The Boxing Esq. Podcast, Ep. 58: Historian Mike Silver
The Ring is proud to present “The Boxing Esq. Podcast with Kurt Emhoff”. Emhoff, an attorney based in New York City, is a top boxing manager who has represented over 10 world champions in his 20-plus years in the sport.
His guest on this episode is author and boxing historian Mike Silver. They talk about Mike’s new book, “The Night The Referee Hit Back – Memorable Moments from the World of Boxing”. It’s a compilation of articles and interviews that Mike’s done over the years that is really captivating and provocative.
They discuss Mike’s background and how he had the chance to train alongside Emile Griffith and Ingemar Johansson at the iconic Stillman’s Gym in mid-town Manhattan in the late-50’s early 60’s. Mike gives a great account of the history of that gym and its significance.
They also spoke about the history of the governance of the sport. How there was generally only one world champion per division for decades. And how tournaments of contenders fighting to determine a new champion in divisions where the title was vacant were a common occurrence throughout the 1920s through the late 1960s.
Finally, Mike gives boxing fans a great list of fights from boxing’s Golden Age that demonstrate the skills and technique that may be missing from today’s fighters.
Below are a few excerpts from the interviews:
On why there were so many legendary trainers at Stillman’s Gym back in the 1920s-1950s:
“Boxing at that time was an industry in which people devoted full time to it. The trainers who were successful and there were a good number of them – that was their full time job. They lived, ate and slept boxing. That’s what they did. And because New York City was the epicenter of the sport, it had more fighters, more fight clubs, more gymnasiums. It drew many of the best trainers to the city. And what developed was you had – take Ray Arcel. Okay. Ray Arcel was a young man, amateur boxer, was in love with boxing. He became a student of one of the top trainers and this trainer mentored Ray. And as he told me, there was boxing every night of the week, except Sunday night in New York City.
And he would go around working with this trainer learning the ropes, learning from everybody. And it was just an environment where boxing was everywhere. And there was a lot of creativity around, especially in the twenties. I compare it to the Renaissance of the Middle Ages when something happened and there was a confluence of circumstances that came together. The great wave of immigrants who came into this country from the 1880s. First it started with the Irish in the mid 19th century and who brought a tradition of boxing with them. And then you had the great wave of Jewish immigrants and Italian immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe. And of course, boxing is a sport of the poor, and it’s an urban sport.
And you had these huge numbers of immigrants, poor, looking to just get work and make money. And boxing was there. It was everywhere. So you had a lot of tough kids growing up, street kids, and it was easy for them. Not all of them were going to become world champions, of course, but a lot of them went into the sport to make money. And, just to give you an example, in the research I did for my first book, The Arc of Boxing (The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science), I found out that in 1927, there were 2000 licensed professional boxers who lived in New York State. 2000!
It went down a little bit in the forties when fighters were drafted into the army and so on, but there were still by 1946 about 500 licensed boxers. However, today, and over the past 10 years, there have never been rarely more than 150 licensed professional boxes in New York State. Compare that to 2000. There were dozens of licensed fight clubs that were small arenas within a 10 mile radius of Times Square. Today, we don’t have any, actually, in New York. We have fight shows that take place, maybe once a month, twice a month throughout the state. But, the activity is much less. But getting back to the heyday, there were so many boxers and there were so many trainers and there was a lot of knowledge that was being passed on to men like Whitey Bimstein, Freddie Brown, you know and then – that’s the way it was.”
When boxing first started to decline from its Golden Age:
“One of my friends, a great historian named Bill Goodman brought this to my attention. He said that the decline of boxing, the beginning, he says, I’ll tell you the date. I said, what a date? (He said the) actual date is December 7, 1941. He says when Pearl Harbor was bombed that changed the sport. Does it change everything because what you had at that time, of course, you had many fighters act to fight as being drafted into the Army or volunteering to go into the Armed Forces. And in fact, four world champions froze their titles because they were in the Armed Forces, Army, Navy Marines. And, that was half of the weight divisions.
So the promoters had to scramble for fighters to fill cards and, and fill arenas. So a lot of club fighters who normally wouldn’t get a main event were promoted to main events because there were less fighters around. Okay. And you still have some great fighters around, but there were a lot of the contenders and champions in the service. So what happened was that these club fighters began to fill cards and the audience, by the way, boxing was popular during the war. People were looking for a diversion, looking for entertainment. So, the arenas were being filled because people wanted just to take their mind off things would come to the fights, but they wouldn’t see the quality of the fights.
So what you had was some of these club fighters and club fights are an entertainment. They’re good, but a lot of the fighters don’t measure up in terms of the quality of the best fighters. But the audience got used to it. The audience got used to that type of action. And, the stylists, the ones who would stand back and jab your head off and move around. They gave way to the fighters. I’ll give you an example. For the first time, the promoters thought of putting on the posters, so-and-so throws punches from bell-to-bell.
So there used to be more appreciation for the technique and the science, which is understandable. You got the audience becoming excited about a Beau Jack or a Rocky Graziano. who was active during the war. And so that’s what they began to get used to. And this sort of lasted beyond the war years. However, you still had great fighters. But the fighters who were being developed in the post-war years began, you know, the numbers of great fighters began to diminish. And later when television became very popular in the 1950s and people could watch boxing five nights a week, sometimes six nights a week. And the great boxers appearing for free on TV, the local clubs, the local arenas couldn’t compete with that.
So many of the local boxing clubs went out of business. And this was boxing’s farm system for developing new talent. So that combined to affect the sport and because the local arenas were going out of business, the trainers were not getting as much work as they had in the past. Even some managers, there were fewer fighters because of the GI bill. Many fighters coming out, who survived the war, many men who survived the war, who might have taken up boxing as a means to employment now had many other opportunities because of the GI bill and the boom post-war economy.
So all this combined: television, closing of the clubs, booming post-war economy, the GI bill, which gave not only a chance for college education, but also technical training. So, where you had used to have a lot of Jewish, Irish and Italian boxers, now they were leaving the sport. But who were the population that wasn’t getting those benefits just yet, were the African American and Hispanic fighters who still had a lot of opportunities closed off to them. So they became the major players in the sport.”
His list of fights from the Golden Age of boxing that demonstrate how high level boxing should look:
“You can find this on YouTube. I implore people to go to this fight. Ike Williams vs. Enrique Bolanos, You’ll see boxing there. You may never see this type of boxing ever again. It’s a little fuzzy, the film, but you’ll see what they’re doing. It’s not the full fight. It’s about 15 or 20 minutes of it, but you’ll get the idea. Beautiful, beautiful stylistic boxing of two masters. Another one I like is Barney Ross. One of my favorite fighters, in his fight against Billy Petrolle. The Fargo Express. A great fighter. One of the top fighters who never won a world title. Let me think. Well, I believe it’s on YouTube (another one) is Harold Johnson and Willie Pastrano for the Light Heavyweight title. I mean two master boxers.
Another fight, it’s an old time fight, two of my favorite fighters, is Tony Canzoneri and Kid Chocolate – their magnificent fight. You’ll see. It’s just incredible. And, it was a title fight. Great fight. Great fight. If you look at those fights, I encourage your audience to check them out and compare it to any fight today. I think you’ll see the difference.
Can I mention one other fight that I like? Although it was his last fight, you see the greatness that was in him and you will see the greatness of the opponent that defeated him. That’s Tony Zale against Marcel Cerdan. You see the greatness of Cerdan, but you also see Zale, who’s of course past this peak and it was his last fight. But, it’s just entertaining and you see some real, real solid boxing in that.”