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Springs Toledo’s eBook Excerpt: “The Uncanny” (Chapter 3)

Springs Toledo

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Greb

It ain’t business. It’s personal. 

Roy McHugh was a sports editor and columnist-at-large for the Pittsburgh Press until he retired in 1983. He’s a hundred and three now; still living in the Smoky City with a treasure trove of memories. He told me he shook one of the dukes of the St. Paul Phantom himself in 1924, only five years after those dukes were flying at the head of Harry Greb.

McHugh spent his childhood in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He was nine and in his pediatrician’s waiting room when he picked up a copy of the Boxing Blade “and got hooked.” His pediatrician was a friend of Mike Gibbons, who had a gym in St. Paul and was managing fighters at the time. When the once-great middleweight came to town, the good doctor introduced McHugh and his brother to him. A week later a set of boxing gloves arrived at the boys’ address. A note was attached:

    Put on these gloves and do your stuff,

    Prepare for the days when roads are rough;

    You’ll get a little groggy, but just give bad luck an uppercut.

Greb-Gibbons II was scheduled for June 23, 1919. Ringside seats sold for $10, $7.50 and $5. Grandstand seats were $3 and $2 plus war tax. Requests for reserved seats were coming in from towns and cities across Ohio, Indiana, and West Virginia, particularly those Greb had invaded. A contingent hanging around the training camps of heavyweight champion Jess Willard and challenger Jack Dempsey arrived in from Toledo.

Seven thousand streamed into Forbes Field to see what a master boxer could do against an avowed anarchist the second time around. Gibbons had gotten the better of him back in 1917 and figured he’d do it again. Greb, favored to win and with bravado on display, knew Gibbons was the goods. George A. Barton, sports editor of the Minneapolis Tribune did too. “A toss of the head, a slight twist of the body, and an intended kayo punch will finish in a foolish wave to the fans in the gallery,” he said. Gibbons spent a novitiate sparring with luminaries like Joe Gans and knew all the tricks that leave a “frustrated battler steaming about in fury.”

That was exactly Greb’s plan—steaming about in fury.

Jim Jab liked Mike. “Fistic class puzzles many mortals,” he wrote in the first line of the next morning’s Pittsburgh Press. “They fail to understand its fine points, its timing, feinting, and foiling. Among the hundreds of Pittsburgh fans…scores belonged to this clan.” In his estimation, which was a lonely one, anarchy won no more than two of the ten rounds. The Daily Post and the AP gave Greb six to Gibbons’ three with one even. The Gazette Times had Greb up six to two with two even.

Greb, avenged, took home $5,514.50 and continued on with the big get-even. In July, he caught up with Joe Chip in Youngstown, Ohio. Chip was and remains the only fighter to ever lay him out for the count. “It was funny how it all happened,” said Greb about the 1913 match. “Everything was going along smoothly until Chip started a long swing… instead of ducking the swing, I ran flush into it.” For days afterward, Greb said there were “sweetly caroling birds” in his head.

But he was a novice then. This time, he won all but one round. He toyed with Chip and laughed when his friends tried to spur him on. Hissed by the crowd and warned by the referee for using his head in close and for hitting in the clinches, he dropped his defense to let Chip do what he could in the last round. It wasn’t much. Chip, under siege in the final seconds, was forced into a corner and turned his back.

Avenged again, Greb headed home and cooled his jets for a week. Mildred accompanied him to Conneaut Lake in the northern part of Pennsylvania. “Great guns!” blared a headline. “Greb Loafs for a While!” To Greb it was “a summer’s rest.” A friend wondered at that.

“Rest? Why you haven’t rested at all!”

“Any time I’m not fighting three times a week,” said Greb, “it’s a vacation for me.

*****

Columnists tended to present Greb as a clean-living young man who never bragged and always credited his opponents. That image was a half-truth at best. Greb was as much a tangle of contradictions as anyone else, more so even, though his personality traits—the virtues and the vices—stirred up something that is off by itself in boxing history.

Those who knew him said he needed to fight often, that he thrived on “his marathon plan of meeting them all, one after the other.” He typically asked for two things—“fair terms” and “the hardest guy” and as a result, negotiations were rarely much more than an offer on one side and a shrug and a signature on the other.

