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Leach Cross vs. Mexican Joe: A Great Boxing Rivalry Buried in the Sands of Time

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The Jan. 14, 1913 fight between Leach Cross and Mexican Joe Rivers was a humdinger, but for some fight-goers it was a night to forget. The event was oversold. The aisles were jammed with standees and ticket-holders arriving late were left out in the cold when the fire marshal ordered the doors to be shut. Some of those that made it inside discovered that their wallet was missing. In the lobby of the arena and outside on the street, pickpockets worked the crowd to great effect. Such were the hazards of attending a major boxing show in New York during the early years of the twentieth century.

Cross vs. Rivers – the first salvo of a great rivalry – was staged at the Manhattan Casino which was situated on the corner of 155th Street and Eighth Avenue in the upper reach of Harlem. This warrants a clarification.

The word “casino” has come to be associated with gambling. Back in those days, it carried no such inference. The most salient image was that of a place where couples came to dance to a live orchestra. Harlem hadn’t yet become a signpost of Black America. In 1913, it had a burgeoning population of upwardly mobile Jews who had escaped the tenements of the Lower East Side. And Leach Cross, born Louis Wallach to immigrants from Austria, was one of them, a landsmen.

Cross (pictured) and Mexican Joe were lightweights. No title was at stake when they locked horns that night in Harlem or in any of their subsequent meetings. Indeed, both were considered a notch below the topmost fighters in their weight class. However, it was a very sexy division which owed to two factors. The heavyweight class was bereft of charismatic fighters other than Jack Johnson whose career was in limbo because of legal problems. And in no other division was the talent pool as deep. “In those days,” reminisced the colorful fight manager Dumb Dan Morgan, “there was a good lightweight on every streetcorner.”

The principals: Leach Cross and Mexican Joe Rivers

Leach Cross didn’t look like a fighter. “He had the lean, cadaverous appearance of the professional distance runner who has overtrained,” wrote one reporter. But his appearance was deceiving. Prior to meeting Rivers, he had knocked out Young Otto and One Round Hogan, reputable opponents, and had feathered his cap with a clear 10-round decision over Battling Nelson. True, the Durable Dane was then past his prime, but in his heyday the former two-time lightweight champion was the most talked-about non-heavyweight on the planet.

By and large, young Jewish men were avid fight fans and from a ticket-selling standpoint it mattered greatly that “Leachie” was a member of the tribe. He had another distinction that made him stand out. He was a dentist with a flourishing practice in the Bowery.

Unlike Leach Cross, Mexican Joe Rivers, who turned pro in 1908 at age 16, looked very much like a boxer. Three inches shorter than Cross at five-foot-four, he had a well-defined physique. “Physically,” said a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, “Joe is one of the grandest pieces of furniture ever seen in a ring. His body is the body of a sculptor’s dream.”

Mexican

Mexican Joe had far less experience than Leach Cross but had fought stiffer competition. He had split two fights with future Hall of Famer Johnny Kilbane and with Joe Mandot, the Pride of New Orleans, and had TKOed Frankie Conley, an outstanding fighter from Wisconsin, after their first encounter ended in a draw. His most famous fight had come the previous year against world lightweight champion Ad Wolgast. In the thirteenth round of a 20-round fight, Rivers and Wolgast landed simultaneous knockout punches. Rivers hit the canvas first, Wolgast landing on top of him, whereupon referee Jack Welsh helped the semi-conscious Wolgast to his feet and named him the winner. The queer ending provoked a long-running debate.

Prior to meeting up with Leach Cross, Mexican Joe had fought exclusively in California. The West Coast vs. East Coast angle imbued their fights with a bit more cachet in a day when the country wasn’t as homogenized.

Cross-Rivers I (Jan. 14, 1913)

Those that navigated their way to their assigned seat without incident were treated to a riveting fight. “The bout never lagged,” said a reporter. “Action was rife from start to finish.”

Cross put Rivers on the canvas in the second round, but Rivers — “the hot tamale from out West” in the words of a Connecticut scribe — was never deterred from pressing the action and at the final bell of the 10-rounder, Cross returned to his stool “very distressed.”

This was the no-decision era of boxing in New York. Prizefights were ostensibly sparring exhibitions (wink, wink) and referees were prohibited from naming a winner. Bets were decided based on the verdict of a designated ringside reporter or by the consensus of a panel of reporters whose judgments were culled from the next day’s newspapers. Chalk this one up to Joe Rivers, but softly, as few would have complained if the verdict was returned as a draw.

