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Talking Boxing With Jerry Izenberg The Mob, D’Amato, Liston, Ali and Frazier

 

by Bobby Franklin

Jerry Izenberg

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.”

Ali And Jerry

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.

Boxing Is Dead. May It Rest In Peace

My New Year’s Resolution

by Bobby Franklin
It’s the New Year and a time for resolutions. I don’t usually make any as, like rules, they are only made to be broken. However, this year I think I am going to resolve to give up something.

Most of my columns are about fights and boxers from the past. I also try to shed light on the issue of brain injuries that result from a person’s time in the ring (This issue also crosses over into football and other contact sports). On occasion I will write about a current boxing match, but that is rarely done in a positive tone.

Boxing has not been killed by outside forces. It has committed suicide.

A little over a year ago I watched the worst heavyweight title fight in history, the one between Tyson Fury and Wladimir Klitschko. These two proved themselves to be the absolute worst heavyweights in the history of boxing. I wrote about that fight at the time, but looking back I can say that was the day boxing finally died. Oh, it had been suffering a long and painful death for many years, but that spectacle was an absolute disgrace.

After that, I did keep watching boxing. It has been sad looking at just how far this sport has come from what was once known as The Manly Art of Self Defense.

About a week ago former champion Bernard Hopkins took on Joe Smith, Jr for some version of the light heavyweight championship. There are so many different versions and so many different weight classes today that it is impossible to identify any boxer as a true world champion.

The 27 year old Smith came into the ring with what looked on paper to be an impressive record of 22 wins in 23 fights with 18 knock outs. Hopkins at age 51 was once a very good fighter who’s best days should be long past him. Yet, Hopkins still manages to be competitive. In this fight he was stopped after being knocked out of the ring, but until the time of the stoppage he was giving Smith all he could handle.

Now Hopkins is in good shape for a 51 year old man. He takes good care of himself and is quite fit. But he is no Superman. Time has never been kind to aging champions and Hopkins is no exception. What is exceptional is the utter lack of talent in boxing today that allows a man who should be spending time out on the golf course and with his grandchildren to be a factor in championship circles. Make no mistake about it, the only reason Hopkins is able to still challenge the current competition is because they do not know how to fight. It is plain and simple.

I urge my readers to take time and study the videos of the champions and contenders of the past and make the comparison. There is no way you can objectively view a Jersey Joe Walcott, Sugar Ray Robinson, Joey Maxim, Billy Conn, Archie Moore, and many more former champs in action and not come to the conclusion they would crush today’s collection of paper champions.

Even the contenders from the years gone by, those who never made it to the top would have a field day today. George Benton, Artie Levine, Gaspar Ortega, Holman Williams, and thousands of others would have a field day toying with this crop.

Without teachers the students have no one to learn from.

Boxers today are well conditioned and dedicated. Most of them have plenty of heart and a desire to win. The problem is they have never been taught the art of boxing. They also train like weight lifters so their muscles are tight and they do not move with the fluidity that makes for a talented boxer. I feel sorry for them as they devote so much time to learning how not to be a boxer. There is an old saying, “Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent.” The teaching methods used today have given us a sport that does not even remotely resemble the great profession it once was. Without teachers the students have no one to learn from. The television people are happy to have matches where fighters simply hit each other in the head a lot, and the fans don’t know better as they have grown up watching a generation of unskilled participants going at it.

I realize boxing has been pronounced dead almost from the time of Cain and Able’s epic fight, but today it is different. In the past it may have been counted out because of mob involvement, or a death in the ring, or competition from television, or even over exposure on TV. There was always some reason it was said to be over, but today is different. How can you have a sport continue to exist when the participants do not know how to practice it? When there is nobody left to teach it? Boxing has not been killed by outside forces. It has committed suicide.

I have given up my subscriptions to HBO, Showtime, and the other channels that give us travesties such as the Fury Klitchko fight. I have resolved to no longer torture myself by watching something billed as boxing. Boxing went into a coma a number of years ago and has now finally slipped into that dark night.

I have now resolved to stop watching it. It has become too painful. I will continue to follow the parts of it that relate to brain injuries and to write about the progress being made into the the research being done to make all contact sports safer. I will continue to research and write about the rich history of the once great sport. I will not write about a sport that does not exist any longer.

Boxing will not be back. The days when the Heavyweight Champion of the World was one of the most recognized people on the planet are gone, never to return.

Movie Review: The Set-up 1949

This is the inaugural essay in an ongoing series by the sad young men at Boxing Over Broadway discussing various boxing films ranging from the good, the great, and the abominable. Check back periodically as we begin to catalog the greats (and duds) of this rich, vibrant genre.

 

The Set-up, 1949. dir. Robert Wise

Reviewed by David Curcio

Set-Up PosterRobert Wise’s The Set-up opens with a hovering shot over the seedy side of a nameless city. Clubs with names like “Paradise” and ‘Dreamland” loom like oracles over a bustling street corner. A kid runs around hawking newspapers and brazenly eases into a crowd where a middle aged guy is doing the same. The kid takes over fast, and when the the older guy tells him he’s gotta make a buck too, the kid replies, “Aw, go take a walk!” It is not a friendly world for the old and middle aged.

