There Will Be Blood
“In the old days it was no uncommon thing to see a fighter wash his face in brine. It made the skin tough as leather..”
As a young boy, I can remember reading about how Jack Dempsey would toughen his facial skin by the regular application of brine. This little exercise was as much a part of Jack’s routine as running, punching the bag and walloping his sparring partners.
For those of you who might not know, brine is a strong solution of salt (sodium chloride) and water, which has many healing properties and is probably still the best preventative for cuts and abrasions. Brine is also used to sterilize open wounds and to cure Psoriasis, Osteoporosis, Arthritis, Gout and Herpes sores. Brine baths are also a good way to improve the body’s circulation.
Now think about something. How often did we hear of Jack Dempsey being badly cut and bleeding heavily in his countless fights? Is Joe Louis ever leaking blood from the eyes when we see him in his rampant prime on those great old films? Was Jack Johnson ever badly banged up around the face in his prime?
No, brine isn’t and never was the great and only cure for cut eyes and ripped eyebrows. Old school skills, specifically the knowledge of how to position the head, judge distance and slip punches, were the main preventers of serious facial injuries in times gone by. But it is equally true to say that boxing has also regressed from a purely cosmetic point of view. Facials ain’t what they used to be.
Believe me, I have had plenty of time to check up on this. A recent house move and the joint incompetence of two major telecommunications companies cut me adrift from the Internet for a full month, during which time it seemed far more businesslike to research and write a batch of boxing stories than to allow my dangerously persuasive bartender to lead me astray.
I tell you, my boxing memorabilia got a thorough workout during my time in limbo. One of the more interesting articles I came upon featured the observations of the veteran boxing authority, Jack (Doc) Moore.
Doc Moore was one of the game’s best managers, matchmakers and trainers, but he preferred to be called a teacher. “Sure, there are millions of trainers today,” he explained, “but very few teachers.”
Doc had a treasure trove of memories and could remember New York’s famous old St. Nick’s Arena when it was a hockey rink: “Cornelius Fellowes first owned the place, a fine looking man and a real sport. Harry Pollock was the fight promoter then and the manager of Freddie Welsh, Young Corbett – lots of them. A great dude he was; drank champagne, carried a cane and dressed to kill.
“Only time they’d run a fight at St. Nick’s would be in the summer, on account of the hockey. The other night I went back there. It was pretty warm inside and no air conditioning. You don’t see any rich people going to fights on a night like that. They’re home with their air conditioning and television. That’s the way it was then. No high-hats and gowns. Just the working man. You know, in the summer the fights at St. Nick’s are back with the people they always belonged to – the working man.”
Around the Fall of 1950, after a series of important fights had been curtailed due to facial injuries, Doc Moore expounded on what he believed to be the major reasons for modern boxers spouting more claret than their predecessors.
Interestingly, Moore apportioned part of the blame to the use of headguards during sparring. “The fighters today don’t give their faces a chance to toughen,” said the Doc. “In the gym, they’re inclined to be careless because they figure the headguard will protect them. So they not only fail to let their faces become rough and hardened, but they carry their carelessness into the ring and are too easy to hit.
“Another reason is that fighters use too much Vaseline on their faces, both in training and in the actual fighting. Anybody will tell you that Vaseline softens the skin. In the old days it was no uncommon thing to see a fighter wash his face in brine. It made the skin tough as leather.”
Doc Moore makes a valid point. Look at Dempsey’s face in any good quality photograph of the Mauler and you see a distinctly leathery ruggedness. Remember that before Jack turned professional, he engaged in countless fights in the salt mines and bars of the Old West. He never could tell anyone how many fights he had waged in total. Had he been susceptible to cuts and other facial injuries, his long and violent journey would have been an extremely short one.
Some time ago, my fellow historian Mike Hunnicutt wrote an excellent article on the development of boxing strategies over the years. Mike quoted famous boxing figure, Broadway Charley Rose, explaining the art of infighting practiced in the gyms on a daily basis in the early 1910s.
“Fighters back then fought two and three times a week and couldn’t afford to get busted up,” said Rose. “So every day they practiced how to fight on the inside – how to move in and out of clinches.
