Lee Oma: The Clown Prince of Sock

By Clarence George on March 1, 2016
Lee Oma: The Clown Prince of Sock
Lee Oma "made Charles look like anything but the heavyweight champion of the world."

“You never knew which Oma was going to show up. He probably didn’t either. In one fight he’d look like a world-beater, in the next like a bum…”

“One of the strangest and most unorthodox heavyweights who ever lived.” —Robert F. Fernandez Sr.

Today, March 1, 2016, we celebrate the 100th birthday of Lee Oma.

Born Frank Czjewski, or maybe Csajewski, in Chicago, Oma learned how to box from a parish priest at St. Laurence Church (long closed and recently demolished) shortly after quitting the fifth grade. Perhaps out of gratitude, he initially used the ring name of Lawrence Parrish, eventually changing Lawrence to Lee. “Later he was almost run over by a van belonging to the Omaha Trucking Corporation,” writes William Dettloff in Ezzard Charles: A Boxing Life, and changed his name from Parrish to Omaha, which he subsequently shortened to Oma. According to Dettloff, he also briefly went by Levi Omanski, “The Jewish Jolter.”

In tandem with the variety of names, “You never knew which Oma was going to show up,” writes Dettloff. “Truth be told, he probably didn’t either. In one fight he’d look like a world-beater, in the next like a bum.”

The 5’11” heavyweight fought first out of Detroit, then Buffalo, from 1939 to 1951 (though inactive in 1942), winding up with a rather mixed record of 64 wins, 29 by knockout, 28 losses, 17 by knockout, three draws, and one no contest, averaging about nine fights a year.

He lost to Joey Maxim, who outpointed him at Chicago’s Marigold Gardens on August 11, 1941; Big Boy Brown, who knocked him out in the eighth at the Coliseum in Baltimore on May 10, 1943; Buddy Walker, who stopped him by sixth-round TKO that June 21 and won by unanimous decision that September 20, both times at the Coliseum; Tami Mauriello, who knocked him out in the eighth on September 22, 1944 (in the best fight of the year, according to The Ring), and won by unanimous decision on March 23, 1945, both times at Madison Square Garden; Jersey Joe Walcott, who beat him by unanimous decision at the Garden on May 24, 1946; Phil Muscato, who won by split decision that September 17 and on January 14, 1947, both times at Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium; Pat Comiskey, who knocked him out in the seventh at the Armory in Jersey City that February 12; Henry “Snow” Flakes, who twice won by unanimous decision, first at the Memorial Auditorium on May 11, 1948, then at the Garden 10 days later; Bruce Woodcock, who knocked him out in the fourth at Harringay Arena in London that September 21; and Bob Satterfield, who knocked him out in the sixth at Chicago Stadium on May 17, 1950.

There were plenty of wins, however, and against hefty opposition. He outpointed Buddy Knox at Newark’s Meadowbrook Arena on June 26, 1944; beat Lou Nova by split decision at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium that July 14 (“Perhaps now the Yogi King will let the younger lads fight it out for fistic glory while he sticks to home knitting,” commented The Ring on Nova’s “mediocre” performance); beat Mauriello by unanimous decision at the Garden that December 8; beat Joe Baksi by unanimous decision at the Garden on January 26, 1945; knocked out Prentiss Hall in the fifth that December 11 at the Memorial Auditorium; beat Muscato by majority decision on January 28, 1946, and by unanimous decision on March 8, 1949, both times at the Memorial Auditorium; stopped Gus Lesnevich by fifth-round TKO at the Garden on February 22, 1946; stopped Willis “Red” Applegate by ninth-round TKO at the Queensboro Arena in Long Island City, Queens, on August 9, 1948 (which is more than Rocky Marciano could do); knocked out Tommy Gomez in the first at Fort Homer Hesterly Armory in Tampa that November 29; outpointed Tiger Ted Lowry at Newark’s Mosque Theater on January 27, 1949; beat Omelio Agramonte by unanimous decision at the Garden that March 18; knocked out Fitzie Fitzpatrick in the first at the Memorial Auditorium that April 26; beat Enrico Bertola by unanimous decision at the Memorial Auditorium that October 4 (the Italian dying the next day); twice beat Freddie Beshore, first by unanimous decision that December 6, then by majority decision on January 4, 1950, both times at the Memorial Auditorium; beat Vern Mitchell by unanimous decision at the Memorial Auditorium that April 25; beat Nick Barone by unanimous decision at the Memorial Auditorium that July 25; and beat Satterfield by unanimous decision at (you guessed it) the Memorial Auditorium that September 25.

