88 year-old John Jarrett has written for Boxing News for 60 years, and held the position of Northern Area Secretary of the British Boxing Board of Control for 40 years until his retirement last year. Boxing News is a British weekly magazine and the longest running Boxing magazine (dating back to 1909) in the world. He talks with John Wisniewski about his passion for the sport and how he became interested in the great American Boxers like Max Baer, Jack Demsey, and Gene Tunney, Rocky Marciano and more.
John Wisniewski: Why write about boxing, John? What attracts you to the sport?
John Jarrett: My interest in boxing was sparked in 1946 when a 15-year-old boy living in North Shields at the mouth of the River Tyne in North East England came across a photo in a weekly magazine. The photo showed the American world light-heavyweight champion Gus Lesnevich who had arrived in London to defend his title against our man Freddie Mills. It was a coloured photo with posters of Madison Square Garden fights plastered on the gym wall behind him. I was hooked! That image is framed on the wall in front of me as I type this.
The original photo was pasted on the cover of an old school exercise book which I started to fill with cuttings and photos from newspapers and magazines. I still have that book plus many more. When pocket money permitted, boxing books would join them, eventually about a thousand, plus copies of Boxing News and Ring magazines from 1948. I read every word and my knowledge of towns and cities in USA grew from reading Ring mags.My interest in Rocky Graziano was always greater than Charley Smith from Manchester.
We had two sporting papers in Britain at that time and I began writing to their letters pages my comments on current fistic affairs and what were articles more than letters on fighters of the day, and of yesterday. Readers expressed the opinion that I was a member of staff, which the editors denied. When i penned an article on an American fighter and sent it to Boxing News in London, the editor, Gilbert Odd, returned it and suggested I write an article on Rocky Marciano who had just knocked out my favourite, Joe Louis. on his way to the heavyweight title. Mr. Odd published the story and paid me two guineas (£2. s.2) and I haven’t looked back since. I wrote for Boxing News for 60 years, previews, reports, features. I went on to write for several local newspapers as well as regional magazines, also various American publications. I started writing books in 1997 and my tenth book will be published in September by Pitch Publishing. my fourth book for them. This is a biography of Sugar Ray Robinson, one of the greatest ever champions.
In January this year I retired as Northern Area Secretary of the British Boxing Board of Control after 40 years in the post.I was eighty-eight last month and still punching my weight. Married some 60 years, with four grown kids, two of each, I have five grandchildren and one great grandson, aged two and a bit. But that’s enough about me.
JW: Can we talk about Max Baer. What famous fight almost kept Max out ?
JJ: Looking at Max Baer – Which Max Baer do you want? The Clown Prince of the Ring, the Killer of the ring, the Broadway bon vivant with a thousand names in his little black book, the star of radio, stage and screen,the family man with a loving wife and kids?? This guy sounds like Boxing’s Everyman.
When he was covering the sports world in the 1930s, Damon Runyon, the Bard of Broadway, wrote in a 1938 column, ‘There have been many greater fighters than Max Baer but never a greater showman.’ World’s heavyweight champion for 364 glorious days, June 1934-June 1935, Max crisscrossed America by bus, plane, train or in one of his 16-cylinder Duesenbergs, often driven by a liveried chauffeur, visiting cities, towns and wayside hamlets in a ‘have gloves, will travel’ tour and the people, rocked by the Great Depression, rolled up to see their champion.
Max would go a few rounds with the local hero, mugging to the crowd as he acted the clown, and if he felt like it he would flatten the guy with one of the hardest right hands ever thrown in a boxing ring anywhere. And if the crowd didn’t go for his exhibition stuff he would shout from the ring, “You paid to get in, suckers!”
When he won the championship from Primo Carnera, he treated the Italian giant like he used to treat the steers in his father’s slaughterhouse. The big fellow was smashed to the canvas eleven times before the fight was stopped. When the press crowded his dressing room, Max roared, “Boys, I’ve got the world by the tail on a downhill pull. Hollywood, the stage, radio, how the dough is going to roll in. You guys will be writing about how I light cigars with thousand-dollar bills.” A few weeks after becoming champion, Max opened in a song-and-dance revue at the Paramount in New York City.
