The boys in the know rate Montreal's Johnny Greco as a leading contender for the world's lightweight title
THE GRECOS live in a two-story house in the Montreal suburb of Notre Dame de Grace. If you go out there when the son of the family, Private Johnny Greco of the Canadian Army and current lightweight boxing sensation, has a bout on, you may think you have wandered into a hotel by mistake. The entire family and most of the neighborhood are grouped around the radio, listening avidly to the voices describing Johnny’s progress.
“Come on, Johnny ! Sock him, Johnny !” implores Papa Greco, smashing his right fist into the palm of his left hand. “Now you got him ! Keep coming, Johnny ! Now you’re fighting, boy !”
Also around the radio are Grandpa and Grandma Greco, Papa and Mama Greco, and Johnny’s two sisters, Mary and Carmel—all of whom live in the Greco home. All the Grecos from Grandpa Greco down are excitable—except Johnny.
Johnny is what the boys describe as being “on top” right now. He is an action-giver, a crowdpleaser, and his name is big box office. He is one of the leading contenders for the world lightweight title and the report is that he is being groomed for a title shot this summer—probably in an outdoor fight.
The question has been raised several times as to just why the Army allows Private Greco to continue with his ring career. Two reasons may be, first, the boy is a powerful recruiting force all by himself ; and second, he makes money for the Army’s Sports Fund.
For Greco’s second fight with Cleo Shans in New York the Army got $6,000 of the gate receipts. The money went into the Army Sports Fund. The fund also received money from his fight with Terry Young. If he fights Bob Montgomery, Henry Armstrong, Beau Jack or Sammy Angott this
summer—as now seems likely—another large lump will find its way into Army Sports Fund coffers.
Greco’s life in the Army is no different from that of any other private—except when he is training for a fight. The Army does not want to see its Greco knocked off in one of these battles. As long as he remains undefeated he retains his special value; but once he is licked the aura which now surrounds him will disappear. That’s why the Army doesn’t hesitate to give him a furlough to train in New York. The Army appreciates that he needs good sparring partners to sharpen his boxing, and good spar-boys just don’t exist in Montreal.
The Grecos are of Italian descent though Papa Greco is a first-generation Canadian. Johnny, who was born in Montreal a little more than 18 years ago, is a black-haired, black-eyed boy with enough
dynamite in his fists to send fight crowds into rhapsodies. Yet outside the ring he is as friendly and playful as a puppy; it’s hard to reconcile this lad with the fierce puncher who has belted out 17 of his last 25 opponents.
Papa Greco owns the house he lives in and five other small ones in the vicinity—thanks to Johnny. Over $3,000 of the latter’s ring earnings have gone to pay off a mortgage on the property.
TO UNDERSTAND Johnny you must first learn something of Papa Greco. In his youth Papa Greco was ambitious to become a star athlete. He played softball and hockey, and wasn’t too good at either game. To salve his frustrated ambition he took up gymnastics . . . but it still wasn’t enough.
When Johnny appeared on the scene Papa Greco was determined the boy was going to be everything he had hoped for himself. He had a whirl at everything—football, baseball, hockey and boxing.
Johnny was only seven years old when Papa Greco, like many another father, took him out to the backyard and tied a miniature pair of boxing gloves on his pudgy fists.
Soon Johnny was taking boxing lessons from Cliff Sowery, who gives instruction gratis to any boy who wants to learn the manly art, at the Griffintown Boys Club. At this time Johnny didn’t have the price of carfare from his home to the club, a distance of four and one half miles. So he used to half-run, half-walk the entire way to make sure he wouldn’t miss a lesson.
Before long he was fighting in amateur tournaments. And by the time he was 15 he was so wild to
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have a career that he broke out of High School and made a full-time job of hanging around the gyms where the pros trained.
Professional At 17
ÍjNNALLY at the age of 17 he turned professional under Raoul Godbout who managed Dave Castil¡ loux. Castilloux was then, and still is, the Canadian lightweight champion. But Johnny was no ball of fire under Godbout’s direction, showing a disconcerting tendency to go down i if hit on the chin. His contract with I Godbout ran out in June, 1941, and : was not renewed. Instead, he placed his fistic future in the hands of Pete I Audette, a rotund, rosy-cheeked I French Canadian who runs a gasoline i station in downtown Montreal.
The Greco fortunes touched their all-time low the night he met Art Foster, Buffalo colored boy, in a preliminary bout at the Montreal Forum. Foster knocked him out in ! the second round.