Oma’s May 3, 1950, bout with Bill Weinberg at Cincinnati Gardens was declared a no contest. Both guys, apparently, were “clowning around.” Par for the course for Oma, who hammed it up like a bad Shakespearean actor whenever he got tired of continuing a fight. In his bout with Comiskey, for instance, he flopped about the mat, gasping like a fish out of water, while the ref counted him out. In the Woodcock fight, he rolled on the canvas as though gut shot before lying flat on his back with arms outstretched, Christ-like.

Thomas Myler writes in The Sweet Science Goes Sour that “Oma was said to have strong underworld connections through his manager Willie Friedland, who was known in boxing circles as Willie Ketchum and was a confidant of Frankie Carbo.” A former jailbird, writes Myler, rumors were rife that Oma didn’t just quit in his fight with Woodcock, but took money to take a dive. And, indeed, a headline in London’s Sunday Pictorial (the Sunday Mirror since 1963) read “Oma? Coma? Aroma!” Furthermore, Myler writes, Oma later admitted to Budd Schulberg, among others, that he’d been paid to throw the fight. Myler also reports that “the British Boxing Board of Control withheld Oma’s purse.” It should be noted, in fairness, that Woodcock always denied any fix.

Despite being married and having at least one child, Oma, a good-looking guy, magnificently maned (think Alec Baldwin), had an eye for the ladies. A playboy who preferred drinking and womanizing to training, he could have done better than he did. Still, he was among The Ring‘s top 10 in 1944 (on the cover that October), in 1945 (on the cover that March, with Mauriello), in 1949 (when he was ranked second), and in 1950 (ranked ninth, ahead of Marciano). And, indeed, he put up a good fight when he took on Ezzard Charles for the Heavyweight Championship of the World at the Garden on January 12, 1951.

A good, clean fight? Well, not exactly clean, what with Charles landing any number of low blows to his admittedly high-trunked opponent, trunks high enough to “choke him,” as referee Ruby Goldstein noted. In any event, competitive. Oma “actually carried the fight to the champ in the early rounds,” wrote Jack Hand of the Associated Press. “The tantalizing challenger ripped open a cut under Charles’ left eye in the second round. It seemed to come from a sharp right uppercut in a clinch. A cut opened over Ezzard’s left eye in the sixth.” But given the contender’s cavalier attitude toward training, it’s no surprise that the “erratic cutie pie with a checkered record,” as Hand described him, ran out of gas, as he himself admitted after the fight. “I just ran out of steam,” he said. Gas, steam, whatever…he ran out. As Robert F. Fernandez Sr. writes in Boxing in New Jersey, 1900-1999, “He mostly fought off the ropes because he needed them for support or his legs would give out. He played the ropes like a violin. He had to, since he seldom did roadwork.” Fernandez grants, however, that he “actually trained ten days for his shot at the title, a record for Oma.” Still, as Charles acknowledged, “He was plenty smart and tough. I think he was one of the toughest I’ve ever fought because I couldn’t hit him solid. But I knew I’d catch him. What slowed him down in the tenth was a left hook to the head.” And, indeed, Charles won by 10th-round TKO.

A bit like Walcott, though nowhere near as skilled, Oma was a cutie, as cute as lace pants. He made Charles look like an ass at times, what with “twisting and turning in ways that were heretofore unseen in a prize ring,” Dettloff writes, resulting in a frustrated Charles throwing increasingly wild swings that hit nothing but air. Oma “knew how to make a guy look bad,” writes Dettloff, “and at points he made Charles look like anything but the heavyweight champion of the world.” The crowd liked Oma and didn’t at all care for Charles. They never would, mainly because he had succeeded Joe Louis without having the feet for the shoes.

Oma quit the ring following the Charles bout, never getting past the 10th in his life, and is perhaps best remembered for his portrayal of the bartender in On the Waterfront, an obvious no-goodnik in the pay of racketeer Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Joining him on set were fellow heavyweights Abe Simon, Tony Galento, and Mauriello, all portraying mob toughs. Did Mauriello lord it over Oma, given that he’d won two out of three? Well, perhaps a good-natured dig or two. But Oma was certainly odd man out in the sense that the other three had fought Louis, Simon twice, while he hadn’t.

Not that Oma didn’t have such an opportunity, but manager Tex Sullivan announced on December 8, 1949, that he was pulling his boy out of a scheduled exhibition match with “The Brown Bomber.”

