By Anthony Jones
“FEAR is like fire,” the great boxing guru Cus D’Amato used to say, “It can cook for you. It can heat your house. Or it can burn you down.”
The dictionary puts it this way, “Fear – an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain, or harm,” – coincidentally listing the three elements that make boxing the most viscerally exciting of all sports. Anyone aspiring to step into the ring must possess this emotion, control it and use it.
Fear has many levels, ranging from the tension, or ‘nerves’ that any sportsman may experience, pre-match, to the black depression that can eat away at a boxer’s confidence for days before a big fight, the sort of tension that never shows in sparring, but manifests itself in a tense, unambitious performance on the night, an erosion of confidence, or at worst, complete meltdown.
Seriously destructive champions such as Mike Tyson and Joe Louis benefitted greatly from the fear their reputation generated. The former reaped the scalps of Frank Bruno and Bruce Seldon in successive fights; Bruno stiff with apprehension, enduring a methodical beating and Seldon collapsing in terror from a phantom punch.
Tyson shares a victim with Lennox Lewis in Andrew Golota. The mercurial Pole entered the ring against Lewis in the fall of 1997 having previously destroyed the career of Riddick Bowe in two brutal fights which had both ended with his disqualification for attempting to re-arrange Bowe’s reproductive organs. Pre-fight predictions were about evenly balanced.
His challenge lasted less than one round. Turning up at the arena an unexplained 45 minutes late with a police escort, he was counted out in a heap on the ropes in under two minutes. Golota claimed that a shot of Lidocane given to him before the fight had affected his performance. The boxing commission thanked him for the information and fined him $5,000 for using a banned substance, a bill Andrew passed on to the medic in question by way of a multi-million- dollar law suit. He settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. A subsequent collapse of fortitude against Michael Grant the following year in a fight he was winning suggests that the real cause of his wipe out was his inner self. That and Lennox’s right hand, let it be said.
Golota’s most notorious melt-down came some three years after the Lewis debacle, in October 2000, when he surrendered on his stool after a couple of rounds with Tyson in a matchup of boxing’s most notorious bad boys. Entering the ring to the Baha Men’s ‘Who Let the Dogs Out’ Andrew had suffered a brief knockdown in the first round and suffered a minor cut by his left eye in the second, not a good start, but he was boxing well enough and appeared to be open for business when the bell sounded for the end of the second round. Wrong. To the astonishment of his corner, he refused to continue; a furious row broke out ending with Golota storming from the ring amid a shower of beer, soda and assorted comestibles. Reaching for the medical lifebelt again, Golota claimed subsequently that he was suffering from concussion, a fractured cheekbone and a ‘herniated disc’ in his upper vertibra. The fact that he didn’t offer any of these symptoms to an immediate post fight medical has never helped his case. In Golota we are left with the memory of an athlete of huge potential flawed by a fragile psyche.
Returning to Lewis, it is worth noting that his two previous opponents that year of 1997 had both crumbled on the night. In February He faced Oliver McCall for the now vacant WBC title that McCall had ripped away from him two and a half years before. It was surely the most bizarre of all heavyweight title fights; McCall had been in rehab before Don King pushed him in to the ring, which might explain the way things turned out. Refusing to return to his corner at the end of the third round, Oliver spent the following stanza wandering around the ring refusing to return a punch as the baffled Lewis tried to keep the fight from morphing into farce. By the end of the round McCall was weeping. Given every chance by referee Mills Lane to produce something a little more competitive, he was saved from himself shortly afterwards. McCall’s courage in a long top-level career is hard to question, but this was surely a classic case of meltdown.
Lennox’s frustration continued the following July when the 6’7” Henry Akinwande grabbed and clutched his way to a 5th round disqualification in a fight best forgotten.
Casting back over the decades to the early 30s, four heavyweight careers intertwined to show the varying consequences of the fear factor. Kingfish Levinsky – so called because of his origins as a herring huckster in Chicago’s West Side – was a well-seasoned top ten heavyweight with wins over ex-champ Jack Sharkey and Tommy Loughran. In a day when boxing careers weren’t generally hand tailored he fought just about all the names in boxing’s Hall of Fame and others besides – and win or lose he was always there at the final bell. He was managed by his vociferous sister ‘Leapin’ Lena, the first ever female boxing manager of record, and the possessor of a tongue that would make a marine sergeant blush; her status added even more colour to the already popular Chicagoan.
