The Culture of Boxing: Eighth in a Series

By Ted Sares on May 30, 2012
The Culture of Boxing: Eighth in a Series
Along with hundreds of thousands of other eyewitnesses, it left its indelible mark on me

The story here is that Willie Classen was a middleweight journeyman who had been in the ring with tough competition…

“Boxers last only a short time, but managers go on forever.”—Joe Greb

Gus Dundee (an ex-heavyweight champion of the world played by Pat Comisky) and Buddy Brannen met in the movie The Harder They Fall and Buddy rendered a terrible beat down on Gus who thereafter suffered from severe headaches and brain damage going into his next fight with the Argentinean giant, Toro Moreno (played by Mike Lane). The feather-fisted Moreno knocked the helpless Dundee out. Gus then lapsed into a coma and died. Max Baer was suitably cast as the menacing Brannen. Gus, of course, was terribly damaged goods going into the Moreno fight and everyone knew it except the naïve Toro who feasted on a buffet of fixed fights.

This was make-believe and it made for great theater and arguably one of the best boxing movies ever made. What was not make-believe was that Ernie Schaaf compiled a record of 49-15-1 that included wins over Max Baer, Jim Braddock and Tony Galento. In August 1932, he lost a decision to Baer in a rematch. However, he was actually saved by the bell when Baer knocked him out with seconds remaining in the fight. Six months later, another feather fisted giant named Primo Carnera, to whom Toro Moreno was compared, knocked out Ernie in 13 rounds. Schaaf died four days later. Many believe the injuries suffered in his bout with Baer contributed to his death. Gus Dundee, of course, was the real life Schaaf.

Willie “Macho” Classen vs. Wilford Scypion (1979)

“He’s hurt, he’s hurt, John. They oughtta stop the fight…He’s a sitting duck right now, any kind of a good punch will do it…”—Prospect Davey Vasquez helping announcer John Condon call the fight.

“He’s out on his feet, John, he don’t know where he’s at.”—Vazquez

“…a great trainer stops a fight when the boxer has no chance of a win.”—Dr. Margaret Goodman, Special to

Willie Classen (15-6-2) was knocked through the ropes 12 seconds into the tenth round of his fateful fight with Wilford Scypion (12-0) at Madison Square Garden on November 23, 1979. The fight itself has seldom been seen since as there are no YouTube videos of it, but I lived and worked in the New York City area at the time and watched it on MSG Network television. Along with hundreds of thousands of other horrified witnesses, it left its indelible mark on me.

After some give and take, the durable Willie (who at times rocked the Texan) absorbed some horrific punishment towards the end of the fight including six unanswered jackhammers at the very end of the ninth. Macho had been decked a couple of times earlier in the fight from shots from that would have sent other fighters into dreamland. Clearly, he was in very bad—indeed dangerous—condition going into the final round. After the ninth stanza, he needed the assistance of the ropes to get back to his corner. As the bell sounded for the last round, Willie hesitated off his stool and then was seemingly lifted of it and pushed out into the ring by his handlers. The heavy-handed Scypion was poised and ready to finish the slaughter. Willie was immediately met by a left hook and straight right. A second right smashed him through the ropes before his manager could get into the ring and get the fight stopped.

To this day, I still cannot believe Classen was allowed to go out into the ring in that last round. The fight had become hard to watch because you knew something ugly was going on. Everyone except those responsible for keeping the fighters out of harm’s way knew it. The commentators knew it. Ringsiders knew it. They stood up and hollered for referee Lew Eskin to stop, but it was not to be. Later, when Macho was on a stretcher waiting to receive badly needed medical assistance, blood was seen gushing out of his mouth like a fountain.

The fact that no ambulance was parked in the wings of Madison Square Garden and that it reportedly took 30 minutes to flag down an ambulance in the street and take Classen to a hospital, where he died of a brain hemorrhage five days later, has been the grist for many a story. And so have the subsequent multiple lawsuits and eventual settlements. Suffice it to say that Classen’s death manifestly was not in vain. Many important reforms arose from the contributing circumstances. Two significant court cases followed as well. One (Classen v. State of New York, 131 Misc. 2d 346 (1985)/500 N.Y.S. 2d 460 (Ct. Cl. 1985)) led to a requirement for ambulances at fight venues, and the other (Classen v. Izquierdo, 137 Misc. 2d 489 (1987)/ 520 N.Y.S. 2d 999 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1987) established the precedent that a ringside doctor’s failure to stop a fight on medical grounds could subject him to charges of malpractice.

