Strange Fruit on the Middleweight Tree

By Mike Casey on December 11, 2015
Strange Fruit on the Middleweight Tree
While Fitz’s agile mind was a temple of peace, Kid McCoy’s brain was always in turmoil.

We shake our heads at such dreadful tragedies, gripped by a naïve belief that such men are somehow ageless and invincible and will outlive us all…

The middleweight division of boxing has long been the most glamorous of the traditional weight classes, showcasing an array of magnificent world champions and many other great men who should have won the coveted crown.

The middleweights might not have the financial allure of the heavyweight division, but the excitement generated by the 160-pounders down through the years has been far more consistent and the talent far richer. In many ways, it is the perfect weight for a great boxer to be, gifting him with the ideal blend of power, speed and movement. It is the division of choice for many fans who prefer a greater mix of action and skill to the often explosive but more one-dimensional fare of the heavyweights.

Sadly, the middleweight division has also been the preferred hunting ground of the Grim Reaper and his spooky scythe. Kid McCoy, Stanley Ketchel, Les Darcy, Harry Greb, Tiger Flowers, Marcel Cerdan, Randolph Turpin, Dick Tiger and Carlos Monzon were all snatched from the stage prematurely.

These men were the ‘real McCoy’ and it was the man from whose name that everyday expression originates who planted the first of the often strange fruit on the middleweight tree. Charles (Kid) McCoy, alias Norman Selby, was one of the cleverest and most cunning boxers of all time who could box and punch with equal aplomb.

McCoy wrought havoc among the middleweights and light-heavyweights, thanks largely to the valuable lessons imparted to him by the great Bob Fitzsimmons. The Kid was entranced by the workings of the Fitzsimmons mind. So eager was McCoy to learn from Fitz that he took a job as the great man’s dishwasher before progressing to the prized role of sparring partner.

McCoy had a devilish and deceitful mind of his own and was determined to equal and surpass Bob as the fox of the roped square by playing him at his own game. McCoy would learn new tricks from every session whilst holding plenty of his own moves in reserve. It seemed like a great plan, but it was always crafty Bob who was holding the ace in the hole. Fitz knew that he was dueling with a like-minded soul and upped his work rate accordingly, showing the Kid more and more but never showing him everything. McCoy, like Joe Gans, could never ferret out all of big Bob’s jewels.

“Whenever I thought I had learned everything, Fitz knew it,” McCoy admitted. “The old fox would slip something brand new over on me. He always had something up his sleeve that I never thought of. That is why I never fought him afterward. I never could get to the bottom of his mind the way I could with all the others.

“Fitzsimmons was an adept at protecting himself. Let fly a swing at him and 99 times out of 100 your glove landed on one of those freckled shoulders of his.”

But while Fitz’s agile mind was a temple of peace, McCoy’s brain was always in turmoil, too fast and lively and requiring constant nourishment to sustain its owner’s interest in life. Boxing, to McCoy, was akin to a game of chess and he had the grandmaster’s gift of constantly being three or four moves ahead.

Finally, there were no more moves left to make. On April 18 1940, the 67-year-old McCoy quietly killed himself with an overdose of pills. He left a note that read, “I can’t endure this world’s madness any longer.” Ironically, these were the last words of a man who had gone mad.

The bitter truth of the matter is that Kid McCoy, for all his boxing brilliance, wasn’t the most pleasant of men to know. He was a trickster throughout his turbulent career and then he became dangerous as his standing in public life diminished. He was frequently prone to drunkenness and fits of rage.

The Kid’s slow descent into mental meltdown began in 1924 when he moved to Los Angeles. By that time he had spent all his money and had eight divorces in his wake. McCoy was bitter and drinking ever more, frustrated by the decline of his career and his popularity. He began dating a married woman, Theresa Mors, who moved in with him. It wasn’t a match made in heaven.

