SecondsOut.com - By John Wharton: Many people will agree, a nickname is easy to come by
but difficult to shrug off...just ask ‘Skidmark Mooney’ from my junior
school days. In sport, however, a nickname can encapsulate just who you
are and what you do, and one sport in which it is seemingly essential to
have one is boxing. Some nicknames are meant to make an opponent
tremble; others are less intimidating but nonetheless represent what
kind of fighter you are.
Nicknames were a part of the game
pre-Queensberry Rules, and one of the most famous champions of that era
was William ‘Bendigo’ Thompson. The nickname came about because of his
middle-name, Abednego, and his other nickname, ‘Bendy’, due to the agile
nature of his boxing stance. This evolved into ‘Bendigo’.
colourful character from that era was John ‘Old Smoke’ Morrissey, who
was a member of one of New York’s Five Points famous gangs, the Dead
Rabbits. Morrissey earned his nickname during a fight with a rival gang
member Tom McCann. Morrissey found himself pinned on his back on top of a
pile of burning coals left by an overturned stove. Morrissey managed to
overpower McCann and beat him senseless, despite the agony and the
smoke rising up from his burned back.
1867 saw the introduction
of the Queensbury Rules, and the use of nicknames continued. John L
Sullivan, the first heavyweight champion, had the nickname ‘The Boston
Strong Boy’, and the man who eventually dethroned him, James J Corbett,
was known as ‘Gentleman Jim’ due to his rumoured college education. The
difference in personality between the two men could not have been wider.
Sullivan was reputed to be a racist who refused to fight black
fighters, and he certainly did refuse to give Commonwealth Champion
Peter Jackson a title shot. Corbett, meanwhile, fought Jackson to a 61
round draw in 1891. This was the era of the Jim Crow Laws in the USA,
and boxing was no different. The nicknames reflected this less tolerant
age and Jackson himself was known as ‘The Black Prince’. Canadian
heavyweight Sam Langford was known by the abhorrent nickname of ‘The
Boston Tar Baby’ and nicknames of this ilk continued into the 20th
century with ‘The Brown Bomber’ - former heavyweight champion Joe Louis -
and ‘The Dark Destroyer’ - world middle and super middleweight champion
The 1930’s and 1940’s was a golden era, with boxers
such as Joe Louis, Ray Robinson, Archie Moore, and Henry Armstrong all
fighting regularly. In this time before TV, boxing was broadcast on the
radio, and the era is defined by the unmistakable tones of Don Dunphy.
Dunphy’s commentary was so rich and detailed that you could smell the
smoke and sweat, and feel the punches as they landed. If it was a golden
era for the sport, it was also a golden era for boxing writing. The
greats AJ Liebling and Bud Schulberg were plying their trade, and so in
many ways it is fitting this era gave us some of the greatest boxing
nicknames of all time.
Henry Armstrong, a fighter who held three
world titles at the same time - featherweight, lightweight and
welterweight - had the intimidating and apt nickname of ‘Homicide Hank’
as he had knocked out 101 of his 150 victims. The great Willie Pep, with
his classy and slick style, earned himself the nickname of ‘Will O’ The
Wisp’, and in one fight Pep won a round without landing a single punch.
Boxing in those days was not the complicated, jumbled mess it
is now - nowadays, there are seventeen divisions and upwards of seventy
world champions, but back then there were only eight weight divisions
and eight world champions. Nicknames served to set a fighter apart from
his rivals. Walker Smith of Detroit became Ray Robinson when he tried to
enter a boxing tournament at the age of fourteen and was told he needed
to be sixteen to acquire an Amateur Athletic Union Card. Smith overcame
this obstacle by borrowing his friend Ray Robinson’s card, and a few
years later his future manager George Gainford Smith Junior would
complete the name when he told young Robinson that his style was ‘as
sweet as sugar’ – boxing was given one of its most iconic nicknames and a
legend was born.
Robinson’s nemesis, Jake La Motta, had the
nickname ‘The Bronx Bull’ due to his aggressive fighting style. In one
fight with Robinson, on 14th February 1951, he was stopped in round 13,
beaten so badly that many boxing writers refer to the fight as the St
Valentine’s Day Massacre. The fight was immortalised in the movie
‘Raging Bull’, and when referee Frank Sikora stepped in to stop the
fight La Motta reputedly said to Robinson ‘you never put me down Ray!’
nicknames were less inspired - former middleweight champion Rocky
Graziano took the obvious nickname of ‘Rock’. A man whom he fought three
times - former steel worker Tony Zale from Gary, Indiana - took the
more creative nickname of ‘The Man of Steel’. Archie Moore, the light
heavyweight world champion who fought both Rocky Marciano and Cassius
Clay, had the nickname ‘The Mongoose’, due to the speed of his reflexes.
