The Vinnie Ferguson: A Classic Old-Timer

By Robert Mladinich on July 3, 2014
The Vinnie Ferguson: A Classic Old-Timer
“When you see good boxing,” explained Vinnie, “there is nothing Neanderthal about it.”

The moment Ferguson entered that gym, spotted the two rings, and smelled the stench of stale sweat; he knew he had found a home…

Vinnie Ferguson, a quintessential lifelong New Yorker who achieved national acclaim as an NCAA boxing champion and came within a hairbreadth of representing the United States at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome passed away after a lengthy illness on June 23 in the city where he was born and raised and cherished until the end. He was 76 years old.

Ferguson, who hailed from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, fell in love with boxing at the age of 10, after seeing his first live bout at Madison Square Garden. From that moment on, he said several years ago, the sport became his obsession.

“I was hooked,” said the colorful Ferguson, who was as good of a raconteur as he was a boxer. “I said I could do that. I have to do that.”

When an older neighborhood man suggested he visit the local Police Athletic League facility, Vinnie gratefully took his advice.

“I was just a kid, so in my little mind I thought I’d go to the precinct and there would be a gym,” said Ferguson, who spoke as much with his hands as he did with his mouth. “There’s a big Irish sergeant behind the desk and I meekly asked him if I could box there. He got a good laugh and sent me to the Headquarters Gym at Mulberry and Houston Streets.”

The moment Ferguson entered that gym, spotted the two rings, and smelled the stench of stale sweat; he knew he had found a home.

He also met another boy, future lightweight champion Carlos Ortiz, with whom he developed a friendship that lasted 65 years.

“Everyone said we were naturals, which was a lot of bull,” said Ferguson. “We might have had natural ability, but we both busted our asses. If someone taught us something new, we’d be practicing in front of the mirror all night long. In the morning, we’d climb over a fence to run laps in FDR Park, which was alongside the East River. Other kids just weren’t willing to make the same sacrifices.”

Undefeated in his first 64 bouts, Ferguson won a slew of national and international titles. The good-looking youngster was so popular, he appeared on such television programs as “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Mike and Buff Show,” which was co-hosted by the late Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes” and his wife Buff Cobb, and an NBC sports show with featherweight champion Sandy Saddler.

He also trained alongside Rocky Marciano and Billy Graham at the Long Pond Inn in Greenwood Lake, New York.

When Ferguson received a boxing scholarship to the University of Wisconsin, Sports Illustrated ran a four-page spread on him. Back then, inter-collegiate bouts regularly drew 11,000 fans to the university’s field house, and Ferguson was one of the biggest draws of all. 

After winning the NCAA boxing title as a freshman, the late Jack Fiske, the longtime boxing writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, called Ferguson an “undefeated prodigy.”

It was at the Olympic Trials in San Francisco that the seemingly invincible Ferguson lost his first bout. Not only was he stopped by Eddie Crook of Detroit—the eventual 165-pound gold medalist in Rome—he was carried out of the ring on a stretcher and would spend 10 days in the hospital under careful observation. 

“I was painting Crook like a Picasso,” said Ferguson a few years ago. “We got in a clinch and as I was breaking away, he hit me with an uppercut. I never saw the punch coming and it knocked me totally unconscious.”

At his father Ed’s behest, Ferguson was given what he described as “every conceivable test” and released from the hospital with a clean bill of health. By that time, he had transferred to Manhattan College in the Bronx, where he would earn a degree in physical education. He next convinced his hard-nosed father to let him turn pro.

“My father, who could be a tyrannical son of a gun, always insisted I get an education,” recalled Ferguson. “When I turned pro, he also insisted he was going to be my manager. Out of respect, I would never argue with him.”

Ferguson was still so popular he made his pro debut at Madison Square Garden; at a time when it usually took a fighter 20 or more wins to compete there. Between November 1957 and May 1958, Ferguson won five straight fights, three by knockout.

