Philly Gym Wars a Myth? - Boxing
By Ken Hissner, Doghouse Boxing (Sept 3, 2008)  
One of the strangest Philly gym wars goes back to the 20’s when my good friend Joe Shannon, a 1920 Olympic alternate and well known Philly lightweight told me one of his favorites.

Seems a New England middleweight was preparing in Philadelphia Jack O’Brien’s gym to fight a Philly boxer. He was running the sparring partners out of the ring. He started yelling “is that all you got here?” The gym owner and former world light heavyweight champ, O’Brien, was well past his prime but volunteered to get in with this tough and boisterous fighter. Shannon stopped O’Brien from entering the ring and volunteered to go in. He thought “I can run circles around this guy even though he is 25 pounds heavier.” It seems the loud pug from New England wasn’t interested in a track meet. Meanwhile in the other ring a boxer stopped shadow boxing long enough to take notice to the visitor’s challenges. “Need some work buddy,” said this boxer. “Yeah I need some work. You want some of this?” said the visitor.

The accommodating fighter proceeded to beat the hell out of the New England boxer to the point he partially ripped one of his ears that would cause a postponement of his fight. Shannon follows his new hero into the dressing room and says “thanks buddy for doing that for me.” To this he replied “I didn’t do that for you kid. A guy like that doesn’t deserve to be in boxing.” He then stuck out his hand introducing himself saying “I’m Harry Greb, glad to meet you kid.” Yes, the former world middleweight champ, and one of the best pound for pound fighters that ever lived. The “Pittsburgh Windmill” as he was called was the only fighter to defeat heavyweight champion Gene Tunney.

There have been many others to follow from those Philly gym wars. It kept many from becoming champs and for those it didn’t, a short title reign followed. Joey Giardello won the middleweight title from Nigerian Dick Tiger in 1963 and his only successful defense was defeating Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in 1964 before losing to Tiger in 1965.

Heavyweight champ Charles “Sonny” Liston won and defended his title with knockouts over Floyd Patterson in 1962 and 1963. Then he lost it in one of the biggest upsets in boxing to Cassius Clay, aka Muhammad Ali in 1964.

“Terrible” Tim Witherspoon was a two time heavyweight champ, winning the WBC in 1984 over Greg Page before losing it to Pinklon Thomas the same year. In 1986 he won the WBA title over Tony Tubbs. He could only defend the WBA title successfully in mid 1986 over Frank Bruno before losing it later that year to James “Bonecrusher” Smith.

Olympic Gold Medalist and Light middleweight champ David Reid won the title in 1999. Reid’s loss a year later in 2000 to Felix “Tito” Trinidad ruined his career. Light Welterweight champion Freddie Pendleton won the title in 1993 and lost it 13 months later after but one successful defense. Olympic champion Meldrick Taylor won both the light welter and welterweight titles defending both a total of 5 times. Both Pendleton and Taylor would never be the same. Though fighting on for years both ended up embarrassing themselves losing more than winning.

Johnny Jadick won the light welterweight title over Tony Cazoneri in 1932 and defended it against him for his lone defense before losing it to Battling Shaw in 1933.

Three champions were not able to make a successful defense. Gary Hinton won the light welter title in 1986. He was stopped in his first defense and retired in 1989. Charley “Choo Choo” Brown won the lightweight title in 1984 before losing the title just 3 months later. His career ended losing 15 of his last 18 fights. Buster Drayton, light middleweight champion won his title in 1986 over Carlos Santos. He defended it two times including a win over Davey Moore before losing it in 1987 to Matthew Hilton.

One of the few to end his career do to injury was light middleweight champion Rob “Bam Bam” Hines. He defeated Canada’s Hilton who had beaten Drayton, in November of 1988 and lost the title 3 months later. In June of 1990 after a loss to Brett Lally he retired due to hand injuries. Both Witherspoon and Hines are successful trainers today.

Even though Philadelphia Jack O’Brien never defended his light heavyweight title he won in 1905 over Bob Fitzsimmons, he later fought draws in heavyweight title bouts with Tommy Burns in 1906 and Jack Johnson in 1909.

That’s 10 Philly world champions with but a total of 13 title defenses. This compared to Bernard Hopkins who at the age of 43 has 20 title defenses behind him, but losing 3 of his last 5 fights.

Other champions who despite tough gym wars that made at least 3 defenses were both “Smokin” Joe Frazier and light heavyweight champion Harold Johnson whom had 4 defenses. Light heavyweight champ Matthew Saad Muhammad had 8 defenses. Bantamweight champ Jeff Chandler had 7 defenses. Light heavyweight champion Tommy Loughran had 5 defenses. Super middleweight champion Charles Brewer had 3 defenses. Today he is a trainer and writer.

There have been some Philly fighters good enough to be champions but may have had too many gym wars not to obtain it. Some that come to mind are “Bad” Bennie Briscoe, “Gypsy” Joe Harris, Tyrone Everett, George Benton, Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts, Eugene “Cyclone” Hart, Willie “The Worm” Monroe, Tyrone “Butterfly” Crawley, Garnett “Sugar” Hart, Wesley Mouzon, Lew Tendler, Bob Montgomery (NYASC title), Percy Bassett (world Duration title) and Leotis Martin to name a few.

I have walked out of gyms even today thinking “they could have sold tickets to the sparring session”. There’s something about those Philly gym wars.

Ken at:

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