island neighborhood, was prepared to do just that.

Ruby Kessler

Ruby’s journey to a featured bout at the world’s most famous arena began three years earlier when he knocked out Ray Ramirez in the first round at the Fort Hamilton arena in Brooklyn. It was an auspicious beginning for the 135 pound boxer. Ruby had followed his older brother Milton into the ring. In fact, on the same night that Ruby scored his first pro victory Milton fought in the main event.

Milt Kessler had turned pro in 1939 and quickly established a reputation as one of the finest young boxers in New York City. He was a classic stand up boxer with quick hands and agile footwork. The Kessler brothers were part of a grand boxing tradition. Jewish boxers were an integral part of the boxing scene, having produced hundreds of title contenders and 29 world champions from the early 1900s to the late 1930s. They hoped to become the second set of Jewish brothers to win world titles. The first were Abe and Monte Attell who ascended to their thrones at the turn of the last century.

Milt Kessler

Milt compiled an impressive 31-4-2 won-lost-draw record before he was drafted into the Army in 1943. He was one of 4000 American professional boxers who served in the armed forces during World War II.

After being discharged from the army in 1946 Milt decided not to continue his boxing career. By that time Ruby had graduated from preliminary boxer to main bout status. He began the year by winning six in a row before dropping an eight round decision to Patsy Brandino at the Queensboro Arena. But just sixteen days later Ruby scored his most impressive victory by coming off the floor to stop veteran Pat Scanlon in the 7th round of a ten rounder at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field. That victory earned him his first Garden main event. His opponent was Greenwich Village’s tough Tony Pellone. A few months earlier Pellone had scored a major upset by ending Billy Graham’s 58 bout undefeated streak via a controversial ten round decision.

Pellone and Kessler had similar records and were evenly matched but Pellone had an advantage: He was a mob managed fighter. As a “connected” fighter there was always the possibility that the fight judges and the referee would be under orders not to vote for his opponent if the bout went the distance. The day before the fight the odds favored Pellone at 9 to 5. By fight time the odds had increased to 11 to 5 on Pellone. There was no reason for this unless word had gotten out that the fix was in and Pellone could not lose.
In a rousing see-saw fight that the New York Times described as “a bruising battle that held the interest of the crowd right to the final bell” Pellone won a split decision that was greeted with boos by a majority of the fans in attendance.

Irving Kessler, Ruby’s younger brother, believes the decision was preordained. In an interview with the writer he offered as proof the referee’s telling Ruby after the fight, “Sorry Ruby, the best I could give you was a draw”. There is no question the fight was very close but in the end the two judges scored it 5-4-1 for Pellone, with the referee voting a draw. It should not surprise anyone with knowledge of boxing history that the decision might have been fixed. Professional boxing in the 1940s and 1950s was heavily infiltrated by mob elements and fixed fights were not uncommon.

Less than six weeks later Ruby knocked out Pat Foley in the first round. Over the next two months he outpointed Pat Scanlon in ten and finished out the year by stopping former contender Cleo Shans in three. Those victories earned Kessler a second Garden main event. On January 17, 1947, in front of 14,000 fans, Ruby crossed gloves with master boxer Billy Graham. An interesting sidelight to the fight was that both men were trained by Whitey Bimstein. As a result Bimstein decided not to work in either boxer’s corner.

Ruby Kessler and Billy Graham

The Graham bout was the most important fight of Ruby’s career. Graham was a highly regarded welterweight contender. Fortunately he was not a mob managed fighter so if the fight went the distance a fair decision would be expected.
A victory over Graham would put Ruby in line for a title shot. But it wasn’t to be. Although every round was closely contested the difference came down to Graham’s vast experience (he had twice as many fights as Kessler). Graham’s accurate counterpunching and superb defensive skills gave him the edge, but Ruby never stopped trying and when tagged would fight back even harder.

Ruby lost the decision but impressed the critics with his tenacity and toughness. Writing for the New York Times, James P. Dawson praised Kessler’s performance: “The Coney Island youngster is one of the most courageous fighters in the welterweight class today and a lad who is dangerous even when staggering around the ring groggily under fire. In ten rounds that sizzled with superb boxing and sparkled with sharp, solid hitting, Graham received the unanimous decision.”