Cross-Rivers II (April 8, 1913)

Not quite 11 weeks later, Leach Cross and Mexican Joe Rivers had a do-over. The venue was St. Nicholas Arena on 66th Street, a former indoor ice skating rink. There was no repetition of the hooliganism that had scarred the first meeting. The promoters, the McMahon brothers, Eddie and Jess (the latter was the grandfather of WWE impresario Vince McMahon) were on a short leash and extra security was hired to keep order outside the arena and turn away would-be gate crashers.

Cross and Rivers delivered another crowd-pleaser. The 10-rounder was a “whirlwind battle” wrote the stringer for the Chicago Inter-Ocean.

Many of the rounds were undoubtedly tough to score as one finds a great deal of variation in round-by-round reports. What everyone seemed to agree on, however, is that Cross showed more stamina than in the first meeting, dominating the ninth round and having a shade the best of it in the final stanza. But, in the eyes of New York’s foremost boxing writer Robert Edgren, his rally came too late.

“Rivers won easily” wrote Edgren, the sports editor of the New York Evening World. Rube Goldberg, who would achieve fame as a cartoonist but was then covering fights for the New York Evening Mail, thought otherwise: “It would be unjust to either man to call the fight anything but a draw,” he wrote.

A survey of 11 ringside reporters by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle found that six favored the Mexican, two gave it to Cross and the others had it a draw.

“It seems that only a longer battle will satisfy to determine which is the better man,” said a correspondent for a Buffalo paper. And before the year was out, he got his wish. The Cross-Rivers rivalry went west to Vernon, California, an industrial suburb of Los Angeles, where fights were allowed up to 20 rounds.

Cross-Rivers III (Nov. 27, 1913)

The third meeting between Rivers and Cross created a lot of buzz in the City of Angels. Three days before the Thanksgiving Day battle, on Nov. 24, a joint workout in Vernon attracted a reported crowd of 4,000.

Vernon was Mexico Joe’s turf. He was the “house fighter” at promoter Tom McCarey’s wooden pavilion. Ten of his previous 13 fights took place in this very ring.

Cross-Rivers III started at 3:30 in the afternoon and concluded after sundown with the ring illuminated by lights that were turned on as the fight was in progress.

Rivers knocked Cross to the canvas with a right-left combination in round four and again in round 12, but on each occasion Cross fought back feverishly. In round 19, with Rivers plainly ahead, there was high drama as the match turned sharply in favor of the New Yorker; Cross battered Rivers from pillar to post. But Rivers weathered the storm and, as it turned out, Cross had exhausted all of his bullets. He had no argument when the referee awarded the fight to Mexican Joe.

“It was the greatest battle ever fought in a southern [California] ring,” gushed Harry A. Williams of the LA Times.

Rivers-Wolgast IV (Aug. 11, 1914)

Prizefighters invariably have an alibi to explain why they lost, and Leach Cross had a good one. Seventeen days before the bout, he had fought lightweight champion Willie Ritchie in a non-title 10-rounder at Madison Square Garden and he was still feeling the effects of that hard tussle. “With proper rest,” said Cross, “I would have beaten this guy.”

That was sufficient inducement for promoter McCarey to summon up yet another sequel.

The fourth and final installment of the rivalry was redemption for Leach Cross who was deemed the winner in a bout so absorbing that one of the spectators passed out from all the excitement.

Mexican Joe piled up points in the early rounds, but he lost some of the steam on his punches after suffering a bad cut on his lower lip in round five. Rivers landed the best punch of the fight in round 18, a left hook to the jaw, but he got discouraged when Cross stayed upright and failed to press his advantage. Had he done so, he would have likely pulled the fight out of the fire as the match very close.

How close was it? “Cross won by a shade as fine as that cast by a single strand of a spider’s web on a foggish day,” said the ringside reporter for the Los Angeles Evening Express.

And that was that; 60 rounds of boxing spread across 20 months with interruptions for a slew of intervening fights and when it was all over, one couldn’t say that one man was plainly superior. As rivalries go, Cross vs. Rivers will never rank with boxing’s most storied multi-fight rivalries, but it was chock full of pregnant moments.

Postscripts

Leach Cross was a wealthy man when he retired from boxing in 1916. With his ring earnings he purchased an 80-unit apartment building in Hollywood. He disposed of his California real estate holdings following the stock market crash of 1929, resumed his dental practice in New York, and kept his hand in the fight game as a referee and a judge. He was well-off financially when he passed away in 1957.