Levinsky had a natural rough-cut charisma, with his affable manner, goofy smile, mangled diction, and deceptively effective ‘any-man-can’ style. Points losses to Primo Carnera and Max Baer – two fights apiece – did nothing to dent his appeal, it was only in the third encounter with Baer that things went wrong. A four-round exhibition bout was organised in his home town of Chicago in December 1934 with Baer, who at that time was world champion. The understanding was that if it was well received a match between the two Jewish heavies would be arranged for the championship. Unfortunately, Levinsky misread the script, slung a few too many right hands in the first round, taunted the champion to ‘come on’ at the start of the second and was rendered unconscious for the first time in his career shortly after – a pissed-off Baer having accepted the invitation.
A period of rehabilitation took place over the following six months with a string of 13 wins logged up on the road, and the trimming of Levinsky’s nickname to ‘King’ making it sound a little more like ‘Champ’. His return to Chicago was scheduled for August 7, his opponent a sensational young black fighter from Detroit by the name of Joe Louis who had racked up 23 straight wins with 20 KOs in just 12 months and who’d just demolished the former champ Carnera in six rounds on his New York debut.
The wisdom of this match must have looked questionable from the start, maybe filial affection blurred Lena’s judgement, but either way, the contract was signed. Come the big night, at a sell-out Comiskey Park Stadium, things began to go wrong early. Maybe being flattened by Baer had dented the self-confidence of a boxer who’d only ever been on the floor once in over 80 fights, or possibly Louis’ recent destruction of Carnera had awoken the King to the probability of what lay in store for him, either way in the passage of time in his dressing room – where minutes can stretch into hours in the mind of an apprehensive gladiator, and where tension can fan the flames of self-doubt into panic – Levinsky began to choke.
Word came down to ringside that the King was ‘dying’ and a number of preliminary bouts were hastily scratched in order to get the hometown boy into the ring while he could still stand unaided. Once the bell rang matters moved fast. In the space of two minutes Levinsky was down three times and ended sitting on the bottom rope pleading with the referee to stop the slaughter, “I was knocked into a transom,” he claimed back in the dressing room. The press was damning, the fans turned their backs: he boxed on for another four years, but never again in his home town.
In the mean-time Louis’ next fight was made with Levinsky’s old nemesis, Max Baer for September 24th at Yankee Stadium, NY. Max was a class above Levinsky, an ex-champ hoping to re-establish himself, on top of which he was big and he could hit, but none-the-less the prospect of Louis began to gnaw at his spirit. At his rural training camp the dawn chorus got him off to a bad start every morning – as the avian community greeted the new day, Baer would run out from his quarters and scream at them to “Shut up!”.
The fight itself has passed into boxing folk lore because Baer quit on one knee, shaking his head, in the fourth round of a comprehensive beating. Baer had tried his big right hand a couple of times, but in return found himself the unwilling recipient of a showcase of the young Louis’ prodigious talent. His defence, never his strong suit, was ripped apart by perfectly timed combinations. He was down twice in the third, and it is a testimony to his courage that he made it as far as he did – a picture-book right hand finally dropping him to the floor towards the end of the fourth. But in the days when ‘men were men’ and a fighter had to go out on his shield, hanging out the white flag did not go down well.
It is an unpleasant side to many fans of professional boxing that from the safety of their seat – or sofa – they too often transpose their own masculinity onto the persons they see giving and taking blows. Their ticket price is their pass to call a man a coward. Maxie always had an unanswerable rationale when challenged on his alleged lack of manhood viz Louis; “If folks want to see an execution, they’ll have to pay more than ten bucks a seat!”
Baer’s post championship career moved on pretty well for the next three years until he met Lou Nova, a self-proclaimed devotee of Yoga (sensationally weird in those days) and was stopped in the 11th round of a particularly gory contest. Both men were severely cut, but Baer had been swallowing his own blood for over half the fight before the referee intervened. It was nearly two years before the two met again, this time the Californian native climbed off the floor to knock out the ageing former champion and put him into retirement, thus earning himself a title shot at the imperious Louis.
