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Whereabouts Unknown, but Quite Dead: The Sad Saga of Barbados Joe Walcott

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The birth date of many antiquarian fighters is in dispute. Joe Walcott, whose name was adopted by a man who went on to win the world heavyweight title, is no exception. Named the greatest welterweight of all time by Nat Fleischer, Walcott was born on April 7, 1872 or March 13, 1873 depending on the source. But what’s unusual about Walcott is that even the date of his death is uncertain. Some say Oct. 1, 1935 and others pinpoint Oct. 4 of that year. Both dates are approximations.

Walcott was born in Guyana and spent his formative years in Barbados before arriving in Boston in his mid-teens. He supposedly arrived as a cabin boy on a ship and was marooned after overstaying his shore leave. When he took up boxing, he was working as an elevator operator or a piano mover. Again, reports differ. Regardless, Boston became his home and he remained in the Boston area for all but a few of the last years of his life.

As boxers go, Walcott was a freak of nature. He stood only five-foot-one-and-a-half, was barrel-chested with virtually no neck, and had extremely long arms. He held the welterweight title for the better part of four years beginning in 1901, but would be best remembered for conquering men much bigger than he.

Walcott was a stablemate of George “Little Chocolate” Dixon, a man who in his prime was rated the best pure boxer in the sport. When George Dixon hit the vaudeville circuit between important engagements, as was the custom for an important fighter in those days, the Barbados Demon, as he was called, often accompanied him, either serving as his valet or boxing a local man, perhaps a plant in the audience, in a bout with a short ceiling, customarily four rounds. On those occasions when he and Dixon were both “taking on all comers,” the audience got a doubleheader. Walcott also frequently worked as Dixon’s second, working alongside their manager Tom O’Rourke, and would become a frequent sparring partner of the famous heavyweight Sailor Tom Sharkey after Sharkey came east and joined the O’Rourke stable.

The wily and politically-connected O’Rourke handled mostly black fighters and had enough juice to match the best of them with good white fighters during an era when interracial fights were banned in many places, ostensibly because they were tinderboxes of racial discord.

Walcott’s signature win was a seventh-round stoppage of Joe Choynski. They met in New York on February 23, 1900.

Walcott knocked him down five times in the opening round and kept up a steady assault until the referee halted the massacre. This was the same Joe Choynski who had fought a 20-round draw with James J. Jeffries, then the reigning world heavyweight champion, and would soon KO the formidable up-and-comer Jack Johnson.

Like so many of Walcott’s fights, his match with Choynski, a super middleweight by today’s taxonomy, was fought at catchweight; Barbados Joe was out-weighed by 16 pounds. By Walcott’s standards, this wasn’t a large deficit. The following year he went out to San Francisco and scored a 20-round decision over George Gardner, a man who would come to be recognized as the world’s light heavyweight champion. According to the San Francisco Call, the crowd laughed when the fighters were brought to center ring to get their instructions from the referee. Gardner was the taller man by 11 inches.

Folks also laughed when Walcott fought Fred Russell in Chicago. Russell weighed 215.

We have heard of fighters landing an uppercut of such ferocity that their opponent is lifted off the ground. Joe Walcott turned this image upside-down. It was written that his feet were six inches off the ground when he toppled Fred Russell with a smash to the jaw. From that point on, Russell fought timidly, lasting the six-round distance which, by prearrangement, earned him a draw.

“Walcott,” said Tom O’Rourke in a 1903 interview, “was one of the hardest men to manage I ever had. He did not want to train, but was so strong that it did not make much difference… He could take an amount of punishment that would have sent a white man to the hospital for repairs.”

Walcott had then broken free of O’Rourke although they would reconcile. Declaring his independence was a bold move on Walcott’s part as O’Rourke was a hard-boiled guy with pals in the underworld. “Somewhere in New York there is an extremely black and squat negro who, if the truth were known, probably is in mortal terror of his life,” said a story in a Connecticut paper.

Walcott crammed 138 documented fights into a career spread across 19 years. (He missed all of 1905 after accidentally shooting himself in the hand in October of the previous year). Typical of all great boxers, he hung on too long, winning only five of his last 21 fights. But he left the sport in good shape financially, or so it was written. A family man, he owned a nice cottage on a good-sized piece of land in the Boston suburb of Malden, Massachusetts. But his marriage unraveled and whatever savings he had eventually evaporated.

