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A New Book on Jack Dempsey is Worth a Look

But certain new arrivals sometimes are promptly moved to the front of the line, which was the case with The Million Dollar Man: Jack Dempsey

Bernard Fernandez

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Dempsey

My personal library contains hundreds of books, dozens of which this voracious reader has yet to get around to. There is, after all, only so much time in any given day to spend large chunks of it curling up with a mystery novel or biography of a notable person. But certain new arrivals sometimes are promptly moved to the front of the line, which was the case with The Million Dollar Man: Jack Dempsey, authored by Thomas Brennan, which came in the mail recently with a written request from the publisher (Regent Press of Berkeley, CA) that I kindly review it for the edification of would-be purchasers.

Well, OK. The life and times of William Harrison Dempsey – the “Manassa Mauler’s” birth name – is of such import that it has been covered at length in previous literary ventures, including Round by Round, Dempsey’s autobiography written in conjunction with contributor Myron M. Stearns, and Dempsey, again written by the great man himself with input from Jack’s stepdaughter, Barbara Piatelli Dempsey. There aren’t wide swaths of untilled soil in The Million Dollar Man (a reference to Dempsey being the attraction in the first five fights to generate million-dollar live gates), and some of Brennan’s prose tends to be excessively flowery, as was frequently the case with such legendary early-20th-century sports writers as Paul Gallico, Damon Runyan and Grantland Rice, inflatable garden slide whose ruminations on the most compelling sports superstar (along with New York Yankees slugger Babe Ruth) of the Roaring ’20s include descriptions of the punches Jack delivered as “lusty cracks” and “wallops.”  But a bit of excess is perhaps allowable if the lead character is larger than life, and the nearly century-old past from which Dempsey emerged serves as prologue. Bits and pieces of the enthralling road traveled by Dempsey were played out, in one form or another, by such later heroes of the ring (or anti-heroes, depending on one’s point of view) as Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and Mike Tyson.

I admittedly remain a moth drawn to Dempsey’s flame because of his connection, however tenuous, to my all-time favorite fighter, a quite unrenowned welterweight whose professional record was 4-1-1, with just one victory by knockout. But Jack Fernandez, like Jack Dempsey, came into this world with a different birth name. He departed this mortal coil at age 74 as Bernard J. Fernandez Sr. on March 4, 1994, my father’s nickname having been conferred upon him as an amateur by someone who compared his boxing style – crouching, bobbing and weaving, always coming forward – to that of the infinitely more celebrated former heavyweight champion.  Some yellowed clippings of Dad’s fighting days variously describe him as a “left hook specialist” and a “wild-hooking slugger.” I wish I had video of him in action, but I do have a poster from 1944 in which his name appears right under that of main-eventer Archie Moore.

But I digress. Gallico once described Dempsey (and this particular passage is not in Brennan’s book) thusly: “His weaving, shuffling style of approach suggested the stalking of a jungle animal. He had a smoldering truculence on his face and hatred in his eyes.” Brennan supports the notion of Dempsey as predator, claiming that he “singlehandedly brought shock and awe to the sport of boxing like no one before or since … The Manassa Mauler backed down to no man in the ring. He stalked his opponents much the same way a tiger stalks his prey.”

Many of the better fighters from every era arise from abject poverty, and Dempsey was no exception. He was the ninth of Hyrum and Celia Dempsey’s 13 children, and perhaps the only one predestined to follow a particular career path. Before Jack was born, his mother had read and re-read a book given to her by an old peddler, Life of a 19th Century Gladiator, supposedly authored by John L. Sullivan but no doubt assisted in no small part by a ghost writer. Celia told Jack years later that, before he was born, she wanted her next male child to be the next John L. Sullivan.

In truth, Harry – which is what the rest of the family, which relocated often in search of better financial opportunities, called him – was preceded as a boxer by older brother Bernie, who for reasons unstated billed himself as Jack Dempsey. But Bernie had a liability, a glass jaw that precluded him from ever making it big as a fighter. In the hope of avoiding the pugilistic fate that had befallen Bernie, Harry – then going by the nom de guerre of “Kid Blackie” in mostly unsanctioned (and unrecorded for historical purposes) bouts – chewed rosin gum to strengthen his jaw muscles and soaked his face in beef brine to toughen his skin and make it less susceptible to cuts.

“Who knows how many fights I had between 1911 and 1916?” the former Kid Blackie said years later, after he had officially switched his ring (and legal) name to Jack Dempsey in tribute to the retired Bernie. “The record books don’t contain them, and I couldn’t name the number or identify all the faces today if my life depended on it. I’d guess a hundred. But that’s still a guess. Whatever the number was, it wasn’t enough to support me. To fill the gaps and my belly, I was a dishwasher, a miner or anything else you could dig up in Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Idaho – I dug potatoes and beets, punched cattle, shined shoes and was a porter in the Hotel Utah in Salt Lake City.”

In search of more and better-paying fights, and to capture the attention of nationally influential sports writers, Dempsey relocated to New York City. He did have some spot success – Damon Runyon was the first columnist to refer to him as the “Manassa Mauler,” a reference to the Colorado mining town in which he was born, and a sobriquet which eventually took root with the public – but the constant struggle for recognition wore on him and he moved back to his comfort zone out west.

Except that Dempsey’s comfort zone wasn’t any more comforting than New York. He was still scuffling along, considering quitting the ring, when a fortuitous turn of events – a barroom brawl – essentially turned his life around. He was having a drink in a saloon in Oakland, Calif., when he noticed several men attacking another bar patron, who was by far getting the worst of it. Jack went to the aid of the customer being pummeled, driving off the assailants. The guy he saved from taking a more severe thrashing was Jack “Doc” Kearns, a boxing manager, who figured anyone that handy with his fists had to have boxing potential. He immediately offered to take his accidental savior under his wing.