In the bitter aftermath to this fight i Audette fastened on one idea—he would send Johnny to New York and ! start all over again. Audette had a j good friend in New York in Pete Sanstol, the old Norwegian bantamj weight. He went to Sanstol.
“This town is full of sharks and I such,” Sanstol told Audette. “Some j of these managers don’t care what ; happens to a boy as long as they get their cut. But there’s a pair of j brothers here — the Elkins -— who j might help him a lot.”
So the tie-up with the Elkin brothers, Abe and Murray, was made. Abe makes the matches and does the haggling over purses. Murray, a former fighter himself, acts as tutor, trainer and personal friend I of the boys.
The Elkins worked over Johnny ¡ and then launched him on the small club circuit in the New York area. He made an uncertain start in his first few fights, having to get up off the floor to win. But what tickled the Elkin brothers was his ability to rise from the resin dust and stop the other guy with a single punch.
Johnny’s career now started in j earnest, and the amazing part of it was the number of opponents he chilled within a few rounds. He was fighting in preliminaries—four-round affairs. Yet he was winning most of them by knockouts.
Then came his fight with Harold : Green, a highly favored youngster I with a big following from Brooklyn. They fought in Madison Square Garden in one of the prelims to the Tami Mauriello-Lou Nova fight. A lot of money was bet on the fight and it had a sudden ending. They ripped into each other like buzzsaws. Halfway through the opening round Johnny crossed his right to Green’s chin. Green went down as though he’d been blackjacked and the referee could have counted 50 over him.
After the fight Mike Jacobs went around to “the paddock,” as the boys call the dressing room, shook Johnny by the hand and said, j “Johnny, you showed me tonight I you belong in the Garden. You’ll be I here plenty from now on.”
With his first-round knockout in the Green fight Johnny had definitely arrived. He was through with the small clubs. Mike Jacobs now saw him only as a main-eventer in the Garden.
He was matched with Billy Speary and again delivered in sensational fashion by belting the weary Speary out in the first round. There followed his two victories over tough Cleo Shans in the Garden, and his win over Terry Young in Montreal. The net result of these triumphs was to make him one of the most talked of young fighters in America.
YOU wondered what kind of magic the Elkins had worked on him to bring him to this point of prominence in less than a year. Let Murray Elkin tell you about it.
“Before we got him the kid could punch like a heavyweight but he couldn’t take it himself, see? His neck was small, see? So we go to work and put two inches on it by special exercises, see? Now he can take it as well as dish it out.”
But aside from his mechanical ability Johnny has a fine temperament for a fighter. He is absolutely nerveless.
“I’ve seen guys who were cool but this kid’s more than thathe’s cold,” says Jimmy August, his trainer. “He lies down on the rubbing table in the dressing room before a fight and goes to sleep. You gotta wake him up and tell him it’s time to go on.”
Mother Keeps His Money
PRIVATE Johnny though now in the Army still lives at home with his folks. When he returns from a fight he never fails to hand over his share of the purse to his mother. She gives him his allowance out of it, most of which he spends in the corner drugstore setting up sodas and malted milks for the kids in the neighborhood.
He has a passion for “malteds” that gives Murray Elkin and his trainer nightmares. They put weight on a boy and he sometimes has trouble making the lightweight limit.
“I don’t know where the kid gets his strength from,” confides Trainer August. “He don’t like beefsteaks and won’t eat ’em. But he’ll eat them hamburgers and drink them malteds all day long if you let him.”
Elis favorite food is spaghetti which is also on the forbidden list while he’s in training.
Jimmy August likes to tell you about Johnny’s first fight with Cleo Shans. Jimmy had once taken Johnny to Momma Marusi’s, a famous Italian restaurant off Columbus Circle in New York, for a spaghetti feed. “The maestro, Arturo Toscanini, and a lotta them celebrities eat there,” says Jimmy. “The kid goes nuts about the place. He wades into the spaghetti and says, ‘This is the way my mother makes it.’ ”
Going to Momma Marusi’s became a habit after every fight. The day of the Shans’ fight Johnny reminded Jimmy that they’d be going to Momma Marusi’s when it
was over. Jimmy told him he didn’t think they’d have time. The place closed around 11 o’clock and the fight didn’t start until 10. There were 10 rounds, each of them three minutes long. There were one-minute intervals between rounds, and then he’d have to shower and dress—all told it would take well over an hour.
“I’ll knock him out then,” Johnny said.
If you saw that fight you know what a terrific pace Johnny set. He looked as though he might punch himself out in the early rounds. What amazed blasé ringsiders was the way he kept it up.
