Coley Wallace: Rocking Rocky

By Clarence George on May 11, 2017
Coley Wallace: Rocking Rocky
Managed by the unsavory Blinky Palermo, Wallace said that "he ruined boxing for me."

Working as a bouncer at the Palm Gardens on West 52nd Street, he was stabbed in the back “as he tried to break up a fight between several Jamaicans…”

“The career of Coley Wallace was one of broken promises.”—Robert Cassidy Jr.

Born in Jacksonville, Florida, on April 5, 1927, heavyweight Coley Wallace fought out of Harlem (where he trained, as did Johnny Saxton and as had Sugar Ray Robinson, at the Salem-Crescent Gym and Athletic Club, located in the basement — now a kitchen — of Salem Methodist Church) from 1950 to ‘56, winding up with a respectable record of 22 wins, 16 by knockout, and seven losses, four by knockout.

He won his first 12 bouts, all but one by KO or TKO. The only opponent to go the distance was Duilio Spagnolo, whom Wallace outpointed at Turner’s Arena in D.C. on December 11, 1950 (the Italian was only stopped twice, first by Lee Savold, then by the oddly monikered Saint Paul). After knocking out Maynard Jones, aka the Delaware Dynamiter, in the seventh at Madison Square Garden on March 9, 1951, Wallace suffered his first defeat, Elkins Brothers kayoing him in the second at the Garden that June 15. He won his next six, three by KO or TKO, before Jimmy Bivins knocked him out in the ninth at St. Nicholas Arena in New York City on September 19, 1952 (“I thought he was well over the hill,” said Wallace, “but he showed me a thing or two”). He then won three in a row, two by TKO, only to have Ezzard Charles “methodically chop him down to size” at the Civic Auditorium in San Francisco on December 16, 1953 (the year he was ranked 10th by The Ring; he appeared on the cover of the September 1952 issue, along with Chuck Davey, Johnny Saxton, George Araujo, Gil Turner, and Chico Vejar), knocking him down once in the eighth and twice in the 10th, the round in which he was kayoed. He scored only one more win, beating Billy Gilliam, aka Big Boy, by split decision at Turner’s Arena on May 12, 1954 (a “dull” fight, where “there was nothing approaching a knockdown”), losing his last four. Two of those losses came by way of Bob Baker, who twice won by unanimous decision, first at the Central Armory in Cleveland that October 1 (Wallace later claimed that he’d been given a sedative prior to the bout, what he called a “slow pill”), then at the Garden that December 17 (“He hurt me with a couple of good chops,” said Baker. “He tries to kill you with that right.” And, indeed, as the Associated Press reported, “For a time, in the fourth round, he seemed on the verge of flooring Baker.” From the fifth round on, however, “he was no menace”). He was also beaten by Alex Brown, who won by unanimous decision at the Maple Arena in Brockton, Massachusetts, on June 6, 1955. Wallace quit the ring after Bob Woodall knocked him out in the 10th at Boston Garden on April 28, 1956, putting him in the hospital.

Managed by the unsavory Blinky Palermo, Coley said that “he ruined boxing for me,” claiming “that he was drugged in the Charles fight, and that led to his 10th-round stoppage,” a bout for which he only received $3,000 of his $20,000 purse ($27,000 and $180,000 in today’s money, respectively). He nevertheless held “The Cincinnati Cobra” in high regard. “Charles is the best man I’ve ever been in the ring with,” he said at the time of the loss. “He has everything.”

Wallace also claimed that Palermo “robbed him of his entire purse” in his first bout with Billy Gilliam, which took place at Eastern Parkway Arena in Brooklyn on September 28, 1953, Wallace winning by fourth-round TKO (the only other man to stop Big Boy was Bob Baker, who won by 10th-round TKO at the Rhode Island Auditorium in Providence on October 15, 1951).

His biggest regret, however, was not getting a pro shot at Rocky Marciano, whom he beat in the amateurs.

Despite having already fought once as a pro — knocking out Lee Epperson in the third at the Valley Arena in Holyoke, Massachusetts, on March 17, 1947 — Marciano faced Wallace in his initial bout of the All Eastern Coast Golden Gloves Championship, which took place at Ridgewood Grove Arena in Brooklyn on March 1, 1948. Although Coley was the “overwhelming favorite,” writes Marciano biographer Russell Sullivan, Rocky “shocked the experts by manhandling Wallace for much of the three-round fight. The verdict nevertheless went to Wallace, stunning sportswriters at ringside (with one literally falling off his chair), as well as fans.” Bushwa, says Jimmy Breslin. “The Pulitzer Prize winner contends that Wallace knocked Marciano down twice and clearly won the fight,” writes Sullivan, “and that the reporters who later alleged to the contrary were engaging in a bit of revisionist history.”

Maybe, but according to New York Daily News photographer Jack Smith, The Rock “refused to go down.”

Rocky’s take on the controversy? Although readily recognizing that Coley “was the terror of New York,” what with winning 17 consecutive bouts, all by first-round KO (or so legend has it), the win was the result of “skuldujjery,” as The Rock was pleased to pronounce it.

