Middleweight Bert Lytell meets light heavyweight Archie Moore, 1950
PART 6: “THE WORLD’S MOST FEARED MIDDLEWEIGHT”
Rocky Graziano’s manager stood in a gym in a Massachusetts mill town watching Johnny Eagle train and was impressed enough to pick him to upset Bert Lytell. It was wishful thinking. Bert took a unanimous decision, snapping Eagle through the ropes along the way. There might have been a message in that. Bert had been spouting off to the press about Graziano, accusing him of “repeatedly refusing to sign for a match.” He believed he would eventually “force” the Italian bomber to reconsider. That too would prove to be wishful thinking.
In April 1947 Bert faced Sam Baroudi in New York. French superstar Marcel Cerdan was there scouting for his third match on American soil. Baroudi was a dangerous boxer-puncher coming up like a “like a house a fire” and Bert took him apart –-he took him apart while Cerdan sat ringside and thought up excuses not to fight him.
Bert’s long-awaited rematch with Jake LaMotta was set for May at Madison Square Garden with the winner to meet Tony Zale for the middleweight championship of the world. It fell through and was rescheduled for September. That date was cancelled after a physician from the New York State Athletic Commission examined LaMotta’s hands, which had been badly bruised in a bout only a few days before. Finally, a date in January 1948 was reserved, again at Madison Square Garden. It too was cancelled after LaMotta was suspended during an investigation into his suspicious loss to Billy Fox.
Cerdan, who didn’t terrorize the American field so much as tiptoe through it, got the title shot in September and defeated Zale for the middleweight crown.
His first defense would be against none other than the Bronx Bull.
LaMotta had finally caved in to Mob pressure. A man with a toothpick in his mouth approached him one day in the gym and made an offer. “Throw the fight with Fox,” he said, “and you’ll get a title shot.” LaMotta threw him out, but then got to thinking. He took a walk a few nights later, a long one, and the ruthless truth met him along the way:
You want to be “the champ” more than anything, but you’ve made all the wrong enemies. You’re too stubborn to do business with Frankie Carbo and too stupid to see what you’re up against. It’s the Mob that is the establishment here, my friend, and it’s the Mob that holds all the strings. You’ve been swapping blows with colored bombers for years and just like them you’re making chump change and going nowhere.
You and your “pride.” Your pride and a dime can get you into the subway, but it will never get you what you want most.
And that was that. LaMotta would stop Cerdan in ten rounds and got what he wanted most. “It felt like God had given me the world,” he said afterwards.
Those four kings –-LaMotta, Cerdan, Zale, and Graziano-– reigned during Bert’s rampage. Not one of them would have been any more than even money to beat him. It was a tragic irony, really. There he was fighting out of perhaps the greatest gym in boxing history with well-connected managers and a crowd-pleasing style and it didn’t matter. It just didn’t matter.
He was like bitter coffee that no one wanted to drink; too black, too strong, and as it turned out, too honest.
HAVE GUNS, WILL TRAVEL
The late Allen Rosenfeld remembered hanging around Stillman’s when a “wave of excitement” erupted around him. “Bert Lytell was in the gym,” he recalled. Rosenfeld ran upstairs and saw a “pleasant and friendly looking” boxer skipping rope and working the speed bag. He heard the regulars muttering “no one will fight him.”
Murderers’ Row seethed with top contenders that no one would fight, but Bert was off by himself even among them. He went after anyone, even other hard cases. Not many dared hunt LaMotta in the mid 1940s. Bert did. No one in their right mind went after a destroyer like Ezzard Charles. Bert did; he even offered to donate his purse to charity.
The buzz was that he was “the world’s most feared middleweight” and he’d migrate overseas to prove it. When he came back from a month-long campaign in the Caribbean, The Ring ranked him number one. He’d also migrate across weight divisions. In December 1948, he was scheduled to confront the second-ranked light heavyweight in the world, and his manager was barking even before he won. He publically offered Cerdan both purses if he agreed to meet Bert for the title: “All we want is training expenses. If we win tonight’s fight and Cerdan still ignores our challenge then we’ll go after the light heavyweight crown.”
Two kings –-Freddie Mills and Joey Maxim-– reigned during Bert’s light heavyweight rampage; neither of them would have been any more favored to beat him than their middleweight counterparts.
Despite his status as an apex contender in two divisions, he had to stay in condition like a ham-and-egger in hopes of earning enough purses to get by. He’d fight anyone, anytime, and there isn’t even a rumor that says otherwise. Managers desperate to find a last-minute substitute knew where to find him. One day a call came into Stillman’s from Ohio to offer Bert a purse of $734.86 (minus expenses) to fight a light heavyweight named Bob Amos. Bert arrived in Dayton on Sunday, trained Tuesday and Wednesday, and was ready by Thursday night. Amos’s trainer was Eddie Futch, who peered sorrowfully through the ropes while his fighter got belted around the ring for ten rounds. “Lytell crowded Amos from the outset, and seldom let up,” said the Dayton Daily News, “Bert’s style –-and it’s a varied one, because he really knows his way around that ring–- had Amos worried from the start and frequently befuddled thereafter.” Futch never wanted Lytell for his boy in the first place.
There were sightings as far off as California. A crowd gathered around the ring in Harry Fine’s gym and watched him stand up to a mountain and chop it down with both hands. The mountain was 6’4, 220 lb Leroy Evans. Bert was 5’8.
A few days later he was swarming all over the heavy-punching Oakland Billy Smith.