Throughout his thirteen-year career, he was lionized for his “gameness” more than anything else. Exceptional even during an era overrun with folk heroes and iron men, he glowers across a century at celebrity boxers who dilly-dally until a rival ages or breaks down and then swoop in like scavengers, picking at the remains and claiming it as something it is not.

But Greb was too willing.

He went so far as to issue a public challenge to Jess Willard and said he’d donate his purse to the Red Cross. When Fred Fulton fought at Madison Square Garden, Greb was moving with every punch and murmuring that he’d pay $5,000 to fight Fulton that night. He opened negotiations with Luis Firpo, and said he’d fight Harry Wills in an arena or a gym just to prove that the best African-American heavyweight in the world wasn’t much. All of them towered over him and outweighed him by at least fifty pounds, which suggests that Greb either had screws loose or was a misanthrope raging against all men, including himself.

He was moody, surprisingly vain, and quick to take offense. If he lost a fight, he was known to call it a frame-up and at times announced his suspicions as facts. If he failed to dominate an opponent, he’d insist on another match and sometimes another and another to make sure his supremacy was understood.

When a bulletin was posted outside the Pittsburgh Press announcing Jim Jab’s opinion that he’d lost a fight the night before, Greb happened by and saw it. He ripped it off the board and threw it on the street. Then he went looking for Jim Jab.

In March 1919, he read about Ed Tremblay’s contention that he made Greb quit in the King’s Tournament and added Greb’s name to his record with a “KO 2 rounds” beside it. Greb promised “the beating of his young life for his presumption.” Tremblay wouldn’t fight him.

After one of his bouts in New York City he went to an all-night joint in Greenwich Village. The morning paper came in and he flipped to the sports section. Westbrook Pegler was there with Red Mason, watching him. “Harry read the stories, moving his lips, then pushed the papers away and sat with his face in his hands.” Mason leaned over to Pegler. “His wife’s sick,” he said. “He’s all busted up about it.”

“Hey,” Greb looked up. “Them bums say I blew a coupla rounds to that guy tonight. What do them bums know?”

In October 1919, the old “White Hope” heavyweight Frank Moran said Greb got a boxing lesson in a recent match, and Greb headed for the telephone. “Now listen,” he told the Daily Post. “You put a piece in the paper telling Frank Moran that if he really wants to fight, he’s looked far enough. I’m his man. What I mean is that he’s mine. Size doesn’t impress me.” Greb posted a grand for a forfeit and his manager was ready to bet that Moran would not only lose big, he would “break ground” when Greb engaged him toe-to-toe. Moran went quiet.

At times he seemed to target siblings—the Chips, the Gibbons—as if on a blood campaign. In the summer of 1912, we can place him in Wheeling, West Virginia for what looks like a spur-of-the-moment professional debut against Young Stoney Ritz. What happened in that fight is a mystery, but he returned to Wheeling twelve years later to fight Stoney’s younger brother. In the second round, Greb hit Frankie Ritz with a triple right hand combination that landed Ritz on his back with his feet “tangled grotesquely” up in the ropes. Ritz had to be carried to his corner; Greb walked off “without having disturbed his slicked and glossy hair.”

He rarely went down, but if he did, you were in for it. Soldier Buck claimed he knocked Greb down with a right hand and didn’t think he’d get up. “But he did—at the count of four. He then proceeded to beat me to death,” he recalled. “For two days after the fight, friends had to lead me around. Both of my eyes were closed.” There are reports of crowds howling at the referee to stop the carnage when Greb was in one of his sadistic moods, when he sought to prolong punishment out of “pure meanness.”

He was just as mean during sparring sessions. While Greb was training for a bout in a New York gym, Mason invited Jack Sharkey to spar with him. Sharkey, who went on to become the world heavyweight champion in 1932, sent a light heavyweight over instead. Greb felt slighted, got mad, knocked the light heavyweight out, and started taunting Sharkey—“Come on over!”

Roy McHugh described his fighting style as “an uprising of nature.” Clouds of rosin dust were kicked up as he tore after any and all, blitzing them to the body and the head, mauling, head-butting, yanking them off balance, ramming them through the ropes, and grinning the whole time. One of his favorite moves was to curl his left glove around the back of a neck and whale away with his right. And he’d laugh off criticism.