Three other men beat Marciano in the amateurs — Joe DeAngelis and Bob Girard both won by decision, while Henry Lester won by disqualification (“I learned something from this fight,” said Rocky. “If I ever get into the ring again, you can bet I won’t be out of condition”). Wallace was the fourth and last to do so, winning by decision. Rocky “would never lose in the ring again.” And, contrary to a lazy and indifferent AP obit, Coley did not knock out The Rock. Nobody did. Not ever.

(The contention that Wallace Collier had three amateur bouts with Rocky, beating him once, appears to be malarkey.)

“When we fought, Rocky was just a beginner,” Coley told boxing writer Robert Cassidy Jr. (son of light heavyweight “Irish” Bobby Cassidy). “He was more like a street fighter. All he knew how to do was swing wild. He didn’t hit very hard then. I don’t think he hit me hard the entire fight. It wasn’t a tough fight for me at all. But even then you could tell he was tough and determined. I wish we could have fought as pros, but we never did. I always wanted to fight him again. You could see he had potential even when we fought. Still, I wanted to fight him again, because I always thought I could do the same thing again.”

It wasn’t to be, as Marciano manager Al Weill saw Wallace (as well as Clarence Henry and Bob Baker) as very much high risk, low reward.

After leaving the ring, Coley did some reffing and judging. Most notably, he was one of the judges for the Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston rematch, which took place at the Central Maine Civic Center in Lewiston on May 25, 1965, Ali knocking out Liston in the first. Although Coley’s judging abilities were hardly necessary in that fight, one can’t help but wonder what his opinion was of the punch that will live in infamy.

Wallace bore a rather remarkable physical resemblance to Joe Louis (though “the similarities stopped short in the ring”). As a result, he was awarded the title role in the 1953 biopic, The Joe Louis Story — “POWERFUL…as his battering fists! THRILLING…as his fighting heart! GREAT…as his never-to-be-forgotten story!” Eight-year-old Ken Buchanan certainly thought so, having his first bout within months of seeing the film. As for Wallace’s performance, he was “perfect as the young, taciturn Louis,” wrote Otis L. Guernsey Jr., film critic for the New York Herald Tribune. (There are reports that an uncharacteristically ungracious Louis said something along the lines that he hoped his lookalike could act better than he could fight). The movie netted Louis $25,000, about $225,000 today, and a percentage of the receipts, while Wallace received $5,000 for the role, the equivalent of $45,000 today (his trainer, Bill “Pops” Miller, sued him for one-third). He portrayed “The Brown Bomber” twice more, in the TV movie, Marciano (1979), and in Raging Bull (1980).

Coley beat Ken Norton to the punch, metaphorically speaking, appearing in the play version of Mandingo, which opened at the Lyceum Theatre on West 45th Street on May 22, 1961, closing unceremoniously on the 27th. “What emerges is a group of stereotyped characters taking part in noisome affairs,” wrote Howard Taubman, the then chief theater critic for The New York Times. “In a time when insight and wisdom are desperately wanted,” continued Taubman, the play “offers only a shabby, coarse, surface treatment of an agonizing theme.” Franchot Tone starred, alongside Dennis Hopper and Brooke Hayward, who became an item during the run of the play, such as it was, and later married.

In the 1950s, Wallace worked as a bouncer at Harlem’s famed Savoy Ballroom (“The Home of Happy Feet,” as Lana Turner dubbed it). On a darker note, he “was arrested on a charge he steered a 19-year-old married girl to an abortionist,” reported the July 24, 1958, issue of Jet. He denied the charge, saying that “It’s a bum rap. I never made any arrangement for the girl. I don’t even know her name.” And, indeed, the publication reported in the November 13 issue that Coley had been cleared.

What an invaluable informational resource is Jet, certainly when it comes to Coley. The June 5, 1958, issue tells us that he was an instructor at Tyler Barber College and that he was about to open his own barbershop in Harlem; according to the May 28, 1959, issue, he’d opened a barbershop in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn; and the March 31, 1960, issue tells us that he was attending embalming school.

In the September 17, 1964, issue, we learn that Wallace must have done some wrestling, because his mother made him give it up three weeks before — “It is too rough,” she said. Speaking of rough, he was at that time working as a bouncer at the Palm Gardens, a ballroom on West 52nd Street (the Savoy having closed in ‘58), where he was stabbed in the back “as he tried to break up a fight between several Jamaicans.” The knife barely missed a kidney, and he spent three days in the hospital. The assailant was caught and charged with felonious assault.

Although once a teetotaler, at least according to some reports, Coley also did some liquor promotion. In the early 1960s, an ad for Smirnoff began appearing in Jet and Ebony in which a nattily dressed “Coley Wallace, noted screen star, and lovely [not to mention unknown] Cookie Mitchell enjoy a Smirnoff Martini” at a party in Hunts Point in the Bronx.