In 1932, he worked as a porter at Yankee Stadium, switching to Madison Square Garden when the weather turned cool. On the side he taught boxing at a boys’ club and refereed some informal amateur bouts. He then resided in the unheated basement of the home of a brother who had a small Manhattan ice and coal business. (An interview of Barbados Joe Walcott from 1932 surfaced last December on YouTube. The rare video is from the collection of Steve Lott, the protégé of Mike Tyson’s late co-manager Bill Cayton who once owned the largest collection of rare fight films in the world. In the video, Walcott talks about his bouts with Choynski and Kid Lavigne and talks in general terms about the current crop of fighters: “Sometimes the boys box so bad I get a little disgusted…You can’t tell ‘em anything because they know more than you.” The video is a wonderful artifact.)

Inevitably, the life story of Barbados Joe Walcott intrigued some folks in Hollywood. That is why Walcott headed west in the fall of 1935 with a man who identified himself as a theatrical agent. A studio executive was interested in talking with Joe about a potential biopic.

Somewhere in Ohio the two became separated. Walcott was last seen in the town of Mansfield. “He came to the police station one night (and told me) his partner was sick,” said the Mansfield Chief of Police. “He wanted to know where the colored section of town was located, and I asked him if he had money for a room. I directed him to the district when he told me he could pay for his lodging. I know he was down there for a couple or three days.”

The disappearance of Joe Walcott, perhaps the greatest welterweight ever, didn’t set off any alarms. He and his associate reportedly left his sister’s house in Philadelphia on Sept. 7. The quotes from the Mansfield Chief of Police ran in the Mansfield News Journal on Dec. 12.  Three months later, on March 7, 1936, this headline appeared in the Baltimore Afro-American: “Joe Walcott Still Missing After 6 Months.”

Back in early October of 1935, a man with no identification was found dead by the side of the road near Massillon, Ohio, 55 miles from Mansfield. An examination of the body indicated that he had been hit by a car. The man was buried in an unmarked grave in Dalton, Wayne County, Ohio. Ultimately it was determined that the decedent was Joe Walcott.

Walcott’s tombstone now reads “Joe Walcott, World’s Champion, 1872-1935.” It’s a nice simple memorial, but doesn’t begin to tell the story of Joe Walcott, the Barbados Demon. The little giant, as he was sometimes referenced, was a remarkable man.

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O.J. Simpson the Boxer: A Heartwarming Tale for the Whole Family

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O.J. Simpson passed away on Wednesday, April 10, at age 76 in Las Vegas where he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. For millions of Americans, news of his passing unloosed a flood of memories.

The O.J. Simpson double murder trial lasted 37 weeks. CNN and two other fledgling cable networks provided gavel-to-gavel coverage. On Oct. 3, 1995, the day that the jury rendered its verdict, CBS, NBC, ABC, and ESPN suspended regular programming to cover the trial. Worldwide, more than 100 million people were reportedly glued to their TV or radio.

O.J.’s life can be neatly compartmentalized into two halves. The dividing line is June 12, 1994. On that date, Simpson’s estranged wife, the former Nicole Brown, and her friend Ronald Goldman were found stabbed to death in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood at the home that Nicole shared with their two children.

Before then, O.J. was famous. After then, he was infamous.

Simpson first came to the fore on the gridiron. In 1968, his final season at the University of Southern California, he was so dynamic that he won the Heisman Trophy in a landslide, out-distancing Purdue’s Leroy Keyes by 1,750 votes. This was the widest margin to that point between a Heisman winner and runner-up and a milestone that stood for 51 years until surpassed by LSU quarterback Joe Burrows in 2019.

In the NFL, among his many achievements, he became the first and only NFL running back to eclipse 2,000 rushing yards in a 14-game season, a record that will never be broken.

But one can’t appreciate the depth of O.J.s celebrityhood by citing statistics. He transcended his sport like few athletes before or since. Owing in large part to his commercials for the Hertz rental car chain, he became one of America’s most recognizable people.

O.J. Simpson was raised by a single mother in a government housing project in the gritty Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. Unlike many of his boyhood peers, he was never quick to raise his fists. Weirdly, he once said that running away from fights proved useful to him when he took up football. It helped his stamina.

Although he never boxed in real life, O.J. portrayed a boxer in a made-for-TV movie. Titled “Goldie and the Boxer,” it aired on NBC on Sunday, Dec. 29, 1979, two weeks after O.J. played in his last NFL game. Co-produced by Simpson’s own production company, it starred O.J. opposite precocious Melissa Michaelson who played the 10-year-old Goldie.

