When Lou Viscusi Planted a Dangerous Seed

By Mike Casey on October 17, 2013
When Lou Viscusi Planted a Dangerous Seed
“Sandy Saddler is a New York guy, but even around New York they couldn't believe it.”

Shrewd and worldly, Lou Viscusi was also a very active promoter in boxing and wrestling circles and also staged circuses and other events…

It’s funny how things work out, how even the most attentive of us can nod off and forget about a little seed we planted way back. Fine if the seed grows into a pretty flower. Terrifying if the result is a marauding beast with tentacles that wants to strangle us.

Sandy Saddler grew plenty of tentacles after being planted by Willie Pep’s manager, Lou Viscusi, as an indirect favor to Charley Johnston. Viscusi was a very able manager and promoter with good foresight. So was Charley Johnston, who learned well from his older brother Jimmy. The two siblings were among the greatest and wisest managers the game has ever seen and they had a solid back-up team too. Two other Johnston brothers, Bill and Ned, also knew the game well and how to get things done.

In January, 1944, world featherweight champion Willie Pep had just been discharged from the Navy and needed a couple of months to get back into top fighting trim. Lou Viscusi, not as busy as he normally was in Hartford, took a call from Bill Johnston in New York. The call regarded a gangling young black kid who had some fistic talent but needed a good start.

Shrewd and worldly, Viscusi knew talent when he saw it. As well as Pep, Lou would go on to manage lightweight champion Joe (Old Bones) Brown, light heavyweight king Bob Foster and top contenders Manuel Gonzalez, Cleveland Williams, Del Flanagan and Tony Licata. Viscusi was also a very active promoter in boxing and wrestling circles and also staged circuses and other events.

Lou liked what he was hearing from Bill Johnston in New York. Recalling the phone conversation, Lou said, “It’s really funny when you think of it. I’ve known the Johnstons for years and Bill says he’s got some kid he’d like to get started and he wants to know if we can put him in for a four-rounder for his first professional fight.

“So I said it’s all right and the kid comes up. He’s a tall, skinny Negro kid and he wins his fight and I forget about him. A couple of weeks later I get another call and it’s Bill, and he wants to know if we can’t use the kid in a six. So we put him in with Jock Leslie and in the third round Leslie knocks him out.

“Now that’s all we know about the kid around here. His name is Sandy Saddler and we forget him. Willie Pep is the champion of the world and, as far as they know, around here, he’s the only fighter there is. The next thing I know about Saddler is that Charley Johnston is managing him and he’s starting to move him.”

Lou Viscusi had every good reason to be worried. Charley Johnston knew how to move fighters and he didn’t move them up unless he knew they were worth moving. Saddler, the scrawny kid who got knocked out by Jock Leslie, was climbing the featherweight ladder and suddenly looking a menace. After Bill Johnston handed Sandy over to Charley, the two brothers took a trip up to the Saddler home in Harlem to have a chat with Sandy’s father.

The old man agreed to give his consent to his son’s boxing career on three strict conditions: no smoking, no drinking and straight to bed at ten o’clock each night. Sandy nodded and said, “All right.”

The touch paper had been lit and Charley Johnston went to work on getting his hard hitting prospect as much work experience as possible. It was the golden age of boxing and there was plenty of work to be had throughout the sport’s heartland of America as well as overseas. Johnston not only moved Saddler up, he moved him around in order to make him tougher and worldlier. Sandy fought in New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Detroit, New Orleans and Honolulu. He traveled abroad to Venezuela, Cuba, Mexico and Panama. Saddler’s mushrooming record stood at an intimidating 85-6-2 by the time he took direct aim at Willie Pep. The scrawny kid had become more than a tad useful.

Back in Hartford, Lou Viscusi must have felt like a man who had nodded off on the train and missed his station. Saddler’s meteoric progress had seemed to happen in the blink of an eye. “Now I look at the listings and he’s the number one contender,” said Viscusi. “How do you like that? Nobody around here will believe it because – well, he fights Humberto Sierra in Minneapolis and Sierra knocks him down and wins a split decision.

“Not long before that Willie had fought Sierra here in Hartford over the weight and he has handled him like a baby So now Charley gets hold of me and he says, ‘Can’t you put Saddler in there on top? Give him a chance to show them he can fight.’

“So we put him in on top here with Bobby Timpson. Saddler wins but he doesn’t impress and as a matter of fact they write in the papers, Willie Pep doesn’t have to lose any sleep worrying about Sandy Saddler.

“Now what are you going to do? He’s the number one contender and we make the match. Willie is around here, of course, and everybody is saying, ‘Easy fight. You’ll have no trouble. Easy fight.’ We also make the mistake of having Sierra work with him and he keeps telling Willie, ‘You’re a cinch, you’ll knock him out.’

