Behind the cigar smoke, the gamblers' shouts, Johnny Greco sweats, starves and fights for a chance at the world title
AT THREE O’CLOCK on the morning of Saturday, March 26 last, the conversation in Slitkin and Slot kin’s restaurant, Montreal, had drifted, like cigar smoke, for six hours around the prospects of Johnny Greco.
How would Greco, 25-year-old Canadian welterweight champion, a stocky steamhammer of a club lighter, make out against Beau Jack, a lithe precision-punching Negro from Georgia, onetime lightweight champion of the world?
To the promoters, boxers’ managers, sports reporters, ex-fighters and bookmakers a Greco
victory seemed more important than Stalin’s next move, and not even the current juke-box wow, “Cruisin’ Down the River,” distracted attention from the debate.
Canada had not had a world champion since Jimmie MacLarnin in the early ’30’s. But if Greco could beat Beau Jack only a Cuban, Kid Gavilan, would then stand between him and the right to meet Sugar Ray Robinson, another U. S. Negro and holder of the world welterweight crown.
However it was not going to be easy. Greco had already met Beau Jack three times. He had drawn one fight and lost two. Beau Jack, though past his prime, had a deep chest, a wasp waist and long thin legs like spring steel. Greco’s chest was massive,
his waist thick and his legs were like trunks of oak.
It was to be a battle between a wildcat and a bulldog.
Everybody knew what Frankie Doyle, Greco’s paunchy sardonic little manager from Brooklyn, was worried about. The contract specified that Greco would fight at the Montreal Forum at 10 o’clock the following Monday night weighing no more than 148 pounds. This morning, 67 hours before the event, the Canadian hope was well over 150 pounds. “And he ain’t carrying porridge,” said Doyle.
If he weighed in too heavy Greco could be fined $500 by the Montreal Athletic Commission. But worse still Beau Jack could refuse to meet him; Then Raoul Godbout, the tiny restless Gallic promoter, who had already sold $20,000 worth of tickets in advance, would be in a spot. Even “Louis the Lawyer” (Louis A. de Zwirek, K.C.), a bland, quietly dressed young man who looks after Greco’s money and has a big legal practice in the boxing and night-club orbits, was known to be on edge.
Greco had been on a frugal diet. For four weeks he had been sweating profusely six hours a day. He was trained to hair-trigger exactitude. Psychologically and physically he was on the pinnacle. Pushed an inch too far by Doyle he would become stale.
There had never been a better moment for the rugged little second-generation Italian Canadian to smash his way through toward a world title fight. In another year he might be past his peak and the chance would be gone. Greco had to work off those extra few pounds though he seemed already to be down to nothing but muscle and bone.
It was almost 6 a.m. when the restaurant closed. The dank dawn light cast a bluish pallor over the faces of nighthawks going home. The milk trucks were rumbling up to the back doors of the Laurentien Hotel just across the road. Bleary-eyed
barmen washed the last of the glasses.
“Johnny Will Be Champeen”
AT EXACTLY the same time, six miles west of Slitkin and Slotkin’s, the subject of the nightlong debate rose from his bed in a $23,000 home on Mariette Avenue in the suburb of Notre Dame de Grace.
Johnny Greco had been awakened by his father. Papa Greco had slept in another single bed in the same room.
The prize fighter swathed himself in slacks and two thick sweaters. On top of these he pulled a long heavy mackinaw of yellow woolen plaid. He encased his head rakishly in one of those flat caps apaches wear on the Rue Pigalle in Paris. Papa Greco wore a smart golfing windbreaker belonging to his son. Together they stole out of the house into the Saturday dawn, careful not to wake Mama Greco and the Greco girls, Carmen and Mary, both in their 20’s.
They set off at a jog trot through the residential streets. Greco did his road work with elbows bent across his chest, his fists half closed. He breathed in deeply through his nose. There were three days of black stubble on his chin—too much shaving makes a fighter’s face tender. His prominent nose, once as straight, as those of his Mediterranean ancestors, had been thickened at the bridge by many clouts. This made his dark Neapolitan eyes seem close-set, almost squinty.
Five minutes after leaving the house sweat swam down out of his hair and he shed showers of it by shaking his head. “Good boy, Johnny,” said Papa Greco.
During the next six miles father and son said little. At 48 Papa Greco needed all his breath for running. And Johnny Greco was notoriously taciturn. But it was reasonable to suppose they mused on some of the events which had led up to this daily ordeal.
