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The Beast of Stillman's Gym, Part 7

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beast 8ABert Lytell, Outcast.

PART 7: BLACKBALLED

Bert Lytell never quit boxing. Boxing quit him.

Long after his sudden disappearance from the ring, he told his niece Ellen Choyce the truth of what happened. “I was blackballed,” he said. Someone approached him about throwing a fight, and he refused. He refused even after he was warned, in underworld parlance, that there was no choice.

This would have been sometime in 1950 or 1951, when Frankie Carbo and his hoodlums had become the power behind the International Boxing Club (I.B.C.). Carbo had a suite at the Forrest Hotel and could flick a cigarette at Madison Square Garden, then located on 49th Street between Broadway and Eighth. Sammy Aaronson’s Boxing Enterprises was further down on Broadway. When a new guild was set up by mob-controlled managers to take a bigger slice of televised matches at the Garden, things got worse. Managers either joined and paid dues or were frozen out. Sammy was disgusted enough to dissolve his operation in 1950 and became something of a humanitarian. Bernie Bernstein started handed out cards that said he sold custom clothing on the side, and Tiny Patterson disappeared into history. All of the fighters in the Aaronson stable became free agents, which meant that they were now unprotected.

Bert was among them. His independence was ground out like a cigarette butt under a shoe, and the shoe was a black and white wing-tip with an elevator insole. We’ll never know who told Bert to throw a fight –-it could have been his new manager or a stranger chewing a toothpick, but we do know who was pulling the strings. It was Carbo.

Bert didn’t do well with being “told” to do anything. He was staunch in the belief that a man always has a choice and that was how he lived his life. If they took a look at his military record they’d have known that. Navy brass used less Brylcream than wiseguys but they gave orders too and what they got from Bert was defiance. He spent much of his service in the brig and probably felt okay about it because no one was in there telling him what to do. When they opened the iron door at the end of a stretch and he emerged with the sun burning his eyes and his stinking clothes hanging off him, the orders kept right on coming. So he showed them all over again: He swore at a petty officer. He left the ship without permission. He stole a Navy truck.

Many of his choices were bad ones, though he would insist on his right to make them. For strong men barred from accessing conventional means of wealth and power, pride is precious. It’s all they have. Sometimes it’s all that matters.

So Bert said no –-and unlike Jake LaMotta, he didn’t change his mind.

It’s likely that he was blackballed by the mobbed-up managers’ guild. The guild would punish a stubborn fighter until he got connected and did as he was told. Bert didn’t know what he was up against. He didn’t see the strings by the pinkie rings, didn’t see how much control they had over what opportunities he would get and what opportunities he would not get. He thought he could shake them off.

By December 1951, he had gone about as far from New York City as he could without falling into the Pacific. His last bout was two months old and two months is a long time to go without a purse –-especially when it’s skimpy to begin with. Bert was desperate. He showed up at the sports desk of the Oakland Tribune. “Lytell is looking for work,” read the next day’s edition, “Ring work. He’d like a fight, but none of the 165 [sic] pounders, or even the 175 pounders, want any part of him.” No manager or promoter did either. Everyone knew that Carbo not only had strings, he had buttons, and the I.B.C. wasn’t called “Octopus, Inc” because of his taste for insalata di piovra.

Whatever was left of Bert’s hope and promise was put on the skids. At only 27, he would never again have a professional prize fight. They made damn sure of it. He was reduced to the status of sparring partner for champions and contenders, working in the camps of Sugar Ray Robinson, Joey Maxim, Gerry Dreyer, and Randy Turpin (who he dropped with a left hook). By taking away the livelihood of a man who had nothing more than a ninth grade education and no real earning power outside of a boxing ring, they put his life on the skids.

In 1954, vice squad officers picked him up in Oakland as a suspected member of a drug trafficking ring. They claimed that he had two fresh needle marks on his arm and then let him go for insufficient evidence. After that he moved back east, perhaps to get the heat off or to avoid further trouble.

He left behind six nieces and a nephew –-Ellen, Evelyn, Lauren, Donna, Alfreda, and the twins Karen and Kelvin. Kelvin (i.e. Calvin) was named for him. Ellen was the oldest and was given the middle name “Virginia” after her grandmother, Bert’s mother. She remembered that he would work out at a gym in the Bay area and recalls watching his fight films. When still a little girl, he taught her how to stand and punch properly; and there was one time in grade school where his lessons came in handy. But her fondest memory of him has nothing to do with boxing. It has to do with his generous heart. Every Christmas when he was gone, presents would arrive in the mail from Uncle Bert for all of his brother’s children, without fail.