“Every fighter was taught how to edge their left or front foot towards the right, or edge their right foot forward and over to the left, while simultaneously sloping their head towards the right or left, so that if the two fighters hit heads, they would come in contact with the side of the skull from the ear up which is pretty solid. Even if the skin did break, it wouldn’t affect anything as vital as eyesight. Every fighter practiced these maneuvers in the gym daily until it became habit.”
Says Mike Hunnicutt: “This practice led to better defensive fighters that were less likely to get cut. The great Charley Goldman stated that fighters from his era had tougher skin for two reasons: they didn’t use headgear, and they’d bathe their face in brine.”
Goldman explained: “It doesn’t make sense to train with headgear if you fight without them. I never wore headgear and I must have had 300 fights. I don’t remember getting cut but once. It’s simple. You cover something up, you protect it, it becomes tender. That’s what happens to the skin around a fighter’s eyes.
“The use of brine was prevalent. Fighters such as Terry McGovern would bathe their face with brine before and after every workout. Their skin got to be real leathery. It had to be or those fellows never would have been able to fight 25 and 30 rounds.”
That great ringside doctor of yore, Dr. Vincent Nardiello, noted that other fighters used a solution of water and rock salt to harden their facial skin.
Dr. Nardiello, who boxed under the name of Jimmy Sheppard to earn his way through medical school, also had very strong opinions on the use of headguards. “Speaking from my own experience, when I started, there were a few times when I butted heads in the gym, and because I didn’t have a headguard, I felt it plenty. As a result, I made darn sure of my technique the next time. I moved so it wouldn’t happen again. It stands to reason that a fighter would learn the proper technique if they didn’t go in there wearing football helmets ”
Mike Hunnicutt says: “By the late 1910s, all that remained in boxing techniques to be further explored or polished were lateral movement, combination punching, and hand placement. Defense, ring generalship, feinting, counterpunching, slipping and countering, rolling, blocking, body punching, infighting, etc. already had been mastered.”
Forty years later, those latter skills were being forgotten. Doc Moore believed that the noble art of self defense was fading away and becoming lost to the new generation of boxers. “Boxing seems to have become a lost art,” said the Doc. “There’s entirely too much rough-house mauling going on now, and I’d say one half the cuts suffered in the ring are not from punches but from butts. The average fighter operates on a triple threat basis – two hands and a head.
“I remember when a fighter’s seconds went into the ring with nothing more than a towel, smelling salts, cotton and a bottle of collodion or adrenaline in case of cuts. Now he totes a small-sized drugstore along with him – and often it isn’t enough.
“Topliners in the past were seldom busted up. They knew how to take care of themselves Packey McFarland was so brilliant a boxer that it became an international sensation when Kid Burns actually gave him a black eye during a bout in New York. Benny Leonard often finished a bout without even having his hair mussed.
“It was real news when a Mike Gibbons, a Jack Britton, a Johnny Dundee, a Freddie Welsh or a Harry Greb needed patchwork on his face after a fight. Nowadays it’s a story if a fighter, even a champion, doesn’t call in the doctor for a hemistitching job when he leaves the ring.”
Doc Moore mentions some illustrious names here. Packey McFarland, the genius from the Chicago stockyards, was a true scientific master of the ring who became a highly successful and wealthy businessman at the end of his boxing career. There was no great difference between a ring and an office in McFarland’s well organized universe. He was canny and brainy in all matters.
Packey lost only once in well over a hundred professional fights, that one defeat coming when he was a sixteen-year-old novice.
His defense at its best was virtually impregnable, he boxed with sublime skill and speed and carried a formidable knockout wallop when the occasion demanded urgency. Quite simply, McFarland was one of the greatest and most complete boxing masters of all time.
Sadly, he was cursed with being a misfit in the era of eight weight divisions. A natural junior welterweight before the creation of that class, Packey alternated between the lightweight and welterweight divisions, beating a golden generation of fighters but never getting the chance to win a world title.
Those who saw McFarland in action never forgot him. Huge crowds marveled at the hard-hitting, ghost-like maestro who possessed the visual tricks and elusiveness of a shadow.
McFarland was his own constant analyst, always looking to improve, always looking to the future. He made an interesting adjustment to his technique to prolong his career and better equip him for the long haul. He took to boxing with only a half-clenched fist, sacrificing his impressive knockout ratio in return for less stress and greater stamina. Unfortunately for his opponents, McFarland’s exceptional talent for hitting without getting hit remained undiminished.