Papa Greco was himself an amateur fighter who became a driver of Montreal City snowplows and water trucks when he realized he would never be good enough for the
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professional ring. When Johnny was seven Papa Greco had taken him into the back yard, put on his tiny fists a grotesque pair of mitts, and taught him to lead with his left.
“One day,” Papa Greco had said, “my Johnny will be the champeen.”
From then on the Canadian welterweight champion’s story followed an almost classical pattern. He walked four miles every night from his home to the Griffintown Boys’ Club to learn pugilism. At 10 he scrapped in amateur tournaments. At 15 he was so wild about boxing he played hooky from the Catholic High School to hang around professional gymnasiums.
When he was 17 he was signed up as a professional by Raoul Godbout who was managing Dave Castilloux, then Canadian lightweight champion. Greco fought a few mediocre fights in Montreal, then Godbout washed his hands of him. Johnny went to New York and boxed on the club circuits. His U. S. trainers found his trouble lay in a thin neck. They had him put two inches on it with special exercises. After that Greco was never knocked out and he attracted the speculative eyes of promoters.
He got his first chance in Madison Square Garden in 1942 on the same program as a Tami Mauriello-Lou Nova match. Greco flattened Harold Green in the first round and Mike Jacobs went to his dressing room and said: “Johnny, you’re here to stay.”
A few months later the two biggest drawing cards in New York were Johnny Greco and Beau Jack. Later in ’42 when they were matched together for the first time the gate amounted to $159,000 of which $30,000 was Greco’s share. The fight was a draw. Each of Greco’s two subsequent losing fights against Beau Jack drew more than $100,000. Greco’s total purse for the three fights was more than $90,000. He returned to Montreal and gave his grandparents $3,500 in bills to pay off the mortgage on the house. Then he gave his father $15,000 to buy a row of five small houses as an investment. He bought himself a Cadillac convertible.
Greco in Parliament
In 1943 when he was 19 Greco enlisted in the Canadian Army. Why he never went overseas was the Army’s business. He raised more than $10,000 for Army sports funds by exhibition bouts. A few months after his enlistment Gordon Graydon (M.P., Peel, Ont.) rose in the Commons to question Private John Greco’s extracurricular activities.
W. C. Macdonald, parliamentary assistant to Defense Minister Ralston, explained why the Canadian soldier had been given 15 days’ furlough to box professionally against one Cleo Shans at Madison Square Garden, New York. The Army’s excuse that the Shans fight had been contracted before Greco’s enlistment was not considered valid by many M.P.’s.
Soon afterward a dead man was found on the road between Montreal and Farnham Camp. Blood and hair were noticed on the bumper of Greco’s car. Greco was charged with manslaughter but, defended by Louis The Lawyer, he was acquitted.
After his discharge from the army Greco returned to New York for a short time. There was an Athletic Commission enquiry into a fight which he lost. Nothing was proved against Greco but when his New York license
expired he did not apply for its renewal.
In 1946 he won the Canadian welterweight championship from the veteran Dave Castilloux. He chose to live in Montreal because expenses and income tax were lower. As a Canadian champion he could always be sure of big gates at the Forum. He bought the house on Mariette Avenue to share with his family.
Trotting homeward that Saturday j morning Greco could reflect on the ! fact he was worth $100,000, plus an annuity which would guarantee him $200 a month for life from the age of j 30, five years away.
Raoul Godbout, who had lost faith in Greco as a youngster, had guaranteed him $30,000 for an unspecified number of fights over 12 months, or 25% of the gates he attracted, whichever was the greater.
“And that is steady money for a steady boy,” said Papa Greco as they opened the garden gate. It was just after 7 o’clock.
About noon Frankie Doyle left his room in the Laurentien Hotel and took a cab to the Palestre Nationale, a ; French athletic club’s building in midj eastern Montreal. Shortly afterward Papa and Johnny Greco left for the same destination in the boxer’s 1949 Monarch. Greco stripped among small boys and youths preparing for swimming, badminton and handball. Doyle looked at his naked body grimly. He j knew without looking at the scales ! his boy was still overweight.
“My Boy Never Hurt a Kid”
At 1 p.m. they went down into the big gymnasium where notices said expositions du box could be watched for 25 cents. The place was full of men in hats and coats. It was hot and odoriferous with sweat, cigar smoke and rubbing alcohol.
