Listening to Bernard Hopkins attempting to outdo Howard Eastman with apocalyptic descriptions of his early life in the ghetto, I was reminded of my friendship with the late Jack “Kid” Berg, unofficial light-welterweight champion of the world in the early 1930s and first conqueror of the legendary and previously unbeaten Cuban, Kid Chocolate.
I am sure Hopkins’ upbringing was as hard as he says, but equally certain that in his own early life Berg suffered privations that Hopkins could not hold a candle to. Moreover, in the three years of our rather bizarre friendship, I certainly never heard Berg complain about it once. Born Judah Bergman in Odessa, Russia, in 1909, the son of a Rabbi, Berg emigrated to London’s East End as an infant. He lived in a tenement with no hot water, bathroom or heating and had little, if any, formal education to speak of. Gentile gangs attempted to beat the daylights out of him on a regular basis. Living an independent, urchin life straight from the pages of Oliver, Berg survived by picking pockets and removing men’s hats by stringing cotton across streets at head level. Berg would retrieve the hats and the men, grateful and unsuspecting, would tip him a shilling.
Berg showed me around that tenement in the late 1980s, when it was inhabited by Bangladeshi families. Apparently a statue of him has now been put up nearby, but I have not seen it. He made his professional debut when just 14 years old, at a time when boy boxers were commonplace and the hero of Jewish and indeed British boxing was Ted “Kid” Lewis, from whom Berg took his moniker. Many of his early bouts took place at backstreet venues with names like Premierland and Wonderland. Berg also showed me round what remained of Premierland, by then a disused warehouse in London’s City district with weeds growing out of its window frames.
Berg could not believe the state it had got into, nor that Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis was not still around somewhere nearby. A highly intelligent and, it has to be said, crafty man when necessary, almost like an 80-year-old Just William character when I met him, Berg was in a certain amount of denial about his age, and tended to think he was still 25 years old, particularly when it came to women.
Berg was barely 20 when he snapped the long unbeaten run of Kid Chocolate at the Polo Grounds in Harlem in June 1930, in what was a huge, if forgotten, fight. He received a purse of $66,000, a massive payday at the time, and one that set him up for life. The junior-welterweight title was not widely recognized, however, and in Berg’s biggest opportunity, a challenge for the world lightweight title against Tony Canzoneri in Chicago Stadium in April 1931, he gave perhaps the worst performance of his career, losing in three rounds and barely landing a blow. In truth, quite apart from the obstacle of the formidable Canzoneri, Berg was severely weight-drained, the lightweight limit by then a step too far for his 5ft 9in frame. That is what the record books say, anyway. I am not so sure about that figure for his height. Jack was quite vain about it and had concealed insteps inside the Cuban heels he wore.
He was quite something to look at. After retiring from boxing, he became a movie stuntman, working mainly in Westerns. This gave him a wardrobe for life, and he was seldom without a bootlace tie. He smoked cigars incessantly – Optimos that were sent to him from New York.
All his defeats apart from Canzoneri, Berg put down to the effects of womanising, which he believed weakened his legs, but which he said he couldn’t resist. He was particularly defiant about his defeat by Billy Petrolle, who had him down seven times – but only because, Berg insisted, “I was messing around with this particular broad.” Most of his big fights took place in the United States, and he had a penchant for the American vernacular. He finished boxing in 1946 at the age of 35, with an extraordinary record of 157 victories (with 61 knockouts), 26 losses, and nine draws. Known for his prodigious punch-rate, Berg’s moniker was “The Whitechapel Windmill” or, in America, “Whirlwind.”
He was managed by Frankie Jacobs and trained by the late Ray Arcel, that most distinguished and honourable of trainers, who saw off the Mob in the form of Frankie Carbo et al and regarded Berg as almost a son and his favourite fighter, even though Arcel trained many other champions, including Roberto Duran. Berg had arrived in his custody off a boat from England in 1928, when he was 18 and, according to Arcel, “Looked like a little girl.” Arcel was soon disabused of such notions. “Not only could he fight,” Arcel once recalled. “But he thought he was God’s gift to the ladies. You had to watch him like a hawk.”
I first met Berg through a publican and former professional bantamweight named Gary Davidson, who used to run the Thomas A’Beckett on the Old Kent Road, a famous boxing pub in South London and very much in fight game territory. Davidson was one of the good guys, which is saying something in life, let alone in boxing. Tragically he was taken prematurely by motor-neurone disease while barely in middle age, but at great expense had made the Beckett into a worthy shrine to the Noble Art. The last time I looked it was empty and virtually derelict, but then it was thriving.
Davidson had commissioned a giant painting of all Britain’s world champions, and Berg was the only one I didn’t recognize. Davidson soon put me right, saying, “With no disrespect to the others, that is the greatest fighter this country has produced.”
Most of my meetings with Jack started off at his large house in West London, where he lived with his wife Morya, a striking-looking woman, and ended up somewhere in Soho. Despite his age Berg was still an active driver in his little red car, which he drove extremely aggressively, indeed specialising in curb side confrontations. Shortly before I met him, he had been arrested for chinning another, much younger motorist, but turned up in court in a borrowed wheelchair and was let off.
