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

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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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An Ode to the Polo Grounds on the (Belated) 100th Anniversary of Dempsey-Firpo

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If you happen to be up in Harlem this Saturday, they are holding a little shindig at the Polo Grounds Towers Community Center in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Dempsey-Firpo fight.

Better late than never, as they say. The centennial of this storied fight was actually September 14, a week ago Thursday. But that rubbed up against Mexican Independence Day which prompted little shindigs that would take precedence in a neighborhood where many of the inhabitants speak Spanish.

The Sept. 14, 1923 bout between heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, the Manassa Mauler, and his Argentine challenger Luis Angel Firpo, the Wild Bull of the Pampas, was staged at the Polo Grounds. The match was slated for 15 rounds, but no one expected it would go that far. “The styles of both,” said a Brooklyn Times Union scribe in his pre-fight report, “eliminate the possibility of the affair becoming tedious.”

That proved to be an understatement. Dempsey vs. Firpo consumed only three minutes and 57 seconds of actual fighting, but the action was breathtakingly intense and the crowd, estimated at 80,000, was on its feet the whole while.

There were so many knockdowns and they came so fast that there was disagreement among ringside reporters as to the exact number. In the first round alone, Dempsey put Firpo on the canvas at least five times, if not seven, and Firpo returned the favor twice. However, it was the Argentine that scored the most memorable knockdown. With one mighty swing of his vaunted right hand, Firpo knocked Dempsey clear out of the ring, the Mauler landing head first on a table of ringside reporters and their telegraphers with his feet up in the air. The moment inspired one of the most famous paintings in sports, George Bellows “Dempsey and Firpo,” on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York since the museum opened in 1931.

Dempsey was reeling and almost out before the first round ended, but he gathered his senses and ended the contest in the next frame. His final punch, with Firpo bleeding heavily from his mouth, “lifted the Argentine giant from his feet and hurled him headlong to the floor with the crash of a mighty oak falling from great heights.” So wrote Grantland Rice.

The Polo Grounds sat in a hollow in the northern reaches of Harlem across the Harlem River from Yankee Stadium. It was the home of the New York Giants of the National League from 1891 until the franchise left for San Francisco at the end of the 1957 season. It also housed the New York Giants football team from its inception in 1925 through 1955 and in its end days, served as the temporary home of New York’s two expansion teams, the Mets and the Jets.

Professional boxing was first served up at the Polo Grounds in 1922. There were four boxing shows there in 1923 preceding Dempsey-Firpo, but these were small potatoes by comparison, notwithstanding the fact that each of the four shows included a title fight. Dempsey-Firpo was the first collaboration between Tex Rickard and Charles Stoneham who owned the controlling interest in the baseball team.

Rickard and Stoneham had a lot in common. Rickard ran gambling saloons in mining camps in Alaska and Nevada before making his mark as a boxing promoter and settling in New York where he headed up the boxing department at Madison Square Garden. Charles Stoneham was a gambler too. He made his fortune operating bucket shops, funneling his winnings into a string of thoroughbred race horses and a horse track and casino in Havana. His silent partner in many of his business ventures was purportedly the infamous Arnold Rothstein. (A so-called bucket shop was a business where people could bet on the rise and fall of stocks and other commodities like wheat and oil without taking an ownership stake in any of the companies that comprised the marketplace.)

Rickard died in 1929, opening the door to Broadway ticket scalper Mike Jacobs who supplanted Rickard as New York’s most powerful boxing promoter. Jacobs acquired the exclusive rights to stage boxing shows at both the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium. Charles Stoneham and his counterpart with the Yankees both profited when a card was held at either property.

Yankee Stadium was more modern and could accommodate a larger crowd, so Jacobs tended to pot his biggest promotions there. Joe Louis had 12 fights at Yankee Stadium, but only two at the Polo Grounds, namely his famous 1941 fight with Billy Conn and his fight later that year with Lou Nova. However, important matches continued to land at the Polo Grounds. Thirty-four boxers who would go on to be enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame had one or more fights at the Polo Grounds.

I’m dating myself, but this reporter is among an ever-shrinking cadre of people who once sat in the grandstand of the Polo Grounds. The allurement was baseball. Although born in Brooklyn, I was a Giants fan.

I vaguely remember descending the steep iron staircase that led from the 155th Street subway station to the ticket booths. When one exited the subway, he was on Coogan’s Bluff, named for the former Manhattan borough president who owned the land on which the stadium sat. Coogan’s Bluff became a euphemism for the Polo Grounds itself, as Chavez Ravine would become a euphemism for Dodger Stadium.