Heavyweights of the 1950’s and 1960’s have also provided us
with some colourful nicknames. Ezzard Charles was known as ‘The
Cincinnati Cobra’, whilst Rocky Marciano had the nickname ‘The Brockton
Blockbuster’. Sweden’s first and only heavyweight champion, Ingemar
Johansson, was nicknamed ‘Thor’ - a reference to his Scandinavian
origins - whilst Sonny Liston was known as ‘The Bear’.
sixties progressed, a non-so shy or modest fighter burst onto the scene
after winning a gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics under the name of
Cassius Marcellus Clay. After winning the world heavyweight title in
1964, he legally changed his name to Muhammad Ali. The nickname this
young man chose for himself modestly, ‘The Greatest’, and in hindsight
it is difficult to argue with this claim. One man whose name was to
become synonymous with Ali was Philadelphia heavyweight Joe Frazier, who
took the nickname ‘Smokin’. His three fights with Ali are widely
regarded as the greatest heavyweight fights of all time.
the 1960’s and 1970’s nicknames were not the sole dominion of the big
men. Philadelphia middleweight Bennie Briscoe became ‘Bad Bennie
Briscoe’; Carlos Monzon, the Argentine world middleweight champion, was
nicknamed ‘Escopeta’, which translates from Spanish as shotgun; and
Cuban born - Mexican based Jose Napoles’ smooth boxing style earned him
the nickname ‘Mantequilla’, or ‘butter’ in English. Not the most
intimidating of nicknames but one that seemed to suit his style
One boxer and his nickname even became the subject of a Bob Dylan song,
written about his miscarriage of justice using his nickname as its
title. Eventually, thanks to a long campaign, Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter
was released in 1985 after serving 19 years for a murder he did not
commit. Denzel Washington starred in the 1999 film titled ‘The
Hurricane’, which was about the life of Rubin Carter. In the 1970’s a
quartet of fighters emerged who would entertain so many boxing fans for
the best part of the next twenty years.
Marvin Hagler was so
enamoured of his nickname, ‘Marvellous’, that in 1982 when TV
commentators failed to refer to him as ‘Marvellous Marvin’ often enough,
he went and had his name changed to it, legally! 1976 Olympic gold
medallist Ray Leonard, who charmed the American public by strapping a
photo of his childhood sweetheart Juanita on his boots, borrowed a
nickname from his idol ‘Sugar Ray Robinson’ and became ‘Sugar Ray
Leonard’, and his adversary Roberto Duran, the Panamanian four weight
world champion, had the legendary nickname of ‘Manos De Piedra’ or
‘Hands of Stone’ in English. The final member of the quartet that made
the 1970’s and 1980’s a memorable era for boxing was Detroit’s Thomas
Hearns, who during his career earned two nicknames. The most famous one
was of course ‘The Hitman’, but the one I prefer was the lesser used
‘Motor City Cobra’.
As the years progressed the quality of
nicknames declined, although notable exceptions were the Jamaican Mike
McCallum, whose wicked body punching earned him the nickname of ‘The
Bodysnatcher’, and Bernard Hopkins of Philadelphia, who was nicknamed
‘The Executioner’ and used to enter the ring with a leather executioners
hood over his face. Heavyweight legend Mike Tyson had the prefix
‘Iron’, whilst Texan welterweight Donald Curry was known as ‘The Cobra’.
James Toney was known as ‘Lights Out’ – a fitting title, to which
anyone who has seen his brutal knockout of Michael Nunn will testify.
the time we entered the early 1990’s, nicknames were becoming clichéd
and less original, numerous Hitmans, and countless Cobras. Britain’s
Chris Eubank plumped for ‘Simply the Best’, certainly an ill fitting
nickname after his fights with Ray Close and Dan Sherry.
heavyweight division these days is testament to the sad decline of
nicknames. Recent nicknames of heavyweight champions and contenders have
included ‘Dr Steelhammer’ and ‘Dr Ironfist’, belonging to Wladimir and
Vitali Klitschko respectively; whilst former WBA heavyweight champions
Nikolai Valuev and John Ruiz were known as ‘The Beast From The East’ and
‘The Quiet Man’. British heavyweights are not exempt from this current
trend, with former Olympic gold medallist Audley Harrison using the
utterly dull ‘A-Force’, and the former WBA heavyweight champion David
Haye using the obvious and empty ‘Hayemaker’.
Maybe the decline
in quality of fighters is linked to the decline in quality of nicknames –
and perhaps somewhere there is a new champion ‘Master of Disaster,
‘Count of Monte Fisto’, ‘Italian Stallion’ waiting to take their place
in the pantheon of great boxing nicknames.