In promos, the movie was tagged as a heartwarming tale for kids and their parents. Associated Press writer John Egan described it as “a cross between the Shirley Temple classic ‘Little Miss Marker’ and a low-budget ‘Rocky.’”

Here’s a synopsis, compliments of New York Times TV critic John J. O’Connor:

“The year is 1946, and Joe Gallagher is returning to Louisiana as an army veteran. He is quickly ripped off by a succession of thugs and finds himself broke and battered in Pennsylvania where he is befriended by a young Goldie. Her father is a boxer and Joe joins the training camp as a sparring partner. When the father dies, Joe takes his place on the fight circuit and Goldie becomes his manager…”

The consensus of the pundits was that O.J. the actor was very much a work in progress, but that he had great potential. And the movie, despite its hokey plot, attracted so many viewers that NBC wanted to turn it into a series.

O.J. had too much on his plate to commit to doing a regular series. Among other things, he had signed on to become part of NBC’s main stable of reporters at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, a gig that evaporated when the U.S. under President Jimmy Carter joined 64 other nations in boycotting the Games as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. However, the movie did spawn a sequel, “Goldie and the Boxer Go To Hollywood,” with Simpson and Michaelson reprising their roles.

I never met O.J. Simpson, but have a vivid memory of finding myself walking behind him into the outdoor boxing arena at Caesars Palace. If memory serves, this was the Hagler-Hearns fight of 1985, in which case the lady on his arm would have been Nicole as they were married earlier that year. She was quite a dish in that tight-fitting pantsuit and I remember thinking to myself, “of all the trophies this dude has won, here is the best trophy of them all.” (Forgive me.)

Simpson had cameo roles in several movies before leaving USC. When he finally turned his back on football, the world was his oyster. O.J., wrote Barry Lorge in the Washington Post, was “bright, affable, charming, articulate and credible, a public relation man’s dream-come true.”

No one would have foreseen the swerve his life would take.

When the jury, after only four hours of deliberation, returned a verdict of “not guilty,” there was cheering in some corners of America. The overwhelming consensus of the white population, however, was that the verdict was an abomination, a gross miscarriage of justice.

We’ll leave it at that.

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 280: Matchroom Snatches ‘Boots’ Ennis and More

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 280: Matchroom Snatches ‘Boots’ Ennis and More

It was bound to happen in professional boxing.

A British promotion company lured one of America’s top, if not the top, welterweight prizefighter in the world in Jaron “Boots” Ennis it was announced this week by Matchroom Boxing. It’s a multi-fight deal.

Ennis (31-0, 28 KOs) holds the IBF welterweight title after knocking out Venezuela’s Roiman Villa last July in Atlantic City. The Philadelphia-based fighter has long been considered one of the most talented and complete boxers in the world. And now he’s signed with Matchroom Boxing based in London.

“I’m excited for this partnership with Eddie Hearn, Matchroom and DAZN,” said Ennis. “I can’t wait to continue making my mark and becoming undisputed world champion.

It was just a matter of time before British promoters latched on to America’s best talent. Instead of pitting British fighters against American fighters, why not sign American fighters too.

Most fans in America fail to realize that boxing in the United Kingdom is a bigger more popular sport in that nation. Boxing ranks high in England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. It also ranks high in British Commonwealth countries like Australia.

Now Matchroom Boxing which streams boxing cards through DAZN will have another American star on its platform. The company previously had boxing’s biggest star, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, until his contract ran out. Signing Ennis could be the answer in finding the next big thing in boxing.

“I’ve watched this young man for many years, and I always believed he would become a pound-for-pound great, and I have no doubt he is already the greatest fighter in the division,” said promoter Eddie Hearn of Matchroom Boxing. “To win the race to sign Jaron is a massive coup for Matchroom Boxing and DAZN.”

Matchroom already has Conor Benn and the addition of Ennis gives the British promotion company two of the best welterweights in the division.

The signing of an American star like Ennis in some ways represents the international competition for sports talent whether its soccer, boxing or baseball as what we saw in the signing of Japan’s two biggest baseball stars by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Streaming has replaced television and the ability to watch fights live from any spot in the world has changed how we watch boxing and other sports.

A massive struggle by streaming giants has commenced and DAZN along with ESPN and Prime Video have joined the battle.

Manchester Card on Saturday

Two female world title fights lead the charge this weekend for Matchroom Boxing along with a men’s super featherweight clash between two former EBU titlists Jordan Gill and Zelfa Barrett.