In his next bout Kessler was stopped in the 7th round by lightweight contender Juste Fontaine. Fritzie Zivic, the ex-welterweight champ who was known for his foul tactics, trained Fontaine. He schooled his protégée well in the art of dirty fighting. Kessler was ahead in the scoring but during the bout was repeatedly fouled. Punches below the beltline, hitting with an open glove, thumbing and butting were taking a toll. The bout took place in Philadelphia, Fontaine’s hometown. The referee, obviously favoring the hometown favorite, issued a few warnings but would not disqualify or deduct points from Fontaine. In the seventh round a weakened Kessler was backed against the ropes and taking punishment when the referee intervened and stopped the bout. As the fighters left the ring Ruby’s brothers Milt and Freddy confronted Zivic and an argument ensued. Several punches were exchanged before security stepped in and broke it up.

Ruby was disappointed by the losses but not deterred. Over the next 19 months he fought 16 times. His most notable opponents included former contender Bobby Ruffin (WD-8, Draw-10), former junior welterweight champion Tippy Larkin (LD-8, LD -10) and eighth rated welterweight Charley Fusari (LD-10).

On October 11, 1948 Ruby was knocked out for only the second time in his 57 bout career when he was stopped in the first round by welterweight contender Tony Janiro. Although he was only three weeks shy of his 22nd birthday the loss convinced Ruby it was time to hang up his gloves.

Irving Kessler is 88 years old. He is the only surviving member of the Kessler clan (originally seven brothers and one sister). Irving remembers how proud he was to carry his older brother’s equipment bag to the gym. He attended almost all of Ruby’s fights and recalls “a fearless boxer who would take on anyone. Whereas Milt was a pure boxer who was often compared to the great Benny Leonard, Ruby was a fighter who rarely took a backward step and didn’t mind mixing it up if the situation called for it. He was an excellent boxer and puncher and if you were not a title contender or champ you couldn’t get by Ruby.”

Ruby Kessler left the sport just as television was beginning to mass market boxing to millions of new fans. No doubt his all action style of fighting would have made him a very popular TV boxer.

Following his retirement Ruby partnered with his brother Milt and opened a bar in Brooklyn. Two years later they ran into financial problems and Ruby decided to pick up a payday by fighting again. On December 23, 1950, at the Ridgewood Grove Arena in Brooklyn, Ruby was holding his own against journeyman Joey Carkido when he suffered a deep gash over his left eye that caused the referee to stop the fight in the 6th round. He never fought again. His final stats were 38-17-2. He knocked out 17 opponents and was KO’d 3 times.

In 1955 Ruby handed the bar over to his brother and took a full time job as a sales representative for a liquor company.

Back in the days when boxing was still boxing not everyone got to be a world champion. There was a definite hierarchy of boxing talent and generally eight champions (today there are over 100) for each of the eight (now 17) weight classes. In that unforgiving environment to be competitive with the best took an extra measure of character and talent. Despite never having won a title Ruby Kessler measured up to the task and was an indispensable part of boxing’s greatest generation.

Mike Silver is the author of Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing (2016, Lyons Press) and The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science (McFarland Publishers, 2008).

Research assistance was provided by Irving Kessler.

When Heavyweights Ruled

 Jerry Izenberg Recalls The Time And Excitement

Once There Were Giants: The Golden Age Of Heavyweight Boxing

Skyhorse Publishing, NY, NY

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

From the time of John L. Sullivan and through most of the 20th Century being the Heavyweight Champion of the World meant being the stuff of legends. It was as close to immortality as any man could get. Young boys would dream of growing up and one day being the next Jack Dempsey or Joe Louis. To hold that great title also meant being arguably the most famous man in the world. It is impossible to recall the Roaring Twenties without thinking of Dempsey. The 30s and 40s always have Joe Louis’s visage looking at us from that time of the Great Depression and WWII. As America got back to work after the War we had Rocky Marciano to remind us of the value of hard work and perseverance. In between each of these great champions were other great men who left their own mark on the history of boxing. The Heavyweight Championship was the most difficult to attain and most prestigious honor to capture in all of sports and I would argue in any realm of the world of entertainment.

It is sad that today it is just a memory. That great title no longer exists. Oh, there are people, a lot of them, who claim it but none who have earned it. I doubt there are any young men today who wake up in the morning with that dream their grandfathers and fathers had of being the Champ. Those days are far behind us, but they didn’t go away without a fight.

The final era when the Heavyweight Title still meant something was also one of its most exciting, Jerry Izenberg in his new book Once There Were Giants: The Golden Age Of Heavyweight Boxing (Skyhorse Publishing, NY,NY) brings us back to that very exciting time.

