On the Circuit: Part Two
Today, fighters who take a bout on short notice knowing their chances of winning are slim to none are still around, but they are fewer in number…
“This is the only industry where a guy can stick a cigar in his mouth and call himself a trainer.”—Syd Martin, New York trainer
Buck “Tombstone” Smith
“I am proud and pleased with my boxing career as a fighter and to Sean Gibbons who has contributed to my career from the start. My highlights in boxing was having 12 fights in one month, 1996 Guinness Book of World Records for the most consecutive wins without a loss (106 wins), the only fighter to fight twice in one night in two different states, 118 ko’s and a twelve year run, to be the only fighter in today’s boxing world (alive) with over 200 fights with a astonishing winning record 195 wins 17 losses and 118 ko’s…”—Buck Smith in a 2009 interview with Dave Ruff on Doghouse Boxing
“Buck Smith was a steady presence when boxing offered more dilettantes than hard-nosed journeymen.”—Pete Leonitis
Interestingly, Reggie Strickland’s point counterpart, Buck Smith, 179 (KO 120) – 19 (KO 8) – 2 in 224 bouts, has now retired having lost his last nine in a row, seven by way of stoppage. His early sanctuary was Oklahoma but later he became a road warrior extraordinaire and fought everywhere.
When he fought one George Jackson in 1993, his record was 147-5-2 coming in! He is in Guinness for having the longest streak of bouts without a loss (105). His career best was when he knocked out the then-rated Kirkland Laing (who had a decision win over the great Roberto Duran) in England. Buck also fought a draw with perennial contender Harold Brazier, a solid road warrior in his own right who finished with a great record of 105-18-1 and, unlike Buck, came within a hair of capturing a world title.
In one month, Smith fought 12 times in Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Indiana, Tennessee and Oklahoma. He once fought twice in one night in two different states. Buck and Reggie met five times and Buck, of course, won all five.
Smith wasn’t particularly exceptional, but when he landed his big hook, he was dangerous. Boxing was his essence; it was what he was all about. He fought dozens of times every year and gave a real effort each time. In these days of 20 bout “veterans,” Buck had over a hundred and seventy wins. This kind of schedule can’t be good for the human body, but it sure was a nice change for those who followed boxing back in the Eighties limited to reading one and two-line results posted in daily newspapers.
However, Buck didn’t always fight the greatest level of competition as the following discloses:
Keheven Johnson 24-71-5 (six losses to Buck Smith)
Reggie Strickland- 276 losses (five losses to Smith)
Kenny Willis 4-31(two losses to Smith)
Terry Williams 2-18 (four losses to Smith)
Bob Ervin 0-16 (four losses to Smith)
Tim Bowles 0-14 (two losses to Smith)
Anthony Davidson 1-13 (four losses to Smith)
Kenneth Kidd 25-42 (five losses to Smith)
Gary Brown 3-18 (two losses to Smith)
Verdell Smith 44-61- 3 (three losses to Smith)
Tim Brooks 3-24 (three losses to Smith)
Tim Bonds 3-28 (four losses to Smith)
Tommy Degan 0-13 (two losses to Smith)
Jorge Acosta 3-13 (three losses to Smith)
Quintan Fox 0-12 (two losses to Smith)
Rico Hernandez 10-26 (four losses to Smith)
Bobby Thomas 0-9 (three losses to Smith)
Tommy Jeans 3-54 (three losses to Smith)
George Jackson 1-9 (two losses to Smith)
Richard Wilson 14-66-3 (two losses to Smith)
John Simmons 1-28, Reese Smith 4-23, Ponce Ortiz 0-20, Kelly Brown 0-10, Ira Hathaway 0-8, Vernon Garrett 13-62, Jake Torrance 22-79-2, and Simmie Black (who also owned a mind-boggling record of 35-162-4) each fought and lost once to “Tombstone.”