Mexican Joe Rivers had his last fight in 1924 in the Los Angeles County community of San Fernando. It was a 4-rounder which was all that the law allowed after voters in the Golden State had approved a constitutional amendment to abolish prizefighting in the November elections of 1914. When things were going good, Joe lived high. He owned a big touring car, expensive jewelry, and dozens of custom-made suits. In 1955, when he was 63 years old, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times found him living alone in a windowless room in a flophouse hotel, his only possession a 200-year-old violin passed down from his father. The reporter discovered that Mexican Joe wasn’t actually a Mexican. A fourth-generation Californian, born Jose Ybarra, Joe was of Spanish and Mission Indian stock.

Arne K. Lang’s third boxing book, titled “George Dixon, Terry McGovern and the Culture of Boxing in America, 1890-1910,” rolled off the press in September of last year. Published by McFarland, the book can be ordered directly from the publisher or via Amazon.

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Boxing Odds and Ends: A Travesty of a Heavyweight ‘Title Fight’ and More

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It’s official. On Wednesday, Feb. 22, a formal press conference was held in Sofia, Bulgaria, to announce the forthcoming fight between Mahmoud Charr, formerly known as Manuel Charr, and Kubrat Pulev. They will meet in Bulgaria’s capital city on March 30 at a 12,000-seat arena.

Charr vs Kubrat bears the imprimatur of a world heavyweight title fight (WBA version). Charr is considered the champion, notwithstanding the fact that others have held the title since he first laid claim to it more than six years ago.

The WBA, as we know, recognizes two champions in some weight classes, a “super” champion and a “regular” champion. The “super” designation was created in 2000. It was designed to segregate title-holders into levels of accomplishment. In theory, a “super” champion has made five successful defenses and is recognized as a world title-holder by at least one of the three other major sanctioning bodies. “Super” champions are allowed certain liberties with respect to mandatory title defenses.

The bifurcation was greeted with hoots of derision. The Panama-based WBA trivialized the sport.

Mahmoud Charr

Mahmoud Charr was born in Beirut but has resided in Germany since he was a little boy. He won the vacant title with a 12-round decision over unexceptional Alexander Ustinov in Oberhausen, Germany.  It was a close fight. TSS ringside correspondent Phil Woolever had Ustinov winning 7 rounds to 5, but conceded that the verdict could not be called an injustice.

The title that Charr won was vacated by Ruslan Chagaev who won the belt from Fres Oquendo, lost it to Lucas Browne, and got it back by decree when Browne’s post-fight urine tests showed evidence of banned substances. But Chagaev never fought again. His fight with Browne was his last.

Charr’s first defense was to come against Fres Oquendo. Slated for March 23, 2019 in Cologne after being pushed back from September of the previous year, the match never came to fruition when Charr tested positive for two banned substances. Things get really muddled from here with Charr pushed to the sideline by legal battles complicated by Don King’s shenanigans. King arranged a fight in Florida between Charr and his fighter Trevor Bryan and succeeded in getting Bryan the WBA belt when Charr was unable to get a visa. The belt is vacant again after Bryan was knocked out by Daniel Dubois who, in turn, was knocked out by “super” champion Oleksandr Usyk.

There are more threads to this saga but let’s not go there. Suffice it to say that after defeating Ustinov, Charr was out of action for the next three-and-a-half years. He’s had only three fights since 2017 and to say that his opponents were men of low repute would be giving them the best of it. In his most recent assignment, in December of 2022, he scored a second-round stoppage over 46-year-old Swiss-Albanian slug Nuri Seferi. That brought his record to 34-4 (20). He has been stopped three times, most recently in 2015 when he was halted in five frames by future cruiserweight champion Maris Briedis.

Kubrat Pulev

Kubrat Pulev will have the home field advantage in Sofia. Charr will have youth on his side. He’s 39; Pulev is 42.

Pulev sports a 30-3 record. The losses came at the hands of Wladimir Klitschko (L KO 5), Anthony Joshua (L KO 9), and Derek Chisora (L SD 12). He last fought in December at the OC Hangar in Costa Mesa, CA, where he won a lopsided decision over Polish journeyman Andrzej Wawrzyk.

In a previous engagement here at the Hangar, a concert hall that seats a shade over 3,000, he TKOed Bogdan Dinu. That bout is remembered mostly for what happened after it ended. In an incident that went viral on social media, Pulev surprised Jennifer Ravalo, a self-styled journalist, with a kiss on the lips. That animated women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred and led to an 8-page spread in Playboy (of Ravalo, not Allred). The California State Athletic Commission fined and suspended Pulev and mandated that he undergo sexual harassment training. The suspension lasted 120 days.