John Wisniewski: The sport of boxing – Baer’s fight with Campbell. Please tell us about this.
JJ: He had known black days. In 1930, still a promising young fighter, tragedy married his career when Frankie Campbell died after being knocked out in a San Francisco ball park. Hounded by lurid headlines labelling him as ‘Killer Baer, the 21-year-old Californian fled to Reno, Nevada, where he found solace in the arms of former screen star Dorothy Dunbar, in town for a divorce. They were married within a few days. It wouldn’t last.
Boxing writers wrote that Baer would never again fight with such ferocity as he did against Frankie Campbell. Well, hardly ever. Ace trainer Ray Arcel remembered a night in 1933 when he worked Baer’s corner in what was probably Max’s greatest triumph, the night he smashed Max Schmeling to defeat in ten brutal rounds. There was no clowning that night. Arcel recalled, “Baer showed everything it takes to make a champ – speed, strength, courage and a lethal punch.”
Yes, this clown could fight. In 84 professional fights, he won 71, 53 by knockouts, beating guys like Ernie Schaaf, King Levinsky, Schmeling, Tony Galento, Ben Foord and Tommy Farr. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1995.
Arcel cried like a baby when he read in the New York Times that Max had died after suffering a heart attack. It was November 1959 and Baer was just fifty years old. “I loved the big guy,” said Arcel. “He was a big kid who never grew up and every time I was with him I felt twenty years younger.”
.JW: could you tell about Gene Tunney’s bout with Jack Dempsey, and the famous “long count”?
JJ: “I’ll never forget my first peep at Dempsey’s fists,” Gene told boxing writer Ed Van Every.”It was my first meeting with Jack, shortly after my return from France. I was just a gangling kid that didn’t mean anything to the champion. And yet I’ll never forget how genial he was to me…It wasn’t so much his words
that interested me so much, though. It was his hands. They looked big to me, terrible weapons, to tell you the truth. And it seemed to me the longer I looked at those fists, the larger they seemed to grow before my very eyes. ‘You want to take the title away from Jack Dempsey, Gene,’ I thought, ‘you sure have your work cut out for you.’
The work started shortly after Gene became a civilian again, in August 1919 when he was honourably discharged from the U.S. Marines, a month after Dempsey annihilated Jess Willard to become heavyweight champion of the world. Dempsey, the man they called the Manassa Mauler, would reign as champion for seven years, defending his title five times. His sixth defence would be against Gene Tunney at Philadelphia on a rainy night in September 1926.
Although Jack was a firm favourite with the public, pulling in million-dollar gates with Georges Carpentier and Luis Angel Firpo, he hadn’t put his title on the line for three years. Rest brought rust to the champion, who was a guy who loved a fight. He didn’t expect much from his challenger. When promoter Tex Rickard visited Dempsey in his dressing room before the fight, he was worried about the weather. “Jack, for God’s sake, hurry up. It’s going to rain any minute and here we have all these people in.” Dempsey calmed him, saying with a grunt, “Don’t worry about that rain,Tex. This guy ain’t going over two rounds, anyway.”
All of Rickard’s people totalled 120,757 paying a gross gate of $1,895,733. Despite the heavy rain, nobody went home. They couldn’t believe what they were watching. Tunney’s stunning victory over Jack Dempsey that rainy night in Philadelphia was a major shock to the sports world throughout America. Practically every boxing writer and sports columnist had predicted a knockout win for Dempsey.
“Gene Tunney made only two mistakes in his life,” said ‘Dumb’ Dan Morgan, veteran manager. “Number one, he soundly trounced the most popular heavyweight champion the world has ever known and, number two, he used his head for something more than just holding his ears apart. The public has never quite pardoned him for either error. For the longest time after he committed the cardinal sin of defeating Jack Dempsey, the populace, particularly that portion of it known as the fight public, regarded Gene as slightly lower in the social scale than the current Public Enemy No. 1 in the FBI files.”