He returned to California in the late 1960s. Kelvin, now in his 40s, remembers taking the bus downtown and hanging around with him in the Laundromat where he owned a shoe shine stand. “He was nice, gentle, and very popular –-everybody loved him,” he said. Bert eventually applied for a job in a foundry where the work was intensely hot, grueling, and hazardous. The noise, like the roar of the crowd, was deafening. It must have reminded him of the ring. He was employed there for many years.

He lived in the section of Oakland blackest with pins on police incident maps and his apartment was burglarized at least five times between 1976 and 1982. He lost cash notes and at least four televisions when they smashed a window and climbed in or pried his door open. Lucky for them he wasn’t home.

He was no wide-eyed innocent. Rounder at 200 lbs. and 54 years old, he was arrested in a parking lot for possession of “dangerous drugs with intent to distribute” in 1978. The day after his birthday in 1984 he was driving downtown in his red ’65 Oldsmobile and was stopped by police for busted rear lights. They found a loaded .38 in the car and he was charged with “possession of a firearm by an ex-felon.”

When he was 64 years old, he was arrested for possession of cocaine. The police report recorded the color of his hair as gray; and Bert was, alarmingly, 160 lbs again…

____________________________

Bert Lytell killed a man. He carried that tragedy with him for the rest of his days. Mary Darthard was the victim’s mother. You won’t forget her. CHECK BACK SOON FOR PART 8 OF “THE BEAST OF STILLMAN’S GYM.”

Graphic courtesy of Harry Otty, with alterations by the author.

Telephone interview with Ellen Choyce, October 2011. As High As My Heart: The Sammy Aaronson Story, p. 84, 85; Bernstein selling clothes mentioned in an AP wire, 11/7/50. Carbo’s style of shoe mentioned in “Events and Discoveries,” Sports Illustrated, 7/18/55. Looking for a fight, Oakland Tribune 12/7/51. Sparring AP 9/1/51, 4/7/54, AP and AAP 9/4/51. For excellent treatments of corruption in boxing during this era, see Jeffrey T. Sammons’ Beyond the Ring: the Role of Boxing in American Society and Jacobs Beach: The Mob, the Fights and the Fifties by Kevin Mitchell. Narcotics raid covered in Oakland Tribune 6/7,10/54. Oakland Police Department Public Records/Crime Reports, Consolidated Arrest Reports.

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

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Christian Mbilli has the Wow Factor: Dismisses Mark Heffron in 40 Seconds

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Christian Mbilli has the Wow Factor: Dismisses Mark Heffron in 40 Seconds

The Gervais Auto Center in Shawinigan, Quebec, Canada, roughly 100 miles south of Montreal, hosted tonight’s card on ESPN+, a co-promotion of Camille Estephan’s Eye of the Tiger Promotions and Bob Arum’s Top Rank. Arum wasn’t there; he was in Leeds, England, but the outcome would have mitigated his aggravation at seeing his fighter Josh Taylor fall short earlier in the day.

Super middleweight Christian Mbilli, of whom Arum owns a piece, needed only 40 seconds to conquer British import Mark Heffron who, on paper, was a very credible opponent. Mbilli backed Heffron into the ropes and collapsed him with a left hook that landed under his rib cage. Heffron, 30-3-1 heading in with 24 KOs, went down on all fours and was counted out. The contest was over almost before it began.

The Cameroon-born Mbilli, a 2016 Olympian for France who turned pro in Montreal, is ranked #2 by the WBC and WBA; #3 by the IBF and WBO. With the victory, he advanced his record to 27-0 (23 KOs). His next fight will reportedly come in August with rugged but battle-blistered Sergiy Derevyanchenko in the opposite corner. Mbilli has been chasing a fight with Canelo Alvarez, but has scant chance of landing it. At this juncture of his career, the red-headed Mexican undoubtedly wants less daunting assignments.

Co-Feature

Arslanbek Makhmudov, the Russian Lion, rebounded from his poor performance against Agit Kabayel with a second-round stoppage of sacrificial lamb Milan Rovcanin. Makhmudov (19-1, 18 KOs) knocked Rovcanin to the canvas with an overhand right in the opening round. The punch knocked Rovcanin sideways, his head resting on the ring apron. To Rovcanin’s credit, he beat the count and launched a futile offensive after he arose. A similar punch ended the brief bout at the 2:32 mark of the next frame.

