Dancing with Tiger Flowers

By George Thomas Clark on November 19, 2013
Dancing with Tiger Flowers
I won't lie. I never do. I don't have the best chin and get knocked out once in a while.

I don’t let good fortune change me. I’m still polite and friendly. Let some say I have the manners of a servant. The Lord will decide…

My parents say fewer people are lynched on the coast near Brunswick than the rest of Georgia but to watch out anyway. That’s easy for me. After school and weekends I’m fishing, wrestling, dancing and going to church. By age twenty I want a family and marry Willie May and support her working as a stevedore in Brunswick shipyards. People say black folks are escaping Georgia, moving to better lives up North, so we go to Philadelphia which is so cold and I’m not earning much as a laborer and before long we return to Brunswick and again I’m shoveling coal. 

Least we got food and a roof, I say. 

It’s not enough, Willie May says, you should box. 

She’s had three years college at Tuskegee and expects a lot. And I do like fighting, long as it’s in a ring, but don’t know if God approves. He approves of those who help themselves, Willie May says. 

Atlanta fight manager Walk Miller hears about me and sends one of his boxers to Brunswick. I guess Mr. Miller thinks I don’t have much since he doesn’t show up. That’s fine. Quite a few people watch me circle and dance in left-handed stance as I jab and punch like an octopus and send Mr. Miller’s fighter home looking like a skinned cat, and the gentleman comes running and promises to make me champion. We put a Tiger on my robe, add some gold teeth to my big smile, greet fans and foes with my leap to ring center, and say goodbye with a flip-flop showing folks I’m acrobat well as fighter. Tiger, people say, you got no fat and the longest, prettiest muscles we’ve’ve ever seen. 

Thank you, I reply, smiling at their toes. I’m always polite, and away from the gym never sit unless white folks ask me to. But I’m no Uncle Tom, as some accuse. I just want to avoid the Ku Klux Klan and attract big purses.

I’m progressing pretty well in 1922 when Mr. Miller matches me against old Sam Langford, who must be forty but hits like forty mules. I usually weigh about one-sixty, one-sixty five, and Mr. Sam’s big muscles outweigh me thirty pounds. We figure I can glide and outbox him. And I do believe I could’ve but he flattens me in the second round. I won’t lie. I never do. I don’t have the best chin and get knocked out once in a while. 

Mr. Miller tells me I have to keep busy to get better and Willie May says that’ll improve our lives. I agree and fight sixteen times in 1923. In 1924 it seems like I never stop swinging, and take on thirty-six guys, one of them middleweight champion Harry Greb in a non-title bout I swear I win and he swears he wins, and plenty of officials and reporters agree with both of us, but he gets the decision.

I know I’ll fight Mr. Greb again. I’m beating almost everyone, dancing away from punches and sliding in to batter them with quick right jabs, hard left crosses, leather from all over, like an octopus, people still say, hard to hit and harder to avoid. I feel 1925 will be my year, and in the first week score three technical knockouts. Nine days later at Madison Square Garden Jack Delaney stops me in the second round with a right cross. In less than three weeks I’m back fighting and winning and in late February face Jack Delaney again and same thing happens: in the second round he knocks me down with a right, and the referee counts to ten. But I’m up at nine. I swear. My cornermen and fans are angry. My people’re always getting robbed. I don’t talk like that publicly but not one of us has been allowed to fight for a world title since Jack Johnson in 1908. That’s not right. Praise Jack Delaney: he says fine, let’s continue, and in round four he about knocks my head off. After recovering I go to his dressing room and say, thank you, Mr. Delaney, I’m convinced. Negro newspapers call me a weakling and a coward. White newspapers say I may be a creature from the jungle but am no beast. 

I say prayers for those reporters just as I do for opponents after all my fights, thanking the Lord we made it. I’m the Georgia Deacon. That’s what people call me though I’m really only a trustee at my Atlanta church. I love taking my wife and daughter Verna Lee to Sunday service, and I give all I can to churches and charities. Makes me feel blessed. I know the Lord wants me to be champion. He keeps me healthy and sharp and puts me in the ring with Harry Greb this time for the title in February 1926. 