“Exhibitions, nuts!” declared Sullivan. “They’re not exhibitions, they’re real wars. Look what happened to Pat Valentino in Chicago last night. Louis busted him up and knocked him out in eight rounds.” And Louis’ bouts with Johnny Shkor and Johnny Flynn? “They were fights, not exhibitions,” Sullivan insisted. “People are wondering whether Louis will make a comeback,” he continued. “Take it from me he’s already come back.”

Oma was scheduled to face Louis in Detroit on December 14, but the Bomber fought Roscoe Toles and Flynn instead. About to board a train for that city when he got the news, Louis said, “I figured he’d do that when he learned of the Valentino knockout.”

A poor decision on Sullivan’s part. If Oma had fought Louis, he wouldn’t have been snickered at by Simon, Galento, and Mauriello. They probably called him all sorts of girly names behind his back, maybe even scratched up his Huckleberry Hound records.

Lee Oma died in Massapequa, New York, on December 10, 1976, age 60. Did he die regretting not having fulfilled his promise as a boxer? More likely regretting not having made the acquaintance of Joey Heatherton, who was 32 in 1976 and still the most delectable chicken fricassee west (not to mention east, north, and south) of the Pecos, never mind Massapequa.

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Ezzard Charles vs. Lee Oma - World Heavyweight Title - 1951-01-12 - Extended Highlights



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  1. Louie 05:49am, 12/31/2016

    I just signed up as a member this morning and I found this Lee Oma article, great to see someone is writing about Lee Oma! Thanks! He fought out of Buffalo at Singer’s Gym. at the end of 1945 he knocked out Prentiss Hall and soon became his hometown, fighting at Memorial Auditorium many times! He fought my Dad, Sgt. Joe Muscato and won 10 rounds on 11-12-46 after fighting my uncle, Phil Muscato on 9-17-46 and lost a split decision 10 rounds, uncle Phil fought him 4 times. He was good friends with my Dad and Uncle afterwards. I remember the day my Dad found out Lee passed away on 12-10-76, it was one of the first few times I saw my Dad crying.  I have his obituary notice from my Dad’s dresser still to this day. My Dad would pass away a year later on 12-8-77 of heart attack at the age of 58.  Lee had an impressive record and fought a lot of the same fighters Joe and Phil did, but more. He liked to carouse with the women just like Jimmy Slattery used to do. If he would’ve trained more and stayed away from the women he might have won more and got to fight Joe Louis. Lee did get a shot at the NBA Heavyweight Title with Ezzard Charles on 1-12-51 but lost by TKO and ended his career. There were many tough heavyweights in the golden age of boxing 1930’s -1950’s.  Rocky Marciano started out as a middleweight and by the time he turned pro as a heavyweight many of the heavyweights were past there prime. Rocky came up at a good time and fought a lot of the same guys of the 40’s and when he fought Joe Louis,  Joe was past his prime too but Rocky hit like a freight train and made your arms go numb and then knock you out!  Lee Oma is forever enshrined in Ring #44’s Buffalo Boxing Hall of Fame, inducted posthumously in 2008. There were many great fighters that came out of Buffalo, we can boast of having 6 World champions from the 1899 to 1932 era!.  lightweight - Frank Erne, lightweight - Jimmy Goodrich, lightweight - and (first) “Rocky” Kansas, light heavyweight- Jimmy Slattery, light heavyweight - George Nichols, and featherweight, Tommy Paul . Let’s keep punchin’!  lou.m.

  2. Clarence George 09:20am, 04/02/2016

    Thanks very much indeed, Lindy, and for your help and the info provided.

    Joey has not at all aged well, sadly, and the same is true of Brigitte (whom I never much cared for).  And Linda Hamilton, who’s not yet 60, looks at least 10 years older than she is.

    I, too, am not familiar with that Louis quote, though I have enormous respect for Chuck’s encyclopedic knowledge of the Sweet Science.  I leave it to the two of youse to thrash out.

  3. Lindy Lindell 08:42am, 04/02/2016

    Another great portrait in your Rogues Gallery of Unsung Heavyweights, Clarence.
    I don’t know when it was, but quite a while ago, there was a shocking pik of Joey Heatherton on the front of one of those tabloids.  She didn’t/hasn’t aged well;  the pik to me was as shocking as the one of Bardot going around.
    I’ve never come across Joe Louis’ supposed comment that Oma “was probably the most gifted of all his contenders.”  Ah, hem, some documentation, please, ch.