In the summer of 1919, he faced a parade of fighters who had no affinity for him, nor he for them. He relentlessly mocked Big Bill Brennan. Battling Levinsky couldn’t bring himself to tip his hat to Greb after yet another decisive loss. Knockout Brown and he were “enemies of long standing.” There was “bad blood” between him and Mike Gibbons and “the feeling is real,” said the Press. “Harry and Mike detest each other.” Jeff Smith shared a ring with him seven times, which exponentially increased their mutual antipathy. “They hate each other,” said the Daily Post.

Kid Norfolk can speak for all of them. “That Greb was mean,” he said in 1938, and opening his shirt, pointed near his sternum. “See that lump, big as an egg? Greb gave me that with his head. Still sore.”

What was driving him? There is evidence of disturbance in the historical record, in the little deaths a fat, crooked-eyed, grammar-school dropout they called “Icky” could be expected to suffer daily; in the choice of a confirmation name that promised violence, in the “wild rage” his father recalled—wild rage that thousands would buy tickets to witness.

Greb became famous for forcing his adversaries—those who would hurt him—backward and on their heels to put himself, the former victim, in control. In other words, his fighting style reflected his psyche. So did his nom de guerre. The name “Harry” was adopted at the onset of his career and is assumed to be a loving tribute to a dead brother, but it’s more than that. Icky Greb was a frog who imagined himself into a king, and the king had a name. “Harry Greb” was his reconstructed self, the man he aspired to become—fearless, ferocious, and covered in glory.

Memories of his ferocity wouldn’t fade for decades. Red Smith couldn’t bring up Gene Tunney’s name without shuddering at what was done to him by the “bloodthirsty Harry Greb,” he said in 1968; by the “carnivorous Harry Greb,” he said in 1973.

And yet Greb was always genial toward those who meant no harm. His neighbors on Gross Street liked him for “his sunny disposition.” He’d greet civilians with a smile and a warm handshake, and often shared stories filled with Jazz-era slang and devoid of proper grammar. He doled out tickets and whatever else he had in his pockets to the Pittsburgh newsboys who followed him around like his own personal cheering section. When he learned that one of their counterparts in Omaha scaled the wall of an auditorium to watch him fight and fell to his death, Greb sent his parents a check.

He counted many priests among his friends. Father Cox never had to ask twice if he needed him to volunteer at the Lyceum. The late-night knock on the rectory door at Immaculate Conception never startled Father Bonaventure; he knew it was Greb, back from out of town and stopping by with a donation. On Sundays, Greb went to Mass and limited his training to a long walk. He prayed novenas. Before a fight, he would seek out a priest for a blessing on his efforts. “He made quiet little visits to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, asking for aid,” said Father Cox, who believed those prayers were answered—“He fought with the courage of a David. He never knew fear and was never tired.”

If he lost his temper or wronged someone who didn’t deserve it, he would apologize immediately and mean it. He didn’t always beat up on opponents. At times he would take it easy on substitutes who couldn’t hang with him, and when faced with a situation that would give him an unfair advantage, he’d behave as if a nun from St. Joseph’s was watching.

His loyalty is a favorite theme of half-forgotten folk tales. One of them begins with a frantic phone call from Youngstown where a friend had stopped for a drink and was being treated roughly. “Stay right there,” Greb said, then sped seventy-four miles north and barged into the saloon. He was still tossing the brute around when the bartender appealed to his friend to make him lay off. “I can’t afford to replace this whole joint,” he said.

In November 1919, young Jack Henry showed up at Greb’s training camp in Beaver Falls and was stopped at the entrance. The boy’s accent was familiar to Greb. “Are you a Limey, kid?”

“Yes,” Jack replied. “And in England they say you’re the greatest fighter in the world.”

“Let the kid in.”

A few nights later, Greb was beating up on Zulu Kid at the Nonpareil A.C. and there’s Jack in his corner, in charge of the bucket and sponge.

****

By the time Greb took Mildred and his contradictions to Conneaut Lake in July 1919 he was at the very least the greatest boxer in his division. But the only thing atop his head was a straw boater hat. He wanted a crown, and Mildred couldn’t buy one at The Rosenbaum Company at Sixth, Liberty, and Penn. It wasn’t like today—if you were a name-fighter back then the Five Points Gang didn’t dangle a belt and a random opponent in front of you for a percentage. And if they did, that era’s sports writers would have spotted the sham and shamed it into extinction. Greb had to find a way to get an official shot at the middleweight champion, and that was Mike O’Dowd.

