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Springs Toledo’s “The Ringside Belle,” Part 2

Springs Toledo

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“Is That a Pistol in Your Pocket?” 

Rubbing shoulders and who knows what else with Mae West at ringside was a rogues gallery of gangsters; many of whom branched out from Brooklyn like she did or left on the lam. There was Mickey Cohen in Los Angeles, Al Capone in Chicago, and Owney Madden. She was closest to Madden, a gangland murderer and bootlegger who became the underworld king of New York in the late 1920s. He was chief proprietor of the Cotton Club in Harlem and had interests in boxing —and Mae West. He bankrolled her career and was, for a time, her lover.

She wasn’t shy about asking for favors. When she heard that a Joe Louis-Maxie Rosenbloom bout was being negotiated for the Hollywood Legion in 1937, she called Madden and persuaded him to get Louis a title shot instead. That June, Louis knocked the crown off the head of Jim Braddock and became the first black heavyweight king since Jack Johnson. West was there, ringside.

She said that the guys who talked out of the sides of their mouths were perfect gentleman, but learned the hard way that they weren’t exactly pals. Three of them, one an ex-member of the Capone gang who used to work for her, held her up while she sat in her limousine in 1933. “Throw out your poke and let’s have the rocks,” she was told, and off into the night went $17,000 in diamonds and cash. She testified at the trial, despite receiving phone calls of the “or else” type. She knew where to turn for protection. Prospective chauffeurs were asked about their ability to bust heads, not brake safely. A parade of professional boxers were hired, among them a future world champion named Albert “Chalky” Wright. Chalky was a frustrated featherweight who needed a weekly paycheck to keep what little he had. West reportedly did better than that; handing him the down payment for a house he wanted to buy for his mother and paying for his divorce. He would drive her to the fights at the Olympic Auditorium on Tuesday and Friday nights in a chocolate-colored Rolls Royce; she would slip him a C-note and away he went.

Chalky, no stranger to vice, preferred bourbon to horses and horses to home life. If the word of a private investigator is to be believed, he preferred Miss West to everything else. “I am not the chauffer,” Chalky supposedly told an acquaintance when asked why he didn’t always wear a uniform, “—I am The Man.” Moreover, he admitted he was in love with her.

She loved him right back. When she heard that his boxing career had stalled out because of mismanagement, she sponsored his comeback and applied pressure behind the scenes to get him a title shot. She even hired his brother to take his place as her driver, to “keep it in the family.” When Lee Wright, a welterweight, got himself arrested for shooting light heavyweight Cannonball Green while Green was in a phone booth on Sunset Boulevard, she pulled strings and he walked. After all, said an eye-rolling reporter, it was “an accident.”

It wasn’t the last time she helped a fighter beat the rap. Filipino bantamweight Speedy Dado followed the Wrights into West’s front seat and was arrested for waving a gun at three motorists in a traffic incident. The hot-headed Dado might have been better off cooling his heels in the clink because he was losing more fights than he won.

Perhaps (pardon me) his legs were weak.

In the early Fifties, Chalky was retired and greasing pans in a bakery for a living. Mae West was, well, back on top in Vegas with a bevy of beefcakes on stage at the Sahara. In 1955, her private life was thrust into public view. Investigators for what she called an “under-the-rock” magazine were making the rounds at boxing arenas in California where, they said, “the name Mae West is as well-known as Spalding.” The name Chalky Wright kept coming up. They tracked him to a bar. Chalky, thinking they were producers interested in making a movie about West, took $200 to talk about his months in her employment. “Mae West’s Open-Door Policy” appeared in the November 1955 edition of Confidential Magazine. It became part of a lawsuit filed by Hollywood against the magazine, though there wasn’t much more than a tickle or two among mundane facts about West’s cleanliness and generosity.

Her lawyer drew up an affidavit denying any hanky-panky and the ex-featherweight champ signed it, or so the lawyer said. In 1957, Chalky was subpoenaed to court, but he never showed up. He died thirteen days before the court date.

