Otis Thomas: The Arkansas Buzz-Saw

By Clarence George on March 6, 2015
Otis Thomas: The Arkansas Buzz-Saw
The crowd "cheered…satisfied they had seen a legitimate, but wild, uncouth contest."

At the Arena in St. Louis on December 7, 1938, Thomas was introduced to Tony Galento’s free-spirited interpretation of the rules of the game…

“It was the toughest fight I ever had.”—Tony Galento

Born in Crawfordsville, Arkansas, on May 8, 1911, Otis Thomas fought out of Chicago, becoming Golden Gloves heavyweight champion of 1934 by beating Max Marek (the same year Joe Louis outpointed Joe Bauer for the light heavyweight title in what was his last amateur bout). French Lane of the Chicago Tribune called it “The Fight of Fights.”

“It was the sort of fight spectacle the late Tex Rickard and all the other promoters have dreamed of staging,” writes Lane. “It carried the crowd back to the days when Jack Dempsey was truly the Manassa Mauler. It made 21,000 fans stand and shriek and plead and bite their tongues half off. It sent the crowd home half hysterical. Some were weeping, others were cheering. It took the blaze out of calloused fans. Fans who have been at the ringside of hundreds of fights and who never moved a muscle didn’t know what they were doing when this spectacle ended.”

Lane, who himself “joined in the bedlam,” seems awestruck when writing that “the final two minutes was a slugging match. They stood toe to toe and punched with both hands until the bell.”

A colleague of Lane, Wilfrid Smith, says the “praise was not extravagant,” calling the tournament “one of the tallest peaks in the history of amateur boxing” and Thomas-Marek “Golden Gloves’ greatest bout.”

Thomas turned pro the next year, and fought until 1942, winding up with a record of 20 wins, eight by knockout, six losses, three by knockout, and two draws. All right, so Thomas didn’t live up to his amateur promise, but he always brought it. Why, in a foreshadowing of Rocky Marciano-Roland LaStarza, Ad Wiater had to have surgery to remove bone chips from his elbows after he drew against Thomas at Marigold Gardens Outdoor Arena in Chicago on October 7, 1935.

The “Arkansas Buzz-Saw” fought Arturo Godoy at the Hippodrome in New York City on February 3, 1937, “with both eyebrows heavily patched,” reports the Chicago Tribune (perhaps from his loss to Willie Reddish the month before, the first of his career). The Chilean “opened an old wound over the right eye and the Chicago boxer bled profusely.” Still, the southpaw outboxed, outpunched, and outfought Godoy “with nicely executed rights and uppercuts.” It was in the second round that Godoy got the blood to gush over Thomas’ right eye. The third was more of the same until the ref brought it to a close, Godoy winning by TKO.

At the Arena in St. Louis on December 7, 1938, Thomas was introduced to Tony Galento’s free-spirited interpretation of the rules of the game.

“Thomas gave Galento a good fight right up to the end,” according to the Chicago Tribune. “And on the strength of winning one round through a low blow by Galento had a slight edge on the New Jersey bartender going into the ninth round. The knockout came one round after Referee Walter Heisner had stopped the bout momentarily and threatened to give it to Thomas because of Galento’s low blows.”

Panicked by Heisner’s threat, Galento manager Joe Jacobs huddled with Thomas manager Billy Duffy, who told Commissioner Russell Murphy that “We don’t want to win this thing on a foul. Otis Thomas is a proud man. He wants to win it fair and square.” Murphy told Heisner that if “they committed any more fouls, throw them out.”

“The pair had fought a hard fight and the longer it went the hotter and fouler it got,” writes Galento biographer Joseph G. Donovan. “With both pitching illegal punches, hitting on breaks and committing every known violation of the boxing code,” Galento brought it to a close by knockout in the ninth.

The crowd “cheered both fighters as they left the ring,” Donovan writes. “They were satisfied they had seen a legitimate, but wild, uncouth contest.”

Joseph Monninger, a current “Two Ton” biographer, isn’t as confident as Donovan that the fight wasn’t rigged, as “Galento carried a whiff of cigar smoke and backroom dealing wherever he went.”

And Billy Duffy carried something more than a whiff. A New York character who conducted business out of the Capitol Hotel on 51st and Eighth, Big Bill was a business associate of Owney Madden, running a variety of clubs, including Duffy’s Tavern on 44th between Sixth and Broadway (where “robust servitors ministered to the needs of the palate, particularly a dry palate”) and the Silver Slipper at 201 West 48th (where “lovely coryphees of Broadway gave the eye a treat”). He called himself a restaurateur, did Billy. And, oh yeah, he managed Primo Carnera. Apropos of nothing, except that he’s outrageously forgotten and deserves a mention, Duffy also managed iron-chinned middleweight Phil Kaplan.

After being stopped by Elmer Ray via third-round KO at Dorsey Park in Miami on March 3, 1942, Thomas hung up the gloves on his lackluster, but not lack-fire, career. He joined the Army and served during World War II.

Dying on November 2, 1997, age 86, he’s buried at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis.

Worth a visit and a tip of the hat, if you’re ever down Missouri way.

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  1. Clarence George 02:01am, 03/11/2015

    Good man, Bob, and I knew I could count on you.

