The trials of Curley Lee

By Pete Ehrmann on January 30, 2018
The trials of Curley Lee
“There’s not much they can do about it. Curley is just another piece of boxing’s flotsam.”

“The battle of David vs. Goliath came out the way you’d logically expect last night when Curley Lee was bombed into submission by gigantic Cleveland Williams”

When the Los Angeles cops arrived at 3410 2nd Avenue, he didn’t hide or cower from them. “Come on in,” invited Curley Lee—if you have the stomach for it.”

The bodies of his four children, ages two to five, were still in the bathtub where he’d drowned them. Outside was the corpse of Lee’s 17-year-old brother-in-law, his skull smashed by a crowbar. Though badly injured with the same crowbar, Curley’s wife Velma had escaped to a neighboring barber shop and called the police.

During questioning the 34-year-old ex-boxer once hailed as “one of the hottest heavyweight prospects in the country” complained about a headache he’d had since his last fight 13 years earlier.

When Curley Lee started boxing in his native Phoenix in 1951 he weighed less than 120 pounds. Within a couple years he was a welterweight, and in ’55 he won the Arizona Golden Gloves as a light heavyweight. Then he joined the military and in 1956 was runner-up as a heavyweight in the All-Army championships.

Upon completion of his hitch Lee moved to LA and turned pro with a third round KO of Tony Emanuel at Hollywood Legion Stadium on October 27, 1957. When he wasn’t training Lee stacked sacks of produce at the warehouse of his rich manager, Leo Fishman.

“Curley Lee, who started boxing in Phoenix as a small youngster, now weighs more than 180 pounds and has won three straight professional heavyweight bouts in Hollywood Legion Stadium,” reported Arnott Duncan in the Arizona Republic on February 18, 1958. “They’re beginning to get interested in him.”

Gig Rooney got interested enough to come out of retirement to become Lee’s co-manager. Rooney went all the way back to the days of Ad Wolgast, Fireman Jim Flynn and Mexican Joe Rivers, whose corners he worked. In 1929 Rooney managed Jackie Fields to the welterweight championship, and he developed Barney Ross, later the lightweight and welterweight titlist. “Gig Rooney is one of the very few managers who know what the fight racket is and knows how to go about conditioning a scrapper and bringing out the best that is in him,” lauded a 1927 newspaper column by someone with the grandiloquent by-line “Fair Play.”

By the middle of ’58 Lee was 7-0, with six knockouts. Then he lost a split-decision to Nopo Junior, an old rival from Army days, but reversed it in a rematch and went on another winning streak that included a knockout on the undercard of the Floyd Patterson-Roy Harris heavyweight title fight at Wrigley Field in August.

In his fifteenth fight and first main event, against Paul Andrews at the Olympic Auditorium on July 30, 1959, 183-pound Lee was outweighed by 12 pounds. Andrews, once ranked second as a light heavyweight, floored him at the end of the fifth round, but Lee stormed out in the sixth and pummeled Andrews helpless for a TKO.

Veteran Howard King lasted six against Curley on September 11, and the next day LA Times sportswriter Dan Smith wrote, “After last night’s slaughter (Promoter George) Parnassus may have a hard time finding anyone who is willing to fight Lee.”

The search ended three weeks later when Sonny Liston was scratched from his scheduled October 14 nationally-televised fight with Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams on account of a hand injury suffered in training. Third-ranked Liston had knocked out Williams the previous spring, notwithstanding which Bill Gore, the Big Cat’s trainer, said upon learning that Curley Lee would sub for Liston: “We’ve got a tougher match now than we had before. I know Gig Rooney. He never spent five minutes with a guy who couldn’t fight. Everybody on the West Coast has been dodging this Lee.”

In a 48-bout professional career that began when Lee was an amateur bantamweight, Cleveland Williams had won all but three and knocked out 37 opponents. In addition to three times more experience than Lee, the muscular Big Cat would have 30 pounds on him.

“My boy is well-schooled, so don’t let the weights or the fact he has had only 15 fights fool you,” counseled 71-year-old Gig Rooney. “It’ll never go 10.”

It did, barely. Fifty-eight seconds into the final round, after a left uppercut from Williams floored Lee for the third time in the fight, it was over. The Associated Press reported that it took the ringside doctor “a couple minutes” to get Lee back on his feet. Later accounts said it was 20 minutes.

Frank Gianelli of the Arizona Republic found a silver lining:

“The battle of David vs Goliath came out the way you’d logically expect last night when outweighed Curley Lee, the ex-Phoenix fighter, was bombed into submission by gigantic Cleveland Williams. But if sentiment around the nation was anything like that of office loafers clustered about the sports department TV, Curley made millions of friends and should be good for a lot of future TV fight paydays.

