RIP, Dick Wipperman

By Pete Ehrmann on September 13, 2015
RIP, Dick Wipperman
In the 1960s Dick Wipperman was one of boxing's most volatile and loosest cannons.

Henry Cooper referred to Wipperman as an American “cowboy.” Maybe that’s because to Brits, all Americans are cowboys…

I once edited the magazine of a national fraternal organization, and the worst part of my job was attending the annual conventions. In addition to being a non-drinker, I am not a fraternalist or even very sociable. I’d just as soon be left alone, which is impossible at a convention and why I always referred to the five-day events as “Hell Week.”A singular exception was the convention in Buffalo, New York, in or around 2005, when out of desperation one night I called Dick Wipperman and wondered if he’d be interested in talking about his uproarious career as a heavyweight boxer in the 1960s. Minutes later, Dick picked me up at the hotel. For several hours we drove around town and he talked spellbindingly about his life and fights. It was an act of extraordinary kindness to a total stranger. The piece below, posted a decade ago on the CyberBoxingZone, inadequately expresses the awe I felt for the man who died on September 12 at 74.

Recounting in his autobiography the close call he had against Dick Wipperman, 1960s British heavyweight champion and world-title challenger Henry Cooper referred to Wipperman as an American “cowboy.” Maybe that’s because to Brits, all Americans are cowboys—or because Wipperman hails from the western-sounding eastern metropolis of Buffalo, New York.

Or, maybe it’s because so many of the most notable fights in Wipperman’s eccentric eight-year career had a real Wild West quality to them.

A strong law-and-order man in 38 years as a patrolman with the police force in the Buffalo suburb of Cheektowaga, in the ‘60s Wipperman was one of boxing’s most volatile and loosest cannons, whose career was summed up before his last fight by the newspaper headline: “Turmoil! That’s Boxer Wipperman’s Stock in Trade.”

Now 63 and mellowed by a life he says that has mixed “humor, sadness, and irony,” Wipperman is more insightful than inciteful. He even goes so far as to say that some of the most outrageous stories about him might be exaggerated or even untrue.

Like the one about when he fought Kid Savage in Zanesville, Ohio, in 1964. The Kid was a deaf-mute who counted on the referee to signal him when each round was over. Only the ref was a little tardy in doing so in the Wipperman fight, with the result that as Wipperman turned to go to his corner at the end of one round, he was Savagely smote on his unprotected chin and dropped to the canvas. He got up, according to one newspaper account, and scored a double KO—first flattening the referee, then Kid Savage.

While acknowledging that the referee did end up in extremis, “I didn’t do it,” maintains the man whose grandchildren call him “Grandpa Bulldog.”

But the fact is that Wipperman’s arguments with referees and officials were sometimes more strenuous and entertaining than the ones with the guys in the other corner.

The most famous of these almost started a riot at Madison Square Garden on October 2, 1964. Wipperman, who’d won 26 times against two losses and a draw since he beat Abdul Hakeem in his first pro fight in 1961, had come up via the Don Elbaum tank-town circuit. In contrast, his opponent that night as the beneficiary of a well-greased, high-powered media campaign that made 6-foot-9, 240-pound James J. Beattie a rising star in boxing.

“Kid Galahad, Inc.,” was the name of the syndicate comprised of New York businessmen and PR mavens that settled on Beattie as its candidate to “help pull the fight game up by its bootstraps” after a nationwide search via newspaper advertisements. Toward that end, the camera-friendly Minnesotan had been carefully steered to a 12-1 record in a growing media spotlight that even made Beattie the subject of a prime-time documentary on ABC-TV.

But Wipperman, 36½ pounds lighter and six inches shorter, not only easily outpointed Beattie over the first six rounds of their scheduled eight-round semifinal to the George Chuvalo-Doug Jones heavyweight elimination match, but had him bleeding so badly that the ringside doctor visited the giant’s corner at the end of the sixth round in what most onlookers figured was a prelude to a big upset.

When the seventh started, Beattie came out swinging. The punches didn’t land, but Beattie’s forward progress drove Wipperman to the ropes, where he covered up to wait out the onslaught. But 46 seconds into the round, referee Barney Smith stopped the fight and declared Beattie the winner.

