“The Battle of the Bums”

By Pete Ehrmann on July 7, 2015
“The Battle of the Bums”
“People watched [him fight] with joy and a readiness to wince at what might occur.”

“If anyone plans to take this thing seriously, and this includes Antonio and the Kingfish, he ought to stay at home…”

Later he boxed a bear and wrestled an octopus, but on July 7, 1941, Tony Galento would not deign to get in ring with a “poor bum who doesn’t know where his next meal is coming from.”

To which Kingfish Levinsky, the poor bum scheduled to come out of the other corner that night, responded: “He’s yellow.”

The antediluvian brawlers were the loosest cannons on the Depression-era heavyweight deck, and while their primes as major contenders didn’t quite overlap, even just a few years earlier a Galento-Levinsky fight would’ve been a natural for the Newark Armory or Chicago Stadium. Their deportment outside the ring was as anarchic as it was inside the ropes. Both were grade school dropouts whose writing skills ended when they finished signing their names. Hotdogs figured prominently in their boxing careers, Galento having famously wolfed down 51 of them right before his fight with Arthur deKuh, and Levinsky having gotten started boxing at a Chicago amateur club because he had a jones for the dogs served there.

There was no problem picking them out of a crowd even with your eyes closed. You just listened for Galento’s Tarzan yell and Levinsky’s favorite exclamation: “Hotcha!” What was written about one applies just as well to the other. Galento biographer Joseph Monninger called him “a cherry bomb dropped into a water pipe. People watched [him fight] with joy and a readiness to wince at what might occur.” Ditto, Levinsky. And columnist Henry McLemore could also have been talking about Galento when, envisioning a Levinsky heavyweight championship, he wrote, “…This country would be given the greatest one-man show in the history of the world. The King wouldn’t be content with cutting just one swath from coast to coast and back again — he’d cut a half dozen or more, and each would be a little bit wider, a little bit wilder, a little bit weirder than the last.”

But in mid-’41 both Galento and Levinsky were on the skids. After Joe Louis stopped him in the fourth round of their championship fight on June 28, 1939, the Orange, New Jersey barkeeper beat Lou Nova but then was stopped by Max Baer in seven rounds; after Max’s brother Buddy stopped Galento on April 8, 1941, nobody but Tony himself regarded him as a legitimate contender anymore.

Levinsky had flamed out after Louis knocked him out in the first round of their bout in 1935. After losing seven of his last eight fights he wrestled briefly. The Kingfish was selling electric razors when Texas promoter L.D. “Pup” Thomas got the brainstorm for what he called the “Battle of the Bums.”

Thomas conceived the four-round exhibition as the cherry atop a card on which old war-horse Babe Hunt (twice a loser to Levinsky) would defend his Texas heavyweight title against unknown Joe Vandiver in the main event. The promoter hoped the once neon names Galento and Levinsky — along with bleacher seats specially priced at 55 cents for servicemen at nearby military bases — would draw a crowd of up to 15,000 to the Arlington high school football field where the ring would be pitched on the 50-yard line.

As the name of the special event given it by Thomas was intended to make clear, the Galento-Levinsky contest was not to be taken seriously.

“Pup isn’t trying to put anything over on the public,” wrote Hal Sayles of the Abilene Reporter-News. “He is the first to admit that both Galento and Levinsky are has-beens, but he also was the first to realize that these colorful boxing characters might be able to put a few laughs in a much-too-serious boxing business.”

In fact, Thomas figured that what reporter Sayles called “the Galento-Levinsky monkey business” for “the screwball crown of America” would be such a laugh riot that he had already signed the boxing clowns up to take their act on the road, performing twice a week for a month.

But for all Pup’s and the press’s efforts to underline the burlesque nature of the event (“If anyone plans to take this thing seriously, and this includes Antonio and the Kingfish, he ought to stay at home”), who really knew what would happen when the bell rang?

“Fans are hoping Tony, who usually trains on a rigid diet of beer, will be slugging hard and that the Kingfish will revert to his old you-hit-me-and-I’ll-hit-you-harder tactics which skyrocketed him to box-office prominence back in his prime more than seven years ago,” said the Odessa (TX) American on the morning of the fight.

By then, however, the “Battle of the Bums” was already toast. Galento and Levinsky had both arrived in Fort Worth the day before, and when Pup Thomas got there to drive them to Abilene, Tony was apoplectic. What was the idea, the guy who called everyone he ever fought a bum demanded to know, of billing him as one? And it took all of two minutes for the garrulous Levinsky to give Galento a headache with his incessant, knuckleheaded bluster and banter. Throughout the 151-mile journey they argued and sniped at one-another, and in Abilene Galento got out of the car and informed Thomas he would referee another bout on the card, make a speech to the crowd or even hawk peanuts in the stands, but no way in hell was he having anything to do with Levinsky in the ring or anywhere else.

True to his word, Tony was a no-show at the big press party the night before the fight, and Levinsky, reveling in the solo spotlight, called his absent opponent names and reverentially displayed the engraved watch he said was given to him by Jack Dempsey after Levinsky won an unofficial decision over the ex-champion in their famous 1934 exhibition match. (Later it was reported that the Kingfish had a whole supply of Dempsey watches made up, with which he reluctantly parted while making the rounds of Windy City and Miami Beach bars for a ten-spot or whatever he could get from gullible patrons.)