The match between Charr and Pulev, says a blurb about it, is an “eagerly anticipated” clash between “two evergreen living legends.” We will let you provide the punchline, The winner is expected to fight Martin Bakole who was knocked out by Michael Hunter.

Jake Paul

Jake Paul, the enfant terrible of prizefighting, returns this Saturday on a card in San Juan, Puerto Rico, that will air on DAZN. Paul, a so-called influencer who brought his big social media following with him when he took up fisticuffing, is coming off a first-round stoppage of Andre August, a no-name fighter from Texas. Saturday’s sacrificial lamb is a fellow from Dickinson, North Dakota (by way of Benicia, California) named Ryan Bourland.

Bourland, who is reportedly 35 years old but looks older, scored his signature win in 2018 when he avenged a previous defeat with a 10-round majority decision over Jose Hernandez. He has fought only one since then, TKOing a fighter with a losing record in a 6-rounder at a lodge on a remote Indian reservation in North Dakota. That improved his ledger to 17-2 (6 KOs).

Regarding Jake Paul, Thomas Hauser once wrote that he’s worked hard to become a better boxer and is “certainly better than a Golden Gloves novice.” There was a time when this reporter, perhaps naively, thought that Jake had the potential to become a legitimate top-15 cruiserweight, but his recent choice of opponents suggests that he is comfortable just spinning his wheels.

His bout with Bourland will play second fiddle to Amanda Serrano’s featherweight title defense against Germany’s Nina Meinke (18-3, 4 KOs). Although Amanda has a lot of mileage on her odometer, she is expected to have little difficulty with Meinke. In another bout of note, Puerto Rican campaigners Jonathan Gonzalez (27-3-1, 14 KOs) and Rene Santiago (12-3, 9 KOs) will meet in a 12-rounder with Gonzalez’s WBO light flyweight title at stake.

—-

Let’s conclude this write-up on an upbeat note. Hall of Fame boxing writer Bernard Fernandez, a frequent TSS contributor, informs us that his fifth and presumably final anthology is nearing completion with a likely release date of April or May. “Championship Rounds, Round 5” includes a foreword by Gerry Cooney and has drawn glowing reviews from the likes of Dave Kindred and Dr. Gordon Marino who both had an early peek at the manuscript. Kindred, a renowned sportswriter and author, was the subject of a 2021 piece on “60 Minutes.” Marino, a Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, has written extensively about boxing for the Wall Street Journal.

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Results from Orlando where Berlanga KOed McCrory in a Possible Prelude to Canelo

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Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom organization was at the Caribe Royale tonight, a non-gaming resort near Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Unbeaten super middleweights Edgar Berlanga and Padraig McCrory squared off in the main event.

The fight started slow, but it soon became apparent that McCrory, a 35-year-old father of three from Belfast, Northern Ireland, was a domestic-level fighter, notwithstanding his undefeated (18-0) record. Berlanga, whose last five fights had gone the distance, roughed him up with some dirty tactics before taking him out in the sixth round with a crunching right hand that sent the Irishman face-first to the canvas. As McCrory pulled himself upright on rubbery legs, the towel flew in from his corner. The official time was 2:44.

As well-documented, Berlanga opened his pro career with 16 consecutive first-round knockouts. Nonetheless, he was let go by Top Rank in what purportedly was an amicable divorce. This was his second fight under the Matchroom banner. Eddie Hearn signed him with an eye on scoring a big-money match with Canelo Alvarez. The red-headed Mexican superstar is committed to returning to the ring in May on Cinco de Mayo weekend in Las Vegas, but hasn’t yet locked in an opponent.

If Berlanga gets the nod, he would be a heavy underdog, but the Mexico vs. Puerto Rico angle (coupled with Berlanga’s new-found reputation as a dirty fighter) would make it an easy sell.

Co-Feature

In only his third professional fight, Cuban defector Andy Cruz was bumped into the co-feature. That was in recognition of his amateur pedigree. Among his accomplishments, he was 4-0 vs. Keyshawn Davis with the last win coming in the gold medal round of the Tokyo Olympics.

Cruz, 28, was expected to win as he pleased against his Mexican opponent, Bryan Zamarripa, and he did win all 10 rounds on all three scorecards, but in common with many great Cuban amateurs, he seemed to lack something in the power department. Zamarripa was 14-2 heading in.

Other Bouts of Note

In a 12-round welterweight contest that was devoid of drama, Uzbekistan native Shakhram Giyasov, an Olympic silver medalist who has lost precious few rounds as a pro, won a lopsided technical decision over well-recycled 34-year-old Mexican Pablo Cesar Cano.