“It was evident from the start Curley had a fundamentally fatal flaw in his defense. He held his right hand low. And Williams, being a hooker, was able to hit him often—and violently. Curley should have had that right glove up around his eyebrow. If he had, maybe he could have won the fight. For he certainly stung Williams. And he showed great courage coming back to win the balance of the round each time he got knocked off his feet—up to the point where Williams exploded him sideways with a crushing left in the tenth.

“So Phoenix fans have a new boy to holler for in future boxing crusades—and certainly one of whom they can be proud. Against men of his own tonnage, Curley Lee is going to win a lot of fights.”

But he never won another fight. He never had one. After the Williams fight, the ceaseless headache, dizziness, bloody noses and an awkward hitch in his gait sent Lee to Dr. Wells Ford in LA. A blood clot was detected on his brain. Dr. Ford advised Lee to never fight again.

On November 1, 1960, Dr. Ford was stunned to read in the LA Times that “Curley Lee hopes to hop back on the winning track tonight when he fights veteran Monroe Ratliff in the televised 10-rounder at the Olympic.” After the Williams fight, noted the article, “Lee had dizzy spells for several months … and it wasn’t until recently that he dared resume training.”

Though Lee had passed required pre-fight physical examinations, reported the Times, when Dr. Ford howled the commission “decided to play it safe” and pulled Curley from the card at the last minute.

They couldn’t keep him out of the gym. In an article celebrating Muhammad Ali’s 50th birthday in 1992, iconic trainer Eddie Futch recalled seeing Ali for the first time in 1962 at the Main Street Gym in LA. “He sparred with Curley Lee,” recounted Futch, “a good young heavyweight with a good career until he got in with Cleveland Williams. Ali played with Curley Lee. I was highly impressed with him because he handled a seasoned pro like he was an amateur.”

In 1964, columnist Jim Murray wrote that Lee had been “suffering blackouts on the street and long red-light trips to the receiving hospital where overworked attendants first suspect drunkenness and then detect a form of epilepsy. Either way, there’s not much they can do about it. Curley is just another piece of boxing’s flotsam.”

Cleveland Williams fought Ali for the title on November 14, 1966, and was knocked out in what is widely viewed as Ali’s finest performance. Said the Big Cat afterwards: “I think he’s faster than any man I have fought, unless it was Curley Lee.”

Velma Lee left her husband in mid-September 1972. Curley tracked her down in San Jose and talked her into returning to LA. Her brother, John Hunter, came along. On September 19, Lee and Hunter got into an argument; Curley thought he should look for a job instead of watching TV all day. Out came the crowbar. After drowning his children, Lee put his head under the water in an unsuccessful suicide attempt.

Psychiatrists confirmed Lee’s brain damage and “trauma induced epilepsy,” and on February 16, 1973 Judge George M. Dell found him not guilty by reason of insanity “due to a vicious beating in the ring” and sentenced him to an indefinite term in the state mental hospital.

According to the Social Security Death Index, Curley Lee died at age 69 on December 30, 2006, in Napa, California.

The California Dept. of Corrections doesn’t give out information about such matters, but apparently Lee did not die in confinement. In 2010, in a non-boxing Internet forum a writer posted, “I spent years working with Curley Lee and as terrible as the crime was he was one of the very few that I worked with that was truly remorseful. He could have been on the streets years before but he believed he deserved much greater punishment than had been handed down to him.”

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  1. Bob 03:53am, 02/02/2018

    You outdid yourself with this one, Pete. Never heard the term “boxing flotsam” before. What a description! Felt like the wind was knocked out of me when I read that. What a story.

  2. oldschool 10:59am, 02/01/2018

    Lucas, you are right. The Stanley Weston BI magazines were favored by me over The Ring back then. There is a nice photo of Williams-Lee in action in that particular issue. I wonder if Al “Blue” Lewis was suffering more from pugilistic dementia then alzheimer’s.

  3. Lucas McCain 03:53pm, 01/31/2018

    oldschool.  I think I still have that issue in my basement somewhere.  Loved BI in its first few years.  Stanley Weston knew how to put out a handsome looking magazine and it made his old home, Nat Fleischer’s The Ring, look stodgy in comparison

  4. Lucas McCain 02:24pm, 01/31/2018

    Terrible reminder, especially appearing a couple of days after the death of another heavyweight, Al “Blue” Lewis, who was also severely damaged by his boxing career.

  5. oldschool 01:52pm, 01/31/2018

    I remember watching the fight on TV. Later Boxing Illustrated wrote an article about the fight entitled “It’s a Damned Shame”! The article stated: “There will be more bouts offered to him. But no fighter, especially a young fighter like Lee, can walk away from a beating like that without permanent effects.  What did it do to his confidence? To his body? To his brain?  To his spirit?”

  6. peter 11:03am, 01/31/2018

    Another excellent, and sensitively-written, article by Mr. Ehrmann chronicling the sad plight of another boxing casualty, “...another piece of boxing’s flotsam…”

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