And in This Corner: Keene Simmons

By Clarence George on September 7, 2017
And in This Corner: Keene Simmons
According to A.J. Liebling, Keene Simmons had "given Marciano a pretty good fight."

Along with Sugar Ray Robinson, Keene Simmons trained out of Harlem’s Salem-Crescent Gym and Athletic Club…

“Whenever he hit you, wherever he hit you, he hurt you.”—Keene Simmons on Rocky Marciano

Along with Sugar Ray Robinson, Keene Simmons trained out of Harlem’s Salem-Crescent Gym and Athletic Club, located in the basement—now a kitchen—of Salem Methodist Church, beating George Broderick on February 19, 1940, thus winning the New York Golden Gloves heavyweight championship. (Film footage exists of Robinson winning the lightweight title the same evening, destroying Andy Nonella in “the best showing of the night,” according to The New York Times.)

A Bayonne bruiser, Simmons first fought as a pro on June 27, 1942, outpointed by Billy Duncan at Fort Meade, Maryland. At stake, the Army’s 3rd Corps Area heavyweight title (representing Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the District of Columbia).

Keene didn’t return to the ring until May 9, 1949, when he outpointed Antonio Carmona at Newark’s Laurel Garden (the New Yorker’s last bout). He’d fight until 1955, winding up with a record of nine wins, four by knockout, 22 losses, four by knockout, and one draw.

A palooka’s record, but that doesn’t mean that Simmons wasn’t tough or that he didn’t take on the names. He twice fought Roland LaStarza, losing by unanimous decision at New York’s Long Beach Stadium on August 25, 1950, and at the Rhode Island Auditorium in Providence on March 12, 1951; Cesar Brion beat him by unanimous decision at the Coliseum in Baltimore on October 30, 1950, and outpointed him at Long Beach Stadium on July 6, 1951 (bad luck for the Argentine—in both instances, he next fought, and lost to, Joe Louis); Charley Norkus outpointed him at Madison Square Garden that November 9; Nino Valdes beat him by unanimous decision at Sunnyside Garden in Queens on February 7, 1952; Cleveland Williams outpointed him at Fort Homer Hesterly Armory in Tampa on September 2, 1953 (the last win for “Big Cat,” who scored 27 victories in a row, 23 by KO or TKO, before suffering his first loss, unexpectedly outpointed by unimpressive Sylvester Jones at New York’s Polo Grounds 22 days later); and Tommy Jackson stopped him by sixth-round TKO at the Arcadia Ballroom in Providence on November 15, 1954.

Another opponent worth mentioning is Sonny Parisi, a Brooklyn character if ever there was one. He and Simmons fought three times, Sonny knocking him out in the fifth at Ridgewood Grove in Brooklyn on November 19, 1949, Keene winning on points at New York’s St. Nicholas Arena on April 7, 1950, and Sonny winning by split decision at Eastern Parkway Arena in Brooklyn 10 days later.

Parisi was at Norby Walters’ Supper Club (right next to the Copacabana on East 60th) on the evening of March 22, 1968, when he managed to get himself shot to death at the age of 38, along with another “legitimate businessman,” Oresto Joseph Bruni. Despite Norby’s outraged “I don’t even know what the word Mafia is. I’ve never met anybody like that,” brother Walter readily admits that the Five Families “were well represented” at the club and that Parisi and Bruni worked for Carmine Lombardozzi, “The Italian Meyer Lansky,” a top man with the Gambino Crime Family. According to Walter, Lombardozzi was present at the time of the shooting, Norby getting him out of there and over to the Copa.

Keene last won on May 10, 1954, when he handed Billy Burke his first loss, kayoing him in the third at the Arcadia Ballroom (his first win since January 12, 1951, when he knocked out George Kaplan in the second at the Garden). He last fought on May 16, 1955, losing on points to Bob Albright at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco.

Although Simmons once said that he’d rather fight Rocky Marciano six times than LaStarza once, taking on “The Brockton Blockbuster” that one time was more than enough. They met at the Rhode Island Auditorium on January 29, 1951, Rocky winning by eighth-round TKO. But, as Marciano biographer Russell Sullivan writes, Rocky “was in trouble early.” A.J. Liebling agrees, noting that Keene had “given Marciano a pretty good fight.”

“He fools you,” said Simmons. “When you look at him from outside the ring he seems easy to hit but if you’re in the ring with him you find this isn’t the case. His head is bobbing and he’s crouched low, so low in fact that you can’t get a clear shot at him.” Not to mention that he was on you like a stage-door Johnny on a chorus girl. “I had a bad weakness I kept hid throughout my career,” said Joe Louis. “I didn’t like to be crowded, and Marciano always crowded his opponents. That’s why I say I could never have beaten him.”