“There’s a fella around here who takes movies of all of Willie’s fights. They’re nice to have, to patch together and to look at in year to come, because it has been quite a career. But this fella sends me the tickets back. He isn’t even going to the fight, and many times I’ve wished we had the pictures to look at because – well, I don’t have to tell you what happened in that fight.”

Sensational

What happened was sensational and my eighty-four-year-old father still tells me of the disbelief he felt when he heard the result here in the UK during his National Service with the Royal Air Force. Saddler had knocked out Pep in the fourth round. “Nobody knocks out Willie Pep,” said my father, “and that’s what everybody else in our squadron kept saying – nobody knocks out Willie Pep.”

Tall, rangy, tough and a devastating hitter with either hand, Saddler caught Pep cold as he ignored the boxing master’s feints and negated his science by tearing straight into him with both fists flying. It was Route 1 stuff from Saddler and Pep just wasn’t expecting the furious onslaught. Willie was knocked down twice in the third round and once more in the fourth for the full count.

A year or so later, that fine writer W.C. Heinz spoke of how the perception of Saddler changed dramatically in his native New York after the remarkable first fight with Pep. In the run-up to the return match, a lot of lazy “big town” writers started doing their homework more assiduously. “Sandy Saddler is a New York guy, but even around New York they couldn’t believe it,” wrote Heinz.

“Most of those who write about boxing in the big towns had seen him only in the Garden and they had tabbed him only as an awkward kid who could hit some. Now, four months later, when he was matched to defend his title against Willie, they went up to Stillman’s gym to look at him.

“They saw that this was a better fighter than they had thought. Sandy’s flat-footedness had misled them and they noticed that he could move and that he knew the tricks and that he could bang with either hand, especially with an inside body hook.”

We don’t know if Charley Johnston called Lou Viscusi after that first fight and asked him how things were going in Hartford.


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).

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  1. kid vegas 03:16pm, 10/21/2013

    More education for me. Thanks Mike

  2. El Bastardo Magnifico 12:38am, 10/19/2013

    Mike Bruce have you ever done a Feather All time Round Robin scrapper thing—what I am curious about—your most punch learned opinion on how Salvador Sanchez would have fared against Wisp and Sandy S.

  3. Clarence George 06:45pm, 10/18/2013

    Cherry juice, Mike.  Not only delicious, but apparently effective for insomnia.

  4. Mike Casey 05:49pm, 10/18/2013

    Bloody right, my dear old thing. Yes, I’m signing off now at 2.27 according to my atomic timepiece. Insomnia has been my cruel mistress for quite some time. Have a good one over there in NY, mate!

  5. Clarence George 05:39pm, 10/18/2013

    These ladies aren’t withstanding the test of time, Mike.  Natalie Merchant is another one.

    By the way, why aren’t you abed?  Isn’t it almost 2:30 a.m. for you?

  6. Mike Casey 05:31pm, 10/18/2013

    Grace ain’t very Slick these days, Clarence - and she ain’t a member of the Airplane no more.

  7. Clarence George 05:17pm, 10/18/2013

    Just how good is this Grace, Mike?  And how old is she, you rogue?  In the immortal words of Egbert Sousé (“accent grave over the ‘e’”):  “I’m very fond of children…girl children, around 18 and 20.”

  8. Mike Casey 03:17pm, 10/18/2013

    At 57, I’m still quite often mistaken for the 30-year old Robert Redford. But I take all with good grace.

  9. TED 12:16pm, 10/18/2013

    CG , YES. MY MISTAKE

  10. Clarence George 10:59am, 10/18/2013

    Chuck:  Thanks for the introduction to Petey Virgin, of whom I’d never heard.  I found a photo…he does look like Cagney!

  11. chuck h. 10:42am, 10/18/2013

    Chuck H.
    There was another good fighter during the forties that looked like James Cagney, in fact at times he was billed as “Young Jimmy Cagney.” His real name was Petey Virgin (Virgine) out of Schenectady and he was a very busy battler until he abruptly retired at the end of 1947.

  12. Mike Casey 09:14am, 10/18/2013

    Schmidty, my dear old Bruce, you’re quite right about Jock Leslie. He was a good fighter and nobody’s fool.

  13. Clarence George 09:04am, 10/18/2013

    Mike:  Yes, Pep over Saddler…but only millimetrically.

    Ted:  SRL is your GOAT?  May I be so bold as to presume that you meant SRR?

  14. El Bastardo Magnifico 09:03am, 10/18/2013

    Mike every time somebody mentions Jock Leslie I start to laugh at the thought of Al Bernstein’s face when the good Dr. did his boxing photographic memory—never saw anything like it. I must say I did not know of Jock—in fact I just looked up his record and it is very impressive- I see his path crossed with the Wisp and he got stopped in 12—apparently they could have counted “to 100.” Great article.

  15. Ted 08:39am, 10/18/2013

    Agreed

  16. Mike Casey 08:29am, 10/18/2013

    Sorry - meant to say that I rate Willie over Sandy in the all-time stakes.

