Cassius Clay 1

Mohammed Ali, who died yesterday, was named after his father, Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr., a descendant of slaves.

The senior Clay, in turn, was named after a 19th century political and diplomatic figure. When Ali adopted Islam and changed his name, he explained that it was his “slave name,” that he didn’t choose it and didn’t want it.

I get what he meant by “slave name,” but there was a certain irony in the term inasmuch as the original Cassius Marcellus Clay was an abolitionist. In fact, although he was a Kentucky planter, the scion of a wealthy family, and a member of the state legislature, he argued for the immediate abolition of slavery.

During a political debate in 1843, a hired assassin named Sam Brown shot Clay in the chest, but Clay went after Brown with a Bowie knife and threw him off an embankment.

Cassius Clay - 3

Two years later, Clay founded an anti-slavery newspaper in Lexington. Kentucky. This inspired so much antagonism toward him, that he carried two pistols and a knife and sealed himself behind armored doors at his office, which was equipped with two cannons. After a crowd of about sixty men broke into the office and confiscated the printing equipment, Clay moved his operation to Cincinnati, Ohio, but continued to live in Kentucky.

Clay served in the Mexican-American War as a captain with the 1st Kentucky Cavalry from 1846 to 1847. He opposed the annexation of Texas and expansion of slavery into the Southwest. While making a speech for abolition in 1849, Clay was attacked by six brothers, who beat and  stabbed him and tried to shoot him. Clay fought them all off and killed one of them, Cyrus Turner, with a Bowie knife.

Clay later served as minister to Russia under Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, resigning after Ulysses S. Grant took office. Clay was in Russia when Tsar Alexander II issued an edict emancipating serfs throughout the empire. Clay received a military commission from Lincoln and returned to the United States for a time during the Civil War, apparently influencing Lincoln to prepare the Emancipation Proclamation.

Cassius Clay 2

Clay was influential in the Tsar’s decision to threaten war against France and Britain if they were to recognize the Confederate States of America, and also in the sale of Alaska to the United States, which occurred during Andrew Johnson’s administration.

Clay and his wife, Mary Jane, had seven children, but the marriage ended after forty-five years, due to Clay’s chronic infidelity. At 84, he married Dora Richardson, who was 15 years old at the time. Not surprisingly, two of Clay’s daughters, Laura and Mary Barr, were women’s-rights activists.

 

Dempsey 2

In the episode of the television series Taxi in which Jim Ignatowski is hired as a driver for the Sunshine Cab Company, the first scene takes place in Mario’s, the cabbie hangout. The core group of drivers on the show are there to celebrate the fact that one of them, Tony Banta, has finally won a prize fight. Their excitement isn’t dampened at all by the fact that Tony won by default when his opponent fell while climbing through the ropes and knocked himself out. After all, Tony argued, he had to make it through the same ropes. In that scene, one gets a fleeting glimpse of a framed print among the clutter behind the restaurant bar. It is a reproduction of Dempsey and Firpo, the 1924 painting by George Bellows. The painting portrays the incident a year before when 80,000 people were admitted to the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan—the baseball park had a capacity of 55,000— to watch Jack Dempsey defend his world heavyweight boxing title against the popular Argentinian Luis Firpo.

Dempsey 1

The fight lasted only into the second round, and both men took their licks. In the first round, Dempsey knocked Firpo down seven times; that was made possible by the rules that prevailed at the time, permitting a boxer to stand over a floored opponent and knock him down again as soon as he got up, and also by the fact that three knockdowns in one round were not yet considered a technical knockout. A rule adopted later required a boxer to go to a neutral corner when his opponent was knocked down.

Later in the first round, Firpo landed a right on Dempsey’s chin and knocked him through the ropes and into the ringside seats. What happened next generated one of those exquisite controversies that arise in sports. The sports writers sitting at ringside helped Dempsey back into the ring. Analysis of the film of the fight indicates that the referee had counted only to four when Dempsey was back on the canvas, but observers who were checking their watches claimed that as many as fourteen seconds had elapsed when Dempsey was ready to continue.

JACK DEMPSEY

JACK DEMPSEY

Because of the count, and because Dempsey didn’t get back into the ring under his own steam, the argument arose and has persisted that Firpo should have been awarded a knockout and crowned heavyweight champion of the world. If Dempsey had been out of the ring for twenty seconds, the rule in place at the time would have resulted in a TKO. As it turned out, Dempsey knocked out Firpo in fifty-seven seconds of the second round, and Firpo never did win the title. Dempsey who was a wild and wooly character, often involved in controversy, earned enormous amounts of money as a fighter. He later operated a popular restaurant in Manhattan. Firpo became an automobile dealer and a large-scale rancher. He and Dempsey later jointly managed an Argentinian boxer named Abel Cestac who became the heavyweight champion of South America.

