Live Fast, Die Young: The Life and Times of Harry Greb
We are rewarded with accounts of his major fights so detailed as to be the best possible substitute for actual film, film which sadly, has not survived…
It became something of an Ahab’s Whale in certain corners of the internet, but at long last Steve Compton has produced his long promised tome on one Edward Harry Greb, and if the obsession didn’t quite drag the author to his death, it should be noted by any would-be reader that Live Fast Die Young: The Life and Times of Harry Greb took eleven years to complete.
The author can perhaps comfort himself that this lost decade was given in exchange for that rarest of things in a time obsessed with a quick turnaround and a fast buck, namely a book that has been written totally without compromise. If the original goal was to produce the definitive work on one of boxing’s true greats then that goal has been achieved. There will never be another book written on Harry Greb; this is it.
The writer’s habit of detonating the myths that have been built up around his subject over the past one hundred years is signaled early with the pole-axing of one of the most irritating and persistent fight legends, namely that Benny Leonard was the man most responsible for masterminding the somewhat rudimentary plan that led to Harry Greb’s eventual defeat by Gene Tunney, the pursuit of the body rather than the head. This always seemed ludicrous to me given Tunney’s own reputation for strategy, and with my own limited research I traced this most obvious of tactics back at least as far as Harry’s first fight with Billy Miske who pursued Greb’s body with great vigor. Compton’s research, in its completeness, traces that plan all the way back to 1913 and Greb’s under-celebrated series with Pennsylvanian Mike Milko, a former amateur star and a “tough, rugged fighter with a wicked punch” who was “not averse to any kind of action.”The day before his wedding, we are told, Milko set out in pursuit of both Dutch courage and a marriage licence but found himself waylaid by almost every saloon en route with dire results. “Emulating the great John L Sullivan, he waltzed up to the bar and declared himself the best man in the house, promptly challenging any willing patron to a fight. Without waiting for a reply he dropped the proprietor with a single blow, and went about attacking several of the patrons.”
A postman and two policemen followed before Milko, “now realizing the odds were against him, and that he was late for his engagement (literally), began to flee his would-be captors.” Milko, jailed but released in time to meet Greb, was the first man documented to attack the body in recognition of Greb’s speed, and he certainly didn’t need one of the greatest fighters of all time to lend him this advice. Milko gave Greb “the toughest fight of his career so far” and in the eyes of Compton “it appeared Milko deserved the nod.” This, for me, was a revelation. Compton’s obsession with Greb is clear, but his even-handedness, especially when dealing with Greb’s early career, is more so. Here is a fight listed as a draw by both BoxRec and Bill Paxton, author of The Fearless Harry Greb (once the definitive work on Greb now, alas, reduced to the status of a primer) which could very easily be listed as a draw here in an attempt to “boost” Greb’s paper record, but Compton takes the step to correct the official record and deliver to Greb an additional early loss. The fact that his passion for the truth outstrips his passion for his favorite fighter is the absolute bedrock of his triumph.
Milko, no more than a footnote before the publication of this book, will always remain just that, but it is possible that his reputation, for those interested in such things, is enhanced. The first thing I learned from Live Fast, Die Young was that it was likely Milko and lightweight George Lewis who helped to define Greb as a fighter in these early days where I had previously seen Whitey Wenzel and Fay Keiser as his key early rivals. Milko embodied many of the traits for which Greb would become famous, namely aggression, aggression and more aggression, aggression upon being hit, aggression upon being missed, a savagery that Greb would adopt and hone.
George Lewis also appears in great color (if rather less drunken violence), and one of the real joys of the book is the way in which these men with whom Greb crossed paths with step off the page both in terms of style and, where possible, personality. Each source used by the author to achieve these goals is lovingly laid out in a “Notes” section at the rear of the book, and these details go a long way to explaining where those eleven years went. The writer did some travelling in his efforts to identify primary sources for his opus. This is no easy matter, something the writer himself is quick to admit, as syndicated accounts of fights were wired all over the country. Reprinted verbatim, these articles are easily recognizable but they were sometimes rewritten or editorialized making them more difficult to pick out. This is important because for much of Greb’s career, rendering a decision in a prizefight in the USA was illegal, making newspapermen the sole arbiters of many results. Even boxers were happy to be held accountable by the newspaper decision or “popular decision,” as it was known, and the way the popular decision was weighed was to compare how many ringside reporters found for each man and thereby name a winner. Worse yet, fight managers with connection to newspapers that operated remote from the location of a given fight might wire that paper with a false account. In other words, allowing a Nebraska newspaper to have a say in determining the outcome of a Buffalo brawl was fraught with danger. Compton made every effort to secure sources that belonged to the city or area where a given Greb battle was fought, and despite his acknowledgement of the superb newspaper microfilm collection at Southern Illinois University, it is unquestionable that he racked up the miles in pursuit of these reports.
