The Other Billy Graham
Billy Graham “had mastered the science of punching distances and angles, so he was always there where the danger should have been but seldom was…”
Billy Graham, the world famous evangelist, has preached to more people than anyone in the history of Christianity. A national figure since first coming to the public’s attention in 1949, Graham’s estimated lifetime audiences (including his worldwide crusades and countless radio and television broadcasts) have topped 2.2 billion. The 97-year-old retired preacher has been the spiritual advisor and confidant to former Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. He has repeatedly been on Gallup’s list of most admired men and women. By the mid-1970s, many deemed him “America’s pastor.” But this is not a story about the Reverend Billy Graham; it is a story about his namesake, a professional prizefighter also named Billy Graham, whose fame and popularity pre-dated the popular preacher’s celebrity by several years.
The boxer Billy Graham was born in 1922, in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan. Billy first laced on the gloves as an 11-year-old member of his local Police Athletic League’s boxing team. His amateur career included a win over a very young Sugar Ray Robinson. When he attempted to enter the New York Golden Gloves tournament the examining physician discovered a heart murmur and disqualified him. The following year Billy applied for a professional boxing license and passed the physical without incident.
Shortly before his 19th birthday a neighborhood acquaintance, Jack Reilly, introduced Billy to boxing manager Irving Cohen. It was a fortuitous meeting. Irving Cohen was the antithesis of the cigar chomping in-your-face boxing manager. Before he began his career as a boxing manager Irving had spent several years in New York’s garment industry, selling women’s lingerie—not exactly the ideal preparation for a boxing manager. But Irving was a former amateur boxer with a love for the sport and a discerning eye for ring talent. He was a soft-spoken gentleman who rarely raised his voice, yet he possessed the most important attribute of a competent fight manager: compassion combined with the knowledge of how to develop a young fighter without getting him ruined by careless matchmaking.
Taking the young fighter under his wing, Cohen, in partnership with Jack Reilly, hired the capable Whitey Bimstein to train him. Billy was brought along slowly. There would be plenty of opportunities to gain professional experience while learning his trade in the myriad of boxing clubs that dotted the New York City landscape.
Irving Cohen did not believe in rushing his fighters. Billy’s first 16 bouts were all four-rounders, followed by 17 bouts limited to six rounds before Cohen put him into an eight-round semi-final. Graham went to the post 42 times before engaging in his first ten round bout.—almost four years after turning pro. This was the pattern for every fighter Cohen managed, including future middleweight champion Rocky Graziano who had close to 40 bouts before his first 10-rounder
By then Billy had grown into a solid 145-pound welterweight with a superb jab, savvy infighting skills, excellent footwork, and the ability to adapt to a variety of different styles. His clever boxing technique more than compensated for his lack of a big punch. On those rare occasions when he was tagged with a haymaker Billy’s rock solid jaw stood the test. Clean cut and handsome, the young fighter had become a popular attraction in the local fight clubs. He continued to improve with every contest, remaining undefeated through 58 bouts (52-0-6 with 19 KOs).
Graham’s 59th bout resulted in his first loss—a split 10-round decision to tough Tony Pellone at the Queensboro Arena on September 11, 1945. Over the next four years he won 31 of 35, including wins over Aldo Minelli, Terry Young and Fritzie Pruden. Those victories earned him a rating among the top ten welterweight contenders. His four losses were to Pellone, Tippy Larkin, Paddy DeMarco and England’s Eddie Thomas, all of whom were top fighters. He considered those losses learning experiences, especially his bout with Larkin, one of the finest boxers of his generation.
Billy Graham was a consummate professional who knew when and how to use the tools of his trade. He was methodical and precise in his application. The purists appreciated his artistry. Fans expecting a wild punch fest had to look elsewhere. W.C. Heinz, the great sports journalist, gave an apt description of Billy’s style in his outstanding book, Once They Heard the Cheers. “He had mastered the science of punching distances and angles, so he was always there where the danger should have been but seldom was, and boxing divorced from danger is devoid of excitement and the emotion that is, of course the quintessence of the art.”
Graham opened his 1950 campaign with a win over previous conqueror Tony Pellone and followed 23 days later with a split 10-round decision over the great Cuban boxer Kid Gavilan. He was now the top rated welterweight contender in the world. After winning his next five bouts Graham lost his rematch with Gavilan via another split decision.