As previously mentioned, Nova’s publicity hook was that he practiced Yoga. That his first guru was a circus act fraudster called Oom the Omnipotent shouldn’t count too much against the aspiring young heavyweight. The Omnipotent one was only part of a long line of dubious savants, lasting well into the 1980s with varying degrees of credibility, but usually with great financial success. How much Nova bought into Eastern mysticism isn’t altogether clear. He looked after himself post career in a way that many boxers are notorious for not doing, so maybe the Yoga strand is true. What certainly was bunkum was the ‘cosmic punch’ that he proclaimed was going to KO Louis and had something to do with being thrown in the opposite direction to which the Earth’s axis happened to be spinning at that particular moment. It sold the fight and Nova ultimately got his opportunity to become another statistic (six rounds) in what the balls-of-steel fight press of the day dubbed Louis’ ‘Bum of the Month Club’.
Nova’s career eventually petered out, and he took to acting, with quite some success, but it was not until 12 years after his encounter with Louis that his admittedly tepid performance came back to haunt him.
In May 1953 Jersey Joe Walcott was attempting to retrieve the title he had lost to Rocky Marciano the previous September in an all-time classic. The return was in Chicago and may have rung a few unpleasant bells with the old Kingfish, by that time peddling ties out of a suitcase in Miami. Whilst the audience were still settling into their seats in anticipation of something approaching the mayhem of the previous encounter, Marciano floored Walcott with a combination. Walcott, always a cerebral fighter, thought a little too long about getting up and missed the fatal ‘10’ by a second; cue fury from the crowd and opprobrium from the assembled hacks, one of whom was a character called Vincent X. Flaherty who in an excoriating assessment of Walcott’s effort, delved back into his ‘hall of shame’ to recall “…the cowardly appearances against Joe Louis of Max Baer and Lou Nova. Nova was like a frightened, screaming child at vaccination time. He didn’t throw a punch but got hit by only one and seemed happy about the whole defeat. They lugged his carcass and towed it in abject disgrace back toward his corner. He smiled bravely in the safety of his dressing room, wiping out the manliness of every victory he had ever won.”
Nova, now navigating a successful path in the theatre, playing Big Julie in Guys and Dolls amongst other appearances, demanded a retraction and when none was forthcoming, sued. The trial, in 1955 was always going to be hard on Nova, Flaherty having the full weight of the Hearst Publishing Company behind him and the best lawyers money could buy. Louis himself was called for the defence, although, in the event his opinion was a fairly balanced one: “The only thing I can say,” said Joe, “is that he seemed to me like he was a little afraid…now whether that makes him a coward, I don’t know. He didn’t have the spirit to win…I don’t think so.” Witnesses for Nova reasonably pointed out that the protracted beating he was taking from Louis on account of his comparative slowness was a justifiable reason for his apparent diffidence.
In the end the jury found for Nova and awarded him $35,000, unfortunately a decision reversed on appeal by the California Appellate Court. However, Lou declared himself satisfied, “I don’t care about the money,” he said, “I just want to be vindicated, and I was – by the people.”
It is interesting to note the ways the different fighters mentioned here dealt with these traumatic events in their careers. Andrew Golota eventually calmed down in the latter part of his career and won back the fans he’d lost; if anyone thinks of the notorious side of his career, it’s the fights with Riddick Bowe, not Lewis or Tyson. The scowling bad boy of memory is nowadays prosperous, happily married, affable, and generous with his time to the polite enquirer. Nova, again, is little remembered for his sad effort against Louis, more for his victories over Baer and between those two fights being on the end of a brutal mugging by Tony Galento, an event remembered by Nat Fleicher as the dirtiest contest he ever witnessed. Nobody called him a coward that night.
What of the Kingfish? The ill- informed will tell you he eked out his last days broken and penniless, a punchy old guy selling ties out of a suitcase around Miami. The truth is he simply wintered in Miami and did very nicely out of his tie business, well enough to manufacture his own stock with his own label. In fact in Levinsky’s case, cruel though his crack-up against Louis was, it was what everyone remembered him for, and he had the good sense and, yes, the courage to capitalise on it. “Do you remember when I fought Joe Louis?” he’d ask potential customers, “No, neither do I!”