At the other side of the ring was a large square of plain planking. On this ! half a dozen youths were shadowI boxing. Prancing, dodging, darting and ¡ ducking they fired blows at imaginary foes and splashed the floor with their sweat. In their eyes was the fixed stare of determination to sweat.
When Greco stepped on the planking the others moved off and a circle formed round the champ. He began by trotting on his toes, arms dangling loosely, head lolling slackly. Once he began to sweat he did shadowboxing. Then he did press-ups, toe touchings, neck twistings, stomach exercises and knee bends with such vigor and for so long it hurt to watch him. After about half an hour of this Frankie Doyle called enough and rubbed Greco down with a towel.
Greco then bandaged his own hands. Frankie Doyle laced on Johnny’s boxing gloves and pulled a padded helmet over his head.
Greco then climbed into the ring. He was sparring for the last time before the fight. This was 1.30, the Saturday before the fight. Sunday and Monday, he hoped, would be days of complete relaxation.
His four partners came from a little stable run by 30-year-old Earl Aspel, son of Jimmie the second. They were Ian McNeill, Mario Massaro, Herman Cosgrove and Rocky Armando. Cosgrove and Massaro were fighting preliminary bouts on the same Monday night program. They would get about $100 apiece while Greco would get anything between $5,000 and $10,000 according to the gate. Beau Jack had been guaranteed a flat $10,000.
Frankie Doyle would get 10% of Greco’s purse. Then would come training expenses. For four weeks Greco had been paying his four
partners $5 a day each—a total of nearly $500. Bills for bandages, liniments and two new mouthpieces at $30 each had come to about $100. He had made a score of dollar handouts to hangers-on for running errands. After the fight he would tip Jimmie Aspel according to how he feltmaybe $100 or $200. Greco figured he had already spent or was committed to around $1,800 before he ever took a swing at Beau Jack.
As Greco prepared to spar Frankie Doyle said: “First he gets a heavy
boy so’s he can exercise his punch. Then he defends himself with another heavy boy who can hit Johnny hard as he likes. Next round in goes a lighter kid to wake him up, exchanging blows, attacking and defending. Last we put in the lightest kid of all, telling him to go all out for Johnny. This makes Johnny move. But he don’t have to hurt any of the kids.”
“My boy never hurt a kid in his life,” said Papa Greco.
In the last round with the lightest boy the champion fended off goodhumoredly a wild flurry of desperate blows as his little opponent, snorting to clear his nose, sprang at him from all corners. Suddenly Greco got a smart clip over the ear. He struck tightly back and the young boxer reeled.
Following the ring work Greco did five minutes on “the fast ball,” tapping it with cat’s-paw rapidity until it sounded like a roll of drums and was a mere flash of light between the ceiling and his fist. He varied the rhythm nonchalantly before the gawking crowd, and finally hit the ball so hard that it cracked the ceiling with the report of a 25-pounder gun.
“You Know How It Is”
“In the last three weeks,” said Papa Greco with awe, “he’s busted three fast balls.”
At 2.30 Beau Jack entered the gym and Greco left. Opponents never watch each other train. After a shower Greco went up to Ies Bains Hydropathique and on snowy sheets was massaged by experts in surgical coats,
“Look at that boy,” said Frankie Doyle. “He’s fast asleep. He’s not cool. He’s cold. Now when I was training Maxie Hosenbloom he was all nerves.” But Doyle looked glum. Greco was still heavy.
At home Greco went without lunch. He made bitter little jokes about steaks. But to a visiting reporter he was gracious. He took the reporter’s coat, hung it in the closet and asked Papa Greco to bring in a glass of Scotch. Then he sat moodily on a chesterfield, playing with puzzles.
As Papa Greco talked endlessly on the subject of his son, Greco smiled knowingly at the reporter. The reporter diffidently approached the subject of the manslaughter charge. Greco’s lip curled. He said: “I was a well-known boxer. You know how it is.”
“He’s taking six buddies back to camp,” stormed Papa Greco. “It’s a cold night and the windows is steamed up. Johnny’s going slow because he has to keep wiping the windshield. Sure he feels a bump. Everybody feels lots of bumps driving in win ter. Next thing he knows he’s a manslaughterer.”
“And about the Army?” asked the reporter.