“I was livid, pissed,” says Wipperman. “I had busted Beattie up and banged him up pretty good, and then the fight was stopped. I started yelling and screaming.”

So did the crowd at the Garden, especially after Wipperman charged at Beattie and took a swing at him. Then he tried to grab the ring microphone from the announcer to plead his case to the customers until a police escort was needed to get Smith out of the ring as pennies and peanuts showered down on him.

“The wild buffalo from Buffalo had a justifiable complaint,” wrote the New York World-Telegram’s Lester Bromberg. But today’s kinder, gentler Wipperman wishes it hadn’t happened: “The referee did what he thought was right. He was worried about me and didn’t want me to get hurt.”

While the state boxing commission fined Wipperman $100 and suspended him for a month, the Garden wasted no time in signing him up to oppose another young heavyweight getting a big buildup. Oscar Bonavena had knocked out all six of his opponents, and on paper it looked like a riveting match — the crude slugger from Argentina versus the hotheaded New Yorker.

But the fight was so bad, with Bonavena easily winning a 10-round decision, that one writer went so far as to suggest that Wipperman “decided to get $100 worth of satisfaction” — a reference to his fine for the Beattie incident — “by stinking out the joint.”

“What happened to the tiger we had against Beattie?” wondered Garden President Harry Markson as Wipperman ran away from Bonavena.

Two judges gave Oscar all 10 rounds; the other said Wipperman won two. Yet in his dressing room after the fight, Wipperman railed against the decision. “I ask you, isn’t boxing the art of self-defense? I clearly outboxed him all the way and they gave him the decision. What do I have to do to win points here in New York?”

Over 40 years later, Wipperman views matters differently. “I ran like a deer,” he concedes. “I got clobbered.”

Two months after the Bonavena fight, Mr. Hyde reappeared when Wipperman went to London to face Cooper. At the end of four rounds, Cooper’s delicate features had been carved up so brutally by Wipperman’s left that had the fight been anyplace but on the British Empire champion’s home turf, it would’ve been stopped.

“The skin around one eye was flapping open and he was bleeding like a stuck pig,” Wipperman recalls. But in the fifth round, a desperate Cooper unleashed his trademark left hook and Wipperman hit the deck. He got up, and the debate that ensued between him and referee Jack Hart would’ve done the Cambridge Union proud.

Hart: “I’m stopping the fight, chap, you’re hurt.”

Wipperman: “No shit. You’re a super-genius. But let him knock me down again.”

Hart: “Chap, I’m worried for you.”

Wipperman: “Help me find my head somewhere down here, and I’ll put it back on and he won’t come out for the next round, he’s cut so bad.”

Forensically, Wipperman had the upper hand. But the unmoved referee awarded the bout to Cooper.

After four successive wins, the Garden brought Wipperman back to meet undefeated, title-bound Joe Frazier. In his dressing room beforehand, Wipperman psyched himself up by telling himself that his last name translated to “Whip-a-man,” but in the ring the whipping was administered by Smokin’ Joe in five rounds.

By then, Wipperman was a full-time policeman in Cheektowaga, which put him in situations even more dangerous than a boxing ring. One night while trying to apprehend a gang leader who was resisting arrest, Wipperman accidentally shot and killed the man. A review board cleared him of any wrongdoing, but the gang didn’t see it that way and targeted Wipperman for revenge.

Gang members made a run at him a couple times, but slunk away when Wipperman indicated what he thought of them and their intentions by saying, “If you’re going to come after me, have some honor and at least take a shower first.” And: “Don’t you want to get some more guys and even things up a little?”

It was the same attitude Wipperman took into his fights. When Alvin “Blue” Lewis promised at a pre-fight press conference to “improve on the job Joe Frazier did” on Wipperman by knocking him out in the third round, Wipperman drew laughs by answering drolly, “I’m still going to show up for the fight.”

After Wipperman lost the decision, Buffalo sportswriter Frank Wakefield wrote that if he “had a punch half as big as his fighting heart, [Wipperman] would be in the midst of the scramble today for the defrocked Cassius Clay’s crown.”

The journey finally ended after Wipperman dropped a decision to ranked Buster Mathis in Milwaukee in 1967. After the fight, the 30-14-1 (14 KOs) loser and Mathis went out together for a beer.