Makhmudov is certainly heavy-handed, but he moves at a glacial pace and would be up-against-it against a world-class opponent with faster hands and better footwork. Rovcanin, who had  been feasting on fourth-raters in his native Serbia, declined to 27-4.

Other Bouts of Note

In a bout contested at the catch-weight of 178 pounds, Montreal-based Mehmet Unal, a 31-year-old former Olympian for Turkey, scored the best win of his career with a fourth-round stoppage of 34-year-old Laredo, Texas campaigner Rodolfo Gomez.

Gomez, routinely matched tough and better than his record (14-7-3 heading in), protested loudly when the referee waived it off, but his corner stood poised to throw in the towel. He hadn’t previously been stopped, let alone knocked off his feet. Unal improved to 10-0 (8 KOs).

Super middleweight Mereno Fendero, a 24-year old French Army veteran, improved to 6-0 (4) with a six-round decision over 38-year-old Argentine journeyman Rolando Mansilla (19-15-1). Fendero won every round on all three cards including a 10-8 round on one of the cards although there were no knockdowns. Although badly out-classed, the teak-tough Mansilla, a glutton for punishment, earned his pay.

Local prospect Alexandre Gaumont, a middleweight, improved to 11-0 (7) with an unpopular 8-round split decision over Argentina’s Santiago Fernandez (8-1-1). Two of the judges gave Gaumont six rounds, ridiculed as home town bias, with the other awarding five rounds to the Argentine who received a loud ovation as he left the ring.

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Sweet Revenge for the ‘Cat’: Catterall Outpoints Taylor in a Fan-Friendly Fight

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Former unified junior welterweight champion Josh Taylor and Jack Catterall renewed acquaintances tonight in a sold-out arena in Leeds, England. Their first bout 27 months ago in Glasgow ended in favor of Taylor, a controversial winner by split decision as most felt that Catterall was robbed. Tonight, the Cat, as he is nicknamed, turned the tables, winning a unanimous decision in a 12-round non-title fight that was more entertaining than their first encounter.

Catterall, who closed a short favorite, came out fast and was plainly ahead at the mid-point of the fight. But Taylor closed the gap and on unofficial scorecards it was an even fight after 10 frames. Then, in the 11th, shortly after the referee halted the action to warn the fighters about something, Catterall turned the tide back in his favor, stunning Taylor with a looping left hand coming out of the break. Seconds later, both fighters went down in a heap in front of a corner post.

Both fighters were marked-up at the finish, more so Taylor who ended the fight with his right eye swollen and nearly closed shut.

A draw would not have been unreasonable, but two of the judges gave Jack Catterall nine rounds (117-111) and the other had it 7-4-1 (116-113).

In his post-fight interview, Eddie Hearn, Catterall’s promoter, conceded that the scores were too wide but opined that the right guy won. Few would disagree, but co-promoter Bob Arum had a different take. “Those scores were a disgrace,” he said, taking the microphone. “I feel sorry for Josh. I thought he won the fight….”

In avenging his lone defeat, Catterall improved to 29-1 (13). It was second straight loss for Taylor (19-2) who had been inactive since losing his unified title to Teofimo Lopez.

A rubber match would be welcome.

Semi Wind-up

In the chief supporting bout, Cheavon Clarke improved to 9-0 (7 KOs) with an eighth-round stoppage of Ellis Zorro. Clarke, who represented both his native Jamaica and England in international amateur competitions, won the BBBoC British cruiserweight title.

This fight didn’t provide a lot of action. The humdrum ended in the waning seconds of round eight when Clarke nailed Zorro with a chopping right hand. He seized the moment, swarming after Zorro, and chopped him down with a series of punches. None appeared to land very cleanly, but Zorro was counted out with a mere second remaining in the round. It was his second straight defeat after opening his career with 17-0. In his previous bout, Zorro was blasted out in the opening round by Jai Opetaia.

Clarke, 33, is eyeing the winner of the forthcoming fight in London between WBO cruiserweight champion Chris Billam-Smith and Richard Riakporhe.

Also

Welterweight Paddy Donovan, a Traveler from Limerick, Ireland, advanced to 14-0 (11 KOs) with a ninth-round stoppage of former British lightweight champion Lewis Ritson (25-4).

