Boxing by the Book: Haft the Man I Used to Be

By Robert Mladinich on August 14, 2012
Boxing by the Book: Haft the Man I Used to Be
Haft never once lost a fight, resulting in his captors referring to him as the “Jew Animal.”

Harry Haft lived in a displaced person’s camp where he easily won the Jewish Boxing Championship. In doing so, he was presented with a statue of Apollo…

Having just read the wonderful new book “Floyd Patterson: The Fighting Life of Boxing’s Invisible Champion,” whose author W.K. Stratton describes his subject as a “forgotten champion,” I became intrigued by one of his opponents, a rough East Texan named Roy “Cut-N-Shoot” Harris, whose moniker stemmed from the unusual name of his hometown.

While the book initially described Harris as coming from a redneck area where Ku Klux Klan activity was rife, I was enthralled to learn that Harris, who already had a college degree when he fought Patterson, later became an attorney and public servant who was actually responsible for incorporating his beloved hometown.

During his respectable career, which he finished with a 30-5 record, Harris tangled with such notables as Sonny Liston, Willie Pastrano, Charley Norkus and Henry Cooper.

The stories of the challengers, too often relegated to the scrap heap of anonymity, are many times as interesting, if not more interesting, than the stories of the champions themselves. 

About 15 years ago, I set about tracking down opponents of titlists such as Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Mike Tyson in order to get their take on how those fights affected their lives for better or worse. I tried to sell a book called “In the Other Corner,” but was rebuffed by many publishers. Still, I was thrilled when the classic books “Facing Ali: Fifteen Fighters, Fifteen Stories” by Stephen Brunt was published in 2004 and “Facing Tyson: Fifteen Fighters, Fifteen Stories” by Ted Kluck was released two years later.  From my perspective, they were both masterpieces.

Prior to those books coming out, and when the Internet was still in its early stages, I was able to track down five living opponents of Marciano, all of whom had great stories to tell, for a story in the Holiday 1999 issue of The Ring magazine.

College-educated Roland LaStarza became a Florida cattle farmer and private pilot; Harry “Kid” Matthews owned a welding rental supply company in the Pacific Northwest; Ted Lowry, who I still consider one of the finest individuals I ever met in my life, lived until 90, working as a Connecticut school bus monitor until shortly before his death; Coley Wallace, who beat Marciano as an amateur, still blamed the mob for ruining his pro career; and Keene Simmons had been a New York City bus driver for many years. All have since passed away.

At the time I did not know that another Marciano opponent named Harry Haft was still alive. About a year or two prior to Haft’s death in November 2007, noted boxing historian Mike Silver put me in touch with him. Haft was a Holocaust survivor who had squared off against Marciano, then 17-0 (16 KOs), in the 10-round main event at the Rhode Island Auditorium in Providence in July 1949. A crowd of 1,655 fans were in attendance.

In what would be the final fight of a pro career that began just 11 months earlier, Haft weighed in at 174, while Marciano tipped the scales at 184½. While in training camp, Haft, who knew a loss to Marciano would probably signal the end of his career, allowed himself to be hypnotized. He had hoped it would give him an advantage against Marciano, who was rampaging through one opponent after another. 

As Haft warmed up in the dressing room, he said three men entered and threatened to kill him if he did not go down in round one. After they departed, Haft asked his manager what he should do. The manager just shrugged his shoulders and said he did not know.

Having already survived Nazi death camps, the undeterred Haft refused to go along. An article in the Providence Journal described him as “a rusher with very little style,” and said that he “landed the first good punch of the fight, a hard right to Marciano’s midsection.”

Marciano hurt Haft in the second with a right hand that sent him reeling into the ropes. Two follow-up lefts had Haft groggy at the bell.

“Two hard punches to Haft’s head—a left and a right—were Marciano’s openers in the third,” reported John Hanlon in the Journal. “At the halfway mark, Haft rallied briefly. But it was too late.”

Marciano hit Haft with a left to the gut that he followed up with his fabled right hand. Haft was finished. According to the Journal, he “received a fine reception as he left the ring.”

The strapping and robust Haft, who in his previous fight had been stopped in four rounds by Roland LaStarza, retired with a record of 13-7 (7 KOs). At the times I spoke with him in 2006 and 2007, he was in his early eighties and residing in Florida.

As things turned out, the story of Haft’s fight with Marciano was a mere footnote to a much greater saga. At the time of my first meeting, Haft’s son, Alan Scott Haft, had just authored a compelling book about his father called “Harry Haft: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano,” which was released by the Syracuse University Press in May 2006 and is still available at 

While the younger Haft wrote compellingly about his father’s career as a professional boxer, it paled in comparison to his dad’s experiences in various Nazi slave labor and concentration camps during World War II.

