Doug Cavanaugh had it in his closet, hidden away like an escaped convict.
No sirens screamed and no searchlights glinted by his windows in Canoga Park, California but he was harboring a convict all the same; only this one hadn’t come barreling out of the Wayside Jail, 25 miles away. This one came barreling out the sands of time, 70 years away. More shocking still, he had come from Murderers’ Row.
Three years ago, Cavanaugh received a package in the mail from J.J. Johnston, a fellow boxing historian and collector of fight films. In the package was a videocassette. Cavanaugh popped it in his VCR and sat back as newsreels of Jack Dempsey, Mickey Walker, and Max Schmeling flickered across the screen. He watched Joe Gans succumb to Battling Nelson in the summer of 1908, knowing that two years later Gans would succumb to tuberculosis -–which was only slightly more debilitating than a fight with Nelson. He wondered whether Gans was already coughing blood, whether his body was already breaking down, and whether the great lightweight knew it.
Half way through the video, Cavanaugh leaned forward. Johnston told him that there may be a fleeting segment of someone special in action. This was it.
There are many who swear that Holman Williams of “Murderers’ Row” was among the greatest defensive technicians who ever lived. He was that and more. When Joe Louis first walked into Detroit’s Brewster Gym in 1930, it was Holman who took him under his wing and taught him the fundamentals. Joe was in awe of Holman “–-a beautiful boxer,” he would say. Later when Joe became a king and Holman proved too dangerous to get a shot at the crown in two divisions, Joe would see to it that his friend got a spot on his undercards. He would also invite Holman and some sparring partners to his training camps. When Holman worked out, trainer Eddie Futch remembered Joe delaying his own workout and sitting ringside with his gloves and headgear on, watching. Why? “To pick up ideas.” The heavyweight king never stopped learning from Holman.
Many boxing historians believe that Holman was a pure stylist. However, his first five years in the prize ring saw more than half of his wins come by knockout. “Holman is a busy, rangy fighter and packs dynamite in his right fist,” said the Times-Picayune in 1937 when he was barnstorming New Orleans. Later in his career he evolved into a stylist because he had to; because some fighters hit too hard for their own good. Thomas Hearns and Arturo Gatti both broke their right hands repeatedly because the impact of their punches was too much on their metacarpal bones. Old school fighters with fractured fists didn’t have Hearns’ and Gatti’s advantages with modern medical science. When “Cinderella Man” James J. Braddock fractured his vaunted right, he had to completely change his style. Holman’s case was similar. Somewhere along the way, his brittle hands forced him to become mobile and concentrate on the softer region of his opponent’s body. He learned to rely on elegance and less on power.
Considering what he faced over a 188-bout career, he needed both.
Fighters didn’t come any more dangerous (or more avoided) than those in boxing’s Murderers' Row. They still don’t. This ferocious set of black fighters was active on the west coast in the ‘40s. Not one of them got a world title shot, so they fought each other. Holman warred with fellow members of the row 36 times: He faced Cocoa Kid thirteen times, Charley Burley seven times, Bert Lytell and Jack Chase four times, Lloyd Marshall and Eddie Booker three times, and Aaron “Tiger” Wade twice.
They were all condemned to Murderers’ Row for the same reasons –their level of skill made them dangerous to champions and the color of their skin made them easier to avoid.
Archie Moore never forgot them. Like Holman, he fought them all. Like Holman, he gave them hell and got hell in return. Unlike Holman, Archie finally took a throne during Christmastime 1952 and became light heavyweight champion of the world. He was 36 years old. And he had a secret: Archie knew that had it not been for his grim resolve to defy age and injustice he too would have been condemned to the row.
He was grateful to them, and he felt sorry for them.
So, when fate smiled on the Old Mongoose, he made damn sure to lift them up just a little bit by mentioning their names during interviews and in print –he was a king who remembered those who made him great. Budd Schulberg listened. It was he who conceptualized their title in 1962: “I went with Moore all the way back to the California days,” he wrote in Esquire, “when he was in there with names unknown to the East but very rugged characters.” Schulberg referred to them as “that murderers’ row of Negro middleweights carefully avoided by the titleholders.”
Until recently, not much more was known about them. Allen S. Rosenfeld and Harry Otty published well-received biographies of Charley Burley and discussed his great rivals, but even they ran into fog and mystery when it came to who those rivals were, where they came from, and where they went.
Part of the problem has been the lack of film. As far as the boxing world knew, action footage existed only of Burley and Marshall. The remaining six were sentenced to indeterminate stretches behind concrete walls; or closets.
And then Doug Cavanaugh did us all a favor.
OUT OF THE CLOSET, INTO THE LIGHT
Cavanaugh recently asked if I’d be willing to take a look at the footage. Three days ago I received a package in the mail and sat in the dark watching images from long ago flicker to life.
Halfway through the video I leaned forward, looking for Holman. Whoever filmed the action sat in the third or fourth row and used a hand-held camera. Someone’s head blocks part of the view and at one point a man in a fedora walks by looking for his seat. These are ghosts.
Two supremely-conditioned athletes fight it out along the ropes. It’s Holman all right. His opponent looks like Young Gene Buffalo, a Philadelphia fighter who faced Murderers’ Row eight times and won none. I realized it when I saw another clip showing the same ring from the same seat that could only have been filmed by the same person. It showed Joe Louis-Abe Simon I. Records show that Holman defeated Buffalo on the undercard of his friend’s title defense at the Olympia Stadium in Detroit. It was March 21, 1941.
For 15 seconds, it is March 21, 1941.
Holman is very aggressive though his balance is perfect and his execution flawless. His hands aren’t bad yet; that right cross seems particularly hard. I note that he moves in a gallop –exactly like those old fight reports said he did. I also note that Joe Louis was right and will stay right forever: this is “a beautiful boxer.”
As Holman throws wicked combinations to the head and body of Buffalo, cigar smoke swirls in a corner outside the ring. It rises to the rafters like a prayer of thanks in the red light district. Just before the footage blinks off, he has Buffalo’s back on the ropes and presses his gloves on his biceps to stop any offense as he begins to move back. Then something special happens.
Holman Williams, alive again and in his prime, turns his head from the action and glances straight into the camera… at us.
Here is the clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zje1xxmDrdA
Photograph appears courtesy of Harry Otty.
Special thanks to Douglas Cavanaugh and J.J. Johnston.