Kearns might have been many things, not all of them good – Dempsey later claimed Kearns had shortchanged him on several purses, and the two had a bitter falling-out that led to Kearns filing a lawsuit against his onetime meal ticket – but their association soon began to pay major dividends, with Jack rising to the position of the top-ranked heavyweight contender to champion Jess Willard after he starched the previous No. 1, Fred Fulton, in a mere 18 seconds on July 27, 1918.

But Willard, nicknamed “The Pottawatomie Giant” (for his hometown of Pottawatomie, Kan.) at 6-6½ and 245 pounds, dismissed Dempsey as too small to pose much of a threat. Kearns and Dempsey were obliged to embark on a nationwide tour in which Dempsey registered five consecutive first-round knockouts in early 1919 while constantly chirping for Willard to come out of hiding and face him. Given the immense size difference – the 6-foot-1 Dempsey was scarcely 180 pounds then – there was some concern that Willard might lethally dispose of the mouthy challenger, as he had six years earlier when another opponent, John “Bull” Young, died of a brain hemorrhage a day after he was knocked unconscious. Willard even asked Kearns to provide written assurance that no attempt would be made to file charges if he did unto Dempsey what he had done to Young.

America was still not that far from its frontier days when the Willard-Dempsey fight finally took place on July 4, 1919, in Toledo, Ohio. Legendary Old West lawmen Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp, serving as human metal detectors, were charged with the responsibility of collecting guns and knives from armed fans before they could enter the outrageously hot stadium.

Willard was correct, in a sense; a slaughter did indeed take place. But it was not Dempsey’s health and well-being that were in jeopardy, it was Willard’s after the ferocious aspirant to the title – perhaps spurred on by the knowledge that Kearns had bet $10,000 of their money (at 10-to-1 odds) on him to win by first-round knockout – beat the champion bloody in the process of flooring him seven times in that opening stanza. Willard was counted out by referee Ollie Pecord after the last of those knockdowns, but the bell sounded just prior to the toll of 10, obliging the battered Willard to submit himself to more punishment while Kearns and Dempsey missed out by a couple of ticks on $100,000 additional income on the wager. Willard did not come out for the fourth round, having gone down twice more in round three.

Handsome in a rugged, outdoors kind of way with his chiseled physique, jet-black hair, bushy eyebrows, piercing eyes and mesmerizing air of malevolence, Dempsey, already on the way there, was instantly confirmed as the USA’s new king of the ring following his beatdown of the favored Willard. Damon Runyon, ever the wordsmith, wrote that Willard’s submission came “just as the bell was about to toss him into the fourth round of a mangling at the paws of Jack Dempsey, the young mountain lion in human form, from the Sangre de Cristo Hills of Colorado.”

But those placed upon a pedestal learn fast that the fall from grace can be swift and damaging. Dempsey was soon thereafter denounced as a “slacker” after reporters learned he had not served in the U.S. military during World War I, prompting Grantland Rice of the New York Tribune to temper his praise of the new titlist’s ferociousness inside the ropes with his presumed lack of patriotism outside of them.

“Let us have no illusions about our new heavyweight champion,” Rice wrote. “He is a marvel in the ring, the greatest hitting machine even the old-timers have ever seen. But he isn’t the world’s champion fighter. Not by a margin of 50,000 men who either stood or were even ready to stand the test of cold steel and exploding shell for anything from six cents to a dollar a day.”

By and by, Dempsey’s undeniable charisma and crowd-pleasing savagery in plying his trade won over that portion of a nation, and the world, that would have preferred him to have included a Sergeant York chapter in his thickening book of pugilistic accomplishments. During a trip to Europe he literally had to fight off female admirers, and his popularity soared to a point that an envious Babe Ruth reportedly considered taking up boxing before coming to his senses and sticking with baseball.

A four-round destruction of France’s Georges Carpentier was the first of five fights involving Dempsey to have generated million-dollar live gates, to be followed by those against Luis Angel Firpo, Jack Sharkey and the two losing matchups with Gene Tunney, his stylistic opposite.

Where Dempsey had always fought to win as quickly and emphatically as possible, a boiling pot of explosive energy always on the verge of eruption, Tunney, a former Marine, was a scholarly type who, despite a decent KO percentage, considered boxing to be something of a sweaty but nonetheless intellectual pursuit.

“I am here to train for a boxing contest, not a fight,” Tunney said before the rematch with Dempsey on Sept. 22, 1927, the notorious “Long Count” bout. “I don’t like fighting. Never did. But I’m free to admit that I like boxing.”

Such comments by Tunney did not set well with fans that preferred Dempsey’s familiar go-for-the-jugular aggression. Gallico claimed that Tunney’s image was that of a “priggish, snobbish, bookish fellow, too proud to associate with common prizefighters.”

By the time an aging Dempsey, by now accustomed to taking long breaks between fights, entered into his fire-and-ice meetings with Tunney, however, his internal blaze was already set to low flame. Even a jungle cat might be capable of fighting mad only so long. Even before his epic slugfest with the much larger Firpo, in which the Argentine went down nine times and Dempsey twice in two rounds, the champion spoke wistfully of the changes brought about when the desperation of poverty is replaced by the comfort of wealth and privilege.

“Maybe I can’t take as much now as I took then,” Dempsey said. “It’s much easier you know and more fun fighting your way to the top and defending it. Being champion isn’t as great as it seemed before I was champion. I have more money and softer living, but there are more worries and troubles and cares than I ever dreamed of before. The glory and even the money don’t mean as much as they did in the days when you belonged only to yourself – not the public.”

Now, regarding those parallels between Dempsey and those who would later fill his role and his shoes as elite heavyweight champions. That crouching, swarming, no-reverse-gear, left-hook-heavy attack? “Smokin” Joe Frazier fits the bill.

What about the controversy and loss of fan support that arose from Dempsey’s lack of military service during wartime? Sounds a lot like Muhammad Ali staying on the sidelines during Vietnam, doesn’t it?

Dempsey’s bitter split with his longtime manager, Kearns? How about the unpleasant professional separation of Mike Tyson from his disliked co-manager Bill Cayton after the two father figures in Iron Mike’s life, Cus D’Amato and Jimmy Jacobs, passed away?