Greco said simply: “I volunteered. I wasn’t conscripted. 1 was a big prize fighter. The officers knew the troops wanted to see me box. They put me in a big exhibition match in Montreal. I wanted to go overseas but 1 guess the Army wanted to show' me off at home. Publicity and all that stuff.”
“He volunteered for the parachutes,” said Papa Greco, “and they found a bone wrong in his back.”
When his mother, smartly dressed and white-haired, came in to see if anybody wanted tea Greco rose to his feet and remained standing until she had gone.
“This probe in New York?” said the reporter.
Greco’s.eyes burned. “I never gave a fight away,” he said.
“Look at my boy!” said Papa Greco. “Look at his eyes! Are those the eyes of a crooked fighter?”
“Before the fight he was sick in the washroom,” said Papa Greco. “But he didn’t tell nobody. He’d sneaked a bit of fish, see, because he was hungry. He thought he’d be okay. You tell me any boxer who can win after that! You never ought to have eaten that fish, Johnny.”
“I know,” said Greco, “but I was hungry.”
“You fight better when you are hungry,” said Papa Greco.
“Sure,” said Greco. “Sooner it’s over sooner I get something to eat.” Greco said when he was not training he smoked cigars but didn’t inhale and took the odd glass of beer. A couple of years back he had had a steady girl, but “it didn’t work out.”
“Training is monotonous,” he said. “The fitter you get the more you want girls, food and booze. I keep my mind off' it with reading, bowling and going to the movies. Dad and 1 go to the movies five nights a week. I once read Rabbi Liebman’s ‘Peace of Mind’ and went for it in a big way. I also play a lot of checkers with Dad but it’s not really hard enough to keep your mind off other things. So we’re learning chess. Chess is a very hard game.”
He was determined never to get punchy. Boxers who get punchy, he said, tried to do too much. “They try to be boxers and ordinary guys at the same time,” he said. “But you can only take so much out of a body. What you take out you have to put back in rest.”
He planned to quit the ring before he was 30. “Maybe I’ll take a little tavern. I’d like to go into business. Louis de Zwirek will tell me what to do. He’s looked after me fine ever since the manslaughter case. Nobody else wanted to take me on.”
At 6 o’clock that Saturday evening Greco had a small broiled steak and fresh vegetables followed by a glass of milk and an apple. He would have liked some pie but refrained. At 7 he went to see Jane Wyman in “Johnny Belinda.” At 10 he was in bed.
Take It Off, Take It Off
Down at Slitkin and Slotkin’s where the fight crowd and their girls were gathering for the night the odds, which had been slightly in favor of Greco, shifted in favor of Beau Jack because word had got through the grapevine Greco was still overweight. The juke box played “So-o-o-o Tired.”
On Sunday morning Greco had his usual run and that finished his exercise. He was tapering off-. For breakfast he had scrambled eggs.
In the afternoon he went for a short w'alk alone. For supper he had a piece of broiled fish. During the evening he went to the movies with his dad. That night he stayed up till after 12 playing checkers so that he’d be tired and sleep.
The next morning, the day of the fight, he stayed in bed reading till noon after poached eggs on toast. Then he rose and set off in his car for 435 Champ de Mars Street in downtown Montreal, the offices of the Montreal Athletic Commission. They were full
of boxers and managers come for the weigh-in. Greco was due there at 1 p.m. But he was late because he had a flat on the way and had to drive into a service station.
His lateness excited Chick Wergeles, Beau Jack’s manager. “One o’clock was the time,” he said excitedly. “Here’s my boy sittin’ around when he should be resting!” Beau Jack didn’t seem to care. He was squatting in the centre of a ring of admiring Negroes talking and laughing. He wore a canary-yellow fedora and a bright green jacket. “If Greco don’t come soon fight’s off!” threatened Wergeles.
Frankie Doyle seemed quietly anxious. Raoul Godbout rushed around offering free tickets to the boxers’ supporters and snapping like an angry terrier when they asked for one more “for the girl friend.”
As the crowd pressed up toward the scales on which the preliminary bout fighters were being weighed in an official of the Athletic Commission kept shouting: “Clear the room! Quittez la chambre!" When nobody took any notice of him he dropped his head into his hands as if he were about to be racked by sobs.
Greco strolled in at 1.30 wearing a black woolen sports shirt open at the neck and flannel slacks. The crowd parted respectfully to let him through. He seemed to strip in a second and was on the scales before some spectators realized be had arrived.
