Phenomenon: Why Harry Greb Was So Great
Some men just look like fighters. One look into their eyes, one scan of their features, and you know they’ve got the right stuff…
Before his first fight with Harry Greb in the spring of 1922, Gene Tunney had an injection of adrenaline chloride in his left eyebrow, which had split open during training. The injury was only the beginning of his problems.
Tunney, the consummate boxer who had sailed so serenely through the ranks, suddenly stumbled into a dark and brutal place on the night of May 23 at Madison Square Garden. Everything fell apart for the man who had so meticulously planned his every move in life. His seemingly robust template for success was mangled and bashed completely out of shape by the perpetual motion machine that was Harry Greb.
Tunney would describe his nightmare in typically clinical detail: “In the first exchange in the first round, I sustained a double fracture of the nose, which bled continually until the finish. Toward the end of the first round, my left eyebrow was laid open four inches. I am convinced that the adrenaline solution that had been injected so softened the tissue that the first blow or butt I received cut the flesh right to the bone.
“In the third round another cut over the right eye left me looking through a red film. For the best part of twelve rounds, I saw this red phantom-like form dancing before me. I had provided myself with a fifty per cent mixture of brandy and orange juice to take between rounds in the event I became weak from loss of blood. I had never taken anything during a fight up to that time. Nor did I ever again.
“It is impossible to describe the bloodiness of this fight. My seconds were unable to stop either the bleeding from the cut over my left eye, which involved a severed artery, or the bleeding consequent to the nose fractures. Doc Bagley, who was my chief second, made futile attempts to congeal the nose bleeding by pouring adrenaline into his hand and having me snuff it up my nose. This I did round after round. The adrenaline, instead of coming out through the nose again, ran down my throat with the blood and into my stomach.
“At the end of the twelfth round, I believed it was a good time to take a swallow of this brandy and orange juice. It had hardly gotten to my stomach when the ring started whirling around. The bell rang for the thirteenth round; the seconds pushed me from my chair. I actually saw two red opponents. How I ever survived the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth rounds is still a mystery to me. At any rate, the only consciousness I had was to keep trying. I knew if I ever relaxed, I would either collapse or the referee would stop the brutality.”
Like so many others before and after him, Tunney thought he knew how to jam the works of Greb’s threshing machine until the chopping and the slicing began. In a sense, Gene did. He knew all about the machine’s cutting capability, speed and violence. What he didn’t fully appreciate was the cleverness and guile that came with it.
Tunney took a savage and prolonged beating, the kind with which we are no longer familiar and would no longer be allowed. So infuriated was Gene that he retired to his bed with his sore body and applied his formidable intellect to devising a game plan for his revenge.
Some men just look like fighters. They don’t have to make a fist, strike a pose, strut around the place or talk the talk. One look into their eyes, one scan of their features, and you know they’ve got the right stuff.
Harry Greb, like the great Stanley Ketchel before him, looked like a fighter all over. The tight eyes, the harshly scraped hair and the lean body told you at a glance that Greb was a man apart even in the toughest sport of all.
Legions of great pretenders have discovered to their disappointment that you cannot buy, steal or fake what is only given to the chosen few. A mean look and a hard attitude won’t protect you from a harsh dose of reality if you are not cut from the right cloth.
There have been a great many fighters who have tried to imitate Harry Greb and inherit his impregnable armor and fighting heart. Most of them are tucked away and forgotten in boxing’s vast A to Z archives with maybe ten or twelve fights on their log.
If Harry Greb had a dozen fights in a year alone, he was going slow. Nicknamed the Pittsburgh Windmill because of his perpetual motion style, Harry was no less fast and furious in the rate at which he swelled his astonishing ring record. When he was all done, he had jammed 299 fights into the short space of fourteen years, having fought everybody who was somebody in a golden era of teeming talent. Don’t go looking for any padding on Greb’s record. You won’t find it.
For those interested in the finer details of decimal points, Greb averaged 21.5 fights a year, and only the Grim Reaper finally stopped him in 1926. Boxers of Harry’s era had to fight frequently to earn any meaningful money, and winning a world championship didn’t necessarily buy them a ticket to a more leisurely lifestyle. The heavyweight champion was just about the only guy who could afford to take a walk on Easy Street. The difference between the average annual salary of Harry Greb and Jack Dempsey was immense.
A perfect illustration of this fact is that between winning the middleweight championship from Johnny Wilson in 1923 and losing it to Tiger Flowers in 1926, Greb defended his title six times and had fifty other fights besides.
As for the list of illustrious fighters he faced, many of them in ongoing series and most of whom he defeated, we can only shake our heads at the sheer breadth and depth of talent. Harry bounced around the weight divisions like a mischievous rubber ball, whipping the cream of his own class, thrashing top quality light heavyweights and heavyweights and even roughing up Dempsey in their famous sparring sessions of 1921.
