Little Tiger Wade never fought in San Francisco again. He turned up in New York on August 11, 1945 at Madison Square Garden.
Fifteen thousand watched him fight Mario Raul Ochoa, a Cuban national champion in two divisions. Wade dropped him twice before the bout was stopped in the second round. In the main event, Jake LaMotta, then The Ring’s number-one middleweight contender, knocked out Jose Basora. The house receipts were twenty-times what Wade had ever seen in Illinois or California.
How did Wade land a much-coveted spot in a semi-final at the Garden? He had lost two of his last three fights (against the second, seventh, and fifth-rated middleweights, respectively), failed to crack the top-ten, fled San Francisco under a cloud of suspicion, and was inactive for months before the Ochoa fight. In addition, he had never even been to the East Coast, never mind New York City. There is only one explanation—he had somehow hooked up with a well-connected manager.
That manager was Carlos de Castanova, who was called “Charley Cook.”
In the shadows behind Cook’s stable was Eddie Coco. Ex-con, soldier in the Lucchese crime family, and friend of the notorious Frankie Carbo, Coco was a sure-thing gambler pulling strings behind front men and sometimes in plain sight. Everyone knew that a spot on the card at the Garden had a price and that “price” was usually a percentage. If the manager was not a friend already of the so-called “Combination” he had to grant a piece of his fighter to someone who was. Carbo and company had pieces of an untold number of fighters who fought at the Garden in the forties. Wade was probably no exception.
Ten days after Wade stopped Ochoa, he was in Pittsburgh facing Charley Burley. In October, he was in Baltimore facing a beast named Bert Lytell. Lytell was rated fourth in the ring ratings and Wade got serious. He left the pork alone, trained hard, and came into the ring at a chiseled 152 lbs—his lowest weight in over three years. By then, Murderers’ Row had learned to steer clear of Wade’s slinging shots or move in close to smother them and Lytell did just that. They fought on even terms until the last round when Wade besieged him and snatched the victory. All three judges scored the fight five rounds to four with one even.
The next morning, Wade would have collected his purse and perhaps grabbed the Baltimore Sun. In the sports section, two columns to the left of the headline “Wade defeats Bert Lytell,” was a column informing the boxing world that the titles were thawing out and the champions were being released from military duty. “Tony Zale, middleweight champ,” it read, “is among the fighters back in circulation.”
Wade was on the brink. He had just cracked the top ten in boxing’s deepest division and was promised a fight against Archie Moore, who was number-one at light heavyweight. If he could defeat Moore again, he would be within pouncing distance of Zale’s throne.
Wade-Moore II was scheduled for October 15 at St. Nicholas Arena. On October 10, Moore pulled out, claiming food poisoning. Wade faced Vincent “Hurricane” Jones who replaced Ossie Harris who had replaced Moore. Still, it was a main event promoted as “the first of a series of elimination matches” for a middleweight title shot. It was his second appearance in New York and proved no less ferocious than his first; he knocked Jones flat four times before the bout was stopped.
And then Wade, by then a full-blown alcoholic, went and chewed off his own tail.
It was like a mantra at Wade family get-togethers: “Aaron was just a hair’s breadth away from a title shot.” I heard it recently when Alan recalled his mother saying it. “Did you ever ask your father what happened, why he never got the shot?” I asked him. He had, and Wade’s answer is sobering. “I got drunk,” Wade told his son, “and cussed out the New York Commission.”
After stopping Jones at St. Nick’s, Wade was idle for four months. He dissipated. Any substance-abuse counselor will tell you that the bottle is upturned during downtimes and Wade took his to the Bowery, which was then New York City’s skid row. He would rent a room with no locks on the doors and binge-drink for days.
On February 4, 1946, he looked like a dumpling when he stepped into the ring at St. Nick’s to face Holman Williams. With a career-high 170 pounds packed onto his 5’5 frame, he was unprepared. He was dropped twice for nine counts in the second round before left hooks and a right cross concluded matters.
It was a spectacular knockout.
Or was it?
A closer look casts doubt. Williams was managed by another well-connected New York manager named “Broadway” Charley Rose. More suspicious than that are the hand injuries plaguing Williams, which had long-since required him to revert from boxer-puncher to defensive specialist. His overall knockout percentage was 18%. He had never before knocked out a ranked contender and after Wade, he never would again. In fact, he would lose over half his subsequent bouts before his career sputtered out in 1948. Wade, by contrast, was well-known as a sturdy fighter with no neck. He was not easily dented, particularly by an over-the-hill defensive specialist with brittle hands—unless he took a dive; or was drunk.