Berg’s favourite place in Soho was Kettner’s, now part of a pizza chain, but in Berg’s gallivanting days a renowned brothel. Its change of usage seemed to have passed him by, leading to some interesting exchanges. I became so engrossed in Berg’s extraordinary story that I travelled to Cuba on his behalf to find Kid Chocolate, who was rumoured to be alive after years of being presumed dead. For a time there had also been a Kid Chocolate impersonator in a Chicago bar, who was rumbled when one of the real Chocolate’s former opponents walked in and asked him if he knew how to stop a punch. This “Kid Chocolate” demonstrably didn’t.
After a few days in the ruined but beautiful streets of Havana, having employed several street kids to help in the search, I was led to the house of the actual Chocolate, real name Eligio Sardinias, who at 79 was a year younger than Jack. He was a rum-sodden alcoholic but obliging, and one could not help feeling for him greatly – professional boxing had of course been banned by Fidel Castro, and Chocolate had been backed by the now despised “Americanos.” He was an unwanted symbol of an unwanted past. He lived in appalling squalor but in the same large house that his ring earnings had bought – for years it housed a famous gym, and Sugar Ray Robinson, a friend, was pictured training there in the 1950s.
Before the rum got to him Chocolate talked lucidly and remembered Berg well, but said a Cuban named Kid Charrol was the best boxer he had met. He showed me what remained of his old gown, in brown silk with “Chocolate Kid” inscribed on the back. A few weeks later he was reported dead, news which astonished Berg when I told him. “He was only a young man,” he remarked.
I also accompanied Berg to New York for the 90th birthday party of Ray Arcel. There, among a stellar cast that included Holmes, Graziano, Zale, LaMotta and Pep, as well as contemporary champions such as Breland and McGirt, Berg stole the show with an emotional speech about how much Arcel meant to him. On the way out, I was collared by an octogenarian former fighter who, pointing at Berg, announced, ‘Forget all the others. This is the guy. This guy is really the one.’
Coincidentally there was a musical named “Legs,” about the ‘30s gangster Legs Diamond, playing on Broadway at the time. Berg knew Diamond well, having once been threatened with death by him for attempting to chat up Diamond’s girlfriend at the Harding Hotel, where Berg lived one floor beneath Mae West. “We had to do a lot of fast talking to get out of it,” was Arcel’s recollection. Berg had also been au fait with Harlem nightlife, and was a regular at the Cotton Club, whose benefactor, Owney Madden (played in the movie by Bob Hoskins) had been a big Berg fan.
Perhaps unwisely, I agreed to Berg’s repeated requests to go to Harlem to inspect the Polo Grounds, even though I knew they had been demolished long ago. First we overshot and landed in South Bronx, then back in Harlem were accosted by a street gang that were disbelieving when I explained that Berg had been a former fighter.
“Oh yeah, how many KOs you have?” asked the gang leader. “Quite a few,” Berg said.
“You want me to try it?” After that the gang could not have been more helpful amid the bleak housing project that had once been the site of the Polo Grounds, even pointing out some remaining steps upon which Berg said he was convinced one of his cornerman had been stabbed on the way to the ring to face Chocolate.
I also took Berg to the Roseland Dancehall and paid 25 bucks to a rather beautiful 60-year-old Latin woman so she would dance with him. However, Berg abandoned her after one dance, saying she was too old. Then we went to Gallagher’s steak restaurant, where there was a picture of Berg up, and he showed his pick-pocketing skills were still in tact by removing the watches of about a dozen members of the Puerto Rican police force who were on a training exercise in New York. They were not pleased, even when Jack gave the watches back.
After we got back to England I began managing a fighter named “Sweet C” McMillan whom Berg took great interest in, declaring him to be the “new Kid Chocolate.” He took even more interest in a Jewish fighter called Gary “Kid” Jacobs from Scotland, a useful welterweight apparently named in the tradition of Kid Lewis and Berg. Jacobs’s management did not know what they had let themselves in for by adopting this marketing strategy. Berg trailed him like a protective bloodhound, saying “Gary is the new me.” Once in the gym when we were there, Jacobs, who was sensible enough to play along with it, asked Berg if he had any specific tips. “Lay off women before a fight,” Berg replied. “Just remember what happened with me and Billy Petrolle.”
In his last year or so Berg moved to the Essex coast. Morya died before him. So did Ray Arcel. To the end he followed his usual routines. He remained friends with Kid Lewis’ son, Morgan, to the last, believing he had a protective duty towards him, and still went to Soho. Some regarded Berg as something of a pest, but I felt the opposite. He was someone who resolutely refused to countenance the banality of ordinary life, and was determined to live a mythic one, visiting again and again its landmarks. He himself had established them, after all.
Berg was a great admirer of the young Mike Tyson, saying, “Mike’s a rough boy, like me.” He fervently believed Tyson had “come looking for him,” in a benign way, while on a British promotional tour in 1987. Maybe he had. As such, it is likely Berg would have approved of Bernard Hopkins, another “rough boy.” Berg’s was quite a life. And one I feel Hopkins would appreciate, too.