I don’t follow boxing any more, but when I was younger I had a conflicted relationship with the sport. I enjoyed its history, its characters,  and its ritual, and I admired boxers such as Archie Moore, Carmen Basilio, Rocky Marciano, Ray Robinson, and Floyd Patterson. On the other hand, I thought, and still do, that boxing is fundamentally barbaric.

Boxing was a subject that interested George Bellows, who did a number of works that portrayed amateur fights. He may be best known for his scenes of New York City life. He promoted American intervention in World War I and the war, including atrocities attributed to German troops, provided him with some riveting subject matter. When he was criticized for painting images of a war he did not witness, he asked rhetorically if Leonardo had attended The Last Supper.

JOE GANS

Prize fighting was part of my growing up.

My parents associated with some people who were connected to the boxing game: a promoter, a ring announcer, a cut man. At times, Mom and Dad would attend fights; I remember Mom coming home after one of those occasions with flecks of blood on her pink suit. Apparently they were at ringside.

In those days, the 1950s, we could watch fights on broadcast television, and we saw Carmine Basilio, Ezzard Charles, Jersey Joe Walcott, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Archie Moore.

Then, as now, I was a little schizophrenic when it came to boxing. I liked watching fighters like the ones I named, but I didn’t approve of boxing and thought it should be banned. I thought, and think now, that an enterprise in which the object is to knock your opponent senseless has no place in a civilized society.

WILLIAM GILDEA

Boxing was, in fact, illegal in most of the United States in the period discussed in William Gildea’s book, The Longest Fight. Where it was legal, one of the most prominent practitioners of “the sweet science” was Joe Gans, Gildea’s subject, the lightweight champion of the world and the first African-American to hold a world boxing title.

Gans held the lightweight title from 1902 to 1908 and he won the welterweight title as well in 1906. A native of Baltimore, he was strikingly handsome, well spoken, witty, courteous, and charming. Those qualities plus his nearly matchless skill in the ring attracted a large following, including white folks in numbers that were unusual for a black athlete in the days when Jim Crow was in such full vigor that racial epithets and garish cartoon figures of black Americans were commonplace in daily newspapers.

A postcard promoting the first Gans-Nelson fight.

Gildea recounts that Gans put up with plenty of abuse during his career, but he had learned the wisdom of restraint, and he practiced it in and out of the ring. When a white opponent spat in Gans’s face while the referee was going through the ritual of instructions, Gans bided his time until the fight began. His demeanor in everyday life was disarming, and he won over many people who otherwise would have included him in their overall prejudices about black people.

Gildea reports that people such as promoters and managers took advantage of Gans, because they knew a black athlete had no recourse and often was risking his life just by climbing into the ring with a white boxer.

”BATTLING” NELSON

In what was arguably the biggest fight of Gans’s career — the “long fight” referred to in the title of this book — the manager of Oscar “Battling” Nelson insisted that Gans submit to three weigh-ins on the day of the contest, and under unheard of conditions. Gans just stood for it. No one, he knew, wins at the weigh-in.

That fight took place in September 1906 under a broiling sun in the Nevada desert town of Goldfield. Gans defended his lightweight title against Nelson, whom Jack London called “the abysmal brute” for both his free-swinging style and his penchant for dirty tactics like groin punches and head-butting. Nelson was also an unapologetic racist who made no bones about his revulsion for Gans and black people in general. It was a fight to the finish, and the finish didn’t come until the referee disqualified Nelson for a low blow in the 42nd round, after two hours and 48 minutes of combat.

By that time, Gans had beat the tar out of Nelson whose face, Gildea writes, was almost unrecognizable, but if Nelson had one positive attribute it was that he could take punishment, so he was still standing when the referee made Gans the winner.

Gans during one of the three weigh-ins before the fight in Goldfield.

Gildea describes the “fight to a finish” in episodes running through the book, interrupting the account from time to time to relate other aspects of Gans’s career and private life, including the two dives he acknowledged, his warm relationship with his mother, his romantic ties, his establishment of a Baltimore hotel and saloon that was a drawing card for a stylish crowd, both black and white, and his early death.

Gildea, whose carefully crafted narrative makes this book especially enticing, clearly explains the quality that made Gans a perennial winner.  He blocked his opponents’ punches, moved as little as possible, threw a punch only when he saw an opening. And when he did punch, the blow was short and direct — in fact, Gildea writes, Gans introduced the technique of reaching out to touch his opponent and freezing the distance in his mind.

