Ray Arcel: Dean of Them All
“If you watch videos of the old-time fights from the late 1920s through the 1930s right into the early ‘40s, invariably you’ll see Ray Arcel…”
“Ring sense is an art, a gift from God that flows out of a fighter like a great painting flows out of an artist, or a great book flows out of an author.”—Ray Arcel
Boxing is not the sport it was. The components are the same, the ring is still square, but things have changed, and not just the game’s prominence. Not everyone agrees and they are entitled to their opinion. But the long view suggests that boxing, if not a dying art, would benefit from resuscitation.
Like other classical arts—painting, sculpture, theater, ballet—its foundations were established long ago. And like other classical arts, the fundamentals were passed from generation to generation by word of mouth. But as times changed, people and tastes changed with them, and the old truths were supplanted by new truths, which will in turn be supplanted by truths not yet conceived. But “The sweet science,” to quote A.J. Liebling, “is joined onto the past like a man’s arm to his shoulder.” To deny this basic fact is to not only deny the game’s rich history, but to turn one’s back on some of what ails boxing today.
The coarsening of skills is as much a part of the fistic landscape as the coarsening of discourse regarding those skills. This is not exclusive to boxing. Ours is a golden age of technology, the rise of the machines. We may love machines, and think, look, feel and act like machines, but we, like boxing, are made of different stuff. Wherever we’re coming from, be it a crowded inner city or suburban paradise, from a place of ego or elevated consciousness, we can all agree that boxing at its best is like nothing else. Of course it’s not perfect. Behind-the-scenes thuggery is as omnipresent as ever, but it’s masked, hidden in shadows produced by 1000 watt smiles and blinking colored lights. There were always men who resisted, to varying degrees, the blandishments of power. But they always were and always will be in the minority.
Hall of Fame trainer Ray Arcel was born in Terre Haute, Indiana on August 30, 1899. His father was a Russian-Jewish immigrant. His mother was born in Brooklyn. She wanted to leave the Midwest and return to her family and roots in New York, so the Arcels relocated to Manhattan, first to the Lower East Side and then to West 106th Street in Harlem. Not long after they arrived, Ray Arcel’s mother passed away. He was four years old at the time.
Growing up when and where he did, Arcel took the path of most resistance and trained to be a boxer at Grupp’s Gymnasium on 116th Street and Eighth Avenue.
“You had to fight in those days,” Arcel told Ronald K. Fried in Corner Men. “You lived in a neighborhood where you were challenged every day. We were the only Jewish family there, but that’s an old story. Of course, fighting in the street meant nothing. Wherever you’d go, you’d see two guys fighting. If you didn’t fight you were yellow.”
Ray Arcel didn’t dream of becoming world champion, but dream he did. “The important part of boxing is not that youngsters realize their dreams, but that they can dream,” he said. “Every day in the gym they’re something special. They’re a fighter.”
At Grupp’s Arcel came under the tutelage of two fine trainers, Dai Dollings and Frank “Doc” Bagley. Dollings, a Welshman who had worked with Harry Wills, Johnny Genaro, Jack Britton, Johnny Dundee and Ted Kid Lewis, taught that each fighter was an individual and must be trained accordingly. Bagley, who once managed Gene Tunney and was in his corner in 1922 when he lost to Harry Greb, taught Ray the fine art of being a cutman.
Arcel trained his first champion, the ace flyweight Frankie Genaro who decisioned Pancho Villa, in 1923. The next year Ray seconded Abe Goldstein when he fought and defeated Joe Lynch to win the bantamweight title.
It’s a cliché but no misnomer to write that those were the days. Boxing was the sport of sports. Jack Dempsey was heavyweight champion of the world. “A Dempsey fight was magic,” Arcel told the New York Times in 1983. “The minute he walked into the ring you could see smoke rising from the canvas. You knew you were going to see a tiger let loose…Dempsey would have had a picnic with most of today’s fighters.”
Arcel joined forces with another brilliant trainer named Whitey Bimstein in 1925, a partnership which almost lasted a decade. Their base of operations was Stillman’s Gym, aka The University of Eighth Avenue, a hallowed dump just spitting distance from Madison Square Garden. Arcel was at Stillman’s when it first opened in the 1920s and remembered it as though it was yesterday: “There were more thieves in Stillman’s Gym than in the penitentiary.”
When Lou Stillman retired in 1959, he told the New York Times, “There’s no more tough guys around, not enough slums. That’s why I’m getting out of the business. The racket’s dead. These fighters today are all sissies.”
Together with Bimstein or as an independent, Arcel was cornerman to such legendary talents as Henry Armstrong, Jack Kid Berg, Lou Brouillard, Cerefino Garcia, Sixto Escobar, Kid Gavilan, Benny Leonard, Charley Phil Rosenberg, Barney Ross and Tony Zale.
“You didn’t have to be a great trainer to work with a Barney Ross or Benny Leonard,” Arcel said. “I mean, these guys were natural.”
The first heavyweight Arcel trained was James Braddock for his fight with Joe Louis in 1937. Over the years, Arcel trained fifteen members of the Joe Louis Bum-of-the-Month Club, a Who’s Who of horizontal fighters who got bombed by the Brown Bomber.
