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Infamy and Redemption: The Strange Tale of Former British Boxing Champion Dick Burge

Arne K. Lang

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Dick Burge

Dick Burge, born in 1865 in south west England near the rough-and-tumble port city of Bristol, had 22 fights that would find their way into the record books. In these matches, he was 12-7-2 with one “no contest.” Several of these fights had a bad odor about them. Suspicious fights were endemic in his era where a boxer’s earnings were often hitched to the outcome of bets. The victorious boxer got a piece of his backer’s winnings and perhaps a gratuity from others that profited from his triumph; the loser got nothing unless he worked out some deal to insure he wouldn’t go home empty-handed.

A 12-7-2 record is hardly the template of an important prizefighter, but Dick Burge was very important. Three thousand people reportedly turned out for his funeral. The King and Queen sent a sympathy card to his widow, Bella.

Burge’s first sport was pedestrianism (long-distance race walking). Prizefights in Burge’s days were sometimes contested for hours; no fighter advanced far without great stamina and long-distance running was a common gateway into the world of the prize ring. For a time he worked as a booth fighter for a traveling circus, taking on all comers although his opponent was more likely to be a confederate planted in the audience.

On the fair circuit Burge caught the attention of someone with deep pockets and he was soon pitted against boxers whose names resonated with the sporting crowd. In 1891, in his eighth documented fight, he was matched against Jem Carney in a 20-round contest billed for the world lightweight title. The bout, contested under Queensberry rules, was held on the trading floor of the Hop and Malt Exchange in the Southwark borough of London. The match ended in the 11th round when the referee awarded the fight to Burge on a foul.

The term “world title” was thrown around loosely in those days, but Burge had a legitimate claim to it in that Carney had previously fought the great Jack McAuliffe to a standstill. Contested under London Prize Ring rules (a round ended when a fighter was knocked down or went to the turf of his own accord to catch a breather), the Carney-McAuliffe fight at Revere Beach, Massachusetts, went on for several hours before McAuliffe’s partisans charged the ring to break up the fight, ostensibly to save their bets.

A British Empire title actually carried more cachet in Great Britain as this badge of honor had a less muddled lineage. Burge claimed this diadem in 1894 with a hard-fought win over “Cast Iron” Harry Nickless (Burge knocked him out in the twenty-eighth round) and defended it eight months later with a third round stoppage of Australia’s Tom Williams at the National Sporting Club. These matches were contested at 140 pounds. The lightweight ceiling wasn’t yet firmly fixed.

For a British boxer, nothing matched the prestige of appearing in the featured bout at the National Sporting Club. Located in the fashionable Covent Garden district of London, the exclusive men’s club, founded in 1891, hosted a string of internationally important prizefights. They were held in the basement theater where patrons in evening clothes were discouraged from shouting. It was here that Dick Burge had his most highly anticipated match, opposing George Lavigne, the Saginaw Kid. Contested on June 1, 1896, at 138 pounds, this was a true world lightweight title fight as it was acknowledged as such on both sides of the Atlantic.

Lavigne, who stood only five-foot-three-and-a half, four inches shorter than Burge, was teak tough. He swarmed all over Burge from the opening bell and eventually wore him down. The referee halted the fray in the seventeenth round. But Burge, who spent the better part of the day in a sauna to make weight, fought gallantly. A reporter for London’s Pall Mall Gazette wrote that it was the best fight ever staged there. The SRO crowd included a smattering of big gamblers from New York including the city’s political kingmaker Richard Croker, the Grand Sachem of Tammany Hall.

Burge fought sporadically over the next four-and-a-half years, winning some and losing some. His last bout came on Jan. 28, 1901, against Jerry Driscoll, a middleweight of some repute. It was a no-holds-barred embroilment although it wasn’t intended that way. The referee, unable to get the fighters to heed his commands, left the premises after the second round and the fight wasn’t resumed, much to the disgust of the crowd.