It was an odd death. Recently separated from his second wife, he had moved in with his mother on South Main Street in Los Angeles. On August 12, she returned home from shopping and heard water running in the bathroom. She called Chalky’s name and when he didn’t answer she unlocked the door to find his body slumped in the bathtub. His head was under the water and the tap was running. At first, police suspected foul play —a towel rack had been torn from the wall, which suggested a struggle, and they thought they saw a contusion on Chalky’s head.

Whatever the cause, the caseagainst Confidential Magazine went forward and Chalky’s ex-wife’s subpoena was in the mail practically before the mourners had left Lincoln Memorial Park. It was still on her kitchen table when the phone rang. “You’d better clam up,” she was warned, “if you know what’s good for you.” She made it clear to the Baltimore Afro-American that the caller did not represent the magazine. She said “[t]hose people have too much money and too much power” but would not say who “those people” were and that invites speculation that West’s underworld friends were behind it. On the other hand, another witness was told to slant testimony in favor of the magazine, and a third, scheduled to testify against the magazine, died from a drug overdose that was no less suspicious than Chalky’s death.

Chalky was no stranger to vice lords. Word on the street was that gangster Frankie Carbo owned him during the latter days of his career, and no one doubted that he had a story to tell. It turns out that he told it, three years before his death, to a young black pulp writer by the name of Jay Thomas Caldwell. Me an’ You was published by Lion Books in 1954 and was dedicated to “Chalky, the gentle Hedonist.” Names were changed to protect the not-so innocent: “Turkey Jones,” the main character, is Chalky. “One Gun Laws” is “One Shot” Wirt Ross, Chalky’s manager early in his career, and “Al Smith” is Eddie Mead, his last manager.

The story unloads like a death-bed confession. Laws/Wirt, said the Chalky Wright character, routinely “invented fiction for the newspapers,” including one that said the fighter was born in Mexico. Chalky had a good laugh at that one: “Ain’t that a pip?” his character says.

There are more serious revelations that, if true, cast a shadow on his career. For example, the record tells us Eddie Shea knocked out Chalky Wright in the first round in 1933. In the book, a fight manager (who happens to share a first name with notorious West Coast gangster Mickey Cohen) meets Turkey Jones at the Main Street Gym in Los Angeles and hands him $300 to take a dive against “Bobby Shay” in the first round. “That bum didn’t knock me out,” Chalky’s character says afterward. “I dumped.” It wasn’t the only time he did.

The character of “Tommy White,” a short, God-fearing whirlwind from St. Louis who became a double champion, is Henry Armstrong. Chalky’s character is offered a fight against the Armstrong character to set up the book’s most startling mea culpa. It’s found in a scene on page 55:

Only one thing,” his manager told him. “We gotta do a little business.”

“Whatever’s best,” the fighter replied.

“Okay. They want a good guy, somebody with a reputation and you’re the only one who fills the bill. But they know they can’t take any chances with you. You might beat him.”

The record tells us Chalky Wright was knocked out by Henry Armstrong in three rounds in 1938. It is no longer certain that he did. Armstrong’s manager, Eddie Mead, is fingered in the book as the man behind the fix. Three pages later we read that the manager was satisfied enough with the performance to invite the main character to New York. It’s a matter of record that Eddie Mead became Chalky’s manager after Armstrong-Wright and that Wright’s next fight was his first at Madison Square Garden, where the spotlight was brighter and the purses were bigger.

It’s also a matter of record that Mead was all tangled up with gangsters on both coasts. One afternoon in 1942, he dropped dead in front of the Park Central Hotel. According to gangster Mickey Cohen, Meade was fencing diamonds back east and they were stashed in his coat. Cohen couldn’t believe it. He died “with all the f*ckin’ stuff on him!” (The police report left that out.) “Boxing and the racket world were almost one and the same,” opined Cohen as if we didn’t know. “Most boxers were owned by racket people and at one time, six of the boxing titles belonged to guys in the so-called racket world.”