Perhaps because word had leaked out that Galento was refusing to go through with the match, only 2,000 customers turned out at the football field on fight night. They saw Babe Hunt defeat Joe Vandiver in 10 rounds, but to find that result the next day readers of sports pages around the country first had to wade through reports of the verbal “Battle of the Bums” that started when Two Ton Tony grabbed the microphone at ringside to explain why he was not suiting up for action.

“Some of you may think I’m punchy or whacky,” he shouted, “but I’m a businessman and property owner. A fight with this–this–this– Levinsky would lower my standing as both a fighter and a businessman!”

He went on to complain, it was reported, “that he had been mistreated since his defeat by Joe Louis but (said) that he expected to make a comeback and someday wear the heavyweight crown.”

The boos were so loud that when it was the Kingfish’s turn to rebut the only thing reporters could make out was that he called Galento yellow.

John D. Reed, state labor commissioner who oversaw boxing in the Lone Star State, sat mutely at ringside during the hoo-ha. A couple days later he finally spoke up. The doings in Abilene, he said, “did little to forward boxing interest in Texas.”

It was quickly forgotten, but if nothing else the event is historically significant because Galento’s refusal to participate on the ground it was beneath his dignity may have been the only time the Human Beer Barrel ever drew that particular line in the sand.

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  1. Mike Margolies 03:22pm, 08/29/2015

    Jackie Gleason was on that TV show Rocky Marciano had in the late 50’s or early 60’s where Rock had a celebrity guest and showed some old fights.  Gleason told the story of when he first started out and did some comedy in some tough New Jersey club one night.  One patron kept harassing him, talking out loud and making comments.  Gleason told Rocky that in his youth he was a pretty tough guy, so he invited the gentleman outside.  Whereupon he woke up 10 or 15 minutes later.  As Jackie Gleason told it, he laughingly said he obviously picked the wrong guy to invite outdoors, it was Tony Galento.
    By the way that’s the show that Rocky Marciano used to close by saying “remember keep your hands up and keep punching.”

  2. Jethro's Flute 04:27pm, 07/16/2015

    “He was a genuine tough guy who on guts alone would have taken Tyson.”

    What utter shite.

    You need science to beat Tyson, not just guts. Tyson would have left him looking like he’d been hit by a truck and attacked with a cheesegrater at the same time.

  3. Mike Silver 10:28pm, 07/08/2015

    Wonderful story Pete. Two of the most colorful characters in the history of the heavyweight division. I met Galento back in 1972 at a fundraiser for a veteran boxing group. He had the ever present cigar and was wearing that awful toupee and did not look too well. But when I shook his hand he looked directly at me and gripped my hand hard as if to say “I’m still ‘Two Ton’”! He was a genuine tough guy who on guts alone would have taken Tyson.

  4. Clarence George 08:10am, 07/07/2015

    Yeah, that “undetectable” is the ultimate in chutzpah.

  5. Pete 08:00am, 07/07/2015

    Priceless, Clarence! “It really is undetectable”!

  6. Clarence George 07:53am, 07/07/2015

    I envy you having met Tony, Pete.  I, too, have a doozy of a Galento autograph (hanging on my wall), but not made out to me, unfortunately. 

    Yeah, that rug was godawful.  And he was paid to advertise it!  Can you imagine?  See link below.  I’m not sure the year of the ad, but I estimate that $35 would be around $250 today.

    http://www.leninimports.com/tony_galento_9a.jpg

  7. Pete 06:51am, 07/07/2015

    Clarence, I know Tony worked at improving his literacy. I met him in the ‘60s and still prize a scrap of paper signed “To my little pal Pete…” And as far as I’m concerned the only black mark on Tony’s dignity was that horrible toupee he adopted in the mid-‘70s. Thanks.

  8. Eric 05:48am, 07/07/2015

    Wasn’t Baer vs. Galento, “The Battle Of The Bums?” Carnera-Baer? Balboa-Spider Rico? Is a bum a notch above a tomato can?

  9. Clarence George 05:17am, 07/07/2015

    Wonderful.  I consider myself something of a Galento expert, and yet I never heard of his almost fight with Levinsky.  That the match didn’t take place means that Galento never engaged in an exhibition bout.  Anyway, not to my knowledge.  It might have been interesting if they’d fought in their primes, though I’d have unhesitatingly put my money on “Two Ton.”

    Really enjoyed it, Pete, but one or three things, if I may.  First, I think it was 52 hot dogs.  Second, while Galento quit school after the fourth or fifth grade, he wasn’t illiterate.  I’ve come across some of his letters.  While not exactly Shakespeare, they were clearly written.  Third, I disagree that Galento didn’t have a sense of dignity.  Quite the contrary, in fact.  Yes, he was about as Coney Island as anyone could get, but was nevertheless a proud man.  I’m not at all surprised that he didn’t want to participate in something called “The Battle of the Bums.”  Frankly, I don’t blame him.

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