Verdell Smith, a worthy opponent type, and Buck Smith were once part of an unorganized group of fighters who referred to themselves as the Knucklehead Boxing Club and their claim to fame was having logged hundreds of thousands of miles on the road. Sean Gibbons was the manager, matchmaker and sometimes last-minute replacement. To save money, they drove overnight and slept in the car. Gibbons drove the Knuckleheads everywhere and reportedly logged more than 300,000 miles on his Honda hatchback. Many of their fans were the people who also seemed to enjoy professional wrestling. There is more to the Knucklehead story, and I’ll try to mine that rich vein of gold in Part Three.
Today, fighters who take a bout on short notice knowing their chances of winning are slim to none are still around, but they are fewer in number. New licensing regulations have tightened up and much greater scrutiny is being given to ring records, medical history and whether a fighter can be competitive. Promoters are now required to verify a fighter’s record and keep doctors on hand at every fight, but most observers feel that new legislation doesn’t go far enough to eliminate some of the alleged skulduggery of the past. It’s simply more difficult for this type of fighter to get licensed today because the liability risk factor is too high.
Others road warriors like Marty Jakubowski, Dwayne Swift, Walter Cowans (26-101-1), Ray Menefee, Jim Kaczmarek, Jerry Smith, Wayne Grant, Bruce “The Mouse” Strauss, Vernon Garrett, Dave Robinson, Richard Wilson, and the aforementioned Jerry Strickland (who suffered 30 first round KOs) were in or on the periphery of this troupe of boxers from the Heartland. Some, like Chicago’s Jakubowski (110-7) were good; others, like John Moore from Evansville, Indiana at 11-56-2, or Gerald “The Weasel” Shelton, 8-49-3, were not.
Rocky Berg (alias Danny Vires) was the quintessential Oklahoma fighter. With a record of 62 (KO 41) – 41 (KO 26) – 2 in 108 bouts, he fought many top level opponents and managed to beat some while working from 1986-1997.
Terry “Buzzsaw” Rondeau was something of a “have gloves will travel” sort as he went 28-37 mostly on the East Coast. What distinguished the “Buzzsaw” was that he went 26-3 until 1971 after which he went 2-34. Keheven Johnson, out of Tulsa, was not as good, but he was almost as active with a slate of 24-71 (KO 36) – 5.
Rob Bleakley, out of Mitchell, Indiana, ran up 77 wins against 38 losses and seemed to have a particular liking to Richard Wilson whom he defeated 16 times out of 16! He also beat Reggie Strickland five out of six. Walter Cowans was a prototype finishing with a mark of 26-102-1 and fighting in small towns throughout the heartland— from Prior Lake, Minnesota to LaPorte, Indiana; Grand Forks, North Dakota to Omaha; and Morris, Illinois to Club Dimensions in Highland, Indiana.
Lee “The Quickster” Cargle fought throughout the dusty Midwest with frequent trips on the equally horrendous southern circuit. Starting out with a 14-fight unbeaten streak, he finished with an abysmal mark of 35-117-1, but he was stopped 30 times thus fulfilling the wishes of many a promoter. Five of his defeats came at the hands of Jakubowski. Another fighter from the region, Ken “Shotgun” Manuel, retired with a slate of 3-29, but two of his quick wins came against “The Quickster” in Oklahoma City.
“Keeping identities straight can be a headache. Some of the…boxers come here with names like Muhammad Muhammad…and I have to say to them, ‘Muhammad Muhammad is 3-2; what was your name when you were 3-16?’”—Dr. Stuart Kirshenbaum, former member of the Michigan Boxing Commission
Black, alias Spider Black and Fred Johnson, was another legendary loser who was both a designee and a barnstormer, albeit on the notorious southern circuit of Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas with occasional forays into the Midwest during the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. Like other barnstormers, he often used aliases to hide his identity from boxing commissions and fans. Some say he even impersonated deceased boxers but that could not be corroborated. He finished his career in 1996 having won four in a row against dreadful competition. Unfortunately and unlike the great Alabama Kid and Tiger Jack Fox, his final record was an inglorious. 35-162-4 in 201 bouts, and of his 162 losses, 95 came by way of stoppage. He was knocked out four times in one 33-day stretch in 1977.
