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THE KIMBALL CHRONICLES: A Fishy Tale Featuring Shifty And The Bean

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l_0fdb82ebca16d54ef002cea08433fc19Only now, with Eric (Butterbean) Esch, the circus-sideshow heavyweight who carved out a lucrative career as the “King of the Four-Rounders,” safely retired, and Captain Schiffman gone to his grave a few days ago, can the story be told…  

In my old age I have sometimes been described as a “curmudgeon.” From a professional standpoint I take this as a compliment, having served my apprenticeship with a Master Curmudgeon, Michael Katz. Katz is virtually unequalled as a sportswriting curmudgeon, but he and I spent the better part, or at least the best part, of our lives at 59 Christopher Street, which used to be the mailing address of the Curmudgeon’s Hall of Fame, a/k/a the Lion’s Head, Ltd. The curmudgeonly Al Koblin started as a bartender there and wound up the co-proprietor, in partnership with another major league curmudgeon, John Wesley Joice.

A renowned hangout for curmudgeonly novelists, newspapermen, poets, folksingers, actors, and even politicians, the Lion’s Head in its heyday was never a “boxing bar” in the sense of The Neutral Corner (then) or Jimmy’s Corner (now), although it harbored a fair number of practicing pugilists among its clientele. Jose Torres, the light-heavyweight champion of the 1960s, was a regular, as was Randy Neumann – then a heavyweight contender, now a top-echelon New Jersey referee. Roger Donoghue, the old welterweight who had been charged with turning Marlon Brando into a credible ex-pug for On the Waterfront, could often be found at one end of the bar, as could David Markson, the novelist who also happened to be the nephew of Madison Square Garden Boxing president Harry Markson.  One night in the 1980s I had dinner there with Bob Foster and Eddie Futch; men who wrote about boxing – Katz, Budd Schulberg, Larry Merchant, Vic Ziegel, Jack Newfield, Pete Hamill, and Joe Flaherty – also called the Lion’s Head home.

In a saloon filled with legendary curmudgeons, Paul Schiffman occupied a special niche, as Lion’s Head’s first and only double-threat, two-way curmudgeon. He had graduated from King’s Point just in time to miss World War II, and spent a lifetime at sea as an officer on Merchant Marine vessels, principally on the North Atlantic route. The irascible Captain Schiffman spent the first half of the Lions Head’s three-decade existence, at least when he was in port, dismantling his intellectual inferiors as the pub’s most curmudgeonly customer. Then when the sailor came home from the sea, he made the seamless transition from curmudgeonly patron to curmudgeonly bartender.  

He drank his Jameson’s neat, and he did not suffer fools gladly. One night Paul answered the phone only to be asked if the Lions Head had a happy hour:  “Yeah,” grunted Shifty as he slammed the phone back on its receiver. “Eight o’clock. As soon as I’m off.”

When his friends started swapping reminiscences following his death last Wednesday, a quintessential Schiffman tale recalled an evening when he wasn’t even present. A fellow bartender, Richie Morrell, used to host a regular Thursday night poker game at his apartment on King Street. One Friday Richie walked into the head, ready to relieve Mike Reardon, who was working Schiffman’s usual noon-to-eight shift that day.

“Who was the big winner last night?” Mike asked him.

“Shifty,” replied Richie.

“Boy,” said Reardon. “I bet that pissed him off.”

Only those who knew him best were aware that beneath this gruff exterior lurked the soul of a poet, a man who could not only recite, at length, Yeats from memory, but who had in 1977 published At Morning Light, a collection of his own verse.

Although he never boxed himself, Schiffman had fought his way out of barrooms from Marseilles and Liverpool to Galveston and back, and in his younger days would have made one hell of a welterweight. One of my regrets at the timing of his demise was that he never got a chance to see At The Fights: American Writers on Boxing, the about-to-be-published anthology John Schulian and I co-edited for The Library of America. The final piece in that book is Carlo Rotella’s account of the 2002 10-round fight between Butterbean Esch and Larry Holmes — the only one of Butterbean’s 89 professional fights that wasn’t scheduled for four — because not only was Paul appreciative of great boxing writing, he also happened to have played a somewhat pivotal role in another unique event in Butterbean’s career – the only “KO By” on the Bean’s record.