Greb had already defeated two of O’Dowd’s predecessors in unofficial bouts, and in 1918 came damn close to defeating O’Dowd himself in what the Minneapolis Journal called “one of the most sensational bouts ever fought in the twin cities.”

Mason had a master plan for 1919. “Now what I intend to do is have Greb fight every man anywhere near his weight,” he said, “and really show who is the best fighter in the middleweight class.” He would force O’Dowd to the table.

Things were finally beginning to simmer in July when O’Dowd told the Gazette Times he’d be “tickled to death to get a crack at Harry Greb in a bout in Pittsburgh.” Other cities were also vying to match them. The Tulsa World mentioned that O’Dowd’s manager agreed to give Greb a shot at the title and O’Dowd “gave his word.” A week after that, a promoter in Tulsa said he signed O’Dowd to defend his title against Greb. At the end of July, an athletic association in Toledo said O’Dowd and Greb were set to meet on Labor Day. The New York Daily News was among those carrying the story. The problem was no one told Mason, who by then was wringing his hands over O’Dowd’s refusal to meet Greb.

On August 5, a matchmaker with the Keystone Club in Pittsburgh was trying to make the fight and flew to New York to meet with the champion and talk him down from the $7500 guarantee he was insisting on. On the 18th there was still talk of Toledo until O’Dowd put the nix on it—“positively refusing” to meet Greb before late in the fall.  On the 27th, Greb stepped off the train in New York to meet man-to-man with O’Dowd, who said that he would accept Greb’s challenge for September 29 in Pittsburgh if his take was $5,000 with a better than 25% of the gate. It fell through. A promoter in Cincinnati signed Greb to “meet the best opponent he could get on the night of the opening game of the World Series” (later remembered as the Black Sox Scandal of 1919) and tried for O’Dowd. He figured he could do better than the flat fee of $5,000 Pittsburgh offered, but he couldn’t, and it fell through.

And so it went. From July through September 1919, promoters in Tulsa, Toledo, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati all tried and failed to sign O’Dowd to face Greb.

The middleweight king had his defenders though, even in Pittsburgh. Sergeant O’Dowd, after all, was said to be knee-deep in grime in the forest of Argonne during the war while Greb was stationed on a training battleship with a dummy smokestack and wooden guns in Union Square.

“Mr. O’Dowd is quite a man—to be explicit—all man,” said the Evening Tribune. But Greb made him nervous.

Ed Smith, a Chicago fight critic who refereed Greb-Gibbons II may be the reason why. A story was making the rounds that said Smith spoke with the champion in Toledo just before Jess Willard fought Jack Dempsey, and “solemnly warned Mike that ‘if he cared anything for his title, stay away from this fellow Greb.’” In November, O’Dowd faced Mike Gibbons five months after Gibbons lost to Greb. In December, he planned on touring Europe.

Had O’Dowd risked his crown against Greb in 1919, it is very likely Greb would have taken it a year earlier than his wife’s deadline, and, given his easy defeat of then-champion Al McCoy, about two years later than he could have. As it happened, Greb’s middleweight reign would not begin until 1923—after O’Dowd’s successor Johnny Wilson continued the tradition of eluding him for three years plus.

****

Greb was the bête noire of the light heavyweights and his ambitions were unsurprisingly blocked there as well. Gene Tunney, among the greatest boxers the division ever produced, learned early on that there was something of an abyss behind Greb’s dark and deadpan eyes. “He is not a normal fighter,” he was told. “He will kill you.”

In March 1919, Mason was arguing that Greb was the rightful middleweight and light heavyweight champion of the world. He justified it by pointing out victories over Jack “The Giant Killer” Dillon and his successor Battling Levinsky. At the end of the month, Greb boosted the argument further by beating Billy Miske, another star in the division. The claim was only hype, but many considered the title lapsed as Levinsky rarely defended it.

In September 1919, Greb demanded a chance and nearly got it.

The Miami A.C. in Dayton, Ohio had signatures from Levinsky and Greb to fight to a decision on the 8th. Greb wired them and insisted that Levinsky make a hundred seventy-five pounds ringside to make sure the crown was up for grabs. The date was switched to the 12th, the 8th, and then back to the 12th before it was postponed until the 15th because Greb was reportedly in a Pittsburgh hospital with boils on the back of his neck. Levinsky, in Dayton on the 12th, headed back to New York. The bout was called off altogether when the promoters couldn’t get in touch with him. Did he go on the lam? He never went near Greb again.

