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Meet ‘Old-Timer’ Tod Morgan, a New Addition to the Boxing Hall of Fame

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On Aug. 3, 1953, Tod Morgan died a pauper in his home state of Washington. He was 50 years old.

After more than 200 pro fights, Morgan had nothing to show for it. A former world junior lightweight champion and the former lightweight champion of Australia, Morgan the ex-boxer worked as a bellman in Seattle hotels until he became incapacitated. But he wouldn’t be completely forgotten. This coming June, nearly 69 years after he drew his last breath, Tod Morgan will be formally inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

The second fighter from the Apple State to be accorded this honor (Tacoma’s Freddie Steele was enshrined in 1999), Morgan was born Albert Pilkington in Sequim, a town on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Taking the surname of his stepfather, Frank Morgan, he made his pro debut at age 17 at a vaudeville house in Concrete, Washington, a town whose major employer was, you guessed it, a cement company.

Morgan was just a few fights into his pro career when he shifted his tack to the town of Vallejo near Oakland on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay. Between October of 1920 and May of 1923, he fought exclusively in California, 50 fights in all. These were all 4-rounders. In November of 1913, the voters in California approved a measure that restricted all fights, amateur and pro, to four rounds. The law remained in effect for 10 years.

After a short stint in Seattle, Morgan returned to California. On Dec. 2, 1925, he made the national news wire when he stopped New Jersey’s Mike Ballerino at LA’s Olympic Auditorium. The match was billed for the world junior lightweight title. Ballerino took all the worst of it until his corner tossed in the towel in the 10th and final round.

His bout with Ballerino would be the first of 15 fights denominated as world title fights in the 130-pound weight class. Morgan’s record in these encounters was 12-2-1.

Six of the title fights were at the Mecca of Boxing, Madison Square Garden.

In his first Madison Square Garden exposure, Martin successfully defended his belt with a lopsided decision over Brooklyn’s Joe Glick. They would fight again in this same ring, a match in which Glick was disqualified for low blows. (The wags would saddle Joe Glick with boxing’s oddest nickname. A tailor by trade, he was dubbed the Brownsville Buttonhole Maker.)

Another Brooklynite, Eddie “Cannonball” Martin, gave Morgan one of his toughest fights when they met at Madison Square Garden on May 24, 1928. The referee and both judges gave the bout to Morgan, but there were dissenters among the ringside press.

Cannonball Martin, who previously had a tenuous hold on the world bantamweight title, was very good, but Morgan left no doubt that he was the better man when they hooked up again. After 15 gory rounds, the decision favoring the West Coast invader was so clear-cut that it was cheered by the pro-Martin crowd. The match was held on a hot and muggy July evening before 20,000 at Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn baseball team that had taken the name Dodgers.

Tod Morgan’s lone setbacks in those 15 title fights came at the hands of Joey Sangor and Benny Bass. Tod didn’t bring his “A” game when he fought Sangor in a 10-round bout at Milwaukee on New Year’s Day, 1929. The newspaper writers were in general agreement that Sangor, a local man, edged it. But Wisconsin was then a no-decision state which meant that Morgan kept his title as it could only change hands in the event of a knockout. His defeat at the hands of Benny Bass at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 20, 1929, was a horse of a different color. The fight had a bad odor about it.

After winning the first round convincingly, Morgan was knocked out in the second. The knockout punch was a clean right hand to the jaw, but the outcome supported the whispers that the fix was in. All of the late money was on Philadelphia’s “Little Fish,” which made no sense as Morgan was far cleverer. In the lobby at Madison Square Garden, the odds favoring Bass soared as high as 6/1.

The New York Athletic Commission withheld the fighters’ purses. They were unable to prove any wrongdoing, but got a measure of satisfaction by abolishing the junior lightweight class – and for good measure, the other junior divisions as well. Other jurisdictions continued to recognize a 130-pound class and New York eventually relented, restoring the weight division in 1949.

Morgan wore out his welcome in the Big Apple with that suspicious performance and would never fight in New York again. He returned to Washington and fought up and down the West Coast before trundling off to Sydney, Australia in the late summer of 1933.

Morgan spent the last nine years of his boxing career in the Land Down Under. He had 62 fights in Australian rings, the vast majority slated for 15 rounds, and promoted a few fights on the side before returning to the United States shortly after the end of World War II.