If you were fortunate enough to have experienced boxing from the 1960s until the late 1980s Jerry’s book will bring back terrific memories of what may have been the most competitive period in the history of boxing among the big men. Mr. Izenberg argues it was, and he is standing on solid ground when he says so. It was certainly a very exciting time to be a fight fan.

In a lively narrative Mr. Izenberg brings us to ringside and into the backrooms to visit with the fighters to relive many great moments.

As background Mr. Izenberg chronicles the rise and fall of the mob that took place from the 1930s up until the 1960s. We are introduced or reintroduced, depending on your age, to such characters as Owney Madden, Frankie Carbo, Jim Norris, Blinky Palermo, and many other gangsters who controlled boxing for decades. It is a sordid history of corruption and strong arm tactics and very worth reading.

After Rocky Marciano retired, the Heavyweight Championship fell into a sorry state. Cus D’Amato who had crusaded against mob control of boxing was able to take hold of the title with his young fighter Floyd Patterson. Mr. Izenberg sheds a lot of light on the real D’Amato who, it turns out, had his own mob connection. D’Amato also made it even more difficult for legitimate contenders to get a shot at the title because he was not going to allow his champion to step into the ring with any opponent who had a pulse. At least with the old mob a fighter could buy his way in. With D’Amato the division went into a period where having talent only increased a fighter’s chances of not getting a title fight.

Ironically, it took the underworld figure Sonny Liston to change things, though it took someone else to shake up the world of boxing. When Sonny won the title by destroying Patterson boxing epitaphs were being written. Boxing had gone from a mama’s boy to a man who was pure evil. It didn’t look like it could sink any further.

This is where Jerry’s book goes from the darkness to the glory times. A young Cassius Clay had returned from the Rome Olympics waving his Gold Medal and proclaiming himself “The Greatest”. He stepped up and whupped Sonny and began a new age in boxing. An age Jerry Izenberg was there to witness from beginning to end.

In a lively narrative Mr. Izenberg brings us to ringside and into the backrooms to visit with the fighters to relive many great moments. When Clay, now Ali, became champion he fought everyone. Of course, a number of these contenders had grown old waiting for a title shot, but they were no longer going to be denied. Ali fought often and was always heard from. He was loved and hated, and he was exciting. Boxing was now back in a big way, and Mr. Izenberg brings it all alive again.

As Ali was mowing down the old line of contenders a whole new crop was sprouting up. While none seemed an immediate threat to Ali, it was going to get interesting. Well, it did get interesting when Ali was stripped of his title for refusing to be inducted into the Army. With Ali sitting on the sidelines the heavyweight division still blossomed as many of the young prospects developed into serious contenders. By the time Ali returned to the ring boxing was a whole new picture. It had certainly become much more competitive and even more exciting.

Jerry Izenberg follows these events up until the implosion of Mike Tyson when it can be said heavyweight boxing was breathing its last. We are there for the three Ali v Frazier fights. The Foreman destruction of Frazier as well as Ken Norton’s win over and two controversial losses to Ali. And the rise of Larry Holmes, a fighter who never got the respect he deserved.

Mr. Izenberg’s insights are terrific, and his chapter on the Holmes v Cooney fight is particularly interesting. The racial overtones that fight took on were a sad episode, but it is good to know they were not shared by the fighters.

There are also many behind the scenes stories about the rise and fall of Mike Tyson that include one very personal moment the author had with the future champ as well as the story of Teddy Atlas’s break with D’Amato and Tyson. Boxing fans will love this.

And if that isn’t enough, Jerry takes you to the Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project in St. Louis for a visit with Michael Spinks. The visit took place at midnight in the notorious project and it took plenty of courage for Jerry to show up. It does result in a very interesting story.

Jerry Izenberg and Ali

If you want to know what competitive boxing is like. If you want to know what it is like to have evenly matched contenders fighting for the title. If you want to get a taste of the electricity that would fill the air all across the country when the Heavyweight Championship was on the line you will find it in Once There Were Giants. It’s unfortunate it will never be seen again.

Johnny Risko The Cleveland Rubber Man

New Biography Gives Rugged Contender
The Recognition He Deserves

Johnny Risko: The Cleveland Rubber Man

By Jerry Fitch

Tora Book Publishing, 168 pages, $18.00

reviewed by Bobby Franklin

The 1920s and 1930s were truly boxing’s Golden Age. Just the shear number of participants in the sport guaranteed it. Boxing historian Mike Silver points out in his book, The Arc of Boxing, there were between 8,000 and 10,000 fighters licensed during this period. In 1927 New York and California alone had 2,000 licensed boxers each. That is way above the total number of fighters participating today, and these fighters were much more active. Because there were so many fighters there were also a huge number of fight venues. During these years, and even during the Great Depression, a boxer could make a decent living fighting every couple of weeks. Add to this the fact that there were gyms everywhere that were filled with excellent trainers. Where a boxer never lacked for sparring, and you can see why fighters from this period were so good.

