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The Return of Wednesday Boxing Evokes Memories of a Golden Era

Arne K. Lang

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There’s a Wednesday card on the boxing docket this week. The card, which features several undefeated up-and-comers of the sort usually found on Showtime’s developmental series, “ShoBox: The New Generation,” will play out at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles and air on Fox Sports 1.

Not to be out-done, “ShoBox” is returning. The long-running series, which suspended operations in March in obeisance to COVID-19 restrictions, returns on Oct. 7 with a show emanating from Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun Casino. The contestants in the main go of the four-fight card, Charles Conwell and Wendy Toussaint, have identical 12-0 records.

It just so happens that Oct. 7 is also a Wednesday. And these upcoming Wednesday shows transported this reporter back to his boyhood when boxing was a fixture on radio and television on Wednesday nights. The Wednesday series sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon beer ran from 1950 to 1960, airing the first five years on CBS and then on ABC.

Fights were all over the TV dial during the 1950s, not that there was much competition. The Big Three — NBC, CBS, and ABC — ruled the airwaves with DuMont a very distant fourth and cable television well off into the future. (For a time, the short-lived DuMont network aired boxing shows on Mondays.)

When televisions first came out, they were a big-ticket item. In 1948, RCA’s cheapest model sold for $395. That’s the equivalent of roughly $4,500 today. By 1954, the cost of the least expensive model had declined to $189 and it came in a bigger box, with a 17-inch screen compared with the 13-inch screen that was standard six years earlier.

With the cost of the coveted contraption beyond the means of many wage earners, saloonkeepers cashed in. Boxing fans flocked to the neighborhood tavern to get their boxing fix. The saloonkeeper could write off his television sets on his taxes as a business expense.

Those were the days, and I date myself, when every town had a TV repair shop and the repairman, like the family doctor, made house calls.

The Wednesday Night Fights were a spin-off of the Friday Night Fights on NBC. The matchmaker for both series (through 1958) was the International Boxing Club which was headquartered at Madison Square Garden. The president of the IBC was James D. Norris (who would come to be seen as a puppet for mobster Frankie Carbo, but that’s a story for another day).

James D. Norris inherited a vast fortune from his father, Canadian businessman James E. Norris. The elder Norris was a big wheel in the sport of hockey and had a financial interest in the arenas that housed NHL teams in Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis. He made these arenas available to his son and the Wednesday fight cards moved around, unlike the Friday fights which were pinned to Madison Square Garden.

Both series would eventually venture out at times into virgin territory, but the Wednesday series was the trailblazer. The first nationally televised boxing show from the West Coast was a Wednesday affair. Jimmy Carter defended his world lightweight title against LA fan favorite Art Aragon, the original Golden Boy, at the Olympic Auditorium on Nov. 14, 1951. Aragon had upset Carter in a non-title fight 11 weeks earlier, but Carter took him to school in the rematch, winning a lopsided decision.

The Friday boxing series, which took the name “Gillette Cavalcade of Sports,” would come to be more fondly remembered, but once the TV became a living room staple, which happened fast, the Wednesday series drew higher ratings. This was predictable as more folks stayed home on Wednesday nights than on Friday nights. And although the Friday series had a larger budget, some of the most important fights of the era were staged on Wednesdays.

One of the highlights of the 1951 season was Ezzard Charles’ world heavyweight title defense against Jersey Joe Walcott at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field. It was Walcott’s fifth crack at the title and he was considered ancient at age 37, but he avenged his two previous losses to Charles with a thunderous one-punch knockout.

Carmen Basilio appeared in The Ring magazine Fight of the Year in five consecutive years (1955-1959). The first two — his second meeting with Tony DeMarco and his second meeting with Johnny Saxton – were televised on a Wednesday.

Although he would be quickly forgotten, the Wednesday series brought Bob Satterfield a cult following because of his unpredictability. He certainly left an impression on octogenarian boxing writer Ted Sares who recently named Satterfield his all-time favorite fighter.

To conjure up a portrait of Satterfield, think Deontay Wilder and then fix Wilder with a glass jaw. Satterfield, whose best weight was about 182 pounds, was a murderous puncher, but during his career he was stopped 13 times.

LA’s Clarence Henry and Pittsburgh’s Bob Baker were ranked #3 in the heavyweight division when they ventured to Chicago to tangle with Satterfield, Henry in 1952 and Baker the following year. Henry knocked out Satterfield in the opening round. Satterfield hit the canvas so hard, said a ringside reporter, the resin dust flew up.

The Satterfield-Baker fight would also end in the opening round. Baker out-weighed Satterfield by 34 pounds, but Satterfield flattened him. Later on, in a non-Wednesday fight, Satterfield knocked out Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams in the third round. Williams, 33-1 heading in, was the larger man by 25 pounds.