In December of 1995 the Butterbean phenomenon was just beginning to take off. Esch, a roly-poly country bumpkin from Alabama whose fighting weight ranged from 350 or so to the 417 ½ he weighed for his last fight, was billed as “The King of the Four-Rounders” primarily because even his backers acknowledged he wouldn’t have had the stamina to fight any longer than that. The Bean was 15-0, and at this point the scheduled length of his fights had been largely irrelevant, because the opponents he didn’t knock out in the first round he usually knocked out in the second.

Now his promoter, Bob Arum, had brought him to New York for his Madison Square Garden debut, a fight that would take place on the undercard of Oscar De La Hoya’s bout against Jesse James Leija.

The main event loomed such an obvious mismatch it hardly seemed worth wasting space on, so the day before the fight I’d decided my column would be a feature on Butterbean’s first day in the Big Apple, and invited Bean and Murray Sutherland to lunch at the Lion’s Head. I’d known Sutherland, the old Scottish middleweight, in his boxing days. Now he had become a marketing genius as the guy who managed and trained Butterbean.

That the weigh-in would take place later than afternoon was a matter of no concern, since not only did Bean not have to make weight, but Arum and Sutherland probably figured the bigger the number the better. We arrived as planned at Sheridan Square, only to be informed by Captain Schiffman that the Lion’s Head no longer served lunch. (This may have been my first indication that the legendary pub might be in its death throes. Less than a year later the Head went out of business altogether.)

Butterbean looked, well, hungry, so Schiffman asked him what sort of food he’d been hoping to eat. When Butterbean said he liked fish, Shifty directed us to a hoity-toity Greenwich Village bistro that had recently opened a few blocks away. The Bean managed to conceal his disappointment that poisson-chat friture did not seem to be on the menu.

I conducted the interview over lunch, and afterward dropped Sutherland and Butterbean at their hotel, repairing to mine to write my story and take a nap. When I awoke a few hours later, my stomach was roiling.

I immediately phoned Murray, who reported that he felt so rotten he wanted to die. The next question simultaneously occurred to both of us: How was Butterbean feeling?

The next evening Butterbean, accompanied by a beaming Arum, staggered into the ring for his Madison Square Garden debut looking slightly green in the gills. He looked as if he might have even lost some weight; he couldn’t have been more than 370, soaking wet. Fortunately, or so we thought, he’d been matched against Mitchell Rose, a guy who had won just one of nine fights (1-7-1) and who hadn’t a hope against Butterbean.

The Bean spent the first three-minute stanza chasing Rose around the ring, hammering him with lefts and rights, but somehow failed to take him out, and almost as soon as the bell rang for the next it became apparent that Butterbean had shot his whole wad and had already punched himself out. He had absolutely nothing left by the second, and Rose was smacking him all over the ring. Butterbean couldn’t even hold his hands up, and was utterly defenseless. The look of horror that began to spread across Arum’s face was shortly confirmed when the referee, Joe Santarpia, halted the fight and awarded Rose the TKO.

It was the first and only time in 89 fights Butterbean was ever stopped, but for Arum it was a catastrophe of epic proportions. At ringside that night the principal topic of conversation was whether Ron Katz, the Top Rank matchmaker who’d put Rose in with Butterbean, would still have a job the next morning.

Only Butterbean, Sutherland, and I knew the real story, which is that Ron Katz didn’t get Butterbean beat that night. Paul Schiffman did.

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2015 Fight of the Year – Francisco Vargas vs Takashi Miura

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The WBC World Super Featherweight title bout between Francisco Vargas and Takashi Miura came on one of the biggest boxing stages of 2015, as the bout served as the HBO pay-per-view’s co-main event on November 21st, in support of Miguel Cotto vs Saul Alvarez.

Miura entered the fight with a (29-2-2) record and he was making the fifth defense of his world title, while Vargas entered the fight with an undefeated mark of (22-0-1) in what was his first world title fight. Both men had a reputation for all-out fighting, with Miura especially earning high praise for his title defense in Mexico where he defeated Sergio Thompson in a fiercely contested battle.

The fight started out hotly contested, and the intensity never let up. Vargas seemed to win the first two rounds, but by the fourth round, Miura seemed to pull ahead, scoring a knock-down and fighting with a lot of confidence. After brawling the first four rounds, Miura appeared to settle into a more technical approach. Rounds 5 and 6 saw the pendulum swing back towards Vargas, as he withstood Miura’s rush to open the fifth round and the sixth round saw both men exchanging hard punches.