What made McFarland such a wonderfully complete fighter was that he was no backtracking will ‘o’ the wisp. The subtlest of defensive moves always combined seamlessly with equally intelligent and cultured attacks.
Doc Moore’s mention of Mike Gibbons as an elite boxer is also wholly justified. Mike, known as the “St. Paul Phantom,” was the older brother of the artful Tommy Gibbons, and both boys racked up wonderful professional records. Mike Gibbons, who boxed as a welterweight and middleweight, was a contemporary of McFarland and a spiritual brother in the hard luck department. Mike never won an official world title, but what a splendid boxer he was. It was inevitable that he and Packey would meet at some point and it was a real treat when they did.
The battle of the maestros took place at the Brighton Beach Motordome in Brooklyn on September 11, 1915, and resembled a chess duel with gloves. Nothing could separate the two defensive masters for the first eight rounds, as they feinted, shifted and bluffed like a couple of wary snakes. Referee Billy Job was barely noticeable as all eyes were fixed on two of the great ring scientists and their clever efforts to concoct the winning formula.
Each was occasionally made to look foolish by the other’s brilliance, but it was McFarland who was the calmer and more measured battler. He would often smile at friends in the crowd over Mike’s shoulder, conveying the impression of a man taking a pleasant stroll in the park.
Mike was much more earnest, baring his teeth and often showing his frustration as he attempted to hit something apart from Packey’s gloves. Come the ninth round, McFarland commenced his sprint for home. Gibbons enjoyed an early success as he feinted with the left and then struck Packey with a hard right to the jaw. But McFarland rallied to get the better of a heated mid-ring exchange, landing a left-right combination without return. Packey tucked up and protected himself beautifully as Mike tried to counter.
In the final round, Gibbons had the bearing of a man who knew he had to force the fight to win it. He tried all he knew to pierce the famous McFarland defense, but it was the Chicago ghost who was doing the cleaner scoring. Gibbons took three lefts to the face without return and was also being punished to the ribs. McFarland was anticipating Mike’s return fire and staggered the St. Paul man with yet another left.
At the final bell, it seemed to many that the mesmerizing McFarland had done enough to secure victory. He certainly had plenty of supporters. George Holmes of the Oakland Tribune, called the bout for Packey, describing the Chicago man’s performance as ‘wonderful’. Many others disagreed, including the Associated Press, which tabbed the fight 7-2-1 for Gibbons. The New York Times and referee Billy Job called it a draw, which is how the contest is most often recorded today.
No blood was spilled, no doctor was required, no stitches were sewn. Take a look at any picture of Packey McFarland or Mike Gibbons and you won’t see the bashed and pulped face of popular folklore.
It is not that the boxing was without bloodbaths in that more scientific era. We are taking about the fight game after all, which has always been populated by sluggers and slashers and etched in the color of crimson. But fighters as a general rule were taught the mechanics of the game and not encouraged by their trainers to get smashed up senselessly. Career longevity was important in the era of Gibbons, McFarland and Harry Greb. Boxers had to fight far more often to earn decent money. They couldn’t be waiting on the sidelines for too long for needless wounds to heal. By and large, only the heavyweight division offered the stuff of dreams in terms of financial reward. That is why so many natural light heavyweights and middleweights made the heavyweight championship their target.
Harry Greb might have resembled a human windmill, but there was much cleverness within all that thrashing motion, just as there was in Roberto Duran. Skillful shifts of the body and subtle movements of the head are so often missed by observers who only have eyes for the biff-bang aspect. When did Harry or Roberto have to bail out of a fight because of a cut eye or a busted nose? Never.
Mickey Walker couldn’t believe it when the versatile Greb hit him with an incredible punch in their famous middleweight championship fight at the Polo Grounds. Recalled Mickey: “Harry could hit you from impossible angles. Once, after he missed a right to my face, he spun all the way around so that his back faced me. I relaxed my guard and waited for him to turn around. But before I knew what was happening, his left was stuck in my mouth. I still don’t know how he did it, but he hit me while his hands faced in the opposite direction.”
Talk of subtle skill and career longevity brings us to Jack Britton and Johnny Dundee, whose sprawling records must appear mythical to the younger fans of today. Britton, the former welterweight champion from Clinton, New York, known as the “Boxing Marvel,” was a classic boxer who knew how to look after himself. Jack notched up 345 recorded fights in a glorious 26-year championship career that ran from 1904 to 1930.
