BOXING IN DANTE’S INFERNO — Harry S Truman, the 33rd President of the United States, had a lot of pet phrases, probably the most enduring being “the buck stops here.” But there is another of good ol’ Harry’s sayings that has become part of the popular culture and is especially appropriate to the 65th anniversary of the infamous Sugar Ray Robinson-Joey Maxim bout, in which Robinson, well on his way to wresting the light heavyweight championship from Maxim in steamy Yankee Stadium on June 25, 1952, fell victim more to the oppressive heat than anything Maxim did.
In boxing, even more so than in the culinary arts, it really is true that if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
It was so hot that night in the Bronx, with a temperature reading of 104 degrees on the ring apron at the time the fighters stepped inside the ropes, that one New York reporter, Jim Jennings, wrote that the bout would be held under “conditions which might have made Dante’s Inferno seem like a refrigerator.” Sugar Ray, widely considered to be the greatest pound-for-pound fighter of all time (don’t try to claim otherwise, Floyd Mayweather Jr.), already was working at a considerable size disadvantage (he weighed in at a taut 157½ pounds to Maxim’s 173) and he became increasingly gassed with each passing round until he simply could no longer run on empty, or even stand up.
At the start of what was to have been the 14th round of the scheduled 15-rounder, Sugar Ray was so totally spent that he could not summon the energy to rise from his stool. Sweat-drenched referee Ray Miller – who had taken over for Ruby Goldstein in the 11th round, after a delirious Goldstein took his leave due to the effects of heat prostration – called for ring physician Alexander Schiff to check in on the exhausted and clearly distressed challenger.
“Can you go on?” Dr. Schiff asked Robinson.
“I just can’t,” gasped Sugar Ray, who later stated that he had no memory of anything that transpired after the ninth round. Just like that, Robinson lost inside the distance for the first time in 141 professional bouts dating back to his debut in 1940.
Interestingly, Robinson insisted that he had a vivid dream a few nights before the Maxim fight that might have hinted at a tragic outcome had he attempted to soldier on in those last two rounds.
“I had dreamt that in the fight with Maxim I was stretched out in the ring and somebody, a doctor I guess, was bending over me and saying, `He’s dead, he’s dead,’” Robinson told New York Times sports columnist Dave Anderson, his collaborator for SRR’s 1970 autobiography, Sugar Ray. “And when I woke up, all I could think of was my dream a few years earlier involving the premonition about Jimmy Doyle’s death.”
Robinson claims to have had a similar deep-sleep vision prior to his June 24, 1947, welterweight title defense against Doyle in Cleveland, in which Doyle died the following day of a cerebral injury he sustained during the fight.
June 21 marked the official start of summer in 2017, and that fact – along with the impending anniversary of Robinson-Maxim and heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua’s 11th-round stoppage of Wladimir Klitschko on April 29, which was witnessed by 90,000 on-site spectators in London’s Wembley Stadium – called to mind another saying that once was part of nearly everyone’s lexicon. In the 1954 Academy Award-winning motion picture, On the Waterfront, onetime middleweight Terry Malloy, played by Marlon Brando, bemoans the dive he reluctantly took at the behest of his mobbed-up brother, which resulted in the winner getting “a title shot outdoors in a ballpark,” which was as good as it got in those technologically-deficient times when the live gate was paramount to a fight’s financial success.
Major fights, for world championships or not, outdoors in a ballpark – or a soccer stadium, bull ring or at a temporary structure erected on the site of tennis courts – has become increasingly rare, at least in America, but there are telltale signs they might be coming back in vogue. The Klitschko brothers, Wlad and Vitali, often appeared before massive audiences in European soccer stadiums, and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has brought Manny Pacquiao and Canelo Alvarez bouts to 80,000-seat AT&T Stadium, the palatial home of his NFL team. Jones was an enthusiastic bidder for the Gennady Golovkin-Alvarez middleweight title fight which will be staged Sept. 16 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, but it should be noted that AT&T Stadium does not strictly meet the criteria of a fight staged “outdoors in a ballpark.” It has a retractable roof, meaning spectators can still beat the Texas summertime heat when the air-conditioning is going full blast.