While places like New York were certainly Meccas for boxing, the rest of the country did not lack in fight clubs. In these pre television days boxing was one of the most popular forms of entertainment. Cleveland, Ohio had a very vibrant fight scene, and  boxing historian Jerry Fitch is working hard to keep the history of boxing in that area alive. Jerry is the author of a terrific biography of the great heavyweight Jimmy Bivins as well as “Cleveland’s Greatest Fighters of All Time”, and a memoir, “50 Years of Fights, Fighters, and Friendships.

Johnny Risko

In his latest work Jerry takes his keen historian’s eye and focuses it on one of the toughest and most prolific fighters to emerge from Cleveland, heavyweight contender Johnny Risko, also known as “The Rubber Man” because of his ability to take punches and still keep coming forward. This is not too say Risko just stood there and absorbed punches, no, he was also a skilled boxer, but it was next to impossible to knock him down or out. In fact, in approximately 140 fights (the exact number is not known) Johnny was only stopped three times one of which was by the great Max Schmeling. He was counted out only one time and that was in his last bout when he was 38 years old.

Reading Jerry Fitch’s book on Risko is a boxing history lesson in itself as it goes beyond the career of Johnny Risko. Just reading through the Cleveland contender’s record is amazing. The names that appear there, the people he fought, is a who’s who of boxing from that glorious period. It is staggering to see who the Rubber Man went up against. Jack Sharkey, Gene Tunney, Mickey Walker, Tom Heeney, Max Baer, Tony Galento, Tommy Loughran, Ernie Schaaf, to name just a few. And Risko was no “opponent”. He beat many of these men. He split a pair of decisions with Baer and beat Louhgran two out of four times. No, Risko was far from an opponent, he is more remembered as a “spoiler” as he ruined many a contender’s chance at getting a title shot.

Max Schmeling and Risko

While just looking at the Risko record can be enough to excite any fight fan, it is in reading Jerry’s lively account of his life and battles that is really a treat. Mr. Fitch has done tireless research in digging up accounts, many of them first hand round by round reports, of these great fights. You are there when Johnny beats George Godfrey, you have a seat at the Risko v Schmeling bout, you can see the smile of frustration on Max Baer’s face as he is unable to hurt the Rubber Man. This is living history.

Along the way Jerry also treats his readers to short, but detailed, biographies of many of Risko’s opponents. His treatment of Max Schmeling is very interesting. In just a few pages he gives a concise account of of the German’s career and fighting style.

Johnny Risko’s life is also covered in great detail. He was a smart businessman who walked away from boxing with money in his pocket and an appreciation for life. As I moved along in this book I felt I was really getting to know this interesting character from Cleveland’s past. He sounds like a guy who was quick with a smile and a happy remark. I doubt anyone would have felt uncomfortable in Risko’s company.

Risko Jabs Jack Sharkey

So why didn’t Johnny Risko ever get a shot at the title? Well, he came close many times but the timing was never quite right. Back then fighters didn’t score a victory over a top fighter and then wait around for the big fight. No, they kept fighting and sometimes would lose and get set back a bit. In the days of Johnny Risko, being a top contender really meant something. As is pointed out in this fine biography, Johnny was a top notch fighter. He was a true contender. Take a second to look at his record and I know you will want to learn more about him. Fortunately, thanks to Jerry Fitch you have that opportunity. His book will bring the Cleveland Rubber Man to life for you.

I would like to point out if it weren’t for dedicated boxing historians such as Jerry Fitch who devote untold hours researching these greats of the past they would be forgotten. Jerry, and others like him, deserve the eternal gratitude of all boxing fans who care about the legacy of this once great sport. It is important to support the work they do.

Thank you Jerry Fitch for the work you do. Johnny Risko and the others are looking down from above and smiling.

Information about and signed copies of “Johnny Risko, The Cleveland Rubber Man” by Jerry Fitch can be obtained by emailing Jerry at JerryFitch1946 [at] gmail [dot] com

Jack Sharkey vs Joe Louis

The Gob Showed Brilliance
In His One Sided Defeat

by Bobby Franklin

“Fear is looking across the ring at Joe Louis and knowing he wants to go home early.”

