DON’T CALL ME BABY FACE
PART FIVE - Conclusion
“It was a good punch, one I’d been working on for nearly 15 years. I let it go...” Seconds later Young Corbett was licked and the kid from the Vancouver waterfront was champion of the world
IN A fight it’s the first hundred seconds that are the hardest. You’re cold physically. Your muscles are a little stiff and your reactions are a little slow. You’re unsettled mentally.
There is always a moment, just before the first bell rings, when you stare through the floodlights hanging above the ring, trying to pick out the people who are for you and the people who are against you. On some faces you see more faith in you than is reasonable and on some you see more hostility than is called for.
You look back across the ring at the man you’re going to be fighting and try to remember how you’re going to fight him and how you have figured he’s going to fight you. For an instant you draw nothing but a blank.
You’re nervous and a little scared and the feeling doesn’t usually pass until the fight has started and somebody has been hit.
On May 29, 1933, I fought Young Corbett III for the welterweight championship of the world at Wrigley Field, in Los Angeles. This was a very important fight for me. I had won 11 fights against world champions in various weight classes—some while they were champions and some after they ceased to be champions—but I had never held a title myself. I’d had to wait five years for my first shot at the welterweight title and during the last two I’d been ranked unofficially as the best welterweight in the world. If I blew this one and had to wait another five years I knew I’d never get there.
As I’ve been saying, the first minute or two of any fight is chancy and critical. Pop Foster, my manager, and I agreed that the first minute or two of the Corbett fight might be particularly critical. Corbett was a big man, as strong as a horse, with long arms and heavy shoulders. Besides, he was a southpaw and boxing a southpaw is like trying to read by a mirror. Everything—his leads, his crosses, his footwork—goes from right to left instead of from left to rightPd only fought one full southpaw before, a good one named Lou Brouillard, and he’d beaten me.
“If you can make him open up, you’ll win,” Pop told me the day we signed for Corbett. “If you can’t he may hug you to death.”
Our strategy was rudimentary, but we gave it all we had. For the last month before the fight we insulted Corbett, publicly, enthusiastically and at every opportunity.
When we arrived in Los Angeles to start training and the newspapermen came around for interviews, Pop pointedly took a rain check on the usual prefight platitudes. Instead of saying, as nearly all managers say before nearly all fights, that it was going to be a great, fight between two great fighters, Pop said it would probably be a stinker.
“Corbett’s not much of a fighter,” Pop said sadly.
I winced slightly for my reputation as a modest unassuming boy as 1 nodded in agreement and told the sports writers that I expected Corbett to run away from me but also expected to catch up to him and knock him out inside six rounds.
Larry White, Corbett ’s manager, dropped around to the Olympic Auditorium to watch me work out one afternoon. Pop had him run off the premises. Then Pop remembered a state law under which boxers weighing 145 pounds or less were permitted to wear five-ounce gloves and boxers weighing more than 145 were required to v •• ir six-ounce gloves.
Corbett was dead on the welterweight limit of 147 pounds and I was two or three pounds under. The lighter a glove is the more damage you can do with it. When Pop announced he would insist that Corbett wear six-ounce gloves and I wear fives, the reaction was just what we expected. Larry White howled murder.
Pop replied through the press that if White and Corbett had their way we’d be fighting with pillows. Finally the Boxing Commission stepped in and ruled that we’d both wear 5H"°unce gloves.
Pop and White wrangled about the referee, about the method of bandaging Corbett’s and my hands, even about the movie rights. Corbett was 25 years old two days before the fight. I sent him a patronizing wire: “Birthday greetings
and best wishes for your future success.”
We stirred up a pleasant amount of unpleasantness all around.
Not that we were sure of accomplishing anything. As Pop assessed it, the best we could do was to get Corbett and White mad and the worst we could do was get them guessing.
The night of the fight, we sent my brother Bob to Corbett’s dressing room to check the bandaging of his hands. We hadn’t told Bob the reason for our rudeness, but we urged him to keep his ears
Pop and I had just opened the door to our own dressing room and were starting to head for the ringside when we saw Bob coming down the runway. There’s always
a crowd outside the dressing room and Bob was having trouble fighting his way through. He came through the crowd, half on his feet and half on his elbows, and when he got to the room he pulled me back inside and slammed the door. His face was the color of a mouthguard.