On August 12 of that year, McCoy came home after drinking heavily and flew into a rage when Theresa told him that two of her friends — Sam and Ann Schapp — had described him as ‘a bum’. McCoy knocked Theresa’s teeth out before stabbing her and shooting her in the head.

After a night of further drinking and crazed contemplation, McCoy embarked on a mad spree the following day in which he held 11 people hostage in a nearby shop, shooting one man in the leg when he tried to escape. Then the Kid stormed off to shoot and wound Sam and Ann Schapp before fleeing into the area of woodland that would later become MacArthur Park. It wasn’t long before the police nabbed him and he was sentenced to 24 years in prison for manslaughter, of which he served a third. Prophetically, he once told a fellow inmate, “Remember that the bright lights go out the quickest.”

Ketchel

The death of the rip-roaring Michigan Assassin, Stanley Ketchel, was much more spectacular and came at the age of 24. Stanley wasn’t one for self-pity and deep reflection on the meaning of life. He was too busy living it as fast as he could before it came to a screeching halt. Ketchel, the reigning middleweight champion, never went anywhere without his favorite blue six-shooter, but he never got the chance to fire the gun when he was shot down on October 15, 1910.

Stanley had been living a fast life since losing to Jack Johnson and was resting up at Pete Dickerson’s ranch in Conway, Missouri. Following plenty of fresh air and exercise, Ketchel quickly regained his strength and verve and talked eagerly about getting back into the ring. He wanted to challenge Johnson again and was confident of winning.

But Stanley was still living dangerously and was flirting with ranch waitress Goldie Smith, the girlfriend of farmhand Walter Dipley. This dalliance would cost Ketchel his life. Dipley protested to Ketchel about his romancing of the girl, but it seemed that Stanley underestimated the extent of Dipley’s anger. The two men had already clashed after Stanley had castigated Dipley for beating a horse. Dipley didn’t take kindly to the harsh lecture and his simmering anger boiled over when Ketchel’s attention turned to Goldie Smith.

Stanley was relaxed and convivial during his time at the ranch, his guard down. He regarded his spats with Dipley as being no big deal. But they were a big deal to Dipley and he decided to do something about it. Ketchel had always observed the old Western rule of never sitting with his back to the door when taking his meals. But on the day of his death, Goldie Smith had innocently changed his place setting. His gun across his lap, Stanley was blind to Dipley’s quiet approach.

“Throw up your hands,” Dipley commanded, taking aim with a rifle. Ketchel looked over his shoulder and smiled, believing he was the victim of a prank. He got up and was in the act of turning when Dipley shot him. The .22 caliber rifle bullet ripped into Ketchel’s back, directly beneath the right shoulder blade and surged upwards to puncture a lung. He fell to the floor. Dipley left the room but then returned to snatch up Stan’s revolver. He cracked Ketchel across the head with the weapon before fleeing.

Ketchel died at six minutes past seven that evening at the Springfield hospital. Pete Dickerson had organized a special train and taken three physicians on board. They had performed an operation on Stanley earlier, but had failed to locate the bullet.

Danger

Ketchel had flirted with danger all his life and had a quick temper. Hype Igoe, a great New York boxing writer and raconteur, was close to Ketchel and his ever shifting moods. There is little doubt that Stan had a psychotic nature. He once shot a friend in the foot during a raging temper, then wept uncontrollably with remorse as he picked the man up in his arms and rushed him to a doctor.

Igoe adored Ketchel and had a somewhat vague and tenuous managerial claim on him when Stanley first came to New York. That arrangement was abruptly terminated. Returning from a trip with Ketchel to Philadelphia, Hype was sitting in a Pullman drawing room when Stanley came in and threw two of his pistols on the table. Even Igoe wasn’t exempt from getting Ketchel’s cold stare and the unspoken threat of menace. “I want to talk a little business to you, Hype,” said Stanley. “I think I prefer having Wilson Mizner manage me from now on.”

Seeing that certain look in Ketchel’s eye, Igoe replied, “That’s fine.”