One bet on or against Bob Satterfield at one’s own peril.

The Wednesday Night Fights had a nice run before the series was cancelled and supplanted in its time slot by “The Naked City,” a critically acclaimed police drama series. Perhaps the return of boxing on Wednesdays augurs well for another mid-week boxing series, but we won’t hold our breath.

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Book Review

“Sparring with Smokin’ Joe” is a Great Look into a Great, Complicated Man

Phil Woolever

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BOOK REVIEW – Some rare moments arrive, as either a blessing or a curse, to cast definitive impressions of how someone might be remembered. As anyone reading this should well know, such a moment occurred 50 years ago today (March 8, 1971) at Madison Square Garden for Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali.

For Frazier, a punishing 15-round victory became the foundation to his legacy. That leads us to Sparring with Smokin’ Joe by Glenn Lewis, the latest biographical volume to focus on Frazier, with a timely release date close to the “Fight of the Century” anniversary that should provide plenty of solid promotional material for the book.

As a piece of literature the book, published by Rowman & Littlefield, stands up quite well on its own, and as a piece of boxing literature it stands out, through previously unpublished situational information on Frazier.

I found it to be a must-read for Frazier fans and a solid plus for most boxing libraries.

Author Lewis is a graduate school professor at the City University of New York (CUNY) and director of journalism at the affiliated York College with decades of expertise on his resume. This project is expertly constructed and reads very smoothly throughout. Beside the many insightful instances regarding Frazier himself, a very thoughtful portrait of his son Marvis Frazier runs through the narrative, which also conjures a vivid depiction of Frazier’s Broad Street Gym in North Philadelphia.

The book’s unique highlight is the ongoing tale of traveling with Frazier and his all-white band (with multiple Berklee school members) during a tour of southern states.

The first 140 pages or so (out of a listed 256), make up a fascinating memoir of getting to know Frazier and his circle during 1980, around four years after his second crushing defeat to George Foreman. At that point in his life, Frazier was trying to settle into retirement, guide Marvis’s culminating amateur career, and transition from boxing superstar to fledgling vocal attraction.

I devoured the opening sections of the book with reader’s glee, far more than enough to highly recommend Lewis’ book, but toward the end it seemed maybe he should have quit while and where he was ahead.

The last third gets substantially less engaging. The author grew distanced from his subject’s proximity and it shows, as the tale becomes far more familiar in relating already well-documented fight data.

There is still some fine perspective from Lewis like Joe’s hugely destructive obsession with rushing Marvis into disaster versus Larry Holmes, but for many of the closing segments you could cut and paste the same period of Frazier’s career out of Mark Kram Jr’s recent book Smokin’ Joe (2019) and gain a bit more personal touch.

That’s not at all to imply that the boxing writing is weak. Lewis makes an excellent case that Frazier won the rematch with Ali, not only the first fight; which leads to justified speculation on what could have occurred had Frazier gotten the second nod. Back then I shared Lewis’ opinion on the scoring, and his detailed analysis inspires taking another look at the replay.

Some minor gym characters or business associates become animated as if they’re standing in front of you, but I was disappointed in how a charming, complicated guy like Jimmy Young was overlooked and how larger-than-life characters like Gil Clancy and especially George Benton (a living example of where playwright August Wilson drew inspiration) came across rather subdued compared to the boisterous conversationalists I spoke with many times not long after the year Lewis’s story begins.

There are also a couple of minor omissions that, though based on very brief listings, still stick out when considering Lewis’s scholarly, journalistic credentials.

James Shuler is mentioned, but there’s nothing about his tragic death in a motorcycle accident a week after losing to Tommy Hearns in a minor title fight, nor the touching story about Hearns at the funeral, offering to put the belt in Shuler’s coffin. Frazier’s restaurant, Smokin’ Joe’s Corner, is also listed a couple times but there is no mention of the horrible murders that took place there during an inside job robbery and how that tragedy probably put the final nail into Frazier’s aspirations in the food industry.

I also hoped for some tidbits from Frazier’s thoughtful and wise older brother Tommy who provided me with some rare insights (and had an offbeat sense of humor about his name), a stoic trickster who seemed to lovingly enjoy putting his famous sibling on the spot.

Still, the overall impression I got was fantastic. A memoir should share time, location, emotion, and reflection. Lewis achieves all those things many times over.

Which leads to my primary, personal takeaway of this very worthwhile book. Based on a few of the lengthy encounters I was lucky enough to share with Joe Frazier (boxing and non-boxing related), it’s difficult for me to imagine that a canny observer like Lewis didn’t emerge from the amazing and enviable access he got with more wild tales, especially from nights on the road.