Chalky’s affinity for white women is also dramatized in the pages of Me an’ You, including his marriages to two of them, but it stops there. His affair with Mae West is conspicuously absent. There is only a hint, at once suggestive and poignant, that appears near the end of the book as the main character walks toward the ring at Yankee Stadium: “He smelled a woman’s perfume from among ringsiders. It was a white woman’s perfume and no matter what he ever did he would never know what to do about it.”

In the end, Chalky’s death mirrored his affair with West. Despite the controversy swirling around it, his death was natural as his love. His autopsy report, dated September 3, 1957 ends the mystery. The Los Angeles County Coroner examined the body and found nothing that would make a mob hit likely. “No evidences of bony injury, either old or recent are demonstrated,” it reads. “The scalp is free of any evidences of injury.” Nor was he drowned. Tests conducted on his lungs, liver, and heart could not support that diagnosis. The coroner’s conclusion was as anticlimactic as a marriage: “aortic stenosis due to old rheumatic valvulitis, inactive.” It was heart failure that did Chalky in.

Mae West was present at his funeral.

According to at least one family member, she paid for it as well.

THEY SAY MAE WEST HAD A SOFT SPOT FOR GORILLA JONES —THEY DON’T KNOW THE HALF OF IT. DON’T MISS THE VALENTINE-WORTHY CONCLUSION TO “THE RINGSIDE BELLE” ….

TELL YOUR SWEETHEART! READ IT BEFORE BED!


Springs Toledo is the author of The Gods of War: Boxing Essays (Tora, 2014, $25).He can be reached at scalinatella@hotmail.com

 

 

 

 

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Canelo vs. BJ Saunders: Predictions and Analyses from the TSS Faculty

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More than 60,000 fight fans are expected to gather at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, on Saturday. The turnout for the fight between Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Billy Joe Saunders represents a turning point in the COVID-19 era. Boxing has been pretty much walled-off to the general public since a sellout crowd of 15,816 witnessed the second encounter between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder on Feb. 20, 2020 in Las Vegas.

Canelo Alvarez (55-1-2, 37 KOs) holds the WBC and WBA world titles at 168 pounds. Billy Joe Saunders (30-0, 14 KOs) owns the WBO belt. However, the hardware is largely immaterial whenever Canelo steps in the ring as he is widely considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. In Saunders he is meeting a slick southpaw bidding to become the second member of the Traveling community to hold multiple title belts simultaneously, joining his friend Tyson Fury. The bout headlines a 7-bout card that will air on DAZN in 200+ countries and territories worldwide and on TV Azteca in Mexico.

Whenever a fight of this magnitude comes down the pike, we invite members of our editorial staff to provide a quick analysis of the match and forecast the outcome. Their prognostications appear below with the respondents listed in alphabetical order.

The graphic is by Colorado comic book cover artist ROB AYALA, an honored guest whenever we perform this kind of exercise. Check out more of Rob’s cool illustrations at his web site fight posium.

PICKS and ANALYSIS

No gimme for Canelo here, as Saunders is a southpaw who can box, has a bit of pop in his punch, as well as a knack for making his opponents look not quite as impressive as they normally are. Still, Canelo is at the top of the boxing food chain for a reason. It’s all right for him to win some fights and not be spectacular in doing so. Figure the Mexican icon on scoring a knockdown or two along the way, but he may have to be satisfied with a win on points this time out. – BERNARD FERNANDEZ

I no longer pick against Canelo Alvarez. And certainly not against a boxing basket case like Billy Joe Saunders. There’s a huge difference in the level of maturity between these two fighters and that will be seen in the ring when Canelo becomes the first to corner the fleet-footed Saunders and put him on his back. Canelo KO in 10. – JEFFREY FREEMAN

