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The Beast of Stillman’s Gym, Part 2

Springs Toledo

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The Beast of Stillman’s Gym

PART 2: THE NATURAL

“The joint always smells wrong,” A.J. Liebling said about Stillman’s Gym. Even so, he could look at the soot covering its brick façade and see ivy –-“The University of Eighth Avenue,” he called it. Joe Rein calls it “The Center of the Boxing Universe” but something stayed in his nose too. He remembers the windows, “opaque with thirty years of grime” and sealed shut. Gene Tunney once demanded that someone pry them open, figuring the fresh air would do some good. “Fresh air?” said one of the regulars, “Why that stuff is likely to kill us!”

All the greats from boxing’s golden era trained at Stillman’s and thirty-five cents was all it took to rub shoulders with them all. Sometimes a king with an upcoming title defense would make an entrance and the price of admission would be raised. It was worth it. The artistry that unfolded in the exhibition rings was enough to make everyone forget the stench.

When Bernie Bernstein laced the gloves on a garage attendant he picked up on King’s Highway, no one gave him a second look. When he shoved him into one of the rings with a serious professional middleweight, you bet they did.

Urban crowds have found spectacles like this amusing since martyrs were shoved into Roman rings with serious lions. ‘Damnation ad bestia’ they used to call it and it’s never pretty. Here’s how it works: a bumpkin novice walks into a boxing gym. Eagle-eyed managers size him up to see if he’s an easy mark, a confidence-builder for his fighter. One of them approaches the novice with interest. The novice has faint misgivings but is too polite to turn back once his ears are filled up with fast-talk and the headgear is strapped on. Fifteen minutes later, a traumatized bumpkin leaves the gym. If he looks back it’s only because his head is spinning.

Bernstein’s bumpkin turned out to be something else altogether.

Calvin Coolidge Lytle, who had “boxed a little” in the navy “and wanted to get back into it,” beat the living hell out of a good middleweight right there in Stillman’s, right there in front of a snickering crowd. After that eye-opener, Bernstein would speak to savvy Sammy Aaronson and turn him professional. Tiny Patterson was selected as his manager of record, though she had a trainer’s license in only a few states. Bernstein would fill in everywhere else.

That was in the flag-waving spring of 1944. The truth of Calvin’s military service record could only hurt him, so the Aaronson office got right to work revising it. His bad conduct discharge became a medical discharge. All those captain’s masts, confinements in the brig, and the court martial were exchanged for a new narrative: Calvin was recast as a patriotic example who saw so much action in the European and Caribbean theatres that he was called “Lucky” for cheating death.

Calvin was indeed lucky. He was lucky enough to be close to the action in New York City and luckier still to have the backing of the Aaronson office, which had the largest stable of fighters in the world at the time. They took him over to Newark where he made his pro debut at the Meadowbrook Bowl.

He did not fight under his real name. Twelve years earlier, another fighter who eventually signed with the Aaronson office was fighting under the moniker “Cocoa Kid” in honor of the then-streaking Kid Chocolate. His right name was Herbert Lewis Hardwick and he was in New Haven at the same time that the famous Cuban was making headlines 75 miles away in Manhattan. News reports of the time parroted a claim concocted by managers that Cocoa Kid was also from Cuba, though he was born in Puerto Rico. By the summer of 1944, he had moved to Brooklyn after an honorable discharge from the Navy. He trained at Stillman’s and took Calvin under his wing. It is an aging Cocoa Kid’s fingerprints that can be seen all over that pro debut on July 17th 1944: Twenty-year-old Calvin was introduced to the fight mob as “Chocolate Kid of Cuba.”

The opponent was Artie Towne.

Towne was 9-0 and a stable mate of none other than Sugar Ray Robinson. He was already a highly skilled boxer-puncher who would later become what was called a “policeman” for Robinson. When solicited by certain opponents, Robinson’s management would reroute them to Towne before any contracts were signed. Towne was counted on to clear the field of low-yield threats and thereby allow Robinson to pursue more lucrative bouts. It worked well enough for Robinson, though not for Towne, who was strictly a preliminary fighter for most of his career. “Robinson was too big then,” he recalled, “They didn’t have any time for me.”

Not three years into his professional career he was already using aliases to get fights. Managers were getting cold sweats –-most managers, that is. Sammy Aaronson and company were braver than most. Sending their fresh-faced prospect into the ring against Towne strongly suggests that Calvin had done more than beat up a contender or two at Stillman’s Gym; he was doing it regularly enough to make two suits and a skirt giddy with confidence–-

Aaronson, Bernstein, and Ms. Patterson were convinced that what they had was a natural fighter.