As might be expected, Black met and lost to Buck Smith in 1987, though Buck was just 3-1 at the time. Between 1979 and 1989, he chalked up a record of 2-68. When he fought Jimmy Mitchell in August 1986, he was 20-90-4 coming in but Jimmy was 0-26 and it appeared Simmie might just win one. But Mitchell ended his long losing streak by weaving a web around “The Spider” over four rounds. Mitchell closed out his career with a 3-35 record with all of his fights being held in the south.
This heavyweight fought between 1980 and 2002 and won two of his last four bouts, but unfortunately finished with an awful mark of 17-120-5 with 78 losses coming by way of stoppage. Hines also fought on the southern circuit.
The Saga of Marris “Midnight” Virgil
Virgil may have tempted fate, for his record was 15 (KO 10) – 63 (KO 42) – 3. And 42 KOs in 63 losses is just too many for comfort. Still, every once and a while, the unexpected happens. On March 15, 2003, “Midnight” met Jonathan “the Native Sensation” Corn at the Ho-Chunk Casino in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Virgil was 14-53-3 at the time while “The Sensation” came in at an admirable 42-5-1, though most of his wins came against terrible opposition. However, a close look at his record reveled that in 1988, while 18-0-1, he beat Harold Brazier (104-15-1), in Baraboo for the unknown WAA Middleweight Title. Brazier was pretty shopworn and would fight just three more times, but a win is a win. Thus, Corn was a big favorite to take out Virgil, but things didn’t work out that way as “Midnight” took a six-rounder in what has to be the zenith of his career. Corn would never be the same, and Virgil lost his net ten bouts before retiring in 2004 with 81 fights under his belt.
Redtop and Tommy
Back in the day, there was one fighter who was representative of guys who had gloves and would travel. Teddy “Redtop” Davis (alias Murray “Sugar” Cain) was a staple on Friday Night Fights in the ‘50s and was a quintessential global barnstormer who gave as well as he received. He finished with a 70-75-6 record, but was only stopped five times. “Red Top” fought out of boxing crazy Stockton, California, while duking in Texas, the Philippines, Panama, Mexico, Jamaica, Cuba, Canada, France, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maryland, Louisiana, Ohio, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. In 1954, he beat the great Percy Bassett, 63-10-1 coming in. In fact, he split four with Bassett in all. In 1950, he beat the very tough Paddy DeMarco, then 49-4-1. He also fought three dukes with Willie Pep and one with Sandy Saddler. Arguably, Teddy may have been the best fighter in history with a losing record, and my memories of him are as fresh as yesterday’s.
Another was the very able Boston lightweight Tommy Tibbs who ran up a mark of 58-77-4, but was stopped only eight times. Fighting from 1950-1972, he worked his trade in such global ports as Soweto (Gauteng), South Africa, Jamaica, London, Paris, Australia, Italy, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Canada, Cuba, Hawaii, the Philippines, Venezuela—and barnstormed up and down the Eastern seaboard and Mid-Atlantic states. He split six with the great Harold Gomes. Sadly, he was shot to death during a dispute in a Roxbury bar in Boston at age 40.
And in a final touch of boxing irony, middleweight Michael Grant reeled in a 2-36 record fighting in and around New York and Philadelphia, as did cruiserweight Robert Thomas, 16-56-4. In fact, Thomas beat Grant in 1984. Robert “Jack of Heart” Jackson outdid both finishing with a 1-30-1 record. Who did he beat to garner that lone win? Why none other than the aforementioned Michael Grant in 1983.
There is more to these stories. Watch for Part Three coming soon.