Canelo by decision. He does everything better than Saunders, who will fight well enough to survive but not win. – THOMAS HAUSER

Billy Joe is formidable. You don’t lock in an Olympic berth at age 18 without natural talent. You don’t run circles around a big puncher like David Lemieux without a high ring IQ. But Saunders, despite his undefeated record, has been inconsistent. Canelo, as Kevin Iole noted in a recent column, doesn’t do one thing great, but he does everything well. How does one formulate a smart game plan for a boxer with no flaws to exploit? Canelo UD. – ARNE LANG

Much has been made by Saunders’ camp this week about the size of the ring that will be used in the fight. While it seems strange and even unruly that there can be such vast disparities in how large the boxing ring is or how spongy the mat can be for any professional fight card in our sport, the truth of the matter is that Saunders probably doesn’t have much hope in beating Alvarez no matter how those other factors play out. They could fight on a basketball court, and I’d still pick Alvarez. The best the cagey UK fighter will be able to muster is trying to go the distance with the Mexican. Callum Smith pulled it off back in December, but Saunders won’t quite get there. CANELO via 9th-round stoppage. – KELSEY McCARSON

There was a time, not that long ago, when I would have favoured Saunders to beat Canelo and stylistically I still feel Saunders holds all the aces. Canelo’s improvements in the last 30 months have astonished, though. He has found a meaningful fourth and fifth punch for his combinations and his strength, for whatever reason, is prestigious at whatever weight he fights. Saunders, something of a persona-non-grata here in his home country after a series of public relations disasters, is very much a man out of time.  Canelo, bodyshots, between the eighth and the tenth. – MATT McGRAIN

There is a case to be made that Canelo Alvarez has not faced a pure boxer on the level of Billy Joe Saunders since his do-si-do with Erislandy Lara in 2014, in a fight that still has some screaming robbery (Alvarez won by split decision). Of course, that was nearly seven years ago, back when Alvarez was still trading on his telenovela bonafides. Since then, he has gone on to distinguish himself as arguably the best boxer in the sport today. The same cannot be said for the erratic and self-sabotaging Saunders, who has squandered his impressive showing against David Lemieux in 2017 with consecutive lackluster outings against mostly middling opposition. The southpaw will find ways to frustrate Alvarez at times, to be sure, but expect Alvarez to slow down the jittery motions of the Brit by punishing him to the body en route to a mostly clear win on the cards. Canelo by majority decision. – SEAN NAM

I see a feeling-out type fight in the first two rounds and then Canelo begins the stalk. Saunders will be more elusive and more savvy than most of Canelo’s opponents, occasionally getting in some sharp counters. However, he will begin to tire late from an accumulation of Canelo’s body work and from backing up. This will allow the Mexican to increase the tempo looking for a way to close the show. The Traveler will survive. But Canelo will win with a dominating UD. – TED SARES

Two names come to mind for me when deciding how this fight will play out. First, Erislandy Lara, who I saw outbox but not outfight Alvarez. Second is Alexander Povetkin, whose horrible performance against Dillian Whyte was reportedly due to coronavirus residue, which Alvarez also claims to have been afflicted by. Can Saunders, another left-hander with a bit more of a reach advantage than Lara, take advantage of a possibly weakened Canelo? Don’t bet on it unless Cinco de Mayo weekend gets cancelled and nobody from Texas or Mexico shows up for the fight. Saunders seems capable of making it interesting, but Alvarez wins by wide decision or late TKO.  – PHIL WOOLEVER

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A Heinous Crime Will Likely Land Felix Verdejo in Prison for the Rest of His Life

Arne K. Lang

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“Felix has a sparkling personality, a flashy fighting style, and he’s good. He’s also f-a-s-t.” The quote is from Thomas Hauser who wrote those words in June of 2015 after Verdejo improved his record to 18-0 with a near-shutout of fellow unbeaten Ivan Nejara on an HBO card from the Theater at Madison Square Garden.

