The Memory Bank: Part Fifteen
The fight was held at the Exposition Building in Portland, Maine, and Roger Phillips received a payday of $750, one of his largest…
“My manager once told me, whether they say good or bad things about you is not the problem. The problem comes when they say nothing about you at all.”—Mustafa Hamsho
“All fighters are prostitutes and all promoters are pimps.”—Larry Holmes
Most of my boxing memories are positive, but this one is not. And in this respect, it just as easily could have been about Somerville, Massachusetts’s much-loved Bobby Tomasello Benson who passed away as a result of injuries sustained in his October 20, 2000 ring war with Steve Dotse at the Roxy in Boston; or it could have been about Hanson, Massachusetts’s Dave “The Hammer” Hamilton, an equally beloved super middleweight journeyman who had limited skills but always gave 100% in the ring. On May 18, 2004, in Middleboro, Massachusetts, he was killed instantly when his car went off the road and crashed while he was driving his son Marcus to daycare. Sadly, four-year old Marcus later died of his injuries. Both Bobby and Dave warrant mention in my memory bank.
Remembering Roger Phillips
“There’ll always be opponents, there’s got to be opponents – they’re a necessity.”—John Gagliardi, Promoter
’‘But boxing was the final straw. It was his only strength in life, and he was manipulated. It busted his spirit.’‘—Joe Phillips, Roger’s brother.
Roger Phillips was not a “could have been.” Roger never really was. He was a middleweight from Pittsfield, Massachusetts who fought from 1971 to 1981 and toted up a dismal record of 6-34-2-2. He was KO’d 22 times and TKO’d in his last fight by highly skilled contender Vinnie Curto (44-5-3 coming in). The fight was held at the Exposition Building in Portland, Maine, and Phillips received a payday of $750, one of his largest. Roger had lost 22 straight at the time. Remarkably, he lost two bouts to Al Romano by DQ both in the second round, but beat the hard hitting Romano (66-32-1) in 1972 in what would be his last win. Earlier, he split a pair with the infamous Jose Pagan Rivera who would finish with a 30-93-8 slate suffering 39 losses by KO along the way. Roger also split a pair with Willie Williams knocking out the Canadian in what may have been Philips’ best career showing.
Phillips rode the bus to fight in dingy Maine armories and smoke-filled union halls in Massachusetts. He also traveled beyond the northeast making stops in such locales as the Steelworkers Hall in Baltimore, Sharkey’s Casino in Nevada, and the Sunnyside Garden Arena in Long Island City, providing fodder for those anxious to get a win on their record. He even fought in Brazil in 1973 against Miguel de Oliveira (32-0 coming in) who just prior to this mismatch held Koichi Wajima to a draw with Wajima’s WBC and WBA light middleweight titles at stake. Phillips was 6-17-2 at the time and was dispatched in three rounds. Roger had no business in the ring with the elite Brazilian boxer.
Two days after his final bout with Curto on March 4, 1981, Roger Phillips hanged himself in a cell of his hometown jail in Pittsfield, MA. He was just 29. However, in retrospect, it seems clear that the Curto loss was not the trigger for this tragedy as much as it was one of the final incidents in a long and destructive process that reportedly included drinking and anger issues. As Michael Katz describes the end in “The Tragedy of a Middleweight Loser” in the September 7, 1981 New York Times, “…According to Joe Phillips [Roger’s younger brother and a former boxer who once lost to Freddie Roach for the USA New England lightweight title]…. He [Roger] bought new clothes for himself and bicycles for his three children…Later, he went out ‘partying’ and, the money gone, he got into a fight with his current girl friend. The quarrel grew violent, she called the police and, not for the first time, Roger Phillips was in the Pittsfield jail….”
While Joe Phillips blames boxing, others blame serious personal problems. Whatever the cause, it is indisputable that on March 6, 1981, Roger Phillips, with a 6-33-3 record, was allowed to box a rising contender even though Roger’s home-state license reportedly had been revoked in 1973 after he allegedly had struck a referee. It was his second such alleged offense.
What’s not in dispute is that Vinnie Curto beat someone by the name of “Bad” Bennie Briscoe, 64-20-5, at the Hynes Memorial Auditorium in Boston just three months before his fight with Phillips.
What’s indisputable is that Curto was in the middle of a 28-fight undefeated streak.
What’s indisputable is that Curto was ranked 11th by Ring Magazine at the time.
What’s indisputable is that Roger Phillips hadn’t won a fight in almost nine years.
Maybe Roger was someone who had learned how to lose because he knew he could not buck a system that allowed him to be overmatched. Maybe losing was his way to survive—his lifeline. Whatever the case, fighters like Roger need to be remembered—not because of their boxing exploits (or, in Roger’s case, lack thereof) and not because their end came under tragic circumstances. Boxing was Roger’s sole anchor in a fragile life. In the end, he had the courage and nobility to enter the ring; he needs to be remembered at least for that.
As Mike Tyson said in giving some indirect advice to 50 Cent, “We calling it peddling the flesh. Even though you’re paying them, you’re still dealing in flesh. Life in general is very short and unpredictable but it’s more unpredictable than it is short. So you have to understand that when you’re dealing with human beings, you’re dealing with the probability of anything happening.”
As for Curto, he was raised in the rough, low income neighborhood of East Boston and became one of the better super middleweight fighters of his era (a great one for middleweights). Curto finished with a 62-10- 3 record, though five of the losses came in his last 14 fights. This Boston cutie and defensive wizard who knew all the tricks started out with 17 straight wins and seemed destined for greatness, but never fulfilled his promise. He lost two against the great Korean Chong Pal Park, but claimed he was robbed in the first that was fought in Seoul in 1985 (one which I witnessed live while living in Seoul)). Between 1976 and 1984, he lost only one fight while winning 34 with one draw (against Willie Classen in 1978).
Curto fought often in Florida and Quebec going up against many of the best fighters of his era, including the aforementioned Briscoe and Park (twice each), Vito Antuofermo, Tony Chiaverini, Rodrigo Valdez, Chucho Garcia and Tony Licata. While he never won the Super Middleweight Title, in a twist of fate he actually did win the WBF Super Cruiserweight Title against one Jimmy Haynes in his very last fight in 1996 in the unlikely boxing “stronghold” of Lincoln, Nebraska.
The Memory Bank: Part One
The Memory Bank: Part Two
The Memory Bank: Part Three
The Memory Bank: Part Four
The Memory Bank: Part Five
The Memory Bank: Part Six
The Memory Bank: Part Seven
The Memory Bank: Part Eight
The Memory Bank: Part Nine
The Memory Bank: Part Ten
The Memory Bank: Part Eleven
The Memory Bank: Part Twelve
The Memory Bank: Part Thirteen
The Memory Bank: Part Fourteen
The Memory Bank: Part Fifteen