They miscalculated. Natural talent is usually not enough to deal with experience, and the Towne-Chocolate Kid match seemed to confirm that axiom. Towne was given the decision over six rounds.

A week later, Calvin faced a fellow southpaw with 44 fights and only 9 losses. Joe Curcio was not only far more experienced than the 0-1 prospect; he was good enough to stop Towne later that year. “The Chocolate Kid,” read the Newark Evening News, “bashed” him.

One week after defeating Curcio, Calvin was in the ring against Lew Perez, “the fighting clown of Puerto Rico.” Perez constituted the first “opponent” that Calvin faced. In boxing parlance, an opponent is good enough to test a new prospect but not good enough to beat him; he lies somewhere between a journeyman and a bum on the respectability scale. Perez’s prowess was not enough to earn a following (he would end his career with almost twice as many losses as wins) so he became an entertainer. The Evening News reported that he “supplied the fans with plenty of laughs in his match with Chocolate Kid of Cuba, but when he ran out of gas in the fourth round he also ran out of laughs, and was counted out.”

Calvin began his career facing three distinctive styles in a boxer-puncher, a southpaw, and an unorthodox fighter. He was on a greased track in a new city with big-time managers, fleeing his past with a narrative that would change yet again. The moniker “Chocolate Kid” was never used after the Perez fight; perhaps because with both the memory of Kid Chocolate and the skills of Cocoa Kid receding, the moniker’s marketability receded with them. All that remained of his past was a name given him by an auto mechanic almost three years dead in honor of a president dead longer than that. ‘Calvin Coolidge Lytle’ was an old tag on a new suit.

Five days after the Perez fight, he was announced as someone else from somewhere else at Mechanic’s Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts. Although Bernstein is credited with coming up with his latest ring moniker, odds are good that it was showgirl Tiny Patterson who recalled the silent screen star with a similar surname. And just like that Lytle (pronounced L?t?l) became Lytell (pronounced L?’-t?l?). The Worcester Evening Gazette introduced him as “Bert Lytell,” a “highly touted newcomer” with a reputation made in California “where he rated among the best on the Coast.” Thus began the most durable of his evolving mythology; one so convincing that he himself believed it.

When a reporter for The Ring asked him where he was born, Calvin “smiled mysteriously” and said he was born in Fresno, California on May 24th 1924. He said he was a graduate of San Petersburg High School and an all-star athlete, a half-back and quarter-back on the football team and a center fielder with a batting average of between 360 and 375 on the baseball team. The Boston Evening News was told he was from Fresno, while the Providence Journal heard he was from Oakland. A few years later the San Francisco Chronicle was told that he was born in Oakland and went to Oakland High School. The Times-Picayune couldn’t stay consistent with itself –-they had him from Fresno one day and Oakland the next.

The truth is he was born four months earlier than claimed, attended a “colored” school in Texas called F.W. Gross High School and never made it past ninth grade.

In the summer of 1944 the press was trumpeting his “26-0 record with 23 knockouts” though he only had a handful of professional bouts at that point. Even the date of his pro debut was pushed back from July to March –-9th to be exact, which was actually the date of his bad conduct discharge. But padding the record wasn’t the problem. The problem was that no one could keep the cock-and-bull straight. Reporters got suspicious. Speed Reilly of The Referee and the Redhead spoke to gym rats in the Oakland area during what he called “Operations Whosis” and only ended up more confused. Arthur Susskind, Jr. relayed his suspicions about this “mystery man” after discovering that the California Boxing Commission had no record that the fighter ever applied for a license.

His style of fighting proved to be as flexible as his back story, and twice as confusing.

By his fifth bout he was drawing comparisons with Harry Greb, a frenzied middleweight from the 20s who fought all-comers in almost 300 recorded bouts. By early 1945, Bert was approaching Greb’s frantic schedule, fighting an average of once a week through March. Swarmers cannot be expected to maintain such a schedule without coasting at times but Bert did better than that; he changed styles whenever the spirit moved him. In one fight report he would be described as a fighter of the “‘bore in’, perpetual motion variety” while in the next he conjured up Cocoa Kid by appearing to be “an exceedingly slick ringman” who could dominate a fight behind a constant jab and movement. Johnny Finazzo, whose decision win was avenged within four months, had the best view to describe his style. “Lytell,” he said, “is a fast, clever fellow and keeps coming at you every second.”