Being around Ketchel was always an edgy experience. One morning he and Igoe took breakfast at the Clark House in Wheeling, West Virginia, where Stanley enquired about the eggs and bacon and didn’t appreciate the answer he got from the waiter. Moody and in pain from a broken hand he had suffered in his recent fight with Frank Klaus, Ketchel reached for his gun.

Igoe saw what was coming and purposely bit into his water glass and cut his lips. As blood trickled from his mouth, Igoe feigned panic and urged Ketchel to get him to a doctor. The decoy worked and Stanley didn’t shoot the waiter.

Among others Ketchel knew was Emmet Dalton, who served a long prison stint for his role in one of the most audacious and storied bank raids of the Old West. On October 4 1892, the Dalton Gang rode into the town of Coffeyville, Kansas, with the intention of achieving a notorious first by clearing out two banks at the same time: the First National and the Condon. They were quickly rumbled by the townsfolk, who armed themselves and shot down the outlaws in a furious gunfight that last for little more than 15 minutes. Emmet Dalton took a bullet in the back but was the only gang member to survive and was sent to the Kansas State Prison.

Les Darcy

The story of Les Darcy, the brilliant Australian ace, is much more poignant. The Maitland Wonder, as he was known, was in the midst of a fantastic boxing career that promised so much more when he was cut down by pneumonia at the tender age of 21. Had he lived to fulfill his potential, Darcy might well have become greater than even the mighty Ketchel according to Nat Fleischer.

Before moving to the United States for largely political reasons, Les had already beaten the cream of American talent in his native Australia, winning 46 of his 50 fights and scoring wins over Jeff Smith, Eddie McGoorty, Jimmy Clabby, Buck Crouse and George Chip.

Everything seemed to be going swimmingly for Darcy, but then the rapidly changing political situation in Australia left him feeling trapped. He had announced that he would accept an offer to fight in America but then changed his mind as events overtook him. Against the backdrop of the Great War and the Easter rising in Dublin, Australian Prime Minister WM Hughes introduced conscription and denied passports to men of military age.

Darcy was in a hot spot, not helped by his Irish Catholic heritage. He came under public pressure to ‘do his bit’ and was urged to enlist. But then Les saw a way out. On April 5 1917, he took up US citizenship and readied himself for a fight in Milwaukee, the first of five planned bouts. But the fight was called off after Darcy suddenly collapsed on April 27 in Memphis, Tennessee. An infected tooth had spread to his tonsils and the tooth’s removal didn’t prevent the poison spreading to his heart and causing dilation and rheumatism. Pneumonia followed from which Darcy failed to recover.

Minutes before he died on May 24, Les Darcy told those at his bedside that he was feeling fine. He had earlier prepared a last statement that read: “My greatest wish was to have five fights before doing my duty for the United States as an aviator and so be able to send money home.”

Greb and the Two Tigers

The passing of three other titans of the division was thankfully peaceful, albeit dreadfully premature. Harry Greb, Tiger Flowers and Dick Tiger each left us with shocking suddenness.

It seemed that nothing could suck the life out of Harry Greb, that glorious ball of perpetual motion known as the Pittsburgh Windmill. Such is his phenomenal ring record that Harry, some 90 years after his death, remains the choice of many (including your writer) as the greatest middleweight who ever drew breath. In a Boxing.com poll of readers and writers conducted in 2012, Greb finished comfortably ahead of Carlos Monzon, Stanley Ketchel and Ray Robinson.

Even the loss of sight in one eye failed to blunt Greb’s effectiveness. It is generally 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.

It wasn’t long before Harry was followed to the grave by his great rival Tiger Flowers. Flowers, known as the Georgia Deacon, had deprived Greb of the middleweight championship in February 26 of that year and then outscored Harry again in their return six months later. But Tiger lost his crown on a disputed decision to Mickey Walker and was eager to get Mick back in the ring again. Thirty-two years of age and still very much in his prime, Flowers marked time by knocking out heavyweight Lou Gates in four rounds at the Olympic Club in New York on November 12, 1927. Exactly two weeks later, Tiger died from complications arising from eye surgery.

