Muhammad Ali predicted, “When I’m gone boxing will be dead!” It’s just like Sonny Liston’s birth date or Archie Moore’s age, Don King’s hairdo, or where all of Rocky Marciano’s stashed cash is, every page in the Book of Boxing is mysterious.
With much having been written about the Marquis de Queensberry with its corrupt dark cloud shadowing boxing throughout its history, it seems Ali was better at predicting the round his fights would end. Boxing will never die. Even the disastrous effeminate Political Correctness flunkies leave it alone for good reason. The participants’ demographic origins have changed dramatically. As soon as one group evolves and moves up the ladder, saying so long to busted noses and double vision, another quickly fills the void.
Post-roaring 20s hard-scrabble depression-era whites, with Jack Dempsey their ideal, ruled the day with rare exceptions. Such as when jet-black Jack Johnson crashed the party and kicked everyone’s tail. The birth of the Great White Hope was briefly interrupted by the Nazi German Max Schmeling’s surprise KO of Joe Louis. Our nation turned its lonely eyes to the Brown Bomber to avenge our national pride and restore our illusionary racially eminent pipe dream.
Every now and then someone other than USA-born whites and blacks would enter the boxing pantheon starting with great Cuban, Caribbean, and South American fighters. Great Britain competed gallantly as the sports’ popularity spread from across the pond to Eastern Bloc nations like Poland, Romania and others. For the last twenty years, the groups prying the door open are tough-as-nails boxers from former Iron Curtain nations, the post-Russia USSR, Philippines, Thailand, and even Japan and Korea. It’s a financial story with the rawest carnal instincts.
Somewhat overlooked are the endless champion Mexican-born fighters, followed by Mexican-American pugilists post mass-migration. Mexican heavyweight fighters, for many reasons, are far and few between. The heavyweight division which reigns eternally as the undisputed top draw for fans worldwide had never crowned a Mexican Heavyweight Champion of the World. Until now.
Before I introduce the ubiquitous Andy Ruiz Jr. I offer a brief narrative on the history of overweight … well, err…fat … heavyweights. Not meant to disparage or shame anyone, quite the opposite, as in my corner it takes something special to be so comfortable with one's appearance as to earn a living with your shirt off.
"Two Ton" Tony Galento, a 1930s iconic Bowery Bum fighter, as tall laying down as standing up, once said with a straight face: “Shakespeare? Never hoid of him. Is he one of dem’ foreign heavies? I’d moider dat bum.”
Tony operated the "Nut Club Bar" in Orange, New Jersey drinking to excess and scrapping with anybody and everybody including his own brother! On the day of his fight with “Slap-Happy” Max Baer at Madison Square Garden, his brother begged him to stop drinking whiskey and they got into it. Tony suffered a gash from a broken glass, went to the hospital to get stitched up, then to the Garden to be TKO’d in the 8th round. Baer, who went on to star in dozens of Hollywood movies, said that Galento “smelled of rotten tuna and a tub of old liquor" and that was the day before at the weigh-in!
So irascible was he that his then-manager Jack Dempsey grew so weary of Galento’s bull that at 45, and not having fought in a decade, took his suit coat off and pummeled Tony senseless. Dempsey then tore up their contract and they never spoke again.
Tony had a bit part in the Marlon Brando classic "On the Waterfront" as a drunken longshoreman. His one line was, “The canary could sing but he couldn’t fly.”
Eric Scott “Butterbean” Esch was a 5’11” 425 lb. behemoth raised by Orthodox Jews. He grew up in tiny St. John, MI, spending his teenage years in Bay City, MI. Known as the “King of Four Rounder’s” he knocked his opponents out quickly. The sight of him in boxing trunks with his bald head and rhinoceros shaped body made him a TV darling.
His career highlight took place while losing a unanimous decision to former Heavyweight Champion Larry Holmes in July 2002. At 52, and 10 years removed from his prime, Holmes was stunned when Butterbean took off his robe revealing a large henna tattoo stenciled advertisement across his back reading, “Golden Palace.com” an online casino, not a Chinese buffet.
Buster Mathis at 6’4” and 370 lbs. was a bright, sensitive wide body who was well-spoken, philosophical, and born in a dirt-poor town named Sledge, Mississippi. Good-natured and very skilled, he fought them all. Ali, Frazier, Chuvalo, Ron Lyle, and Jerry Quarry. He was never comfortable as the butt of jokes, but was never taciturn or surly. Serving as an example to other athletes who battled the bulge, his actions spoke loudly even becoming self-effacing as he got older. To his credit, even the word-bully Ali avoided using Mathis’s appearance as fodder to sell tickets.
Finally, any discussion of extra-large, big and tall heavyweights that excludes George Foreman is invalid. I had the privilege of attending his first workout at Oakland King’s Gym on 23 Street at 14th Avenue after announcing his return to boxing in September 1986. George and Ali had become good friends over the years, and he called asking for Angelo Dundee’s phone number. Angelo had trained Ray Robinson, Ali, Ray Leonard, and many others. Known for mastery ring tactician it was his soft spoken nature that appealed to frenetic supercharged larger-than-life personalities.