So, I’d have to guess, and bet, that Lewis let some of the more sensational situations or quotes remain aloft in the mist of the past, which to me is admirable, even more so in these social media dominated days.

Here’s a non-controversial quote that is included, which provides a sample of the many fine nuggets to be found:

“I don’t think you’re less of a man for crying,” said Joe, taking me by surprise. “It’s healthy for you. I cry if something goes wrong- I’ll cry right out. But if I cry out of anger, look out! Somebody’s in trouble. Crying shows a man has heart and helps him out of his pressures. Just don’t cry for nothing.”

I could almost hear Frazier’s voice when I read that, and descriptions of places I’ve been like Frazier’s gym read true enough to give the entire book an aura of accuracy.

A dozen excellent photographs serve as a first-class coda.

Fifty years after his biggest triumph, Joe Frazier remains a compelling topic in the discourse of sociological significance. This well written tribute does him plenty of justice.

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The Fight of the Century: A Golden Anniversary Celebration

Arne K. Lang

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In professional boxing, fights can be rank-ordered as generic fights, big fights, bigger fights, mega-fights, and spectacles. The first fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier wasn’t merely a spectacle, but the grandest spectacle of them all. This coming Monday, March 8, is the 50th anniversary of that iconic event.

Ali-Frazier I was staged at three-year-old Madison Square Garden, the fourth arena in New York to take that name. It drew a capacity crowd: 20,455 (19,500 paid). An estimated 60 percent of all the tickets sold fell into the hands of scalpers.

The fight was closed-circuited to more than 350 locations in the United States and Canada. At some of the larger venues, it established a new record for gate receipts, and this for an attraction that wasn’t produced in-house. In Los Angeles, 15,333 saw the fight at the Forum and 11,575 at the nearby Sports Arena.

Bill Ballenger, the sports editor of the Charlotte (NC) News, saw the fight at the Charlotte Coliseum. He reported that the audio – Don Dunphy did the blow-by-blow with Burt Lancaster and Archie Moore serving as color commentators – was loud enough to be heard outside the arena and that many folks, either unable or unwilling to purchase a ticket, loitered outside and followed the action in 30 degrees weather.

An estimated three hundred million people saw the fight worldwide. In England, by some estimates, half the population tuned in, watching either at home on BBC1 or at a theater where one could watch the fight unfold on a movie screen. Now keep in mind that in England the fight didn’t commence until 6:40 in the morning on a Tuesday!

Inside Madison Square Garden, the large flock of celebrities included many folks one wouldn’t expect to find at a prizefight. Marcello Mastroianni, Italy’s most famous movie star, made a special trip from Rome. Salvador Dali was there and Barbra Streisand and Ethel Kennedy, widow of Bobby Kennedy, seated next to her escort, crooner Andy Williams. Frank Sinatra was there working as a photographer for Life magazine. Lore has it that Sinatra wangled the assignment after failing to boat one of the coveted ringside seats.

The scene was made brighter by human “peacocks,” the label applied to Harlemites with an outrageous sense of fashion, and the electricity was palpable. When Ali appeared at the back of the arena, making his way from his dressing room to the ring, everyone had goosebumps.

The late, great New York sportswriter Dick Young once wrote that there is no greater drama than in the moments preceding a big heavyweight title fight and that was never more true than on March 8, 1971 at Madison Square Garden.

Ali (31-0, 25 KOs) and Frazier (26-0, 23 KOs) were both undefeated. Both had a claim to the heavyweight title, Ali because the belt had been controversially stripped away from him for his political beliefs. Opinions as to who would win were pretty evenly divided. In Las Vegas, Joe Frazier was the favorite at odds of 6 to 5. Across the pond in England, bookies were quoting odds of 11 to 8 on Ali.

Those that favored Ali were of the opinion that ‘Smokin’ Joe was too one-dimensional. That much was true. Joe was as subtle as a steam locomotive on a downhill grade. He ate Ali’s hardest punches, said Boston Globe reporter Bud Collins, as if they were movie house popcorn and he eventually wore Ali down. There was little doubt as to how the judges would see it after Joe knocked Ali down in the 15th round with a frightful left hook. When Ali arose, it appeared that he had been afflicted with a sudden case of the mumps. The decision was unanimous: 11-4, 9-6, 8-6-1.

This wasn’t the greatest fight of all time, but it was a fight that more than lived up to the hype. And, as several people have noted, the event took on a life of its own without the benefit of modern technology to push it along. The buzz was fueled in a large part by newspapers, the “antiquated” sort of newspapers that a fellow fished from his driveway or purchased at a newsstand on the way to or from work. If twitter and facebook had been around during Muhammad Ali’s prime, Ali would have blown the doors off the internet.