Although best remembered for swapping the welterweight title with English whirlwind Ted (Kid) Lewis in a long running and bitter series, Britton also crossed gloves with a host of other danger men, including Leo Houck, Packey McFarland, Philadelphia Pal Moore, Leach Cross, Lockport Jimmy Duffy, Mike Glover, Mike O’Dowd, Charley White, Bryan Downey, Benny Leonard, Mickey Walker and Dave Shade.
Johnny Dundee, the “Scotch Wop” who came to New York from Sicily, boxed from 1910 until 1932 and logging up 334 fights. Johnny still rates as one of the greatest ever featherweight champions and also held the junior lightweight championship.
Why was Dundee so good? Because he was another boxer of great skill who knew how to protect himself from the punches of the top men of his day. You can’t fail to learn valuable lessons when you are dueling—as Dundee did—with Tony Canzoneri, Sammy Mandell, Rocky Kansas and Jewish aces Benny Leonard and Benny Valger.
Dundee also fought Charley (Phil) Rosenberg, Sid Terris, Jack Bernstein, Eugene Criqui, Ritchie Mitchell, knockout specialist George (KO) Chaney, Lew Tendler, Ever Hammer, Willie Ritchie, Mexican Joe Rivers and Charley White.
It is no great surprise that Freddie Welsh lingered in the mind of Doc Moore. Pale and lean as a greyhound, Freddie could fight any which way. Born in Pontypridd, Wales, he grew to be a master boxer who was equally adept at scrapping and spoiling in the trenches.
The principal weapon in Freddie Welsh’s armory was that classic and now largely abused building block, the left jab. Welsh might just have been the best ever exponent of the jab at its straightest and greatest. It made his face a very difficult target to hit.
Back in 1965, Mel Beers wrote a nice little article on Welsh for the sadly long defunct Boxing International magazine. Here is what Beers had to say about the most important punch in the boxer’s repertoire: “The left jab, properly used, is a thing of beauty in motion. It is boxing’s basic punch and those who mastered it usually went on to become world champions or leading contenders. Billy Conn and Willie Pep mastered the jab. So did Abe Attell, Packey McFarland and Benny Leonard. Tommy Loughran was another who built his boxing wizardry around a jab that shot straight and true to any part of the opponent’s anatomy.
“Who had the best left jab of all? It is impossible to say, but after plowing through piles of yellowed newspaper clippings and talking to scores of experts with long memories, the name of Freddie Welsh comes up more than any of the others.”
Freddie Welsh added that perfect left jab to his athleticism, quick mind and natural cleverness. He was also a tough and rugged man into the bargain, using his strength and knowledge to shut down opponents in the clinches.
Doc Moore wasn’t the only veteran of the fight game who had noticed the changing times and attitudes. The multi-talented Jersey Jones was a manager, agent and long-time writer for The Ring magazine who handled a wealth of great fighters through the decades.
Jones had a special affection for Jeff Smith, the great middleweight out of Bayonne, New Jersey, and traveled with Jeff during the closing stages of his lengthy career, which began in 1910 and concluded in 1927.
Jones recalled that a bottle of adrenaline traveled with Smith for two years before it needed to be used: “Smith fought two dozen battles, from one end of the nation to the other, against such opponents as Harry Greb, Martin Burke, Tommy Loughran, Lee Anderson, Cap’n Bob Roper and Tony Marullo, and his face was unmarked.
“I finally opened the bottle of adrenaline when Jeff suffered a slight cut above the right eye in a bout with Happy Howard in New Orleans.”
Jeff Smith is largely forgotten now and shouldn’t be. He was a fantastic middleweight and yet another greatly talented man of a tough era who was never crowned world champion. Apart from those opponents named by Jersey Jones, Jeff also pitted his skills against Jimmy Clabby, Willie Lewis, George Chip, Mike Gibbons, Mike McTigue, Jamaica Kid, the brilliant and ill-fated Les Darcy, Eddie McGoorty, Mike O’Dowd and Gene Tunney.
Now there’s a bunch of guys who could cut you pretty good. But they didn’t cut Jeff Smith too often.
Mike Casey is a Boxing.com writer and Founder & Editor of ALL TIME BOXING at https://sites.google.com/site/alltimeboxingrankings. He is a freelance journalist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).