“How much did you say you weigh, George?” asked Dundee.
“I broke the scale, Angie, honest. But it stopped at 400 anyways. Don’t worry. I’m serious. I need the money. After all, I’ve got five sons all named George to feed!” He weighed 455 lbs.
I drove up from Monterey after reading Art Spander’s column touting the event in the SF Chronicle Sporting Green. Expecting a big crowd, I was surprised to see 50 people tops, including Spander and a camera man. Suddenly a curtain opened and there he was draped head to toe in heavy rubber sweats with a half dozen towels stuffed down his shirt. Angie stands 5’ 6” and was leading George by the wrist looking like an elephant circus trainer.
They stopped at the heavy bag where George threw ten or so half-hearted roundhouse shots to its side. Then to the speed bag where his muscle memory allowed him to tap a nice beat for about two minutes. He was sweating buckets.
Angie told him, “Touch your toes big fella … an’ we’re done.”
Six months later on March 9, 1987, he TKO’d one Steve Zouski in the fourth round at the old Oakland Auditorium weighing 163 lbs. less at 262. Professional fighters who last from youth to old age go through several incarnations. For example, the young Cassius Clay weighed barely 190 lbs. and floated like a butterfly. Fastest heavyweight in history bar none.
Post-Liston, until run out of town over the draft in 1966, Ali weighed 215 lbs. and combined power and savvy with foot and hand speed. This was Ali. From 1971 on he weighed anywhere from 225 to 240 lbs. and relied on cunning and defense. This was Muhammad Ali.
George burst on the scene after he won the heavyweight title at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City weighing a toned 225 lbs. of rock-hard muscle. He was 40-0 with 37 KO’s when he fought Ali at the "Rumble in the Jungle" October 30, 1974 in Kinshasa, Zaire, weighing a stacked 235 lbs. This was "Big George Foreman" made in the bad-guy image of Sonny Liston.
When he resurfaced the first time in 1977, he weighed close to 245 lbs. In his locker room after losing to a light-hitting Philly southpaw named Jimmy Young, Big George saw God and retired for the next 10 years. His final act was just plain old “George” or as he pronounced it “Gawedge”.
He was sweet, humble, funny, and always sheepish regarding his weight and northerly-trending waistline. Part of his post-boxing persona and shtick depended on his mammoth girth. The broadest of all being his smile.
Which brings us to the new Heavyweight Champion of the World, Andy Ruiz Jr. The first and last thing one needs to know is he’s agile, quick-footed, ring smart, and hits harder than Chinese algebra with lightening quick hand speed. The knockout in the seventh round of the previously unbeaten, British-born Anthony Joshua was no fluke. At 6’2” and 285 lbs., I haven’t seen as destructive an overhand chopping right since Marciano sent Archie Moore to the canvas in his swan song bout in 1955. Tyson and Frazier punched up from the floor in rising trajectories. Liston and Foreman punched down to the floor in roundhouse swarming combinations with lethal set-up jabs. The new champ eats a dozen Snickers before each fight.
I’m not sure Andy knows just how hard he hits. Even with a 33-1 record coming into the fight, he’d never been knocked down. Joshua sent him sprawling in the first minute of the third round whereupon Andy immediately “prayed to God to help me” and bounced up at the count of four, heading straight toward the soon to be ex-champion.
Like Paul Newman’s portrayal of Rocky Graziano in the classic movie, “Someone Up There Likes Me,” he proceeded to destroy and shred Joshua’s porous defense, flooring him twice in a half minute.
The bell ending the round saved him, but the referee called it quits early in the seventh round after Joshua got up again from Andy’s blows but couldn’t find his corner.
Andy’s feet are so flat and wide he had to wear gym shoes during the fight as nowhere in New York City could replacements be found. In the now famous picture of him leaping and prancing across the ring, his 20-EEE’s suddenly looked like a King’s slippers.
Prediction: If he stays the course, which I think he will, he’ll wipe out the half dozen heavyweight contenders, all of whom possess cartoonish muscles and body builder physiques. I don’t think he himself will make this a racial deal, but the public and promoters … well, this is boxing!
He was a dirt-poor Mexican. Most of his opponents are black. Racial tensions worldwide are exploding. The race card status is not be where the chip will fall. So, let’s get ready to rhumba and rumble.
In the ring, blacks and Mexicans get along due to sportsmanship and hard-earned respect. In the stands and on street corners … not so much. On the way into the ring, Joshua’s supporter’s howled insults at Andy. Bad stuff. Fat taco this … sloppy Mexican that. Oh boy! That was probably a big mistake.
After his upcoming title defense fights, look for lots of rappers strewn along the highways, Snickers wrappers too.
Mark Paul Brown lives in Seaside, California, where he writes essays, short stories and cultural opinion pieces with his Golden Retriever, Sonny, by his side. If interested in viewing his compilation of works, "Turtles, Tidbits & Timepieces," you may contact him at 510-301-2644 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org