Tough Guys No More (A Memoir)

By Jeffrey Sussman on February 10, 2014
Tough Guys No More (A Memoir)
Simon KO’d three members of the Nazi Bund who were shouting anti-Semitic epithets.

My father gave Lou Stillman a few bucks for letting me into a gymnasium of tough, determined men who wanted to have careers as boxers…

He was not a big man. He stood 5’8” and weighed 150 pounds. Yet, he was tough and a skilled boxer, who had fought and beaten men much larger than himself. He was my father, and if I had been someone else’s son, I may never have learned to box.

When in the eighth grade, age 12, I was one of the smaller boys in my class. My father didn’t want the bigger boys to pick on me. One day, he came home with a pair of boxing gloves, a punching bag, and a body bag. We went into the basement, and there he taught me how to jab with my left fist, block an opponent’s punches, slide them off my forearm, and how to throw right crosses. I also learned to how to duck, weave, and project a fake punch from my right so that I could connect with my left. The lessons went on week after week, and I spent additional time shadow boxing, punching the bag, and skipping rope. I was developing an outsized image of myself.

The 1950s was still a decade during which boxing was a popular sport, second only to baseball. On Friday nights, there were televised fights from Sunnyside Gardens in Queens and from Madison Square Garden in New York. Brought to you by Gillette, the razor blade for real men. I couldn’t wait to watch those Friday night fights. I saw Sugar Ray Robinson, no longer in his prime, but still a magnificent athlete, who had the grace of a dancer. In fact, prior to becoming a professional prize fighter, he had been a dancer. It was his poverty and lack of opportunity that drove him into the ring. I also saw Carmen Basilio, Jake LaMotta, Rocky Graziano, Kid Gavilan, Gene Fullmer, and many others. I preferred the middleweights, for they were more graceful and, to my mind, more skillful fighters than the heavyweights, some of whom reminded me of charging rhinos.

But there was one heavyweight who interested me. He was a friend of my father and of my father’s brother, Harold. From his teens, he had a reputation as a tough guy. He played high school football and once broke the leg of a wide receiver. He weighted 260 pounds and was 6’4”. His name was Abe Simon and he got to fight Joe Louis twice for the heavyweight championship in the early 1940s. The high point of Abe’s career was knocking out heavyweight contender Jersey Joe Walcott, who years later, in 1949, became the champ. When Abe knocked out Walcott, he advanced to being the heavyweight contender, which led to his bouts in 1941 and ‘42 with Joe Louis, both of which he lost.

Growing up, I heard many stories about Abe Simon. He was regarded as a hero in his community, because as a teenager, he knocked out three members of the German Nazi Bund who were shouting anti-Semitic epithets outside of a Jewish social club that Abe and his brother belonged to; for that, he was briefly known as the Knight of Woodhaven Boulevard.

After his fighting career ended, he acted in several movies, the most important being “On the Waterfront.” He also appeared in “Requiem for a Heavyweight” and “Never Love a Stranger.”

My father had a film of Abe’s two fights with Joe Louis, which seemed more important than those in which he acted. We watched those flickering black and white newsreels, and Abe’s mistakes were pointed out to me. Watching boxing films, however, was not quite as beneficial as actually getting in the ring with a skilled professional. And so my father took me to Stillman’s Gym, a place that A.J. Liebling called the University of Eighth Avenue. My father knew a young boxer there who would take me aside and give me lessons. For $100, I got ten lessons. My father also gave Mr. Stillman a few bucks for letting me into a gymnasium of tough, determined men who wanted to have careers as boxers. Stillman wore a .38 caliber pistol in a shoulder holster and puffed on a fat cigar that smelled like a cross between rotten cabbage and sweat. The place echoed with the sounds of leather gloves thwack thwack thwacking punching bags and soft soled shoes swiftly skipping rope.

It was not until I turned 14 that I actually got to use my boxing skills. One day, after school, my best friend’s sister had been assaulted by a classmate. My friend told the other boy that he would have to fight one of us. Since I was four inches shorter than my friend, I was fingered as the likely pushover. It was not until I had been thrown into a rose bush, my mouth and lips bleeding from an assortment of thorns, that I became angry enough to fight. My opponent, however, was sitting on my chest, attempting to pin my wriggling arms to the ground.