Damaged Goods

The story here is that Classen was a middleweight journeyman who had been in the ring with tough competition—with guys like Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Al Styles Jr., ultra slick Vinnie Curto, and future champ Vito Antuofermo. On April 6, 1979, Willie was KOd by bomber John LoCicero, but some earlier damage may have been inflicted by Styles when Al landed some damaging stuff on Macho who went 14-2-2 in his first 18 and was known as a very tough customer. Willie had lost a 10-round bout to Antuofermo before the Styles fight but he gave a decent account of himself. Still, he was 1-3 going into his two days notice bout (yes, that’s two day’s notice) with the very tough Tony Sibson (32-2-1) in London on October 10, 1979. Sibson KOd his sacrificial lamb opponent in the second round.

As Robert H. Boyle wrote in his definitive article in SIVAULT dated March 24, 1980:

“Sibson floored Classen three times in the first two rounds. After Classen went down the third time and was counted out, he complained of double vision. At the time, Classen should not have been fighting anywhere. His New York license had expired in September, and the previous April he had been placed on indefinite medical suspension, pending a complete neurological examination, as the result of a KO he had suffered at the hands of John LoCicero in the Felt Forum.”

Classen had lied to the hacks at the New York commission when he applied for a renewal of his boxer’s license, claiming that he had been stopped on cuts in London. And in London, “…Classen told officials that he had not had time to get a certificate of medical clearance in New York so Dr. Sydney Gould of the British Boxing Board of Commissioners sent him to Dr. John K. Dauncey, a general practitioner, who certified Classen as good to go. Dr. Gould also gave Classen his pre-fight check and declared him ready and fit to fight. Neither Classen nor Marco Minuto told either doctor that Classen was under indefinite medical suspension in New York. Had he known, Dr. Dauncey says, “In no way would I have passed him fit to box.” In short, when Willie and company went to London, they lied about what happened in New York with LoCicero. Then, when they came back from London to New York, they lied about what happened in London with Sibson. Thus, just a month after being knocked out by Sibson in London, Classen took on the unbeaten Texan Wilford Scypion (with all 12 of his wins coming by KO) at the Felt Forum and the rest is tragic history.

Whether or not Willie Classen was damaged going into this fight is subject to debate. What is not debatable is that he had been knocked out by Tony Sibson only one month prior to the Scypion fight and had been KOd by John LoCicero six months before the Sibson fight. Also not open to argument is that Willie was 1-4 going into the Scypion bout and had been caught up in a pack of lies that set him up for a fight in which he should not have been allowed to engage.

After this incident, Scypion would never be the same fighter; one who fought with fury and even perceived meanness. He lost his edge and finished 32-9 losing every time he stepped up. Today, he lives in Port Arthur, Texas and reportedly suffers from dementia and Parkinson’s disease.

The Culture

As for political hack and Chairman of the New York Boxing Commission Jack Prenderville (who had been appointed by then Governor Hugh Carey), he had this to say:

“We’ve talked with everyone involved—doctors, persons in charge of the boxing shows, the referees and even some reporters…It all comes down to the same thing. Everything was done and properly so.” He called Classen’s brain damage “a tragic accident” and concluded that “No one is responsible.”

But in fact there was plenty of blame to dish out. More to the point, not everything was done that could have been done. Not by a long shot. This fatality did not arise out of the
culture of boxing. No, this one arose because too many things were not done properly.

Unlike other tragic fights that end the wrong way (for example, Leavander Johnson vs. Jesus Chavez), things were done that were simply unacceptable and just plain wrong.

In an extremely compelling blog dated 2005 in the Huffington Post entitled Death in the Ring, famed and knowledgeable HBO commentator Jim Lampley had this to say about Leavander’s life:

“It’s this simple: if you can’t live with Leavander Johnson’s death, then you ban boxing, because this one came right out of the culture of the sport. There is no obvious flashpoint for criticism or culpability here. Johnson died in the best of boxing circumstances. Either the entire sport is unforgiveable, or this was an unfortunate accident which must be accepted as part of the life…

“…The very best thing in Leavander Johnson’s life, the thing that did the most to make that life worthwhile, led him to a bad end he knew full well was possible. The answer isn’t to remove that option from the lives of future Leavander Johnsons. The option is to honor his memory by continuing to work on systems to make fights as safe as possible…”

In the case of Willie Classen, there were manifest flashpoint for criticism and culpability. It was not an unfortunate accident which must be accepted as a fact of life. Willie died in the worse of circumstances. Oh, I got by it, but not without walking away from boxing for several years. In retrospect, Jim Lampley’s one page blog was probably the very best explanation I have ever read.