When he was young, Morgan was known for his fast footwork. “His boxing was a pleasure to the eye,” wrote UPI sports editor Frank Getty, who added that when the occasion warranted, Morgan could out-slug the roughest and toughest. As he grew older, what stood out was his cageyness. “He could punch from any angle or position,” reminisced Sydney southpaw Vic Patrick who won three out of four from Tod Morgan at the tail end of Morgan’s career. “He had a favorite punch that seemed to hit right on the spot, where the liver is, without being an illegal punch.”

Back in the States, Morgan told an Associated Press reporter that he planned to enlist the aid of other Pacific Northwest fighters from his era in the formation of a non-profit “to take care of indigent and/or punchy fighters who have passed their prime.” He had a name for it: the American Professional Boxing Association.

Morgan would need to find a sugar daddy to pull this off as he had virtually no resources of his own. When he left the Antipodes with his Australian wife, he didn’t have the funds to pay his way home for the both of them and hired on as a messman in the ship’s cafeteria.

How can a boxer with that many fights under his belt, and a former long-reigning world champion to boot, leave the sport with only his scrapbook? Keep in mind that the 130-pound division was new and had very little cachet. Also, the last half of Morgan’s career overlapped with the period when most of the world, and especially the U.S. and Australia, were in the grips of the Great Depression. Purses were miniscule.

During Morgan’s day, to steal a line from the great sportswriter Jimmy Cannon, professional prizefighters in the main were paid with what amounted to moving-around-money. It cost money to go places to ply one’s trade, even if one doesn’t go first-class. The expenses — transportation, lodging, meals, etc. — can eat a hole in one’s pocket in a hurry.

In July of 1951, Morgan suffered a stroke while staying in the home of his mother in Reno. Two months later, on Sept. 22, this disheartening item appeared in the Los Angeles Times: “[Tod Morgan] underwent an unsuccessful brain operation in Reno recently…He’s now in a State hospital in his home state of Washington…and without funds.”

According to BoxRec, Morgan finished 133-42-33 with 29 KOs in a career during which he answered the bell for 1664 rounds. When he fell ill, a reporter made this observation: “Tod never turned down an opponent, no matter how tough or famous, and was fighting long years after everyone thought him washed up.”

He’s been dead more years than he lived, but this week he was resuscitated, in a fashion, with the news that he has been named to the International Boxing Hall of Fame. If you happen to visit the Shrine in Canastota, be certain to check his plaque on the wall. It would bring a smile to his face, and he had precious few reasons to smile after he hung up his gloves.

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 A Conversation With Acclaimed Journalist and Boxing Analyst Mark Kriegel

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If you’re a storyteller, and Mark Kriegel is certainly that, then boxing is the perfect passport.

A multi-skilled journalist who works for ESPN on several platforms, Kriegel’s video essays for Top Rank promotions, which are fewer than 200 words, are popular, and sets the New York City native apart from the crowd.

“I do think when those essays work, I’m able to boil down the theme of the fight into something that’s really small,” he said. “I’ve learned more about writing in the last two years because of those essays than I had in the previous decade.”

Kriegel added: “It’s because of those essays and because they really force you to make choices and they force you to cut out whatever is extraneous,” he said. “If it doesn’t matter in the story line, it goes. I’ve never been able to be that ruthless with my own words until I started writing these essays. Learning how to write for television has given me more discipline than I’ve ever had before in terms of the word and selecting the right word.”

Because boxers are willing to speak with the media, their stories are often worth telling.

“Boxing is the most organic form of storytelling, even more than the theater. Boxers are more honest than most other athletes, even when they’re lying. Boxers generally remain accessible,” said Kriegel, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College and a master’s degree from Columbia University. “Fighters need the storytellers because there is no league. The fighter’s story is more important than his or her record or even his or her belts. The story is really what we’re tuning in for.”

The sweet science can be a sideshow, but it’s still usually compelling.

“There’s a lot not to like about boxing, but that’s also why it makes for great storytelling,” said Kriegel, a two-time New York Times bestselling author. “Some days I think it’s a sport. Some days I’m convinced it’s not a sport. Boxing is better for the storytellers than it is for the fighters. That’s a guilty confession.”

By the nature of boxing, there are two combatants in the ring and because of this, there is conflict.

While fans watch and journalists cover the sport, everyone wants to see who prevails, but it’s often the back story that seems to bring out the fans’ rapture.

Who doesn’t want to see a young man or woman battle his or her way out of a hardscrabble life and reach heights reserved for a chosen few?