In preparation for his September 23, 1952, championship bout with Jersey Joe Walcott at Philly’s Municipal Stadium, Rocky employed Keene as a sparring partner. Like Walcott cared. “Marciano is an amateur,” said the Champ with an uncharacteristic lack of gentlemanly restraint. “He wouldn’t have qualified for Joe Louis’s bum of the month tour. I guess he can punch, but he’s got two left feet. He can’t box a little bit. I’ve never seen anybody easier to hit. If I can’t beat this bum, take my name off the record books.” Clearly on a vitri-roll, Jersey Joe further expressed his disdain for those who had the ill judgment to compare Marciano with Jack Dempsey. “How silly can they get?” he sniffed. “He shouldn’t be spoken of in the same breath with Dempsey.”

Simmons disagreed. “There’ve been some changes in him,” he said. “A slugger like Rock doesn’t turn into a boxer but he no longer tries to murder you with one punch the way he used to. He now throws combination of punches. They’re much shorter but just as powerful.”

Keene was “every bit as big and rugged as Walcott, and much younger,” writes Liebling. “His imitation of Walcott was good—he would throw quick sneak punches, some of them right-hand leads, and slide away. When he didn’t slide away, he clinched. He even did the kind of jig-step shuffle Walcott uses to disconcert his opponents” (though Liebling didn’t see why it should).

As it turned out, Walcott wound up “not imitating Keene Simmons’ imitation of him,” Liebling writes. “Instead he was walking forward, hitting at Marciano and moving him back.” Indeed, handing him his first knockdown. No matter, not with that Suzy Q in the 13th, Jersey Joe flowing “down like flour out of a chute,” and Rocky becoming Heavyweight Champion of the World.

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  1. Clarence George 11:25am, 09/08/2017

    I think the quotes are clearly attributed, JW, but let me know the ones you’re uncertain of.

  2. Just wondering 09:07am, 09/08/2017

    To whom are the quotes attributed?

  3. Clarence George 08:40am, 09/08/2017

    I agree, Lucas, that a prime Louis beats a prime Marciano.  Louis thought differently, however, and that has to be given enormous consideration.

  4. Clarence George 08:30am, 09/08/2017

    Thank you, Gold Hat, for those kind words.  I’m finishing up another as we speak and hope that it will meet with your approval.

    I think you’re right that Burke went into that fight with a smirk on his face, one that Simmons quickly wiped off for him.

    Best,

    Richard Hale

  5. Lucas McCain 08:02am, 09/08/2017

    Generous remark by Louis on Marciano’s crowding.  Never really thought Marciano would have a chance against a prime Louis, and still think Louis was a far superior fighter, but it’s possible Rocky would have had his “number,” i.e., the style to beat him.  Same may have been true of Norton and Ali.

  6. Alfonso Bedoya 07:54am, 09/08/2017

    Clarence George-Each one better than the last! Keepem’ coming! Keene was riding an eleven fight losing streak when he KOd undefeated Burke! Put another way….in his last eleven Keene was 0 for 11 while Burke was racking up a perfect 10 wins without a defeat! I’m thinkin’ Burke was pretty confident going in!

  7. Clarence George 05:30am, 09/08/2017

    Thanks so much, Chuck.

    Yes, I’m familiar with that photo, which is very much like the more famous one of what Marciano did to Walcott.  If anything, even more distorting.

  8. c.h. 04:50am, 09/08/2017

    One of the greatest boxing photos of all-time is the one that was in the April, 1951 (p 21) edition of RING mag. A Marciano right hand completely ripping Keene Simmons face to shreds during their match at Providence. Despite this punch, Keene survived it and lasted until the eighth round when it was stopped because of deep cuts. Another top notch story Clarence…c.h.

  9. Clarence George 04:45am, 09/08/2017

    Thanks very much, Mr. Glass.

    Good info on Simmons, who reminds me very much of both Ted Lowry and his good friend, Coley Wallace.  I learned little about him, at least outside the ring, though I did know that he was a regular at Ring 8 meetings.

    Best,

    Jock Mahoney

  10. Ned Glass 03:57am, 09/08/2017

    Good story on a very nice man. Mr. Simmons was a quiet, humble, modest man who spent about 30 years as a NYC bus driver. He was a member of Ring 8 and rarely missed a meeting. Even in his seventies, he looked fit, dressed sharp and carried himself well. A class act all the way. He had a lovely daughter who was as classy as him. Just a fine man who is most worthy of this wonderful tribute.

  11. Clarence George 02:30am, 09/08/2017

    Thanks very much, Jack.

    You’re quite right about Ted Lowry (whom I think I wrote about long ago).  His record is nothing if not deceiving.  He had greater fighting skills than many realize and was extremely tough.  Despite having about 150 fights over the course of around 15 years, he was only stopped three times, by Lee Q. Murray, Rusty Payne, and Harry Matthews.  Moreover, he twice went the full 10 with Marciano and didn’t make it at all easy or pleasant for him.

  12. Jack the Lad 10:23pm, 09/07/2017

    Excellent piece, Clarence on a little-known, but clearly good fighter.  I seem to remember long ago the Rock having great praise for both Keene and Ted Lowry, another fighter with a less than stellar record.

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