Wisdom comes in all shapes and sizes and inhabits all professions.
“Ring sense is an art, a gift from God that flows out of a fighter like a great painting flows out of an artist, or a great book flows out of an author,” the hall of fame trainer Ray Arcel once said. “Ring sense is a natural ability to cope with any situation in a fight. It cannot be taught.”
Ray Arcel was born to Russian-Jewish immigrants in Terre Haute, Indiana on August 30, 1899. Arcel's mother died when he was four and his father moved the family from the Midwest to the mean streets of turn of the century New York, first to the Lower East Side and then to Harlem.
Arcel trained to be a boxer at Grupp's Gymnasium on 116th Street and Eighth Avenue for the same reason people train to be boxers today. “The important part of boxing is not that youngsters realize their dreams, but that they can dream,” Arcel said. “Every day in the gym they’re something special. They’re a fighter.”
At Grupp’s Arcel came under the tutelage of two fine boxing trainers: Dai Dolling and Frank “Doc” Bagley. Dolling, a Welshman who worked with Harry Wills, Johnny Genaro, Jack Britton, Johnny Dundee and Ted “Kid” Lewis, taught that each fighter was an individual and must be trained accordingly. Bagley, who once managed Gene Tunney, taught Ray the fine art of being a cutman.
Ray Arcel trained his first champion, the ace flyweight Frankie Genaro, in 1923. The next year Ray seconded Abe Goldstein when he fought and defeated Joe Lynch for the bantamweight title.
Those were the days. Boxing was the sport of sports. Jack Dempsey was heavyweight champ. “A Dempsey fight was magic,” Arcel remembered. “The minute he walked into the ring you could see smoke rising from the canvas.”
Arcel joined forces with another brilliant trainer named Whitey Bimstein in 1925, a partnership which lasted a decade. Their base of operations was Stillman’s Gym, aka The University of Eighth Avenue, a dump just spitting distance from the Garden. Arcel remembered it well: “There were more thieves in Stillman’s Gym than in the penitentiary.”
Together with Bimstein or as an independent, Arcel was cornerman to such legendary talents as Henry Armstrong, Jack Kid Berg, Lou Brouillard, Cerefino Garcia, Sixto Escobar, Kid Gavilan, Benny Leonard, Charley Phil Rosenberg, Barney Ross and Tony Zale.
The first heavyweight Arcel trained was James J. Braddock for his fight with Joe Louis in 1937. Over the years, Arcel trained fifteen members of the Joe Louis Bum-of-the-Month Club, a Who’s Who of horizontal fighters who got bombed by the Brown Bomber.
“As soon as the bell rang,” Arcel said, “they folded like tulips.”
In 1950 Arcel trained Ezzard Charles for his successful challenge to Joe Louis for the heavyweight crown.
Ray Arcel could take a great fighter, perform his magic, and make a great fighter even greater. But he also had a mouth that would not quit. Because of his honesty, integrity and outspoken contempt for boxing’s seamier elements, Arcel made enemies in and out of the sport.
“Boxing had glamour,” he observed. “Oh, sure, we had scoundrels in those days, but they were clever scoundrels.”
In the early 1950s Arcel began arranging fights for ABC-TV. Unfortunately a rival network with close ties in to the IBC (International Boxing Club), being run by Frankie Carbo and James Norris, felt the pinch and Ray Arcel was a marked man. He was assaulted with a lead pipe outside a Boston Hotel in 1953 and suffered serious head injuries. Arcel retired from boxing for twenty years.
“Money is the sickness of the boxing business,” he said. “Maybe the sickness of the world.”
Arcel returned to boxing in 1972 and began a productive eight year relationship with Roberto Duran. Arcel trained Duran for his victory over Sugar Ray Leonard in their first meeting in 1980, but he gave up on Duran after the infamous rematch. That night it was “No mas” for Duran against Leonard. It was also “No mas” Duran for Ray Arcel.
Arcel said after the fight: “Nobody quits in my corner.”
There were a million excuses for Duran’s non-performance that night, everything from a tummy ache to heart disease. “You mean to tell me Duran has a heart condition?” asked Arcel. “He doesn’t even have a heart.”
Ray Arcel continued to train fighters. He worked with Larry Holmes, seconding the champ in his fight with Gerry Cooney in 1982.
“You’re only as good as the fighter you work with. I don’t care how much you know,” Arcel said, “if your fighter can’t fight, you’re another bum in the park.”
Fighting is the thing and one had better be in shape, but boxing is a also a mind game.
“When you lose your head, you lose the best part of your body.”
Ray Arcel was one of the greatest cornermen in the history of the game. He trained over 2000 boxers. He trained twenty world champions.
“I never considered myself a trainer,” Arcel said. “I considered myself a teacher.”
Ray Arcel died on March 7, 1994, an eloquent, compassionate, knowledgeable man lost to boxing and the world.