Greb Lite

By Pete Ehrmann on November 10, 2014
Greb Lite
Larry Greb won the New Mexico state lightweight title under his real name – Neil Grubbs.

Harry Greb reincarnate he wasn’t, nor even a shirttail relative of the legendary middleweight champion…

From the raves you’d think the first letter of Larry Greb’s name was a typo and the “Pittsburgh Windmill” himself, dead for a decade, had rematerialized in a Milwaukee ring 78 years ago this month.

“Veteran ringsiders were amazed at his style,” wrote Sam Levy of The Milwaukee Journal after Greb knocked out Mike “Little Pal” Prinich in two rounds at the local Auditorium on November 18, 1936. “He even flashed a double left hook, almost obsolete around here! Here is a lad who works like a pupil of the old school of boxing.”

In his column headlined “A Fighter Comes To Town – Don’t Miss Him,” Journal sports editor R.G. Lynch wrote: “Larry Greb showed the fans more real mitt slinging in less than two rounds of the second preliminary than they saw in all the other bouts combined… Greb looked like a fighter when he got into the ring and didn’t take long after hostilities opened to prove that his appearance was not misleading. Fighting from a half-crouch, he threw practically nothing but sharp left hooks until he had his opponent well opened up. Then he fired a few right hand punches to finish the job… Let’s hope he hangs around this town. Fighters who know what they’re doing are all too rare.”

From Ronald McIntyre in the Milwaukee Sentinel: “Milwaukee fight fans have always been partial to the little fellows, nifty, standup boxers like Richie Mitchell and Joey Sangor, and so the fistic rialto yesterday was ringing with praises for Larry Greb…”

Harry Greb reincarnate he wasn’t, nor even a shirttail relative of the legendary middleweight champion. Just a month before his Milwaukee debut as Larry Greb, he won the New Mexico state lightweight title under his real name – Neil Grubbs.

The nerdy handle called to mind a bookworm or Young Republican, not a rough-and-tumble prizefighter who’d been slinging leather since he was nine years old.

Born February 4, 1914 in New Mexico, when he was four Neil Grubbs contracted diphtheria and an attempt to cure him by doubling up on the antitoxin instead paralyzed him from the waist down. His dad, Ernest “Pop” Grubbs, an itinerant barber and onetime prelim fighter, put Neil on an intensive exercise regimen that restored his health and gave him the boxing jones. By one account, Grubbs never had an amateur fight and launched his pro ring career at age nine by knocking out Kid Roberts at the Elks club in Dodge City, Kansas. His purse was four bucks, which Pop Grubbs later said came out of his own pocket. “I gave the promoter the dough before the match and told him to hand it to (Neil) to make the lad feel good,” he told R.G. Lynch.

By 1928, when the nomadic Grubbs clan lighted in Borger, an oil boomtown in the Texas panhandle, the barely 100-pound Neil was said to be the flyweight champion of Kansas and Oklahoma. Training in the back of Pop’s barbershop, “Pug,” as the 14-year-old Grubbs was nicknamed, was a regular on weekly cards in Borger and neighboring cities, some mixing boxing and wrestling matches. He fought (sometimes “for nickels,” according to the local newspaper) against other pubescent hotshots called Young Murdock, Peewee Roberts, Kid Ward, Battling Skeet and the Pampas Newsboy.

“Grubbs is a favorite here and most followers of the ring think he can’t be beaten by a boy his age and weight,” noted the Borger Daily Herald.

“The boy had rather box than eat,” crowed Pop.

He did both over the next few years, growing into a lightweight and knocking around rings in Texas, New Mexico and Kansas but not surmounting journeyman status. In 1935 the Grubbses were headquartered in Jefferson City, Missouri, and that April 24 Pug lost a 10-round decision to Bus Breese in Kansas City. In the house was longtime Milwaukee promoter and talent scout Tom Andrews, who was reminded by Grubbs of Charley Neary, an early 1900s Milwaukee lightweight contender and the first in a series of great lightweight box office attractions in Wisconsin’s largest city that included Ad Wolgast, Richie and Pinkey Mitchell and King Tut.

Andrews thought Pug had the potential to join that list, and persuaded the wandering Grubbses to pull up stakes again. He got Pop a job in a Milwaukee barber shop, and it was probably Andrews who advised them that the name Larry Greb would be more alluring on boxing posters and marquees than Neil Grubbs.

