Mr. Cunniffe

By Clarence George on July 31, 2014
Mr. Cunniffe
"Do you think that was appropriate? We're talking about a community of cloistered nuns."

I’d never heard of middleweight Enzo Fiermonte, but learned that he married the wealthy widow of John Jacob Astor, who’d gone down on the Titanic…

“They call me Mister Tibbs!”—In the Heat of the Night

No, not James “Killer” Cunniffe of the murderous Bum Rogers Gang, the man who planned and executed the blood-drenched hijacking of a mail truck in Elizabeth, New Jersey, on October 14, 1926, making off with well over two million dollars in today’s money. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they were related.

Edward R. Cunniffe Jr. had more crust than a ship has barnacles. Nothing initiated his ire more than when someone called him by his first name. When a community of Carmelite nuns thanked him for a donation, their salutation of “Dear Edward” cost them dear.

“I gave them what for,” he growled with a satisfaction bordering on glee.

“But, Mr. Cunniffe, do you think that was appropriate?” I asked. “After all, we’re talking about a community of cloistered nuns. Carmelites.”

“We’ve known each other for many years, haven’t we?” he asked. “We’re friends, aren’t we?” I agreed on both points. “How long was it before I gave you permission to call me by my Christian name?”

“You haven’t.”

“And a good thing, too. Spare the rod and spoil the child, that’s my motto.”

An elderly bachelor, one of Mr. Cunniffe’s favorite hobbies was writing outraged letters decrying impertinence or ignorance. Another was boxing. I’ve never known anyone whose knowledge of the Sweet Science was so encyclopedic. Combine the two pastimes, and what you get is…well, here’s a sampling. The first letter was written to Sports Illustrated in August 1971, the others were sent to the New York Times in, respectively, December 1985, July 1987, and December 1989:

I. J.P. Heinz omits a notable aficionado from his roster of boxing buffs among the literati—P. Vergilius Maro (70 B.C.-19 B.C.), whose stirring account of an early crowd-pleaser between one Dares, a light-hitting swarmer, and one Entellus, a fading but still hard-punching veteran, appears in Book V of the Aeneid.

The contest was held, under rules that might be most charitably described as pre-London prize ring, for the edification of the Trojans during a stopover on the way from Carthage to Latium. Entellus, down early from what was officially ruled a slip, was assisted to his feet by a friend at ringside (shades of Dempsey against Firpo) and went on to score a TKO when the bout was stopped to save Dares from further punishment.

Regrettably, Vergil was no Nat Fleischer and failed to record either the weights or the elapsed time. Nonetheless he should have been included in Mr. Heinz’ list. With all due respect to Aldo Spoldi, Tiberio Mitri, Primo Carnera, Nino Benvenuti and Enzo Fiermonte, the fact is that Vergil himself may turn out to be boxing’s noblest Roman of them all.

I’d never heard of Enzo Fiermonte, but learned that he’d been a middleweight in the ‘20s and ‘30s. He married the wealthy widow of John Jacob Astor, who’d gone down on the Titanic.

II. George Vecsey and the American Medical Association have a point when they criticize boxing, but calling for its abolition is unnecessary.

Boxing is at a very brutal stage right now, but a simple alteration in the equipment could turn things around.

In the good-old-bad-old days of bare-knuckle prizefighting, it was permissible not only to hit your opponent with your fist but also to chop him with the edge of your clenched hand, and indeed, to grab him and throw him down.

The reason for these alternatives was the biological fact that the human fist is far more fragile than the human head.

The alternatives to punching with the fist were eliminated when gloves became standard equipment in professional fights (during the 1880’s).

During the past century, the gloves have steadily increased in size, from the skin-tight gloves worn in the McAuliffe-Carney lightweight title fight in 1887 to the 5-ounce gloves worn in the Sullivan-Corbett fight in 1892, to the 6-ouncers worn into the 1950’s, to the eight-ounce gloves worn for the last 30 years.

As the gloves have grown in size, danger to the puncher’s hands has decreased, and the number of blows to the head has correspondingly increased.

Today’s carnage is the result: two young men pounding each other with one punch to the head after another until the fight ends. The medical profession’s discovery that fighters suffer from brain damage could have come as no surprise.

The solution is not to ban boxing. The solution is to sharply reduce the size of the gloves, with a concomitant reduction in the amount of tape on the fighter’s hands. This would predictably bring back the left jab, the straight right, defensive boxing and ring strategy.

There would be an increase in facial cuts and contusions, but a sharp drop in brain damage. Repetitive, concentrated head punching would no longer be a part of a fighter’s arsenal.

III. Regrettably Matthew Reisz’s excellent article on the East End’s Jewish heritage (Travel, June 7) made no reference to any of the area’s pugilists. The most famous was Daniel Mendoza, the fighting Jew from Whitechapel, who held the British heavyweight championship from 1791 to 1795. Weighing only 160 pounds, he consistently defeated heavier men by his speed and boxing ability. During the Regency period prizefighting enjoyed the patronage and protection of the gentry, and Mendoza was the subject of a portrait by Constable.

The man who defeated him to succeed to the championship was Gentleman John Jackson, the boxing tutor of Thomas Moore and Lord Byron.

