Harry Smith: The Harlem Thunderbolt

By Clarence George on December 13, 2016
Harry Smith: The Harlem Thunderbolt
Harry Smith died of a brain hemorrhage in Chicago, on his way to California to be married.

Despite The Ring ranking him seventh in 1929, third in 1930, and sixth in 1931, Smith never got a shot at middleweight champion Mickey Walker…

“Harry Smith is the worst kind of opponent: A colored boy who can sock.”—Ed Hughes

The name’s mundane, but not the fighter.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, on October 28, 1907, middleweight Harry Smith fought out of Harlem from 1928 to 1932, winding up with an impressive record of 51 wins, 38 by knockout, seven losses, only one by knockout, two draws, and two no contests, about 15 or 16 fights a year. And that’s in addition to a flawless amateur record of 60-0, 55 KOs, which is not too dissimilar from Sugar Ray Robinson’s 85–0, 69 KOs.

“The Harlem Thunderbolt” won his first 14 pro fights, 11 by KO or TKO, before losing by disqualification to Nick Palmer at Ridgewood Grove in Brooklyn on April 6, 1929. Except for two draws and one no contest, Smith won his next 38, 26 by KO or TKO, before getting knocked out in the 10th by Jimmy Hanna at the Dreamland Auditorium in San Francisco on October 2, 1931, his only loss by stoppage. Harry had outpointed Jimmy at the same venue that August 28.

Overly devoted, at least for a boxer, to wine, women, and song, Smith’s career fell apart following the Hanna loss (in fairness, though, the kayo—a sucker punch, according to one report—may very well have caused brain damage). He won only two more bouts, outpointing Sandy Garrison Casanova at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles on December 8, 1931, and retiring Willie Snowy Unwin (the only time he was stopped) in the fifth at the Royal Albert Hall in London on December 7, 1932, in what proved to be his last fight. Otherwise, he lost five, one bout ending in a no contest.

In his day, however, the “sensational colored middleweight of New York” beat such worthies as Jack McVey, aka the Pride of Harlem, outpointing him at the Olympia Boxing Club in New York City on November 16, 1929; Pal Silvers, stopping him by fifth-round TKO at the Broadway Arena in Brooklyn on January 7, 1930 (ref Jack Dorman “waved Smith aside as Silvers was about to collapse under a terrific right and left to the jaw,” reported The New York Times); Osk Till, kayoing him in the second at the Olympia Boxing Club that March 1 (one of only three men to do so, and nobody did it faster); Yale Okun, first outpointing him at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn that June 18, then stopping him by third-round TKO at Woodcliff Park in Poughkeepsie on June 8, 1931 (with Okun winning on points at Madison Square Garden on March 24, 1932, and at the Olympic Auditorium that July 12); Gorilla Jones, outpointing him at the Olympia Boxing Club on October 23, 1930, in a fight one observer called “putrid” (they had fought at Queensboro Stadium in Long Island City that September 4, the bout ending in a no contest, Jones claiming a broken hand); durable Fred Lenhart (137 bouts in 12 years), kayoing him in the first at St. Nicholas Arena in New York City on April 10, 1931; and Frank Rowsey, outpointing him at the Olympic Auditorium that July 28 (his West Coast debut), an “impressive victory,” according to the California Eagle, that made Harry “the most talked of fighter in Los Angeles.” It was anticipated that the Thunderbolt would “draw many a colored fan to the Olympic” that August 11, when he’d face Sailor Harry Goodland. Kudos to Goodland, who got kayoed in the second, for stepping up, as Chick Devlin, Leo Lomski, and George Manley all demurred (the latter two, light heavies). “Good-Time George” did indeed eventually face a spent Smith, outpointing him at the Olympic Auditorium on May 17, 1932.