Eight months later Kid Gavilan won the world welterweight championship with a 15-round decision over Chicago’s Johnny Bratton. Having split two close decisions with the Cuban Hawk, Billy should have had the title shot and not Bratton. But there was a fly in the ointment. Gavilan and Bratton were IBC fighters. Graham was not. The International Boxing Club (IBC) monopolized the promotion of big time boxing in the United States during the 1950s. Although the IBC’s titular head was James D. Norris, a wealthy sportsman who owned several major arenas and stadiums, the real power behind the IBC throne was the notorious mafia hoodlum and racketeer Frankie Carbo. In silent partnership with Norris, Carbo and his cohorts used front managers to control the destinies of many top contenders and world champions. Carbo was the sport’s unofficial dictator, czar, and commissioner all rolled into one. Under Carbo the IBC oozed corruption. Fighters controlled by the IBC were sometimes ordered to throw a fight in order to facilitate a betting coup for the mob. The organization had a stranglehold on the sport. Managers and boxers who preferred to remain independent and refused to follow the edicts of the all-powerful IBC were denied lucrative television dates and the opportunity to advance their careers.
A few months after Graham’s second bout with Gavilan, Norris had met with Irving Cohen at New York’s Forrest Hotel to discuss a title bout between Gavilan and Graham to determine a new welterweight champion. (The former champion, Sugar Ray Robinson, had abandoned the title after defeating Jake LaMotta for the middleweight crown.) Present at the meeting was the ubiquitous Carbo. They told Cohen he could have the title match on the condition that Carbo would take over the management of Graham. Cohen was no neophyte; he understood that not giving up control of his fighter would jeopardize the chances of Graham ever getting a title shot. He decided to let his fighter decide. If Billy wanted the fight under those conditions Cohen was willing to step aside. Billy’s loyalty to the man who had steered his career from the very beginning was unwavering: “Irving, I started with you and I will finish with you. I will not take the fight under those conditions.” As Cohen expected, Billy was left out in the cold and Bratton was given the title shot.
Over the next six months, Graham maintained his number one contender status. Whenever he fought ring announcers would introduce him as the “uncrowned welterweight champion.” The fans and sportswriters wanted to see him challenge Gavilan for the title. Public pressure finally forced Norris’ hand and he agreed to stage the bout on August 29, 1951, at Madison Square Garden. The fight would be televised nationally (CBS network) on the Pabst Blue Ribbon sponsored fight of the week program. This was a time when televised main events were shown every night except Sundays. Billy had already appeared in almost two dozen televised matches. He was a familiar name to the millions of armchair fans who tuned in each week.
Cohen knew the deck would be stacked against him and that Carbo would probably coerce the judges and referee to vote against Graham if the bout went to a decision. In 1995 Herb Cohen, Irving’s son, was interviewed by The Ring magazine. He said that an anonymous caller phoned his father the day before the fight and told him who would be judging and refereeing the fight. The New York State Athletic Commission’s policy was to assign the referee and judges on the same night the fight took place so as to discourage bribes. Irving Cohen went directly to the commission office to express his concern and go on record that an anonymous caller had already named the officials for the fight. He asked, as a precaution, that the judges and referee named by the caller not officiate the following evening. Commission officials assured him this would be done. He was told not to worry and that all precautions would be taken to protect his boxer and the integrity of the sport.
To Cohen’s dismay, on the night of the fight, the commission did not switch the two judges and referee. The same people named by the anonymous caller were assigned to the fight. Adding to his alarm was a late shift in the odds that made Gavilan a 14 to 5 favorite to retain his crown. Considering that their first two fights could have gone either way the odds made no sense unless word had gotten out that the fix was in.
It was a tough competitive fight. At the end of 15 hard-fought rounds Gavilan retained the title on a split decision by the narrowest of margins. One judge had it for Graham but he was overruled by the referee and the other judge. As soon as the decision was announced, the jeers and hoots of the eight thousand spectators echoed throughout the Garden. Cigar butts, beer containers, programs and other assorted debris were thrown into the ring by irate fans. A near riot ensued. The referee and judge who voted for Gavilan needed a police escort to get back to the safety of the dressing rooms.
There is no denying that it was a close fight, but most observers thought Graham had done enough to win the decision, including 12 of the 15 reporters at ringside. The real question was how could a very popular New York boxer lose a close decision for the championship in his own hometown? Although a fix was never proven, it certainly would not have been the first time that Carbo & Company had prearranged the outcome of a major fight.
There was one more bout with Gavilan. Thirteen months after their controversial title bout Billy travelled to Havana, Cuba, Gavilan’s hometown, where he lost an uncontested 15-round decision.