Nor were Dempsey’s marital difficulties lastingly unique. His first wife, Maxine, was a prostitute 16 years his senior. His second wife, Estelle Taylor, was a stunningly beautiful model and actress who detested her husband’s boxing friends and considered them to be low-class and beneath her station. Tyson’s first wife, Robin Givens, apparently didn’t much care for anything about him except for the lavish lifestyle he was able to provide her.

Fortunately for Dempsey, his post-boxing life was as rich and fulfilling, in its own way, as had been his ring career. Not only did he enjoy a long and successful run as a New York restaurateur, but he served in the Coast Guard during World War II and was part of the American assault on Okinawa in 1945, when he was 49. Doing so mollified whatever holdovers were still resentful about his non-participation in the so-called war to end all wars.

If there is a lingering knock on Dempsey, it is the lack of black opponents on his otherwise sterling resume. He never did swap punches with such highly capable men of color as Sam Langford and Harry Wills, a taint that still clings in part to his legacy and is a shameful reminder of the bigotry prevalent in America in the early 20th century. It should be noted, however, that Dempsey urged promoter Tex Rickard to arrange a fight with Wills, but Rickard either was unwilling or unable to do so because of the tense racial politics of that time. Too many managers and promoters remembered the race riots that erupted throughout the country after Jack Johnson, a black man with swagger, conquered James J. Jeffries in 1910.

Dempsey was 87 when he died on May 31, 1983, but he remains a pivotal figure in the first golden age of American sports in the 1920s, a heyday also marked by Ruth, football’s Red Grange, golf’s Bobby Jones and tennis’ Bill Tilden. If you think Tom Brady and LeBron James are big deals today, beamed into your living room or den in high-definition color with regularity by the miracle of satellite communications, imagine yourself and a dozen friends hunched around an upright radio, listening to an excited announcer describe the majesty of a Ruth home run or a Dempsey knockout.

The very inaccessibility of such athletes in the 1920s stamped them as wondrous, almost mystical individuals. Were they mortal men, hewn of flesh and bone? Or did some elixir of the gods course through their veins, enabling them to extend the boundaries of athletic capability to limits once thought unimaginable?

The Million Dollar Man might not be a long (262 pages) or classic read, but its subject matter will grab anyone who wants to know more about one of the fight game’s most enduring and cherished legends. It might make a nice Christmas present for any fight fan willing to open an important portal to boxing’s past.

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George Kimball Remembers Budd Schulberg: A TSS Classic

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On this day in boxing history, Aug. 5, 2009, the great screenwriter, novelist, and essayist Budd Schulberg passed away at age 95. His passing inspired this tribute from his friend George Kimball, the longtime boxing writer for the Boston Herald who was then retired as a full-time newspaperman and writing extensively for this web site.

NEW YORK — I could tell from the choking sound on the other end of the line that the news wasn’t going to be good.  It took him awhile, and when he finally got it out, the best his son could manage was “He’s gone…”

Budd Schulberg was 95 years old and had been in ill health for several months, so it was hardly unexpected, but the unsettling moment arrived late Wednesday afternoon when Benn phoned to tell me his father had passed away an hour earlier. Budd was a giant in our field, and a giant in many others as well. He was the only man ever to have both won an Oscar and been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, but he was also my dear friend of many years, and I miss him already.

*  *  *

Budd Schulberg was 15 years old in 1929 when he sailed to England with his father, the Hollywood mogul B.P. Schulberg.  On that crossing the Schulbergs made the acquaintance of a fellow passenger on the Ile de France, a Georgia boxer named William Lawrence Stribling, who boxed under the nomme de guerre Young Stribling.

Upon learning that both Schulbergs were enthusiastic boxing fans, Stribling promised them a pair of ringside tickets for his upcoming bout at the Royal Albert Hall, where he was to fight an ungainly Italian giant named Primo Carnera.

If watching his father drop what he described as “a casually reckless wager” of 1,000 pounds when Carnera won by disqualification wasn’t enough to inspire a healthy skepticism in the younger Schulberg, the result of the return match certainly did. In what appeared to have been a pre-arranged scenario, Carnera and Stribling  met again in Paris three weeks later, and this time Carnera returned the favor by getting himself disqualified in the seventh round.  The episode made an indelible impression on Schulberg, who years later would base his cautionary boxing novel “The Harder They Fall” on the illusory rise and inglorious fall of Carnera, the heavyweight champion known as “The Ambling Alp.”

Now, think about this.

Eighty years later, this time by more modern contrivance, Budd returned to London again. This past February he flew over for the premier of “On the Waterfront,” a stage adaptation of his Academy Award-winning 1954 screenplay, at the Theatre Royal in Haymarket. Perhaps determined to reprise all facets of that 1929 rite of passage, he and his wife Betsy went from London to Paris, where they spent a week in the city that had hosted Stribling-Carnera II. They returned to London, where they attended yet another performance of On the Waterfront.

Afterward Budd repaired to a nearby pub with the cast of the London production, and spent the night celebrating with the cast. When he became ill on the flight back to New York the next day the initial assumption was that the partying was to blame, but what it really was was the onset of old age. This was particularly unsettling for Budd, because he was a month shy of his 95th birthday, and he had never before felt — or seemed — particularly old. Not to himself, not to any of us.

Benn Schulberg and I were at Madison Square Garden that night, at the Cotto-Jennings fight, when he got the phone call telling him that his dad had been taken off the plane at Kennedy Airport in a stretcher and rushed to the emergency room at Jamaica Hospital. Somewhere over the Atlantic his blood pressure had dropped alarmingly, and he barely had a pulse.