Hard men were wilting under a relentless attack that was as flexible as his narrative, but something else was becoming plain, disturbingly plain –-an inflexible jaw. Punches bounced off Bert like tennis balls off a bus.

Tiny Patterson was cheering herself hoarse as the “sharpshooting southpaw” dominated Joe Reddick in Providence, Rhode Island despite being outweighed by 11½ pounds. It was April 20th 1945 and a win here would clinch a date in Boston on the 27th with the top-ranked middleweight on the planet. According to the Providence Journal, Bert landed “so many left hands off Reddick’s head –-jaw, chin, nose, ears, forehead–- that it was almost sickeningly repetitious.”

Reddick took the ninth round and no more, and that because Bert was distracted by a shadow on the wall.

It was the shadow of a man hunched over like a bull.  

____________________________

The “Raging Bull” Jake LaMotta, at his nastiest, faces the surging southpaw in PART 3 OF “THE BEAST OF STILLMAN’S GYM.”

Graphic: (from left to right) Bert Lytell, Speed Reilly, and Sammy Aaronson. Courtesy of Harry Otty.

Two eyewitness accounts of Stillman’s Gym, A.J. Liebling’s “The University of Eighth Avenue” and Joe Rein’s “The Center of the Boxing Universe” came in handy here. Tunney and Dundee’s vignette found in Ronald K. Fried’s Corner Men: Great Boxing Trainers, p. 37. The Fresno-Oakland issue illustrated in The Times-Picayune 8/31/, 9/1/45. Dick Friendlich’s “Boxing Briefs” in San Francisco Chronicle undated. The Berkshire Evening Eagle 9/11/47. “Ray Robinson’s Policeman To Make First Main Fight,” by Jack Hand 10/14/55. New Jersey Star Ledger 7/17/44. Newark Evening News 7/31/44 for the Curcio bout, Perez in 8/1/44. Claim of 26 fights in Worcester Evening Gazette 8/18/44; 40 fights claimed in Providence Journal 2/18/45. Patterson fight in Worcester Evening Gazette 8/5/44, compared to Greb in 9/1/44 edition, “bore-in variety” in 9/15/44. “Slick ringman” comment in Providence Journal 2/25/45. Finazzo comments in Boston Evening American 3/1/45. Reddick in Providence Journal 4/21/45.

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

 

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Berchelt TKOs Valenzuela in Mexico City

David A. Avila

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Mexico’s Miguel Berchelt hammered his way to a decisive knockout victory over fellow Mexican Eleazar Valenzuela in a non-title light fight on Saturday.

After nearly nine months off, WBC super featherweight titlist Berchelt (38-1, 34 KOs) unraveled a withering body attack including numerous low blows but Valenzuela remained upright in front of a sparse TV studio audience until he could take it no longer.

Berchelt used a seven-punch combination to knock the senses out of the very tough Valenzuela who hails from Sinaloa. The referee saw enough and stopped the fight with Valenzuela leaning against the ropes with a dazed look.

The champion from Cancun used a triple left hook in the first round to floor Valenzuela and it looked like the fight would not last more than two rounds. But Valenzuela, a sturdy veteran, bored into Berchelt to keep him off balance and was able to stop the momentum.

It did not last.

A vicious attack to the body sapped the energy from Valenzuela who has fought many elite fighters in the past, but none like Berchelt. He was able to batter the veteran round after round.

Valenzuela sought to reverse the momentum with some combinations of his own. Berchelt opened up with some combinations from the outside and cracked his foe with some skull-numbing blows that clearly affected Valenzuela’s senses. The referee wisely stopped the fight at 1:03 of the sixth round to give the win to Berchelt by knockout.

The victory opens the door to a potential clash with featherweight world titlist Oscar Valdez of Nogales, Mexico who has a fight of his own planned next month. Both champions are promoted by Top Rank.

Other Bouts       

Omar Aguilar (18-0, 17 KOs) bushwacked veteran Dante Jardon (32-7, 23 KOs) within a minute of the first round to win by technical knockout. A barrage of blows by Ensenada’s Aguilar opened up the fight and a four-punch combination forced the referee to stop the super lightweight fight with Mexico City’s Jardon against the ropes.