Wade retired in March. Why he retired offers another potential reason for his peculiar knockout. Wade underwent an operation on his eyes at a New York hospital. Charley Cook stepped up and paid the bills during the twenty-months he was out of action.
At the end of 1947, Cook took him to Holyoke, a Massachusetts mill town that Murderers’ Row used to regroup and derail up-and-comers. He concocted a narrative for the local press that said Wade had to leave San Francisco because “he ran out of opposition on the West Coast” and “is now picking on light heavyweights.” To account for the long-layoff, Cook said that Wade had suffered “eye cuts” in the Williams fight though neither the New York Times nor the Herald-Tribune mentioned that detail in their coverage. Cook was wisely covering up a far-more serious medical issue. The eye injury Wade had suffered at the hands of Jack Chase in 1944 had almost certainly caused traumatic cataracts which impeded his vision worse and worse over time. How successful the operation would prove was anyone’s guess.
Cook signed him to fight light-heavyweight Sam Baroudi on October 13, 1947 at the Valley Arena and hoped for the best. Cook may not have been completely confident; an article appeared in the Holyoke Transcript-Telegram before the fight that curiously refers to Wade as “Tiger Jack” Wade.
But Wade came through for himself and his manager. He jabbed to the body to set up overhands to take the first seven rounds and the decision. Baroudi was “peeved” until Wade offered a winner-take-all rematch; then he quieted down.
“Hurling challenges at any middleweight in the world,” reported the Transcript-Telegram, “including champion Rocky Graziano, ex-champion Tony Zale, and especially southpaw Bert Lytell, Aaron (Little Tiger) Wade, boxing’s modern Joe Walcott today shouted he will bar no one in the 160 pound ranks.”
He was ignored; so he told Cook that he’d fight anyone 177 lbs. or less.
After getting permission from the Massachusetts State Boxing Commission to stage a physical mismatch, Wade signed to face light heavyweight “Tiger” Ted Lowry on October 27. Lowry, a talented spoiler, would have a considerable height, weight, and reach advantage over Wade. He twice went the distance with Rocky Marciano and swore he did more than that: “I really beat him, you know,” he said in 2008. “He used to swing so wild. That’s like sending me a letter.”
Wade didn’t swing wild, but he swung hard. “It was a battle all the way,” said the Transcript-Telegram, “a slam-bang brawl.” Both Wade and Lowry “took turns jolting each other and Wade more than stood up under the heavy punishment the New Haven light heavy dealt.”
Outgunned though he was, Wade attacked Lowry as if nothing else mattered, as if Lowry was a shadow self that had to be defeated. Despite his existential effort and despite the fact that many fans “honestly believed he won the decision,” he lost. It was a fitting reflection of Wade’s battle with alcoholism and of his entire boxing career. He was at the brink, “within a hair’s breadth,” but what he sought he would not get. And as the decision was announced against him, whatever the 31-year-old ex-contender had left wafted off with the cigar smoke out of the Valley Arena and into the universe.
His manager saw it as a good loss. He immediately booked him to fight tenth-rated Anton Raadik and got him a stay-busy bout against young Wylie Burns. He didn’t know Wade’s spirit was broken.
Decades later, Wade would admit to his son that he had fought twice while drunk. Burns-Wade looks like one of them. Wade complained that he was “sick” in the middle of the fight. Over the last six rounds he “pawed around for Burns and did little or no punching” while he himself was “punched full of holes.” The body shots particularly did a number on him, as would be expected if he was drunk. When the referee came to his corner between rounds with a warning to put up an effort or get disqualified, Cook advised the referee to disqualify him and an argument broke out. Wade just hunched on his stool.
There was no come-from-behind surge, no heroic last stand. “Burns, An Unknown, Defeats Wade,” the paper announced the next morning. “The little giant of the middleweights and highly respected from coast to coast, was completely ignored” by a 4-1 underdog.
After the fight, Wade did what dying tigers do. He wandered off alone, away from the field of battle.
Wade-Ochoa in New York Times, 8/11/45; Details about Charley Cook, Eddie Coco, and the New York boxing scene found in “My Rugged Education in Boxing” by Robert K. Christenberry in LIFE 5/22/52; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 8/29/36, Wade-Jones, New York Herald-Tribune 10/15, 16/45, New York Times, 10/16/45; Williams-Wade II in New York Herald-Tribune and New York Times 2/5/46; see also Pittsburgh Press, 10/10/45. Wade’s bouts in Holyoke in Holyoke Transcript & Telegram, 10/10, 11, 13, 14, 21, 24, 28/47 and 12/21, 23/47.
Springs Toledo can be contracted at firstname.lastname@example.org.