Gans is largely forgotten today, but as Gildea demonstrates, he was an important figure in the history of boxing and, more significantly, in the history of black citizens in the United States. Like the black men and women who were the first to venture into other fields, Gans took a barrage of slings and arrows for the team, and he did it with style.

HUMPHREY BOGART

Once again the other morning, instead of getting up I clicked on the TV and turned to Turner Classic Movies. Never a good idea. We ended up watching “The Harder They Fall,” a 1956 movie starring Humphrey Bogart, Rod Steiger, and Virginia Mayo. It was Bogart’s last film; he died the following year.

“The Harder They Fall” was ostensibly based on the life of Primo Carnera, and if it was, it wasn’t meant as a compliment to the Italian boxer. The film concerns an Argentine giant who is brought to the United States by an unscrupulous promoter (Steiger) whose angle is to build up the unwitting and incapable kid through a series of fixed bouts and then bet against him when he fights for the heavyweight title. As far as I know there is no proof, but there is a persistent story Carnera was used in just that way.

Jersey Joe Walcott

The cast of “The Harder They Fall” included Jersey Joe Walcott, who won the world heavyweight title in 1951, when he was 37 years old. Walcott — who served as sheriff of Camden County and chairman of the N.J. State Athletic Commission — played a trainer in “The Harder They Fall,” and seemed comfortable in the part.

MAX BAER

Also in this cast was Max Baer, who played the heavyweight champion who beat the Argentine kid and put an end to his career. This appears to have been a none-to-subtle  reference to the fact that Baer took the title from the 275-pound Carnera in 1934. There is also an episode in this film in which the boxer played by Baer gives his opponent such a beating that the man suffers brain damage and dies. That, too, happened in Baer’s career: In 1930, a fighter named Frankie Campbell — brother of Dodger star Dolph Camilli — died after a bout with Max Baer in San Francisco.

BUDDY BAER

Max Baer — father and namesake of the actor-director-producer who played Jethro in “The Beverly Hillbillies” — appeared in a couple of dozen movies and television productions. His brother, Buddy Baer — who was just as hard a puncher  — had a record of 52 wins and 7 losses with 46 knockouts. He never won a title, but he had the distinction of once knocking Joe Louis out of the ring — in a fight that Louis ended up winning on a disqualification call. Baer claimed Louis had hit him and knocked him down after the bell ended the seventh round, and he refused to answer the bell for the eighth. Buddy Baer, too, appeared in numerous movies and television shows after he gave up boxing.

ROCKY GRAZIANO

There were other personable guys who dabbled in entertainment after they were through in the ring, including Rocky Graziano and “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom.

Graziano was a New York street brawler and thief who did time on Riker’s Island and spent lots of time in other sorts of incarceration and under the protection of the Catholic Church. He went AWOL from the Army after punching an officer, and he was suspended from boxing for failing to report an attempted bribe and again for running out on a bout. He was a very good boxer and immortalized himself in the annals of the sport for his three bloody fights with Tony Zale in 1946, 1947, and 1948. The second of those fights made Graziano middleweight champion of the world.

MAXIE ROSENBLOOM

After his fighting career, Graziano — who, like a lot of guys with his background, was a charismatic figure — became a popular entertainer, especially on television comedies and variety shows.

Rosenbloom won the world light heavyweight title in 1932 and held it until 1934. On the one hand, his method of moving around the ring made it hard for opponents to land decisive blows, but that quality also meant that his fights often went the distance, and he took a lot of shots to the head. This eventually affected his physical health. Still, he capitalized on the image of a goofy pug and became a familiar figure on television. Although he wasn’t a serious actor, he played a significant role in Rod Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” the iconic boxing story that starred Jack Palance and Ed and Keenan Wynn and included in its cast Max Baer.

PRIMO CARNERA

In an interesting parallel, Primo Carnera, who was even more unlikely an actor than Rosenbloom, also hit one high note in a limited screen career. Carnera was a giant. When he defended his heavyweight title against Paolino Uzcudun, the two fighters weighed a total of 488 3/4 pounds — the most weight ever in a title match. And when he defended the title against Tommy Laughran, the average weight of the two fighters was 227 pounds, but Laughran weighed only 184. It was the biggest disparity ever in a title bout.

Carnera used his size and generally menacing appearance to his advantage in the 1955 film “A Kid for Two Farthings,” and he won critical approval for his portrayal of villainous wrestler Python Macklin.

Rocky Graziano knocks Tony Zale through the ropes in their 1947 fight.