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Tales of the Canvas

Boxing History Is Rich with Stories of Courage, Pain and Smoke
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Matt Dillon, Spring 96

It's a sticky summer night at the Blue Horizon in North Philly. Outside this citadel of sweat a patron warns, "If you park your car, pay somebody to watch it." No matter. Didn't Rocky, The Set-Up and countless other fight films show us that boxers spring up from tough, uncompromising neighborhoods? These streets of Philadelphia are hardly streets of brotherly love. But they are familiar streets, especially to 16 pugilists paired off inside for the evening's fights.

This fortress of fistiana is 75 years old, but it looks as if it was built during the Pleistocene Era. The ceilings are cracked porcelain; wooden seats fill the balcony and metal folding chairs crowd the floor, accommodating 1,300 fight fans. Members of the press, athletic officials and a doctor sit at ringside, crowding the canvas. At the center of it all is the square ring, bathed in white-hot TV lights from the USA Network.

Some fans complained about the fumes, so new rules have forced smoking outside. Thus, no Runyonesque reporters bang out copy on deadline with a smoke. But a fire escape just 10 yards from the ring is a magnet for professionals and fight-wizened vets to light up their smokes. From there they can see the action and hear the distant thud of heavy punches. Cheers and whistles greet the ring card girls--Amy and Karyn--who prance about in bikinis. Another card girl, a newcomer to the profession, is showered with boos for not jiggling enough, the crowd chanting "Bor-ing, Bor-ing" in the same cadence that baseball fans mock Strawberry with the chant of "Dar-ryl, Dar-ryl." Philadelphia, you must understand, is the same town that once lustily booed Santa Claus during an Eagles football game.

The Blue Horizon is a last outpost, a throwback, an all-male sanctuary--plus a few females on dates--that brings us back to the kinds of cozy arenas that once dedicated themselves to fistic fury. Light heavyweight champ Harold Johnson fought here in the 1960s, as did welterweight title holder Curtis Cokes. On the streets outside they are the stuff of legend.

While no fighter on tonight's card is a household name, each is a dedicated pro. All fights are between four and 12 rounds and earn a boxer between $400 and $10,000, depending on the length of the bout and whether it is a main event. For such modest fees they fight their hearts out. The sellout crowds come to see war, not some artful dance or display of "sweet science," so extolled by the boxing scribe A.J. Leibling. Fights are short, energy is high, crowds rarely disappointed.

"What makes a good fight is two guys who come to fight like Tyson or Frazier," says Russell Peltz, matchmaker par excellence for the Horizon. "People come out to fights to see people get hit and clocked and see street fights. Not too many are interested in the manly art of self-defense." If Peltz were offered a match between two guys as gifted and elusive as welterweight Pernell Whitaker--regarded as the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet--he says he would refuse it.

Believe him. In the sixth bout on the card, lightweight Ivan Robinson lands a glancing blow, cutting Jimmy Deoria's right eyelid. Since the eyelid is the thinnest skin on the human body, the wound causes a fountain of blood--the kind of absurd geyser that Martin Scorcese had spouting from Robert De Niro's forehead after Sugar Ray Robinson's blows in Raging Bull. A local cop and crowd favorite from Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, Deoria is not hurt but a ringside doctor checks him out. "Only in Philadelphia would they allow this to continue," says Peltz, who has been matching young fighters since 1969.

Robinson now turns his attention to aggravating the cut with a deft series of right hands. First row notes and scorecards get showered with blood. The doctor investigates again and this time stops the contest. A discussion ensues about whether a head butt caused the bleeding, but after five minutes it is ruled that the cut resulted from punching, and Robinson is declared the winner. Deoria, unhurt, pleads his case to no avail.

A break in the action allows ticket holders to head for the fire escape. An attorney, Scott Cooper, draws on an Arturo Fuente and explains the appeal of the fights. "This is like stepping back into the 1940s," he says. "It's the right kind of place to see this stuff."

* * *

Boxing historian Bert Sugar--he of the wide-brimmed fedora and the cigar--likes to attend boxing smokers. These gatherings for old-time boxers mix fine food, nostalgic tales and cigar smoke as well as live fights. Sugar, who had a bit part in De Niro's fight film Night and the City, resides in Chappaqua, New York ("in a great house overlooking a lovely mortgage"), but today he holds court at his corner table at O'Lunney's, a Manhattan saloon. He puffs on something vaguely green, which may well be the ugliest cigar since fire was discovered. "Made of floor shavings," he says with a laugh, not caring. He kibitzes about baseball ("Don't give me Richie Ashburn in the Hall of Fame; I'm not going to Cooperstown until Nellie Fox gets in."), boxing, football, basketball. "I'm ecumenical," says the author of The 100 Greatest Athletes of All Time; "it's not just boxing I want to talk about. In my cigars I'm also ecumenical." He has smoked, and will smoke, most anything that burns.