“What makes for a good story is conflict. Boxing is formalized, ritualized conflict. It’s a staged, managed conflict. It’s elemental. It’s two guys basically naked in the ring going at each other,” said Kriegel, who began his career as a general assignment reporter for the Miami Herald and the New York Daily News where he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in the Feature Writing category. “Because of the way it’s physically constructed, you’re going to see the nature of each character exposed. If you’re a storyteller, boxing does all the work for you.”

There is something pure and fundamental about boxing. “The other sports are metaphors for what boxing actually is and that’s combat. The difference between MMA and boxing, apart from the modes of combat, is that unlike MMA, boxing has a past,” Kriegel said. “It has a history. It’s a corrupt history, but it’s a very romantic one.”

It’s likely Kriegel came to be a writer because of his father, Leonard Kriegel, who is 88 and still lives in the same apartment on Eighth Avenue, two blocks from Madison Square Garden.

The elder Kriegel’s story is a remarkable one. Born in 1933, he was a polio victim at a young age, but this didn’t stop him from becoming an accomplished writer and teacher.

“My father is from the Bronx. He lost the use of his legs when he was 11 because of polio,” Kriegel said. “He’s a professor at City College. Most of his work and his teaching is American Literature. Which meant American male Literature. He was a very charismatic, crippled man writing about the nature of masculinity and it informed almost everything I’ve ever written.”

Kriegel is the author of four books including a novel, “Bless Me, Father,” which was based on a front-page column he wrote for the New York Post.

Esteemed writer Nick Tosches, who penned numerous books, had a hand in Kriegel’s development as an author.

“He wrote these fantastically stylized biographies,” Kriegel said of Tosches, who wrote about Jerry Lee Lewis, Dean Martin and Sonny Liston, to name but a few of his subjects.

Kriegel’s initial biography was published in 2004 and titled, “Namath: A Biography,” followed three years later by “Pistol: The Life Of Pete Maravich,” and five years later by “The Good Son: The Life Of Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini.”

“I’d done a newspaper piece on Mancini in the [New York] Daily News. I owed the publisher a book on Michael Jordan, which I wasn’t too excited about doing, and this idea of Mancini kept coming back to me,” Kriegel said. “It wouldn’t leave me alone and I wouldn’t leave Ray alone.”

The book’s genesis took shape at an Italian restaurant in Santa Monica, California, with Kriegel, Mancini and the actor Ed O’Neill, eating and drinking until the small hours.

“Ray’s relationship with his father was more straightforward. He was out to redeem his father and that was beautiful,” Kriegel said. “There aren’t that many happy stories in boxing.”

Mancini promised his father, Lenny, a lightweight contender who was injured in World War II that he would win the championship he never did.

After scooping up the World Boxing Association lightweight belt in May 1982 from Arturo Frias, Mancini gave the belt to his father.

In a nationally televised title fight six months later at the outdoor ring at Caesars Palace, Mancini stopped Duk Koo Kim in the 14th round. The 27-year-old South Korean suffered a severe head injury and died five days later.

There are ups and downs in every person’s life, but it was extremely difficult for Mancini to accept what happened to Kim.

Though he retained his title and was pleased with that, Mancini said there was nothing good about that fight.

Three months after the November bout, Kim’s mother committed suicide because of what happened to her son and because family members were bickering over the money he earned.

Since time heals all wounds, Kim’s son, Kim Chi-Wan, eventually forgave Mancini, but it took nearly three decades.

It’s been said the 1980s was a Golden Era for boxing, and it was, but where does the current crop stand for Kriegel?

“There aren’t enough good fights. You can make an argument and it’s perfectly reasonable that the 1980s was [the Golden Era] because you had the Four Kings [Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran and Marvin Hagler] and they fought each other,” he said. “[Muhammad] Ali and [Joe] Frazier fought their trilogy in far less time than it took [Manny] Pacquiao and [Floyd] Mayweather Jr. to get together for one. By the time they did, neither was in their prime.”

While there are outstanding boxers plying their trade right now, there are also problems.

“I really admire Mayweather a lot. One of the unfortunate byproducts of his era is the emphasis on the perfect record,” Kriegel noted. “To me a fighter’s career doesn’t become a truly dramatic proposition until he or she loses. The great plague on boxing right now is all these undefeated champions. I see a bunch of perfect records, but I don’t see many perfect fighters. The loss is what makes it dramatic.”

Kriegel said in an earlier time, Terence Crawford and Errol Spence Jr., both undefeated, would have fought each other multiple times and taken on all comers the way Oscar De La Hoya and the recently retired Shawn Porter did.

Pete Hamill, a national treasure, was Kriegel’s dear friend and mentor.

What does Kriegel take away from his time with Hamill, who passed away in August 2020?