“James!” he panted—to the family I was always James—“James,” Bob panted, “he’s gonna come out punching!”
We still didn’t have a written guarantee, but it
looked good. I floated down the aisle to the ring feeling as smug and lightheaded as a bride. I sat forward on my stool and looked across at Corbett. He looked pale and anxious—the way a fighter usually looks when he’s up for his fight. When I caught his eyes he stared back for a moment and then looked away.
Some of the writers who saw this exchange said afterward that Corbett’s nerve was running out on him. I wasn’t nearly so optimistic. In that last minute—no matter how confident I’d been a few minutes before—I began to feel, as always, a little shaky myself. If I’d been trying to psychoanalyze Corbett, all I’d have said was that he quit looking at me because he didn’t like me.
George Blake, the referee, waved us to the middle of the ring and gave the stock instructions ending with the stock phrase —“Go to your corners and come out fighting.”
Corbett obeyed to the letter and with a vengeance. I hadn’t taken two steps before he was on top of me, throwing his left hand —his best hand.
In the first minute it crashed past my arms half-a-dozen times and bounced against my ribs like a bucketful of hot rivets. His first charge pinned me against the ropes and as I tried to circle away he hooked another hard left to the head.
I couldn’t find room to get away from him, much less to throw a punch at him.
These punches of his all hurt. I was glad he was throwing them, but I was by no means glad they Continued on page 48
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were landing. Over the thud of his punches I heard the crowd roaring behind me the way a fight crowd always roars in a moment of climax. Finally I half knocked and half shoved him away with a left and when he stepped back I had a little room to move around.
Corbett had one bad habit. Pop and I had both noticed it the night we watched him win the title from Jackie Fields . When he hit to the body with his left he dropped his right a little. So when Corbett came in again I kept my hands high, showing him my ribs. As he brought the left in. his right came down and a piece of his jaw was suddenly open above the right glove, less than a foot from my left
I was rolling toward him. ready to throw the left or hold it, depending on whether or not I saw a target. I let it go.
It was a good punch, one I’d been working on for nearly 15 years. Its arc started upward but at the last instant I turned my elbow and the first corkscrewed and came in slightly downward. Corbett fell like a hinge on a spring.
His pants hit the floor first. Then his shoulders thumped back and he rolled over on his side.
I backed into a neutral corner for the count. Corbett was on one knee at four, blinking and shaking his head and he shoved himself to his feet at nine. I rushed out of the corner, feinted with a right and hit him another hard left on the jaw. He went down again, near the ropes. He grabbed the lower rope and dragged himself to his feet one strand at a time. He threw one arm over the top strand and turned his back to me.
As I moved past George Blake, the referee. I said: “You’d better stop it.
Mr. Blake.” Blake shook his head. I spun Corbett away from the ropes with another left and hit him two more lefts on the head. He went down again. This time Blake didn't count.
It was over in two minutes, 37 secondsthe shortest championship fight in the history of the welterweight division.
Two Champs, One Ring
My father had come down from Vancouver to see me fight as a professional for the first time. My mother came to Los Angeles a couple of days after the fight. “You’re a fine boxer, James,” she said. My mother had never seen a fight and she didn’t know a left hook from a ringpost, but to me that was still the last word in critical acclaim. It was just a little more than nine years earlier less than a month after mv Kith birthday that I'd packed my second shirt and my second and third pairs of socks and told her 1 was going away to be a fighter.
She couldn’t have been more horrified and worried if I’d told her I was going away to rob a bank or cross Niagara Falls in a barrel
But in spite of her disapproval of boxing and her distrust of every boxer in the world but me, she’d sent me a wire wishing me good luck before every fight Whether she knew what she was talking about or not. those five words “You’re a fine boxer. James"
and t he pride and happiness she took in saying then) meant more to me than a million words ol clippings
I laid off for a year and I hen defended my title against Barney Boss. Boss had won the lightweight championship
a year before and decided to step up into the 147-pound class and try to take over the welterweight championship too. This was an unusual situation in itself—two reigning world champions in the same ring.
