Hungary for more Laszlo Papp

By Jarrett Zook on June 5, 2014
Hungary for more Laszlo Papp
Laszlo Papp was born in 1926 in the more working class half of the Hungarian capital.

While much is known about Papp, one will never have any definitive way of knowing how he would have stacked up against the very best fighters of his day…

In any sport it is rare for an athlete’s career to come to an end when he or she is up and coming and undefeated. When this does occur it is often due to some type of tragedy like death, legal issues, or debilitating injury. Laszlo Papp was extremely popular, healthy, and 27-0-2 when the Hungarian government put an end to his professional boxing career. While much is known about Papp, one will never have any definitive way of knowing how he would have stacked up against the very best fighters of his day. It is sad that Papp isn’t as well-known as he should be and that we have to speculate on such a great talent due to the restrictive nature of communist Hungary. However, Papp remains very popular in Hungary and well-versed boxing fans are aware of his talents. Furthermore, Papp himself was an upstanding, hardworking, and highly thought of person whose story deserves to be told.

Like many other great boxers Papp was born into modest surroundings. Laszlo Papp was born in 1926 in the more working class half of the Hungarian capital, Buda. His father was a plumber and died when he was 11. This forced his mother to work as a concierge and run a small grocery in order to support Laszlo and his sister. Like many athletic youths, Papp dabbled in many sports before seriously committing to one. Papp ran, played soccer, and wrestled before he first started boxing in 1944. After only two months of boxing his immense talent was noticed and he was told that he needed to seriously think about immersing himself in the sport. WWII would interrupt these plans, as the Red Army laid siege to Budapest and his training would be halted until after the war. In 1945 Papp resumed his training and joined the Budapest Railway Sports Club.  Here he would meet the person who had the most profound impact on his career, Hungarian amateur boxing guru Zsigmond Adler.

Papp took to Adler’s tutelage well and reeled off victory after victory in the amateur ranks. Not only was Papp naturally talented, but he was also a tireless worker. In addition to spending time in the gym, he was known to cut wood for his neighbors, and had a job carrying packages in a store. Standing in at only 5’ 5”, Papp’s strenuous routine helped him to build an immensely powerful frame that allowed him to thrive in the middleweight division. By the time the 1948 Olympics rolled around, Papp expected to win a few fights and learn a few new tricks by fighting the world’s best amateurs. After knocking out his first three opponents and taking the fourth by decision, young Laszlo surpassed his modest expectations and found himself fighting for the gold medal. The 1948 Olympics were in London and Papp faced a British fighter in the finals, yet still managed to escape with a hard-fought decision. For his efforts Papp was rewarded with both a gold medal and a new white-collar job with the Central Railway Office.

Newfound fame and a better job may make many people grow softer, but Papp was far from an ordinary person. The skillful Hungarian dropped down to light middleweight and another gold medal at the 1952 Olympics. He felt winning his second medal was especially challenging because he fought many Europeans who were accustomed to his style. However, it was during the finals of the 1956 Olympics were he defeated what many critics perceive to be his toughest foe. He captured his third Olympic medal by outclassing future hall of famer Jose Torres. While the scorecards read 2-1 at the end of the bout, Papp felt as if his younger and more inexperienced foe did not pose much of a challenge. At this stage of his career Papp felt he had accomplished all he could in the amateur ranks. He wanted to test his mettle in the professional ranks, but this was a seemingly daunting task as professional boxing was unknown in Hungary and outlawed as fighting for pay was deemed incompatible with communist principles. Nevertheless, Papp met with the sports minister and in 1957 at the age of 31 he was allowed to compete in the professional ranks as long as he fought only in Europe.

When he made his pro debut, Laszlo was at an advanced age and was suffering from brittle hands. This was likely due to him both being a hard hitter and fighting such a long amateur career. Be that as it may, he was extremely successful in the professional ranks. He was a great boxer and used his timing, ability to measure distance, reflexes, and powerful left hook with dexterity. This skill set caused him to reel off seven victories in his first seven bouts against fairly respectable opposition for a newly turned pro. In his eighth bout he broke his hand early in the bout and was saddled with a draw. Following this fight he won four more bouts before drawing against an Italian in Italy. This would be Papp’s last setback and after decking former top ten contender Ralph Tiger Jones three times en route to victory, he was in position to challenge for the European middleweight title. In May of 1962, Papp knocked out Chris Christensen in seven rounds and became Europe’s champion. He would not lose this title inside the ring and held it until his forced retirement in 1965. Over the course of his reign, Papp would defend the title six times in two and a half years. All of the foes he defended against were respectable, but two, Luis Folledo and Mick Leahy, were ranked contenders.