Still, past should serve as prologue to any promoter toying with the idea of putting an important fight in an outdoor facility during the dog days of summer, even if it means 50,000-plus faces in the place. As Robinson-Maxim and other notable bouts staged in the overly warm arms of Mother Nature should remind us, the fighters don’t just take on one another when the heat index is off the charts. They’re battling dehydration and a potentially lethal toll exacted on their bodies that exacerbates anything inflicted by an opponent’s balled fists.
Randy Gordon, now a radio host but the former editor of The Ring magazine and former head of the New York State Athletic Commission, was recalling the blast-furnace-like atmosphere for one of the most celebrated boxing matches of all time, the “Thrilla in Manila” held in Quezon City, the Philippines, on Oct. 1, 1975. Although that all-time classic took place in a supposedly “air-cooled” indoor arena, the effect of 27,000 spectators wedged together overwhelmed the cooling system and obliged the principals to engage in an epic battle of will and stamina in a virtual sauna.
“One of my favorite interviews ever was with Muhammad Ali (who was accorded a 14th-round TKO victory when Frazier, both his eyes nearly swollen shut, was prevented from coming out for Round 15 by his compassionate trainer, Eddie Futch) years after that fight,” Gordon recalled. “I was commissioner (of the NYSAC) then, I’m thinking it was 1992 or ’93, and it was just me and Ali in the room. I said, `Muhammad, you once said that had Joe Frazier come out for that 15th round, you wouldn’t have come out. Were you just saying that to be nice?’ He said, `No. Between the heat and Joe Frazier, I could not go on. I was telling Angelo (Dundee) to cut my gloves off. That’s real. I wasn’t coming out. But then Angelo looked over and he saw Eddie Futch waving it off.
“I asked Muhammad how much the heat had affected him – and remember, Joe was fighting under the same conditions – as opposed to fighting in air-conditioning that, you know, was actually working. He said, `I would have been stronger, but at the mid-point of the fight, with Joe Frazier’s constant pressure in that brutal heat, I could barely stand up. I was fighting on will alone. I’ll never understand how I was able to last as long as I did in that fight with Joe Frazier putting it on me the way he was.”
Ali also allowed that that fight was “the closest thing to death” he had experienced in boxing or anywhere else, and that statement might be closer to the truth than anyone realized, for him and for Smokin’ Joe.
Gordon told a parallel story about another crown jewel in the crown of boxing history, the Sept. 16, 1981, welterweight unification showdown between undefeated champions Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns, which was held in the 20,000-seat “temporary”outdoor stadium at Las Vegas’ Caesars Palace that could be assembled and disassembled as if it were a child’s Lincoln Logs structure. Trailing on points and with his face battered lopsided, Leonard staged a furious rally to stop the “Hit Man” in the 14th round.
“I’ve been to a lot of outdoor fights in Vegas when it’s been hot, but never that hot,” Gordon said. “At ringside it was in the high 90s, but in the ring – we had a thermometer in there before the fight started – it was, with the TV lights, 130 degrees.
“In later times when I spoke to him, Sugar Ray admitted the heat was getting to him. But Tommy … he literally had nothing left. The heat had completely drained him. In the 14th round he could barely hold his hands up.”
Another of the more notable wars in the outdoor stadium at Caesars Palace pitted heavyweight Larry Holmes against hard-hitting Gerry Cooney on June 11, 1982. Holmes, who stopped Cooney in the 13th round, said that for days afterward he urinated blood, the result of absorbing more than a few of Cooney’s sledgehammer left hooks to the body. But it was another part of the “Easton’s Assassin” oozing-red anatomy that might prove surprising to some. The canvas ring was so sizzling, Holmes has said, that the soles of his feet were blistered and bleeding from having had to move around on it as long as he did.