Sharkey and Louis Weigh In

The works of great artists show us something new no matter how many times we view them. I have yet to walk away from viewing or reading a play by William Shakespeare without seeing something in it I had not seen before. That is sometimes true because of the way it is directed or performed, but I have the same experience when I read his works. Great art is always open to interpretation. It also effects different people differently, and even can have a different effect on the same person each time he views it.

Often times there are subtleties we miss during a previous experience. Many times I have noticed something in a movie I had missed before even if I have seen the film multiple times. I have watched The Third Man at least two dozen times and I still find new things in it.

Over the past few years I have enjoyed revisiting fights from the past. I have found it interesting how many times I have been surprised at how different a fight was from my memory of it from either having seen it when it occurred or having watched it many years ago and seeing it again for the first time after all those years. The first Louis vs Conn fight and the Ali vs Foreman fight are two that I have written about that turned out to be very different from what my memory told me. In the case of the Louis Conn bout, there seems to be a collective memory that has grown into a legend about that match that is really quite different from what actually occurred that night.

Sharkey In Defensive Mode

There is something else I have learned from reviewing these fights from boxing’s great past. It is possible to learn a lot from watching a great fighter at the end of his career even in a one sided defeat. I recently watched the Joe Louis vs Jack Sharkey bout and found it very interesting. The match lasted only seven minutes and was a one sided win for the Brown Bomber, but Sharkey was very interesting to watch as he fought the last fight of his career.

The bout took place on August 18, 1936 at Yankee Stadium. Just two months earlier Louis had suffered his first career loss, a knock out at the hands of Max Schmeling. Close to 30,000 fans showed up to see if the loss had a lasting effect on Joe.

Jack Sharkey, also known as the Boston Gob, and his manager, Johnny Buckley, had talked their way into the fight with Louis and even managed to get a guarantee of 25% of the gate. It looked like a good final payday for the ex champ. Unless Louis had been completely demoralized by Schmeling, it didn’t appear Sharkey would have any chance of beating him.

Sharkey had lost the title to Primo Carnera in 1933. After that, Jack had six fights leading up to the Louis fight. He only won two of them with three losses and a draw. Given his record it would appear he would be a perfect comeback opponent for Louis, and maybe that is why they were agreeable to giving him such a good payday. He still had the cache of being a former Heavyweight Champion of the World.

When the opening bell rang it didn’t take long to see that Joe was not at all gun shy. The loss to Schmeling had not hurt his confidence. If anything, it had only made him more determined and focused.

Jack came out to meet Louis in the first round only to run into a sharp young opponent. Max Baer once said “Fear is looking across the ring at Joe Louis and knowing he wants to go home early.” Well, Sharkey may not have felt that when he stepped into the ring, but he certainly knew that’s what he was dealing with seconds into the bout.

Now here is where my comments about seeing things that have gone unnoticed in previous viewings come into play. Jack Sharkey was definitely an artist in the ring. He was a master boxer who’s biggest fault was his lack of consistency. Given that, he still possessed outstanding talent. At this point in his career he was well over the hill. You can see that in his lack of leg movement. Jack had been light on his feet when younger, but now they looked to be stiff and tired. It is not good being in a race with a young athlete while having two flat tires.

Once the bout got underway Jack had to know he had no chance of beating Louis. But Jack was also a champion and wasn’t going to just quit. So, what could he do? Well, this is where you get to see some amazing moves.

Jack reached down for every trick he knew. He used body feints, arm feints, he rolled with the punches, he tied Louis up when he could. He attempted to counter Louis’s jab, but no longer had the reflexes to be effective.

Louis Drops Sharkey

What you end up seeing when watching this fight is a once great boxer preforming some amazing moves, only they are now being done in slow motion, which makes them easier to see. Nothing worked to save him from being stopped, but they did prevent Jack from suffering a much worse beating.

The treat for students of boxing in watching this seven minute fight is in studying how Sharkey attempts to survive the Louis onslaught. Yes, it is a one sided fight, and Sharkey goes down four times, but in between you get to see a formerly great artist reaching to his palate in an attempt to paint one more masterpiece. He is not able to do it, but he does still show amazing skill. A lot can be learned from watching Jack Sharkey during his final few minutes in the ring.

Does Size Matter?

Super Size Heavyweights

Are Nothing New

by Bobby Franklin

It is a chorus heard over and over again, “Sure, guys like Dempsey and Louis were good in their day, but today’s giant heavyweights would just be too big and strong for them. The old-timers would wilt under the power they would be facing.”