Harry Haft was born in Poland in 1925. “It was anything but good fortune to be born a Jew in Poland in 1925,” wrote his son. “Harry would think back on his birth as his first act of survival in an increasingly miserable time.”

One of eight children, Haft was sturdy and strong from the day he was born.  His mother, who was so heavy she did not even know she was pregnant with him, was working over a basin when he dropped from her body, landing headfirst on the floor.

From the time he was a youngster, the wide-shouldered and extremely muscular Haft had a fiery temper, which was displayed mostly against anti-Semitic youths. Early on it was obvious that if provoked, he had no qualms about finishing arguments with his massive fists.

During the German occupation of Poland in 1939, the Nazis captured Haft when he went looking for his brother, who had already been rounded up. Harry left behind his girlfriend Leah, who later played a major role in why he chose to become a professional boxer.

Because of Haft’s brute strength, street savvy, and his relationship with a sympathetic German guard, he was able to get work assignments where he could steal food. However, the relationship with the guard came with a heavy price when he volunteered Haft to become a fighter. Every Sunday Haft was forced to square off in bare-knuckle brawls against other detainees for the perverse pleasure of the SS guards. The battles were literally fights to the finish because the losers would be hauled off and executed.

Haft never once lost a fight, resulting in his captors referring to him as the “Jew Animal.” He even beat a slick-moving Frenchman who was imported by the Nazis to test his mettle like it had never been tested before.

After toppling the Frenchman, Haft saw him being dragged out of the ring. Although the Frenchman had been a favorite fighter of the Germans, he was never seen or heard from again. 

Having witnessed countless acts of horrific sadism, Haft made his escape. He stole the uniform and weapon of a German soldier whom he had killed with his bare hands. He then tried to pass himself off as a lost soldier to an elderly German couple who he encountered at their farmhouse. When they suspected—or he thought they suspected—that he might not be who he said he was, he feared that they would turn him into authorities. Knowing he would be tortured or killed if that occurred, Haft shot them to death without giving it a second thought.

Eventually coming into contact with American liberators, Haft lived in a displaced person’s camp where he easily won the Jewish Boxing Championship. In doing so, he was presented with a statue of Apollo.

After journeying to America, like so many other refugees Haft arrived in New York and began boxing out of desperation. But that was not the only reason. He hoped that he would attain enough notoriety for his lost love Leah to hear of him so they could be reunited. At the time he had no idea if either she or her family had survived the camps. It would be decades until he learned of her fate.

The book, as well as a subsequent interview with Haft when he was inducted in the Long Island Jewish Hall of Fame in 2007, showed how a person stripped to their primal core is able to survive unspeakable inhumanities and indignities by having Herculean mental and physical strength, gut instincts and tremendous resolve. 

While boxing in America, Haft encountered even more problems, especially when gangsters Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo tried to take control of his career. Once again, Haft’s tremendous resolve was put to a stern test. He quit the boxing business and ran a vegetable store in Brooklyn for many years. 

Back in 1948, as Haft was about to embark on a pro boxing career, he told his son that his thoughts and motivations were not all that complex, “After all I’ve been through, what harm can a man with gloves on his hands do to me?”

It is believed that a Marciano opponent named Carmine Vingo is still alive, but this writer has been unable to reach him. If any readers know of other living Marciano opponents, please contact this website.

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  1. NYIrish 04:48am, 09/27/2013

    Had lunch about a year and a half ago with Roy Harris in Conroe,Texas. He looked good and was sharp as a tack.

  2. Mike Thomas 04:01am, 09/26/2013

    Wow…an amazing story.  Thank you.

  3. burt bienstock 08:05pm, 08/31/2012

    Mike Casey brought up the rocky Marciano / Carmine Vingo bout at MSG,Dec, 30, 1949…What memories that brutal fight brings back to me !
    I saw that bout with my dad seated in the first row of the middle balcony
    over the ring…I had read about Rocky Marciano prior to the bout in the New England column of the Ring Magazine, and I had seen the tall heavy hitting Carmine Vingo a few times on our small tv screen ko some heavyweights…Carmine could HIT !. When they were in the ring shaking hands, Vingo towered over the smaller short armed Marciano, and I recall thinking that it would be a short night for the Brockton fighter..
    In the first round during an exchange of punches Vingo hit Marciano with a powerful right hand uppercut that seemed to lift Rocky off the floor, but much to our surprise the smaller Marciano survived that blow and in the second round started to batter Vingo with tremendous blows, but
    Vingo was game and survived such punishment until the fatal sixth round when Vingo battered and bloodied collapsed to the canvas on his back..
    I still remember one of Vingo’s leg’s twitching mwhile his handlers and Dr Nardiello ministered to him until a stretcher took him across the street to
    a Hospital, where after weeks of intensive care Vingo survived, and finally left the hospital aided by crutches…What a fight that was and what a relief for my dad and i that Vingo survived, though needing a cane for the rest of his life…And Marciano became the real goods, who I later saw training at Grossinger’s, preparing for a fight…I remember Al Weill his manager collecting a Buck apiece to enter the airplane hangar to see his new sensation Marcianoi train…,Last I heard Carmine Vingo was living in Florida, the state where I reside…

  4. CharlieN 07:41pm, 08/19/2012

    Wonderful piece Robert. The stories behnd the fighters are exactly as you state-compelling to say the least. Thank You for this story of fighter Harry Haft, who fought long before his ring career ever got started. Reminds me of Danny Nardico’s statement, “After being in WW II, everything else is a cakewalk.”

