‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard – World Middleweight Champion 1988-1990: “Boxing is more than a sport, it’s a skill. In the ring your fists are like little snakes that strike before you can tell them to”.
- Throughout the history of professional boxing, the middleweight division has generally been one of the sport’s most glamorous, second only to the heavyweights in fan appeal, and when one discusses great fighters of the past, the middleweights come in for their share of praise, it’s a division which has been the most colourful and most intriguing, with many of its battles being thrillers, and in many cases far superior to those of any other class.
The Ring magazine in America recently put together their selection of the 20 greatest middleweights of all time. The rankings were based on what the fighters achieved at middleweight: the quality of their opposition, how they fared against their contemporaries, if they were champions – the number of title defences they made, how well they performed in their biggest fights, and perhaps most importantly, how consistent they were at the weight and for how long. The great ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson, who was unbeatable at welterweight during the 1940s, came on the scene as a middleweight in the early 1950s, taking the world title belt from Jake La Motta. The British fans who were around during this period, and I was one of them, will never forget our own Randy Turpin beating Robinson for his middleweight crown in 1951 in London, and then in New York a few months later almost retaining it, when Robinson was on the verge of defeat having sustained a badly cut eye, but with one last effort in the 10th round Robinson landed a barrage of punches on Turpin that ended the fight in his favour.
‘Sugar’ Ray had some great battles during the 50s with the likes of Carmen Basilio, Gene Fullmer and Paul Pender, losing then regaining his title five times. It was a truly golden age of middleweights, and we had to wait 30 years to witness anything quite like it. Who can forget the great middleweights of the 1980s? ‘Marvellous’ Marvin Hagler, ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearn, Robert Duran, and our own outstanding champion, Alan Minter.
In choosing the greatest middleweight ever, The Ring agreed with most of the historians of boxing when naming Harry Greb, who held the world title from 1923 to 1926, which may surprise many, especially with his title reign of just three years being so brief compared to other middleweight legends.
However, during that short span he had an amazing 57 fights, beating many of the greatest boxers around at the time who were leading contenders, or former or future champions, and some who would become legends in the fight game. Harry Greb was nicknamed the ‘Pittsburgh Windmill’ because of his boxing style which was phenomenal and counteracted the text-moves of many a world class technician. It was possibly the most singular fighting style of any boxer before or since, a swarming maximum velocity whirlpool, with tremendous energy. He never eased up and could maintain it for 20 rounds if necessary. And tough, for he was only stopped twice in 298 fights.
Many boxers refused to fight Greb, the most famous being Jack Dempsey. They did have a sparring session which almost had the status of an exhibition bout, with the famous actor Douglas Fairbanks as a referee of sorts and a large paying audience. Dempsey hardly laid a glove on Greb.
Not all the thrills are to be found in the padded ring. The side shows often furnish the laughs, pathos, colour, and the drama that make boxing what it is. But the anecdotes that have the greatest appeal are those of the champions the behind the scenes tales of the wizards of the square ring, their hair-raising experiences inside and out of the ring. And certainly Harry Greb was a real character outside the ring. He loved nightclubs and hated training. He became a legend in boxing circles for a series of passionate love affairs with a large number of the opposite sex. Often he would make love to a woman in his dressing room just before a contest, fight for 15 hard rounds, and then return to the dressing room to carry on where he had left off. There are many myths surrounding Greb’s life and career, one of them when he was the middleweight champion of the world and the legendary Mickey Walker and his manager Kearns were delighted about the ‘Pittsburgh Windmill’s’ poor condition. As the days passed, word spread that Greb was whooping it up in the nightspots. On the night before the big fight, Walker’s manager was strolling down Broadway and was surprised and pleased to see Greb staggering out of a nightclub looking the worse for wear, and tipsy, with a beautiful woman hanging on each arm! That was good enough for Kearns and the smart money men, so everyone rushed to bet their money on Mickey Walker to win. But had they not been so hasty, they would have seen a strange sight. As soon as Greb and the two blondes had ducked around the corner, Harry’s drunkenness disappeared. He dismissed the two girls, then, cold and sober and with a smile on his lips, Greb went home to bed, his clever little masquerade having worked perfectly.
All the bets, sought by the smart money boys were snapped up by Greb’s friends. It was the greatest sucker trap in boxing history, for the smart boys had fallen for it hook, line and sinker. In the fight Greb was never greater as he battered Walker from pillar to post. The smart gamblers were cleaned out and Greb made himself a small fortune by his clever masquerade. The story goes that later that evening the two fighters met up again, this time in a nightclub, where Walker committed a social error. “You know, Harry”, he slurred, “you never would have licked me tonight if you hadn’t stuck your thumb in my eye”. Harry Greb flushed with anger, “Why you Irish bum, you may be a toy bulldog to some, but you’re only a poodle to me!”. With that, the two men waded into each other, hammer and tongs, until a gigantic policeman called Pat Casey came along and separated them.
He flung first one and then the other into a couple of cabs and ordered the drivers to take them back to their hotels. The astonishing thing with Greb was that he was blind in one eye for the second half of his career and died at the age of 32 whilst in hospital for a routine nose operation. I wouldn’t argue against him being the best ever, for no other middleweight in history amassed such a record against better competition. Not Robinson, not Hagler, not Leonard, not Duran. Even it they looked better while trying.By George Reed
This article appears in the print edition 610 of Island Connections