  17. Mike Casey 08:27am, 10/18/2013

    Pep before his plane crash was even more of a wonder. I think that’s why he gets the all-time nod over Sandy. We’re talking fractions here and we can’t too intense about it, but I can’t personally rate Sandy over Willie. Fascinating subject!

  18. Ted 08:20am, 10/18/2013

    Saddler at number 7

  19. Ted 08:18am, 10/18/2013

    CG, Yes. Pep number two after SRL

  20. Mike Casey 07:14am, 10/18/2013

    Thanks as ever fellas for your comments.

  21. Clarence George 07:09am, 10/18/2013

    Do you mean pound-for-pound, Ted?  If so, I have them both in my top five, with Pep just ahead of Saddler.

  22. Ted 07:05am, 10/18/2013

    But Pep is in my top 5

  23. Clarence George 07:04am, 10/18/2013

    Ha!  Well, Irish, certainly wonderfully emblematic of that era.

  24. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 06:50am, 10/18/2013

    The best fighter of that era was Ham Fisher’s Joe Palooka and the best manager by far was Knobby Walsh.

  25. Clarence George 05:43am, 10/18/2013

    Kid Lavigne, “The Saginaw Slugger”...I think.

    And, yes, Joe Sawyer did resemble Joe Baksi, who looked exactly what you expected a heavyweight of that era to look like!

  26. beaujack 05:32am, 10/18/2013

    Clarence, Jock Leslie did look like a bulldog edition of James Cagney…
    There was a fighter even before my time named Kid Lavigne, also from
    Michigan whom Jock Leslie resembled only in appearance,not in ability of course…And yes it could have been Lou Alter from Canada, who I saw at MSG against Jock Leslie.
    Speaking of resemblances. In the 1940s there was a powerful coal miner
    heavyweight contender named Joe Baksi whom I saw several times,who looked just like the blond character actor Joe Sawyer…Ah nostalgia !.

  27. Clarence George 02:14am, 10/18/2013

    What a treasure are your memories, Beaujack.

    Could it have been Lou Alter?  I’m very rusty on Leslie (and that’s putting it mildly), but I think they fought several times, and at least once at the Garden.  By the way, didn’t Leslie bear a remarkable resemblance to James Cagney?

    Saddler was indeed very much like a praying mantis.  You say “preying”...and you’re absolutely right!

  28. beaujack 08:36pm, 10/17/2013

    Another great article Mike…I probably am one of the few still kicking who
    saw Jock Leslie fight in the old MSG…Can’t recall who he fought but I remember he was a rugged blond swarmer…Boxing is sure funny because about 6 months after Pep’s nearly fatal airplane crash in 1947, Willie Pep stopped the tow headed Jock Leslie…In fact Pep decisioned several
    featherweights who beat Sandy Saddler…I also saw Sandy Saddler fight a couple of times in NY, and he reminded me of a preying mantis. Long and lean…

  29. Ted 05:24pm, 10/17/2013

    Saddler in my top ten

  30. El Bastardo Magnifico 01:32pm, 10/17/2013

    “Storytelling” is of course unique and long lasting in memory and is one of the things that sets this website apart from others and allows legends to live on. Who punched who in the snout becomes forgettable… Mike Bruce Casey this is a wonderful article. I will give you, if I may Sir, my own little connect to your article for as soon as the name of Jock Leslie was mentioned I darn near fell of my chair. I was recounting a story to some lads in Vegas last weekend and I could not for the life of me remember this guys name or the Champion in the context of the story- here it goes in short Mike- I am at the International Boxing Hall of Fame a few years back with Al Bernstein who is checking his emails on a computer. I introduced Al to a close friend, Dr Joe Faletta from Canada who also happened to be our Olympic Boxing Team Doc for FOUR straight Olympics-( he has examined everybody from Ray Leonard to Spinks etc along the way) Dr. Joe also has the most amazing photographic like memory of boxing knowledge- it is machine like and I mentioned this to Al who laughed and said “Oh Really. Who was the first guy to beat Sandy Sadler, and by the way I don’t know the answer to that.” Dr. Joe immediately answered JOCK LESLIE ( the name has now become a standard for laughter for Al and I. Al looked it up and was astounded. He then stated “I suppose now you are going to tell me the round…” Joe gave him the round ( I think it was three- have to look on that one) and THE TIME OF STOPPAGE which they use to have on the boxrec records. So Mike Bruce Casey not only thanks for a great Story telling but also to a triggered memory of DRUM ROLL…....JOCK LESLIE.  MAG BASTARD OVER AND OUT BUT NOT YET KNOCKED.

  31. Dan Cuoco 10:14am, 10/17/2013

    Mike, terrific article - Saddler’s explosive KO of Pep in their first fight shocked the boxing world.

  32. Clarence George 10:01am, 10/17/2013

    I always enjoy reading about Saddler, and this is a particularly good piece.  Well done, Mike!

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