Other Jewish fighters from the East End included Ted (Kid) Lewis, who won the welterweight championship of the world from Jack Britton in 1915 and then proceeded to fight a long series of bouts with Britton during which he lost the title, re-won it and lost it again, and Jackie (Kid) Berg, the Whitechapel Whirlwind, who was world junior welterweight champion in the early 1930’s and lost a bid for the lightweight championship when he dropped a 15-round decision to Tony Canzoneri.

IV. The Leonard-Duran fight, held at the Mirage in Las Vegas, Nev., was a 12-round bout for the supermiddleweight championship of the world.

There is, of course, no such title as the supermiddleweight championship, and 12 rounds is not an adequate championship distance. If the 12-round limit had been in effect through the years, the history of boxing would be quite different.

Corbett would have beaten Fitzsimmons. Conn would have beaten Louis. Walcott would have beaten Marciano. And, in their first fight, Hearns would have beaten Leonard. There are other examples. The site of the Duran-Leonard fight was singularly appropriate. The whole affair was a mirage.

I not only sympathize with those sports editors, but empathize. Mr. Cunniffe said to me one day, “Name a fighter.”

“Jack Dempsey.”

“Why not Muhammad Ali while you’re at it? Give me the name of a boxer not known to every Tom, Dick, and Harry.”

“All right…Baby Arizmendi.”

“Ah, good. Now give me his stats. Just how many fights he had. Can you do that? Officially. Never mind the newspapers.”

“Over a hundred, I’m sure of that.”

“Eedjit. He had one hundred and twenty five. Now name a fight at the Garden. Make it obscure.”

After what seemed like several sweat-drenched minutes…“Billy Soose against Tami Mauriello.”

“Good one. January 3, 1941. Soose by split decision. That was Mauriello’s first loss. Did you know that?”

“Yes,” I said. He gave me a skeptical look. Then, “Tommy Loughran lived around here,” meaning Manhattan’s East 70s. “He used to have lunch at Hickory Pit,” he continued. “I never saw him in anything but a suit and tie, and a homburg. Those were the days…a homburg.”

“Well, Rocky Graziano lived next door to me,” I said. “He used to come over to visit Henny Youngman, whom I kinda knew…” I trailed off because he was looking at me with those hooded eyes of his. What a great medieval pope he would have made.

I don’t know about the Carmelite nuns or the sports editors, but I’m the poorer for his passing. And so is the Sweet Science.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Il campione 1943



Jack Dempsey vs Luis Angel Firpo (Sept 1923)



Italia. Milano



SFF 2011 - TIBERIO MITRI - NON PENSAVO CHE LA VITA FOSSE COSì LUNGA



29 Giugno 1933 - 1967 - Primo Carnera



Emile Griffith vs Nino Benvenuti (I)



Titanic and Survivors - Genuine 1912 Footage



Ted "kid" Lewis & Jack "kid" Berg



Henry Armstrong vs Baby Arizmendi (V)



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  1. Clarence George 02:36am, 08/01/2014

    Isn’t it?  It’s about a hundred years old, I think.  He once sang it to Joanna Philbin, who wasn’t overly impressed (but should have been).  He had an ear for that sort of thing.  He liked saying the name, Earl Derr Biggers, who wrote the Charlie Chan novels, and I can’t say I blame him.  I once confused Biggers with John P. Marquand, who wrote the Mr. Moto books, and got lambasted.  Mr. Cunniffe’s younger brother, John, by the way, knew more about old movies than anyone I’ve ever known.  Could have been on a quiz show.  They died within three weeks of each other.

  2. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 08:30pm, 07/31/2014

    Clarence George-Wow! What a great “three sheets to the wind” ditty!

  3. Clarence George 06:13pm, 07/31/2014

    True enough, Irish—though a lawyer, Mr. Cunniffe wasn’t exactly overburdened with filthy lucre.  I sometimes treated him at the Grand Central Oyster Bar, and he liked it if a young lady enhanced our table with her comeliness.  I introduced him to the Whispering Gallery right outside the Oyster Bar, which (amazingly) he didn’t know of.  He did know, however, that George Metesky had planted a bomb in a sand urn just outside the restaurant.  Anyway, regarding his dearth of funds, he always voted for the candidate of the Rent is Too Damn High Party.

    My favorite Mr. Cunniffe story is when he left his apartment one morning to go about his daily business, only to eventually realize that it was 8:00 p.m., not 8:00 a.m.  I laughed uproariously, which got me a look of forbidding disapproval.

    He loved singing an old song, “Saloon”...

    Saloon, Saloon, Saloon.
    Have you been forgotten so soon?
    You nestled so sweet in that little side street,
    So respected, protected by cops on the beat.
    Since you’ve left us the world seems in darkness,
    like a cloud passing over the moon.
    No more joys in my life, no more lies to my wife.
    Saloon, saloon, saloon.

    Don’t worry too much about the judge’s kids—they’ll challenge that will, and successfully.

  4. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 04:37pm, 07/31/2014

    Clarence George-I’m bettin’ that when you had coffee with Mr. Cunniffe you were the one who picked up the tab…..John Jacob goes down with the Titanic and middleweight Enzo shows his widow that she really liked to boink after all…....which reminds me…..prominent Judge with a very large estate dies and his grieving widow seeks solace in the arms of her housekeeper’s teenage son who is bequeathed the entire estate upon her demise…the kids who loved their dad dearly…. don’t get shit!

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