The MAC official announced dramatically: “One forty-nine pounds four-
teen and one half ounces.”
“He should be 148,” yelled Chick Wergeles.
Frankie Doyle looked dark
“Clear the room for conference!” said the official.
This time he was obeyed. For five minutes Beau Jack’s side and Greco’s side conferred behind locked doors. Then Frankie Doyle burst out angrily with his arm round Greco. “What’s happening?” somebody asked. “He’s gotta take if off!” snapped Doyle.
Eight hours before the fight Greco took off three pounds by skipping and shadow boxing in a hot room at the Palestre Nationale. The effort cost him a lot of reserve energy. Then Chick Wergeles agreed Beau Jack could fight.
It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon when Greco got home. He rested until seven. By eight he was down at the Forum sitting in the dressing room playing gin rummy with Doyle. He had eaten nothing since breakfast.
The bout attracted 10,394 spectators who paid $38,428, thus making Greco’s share more than $9,000 and Doyle’s around $900. When a distant roaring announced the end of the last preliminary Greco was fast asleep on the rubbing table.
Doyle shook him: “Wake up,
Johnny,” he said, “we’re on.” Greco yawned, donned a black silk dressing gown, muffled himself with a towel and strode out to the ring. Beau Jack, weighing 138 lbs., was already there, dancing in his corner like an electrified
marionette and showing off his famous upswinging bolo punch. Greco, weighing 147 lbs., climbed through the ropes with little show, acknowledged the cheers of the crowd with a nod.
Within two rounds Beau Jack was back on his heels, having taken a powerful right in his eye and a left jab to the solar plexus. As Beau Jack circled and feinted Greco turned to meet him solidly like a slowly revolving Rock of Gibraltar. Beau Jack’s punches began to flail wildly. Then Greco advanced steadily, remorselessly, jolting Beau Jack so methodically that once the Negro was hanging blindly on the ropes. In the seventh round it seemed queer that Beau Jack had not been knocked out.
In the ninth round Beau Jack’s face resembled a piece of liver and his eyes were two blobs of tomato ketchup. Out of the 10 rounds Greco won seven, drew two and lost only one. The Negro fought gallantly, hut Greco so easily outclassed him that the crowd was amazed and delighted.
Modest Greco Takes a Bow
It was 3 o’clock in the morning after the fight when Frankie Doyle entered Slitkin and Slotkin’s. Raoul Godbout the promoter was there. So was gargantuan Jimmie McKimmie, dean of Canadian promoters. Louis The Lawyer dropped in for a few minutes.
rI’he proprietors of the saloon, Lou Wyman and Jack Rogers, wanted to know whether Greco would look in to say hello and take a how.
“He went home to see his mother,” said Frankie Doyle. “He always goes home to his mother after a fight.”
“But is he coming down?” insisted one of the girls.
“You shouldha seen that lump of steer beef he tied himself onto,” grinned Doyle. “It shouldha been in a field with a hell round its neck.”
“But is he coming down?” said another girl.
“Maybe,” said Doyle, “never can tell.”
At that moment Greco came in wearing a quiet blue overcoat and dark sunglasses to hide his swollen eyes. There was a hurst of applause and he was passed round the cocktail lounge from one introduction to another.
All he said was: “Thank you!” and “Very kind of you!” and “Aw, I dunno!” when everybody told him how marvelous he was.
With great ceremony he drank a glass of beer and lit a cigar. “I never inhale,” IK* assured flu; crowd. Then he stood smiling modestly, like royalty at a charity bazaar.
After 10 minutes he said: “Well,
guess I gotta get hack to bed.”
“Aw, stick around. Johnny!” pleaded one of t he girls.
“Some other time, miss,” said Greco. He left with a friendly wave to all.
“What a hoy!” said Frankie Doyle.
“J’he best thing that ever happened to Canadian boxing,” said Raoul Godbout.
“He’s got such bright, honest eyes,” said one of the girls.
“He’s a gentleman,” said Louis de Zwirek, K.C.
The bar became busy again. The juke box played “Cruisin’ Down File River” seven times. Soon the milk trucks began to rumble up to the hack door of the Laurentien. In the pearly half light, just along the street, a policeman arrested a teen-age prostitute.
Six miles west, in a $23,000 home, Johnny Greco slept, alone at last in his room. And if he dreamed of forbidden fruit it was certainly of the spaghetti alia cantónese his mother planned to serve for lunch. ★