This was a sad way to end a career studded with many exhilarating moments, but the worst was yet to come for Dick Burge. Before the year was out, he was entangled in the sordid Goudie Affair, a sensational scandal that attracted international press coverage.

Thomas Goudie worked as a bookkeeper for the Bank of Liverpool. A bachelor, he rented a flat in a boardinghouse and had very few friends. In his mid-twenties, he acquired an interest in horseracing.

In the spring of 1901, traveling by train to a race meet, he was drawn into a friendly game of cards by two racetrack touts who talked big, boasting of big scores born of inside information. Goudie was more than a little intrigued and was induced to wire them money which they would place for him whenever he was notified that they had a sure thing. Word got around that the sharpies had found a live one and eventually others of the same ilk were able to horn in on the action.

You can guess where this is headed. Those sure things routinely finished out of the money and to recoup his losses Goudie began forging checks. He kept the ledger for the bank’s biggest depositor, a soap manufacturer, and from this man’s account he embezzled almost $170,000. The leakage made it the largest recorded embezzlement in the annals of British banking.

Where did Burge fit in? After Goudie’s arrest, Burge was one of five people indicted for fostering the scam. His exact role was complicated. Like the others, he was hit with an array of charges, some of which stuck and some of which didn’t. It is a fact that some of the missing money found its way into Burge’s bank account.

Two of the alleged conspirators disappeared before they could be brought to trial. Burge and Goudie received the harshest sentences. Each was sentenced to ten years of penal servitude. Burge was released after seven years. Thomas Goudie, the mild-mannered bank clerk, died in prison at age thirty-four. His death was attributed to a heart ailment, but the root cause was said to be a broken spirit.

After his release from prison, Burge acquired the abandoned Surrey Chapel, fixed it up, re-named it The Ring, and turned it into London’s busiest boxing arena. The odd, round-shaped building (supposedly built without four corners so that the devil wouldn’t have a corner in which to hide), which dated to 1783, sat in what was then a tough district of the city, Blackfriars.

The fights attracted some unsavory characters — a man known as Jack Spot, a regular attendee, was the collector of last resort for loan sharks — but there were very few incidents. In a stroke of genius, Burge hired a local minister, Rev. Thomas Collins, as his timekeeper. His mere presence, said a reporter, inspired confidence in the integrity of the bouts and caused patrons to tone down their blue language. Burge also barred bookmakers from accepting wagers at ringside. In his fighting days Burge engaged in a number of suspicious fights, but he brooked none of that in his own establishment.

It seemed, however, that Burge could never erase the stain of the Goudie Affair. In the papers, he was repeatedly referenced as an ex-convict. Then came World War I and Burge rose to the occasion.

Between May 1915 and May 1918, London came under attack from German zeppelin and other kinds of German aircraft. The death toll was set at 557, roughly three times that number were injured, and more than 300,000 left their homes to seek shelter in an underground railway station. Burge pitched in by promoting benefit shows for the families of soldiers at the front lines, but he did more than that. Although he had reached the age of 50, he enlisted in the Surrey Regiment where he was assigned to the ambulance corps.

Working a long shift on a wet and chilly night with Red Cross medics, Burge caught pneumonia. He died shortly thereafter. The turnout at his funeral bore evidence that by his selfless deeds he had lifted the black cloud that had hovered over him. Lore has it that the head of Scotland Yard was among those that came to pay their respects.

By the way, after Dick Burge’s death in March of 1918, his widow Bella, a former music hall entertainer, kept The Ring going. Boxing continued there until 1939 when the building was closed for renovations. It would never re-open. Damaged in a German air raid in 1940, it was reduced to rubble the following year when it absorbed a direct hit from another German bomber.

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Pacman vs. Thurman: The Last of the Gen X Champions vs The Millennials

David A. Avila

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BEVERLY HILLS-Rain and grey skies filled the Southern California landscape on Wednesday as Manny Pacquiao and fellow warriors met the media.

Now 40 years old, Pacquiao entered the Beverly Hills Hotel with his usual entourage of family, fans and carry-on luggage of media followers. The eight division world champion has been running through this routine since arriving in 1999.