Smith’s 1929 fight with McVey was ostensibly for the “colored” middleweight championship, which he apparently defended against Joe Tinsley at Woodcliff Park on August 13, 1930, knocking him out in the seventh (his 1930 no contest with Jones was also for the title). Why “ostensibly” and “apparently”? Because the title became officially extinct when Tiger Flowers beat Harry Greb by controversial split decision at the Garden on February 26, 1926 (“The decision was met with deathly silence by the crowd,” said Hype Igoe), thus becoming the first black Middleweight Champion of the World. Larry Estridge was the last to score the “colored” title, beating Panama Joe Gans by unanimous decision at Yankee Stadium on June 26, 1924, until it was reinstated in the early 1940s, with Charley Burley stopping Holman Williams by ninth-round TKO at the Victory Arena in New Orleans on August 14, 1942. Williams then took both Burley and the title by unanimous decision at the Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans that October 16. Cocoa Kid became the last “colored” middleweight champ when he outpointed Williams at the Victory Arena on January 15, 1943.

Perhaps because of blundering on the part of manager Jack Wren (or Dave Brown), Smith didn’t participate in the NBA Middleweight Tournament, following Mickey Walker vacating the title in 1931. It was thus Jones who won the world crown, stopping Oddone Piazza by sixth-round TKO at the Auditorium in Milwaukee on January 25, 1932, losing it to Marcel Thil by 11th-round disqualification at Parc des Princes in Paris that June 11. There wouldn’t be another black Middleweight Champion of the World until Robinson took the title from Jake LaMotta by 13th-round TKO at Chicago Stadium on February 14, 1951, in the famed St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Despite The Ring ranking him seventh in 1929, third in 1930, and sixth in 1931, Smith never got a shot at Walker, who was champ in ‘29, ‘30, and for at least part of ‘31. The “Toy Bulldog” is rarely thought of as an “avoider.” That said, following his controversial win over Flowers, taking the championship on points at the Coliseum in Chicago on December 3, 1926 (“Spectators at ringside couldn’t believe it when they saw referee [Benny] Yanger hold up Walker’s hand as the winner,” wrote Bob Soderman of the Chicago Tribune), he only defended four times over the next five years—kayoing Tommy Milligan in the 10th at the Olympia in London on June 30, 1927, winning against Jock Malone by newspaper decision at Lexington Park in St. Paul on June 5, 1928 (Malone could only have scored the title by stoppage), and defeating Ace Hudkins by split decision at Comiskey Park in Chicago 16 days later, as well as on points at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles on October 29, 1929 (Black Tuesday indeed for “The Nebraska Wildcat”).

According to boxing historian Kevin Smith, Mickey turned down $50,000 (almost $700,000 today) from promoter Jess McMahon (granddaddy of the WWE) “to fight Harry for the title at Ebbets Field in the summer of 1930.” Maxie Rosenbloom is another who refused to fight Harry, twice. Tiger Thomas, a toughie from Philly, turned Harry down, because, “I don’t think my momma would want me dyin’ in Philadelphia.” 

Smith’s lethal reputation did indeed send “the white boys seeking cover every time his name is mentioned,” as the New York Amsterdam News put it early in the fighter’s career. And not just the white boys. Small wonder, given that he was given to “bowling over contestants with monotonous regularity,” as Al White wrote in the Baltimore Afro-American.

“It looks like Mr. Smith is here to stay with us for quite a spell,” observed the California Eagle after the 1931 Rowsey bout. But looks, in life as in boxing, are nothing if not deceiving—Harry died of a brain hemorrhage in Chicago, on his way to California to be married, on September 19, 1933, and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois. He was 25.

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  1. Clarence George 08:17pm, 12/13/2016

    Thankee kindly, Mr. Ward, and same to youse.

    Best,

    Harold Gould

  2. Burt Ward 07:48pm, 12/13/2016

    Christmas came early in the form of a Clarence George re-emergence and my being introduced to Harry Smith in this fine article To say he sounds like a handful is a gross understatement. What a tough guy. Thank you kindly, Mr. George and best holiday wishes to you and your family.

  3. Clarence George 03:55pm, 12/13/2016

    Thanks very much indeed, Chuck.  And wonderfully encyclopedic, as always.

