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Articles of 2005

Gypsy Joe Harris: Career (And Life) Interrupted

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For just about any normal mortal starting out in the rough and treacherous waters of boxing, it seems like progress is sometimes one step forward and two steps back. When a youngster enters a gym, they’ll often go in a little cocky and think they’ll master the sport in short order. However, after some black eyes, busted lips, getting deposited on the canvas a few times by a more experienced fighter, or even suffering some broken ribs, the reality of the school of hard knocks sets in. Thereafter, the superficial dreams of the easy road and the high life are supplanted by the blood, sweat and tears of a circuitous, bumpy apprenticeship.

In terms of the craft of the sport, for every move a counter exists. In kind, for every counter another move or counter is lurking. Learning to box usually starts with learning to jab, and that in itself is a challenge. Learning to properly jab an opponent can come in all shapes and forms. Dwight Qawi was a master at out-jabbing significantly taller opposition with an up jab. Larry Holmes had one of the best jabs in history. Ironically, when Holmes was in deep trouble during some of his toughest fights, it was because the opponent was able to time that jab and land a nasty right hand counter. Angelo Dundee said Sonny Liston could knock out an opponent’s teeth with the jab. Boxing is a complex art and a constant learning process. When you think you’re an expert and you know it all, something comes out of nowhere and surprises you.

Over the years, one of the most perplexing things for me to fathom is highly effective fighters who broke every fundamental rule in the book. Muhammad Ali and Roy Jones are two that come to mind. Ali leaned straight back instead of properly slipping punches. He dropped his hands, didn’t have his feet planted correctly, allowed fighters to pound away on him, and almost never brought his jab back to chin level as even novice amateurs are taught. Jones sometimes didn’t use the jab at all. He landed punches from bizarre, awkward angles with powerful impact.

Harry Greb might’ve been the greatest fighter of all-time. Films of Greb’s fights are unavailable, but by historical accounts, his style is best described as unconventional and sometimes heretical. Greb’s quirky style and massive punch output stymied and confused his best opposition. Greb threw out the textbook, and carved out perhaps the most unique and successful career in boxing history.

Sometimes it’s good to question authority, buck conventional wisdom, and think for yourself.

In the 1960s, another unusual but highly effective fighter appeared on the landscape. Unfortunately, his career didn’t reach the heights as those mentioned above, but he was certainly eccentric. Gypsy Joe Harris holds the distinction of being the only non-heavyweight contender to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated. I have a copy of the June 19, 1967 magazine with Harris on the cover. Author Mark Kram effectively detailed the essence of Harris’ personality and ring style. I read it again after watching Ray Oliveira’s scary loss to our era’s biggest nonconformist, Emanuel Augustus, and couldn’t help but wonder what Oliveira was thinking when Augustus went into a bizarre dance and landed punches at will. At a higher level, Harris upset and confounded his more conventional opponents in the 1960s, and usually got away with it as well.

When fighters today enter the ring, it’s usually to rap music. When I watch film of Sugar Ray Robinson, I’m tempted to turn off the sound and put on classical music. If film of Harris ever becomes available to the general public, a psychedelic concoction or fusion of Jimi Hendrix’s “Electric Ladyland” and Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” would be most appropriate. Harris was improvisational, and that’s what made him unique and distinct. As trainer Willie Reddish said about Harris, “He don’t make plans, because he don’t know what he gonna do till he do it.”

Gypsy Joe Harris was a Philadelphia fighter, but not in the accepted mold of Joe Frazier and Bennie Briscoe. On the opposite side of the continuum, Philadelphia has produced wonderfully slick stylists like Jeff Chandler, Tyrone Everett, Harold Johnson, and recently deceased Jimmy Young. By all accounts, Harris didn’t fit into either category. Rather, he fit somewhere between Ali, Jones and Augustus. He is also elusive to categorize in terms of his weight class. Many list Harris as a welterweight, but he fluctuated between welterweight, junior middleweight, and middleweight.