Will this be the last time?

Pacquiao remains the last of the Generation X fighters on a TGB Promotions boxing card that features millennial world champions and contenders. One of those millennial champions contends it will be the Filipino’s last.

“He’s got T-Rex arms. I’m not going to lose to someone with T-Rex arms,” said Keith Thurman the WBA welterweight world titlist. “All Manny does is hop around in the ring. I’m not going to lose to someone with T-Rex arms.”

Both Pacquiao (61-7-2, 39 KOs) and Thurman (29-0, 22 KOs) each have versions of the WBA welterweight belt and the winner of their fight emerges as the true belt holder.

Senator Pacquiao has an extensive history over the last decades of battles with some of the best prizefighters to ever lace up boxing gloves. When asked to name some of the most skilled of his former foes he quickly rattled off Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather, and Timothy Bradley.

All of those Generation X fighters are gone now via retirement. Two are currently boxing promoters and one a television analyst. Pacquiao remains the last of his generation competing at the highest level. He is a phenomenon.

As Thurman eloquently spouted the reasons why he will dominate when they meet in the ring at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas on July 20, the always reserved Pacquiao sat quietly amused with a subtle grin. He’s heard all of these taunts and degradations before.

“I’m thankful for what he’s been saying, because it’s giving me motivation to prove that at 40-years-old, I feel 29,” said Pacquiao. “I’ve heard that many times before and I beat them all.”

Thurman corrected Pacman.

“Last time I looked he had seven losses,” said Thurman. “He had a hard time fighting Jeff Horn.”

There’s no Millennial respect for the last of the Generation Xers.

More Millennials

IBF super middleweight titlist Caleb “Sweet Hands” Plant (18-0, 10 KOs) makes his first world title defense against Chicago’s Mike Lee (21-0, 11 KOs) in a battle between undefeated millennials on the same MGM card.

These millennials have no respect for anyone including each other.

“Mike Lee is in uncharted territory. I’m curious on how he plans on beating me. Does he plan on roughing me up and trying to knock me out like my last opponent? Can he do that better than Jose Uzcategui?,” said Plant of his next foe.

Lee doesn’t understand the disrespect.

“I respect Caleb Plant. He’s the champion for a reason and I respect any fighter who can step into that ring. You have to be a different kind of animal to do that in front of all those people, and I am that animal,” said Lee. “I came into this event very respectful. He (Plant) had to come out with another line of disrespect. I don’t understand it. So be it.”

Plant captured the title with a riveting performance against Jose Uzcategui that saw him floor the Venezuelan twice before holding off a late rally against the hard-hitting former champion. It showcased Plant’s speed, skill and grit.

“Nobody from 160 to 175 can beat me,” said Plant, hinting that perhaps he plans a quick move into the light heavyweight division soon.

Lee, a former walk-on Notre Dame football player, has been slowly moving up the prizefighting ladder with pure determination and grit since his pro debut nine years ago.

“I’ve chased this since I was eight-years-old and I’m thankful for this chance to go after a dream that others thought I couldn’t reach,” said Lee. “The beauty of this sport is that it’s only going to be me and Caleb in there.”

Gen X

In the heat of July, the millennials will have their say. And what about the last of the Generation X generation?

“This is a big fight as far as the stage goes, but it’s a big fight against a little guy. He’s a veteran and I’ve dismantled veterans in the past. I believe I would have destroyed Manny Pacquiao five years ago,” said Thurman, 30. “I’ve always been ready for this fight. He’s never fought someone like me with this kind of lateral movement, speed and power. I’m coming for him.”

Pacman, the last of a retiring breed, smiles at the words.

“My experience will be very important for this fight. It’s going to be useful against an undefeated fighter. I’m going to give him the experience of losing for the first time,” said Pacquiao. “I am excited for this fight.”

Will the last of the Gen X champions continue on his journey? Or will the Millennials close that chapter for good?

