Happy King Levinsky Day

By Pete Ehrmann on April 24, 2018
Happy King Levinsky Day
My intention is not to mock the zany 1930s heavyweight contender but to celebrate him.

“King Levinsky was a gladiator of the first order until he ran into (really away from) a youngster known as the Brown Bomber…”

Since nobody at Union County College has gotten around to it for the last 50 years, I’ll take it upon myself to revive what was a springtime tradition at the Cranford, New Jersey school in the 1960s and proclaim it “King Levinsky Day.”

Unlike the Union snooties, however, my intention is not to mock the zany 1930s heavyweight contender but to celebrate him.

The annual rite supposedly started at Union in the early ‘60s, but as late as 1966, reported the Cranford Citizen and Chronicle newspaper, “A committee from the Student Council is now seeking reasons why King Levinsky Day should be celebrated. They have yet to come up with an answer.” A year later they found it, designating their special holiday that April 4 as “a day for losers.” Explained Student Council President Arne Hook: “King Levinsky, for those who are not up on their important American holidays, was a gladiator of the first order until he ran into (really away from) a youngster known as the Brown Bomber, alias Joe Louis. Our hero (King Levinsky, that is) was knocked from his pedestal and was never heard from again.”

In conjunction with that year’s King Levinsky Day, Union established a “Losers’ Fund” to “provide up to $20 for a student who runs into some unusual and unforeseen financial problem.” Student Council President Hook, noted the Union bulletin, “said it is appropriate that the King Levinsky Day celebration benefit the Losers’ Fund, since King Levinsky was, indeed, a loser.”

The centerpiece of King Levinsky Day at Union every year was an appearance by Jean Shepherd, “noted radio personality, philosopher, wit, egoist, intellectual and humorist,” whose most enduring work is the holiday movie classic “The Christmas Story,” an amalgam of several Shepherd stories about his boyhood. He narrated the film, too.

I don’t know what it cost to have Shepherd, then the popular host of a New York City radio show, headline King Levinsky Day, but they probably could’ve gotten Levinsky himself at half the price. The onetime fourth-ranked heavyweight contender was in Miami Beach then, selling neckties out of a suitcase and telling customers it was Joe Louis who got him started in that trade. “What’s your name?” he’d ask them. “Mine’s King Levinsky. I fought Joe Louis. That’s why I’m selling ties now.”

Levinsky was joking about the August 7, 1935 fight that defined him in the eyes of the Union students, as well as most boxing fans and ring historians, when he beseeched the referee to stop it after sampling Louis’s firepower in the first round at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. (“I’ll bet you don’t remember when I fought Joe Louis,” he’d also say to people. “Well, neither do I.” Or he’d say he went on a “sit-down strike” that night at the ballpark.)

Contrary to Arne Hook’s pronouncement, Levinsky didn’t disappear from sight after the Louis debacle. He boxed for a few more years, then wrestled, then became an itinerant peddler, showing up at sporting events to hawk cigarette lighters, then electric shavers and finally neckties. The reported $400,000 he’d earned in 116 professional fights (74-35-7) was kaput.

It’s purely a guess, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Union’s adoption of Levinsky as their poster boy for “losers” instead of a more obvious candidate (say, perennial Republican presidential candidate Harold Stassen) was the result of an hour-long documentary called “Boxing’s Last Round” that aired on the NBC network in 1964. “Anyone who saw (it) couldn’t help but feel disgusted with the sport,” wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Sid Ziff. “The use of King Levinsky to show what can happen to someone in the ring was particularly unnerving. Levinsky, with his thick tongue, stumbling shuffle, pathetic answers and amiable mumbling, was an obvious choice to create an image of the punchy ex-fighter.”

Back in 1943 a writer named Jack Cuddy said the same thing about Levinsky to former lightweight champion Benny Leonard, who set him straight:

“He’s not punchy. He always acted that way. He’s got more brains now than he had when he was fighting because he’s older and more matured. He’s been making a living selling neckties for about a year now. He tried wrestling after he quit fighting. And when he quit wrestling, the only thing he could do was sell ties, or go into one of the rackets. He took the ties. And you’ve got to respect him for his choice.”

In 1945, Broadway columnist Earl Wilson asked Levinsky if he was sorry he’d been a fighter. “No, I got myself a name, now I can make a living,” answered the King. “Lots of fighters go blind. The old King’s a super-salesman… I made $400,000 and wound up broke. My managers cut up all my dough. If I got a buck now, it’s mine.”