It is not a friendly world for the old and middle aged.

So too with boxing, and The Set-up gets this better than any film about the sport before or since.

On the surface, The Set-up looks like the prototype of the age-old tale of the aging fighter, long-past his prime who, due to the workings and exchanges of managers, gangsters, and other venal scumbags, must throw what is certain to be his last fight. But to the surprise of the thugs waiting to collect, he puts pride before personal safety and manages to win by a knockout. This trope can be seen as recently as Bruce Willis’s character in Pulp Fiction and in the popular comic book series Daredevil, where our hero’s father’s is murdered for winning a fixed fight. But The Set-up delivers an added blow to its otherwise straight forward combination: our over-the-hill pug is never let in on the fix.

Robert Ryan is Bill “Stoker” Thomson, a marked-up thirty five year-old matched against endless waves of cute twenty-three year-old hopefuls. His relationship with his long-suffering wife is becoming increasingly strained on account of his routine beatings – each worse than the last – in the ring. “One punch away,” he tells her with unrealistic hope and optimism, and from her response,“You’ll always be ‘one punch away’

“You’ll always be ‘one punch away’

,” it is clear that he’s been singing this tune way too long. Pathetically delusional and half punch drunk, Stoker is still convinced he has a shot: if he can win this $500 purse he’ll have a shot at Martinez! A shot at Martinez would in turn lead to a shot at the Pittsburg Windmill himself, Harry Greb. To hear him tell his wife he will return victorious is like hearing a child with a plastic shovel announce plans to dig to China, but a lot sadder. In a last ditch effort to change his mind, she suggest he work the docks, go on relief… anything except continue this masochistic delusion. Like the cowpoke at high noon, there is no talking him out of it. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

Robert Ryan
Robert Ryan

The Setup, however, is as much about the sleazy, corrupt world of boxing at large, and this tale serves as a microcosm for all that has plagued the sport from its earliest days. As intrinsic to the sport as the fighters themselves are the money-grubbing vultures, the rabid spectators screaming for the blood to spill, and the fickle public who, like everyone in this world of real-life feints and deception, are waiting for their own payday. Stoker’s cigar chomping, lowlife manager, Tiny (played with a down-at-heals desperation and a wide nasty streak by George Tobias), and the mincing, thinly-mustachioed gangster with the ominous moniker of Little Boy (played with genuine menace by Alan Baxter) set up a series of bets in which Stoker will go down anytime after the second. And why cut Stoker in at all, they reason, if he’s going to lose anyway? It’s a lock: he just has to stay on his feet for two rounds.

Remarkably, the film’s fight sequences were shot in real time,

the film’s fight sequences were shot in real time

with three minute rounds and actors who knew what they were doing. Robert Ryan held the college heavyweight title during all four of his years at Dartmouth, and from the first shots of his feet circling the ring we know that we are in the presence of an experienced fighter, albeit one whose ankles are beginning to sink closer to the canvas with age. His body is still a finely tuned machine – like a late-career Gene Tunney, he is tall, slightly lanky, with the deltoids, lats, and calf muscles needed for the game (compare that to Stallone’s Rocky, with his giant biceps better suited for holding a 150 pound machine gun than a pair of gloves).

setupboxersFrom the opening bell the air hangs heavy with something more sinister than anticipation. Little Boy’s shifty eyes dart from the ring to the slobbering Tiny as Stoker lifts himself up after each knockdown, glides around the ring alternately stalking his young opponent, absorbing and slipping punches, and giving as good as he gets. If we look at a few of the great boxing films – Raging Bull, Body and Soul – a degree of believability is lost with them. Where emphasis in their case is placed squarely on the visual (as it should be in film), the fights nevertheless feel overly choreographed – camera work so saturated with the flash of camera bulbs and closeups of sweat and blood spraying across the screen in slow motion – that it actually lifts us out of the fight and into the realm of the purely cinematic. Every blow seems to land; the drama of a body hitting the canvas in slow motion feels tired to the contemporary viewer – surely the impact would be the same if not greater if we watched the action unfold in real time? But The Set-up gives us both. A film noir that revels in dark alleys, bright street corners and the blinding ring, combined with closeups of a bout that will not allow us to forget the deadly implications for our unwitting hero.

Originally a poem by Joseph Moncure March, The Set-up whitewashes the original source material in casting a white actor. But the film’s scenes of young hopefuls shows a color blind group supportive of one another (even the lithe, token African American, who resembles the Cuban fighter Kid Chocolate and is the one college boy of the group).