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Lou Savarese: Houston’s Humble Heavyweight Champ

Kelsey McCarson

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Savarese

Lou Savarese could hardly contain himself.

There he was, just four years after his last professional boxing match, a Bronx-born, boxing behemoth bursting into the room to tell his family about finally getting a speaking part as an actor on HBO’s hit TV series “The Sopranos”.

“Ma! Ma! I got a speaking part!” Savarese roared.

“That’s great,” muttered Ma as she went on with her business and his brother strolled by just in time to add a joke.

“Yeah, but are there going to be subtitles?”

Thus cued the laugh track for this scene, one that seems straight out of a Savarese family inspired sitcom. There was love. There were laughs. There were fights. They all had accents.

All these years later, the 53-year-old ex-boxer credits his success, both inside the ring and out, largely due to his family of origin.

“I was so lucky,” said Savarese. “Boxing is a very unstable sport, so it was good to have that kind of stability when I went home. They would keep me humble.”

Savarese’s humble attitude helped him parlay his excellent boxing career, one that stretched 18 years and included bouts against heavyweight greats Mike Tyson, George Foreman and Evander Holyfield, into becoming one of Houston’s most successful and popular local boxing figures.

Local in the sense that Savarese has become synonymous with the phrase “Houston’s heavyweight champion” as he is so often labeled by local newspaper and magazine writers tasked with covering his various business exploits. This has happened repeatedly over the years despite Savarese not actually being from Houston (he’s from White Plains, New York) and never technically becoming the heavyweight champion of the world unless one counts the fringe title he won when he knocked out Buster Douglas in the opening round.

Still, Savarese did fight a who’s who of heavyweight greats, and his performances in at least some of the fights lend themselves to the idea that Savarese-the-almost-champ might have become a legitimate heavyweight titleholder in just about any other era had he gotten the chance.

Savarese was a heavyweight contender during one of the division’s best eras. Typically, the 1990s, led by Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Mike Tyson and Riddick Bowe, are considered by historians to be deeper and better than most other eras except for probably the 1970s when Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and a young George Foreman plied their trades.

Savarese, who considers himself a boxing historian, said there was no doubt in his mind which of the two eras was best.

“I think the 1970s was definitely the best because even the [secondary level] heavyweights back then were really good,” said Savarese. “You had guys like George Chuvalo, Oscar Bonavena and Bob Foster around. There were so many great guys back then.”

Still, Savarese, the historian, knew the era he fought in was also considered elite.

“Our era–we had some really good guys in it, too.”

It was interesting to get the boxer’s input on all the great heavyweights Savarese faced during his career, especially when it came to the question about which one he thought was the best overall.

“Believe it or not, probably Riddick Bowe,” said Savarese. “I fought him in the amateurs. He should have been the greatest heavyweight ever. He was amazing. He had everything. He had such heavy hands. He could punch. He could fight inside. He could fight outside. Not many guys could do all that. In the history of big guys, he was probably the best inside fighter. He had the whole package. He should have been the greatest fighter ever.”

Savarese said he admired Holyfield greatly, the first undisputed cruiserweight champion who went on to do the same at heavyweight.

“Holyfield, to me, was the guy who did the most with his ability,” said Savarese. “He just had so much heart. I probably hit him harder than I ever hit anybody and he didn’t go down. And he came back and knocked me down. That kinda sucked. He was just too strong and had a lot of heart.”

And while Tyson scored a first-round knockout over Savarese during their encounter in 2000, Savarese admitted after some prodding that he didn’t really agree with the quick stoppage.

“I didn’t get it. I mean everything happens for a reason and hindsight is 20/20. I had been hurt way worse than that. I had been down and come back before. Lance Whitaker hit me with like 18 unanswered punches and I came back to win that fight.”

Admittedly, having never seen the fight before I was to meet Savarese later that day, I was also surprised to see it had been halted so quickly. Boxing is a funny sport. What appears a blowout loss on BoxRec can sometimes look so different when you actually watch the action.