Now I know Harry Greb’s fast but he also understands I’m long and fast or faster as my right jab hits his face and lefts find his face and body. Yes sir, he fights back and hurts me some but he also misses several punches by a foot and I block quite a few and counter with combinations and keep asking the Lord to make my fists strong. Many of thousands in Madison Square Garden support me and scold Mr. Greb when he holds and pushes and tries to roughhouse. That stuff works against other boxers, not against me. I smack him right left right left, moving in out and in circles, whatever I need to elude the champ. After fifteen rounds I think I’ve’ve won and won’t get worse than a draw which the referee indicates spreading both hands. I walk over to Harry Greb and shake hands and hear the announcer say, “The winner and new champion…” Mr. Greb cries while I rejoice, Harlem celebrates, my people thank God, and back in Atlanta they carry me from the train and put me in one of dozens of cars that parade through our part of town. In Brunswick I’m welcomed by another parade and speeches and two days of celebration even some white folks join and thank me for not being Jack Johnson.

I respect Mr. Johnson but live differently. I only want one woman, my negro wife Willie May, who loves and cares for me and helps invest our money in houses we rent and who’s often told me we need to keep moving to better places and now says we’ve got to get that villa on ten regular lots in the fine neighborhood around Atlanta University. Now we have fourteen rooms and lots of big windows and pretty wood and tile and a playroom for my daughter and a dining room and living rooms for socializing and a gymnasium and two-story garage for my cars. I own a roadster that’ll go more than a hundred, though I never drive fast with my family, and a limousine and another car, and my chauffeur helps us get around to our properties and church activities. I don’t let good fortune change me. I’m still polite and friendly. Let some say I have the manners of a servant. The Lord will decide. 

I’m only tough in the ring to keep winning to pay for the fine life we have so I fight often, and many negro reporters claim Walk Miller’s overworking me, and some folks in private say it’s my wife. They’re wrong. I love to fight and do so seven times before giving Harry Greb a rematch in August 1926. Mr. Miller’s a smart manager and worried Mr. Greb’s new manager can fix the fight, so he warns all the newspapers we expect the judges and referee to be honest. They sure see Mr. Greb push and maul me and thumb my eyes and fight after the bell and that I only wrestle and hit him below the belt to protect myself. I’m not hurt bad as some reporters and fans think. I’m fine and believe I deserve the split decision. It’s time for the great Harry Greb to retire. And next month I pray when I hear he has a car accident and soon mourn when he doesn’t wake up after surgery on his nose.

I know you always hear this from fighters, but in December I’m robbed. Trust me. I beat young Mickey Walker. Ask people sitting around the ring. Their mouths dropped wide-open as mine when the referee, the only authority, raised Mr. Walker’s hand. Most of the time Mr. Walker was my punching bag. True, he’s a hard-hitting young man who knocked me down in the ninth round. Still, this decision isn’t right and Mr. Miller and I immediately ask for a rematch and file paperwork and make the necessary deposit. I think we’ll get the fight. Mr. Walker’s a decent man.

I’m less sure about Jack Dempsey. He was paid a fortune to sit around three years then even more in 1926 to have his ears boxed off by clever Gene Tunney, who’s my friend. Now Mr. Dempsey wants me to spar with him for the rematch. I don’t remind him he told reporters, I can’t understand why Harry Greb gave a negro a chance to take his title. Holding my bible I send Mr. Dempsey this simple message: No thank you, sir.

I have a wonderful feeling about 1927. I know my wife and daughter love me, and I believe the Lord wants me to get my middleweight title back, and I promise I will. I’m only thirty-two, still in my prime. I’ll fight all I can. I’ll earn enough to support my family the right way and give plenty to the church. I’ll fight nineteen times in 1927, losing only once. Mickey Walker and his people can’t ignore that. They know where the money is and on November sixteenth announce they’re ready to sign. I can’t celebrate that day. I haven’t been breathing well through my sinuses and nose. I think about Harry Greb and pray for him well as myself. I’m wearing my boxing robe in the clinic before surgery and Walk Millers asks, “Do you want to talk about anything now?”

“Please put my bible under the pillow. And if I should die before I wake, I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take.”

Editorial notes: Tiger Flowers was placed in a silver casket and his remains taken by rail to Atlanta where his body lay in state. Thousands of mourners stood on major streets and his funeral was one of the largest in Atlanta history. Shortly before his death, Flowers had made Walk Miller executor of his will which stipulated that his wife receive money from his estate, initially estimated to be a hundred twenty-five thousand dollars, only until she remarried when their daughter, Verna Lee, would receive all assets, minus bequests to his mother and siblings. Miller battled Willie May Flowers for control of the estate, which had declined with real estate values, until he desisted early in 1928. Willie May and Verna Lee Flowers moved to the West Coast soon thereafter. Later that year Walk Miller, knowledgeable of and perhaps involved in gangster control of boxing, was shot twice in the head and bludgeoned at his training camp in upstate New York. Tiger Flowers’ villa was demolished in 1962 and replaced by the city’s first black-administered fire station. Motorists in Atlanta today drive down Tiger Flowers Drive near Simpson Road where he lived and Lincoln Cemetery where he rests.   


Sources: “The Pussycat of Prizefighting” by Andrew M. Kaye; “The Fearless Harry Greb” by Bill Paxton; Boxrec.com; Wikipedia.


George Thomas Clark is the author of Uppercuts, a collection of boxing stories available as an eBook at Amazon.com and other Digital Stores. His short story collection, The Bold Investor, is also available. See the author’s website at www.GeorgeThomasClark.com.

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  1. Robert Ecksel 03:43pm, 11/20/2013

    The man fighting Tiger Flowers in the photo is Sailor Eddie Huffman: http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=950&dat=19261123&id=bvNPAAAAIBAJ&sjid=1VQDAAAAIBAJ&pg=2996,5810345

  2. peter 03:00pm, 11/20/2013

    Thank you for another excellent article on this humble, quietly-strong unsung hero. Does anyone know who Flowers is fighting in the photo?

  3. Eric 02:15pm, 11/20/2013

    The middleweight division is the thoroughbred division of boxing and I can’t think of any other division that has contributed so many talented fighters. That being said, I rarely ever see Tiger Flowers on anyone’s list of top 10 all-time middleweights. The top 5 or 6 names are nearly always, Harry Greb, Mickey Walker, Ray Robinson, Carlos Monzon, and maybe a Marvin Hagler and a Marcel Cerdan thrown in.  Usually just below this sterling crop of legends are names like Jake LaMotta, and maybe a Tony Zale, a Dick Tiger, or a Gene Fullmer, etc. Flowers certainly did well against Greb and Walker and that alone should give him a serious bid for an all time 10 ranking among the 160lbers, but I just hardly ever see Flowers ranked that high.

  4. George Thomas Clark 02:12pm, 11/20/2013

    Who is that stud pictured fighting Flowers?  He’s looks a lot bigger than a middleweight.

  5. George Thomas Clark 02:06pm, 11/20/2013

    Dempsey has been quoted as criticizing Greb for fighting Tiger Flowers.  I’ve seen it a few times but can only cite my most recent source, the biography of Flowers.  Regarding Walk Miller, authorities at first suspected suicide - given his unpleasant behavior and financial duress after Flowers’ death - but they changed their minds when examiners determined that Miller had also been bludgeoned.  Also, that second shot to the head points to murder.

  6. nicolas 03:11am, 11/20/2013

    Did Dempsey really criticize Greb for giving Tiger the opportunity? If he did, my respect has really gone down for the memory of this man. Also, didn’t Walk Miller commit suicide?

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