Soon after Papp defeated Leahy he signed up to fight Joey Giardello for the middleweight title. Laszlo had certainly earned this shot as he fought the best Europe had to offer and was ranked fourth by ring magazine in early 1965. Unfortunately, the Hungarian government could not stand the fame and wealth that Papp was gaining. They were initially fine with letting him box professionally because he had served his country so well in the Olympics. However, if he won the title they were fearful that he would garner too much attention and thereby encourage the people to act out against the Communist government. Thus, the Communist leadership ended his career by denying him an exit visa. Being the man of the people that he was Papp refused to defect and for his loyalty he became the Hungarian team’s national boxing coach for the years of 1971-92. Furthermore, in 1989 the WBC named him an honorary champion and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2002.

It is truly a tragedy that Papp’s career was cut short for absurd reasons. That being said, to this very day he is beloved in his native Hungary. Even though the state controlled press gave scant coverage to his career, his exploits were well known. The common people sympathized with him as he was a poor kid who climbed the social ladder. Additionally, his hardworking nature was known and he had an informal and kind personality. Furthermore, many Hungarians lived vicariously through him as he was allowed to travel all around Europe and become a professional athlete. It can certainly be said that Hungarians view Papp as being one of their greatest athletes of all time.  He is talked about on the same level as Hungarian soccer great Ferenc Puskas. Lastly, Papp’s name has been immortalized by having Hungary’s largest indoor sports arena named after him.

While we know that Papp was a great fighter it is still fun to speculate on what could have been. At the time Papp was scheduled to fight Giardello, the champion was beginning to have troubles making weight. In October of 1965 Giardello was defeated by Dick Tiger and retired two years later. Papp would very likely have beaten Giardello; despite being 38 at the time Papp was still beating every opponent he faced convincingly and was showing few if any signs of slowing down. In fact, he knocked out five of the six challengers he faced when defending his European title. Dick Tiger would’ve proved to be a tough fight for sure as he was a tough relentless brawler who pushed the tempo at every moment. It can’t be definitively stated that either fighter would win, but it would undoubtedly have been an entertaining battle. While Papp had many intriguing bouts left to fight when he retired, what if his career would have started earlier in his early or mid-twenties like many professional boxers? He was likely past his prime when he started fighting his most notable opponents. Therefore, given that he was as impressive as he was late in his career, just imagine what kind of dynamo he may have been before the hand injuries and with youth on his side.

As a side note I would like to thank my editor, Robert Ecksel, for helping me with this article. He introduced me to some great sources in Hungary that gave me a unique inside perspective. I would also like to thank Mo Ortiz and Tibor Kalman, owners of Iguana Bar & Grill and Arriba Taqueria in Budapest, in addition to Gabor Karpati and Miklosvári Gyula, for taking the time to answer my questions and helping me to see how important and beloved Laszlo Papp is to the Hungarian people.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

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  1. nicolas 01:24pm, 06/08/2014

    Perhaps had Papp fought Giardello for the middleweight title maybe he would have won. But at 38, not so sure. Giardello had fought a lot of better fighters than did Papp, and has made me feel Papp is more in the IBHOF for his amateur career than his professional one. While it has been said that the Hungarian government stopped Papp from fighting for the world title because they felt he was getting ‘too big’, I wonder if they were also afraid that he might lose that fight, and bring some kind of discredit to the communist system. Also perhaps that being in the IBHOF is more due to Papp not getting that title shot. Had he gotten it, and either lost, or won but did not have a long reign, I don’t hunk he would have been in.

  2. RonLipton 05:03pm, 06/07/2014

    The two guys who drew with Laszlo were Giancarlo Garrelli in 1960 and then the fight in France with Germinal Ballarin when Papp broke his hand.
    As to his win in the 1952 Olympic games he fought my good friend Jose Chegui Torres, and I have the program from that fight.

    I made color copies of it and sent it to Jose several months before he passed away.

    I have Hungarian people in my family and they would give me dirty looks for saying this but believe me Dick Tiger would have beaten Laci (Pronounced LUTZIE). 

    As many of you know I was paid to spar with Carter, Tiger and other greats of that era.  I am proud to be mentioned in their books.  Joey Giardello to me was one of the toughest most fearless boxers who ever lived.

    Only Harold Green hitting him after the bell knocked him down and stopped him no one else could, except Spider Webb on a cut eye.

    I also knew and admired Joey Archer, he had a great jab, chin and balance and was also fearless.

    I sat 1st row ringside for Carter v Archer.  Please believe me that Archer did not beat anyone’s ass in anyway that night.  He got a decision by boxing beautifully and stepping lively.  Archer said it was the hardest he was ever hit when Carter walloped him with a left hook in the 10th, he was out on his feet and hung on for dear life.  Many boxing writers felt Carter won but Joey’s long range boxing and stepping got the decision.

    He never came within a light year of hurting Carter in any way whatsoever. 