Finally, the sport would exist in a vacuum if not for the spectators, who, for better or worse, incite the action and react to every blow with expressions ranging from the delirious to the calculating. Some are here for blood, others for money, many for both. Women otherwise prim and composed scream “Kill ‘im!” like mad banshees; bookmakers look from the ring down to their charts, stubby pencils at the ready; slobs waiting for a bloody knockout pour popcorn down their throats. It is a sport for the intellectual who can understand the game for its grace and methodology, as well as for the louts out for blood like attendees at the Circus Maximus. As one looks at the sad turn the sport has taken in the past twenty plus years and the rise of MMA fighting, it seems the latter crowd has spoken as to what the people want in a bout, something folk singers Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan sang in their respective songs on the death of Davey Moore at the hands of Sugar Ramos in 1963:

“We just meant to see some sweat,

There ain’t nothing wrong in that.

It wasn’t us that made him fall.

No, you can’t blame us at all.”

“For the fighters must destroy as the poets must sing,

As the hungry crowd must gather for the blood upon the ring.”

-From Bob Dylan’s “Who Killed Davey Moore?” and Phil Ochs’ “The Ballad of Davey Moore,” respectively.

The-Set-up-30903_4The Set-up may be a boxing film, but one needn’t be a fan of the sport to enjoy it. In fact, one who abhors the violence of the game as well as the evil workings behind the scenes may feel vindicated by it’s sleaze and brutality – that is, if they can take their eyes and minds away from Milton Krasner’s silvery cinematography long enough to even contemplate these moral quandaries. Fight fans may be less than riveted by the straight forward dilemmas of the plot (which are sure to get wrapped up by the end of the film – it was highly unusual for the ratings codes to allow a film’s hero of to get knocked off). It is the fight scenes themselves that carry the action and anticipation of a real bout.

At the heart of the story is not the fight, not the fix, but the effect the game can have on a marriage. It is arguable that the film’s end – (“I ain’t fighting anymore,” he tells his wife) is a minor copout. Of course he won’t be fighting anymore, the mob has seen to that with the help of a brick.

Walk Like A Boxer

by Bobby Franklin

There was a time when you could tell a man was a boxer just by seeing him walking. You might be in a restaurant or hanging out on a street corner when a guy would walk by and you could see in his step that he had spent time in the ring. I’m not talking about a fighter who may have taken too many punches and was “walking on his heels”. I’m talking about the light step that most boxers possessed in the days before they were trained to bulk up using weights and muscle building. A well-trained and conditioned boxer was always thinking about staying loose and limber. Even years after retiring, you would see that same agile way of moving in a former boxer. (I’m not sure former boxer is an appropriate term as it is something that, once you have done it, stays in your blood all of your life.)

“Stay away from the weights” was a line heard often from the old time trainers, “They only make you tight and slow.” Back in the days when boxing was taught as an art and not a strong man contest, speed, accuracy, and staying loose was emphasized. “Speed beats power”, “If you are too tense you will be more susceptible to being knocked out”, “Get up on your toes and move”, “Stick and move”, I can still hear these words echoing in my head from my days in the various boxing gyms I trained in.

Now, many people may think I am just talking about the stick and move boxers, but you will see this in the vast majority of boxers regardless of their style.

The ferocious Jack Dempsey moved like a cat stalking his prey.

The ferocious Jack Dempsey moved like a cat stalking his prey.In the Willard fight he is darting in and out. His body is lean and not muscle bound. He has a boxer’s physique, strong in all the right places without being encumbered by bulging muscles that would only slow him down.

Gregorio Peralta and Jack Dempsey
Gregorio Peralta and Jack Dempsey

When I was young I got to meet Dempsey in NYC. To this day I remember seeing him walking through his restaurant to greet visitors. He was up there in age and suffering from arthritis in his hips, but he still moved as if he were gliding across the floor, ready to move left or right and throw a counterpunch. Jack Dempsey still had it.

Today’s boxers are missing out on so much with the focus being on building up muscle. Weight trainers are brought in and muscle is layered on. While a fighter has to be strong, there are different types of strength. So often now a days, the spectacle that takes place at the weigh in before a match looks more like a pose-off at a body building competition with the fighters tensing and pumping up their muscles while mugging for the cameras. These bulky muscles are not only useless in the ring, but they are actually a hindrance as they make it almost impossible to use proper punching technique. It also results in more arm punches being tossed than shots that come from the hips with the full force of the body behind them. Fighters are also more susceptible to being knocked out because of how tight they are. It is much more difficult to “roll with the punches” when carrying that kind of muscle. Of course, that is pretty much a moot topic seeing that fighters are no longer taught defensive moves such as that.

I recently watched a brief video of Jake LaMotta training for a fight. It showed him climbing the stairs up to Bobby Gleason’s Gym in The Bronx where he was working out. Now Jake is hardly remembered as a dancing master, but you can see how light he is on his feet as he bounds up the steps. After the workout, he is seen outside walking down the street. If you had no idea who he was you would still know he was a boxer by the way he was moving along the sidewalk.

If you had no idea who he was you would still know he was a boxer by the way he was moving along the sidewalk.