Although it’s obvious that Harris’ ring style was different than Greb’s, both men actually had a lot in common. They lived by their own formless code, fought blind in one eye, often overwhelmed opponents with volume and strange angles instead of power, and died young. Greb acquired his injury several years into this career in the early 1920s, whereas Harris acquired his injury in a street altercation when he was eleven years old. Both men died of heart failure. Greb died on the operating table under anesthesia during nose surgery at the age of 32 in 1926. Harris died of cardiac arrest at the age of 44 in 1990 after several previous heart attacks and years of drug and alcohol abuse. Harris might’ve become one of the greatest fighters of all-time like Greb, but he never got the chance.

Harris started his professional career in 1964 with a third round knockout of Freddy Walker in Worcester, Massachusetts. Within two years, Harris had gained a reputation as a ring savant with a bag of idiosyncratic tricks. On October 10, 1966 Harris stopped tough, rugged, and brutal punching fellow Philadelphian Stanley “Kitten” Hayward in seven rounds at the Philadelphia Arena. Hayward had previously beaten Bennie Briscoe, Curtis Cokes, and superb stylist Dick Turner. Turner retired after his bout with Hayward due to a detached retina.

In 1967, Harris continued on his flamboyant journey. Gypsy Joe’s wild and audacious wardrobe might’ve made even Hendrix blush that year, and his nonpareil style astounded crowds and opponents just as Jimi did at the Monterey Pop Festival that year. On March 31, Harris decisioned Cokes over ten rounds at Madison Square Garden. Cokes was a textbook stylist, just as Eric Clapton was a precision guitarist. Cokes wasn’t referred to as “God” like Clapton, but Cokes’ jabs, crosses and hooks are what every traditional trainer would appreciate and endorse.

Testimony to Cokes’ abilities is that he went 2-1 against the great Luis Rodriguez from 1961-1966. In his last bout with Rodriguez on July 6, 1966, Cokes stopped Rodriguez in the fifteenth round. Rodriguez was one of the most underrated and classy boxers in history, and was only stopped three times in his 121 bout career. A natural welterweight, Rodriguez beat Bennie Briscoe and Rubin Carter, and fought four nip and tuck battles with Emile Griffith. If there was a truly fluid and smooth technician of the 1960s, it was Luis Rodriguez. It was like Clapton out-dueling Jeff Beck.

Cokes may have gotten the better of an all-time great like Rodriguez, but he was befuddled by Harris, just as Clapton was blown away when he first saw Hendrix perform onstage. Over ten rounds, Harris took Cokes to places he’d never been. The normally composed Texan was so confused that he might’ve felt like Timothy Leary spiked his water with LSD. Harris was a bad trip for Cokes, as if poor Curtis was floundering and hallucinating in a Hendrix purple haze. What worked with Rodriguez and other stellar opponents simply didn’t work with Harris. Cokes later exclaimed, “I couldn’t jab him. He don’t have a style. He just stands there and acts the monkey. I hit him a few times, but he’d just wobble and come back. He’s a tough kid. They got to give me a roomful of money to fight him for the title, and there ain’t enough to get me to fight him in New York.” The decision was unanimous, and Harris was officially on his way. Harris continued his winning ways for the rest of the year with wins of excellent opposition like our own Bobby Cassidy.

In 1968, Harris tallied one more win against Dick DiVeronica, and signed to face the great Emile Griffith. Griffith vs. Harris occurred in Gypsy Joe’s hometown at the Spectrum on August 6, 1968. Many expected Harris to provide Griffith with a very tough test, but Harris reportedly behaved and performed erratically throughout the contest. In the biggest fight of his life, Harris clowned his way to a decision loss. It was an unfortunate, misanthropic performance that left Philly fans disappointed. To be sure, Griffith was tough, strong, and effective. In the end, Gypsy Joe might’ve simply met his match, and found Griffith to be different than his best opponents of the past.

What Harris didn’t know at the time was that the Griffith fight would be his last. On October 11, 1968, doctors finally discovered that Harris was blind in his right eye. It was a secret throughout his career, and evidence as to how accomplished and innovative Harris was in the ring. He beat some of the best fighters of his generation with one eye, and often positioned himself so he could pick up the incoming punches without being handicapped by the bad blinker. Harris lost his boxing license, appealed several times, but never fought again. His career ended before his twenty-third birthday. His final record reads 24-1 (8 KOs).

