Tag Archives: middleweight champion

Unforgotten, The Paul Pender Story

A Very Important Film That Will Save Lives

by Bobby Franklin

unforgotten-the-story-of-paul-pender_poster_goldposter_com_1-jpg0o_0l_800w_80qA few years ago film director Felice Leeds got in touch with me about a film she was making about Paul Pender. She told me it would be dealing with more than just Paul’s career as a boxer. We exchanged emails and phone calls. Occasionally, I would hear the production was making progress, but I have been approached by other people trying to make boxing films, and they never seem to go anywhere. With this history, I really wasn’t expecting much from Ms Leeds’ project.

Last Sunday I finally got to see the finished product at a screening at the Boston Film Festival. Not only is this documentary one solid production, it is also an extremely important film.

In 2003 former World Middleweight Champion Paul Pender died at the age of 72. For the previous 15 years it had been thought Paul was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. It wasn’t until his brain was examined after his death that it was discovered not to be Alzheimer’s but rather Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a disease caused by mild repetitive trauma to the head. These sub-concussive blows to the head are most serious when received at a young age. It was found that Paul had a very serious stage of the disorder CTE (stage 4). It became the  index brain for the research that is ongoing Boston University and is the brain all other cases are compared to.

Paul Pender
Paul Pender

Unforgotten, The Paul Pender Story tells us about Paul’s life, his boxing career, his outspokenness about the corruption in the sport, and his battle with recurring hand injuries that often put his quest for the title on hold. There is amazing footage of Paul’s fights, of him training at the New Garden Gym, as well as taped interviews with the champ. Watching the Brookline fireman’s rise to the top culminating in his winning the title from Sugar Ray Robinson is a great story in itself, and boxing fans will be thrilled with just that.

However, there’s much more to this fine movie. We learn that on top of being a great boxer, Pender was also a very intelligent man who attended elocution school and loved to quote Shakespeare. If things had been a bit different for him he very well may have ended up a college professor. He certainly possessed the intellect for it. We also become aware that his very strong brain was also being damaged over his years of playing contact sports.

While CTE was first thought to primarily affect boxers (dementia pugilistica) it has been found to be prevalent among football players as well. It is a progressive disease that can also occur in anyone, not just participants in contact sports, but also in those who have suffered repeated repetitive head trauma in other ways.

Dr. Ann McKee directs the Boston University CTE Center based at the Veteran’s Administration Medical Center in Bedford, MA. In the film she points out how the younger a person is when they suffer a head injury the more susceptible they become to developing CTE later in life. It is very possible Paul Pender already had damage from his days of playing high school football

It is very possible Paul Pender already had damage from his days of playing high school football

in Brookline. If that damage already existed it would have been exacerbated by his career as a boxer. This is something that should give every parent pause when they are considering allowing their son or daughter to play a contact sport. Once damaged, the brain does not heal.

Tony DeMarco and Felice Leeds
Tony DeMarco and Felice Leeds

In a panel discussion after the film Dr. Robert Cantu, author of Concussions And Our Kids, talked about someday having tests that will show whether or not signs of CTE are beginning to show in the brain. Right now the only way to know for certain is to examine a brain after the patient has died. Could finding markers early on help prevent the onset of symptoms later in life? That is a question that can’t be answered, but at least the person, such as a boxer, could be denied a license to fight so that the damage is not made worse. He also points out that research needs to be done on the brains of people who have participated in contact sports but are asymptomatic. It has always been a puzzlement as to why some athletes, in spite of having received repeated blows to the head, never develop CTE. There is so much more to be learned about this terrible but preventable disease.

This movie is great on so many levels. It finally gives Paul Pender the respect and recognition he deserves for his great boxing ability. He has been known as the forgettable boxer, but

after watching this film you will never forget Paul Pender

after watching this film you will never forget Paul Pender.

Audiences are also brought back to the days when boxing was one of the most popular sports in the country. The time when great fighters like Tony DeMarco made Bostonians proud. Tony, along with fellow boxers Joe DeNucci, Tom McNeeley, and Matt Farago are interviewed. Former great amateur boxer Richard Torsney, a longtime friend of Pender’s, gives us insight into the personal side of the Champ. Historian Dan Cuoco and author Mike Silver (Stars In The Ring and The Arc of Boxing) not only share their insights about the finer points of the art of boxing, but also discuss the emotional side of  what it means to be a boxer. Mr. Silver describes it as a “Calling”.

Rose Pender
Rose Pender

Director Felice Leeds reminds us of a person who should definitely not be forgotten, and that is Rose Pender, Paul’s widow. Ms Leeds describes her as the true hero in this story, and I couldn’t agree more. It is Rose who got this all started by making the difficult decision to allow Paul’s brain to be used for research. This courageous woman who spent years caring for her husband while raising a family now has allowed the rest of us to benefit from the research that is based on her husband’s brain. Her action will save lives and prevent much suffering. We all owe Mrs. Pender much gratitude.

Felice Leeds has made a fine documentary. As I wrote earlier, it is an important piece of work and deserves a wide audience. It is time we as a society look at what is happening on the playing fields and in the boxing rings. It is time we consider the danger we are putting our fellow human beings into for the purposes of entertainment. It is time we work to make sports safer while still retaining the competitiveness that builds character and self-discipline.

Richard Johnson, the curator of the Sports Museum in Boston, best described this film during the panel discussion. I believe he was quoting Paul Pender when he said “It is a full day if you have laughed and cried.” This documentary will make you do both.

Many thanks to Felice Leeds for making this film. I urge everyone to see it when they have the chance. It will make you laugh and cry. And I hope it will make you think about the price so many athletes pay for entertaining us.

Trailer: Unforgotten, The Story of Paul Pender from Felice Leeds on Vimeo.

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.