Budd improved enough over the next few days to be moved to Mt. Sinai in New York, where he could be under the care of his cardiologist, and eventually he was allowed to be home, but he remained in a weakened state. He had been in congestive heart failure for some time, and he had a chronic lung condition, the result of having sucked down some toxic fumes in a home kitchen fire several decades earlier, and then a couple of months ago he was well enough to undergo what was supposed to be routine surgery to repair a hernia. That’s when they found the cancer in his belly

There were several phone calls over the next few weeks while Budd and Betsy deliberated the various options, and since I’d had to make similar choices in the past, they consulted me on the matter. I’m not sure how helpful I was, other than to recommend an insistence on getting a full recitation of the potential benefits and consequences from whichever specialist had their ear at the moment, but in the end Budd opted for treatment. In June he came straight from a chemo appointment to attend the Boxing Writers dinner (where he received a standing ovation), and then just a few weeks ago he attended a staged reading of On the Waterfront in Hoboken. The event, by the New Artists Theatre, featured some cast members of “The Sopranos,” on the turf Schulberg’s play had immortalized, and the aura of corruption of the 50’s era had just been revived when the FBI took town a bunch of New Jersey mayors (and rabbis) a few days earlier.

“He probably shouldn’t have, but at the last minute he told me he wanted to go,” reported Benn. “He was in pretty bad shape, and I think everyone could tell that.”

“I certainly could,” said Lou di Bella, who was also in attendance that night. “I knew then that it was probably the last time I’d see him.”

*   *   *

I find myself thinking about the better times, and they weren’t so very long ago at that.  Budd and Betsy had dinner with us at our place here in New York several times over the past few years, and when it finally became apparent that climbing the stairs of an old brownstone built before the age of elevators was a burden, we met for dinner in more nonogenarian-friendly locales. A year ago March we’d attended his 94th birthday party at an Upper West Side restaurant, along with his family and a few friends, including the artist LeRoy Neiman and the actress Patricia Neal, who’d starred in the film of Budd’s “A Face in the Crowd” half a century earlier.

Even though he could doubtless feel it closing in on him over those last few years he refused to make the normal concessions to age. A couple of years ago when we were in Vegas for the Mayweather-De La Hoya fight there was a late lunch with myself, Budd and Benn, and Michael Katz. We had to find a place with a television set so we could monitor the progress of the Kentucky Derby bets we’d placed at the sports book earlier in the day. During football season, especially come playoff time, and for a big fight we’d decided not to attend in person, we’d often gather at Benn’s apartment, order up obscene quantities of food and beer, and then try to stick one another with the tab through an intricate series of wagers, usually devised by Budd.

I’m 65, and at these gatherings I was often the second-youngest person in attendance. Budd didn’t hang out with many people his own age, mainly because people his own age were mostly dead. But any father will tell you he’d rather have no better friend than his own son, and Benn, who didn’t even come along until Budd was 67, was unquestionably Budd’s best friend, his constant companion at ringside.

* *  *

I’d read Budd in my youth, long before I met him, beginning, as most do, with “What Makes Sammy Run,” without even understanding at the time the bedrock of personal experience underlying that book, or that its publication would, as his father had warned him it might, severely retard what had been a promising Hollywood career. It didn’t kill it altogether, of course. Budd was assigned to co-write a script with another member of the newly-fallen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and while that project turned into a disaster, it did provide the basis for another splendid book based on the experience, “The Disenchanted.”

He straddled the worlds of literature and pugilism throughout his life, but unlike some of his more boastful contemporaries he was not a dilettante when it came to either. He sparred regularly with Mushy Callahan well beyond middle age. The night of the Frazier-Ali fight of the century Budd started to the arena in Muhammad Ali’s limousine, and then when the traffic got heavy, got out and walked to Madison Square Garden with Ali. A year before Jose Torres died, Budd and Betsy flew to Puerto Rico and spent several days with Jose and Ramona at their home in Ponce. Art Aragon was the best man at his wedding. And when push came to shove, he put on the gloves with both Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer and kicked both of their asses, though not, as some would now claim, on the same night.

*   *    *

Budd and I had sat together at another Boxing Writers Dinner at least a quarter century earlier. I remember being pretty full of myself, because I’d just come back from a fight in Vegas where I’d had a pretty good week at the tables as well. I’d not only won what seemed to me a ton of money but had spent enough time at the tables that Gene Kilroy had gotten the casino to comp my room — after they’d already issued me a receipt that would satisfy the bean counters at the newspaper.

As I was remarking on the delicious irony of it all, Budd punctured my reverie long enough to ask “Let me ask you this, George. Could you have afforded to lose $5,000?”

He knew I had two small children, and that of course I couldn’t. He then proceeded to tell me the cautionary tale of his own father, whose gambling Jones put his family at the brink of bankruptcy a couple of times. That night told me the story that would later appear in Moving Pictures, the biography of his early days in Hollywood, of the floating poker game that convened at the Schulberg manse just before young Budd was sent to his room to do his homework. When he came downstairs for breakfast eight hours later, his father was still at the table, where he was writing out a check for $20,000 to Chico Marx.

He was afflicted with a lifelong stammer that seemed to grow worse when he became excited or impatient, which wasn’t often. It has occurred to me more than once over the years that this probably evolved into an asset to his writing and his unerring ear for dialogue, because most conversations were so essentially one-sided that he became a very good listener.

*   *   *

In World War II he served in the OSS, and in the war’s aftermath was part of the prosecution team at the Nuremburg Trials, where his job was assembling photographic and film evidence for use against the Nazis on trial for war crimes.

He had been a Communist Party member in the late1930s, but had long since repudiated his ties after he had seen firsthand the evils of Stalinism. Although unlike many former CP members he retained a leftist stance on social and political issues throughout his life, he was tarred by his agreement to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. Many of his colleagues who refused were blacklisted, and lives were ruined. Budd was branded a pariah in some circles, but in his own mind his politics hadn’t wavered.

The episode did make him fair game on another front, particularly when On The Waterfront, directed by another former party member-turned-friendly witness, Elia Kazan, emerged in 1954. Kazan had earlier worked on another waterfront-themed project called “The Hook” with the playwright Arthur Miller. The biographer Jeffrey Meyers would later claim that “Miller had refused to turn the gangsters into communists, as the Columbia Pictures mogul Harry Cohn and the Hollywood union bosses wanted him to. The film was later written that way by Budd Schulberg (another self-serving friendly witness’) as On The Waterfront.”