At this juncture it appeared that Verdejo, a former Olympian, was destined to become the next icon of Puerto Rican fight fans, the heir-apparent to Felix Trinidad and Miguel Cotto.

Today, news stories about Verdejo make no reference to his sparkling personality. It’s an attribute inconsistent with the portrait of a monster.

This past Saturday, as hardcore fight fans were glued to the telecast of a show in Manchester, England, it came to light that authorities in San Juan, Puerto Rico, had found the body of a young woman who had been reported missing after failing to turn up at her job at a dog grooming salon on Thursday morning, that the decedent was plainly the victim of foul play, that Verdejo was the primary suspect in her murder, and that he wasn’t cooperating with the authorities.

When the corpse of the missing woman was fished from a lagoon, her body was reportedly so mangled that forensic examiners had to consult dental records to confirm that the decedent was indeed Keishla Marlen Rodriguez Ortiz, the 27-year-old woman they were looking for. The boxer and Ms. Rodriguez had reportedly known each other since middle school. According to Rodriguez’s family members, she was pregnant with Verdejo’s child and the boxer, who was married with a 2-year-old daughter, wasn’t happy about it.

Keishla

Keishla Rodriguez

With each new detail, the story became more sordid.

It is alleged that the victim was thrown off a bridge after being punched in the face and injected with a syringe filled with an unidentified substance. Verdejo and an accomplice – who hasn’t been charged and is identified only as a witness – then tied her hands and feet with wire and weighed the body down with a cinderblock before tossing it into the water. When the body was slow to sink, Verdejo allegedly fired a bullet at it. A shell casing was found on the bridge and the authorities have corroborating evidence from toll booth cameras.

As first reported by veteran boxing writer Jake Donovan, the boxer surrendered to FBI agents yesterday evening (Sunday). He appeared this morning via zoom before federal magistrate Camille Velez Rive who ordered him returned to prison and held without bail.

Many of the headlines in the tabloids say that Verdejo is facing the death penalty. That’s technically true. The three crimes for which he has been charged — carjacking resulting in death, kidnapping resulting in death, and intentionally killing an unborn child – are federal crimes. As a commonwealth of the United States, Puerto Rico is subject to U.S. federal laws. However, Puerto Rico abolished capitol punishment in 1929. The country hasn’t executed anyone since 1927 when a man named Pascual Ramos was hanged for killing his boss.

It’s doubtful that prosecutors would pursue the death penalty unless the trial were moved to the mainland. However, domestic violence has become a hot-button issue in Puerto Rico and the national mood toward crimes of this nature is trending toward harsher retribution. Yesterday, according to the Daily Mail, hundreds of people, mostly women, including Rodriguez’s sister, gathered at the bridge that spans the lagoon to pay their respects and demand justice for the victims of domestic violence.

Felix Verdejo turned pro  at age 19 after representing Puerto Rico in the 2012 London Olympics. He rose to #1 in the WBO lightweight rankings after defeating Oliver Flores in February of 2017, but was demoted for inactivity. There were extenuating circumstances including fights that fell out and a 6-day stay in a hospital following a motorcycle accident.

He returned to the ring after a 13 ½ month absence and suffered his first pro defeat. An unheralded Mexican, Antonio Lozada, stopped him in the final round, the 10th. Verdejo was ahead on two of the scorecards through the nine completed rounds. There were 23 seconds remaining in the contest when the bout was stopped.

Verdejo’s most recent fight came in December of last year. He was stopped in the ninth round by Masayoshi Nakatani at the MGM Bubble in Las Vegas, reducing his pro record to 27-2. As happened against Lozada, Verdejo faded late, squandering a big lead.

