|Gabe Oppenheim steps into the Dog House
By David Tyler, Doghouse Boxing (Dec 19, 2014)
A sportswriter, a boxing expert, and now Gabe has written the definitive book on Philidelphia boxing. Tales of Struggle and Survival, Boxing in Philadelphia. Please welcome Gabe into the Dog House…
David Tyler: What prompted you to write a book about boxing in Philadelphia?
Gabe Oppenheim: I met a 75-year-old former boxing trainer during my first week of college. His stories about his life in the sport were so interesting that even after I wrote a little school newspaper column about him, I kept returning to his brownstone stoop and rundown old apartment to listen to more. By sophomore year, I had the idea that there was a book in all these tales -- not about this trainer, not exactly, but about the world to which he had introduced me.
DT: The stories about Jimmy Young were very touching. There must have been so many stories, how did you decide which ones to include in the book?
GO: Thank you so much. I included Jimmy because people talk about the great '70s heavyweights but rarely mention Young-- whose spirit was crushed because of the way boxing and his mob manager stole from him what should've been the triumphant moments of his life (victories against Ali, Shavers and Norton that were all judged to be losses) and he was then left a broken man, psychically if not physically.
That story -- of greatness constantly snatched away, always nearby but never reached -- seemed like a paradigm for a lot of Philly fighters' careers. Young stayed in while others were cut from the book because his story played out against the backdrop of a relatively-recent decade of heavyweight boxing. Even non-boxing people know the name Ali. I wanted to say, hey, Philly had a guy who schooled Ali -- and it wasn't just Frazier, either. It was a way in for the regular reader.
DT: Of course Meldrick Taylor takes some space in your book. What is it about his story that impressed you?
GO: It's like the Jimmy Young story, but taken to a greater extreme. How close was this guy to being at the top of the mountain? Two seconds. Two seconds more -- if Richard Steele doesn't stop that fight and the seconds pass and the bell rings to end the whole bout -- and Meldrick Taylor instantly is one of the greatest champions ever. And it was taken from him. The ref, the people who controlled things, they couldn't let him have those two seconds.
Would he have not become so damaged from the sport had they let him reach its peak? Impossible to say -- and considering how much damage Chavez inflicted on him in that one fight, he might've been just as physically diminished going forward. The spiral of his physical demise had already been set in motion, likely. But that man deserved his moment. We like to say, in boxing and life, if we're gonna go down, we're gonna do it swinging. Meldrick might've fallen anyway, in his career, but he deserved that accolade, those belts, that tiny window of complete and utter triumph. After that fight, Chavez was lifted onto his seconds' shoulders. That was Meldrick's airspace. And afterward, he'd never have the chance to go back there. Everyone knew it, in a way, right then and there.
I have to give credit to Marcus Hayes here -- he wrote a piece for the Philadelphia Daily News in 1996 about the punch-drunk fighters roaming Philly's streets. Meldrick and Jimmy Young were both mentioned, and I can't recall exactly when I saw the article, but I think it played a part in my developing the idea of doing parallel chapters on Meldrick and Jimmy.
DT: In your book you discuss some of the many Philadelphia boxing club back in the day. I’ve heard about the “boxing club wars” and the fact that some fighters were more concerned about their club rankings than their national rankings. Can you tell our readers about the “boxing club wars”?
GO: Wars within clubs are more commonly known as "gym wars." They were essentially full-on fights that arose in the gym either because fighters within the same stable disliked each other or because a sparring session had just grown too intense to be kept to a certain level of physicality (and that could happen among friends) or because a number of fighters were plying their trade at the same weight class and felt a kind of animal need to discover who was the best at that weight or because a group of South Philly fighters had entered a North Philly gym, or vice-versa, and the rival neighborhoods wanted to see which had the better crop of talent.
You have to remember that when gym wars were at their peak -- say, from the 40's-'70s -- the money to be made from sanctioned fights in the outside world was relatively minimal. So the cost of giving up so much of oneself in the gym was little compared to what a current fighter might have to forgo if he got busted up in an essentially free, closed-door bout. Not only that, but many boxers outside of Philly had heard tales of Philly kids' gym exploits and refused to fight them. So if Philly kids couldn't school punks from the outside world, what choice did they have but to go to work on each other? Or so the fight crowd reasoned.
That said, over the decades, trainers began pulling the plug on sparring sessions that got too heated -- and they became suspicious of any promoter or manager who encouraged intra-city rivalries. Because Philly trainers began to think their charges were ultimately losing on the national stage when they finally arrived because they were too drained from wars back home. In a way, it was a perfect strategy for a New York or Baltimore fighter -- avoid the Philly guy at all costs until he's a shell of himself.
But to go back to the original explanation -- take the case of fighters all plowing through the same division. That's what created such great tension in the '70s, when four of the world's best middleweights trained in the same Philly gyms. They were Boogaloo Watts, Cyclone Hart, Willie "The Worm" Monroe and Bennie Briscoe. And the most mythical gym war spoken of today is the one between Hart and Briscoe in the summer of 1975 -- it's said to be more brutal -- suffused with more heart, guts and spirit -- than their two official fights.
But that is ultimately what gives gym wars mystique -- only those who were really there will ever know for sure.
DT: We have all heard the term “he is a Philadelphia fighter” … after researching the history of Philadelphia fighters, what does that term mean to you?
GO: People usually assume that the term refers merely to the toughness of the fighter -- that if he's from Philly, he is battle-tested and hardened. That he has great heart and a willingness to go out on his shield, since he has emerged from that competitive, rough city. And to me, "Philadelphia fighter" does denote all that, but also this: he comes from a place where the craft has been passed down for more than 100 years now, a place where some of the oldest and wisest boxing tricks are still deployed (though much has been lost). To me, the purest Philadelphia fighter is the one who has every bit of skill required to out-think you, out-maneuver you, out-box you -- and yet still may, in, say, the fourth round, throw a windmill right and begin a brawl. Not because he has to. But because he wants to, it's in his blood, he's a Philadelphia effing fighter.