    My father’s fight with Roy “Cut n’ Shoot” Harris was no pleasure. Losing to the Texan, but going the distance with him in Houston, Harris was a fierce fighter. Harris, a fifth grade school teacher at the time, was an undefeated 15-0 fighter on his way up and fought as though he was as hungry for a title as any contender back in the day. Harris’s UD 10 Rds moved him into the top ten from that fight.

    It’s these fighters stories that make a great place to enjoy the writings from pros like you guys.

    Alex Miteff attended a Ring 8 meeting earlier this year, accompanied by his son. He is slow of movement and talk slowly and in low voice, but his son helps interpret his words, from the former great Argentine.

  5. peter 03:15pm, 08/15/2012

    Another excellent Mladinich article! I am in touch with Carmine Vingo’s cousin who lives and works in Westchester, NY. Even through him, I haven’t been able to make contact with the former fighter. (I’m told Vingo isn’t doing too well.)

  6. Bob Mladinich 01:54pm, 08/15/2012

    Thank you everyone for your kind words. I was given a Florida address and phone number for Carmine Vingo, but nobody has responded to letters or multiple calls. The phone message is the generic one, so it is hard to be sure if it is the Vingo family. Perhaps they would rather be left alone. Would love to locate another living Marciano opponent, but I have a feeling they might all be gone. Thanks again.

  7. Mike Silver 11:45am, 08/15/2012

    Great story Robert. It was an awesome experience to have met Harry Haft.
    To Norm: “Triumph of the Spirit” was based on the true story of Greek boxer Salamo Arouch. Few people know that a former world champion, Victor “Young” Perez of Tunisia, also fought death matches in Auschwitz. He survived the fights but was later shot by the SS guards.
    This site is lucky to have writers of the calibre of Robert Mladinich. 

  8. mikecasey 08:13am, 08/15/2012

    He did indeed, Bull - as you well know, Tiger Ted was a wonderfully savvy ring mechanic.

  9. the thresher 08:12am, 08/15/2012

    Dan Cuoco at IBRO might know where Camen Vingo is: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

  10. the thresher 08:09am, 08/15/2012

    Tiger Ted Lowry gave the Rock all he could handle and then some.

  11. mikecasey 08:04am, 08/15/2012

    Very enjoyable story. These men are incredible guys and are too often forgotten. Carmine Vingo is indeed still alive and will be 83 in December. Not bad going after being put in a coma by Rocky all those years ago. Pity you can’t reach him, Robert - I’m sure he must have some great stories! Tiger Ted Lowry, another Marciano opponent, was still dispensing pearls of wisdom until his death at the age of 90 - back in 2010 I believe.

  12. Jim Crue 06:41am, 08/15/2012

    Wonderful story. Thanks for writing. I wish young people knew and cared about the sacrifices made by Harry and his generation.
    I love this site!!

  13. norm marcus 06:08am, 08/15/2012

    Robert: Excellent story on Harry Haft. What an exciting and hard life he led.
    Interestingly enough it reminds me of a film I saw years ago starring Willem Dafoe. He played a Greek-Jewish boxer captured by the S.S. and forced to fight for his life as a boxer at Auschwitz. Of course this was fiction but it mirrors very closely what Harry had to go through. All the people that liked your story here should order “Triumph of the Spirit” from Net Flix, as a follow up to your great article.
    Hope to read more of your stories in the future.

  14. JimmyD 05:13am, 08/15/2012

    Great story. This guy lived an unbelievably interesting and full life.

  15. the thresher 05:08am, 08/15/2012

    “The stories of the challengers, too often relegated to the scrap heap of anonymity, are many times as interesting, if not more interesting, than the stories of the champions themselves.”

    I shall steal this line.

  16. the thresher 05:07am, 08/15/2012

    A compelling article with lots of familiar names in it. Roy Harris once beat Charlie Norkus. And La Starza paid a big price for giving Rocky trouble in their first fight. I love stuff like this. You feeling me on this? Only on

  17. MIKE SCHMIDT 12:54am, 08/15/2012

    Great story! Keep em coming and thanks much.

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