    While I think that black fighters often got short shrift, I haven’t the slightest doubt that the motivation had little to do with race and a whole lot to do with moolah.  Why should a champ or even a leading contender (regardless of color) risk everything against a formidable opponent in a match that would probably result in little in the form of money or acclaim?

    The racism that had been the norm in John L. Sullivan’s era was greatly diminished, though certainly not dismissed, by the 1920s.  My own theory is that black publications of the time introduced the myth that white fighters avoided their black counterparts because of racially based knee-knocking fear, a myth that lives on in the present day.  I mean, come on, Joe Louis himself engaged in the same avoidance.  A counterargument might be, “If not racially motivated, then why did Mickey Walker turn down $700,000 to defend against Harry Smith?”  Good money, yes, but a high-risk fight that nobody was clamoring for.

    You offer concrete and compelling evidence that there were a helluva lot more white vs. black matches than most people (including me) realize.  While I do indeed think that some whites avoided some blacks, the underlying reasons for that avoidance were largely misunderstood both then and now.  Perhaps deliberately misunderstood to serve a political, cultural, or racial agenda, which is why I pointed out in the article that it wasn’t just “the white boys” who were reluctant to take on hard-hitting Harry.

  4. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 03:52pm, 12/13/2016

    c.h.-Great research….do you have those stats on Joe Louis…..Ray Robinson….Jack Dempsey….Mickey Walker…..Stanley Ketchel….Harry Greb? The fighters you cited had great records and in some cases impressive KO ratios which would indicate per the stats that you cite that both the black and white standouts of the era were very successful at pounding the shit out white fighters.

  5. c.h. 02:26pm, 12/13/2016

    Top notch story on a terrific fighter, Clarence ! It seems that Smith was so good that he was ducked by many top fighters (both black + white). It is interesting to note that in 62 bouts, Harry Smith met only 5 fellow black fighters a total of 6 times. I think if people study the records of boxers from 1928 thru 1942 (WWII changed everything), there may have been many more mixed matches than any time in history. The NBA tourney’s of 1931 in the 160 lb., 8 blacks and 175 lb., 6 blacks participated to decide a “world champ.”
    Why do we feel the need to continue to perpetuate the myth that hardly any white fighters would tangle with the black fighters of that era ? When LLOYD MARSHALL boxed EDDIE BOOKER on 9/28/42 it marked only the third time in 43 matches that Marshall engaged a fellow black boxer. Booker, too, had met only 9 blacks in his previous 70 bouts of his career. In 116 fights of AL GAINOR’s career he met 90 white fighters and but 26 blacks. COCOA KID boxed 154 white fighters 245 fights in his career.
    The overwhelming majority of OSCAR RANKIN’s fights were against white opponents. Most of JACK CHASE opponents were white before 1943. Before the war HOLMAN WILLIAMS had fought 58 white boxers but only 9 the rest of his career. CHARLEY BURLEY boxed 30 white opponents pre-war. etc.
    The black fighters exploits in the ring don’t need any embellishing or falsehoods. Their wins (and losses) against the top white fighters are part of the legacy that shows why boxing and the fighters were so great during that period. In spite of some of the best (black +white) not getting their deserved shots at the title…c.h.

  6. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 01:30pm, 12/13/2016

    The more things change the more they stay the same. Do you think for a minute that Oscar wants Canelo to take on the Charlo of the past weekend. I say this believing that the Redhead would take away Charlo’s total belief in himself (buoyed by that big goose egg in the loss column) the first time Charlo landed a big shot and the Redhead didn’t blink and would proceed to clean Jermall’s clock…..but what would be the point…..Canelo has his fanaticos and bigger fish to fry.

  7. Clarence George 10:07am, 12/13/2016

    Glad you liked it, Nicolas, thanks very much.

    Hanna was indeed of Syrian descent, though he was born in Utah and fought out of Idaho.

    I once wrote an article on worthy black fighters Louis’ management team didn’t want him to take on.  I think he would have beaten them all, which is not to imply that he would have found it a breeze.  But for what?  Such fights wouldn’t have fattened his bank account or advanced his career.  By the way, you’re thinking of Larry Gains, though I don’t know if I included him in my long-ago article.  There was indeed a Harry Gains from that era, but he was a middleweight (not to mention white).