Sugar was a fighter as a kid. "I fought at smokers at the CYO [Catholic Youth Organization] in Virginia," he says. "I was known as the 'Great White Hopeless.'" Then he laughs that laugh that travels out to the sidewalk, into the night and into the city.

Sugar just returned from the Governor Hotel in Portland, Oregon, where a smoker was held for old-time boxers. "You get the best food you've ever tasted and the best single malt Scotch." Another boxing smoker recently was staged in Washington, D.C. "Some boxers smoke, others wear the cigar as an adornment. They smoke to show they are part of the crowd. The people love it," Sugar says. At the Washington smoker, "Colin Powell was at ringside with senators and congressmen. Michael Buffer was the ring announcer. Ingemar Johannson smokes. Joe Frazier smokes.

"You can almost hear when you go out to these smokers to 'Look sharp and be on the ball.' You feel sharp. The fights are evocative, the smoking's evocative. It brings up so many memories," Sugar says.

"Everyone goes away with such a wonderful feeling of nostalgia; it's a boys night out, a phenomenon. Those in attendance not only get cigars the length of a Bobby Foster hook and steaks as red and thick as a pair of Archie Moore's trunks, but also enough booze to toast all the champions present." For $750 a pop, some 2,000 folks in Washington were treated to an evening among 15 all-time greats--including Jake LaMotta, Joe Frazier and Pernell Whitaker--and some live bouts as well.

In the old days, lighting up was just as popular at the gym as it is at the boxing smokers. "'Gentleman' Jim Corbett always smoked," recalls Ring magazine publisher Stanley Weston, one of the sport's most knowledgeable observers and a longtime fight photographer. "At Stillman's Gym in New York, at 54th and Eighth, guys smoked right in the gym. That was the sign of a successful manager, everyone smoking a cigar. It was an entirely different world. I've seen trainers--guys working world championship fights--smoking and blowing the smoke in a fighter's face while wiping the guy and putting a compress on his eyes!"

Prior to the 1960s, fighters in New York could be found at more than a dozen clubs. The Pelican or the Irving, the Pioneer or the Greenwood, the New Polo or the Atlantic Gardens, the Bleecker or the Lion--all were dimly lit dens hosting the best young fighters. Fighters had to prove themselves before fighting on the greatest stage, the old Madison Square Garden. How a boxer was doing could be measured by the venues where he fought.

A rookie might start at the Ridgewood Grove, off Myrtle Avenue in Queens. If he graduated from that school of hard knocks, he headed for the Broadway Arena in Manhattan and then on to the St. Nicholas Arena at 66th and Broadway.

"St. Nick's" opened in 1906, the year of the San Francisco earthquake and the year that Tommy Burns beat Marvin Hart in 20 rounds for the heavyweight championship of the world. Sam Langford and Joe Walcott, Stan Ketchel and Kid Chocolate, Harry Greb and Jack Britton--all warred at St. Nick's before the blow of a wrecking ball knocked the joint out in 1962. Lillian Russell attended fights there with Diamond Jim Brady. Milton Berle could be found ringside with a cigar that seemed long enough to reach the ring apron.

Spirited boxers of lesser ability with names like Bill "The Fist" Devor and "The Pugilistic Parson" also gave their best at St. Nick's. If bouts consisted of dancing but no action, a mocking, effeminate cry would go up in the crowd: "Don't you hit him!" In the '40s and '50s you might get a card of 10 good fights for two bucks. Fights at St. Nicholas were eventually televised, sponsored by El Producto cigars.

The better pros might find their way to the Roman Coliseum of boxing, Madison Square Garden, then at 50th and Eighth. Weston recalls that legendary venue vividly, long before smoking became off-limits: "When you walked into the lobby on a Friday night fight, there was a fog in there. The cigar smoking was as much a part of boxing as the ring itself. Women didn't mind. The big shots would walk their ladies to their reserved seats, smoking their cigars and blowing it into their ladies' faces."

Through Weston's lens one sees history, and the history shows that cigars and boxing have gone together like canvas and rope. It is a long-running marriage, which only recently suffered a separation. The fighters, the managers, the crowds themselves--all get lumped in with cigars.