Another Tiger, the great fighting Nigerian Dick Tiger, seemed to have reached the end of the road when he lost his light heavyweight championship to Bob Foster in 1968. Dick had stepped up to the 175-pounders after losing his middleweight crown to Emile Griffith and made two successful defenses before running into Foster’s juggernaut. One cracking left hook out of nowhere from Bob put Tiger down and out in round four and marked the first time in his long career that he had taken the full count. But Dick was a proud and tenacious warrior and he soldiered on in impressive style, scoring quality wins over Frank De Paula, Nino Benvenuti and Andy Kendall.

The non-title victory over reigning middleweight champion Benvenuti was so comprehensive that many wondered if old Dick would engage Nino again for the championship and once more take control of the 160-pound division. But former adversary Emile Griffith ended Tiger’s career with a points decision in New York in July 1970. Dick was 40 by that time and still a magnificent physical specimen. Just over a year later, only months after announcing his retirement, came the shocking news that Tiger had died of cancer.

Cerdan and Turpin

Everything seemed well in Marcel Cerdan’s world in October 1949 after kissing his wife goodbye at their family restaurant in Casablanca and boarding his plane at Paris-Orly Airport for his return to America and a return match with Jake LaMotta. Also on board the Lockheed L-749 Constellation were 36 other passengers and 11 crew. The plane was scheduled for a stopover at Santa Maria Airport in the Azores, an autonomous region of Portugal in the form of a chain of islands that form an archipelago in the mid-Atlantic.

Cerdan’s flight departed from Paris-Orly at 21:00 hours. At 02:05, the pilot reported his height at 3,000 feet and said that he could see Santa Maria Airport. It was his last communication. The plane crashed in the Azores on the morning of October 28, killing all on board. The wreckage covered an area of more than 500 yards, but all the bodies were recovered. They included those of Cerdan, famous French violinist Ginette Neveu and journalist Guy Jasmin, the editor-in-chief of Le Canada in Montreal. The subsequent investigation found that the pilot had sent inaccurate position reports while operating under VFR (Visual Flight Rules).

As with Ketchel and Greb, people found it hard to believe that a human dynamo like Marcel Cerdan could have perished at such a young age. We all shake our heads at such dreadful tragedies, gripped by a naïve belief that such men are somehow ageless and invincible and will outlive us all.

Marcel Cerdan was granted 33 years of life, but what a life he had as he stormed his way to a 114-4 professional boxing record and won the middleweight championship from Tony Zale. Although Marcel lost the crown to Jake LaMotta due to an injured shoulder, many believed that the Frenchman would even the score in the return fight. Then the gods cruelly scratched it from the diary.

Handsome and dashing, tough and uncompromising, Cerdan wowed the romantic city of Paris with his charm and larger-than-life charisma. His passionate romance with singing legend Edith Piaf — the Little Sparrow — was the talk of the town. The concept of marital fidelity never cut much ice with Marcel. For Piaf, the affair was an infatuation that endured for the rest of her life, long after her lover’s death. To her own dying day, Edith lovingly kept Cerdan’s boxing memorabilia in her Paris apartment.

Three years after Cerdan’s death, British middleweight Randolph (Randy) Turpin would pull off what still ranks as one of the greatest upsets in boxing history. On July 10, 1951, at the Earls Court Arena in Kensington, London, Turpin won the middleweight championship by outpointing the mighty Sugar Ray Robinson. There are two simple ways of understanding the significance of that result. The first is to check Robinson’s record going into the fight — the scarcely believable 128-1-2. The second is to seek out a quite remarkable photograph of central London as Robinson passed through it. It is an extraordinary testament to the great man’s universal popularity. The streets are jammed with people and the traffic is at a standstill. Everything stopped for tea when the Pied Piper of Harlem dropped by.