Barney and I drew a crowd of 65,000 and a gate of roughly $200,000 to Madison Square Garden’s new Long Island Bowl on May 28, 1934, and my end was $66,000.
Barney won a split decision in 15 rounds and became the first man in history to hold the lightweight and welterweight championships at the same time. Six months later I took the welter title back from him in much the same way that he had taken it from me —on a split decision after 15 long and wearing but pretty lively rounds.
I was as eager to get it settled once and for all as Barney was and I gladly signed for a third and rubber bout on May 28, 1935—a year to the day after our first fight.
This time the decision was unanimous— for Ross.
I must say I disagreed. I disagreed then and I disagree now. Barney Ross was a good boxer and he was and is a remarkable person. I’m not just trying to say the right thing when I say that if I had to lose my title I’d as soon have lost to Barney Ross as to anybody else. But even if it’s the wrong thing to say. I’m saying he didn’t beat me in that third fight of ours. I’ve done all the fighting I want to do and I don’t think there’s any special Valhalla to which old fighters go when they die. But if there is Valhalla, and they’ve got boxing gloves there, there’s one more fight I’d like to have. Barney Ross will be in the other corner. I hope he’ll be right at his best and if I don’t win. I’ll cheerfully take the first elevator down.
Almost Sorry For Tony
I didn’t fight again for a year. I don’t know why it is that a guy who is supposedly smart—or anyway supposedly smart enough to make two and two add up to four will keep trying to make two and two add up to five. By now I knew that long layoffs were bad for me. In my 13 years of professional boxing 1 fought four times after a layoff of seven months or more. I lost every one of those four fights. Almost as many as I lost during all my other fights put together.
This next one was against Tony Canzoneri. In the intervening year Ross had grown too big to defend the lightweight title and Canzoneri had won it in an elimination tournament. Although we weren’t fighting for Tony’s title, I felt 1 had more riding on this fight than in all the Barney Ross fights put together.
A few months earlier I’d gone back to Vancouver and married Lillian Cupitt, my first and only girl, and Lillian was at the ringside in Madison Square Garden to watch me fight for the first and only time. Lillian worried about me almost as much as my mother did and I’d been telling her for 11 years, ever since she was 13 and I was 17. that the only difference between being a boxer and being i taxi driver or an insurance salesman was that the boxer earned his money a lot easier. I didn’t believe Lfiis myself and don’t believe it now, but the night I fought Canzoneri I was hoping to make it look that way to Lillian.
ft started out fine. I bit Tony a hard left book early in the first round. He began to back away and his hands carne down and I moved in ori top of him and gave him a bad beating around the head. His eyes were swollen and glassy at the end of the round, and he was biersling heavily from the nose and lips. If I hadn’t learned over many
fights that a boxer who starts feeling sorry for the other guy had better get ready to start feeling sorry for himself,
I think I’d have been sorry for Tony as I saw him lurch toward his corner.
He still looked wobbly when he came out for the second. I moved in for the knockout and did a very foolish thing.
I tried to do a job with a long punch that a short punch would have done as
I drove a sledge-hammer left for Tony’s open jaw. Tony stepped inside and hit me the right way—with one of those nice, crisp, short little thunderbolts that only a real puncher knows how to throw.
I can’t tell you how this punch felt. It’s the only punch that ever hit me so hard I didn’t feel it.
It wasn’t until the next day that I knew I staggered, went to one knee and got up again. The next thing of which I have personal knowledge is not easy to describe. It was less an event than a sensation. I had a vague feeling of faroff pounding and darkness—not particularly unpleasant but baffling— something like coming half awake in a dark Pullman berth and going to sleep again because it’s too much effort to remember where you are. I remember too that I was thinking vaguely of Lillian and reminding myself that we were either going to get married or were already married.
No Mistakes Next Time
This is my total recollection of the last half of the second round and of the five rounds after that. Then Pop was leaning over me in the corner. When he told me I was going into the eighth I asked him how many times I’d been on the floor.
“None,” Pop said.
“Can I still win?” I asked him.