Levinsky was, of course, ready to accept a lesser challenge for more money. In October 1920, he defended against “Gorgeous” Georges Carpentier at Jersey City for 20% of the gate minus state taxes. The gate was $350,000 which means Levinsky’s take was $65,000. Carpentier had his way with him, knocked him out in the fourth round, and did his part to look like something promoter Tex Rickard could market as a credible opponent for heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey. In July 1921, Dempsey did his part and knocked Carpentier out in the fourth round, also at Jersey City. It was boxing’s first million-dollar gate. Carpentier earned a $300,000 purse—over four million today.

Greb could only hang his head.

He’d been trying for a fight with Carpentier since he went overseas during the war. In June 1919 there was talk of a $15,000 purse to meet him in France and in December 1919 Mason was still campaigning for a match in London or Paris.

Greb turned up at Carpentier’s training camp in Manhasset, Long Island before the Dempsey fight. Columnist Robert Edgren asked Greb if he’d like to take him on. “Any time,” Greb said, “on a day’s notice.” Later that day the two were introduced and Carpentier, who stood near six feet tall, laughed when he saw Greb, who stood no more than five eight. He’d heard all about this berserker running riot in three weight classes and said he expected a much bigger man. Greb muttered that he was “big enough” and asked him for a match.

Carpentier was friendly, but he wasn’t eager. He’d heard too much.

About a week before Dempsey-Carpentier, Greb was rolling his eyes at the French champion’s depiction by the press as “a man of destiny” and the so-called secret punch he was supposedly working on at his conveniently closed camp.

He was rolling his eyes again in Billy Lahiff’s tavern in New York City when the sports writers’ talk turned to Carpentier’s chances. Greb broke in. He asked them if they would like to know how good Carpentier was and then invited them to go with him to crash his training camp the next day. “If they let me box him I’ll prove to you he doesn’t stand a ghost of a chance,” he told them. “He can’t beat me, much less Dempsey.” A huge delegation went with him. Carpentier’s manager had a conniption fit. “No! No! No!” he said.

When Greb made Tunney look like a murder scene and took the second-rate American light heavyweight title in May 1922 at Madison Square Garden, Rickard strolled toward the ring as Tunney, “a bloody ruin,” was assisted out of it. Rickard told press row that he would offer Carpentier $150,000 to fight Greb for the light heavyweight championship of the world in July. Carpentier’s answer? Mieux vaut prévenir que guérir.

In June 1922, the AP reported the Frenchman’s “unexplained annoyance when the Pittsburgh fighter’s name was mentioned.” It can be explained now. He saw Greb around every corner, under the bed, in the closet; he saw his shadow on the terrace sipping noisette.

In September 1922, promoter Jack Curley was said to be in Paris securing Carpentier’s signature to defend his crown against Greb. That was just days before Carpentier met Battling Siki. Fate knocked Greb out of the frame when Siki knocked Carpentier out of his shoes.

Greb could do nothing about fate, though he could do something about Siki. “I will meet Siki anywhere in the world,” he said. “Anytime, anywhere.” Three offers came in. Greb was revving up when Siki inexplicably agreed to defend against Mike McTigue in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day of all days.

Siki was robbed, McTigue was handed the crown, and Greb was sidetracked again. McTigue, he knew, would keep that crown in a locked box. He had faced McTigue twice already, and McTigue was lucky if he’d won one round in twenty. The first time they met, McTigue’s manager was hollering “Hold him, Mike!” from the first through the tenth rounds. “I think McTigue hit Greb once,” said the matchmaker. “‘Hold him’ Mike McTigue is in a class by himself when it comes to holding.”

McTigue was tentatively scheduled for a no-decision bout against Greb in June 1923 as a tune-up before facing Carpentier in July. McTigue was set to collect $100,000 to let him try to reclaim the crown and everyone was smiling until Carpentier hurt his hand and the date was postponed. McTigue’s manager by then was Joe Jacobs, who surprised him by elevating the Greb no-decision match to a championship match. McTigue made a noble statement about how willing he was to give anyone a shot and then priced himself out of reach.