It is well known that Harris drifted into drug addiction and alcoholism for several years after losing his boxing license. Not surprisingly, he held a series of odd jobs, but nothing really lasted. Harris was a gypsy at heart, and seemed to live for the moment. In his heyday, he wore several sets of outlandish clothes per day, sporadically worked as a bartender, never kept track of his money, and sometimes showed up at the gym drinking a mixture of milk and whiskey. His trainers and acquaintances would often look for him for hours, only to have him almost innocently appear on his own time clock to fulfill his training duties.

In the remaining years of his life, he was often homeless and on welfare. As mentioned above, years of dissipation took a cumulative toll, and his heart gradually gave out after a series of heart attacks. It’s a sad and horrible story, but as many have stated, Harris was a carefree sort and reportedly didn’t wallow in self-pity as he spiraled into his final decline. Even near death, he would appear at Philadelphia gyms and joke around with trainers and fighters. His destiny was to live fast and die young, and he was probably aware of his destiny all along.

Many boxing people have given us an idea about how good Harris really was. Perhaps the most notable observer of all is Philadelphia boxing history’s most significant and important promoter, J. Russell Peltz. Peltz is also the most prominent collector and distributor of Philadelphia boxing memorabilia. Peltz described Harris’ unique qualities just after Gypsy Joe died in 1990. “He did things in the ring that had not been done before or since. Gypsy Joe was a magician, very tough to hit. He was a very big attraction in Philadelphia.” Obviously, Gypsy Joe was something very special. As mentioned previously, footage of Harris exists, but is not available to the general public. Hopefully, someday the public will rightfully and cost effectively be given full access to Harris’ fights on tape, and we’ll be able to get a crystal clear picture about the prowess so many have talked about for decades.

Articles of 2005

In Boxing News: Floyd Mayweather An All-Time Great, Valuev & More

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A Shot of Boxing on the Last Day of the Year

The Guardian reports that talks have already taken place between Nicolay Valuev‘s co-promoters – Don King and Wilfried Sauerland – and Danny Williams‘ promoter Frank Warren for Nicolay Valuev to face Danny Williams. I’d suggest Danny Williams needs to worry about Matt Skelton (who Williams is reportedly scheduled to fight in February) before he entertains notions of facing the Beast From The East.

The Mirror in the UK looks forward to a big year in boxing for 2006. The Mirror considers what the future might bring for Joe Calzaghe, Amir Khan and Ricky Hatton, among others.

The Parksville Qualicum News has an interesting column on the travails of former Canadian Super Middleweight title holder Mark Woolnough. Woolnough’s career turned controversial – as widely reported in the Canadian press – at the beginning of this year when Woolnough and four other men were charged with manslaughter and assault after a fight outside a Parksville nightclub. The case returns to court next month. It’s an interesting read, as Woolnough is still looking to the future with hope.

Our own Marc Lichtenfeld provides plenty of food for thought with his Top Ten Wish List for boxing in the New Year. There’s plenty of good stuff here, but what really jumped out for me is Lichtenfeld’s opinion that a win over Zab Judah could have Floyd Mayweather knocking on the door of all-time great status. Seems to me this might be jumping the gun a little. Or is Marc right? Will it soon be time to call Floyd Mayweather Jr. an all-time great?

(More Boxing News Links at TheSweetScience.com)

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Articles of 2005

ShoBox Friday Night Fights

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Hot bantamweight prospect Raul “The Cobra” Martinez heads back to Chicago next Friday night as he is featured in the co-main event of SHOBOX “THE NEW GENERATION,” an action packed evening of professional boxing presented by Dominic Pesoli’s 8 Count Productions,’ HOME OF THE BEST IN CHICAGO BOXING, Kathy Duva’s Main Events Inc., along with Miller Lite and TCF Bank.

The two-time national amateur champion sporting a perfect 12-0 record with 9 knockouts, six of which have come in the first round,  will take on Colombian Andres “Andy Boy” Ledesma, 13-1 (8 KOs) in a scheduled eight round bout.

