SMOKESTACK LIGHTNING: HARRY GREB, 1919
By Springs Toledo
Amazon Kindle Edition $7.99
Book review by Mike Silver
If asked to name the greatest boxer who ever lived most boxing historians would most likely place Sugar Ray Robinson in the top spot. That is always a good choice. But it is not the only choice. There are, perhaps, three or four other boxers whose spectacular record of accomplishment makes them worthy of consideration.
In his latest literary effort Springs Toledo makes a very strong case for a boxer who just may have been the greatest who ever lived—Harry Greb. In a career that spanned 13 years (1913 to 1926) the legendary “Pittsburgh Windmill” fought a phenomenal 294 professional boxing contests often against the greatest boxers of his era. His record shows only 19 losses (eight official losses and 11 newspaper decisions). Most occurred either early or late in his career.
Harry Greb, both as an athlete and a person, is one of the most fascinating and charismatic characters of the 20th century.
For those readers lucky enough to have read Toledo’s previous works this paean to a truly great fighter exposes us once again to the author’s colorful and engaging writing style. Toledo is passionate about his subject, and rightly so. Harry Greb, both as an athlete and a person, is one of the most fascinating and charismatic characters of the 20th century.
In conveying to the reader why Greb deserves his place at the pinnacle of boxing’s Mt. Rushmore Smokestack Lightning: Harry Greb, 1919 focuses on the most amazing and mind boggling year of any prizefighter of any era. In just 96 pages Toledo offers enough evidence and detail to cause the reader to shake his head in disbelief at what no normal human being would seem capable of doing.
From January 1st to December 31st 1919—while Greb was ranked the number one middleweight contender—he stormed through twenty-one cities in eight states and fought forty-five times. (Today forty-five fights would constitute an entire 10 to 15 year professional boxing career). “Greb was on track for well over 60 had scheduled bouts not been cancelled because of either injuries to himself, or an opponent’s nerve.”
In one year Greb “thrashed five Hall of Famers ten times, personally sought out the middleweight champion in New York City, ran two light heavyweight champions out of the ring, called out Jack Dempsey every chance he got, manhandled heavyweights, and barely lost a round while suffering unspeakable injuries.” According to Boxrec.com Greb won all 45 bouts.
Toledo’s books—and this one is no exception—contain far more than boxing history. They are absorbing and richly detailed character studies as well. He delves into aspects of Greb’s private life outside of the ring, describing injuries to a pre-adolescent psyche that may have contributed to his extraordinary and highly unorthodox boxing style.
At the very beginning of Greb’s sensational run he married the love of his life, Mildred Reilly, a beautiful and feisty vaudeville actress with a personality that complemented his own. The book appropriately begins with their marriage in Pittsburgh on January 30th 1919. As the author notes: “Marriage steadied but did not quite civilize Greb, who went on to build his legend around what he did to heavyweights, around a slogan he’d repeat again and again: “anybody, anyplace, anytime.” It was not unusual for him to fight two and three times in a week.
Greb did not allow anything to interfere with his drive to prove himself the greatest fighter on the planet. The honeymoon would have to wait. He had a fight scheduled in Cleveland the day after his wedding with tough middleweight contender Tommy Robson for a $1000 dollar payday.
He easily defeated Robson who, like all of Greb’s opponent’s, could not solve or fathomThe Windmill’s style. “How does he do it”, asked Robson. “How can any man of his weight dance and leap and keep on top of you the way he does without becoming exhausted? And he can go twenty rounds the same way. He is the biggest freak in the ring.” Indeed, Greb never seemed to tire and actually got stronger and faster as a bout progressed. One newspaper described him as “the leaping, bounding, elusive Greb, who kept both of his long arms going like flails.” The next day Harry returned to Pittsburgh and his bride.
Before he eventually won the middleweight championship from Johnny Wilson in 1923 Greb had boldly issued challenges to the light heavyweight and heavyweight champions. Both avoided him. Along the way he hung the only loss on future heavyweight champion Gene Tunney who was savaged over 15 rounds. Prior to the bout Tunney was warned “he is not a normal fighter. He will kill you”. To force a bout with heavyweight champion Dempsey (which never materialized) Greb sought out two of his top challengers, Tommy Gibbons and Bill Brennan and defeated both.
He issued a public challenge to 6’ 6” 245 pound Jess Willard and said he’d donate the purse to the Red Cross.
In his persistent quest to win the heavyweight championship (despite rarely weighing more than 170 pounds) Greb went to extreme lengths to prove he was worthy. He issued a public challenge to 6’ 6” 245 pound Jess Willard and said he’d donate the purse to the Red Cross. He also opened negotiations with Luis Firpo and said he’d fight the number one ranked heavyweight contender Harry Wills “in an arena or a gym just to prove that the best African-American heavyweight in the world wasn’t much.” As noted by the author, “All of them towered over him and outweighed him by at least fifty pounds, which suggests that Greb either had screws loose or was a misanthrope raging against all men, including himself.”
Toledo goes on to say, “People who knew Greb said he needed to fight often, that he thrived on his marathon plan of meeting them all, one after the other.” He typically asked for two things—“fair terms” and “the hardest guy.” While he was pleasant and friendly and loyal outside of a boxing ring, inside the ring he was an unstoppable force of nature the likes of which had never been seen before or since.
Late in his career tragedy dogged the great fighter. Four months before Greb won the middleweight title in 1923 his young wife succumbed to tuberculosis. She was just 22 years old. That same year he began to go blind in his right eye due to an injury received in a bout. He eventually lost the sight in the eye but continued to fight. Attempts to get Greb a shot at Dempsey’s title were still going on in July 1925, “when he was half blind and fighting with his head tilted to the right.”
Even half blind Greb scored some of the greatest victories of his career.
Even half blind Greb scored some of the greatest victories of his career. “But he was losing his bearings; his boundless energy now crossed with sorrow, was like a scattershot.” Perhaps to compensate for his fading vision and gain an edge he often abused the rules and risked disqualification. He became reckless outside the ring as well. There was a drunken nightclub brawl, affairs with chorus girls, breach of promise law suits, and the loss of his middleweight championship in 1926 to Tiger Flowers by a controversial split decision. At 32, and after nearly 300 professional fights, the streaking comet that was Harry Greb was finally slowing down.
Less than two months after losing the rematch to Flowers by another split decision Greb was involved in a car accident that fractured a bone near the base of his skill. Ten days later surgery to repair the injury went wrong and he died the following day.
Ninety-two years after his death the legendary fighter remains an object of fascination and mystery. Smokestack Lightning reveals the legend in all his glory and helps to unravel some of the mystery and, if possible, provokes even greater admiration and awe for the one and only Pittsburgh Windmill.
Mike Silver is the author of The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science (McFarland Publishers 2008) and Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing (Lyons Press 2016). Both are available at Amazon.com.