A battle between super bantamweights saw the taller Alan Picasso (14-1) out-hustle Florentino Perez (14-6-2) in an eight round clash between Mexican fighters. Mexico City’s Picasso fought effectively inside against the shorter Perez of Monterrey and was able to maintain a consistent pace. Neither fighter approved the use of a jab but Picasso was more effective inside with body shots and uppercuts and dominated the last half of the fight.  The six judges scored in favor of Picasso.

The WBC instituted the extra judges as a means of tabulating score cards efficiently. Three judges scored from the television studios and another three judges scored from the USA. It was the second time WBC judges officiated remotely and all six scorecards were official.

Photo credit: Zanfer Promotions

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Boxing Odds and Ends: Big Baby Miller, Roberto Duran and More

Arne K. Lang

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Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller just can’t keep his hands out of the cookie jar. It was announced today (Saturday, June 27) that the jumbo-sized heavyweight from Brooklyn tested positive for a banned substance, forcing him out of a July 9 fight at the MGM Grand “Bubble” against Jerry Forrest. The story was broken by Mike Coppinger of The Athletic who breaks more hard news stories than any other boxing writer.

Miller, needless to say is a repeat offender. He failed three different PED tests in a span of three days for three different banned substances leading into his planned June 2019 match at Madison Square Garden with WBA/IBF/WBO world heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua. That cost him the fight and a reported $5 million-plus payday. Andy Ruiz filled the void and scored an historic upset.

When the first test came back positive, Miller wailed that he was the victim of a faulty test. “My team and I stand for integrity, decency and honesty and will fight this with everything we have,” he said in a prepared statement. He later changed his tune. “I messed up,” he said.

In a story that appeared on these pages, Thomas Hauser noted that Big Baby had a history of PED use dating to 2014. In that year, he was slapped with a nine-month suspension by the California Athletic Commission following a kickboxing event in Los Angeles.

Counting this latest revelation, it’s five strikes for Big Baby. He’s taking quite a roasting right now on social media. Some of the harshest criticism is coming from his fellow boxers.

Assuming that Top Rank can’t find a replacement for Miller, this is another tough break for Jerry Forrest, a 32-year-old southpaw from Virginia with a 26-3 (20) record. Forrest was scheduled to fight hot prospect Filip Hrgovic on April 17 on a card at the MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, a show swept away by the coronavirus outbreak. Forrest has been matched very soft throughout his career, but he acquitted himself well in his lone previous TV appearance, losing a split decision to undefeated Jermaine Franklin on “Showtime: The New Generation.” The decision was controversial.

There’s talk now that Carlos Takam is angling to replace Big Baby. The French-Cameroonian, a former world title challenger who turns 40 in December, was billed out of Henderson, Nevada, in his last ring appearance that saw him winning a unanimous decision over fellow greybeard Fabio Maldonado in Huntington, NY.

—-

When it comes to Murphy’s Law (“anything that can go wrong, will”), there’s no sport quite like boxing. Just ask Bob Arum. The most mouth-watering matchup in his ESPN “summer series” fell out this week when Eleider Alvarez suffered a shoulder injury in training, forcing a postponement of his July 16 date with Joe Smith Jr. The match between Alvarez (25-1, 13 KOs) and Smith (25-3, 20 KOs) would have been a 12-rounder with the winner guaranteed a shot at the vacant WBO light heavyweight title, a diadem that Alvarez previously owned.

Joe Smith Jr, a Long Island construction worker once dismissed as nothing more than a club fighter, won legions of new fans in his last start, a one-sided (to everyone except one myopic judge) win over Jesse Hart in Atlantic City.

Cancelled matches have become a recurrent theme in ESPN’s semi-weekly boxing series. The very first card in the series lost what shaped up as its most competitive fight when Mikaela Mayer tested positive for COVID-19, scuttling her bout with Helen Joseph. In subsequent weeks, the manager of Mikkel Les Pierre tested positive for COVID-19 as did WBO junior lightweight champion Jamel Herring. Those bad test results forced the postponement of two main events. Then earlier this week, hot lightweight prospect Joseph Adorno was lopped off Tuesday’s card after feeling sick after coming in overweight at the previous day’s weigh-in.

The undercards of the Tuesday/Thursday ESPN fights have left something to be desired, but that’s understandable. As Bob Arum noted in a conversation with veteran boxing scribe Keith Idec, Top Rank’s matchmakers Bruce Trampler and Brad “Abdul” Goodman have had a hard time fleshing out the cards because with so many gyms closed there’s a shortage of boxers who are in shape to fight on short notice. Then there are the COVID-19 travel restrictions and (something Arum did not acknowledge) budgetary restrictions more severe than an ordinary Top Rank card. Most of the undercard fighters have come from neighboring states such as Utah, saving Top Rank the cost of air fare. Fighters from faraway places, with some exceptions, were already training in Las Vegas.

