The Big Man
By the 1950s, when I met Abe Simon, he was suffering from severe arthritis that made walking painful. Back in the 1930s, however, he seemed indestructible…
He was big: 6’4”, 260 pounds, and all muscle. He had hands that seemed as large as catchers’ mitts. His large, rectangular face and broad features reminded me of one of the heads on Easter Island. He played football in the 1930s for John Adams High School in Queens, New York. One day, he beat up three pro-Nazi members of the German-American Bund, which supported Hitler in the 1930s. For that heroic act, he was briefly known as the Knight of Woodhaven Boulevard. His name was Abe Simon. He was a friend of my father and my uncle Harold. He became a heavyweight boxing contender.
I met him three times. While I found his appearance intimidating, he was really a gentle giant, soft spoken and quick to smile. I was surprised that one who looked so hard and tough was a lover of classical music, and always had a radio tuned to WQXR, New York’s classical music station. He was such an odd mixture of tough and tender that the New Yorker magazine published a profile of him in April, 1941. He lived on 215th Street in Bayside, Queens with his wife, daughter, and son, and worked as a liquor salesman. By the 1950s, when I met Abe, he was suffering from severe arthritis that made walking painful. Back in the 1930s, however, he seemed indestructible.
My father told me that Abe, while playing football in high school, broke the leg of a running back on an opposing team. Some boxing promoters, sitting in the stands, had watched and admired the big, hulking football player and thought he could be molded into a heavyweight boxer. They offered him a lot of money and said they would arrange for him to be trained by one of boxing’s legendary trainers, Freddie Brown. In addition to being a great trainer, Freddie was also considered one of the best cut men in the sport. Among some of the more famous boxers he worked with were Rocky Graziano, Rocky Marciano, Larry Holmes, and Roberto Duran. Freddie had started out as a boxer and his face showed the result: a cauliflower ear, a nose that looked as if it had been split with an ax, and knuckles and fingers that were as gnarled as the weathered bark on an ancient tree trunk. Yet, like Abe, he had an engaging and affable smile. He taught Abe all the tricks of the trade as well as the basics: jabbing, feinting, slipping punches, right crosses, left upper cuts, dodging, weaving. It all paid off. Abe had his first fight in March 1935, winning by a knockout against Jim Dowling. Abe won his next thirteen fights, most by knockouts, then he had two losses. One was to Lou Nova, the other to Buddy Baer, brother of heavyweight champion Max Baer. Then in 1940, Abe knocked out one of the finest heavyweights of the 20th Century, Jersey Joe Walcott, a future heavyweight champion. Now Abe was a contender for the heavyweight title, which was held by Joe Louis. On March 21, 1941, in Olympia Stadium in Detroit, Abe challenged Louis. He was larger and stronger than Louis, but not as quick and not as skillful. He lasted thirteen rounds and lost by a technical knockout. Abe had another shot at the title in March 27, 1942, when he fought Louis again, this time in Madison Square Garden. He lost again by a TKO, but claimed that he had risen from the canvas before the referee had counted to ten. It was Abe’s last fight. He had a good run for seven years, losing ten bouts and winning thirty-seven, fifty-three percent by knockouts. He was smart enough to retire before suffering any injuries to his brain and then wrote an article about his retirement from boxing for Esquire magazine.
Because of his imposing appearance, he had a striking though intermittent career as a movie actor. In the movie, ITALICOn The Waterfront, he played a thug in the employ of Johnny Friendly, the dock workers’ crooked union boss portrayed by Lee J. Cobb. In one scene Karl Malden, standing in the hold of a ship, is seen urging the dock workers to rebel against the criminal union that has been keeping them in bondage to poverty and victims of violence and shakedowns. Signaled by a nod from Cobb, Abe throws a beer can that hits Malden’s head. It was a startling scene, and Abe—Jew—felt uncomfortable throwing a beer can at a character who was a priest. After Waterfront, Abe appeared in the movies Never Love a Stranger and Requiem for a Heavyweight, as well as in several television dramas.
Abe died on October 24, 1969, eleven years to the day after my father died. I am grateful to both men, for while it was my father who introduced me to boxing, it was Abe Simon who exemplified the life of boxer. I had admired Abe from a distance, but I would never have wanted to follow in his footsteps, never mind that I didn’t wear size 13 shoes.
Special thanks to East Hampton Star. The article is reprinted with its permission.
Jeffrey Sussman is the author of the new book, “Max Baer and Barney Ross: Jewish Heroes of Boxing.”