The Memory Bank: Part Fifteen

By Ted Sares on September 7, 2012
The Memory Bank: Part Fifteen
Roger Phillips hanged himself in a cell of his hometown jail in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

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.”

Vinnie Curto

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

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  1. TEX HASSLER 06:28am, 09/19/2012

    Roger had a lot of fights he never should have been allowed to have. Thanks for remembering him and doing it with this excellent article.

  2. the thresher 10:19am, 09/13/2012

    OK Johnny.

  3. john coiley 10:12am, 09/13/2012

    are you referring to this JOHN, Thresher? it was timing as far as my career went. Licata was dynamite, but truly, I was not properly fit. no trouble going 10, but I sparred a total of 20+ rounds. can’t beat a slicker like that w/o being prepared. and I’m not crying about it, just the facts, dude. Just the facts. seeing how far he went in his career, he most likely could have/would have beaten me anyway. had I won, I wouldn’t have been blessed with raising my daughter as a single dad, and then, wouldn’t have met my soul mate, Mary Pat Osborne w/whom I was wed til her passing (1955-2006). so I am not complaining…

  4. the thresher 09:54am, 09/13/2012

    Thanks Christine.

  5. the thresher 09:53am, 09/13/2012

    John, you were pretty damn good as well and one of these days I will write about you. It’s just that since we are Ring 4 brothers, it makes it difficult to do without showing some personal bias.

  6. the thresher 09:51am, 09/13/2012

    MRBILL Yes on VK; no on Chavez.

  7. THE THRESHER 09:51am, 09/13/2012

    Lindy, for some reason, Vinny doesn’t like me. Don’t know why since I have treated him extremely well in my books and in aricles. I think it has something to do with not calling him a Canadian fighter. His manager Johnny Galiardo—Johnny Gags—could tell you some things and so could Vinny about Johnny Gags. Let’s just leave it at that, but I always enjoyed watching Vinny fight and I still think a prime Curto would have given Hagler a decent go. VINNY HAD SOME GREAT MOVES IN THE RING. HE WAS A CLASSIC CUTIE.

  8. MRBILL-HARDCORE XXX 02:09pm, 09/12/2012

    V.K. is great…....

  9. MRBILL-HARDCORE XXX 02:07pm, 09/12/2012

    Chavez, Jr. over Martinez…........ WORD!

  10. Lindy Lindell 12:32pm, 09/12/2012

    Ted,  You really should write a book on Vinnie Curto.  To those who say that he’s a nice guy:  yeah, but he’s also a con-man a la Jack Kearns, albeit on another level.  He had, as I understand, more than twenty managers, including the esteemed Hank Kaplan and the bodybuilder Joe Wiedler (or is it Wieder?  The guy on the back of comic books who depicted skinny guys on the beach getting sand kicked in their faces, but who subscribed to his muscle-building program).

    As a youngster, I talked with Kearns.  Later, I talked with Curto.  It was deja vu all over again.  Lindy Lindell

  11. MRBILL-HARDCORE XXX 05:29am, 09/09/2012

    I’m working next weekend, so I can guarantee I will not be pay-per-viewing “Chavez, Jr.-Martinez.” I’ll catch the replay a week later on HBO…..

  12. MRBILL-HARDCORE XXX 05:27am, 09/09/2012

    Charr was game, but way outta his league against the great V.K. last night and Chadwick Dawson was a limp dick at 168 pounds against Ward as I knew he would be…...

  13. the thresher 04:18pm, 09/08/2012

    Thanks, Gordon.

  14. john coiley 02:10pm, 09/08/2012

    I didn’t know Vinnie was in FL…do you know where? nice kid…as if we are still in the New Garden gym umpteen years ago…

  15. Gordon Marino 01:45pm, 09/08/2012

    Many thanks for this piece Ted. It is just sickening that Roger would be allowed to campaign on with a record of 6-33. These days, most of the shows that I go to are just executions when everyone pats the guy on the back who had his head handed to him—“You got balls.” And with all we know about the effects of concussions today - are being told you have balls worth your brains - and dignity. Doesn’t do much for a person’s ego or sense of self to get beaten in virtually every fight. But they’ll say well it’s his or her choice. Well some people are pretty limited in their choices and the boxing commissions and public ought to protect them from themselves. Thanks again.

  16. the thresher 10:05am, 09/08/2012

    Johnny, do you ever run into Vinnie in Florida?

  17. john coiley 09:24am, 09/08/2012

    VINNIE CURTO had the toughness before Angelo Dundee polished the brashness to be slick and evasive…a good one, he was…nice kid, too…

  18. the thresher 09:24am, 09/08/2012

    Prove, he allegedly got virile with his girlfriend and went to the lockup. His depression just caught up with him I reckon. Drinking and being illiterate didn’t help either. The usual cocktail of destruction. Roger was a very angry person.

  19. Don from Prov 09:20am, 09/08/2012

    Thanks for another great article, Ted.

    Why was Philips in jail: Did I miss that?
    And if this site has great writers, Bob always shows that the posters are great too!

  20. CF Lewis 08:54am, 09/08/2012

    Ted,
    Mike Casey said it best. We rarely get to read about the opponents and yet those are the ones I wish to know more about. Thank you and please keep ‘em coming.
    Christine

  21. Mike Casey 07:13am, 09/08/2012

    Yes, Ted, we shouldn’t forget these boxers. Many get scant publicity when they are fighting and don’t have happy lives when they stop. Nice of your Ring 4 brother to take the trouble to write and keep the pot boiling. Very often I enjoy reading about these fellas a lot more than I do about some of our ‘superstars’ and their tedious mouths.