“Levinsky is doing all right,” reported former co-manager Harold Steinman a few years later. “People think he’s broke; that he is on the simple side. Actually he’s smart as a whip and in the chips. When he quit boxing … the King went into the necktie business. He peddled ties at fight shows, training camps and in other spots where the sporting crowds gathered. He had no set price, but would collect what the traffic could bear. Anything from $2.50 up. You know, the mob liked to buy ties from Levinsky. The purchasers felt important, wearing neckpieces sold by a former fighter. Each necktie carried a little label which explained King Levinsky had the ties made especially for his customers. The tourists went for those labels in a big way. The King bought the ties and labels in gross lots. Today Levinsky manufactures his own neckties, owns a custom-made automobile, spends the winters in Miami and has money in the bank. He continues to sell on a personal basis. No branch offices, no employed salesmen for the King. And people used to think Levinsky was daffy as a jaybird.”

In the mid-‘70s Levinsky and his wife Helen spent summers with her family in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Chris Sullivan, now a vice president of the Institution for Savings in Newburyport, was a 16-year-old boxing fan in 1975, working as a busboy at the local Sportsman Lodge when Levinsky came in one day. Chris ended up spending that summer chauffeuring the King and his suitcase full of ties to and from a restaurant in nearby Salisbury.

“He had kind of a slurred voice and was hard to understand,” he recalls. “But he was a great guy. He had a heart of gold. A gentleman.”

In his high school graduation photo, Chris wore a King Levinsky tie. “I was just in awe of him,” he says. Sullivan was at the King’s sparsely attended funeral in Newburyport in 1991.

Too bad the organizers of King Levinsky Day at Union Community College weren’t smart enough to invite the man himself to their shindig for “losers.” Levinsky would’ve put them in their place with the line he used when anybody looked down their nose at him and his suitcase full of ties: 

“I’m punchy—what’s your excuse?”

The King didn’t get past the fourth grade. On March 30, 1932, the Sandusky, Ohio Register reported: “Homeless lodgers in Garfield house, an abandoned Chicago schoolhouse, have painted a white circle around the seat where King Levinsky, heavyweight fighter, sat when he attended school there.”

Anybody at Union County College remember where Arne Hook sat?

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  1. Bob 02:18am, 04/27/2018

    Great story,. Pete. Really enjoyed it. The King might have been scared, but he kept getting up. And Louis showed a lot of class in not hitting him at the end when he could have.

  2. Buster 09:39pm, 04/26/2018

    Ollie, what are you talking about? Yes, Ali was shot by the first Spinks fight but (in case you forgot) HE BEAT HIM IN THE REMATCH! So much for being so shot he could not beat a 9 bout pro. As shot as he was he still could have taken him in that first fight but he was creating a scenario to become the only hvwt champ to win the title three times. Losing that first fight was a disgrace.

  3. Balaamsass 07:38am, 04/26/2018

    I don’t see King as a coward or a loser….he took some hellacious; flush shots in that fight. Like many others that Louis clobbered during that time he was totally lacking in the ability to defend himself ....plain and simple! Leaning away from Louis’ right….it’s surprising that he didn’t go ass over teacups without any help from Louis.

  4. Ollie Downtown Brown 05:12pm, 04/25/2018

    Lucas McCain.. Thanks for the correction on Louis. Ali was basically through after his last fight with Frazier. Just look at how poorly he performed in his bouts in the period between 1976 and 1977. Only a terrible decision allowed him to keep his title against Norton in the third bout of their trilogy. And some even think he lost to Jimmy Young earlier that same year. Spinks had some potential but he lacked discipline. Perhaps his finest showing was in his bout with the much larger, Bernardo Mercado, which Spinks won by 9th round stoppage IF I am not mistaken. ( have to double check the exact round.)

  5. Lucas McCain 03:48pm, 04/25/2018

    Ollie,
    I’m with you on this one.  Ali was fooled by his own arrogance, and he thought all he had to do was show up.  That’s exactly when an eager youngster will outhustle and outwork even the best of them.  It also tells you how little he had left when Don King, a skunk if there ever was one)  convinced Ali he could take Holmes.  A Big John Tate would have been more in his reach for a 4th title, but a real fighter like Holmes?  Never.

    By the way, the Levinsky-Louis fight was not for the title.  It came before Joe was champ, between the Carnera and Baer blowouts.

  6. Ollie Downtown Brown 03:29pm, 04/25/2018

    Buster…Damn, how could I be so clueless to fall for the Ali scam. I thought all those lumps that Leon put on his face were the real McCoy. Ali was shot by the time he met Leon Spinks. IF you remember, Ali had previously struggled with a limited and aging Earnie Shavers in his previous bout,  and even Alfredo Evangelista had gone the distance with Ali in 1977.