We are rewarded with accounts of his major fights so detailed as to be the best possible substitute for actual film, film which sadly, has not survived. No known footage of Harry Greb fighting exists, something that make these details here all the more precious. Harry’s final fight with Tommy Gibbons, his greatest rival outside of Gene Tunney, is an absolute standout. The writer’s adherence to primary sources together with his tight narration, either by accident or design recreates the tension that descends before a major fight. Photographs of the action, one of the book’s most outstanding features, are a major boon in helping the reader visualize the action, crammed as they are onto almost every one of the book’s seven hundred pages. Compton’s clear understanding of his subject allows him to make the occasional technical observation on these photographs, the positioning of Greb’s fist or defense. This is in keeping with one of the book’s key points, coming to grips with “The Pittsburgh Windmill’s” difficult style.
Quite rightly, no direct description of that style is made. Compton compresses multiple fight reports into a clear and unfettered description for us, but avoids pulpiteering on the specifics of his attack. Here, he gives ground to those who fought or saw him, and this provides all the expected insight. In terms of his greatness and quality, too, the writer remains mostly silent, preferring to leave the verdict to other ring greats, like Jack Dillon:
ITALICWhat’s the use in trying against a guy like that? He’s too fast for me or anybody else his weight. He didn’t even give me time to spit the blood out of my mouth. He’ll lick them all. He gave me a lacing and he’ll give Gibbons one if he fights Mike. His speed and aggressiveness will take all of Mike’s cleverness. He’s good. He’ll lick ‘em all.
“I would rather fight ten Battling Levinskys or ten Kid Norfolks than one Harry Greb,” was the opinion of light-heavyweight Clay Turner. “There’s a dash and snap about Greb that discourages a fighter…he’s the best heavyweight or light-heavyweight in the game…next to Jack Dempsey.”
Yes, Jack Dempsey. One of the defining figures of his era, he looms large in the book, but like every other champion of his time (aside from welterweight champion Mickey Walker), Dempsey appears guilty of ducking Greb. I made this case several months ago on Boxing.com; this writer makes it even more forcefully. Fittingly it was Dempsey who led Compton to Greb in the first place, a curiosity over the middleweight Jack supposedly fled—be warned that he makes no bones here about the champion’s failure to fight Harry, or Greb’s certainty over a possible victory.
Dempsey’s failure to meet Harry Wills, too, is explored in minor detail here, mainly in the sense that it affected Greb and perceptions of Greb, a man who absolutely refused to draw the color line, and paid for it, losing out twice to African-American Tiger Flowers. Greb fought Flowers three times, winning their first fight and losing two close ones as his career wound down in tandem with his health. Over the first three-quarters of the book the reader becomes invested in Harry as a man, so it becomes difficult to read about his blindness in one eye and his ringwear, the adjustment of his style to allow for it, the incredible feats he achieved despite it, and his inevitable bowing before it.
Complaints are few and far between. Given the size of the book, a detailed index would have been of enormous benefit, but none appears. For a book perpetuating to be concerned with “The Times” of Harry Greb as much as his life, events such as WWI and Prohibition seem to be used more as landmarks in order to anchor the reader rather than happenings in their own right. I would also argue that the writer is a little hard on Gene Tunney at times and that his presentation of “The Fighting Marine” as overprotected may be is one area where he presents a one-sided, although a valid argument. It must also be said, however, that when Tunney’s conduct is beyond reproach, such as when he appeared personally at the Greb family home to offer his condolences on the occasion of his death, or when he agreed to appear as one of Harry’s pallbearers, his class is allowed to shine through unfettered.
Where the five fight series between the two men is concerned, Compton is at his best. The utter thrashing of Tunney by Greb in the first meeting between the two is recounted with relish, the apparent robbery of Greb by Tunney in their controversial second meeting with as much disdain. It is crucial to observe that although most ringside reporters picked Greb as a clear winner, the writer is honest enough to also list those who thought Tunney the winner, enough names and newspapers to bring the robbery into doubt. This is invaluable sourcing and honesty.
It is just such honest that allows the book to seize the mistruths of Greb’s past by the throat and throw them from the ring. Deftly and by stages, Live Fast, Die Young: The Life and Times of Harry Greb destroys and rebuilds a legend in the light of truth. That it does so without showing meaningful bias is astonishing, and makes this book amongst the best ever written in the style previously defined by Adam Pollack and Clay Moyle, history for history’s sake, done properly, without flash. I prefer not to recommend books to Boxing.com’s readers because I’m aware that tastes vary and that at £25 or $40, this one is not cheap, but if you’ve read all the way to the bottom of this article, you’re almost a certainty to love the book.
And, having read it, a good bet to name Harry Greb the greatest fighter to have ever lived.