“I would have liked to keep fighting,” said Savarese. “I think the referee kind of got overwhelmed because Tyson clipped him. In our corner, we thought they had stopped the fight because of that. We thought they had disqualified him. We had no idea they were stopping the fight. I got up pretty quickly. He’s a great finisher, though, so who knows? Maybe he would have stopped me, but I would have liked the chance to keep going.”

Savarese really does seem like a champion in the truest sense of the word. In fact, Savarese is exactly the person people probably picture in their heads when they imagine meeting a heavyweight boxing champion. He’s humble. He’s honest. He’s kind. He’s 6-foot-5 and looks like he can punch a hole through a brick wall.

He’s basically Rocky Balboa.

Besides, Savarese boxed well enough against Foreman in 1997 to have one of the judges total a scorecard in his favor in the split-decision loss. That fight was for Foreman’s lineal heavyweight championship, the same title Foreman had won three fights prior by knocking out Michael Moorer in the tenth round.

Had things gone just a little differently for Savarese that night, perhaps he would have had his hand raised as the heavyweight champion of the world.

“It was a close fight,” said Savarese. “I mean, I might be biased because it’s me.”

But perhaps most impressively of all, Savarese is genuine in the way that only ex-boxers seem to pull off with any sort of regularity. It’s a funny thing that boxing, a sport deemed crude and crass by some, can at the same time produce such delightful human beings.

All things considered, Savarese enjoyed a tremendous career. Since the very first day he started boxing, Savarese has known what he wanted to do with his life. More importantly, he made the decision to go out and do it.

“I love it,” said Savarese. “I always wondered why I liked it so much, and it sounds crazy, but it’s just the simplicity of it. I love training. Even when I lost, I could always just come back and train harder.”

That, of course, technically ended when Savarese retired following his 2007 unanimous decision loss to Holyfield. But Savarese’s shirts still hang off of him like he just finished doing a thousand pushups, and he’s still heavily involved in the sport in multiple ways.

Savarese is the most successful local boxing promoter of the last decade and part owner of both the Main Street Boxing & Muay Thai gym in downtown Houston as well as a new gym, Savarese Fight Fit West U, on Bellaire Blvd.

While boxing fans know Main Street as one of Houston’s oldest and most successful local fight gyms, Savarese’s new endeavor, which opened about eight months ago, caters to a different sort of crowd.

Here people from all walks of life, including oil and gas executives, attorneys, rabbis and even moms in yoga pants, take a giant leap into the world of boxing together, and for many of them, it’s their very first exposure to the sport. Where some of these kinds of people do exist in more traditional gyms like Main Street, Savarese Fight Fit West U practically screams for them to come and check things out.

It’s posh, clean and branded to sell to a certain kind of crowd.

Even the heavy bags are upgraded from traditional fare. Equipped with electronic sensors that measure how many times someone hits the bag and with what force, it’s the kind of gym just about any person could walk into and want to try things out.

“Everyone gets really competitive about it. It also helps with accountability. Because sometimes when people train, they get to talking to each other and lose track of what they’re doing.”

That Savarese would be part of such a successful looking new venture shouldn’t really be all that surprising. After all, beyond Savarese’s ring exploits and even after his various stints on TV and in movies, he just seems to be a special person who knows this life is for him and so goes about doing his best to live it.

Savarese is the person maybe every professional fighter should someday grow up to be. While his brother might have been mostly wrong about people needing subtitles to understand him when he speaks, there remains something homey and comfortable about Savarese that invites people to be warm-hearted and jovial toward him. Perhaps that alone is what has brought Savarese such good fortune, or maybe, like he said, it really can be traced back his family.

“I just enjoy life and try to do my own thing,” said Savarese. “I’ve been really lucky.”