“Let’s just say it’s even and call it quits,” he said.

My response was to spit a mouthful of blood onto his face, push him off of me, and begin fighting with a rage I could not control. The last thing I recall is a roundhouse right that I threw. The boy, whom I had hit, screamed and fell to the ground. I was momentarily stunned, then relieved when a few minutes later he got up and walked away. When that night I told my father what had happened, he said: “When you have to fight, you have to fight, but it’s a smarter man who knows how to avoid a fight. When two people fight, both people get hurt. I wanted you to learn how to fight, so that you could defend yourself. Your friend did you no favor in getting you into that fight. He set you up to take responsibility for what he should have done. It’s like hiring a bodyguard, except no one paid you.”

It was not until weeks later that I realized that my punch could have killed that other boy. I began to have doubts about fighting, but still enjoyed watching the artistry of the best professionals.

Years later, I was being harassed by a celebrity about whom I had written an unflattering book. A number of his minions were pressuring me to forgo publication. One day, a thug bumped into me in the street. “Excuse me,” I said and attempted to walk on. “I bumped you, why are you saying excuse me?” he demanded. “Because you’re trying to provoke a fight,” I said. As I walked away, he cursed. For the first time in my life, I felt a kind of inner strength that I had never before experienced. I had seen it in civil rights and anti-war demonstrators in the 1960s. No one had forced me to fight: I didn’t have to raise my fists.

And then in the 1980s, I had an opportunity to publicize an Olympic Gold Medal boxer named Howard Davis. He seemed both graceful and gentle. Stillman’s Gym was long gone, and the new place was the Times Square Gym on West 42nd Street. That’s where Howard trained, and it was pleasure to watch him spar. He knew something that many other fighters did not. He knew how to win without getting hurt. He fought beautifully and won match after match. Within a short period of time, he made enough money (I assume) and retired. It reminded me of how smart the great fighter Gene Tunney had been: after winning the world championship, he married and retired as a wealthy man.

Prize fighting is no longer a prized sport. It has become boorish and sodden, lacking in the glamour and excitement that once attracted millions of fans. Indeed that had made it the most popular sport in America during the first half of the 20th   century.  In many ways, it now seems a throwback to once barbaric times when tribes of ethnic groups fought each other for preeminence and group pride. The world has passed on to more important issues, as have I. Yet, I’ll always remember with fondness the heroes of my youth, not only Sugar Ray Robinson and Abe Simon, but most of all my father, who wanted to protect his son so that I would not have to submit to the brutalities of bullies. He and I had grown up in different worlds: his was a tough street world where poor immigrants battled other poor immigrants; mine was and is a world of privilege where we have learned more sophisticated ways of defending ourselves than using our fists.

Jeffrey Sussman is president of Jeffrey Sussman, Inc., a marketing and PR firm, He is also the author of 10 nonfiction books, two novels, and numerous short stories and articles as well as the creator and co-producer of two educational TV series.

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  1. Dick G 05:36pm, 02/14/2016

    For those that would like a personal view of Abe, you might want to see what I wrote at this link if you have not already seen it.

  2. Arthur R 02:12pm, 02/05/2015

    The FIRST Louis-Simon fight was a great fight!  The entire radio broadcast exists. Simon won several of the 13 rounds, warranting the rematch (which was pretty one-sided).

  3. kid vegas 09:08pm, 02/11/2014

    Very enjoyable read. Thank you, sir.

  4. Bob 02:43pm, 02/11/2014

    Great to see you on this site, Mr. Sussman. Fantastic stoytelling. Great work. Hope to see more.

  5. Eric 01:22pm, 02/11/2014

    Hard to believe Simon kayoed Jersey Joe in six rounds, for all his strength and size, the huge Simon wasn’t that impressive in the clips above. Simon, actually doesn’t look as impressive as Carnera if I judged both fighters based on their fights with Louis only. Simon, at 6’4” and 260lbs, would have been unusually large even for a football player back in the forties, and Abe probably would’ve have chosen football had it been more popular back in the day.