    Spinks was raw, and didn’t have much of a punch for a heavyweight, but he was young, threw punches in bunches,  and Ali was 36 going on 50 at the time. Spinks was rushed along way too fast, and if not for his lifestyle, he could have possibly had a fine career as a cruiserweight. By February of 1978, Ali was TOTALLY SHOT, so shot, that even someone like Spinks was capable of beating him LEGITIMATELY. IF it wasn’t Spinks, it could have been just about anyone else in the top 10 back.

  7. Buster 01:56pm, 04/25/2018

    Regarding the first post. There was no excuse for Ali losing to Spinks the first time. Losing to an 8 bout pro was a disgrace. Ali should have beaten him in his sleep but he purposely let Spinks win because he knew he could take this amateur in a rematch and claim “I regained the title!” It was all a scam that guys like the first poster fell for. The great Ali was also a great scam artist—hard as it is for a lot of the Ali worshippers to believe.

  8. Lucas McCain 12:34pm, 04/25/2018

    I’ve heard the quote but never knew Ben Hecht reported it.  If so, another feather in his very crowded cap!

  9. Ehrmann 11:25am, 04/25/2018

    Was it Ben Hecht who reported that as poor Jess Willard stumbled from the ring in Maumee Bay after Dempsey dismantled him he kept mumbling over and over, “I have 100,000 dollars and a farm in Kansas”?

  10. Lucas McCain 10:23am, 04/25/2018

    Just read a Jim Murray column from 1988 that claims Dempsey said neither of them.  Instead:  What Dempsey said, after getting his ears pinned back by Tunney,  was: “Everybody told me I should have ducked this guy and fought Firpo again but I forgot.”

  11. Lucas McCain 10:19am, 04/25/2018

    I know there’s a book of wise sayings by Keith Richards, but it seems to me you could fill a few with Archie Moore, George Foreman, and Benny Leonard, all of whom were remarkably eloquent.  And some were great spur-of the-moments—Dempsey’s “honey, I forgot to duck.”  And who was it who said “I zigged when I should have zagged?”

  12. Ehrmann 09:47am, 04/25/2018

    Benny Leonard to Levinsky: “I don’t think you actually quit. A fellow who had as many fites as you, against tough guys like Lomski, Slattery, Hudkins, Paulino, Mickey Walker, Maxie Baer and even Dempsey, couldn’t have been afraid of anyone. I think you just froze up from nerves because you’d been hearing so much and reading so much about what a killer Louis was. I’ve seen a lot of boys like that, boys who had plenty of courage, plenty of heart.” Then Jack Cuddy asked Benny if it had ever happened to him. ““No, I can’t recall that it ever did. I was never very imaginative.”

  13. Ollie Downtown Brown 08:27am, 04/25/2018

    Poor guy was scared stiff. The “fight” was over before it began. Never viewed this fight before. Clicked on the link. I’m trying hard to think of a fighter that might have been more intimidated in a world heavyweight title bout?  Patterson vs. Liston? Spinks vs Tyson?  Seldon vs Tyson?

  14. Lucas McCain 03:08pm, 04/24/2018

    How easy to click onto the link and watch the Louis fight!  One of the advantages, among all the disadvantages, of living in the digital age!  In the early 60s I thrilled to my first two 8mm boxing films, purchased at the start of my collecting days—Louis vs. Levinsky and Louis vs. Galento.  And, by coincidence, I listened to Jean Shepherd regularly.  What a smart ass. . . but I did think he was funny.  So this column was a “kick in the head.”
    I loved Benny Leonard’s remark, but I don’t really believe it.

  15. Ollie Downtown Brown 08:06am, 04/24/2018

    I remember when Muhammad Ali was defeated by the neophyte Neon Leon Spinks back in February 1978. Damn, has that really been 40+ plus years ago? Back to bidness, Ali handled the presser after the fight like a winner and the champion that he was. When asked about losing to Spinks, Ali commented, that everyone loses in life, you might lose something as important as a mother or father, and that he wasn’t about to go run and hide because he lost a fight. The people mocking Levinsky for his poor showing against Louis, probably had lived or are living a life where they were content to remain spectators, never taking a risk or making a stand for anything. That in my mind is a TRUE LOSER. Because IF you choose to live life and take risks, believe this, you are going to lose, sometimes you will lose a helluva lot. But rest assured, at least you had the spine to take a stand on something, and that makes you a winner.

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