“As soon as the bell rang, they folded like tulips.”
Ray Arcel could take a great fighter, perform his magic, and make a great fighter even greater. But he also had a mouth that would not quit. Because of his honesty, integrity and contempt for boxing’s underbelly, Arcel made plenty of enemies, both in and out of the sport.
“Boxing had glamour,” he observed. “Oh, sure, we had scoundrels in those days, but they were clever scoundrels.”
In the early 1950s Arcel began arranging fights for ABC-TV. Unfortunately a rival network with close ties to the IBC (International Boxing Club), run by Frankie Carbo and James Norris, felt the pinch and Ray Arcel was a marked man. On September 19, 1953, Arcel was standing outside a Boston hotel, having just returned from Yom Kippur services, when he was struck in the forehead with a lead pipe. He suffered a concussion, spent nineteen days in a hospital, and was lucky he wasn’t killed. Not long after the attack, Arcel retired from boxing for eighteen years.
“Money is the sickness of the boxing business,” he said. “Maybe the sickness of the world.”
Arcel returned to boxing in 1972 and, with another master trainer, Freddie Brown, began a productive eight-year relationship with Roberto Duran. Arcel and Brown first worked with Duran for his fight against lightweight champion Ken Buchanan at the Garden. “Freddie Brown is like my Poppa,” Duran told Jerry Izenberg. “I can’t even go to the bathroom without him peeking. But Ray Arcel, for him I have no words.” Arcel was as taken with Duran as Duran was with him. “Nobody had to teach Duran how to fight. The first day I saw him—not in New York, I saw him in Panama—I told everybody around him, ‘Don’t change his style. Leave him alone. I don’t want anybody to ever tell him what to do. Let him fight.’” Arcel also trained Duran for his victory over Sugar Ray Leonard in their first meeting in 1980, but he gave up on Manos de Piedra after the infamous “No mas” rematch.
Arcel said after the fight: “Nobody quits in my corner.”
There were a million excuses for Duran’s non-performance that night, everything from a tummy ache to heart disease. Arcel wasn’t buying it. “You mean to tell me Duran has a heart condition?” he said. “He doesn’t even have a heart.”
The last fighter Arcel seconded was Larry Holmes in 1982, in his racially-tinged fight with Gerry Cooney.
“You’re only as good as the fighter you work with. I don’t care how much you know. If your fighter can’t fight, you’re another bum in the park.”
Ray Arcel was one of the greatest cornermen in the history of the game. He trained over 2000 boxers, including 20 world champions.
“I never considered myself a trainer,” Arcel said sagely. “I considered myself a teacher.”
Ray Arcel, the man Red Smith described as “the first gentleman of fistfighting,” died on March 7, 1994, an eloquent, compassionate, knowledgeable man lost to boxing and the world.
Ray Arcel was fascinating at a distance and even more so up close. Mike Silver, author of “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science,” spent time with Arcel, and I wanted get his take on the man called the “dean of them all.”
“Like any other profession, you’re going to have rotten apples and you’re going to have good people,” Silver said. “Ray Arcel went beyond being one of the good people. He was a superlative human being in my opinion who boxing was very fortunate to have. Boxing is a sport that is very easy to come down on because it’s a violent contact sport where physical injury is rampant. It’s not like, ‘Let’s go to the diamond and play baseball,’ or ‘Let’s have a game of tennis.’ Young boxers are always at risk of being ruined physically and psychologically, especially early in their careers. What you want is a trainer who takes an interest in the fighter that goes above and beyond his own interest, but who really cares about the person he is charged with to train and prepare to compete in a very dangerous profession.”
Most of us who write about boxing never mention its inherent dangers. It might be because it’s a given. It might be because it might be misconstrued as being overly critical. Be that as it may, Arcel, whose heart was as open as his mind, respected the fighters as much as they respected them. Or as journalist W.C. Heinz succinctly put it, “Ray Arcel is more concerned with the fighter than the fight.”
Silver continued, “The best you can say about Arcel—and there have been other trainers like this, but they’re certainly not in the majority—he was the type of trainer that if you had a son, and that son insisted on becoming a boxer, Ray Arcel was the one you’d want to train and condition him. Not because he was a better trainer than everyone else. He was not. He was not the best technical trainer in the world. He understood boxing. He was a good overall strategist. His main strengths were in conditioning the athlete and his work in the corner. But Ray Arcel above and beyond anything else, looked out for the health and well-being of his fighter.”
Because we generally focus on knockout artists and ring generals, rather than the hobbyists and infantrymen who populate the sport, we tend to gloss over the fact that the vast majority of former fighters are not in good shape. In part that’s the result of having taken too many blows to the head. In part it’s indifference.