Coogan's Bluff

Coogan’s Bluff

The Polo Grounds had an odd, triangular-shaped configuration. The distance to both foul poles was short whereas centerfield was cavernous, the perfect playland for the wonderful Willie Mays whose range was unsurpassed. In the words of the late, great Jim Murray, Willie’s glove was where triples went to die.

When Charles Stoneham died in 1936, the ballclub passed to his son Horace Stoneham who moved the team in San Francisco and eventually sold it to local interests. Stoneham was vilified in New York for abandoning the city, but the park and surrounding neighborhood had deteriorated. The stadium was torn down in 1964 and became the site of a giant, low-income housing project, Polo Grounds Towers, a complex consisting of four 30-story buildings run by the New York City Housing Authority. The Polo Grounds Community Center is housed in Tower #2.

The Dempsey-Firpo fight was an incandescent moment in America’s Golden Era of Sports. It was a big deal in South America too. In Buenos Aires, tens of thousands of people reportedly jammed the streets around the newspaper offices to follow the progress of the fight on bulletin boards. The last boxing show at the Polo Grounds was staged on June 20, 1960. Floyd Patterson avenged his loss to Ingemar Johannson with a fifth-round stoppage. The predicted crowd of 40,000 failed to materialize. The official attendance was 31,892.

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Arne K. Lang is a recognized authority on the history of prizefighting and the history of American sports gambling. His latest book, titled Clash of the Little Giants: George Dixon, Terry McGovern, and the Culture of Boxing in America, 1890-1910, was released by McFarland in September, 2022.

 

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 253: Oscar De La Hoya Reloading in LA and More

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Oscar De La Hoya sat with a satisfied look inside his glittering building on Wilshire Boulevard, unveiling plans to stage a welterweight showdown between southpaw contenders next month.

Lately, the six-division world champion turned promoter from nearby East Los Angeles has attended every boxing show produced by his company Golden Boy Promotions. Big or small, the former fighter who acquired millions as a prizefighter has put full attention on expanding his boxing empire.

Golden Boy Promotions has reloaded.

On Tuesday, De La Hoya discussed plans to match Alexis Rocha with Top Rank’s Giovanni Santillan on Saturday, October 21, at the Kia Forum in Inglewood, Calif. DAZN will stream the show.

Rocha (23-1, 15 KOs) seems to have gained his man strength. Five out of seven of his past foes have not heard the final bell. The Orange County fighter’s seek and destroy style has made him a crowd favorite throughout Southern California.

Santillan (31-0, 16 KOs) is a different kind of cat. The San Diego-based welterweight was groomed by Thompson Boxing Promotions and then aided by Top Rank. With the loss of promoter Ken Thompson who passed away earlier this year, Top Rank has taken over the reins of the crafty fighter.

Both Rocha (pictured with Oscar) and Santillan are familiar with each other through sparring.

“I feel that I’ve grown so much over time and now’s my moment, and I want to keep just banging on the door for a world title. I know that Giovani is going to be a good opponent,” said Rocha who is based in Santa Ana.

San Diego’s Santillan expressed excitement about fighting in Los Angeles.

“This isn’t the first time that I go into enemy territory,” Santillan said. “I think that I will gain the LA fan base after this fight.”

It’s the kind of fight that would have sold out the Olympic Auditorium down the street. Battles between fighters from rival towns in Southern California resulted in fights like Bobby Chacon versus Danny “Lil Red” Lopez, or East L.A.’s Ruben Navarro versus South L.A.’s Raul Rojas.

Crosstown rivalries made the Olympic Auditorium a legendary venue for decades. And the Los Angeles area has always been a hotbed for boxing talent. Always.

De La Hoya knows that and has lived it.

“As Golden Boy, we know our position, we know exactly what we have to do in order to position that fighter to get them to that world title. Alexis Rocha is knocking on the door. Giovani has an amazing opportunity. So, this is what boxing is all about,” said De La Hoya.

MarvNation

Welterweights Eduard Skavynskyi (14-0) of Ukraine and Mexico’s Alejandro Frias (14-9-2) headline the main event at Thunder Studios in Long Beach, California on Saturday Sept. 23.

This is Skavynskyi’s first time fighting in the U.S. All his previous fights were in Russia and Ukraine.

Also, co-headlining are female minimumweights Yadira Bustillos (7-1) and Katherine Lindenmuth (5-1) in a rematch set for eight rounds.

Bustillos fights out of Las Vegas and Lindenmuth is based in New Mexico and looking to avenge her loss a year ago.