“He made the idea of New York so romantic,” said Kriegel of Hamill, who was a journalist, writer, novelist and editor. “He made the idea of boxing romantic. He was a great and generous teacher. A really wonderful teacher. He was the kind of writer I wanted to become.”

Kriegel became a sportswriter by circumstance. “The [New York] Post turned me into a sports columnist out of desperation,” he said. “I never really took to becoming a sportswriter. I always felt ambivalent except when it was covering boxing. Boxing was the only sport I really loved covering and still do.”

It’s the elements in and around boxing that spark Kriegel’s imagination.

“The same stuff I loved about covering cops and criminals and courts, I found in boxing,” he pointed out. “I mean that you could actually find great moments of humanity. Boxing had all the stuff that I had been looking for. Thematically and in terms of content: fame and masculinity, good and evil. They’re all great dramas.”

Luckily, Kriegel found boxing and boxing found Kriegel. It’s a perfect match.

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Vonda Ward: Much More Than a Highlight Reel

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Anyone who can beat 235-pound Martha Salazar three times is someone who can flat out fight. An ex-basketball player named Vonda Ward defeated her three times (all by decision).

Salazar was an immensely popular and talented female fighter out of San Francisco, CA by way of Jalisco, Mexico. On November 8, 2014, she won the WBC world heavyweight title against Tanzee Daniel by unanimous decision. She lost the title in March 2016 to Alejandra Jimenez in Mexico and retired the following year.

Bottom line: Martha Salazar was a pioneer in legitimizing the heavyweight division in Female Boxing.

“Some girls like to play soccer. Some like to play tennis. Some play volleyball. But we don’t play – we box. So, it’s a very big difference between other sports knowing that someone else is going to hit you. So we want everybody to feel secure, safe, and know that this is what we do, this is what we are and no one can change us.”  — Martha Salazar

Vonda Ward

The 6’6” Ward played basketball at Trinity HS in Garfield Heights, Ohio, and was twice named Ohio’s “Ms. Basketball. She made the prestigious Parade All American team twice and was named an All American by USA Today. In 1991, she joined the University of Tennessee basketball team coached by the legendary Pat Summit.

During her four years at UT, Ward started 49 of 125 games, averaging 6.7 points and 5.6 rebounds while blocking 98 shots – still the 10th most by a Tennessee player. During her time there, the Lady Vols put together a 122-11 record and won three Southeastern Conference championships. Ward was a member of the 1995 squad that played in the NCAA championship game, losing to perennial powerhouse Connecticut. Ward then competed with USA Basketball as a member of the 1993 Jones Cup Team that won the Bronze in Taipei.

vonda

After college, Vonda played for a professional basketball club in Aschaffenburg, Germany and then the ABL’s bootstrap Colorado Xplosion. Injuries cut short her pro basketball career, so given her muscularity, size and athleticism, she was attracted to boxing.

In 2000, her first year of competition, Ward, nicknamed the “All American Girl,” was 10-0 including eight first-round knockouts. None of her opponents lasted beyond the second round. While her fluidity was not especially smooth, she compensated by leveraging her size and a deceptive mean streak (inside the ring) to beat down her opposition. She simply was physically superior to her competition. She was no female Ivan Drago but her defined-sculpted body made her very intimidating.

Ward was 18-0 when she fought the ever-dangerous 5’9” Ann Wolfe on May 8, 2004. In the opening round, Wolf scored the most astounding KO in female boxing history and one of the most spectacular of all time, male or female. Ward had jumped forward into the impact of Ann’s overhand punch, and the result left her unresponsive for several minutes. She was then immobilized and stretchered out of the ring.

Most would have retired at this point, but Vonda wasn’t “most.” Seven months later, she returned to the ring and knocked out Marsha Valley in four rounds in Cleveland.

She went on to win four more bouts, finishing her career with a record of 23-1 with 17 KOs. In her next-to-last fight, in February of 2007, Ward won the inaugural WBC female heavyweight title, defeating Salazar for the third and final time by unanimous decision.

This is the part that is always overlooked. Unfortunately, Vonda’s career continues to be defined by her spectacular and scary KO and not her 23-1 record with 17 KO’s. It’s always about the highlight reel.

Vonda Ward announced her retirement in 2010. She is now a personal trainer working out of King’s Gym in Bedford Heights, Ohio. Known for giving back to her community, she often reminisces about the late Pat Summit and what could have been at Tennessee. She was inducted into the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012.