Alas, Randy Turpin’s time at the top of the mountain was limited. Robinson regained the championship two months later in New York, and while Randy enjoyed further successes he began to slide from the top tier. An unsuccessful title challenge against Bobo Olson in 1953 was followed by a nightmare in Rome when Turpin was stopped inside a round by Tiberio Mitri for the European title.

In an oh-so-familiar story, Randy didn’t manage his money well and couldn’t cope with life after boxing. On May 17, 1966, his mind in obvious turmoil, Turpin shot his little daughter Carmen twice before shooting himself through the mouth. Remarkably, the girl survived her injuries.

Hounded by the Inland Revenue for unpaid taxes, Turpin had been declared bankrupt after failing to pay a huge bill. Still only 37, he and his wife and four daughters had been reduced to living above a transport café in Randy’s hometown of Leamington Spa in Warwickshire. Earlier in his life, Turpin’s first marriage to Mary Stack was short-lived after she accused him of assaulting her. Nothing came of the case, but Randy was so distressed by the whole affair that he reportedly attempted suicide by drinking disinfectant.

His sad story is a reminder of how many fighters — ridiculously lauded as supermen — are in fact extremely fragile and beset with problems. Somehow they have the fortitude to win championships in spite of all that.

Monzon

For me, the constant conundrum of the great Carlos Monzon was how such a dangerously volatile man could show such a wonderful and measured temperament within the confines of the ring. Oh yes, King Carlos was very dangerous there too, hammering opponents to defeat with chilling and clinical efficiency. But rarely did he lose control or allow the devil that lurked within him to make rash decisions and mistakes. Laconic, poker-faced and a picture of confidence, Carlos was coolness personified.

Monzon’s two-fight career finale was almost perfectly scripted, as he captured thrilling decisions over the greatly talented and hard-hitting Colombian ace Rodrigo Valdez in Monte Carlo. In their second fight in 1977, Carlos was decked in the early going by a terrific right and stunned ringsiders by his almost nonchalant reaction to it. There was a quite audible gasp from the crowd when he hit the floor and a similar intake of breath when he immediately got to his feet. I remember wondering at the time how that must have shaken the confidence of a man like Valdez, who had shattered the seemingly impregnable Bennie Briscoe with a single shot. Even under siege, Monzon retained his impassiveness. One wondered if he had crocodile blood running through his veins.

Too good to be true? Well, yes, in a sense he was. For outside the ring, Monzon was the kind of man you might not care to invite over for Sunday lunch. His temper, when unchained, was explosive. Women flocked to him but were often beaten for their troubles if Carlos happened to be in the wrong mood. Not that the champ always got the better of it. In 1973, during his title reign, he was shot twice by the first Mrs. Monzon. But that was just the tip of the iceberg of Monzon’s turbulent love life.

A compulsive smoker (even when he was doing his roadwork), Monzon also drank heavily and was the proud owner of a hyperactive ‘pecker’ that he simply couldn’t keep in his pants. He was a magnet to women who dreamed of taming the wild beast, an agricultural version of James Bond with a sexual appetite that seemingly knew no bounds. Actress Ursula Andress, among others, was bewitched by the ace from the Argentine and traveled all the way from Los Angeles to seek him out. I was in my twenties around that time and it seemed that the eye-popping actress Susannah Giminez was at Monzon’s side in just about every picture taken of him outside the ring. The pair became a fixture of the glamorous Monte Carlo scene and were a big item right up to Monzon’s ring retirement. But Susannah too would experience the dark side of Carlos, sometimes showing bruising on her face after clashing with her man in violent domestic disputes.

Monzon, of course, just moved on to someone else. Alicia Muniz became his second wife and would eventually die at his hands. One always sensed that the volcanic Monzon would finally lose his temper in a very dangerous way. The couple had already separated when they became involved in a fight in a Mar Del Plata condo in February 1988. Monzon apparently strangled Alicia before throwing her from the second floor balcony. He then jumped after her but suffered only a shoulder injury. He was sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment.

