If anyone took the time to crunch the numbers and put them in perspective, they would have been astounded when 90-year-old Phil Pollack, who is believed to be the oldest living New York City Golden Gloves champion, was introduced to the crowd at that tournament’s most recent finals, which were held on April 7 at Madison Square Garden.
When Pollack was born in May 1915, Woodrow Wilson was two years into his term as President of the United States and Jack Johnson was the heavyweight champion of the world.
Twenty-one years later, when Pollack scored five knockouts, won one decision, and had two byes to win the Golden Gloves middleweight title at the old Garden, Franklin D. Roosevelt was three years into his term as President and Cinderella Man James J. Braddock had yet to lose his heavyweight title to Joe Louis.
“I was attending NYU and fighting on the side,” said Pollack, a medical marvel who is incredibly fit, trim and lucid. “In one fight, against a guy named Tom Brick, he went down four times and I went down once, all in just two minutes and 19 seconds. The reason I remember the time so well is because I lived at 219 East 7th Street.”
Pollack says that he was not only a natural puncher; he was a natural fighter, whether it was on the street or in the ring. “I was willing to fight anyone,” said Pollack. “Sometimes it got me into trouble.”
One time Pollack, who was about 15, was playing stickball with his friends near Tompkins Square Park on New York’s Lower East Side. A neighborhood tough guy, who was cryptically called the Jap even though he was not the least bit Asian, told them to stop playing.
“I said, ‘We’ll finish playing, there’s only a few more outs,’” said Pollack. “He said if we didn’t leave he’d throw us off the court.”
In the ensuing scrap, Pollack wound up knocking the Jap cold with one left hook, the same punch that would later render most of his amateur and professional opponents unconscious.
Pollack only backed off when the Jap threatened him with a knife. Not long afterwards, he was glad to make his annual pilgrimage to upstate Monticello where he milked cows and cut wood in the summer. He could not believe his misfortune when he encountered the Jap on Monticello’s Main Street, which was nearly 100 miles from home.
The Jap and another man both approached Pollack and asked if he was interested in becoming a boxer. The Jap also told him to come to him in the future with any neighborhood problems. The stubbornly individualistic Pollack said thanks but no thanks.
“I always took care of myself,” he said. “I didn’t need him to help me with anything.”
Pollack, who was also a standout football player at NYU, wound up winning several Golden Gloves titles, which he described as being akin to winning a world title back then.
“The only thing bigger was being an Olympic gold medalist,” he explained. “Or a professional champion.”
By the time he turned pro in 1937, his fan base was so big he did so at MSG. “Everyone loves punchers,” he said. “And I could punch. Everyone knew that from watching me in the amateurs.”
Pollack amassed a 7-0 (5 KOs) record, but quit the pro game over the meager purses he was making. Although he regularly sold $1,500 worth of tickets—a substantial sum back then—he was never paid the fifty cents per ticket that he was promised.
“I never lost in the street, as an amateur, or as a pro,” said Pollack. “I probably could have gone far if I chose, but my heart just wasn’t into it.”
Pollack became a city sanitation worker and later ran a dry cleaning business, shoemaking shop, and a Laundromat.
What is most refreshing about him is the fact that even though he is a nonagenarian, he still has the youthful exuberance and appearance of someone decades younger.
He attended the most recent Golden Gloves finals with his cardiologist, Dr. Michael King Jason of Great Neck, Long Island, who he jokingly refers to as his “cardiac manager,” and a slew of family members and friends. All told, the tickets for him and his guests cost $800.
“It was a wonderful night,” said Pollack, a Queens resident who is also a longtime member of the New York Ring 8 Veteran Boxers Association. “Jake LaMotta was there and so were Joe Frazier and Carmen Basilio. I was kidding around with Carmen and told him that [today] I could throw a better left hook than he could.
“It’s unusual to be associated with guys like that,” he added. “And it’s unusual to know that I was a champion 70 years ago. Sometimes I forget just how long ago that was.”