A cultural touchstone is an event that remains sealed in our memory. As we slide into old age, if we are lucky enough to live that long, we may not remember what we had for breakfast in the morning, but some long-ago events are as vivid as if they had happened just yesterday.

Boxing historian Frank Lotierzo has written poignantly about how overjoyed he was when he was surprised with the news that his father would be taking him to the fight. “To this day it remains the biggest thrill of my life!” wrote Lotierzo, who was then in the seventh grade. “And it’s not even close!”

I didn’t see the fight, but I can recall the faces of people that I overheard talking about it, people whose interest in the fight struck me as odd as I knew they had little interest in the world of sports. So, when the fight is replayed in its entirety on Sunday – it airs on ABC at 2 p.m ET and again at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN – I will be watching it for the first time. And it will be bittersweet as I will be reminded that I am in the twilight of my life and my thoughts will inevitably drift to my friends and loved ones that have left this mortal world in the years since that grand night in 1971 when Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier locked horns in the Fight of the Century.

I get misty-eyed just thinking about it.

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Yoka TKO 12 Djeko in France: Claressa Pitches a Shutout on Ladies Day in Flint

Arne K. Lang

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Yoka TKO 12 Djeko in France: Claressa Pitches a Shutout on Ladies Day in Flint

March 8 is International Women’s Day which is actually a formal holiday in many parts of the globe. It was somehow fitting that female boxers were on display on the Friday feeding into it, a weekend without a must-see attraction on the men’s side.

Today’s activity began in the French port city of Nantes where 2016 Olympic gold medal winners Tony Yoka and Estelle Mossely, husband and wife, kept their undefeated records intact, both advancing to 10-0, against European opponents. Yoka (10-0, 8 KOs) was matched against Joel “Big Joe” Djeko (17-3-1), a 31-year-old Brussels native of Congolese and Cuban extraction who had fought most of his career as a cruiserweight. Mossely, a lightweight who now goes by Yoka-Mossely, drew Germany’s Verena Kaiser (14-2).

At the Rio Olympiad, Yoka got by Filip Hrgovic in the semis and Joe Joyce in the finals to win the gold, winning both bouts by split decision. Both would be favored over the Frenchman in a rematch fought under professional rules.

Against the six-foot-six Djeko, Yoka controlled the fight with his jab, repeatedly backing his foe against the ropes. Very few of Djeko’s punches got through Yoka’s high guard. Had the fight gone to the scorecards, it would have been a rout for Yoka, but it didn’t quite get there as Djeko turned his back on the proceedings midway through the 12th round after absorbing a sharp jab and it went into the books as a TKO for Yoka. At stake was some kind of European title or a derivation thereof.

Mossely’s fight with Kaiser, slated for 10 two-minute rounds, followed a somewhat similar tack, save that it went the full distance. With only one knockout to her credit at the pro level, Mosseley, typical of female boxers, lacks a knockout punch. But she’s a good technician and had too much class for the German.

Flint

A Covid-19 limited crowd of perhaps 300 was on hand to watch hometown heroine Claressa Shields oppose IBF 154-pound title-holder Marie Eve Dicaire at a 4,400-seat arena in Flint. There were five bouts on the undercard, three of which were women’s bouts.

Claressa

Claressa Shields

Shields, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was seeking to become a four-belt title-holder in a second weight class, having previously turned the trick at 160. Dicaire, a 34-year-old southpaw, brought a 17-0 record but she had never won a fight inside the distance and all of her previous bouts took place in French-speaking Canada.

The self-proclaimed GWOAT, Shields has no peer between 154 and 168 pounds. Heading into this contest, she had hardly lost a round since meeting Hanna Gabriels and tonight was another total whitewash, her fourth overall in 10-round fights.

Claressa Shields, now 11-0 (2) may be too good for her own good. Her fights are so one-sided that they are monotonous. Her TV ratings have actually been falling. Today’s show was a $29.99 pay-per-view on FITE when the established networks refused to meet her purse demands. It will be interesting to see how many tuned in.

In another fight of note, 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Marlen Esparza, in her first fight as a bantamweight, dominated Toronto’s Shelly Barnett en route to winning a 6-round unanimous decision. There were no knockdowns, but the scorecards (60-54, 60-53 twice) were indicative of Esparza’s dominance.

Esparza, who pushed her record to 9-1 (1), came in ranked #1 by the WBC in the flyweight class. Her lone defeat came at the hands of rugged Seniesa Estrada. Barnett declined to 4-4-3.

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