In Teddy Brenner’s book Only The Ring Was Square (1981), he talks about the Gavilan-Graham bout. The book is a 163-page gossipy tome that lacks depth. It is based on Brenner’s experiences as Madison Square Garden matchmaker in the 1960s and 1970s. In it he states that years after the controversial title bout the judge who voted for Gavilan summoned Irving Cohen to the hospital where he was in the last stages of a terminal illness. In what amounted to a deathbed confession (according to Brenner) the guilt ridden boxing judge said “the boys ordered me to do it.” The judge’s widow later sued both Brenner and the publisher for defamation, stating her late husband had never confessed to anything and had not been hospitalized but had succumbed at their home to a fatal heart attack.
Deathbed confession, or not, there is virtually no doubt that short of scoring an unlikely knockout (in 143 fights Gavilan never came close to being KO’d) Graham had no chance of winning the fight once he decided not to go with Carbo.
In 1957, nearly a decade after the formation of the IBC, the Justice Department ordered its dissolution for operating a monopoly in restraint of trade. Four years later Carbo and his chief lieutenant, Frank “Blinky” Palermo, were convicted of extortion and racketeering and received lengthy prison sentences. Unfortunately, their imprisonment came years too late for Graham and who knows how many other exploited victims of their pernicious greed.
“Billy Graham was really a gentleman, he really was,” recalled Herb Cohen in his interview with The Ring. “He should have been champion. He earned it. He didn’t get it. Yet he never showed any real bitterness. And he never regretted his decision not to leave my father and hook up with Carbo, even though it cost him a world title. I don’t know how many fighters would have refused a title fight because their manager was not willing to accept the terms. My father offered his fighters more than just a business relationship. The relationship extended to them as human beings, as sons, as friends. He was devoted to all his fighters. They were like his children.”
Such qualities are indeed rare in the business of boxing—as rare as the loyalty shown by Billy Graham in refusing to compromise his principles and integrity.
Echoing Herb Cohen’s sentiments is Eddie Foy III, the grandson of the legendary vaudeville performer Eddie Foy. Eddie III (whose father, Eddie Foy Jr., was number six of “The Seven Little Foys”) idolized Billy Graham and became his biggest fan. In 1945, when he was just 12 years old, Eddie went up to Stillman’s Gym and introduced himself to the welterweight contender. Billy was taken with the young man’s sincerity and enthusiasm. They developed a strong bond of friendship that lasted until Graham’s death in 1992. “Billy Graham was one of the nicest and most decent men you’d ever want to meet,” says Foy. “I was heading in the wrong direction and he straightened me out. He was not only a father figure to me—he was my best friend. Billy wasn’t a pug. He was a streetwise, classy man and a truly artistic fighter.”
After his final fight with Gavilan, Billy remained active for three more years, fighting the top men in both the welterweight and middleweight divisions. He outpointed Jimmy Herring, Art Aragon and Paddy Young and fought to a draw with Rocky Castellani. Between 1952 and 1954 he split several wins and losses with future champions Carmen Basilio and Joey Giardello.
Thanks to his superb boxing skills Graham was never seriously hurt or banged up in any of his fights. On April 1, 1955, a slower and older Graham lost a unanimous decision to welterweight contender Chico Vejar. He had been outpointed by Vejar the previous month. The defeat was his fourth straight loss. At age 32 Billy knew he was passed his prime as a fighter. It was time to hang up his gloves. He finished his career with a 102-15-9 (27 KOs) record. Seven of his losses were by split decision. In a 15-year career, encompassing 126 professional fights, Billy had never been knocked out, or even knocked down.
After he retired from boxing Billy moved his wife and four children to Long Island where he began a career as a salesman for National Distillers. Whenever he attended the fights at Madison Square Garden he was introduced before the main event along with other past and present boxing stars. Johnny Addie, the announcer, always prefaced his name with the words “uncrowned welterweight champion of the world.” Billy’s name was always greeted with warm applause. It was as if the New York fans still felt bad about the injustice done to this fine fighter and gentleman who was denied the prize he worked so hard to attain because the scum who always seem to rule this rotten sport didn’t want it that way.
Once upon a time winning a world boxing championship was a rare and venerated achievement. It really meant something. Today every boxer, it seems, is wearing some kind of goofy title belt, which of course devalues all of them. In Billy’s day not winning the title was a great disappointment, but it did not define him. Nor did he brood over it for the rest of his life.
It’s not an easy task to remain unsullied, uncorrupted and undamaged in the brutal, unforgiving sport of professional boxing. Billy Graham was one of the few who did. In his excellent biography of former heavyweight champion Gene Tunney, author Jack Cavanaugh recalls a quote made by sportswriter Jim Murray in which he stated that Tunney “was the best advertisement his sport ever had.” Billy Graham was cut of the same cloth.
No doubt Pastor Billy Graham would agree.
Mike Silver is the author of the The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science (McFarland Publishers, 2008). His new book, Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing: A Photographic History, will be published on March 4, 2016.