“Every time he came back to the corner between rounds he kept asking me, ‘What time is it?’ ” said Jimmy August. “It wasn’t until the fight had gone about five rounds that it clicked on me. Here’s the kid fighting in the top spot on a Garden show and all he’s thinking about is getting out ta there and up to Momma Marusi’s where he can nail that spaghetti.”
The beating of the publicity tomtoms has had little effect on Johnny, and the Army has handled him in such a way that there’s little danger of his developing into a prima donna. A couple of weeks before his bout with Terry Young in Montreal the Army had him chasing around town sticking up posters advertising the fight.
Nor has he shown any tendency to go the way of many young hotshot fighters. He hasn’t even got a girl friend.
“Sure I like ’em,” he admits, and adds wistfully, “but I just haven’t had time for ’em. I’ve been too busy fighting.”
lie Likes the Army
HTHE Army likes Johnny and he A likes the Army. His New York handlers are a little vague about Army life and don’t appreciate its complications. But they do know a ■ general is an important personage.
After his fight with Young, Maj.Gen. E. de B. Panet, C.M.G., D.S.O., District Officer Commanding, M.D. No. 4, appeared in the Greco dressing room unannounced to congratulate Johnny on his victory. Johnny was taking a shower. At the sight of the General, Murray Elkin panicked slightly. He rushed over to the shower and shouted, “Hurry up, Johnny! The General wants to see you !”
Elkin’s admonition to hurry up was entirely superfluous. At mention of the visitor Johnny leaped out of the shower and presented himself before the District Officer Commanding, standing at attention and dripping wet.
“Here, Johnny!” Jimmy August clucked anxiously, extending a towel. “Dry yourself, boy!”
The General smiled and the tension was broken. Extending his hand, he said, “Congratulations—the Army is proud of you.”
In the ring Johnny is what the boys
describe as a “belter,” by which they
mean a terrific puncher. Most New
York boxing writers label him as the
hardest puncher in the lightweight
division today. Jack Cuddy, the
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i boxing critic, will tell you that if ; Greco will only learn to measure his man, he can’t miss being lightweight champion.
That present lack of ability to measure top - ranking opponents stems from a lack of experience. It I also explains his weakness at inI fighting. He hasn’t had a third, or I even a quarter, of the fights that I many of his opponents have had.
! Lightweights develop early and usually reach their peaks between the ages of 22 and 24. But Johnny is only 19 now. He has been rushed along fast. If times were normal and he could take the time to develop naturally, undoubtedly he would have a great chance to wear the crown.
But under such conditions it’s hard to estimate his chances. If he fights I for the title this summer you can be sure it will be a real fight, no matter how long or short it is, because he can punch and there is absolutely no question of his courage.
Whenever they talk of great light! weights, inevitably Benny Leonard’s name comes up. They say he was
the greatest lightweight of all time. Benny refereed the Greco-Young fight in Montreal and talked a bit about it afterward.
“They say Greco is green and that he makes this mistake and that mistake,” said Benny. “Maybe so. But all I know is that he is a good tough puncher and that he keeps on coming in and winging those punches at all times. A kid like that is a tough nut for anybody to crack.”
Values Canadian Title
AT PRESENT a great controversy ». is raging in Montreal on the merits of Johnny and Dave Castilloux. Many fight fans think the clever Castilloux would make the green Greco look foolish. Just as many think Johnny would flatten Dave. If they ever get around to fighting they will probably set a new attendance record for a boxing show in Canada. Johnny would like to fight Dave. In his naive way he seems to value the Canadian title which Dave holds more than the world title.
“But they never ask me who I’d
like to fight,” he says. “They just tell me who I’m going to fight.”
This innocent childlike quality makes Greco an appealing character. It’s what made Pat Egan, burly exdefenseman of the New York Americans in the National Hockey League, practically adopt Greco when he joined the Army. The day Pat first saw Greco the latter was being pushed around by a flock of photographers in a room in the Montreal Forum. Johnny was stripped to the waist and was trying to obey a halfdozen orders at once to accommodate the camera men. Egan quickly stepped in. He threw Johnny’s coat over his shoulders and then turned to the picture hawks.
“If you bums will make up your minds you might get some pictures and save this kid from getting pneumonia,” he said wrathfully.
Some days later Pat was trying to explain his amazement on discovering that Johnny is the kind of boy he is.
“You know what fighters are usually like—they’re sharpies,” said Pat. “But this Greco—heck, he’s just a baby. He needs somebody to look after him.”