As preposterous as the allegation seems — there are no more any bad-guy communists in On the Waterfront than there were in “A View from the Bridge,” the play Miller eventually wrote from “The Hook.” Moreover, Budd had purchased the rights to a New York Sun series about the Jersey docks as early as 1947, years before Miller’s brief flirtation with Kazan.

“When I was working on ‘On the Waterfront,’ I didn’t know about Arthur Miller,” Budd told an English newspaper in London back in February. “They were absolutely two separate, if overlapping, projects.”

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Budd said at the time he resented the accusation “because it made me seem like I was trying to imitate Arthur Miller and walk in his footsteps. I didn’t like it.”

Miller died without the two men ever discussing the subject. This summer I was invited to read at a literary festival, the Listowel Writers Week in Ireland. Another of the invitees was the novelist and director Rebecca Miller, who in addition to being Daniel Day-Lewis’ wife is also Arthur Miller’s daughter. One morning at our hotel there I read her the offending passage from Meyers’ book.

“That’s absurd,” she said. “I’m sure my father never believed that. A View from the Bridge and On the Waterfont were always going to be two separate plays. One had nothing to do with the other.”

I know I told Benn about that conversation when I returned from Europe. But now it occurs to me that I never got a chance to tell Budd, who would have, I suspect, found it comforting.

*  *  *

Over the past few weeks Pete Hamill and I had spoken often of going out to Westhampton to visit Budd, but between our travel schedules and his medical issues the timing never seemed right. Benn was with him last weekend and reported that even then he was plainly struggling to breathe, in considerable discomfort. He seemed to sense that it was time to go, and as it turned out it was their final goodbye. When Benn got the news that his father had been taken to the hospital in Riverhead Wednesday afternoon he jumped straight into his car. By the time he got there Budd was already dead.

“But,” said his son as he choked back the tears, “he had a pretty good run, didn’t he?”

Yes, he did.

EDITOR’S NOTE: George Kimball died on July 6, 2011, after a six-year battle with esophageal cancer. In the last years of his life he was highly productive, authoring the widely acclaimed “Four Kings: Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, Duran, and the Last Great Era of Boxing,” and two boxing anthologies in collaboration with John Schulian.

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The Top Ten Super Bantamweights of the Decade: 2010-2019

Matt McGrain

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It has been interesting to see how transient fighters are when they inhabit the smaller divisions. Up at cruiserweight, fighters spent on average 50% of the decade in their division to earn their spot among the top ten; here at 122lbs it is nearer 30%.

This results in a list of fighters with less purchase on the list, generally. Occasionally though, even at the smaller weights, a fighter will rack up a list of serious victories in a short space of time and hit the heights – and the divisional stalwart is also not unheard of. Here, one of each of these type towers over the rest of the decadal division but the numbers ten through three kick up a lot of interesting fights, and some very interesting fighters.

In accounting for these fighters, the term “one hit wonder” is used liberally. Here I am not seeking to denigrate either the fighter or his wider opposition; it merely denotes a fighter who has one win of real significance which is often accounted for in some detail.

This is another symptom of a generation of fighters happy to put on a mere four pounds to visit the next division up for their next big test.

10 – Rico Ramos

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 16-6 Ranked For: 18% of the decade

The tenth slot was a shootout between Kiko Martinez, who did a little more at the weight, and Rico Ramos, who did a little less, but who was defeated at the poundage only by Guillermo Rigondeaux; Martinez, meanwhile, was thrashed twice by Carl Frampton and once by Scott Quigg. The Scott Quigg tilts me towards Ramos, whose purple patch of 7-1 gets him over the line.

The jewel in his super-bantamweight crown for the period January 2010 until December 2019 was his come-from-behind knockout victory over Akifumi Shimoda, one of the top contenders of 2010 and 2011. Shimoda himself has a claim to the number ten spot based primarily upon his superb victory over Ryol Li Lee, but Ramos eliminated him when they clashed in Atlantic City in July of 2011.

Ramos, an American of Puerto Rican descent, had been boxing since he was eight years old but seemingly had no answer to the Shimoda jab which was opening up other opportunities for the Japanese; Ramos, circling to his right at the beginning of the seventh, brought Shimoda onto a left hand, but it was unheeded and Shimoda continued to boss the real-estate and find a home for his bodypunches. A right hand from Rico seemed to gather his attention though and having landed yet another left Rico finally had his man rooted to the spot, and circling, he landed a left hand as beautiful as any thrown in the 122lb decade. Shimoda was up at nine but immediately took a second header to the canvas.

Ramos was chased from the division by Rigondeaux, as noted, but certainly there is no shame there.

09 – Rey Vargas

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 34-0 Ranked For: 42% of the decade

Rey Vargas has traced an old-fashioned career arc, occupying a spot at super-bantamweight since 2015 and slowly creeping his way up the ranks to inhabit the number one spot, without, really, meeting anyone to justify that ranking. Sometimes longevity is its own reward.

His highest-ranking victim was Tomoki Kameda, and it showed when they met in July of last year; Tomoki had real success early and took a handy lead out of the first third of the fight. Vargas though is a freakishly tall superbantam at near 5’11 and he has the reach to match. From the fifth on, he deployed a controlling jab birthed by a pedigree amateur career that has been augmented by some serious professional experience. The double-uppercut right hand he landed in that round set him apart; the cards may have been a little wide but clearly Vargas was the right man.

He was the right man too five months previously when he was faced with another tough assignment in Franklin Manzanilla. Manzanilla, out of Venezuela, had scored an impressive victory over Julio Ceja in just four rounds in his previous fight and set some problems for Vargas with his rushes and fouling. Vargas found himself with cuts over both brows from “accidental” head-clashes as early as the eighth and Manzanilla had two points docked for hitting on the break and pushing. But Vargas showed some of his best boxing, dominating at distance with the jab and outlanding Manzanilla with fluid combination punching when they met at mid-range.