“Some years back, while researching for an article on Arcel, I came across a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! cartoon. The caption read, ‘Ray Arcel of New York City, one of the greatest trainers for 65 years, guided nearly 2,000 fighters, 20 of whom became world champions…and not one of them was ever seriously hurt.’” Mike Silver laughed. “I don’t know if that’s true or not. I would be surprised if it was; that’s a remarkable statement. But I knew Ray Arcel personally and he was just a wonderful gentleman, courteous, not egotistical in any way. I always admired him, never spoke to him before, and just made a cold call about doing an article for Ring Magazine in the early 1980s. He invited me to his home, gave me all the time I needed, and he could not have been more gracious and helpful.”
Being gentlemanly in boxing is an anomaly. It’s like being a Christian at the Colosseum, or a Jew during the Auto-da-fé. That may sound extreme, but boxing, whose roots are a given, is nothing if not extreme. I’m not suggesting that “damnatio ad bestia” and Torquemada are still among us, but there’s little to suggest that dropping one’s guard furthers self-preservation. Those with manners often use them to veil their treachery. Others don’t even pretend. There are of course blessed exceptions, one of whom was Ray Arcel, whose politesse was the stuff of legend. “Ray Arcel is the only man I ever knew,” said Damon Runyon, “who would say ‘yes, ma’am,’ and ‘no, ma’am,’ in a house of prostitution.”
“Anybody who is truly objective, if you’re a fan and can be objective about the sport, has a love-hate relationship with boxing,” continued Silver. “But Ray Arcel was one of the redeeming gems of the sport. He saved the sport, in my opinion, in the sense that there was so much bad in it and so many awful characters outside the ring, as we know, that to have somebody like this in the sport—he would be a credit to any profession he entered. His character and conscience made him someone you were glad was in the sport.”
No less amazing than Arcel’s “character and conscience” in a sport full of unconscionable characters was the fact that his involvement in boxing spanned most of the 20th century.
“It was almost as if he was a character in a novel, where you create an individual who follows history. Ray Arcel, although he was real, was like this fictional character that was there from the beginning, when boxing was just entering its golden age. He came into the sport as a 16-year-old boxer in 1914-1915. He came into adulthood when Jack Dempsey won the heavyweight championship from Jess Willard. He became a trainer about the same time that Dempsey defeated Carpentier. He was a semi-pro boxer early on but felt that his main strength was as a teacher and he participated in almost every major fight, especially if it took place in New York, which most of the major fights did. But he also traveled around the country and seemed to be everywhere. His first champion was Frankie Genaro in 1923, and by 1930 he was considered one of the best trainers in the world and was in great demand. If you watch videos of the old-time fights from the late 1920s through the 1930s right into the early ‘40s and if you look in the corner, invariably you’ll see Ray Arcel. He’s always there! He lived the entire length of this sport. You could say boxing began and ended with Ray Arcel.”
When Ray Arcel was attacked in 1953 it made news, in part because boxing made news in those days. Although nobody ever discovered who ordered or carried out the attack—and if Arcel knew he wasn’t talking—it “started the ball rolling that eventually led to putting some of these thugs in jail.” He promoted fights for another year. “But as he said to me,” recalled Silver, “‘The game is dying. It just wasn’t worth it to me anymore. I decided to get out,’ and that was it, he got out. But it wasn’t the first time Ray Arcel left boxing.”
I didn’t know that. But there’s a lot Mike Silver knows that I do not.
“By the early ‘40s he had had it. Training professional fighters and caring for them the way he did takes a lot out of a person. It can be very frustrating and emotionally draining. He’d been in the game for over twenty years. He wanted a change. He took a job in private industry and was out of the business for five or six years. And then he saw Ezzard Charles beat Charley Burley twice and was so amazed at the incredible talent of Ezzard Charles that he wanted to be involved in training this super fighter. But Charles was soon drafted into the army and did not fight again for nearly three years. During that time Ray took a job in private industry, eventually returning to the ring as Charles’s trainer after the war.
“In 1951 he decided to go into promoting. He got a sponsor and he promoted boxing the way you want to see boxing promoted. No favorites. He had no connection to the boxers whatsoever. He had no promotional contracts with them. His whole idea was to develop fighters in competitive matches, bring them back, move them up, and not ruin one fighter at the expense of another. He developed Carmen Basilio that way. He developed Billy Graham that way. But of course the mob wanted to have complete control over everything, and they of course ended up destroying the sport in destroying Ray Arcel’s model of how to promote. Because the criminal element that was in there not only wanted to control the promotion. They wanted to control the fighters as undercover managers. They wanted influence outcome of fights. I think that’s part of the reason he got out too. He didn’t want to be involved with this scum.”
Arcel was more circumspect than Silver, but felt much the same way. “Boxing can bring out the worst evil in people,” he told Jerry Izenberg. “It can be cruel. Fighters sweat and bleed and usually die broke. Nobody cares. It shouldn’t be that way. The good ones are artists. The very art form is self-defense. But there are so many people that kill it for them.”
To learn more about Ray Arcel, you might want to read the following books:
“Corner Men” by Ronald K. Fried
“Ray Arcel: A Boxing Biography” by Donald Dewey
“Champ in the Corner: The Ray Arcel Story” by John Jarrett
“In the Corner: Great Boxing Trainers Talk About Their Art” by Dave Anderson