Speaking after a training session at his home gym in Georgetown, Texas, Martinez said, “I’m truly looking forward to returning to Chicago. The fans were terrific in September, they were very supportive from the start of the fight,” an internationally televised first round knockout of Miguel Martinez on September 16th at the Aragon Ballroom.

Regarding his upcoming fight with Ledesma, “The Cobra” said, “I haven’t seen him fight, although I understand he’s fought at higher weights and will be naturally bigger than me. I’ve had great training for this fight and feel very confident. I really haven’t left the gym in months, just taking off Sunday’s and even then I get my running in. My thinking is that fights are won in the gym and complete preparation is the key.”

When asked about his being mentioned by Dan Rafael, ESPN’s boxing writer as one of the top prospect’s in the boxing world the 23-year-old San Antonio native said, ‘It’s a great compliment, but I still have much work to do. I want to be a champion for Main Events like Fernando Vargas and Arturo Gatti. But like Fernando said while he was in town, ‘be patient, work hard and your time will come.’”

Finishing the conversation, Martinez said, “I’m looking forward to starting out this year with a bang. I might have a couple less fights than the seven I had in 2005, but I’m looking to stepping up the competition, move up to ten-rounders and climb in the rankings.”

Headlining the evening is a ten-round welterweight showdown between boxing’s hottest prospect, unbeaten Joel Julio of Monteria, Columbia, and Ugandan native Roberto “The Doctor” Kamya. Julio, turning 21 years old the day before the fight, is 25-0 with 22 knockouts, twelve of which have come in the first two rounds. Kamya, now fighting out of West Palm Beach, Florida is 15-5 with four knockouts.

Tickets, starting at $30, are on sale in advance by calling 312-226-5800. Cicero Stadium is located at 1909 S. Laramie, at the corner of 19th and Laramie, just ten minutes south of the Eisenhower Expressway and ten minutes north of the Stevenson Expressway. Doors for this evening will open at 6pm with the first bell at 7pm.

The full bout lineup for the evening is:

Joel Julio vs. Roberto Kamya, ten rounds, welterweights

Raul Martinez vs. Andres Ledesma, eight rounds, bantamweights

Miguel Hernandez vs. Butch Hajicek, eight rounds, middleweights

David Pareja vs. Derek Andrews, eight rounds, light heavyweights

Mike Gonzales vs. Tony Kinney, four rounds, lightweights

Omar Reyes vs. Luis Navarro, five rounds, featherweights

Reynaldo Reyes vs. Ricardo Swift, four rounds, middleweights

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Articles of 2005

Pick ‘Em: Plenty of Big Upcoming Fights in ’06

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Here’s the early call on many top matches scheduled for the first half of 2006: Happy New Year!

As the new calendar dawns, there are already a considerable amount of premium bouts on the horizon. Things don’t look to be bogged down by undetermined championships next year. In many cases the scheduled face-offs involve the best fighters in the division, or at least close enough for general bragging rights. If anybody else with proper qualifications signs up to force the issue, all the better.

It can be argued that some pairings could have taken place within a more optimal timeframe, or that some headliners carry distracting baggage, but there are certainly enough heavy hitters on deck. That nobody can deny.

It doesn’t matter whether one considers the proverbial glass half empty or half full; there’s still the same amount of juice in the vessel. It’s nice to know that even with a high number of cancellations, there will still be plenty of important contenders on tap.

With elite fighters in weight divisions from top to bottom on the agenda, it’s an equivalent to what fans in more mainstream sports expect in a consistent championship format.

Baseball fans can almost always count on a World Series. Some hoops fanatics say too much attention to playoffs distracts unmotivated NBA teams during their regular season. In college, they project Sweet Sixteens. Football fans know there’s always a Super Bowl ahead to raise advertising dollars and test the USA’s halftime morals.

So too, there is method in boxing’s current madness.

The midnight crystal ball hasn’t even been unveiled in Times Square and there are already a number of potential thrillers scheduled. Most feature contrasting personalities that almost guarantee going along for the ride will be worthwhile. Any subsequent drops will probably be cheered.