Vargas has a little more depth than these two fights – Azat Hovhannisyan and Ronny Rios have both made waves since he beat them – but they remain his fistic cornerstones, and despite some impressive boxing this makes him borderline for inclusion. His paper record and longevity in the ratings at 122lbs has seen me favour him over one-hit wonders like Jeffrey Mathebula and Akifumi Shimoda.

08 – Isaac Dogboe

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 21-2 Ranked For: 18% of the decade

Isaac Dogboe’s pressure appeared functional rather than thrilling before his big step up against Jessie Magdaleno in 2018. Magdaleno had been inactive but had also defeated no less a figure than Nonito Donaire in 2016 and was heavily favoured.

In the first round Dogboe was dropped while pressing Magdaleno too hard and he lost the third too, to a gorgeous Magdaleno counter left. But all the while his pressure was beginning to look a little more than workmanlike. He was adept at keeping Magdaleno moving and again and again Dogboe, out of London via Ghana, would fetch his man up against the ropes and let go. Still very much in touch on the scorecards after four, Magdaleno was being aggressively outgeneralled and was steadily losing touch with the fight. His solution was to come out at the opening of the fifth and attack; Dogboe promptly dropped him with a single left hook.

Dogboe so dominated Magdelano that night that the favourite found himself in need of a knockout by the ninth. The then world’s number one super-bantamweight showed no sign he might achieve it and in fact slipped further and further from his technical best, eventually reduced to sagging on the ropes and beckoning Dogboe in. It was a sorry sight and one the referee interrupted in the eleventh after Dogboe perpetrated the second knockdown of the round over his withering opponent.

It was an impressive and rather unexpected performance, albeit against an opponent who seemed to struggle a little with rust after a year out of the sport and it set Dogboe up as the world’s number one super-bantamweight.

Dogboe never added to his 122lb legacy though; his own nemesis was lurking in the wings.

07 – Emanuel Navarrete

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 31-1 Ranked For: 26% of the decade

Like Dogboe, Emanuel Navarrete fought the usual learning fights, stepped up to take on some journeymen and was then launched right into the deep end to face off with the world’s number one super-bantam. Dogboe-Navarrete was a fascinating contest in that it pitted a Johnny-come-lately against an even more recently arrived contender. Dogboe, as the man with the pedigree opponent on his ledger, was favoured.

Navarrete, who is tall with a reach that seems planetary, allowed Dogboe inside to do his work. It felt wrong and even dangerous until Navarrete landed a triple left hook, up and down, on the inside, to win the second round. From here he controlled the fight, impressive and dominant in out-fighting the smaller pressure fighter whose nightmare had come to visit him in the ring: a fighter he could not push back but rather who was pushing him back. The ninth through twelfth were a parade, the bigger man marching down the smaller pressure fighter in what amounts to the most disheartening position a pugilist of any kind can find himself.

Unfortunately for Dogboe he had a rematch clause. Navarrete, who now knew how Dogboe moved, thought and fought, beat him mercilessly in that rematch. The fight becomes difficult to watch around the eighth; Dogboe’s corner, brave to the near last, finally pulled him as he was blasted to the canvas in the twelfth and final round.

It seemed to me that something special had emerged in that fight, but the truth is we don’t yet know. Navarrete has fallen afoul of the ABC strap he wears in defending against underqualified challengers whose selection for their “title shot” is based upon matters other than fistic. So, the jury remains out on Navarrete, who nevertheless was impressive enough in his twin maulings of Dogboe to comfortably make the list.

06 – Jessie Magdaleno

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 27-1 Ranked For: 22% of the decade

Here, we meet the last of the one-hit-wonders on the list but Magdaleno possesses the finest of all of them: Nonito Donaire. Donaire, it is true, had had some of the glitter removed by Guillermo Rigondeaux, but in November of 2016 he remained the top contender to the legitimate title he had once held. Then Magdaleno came calling.

What most impressed me was Donaire’s near abandonment of his left hook. It was oft repeated that he had one of the “best left hooks in the sport” and if Bernard Hopkins had established the removal of such a potent weapon much ink would have been spent on his exaltation. Magdaleno was less fashionable and has remained so, but it was a wonderful technical achievement. Moving unhurriedly, seeking for single shots, he countered beautifully throughout with the right jab and right hook of his own, taking every opportunity to strike without – shades of Hopkins again – ever over-extending himself. The result was Donaire sheathing his own hook in obedience of the rule that you don’t hook with a hooker, while Magdaleno freely threw his own; to the body, especially, he was prestigious.

Donaire went to the straight right and a fascinating tussle ensued, summed up perfectly in the ninth where Donaire hurt Magdaleno on the ropes, only for Magdaleno to charge him and dominate the remainder of the round, putting him out of sight on the cards; Donaire closed with real strength as Magdaleno’s energy waned.

But the decision clearly belonged to Magdaleno.

It was not too long after this that Magdaleno ran into Dogboe. The reasonable question would be, if Dogboe beat Magdaleno how does Magdaleno come to be ranked above him here? It’s a fair question. The mathematics, for me, says that Magdelano’s defeat of Donaire is more impressive than Dogboe’s defeat of a rusty Magdaleno; I accept that this is arguable but balk at Magdaleno as low as eight given his wonderful performance against Donaire.

05 – Toshiaki Nishioka

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 4-1 Ranked For: 19% of the decade

Toshiaki Nishioka was the number one super-bantamweight coming into the decade and remained so until he was removed by the sumptuous power-punching of Nonito Donaire (and an over-excited referee).

How you feel about his overall standing here will depend upon how you feel about Rafael Marquez and his standing in October of 2011. Having lost three of his last six, including two of those wars with Israel Vazquez, Rafael was ostensibly on the slide, but the fight itself shows a fighter that, while no longer at his withering best, remained stoic and technically brilliant, very much a fighter that had to be mastered.

