Lou Benson Jr., a journeyman Baltimore heavyweight who fought many prospects, contenders and one champion between 1975 and 1992, is on a mission.
Now 50-years-old and the proprietor of the Dew Drop Inn, a popular restaurant and tavern, he is determined to get his longtime idol, former bantamweight and featherweight champion Harry Jeffra, inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York.
His affinity for Jeffra began in 1973, on the night after Benson, who was then 17, won his first amateur fight. His father, Lou Sr., took him to a meeting of the Veteran Boxers Association, Ring 101, in Baltimore.
Because Lou Sr. had compiled a 12-7 (7 KOs) record in the 1950s, he was a well known member at the VBA. His son remembers being thrilled as his father and his trainer, Eli Hanover, paraded him around the meeting.
He was introduced to many retired local boxing figures, including Jeffra, heavyweight Red Burman, middleweight Terry Moore, welterweight Pete Galiano, lightweight Bucky Taylor, and a diminutive fellow named Little Jeff.
The young and impressionable Benson thought he was in the presence of greatness.
“All my life I’d heard my father talk about Terry Moore,” said Benson. “He was the kind of guy you’d talk to and fall in love with right away.”
Burman, who was stopped in five rounds by heavyweight champion Joe Louis in 1941, was equally impressive. “As a kid growing up back then, everyone heard of John L. Sullivan, Jack Dempsey, Rocky Marciano and Joe Louis. And everyone always said that Red gave Louis a helluva fight. When I met him, my jaw dropped.”
Galiano was a brilliant boxer who, Benson was told, had fought for the Southern title when he was just 18 years old. “He was a legend in Baltimore,” said Benson. “He was always dressed up and he never drove anywhere. You’d always see him walking places with his full head of hair – never a hair out of place – and a beautiful suit on.”
Taylor and Little Jeff were classic ex-pugs who looked like they came straight from central casting. “They looked liked they were pulled out of movies,” said Benson. “Especially Little Jeff. He had cauliflower ears and his nose was turned around.”
As much as all of these pugs impressed Benson, none was more impressive than Jeffra, who compiled a record of 93-20-7 (27 KOs) between 1933 an 1950. Benson remembers that first meeting like it was yesterday, and he sounds like an overexcited young kid when he recounts it.
“He told me to train hard, keep my hands up and my pants off the canvas,” said Benson. “He said it jokingly, but it meant a lot to me.”
When Benson turned pro in 1975, he shared many cards over the next few years with Sugar Ray Leonard, the 1976 Olympic gold medalist who also hailed from Maryland. It seemed as if Jeffra was always in the stands, and he was always rooting for young Benson. Afterwards, he was quick to say something positive about his performance
“He never said anything negative,” said Benson. “If I did see something wrong he’d point it out and tell me what to improve on.”
This was critical to Benson’s early success because Benson’s father, who had gotten him into boxing in the first place, died of a massive heart attack when his son was just 18 and a veteran of two pro fights. To say Lou Jr. was devastated would be an understatement.
Benson went on to have what he calls “a colorful career.” He compiled a final record of 17-11-2 (8 KOs), fighting the likes of future champion Dwight Muhammad Qawi, who he dropped before losing a six round decision in 1978.
He also battled then undefeated Chris McDonald to an eight round draw. McDonald would have represented the United States in the 1980 Olympics if President Jimmy Carter did not boycott the Games because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
Among the other well-known fighters Benson faced were James Broad, local rival George Chaplin, Englishman John Louis Gardner in London, murderous punching Jeff Sims, then undefeated Lee Canalito, and Carl “The Truth” Williams.
While Benson lost to most of the bigger names he faced, he blames no one but himself for his career not living up to its early potential.
“I had as much opportunity as the other guys,” said Benson. “I mostly managed myself, and I accepted all those fights in other people’s hometowns. Some guys did that and become champions. I take my hat off to them.”
Right now though, Benson is only concerned with the boxing world taking off their collective hats to Jeffra who he is determined to see inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Several years ago he wrote to more than 100 boxing writers who vote for the inductees, explaining why he believed Jeffra, who died in 1988, was so deserving of this honor.
As the current vice president of Ring 101, as well as because of his personal relationship with Jeffra, Benson sees this is as more of a moral obligation than anything else. This past June, he brought 80 T-shirts to Canastota, all of which bore Jeffra’s photo and a listing of his ring record.
Benson says all you have to do is study that record to realize how deserving he is for induction. Jeffra turned pro at the age 18 and, while many of his fights were held in the Baltimore area, he was not afraid to take the show on the road.
Among the top fighters that Jeffra defeated were Sixto Escobar four times, including once for the world bantamweight title at the Polo Grounds in New York, Joey Archibald, including once for the New York State Athletic Commission World Featherweight title, Spider Armstrong, Phil Terranova and Lou Salica.
He lost to such top fighters as Escobar, Archibald, Patsy Giovanelli, Chalky Wright and Jackie Graves.
“Anyone who could be a bantamweight or featherweight contender in the thirties and forties deserves to be in the Hall of Fame,” said noted historian Mike Silver. “Those divisions were loaded with talent. To win a title back then, that that was quite an accomplishment. Anyone who beat the fighters he did deserves to be in the Hall, no question about it.”
Moreover, said Silver, Giovanelli, who was nicknamed “Cannonball” and won 44 of 52 fights, always said his career highlight was beating Jeffra by decision at the Queensboro Arena in New York in 1941.
And when Hank Kaplan, who is undoubtedly the world’s premier boxing historian, was asked about Jeffra being Canastota worthy, he responded unequivocally, “Absolutely, he was a great fighter.”
Although Benson is the first to call himself a computer illiterate, he even took to the Internet to get his message across. You can log onto Youtube.com, type in the key words “Harry Jeffra” or “Lou Benson” and hear Benson compellingly plead his case in cyber land.
“I’m not going to give up until I see Harry inducted,” said Benson. “At last year’s ceremonies, everyone I spoke to told me they voted for Harry. If they were all telling the truth, he would have been inducted unanimously.”
If ever in the Baltimore area, drop by the Dew Drop Inn at 123-01 Philadelphia Road in Baltimore. The phone number is 401-538-3126. It is open every day from 6:00 a.m. until 2:00 a.m. Benson holds court there nearly every night.
You can talk boxing or just enjoy the food, especially the steamed shrimp which Benson describes as “not the best in town, not the best in Maryland, but the best in the whole world.”