Donovan, trained by former middleweight titlist Andy Lee, fought off his back foot for the first seven rounds as Ritson forced the pace. He changed tactics in round eight which was a strong round for him and then closed the show in the ninth. A series of punches had Ritson plainly hurt and the referee stepped in after 32 seconds and waved it off. It was Donovan’s fifth straight win inside the distance.

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Okolie Demolishes Rozanski to Jump-Start a Busy Boxing Weekend

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The weekend boxing activity got underway today in Rzesnow. Poland where, to the dismay of the locals, Lukasz Rozanski, was blown away in the opening round by UK invader Lawrence Okolie. Heading in, the Pole was 15-0 with 14 knockouts, was coming off back-to-back first-round stoppages, and had never fought beyond the fourth round. And he was a world champion of sorts, making the first defense of his WBC bridgerweight title.

Okolie (20-1, 15 KOs) knocked him down hard on the seat of his pants with a straight right hand, the first of three knockdowns. The final knockdown was the result of a combination that knocked Rozanski to his knees with his head landing outside the ropes. There were only seconds to go in the round, but when Rozanski arose on unsteady legs, the referee properly waived it off. At age 38, his first career loss may also mark the end of his career.

A 2016 Olympian co-managed by Anthony Joshua, Okolie (pictured) was making his first start with trainer Joe Gallagher after previously working under Shane McGuigan and SugarHill Steward and his first start since losing his WBO cruiserweight title to Chris Billam-Smith.  At six-foot-five and with an 82-inch reach, the 31-year-old Londoner is a very interesting specimen. His stated goal when he turned pro was to unify the cruiserweight division before moving up to heavyweight.

Had Rozanski won, there was talk of him fighting Badou Jack. The guess is this may be Okolie’s first and last fight at bridgerweight (under 225), a division recognized only by the WBC which invented it. (The WBA is poised to follow its lead. The WBA board of directors recently approved the addition of a super cruiserweight weight class.)

Saturday

The action tomorrow in regard to major fights begins at the Royal Arena in Copenhagen where the Fighting Dane, Dina Thorslund (21-0, 9 KOs), defends her WBC/WBO female world bantamweight title against Turkey’s Seren Cetin (11-0, 7 KOs). Thorslund, whose name appears on many pound-for-pound lists, is appearing in her 11th world title fight.

The marquee event takes place in the late afternoon (USA time) in Leeds, England, where Josh Taylor (19-1, 13 KOs) clashes with Jack Catterall (28-1, 13 KOs) in an eagerly-anticipated and twice-delayed rematch. Catterall will be seeking to avenge his lone defeat.

Their first encounter took place in February 2022 on Taylor’s turf in Glasgow, Scotland. Taylor won a split decision. To say that it was controversial would be putting it mildly. One pundit called it the biggest robbery in British boxing history. At stake was Taylor’s unified welterweight title which he would lose in his next outing when he was upset by Teofimo Lopez.

Catterall has fought twice since that night in Glasgow, most recently scoring a 12-round decision over globetrotter Jorge Linares who announced his retirement after the match. This is Taylor’s first ring outing since the Teofimo fight in New York. He and Catterall have engaged in a nasty war of words since their first encounter and the match – televised live exclusively in the U.S. on ESPN+ and around the world on DAZN — is an advance sellout. Check local listings for start times.

There’s been steady money on Catterall today and, if the odds hold up, Josh Taylor will assume the role of an underdog for the first time in his career.

Lastly

We’re back to ESPN+ again for a show in Shawinigan, Quebec, Canada, a co-promotion between Eye of the Tiger and Top Rank.

In the featured bout, Christian Mbilli (26-0, 22 KOs) meets England’s Mark Heffron (30-3-1, 24 KOs) in a 10-round super middleweight contest.

The Cameroon-born Mbilli, a 2016 Olympian for France who turned pro in Montreal, is ranked #2 by the WBC and WBA; #3 by the IBF and WBO.

In the co-feature, heavyweight Arslanbek Makhmudov, the Russian Lion, returns to the ring looking to rebuild a reputation that was badly tarnished last December when he was manhandled by underdog Agit Kabayel in Saudi Arabia. Makhmudov (18-1, 17 KOs) opposes no-hoper Milan Rovcanin (27-3, 18 KOs) who has been feasting on fourth-raters in his native Serbia. The TV portion of this Saturday Night card has a scheduled starting time of 7 pm ET/4 pm PT.

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