    Like most of these guys, there’s damn little information on Thomas’ post-boxing life.  But perhaps a relative will comment here, and we’ll learn more.  It could be worse.  Think of guys like Oakland Billy Smith and the largely forgotten Eddie Wenstob.  Both are likely dead, but we don’t even know that much.

  2. Bob 07:12pm, 03/10/2015

    I see Thomas lived a long life and hope he was able to enjoy it. If ever in Missouri, my hat will be tipped.

  3. Kid Blast 09:31am, 03/09/2015

    There is no such thing as a bad win

  4. Clarence George 04:01pm, 03/07/2015

    Right you are, Chuck.  Duffy was an unsavory character, and some suspect that he’d made a deal for Thomas to go in the tank.  But the fight doesn’t come across that way and Thomas doesn’t strike me that way.  He reminds me of Larry Gains.  When asked to take a dive, he said, “Sorry, I don’t even swim.”

    Another thing…Thomas joined the Army, and during wartime, when he was over 30.  He didn’t have to, and he probably wouldn’t have been drafted…impressive.

  5. ch. 03:09pm, 03/07/2015

    You are absolutely correct, Clarence. Otis deserves his props for not wanting to win on a foul but to win it honorably or go out on his shield. Reminds me of Genaro Hernandez refusing to take the DQ win against Azumah Nelson in order to win the fight “like a man.” Otis Thomas was a good and dangerous fighter that was widely avoided.

  6. Clarence George 02:33pm, 03/07/2015

    Ha!  Not at all sure, Peter.

  7. peter 02:20pm, 03/07/2015

    Are we sure Galento is not kicking him in this photo?

  8. Clarence George 10:53am, 03/07/2015

    Peter Falk’s film debut, Eric.  Also, Budd Schulberg fired Nicholas Ray and took over the film himself.

  9. Eric 10:43am, 03/07/2015

    Saw a photo of Galento sporting a beard in the movie, “Wind Across The Everglades.” Never had heard of the movie, but the beard was a good look for Tony.

  10. Clarence George 10:36am, 03/07/2015

    Chuck:  Let me know what happens when you use the word.  It should be effective with the ladies, especially if said with a self-confident purr.  Picture George Sanders saying it, and you’ll see what I mean.

    Delighted you liked the piece, in which Two Ton does indeed play a deservedly prominent role.  But let’s not forget Buzz-Saw…I suspect he’s already been too much forgotten.

  11. ch. 09:29am, 03/07/2015

    You made me go to the dictionary again, Clarence. PROLIX will now be part of my vocabulary. I dare somebody to give me a chance to use it in a conversation (I’m sure they will be impressed). Another good story on the (in)famous Tony Galento.

  12. Clarence George 08:17am, 03/07/2015

    Delighted, Irish.

    Yeah, Lupe hasn’t put in an appearance in a while.  Recalcitrant hussy.

    I didn’t know of “Duffy’s Tavern,” so I did some research and found several references, such as, “Hello, Duffy’s Tavern, where the elite meet to eat.”  As for the Duffy’s Tavern that had been on 44th…God knows what’s there now.  And the same is true of the Silver Slipper on 48th.  But I intend to find out (though I’ll probably regret it).  Speaking of which, the Waterfront Crabhouse has closed, following the death of owner Tony Mazzarella (RIP).  Damn!

  13. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 07:50am, 03/07/2015

    Clarence George-I’m partial to this genre of boxing article and ” lovely coryphees” too….I might add. I wouldn’t mind it if either Tony or Lupe made a guest appearance in all of your articles here on Boxing.com….which reminds me…. In days gone by there used to be a radio program titled “Duffy’s Tavern”.

  14. Clarence George 06:29am, 03/07/2015

    A bit prolix, NYI, but I always value your approbation.

  15. NYIrish 06:18am, 03/07/2015

    Good stuff.

  16. Clarence George 04:30am, 03/07/2015

    Very glad, Beaujack.  And another great reminiscence.

    I looked it up for you:  Ray stopped Savold by second-round KO on Saturday, August 28, 1946.

    Unlike his brother, Camilli lived a very long life.  I think he only died about 20 years ago, when he was in his 90s.  A long time to be without your brother.

    Max Marek was indeed “The Man Who Beat Joe Louis” (as he forever after billed himself), thus winning the Golden Gloves light heavyweight championship of 1933 (though I’m not sure he kayoed him).  He had an indifferent pro record, however.

  17. beaujack 10:00pm, 03/06/2015

    Enjoyed this article of the brawl between Otis Thomas and Sir Anthony Galento…Max Marek I believe kod Joe Louis before Louis turned pro in 1934. Speaking of Elmer Ray, my dad took me to Ebbett;s Field in Bklyn to see Elmer Ray ko Lee Savold…Elmer Ray was an early edition of Ron Lyle, big and strong. I lived a few blocks from Ebbett’s Field as a youngster and saw Dolph Camilli play first base. Camilli was the brother of the heavyweight Frankie Campbell who was kod by young Max Baer and died as a result in 1930…

  18. Clarence George 08:51pm, 03/06/2015

    Thanks, KB.  And I quite agree with you about Ray, who was not only a phenomenal puncher but also a terrific boxer.

  19. Kid Blast 07:57pm, 03/06/2015

    Nicely done and informative.

    Elmer Ray was also neglected a bit.

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