Don King jumps right out of the auld lang gate with a January 7th Showtime card featuring Zab Judah against Carlos Baldomir and Jean-Marc Mormeck in a cruiserweight unification against O’Neil Bell.

It will be the upset of the year, bar none, if Baldomir can tip the applecart before Judah gets to his scheduled super-showdown with Floyd Mayweather Jr. Meanwhile, Mormeck is emerging and should keep on rolling against Bell, who can expose him if he’s not for real.

The proverbial Big Bang starts with a January 21st rematch of one of the finest fights of ‘05, when Erik Morales goes against Manny Pacquaio for the second time on HBO pay per view. The fact that Morales was upset by Zahir Raheem after beating Pacquaio was no real loss in box-office luster. Artful Raheem will get a spot on the undercard and hope his patience is rewarded.

Everyone figures Morales and Pacquaio will pick up where they left off. Like the first time, the rematch is a pick’em contest. Management distractions and glove restrictions cited as Pacquaio’s previous problems won’t matter this time. The two are very evenly matched and their styles will make for another whapathon. It could come down to corners, where Freddie Roach gets the edge since Morales will have a new trainer for the first time since replacing his father after the Raheem lesson.

February features four of the game’s most enduring attractions, in a pair of crucial matchups.

First up, Showtime presents the Jose Luis Castillo – Diego Corrales tiebreaker from El Paso on Feb 4th. This is another pick ‘em pair, barring any sideshow. In boxing that disclaimer may be a stretch, since the sideshow is part of the act and the charm.

As far as action inside the strands goes, every round these guys have fought has been great. There’s no reason to think that pattern won’t continue. Regarding the result, Castillo keeps the pressure on as he did in the second fight, but he’ll walk into trouble from a more reserved Corrales. We still don’t know which coin to flip.

February also holds a better late than never affair between two perennial favorites as Shane Mosley collides with Fernando Vargas on the 25th.  This fight could lead to a winning ticket in the Golden Boy sweepstakes for a fall bonanza against Oscar De La Hoya.

Vargas has been in tougher recently, based on comparable strength of opposition stats, but he’s seen little action. What weight they enter the ring at may have a lot to do with the result. If Vargas has to struggle at the scale, Mosley might have the battle in the bag after round nine.

It’s hard to imagine Mosley getting stopped early, but Vargas doesn’t have to hurt him, he just has to knock him down three times. With natural size, he may be able to do just that, but Mosley would have to box uncharacteristically flat.

Unless Mosley decides to heed the crowd, the most likely scenario is that Shane plays it safe, picks a few shots, and stays away enough to capture a comfortable, dull decision. An unbowed Vargas maintains his fan base but not his bettors.

March both comes in and goes out as a lion.

On March 4th Joe Calzaghe welcomes Jeff Lacy to Manchester UK for what may be the biggest blowout of the headlining bunch. Calzaghe gets the chance to prove his considerable home-based reputation once and for all, but if Lacy creams him as we expect, that glossy record will be severely tarnished.

All Calzaghe has to do is make a respectable stand, but that’s no small task against the rising Lacy. A motivated Calzaghe, songs of England ringing in his ears, could pull a big surprise if he can exploit Lacy’s relatively limited technical development, but that’s a longshot indeed.

It looks like Lacy can get by on power alone. He could soon emerge as a pound-for-pound leader. Old Joe’s hometown advantage will last about two left hooks.

March 11th has the Ides of history to beware for at least one old lion, with farewell (we’ll see) fireworks featuring Roy Jones Jr. against Bernard Hopkins. Less than two years ago they were considered untouchable all time greats. Now between them they’ve lost five in a row.

This goodbye fight is contracted at light heavyweight, for what seems like an oldies night. Hopkins is the senior at age 41 to Jones’s 37, but Roy seems more the grandpa figure, last seen hanging on against Antonio Tarver. Youth, as it were here, will prevail.

This bout was signed quickly as each principal, usually sticklers for favorable contract clauses, agreed to parity in a demonstration of businessman first and fighter second. They may both expect easy marks. How much the boys have left by the time they get down to business remains to be seen. The history books will show this as a climactic career bout between Hall of Famers.