Willie’s wife Marilyn eventually filed a $500 million suit against Madison Square Garden, referee Lew Eskin, and four doctors,, as well as a $250,000 suit against the city and its medical examiner for allegedly bungling the fighter’s autopsy. In 1987, Marilyn settled for a six-figure sum.

The Culture of Boxing: First in a Series
The Culture of Boxing: Second in a Series
The Culture of Boxing: Third in a Series
The Culture of Boxing: Fourth in a Series
The Culture of Boxing: Fifth in a Series
The Culture of Boxing: Sixth in a Series
The Culture of Boxing: Seventh in a Series
The Culture of Boxing: Eighth in a Series

Visit the author’s website at

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Max Baer in «The Harder They Fall»

Primo Carnera vs Ernie Schaaf

Vito Antuofermo vs Willie Classen

Leavander Johnson Vs Jesus Chavez (Part 1/2)

Leavander Johnson Vs Jesus Chavez (Part 2/2)

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  1. Bruce Kielty 10:26pm, 06/01/2012

    Ted, Superb writing in all respects.

  2. The Thresher 10:05am, 06/01/2012

    FD, right you are. Some great acting in that one all the way around. Bogart was dying at the time but he gave it his all, Steiger, of course, always makes a great rat as does Neahima Persoff. Simpy marvelous stuff. Joe Greb ‘s interview was one of the most scary things thing I have ever witnessed in a film because it was true.

  3. FrankinDallas 06:00pm, 05/31/2012

    At 15:02 of the Harder They Fall movie, Toro is on his knees on the canvas, crawls over to his mouthpiece that had fallen out, and tries to put it back in his mouth: presages Tyson/Douglas by nearly 50 years.

  4. TEX HASSLER 01:20pm, 05/31/2012

    Willie Classen should have never been allowed to fight any more after the Sibson fight. Willie is just one of many who have suffered the same fate. Great article and one that makes you think.

  5. The Thresher 11:06am, 05/31/2012

    John, you da man!

  6. john coiley 08:40am, 05/31/2012

    OW! it hurts remembering the day after the Licata beat down I suffered. It doesn’t hurt during, except one’s self-esteem. Maybe that’s why the fighter keeps getting up if he is aware of where and why he is in that moment.

  7. The Thresher 06:19am, 05/31/2012

    Thanks, Bill. I’d actually agree to that.  I appreciate you sentiment very much. This one took a lot of research—even into some court decsions and later out-of-court settlements.

  8. dollarbond 06:16am, 05/31/2012

    Bull, I think this may just be one of your best ever.

  9. The Thresher 03:49am, 05/31/2012

    Rax, Briggs reminded me of another Gus Dundee.

  10. pugknows 09:01pm, 05/30/2012

    Ted. thanks for an extremely compelling read. I was riveted by the way you described the beat down. I also like the stuff on Jim Lampley. Keep these coming because they provide a great balance to the Manny insanity, etc..

  11. raxman 08:10pm, 05/30/2012

    you guys want to see outrage check out the danny green vs paul briggs fiasco. the fight meant for sydney was moved to green’s hometown perth when biggs failed the brain test. briggs was broke, going thru a marriage break up and in terrible, terrible shape. it isnt possible that he looked good in the gym. he was let down inexcusably by all involved - the first thing you learn when becoming responsible for fighters as a coach the biggest threat a fighter must be protected from is himself.
    it was bad that Brigg’s trunks revealed a rolled of fat over the band -despite being pulled up to his rib cage. it was worse when he went down to a jab that skim off his forehead - some say he dove i think his brain was that shot that the bouncing punch took his balance. but the biggest disgrave was reserved for promoter/fighter Green who’s outburst at the fights end - abusing Briggs in the worse possible way just - was a smoke screen to coverthe fact his cherry picking had back fired. i had never taken pleasure in seeing a fighter knocked out before i saw green get karma in the form antonio tarver

  12. The Thresher 07:18pm, 05/30/2012

    Nice to see you back, sthomas. Nick, you are right about that.

    There were law suits , however.

  13. nick 06:49pm, 05/30/2012

    The real problem in the Willie Classen situation was that no one in New York or UK did their jobs. They are definitely the ones responsible. Classen was trying to earn a living and that is why he lied. People should have been sued.

  14. sthomas 05:09pm, 05/30/2012

    Well done Ted.  I’ve been away for a bit and it’s good to read your work again.

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