Why the difference between those fighters from earlier days and the boxers of today? Well, when you went into a gym years back you would see fighters shadow boxing, moving in front of a mirror practicing their form, stretching and shaking out their arms and legs. They were very focused on staying limber. When they would hit the heavy bag they would “work it”, which meant boxing it. Instead of just standing in front of the bag they would circle it and practice footwork as well as punching. In the older gyms there was usually space around the bag so the fighters would have room to do this. In many gyms today the bags are lined up close to each other. Now, you often see fighters just standing flatfooted in front of the bag, their feet planted while they are winding up with punches that are telegraphed as if they were being sent by Western Union. It’s no wonder that is happening since most of the time they spend working with a trainer is wasted while going through the silly mitt punching routine that reinforces these bad habits.

A good boxer has to know how to use his entire body. He needs the grace of a ballet dancer combined with the reflexive power of a trip hammer. Most importantly, he has to be taught how to think in the ring, not to just go through mindless motions. Think, stay loose, find rhythm, treat the sport like the art form it once was.

Ali Running
Ali Running

When I was a young boxer I hated doing road work, today it is called running. Most of us disliked it back then but knew it was important so we did it. As much as I hated it, whenever I saw a clip of Muhammad Ali out on the road it inspired me to go out and put in a few miles. Why? Because Ali encompassed why it was called “road work”. He would be running with a step as light as Bill Rogers, turning on his toes, running backwards and forwards while throwing punches; all the time staying loose. It was beautiful watching him move. I’ll bet he never lifted a weight in his entire life, but he had the kind of strength a great fighter possesses.

Those days are now long in the past.

Boxing has changed, and it is not for the better.

Boxing has changed, and it is not for the better.You can no longer spot a fighter by the way he walks. That is because they are no longer artists and the sport is no longer an art form. It is sad.

Zale vs Cerdan

A Picture Paints A Thousand Words

by Bobby Franklin

Zale Cerdan (1)

In 1946 a French middleweight by the name of Marcel Cerdan arrived in the United States to campaign for a shot at the world title then held by Tony Zale. Zale would lose the title to Rocky Graziano in 1947 but regain it again the following year in his third fight of an epic trilogy he fought with the explosive punching Graziano.

When Cerdan first arrived on these shores he had an amazing record of 93 wins with only 2 losses, both of those losses came via disqualification. 54 of those victories came by the knockout route. While his record was impressive he was stil a bit of a mystery to American fight fans. He had defeated an aging Holman Williams, a very great fighter, but one who was nearing the end of his career.

In his American debut, Cerdan did not chose an easy mark for his opponent. He took on the very tough Georgie Abrams in Madison Square Garden. Georgie Abrams was another great fighter. He had  held the legendary Charlie Burley to a draw, and just two fights after his bout with Marcel he fought Welterwieght Champion Sugar Ray Robinson in a non title fight. Robinson was awarded a very disputed decision and would never face Abrams again.

The Cerdan vs Abrams bout was a blistering affair

The Cerdan vs Abrams bout was a blistering affairwith the Frenchman winning a close but unanimous decision. That night he proved he was worthy of the praise that preceded him form the European press.

After the Abrams fight Cerdan hit the road compiling 10 wins against 1 loss. That loss was in a fight for the European title against Cyrille Delannoit. Marcel would avenge that loss in a rematch earning himself a shot against champion Tony Zale also know as the Man of Steel.

Tony was a very hard punching fighter who never took a backwards step.

Tony was a very hard punching fighter who never took a backwards step. His three bouts with Rocky Graziano are considered among the greatest slugfests in boxing history. Tony had held the title since the early 1940s with the exception of the brief period when he lost it to Graziano. Tony had taken on all comers and even fought light heavyweight champion Billy Conn in a non-title fight.

The bout between the two was scheduled to take place on September 21, 1948 at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, New Jersey. Everyone knew this would be a fight to see as neither contestant had ever been in a dull fight.

Now the reason for the title of this article has to do with the photo accompanying it. I got the picture from the great boxing historian Gregory Speciale.

This photo not only tells the story of the fight, but it also shows some very great moves, moves you will not see today, being executed. It also gives us some insight into Tony Zale on that night.

Right from the bell starting round one this was an exciting fight. Cerdan came out on fire. He was extremely quick and aggressive. While you would most likely describe him as a slugger, it should be pointed out that he used great head movement in slipping punches. Zale met him head on but was having trouble landing effectively. This is where the photo shows us something about the champion. If you look closely you will see Zale is throwing a very hard left jab, the only way he threw any punch. But notice how he appears to be lurching forward and is off his feet. This is a sign of an aged fighter. His legs no longer have the spring in them, and while he is throwing an excellent jab his legs are not carrying him in. Tony had had a long career at this point and his wars with Rocky Graziano had to have taken something out of him.

Now look at Cerdan. You will see that he has stepped slightly to his right and tilted his head to the outside of the jab. It appears he is about to deliver a left hook as he is shifting his weight at the hips from the right to left side of his body. He is also in perfect position to follow up with a right hand. On top of this, he is in great defensive position. While Zale is off balance and being driven forward by the force of his punch and the stiffness of his legs, Cerdan will still be in perfect position to throw more punches as Tony turns towards him. So much is going on in this photo which only captures a fraction of a second of the fight. You might also note how carefully the referee is monitoring the action. This is like viewing a master class in boxing.

