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Sports

Finally, Baltimore native George 'K.O.' Chaney earns Hall of Fame spot

BoxingAlzheimer's DiseaseMadison Square Garden

"I don't intend to quit boxing as long as I am able to push a fist into the face of a rival and keep him from knocking me over the ropes."

George Chaney, 1923

He hailed from the squalid streets of East Baltimore, an Irish-American kid with calloused hands, a tough will and a means to make a buck. They called George Chaney the Knockout King and his punch, the Highland(town) Earthquake. And though he never won a world title, he captured the heart of a brawling, blue-collar city that embraced the fighter with the lightning left hook.

On Sunday, 56 years after his death, "K.O." Chaney was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y. — the third boxer from Baltimore so honored after Joe Gans, a world lightweight champion from 1902 to 1908, and Kid Williams, who won the bantamweight crown in 1914. Gans was enshrined in 1990; Williams, six years later.

Chaney began boxing in 1910, two months after Gans' death. Twice, Chaney defeated Williams — once by knockout — before the latter's title drive. But while Gans, the first black title-holder, and Williams remain boxing legends, Chaney's name has dimmed for all but die-hard fans and history buffs.

His 15-year record: 140 victories, 34 defeats and six draws, according to the Hall of Fame. A southpaw, Chaney won 80 times by knockout and was rated by Boxing Illustrated in 1993 as the fourth-hardest puncher, pound for pound, in history. Harder than Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey and George Foreman.

"He was one of the great ones," said Don Majeski, a boxing matchmaker and member of the Hall of Fame selection committee. "Chaney fought twice for the title and lost both, but he was a tenacious fighter, an exciting puncher and a terrific attraction."

He fought often, sometimes three and four times a month, everywhere from the Gayety Theatre in Baltimore to Madison Square Garden in New York. Once, Chaney boxed twice on the same card, winning both. He scored 11 straight knockouts in 1920-1921 and decked one opponent in 32 seconds.

The media rallied around Chaney, proselytizing the wallops of a man who stood 5 feet 1. "The boy with the blacksmith's punch," one reporter called him. Another, describing the flurry from Chaney's fists, wrote that his rival ""was buffeted about the ring ... like a weather vane spinning around in a a terrific thunderstorm."

After one knockout, the groggy fighter asked his corner "if a trolley car had hit him. They told him it was merely Chaney's left."

Even Chaney's manager chimed in. "When George's fist connects, I never stop to see the other fellow counted out," Sam Harris said. "I rush to the box office to count our end."

'Hall of Fame material'

Chaney grew up at the foot of Fells Point, in a skinny rowhouse at 841 South Dallas St., then an alley paved in sawdust. One of seven children raised by his mother, an oyster shucker, he left home at 14 to work as a lumberjack in Western Maryland — a job that readied him for the ring.

"When I left that camp [in 1910], I was as tough as a bear. I was bulging with muscles," he told The Sun in 1922. "It took a good-sized man to give me a battle. And I had 'em, too. A lumber camp is no place for a boy who expects to be coddled. They coddled me with punches."

Chaney returned home at 17, broke but smitten with a girl whom he wanted to date. Having learned of a coming boxing show at Albaugh's Theater on Charles Street, he signed on, kayoed his opponent in the first round and pocketed $1.

Three months later and still undefeated, Chaney rushed home after his seventh victory, placed $150 in $1 bills on the table and said, "Mother, you will never have to shuck another oyster!"

Chaney fought until 1925, scoring knockouts in 57 percent of his victories and earning enough money that he never had to work again. Married at 18, he divorced and wed again in 1920. His second wife, Elizabeth, insisted he hand her his winnings, which she invested for them.

"Before I met Elizabeth, I was just like nearly every other fighter," Chaney told the Baltimore Post in 1931. "Although I had earned more than $100,000, I hadn't saved a penny of it. I'd be in a bread line now, I guess, if it hadn't been for her."

Chaney took his lumps in the ring. In 1912, at Albaugh's, he was floored time and time again by Brooklyn's Charley Goldman, who scored nine knockdowns in the first eight rounds.

"I tried my best to fight back, but Goldman kept slamming me all around the ring," Chaney recalled years later. "My ears were ringing and the birds were chirping. I have never experienced such fatigue. However, I recuperated, and though I was foggy from the 10th round on, I won the decision [in 15]."