  4. Clarence George 01:35pm, 03/18/2016

    Thanks for visiting, Bikermike, and for the good posts.

    You’re referring to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “My candle burns at both ends, It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends, It gives a lovely light!”  She’s largely dismissed today, which I find kinda crazy.

  5. bikermike 01:20pm, 03/18/2016

    I’d have to say the CLOWN PRINCE OF BOXING….was Max Baer….with all due respect to Clarence George and Lee Oma…

    Max Baer laid more tube than the Alaskan pipeline….nailed May West….amongst thousands of others…

    No wonder Max could never beat Louis…..he had spent himself..outta the ring..

  6. bikermike 01:14pm, 03/18/2016

    Lee Oma didn’t step in with Joe Louis…because Lee Oma was not trying for the TITLE….he was making a living by fighting….see the difference.??!
    Because Oma was filling the role he took…...by those who paid him….he didn’t do the ‘bum of the month’ thing…..

    Lee Oma..by all reports….live a full life…and drank deep , from the cup of life !
    Won’t be another like him…or his ilk…...ever

  7. bikermike 01:01pm, 03/18/2016

    Lee Oma ...a name many still remember…died at the tender young age of 60!!
    Reminds me of an ancient poem…...
    ...something about burning the candle at both ends…

    the candle being life

    “the candle burns quickly….but what a fire it makes !”

    ninety percent of the men in this world…fantasize about a life like Lee Oma

  8. bikermike 12:56pm, 03/18/2016

    Clarence George ...again…;proves to be an interesting writer….and I look forward to more.
    Thank you

  9. bikermike 12:53pm, 03/18/2016

    Lee Oma ....and guys like him ...were necessary to keep the show going….in the days of crooked noses.

    A gifted ring smart fighter…..Lee Oma could win or lose…with no permanent damage….
    He could also ‘take’ a punch….by shifting .everso subtly ...and make his opponent look like a conquering hero….
    ..he could also do the same..to make his opponent look like a backwood , inbred swinger from the hillbilly communities…

    Lee Oma ...or guys like him….could not exist today….as he needed to fight almost every two weeks or so ...to make a living.

    Nowadays…...backed fighters never face a challenge ...unless necessarily ...absolutely…MUST…and even then….stretch that matchup for five or six years….

  10. Clarence George 03:00am, 03/03/2016

    I can’t think of anyone, and that includes any boxer, more intimidating than you, Mr. Gordon.  I particularly enjoyed your performance in the rarely shown “Night of the Grizzly,” starring Clint Walker.  As for Alec Baldwin, he’s typical of most of today’s Hollywood, that bastion of narcissism, only more so.

    Best,

    David Hedison

  11. Leo Gordon 08:14pm, 03/02/2016

    I meant Cell Block 11 with the great Neville Brand.

  12. Leo Gordon 08:13pm, 03/02/2016

    Speaking of Alec Baldwin, a while back he threatened to pummel New York Post photographer Kavin Fasick after the shutterbug tried to take his photo on a public street. Fasick, a decent pro fighter in the 1980s, kept his cool but later called out tough guy Baldwin for a charity boxing event to settle their score. Not surprisingly, the bloviating Baldwin never responded. I wonder if Baldwin would have acted so tough if it was me behind the camera, especially if he’d seen me in “Riot in Cell Box 11.”

  13. Clarence George 07:43pm, 03/02/2016

    Thanks very much indeed, Mr. Helton.

    Yes, I see the resemblance, though I do think he most resembles Alec Baldwin.

    Sincerely,

    Robert Karvelas

  14. Percy Helton 06:27pm, 03/02/2016

    Wonderful article. I just did a Google image search of Lee Oma. He looks a bit like the late western star Randolph Scott.

  15. Clarence George 12:47pm, 03/02/2016

    My initial reaction was, “What an interesting bit of trivia.”  Ah, but then the penny dropped.  Good one, Alex!

  16. Alex 11:56am, 03/02/2016

    Thanks, Clarence. I like that Goldfinger line… and it’s true.  Did you know that Joey could never build a snowman?

  17. Clarence George 09:35am, 03/02/2016

    Glad you liked it, Alex, and thanks for the terrific link.  I especially like her when she had that feathery short hair.  Goldfinger should have used her to melt the vault at Fort Knox.

  18. Alex 09:01am, 03/02/2016

    An interesting article and here’s a link to a Tribute to Joey Heatherton website I’m sure you;ll enjoy.

    http://www.missjoeyheatherton.com

  19. Clarence George 05:01am, 03/02/2016

    Glad you liked it, Mike. 