At 175 pounds, Hopkins may be in for rude awakening. Jones may have been more thoroughly outfought recently, but he was rumbling with bigger, tougher men than Jermain Taylor or Howard Eastman. Respectable as he is, Taylor still falls short of the level of Tarver, at least for now. The difference is still fifteen pounds less pop.

It will be quite a feat if Hopkins can stay in the fight, even at Jones’s advanced age. Our stars point to Jones winning in overwhelming fashion.

On March 18th, James Toney meets Hasim Rahman in another pairing of seasoned war-horses.

Toney and Rahman already had their introductions, when they brawled in Mexico during a WBC gathering to bestow Rahman’s new belt. Between formalities, Toney got married, which could bring up the old questions about carnal training.

Let’s hope when they meet in the ring, they restore some of the fire missing from the heavyweights in ‘05.  Toney might have an edge in recent form, but Rahman shows fine tuning he previously lacked. The winner might get newly “crowned’ Nicolai Valuev, an easy payday outside Germany.

Rahman could be the heavyweight that finally makes Toney look like a blown up middleweight. But anything less than a top effort will probably lead to embarrassing night for the Rock and give Toney solid claim to being the true heavyweight champ.

This might not be the most artful fight of the new season, but it could well be the most grueling, and the closest. He who’s faced the better big boys gets the nod. Advantage Rahman.

March 25 features Marco Antonio Barrera, probably the strongest overall claimant to 130 pound honors. The likely opponent is said to be always tough Jesus Chavez.

Chavez seemed rejuvenated when he met Leavander Johnson, but Johnson’s tragic death may have taken some of the steam out of thoughtful Chavez, said to have received Johnson’s family blessing to continue in Leavander’s name. That could mean a lot of inspiration. Either way, if he does meet Chavez, who hung tough with one arm against Erik Morales, Barrera won’t get any slack. The Fates say Chavez, whose wife recently served in Iraq, is a live, live underdog.

Another clash to be King of the Hill finds Floyd Mayweather Jr, arguably the game’s finest practitioner, bumping heads with Zab Judah, one of very few boxers who rivals Mayweather in speed, skills, and brashness.

Their hoedown, scheduled for April 8th, is one of the top pound-for-pound pairings in recent years. Judah will need a career best performance to have a chance of victory. That’s not to say he can’t pull it off, but currently Mayweather is in a different galaxy in terms of punching power. Slow-motion replays may be the only way to follow the flying fists once these two whirlwinds unload.

Mayweather should be around a 4-1 favorite. Judah is good enough to make taking the odds an attractive proposition, since that’s probably as good of odds as one is likely to see on Floyd for a while. Mayweather will stop Judah in his tracks.

The first half of next year is set to conclude with the star power of Oscar De La Hoya, probably against noteworthy foil Ricardo Mayorga on May 6. There could be some snags before a contract is finalized, but if it comes off count on Mayorga for promotional sound bite nastiness. One of the questions is whether or not he’ll be able to get under Oscar’s skin, and it might actually be entertaining to see the classy, model perfect De La Hoya show he’s human and freak out against the Nicaraguan maniac.

Mayorga may have burnt his best bridges already. De La Hoya has not only the boxing skill to negate Mayorga’s offense, but enough power to end it early. If Mayorga rushes in and causes a cut, De La Hoya might get ruffled enough to duck into defense and Mayorga could get a decision that goes to the cards after six rounds or so. It will be wild for as long as it lasts.

Pro boxing, like many sports, had its share of problems during 2005, but there were also many positives. Most notably, as usual, was superior and inspiring action inside the strands. Unless there’s a mass freeze-up at the top, early 2006 figures to see decisive interaction among many well-known fighters.

If even fifty per cent of the aforementioned pairings come to fruition, it’s a strong likelihood the upcoming year has at least one very positive half. Arturo Gatti, Miguel Cotto, Antonio Margarito, Brian Viloria, and Shannon Briggs, to name a few, are also on deck. No matter how you chose to look at or measure mass qualities, there’s still just as much good to be seen.

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