The next day, Tunney boarded a train for New York City and home. His city did not let him down. Thousands crowded into Pennsylvania Station to greet their champion and they lined the route as he rode in a gleaming limousine with a police escort to City Hall for his reception by Mayor Jimmy Walker. Over lunch, Walker made Tunney laugh when he described the Philadelphia fight as, “the greatest swimming exhibition I have ever witnessed.”
Like the rest of America, Tex Rickard was in a state of shock after Tunney’s victory. “I can hardly believe it,” he said. “I never though it could happen to him…This other fella ain’t never been a drawing card. Dempsey was the one who drew them in,”
Rickard didn’t lose any sleep getting Dempsey back in the ring, They would have to fight again, and the whole world would want to see it. Jack struggled a bit to beat Jack Sharkey before landing the knockout in round seven. Now Rickard had his fight. Unable to charge more than $27.50 for a seat in New York,he settled on Chicago where the Commission allowed for a $40 tops. This one blew the records away, a crowd of 104,943 paid a whopping gate of $2,658,660.
They saw a fight they wouldn’t forget. For six rounds it was actually the first fight all over, with Tunney outboxing the old champ. Round seven and all hell broke loose. The Mauler finally got Gene pinned on the ropes and a seven-punch barrage put Tunney on the seat of his pants by the ropes. The crowd erupted as Referee Barry moved in to start the count.
But he didn’t start the count. Dempsey, as was his habit, stood over Tunney, waiting for him to get up so he could belt him again. But the commission rule on knockdowns stated that the fighter standing should retreat to a neutral corner before the count could begin. Dempsey refused Barry’s command to move away from his fallen foe. By the time the referee had escorted Dempsey along the ropes, Gene was regaining his senses by the second. When Barry started the count at one,Tunney had been down at least five seconds and as Barry counted nine, Gene was on his feet and starting to move backwards, something he had practised in training for just such an occasion. It saved his title and he was fighting back at the bell.
Various ‘unofficial’ timers said the champion had been down 14-15 seconds and the Long Count Fight moved into boxing history! Most reporters and ringside observers were of the opinion that Tunney could have beaten the count anyway, and he certainly looked that way on film. He hadn’t been knockout out, just been knocked down.
Gene actually knocked Dempsey down in round eight, and finished strongly to win the decision and retain his title. He was still the world champion, but there would always be that question mark on the book.
Dempsey never fought again. Tunney made a defence against Tom Heeney which he won, then retired as unbeaten champion. His record showed 83 bouts with only one defeat, one draw, one no-contest and 15 No- Decision bouts. Gene was elected into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990
Dempsey’s record showed 61 wins in 81 fights with 50 knockouts. He drew 8 and suffered 6 losses., He also was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1990.
Their names would always be linked; Dempsey and Tunney, Tunney and Dempsey. Champions!
JW: Could we talk about Rocky Marciano, John? He retired undefeated, and was the inspiration for the Rocky Balboa character in the Rocky movies. He had an interesting life, and was on television for a brief time, and an actor.
JJ: Abe Attell, in boxing’s Hall of Fame as featherweight champion, saw them all from the start of his career in 1900 until his death in 1970. This is what he said about Marciano when Rocky retired in 1956. “It’s laughable what the so-called experts are saying about him. According to them, Rocky did everything wrong in the ring. Well, he may have done everything wrong, but he also did something no other heavyweight champion has done – win all his fights.
“I happened to be around in the halcyon days of Corbett, Fitzsimmons, Jeffries and Johnson, and I’ve been familiar with all the rest of the champions up to now. Of all the heavyweight champions who preceded Marciano under the Marquis of Queensberry rules, what fighter do you think could battle successfully with Rocky for 20 or 25 rounds, assuming all of them were at their peak? Not one in my opinion. Marciano’s greatness lay in the fact that he was the greatest conditioned heavyweight ever to hold the title. His power in setting and carrying the pace was such that none of the modern heavyweights since John L. Sullivan’s time could endure his offence for the distance I have mentioned.”