This, Nishioka did. To this day he maintains that Rafael is his most skilled opponent and he boxed with great care to control him, refusing to contest the inside and avoiding any over-commitment with the jab. Meanwhile he drilled Marquez with his trailing left, a wonderful punch that he throws with as much variety as anyone this century. Flying it quickly to the body was his stock in trade in the early going but he began to risk a wilder, wider, harder punch when he realised how wary Rafael had become. Rafael had success, not least in the second half of the eighth round where it seemed he might actually assume control of the fight, but Nishioka out-fought and out-worked the former lineal champion in the tenth and eleventh to put the decision to bed. It was a deeply impressive performance that cemented his status as the first number one super-bantam of the decade.

Nishioka’s other wins do little other than demonstrate his superiority over the field, especially his October 2010 contest with Rendall Munroe. Munroe brought guts but little else as the fight turned into something of a parade down the stretch; still, re-watching it was worth it for the feinted straight and uppercut through the middle that Nishioka used to tilt Munroe’s head back in the third.

Placing him at number five is a borderline call, but Nishioka was a clearer number one than anyone running eight through six. I am happy that should see him placed above, rather than below, the one-hit wonders.

04 – Leo Santa Cruz

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 24-1-1 Ranked For: 27% of the decade

Leo Santa Cruz departed 122lbs in 2015 with his undefeated record intact having made his impact on the first half of the super-bantamweight decade. His meaningful arrival at the poundage, the equivalent of a Mack truck pulling up inside a jewellery store, came in August of 2013 against Victor Terrazas. Terrazas, a tough, dangerous fighter was unsupported by the type of chin that would have made him genuinely world class. Nevertheless, the world’s number two contender was a serious proposition for Santa Cruz, and was coming off a nerveless, brutal battle with Cristian Mijares which he won by the narrowest of margins.

Terrazas started aggressively as Santa Cruz brought pressure, all high guard and work-rate. But, as we saw while looking at featherweight, Santa Cruz is much more than that. His punch selection is excellent, his sense for the backfoot superb for a front-foot fighter, his jab is thudding and accurate but he can box squarely enough – weight generally over his back leg, when he does so – to lead with the right without courting disaster. Terrazas was complimented during fight commentary for “making this an inside fight” – but an inside fight suits Santa Cruz just fine. He has reach and the technique to use it but is comfortable trying to land punches behind the elbows.

The two fought on even terms until they didn’t, when towards the end of the second Santa Cruz, tougher and better, opened up while the two stood head to head at the ropes. Terrazas emerged wounded and in the third, emerged giving ground. Dropped twice, he seemed broken in part by the psychological pressure, although it was the consistent, severe punching that did the damage.

Santa Cruz’s number two win was over Mijares, undoubtedly damaged goods, but still ranked. Santa Cruz couldn’t stop him, but what he did was in many ways worse: in a fight as different as that with Terrazas as could be imagined, he thrashed Mijares and rendered him a fistic irrelevance.

Santa Cruz was a very dangerous super-bantamweight.

03 – Carl Frampton

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 24-2 Ranked For: 35% of the decade

Carl Frampton slotted in right behind Santa Cruz at featherweight, but here he nips in just ahead of his great rival. A clash at 122lbs would have been helpful though – there is very little to separate them.

What does separate them is the additional work Frampton did at the very top of the division. He met no fewer than three top five contenders during his time fighting as Guillermo Rigondeaux’s understudy – the Cuban was champion throughout Frampton’s stay at the poundage – and soundly defeated all of them.

First up was Kiko Martinez, who Frampton had already defeated in a European title tussle but met again in 2014. Frampton, who probably entered his peak that night, couldn’t put the more experienced Martinez away as he had in their first fight but he did dominate almost completely with a healthy mix of jabs and bodyshots. Chris Avalos, who failed miserably when he moved up to featherweight but was a serious super-bantamweight, visited Frampton’s Belfast stronghold in 2015.  This was Frampton’s finest performance at the weight, his right hand excellent, despite the scruffy squabbling in the second his dominance near-complete.

Frampton’s final fight at 122lbs showed the toll weight-making was taking upon him. He was dominant over the first six against a reticent Scott Quigg, even breaking his jaw in the fourth, but the Englishman came on in the second half of the fight which was, in the end, very close.

Santa Cruz was more impressive in the victories he did have at 122lbs but it was Frampton, in the end, who scored the more numerous and more impressive victories.

02 – Nonito Donaire

Peak Ranking: Ch. Record for the Decade: 18-5 Ranked For: 25% of the decade

The decade 2010-2019 produced two legitimate super-bantamweight champions and it is fitting that these two lead the pack. Nor is it close – there is so much clear blue water between Nonito Donaire at #2 and Carl Frampton at #3 that they may as well be on different lists.

Donaire stepped up to 122lbs in 2012 and immediately tackled a divisional strapholder, the number eight contender, Wilfredo Vazquez; after taking a decision form him over the twelve, it was Jeffrey Mathebula, the number six contender who towered over Donaire but nevertheless gave up a similar decision. This second fight is crucial because against both he and Vazquez it is possible to see Donaire over-reaching, under-boxing, pushing far too hard for the knockout which he openly demanded of himself in the press. In the tenth round of his fight with Mathebula, Donaire was so completely out-boxed that in the eleventh and twelfth he limited himself to his more direct sphere of influence and in doing so dominated Mathebula completely, cracking one of his teeth in the process. You could almost hear the penny drop.

I consider that Donaire found himself at 122lbs that night and the result was Donaire’s 118lb form suddenly materialising in the super-bantamweight division. His next fight was against no less a figure than Toshiaki Nishioka, the most accomplished fighter in the division, a meeting between the two best super-bantams in the world and so the beginning of a new lineage at the weight. Donaire was the absolute pinnacle of cool as far as his inherent aggression would allow; he won every round and devastated Nishioka in the ninth round of a non-competitive rout propelled by his right hand rather than left hook. When he butchered Jorge Arce two months later, in December of 2012, he had completed the single best unbroken run of the decade at 122lbs and one of the better runs at any weight.

This being boxing, the end of that run was just around the corner.