Giyasov (15-0, 9 KOs) sent Cano (35-9-1) to the canvas in the third round with a body punch. At the end of round 11, as their feet were tangled, he pushed Cano to the canvas and the Mexican ostensibly suffered a broken ankle when he fell. That sent the bout to the scorecards where the decision (109-99 x3) was a formality. With the victory, Giyasov earned a shot at WBA belt-holder Eimantas Stanionis.

The 12-round bantamweight match between Antonio Vargas and Jonathan Rodriguez, two fighters of Puerto Rican descent, was framed as a WBA bantamweight title eliminator. Rodriguez, the underdog, floored Vargas in the opening stanza. He had scored a stunning first-round knockout of 27-1 Khalid Yafai in his previous start and it appeared that another upset was brewing. But the match quickly turned one-sided in favor of Vargas who put Rodriguez on the canvas in the very next frame (and had two points deducted for hitting him after the bell) and then put him down again at the end of round seven with a sweeping left hook after which Rodriguez’s corner properly pulled him out.

Vargas, a 2016 Olympian who had home field advantage in Florida, improved to 18-1 (10 KOs) and became the mandatory opponent for Takuma Inoue who won earlier today in Tokyo. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s Rodriguez declined to 17-2-1.

The opening bout on the TV portion of the card was a 10-round flyweight affair that looked like a runaway for showboating Yankiel Rivera until gritty Andy Dominguez made things interesting.

Rivera, who improved to 5-0 (2), was Puerto Rico’s lone representative in the Tokyo Olympics. In Mexico-born Andy Dominguez, he was fighting a former three-time New York City Golden Gloves champion who was also unbeaten (10-0 heading in). Rivera dominated the match but was caught napping in round nine and Dominguez, although all busted-up, hurt him and almost put him down. That was most lopsided round of the fight, but also the only round that Dominguez won in the eyes of the judges.

Photo credit: Ed Mulholland / Matchroom

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Junto Nakatani Turns in Another Masterclass on Saturday’s Tripleheader in Tokyo

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In a rather odd juxtaposition, several of boxing’s best little men were on display today at Japan’s National Sumo Arena in Tokyo. The best of the lot, Junto Nakatani, improved to 27-0 (20 KOs) while tearing away the WBC world bantamweight title from Tijuana’s Alexandro Santiago (28-4-5) who was making the first defense of the title he won in Las Vegas in May when he upset Nonito Donaire.

It was a one-sided beatdown. Nakatani, who had a 5-inch height advantage, won every round before ending the contest in the sixth. The end came at the 1:12 mark when Nakatani terminated the affair with his second knockdown. The first came earlier in the round, the result of a straight left hand. The finisher was a big right hook.

With the victory, Nakatani became a world title-holder in a third weight class. He’s an outstanding talent, worthy of pound-for-pound consideration, and would be favored in a unification fight with Takuma Inoue.

Inoue, the younger brother of pound-for-pound king Naoya “Monster” Inoue, did his part to bring the match to fruition with a ninth-round stoppage of Filipino veteran Jerwin Ancajas in the main event. Inoue (19-1, 5 KOs) was making the first defense of the WBA diadem he won with a wide decision over Venezuela’s mildewed Liborio Solis. That title was conveniently vacated by Takuma’s renowned brother.

This figured to be the most competitive match on the card and Ancajas (34-4-2) had his moments before Inoue ended the contest at the 0:44 mark of round nine with a four-punch combination climaxed by a shot to the liver. Heading in, Ancajas, who had a long title reign at 115, was 9-2-1 in world title fights and hadn’t previously been stopped.

In the first of the three title fights, 29-year-old Kosei Tanaka became a four-weight belt-holder in record time with a unanimous decision over Mexicali’s stubborn but out-classed Christian Bacasegua “Rocky” Rangel. At stake was the vacant WBO junior bantamweight title.

Tanaka, who previously held belts at 105, 108, and 112, started slow but the outcome was never in doubt after he knocked “Rocky” to the canvas in the eighth frame. The judges had it 119-108, 117-110, and 116-111. With the victory, Tanaka improved to 20-1 (11). In his only defeat, he was stopped by countryman Kazuto Ioka. He hunkers for a rematch but, if it happens, he might wish that it hadn’t. Ioka is long in the tooth – he turns 35 next month – but is very good and shows no signs of slowing down. Rangel (22-5-2) had won nine straight heading in, but against questionable opposition and was making his first start outside Mexico.

The Teiken Promotions card was presented in association with Top Rank and aired in the U.S. on ESPN+.

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