Greb defeated George Chip, Al McCoy, Jeff Smith, Mike McTigue, Eddie McGoorty, Tiger Flowers, Gunboat Smith, Battling Levinsky Jimmy Slattery and Maxie Rosenbloom.
He was two and one over the brilliant Tommy Gibbons, and also split a pair of decisions with Tommy’s gifted brother, Mike, the legendary Minnesota ace whose marvelous defensive skills won him the nickname of the St. Paul Phantom.
In four out of five meetings with that other master boxer, Tommy Loughran, Greb was the boss.
Harry twice bested heavyweight contender Bill Brennan and was also too good for one of the greatest light heavyweights of all in the Hoosier Bearcat, Jack Dillon. Giant killer Jack also specialized in terrorizing bigger men, but he was past his best after a torrid career and Harry was all over him in their two meetings.
In their second match at the Toledo Coliseum in Ohio in 1918, Greb administered a terrific thrashing to Dillon. The local newspaper reported that Harry pounded Jack’s nose to a pulp, staggered him and overwhelmed him.
Tunney was undoubtedly Harry’s master in their wonderful five-fight rivalry, though not as comprehensively as the history books suggest. Historians and researchers have lately credited Greb with the newspaper decision in their fourth fight at Cleveland, which would make Gene the three to two winner in their series. After their final scrap, Greb reportedly visited Tunney’s dressing room and good-naturedly barked, “I never want to fight you again.”
Right from the start of his career, Greb was forever on the move and looking for the next fight. In 1915, while still serving his boxing apprenticeship, he engaged in successive fights with Billy Miske and the dangerous Jack Blackburn, who would go on to achieve greater fame as the master trainer of Joe Louis.
Even the loss of sight in one eye failed to curb Greb’s enthusiasm or dull his ability. Historians disagree on which fight caused the injury, but it is most commonly believed that Harry suffered a detached retina in the first of two vicious fights with Kid Norfolk. Greb kept the injured eye a secret from all but his wife and closest friends, finally consenting to its removal in a private operation in Atlantic City. A perfectly matching glass eye was substituted, attached to the eye muscles by sheep tendons.
However, a further operation later on proved too much even for Harry’s great heart. Shortly after his second title match with Tiger Flowers, Greb underwent an operation to remove facial scars sustained in an automobile accident and from his multitude of tough fights. He died on the operating table on October 27, 1926.
Writers, fans and fellow opponents came to praise Harry Greb when he was alive, and they praised him when he died. Incredibly, more than eighty years after his passing, Harry’s name is still writ large on the boxing landscape.
Many of today’s fighters use Greb as the ultimate reference when the talk turns to giving every last drop and fighting to the death. His name is mentioned in reverence in cult TV programs. The International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO) voted him the greatest middleweight of all time in a 2006 poll. Many fight fans and experts also rate him tops in the pound-for-pound stakes.
The accolades are endless and the conclusion is crystal clear. In the era of five-minute fame, Harry Greb has become an icon for all the ages, a roguish and familiar ghost we are happy to have in our house as a permanent guest. Not because of sentiment, but because he earned the right to be there.
Perhaps the explanation for Greb’s enduring and universal appeal really isn’t that complex. Even when he was alive and kicking in the roaring twenties, Harry seemed timeless and oddly ethereal. He was rock ‘n’ roll thirty years before the term was invented, and yet he wasn’t. He was too special and too indefinable to be shoe-horned into any era or hitched to any passing trend.
Greb loved to fight and he loved to live. He did both with total conviction and commitment. Once in your life, if you are lucky, you get to brush against such an individual. You can feel the electric and sense the danger, but you know to your frustration that you can never step into that special zone and be that man.
How did Harry Greb do it? Where did the energy and the passion come from? How could he keep punching long after others were spent from their efforts? There are no convenient answers to such questions in the case of rare talents. They are just meant to be.
Contemporary writer Frank G. Menke said of Harry, “The only thing he ever seems to do in training for battles is to get himself a new haircut and a fresh shave. Sleep is something he gets – when he thinks about getting it.”
In 1926, the Oakland Tribune gave its readers an update on Harry’s strenuous preparations for an imminent fight: “Harry Greb, middleweight champion of the world, is shooting pool in Los Angeles today and will top his training in the south tonight at a dance. It is quite likely that Harry will exercise tomorrow in a taxi cab and arrive here Monday in perfect condition for his ten-round fight with Jimmy Delaney at the Auditorium Wednesday night.”
Now, it should be pointed out that tales of Harry’s fast living and lack of application were greatly exaggerated. Great stories always are. Like so many other super busy fighters of his generation, Greb didn’t have to put in extra time at the gymnasium because he spent most of the time fighting for real against opponents of exceptional quality.