    Yours is actually a good idea for an article.  Off the top of my head, I would give a slight edge to the “regular” champs (black or white) in bouts with their “colored” counterparts, at least in the aggregate.  In many instances, though, there’s not a whole lot of daylight between them, not in terms of quality.  Think of such “colored” champs as Sam Langford, George Godfrey (whom you mentioned), and Charley Burley, among others.

  8. Nicolas 09:29am, 12/13/2016

    Great article Clarence. Hanna, the man who knocked out Smith, and may have been responsible for his death, was of Syrian descent. Of course, the most famous fighter born in Syrian, and of that descent was Mustafa Hamsho, who had it not been for Hagler probably would have been middleweight champ. As for Joe Louis, his management avoiding black fighters like the plague, it would be interesting to compare him to some of those heavyweights at that time. The fact that he barely beat Jersey Joe Walcott later in his career, and a boxer who was two months older than Joe makes you wonder. He seems to have fought more black fighters after his return, and his punches did not seem to have the same effect that they had on the white fighters at the time.

    I am glad for the time back then though, that there was a colored championship, even if it was not really what I think that official. Perhaps with your knowledge, you could write an article on how those champs would have done against the mainstream ones. I have always felt that George Godfrey and Harry Gains I think his name was, would have been the top two heavies of the early 30’s, before Louis.

  9. Moon-man 08:43am, 12/13/2016

    Irish…Gotta be something to that theory. Look at Vicki LaMotta and Jake. My gawd, what did that woman see in Jake LaMotta? You have to figure she could have had any man she wanted and she chose Jake??

  10. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 08:37am, 12/13/2016

    @Moon-man-I think Froch may have made a big mistake here….Rachael like so many beautiful women probably got off getting it on with Froch and his old nose. It must be a kink thing for these beauties…. giving it up for what in some cases are scary looking Alpha males.

  11. Moon-man 08:28am, 12/13/2016

    Irish…Actor, Charles Dierkop, had a nose that would rival Zivic’s beak.

  12. Clarence George 08:23am, 12/13/2016

    Thanks very much, Irish, and I think you’re right that there wasn’t a whole lot of incentive for champs or even contenders (black or white) to take on dangerous black fighters like Harry Smith.  The great Joe Louis himself avoided them like the plague.  I also think, however, that either Smith or his management team blundered badly in not participating in the NBA tournament.  Still, if not for his lifestyle choices and/or the Jimmy Hanna knockout, I suspect that Smith would have ultimately proven impossible to ignore.  Championship material, at least potentially, but difficult to know for sure, given his abbreviated career.

  13. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 08:15am, 12/13/2016

    @Moon-man-Speaking of noses….Froch had a great nose almost as impressive as George C. Scott’s then he went and got pussified with his new nose…..kinda like Dempsey. I hope GGG get’s the chance to get that baby back in proper shape…..it’ll be for Froch’s own good.

  14. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 08:06am, 12/13/2016

    Lots of badass Eastern European fighters around these days, mostly the Eurasian variety. Badass white American fighters are the rarest of animals. Frankie Crawford was bad to the bone, so was Jesse James Hughes may they RIP….one that is still living and breathing is Greg Haugen.

  15. Moon-man 08:02am, 12/13/2016

    Zivic was fearless. He even took on Charley Burley tree times, and fought the larger LaMotta. With all due respect to Doug Dewitt, Zivic had the best nose in boxing.

  16. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 07:29am, 12/13/2016

    Clarence George-Great research in this gem of an article once again. Which reminds me…If you had a title or high ranking In a time when there was no real public pressure or clamor to fight dangerous, dark skinned fighters like Thunderbolt….why do it? I’m betting a lot of his wins were over other black fighters and that a lot of the white fighters that he fought were beaten before they climbed into the ring.  Not many real badasses like Fritzie Zivic around even in those hardscrabble times who was only too happy to kick the shit out of Henry Armstrong as long as there was a paycheck involved.

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