I am happy to go along with Abe. Rocky had an unbeaten record of 49 professional fights (1947-1956) and in the six fights that went the distance, Rocky was going as hard in the final round as he was in round one. The guy responsible for Marciano’s condition was a little ex-fighter in horn-rimed glasses and a bowler hat named Charley Goldman and he wasn’t the least bit impressed the first time he saw Rocky in a boxing ring. I loved the way he informed his new pupil of his shortcomings.
“If you done anything right, I didn’t see it,” he said. “You got so much to learn it ain’t funny.”
Rocky learned and what he did to the guys he fought wasn’t funny. He put Carmine Vingo in the hospital and the Bronx kid never fought again. He ended the glorious career of the immortal Joe Louis with a savage knockout and they reckoned he was ready for the title. Rocky was managed by veteran Al Weill who had the right connections and on a September night in 1952 he climbed off the canvas to knock out Jersey Joe Walcott in a thirteen-round thriller to become heavyweight champion of the world.
Walcott had a return bout contract that gave him a $250,000 purse. Old Jersey Joe took the money and bowed out of boxing sitting on the floor in round one while a fellow in long pants counted ten.Rocky defended his title five more times, beating Ezzard Charles twice, Roland LaStarza,, Don Cockell and the great light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore. Moore dropped him in the second round but Rocky got up to leave Moore sitting on the floor in his own corner in the ninth round, on the floor not on his stool. You could knock Rocky down but you couldn’t knock him out.
When he retired in 1956, he was thirty-two years old with a wife and family and a recurring back problem. He had another problem. He was fed up with manager Weill who he didn’t trust any more. Al Weill told Rocky where to go and when to go, he told him when he could marry Barbara. He even brought Rocky back to New York from his honeymoon so he could take a bow at Madison Square Garden at a big fight.
Rocco Francis Marchegiano was born to Italian immigrant parents in the shoe-manufacturing town of Brockton, Massachusetts and he was born fighting…for his life! Just over a year old, he had pneumonia. Luckily he survived and grew stronger, a champion in the making. But it was as a big-league baseball player that Rocco saw his future. Sadly, it was not to be.It would be in a square ring, not a baseball diamond that the boy would shine and make his name one to remember, along with the great champions.
In the 2005 International Boxing Research Organisation polling of its members, most of whom are authoritative historians with research backgrounds or boxing writers, Rocky Marciano was rated number five amongst the celebrated heavyweights of history. In 1999 Rocky had been named the third greatest heavyweight of the 20th Century by the Associated Press. He was elected to the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 1980 and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. Rocky even beat the guy who called himself The Greatest, Muhammad Ali. OK so this was just a film for television compiled by a computer. I wouldn’t argue with a computer!
Rocky died the way he lived, flying to a dinner where he would be paid to make a speech. It was the day before his 46th birthday. Headed for Des Moines, Iowa, Rocky never made it. The plane crashed into a cornfield and all three men were killed instantly. The date was 31 August 1969.
By some quirk of fate, the world title winning team of 1952 were all dead within 11 months of 1968-1969. They found Charley Goldman dead in his one-room apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, aged 79 he was wearing an old robe of Rocky’s. The date was 11 November 1968….Allie Columbo, Rocky’s boyhood pal who rode with him all the way, died aged 49 after an accident at work. The date was 6 January 1969. Manager Al Weill died in a Miami Beach nursing home aged 75. The date was 20 October 1969.
Rocky Marciano was a champion. He beat the best they could stand in front of him and he never lost a fight.
P.S. Rocky was not the inspiration for the Rocky Balboa character created by Sylvester Stallone. The inspiration for Balboa was veteran heavyweight Chuck Wepner who took Ali into the 15th round against all the odds in a title fight in March 1975. Stallone saw the fight in a movie theatre, ran all the way home and wrote the story that would make him a millionaire.