    I saw Joey take a decision over Tiger first row also.  Now that night he did beautifully and actually almost dropped Tiger if you can believe it.  To this day it still is amazing to me,  Tiger was chasing him and Joey threw a light jab and a picture perfect right hand behind it smack dab on Tiger’s chin and the great Dick Tiger wobbled for a second.  The crowd went berserk.

    Papp was as sturdy and rock solid as you can get and was as tough as nails.  Great fighter.

  3. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:47am, 06/06/2014

    ch-You got that right about Giardello…..but you didn’t go quite far enough…..in my view his rightful place is up there with Pep and Marciano…...the same for Basilio…..but then that’s just me. Denzell Washington didn’t beat Joey and neither did Carter…..Joey beat that ass and guess what….. so did Joey Archer…..because both of them actually knew how to fight…..but that’s another story.

  4. Tex Hassler 04:57pm, 06/05/2014

    Thanks Mr Zook for bringing Laszlo Papp back to the for front. He was a great fighter. Beating Giardello is possible for Papp but not in my very likely at least in my opinion. One of the sad things about boxing is that we will never know how good Papp really was. I was in Hungary in 94 & back again in 95. It is a wonderful country with a rich history of which Papp is now a part of forever.

  5. Eric 02:00pm, 06/05/2014

    It didn’t help matters that another good middleweight of that time period had a similar name,  Joey Giambra and Joey Giardello, could get confusing to non-boxing fans. That was a helluva list of fighters that Giardello beat, I never knew he drew with Fullmer. Fullmer was a beast. Much respect to Giardello. Quite an impressive list of opposition, the era that Giardello fought in, was one of the best in middleweight history.

  6. Clarence George 12:39pm, 06/05/2014

    Excellent post, ch., per uje.  And you’re quite right about Giardello.  Not among the greats, in my opinion, but a very good fighter who deserves far more than the blank and bovine stare his name usually elicits.  I don’t say that Papp would have cut through him like a hot knife does to butter, but I do indeed think that he was more than good enough to beat him.  Either way, it would have been a terrific fight.

  7. ch. 11:43am, 06/05/2014

    Poor Joey Giardello, he beat the likes of Billy Graham, Gil Turner, Willie Troy (most feared 160 lber in the world at the time), top contender Bobby Boyd (just beat Fullmer and Ed. Lausse), Rory Calhoun (2), Holly Mims, Jesse Smith, Henry Hank, Ray Robinson, Dick Tiger (2), Hurricane Carter. Drew with Fullmer. Never ducked a deserving black opponent, no matter how tough. But yet he gets no respect. He rarely trained but was still great when he got up for a fight. One of the great chins in boxing history (down only twice). I sat with my dad in Atlantic City Convention Hall in Dec 1963 watching his brilliant performance winning easily from Tiger for the title.
    No disrespect Misters Zook and George, because I long admired Lazlo Papp, but to dismiss Giardello’s chances in 1964 against Lazlo is a little presumptuous especially when you consider that Papp never came anywhere near meeting the opposition that Giardello faced.
    Lazlo Papp was a great fighter but so was Giardello, who proved himself against the very best (in the pros) for 20 years.

  8. Eric 09:34am, 06/05/2014

    Watched the video provided showing Papp at 70 years of age and still training boxers at the time. He did indeed have a thick, healthy looking, mane, even as an old man.

  9. Clarence George 09:17am, 06/05/2014

    You’re right about the hair, Irish, which I think he kept to the end.  Neat little mustache, too.

    Cerdan vs. Papp would be a helluva fight.  Gotta give the win to Cerdan—there are few middleweights I rank higher.

  10. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 08:11am, 06/05/2014

    Clarence George-On top of everything else he had a fabulous head of hair….which reminds me….I agree with you and Eric and believe that the Iron Curtain delayed the current surge of top level fighters primarily from Eastern Europe for at least a half century….Cerdan and Papp were great but there could have been so many more.

  11. Eric 07:20am, 06/05/2014

    You gotta love a 5’5” middleweight. The Iron Curtain? I thought we were fighting WWII to prevent this sort of thing from happening in Europe. Turns out the Soviet Union was just as bad or worse than being under the thumb of Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan. With all the success of the Eastern Europeans in boxing today, you have to wonder how many Lazlo Papps were out there.

  12. Clarence George 06:52am, 06/05/2014

    Laszlo Papp is one of my favorite boxers (his autograph among my prized possessions), who boasted one of the most devastating left hooks in the pantheon of devastating left hooks.  If circumstances had been different, more favorable, I think he would have had a shot at being considered among the top 10 middleweights of all time.  At the very least, I’m convinced he would have beaten Joey Giardello, thus becoming Middleweight Champion of the World.  Ah, but the moving finger writes and having writ moves on.

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