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“JUST WATCH MAH SMOKE” Part 4: “Knock the Eight Ball Out!”

Springs Toledo

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Part 4: “Knock the Eight Ball Out!” Baltimore’s Boxing Legacy, 1893-2003 by Thomas Scharf “JUST WATCH MAH SMOKE,”
Part 4: “Knock the Eight Ball Out!”

Just a few weeks after the bribery hearing, Cocoa Kid snatched a pair of New England championship titles from Frankie Britt.

“With marvelous control over a marvelous body,” reported the Boston Globe, Cocoa Kid opened the argument by “planting three sharp lefts to Britt’s probiscus.” Britt got physical and threw the challenger off balance but agility kicked in and the challenger landed damaging punches anyway. And he landed often. Usually hard to hit, Britt “was seeing the world through rose-colored gloves.”

In 1939, Cocoa Kid was nearing his peak and yet lost the rematch to Britt. It took place in Britt’s hometown of Fall River, Massachusetts. Not even the local paper agreed with the decision. Cocoa Kid’s manager was appalled -“I don’t think it’s fair to any fighter to be the victim of such a decision,” he said. They met for the third time six months later and Britt didn’t see round eight. 

Andrea Jessurun, a South American Dutchman turned New Yorker, faced Cocoa Kid four times. Jessurun won a decision in a main event that prompted one reporter to assert that Cocoa Kid fought “as if he didn’t care whether or not school kept.” The reporter had heard that Cocoa Kid’s training was delayed because of marital difficulties and there was talk that he may have attempted to postpone the bout. After losing a close one in Holyoke, he knocked the Dutchman out in Baltimore and then took a decision in Washington. The Baltimore bout was a brutal one. Jessurun’s nose and mouth were crimson smears when he came out for the eleventh round. A left hook and right cross crashed on his jaw and when he fell to the canvas he bounced. No count was necessary. As his seconds ran out and carried Jessurun back to his corner, Cocoa Kid walked across the ring grimacing with pain and rubbing his right glove with his left. The force of the knockout blow jammed two small bones in his hand out of joint.

The only time Johnny Lucas beat him was after the referee deducted two points for low blows. In their first bout, Lucas survived the ten rounds (or was allowed to survive the ten rounds), and revealed nothing, said the Holyoke Daily Transcript and Telegram, “save a pair of new shoes with pretty white laces.”

Cocoa Kid’s trainer once said that he fought “to the caliber of his opponent.” In other words, “he looks like a world-beater against top notch foes and like a second-rater when in there against mediocre mittmen.” There could be more to it than that. Hot and cold performances against the same opponent in different fights are curious, particularly if the fighter is a widely-heralded talent and his opponent is white. Britt, Jessurun, and Lucas were white. Temperament may explain the variation, but then, so wouldn’t handcuffs. 

Andy Callahan gave us a good snapshot of Cocoa Kid’s capability when sharp and uncuffed. Callahan trained in Boston and sparred with Honey Melody and former world welterweight champion Lou Brouillard. “I never had any trouble fighting tall fellows like Cocoa Kid,” he told reporters in Holyoke, “and after taking the right hand smashes of Brouillard all week, I guess I can stand anything the Cocoa Kid has to offer.” In the second round, chief second Brouillard watched Callahan’s right eye swell up to grapefruit proportions. The man who did it may have recalled hearing the hype that said Callahan had been routinely beating black fighters. Cocoa Kid popped that grapefruit in the tenth round. Callahan was blinded by his own blood and rescued by the referee.

The popular southpaw Jack Portney was defeated in Connecticut, and then pushed for a rematch at home in Baltimore. Both Portney and Cocoa Kid were ranked in the top ten for the November 1936 rematch and the event was portrayed as a true-blue battle between near-equals. Portney, up against a jab “that travels with the speed of light” wisely tried to make a brawl of it. Cocoa Kid obliged him by refusing to concede space and landing more punches overall. Portney’s nose was split and so wasn’t the decision. This time, Cocoa Kid was on the winning end despite his complexion; perhaps the sobering presence of the mayor at ringside was enough to leave this one on the up-and-up.   

Cocoa Kid-Jack Portney III was an event that serves as a reminder of why many boxing matches were also profiles in courage. Ollie Stewart of The Afro-American saw the mixed-race event as only a black reporter could. “It’s both amusing and ironic,” he wrote, “Baltimore pays heavily to satisfy a longing to see Cocoa plastered to a fare-thee-well. They let him fight here as a Puerto Rican –but the cash customers call him another name when he’s in the ring. Most of the names are well known fighting words.”