For most, Vonda will be remembered for the Wolf knockout. For this writer, however, she will be noted as a rare female athlete who was able to compete at the top level of two different professional sports.

Ted Sares can be reached at tedsares@roadrunner.com and welcomes comments and posts.

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Don King Keeps On Truckin’ and That Portends More Junk

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There are two ways of looking at Don King. There was a day when the former Cleveland street hustler was the pre-eminent boxing promoter in the world. That he is still swinging away at the age of 90 is a wonderful thing, a tribute to his perspicacity. But it’s worth remembering that although King was the driving force behind some of the most storied fights in history, he also foisted a lot of junk on the boxing public. And nowadays, now that his bankroll has atrophied, pretty much all that’s left is the junk.

As a purveyor of junk, King appears to have outdone himself with his forthcoming show in Warren, Ohio. Granted, the main event of the Jan. 29 card, a rematch between cruiserweight title-holder Ilunga Makabu and his South African countryman Thabiso Mchunu, is a good match between fighters with seemingly comparable skill sets. And the supporting bouts might well be entertaining. But that’s entertaining in the way that a train wreck is entertaining.

The co-feature between Trevor Bryan (pictured) and Jonathan Guidry is a travesty, or at least a travesty from the standpoint of how it’s being packaged.

Bryan, who hails from Schenectady, New York, is undefeated (21-0, 15 KOs) and owns a share of the WBA world heavyweight title (the other piece is owned by Oleksandr Usyk). However, he has yet to fight a top-10 opponent and no one really knows how good he is. What we do know is that he is prone to slothfulness. He carried 267 ½ pounds for his last bout against ancient Bermane Stiverne which was 31 pounds more than he had carried in his previous engagement.

In defense of Bryan, this was his first fight in 29 months and many gyms were closed during the pandemic. Moreover, the suet around his waist was entirely in character with King-controlled heavyweights of yesteryear. During the mid-1980s when there was a revolving door of heavyweight title-holders and the term “alphabet soup” was born, love handles were standard. Jack Newfield postulated that King’s heavyweights became so demoralized by his chicanery that they lost all incentive to stay in shape.

That brings us to Jonathan Guidry whose 17-0-2 record was forged against opponents with a combined record of 108-118 at the time that he fought them. The 32-year-old Guidry, who has carried as much as 270 pounds on his 5’11” frame, hails from Dulac, Louisiana, deep in Cajun country, where his regular job is harvesting shellfish from the waterways of his parish.  He is trained by his 45-year-old brother, Martin Verdin, an active boxer with a 23-20-2 record, but for this fight he moved his tack to Houston to train under Bobby Benton who has also trained Regis Prograis.

Trevor Bryan’s original opponent was Mahmoud Charr, the perpetual WBA “Champion in Recess” who purportedly could not get a visa to travel from Germany. Jonathan Guidry was already on the card, penciled in to fight beefy, 42-year-old Alonzo Butler.

The WBA has a rule that a boxer must be ranked in the top-15 to compete for a world title. When Charr, who last fought in November of 2017, was lopped off the bill of fare, the incorrigibly shameless Panama-based sanctioning body boosted Guidry to #13 in its ratings. The folks at boxrec, where King has no influence, are not as sanguine. At boxrec, Guidry clocks in at 256.

The undercard, we are informed, will feature “boxers knocking on the door of stardom.” Presumably that includes the grizzled Butler whose new opponent is 13-1 Ahmed Hefny, an obscure 37-year-old fighter from Queens, New York, whose nickname is “Prince of Egypt.” Butler vs. Hefny is one of four scheduled 10-round NABA title fights. As currently constituted (there will inevitably be last-minute changes), these match-ups include only one competitor under the age of 30, that being 27-year-old welterweight Cody Wilson, a product of the West Virginia Toughman circuit.

A press release concocted by Don King is always full of goo. “The world’s greatest promoter, Don King, has come through with another spectacular championship night of boxing,” says the release for the Jan. 29 card. The receipts, we are informed, will benefit “homeless, poor, and downtrodden people.” Canelo Alvarez, it’s said, will be there to scout Ilunga Makubu who is on his short list of future opponents. (If Canelo turns up in Warren, Ohio, I will eat my hat.)

There are times that I think that a Don King press release is calculated to create a backlash on the theory that all publicity is good publicity. A movie universally panned as among the worst ever is almost certain to develop a cult following.

If King’s show is replete with memorable moments and you miss it, don’t blame me; I said the show was potentially entertaining. But if you enjoy boxing because of the artistry displayed by the top performers, then you would be better served by averting your eyes.

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