01 – Guillermo Rigondeaux

Peak Ranking: Ch. Record for the Decade: 15-1 Ranked For: 92% of the decade

Donaire met with Cuban amateur legend Guillermo Rigondeaux in April of 2013 in a huge fight between the two best super-bantamweights in the world. It was also as one-sided as any top tier match of the decade as Rigondeaux, in absolute control for ten of the twelve rounds, picked Donaire’s wings off in a study of lethal economy.

Rigondeaux breaks rhythm. A combination of feints, very astute defensive dips and slips and single power-punches make establishment of offense against him agonising. Donaire, a fluid fighter who counter-pressures his opponents to the canvas, was particularly afflicted by the Rigondeaux malaise.  Rigondeaux threw infrequently; still he out-landed Donaire in every round but one.

The Cuban spent the years in which Donaire was tying together his superb 122lb run emerging from the pack and was just 6-0 when he tangled with number five contender Ricardo Cordoba. Rigondeaux dominated with ease until Cordoba snapped his head back with a jab, flashing him.  Rigondeaux responded in away entirely unacceptable to the American fight fraternity: he ran away.

Rigondeaux took a split decision and learned his final lesson: professional fighting in America calls for more fighting than amateur boxing does anywhere. Rico Ramos, then still unbeaten at 20-0, was the man to bear the brunt of this newly learned lesson as he was blasted to the canvas in the first round and tormented through the sixth when a body punch – and the better part of valour – kept him on the canvas.

So Rigondeaux was primed when he stepped into the ring with Donaire, for all that he was professionally inexperienced. Donaire was made to understand it and the litany of excuses he laid out after the fight – his shoulder was bad, he didn’t study his opponent, his was distracted by his wife’s pregnancy – could not disguise his out-and-out inferiority to Rigondeaux.

The argument as to who would be the decadal number one at 122lbs ended there, but there is more to recommend Rigondeaux as one of the longest serving lineal champions in boxing. In a division that sees fleeting commitment, even by its most prominent fighters, Rigondeaux’s devotion to super-bantamweight has been unusual.

He never became the superstar his management wanted to make him – too technical, too careful, too defensive – but there is no questioning his status as the best of the decade.

Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel 

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Remembering “Doin’ Damage”

Ted Sares

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Remembering-Doin'-Damage

On June 3, 1997, Darroll “Doin’ Damage” Wilson met Courage “No Limit” Tshabalala at Philadelphia’s legendary Blue Horizon where no seat was a bad seat. The fight was a true Philly Classic, one of the most exciting fights of the year. The result was a surprise, but not as surprising as the upset that Darroll Wilson pulled off in March of the previous year when he fought the much bigger Shannon Briggs at the Convention Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Wilson vs. Briggs

Brooklynite Shannon Briggs (25-0) had achieved a reputation for being a guy who ended his fights early, as in first-round KO’s, but on this occasion, things kind of reversed themselves, as the gutsy Wilson (15-0-2 going in) survived a furious first round and then used his superior skills to shockingly take out “The Cannon” with a sharp left hook two rounds later.

Wilson, who lived close to Atlantic City in Mays Landing, N.J., had done considerable damage to his opponents until he met David Tua (24-0) in Miami and was KOd in the last second of an otherwise even first round by the streaking “Tuaman.” But losing to the short but super-powerful Tua was no disgrace. In fact, for Darroll, the best was yet to come.

 After beating limited Ron McCarthy, Darroll met the highly-touted Tshabalala (20-1). “Courage” had previously been shocked by Brian “Bam Bam” Scott (21-3) in the late Scott’s career definer in 1996, shattering the myth of the South African’s extraordinary power and alleged 72-1 amateur record (with 71 knockouts). Scott won using a fast and sharp combo, stopping him in the second round. Most of the 270-pound native of Kansas’s opponents had losing records which further amplified the shock factor– though Courage’s level of opposition was equally suspect.

Wilson vs Tshabalala (June 1997)

After Ed Darian Derian announced the fighters, the bell rang and Courage quickly decked Wilson with a power jab and then dictated matters for the rest of the round as he went on the stalk. The second round was uneventful until the last 15 seconds when Tshabalala opened up with a number of power shots. Wilson answered, but his answer came after the bell for which he received a firm warning.

Late in the third round, Wilson was hit clean by a perfect Courage right cross. He went down hard, got up, and then fell back down on Queer Street. Just as Referee Rudy Battle was about to signal the end of the fight, the round ended and Wilson was allowed to continue. Lou Duva, Courage’s manager, protested the call in his usual hyper/hysterical fashion but to no avail. Lou’s signature protests had acquired the feel of the little boy who cried wolf too often and this one was no exception.

Tshabalala came out fast in the next round trying to put away a still stunned Wilson, but the muscular Darroll did what he did against Briggs and, weathering the fierce storm, began to connect with his own shots. Both men went at it full-tilt boogie until the South African, exposing a stamina issue, finally went down, spit out his mouthpiece, and was counted out. He had nothing left. The Blue Horizon went bonkers.

Tshabalala had now participated in one of the upsets of the year and one of the most exciting fights of the year. Though a loser in both, he was nevertheless on everybody’s radar.

Bert Cooper (September 2002)

Darroll would go on to win some and lose some but against the very best opposition including David Izon, Frankie Swindell, Mike Rouse, Tim Witherspoon, Ray Mercer, and Oliver McCall. He ended his career in 2006 with a 27-10-2 slate and– before he took three years off–he scored another big win by stopping Bert Cooper (36-21) at the Blue Horizon in 2002. After this loss, Bert himself would take an eight-year hiatus from boxing, but for all practical purposes, he was done. (Cooper was a tragic figure with a deceptive record—a quintessentially sad boxing story– and the ups and downs of his life beg for a telling.)

As for Darroll Wilson, he always gave his best and on at least three occasions, he did some remarkable damage.

Ted Sares can be reached at tedsares@roadrunner.com or on Facebook.

Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel 

To comment on this story in the Fight Forum CLICK HERE

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