  22. the thresher 06:14am, 09/08/2012

    Here is a great e-mail I received from a Ring 4 Brother that jogged some memories:

    Hi guys and gal,

    Ted, it’s a treat reading your stories and I’m pleased you’ve got the memory to recall them. I know or knew of most of the players in this vignette but without your reminiscences they would have stayed in my memories attic.

    P.S. I use to spar with Vinny at the New Garden Gym on Friend Street. I was a few years older but he gave my good work. He was slick even then.

    P.P.S. Another East Boston fighter who would be an interesting subject is Mark Manero. When I was training fighters in Bob Fosmire’s New Garden on Causeway Street, Mark trained there also. What a piece of work Mark was. The dynamic between him and his family had to be seen to be believed. It would make Micky Ward’s family seem like the Cosbys.

    I mention Mark because you mentioned Vinny and that reminded me of the NG on Friend St. which reminded me of the NG on Causeway, which reminded my of Mark. That’s what good writing does. Thanks for the memories

  23. Bob 08:49pm, 09/07/2012

    Irish Frankie:  Charley Newell was on furlough from a nearby prison. He was cocky as hell, but very likable. Starling was coasting to a boring decision when the crowd started to boo. Starling turned on the juice, threw an array of punches, and Newell’s head hit the canvas with a thud. They brought him back to the dressing room on a stretcher. His eyes were closed but twitching and I remember spittle in the corners of his mouth. My opponent, Dick Embleton, and I had just fought two bouts earlier. We stood together over Newell. I remember us looking at Newell and talking, but can’t remember what we said. Boy, I wish I could. Newell died two days later. Though my fight with Embleton was stopped after he knocked me down and broke my nose in the second round, I still felt empowered by getting in the ring. Even after seeing Newell dying, I didn’t lose my sense of invincibility. The opposite occurred. It left me with an urgency to live life to the fullest.

  24. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo 07:13pm, 09/07/2012

    Bob-Dang! Talk about a one/two….first Ted Sares’ great article then your dynamite post….you guys have got me reelin’! You just about floored me when you told of sharing the dressing room with Charley Newell that fateful night! God rest his soul.

  25. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo 06:57pm, 09/07/2012

    Ted Sares-Maybe there wasn’t a manager. Maybe at some point Roger was freelancing and just became a telephone number on someone’s rolodex to be called as a last resort fill in. Maybe there wasn’t a trainer either because he didn’t go to the gym anymore and why bother anyway…when the call came all he needed to do was grab his gear, pick up the ticket at the bus station and go. As for the guys in his corner there may have been nights in strange arenas when they were total strangers too. Even so, your call regarding his “courage and nobility” was righteous!

  26. Bob 06:51pm, 09/07/2012

    I also want to thank Bob Miller, who promoted all of those shows in Albany and allowed people like me the experience to get in the ring. He is now working with many Canadian champions and contenders and when I see him on TV, he hasn’t aged a day in 35 years. He’s a good man, and I’m glad to see him doing well.

  27. Bob 06:47pm, 09/07/2012

    Thank you for the wonderful story. It brought back a lot of memories. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s is when I first got involved in boxing. New England was a hotbed of club boxing and there were scores of guys like Roger Phillips around. As a young writer, I was mesmerized by all of the shenanigans because I was too young and naive to realize all of the dangers. One good friend of mine, a middleweight, fought the same New England guy three times under three different names. Although this stuff didn’t make it into the press at that level, it was fascinating material for a youngster to absorb. I remember Al Romano well. He and Terry Rondeau fought each other several times. I saw them fight in Albany once and both were a bit long in the tooth but veritable old pros who knew how to make the fight interesting without trying to hurt each other. On several occasions each got the other’s attention, but didn’t press the issue. The fights were very entertaining and everyone went home safe. In the age before Boxrec.com, I remember being fascinated by Romano because he looked to be old (probably in his mid-thirties), and he looked more like a guy who’d wear a suit and tie to work. After he beat Rondeau by decision, I interviewed him and asked him his record. He must have had 80 fights by that time. He looked at me incredulously and said, “Jeez kid, I have no idea.”  I later drank with Terry Rondeau at former heavyweight title challlenger Dave Zyglewicz’s bar, which was appropriately named Ziggy’s Corner. Ziggy had been stopped by Joe Frazier in a 1969 title fight. His bar was where everybody went after the fights in Albany. I fell in love with boxing during that era and under those circumstances, thinking it was so colorful despite experiencing death firsthand when Charley Newell was fatally injured in a bout with Marlon Starling in January 1980. Despite having no previous experience, I “fought” that night and shared a dressing room with Newell. Even that didn’t dissuade me from my love for the sport and all of its “colorful rogues.” Times sure have changed, as has my love for the sport. As sad as your great story was, it reminded me of all that I once loved about boxing. I often wish I could get those feelings back but think they might be gone forever. Thanks for the memories, my friend. And if Dave Zyglewicz or Al Romano read this, thank you both for some great memories.

  28. Dianne Zoppa 05:40pm, 09/07/2012

    For some reason reading that he took a bus to matches, and that with his windfall he bought his kids tricycles is touching and sad.  He was forced to carve a life out of losing, I guess there’s no “second place” in the ring.

  29. the thresher 03:48pm, 09/07/2012

    All the time.

  30. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo 02:11pm, 09/07/2012

    Ted Sares-“Maybe Roger was someone who had learned how to lose”.....this paragraph alone shows that you’re the one whose “got the beat”! Do you ever wonder about the “promoters” and “managers” and “trainers” or even the guys that work the corners of fighters like Roger?

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