Chicago and boxing are a match made in heaven, both taking perverse pride in rumors that the fix is in, that the mob has a piece of the action.
Where else would a fighter's wife testify in divorce court that her husband "lay down," purposely losing a fight? Sylvia Day wanted her alimony to reflect whatever came Davey Day's way for not trying too hard that night; a Chicago boxer of the 1930s and '40s, he fought championship bouts in both the lightweight and welterweight divisions
And where else would a judge reply, according to a Tribune reporter: "I saw that fight. He didn't lay down. He dove down."
Chicago has hosted some memorable matches, including one of the most celebrated of all sporting events: the "Long Count" fight. Hearing those two little words, any fan worthy of his cigar stub is transported 85 years back down memory lane to Sept. 22, 1927, when Jack Dempsey, the former heavyweight champion, and Gene Tunney, the titleholder, met at Soldier Field. Tunney survived a seventh-round knockdown when the referee delayed the count because Dempsey didn't go to a neutral corner.
"Probably no event in the history of the world aroused as great a universal interest or was awaited by such vast crowds," the Tribune reported of the fight's broadcast, an early radio milestone. "Trappers in the ice bound north, ranchers in Australia, farmers in South Africa, marines stationed in China, members of the American Legion in Paris, and staid Britishers awaited the decision, 'Tunney wins.'"
This month also marks the 60th anniversary of a famed match between heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson and challenger Sonny Liston. It had been ballyhooed as a morality play pitting the nice guy Patterson against Liston, who had learned to box in prison while serving a sentence for robbery. The Sept. 25, 1962, fight at Comiskey Park was a dud: Liston KO'd Patterson in 2 minutes and 6 seconds of the first round. But the morning-after press conference in the Sheraton Hotel was a doozy.
House detectives had to forcibly remove novelist Norman Mailer, who had covered the fight for Esquire, from the seat reserved for the new champion. It was noted that the match had come to Chicago because Liston couldn't get a boxer's license in New York, thanks to his reputed gangster associates. (Floyd Patterson's manager Cus D'Amato also lacked a New York license because of underworld links.) That prompted Liston to plead: "Give me a little time to prove myself to the public that I've been re—" At that point, according to the Tribune's reporter: "Sonny paused and turning to (his manager Jack) Nilon, smiled: 'You finish the word.' It was 'rehabilitated.'"
As the promoters had tax liens slapped on them, Liston's purse was in limbo, leading a reporter to ask if the manager and his fighter had the money to get out of Chicago. "I've got an airplane travel card and Sonny has six bits," Nilon replied.
Which is a nice metaphor for a boxer's life — years of coffee-and-doughnuts purses hopefully en route to a big-bucks fight. It's a game of young men's dreams and old men's memories, as a Tribune reporter found on visiting a boxing gym in 1986 in the company of Jack Cowen, a longtime matchmaker. When cruiserweight champion Lee Roy Murphy and a sparring partner stepped into the ring, young fighters and the veterans who'd been training them gathered around. Notice the older men's eyes, Cowen said; taking that advice, the Tribune reported:
"They're all re-fighting some long-ago match when — had they only managed to slip a last left hook, or had one judge seen the fight only a little differently — they, too, might have gone on to taste the adrenaline-pumping thrill of hearing the roar of a crowd rise up to greet the announcement: 'And in this corner, wearing white trunks, and fighting out of Chicago, the CHAM-PI-ON OF THE WORLD.'"
A legion of hopefuls passed through the neighborhood gyms and boxing arenas that once dotted Chicago. Some went on to fame, like Barney Ross, the first fighter to hold three world titles, and Joe Louis who in 1934 won the Chicago Golden Gloves, an amateur tournament created by the Tribune. Turning pro, Louis fought preliminary bouts at venues like the Arcadia Theater, where he once was taking a beating but found no quarter even from his own corner. As the fight promoter Irv Schoenwald told the Tribune, Louis' cornerman "took the bottle of water and held it in front of Joe and told him he'd break the bottle over his head if he quit."
So inspired, Louis won the fight and, in 1937 at Comiskey Park, knocked out James Braddock to become heavyweight champion of the world.
With its patchwork of immigrant communities, Chicago was a dream town for boxing — a blood sport that thrives on ethnic loyalties and antipathies. Oscar "Battling" Nelson, a product of the Hegewisch neighborhood, was billed as the Durable Dane; Stockyards Harold Smith was the ring moniker of an Irish boxer from Back of the Yards. When Kingfish Levinsky, so named for his family's Maxwell Street fish market, fought Art Lasky in 1934, the Tribune described the other fighter as "another husky Hebrew heavyweight, who hails from Minneapolis."
Of Levinsky's loss to an out-of-town Irish boxer at the Chicago Stadium, the Tribune reported: "But when the Kingfish jumped over the ropes throwing out kisses to all parts of the packed arena, and as he made his way to his dressing room, he got most of the cheers."
Over them all, the greats and the obscure, hung the tantalizing suspicion that in boxing, things aren't always what they seem to be. In 1926, a losing fighter's manager threatened that if the Illinois boxing commission didn't reverse the decision, he'd blow the whistle on lots of fixed matches he knew about.
Five decades later, when boxing's sun was setting in Chicago — a victim of TV and prosperity, prizefighting being a poor kid's game — Schoenwald and fellow promoter Ben Bentley took a sentimental journey to what had been Marigold Arena at Grace Street and Broadway. Every Monday, they'd put on a fight card for sellout crowds at the North Side venue. Sometimes it was easier to get a ticket to a Bears game. Jake "the Barber" Factor, a notable gangster of the day, was a ringside regular.
But by 1977, the venue had been transformed into Faith Tabernacle, a house of worship, prompting Bentley to wax philosophical.
"This was a dingy place, a smoke-filled arena," Bentley said, with a shrug. "And now it's a pretty church."
Editor's note: Thanks to Irwin Shiffman, of Skokie, for suggesting this Flashback.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun