Disturbing the Peace

By Ted Spoon on September 6, 2012
Disturbing the Peace
When you fought Tony Zale you didn’t leave the ring without at least some mental scarring.

Soose was largely unmarked, and everyone noticed the dearth of silver in his hair when boxers from the same era were on welfare, or dead…

For a competition that allows you to belt seven bells out of your opponent boxing can be pretty intolerant. Shoving will quickly get you in the referee’s bad books, demanding the bigger cut is a sure way to have a bout fall through, and if you underperform you can expect that future check to have a couple of zeros knocked off it. 

That doesn’t prevent you from being a nuisance.

This writer isn’t one for fate, but the brief career of Billy Soose caused such a stir that it may have been designed purely to annoy. Four years is nowhere near sufficient to capture greatness, but having jumped in at 22, WWII tickled his moral sense of duty and he volunteered for the Navy at 26.

Over bumpy terrain Tony Zale and Ken Overlin were slowly but surely on their way to resolving a confused middleweight division. The rib-buster from Indiana and the workaholic from Illinois had oozed sweat and blood for their craft. It wasn’t going to be long until they settled their differences. Instead, Soose came along and beat the pair of them inside a month. 

This led to “an unprecedented situation in the middleweight division” where all the top dogs had suffered defeat but nobody held the gold. And shortly after Soose had got his hands on the NYSAC title he was reaching for maritime uniform.

They say it’s near impossible to ditch a reputation once you get yourself one and Billy’s untimely brilliance was up to no good many moons before mixing it with the ruffians of the pro circle. 

Not far from home was an abandoned school. Desks, pencils and a cane-happy teacher used to grace the interior. A ring and a few punch bags helped revive the dusty setting. Young Billy took one look at the basic set-up and heard his name being announced. 

At first he was simply not old enough to receive proper training. This is where 90% of other children would bellow that life isn’t fair. Rather than drag his feet he exhibited the positive patience that was to get the better of many opponents and helped with simple duties. There was little heckling as the enthusiastic junior went about his business and Billy became something of a mascot.   

Soon enough “he was spending more time punching the bags than doing his chores.”

At 13 he got his precious chance to show everybody if he possessed the tools to match his zeal.

The short answer was yes.

In a 188-fight amateur career Soose had opponents falling over themselves trying to pin him down, and when enough muscle had developed everybody made it a point to avoid the right cross. Sixteen bouts (all won by KO) were completed on his way to becoming Pennsylvania’s NCAA middleweight champion.

So dominant had Soose been that he officially inducted himself into the school of being too good for your own good. Several fighters complained as a theory of an unfair advantage spread like the Black Death. The NCAA agreed and in ’38 they passed a rule which is still known today as the ‘Soose Rule’ to prevent bouts occurring between boxers with sizeable differences in pedigree. 

This little detail not only shoved Soose into the professional ranks, but it nicely buffered his profile. Thousands of fans where there to witness his induction into the big league. Things were much more daunting but Billy casually picked up where he had left off. 

That reputation for punching was rife in just his first five contests. Jimmy Brent managed to complete four rounds, but it cost him six trips to the canvas.

What happened next was to profoundly affect Soose. 

Al Quaill was one of those deep-fried scrappers who find satisfaction, not in winning, but in making life difficult. Flooring Billy would’ve sufficed but after 10 rounds the very promising boxer from Farrell had ruptured a tendon in his right hand. Big pots of money were raised for sequential operations but the pain didn’t subside. Billy had lost his money maker.     

Far from a meek injury, “From then on, I got a terrific pain in my neck every time I landed a solid right hand.”

The left became his saving grace, but similar to a blind man who must rely on his hearing, Billy compensated with newfound proficiency.

Before he discovered his groove there were back-to-back losses. Johnny Duca registered the first and a certain Charley Burley was accountable for the second. Newspapers were partial towards Soose, but anyone half-conscious was aware of Burley’s unusual mastery.

None other than Ray Arcel was sceptically at hand to improve a slim chance of winning. As expected, Burley was the more accurate and imposing boxer, ultimately that is. The official tally was five rounds to Burley, three to Soose and two even. Billy fought hard in the last stanza, desperately trying to relay to the ebony whiz that he was no steppingstone. Once back in the dressing room tears ran down his moon face. Arcel couldn’t believe what he was seeing. 

“What the hell are you crying about? You just lost a split decision to one of the greatest fighters in the world; a fighter nobody wants to fight and you fought him with one hand. What if you had two good hands?” 

It’s impossible to answer, but what didn’t kill Soose made him stronger, and Johnny Duca found this out next year. The future was, at the worst, uncertain, but more emotional hurdles were on the way.

In boxing it is close to a rule that somewhere along the road a fighter will appear who is incredibly uncooperative; rematches don’t solve the problem, and for Soose that man was Georgie Abrams. They fought thrice and Soose lost every time. With a healthy right hand it’s possible Billy could have beaten some respect into the determined slugger, but that’s another what-if.

After the second loss Billy seriously questioned his will to continue. The money wasn’t great, and clenching his fist only served as a reminder that he could never be 100%. Recalling that he hadn’t finished his education, the ring started to feel more like a phase than a calling, but Billy stayed put for the interim. He was wise to do so. 