But nothing matched the beating Chaney took at Oriole Park in August 1920 against lightweight Rocky Kansas of Buffalo, N.Y. For 12 rounds, the partisan crowd winced as Kansas pummeled their hero.

"Chaney had his nose cut open in the second round and he bled profusely," The Sun reported. "About the middle of the bout Kansas closed the Baltimore boy's left eye. In the last three sessions, Chaney also bled from his left ear and continually spat blood."

Chaney recovered, returned three weeks later and won the first of 12 straight bouts, 11 by knockouts.

"The sheer frequency of his fighting was truly impressive," said Patrick Pannella, executive director of the Maryland State Athletic Commission. "Today a guy might fight twice a year, but back then it was 'bring 'em on.' "

The brutal schedule didn't seem to faze Chaney, said Frank Gilbert, past president of the local chapter of the Veteran Boxers Association.

"He boxed more than 1,000 rounds and remains an all-time knockout artist," Gilbert said. "He might not have had a championship chin, but he's definitely Hall of Fame material."

Twice, Chaney fought for a world title, losing to Johnny Kilbane for the featherweight crown in 1916 and to Johnny Dundee for the junior lightweight championship in 1923. Two years later he retired to the two-story, four-bedroom home he'd had built at 3703 Belair Road, across from Herring Run Park.

Life after boxing

When he finally took off the gloves, Chaney became a different man, said his daughter, Rosemary Kirchner. He enjoyed classical music, ballroom dancing and civic affairs. He was president of the local Democratic Club for more than a decade and helped feed and clothe the needy during the Great Depression.

"When people lost their homes, they sometimes stayed with us," said Kirchner, 85, of Scottsdale, Ariz. "Our basement was a donation center where folks dropped off goods for the poor, and we'd box it all up. My father helped them find jobs through politicians. He was very generous, a wonderful soul."

Kirchner recalls the times the two of them spent dancing to his records — "he was very light on his feet" — skipping rope together and playing honky-tonk tunes on the family's piano. She sat at one end of the bench with "K.O." at the other, those huge hands flitting over the keys.

Chaney still had a cauliflower ear, a flattened nose and a scar above his right eye. He still ran 10 miles a day, as he had during training. And he'd accompany the priests from St. Ann Catholic Church on visits to parishioners in dangerous neighborhoods. But he never spoke of his boxing exploits to family.

"I'd ask him about it," Kirchner said, "but he'd say, 'It's over and done. Let's talk about now.' And when I asked to see the fights, he said, 'I'll never take you, and if I have anything to do with it, you will never go.' He didn't like rough language and thought every woman should be a lady."

While Chaney spurned boxing, his time in the ring might have caught up with him. One Sunday afternoon in 1942, Kirchner said, "the three of us were sitting in the living room, listening to a radio show that we liked when my father jumped up and started ranting and raging. I was shocked, but my mother calmed him down. Two weeks later it happened again, only louder and longer."

Chaney saw doctors, but the episodes increased.

"Once, in our house, he was going downstairs when he stopped on the landing, got angry and put his fist through the wall," his daughter said.

Finally, in 1943, Chaney was admitted to Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville, where he lived until his death from a heart attack in 1958. Family visited most every Sunday.

"I remember meeting him when I was 6," said Chaney's grandson, Craig Kirchner, 64. "He had dementia, but he was jolly and smiling. He gently put me in his lap and held me. He had these incredible hands, real monsters for a man his size, all calloused and hard. Sitting there, I felt that nothing could scare me."

The strength in Chaney's hands so moved Kirchner that he wrote a poem about them 40 years later. On Sunday, he attended his grandfather's induction and presented the Hall of Fame with a wool sweater that had belonged to "K.O."

"I wish I'd known him better, but how could a guy who fought every month for 16 years not get a screw loose?" said Kirchner, a golf retail consultant from Elkton. "He's fortunate that he had those 17 quality years after he retired from boxing."

Not that Chaney had regrets.

"If I had my life to live over again, I'd still be a prizefighter," Chaney told the Baltimore Post in 1931. "In its way, it's just as good a profession as law or medicine or anything else."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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