This is like viewing a master class in boxing.

Watching footage of the fight is even more enlightening. While Cerdan dominated most of the bout, Zale was keeping the rounds close. Cerdan was amazing in his use of double and triple hooks, going to the head and body. He also countered beautifully with right hands over the champion’s left jab. Cerdan was very aggressive and fast. He was moving forward throughout most of the fight but at angles. He was throwing magnificent combinations, and was methodical in how he would go from body to head and back again.

Tony Zale, being the great champion that he was, looked like he might have been turning things around in the 7th round as it appeared Marcel was slowing down and Zale may have been changing the tide of the fight. Unfortunately for Tony, this would be his last stand. Cerdan began to pick up the pace again in the 8th round and really began turning it on in the tenth where he was battering the never say die Zale.

In the 11th round Cerdan was unleashing brutal and blistering combinations with incredible speed and power. Tony was taking an awful beating and was dropped by a vicious left hooks just before the bell rang ending the round. His seconds helped him to his corner where they wisely told the referee the fight was over.

Tony Zale went out like a true champion that night

Tony Zale went out like a true champion that night and would retire. Cerdan would have two non-title fights and then defend the title against Jake LaMotta. Marcel’s shoulder was seriously injured in the first round when he was thrown to the canvas by LaMotta. The champion fought on with just one arm until the 9th round when his corner stopped the fight.

A rematch was immediately scheduled, but Marcel Cerdan was killed in a plane crash while on his way to America for the fight.

Cerdan was a great fighter and a charismatic personality. If he won back the title he may very well have gone on to fight Sugar Ray Robinson in what would have been a very interesting fight. Fate stepped in and prevented us from learning just how great a fighter he was. But judging by what you van see in the Zale fight, even from that one photograph, you know you are looking at one of the best.

Book Review: “Stars In The Ring”

“Stars In The Ring:
Jewish Champions In The
Golden Age Of Boxing” by Mike Silver

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

StarsMike Silver pegs the first four decades of the 20th Century as Boxing’s Golden Age. It was a period where the sport was at its peak in both popularity and talented participants. The boxers of the period were extremely well schooled. Most trainers considered themselves teachers, and were comparable to college professors in the seriousness they brought to teaching the fine art of pugilism.

Mr. Silver also considers this time in history a Golden Age for Jewish boxers. In his new book “Stars In The Ring: Jewish Champions In The Golden Age Of Boxing” (Lyons Press, 366 pgs., $29.95) he does a magnificent job of not only telling the story of the many great Jewish fighters, he also gives a concise and fact filled history of the overall sport of boxing.

Joe Choynski
Joe Choynski

The book is is divided up into an introduction, six chapters, and an extensive appendix. The introduction along with chapters one and two give a wonderful overview of the sport along with setting the background of how Jews became such a big part of boxing. It is filled with such interesting fact as pointing out how Jewish boxers who held world titles during the 1920s ranked only behind Italians but ahead of the Irish in numbers. There were close to 3,000 professional Jewish fighters active during the Golden Age. But make no mistake, “Stars In The Ring” is not just a compilation of statistics; it is a wonderful narrative of a very exciting time not only the history of boxing but also of our nation.

Barney Ross
Barney Ross

In the chapter entitled “The Melting Pot Sport” we learn much about the immigrant experience in America. The various ethnic groups that were at the lower rung of the economic ladder were proud of the fighters who shared their background. Often, matches pitted boxers from the different groups against each other.

Mr. Silver also discusses the Jewish fighters who took on Irish names, or a nom de box, when that became more advantageous for getting fights. There was another reason, perhaps more compelling, why young Jewish men would fight under an assumed named. I’ll quote the author, “Jewish boxers were brave and tough, but they did fear one personage above all others – their mothers.”

“Jewish boxers were brave and tough, but they did fear one personage above all others – their mothers.”
Benny Leonard
Benny Leonard

Benny Leonard was one such fighter. Leonard’s real name was Benjamin Leiner, but he changed it to keep his parents from finding out what he was doing for a living. When a black eye proved to uncover his activity he was quickly forgiven when he handed his father the purse from his evening’s work.

The book is filled with stories like that, but that is just the beginning. Chapters 3 though 6 break the sport up by its various eras. Each chapter begins with an overview of the time period that is extremely fact filled and interesting. These narratives  lead the reader biographies of many of the fighters from the period that has just been discussed.  There are also photographs of the participants. A total of 166 biographies are contained in the book. You will meet the young Charley Goldman, who has an official record of 129 fights, but is believed to have participated in over 400 bouts. If the name sounds familiar, it is because Charley went on to become one of the great boxing trainers, teaching world champions Lou Ambers, Joey Archibald, Marty Servo, and a kid from Brockton, MA named Rocky Marciano.

Georgie Abrams
Georgie Abrams

There is also Georgie Abrams whom Silver ranks as the greatest Jewish middleweight who ever lived. I think Sugar Ray Robinson would agree with that assessment as Abrams gave the great Robinson all that he could handle while losing a disputed decision to him.

Sid Terris, Al Singer, middleweight champion Al McCoy (real name Alex Rudolph), Abe Simon, Ruby Goldstein, Saoul Mamby, “The Fighting Dentist” Leach Cross, Herbie Kronowitz, and Victor Young Perez, who’s tragic story is both heartbreaking and inspiring, are just a few of the many fascinating biographies contained in this wonderful book.

Leach Cross
Leach Cross

Mike Silver could have left it at that and had an outstanding work, but he went even further by interspersing vignettes throughout the book discussing all sorts of boxing related subjects from boxing trading cards to boxing in the movies to a piece about the Shanghai Ghetto. The story of the ghetto in China was new to me and incredibly fascinating. You’ll also learn about the boxing careers of Entertainers Billy Joel and Woody Allen.

To top the book off, Mr. Silver has compiled an extensive appendix that contains, among many other things, his picks for the greatest Jewish boxers of all time. Given Mike’s extensive knowledge of the sport this list is one to be taken very seriously. I know I would not argue its merits with him. He also lists Jewish boxers that have competed in title bouts along with date, location, and results.

Charley Goldman
Charley Goldman

A very interesting section lists the Madison Square Garden Main Events that featured Jewish boxers from 1920 to 2014. It is a very long list. The appendix is an encyclopedia that boxing aficionados will find themselves referring to time and again.

I have to comment on the book as an object as well. When I opened the package it was mailed to me in I was astonished to see how pleasing to the eye it is. It is not a book to be left on a shelf. It is beautiful to hold and look through. Copiously illustrated with hundreds of amazing photographs it is a piece of art unto itself.

Mike Silver, who’s previous book “The Arc of Boxing” rates as one of the all time great works on the Sweet Science (I consider it the best) has not let his readers down with “Stars In The Ring”. This is a book to be displayed so that friends may share it when visiting. I guarantee it will be the cause for hours of interesting conversation. You can pick it up and turn to any page and find something interesting to read.

Mike Silver knows his boxing

Mike Silver knows his boxing, he also knows how to write, and that combination (pun intended) makes this book a joy to own.

If you are one of the many misguided souls who chuckle when you hear someone mention Jewish fighters, you will come away from this book with a healthy respect for the very tough and very honorable men who were Stars in the Ring.

Does Character Still Matter?

by Bobby Franklin

“Maybe our society could use a few old fashioned lessons in boxing and what it truly means to be an adult.”

For years parents looked for ways to build character in their children. Quite often sports was seen as one of the best ways for young men to learn the lessons of what it meant to truly be a man in the best sense of the word. Organizations such as the Boy and Girl Scouts were another institution that helped build character in young people in order to prepare them to enter adulthood equipped with the tools to live a decent and productive life where they would contribute to the betterment of society. There were many other ways that these lessons could be learned as well. Things from having an after school job such as working for a local business or having a paper route. These were all ways for young people to learn responsibility and to gain the skills needed to be able to interact with other people.

1940s Young Men Learning To Box
1940s Young Men Learning To Box

There were many ways to inculcate these values in our young people and they were used for years with much success. Unfortunately, many of these things are no longer in fashion. The Boy Scouts have been under assault for years and I can’t remember the last time I saw a young person delivering newspapers. After a snowstorm we no longer get a knock at the door from some eager young people ready to negotiate a price for shoveling the walk. Things have really changed.

I want to mention the connection my thoughts on this have to do with boxing, but first, one other observation.

As I write these words the leading candidates for both parties appear to be on their way to their respective nominations for president. According to polls, they both seem almost unstoppable. What also consistently shows up in polls is something very disturbing. The vast majority of voters, including those supporting both candidates, when asked about the character of each of these people consistently respond they find them both untrustworthy and dishonest. In spite of this they still say they will vote for them. In other words, character, that trait that was so important to Americans for so many years, no longer matters. It could be argued it is a detriment to success in today’s world. This is not only sad but dangerous for the future of our republic.

Joe Louis
Joe Louis

Now on to boxing and character. For most of the 20th Century it was almost impossible to find a man who hadn’t at some point while growing up had a pair of boxing gloves on and who had been given, at the very least, a few pointers in the Manly Art of Self Defense. These lessons were usually given by the young man’s father, but could also have been taught by an older brother, uncle, friend, or even a member of the clergy.

These lessons included, but were not limited to, being taught how to hold one’s hands in a defensive position, the proper use of the left jab, how to throw a one-two combination, and also some pointers in how to keep physically fit as taking care of one’s body was essential to being a good boxer.

Something else even more important was instilled during these lessons. That something else was how a real man carries himself. That with the knowledge of how to overpower someone and protect yourself also came the responsibility not to abuse that power. Never hit a man when he is down was a common refrain that would carry over from boxing into a valuable adage to in life to remind us to offer hand not a fist to someone who was having hard times.

Always fight fair even if the other guy doesn’t would be a constant reminder in life about not allowing yourself to be dragged down into the gutter by another’s ill behavior.