The next 12 months provided a vivid demo of all that potential the print enjoyed waffling about. Four victories took him into July of 1940 where he was greeted by Ken Overlin. 

At 30 years of age Overlin was a solid combination of experience and ability. In less than a decade he had partaken in well over 100 bouts, and he was far from damaged goods. Ken’s record was the antithesis of a padded one, crammed with talent ranging from decent to awfully good. To most people’s mind he was the unofficial top dog.

There was a great deal of fussing amongst editors when Billy nicked a split decision. More than a handful believed that Overlin had won around two thirds of the bout, but they must have forgotten where they were.

Written to have “pathetically tired,” Overlin confessed to being in less than pristine condition. Soose opted against his sharp-shooting tendencies and staged a roaring finale, tickling America’s love for aggression. For those who scored it for Ken, it was difficult to say the better had man won.

Whoever felt resentful towards the victor, you could only admire his next choice of opponent.

Tony Zale is a name that thunders its way across the middleweight landscape. Nobody forgot an evening with the “Man of Steel” in a hurry. A blistering trilogy with Rocky Graziano set his legend in stone, but fans close to the ring knew that Zale wasn’t quite the man he had been before doing his bit in WWII.   

In 1940 (as you’d imagine being younger and more active) Zale was that bit sharper. Things hadn’t been easy on the way up; he’d fallen hard in the past, but having recently flattened Al Hostak for a portion of the crown it would be fair to assume that Indiana’s rib-cruncher was at his absolute peak. No middleweight would again best him until Graziano, but Soose did something even the Sugar Man would have struggled to duplicate and won comfortably.

If there was a ground rule with Zale it was that you didn’t leave the ring without at least some mental scarring. Car-denting hooks were guaranteed for as long as you could stand them. Billy could do more than just take it, and after briefly playing his part as the underdog he boxed splendidly, carving out one of the great non-title victories.

A rematch with Overlin’s NYSAC title was imminent, but first Soose completed some eye-catching work.

All of Billy’s key bouts had been in Pennsylvania. Support had not been an issue; his first trip to Madison Square Garden changed all that. Undefeated Tami Mauriello, a boxer who would gain notoriety for giving Joe Louis fans a scare, got soundly whipped. Every now and then that damaged right would be thrown with intent and in the third it knocked Tami stupid. From there on out he was given a boxing lesson that had him “smeared with gore.”   

Back-to-back wins over local workhorse Ernie Vigh put Soose in prime position to strike; Overlin and his shiny laurels awaited.

A similar and, admittedly, boring fight unravelled. Overlin was the more technical, Soose the more willful. Many again credited the champion with winning more rounds, but as the seconds ticked away one man was making it count, and his name wasn’t Ken.

Referee Arthur Donovan had been a fighter 20 years ago. It’s no lie that boxers can influence what a referee looks for, and since losing the gloves Arthur had gotten use to a ferocious bunch; Mickey Walker, Henry Armstrong and Beau Jack weren’t of the passive variety. These guys were experts in making a round seem like a week, and so Donovan was painfully aware of Overlin’s tactic to steal the last 30 seconds. His punches were accurate, but they were often thrown in singles, and a clinch usually followed.

This method would later work wonders for Bernard Hopkins. For Donovan’s old-school palette it was a bitter trick and ultimately tilted his final tally 8-7 for a new champion.

It was hardly a glorious coronation, and within a year the troubled boxer from Farrell would wave adios to the ring. Georgie Abrams sunk in one more dagger, winning over the judges by convincing margins, and Jimmy Bivins punished a throwaway attempt at light-heavyweight. 

Twenty-six years of age and Soose was nuthin’ but a plain old civilian.

There were all the right ingredients for a jolly good debate. Would Zale have been king had Billy stayed? What if Soose had come back after the War? And how good would he have been minus that severed tendon? There was enough material for a high-budget flick, but the tale of Soose was passed on by a faint whisper, barely surviving decades of glitzy personas.

Only recently was he inducted into an overcrowded Hall of Fame.       

Following his service, Billy receded into the lush wilderness of the Poconos Mountain range. He would stay there until his last breath. The soothing sounds of running water and rustling leaves used to keep him company during training; now he was in charge of a $2,888,880 retreat. 

Busy as he was the chance to reminisce was always welcome. The man who could “out Shakespeare Tunney” retold of his bruising days in captivating fashion. Musing over each chapter, you could sense this wasn’t a story of triumph. That lasting glory didn’t figure in these anecdotes, but out of a sour journey came a refreshing epilogue.     

Looking tenderized is something ex-boxers take pride in. Save for that hand Soose was largely unmarked, and everyone noticed the dearth of silver in his hair when boxers from the same era were on welfare, or dead. Life had been kind, and each time he awoke the “Poet of the Poconos” was greeted by 465 acres of serenity.   

“It makes me sick when I see them wind up busted” tutted Soose. 

In miniature you could see the man whose original plan was to be a doctor.

No doubt many would’ve been tempted to pay for his tuition.

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  1. NYIrish 11:51am, 09/14/2012

    Appreciate this one Ted. Thanks.

  2. Mike Casey 09:19am, 09/06/2012

    Ted, this is a very enjoyable and thoroughly well deserved tribute to a brilliant boxer. Billy Soose was a genuine star of the ‘Golden Age’ club.

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