Then he met Doug Jones, who five years later would lose a close decision to Cassius Clay, later to be known as Muhammad Ali, in the same MSG ring. The Clay-Jones bout was tabbed the 1963 Fight of the Year by The RING magazine.

“When I lost in the Olympic Trials, I never saw the punch coming,” said Ferguson. “Against Jones I saw the right hands coming, but couldn’t get out of the way. Throughout my career I trained like a beast and never got tired. In this fight I was hoping to bounce back. But the fight got stopped in the second round. I was on my feet, but banged up pretty good. Jones could fight.”

Afterwards, Ferguson’s father tore up his contract and told him he was through. The onetime undefeated prodigy was only 20 years old and forcibly retired from the game he loved. His final professional ring ledger was 5-1 (3 KOS). 

“I was heartbroken,” said Ferguson. “I lose two fights in my entire career and my contract gets torn up. I would have loved to continue and had plenty of opportunities. A lot of managers and promoters sent their emissaries to sign me up. But my father was a stern guy and wouldn’t bend. He used to say life was like a street with lots of holes and no lights. He would show me where the holes were so I wouldn’t step in them.”

The notion that his father might have been overprotective of his son was driven home two years after Ferguson’s forced exit from the ring. Charley Mohr, a good friend of Ferguson’s, was killed in the ring while fighting for the University of Wisconsin in 1960.

“I was instrumental in Charley getting into the college,” said Ferguson. “He had asked me to put in a good word for him. He wasn’t a very rugged kid and, having attended a Catholic seminary, he was torn between becoming a boxer or a priest. After he died, it bothered me for a long time. I felt halfway responsible.”

It was later learned that at the time of his death Mohr was receiving shock treatment for severe depression, much of which was likely brought on by the conflicts between his spiritual and athletic interests. 

Boxing, Ferguson insists, is not for the faint-hearted and can easily bring a person as much pain as elation.

“At its best and worst, there is nothing like it,” he said. “I compare a boxer to a long distance runner. The only difference is the runner doesn’t have someone trying to kick the spit out of him.”

And winning, he adds, is a lot more complex than it looks. “When you see good boxing, there is nothing Neanderthal about it,” he explained. “You have to do one thing to accomplish another thing. A good boxer is thinking three and four steps ahead. Occasionally you’ll hit a guy six or seven times with decent shots and he won’t even blink. Abruptly you throw out your game plan and have to start from scratch”

Ferguson recalled discussing the nuances of boxing and acting with the late eclectic filmmaker, John Cassavettes, who was a diehard fan of his. “I told him that acting must be a rough business, and he told me I was crazy,” said Ferguson.

“I get to hide behind my makeup, behind my wardrobe, and behind my character,” Cassavettes responded. “That’s not me out there on stage, that’s my character. Nobody knows anything about me and nobody cares. They only see who I’m playing.

“But a prizefighter, he’s standing in front of 10,000 people with no shirt and in a pair of shorts with some guy raining punches on him. Everything about you is exposed every minute you’re in the ring. You’ve got nowhere to hide. All of your courage and determination is there for everyone to see. Acting is easy. Boxing is a bitch.” 

Ferguson conceded that we live in a crazy world and that prospective prizefighters have to be a little crazy to be drawn to such a demanding sport. However, he chuckles at a college memory that makes you realize just how subjective the notion of craziness really is. 

“When I was at Wisconsin, I’d wake up every day and run at 6:00 a.m.,” he explained. “It was so cold I’d be all bundled up and running on ice across a lake. Nobody else got up and ran that early, but I did it every day. Everyone told me I was crazy.

“But,” he added, “While I was battling the bone-chilling cold, I’d be thinking of winning a title so I had a lot of motivation. As I was running, I’d always see this guy sitting on a chair with his fishing pole sticking in a little hole he had chopped into the ice. As I ran past him, I’d wave and he’d look at me like I was crazy. I’d look back at him and think the same thing.”