Weston proudly displays photos showing boxing's two greatest Jacks--Johnson and Dempsey. Both are smoking cigars, smiling, enjoying the rewards of a full life. "I knew Jack Johnson," Weston recalls. "He always had a cigar, always in a holder; the tobacco never touched his lips. Jack Johnson was the greatest heavyweight champion of all time [and] he was more of a cigar smoker than anyone I know of."

Jack Dempsey, whether between fights or after his career in Dempsey's Broadway Restaurant, always had a cigar to smoke or chomp on. When he and Georges Carpentier squared off in July 1921 at Bayles 30 Acres in Jersey City, New Jersey--the first $1 million gate--promoter Tex Rickard smoked away as he watched Rockefeller, Ford, Vanderbilt and Astor take their ringside seats.

Another boxing luminary who loved to light up was Al Weill, the colorful manager of many world champions, including Rocky Marciano. He especially enjoyed smoking in his office at Madison Square Garden, where he was matchmaker for six years.

In the places where these greats honed their craft, a cloud of smoke was as constant as the faint smell of industrious sweat. Johnson and Dempsey, Louis and Marciano--all helped to make boxing such a celebrated sport. Can any sporting event draw our attention like a main event fight? Ali-Frazier I, II and III, Dempsey versus Tunney, Louis and Schmeling II--these were among the most alluring sporting competitions of any time. And why not? Boxing is the ultimate contest of man versus man. It is in that sense, as George Foreman said, "the sport that all sports aspire to." And it has always been the sport of survival.

* * *

Boxing originated in England with the bare-knuckle brawls of the 1700s. But while the sport had an air of sophistication in Great Britain, it ran afoul of civic ordinances in the United States. On this side of the Atlantic, the budding "sweet science," as it was dubbed by Pierce Egan in his 1812 book Boxiana, was viewed as barbaric. American judicial opinion, especially in the North, consistently ruled boxing to be illegal.

Throughout these forbidden years, lovers of pugilism either paid off or dodged the police, often pursuing the sport surreptitiously on an anchored barge or in a barn. But the renown of men like John L. Sullivan, the "Boston Strong Boy," eventually elevated boxing to respectability. Although Sullivan later brought gloved contests to prominence, he defended his heavyweight title three times with bare knuckles. When he agreed to fight a younger man--Jake Kilrain--in Richburg, Mississippi, America had its first great bout, and its last championship bare-knuckle contest.

The fight, which carried a $10,000 side bet, began at 10:30 a.m., July 8, 1889, and before it ended the temperature had soared to over 100 degrees. Some 3,000 spectators paid up to $15 each to see the contest. Under London Prize Ring (bare knuckle) rules, the two men wrestled, clinched and threw each other to the ground between occasional punches.

First blood came from Sullivan in the seventh round as the result of a Kilrain right to his ear, and heavy money changed hands. Blood flowed from the champion again when a spiked shoe, used for traction in the earthen ring, pierced his foot. When Sullivan vomited in the 44th round, the crowd took it as a sign that his stomach was gone. But the brawny Bostonian regained his strength. After the 75th round, Kilrain's trainer, Mike Donovan, "threw up the sponge." According to the New Orleans Picayune, "He did not wish to be a party to murder." The bout lasted two hours and 16 minutes. (At that time, a round ended when a man went down on one knee.)

With such a raw beginning, professional pugilism took root in America. While the Marquis of Queensbury rules brought gloves to boxing, making it somewhat kinder and gentler, boxing has always been a blood sport.

Even smoke could influence the outcome. Consider the little-known story of Pete Herman as recounted in a 1949 article in The American Weekly magazine. Herman was the bantamweight champion of the world from 1917 through 1920. When America entered the First World War, Herman enlisted in the Navy. In a charity boxing show for the Navy Tobacco Fund, he fought Gussie Lewis in Philadelphia. During a heated exchange of punches, Herman's right eye was closed, never to reopen. "I could still throw punches as fast as ever," reminisced Herman, "and I never lost my confidence."

Late in December 1920, in a bout at the old Madison Square Garden, Herman was matched with challenger Joe Lynch. "There were 14,000 persons at the fight and 10,000 of them were smoking," said Herman. "I got by the early rounds well enough, but the heavy smoke got to my weak left eye. I couldn't see well enough to throw punches and I lost my title."

Herman asked his manager, Sammy Goldman, to get him a rematch with Lynch, but this time outdoors, where the smoke would not be so tough. The match was held at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn and Herman regained the title, taking 13 of the 15 rounds.


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