Verdejo photo credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank via Getty Images

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In Boxing, a Quadrilogy is Rare. Going 2-2 Against Butterbean Even More So

Ted Sares

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The late heavyweight Mitch Rose could not translate his Golden Gloves amateur skills to the pro ranks. He retired with an underwhelming 2-11-1 mark, but he did enough quirky things to put his life story in a book and one of the most memorable parts of it involved his being the first fighter to stop Eric “Butterbean” Esch, the legendary knockout machine who was trumpeted as the King of the Four Rounders. Rose did it on an undercard bout at Madison Square Garden on a show with Oscar De La Hoya and Arturo Gatti in the featured bouts.

“… Rose was a tried and true New Yorker. As loud and funny as he was, he never seemed to take himself too seriously. He had a big heart, a lot of dreams, and an emotional honesty that was extremely refreshing.” — Robert Mladinich, NYFIGHTS

As Bernard Fernandez noted, Eric Esch, aka Butterbean, rebounded nicely. “(He) went on to continue his unlikely advance to stardom of sorts as a bald and blubbery blaster.”

Butterbean, who also competed in MMA and in Tough Man competitions, developed a cult following and retired with a boxing record of 77-10-4. But Butterbean’s last three losses as a boxer came between 2009-2013, long after he should have left the boxing scene.

Enter Kenny “The Raven” Craven (here’s a recent picture).

Craven

Craven

 “Wherever you find yourself in time… Please remember to do the right thing.” — Kenny Craven

A soulful and righteous man who believes in equality and walks the walk, Craven, a Mississippian from tiny Ellisville, is a follower of the teachings of Desmond Tutu. He is pro-people and pro-underdog and will not bypass injustice.

“I wrote a post yesterday on Facebook that expanded my view of the power of the people. All of us know we have this power but we have no idea how to use it. Well, we do know how it is used but we make a conscious decision not to. Why? We the people have supreme authority but we give this gift to just a few people who do not even like us.” — Craven

Kenny Craven finished his pro boxing career with a 28-20 record. He won 23 by knockout BUT all of his 20 losses came by knockout and that made him an exciting fighter, if nothing else. Kenny was a fan favorite on the southern circuit and if his opponent didn’t get him, he usually got his opponent and the fans could anticipate with near 100 percent accuracy that someone was getting knocked down.

The other thing about Kenny was that he fought a Who’s Who of elite fighters. They included Henry Akinwande (37-1-1 coming in), Michael Nunn (55-4), Vaughn Bean (41-2 and no relation to Butterbean), Attila Levin (27-1), Albert Sosnowski (33-1), Clifford Etienne (28-2-2), Calvin Brock (25-0), Timur Ibragimov (20-0-1), Oliver McCall (46-8), Vassiliy Jirov (36-3-1), and Ezra Sellers (28-7).

In 1999, “The Raven” was stopped by Butterbean (48-1-2) in the second round on the undercard of the De La Hoya vs Trinidad fight at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. It was Alabama vs Mississippi. However, in the first round, Craven displayed the blueprint on how to beat the ‘King of Four Rounders” by using a stick and run approach.

In 2005, Kenny lasted until the third round before the Bean (then 71-3-4) overwhelmed him.

 But just three months later in Jackson, Mississippi, Kenny finally figured out Esch and utilized the blueprint by jabbing and moving laterally, and won a majority decision over the heavily favored Bean in front of a small but howling and disbelieving crowd. The fact that Tonya Harding was on the undercard added to the circus-like atmosphere.

Then, three months later in Bejing, China, Kenny did it again. Yes, in China!!? This time he had his way with Eric and cruised to an easy win.

In a rare Quadrilogy, Kenny Craven went 2-2 with Eric Esch who never managed to knock Kenny down or even hurt him. No mean feat.

Mitch Rose had his moment. Kenny Craven had two. As Kenny says, “I did the best I could for a guy with three amateur fights and growing up in rural Mississippi. I loved every second, the good and the bad.”

Ted Sares can be reached at tedsares@roadrunner.com

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