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By Steven L. Kent
BWD Press—ebook edition/April 2012
Copyright © 2012 by Steven L. Kent
Cover art created by Robert Humble
Front cover image taken at Cappy’s Boxing Gym, Seattle
Cover design by Steven L. Kent
Interior text design by Steven L. Kent
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any print or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted material in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
This book is dedicated to the memories of Tim Russert and
“Smoking” Joe Frazier, men of honor.
There was a time when the heavyweight champion was king of the world. If you ran into Rocky Marciano or Joe Louis, you knew them. It didn’t matter if they were in Des Moines or Tokyo, everybody knew who they were. Sonny Liston made airline commercials. Floyd Patterson and Muhammad Ali appeared on What’s My Line. They were celebrities.
Those days are over.
Here’s what I mean. It’s 1990 and Sammy Shrubber walks into a bar in downtown Las Vegas for an afternoon beer. If you’ve been off the strip, you know the kind of place I’m talking about, dark, smells like an ashtray, a row of outdated slot machines chirping near the door. This isn’t like the bars in Caesar’s or the Bellagio, it’s for locals.
So in walks Shrubber, the heavyweight champion of the world. He sits down at one of the tables in the back and nobody notices; but he doesn’t care. That’s Shrubber, he didn’t get into boxing for fame.
Okay, it’s dark and he’s the champ and no one spots him, and he’s sitting at a table like a regular Joe when a waitress walks up. She takes one look at him and says, “Honey, what happened to you?”
Shrubber didn’t go to Las Vegas for a vacation, he just defended his title in a fight at the MGM Grand; but the gal waiting his table doesn’t recognize him. He had his face on billboards all over town and the Las Vegas Sun ran stories about the fight the entire week; but she didn’t pay attention to any of that. All she knows is she’s got a customer with a black eye.
The good news is this is Sammy Shrubber. The guy has his pride but doesn’t have an ego. He says, “I had a fight last night,” and the waitress tells him, “Honey, you gotta be more careful.” She doesn’t realize that he’s talking about a boxing match, she thinks he got mugged.
This book is about the heavyweight champions I’ve known through the years; but it’s also about the demise of boxing.
But let me start by introducing myself. I covered boxing for the New York Times for fifty years.
I didn’t set out to write about sports. I’ll get to the heavyweights in a moment, but let’s get the preliminaries out of the way.
I grew up in Lower Manhattan, in the area now known as “SoHo.” Back then it was just Lower Manhattan. When I was twelve, I decided to take up boxing so I took the train uptown and started working out at the Gramercy Gym.
The character who ran the gym was a short, bald, owl-eyed fellow named Cus D’Amato who cut a sort of Yoda figure in the boxing world. He didn’t have any champions at the time, but people knew him because he produced one of the great middleweights, Rocky Graziano.
My boxing career only lasted five months. Some kids quit the first time they get a bloody nose or a split lip, but that wasn’t me. I lasted until I realized that I had no talent.
Shortly after I left, a kid named Floyd Patterson wandered into the gym. With D’Amato looking over his shoulder, Patterson won the ’52 Olympics and became the heavyweight champion of the world. The first fight I covered for the Times was the one in which Patterson lost his title to Charles “Sonny” Liston.
D’Amato never spoke a word to me during my boxing days but I got to know him after I started writing for the New York Times. When I told him I used to train at his gym back in 1949, he said, “You must’a been awful or I would have noticed you.”
Another kid who didn’t make much of an impression at the Gramercy Gym was Allen Konigsberg, a short, skinny, shy boy with a big head and eyes like a possum. He didn’t go anywhere as a boxer. Later he changed his name to Woody Allen and made movies.
I gave up on boxing, graduated from high school, and went to Harvard and to study economics. I took a class from John Kenneth Galbraith who was the man of the hour when it came to economics back in the fifties. After I graduated from Harvard, I enrolled in the school of journalism at Columbia University. I did that for my dad. He always wanted a journalist for a son; but he wasn’t satisfied with what he got.
My father was a policeman who fought in World War II. When he talked about “journalists,” he meant Ernie Pyle. As far as he was concerned, journalists had hair on their chests and wrote about wars.
The day I graduated, I applied for a job at the most important paper in New York… which, as far as I was concerned, made it the most important newspaper in the world. I went in, found the managing editor, and announced, “I just graduated from Columbia.”
He asked me, “What do want to write about?”
When I told him I had a degree in economics from Harvard, he said, “We already have somebody covering economics. Pick a desk, sports or crime?”
I said, “My father is a policeman.”
He said, “Great, we’ll put you in sports.”
I never asked why having a father in the New York Police Department landed me in Sports. It didn’t matter; I figured it was a short-term hitch. Ball games… murders… I’d take any assignment to get my foot in the door; and when a slot opened in the business section, I’d slide in.
The first story I wrote was about a baseball game—the Brooklyn Dodgers versus the Pittsburg Pirates at Ebbets Field, September 24, 1957. The Dodgers lost the game and left for Los Angeles the following year.
Five years later, I was still covering sports and starting to get antsy when my editor said, “Hey Spain, didn’t you use to box?”
I said, “Something like that.” Back then I still spoke like a Harvard graduate.
He asked, “How would you like to cover Patterson-Liston?” It wasn’t a question, it was an assignment. Back in 1962, your editor could still tell you how to dress, how to talk, and how to wear your hair. The Emancipation Proclamation for newspaper journalists didn’t take effect until Vietnam.
And, notice, he didn’t call it, the Floyd Patterson-Sonny Liston heavyweight title fight. All he needed to say was ‘Patterson-Liston’ and I knew what he meant.
I would have known what he meant if he said, ‘You want to cover the Patterson fight?’ Everyone in the world knew who Floyd Patterson was and we all knew Liston would kill him. He was going to end the night staring up at the lights, and everybody knew it… including Patterson.
That was the first time I attended a professional fight, let alone a heavyweight title match.
There’s a difference between fighters and heavyweights. Heavyweights are slow, ponderous fighters. They’re dinosaurs. They’re blue whales. They’re big lumbering lummoxes, but they can kill you with a single blow and that lends primordial charm to the way they fight.
In 1958, Sonny Liston took on a journeyman fighter named Wayne Bethea. Bethea never won a belt but he qualified as one of the elite contenders of his time.
The fight lasted sixty-nine seconds. The round had barely begun when Liston knocked Bethea down with a left. Bethea got right back up, the ref gave him a mandatory eight count, and the fight continued. Liston swatted the unfortunate Mr. Bethea around the ring for seventeen more seconds and then the referee, Bernie Wiseman, did something I have never seen in any other fight. He stepped between the fighters and pulled Bethea’s mouthpiece out of his mouth.
When he pulled out Bethea’s mouthpiece, six teeth came with it. Wiseman saw the teeth and stopped the fight.
Liston didn’t knock Patterson’s teeth out. He did something worse, he crushed Patterson’s pride. It was brutal. Sitting two rows from the ring, I could feel the thud when Liston slammed his fists into Patterson’s gut.
After seeing that near fatal collision in the ring, I was hooked. I forgot about the world of economics and told my editor that I wanted to cover boxing.
He asked, “What about Galbraith?”
I said “He wouldn’t last a minute against Liston.”
“That’s fine, then,” he said. “Congratulations, Spain, you’re our new boxing columnist.”
That was in 1962, exactly five years and one day after the Dodgers lost their season closer to the Pirates at Ebbets field. The Dodgers left Brooklyn and I forgot about economics. I bet neither of us ever looked back. I never did.