Eight years later, on January 8, 1995, during a day’s leave from Las Flores prison, the seemingly indestructible Monzon died when he crashed his car on the drive back. He was 52. In his native Argentina, Monzon’s death produced contrasting reactions. To many, he was no more than a thug and a murderer. To many others, he was a magnificent but tragically flawed champion who deserved our understanding.

Being famous and successful buys you a lot of charity. Some years ago, a little old Italian lady who lived through the Second World War was asked her opinion of Mussolini. “He made the trains run on time,” she said.

Mike Casey is a Boxing.com writer and 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).

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Jim Corbett vs. Kid McCoy sparring



Stanley Ketchel vs Billy Papke, IV



Les Darcy vs George Chip Part 1 (1916).flv



Les Darcy vs George Chip Part 2 (1916).flv



Les Darcy vs George Chip Part 3 (1916).flv



Harry Greb Training & Sparring (1925)



Tony Zale vs Marcel Cerdan



Randy Turpin vs Sugar Ray Robinson I



Dick Tiger beats Giardello This Day in Boxing History October 21, 1965



Carlos Monzon vs Rodrigo Valdez II (Full Fight)



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  1. Mike Casey 01:11pm, 12/14/2015

    Glad you liked it, Eric. Well, the Kid and Monzon were indeed great fighters and have to be fairly and dispassionately acknowledged for that. As for their private lives, I have no time at all for any of that tawdry stuff. Not sure I was waxing lyrical on that side of it, rather than simply reporting what they did. Merry Christmas, as I still like to say.

  2. Eric Jorgensen 11:30am, 12/14/2015

    Great article, Mike, as always.  Fun to read. Not sure I’d personally wax quite so nostalgically on a couple of murdering scumbags like Kid McCoy and Carlos Monzon, no matter how great they were as fighters, but I do see your point of view.  Happy Holidays!

  3. Mike Casey 07:30am, 12/13/2015

    Thanks kindly, Bob - glad you enjoyed it.

  4. Bob 06:24am, 12/13/2015

    Terrific article, Mike. You outdid yourself with this one, which is hard to do. Fantastic!

  5. Mike Casey 09:11am, 12/12/2015

    Thanks kindly, Eric. Yes, Jake was slated to challenge Gus Lesnevich before the Billy Fox fiasco, but the light heavies have rarely had a ‘sexy’ image in today’s marketing parlance. The middleweights were much enriched by Bronx Jake’s presence!

  6. Eric 08:23am, 12/12/2015

    Excellent article on boxing’s most talented divison. The middleweights are boxing’s thoroughbreds, no question about it. The 160lb division has produced more than their share of boxing’s most famous fighters. Pity the light heavyweights sandwiched between the big boys and the middleweights, no wonder LaMotta starved himself to fight at 160 instead of 175lbs.

  7. Mike Casey 01:18am, 12/12/2015

    Thanks, Clarence and Beau. Yes, Clarence, I too wonder if Goldie was a bit of a naughty girl in more ways than one!
    Beau: Thanks for mentioning Dave Sands, who was a real talent. The frustration of such an article is that you could quite easily include many others like Dave and end up writing a book on it!

  8. beaujack 08:35pm, 12/11/2015

    Great article Mike Casey on my favorite division the middleweights.The 160 MW division as you wrote had so many tragic deaths of the great fighters as you point out. There is one other tragic death of a great MW still in his prime.
    The great Dave Sands from Australia who was being compared to Les Darcy was trying to get a shot at Ray Robinson’s MW title, but tragedy occurred when Dave Sands died when his truck fell on him, at the age of but 26…

  9. Clarence George 03:03pm, 12/11/2015

    I occasionally come across photos of McCoy at his trial.  There doesn’t seem to be much demand for them, and they’re quite reasonably priced.  As for Ketchel, I’m very intrigued by, “But on the day of his death, Goldie Smith had innocently changed his place setting.”  I’m not saying it wasn’t innocent, but can’t help wondering why she did it.

    Wonderful read, Mike.

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