DT: Let’s switch gears for a moment. Boxing books have historically been a tough sell. Who would you describe as being the target audience for your book?
GO: I tried to write a book that's as much about boxers -- about humans striving to make it in a tough city-- as it is about combat itself. My hope has always been for a crossover audience -- boxing fans, absolutely, but also those who care about the fate of society's hardest workers and the plight of formerly prosperous American manufacturing cities in desperate need of reinvention.
Getting those mainstream nonfiction readers is another matter entirely -- but from the start, I wanted to, which is why the chapters take such varying tacks -- one profiles a fighter, another describes the type of labor Philly provided workers, a third is about deaths in and out of the boxing community in Philly...
DT: Gabe, as a young man you bring a different perspective of the boxing culture. What are your thoughts about the boxing currently being featured on television?
GO: I think boxing has gained ground in the US since I began work on this book about a decade ago. Showtime has a more varied schedule -- when I started Showtime's best fights seemed always to take place in the lower divisions (and then they added the Super Six, which didn't quite work out, but gave us Andre Ward, which is reason enough to be thankful). HBO, following the Golden Boy defection to Showtime, had to dig deeper for stars and wound up with an international stable of impossibly talented fighters -- Kovalev from Russia, Rigondeaux from Cuba, Golovkin from Kazakhstan.
NBCSN has become a great stage for boxers who have been overlooked -- who are trying to work their way into the public consciousness shot by shot. Bryant Jennings, the Philly heavyweight, leveraged his relentless, strong-willed combinations on NBCSN into a potential match with Klitschko. There are as many Spanish-language telecasts in the US as ever. Now, Fox Sports 1 has a boxing series.
And in a way, the internecine war that split boxing into two camps, HBO/Top Rank and Showtime/Golden Boy, while very stupid and self-defeating in the short run, is now yielding rewards at its conclusion. Because now both sides have developed legitimate contenders at most weights -- and they're going to have to face each other (at least some will -- scared camps will always duck a guy they fear, but I do think a lot of fighters stuck on one side of the rift wanted to test their mettle against those in the opposite faction, and now they'll have a chance, and the money will be there, too). That's the prospect that excites me the most now.
DT: What current fighters would be included on your list of future stars in boxing and will boxing ever regain its status as a top sport?
GO: It'd odd that there has been an influx of perfectly powerful, technical fighters from the Eastern bloc -- more than 20 years after the Wall fell. You'd think those fighters schooled in the old Soviet academies would've emerged when the Soviet Union fell. I'm sure there's a reason for the lag, but I don't know it. I'm just glad to have Provodnikov, GGG, the Krusher, Vasyl Lomachenko in the pro ranks. This adds a whole new wrinkle to the debate over the outcome of a potential Ali-Teofilo Stevenson fight back in the day. Can you imagine if there had also been massive, talented Soviet heavyweights in the mix? The sport would've been so much more competitive and fascinating -- and so I think it is now, in a way.
No, I don't think boxing will ever recover its status in America as one of the top three sports (it used to be accompanied by baseball and horse racing and neither of those will ever be the same either). But if the fights have taught us anything in the last few years, it's that boxing can thrive without a complete US comeback -- because the rest of the world has picked up the slack. For years, Argentina was known for having produced the middleweight Carlos Monzon (there were others, but he was king). Now, Argentina is a hotbed of talent -- every card brings us another hard-punching Argentine warrior -- Maidana, Matthyse, Abregu and on. Suddenly, hailing from Argentina is a marker of status.
So on a global level, the sport is crawling with more matchups and intrigues than ever. The fight fan's superfight right now because of their contrasting styles but mutual excellence is Golovkin-Ward anywhere from 160-168. The technical geek's dream is Lomachenko-Rigondeaux at 126.
You can't force-feed the future. It's great that China has a name on the world stage now in Zou Shiming, but he won't be the first great Chinese fighter. We don't know that guy's name yet -- but we will, he'll emerge organically.
DT: Any hope for the fighters here in America?
GO: I do see two things, One, how far can Terrence Crawford push himself and his talents. And two, is Deontay Wilder that long-awaited football player-turned boxer who can stand up to the Europeans? And if not, who is -- because someone is coming -- there are too many good athletes in America whose size can match Wlad's. I've always said, it'd be an amazing thing if Dwight Howard had trained from a young age to be a boxer because he has the perfect boxer build -- wide shoulders, long arms -- stretched over a 7-foot frame. The terminal velocity on his punches would've been as wicked as it gets.
And this is where I say boxing is like a soap opera -- you can kill off characters but they come back, you can cancel the series but somehow it survives, you can reach a conclusion and suddenly there's a new plot altogether. There's never finality in boxing. Each day brings a new champ, a deposed champ, a venal sanctioning body rewarding three champs at once. It's enough to drive a team sports fan nuts. But if you can live with the uncertainty, the constant churn, the lack of a proper crowning or ceremony at year's end, you're rewarded by more action and drama than an HBO Sunday night series.
And if by some miracle, John McCain and Teddy Atlas manage to get legislation passed that cleans up the sport, appoints a federal overseer and takes judges to task for awful scoring, the hell with the uncertainty -- I'd be on-board with one aim: to identify the true champ in each division.
Either way, there will be something to watch.
***David Tyler replies to all his e-mails and loves to hear from the readers. Comments, Questions, Suggestions, E-mail David now at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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