Within a month of his eye-popping Milwaukee debut Pug scored two more sensational KOs, and the talk was that after a few more fights he’d be ready for 135-pound champion Lou Ambers.

“Larry just teases his opponents along,” marveled Sam Levy after Greb knocked out Joe Doty in five on December 14. “(He) encourages them to punch him occasionally and along about the fourth or fifth heat, well, it’s time for the finish.”

Pug was outpointed by veteran Roger Bernard in his next bout, but evened the score in a rematch and then won two more by KO. In his first Milwaukee main event, deductions for low punches in four of the 10 rounds cost him the decision to Eddie Zivic, whom Pug almost KO’d in the fifth round.

Pop Grubbs didn’t let the absence of two front teeth he said were knocked out in a sparring session with his son keep him from bragging up Pug with his trademark barber’s volubility. “If you ever see the kid clinch,” he told The Journal’s Lynch, “I’ll buy you the best drink in town.”

Pop’s enthusiasm and ambition frequently overrode his judgment. Back when Pug was the boy wonder of Pecos pugilism, write Chris Cozzone and Jim Boggio in their book “Boxing in New Mexico, 1868-1940,” “the old man had him matched up tougher than he needed to be.” In Milwaukee, Pop blithely signed contracts without knowing or caring who Pug’s opponent would be. In mid-’37, when the other blank was filled in with the name of veteran Pittsburgh lightweight Dominic Mancini, Pug tried to get out of the match but the boxing commission threatened a suspension. He knocked Mancini down early in their June 19 fight, but the Pittsburgher’s left hook was as crackling as his own and when it exploded in Pug’s gut in the fifth round the fight was over. So was Pug’s aura of Greb-like menace.

Two months later, Kid Sila of Cuba knocked him out in two rounds, and of his next six bouts Pug won just two. When Floyd Hagen felled him in one round on July 31, 1940, and broke his jaw in two places, he went back to being Neil Grubbs.

“It is a grand old sport,” he said, “but a rough one!”

Grubbs sold cookware for the Reynolds Aluminum Co. after that, and in 1956 the ex-Larry Greb, age 42, died of a heart attack playing tennis with a friend.

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  1. Tex Hassler 01:21pm, 11/16/2014

    In my opinion Harry Greb was the greatest 160 pounder who ever lived. If he had fought Ray Robinson in his prime one thing is for sure it would have went 15 rounds to a decision.

  2. Eric 09:36am, 11/12/2014

    Sugar Ramos.

  3. peter 08:25am, 11/12/2014

    Don’t forget Sugar Shane Mosley or the heavyweight Sugar Silex.

  4. beaujack 09:19pm, 11/11/2014

    There was another welterweight who took the name of Joey Greb in 1928. Joey Greb won 51 bouts and lost about 66 fights, his last in 1940.
    My dad incidentally was lucky to see the immortal Harry Greb pulverize Gene Tunney in 1922 at the old MSG. Growing up my dad would say he
    “never saw so much blood on Gene Tunney,” ever again in any other bout ...

  5. peter 08:49pm, 11/11/2014

    ...Sugar Boy Nando…Sugar Ray Seales…Rocky Rivero…

  6. Eric 06:59pm, 11/10/2014

    bikermike…A lot of Sugars & Rockys. Sugar & Rocky have to be the two most common nicknames/names for boxers. Here are some famous and not so famous Rockys. I imagine we are only scratching the surface with this very small list of Rockys.

    Castellani
    Mattioli
    Sekorski
    Lockridge
    Kansas
    Fratto
    Garcia
    and a couple of ham & eggers name Graziano & Marciano. Oops. Forgot that Balboa character.

  7. bikermike 06:35pm, 11/10/2014

    eric..clarence george….if we had a dollar for everyone who called themselves ‘SUGAR” ..after the fabulous career of ‘SUGAR RAY ROBINSON”....split it equally…we’d each have a hundred grand !

    ...Only reason it didn’t work fot the ‘GREB ’ wannabes….like the SUGAR RAY ROBINSON wannabes….is that they didn’t fight as good..as often ..nor as much against good opponents…..and they were nowhere near close to being as good

  8. Eric 06:42am, 11/10/2014

    How dare this mere mortal take the surname of the God of Boxing, Harry Greb.

  9. Clarence George 03:41am, 11/10/2014

    There was another Larry Greb, a completely obscure heavyweight who fought out of Columbus in the ‘20s.

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