For much of the past few weeks, there has been heated controversy regarding an article I wrote entitled “Can Boxing Trust USADA?” Wherever readers stand on this issue, I would urge them to remember that the people who criticize what’s happening in boxing today the most vehemently are often the people who care the most about boxing.
If one made a short list of the greatest sports heroes in history, the most meaningful names on that list would be belong to boxers. There have been times when the sweet science sent what seemed like a karmic wave around the world. Jack Johnson’s destruction of James Jeffries, Joe Louis’s annihilation of Max Schmeling, Muhammad Ali’s fall at the hands of Joe Frazier and his resurrection against George Foreman. Each of these happenings reached far beyond sports.
A quarter-century ago, Tom Callahan wrote in Time magazine, “Regional vainglories like the World Cup or World Series only aspire to the global importance of the heavyweight championship. John L. Sullivan, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, and Muhammad Ali truly possessed the world.”
Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and Muhammad Ali redefined what it meant to be black. Even today, the loss of a beloved fighter is a small death for those who love him. Not only has he been defeated in the ring; he has been physically beaten down in front of the multitude that loves him.
Boxing is a public trust. Shame on those who despoil it.
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The drumbeat has already started for the November 21 fight between Miguel Cotto and Canelo Alvarez, which will be televised in the UK by Box Nation.
One of the many impressive things about Cotto is the degree to which he has mastered English. For much of his ring career, Miguel spoke at press conferences and in interviews exclusively in Spanish. Now he’s fluent in English.
It’s hard to learn a new language at an advanced age. For those who question this assertion, try learning Spanish when you’re in your twenties or older.
How did Cotto’s language skills evolve?
“My first language was Spanish,” Miguel recently told this writer. “In school, I had a required English class, so I knew some English. Then I started boxing, and I used a translator. People would say to me that I could make more money if I spoke English. But the bigger thing for me was, sometimes when I spoke, the translator would change what I said. That made me want to learn more English so people would hear my thoughts, not the thoughts of someone else talking for me. The work is non-stop. My English will never be perfect. But I try to improve every day.”
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Few fights are as enshrined in boxing lore as the September 14, 1923, confrontation between Jack Dempsey and Luis Firpo. The bout took place at the Polo Grounds in New York before more than 80,000 fans, who paid $1,188,603 to witness history in the making. It was boxing’s second largest gate up until that time.
Dempsey and The Wild Bull by John Jarrett (Pitch Publishing) tells the story of the fight. The material on Dempsey is familiar. The material on Firpo is not.
Firpo was born in Argentina in 1894. He had huge hands, stood a shade over 6-feet-2-inches tall, and weighed 216 pounds. Dempsey, eight months younger, was an inch shorter and weighed 192 pounds when they entered the ring.
Firpo came to the United States in 1922 after five years as a professional boxer. Legends about him abounded. Some newspaper reports maintained that he was the son of a wealthy railroad builder and a Cantilonean noblewoman. The fighter himself rebutted that notion with the declaration, “My father is a railroad builder, but he builds with a pick and shovel.”
About the only thing the newspapers agreed on was that Firpo spoke no English. Damon Runyon affixed the label “The Wild Bull of the Pampas” to him. In truth, Firpo was not from the pampas (a vast plains region). He’d grown up in Buenos Aires and worked as a stevedore, boot black, and bottle-washer in a drugstore before turning to boxing.
The Argentinean was a raw crude fighter with strength and endurance, monumental defensive deficiencies, and a virtually useless left hand. “His left hand, “Runyon wrote, “seems of no use whatever to him in a fight. He holds it out in front of him, but knows nothing of jabbing or hooking with it.”
Firpo’s right hand could render an opponent unconscious with one blow. His most notable victory prior to challenging Dempsey was an eighth-round stoppage of Jess Willard at Boyle’s Thirty Acres in New Jersey on July 12, 1923. That led Willard (who’d been knocked out four years earlier by the Manassa Mauler) to declare, “They talk about the wallop in Dempsey’s punches, but I will tell you that Firpo hits the hardest. I know.”
Former welterweight champion Jack Britton said of Firpo, “Why teach him to be clever. It would spoil him. He’s a natural fighter and a dangerous one.”
Dempsey-Firpo was attended by the rich and powerful. Vanderbilt, Whitney, Biddle, Gould, Rothschild, and Morgan were some of the names at ringside. They were joined by Florenz Ziegfeld, James Corbett, Babe Ruth, and Al Capone.
Dempsey floored Firpo seven times in the first round and was knocked down twice himself. One of those knockdowns saw the champion blasted through the ropes onto the laps of reporters; a moment immortalized on canvas by George Bellows’ famous painting, Dempsey and Firpo.
In round two, Dempsey knocked Firpo down twice more. Fifty-seven seconds into the second stanza, the Argentinean was counted out.
Ford Frick, then a reporter for the New York Evening Journal, wrote afterward, “Eighty-five thousand persons rose to their feet as one man when the bell called the two fighters for the opening, and eighty five thousand persons were still standing at the finish.”
Frank G. Menke followed suit, writing in The Sporting News, “From the moment the first gong banged, there was action so rapid, so cyclonic, that the eye could not follow nor the brain record the exact details.”
Jarrett’s writing is a bit dry at times, but he has done his homework well. Dempsey and The Wild Bull is a strong factual recounting of events. Anticipation for the climactic fight builds nicely.
And one final note: In the Bellows painting, Firpo’s body is twisted in a way that, in reality, would have robbed him of his punching power. Worse, as Jarrett notes, Firpo is depicted as knocking Dempsey through the ropes with a left hand, not his right.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com. His most recent book (Thomas Hauser on Boxing) was published by the University of Arkansas Press.