“No regrets,” says Wipperman about his boxing career, although “it’d been nice if I got a little more glory.” A few years ago, he was pleasantly surprised when the Buffalo Veteran Boxers Association inducted him into its Hall of Fame.

Divorced, Wipperman shares an apartment with his black poodle, “Bo Jackson.” For a long time he coached little-league football, and stressed to his young players that yelling and screaming at the officials wasn’t the way to go.

That might stun some of the ones with whom Wipperman butted heads in the ring, but that was a long time ago, and people change. “I wasn’t the easiest kid to train or talk to,” he says regretfully.

Dick Wipperman still doesn’t wear a cowboy hat, but now if he did it’d be a white one.

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BOXING 1966.03.04 Joe Frazier VS Dick Wipperman

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  1. Jim Crue 01:48pm, 09/18/2015

    Jim Beattie it was discovered had terrible exercise asthma so he appeared and was tired at the end of the round.On top of that, and this is no kidding, MSG had hay and straw in the basement for when the circus played there.That also caused him to wheeze and get tired. The condition was not discovered until he left NYC he tells me. The mob who ran his career did not know boxing. He was mismanaged. When they abandoned him in NYC without a nickel he got back to St Paul, MN and restarted his career. The boys came looking for him telling him he could not fight without their management even though they had dumped him. He ignored them and they went away.
    The fight he lost prior to the Wipperman fight with Johnny Bazarro was fought with a broken bone in his foot. He tripped running in Central Park. He told his managers about it. He could hardly walk but they made him fight anyway.
    Jim Was a good boxer and had a very good left hook. He was a converted southpaw. Had he been managed more carefully and nurtured he would have made some big paydays. He also did not help his own cause because he was and still is kind of a nut. He sees conspiracies around every corner and to my buddy Jim 2 plus 2 does not really equal 4. He turned 73 on June 10.

  2. Lindy Lindell 12:47pm, 09/18/2015

    My favorite part of that ABC doc:  Whipperman was hammering Beattie toward the ends of rounds and Wipperman’s cornerman observed,“Notice how the bum gets tired in the last minute of the rounds.”

  3. Clarence George 06:17am, 09/14/2015

    I was a huge fan of “The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo”—e.g., “Treasure Island”—but they haven’t shown any of them in years.

  4. Pete 06:02am, 09/14/2015

    Thank you, Clarence. I agree: As Scrooge, Scott was no Mr. Magoo.

  5. Clarence George 02:15am, 09/14/2015

    Nice tribute, regardless of the name not ringing much of a bell.  But I particularly liked the intro, the “I am not a fraternalist or even very sociable.  I’d just as soon be left alone.”  I was reminded of an amusing exchange in the George C. Scott (and otherwise awful) version of “A Christmas Carol.”  It went something like this:

    “Mr. Scrooge, I presume?”
    “Indeed you do, sir.”
    “You don’t know me…”
    “Nor do I wish to.”

  6. Jim Crue 05:31pm, 09/13/2015

    also Beattie fought Dick twice in 1967 and won decisively both times. Jim has always spoken highly of Wipperman.

  7. Pete 04:17pm, 09/13/2015

    So sorry to hear that about Jim Beattie, Jim. What a heart he had in the ring. Best wishes to him.

  8. Jim Crue 04:06pm, 09/13/2015

    I just sent this to my friend Jim Beattie. He lives down the street from me and is not in good health.

  9. Pete 02:32pm, 09/13/2015

    A hoot, indeed, Bob. Thanks.
    Yes, KB, I wrote it.

  10. KB 02:03pm, 09/13/2015

    Pete did you write the story that appeared in Cyber?

  11. Bob 01:14pm, 09/13/2015

    A wonderful tribute to a colorful contender. I recall the ABC TV special on Jim Beattie and there was great footage of Wipperman and Don Elbaum on the road, driving from Buffalo to New York for the fight. I always found Wipperman very intriguing and interesting,  and was thrilled to come across this terrific story 10 years ago. It was bittersweet to read it again, but I bet Wipperman would have had that sly smile on his face. Not only was he a very competent fighter, he was a hoot. And I love what he told those gang members.  He must have been a handful, in the ring and out.

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