IBF super bantamweight titlist Ellie Scotney (8-0) meets France’s Segolene Lefebvre (18-0) the WBO super bantamweight titlist in a unification match on Saturday April 13, at Manchester Arena in Manchester, England. DAZN will stream the Matchroom Boxing card.

Also, Rhiannon Dixon (9-0) meets Argentina’s Karen Carabajal (22-1) for the vacant WBO lightweight title.

R.I.P.

Promoter Gary Shaw passed away this week according to several sources including WBC President Mauricio Sulaiman.

I first met Shaw when he was COO of Main Events in the late 1990s after Dan Duva passed away. At the time Ferocious Fernando Vargas was a rising star and the promotion company was a major player in the boxing scene. They also had Meldrick Taylor, Pernell Whitaker, and Arturo Gatti on their roster.

Later, he moved on to form his own company and with fighters such as Rafael Marquez, Diego Corrales and others he staged many fights on Showtime. If I recall correctly, Shaw was connected with the Diego Corrales vs Jose Luis Castillo battles and the Israel Vazquez vs Rafael Marquez wars.

The fights between those warriors are considered the best for that period in the early 2000s.

Another sports figure, OJ Simpson passed away too.

I mention OJ because I often came across the USC Trojan football running back who lit up the gridiron during the 1960s and 70s.

As a college student I lived a few blocks from Simpson in the Brentwood area and often saw him with his family. Once while in New York City visiting a friend I ran into him again at La Guardia Airport.

Simpson was accused and acquitted of murdering his wife and her friend in 1994.

Fights to Watch

Sat. DAZN 9 a.m. Ellie Scotney (8-0) vs Segolene Lefebvre (18-0)).

Sat. ESPN 7 p.m. Jared Anderson (16-0) vs Ryad Merhy (32-2); Efe Ajagba (19-1) vs Guido Vianello (12-1-1).

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Resurgent Angelo Leo Turns Away Eduardo Baez on a Wednesday Night in Florida

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Resurgent Angelo Leo Turns Away Eduardo Baez on a Wednesday Night in Florida

The latest in the series of bi-monthly Wednesday Night Fights played out tonight at the ProBox TV Events Center (formerly Whitesands) in the Tampa Bay area community of Plant City, Florida.

In the main event, featherweight Angelo Leo improved to 24-1 (11) with a unanimous 10-round decision over stubborn but outclassed Eduardo Baez (23-6-2). The judges had it 97-93 and 98-92 twice.

Leo, from Las Vegas by way of Albuquerque, was formerly a key member of Floyd Mayweather Jr’s “Money Team.” He briefly held a version of the world super bantamweight title, a diadem he lost to Stephen Fulton in his first title defense. Baez, a former world title challenger, never stopped trying, but Leo was stronger and sharper while scoring his third straight win at this venue following stoppages of Nicolas Polanco and Mike Plania.

Leo has his sights set on IBF world featherweight title-holder Luis “Venado” Lopez.

Co-Main

In a well-matched, 8-round super featherweight contest, Puerto Rican southpaw Jaycob Bradley Gomez (10-0-1) kept his unbeaten record intact with a hard-fought majority decision over scrappy Jose Arellano (11-2). The scores were 76-76 and 77-75 twice.

Gomez, whose father was a former cornerman for Miguel Cotto, was making his sixth appearance at this venue. Arellano, a Mexico-born Coloradoan, fought most of the fight with a deep cut over his right eye. Without that impediment, he just might have sprung the upset.

Other Bouts

In another super featherweight match, also slated for “8,” Puerto Rico-born Dominic Valle, a local product, improved to 9-0 (7 KOs) with a second-round stoppage of Mexico’s Angel Vazquez Lupercio (12-2). Valle hurt Lupercio with a body punch and then backed him into the ropes and unleashed a barrage of punches, leading referee Alica Collins to waive it off. The official time was 2:27 of round two.

A third-generation prizefighter who has a side gig as a model, the 23-year-old Valle is managed by the influential David McWater who also handles Valle’s brother Marques, a junior middleweight who fights here in two weeks.

Yoel Angeloni, a 20-year-old welterweight, stamped himself a fighter to watch with a 74-second blowout of obscure 42-year-old Michael Williams. The son of an Italian father and a Cuban mother, raised in Italy, Angeloni was purportedly 140-2 as an amateur (9-2 per boxrec).

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