“If you take the last three,” he
I got to Tony again in the eighth and won that round. But he fought back in the ninth and we slugged each other to a standstill in the 10th. He won the decision from here to there. As you may have gathered, I never felt precisely like cheering when I lost a fight, but after I read the newspaper accounts of this one, I figured it was something, at least, to be still breathing.
Lillian wanted me to quit right then and there.
“What?” I said, not entirely kidding either, “and have Canzoneri living in our guest room for the rest of our lives?’ I fought Tony again five months later, on Oct. 5, 1936. I couldn’t persuade Lillian to come and see this one. But I fought him as well as I knew how, made no more than the normal number of mistakes, and beat him just as thoroughly as he had beat-
In the meantime Lou Ambers had succeeded Tony as lightweight champion. I fought Ambers over-the-weight about a month after I beat Canzoneri. I won a unanimous decision.
I was still a month on the right side of my 29th birthday. There was no real reason why I should quit boxing at exactly that point and suddenly it struck me that this was the best of all reasons for quitting. I’d always promised myself that when I started losing I’d quit.
But I began to think of the times I’d thought, either seriously or idly, of quitting before. Once, away back in Los Angeles, when I’d started to grow too fast and gone sour. Once, after a bad beating from Billy Petrolle. Again after losing the second decision to Ross. Again after that first beating I. took from Canzoneri. Each of those times I’d wrestled it out with myself and decided that, no—I had to give
them something better than that to remember me by.
There was no sense quitting when I was winning, and to judge from my past performances I had too much pride or bullheadedness to quit when I was losing. It’s on precisely this kind of logic that all horse players die broke and that far too many boxers, good ones included, end up hearing noises that other people don’t hear.
Work Hard Or Stay Out
Both Pop and I had salted away enough money in annuities to keep us for the rest of our lives. We talked it over. Pop clinched it. His reasoning was a little different from mine, but it came out at the same place. He told me he thought my last two fights had been among the sharpest I’d ever fought and that if I really wanted to fight at least once every six months I could go on without fear of being hurt for another two or three years.
“But there’s only two reasons why a man should fight,” Pop said. “One’s because he likes it, and you stopped liking it a long time ago. The other’s for money, and you know you don’t need money.”
Pop and I went back to California. Since we were earning our livelihood in the United States we’d both taken out citizenship papers around the time of the Corbett fight. We still live there, Pop in a comfortable bachelor apartment in Hollywood and Lillian and I and our three daughters about 20 minutes’ drive away in Glendale.
Pop is still in remarkable health and vigor for a man of 77. I don’t work quite as hard as I should, maybe, but I’ve got an interest in a tile factory and an interest in an insurance agency and they keep me from worrying too much about my golf handicap. I’m still a mild fanatic about diet—lots of live foods—and at 42 I feel good enough to lick a horse. But before it got me into the ring the horse would have to post a guarantee of let’s say at least a million dollars.
I’m glad I was a boxer now, in something the same way that Steve Brodie must have been glad he jumped off Brooklyn Bridge. It’s a wonderful thing to have behind you. But if I ever have a son and he starts talking about going into the ring, I’m afraid the conditions I’ll try to lay down for him will be pretty discouraging.
I’ll tell him he’ll have to start early, maybe when he’s 11 or 12 years old, and that he had better be ready to spend at least the next 10 years learning his trade. Not just picking it up as he goes along, the way kids pick up some trades, but spending most of his time at it, learning and practicing the thousands of things he will have to know, so that when he goes into a fight he will know how to protect himself and how to make the other man respect
And no matter how hard he works and how much ability he has to start, I’ll have to tell him that the odds against him will still be frightening unless he happens to hook up with somebody like Pop Foster. Somebody who knows as much about fighting as Pop does, as much about teaching it as he does; somebody who has the honesty, the loyalty and, when it’s needed, the shrewdness to look after a young fighter in the way that all young fighters need looking after if they’re going to get what’s coming to them in return for the punishment, the selfdenial, and the risks they must accept.
Right there, of course, I’ll really be saying that my son ought to look around for some other line of business. There just aren’t that many Pop Fosters. it