Kudos to the entire Top Rank staff for keeping boxing alive during these challenging times.

It’s old news now, but Panamanian boxing legend Roberto Duran, 69, tested positive for the coronavirus and was hospitalized in Panama City with a viral infection. There’s been no update on his condition but his son Robin Duran wrote on Instagram that his father is not having any symptoms beyond those associated with a common cold. We will update you when new details become available.

Duran’s hospitalization came just a few days after the 40th anniversary of his first fight with Sugar Ray Leonard in what would say was Duran’s finest hour. They met on June 20, 1980 at Olympic Stadium in Montreal.

Duran won a unanimous decision. Converting the “10-point must” system into rounds, Duran prevailed by scores of 3-2-10, 6-5-4, and 6-4-5. As Yogi would have said, you could look it up.

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Fast Results from the Bubble: Jason Moloney TKOs Baez

Arne K. Lang

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Top Rank was back inside the MGM Grand “Bubble” tonight for chapter six of their semi-weekly ESPN summer series. Jason Moloney, one-half of Australia’s Moloney twins, accomplished what his brother Andrew Moloney was unable to accomplish in this ring on Tuesday night, adding a “W” to his ledger and looking good doing it. It came at the expense of Mexicali’s Leonardo Baez.

It was Jason Moloney’s second start on U.S. soil after coming up just a tad short in a bid for the vacant IBF world bantamweight title at Orlando in October of 2018. Against Baez, he fought a smart tactical fight, blunting the Mexican’s superior reach by fighting him at close quarters. Baez fought from the third round on with a cut over his right eye and then suffered a cut over his left eye in the seventh round. By then the fight was becoming increasingly one-sided and Baez’s corner did not let him come out for round eight.

Jason Moloney improved to 21-1 with his 18th knockout. Leonardo Baez, who took the fight on short notice after Maloney’s original opponent Oscar Negrete was forced to withdraw with a detached retina, slumped to 18-3.

Co-Feature

In the 10-round co-feature, Abraham Nova advanced to 19-0 with a unanimous decision over Philadelphia’s Avery Sparrow but won no new fans with a lackadaisical performance. Nova, born in Puerto Rico to parents from the Dominican Republic and raised in Albany, NY, showed little but his jab through the first seven rounds until hurting Sparrow with a big right hand in the eighth. The judges had it 96-94, 97-93, and 99-91.

Sparrow (10-2), whose lone previous loss was by disqualification, was making his first start in 15 months. He was slated to fight Ryan Garcia in Los Angeles last Sept. 14 but never made it to the weigh-in after being arrested by U.S. marshals on a charge of threatening a woman with a gun after she threw his clothes out the window…

Other Bouts

In an 8-round featherweight contest, Puerto Rican southpaw Orlando Gonzalez advanced to 15-0 with a unanimous decision over Ecuador’s Luis Porozo (15-3). The scores were 76-74 and 77-73 twice.

Gonzalez wasn’t particularly impressive although he did score two knockdowns. He decked Porozo near the end of round two with a left hook following a straight left and decked him again near the end of round seven with a left uppercut to the body.

In a rather ho-hum fight, welterweight Vlad Panin improved to 8-1 with 6-round majority decision over San Antonio’s 36-year-old Benjamin Whitaker (13-4). Panin, a Belarusian who grew up in Las Vegas and earned a BA in English from UCLA, has a good back story but seemingly a limited upside in the fight game.

In an entertaining 6-round welterweight clash, Filipino campaigner Reymond Yanon improved to 11-5-1 with a split decision (59-55, 58-56, 56-58) over Clay Burns. A 33-year-old ex-Marine from Fort Worth, Burns declined to 9-8-2.

The opener, a heavyweight bout slated for six rounds, matched two Phoenix-based fighters in a rematch. Kingsley Ibeh, a former standout defensive lineman for the Washburn College Ichabods, avenged his lone defeat and improved to 4-1 with a fourth-round stoppage of Waldo Cortes (5-3). Ibeh, who at 286 had a 39-pound weight advantage, softened Cortes up with a series of uppercuts and Cortes was on his way down when he was tagged with a glancing left hand. He got to his feet, but referee Vic Drakulich waived it off. The official time was 1:41.

Photo credit: Mikey Williams for Top Rank

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