“Hi ya, champ.”
Those three words and a smile is how Roger Donoghue would greet people he knew in saloons all over New York City. Knowing I was a reporter, he also would say to me, “Come out writing.”
I enjoyed talking boxing with Roger and listening to his stories even though I had heard them many times.
Roger Donoghue, who died recently at age 75, was a New York character, an ex-fighter turned beer salesman, who taught boxing moves to Marlon Brando and James Dean, and who gave Budd Schulberg the idea of Brando’s memorable line in “On the Waterfront,” and who told a joke to Norman Mailer that led to the title of a mystery written by author.
Roger loved boxing and he never turned against it, but he did turn away from it after Georgie Flores died five days after being knocked out by Donoghue in the eighth round in Madison Square Garden on Aug. 29, 1951.
Dave Anderson wrote in a 1979 column in the New York Times about the time Roger was told by a youngster, “You killed a man. I’m going to tell everybody.” Roger replied, “You don’t have to tell everybody. They already known.”
Turning pro at 18 in 1948 the Yonkers, N.Y., middleweight compiled a 27-4-1 record, with 17 knockouts, before retiring in 1952. His purses helped put his brother and sister through college.
A handsome Irishman with a punch, Roger was a popular attraction while fighting mostly at Ridgewood Grove on the Brooklyn-Queens border and in the Westchester County Center at White Plains, N.Y. In a 1950 fight at the Westchester County Center, Roger was almost knocked out in the first round by Jimmy DeMetrios, then he knocked DeMetrios out of the ring. Referee Georgie Abrams became confused and helped DeMetrios back into ring. Roger won on a sixth-round technical knockout.
On Aug. 29, 1951, Roger made his Madison Square Garden debut against Flores in a scheduled eight-round bout. He had wanted a different opponent because he had scored an eight-round decision over Flores 15 days earlier in the Westchester County Center
Roger’s knockout of Flores was lost in the controversy surrounding welterweight champion Kid Gavilan’s disputed 15-round split decision over Billy Graham in the main event .The next to last paragraph in the New York Times account of the Gavilan-Graham fight mentioned that Flores did not regain consciousness and that he was hospitalized in critical condition. Roger gave his purse to Flores’ family.
Roger would fight three more times, losing twice. In his last fight, also in Madison Square Garden, he lost an eight-round decision to Johnny “Red” DeFazio. He retired at 21.
While fighting, Roger had become friends with Budd Schulberg, author of “The Harder They Fall.” Schulberg, who wrote the screenplay for “On The Waterfront,” which came out in 1954, asked Roger to teach boxing moves to Marlon Brando. Some fight scenes were planned for the film, but the ideas was dropped.
Schulberg once asked Roger if he could have become a champion. Roger’s reply was, “I could have been a contender.” Spoken by Brando’s character, it became the most memorable line in the movie.
Because of Schulberg, Roger, whose wife Faye More is noted painter of thoroughbred horses and sporting scenes, had lots of friends in the literary and motion picture worlds.
One of them, director Nicholas Ray, hired Roger to teach boxing to James Dean for a movie to be based on Roger’s life. Dean’s death ended the project.
Another was Norman Mailer, who got the title for a crime novel he was writing from the punchline of a joke Roger told him. It seems mobster Frank Costello and his girlfriend were in a New York City nightclub where he meets three boxing champions. He orders them to dance with the woman and each complies. The third boxer to dance is Willie Pep, who tells Costello than he ought to dance. “Tough guys don’t dance,” says Costello.
When Brando was shooting “The Godfather,” Roger had the Rheingold beer account, and he asked the actor if he would be possible to get a plug by having a Rheingold truck in one of the scenes. In the scene where Sonny Corleone (James Caan) beats up his brother-in-law, a Rheingold truck can be seen in the background.
Roger once had the account for an Italian beer, and he asked former middleweight champion Vito Antuofermo to help sell it. Roger said there was nothing to it. So they would enter a bar, and Vito would pose for pictures and sign autographs. Then he would put his arm around the owner or manager and ask, “How many cases?”
At another time, Roger was selling a Chinese beer, and he wondered where he could find a Chinese fighter to help him. He never did.