McTigue lost the crown to Paul Berlenbach in 1925. Greb, middleweight king since 1923, told the Pittsburgh Courier that he preferred to face the plodding Berlenbach and become a double champion but was obligated to accept a greater challenge in Tiger Flowers instead.

Two years before Jack Delaney won the light heavyweight crown from Berlenbach, Greb signed to face him and was training hard when Delaney came down with appendicitis and cancelled.

Three years before Jimmy Slattery won the light heavyweight crown from Delaney, Greb beat him in his hometown.

Between 1922 and 1924, Greb went 4-1-1 against Tommy Loughran, Slattery’s successor.

In 1925, five years before Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom beat Slattery to become Loughran’s successor, Greb did as he pleased with him and then reportedly returned to the night club where his unfinished highball waited on a table.

Had Battling Levinsky risked his light heavyweight crown against Greb in 1919, Greb almost certainly would have taken it. As it was, he proved himself a master of the division—barreling out of Pittsburgh to face six of the ten light heavyweight champions who reigned from 1914 through 1934. As the smoke cleared, his record against them stood at 16-1-1. Those he didn’t face, he chased.

The smoke is still clearing. What comes into view is startling: the greatest light heavyweight who ever lived may have been a middleweight.

__________________________

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

Matt McGrain

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

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.

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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.

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Leo Upends Williams as Boxing Returns to ‘Showtime’

Arne K. Lang

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Showtime Boxing kicked off their late summer/fall season tonight with a three-fight card behind closed doors at the Mohegan Sun Casino Resort in Uncasville, CT. Tonight’s show is the first of nine live boxing events that the cable TV giant announced on July 22. The season will run through Dec. 12 with the concluding match a WBC bantamweight title bout between defending title-holder Nordine Oubaali and ageless showstopper Nonito Donaire.

Unfortunately for Showtime, there was a COVID-19 complication right out of the box. Philadelphia bantamweight Stephen Fulton, who would have been the “A” side in tonight’s main event, tested positive on Wednesday, forcing some shuffling. Tramaine Williams was bumped up from the co-feature to challenge Angelo Leo for the WBO world super bantamweight title vacated by Emanuel Navarette.

Angelo Leo hadn’t prepared for a southpaw and it took him a bit find his groove, but he found it and won a fairly lopsided decision over a previously undefeated opponent who was fighting in his home state. The scores were 117-111 and 118-110 twice.

Leo, 26, worked the body well and had more fuel in his tank as the bout progressed into the late rounds. In winning, Leo became the first world title-holder from Albuquerque since Johnny Tapia. Promoted by Floyd Mayweather’s “Money Team”, he advanced his record to 20-0. It was the first pro loss for New Haven’s Williams who fell to 19-1.

It figures that Leo will make his first defense against Stephen Fulton.

Other Bouts

In another 122-pound match that was also penciled in for 12 rounds, Ra’eese Aleem thoroughly outclassed late sub Marcus Bates en route to a 10th round stoppage. This was their second meeting and Bates, who entered the contest 11-1-1, was looking to avenge his lone defeat. In their initial go in Philadelphia in April of 2018, Aleem won comfortably on the scorecards. Bates recently explained that loss away by saying that he believed that someone tampered with his water bottle, giving Aleem an advantage.

Aleem, 30, steadily broke Bates down. The referee halted the one-sided match when Bates, who appeared to have sprained his right wrist, turned his back on Aleem after absorbing a hard left hook. Aleem, the pride of Muskegon, Michigan, improved to 17-0 with his 12th knockout.

In the opener, a light heavyweight match slated for 10 rounds, Houston’s Joseph George (11-0, 7 KOs) landed a bombshell of a left uppercut in the ninth frame to put away Marcos Escudero (10-2) who was well ahead on the scorecards when lightning struck.

This was a rematch. When they fought last November on ShoBox, Escudero outworked George, but George landed the crisper punches and prevailed on a split decision. Escudero, who is from Argentina but had his early pro fights in Florida, outworked George again (George likes to fight with his back against the ropes, a strategy he needs to reconsider) but as they say, it only takes one punch in this business, and Joseph George, who is managed by NFL all-pro tackle Trent Williams, brought the howitzer.

Photo credit: Amanda Westcott / Showtime

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