It was amazing how much could be learned from a few hours with the gloves on while listening to a mentor who would guide his student from the use of the right cross to never crossing his fellow man. It is sad that that world seems so far away now.

It is sad that that world seems so far away now.

I am not saying there weren’t always rogues, cutthroats, and dishonest people around able and willing to take advantage of any situation. It is just seems to me the public better understood the difference between good and bad and frowned upon those who would act outside of the society’s code of decency.

Boxing has often been called a reflection of society. I believe this is true. On one hand it has been populated by the poorest members of society, usually immigrants or those recently descended from those new to our shores. They often came from struggling and desperate circumstances. I think of Jack Dempsey who grew up almost in the wilderness and lived the life of a hobo having to literally fight just to feed himself and stay alive. Or of Joe Louis, the son of a sharecropper, who would make all American’s proud to have him as the Heavyweight Champion. In both these men we see examples of people who struggled and rose from nothing to gain great notoriety by using their fists. And in both these men we see how they handled the power they were given with dignity. They were both the type of men who inspired good things in others.

I am sure there are people like them around today, but those people are not being recognized in the way they should be. Mike Tyson, a totally base human being is lauded with a Broadway Show and an HBO special. Floyd Mayweather beats his wife and still makes countless millions of dollars. And the two potential nominees for the highest office in the world are deemed to be dishonest rogues by the very people supporting them.

Maybe our society could use a few old fashioned lessons in boxing and what it truly means to be an adult.

Book Review: The Proper Pugilist: Essays on the Milling Art by Roger Zotti

Review by Mike Silver

Proper Pugilist
Proper Pugilist

Aside from being an astute observer of the boxing scene Roger Zotti is also an avid film buff, which makes his observations in this little gem of a book all the more interesting. Throughout the book Roger intertwines stories of the sweet science with his vast knowledge of Hollywood filmdom. I don’t know of any other author who can find something in common between the spectacular comebacks of Archie Moore vs. Durelle and Marciano vs. Walcott to the comebacks of film actors Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity and Marlon Brando in The Godfather. But that is the subject of an essay titled “Fistic and Film Comebacks” and it’s what makes The Proper Pugilist: Essays on the Milling Art the perfect book for readers of this site.
Reading this concise collection of 22 short essays (each about three to four pages long) is akin to spending several enjoyable hours in conversation with a master story teller whose expertise and knowledge of his subject is obvious with every sentence. Several essays draw from the author’s personal experience as an enthusiastic young fan of televised boxing in the 1950s. In one essay he writes that his love of film and boxing was encouraged by his Uncle Cheech, citing comments he recorded in a decades old interview. “I love film noire”, says uncle Cheech. “Richard Conte, an Italian boy from New York, and McGraw—Charles McGraw—seemed to be in every film noire ever made. In many of Conte’s movies he was usually returning from somewhere—maybe from jail or from the service. In Cry of the City he gave his best performance. McGraw’s best movie was “The Narrow Margin. Where else but in a Roger Zotti book are you going to find stuff like this?

Where else but in a Roger Zotti book are you going to find stuff like this?
Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway

In another essay titled “Dempsey According to Roger Kahn” the author takes issue with Kahn’s impugning the honesty of the referee in the famous Dempsey-Tunney long count fight that appeared in Kahn’s bio of Dempsey. In the same essay is an explanation as to why Dempsey, while heavyweight champion, refused to spar with Ernest Hemmingway.

Court Shepard and Paul Newman
Court Shepard and Paul Newman

In “Where Have You Gone Court Sheppard”, he writes about the actor that portrayed Tony Zale in the 1956 film biography of Rocky Graziano. The real Tony Zale was first hired to play himself in the movie but was unable to pull his punches during rehearsals with Paul Newman, who portrayed Graziano. After nearly flattening Newman twice, Zale was let go and replaced with Sheppard. We find out that Sheppard boxed professionally as a light heavyweight from 1937 to 1941 and compiled a 14-2-3 record. He also appeared in over two dozen other films. But even more impressive is that in 1936 he won the St. Louis Golden Gloves title by defeating future ring great Archie Moore in the finals! There are additional information filled stories on Dempsey, Sonny Liston, Stanley Ketchel, Jake LaMotta, Gene Tunney, Jack “Doc” Kearns and lesser known boxers from the 1950s television era such as Coley Wallace, Jimmy Herring, Roy Harris, Walter Cartier and Artie Diamond. Each of the 22 essays is just long enough to keep your interest and eagerly turn to the next story. I found it hard to put down this delightful foray into the colorful nether worlds of Hollywood and boxing.

The Proper Pugilist is a wonderful companion piece to Roger’s other book about boxing—Friday Night World: A Tribute to Fighters of the 1950s. That book is both a homage to the author’s favorite boxers of the 1950s and a memoir about growing up in New Haven, Connecticut, during the fifties era.

Mike Silver is the author of The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science (McFarland Publishers, paperback 2014). His new book, Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing (Lyons Press) will be published in March 2016.

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.