    Yes, boxing was so much richer in those days.  I don’t know, it just doesn’t seem to be of these times.

  20. Mike Casey 04:13am, 03/02/2016

    Very good article, Clarence. Once again we are left to ponder the depth of talent back in that far more colourful and varied era, when all sorts of fighters with different styles were plying their trade.

  21. Clarence George 03:33am, 03/02/2016

    Appreciate your good words, Mike.

    Oma at his best would have been a formidable fighter.  He just had too many character flaws and personality defects, though it’s hard to blame him for finding lovelies distracting.  Speaking of which, Joey is among my top 10 beauties of all time.  I mean, how can she not be?  I just hope she doesn’t wind up like that other bit of lusciousness, Yvette Vickers.

    Louis’ best defense was his opponents knowing what he would do to them if they tried too hard.  Admirably effective.

  22. Mike Silver 10:41pm, 03/01/2016

    Good to see you back Clarence. Oma was one of the slickest boxers. He had tremendous natural talent but as your fine article points out lacked motivation and rarely trained to top condition. Pat Valentino made the mistake of trying to knock out Louis in the exhibition and paid for it. Every hottie today pales before the luscious daughter of the Merry Mailman.

  23. Clarence George 10:28am, 03/01/2016

    Great post, Peter, thank you.  Joey was indeed a “juicy tidbit.”  She deserved more kindness than life showed her.  Still does.

  24. Clarence George 10:18am, 03/01/2016

    Thanks for the good words and post, Chuck.

    Pleasure, Eric.  She knew what she was doing.  She knew exactly what she was doing.  Ha!  Sadistic strumpet.

  25. peter 10:09am, 03/01/2016

    There are a lot of nice little juicy tidbits in this article—and I’m not just talking about Joey Heatherton.

  26. Eric 08:17am, 03/01/2016

    Tanks for the 4ll, Clarence. “Lucille” was sumptin else. Just wish that safety pin would have popped.

  27. ch 07:34am, 03/01/2016

    Oma was a real “character,” great story Clarence. Here is some info I got on Lee that might interest you : Oma started his career taking dives and “doing business” from 1939 to 1941 when he was suspended “indefinitely” for “unsatisfactory showings.” (he was KO’d 10 times in 17 matches, 5 in the 1st round). ... He was one of the slickest, craftiest, and laziest heavyweights ever. Joe Louis said that Oma probably was the most gifted of all his contenders and only needed to take career seriously. After pretty much holding his own in the Charles match, he just turned away and quit and the ref stopped the bout.

  28. Clarence George 05:53am, 03/01/2016

    That’s Joy Harmon, Eric.  Now in her 70s, I think she owns a bakery somewhere in California.

    Very kind, Jim, thank you.

  29. Jim Crue 05:39am, 03/01/2016

    Glad to see you back and in top form Clarence. I was worried that you had left the building.

  30. Eric 05:21am, 03/01/2016

    Joey Heatherton was sure smokin’ back in the day, right up there with Ann-Margret. Heard about George Kennedy, didn’t realize he was as old as he was, loved the movie, “Cool Hand Luke.” Speaking of smokin’ babes, who was that chickie washing the car in “Cool Hand Luke?”

  31. Clarence George 03:33am, 03/01/2016

    Very glad you liked it, Mr. Seven.

    Good questions to which I unfortunately don’t have the answers.  I don’t know what he did for a living or how he died.  Perhaps his heart gave out.  He was, after all, boxing’s answer to Steve Cochran.  Speaking of which, I actually do know the answer to “What man would not have regretted not meeting the lovely Ms. Heatherton?”  No man worthy of the name.  Yeah, maybe Tex Sullivan was right—really no such thing as an exhibition match with Joe Louis.

    Best,

    Edward Binns

    P.S.  Requiescat in pace, George Kennedy.

  32. Johnny Seven 03:00am, 03/01/2016

    Nice story on an interesting but relatively anonymous heavyweight.  What man would not have regretted not meeting the lovely Ms. Heatherton? Any idea what Oma did for a living after hanging up the gloves or what was his cause of death? He looked like a stout and hearty fellow. Sorry he died so young. Also, I believe that Pat Valentino felt “duped” by the whole business of fighting a 10 round “exhibition” with Joe Louis. Seems like that was a habit of the Louis camp. Happy birthday, Mr. Oma. And kudos, Mr. George, you penned another good one.

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