I guess before the 21st century we were living in a world of small people.

I guess before the 21st century we were living in a world of small people. Those who believe the Klitschkos and Furys of today would beat the greats of the past because they are so big just can’t be convinced differently. They think bigger is better and refuse to take into account boxing skill, something that is sorely missing in today’s game.

I am including some photos with this article along with details that show very big heavyweights have always been around, and there have been plenty of giant killers to accommodate them.

Dempsey Willard
Dempsey Willard

Jack Dempsey is always the first to come to mind with his brutal destruction of the 6’6 ½ “ 245 pound Jess Willard. Take a look at the photo of this bout I have included and tell me Dempsey would not have been able to reach the jaws of today’s slow moving behemoths. Dempsey at 187 pounds and standing 6’1” used his speed and power to make Willard’s size a liability for the Pottawatomie Giant. Not only did Dempsey defeat Willard, but it was one of the most brutal beatings ever handed out in a championship boxing match. And don’t tell me Willard was a bum. A few years before he had defeated the great Jack Johnson while going 45 rounds in the blazing Havana sun. Sure, Johnson was not in his prime, but he was still a great fighter. Plus, battling in temperatures that reached over 100 degrees is something not many today would be able to do, especially for over two hours.

Dempsey and Big Bill Tate 1919
Dempsey and Big Bill Tate 1919

Dempsey beat two other fighters who were much bigger than he was. The 6’4”Carl Morris, who weighed 226 pounds to Dempsey’s 187, lost three times to Jack. Once by decision, once by DQ, and once by first round knock out.

In 1923 Dempsey defended his title against South American champion Luis Firpo in a bout that will be remembered for Dempsey being knocked out of the ring. Firpo outweighed Jack by 24 pounds and was as strong as they come. While Dempsey’s rather awkward exit from the ring makes this sound like it may have been a close fight, the reality is Dempsey administered almost as savage a beating to Firpo as he did to Willard. Firpo was down 7 times in the first round and twice in the second on the way to being knocked out. Dempsey hit the canvas one time on top of the trip outside of the ring, but those knockdowns were caused more by the rushes from the Wild Bull of the Pampas.

Oddly enough, while Dempsey was truly a giant killer he did have some trouble with a fighter smaller than he was. When the champion defended the title against Tom Gibbons in 1923, Jack had a 12 pound weight advantage. The very smart boxing, and survival minded Gibbons, moved deftly and tied up Dempsey for the 15 rounds while losing a unanimous decision. This is one of Dempsey’s most interesting fights to watch in that you see what great boxing moves the Manassas Mauler possessed. He was well taught by the great trainer Jimmy DeForreset.

Louis Carnera
Louis Carnera
Louis vs Carnera 1935
Louis vs Carnera 1935

I will briefly mention a few others. Joe Louis was no stranger to fighting opponents who were much bigger than he was. He fought and beat Primo Carnera at 260 pounds to Louis’s 196, Buddy Baer who came in at 250 to Joe’s 206, and Abe Simon with Louis at 202 to Simon’s 254. The Brown Bomber had no problem reaching the jaws of any of these giants. Again, Joe had more difficulty with the lighter guys. Billy Conn, Max Schmeling, and Joe Walcott were all smaller than Joe.

Starkey and Carnera
Starkey and Carnera

Boston’s Jack Sharkey didn’t believe size mattered either. Jack, at 187 pounds, took on and beat the 6’3”, 220 pound George Godfrey. At 188 he beat Harry Wills who weighed 214, and in his first fight with Primo Carnera he easily beat the 260 pound strong man though only weighing 201 himself.

Again, it was the smaller guys who gave Sharkey more trouble. He lost to Tommy Loughran and Tony Shucco, both of whom he outweighed by a considerable margin.

Kid Norfolk
Kid Norfolk

I would like to conclude this piece by including another very great fighter of the past whom many of you may not have heard of. Kid Norfolk was a middleweight and light heavyweight who fought all comers including Harry Greb. At 5’8” and weighing 182 pounds he took on the 6’6” 235 pound Big Bill Tate and beat him soundly over ten rounds. Tate was a sparring partner for Jack Dempsey and looked formidable against Norfolk. The Kid used his speed and great boxing ability to run rings around Tate. This fight is available on Youtube, and I strongly urge you to view it. Norfolk vs Klitschko or Fury? My money is on Norfolk any day of the week.

Does size matter? I guess you good say it does, but often to the benefit of the smaller man.