For tickets and information go to: https://www.tix.com/ticket-sales/marvnation/6815/event/1344994?fbclid=paaabuvxlnjny1dafchk0wwkftjganfmww6bayhkj7autu-mhjyz8ll__ycga

Heavyweight Rematch in England

Once again, the United Kingdom presents a heavyweight show and this time a rematch between China’s Zhilei Zhang (25-1-1, 20 KOs) and England’s Joe Joyce (15-1, 14 KOs) on Saturday, Sept 23. ESPN will stream the Frank Warren boxing card from London.

Zhang stopped Joyce in the sixth round this past April. Can he do it again?

Welterweight showdown in Florida

Jessica McCaskill (12-3) and Sandy Ryan (6-1) meet for several welterweight world titles on Saturday, Sept. 23, in Orlando, Florida. DAZN will stream the Matchroom Boxing card.

Super lightweight Richardson Hitchins (16-0, 7 KOs) test top contender Jose “Chon” Zepeda (37-3, 28 KOs) in the co-main event. Conor Benn is also on the card.

Fights to Watch

Sat. ESPN+ 2 p.m. Zhilei Zhang (25-1-1) vs Joe Joyce (15-1).

Sat. DAZN 5 p.m. Jessica McCaskill (12-3) vs Sandy Ryan (6-1); Richardson Hitchins (16-0) vs Jose Zepeda (37-3).

Alexis Rocha photo credit: Golden Boy / Cris Esqueda

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Conor Benn, a Lightning Rod for Controversy, Returns to the Ring on Saturday

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In a surprise announcement, Matchroom honcho Eddie Hearn has announced that Conor Benn will return to the ring this Saturday on the undercard of his promotion at the Caribe Royal in Orlando, Florida. Benn (21-0, 14 KOs) is matched against Mexico’s Rodolfo Orozco who is 32-3-3 (24) and has never been stopped. The match is slated for 10 rounds at 154 pounds and will mark the first test for both fighters outside their native countries.

The main event on the Matchroom card is a 12-round contest in the super lightweight division between Richardson Hitchins (16-0, 7 KOs) and Jose Zepeda (37-3, 28 KOs). Hitchins, born in Brooklyn, represented his parents’ homeland of Haiti in the 2016 Rio Olympics where he lost his opening round match to amateur nemesis Gary Antuanne Russell. Zepeda, a 34-year-old Mexican-American southpaw, is best remembered for his 2020 rumble with Ivan Baranchyk, the runaway pick for the Fight of the Year. The chief supporting bout pits England’s Sandy Ryan against Chicago’s Jessica McCaskill with the WBA, WBC, and IBF female welterweight belts on the line. The show will be live-streamed on DAZN.

Conor Benn last fought in April of last year when he TKOed South African veteran Chris Van Heerden in the second round. He was slated to return to the ring on Oct. 8, 2022 against Chris Eubank Jr, but — as is common knowledge – that bout fell to pieces when it came out that Benn had tested positive for a banned substance identified as Clomifene, a fertility drug in women that boosts testosterone in men. Making things worse for Benn, it came out that he had tested positive on VADA-administered tests on two separate occasions spaced several weeks apart. Try as they may, promoter Eddie Hearn and his partner Kelle Sauerland were unable to sway the British Boxing Board of Control into backing off on their edict that prevented the fight from going forward; the authorities wouldn’t budge.

As noted in a story that ran on this website, the Benn-Eubank Jr implosion was a particularly infernal shipwreck. The plug wasn’t pulled until two days before the fight, by which time all 20,000 seats at London’s O2 Arena had reportedly been sold.

Conor Benn predictably insisted that he was innocent, calling it a witch-hunt. The World Boxing Council subsequently lifted its suspension of Benn, citing a report in a medical journal that showed that Clomifene could appear in one’s system via an excessive consumption of eggs. With his father Nigel, a former two-division world champion at his side, Conor argued his case on a popular British TV talk show and persuaded many to see him as a sympathetic figure, the victim of a flawed testing process.

Interest in a Benn-Eubank Jr fight dissipated when Eubank was knocked out by Liam Smith, but was then rekindled when Eubank won the rematch in a dominant fashion. Various news reports say that Hearn has begun preliminary negotiations to resurrect the fight with his eye on a date in December.

As noted by several prominent fight writers, notably Dan Rafael, Conor Benn hasn’t yet been cleared to resume his career in the UK. An independent National Anti-Doping Panel gave him the green light, but the BBBofC is appealing that decision. Promoter Frank Warren, Eddie Hearn’s chief rival, has ventured the opinion that Team Benn is disrespecting the sport by returning to the ring before the process has run its course. In rebuttal, Eddie Hearn says the Benn-Orozco fight has the blessing of the (USA) Association of Boxing Commissioners which made this determination after consulting with the BBBofC.

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