Blood On Their, And Our Hands

The Continuing Tragedy Of Magomed Abdusalamov

by Bobby Franklin

To most boxing fans the events of November 2, 2013 are a distant and faded memory. Those who watched the Mike Perez vs Magomed Abdusalamov bout on HBO that evening will remember that it was a brutal fight and that Mago, as Abdusalamov is more often referred to, took a brutal beating. They also may recall that after the bout the courageous heavyweight lapsed into a coma. The tragedy of that evening was in the news for a very short time, and boxing continued as usual without missing a beat. There was very little outcry about this. Nothing like the days when, in a supposedly more callous time, there were investigations and calls for banning the sport after Benny Kid Paret died after taking a beating from Emile Griffith. Or, November 13, 1982 the afternoon Duk Koo Kim died after being kayoed by Ray Mancini. After that bout their were in depth investigations into the cause of Kim’s death and changes in rules such as changing championship fights from 15 rounds to 12 rounds. The public saw this as a terrible tragedy and it was talked about for months afterwards. It was disturbing to people that they would witness a man being killed on live television and there was a dialog about what should be done including whether or not boxing should be banned.

Mago and Family
Mago and Family

Fast forward to 2013 and we are experiencing a very different reaction to an event that in many ways can be seen as worse than a fighter dying in the ring. Mr. Abdusalamov did not die from his injuries. The husband and father who received all of $30,000.00 for the beating he took lies in a family friend’s home in Connecticut partially paralyzed and unable to speak. Boxing continued uninterrupted after this horrific evening, and nothing has changed. If you watched boxing on TV shortly after that night you will have noted there was very little said about Mago other than a brief update on his condition. Some boxing writers, including me, did write about what we believed to be the negligence that occurred on so many levels that evening in New York City.

Well, thanks to New Times writer Dan Barry who has written a piece entitled “A Fighter’s Hour of Need”, we now have some more insight into the events of that night and just how terrible things were handled o so many levels. Mr. Barry’s piece can be read by going to: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/10/sports/magomed-abdusalamov-boxing-madison-square-garden.html?_r=0

Though I must warn you, what you will read is positively nauseating. Barry pieces together the events from transcripts of interviews given under oath during a continuing investigation being conducted by the New York State Office of the Inspector General. It is a lurid tale of neglect, incompetence, passing of blame, and cold heartedness that is truly unbelievable.

Between Rounds
Between Rounds

Mago, who had been on the receiving end of a terrible beating, is given a total of 15 minutes medical attention in the dressing room after the bout. He is asked through an interpreter if he has a headache. He responds that his face hurts, the same thing he was saying between rounds during the bout. Because, and even though his response is through the interpreter, he doesn’t specifically say he has a headache, the doctor decides he does not have serious enough injuries that would justify having an ambulance take him to the hospital. There were two on site. Mago’s trainer John David Jackson thought he should go to the hospital, but did not pursue the matter. In this age of cell phones it seems insane that nobody dialed 911. Why didn’t someone just approach one of the EMTs and demand they take the fighter to the hospital?

Dr. Gerard Varlotta was the doctor who examined Mr. Abdusalamov after the bout. Varlotta is a sports medicine specialist. As far as I have ever known sports a medicine doctor’s focus is usually on muscle, bone, and joint injuries. There was a neurologist in attendance that evening, but he remained seated at ringside and Varlotta reported his findings to him. The neurologist, Dr. Barry Jordan, had witnessed the Abdusalamov Perez fight and never once stepped into the ring to examine Mago even though it was obvious even from watching on television that the fighter was taking terrible punishment. Dr. Jordan also seemed not to feel there was any reason for him to leave his seat at ringside to spend a few moments in the dressing room examining the gravely injured fighter.

There is so much more contained in Dan Barry’s article. Clearly there was no one in authority around Mr. Abdusalamov that evening who would step forward and see the injured warrior was cared for. Eventually, Mago was taken by cab to a local hospital where he fell into a coma. His brain had most likely started to bleed during the fight, and certainly had in the dressing room after. It should also be remembered that Mr. Abdusalamov was complaining about “face pain” to his corner men during the fight. It was clear from watching the fight that there were problems early on. Time was of the essence.

If only the chief second had stopped the fight after the 4th round. If only Dr. Jordan had bothered to step into the ring to examine the fighter. If only Mago had been taken to the hospital immediately after the fight. If only the officials and medical people in charge that night were better trained and not just political appointees. If only there was an adult in charge. If only, if only…If only someone gave a damn.

Mr. Abdusalamov’s family has been filing lawsuits but they have an uphill battle suing the government. I do not know what culpability HBO has, but I would think they have at the very least a moral obligation to see Magomed Abdusalamov is not forgotten.

And what about the public? After all, it is our desire to see men step into a ring with the sole objective of inflicting head injuries on one another that makes this all possible. Are we culpable as well?

Please read Dan Barry’s piece. It is important that the public has the facts. It is important that we not allow this to happen again.

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/10/sports/magomed-abdusalamov-boxing-madison-square-garden.html?_r=0