  6. Mike Schmidt 12:43pm, 02/11/2014

    Superior work- great story telling and agree with Fight Film Collector. A wonderful story and we can all recognize the people in the story as part of us, one way or the other- the behaviour, the surroundings,events, locations. It resonates and echoes of a part of everyone’s different and own childhood- what a connection while being unique, positive and personal to you Mr. J Sussman-life, family, Dad’s, a childhood event, memories- great connections but not by pre-design. How could one not be invested in reading this one from start to finish. Please give us more!!!                                                                 
    P.S. - Nice picture of you and Louisiana Lightning a.k.a. “Gator.”

  7. peter 11:34am, 02/11/2014

    Jeffrey—This is a beautiful piece of writing. I know you have a few more up your sleeve, or within your heart. Keep them coming.

  8. Ted 10:43am, 02/11/2014

    This is an article where the author is able to get the historical context nailed down. And he does it with assiduousness. For me, that’s a BINGO.

  9. Mike Casey 09:14am, 02/11/2014

    Very good and enjoyable article!

  10. The Fight Film Collector 08:49am, 02/11/2014

    A beautiful reminiscence, without being sentimental.  A great piece, Jeffrey.  You captured the period and experiences we can all relate to.

  11. Ted 06:52am, 02/11/2014

    Loved him in On The Waterfront. Made a good labor goon.

  12. Pete The Sneak 05:46am, 02/11/2014

    Nice piece there Mr. Sussman. Really enjoyed reading this. Your father sounded like an extremely wise and intellegent person when he said ” “When you have to fight, you have to fight, but it’s a smarter man who knows how to avoid a fight.”...Yes, I pretty much tried to raise and teach my kids to live the same way…Great stuff indeed…Peace.

  13. NYIrish 05:21am, 02/11/2014

    Nice article. Great opening. Thanks.

  14. Clarence George 04:25am, 02/11/2014

    Irish, me auld warrior, you’ll soon have the opportunity you crave!

    You heard that Shirley Temple died?  Truly sad.  She was one of the few who transcended stardom to become a genuine cultural icon.  I still choke up a bit at the ending of “The Little Princess.”  And there’s a boxing connection:  I think her first role was in “The Kid’s Last Fight.”

    Requiescat in pace.

  15. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 10:09pm, 02/10/2014

    Clarence George-Thank goodness! I referenced Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre on another thread but It was really a stretch….I await another article from you so I can somehow squeeze in Sydney Greenstreet and Elisha Cook Jr.

  16. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:47pm, 02/10/2014

    Jeffrey Sussman-Very enjoyable piece….keep’em coming…..I would be remiss, at least in my mind, if I didn’t point out that the two films above of Joe Louis getting in some WWII target practice are deja vu all over again….made me feel twice as sorry for Abe.

  17. nicolas 09:15pm, 02/10/2014

    He is correct regarding his last paragraph about the sport of boxing no longer being a prized sport. However, what are some of the reasons for that? It has I think a lot to do with the decline of the ‘white American fighter’. At one time 80 percent of your fighters were Caucasian. they represented a vast majority of those Italian, Irish and Jewish. Yes people most certainly admired the skills of Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis, but at the same time look at the men most of the time they defended their titles against, very rare their own skin color. This is not to say the fans who are Caucasian like myself are racist or bigots, but I think it is often a fighter perhaps we can identify with. today when we see black fighters like Mayweather and Broner act in certain ways they are partially doing it to get noticed, to get crowds to see them fight. If it was not for the Hispanic audience in the United States, boxing as a popular sport in the USA would be further down the ladder than it is now.

  18. Clarence George 09:10pm, 02/10/2014

    By the way, kudos to the Jewish Simon for sending a Christmas card to his Christian friends.  The card’s more wintry than Christmassy, but one can only expect so much from a guy who wore the Star of David on his trunks.

  19. Clarence George 08:48pm, 02/10/2014

    I wonder if Simon suffered from acromegaly.  There’s a distortion to his features similar to Rondo Hatton, though not as severe.

  20. Mike Silver 08:21pm, 02/10/2014

    Enjoyed this story immensely. Hope we see more of your writing on this site Jeff.

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