A loyal member of Ring 8, Wallace, who “embodied class,” often attended meetings and usually sat with middleweight Bill Tate (who once had the privilege of being knocked out by Laszlo Papp) and fellow heavyweights Keene Simmons and Doug Jones, good friends all. “It was not often that you could find a group of men sitting together and two of them fought Marciano [Wallace and Simmons, the latter a ham-and-egger who gave Rocky a hard time before being stopped by eighth-round TKO at the Rhode Island Auditorium on January 29, 1951, a period when “The Rock hit rock bottom” in terms of opponents], while the third fought Ali [Jones],” writes Cassidy, “but they were there, pleasant and polite, and always ready to reminisce.”

As grandson Patrick Leake says, “Everybody knew Coley. I remember my grandfather taking me to the gym to watch Gerry Cooney train and putting me in the ring with him.”

Coley Wallace — “the warmest, kindest-hearted man you would ever want to meet” — beat Max Schmeling to the barn (the German, by the way, apparently made a little money from the Louis movie), dying of heart failure in Manhattan three days before the former heavyweight champ, on January 30, 2005, age 77. An Army private during World War II, he’s buried in Calverton National Cemetery in Suffolk County, New York.

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Ezzard Charles vs Coley Wallace

Bob Baker W 10 Coley Wallace

Preview Clip: The Joe Louis Story (1953, starring Coley Wallace)

The Joe Louis Story

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  1. Clarence George 07:10am, 05/11/2017

    Thanks again, Irish.  Yes, Coley had a pretty full life.  Brooke was more elegant than sexy, I think.  Speaking of which, the very sexy indeed Quinn O’Hara died just a few days ago.  As for Artie Shaw—jeez, he wasn’t known for his gallantry, was he?

    That slamming car door, AK—great scene.

  2. Alt Knight 06:48am, 05/11/2017

    .Clarence…Both were hard to watch even for a boxing fan. At least in “Raging Bull,” we were treated to the first fight in the epic, Joe Pesci-Frank Vincent trilogy. Final score: Pesci-2 Vincent-1.

  3. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 06:43am, 05/11/2017

    There is so much in this article….what research!....what a life! Looks like Coley was always but always in the thick of things!  Brooke Hayward! friggin’ lucky was Dennis Hopper! Brooke or Lana….that’s a no brainer….Artie Shaw said that Lana was cavernous for Christ’s sake! Giant Members Only need apply!

  4. Clarence George 06:35am, 05/11/2017

    My opinion, Irish, is that Marciano would have stopped Wallace no later than the eighth.

    Neal was a brutish man, who almost certainly murdered his wife, Gale Bennett.  To say that Tone was no match for him is putting it mildly.

  5. Clarence George 06:20am, 05/11/2017

    Didn’t see either one, AK, and can’t remember the last time Berenger crossed my mind.  He pretty much peaked with “Platoon,” which was some 30 years ago.

  6. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 06:14am, 05/11/2017

    @ Clarence George-BTW Coley Wallace had a 78” reach and Rocky had a 68” reach. Tom Neal was a a rugged type and was probably a nasty drunk….Franchot was…..well he was a wispy sort of a fellow….that is not to say that he wasn’t a ladies man.

  7. Clarence George 06:10am, 05/11/2017

    Thanks, Irish.

    Wallace would have been a worthy opponent for Marciano in the pro ranks.  The same is true of Clarence Henry and Bob Baker.  Somewhat less true of Nino Valdes and, say, Earl Walls.  It’s my opinion that none would have come out on top, though Henry would have had the best shot.

    The “t” in “Franchot” is silent, though I must confess that I don’t pronounce it that way.  I remember writing about Neal vs. Tone several years ago, focusing on the stunningly sexy Barbara Payton.

  8. Alt Knight 06:07am, 05/11/2017

    Remember watching the made for television movie, “Marciano,” back then. About a week before, another boxing movie was shown on the idiot box titled, Flesh and Blood, starring Tom Berenger. This one wasn’t as wholesome as the Marciano story, Berenger’s character and his mother were having an incestuous affair. Kind of taboo stuff for television in 1979. The Coetzee-Tate WBA heavyweight title fight was held in the same month, and one had to wonder if these movies were getting America hyped up for a White heavyweight champion, even a foreign one at that. I do believe that Berenger’s character made it to a title fight in the heavyweight division, while weighing all of 183lbs. Have to check on that one, been quite a few years since I saw that movie.

  9. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 05:31am, 05/11/2017

    Thanks Clarence! Which reminds me….Wallace would be a heavy load in the amateurs for Rocky who was a work in progress even when he was well into his pro career. I can see Wallace cracking Rocky with some nasty shots even in a three round bout. Wallace and Baker were both 6’2” and Nino Valdes was 6’3”....both Weill and Goldman’s boxing IQs were off the charts. There’s a big difference between punching up and punching down no matter how hard a fighter hits. Never could figure out how to pronounce Franchot Tone’s name. Tom Neal always comes to mind for the terrible beating he put on Franchot all those years ago.

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