Other fights that are noteworthy for the effect heat had on the principals include:
*Jess Willard KO26 Jack Johnson, April 6, 1915, Havana, Cuba
Johnson, the dethroned heavyweight champion who was 37 at the time, initially gave credit to Willard for having beaten him fair and square, but he later claimed to have gone into the tank for a promised under-the-table payment of $50,000 and the unobstructed right to return to the United States, which he had fled after being convicted in absentia for violation of the Mann Act. It is easy to believe the recanted version of the story, given that Johnson’s high ranking among all heavyweight titlists far supersedes that of Willard and he had had to deal with the pervasive racism that existed in the U.S. at the time. It has been noted that, once he went down, the “Galveston Giant” shaded his eyes from the blazing sun and seemingly allowed himself to be counted out. But consider this: that bout was scheduled for 45 three-minute rounds, in an outdoor stadium in 104-degree heat. It is not unreasonable to believe that an aging Johnson, by the 26th round, had had his pugilistic superiority over Willard slow-cooked out of him by a celestial opponent 96 million miles removed from the fight site.
Jorge Paez MD15 Calvin Grove, Aug. 4, 1988, Mexicali, Baja California, Mexico
Making the second defense of his IBF featherweight title, stick-and-move stylist Grove, nicknamed “Silky Smooth” for his well-stuffed trick bag, had a bad feeling that he – or, more specifically, his management team – had made a mistake by agreeing to fight Paez, a native of Mexicali, in his back yard for more money than Grove could earned by fighting on U.S. soil, and most likely in an indoor venue. But the Coatesville, Pa., resident trained in Texas, which he dared to believe had prepared him for the hellish heat he would soon encounter in the Plaza del Toros Calafia, a bull ring. It proved to be a disastrous miscalculation. “Paez was used to that kind of heat, or as used to it as anyone can get,” Grove said. “I had trained in Texas, so I figured, how bad could it be? I had no idea. In the ring, with the overhead lights, it was 130 degrees. My goodness.” Seemingly too far ahead on points to be caught, a gasping Grove was floored three in the 15th round in a fight that made history, as the last sanctioned 15-rounder in North America. It was enough to make his presumed lead to go up in smoke, or maybe in steam.
Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini KO14 Duk-Koo Kim, Nov. 13, 1982, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas
It might have been late autumn, but it was an afternoon fight outdoors in Vegas, a desert town where the calendar doesn’t always recognize the passing of the seasons. One can only imagine what the conditions might have been had the fight been staged in July or August. As it was, Kim, a South Korean southpaw who matched Mancini’s furious work rate most of the way, had nothing left by way of defense when the WBA lightweight champion closed the deal just 19 seconds into the 14th round, connecting with two crushing overhand rights. Kim was unable to be revived and, after being rushed to a nearby hospital where he underwent emergency surgery to remove a large blood clot on his brain’s surface, he died five days later.
John David Jackson UD12 Tyrone Trice, July 21, 1991, Atlantic City Race Course
It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, packaging a boxing match with a thoroughbred horse race in the afternoon with both events to be televised as a sort of double-feature on the CBS Sports Spectacular. But, as I noted in my story for the Philadelphia Daily News, the horses had to run for only two minutes or so. Jackson, the WBO super welterweight champion, and Trice had to huff and puff for 45 minutes, including the one-minute intervals between rounds. Temperature in the ring was 110 degrees, and Trice literally had to be carried up a flight of stairs for the postfight press conference. “By the seventh or eighth round, I felt like I couldn’t stand up,” Trice said. “I was in good condition, but the heat was overwhelming.” Said Jackson: “From the 10th round on, I don’t even remember what happened. I was fighting on instinct.”
“Rockin’” Rodney Moore UD10 Miguel Santana, Aug. 3, 1989, Blue Horizon, Philadelphia
This one was held indoors, but in the legendary Philly club boxing site where air-conditioning was non-existent. On particularly hot nights – and this one was – fans almost could be excused to stripping down to their skivvies, as the fighters were. The fighters, though, were moving around and punching one another, which required considerably more exertion. After the bout, an exhausted Moore, a native of North Philadelphia, had a microphone stuck in his face by a young radio reporter for a black station. The young guy wanted to know if Moore had any advice for the kids of North Philly. “Yeah, I do,” Moore said after taking a few moments to catch his breath. “Never fight in an un-air-conditioned building in August.”
Photograph: Maxim vs. Robinson. An exhausted Robinson fell flat on his face after missing with a wild right hand near the end of Round 13.
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