Over a decade ago Ferguson was introduced to George Chuvalo at an International Boxing Hall of Fame induction weekend in upstate New York. Chuvalo is a Canadian legend who battled tooth and nail against the likes of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Floyd Patterson, Jerry Quarry, even Doug Jones who retired Ferguson.

“You’re the Vinnie Ferguson,” said the extremely rugged Chuvalo, who is not easily impressed.

“Guilty!” said Ferguson.

“In the 1950s you were the talk of Canada,” said Chuvalo, who explained that James J. Parker, a Canadian heavyweight who trained at New York’s Stillman’s Gym, described Ferguson as one of the greatest fighters he ever saw and a shoo-in to win the middleweight championship.

Ferguson never won a title, but he had scores of friends and fans who will never forgot him. He is survived by Sue, his wife of 54 years, son Keith, an NYPD officer, daughter Kyle, his beloved grandchildren Nicholas and Brett, and his extended family. 

“Vinnie was a real New Yorker,” said broadcaster Steve Farhood of Showtime. “He was a neighbor of mine for many years, and whenever I’d see him he always told me he was watching me and that I was coming along okay. Talking to Vinnie was always fun because he’d use his hands as if he was fighting. You had to keep your guard up, especially when he was making an emphatic point.

“One of the things that makes boxing so great is the classic old-timers,” Farhood continued. “Vinnie was one of New York’s most classic old-timers. You don’t ever forget a guy like him.”

Carlos Ortiz could not agree more. 

“I loved him more than anything,” said Ortiz somberly at the wake on June 25. “There could never be another person like him. He was just….magnificent. We met at 10 years old at the Madison Square Boy’s Club and we were close until just the other day. I lost a good friend…and a brother.”

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  1. john nicolaysen 05:18pm, 05/10/2016

    Vinnie was a good friend. I am sorry to hear of his passing.

  2. Bob Mladinich 08:42pm, 07/04/2014

    Here is a link to a video of Vinnie in action as an amateur n 1954 vs. London. at St. Nick’s Arena. Thank you to Irish Frankie Crawford for bringing this to our attention. Look at the crowd, which includes cigar smokers and no shortage of women.

  3. peter 06:22pm, 07/04/2014

    Too bad there are no videos of any of his fights. Or are there?

  4. peter 05:14pm, 07/04/2014

    “Undefeated in his first 64 bouts”...pretty amazing! This Vinnie Ferguson—NYC—boxing—human interest story is classic An excellent read! Thank you.

  5. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 11:16am, 07/04/2014

    There’s a 1954 Pathe film on Youtube….NY Boys Club vs. London Boys Club…Vinnie clearly the best of those spotlighted.

  6. Brooklyn Brawler 09:00am, 07/04/2014

    Dat pitcher of da Rock is ofta hook, paisan. Would love bein’ at a table,  with tree of da guys from the neighborhood, breakin’ breadsticks with da Rock. Discussin’ broads and boxin’ over a plate of spags and a nice bottle of the grape. FUHGETTABOUTIT.

  7. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 07:53am, 07/04/2014

    “he was carried out of the ring on a stretcher and would spend 10 days in the hospital under careful observation”....some “hairbreadth”....“He is survived by Sue, his wife of 54 years, son Keith, an NYPD officer, daughter Kyle, his beloved grandchildren Nicolas and Brett, and his extended family” small thanks to that old “tyrannical son of a gun” who loved his son and knew Vinnie Ferguson better than Vinnie did….now…. may God rest both of their eternal souls.

  8. Pete 07:10am, 07/04/2014

    An exceptional piece about an exceptional man by an exceptional writer.

  9. Mike Silver 09:31pm, 07/03/2014

    Steve Farhood is right—you never forget a guy like Vinnie Ferguson. I only met and spoke with him once and immediately liked this unpretentious and classy gentleman. I was sorry to hear of his passing.

  10. Clarence George 08:51pm, 07/03/2014

    Never heard of my fellow New Yorker, and I’m glad to make his acquaintance via this outstanding piece.

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