Outside the ring he was a happily married man who enjoyed the social life but who was seldom reckless. Too many late nights and too much alcohol abuse would never have allowed him to maintain his incredible fitness and stamina levels. Take a look at that film clip of Harry working the speed bag. He is as lean and as taut as a greyhound.
Fellow fighters spoke of Harry Greb in awe. Gene Tunney observed, “Greb could move like a phantom and had ring cunning far beyond estimates made of him in the press.”
Such was Tunney’s admiration for Harry, he was a pallbearer at Greb’s funeral.
Jack Dempsey described Greb as the fastest fighter he ever saw. Irish ace Jimmy McLarnin said, “If you thought I was great, you should have seen Harry Greb.”
It would be interesting to know how Harry regarded such flattery. Quite possibly, he lapped it up. More probably, he wondered what all the fuss was about.
He certainly had a sense of humor and seemed to admire honesty and candor in others. During some lusty infighting in one of his two wars with Tiger Flowers, Greb suffered the rare experience of being caught off guard. As he was going through his usual repertoire of punching, thumbing and cussing, he was taken aback by Tiger’s polite request not to take the Lord’s name in vain. “I thought he was kidding,” Harry said later, “but I’ll be damned if he didn’t mean it.”
Greb had even more devilish fun with fellow great, Mickey Walker. Mickey, the pugnacious Toy Bulldog, was the reigning welterweight champion when he stepped up to challenge Harry for his crown on July 2, 1925, before a crowd of 50,000 at the Polo Grounds in New York. The two warriors waged one of the greatest fights ever seen at the famous venue, with Greb coming through after a terrific rally in an unforgettable fourteenth round.
Slightly lagging at that point in the fight, Harry suddenly nailed Mickey with a big right that had the Toy Bulldog hurt and tottering. Walker backed into his own corner and swayed glassy-eyed as Greb unloaded punch after punch.
Then there followed a magical moment. Mickey shook his head, water spraying from his black hair, and cracked Harry on the chin with a big right. The heaving crowd went wild. As Damon Runyon reported, “A roar rolled up out of the bowl under Coogan’s Bluff that must have echoed over all Harlem and Washington Heights.”
The pace of the fight had been tremendous throughout and Walker closed strongly to win the final round. But it wasn’t enough. Greb had once again prevailed with his almost unique mix of ferocity, speed, guile and cleverness.
It was all too much for referee Eddie Purdy, who twice fell and injured a knee joint in trying to keep up with the whirling dervishes.
But the great rivalry didn’t end with the clang of the final bell. Greb and Walker met up later at the Guinan Club, a noted New York nightclub of the time, where they drank champagne and chatted to the glamorous owner and hostess, Texas Guinan. Happy and well oiled by the time they hit the night air at around two or three in the morning, Harry and Mickey began discussing their fight for the first time.
It was then that Mickey put his foot in it, offering the opinion that he would have won the match if Greb hadn’t thumbed him. “It was the worst thing I could have said,” Walker recalled. “I didn’t mean it as an insult.”
Greb obviously did see it as an insult and replied, “You bum, I could lick you if I had no hands.” Harry offered to beat Walker again right where they stood. Greb couldn’t wait to get his coat off, but it got stuck around his elbows as he pulled too hard and Walker belted him with a terrific uppercut. Mickey always bragged thereafter that he won their unofficial return.
The two men got lucky. The only person around at that hour was a massive Irish beat cop called Pat Casey, whom Walker described as being as big as Primo Carnera. Familiar with Greb and Walker and their idea of a good night out, Casey waived the incident and told them to get off home.
Walker enjoyed ribbing Greb but always acknowledged Harry’s superiority as a fighter, placing him on the gold standard with Stanley Ketchel and Jack Dempsey.
Mickey never forgot one incredible incident from the Polo Grounds classic. “Harry could hit you from impossible angles. Once, after he missed a right to my face, he spun all the way around so that his back faced me. I relaxed my guard and waited for him to turn around. But before I knew what was happening, his left was stuck in my mouth. I still don’t know how he did it, but he hit me while his hands faced in the opposite direction.”
It is no exaggeration to describe Harry Greb as a force of nature, much like his middleweight brothers in history, Stanley Ketchel and Carlos Monzon. These are the men who have to rush to get things done, because generally they have to pay the piper a lot sooner than the rest of us. They seem to know, somewhere in their souls, that they are fleeting spirits
Ketchel was shot to death when he was twenty-four. Greb died at thirty-two and Monzon was gone at fifty-two. It is easy to become maudlin about such things and trot out the old Marvin Gaye line about the good dying young.
But in all truth, do we really enjoy watching wild horses grow old?
Mike Casey is the Founder & Editor of ALL TIME BOXING at https://sites.google.com/site/alltimeboxingrankings. He is a freelance journalist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).
Copyright © Mike Casey