Smith was meat for Murderers’ Row, but that didn’t mean he went down easy. When Bert faced Smith again in Cincinnati, “Both fighters wrestled to the floor several times,” the AP reported, and “at one point, were trading punches while sitting on the canvas.” The AP failed to report that at another point Smith spit in Bert’s face. He was suspended in Cincinnati after that one, though a cursory glance at some of his other misadventures suggests that he should have been committed.
Before Bert, there was Newsboy Millich. Millich got to Smith by whispering indecent things into his ear and fouling him in close, so Smith started kicking him. After Bert, there was Jersey Joe Walcott. Walcott hired Smith as a sparring partner in the early 50s. Smith would show up to work wearing a yellow turtleneck and a harness with straps dangling around his knees. No one could say why, least of all Billy. In one session, Smith hit Walcott so hard the heavyweight champ did an “involuntary shuffle” and Walcott responded with a right hand that froze Smith in suspended animation. In another session, Smith fled the ring.
It wasn’t the first time he fled the ring. “Disappearing” Billy Smith, as he became known, gave reporters plenty of material. In the eighth round of his fourth fight against Archie Moore, Smith turned away from Moore and was heard yelling “shut up” toward his corner when Moore nailed him. Smith went down, got up at the count of five, parted the ropes, and took off toward the dressing room. The next day he appeared before the boxing commission to explain what happened. “I was hurt, but only mentally” he said to several raised eyebrows. “All through the fight [my corner] kept yelling ‘one-two’, ‘one-two’ and what happened? Archie gave me a one-two to the head,” Smith said, “Bert Lytell punished me two months ago in Texas, and I didn’t aim to go through that again. It took me more than a month to recover from that beating.”
THE ELIMINATION BOUT
Where Smith was meat for Murderers’ Row, Archie Moore was a master of it. He was also one of Bert’s early mentors at Stillman’s Gym.
Bert fought Moore on even terms for seven rounds. He shifted behind a right jab and fought a style that was, according to the Baltimore Sun, “as elusive as plans for a Stadium roof.” Moore was outworked in close during rounds four and five but landed flush rights when he could find the bobbing and weaving target. After the seventh round, Moore’s thirteen-pound weight advantage came into play and he rumbled ahead to take a decision. Bert had a victory of sorts –he never staggered and never went down against one of the most destructive punchers of the last century.
The rematch was on January 31st 1950. It was the most important bout of Bert’s career. According to the matchmaker for Madison Square Garden, Moore-Lytell II was really an “elimination bout” that would decide the next challenger for light heavyweight champion Joey Maxim.
As a new resident of Toledo, Ohio, Moore didn’t have to travel far to the Sports Arena. He entered the ring to the cheers of a friendly crowd and sported a nine-pound weight advantage, a three-inch height advantage, and considerably more experience. Despite it all, Bert proved that he was at least the equal of Moore. The Toledo Blade reported only “a hair margin dividing any of the rounds.” Both fighters, “past masters at the art of defense had a hard time breaking through” as punches were almost invariably “caught on the gloves, arms, or shoulders.” The decision was announced for Moore and 7300 of his new neighbors erupted not in cheers but in protest. Bert stood in defiance across the ring; nose bloody, pride intact.
It did no good for either man. Bert lost –-whether or not he was robbed didn’t matter. Moore would have only one more fight in 1950 because no one wanted to risk their record. And the title shot he was promised? It was nothing more than the promise of a politician. The fine print of the agreement said that Maxim and his manager had to agree to terms –-and it took time coming to terms with losing the title.
It took three years. At Christmastime 1952, Archie Moore finally fought for the championship of the world. He was 36 years old. Fate bought him a bus ticket out of Murderers’ Row and escorted him into the company of kings.
By then, the career of Bert Lytell had tanked.
Did Bert Lytell retire? Nope. A mysterious offer is made that he can’t refuse, and he refuses anyway –with severe consequences. Read all about it in PART 7 OF “THE BEAST OF STILLMAN’S GYM.”
The graphic is from the Toledo Blade, 1/30/50.
Irving Cohen’s bet in Berkshire Evening Eagle 10/17,18/46; 4/21/47. Dick Friendlich’s “Boxing Briefs” in San Francisco Chronicle undated. New York Herald-Tribune 4/7,8/47; The Stars and Stripes, 12/16/48. LaMotta cancellations, AP 9/9/47 and New York Times 11/22/47. Cerdan Kansas City Times 12/14/48. LaMotta makes a deal in Raging Bull pp. 159-164, 169. Passenger manifest, Pan American Airways, Inc. 11/2/1948. Allen S. Rosenfeld’s memories at Stillman’s in Charley Burley: The Life and Hard Times of an Uncrowned Champion, p. 500. Lytell-Amos in Dayton Daily News 8/19/49. LaMotta-Fox in The Berkshire Evening Eagle, 11/22/1947. Chasing Ezzard Charles in Times-Picayune 4/5/46. Sparring a heavyweight in San Francisco Examiner 1/19/48; Bert willing to fight Cerdan for free and Mills, AP, 12/15/48. Oakland Billy Smith in Berkeley Daily Gazette, 4/10/45, Red Smith’s “Views of Sports,” 9/15/52, AP 1/4, 5/51 and UP 1/4/51. Ezzard Charles at fight in AP 2/27/48; Moore-Lytell I, The Sun 7/14,15,16/47; Moore-Lytell II, Toledo Blade 1/29,31/50, 2/1/50, The Stars and Stripes, 2/5/1950.