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Jim Gray, To His Discredit, is Too Often ‘The Story’

Ted Sares

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Jim Gray

Showtime’s widely-connected Jim Gray is the ultimate networker, insider, and friend to the stars (from Jack Nicholson to Kobe Bryant to LeBron James to Tom Brady and everyone in between—or almost everyone). He has won more awards than Carter has pills, a list that includes 12 National Emmy Awards, and he even has his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was named as one of the 50 Greatest Sports Broadcasters of All-Time by David Halberstam and last year he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

For an interesting read about Jim and his complex but important interconnections, see “The Zelig of Sports,” by Bryan Curtiss, dated June 24, 2016. https://www.theringer.com/2016/6/24/16043100/jim-gray-is-looking-for-his-next-exclusive-fc23ceb544e

However, as noted by “Sports Media Watch” writer and editor Paulsen (no first name) and others, Gray has become The Story on too many occasions and that’s a no-no in his line of work.

In boxing, Gray’s condescending and confrontational style was on display as far back as 2001 when he interviewed Kostya Tszyu in the ring following Tszyu’s defeat of Oktay Urkal at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut. As Gray was beginning his routine, the “Thunder From Down Under” grabbed the mic and quickly told Gray “Do not be rude to me.”

Many years later, after Juan Manuel Lopez had just been knocked silly by Orlando “Siri” Salido, a bizarre post-fight interview ensued during which Lopez accused referee Roberto Ramirez and his son Roberto Ramirez Jr (who was the third man for the first Salido-Lopez fight) of having gambling problems.

Lopez was arguably still on Queer Street, but that didn’t stop Gray. Eager to catch someone off guard, as is his wont, Gray managed to get “Juanma” to say more than enough to get himself suspended while Gray went on to induction into the IBHOF

There have been many other incidents including James Toney dominating Gray in an interview after the Holyfield-Toney fight. Jim never had a chance. “Don’t come up here and try to give me no badass questions,” James warned Gray before knocking the mic out of Gray’s hands..

The fact is Gray had built up a litany of edgy if not downright embarrassing moments. His most infamous came in 1999 during game two of the World Series.

During the game, Pete Rose, barred from baseball but still a fan favorite, was introduced as a member of the Major League All-Century Team as the crowd went wild. Then the ever-opportunistic Gray launched a series of questions regarding allegations that Rose’s had gambled on major league baseball games.

Gray was unrelenting. Finally, Pete cut it off, saying, “This is a prosecutor’s brief, not an interview, and I’m very surprised at you. I am, really.” Later on, New York Yankee outfielder Chad Curtis, who won Game 3 with a walk off homer, refused Gray’s request for an interview as a show of unity with Rose. (Jim Gray’s complete interview with Pete Rose can be found in Gray’s Wikipedia entry. Gray was somewhat vindicated in 2004 when Rose came clean and admitted that he had bet on baseball.)

Fast Forward

After the scintillating Wilder-Breazeale fight this past week in Brooklyn’s Barclay Center, Luis Ortiz bounded into the ring during the post-fight interviews and Gray shoved the mic in his face without so much as a hello and shouted “when do you want to fight Wilder?” Ortiz wanted to focus on what had just occurred in the ring, but he never had a chance. Gray continued to badger him about future fights and thus the fans did not get to hear what Ortiz had to say about the fight.

But what was far worse was when Dominic Breazeale waved Gray away as the commentator walked towards the badly beaten fighter. Gray was stopped by a member of Breazeale’s camp and he quickly got the message that he was persona non grata in the Breazeale corner. Previously, and within Dominic’s earshot, Gray had said to Wilder “the public does not want to see you fight people like Breazeale, the public does not want to see Joshua fight Ruiz, the public does not want to see whoever this guy is fighting Tyson Fury.”

There may be truth in what Jim said, but there was a better way to say it and a better place to say it. The man just got knocked senseless in front of his family and friends, Jim, show him some respect!

Photo credit: Tom Casino / SHOWTIME

Ted Sares is a member of Ring 8, a lifetime member of Ring 10, and a member of Ring 4 and its Boxing Hall of Fame. He also is an Auxiliary Member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA). He is an active power lifter and Strongman competitor in the Grand Master class and is competing in 2019.

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