Stewart quoted what they said. With his help, we can move closer to the action. We can move even closer than Stewart, closer than ringside, and experience this event from the vantage point of Cocoa Kid himself. 

The official result of the match is ‘Cocoa Kid W TKO12 Jack Portney March 1st 1937.’

Now look again.

You’re a bilingual black man in a desegregated boxing ring of the segregated south. Jim Crow made sure you arrived here in a separate railroad car. Only an hour ago you came in through the back entrance of Carlin’s Arena while Jack Portney came in through the front like a star. You changed your clothes in a separate dressing room and that water fountain you walked by had a sign on it that said “WHITE” -that meant you couldn’t bend down to take a sip. They don’t want you drinking their water. They don’t want you near them. If you fall in battle tonight and get buried here, they’ll stick you in a separate graveyard across the freeway from theirs.

You peer out over the top rope and scan the crowd for a black face. You won’t find any because they’re up on the balcony. The faces in the front rows looking up at you aren’t friendly –they simmer with the hostility and glee of racial supremacy, a supremacy they hope to see proven tonight. You’ve seen those faces before, but never so many. You’re surrounded by a rolling, broiling leviathan that laughs and curses with five thousand faces; that was what the promoter said –five thousand with cash-in-hand, Baltimore’s largest gate in years!

And they’re all here to see you lose.

You stand under the lights feeling uncomfortable in your own skin. Don’t think about it, just limber up and get the juices flowing -that’ll help the shivers.

There’s the bell.

Someone yells “knock the eight ball out!”

Portney charges forward to get inside your long arms. You let him. He punches like a man accustomed to working over heavy bags. You instinctively block most of them, and then come around with hooks to his flanks, though they’re not hard yet. You can’t get much leverage because nerves are messing with your legs. Suddenly, your foot slips and you sit down in the ring with a thump. The crowd screams with delight; some of them are hollering “black nigger!” as you get to your feet.

Take a deep breath and tuck your chin in, because here he comes.

He comes in stupid –his right elbow is out like a chicken wing. You see the opening and throw a left hook that bends his ribs. He groans. You feel better.

Settling down now, finding your rhythm, you notice something -Portney is sucking wind already, working too hard, wild. The crowd has gone to his head. He thinks he’s Jim Jeffries battling for the white man’s dignity. Let him, he’s bound to buckle under all that heady nonsense. You fight for yourself.

Round three ends and the crowd is on its feet cheering because your nose is bleeding. Portney is ahead on points and your nose is bleeding.

Someone yells “sissy!” Another one calls you something worse.

Your corner tells you to step back, adjust the range, and let loose that lightning jab. It’s time to dash all that hope and nonsense.

The next four rounds are yours –and you did it with one hand. Portney is no slouch, he takes the eighth. You decide that’s all he’s gonna take and turn up the heat. He’s beginning to wilt. In the tenth round, you steal a look into his eyes and they’re wide. His confidence is peeling away and he’s desperate. Then he looks into yours. A glove whistles around and you don’t see it in time to get under it. Pain shoots through your right eye to the back of your head. The swelling starts and you curse your luck.

Revenge comes midway through the twelfth round. You measure the hometown hero for a straight right and a bolt shoots up your forearm at impact. It splits the thin flesh over his eye and he’s bleeding down face and chest. The crowd turns menacingly quiet as the round ends and the referee bounds over to Portney’s corner to examine the wound. Portney, brave and game, tries to wave him off. The referee calls in the ringside physician who takes one look and stops the fight.

You feel relief first –and it’s a good feeling. The robe your corner man just draped around your shoulders feels like a warm blanket on a cold night. Your chest fills with exhilaration, but you don’t want to celebrate too much in that blood-drenched ring. It’s hard to celebrate alone, and that’s a white man’s blood you spilled.

 

…..

Check back soon for part 5 of 8.

The photograph opening this article is from Baltimore’s Boxing Legacy, 1893-2003 by Thomas Scharf -a highly recommended book. 

The Boston Globe 5/28/35, Connecticut’s Wallingford Edition 4/26/35, Fall River Herald and News 1/26/39, 1/27/39, the Holyoke Daily Transcript and Telegram 5/1/34, 9/9/35, 9/10/35, 11/25/36, 11/26/35, 6/1/36, 6/2/36, Baltimore’s The Sun 8/8/36, 11/7/36, 11/9/36, 11/10/36, 3/1/37, 4/6/37, and The Afro American, 4/10/37 were used as sources for this essay. The second person narrative depicting Cocoa Kid-Jack Portney III is fact-based. It was derived from accounts in Baltimore newspapers The Sun 3/2/37 and The Afro American 3/6/37.

Springs Toledo can be contacted at scalinatella@hotmail.com.

 

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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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