The big swinging continued, and though Vargas likely edged Miura in rounds 5 and 6, Vargas’ face was cut in at least two spots and Miura started to assert himself again in rounds 7 and 8. Miura was beginning to grow in confidence while it appeared that Vargas was beginning to slow down, and Miura appeared to hurt Vargas at the end of the 8th round.

Vargas turned the tide again at the start of the ninth round, scoring a knock down with an uppercut and a straight right hand that took Miura’s legs and sent him to the canvas. Purely on instinct, Miura got back up and continued to fight, but Vargas was landing frequently and with force. Referee Tony Weeks stepped in to stop the fight at the halfway point of round 9 as Miura was sustaining a barrage of punches.

Miura still had a minute and a half to survive if he was going to get out of the round, and it was clear that he was not going to stop fighting.

A back and forth battle of wills between two world championship level fighters, Takashi Miura versus “El Bandido” Vargas wins the 2015 Fight of the Year.

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Jan 9 in Germany – Feigenbutz and De Carolis To Settle Score

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This coming Saturday, January 9th, the stage is set at the Baden Arena in Offenburg, Germany for a re-match between Vincent Feigenbutz and Giovanni De Carolis. The highly anticipated re-match is set to air on SAT.1 in Germany, and Feigenbutz will once again be defending his GBU and interim WBA World titles at Super Middleweight.

The first meeting between the two was less than three months ago, on October 17th and that meeting saw Feigenbutz controversially edge De Carolis on the judge’s cards by scores of (115-113, 114-113 and 115-113). De Carolis scored a flash knock down in the opening round, and he appeared to outbox Feigenbutz in the early going, but the 20 year old German champion came on in the later rounds.

The first bout is described as one of the most crowd-pleasing bouts of the year in Germany, and De Carolis and many observers felt that the Italian had done enough to win.

De Carolis told German language website RAN.DE that he was more prepared for the re-match, and that due to the arrogance Feigenbutz displayed in the aftermath of the first fight, he was confident that he had won over some of the audience. Though De Carolis fell short of predicting victory, he promised a re-vamped strategy tailored to what he has learned about Feigenbutz, whom he termed immature and inexperienced.

The stage is set for Feigenbutz vs De Carolis 2, this Saturday January 9th in Offenburg, Germany. If you can get to the live event do it, if not you have SAT.1 in Germany airing the fights, and The Boxing Channel right back here for full results.

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2015 Knock Out of the Year – Saul Alvarez KO’s James Kirkland

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On May 9th of 2015, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez delivered a resonant knock-out of James Kirkland on HBO that wins the 2015 KO of the Year.

The knock-out itself came in the third round, after slightly more than two minutes of action. The end came when Alvarez delivered a single, big right hand that caught Kirkland on the jaw and left him flat on his back after spinning to the canvas.Alvarez was clearly the big star heading into the fight. The fight was telecast by HBO for free just one week after the controversial and disappointing Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao fight, and Alvarez was under pressure to deliver the type of finish that people were going to talk about. Kirkland was happy to oblige Alvarez, taking it right to Alvarez from the start. Kirkland’s aggression saw him appear to land blows that troubled the young Mexican in the early going. Alvarez played good defense, and he floored Kirkland in the first round, displaying his power and his technique in knocking down an aggressive opponent.

However, Kirkland kept coming at Alvarez and the fight entered the third round with both men working hard and the feeling that the fight would not go the distance. Kirkland continued to move forward, keeping “Canelo” against the ropes and scoring points with a barrage of punches while looking for an opening.

At around the two minute mark, Alvarez landed an uppercut that sent Kirkland to the canvas again. Kirkland got up, but it was clear that he did not have his legs under him. Kirkland was going to try to survive the round, but Alvarez had an opportunity to close out the fight. The question was would he take it?

Alvarez closed in on Kirkland, putting his opponent’s back to the ropes. Kirkland was hurt, but he was still dangerous, pawing with punches and loading up for one big shot.

But it was the big shot “Canelo” threw that ended the night. Kirkland never saw it coming, as he was loading up with a huge right hand of his own. The right Alvarez threw cracked Kirkland in the jaw, and his eyes went blank. His big right hand whizzed harmlessly over the head of a ducking Alvarez, providing the momentum for the spin that left Kirkland prone on the canvas.

Saul “Canelo” Alvarez went on to defeat Miguel Cotto in his second fight of 2015 and he is clearly one of boxing’s biggest stars heading into 2016. On May 9th Alvarez added another reel to his highlight film when he knocked out James Kirkland with the 2015 “Knock Out of the Year”.

Photo by naoki fukuda

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