Jim Murray on Boxing: Tasty Tidbits From the Pantry of a Great Sportswriter

This coming August it will be 20 years since we lost Jim Murray, America’s most decorated sportswriter. Murray was 78 when he died of heart failure at his home in Los Angeles.

Murray, who spent most of his working life with the Los Angeles Times, was named the National Sportswriter of the Year 14 times. But forget all the awards — other than the Pulitzer, for which he was justly proud – because that’s not why we remember him. We remember him because he had a wonderful way with words that made us smile and sometimes laugh out loud. His columns sparkled with one-liners and the only thing missing was an audio component. Where was the drumroll?

Murray was a man for all seasons, but was partial to boxing, horseracing, and golf. His interest in the sweet science was whet as a boy growing up in Hartford, Connecticut. The city, he frequently noted, spawned three world featherweight champions – Louis “Kid” Kaplan, Bat Battalino, and Willie Pep.

Here, in no particular order, are some of our favorite boxing-related Murray-isms:

On manager/promoter “Doc” Kearns, one of the great rascals in the history of boxing:

(In appearance) you might guess he took up the collection plate on Sunday in church. But if he ever did, he would keep it.

Did Kearns load Jack Dempsey’s gloves before Dempsey fought Jess Willard? Murray thought not, “but he would have if he could.”

Two observations on Don King’s hair:

His hair soars into the air like a haystack in a high wind.

It goes straight up like a crown of icicles and if you had to describe it, you would settle for ‘porcupine cut.’

Two observations on George Foreman:

George is a hero to every guy who looks in the mirror and an old stranger stares back at him.

George Foreman is an American heirloom. There has never been anything like him. One of the hoariest clichés of the fight game is ‘They never come back.’ George came back.

On Rocky Marciano:

You could throw a loaded safe at Rocky in his prime and not make him stop coming in. He was as unstoppable as a flood. The night he fought Ezzard Charles, his nose was so split in two, and spurting, he didn’t need a doctor, he needed a plumber. Sixty seconds later, Charles was crumpled on the floor like a mop with a broken handle.

On Joe Louis:

He knocked out so many people in his career that he could identify more people by the soles of their feet than their faces.

On Archie Moore:

Archie was the best mechanic who ever stepped into a ring. He made his fight like a guy building a bridge, or fixing a leak…he fought with the deft, impersonal efficiency of a guy changing a tire. He had skills that hadn’t been seen in this country since the days of the booth fighters in the carnivals.

On boxing in the Olympics:

In the Olympics, the referees stop the going if a shoelace becomes undone. If a guy gets a nosebleed, they look around for a prosecutor. A light jab is almost the only punch that’s legal, a knockdown is considered an unpardonable breach of manners.

On Buster Douglas when he fought Evander Holyfield:

Buster entered the ring looking like something that should be floating over a Thanksgiving Day parade.

On Larry Holmes vs. Randall “Tex” Cobb:

Cobb looked like a guy standing on a dock waving a handkerchief at a departing ship…You might describe Randy Cobb as “slow” – except he wasn’t that fast. “Stationery” would be more like it. I’m surprised people didn’t try to hang their coats on him when they came in.

On sanctioning bodies:

Today, the control of the sport, if that is the word I want, has passed into the hands of a cast of Third World characters who seem to invent a new division every time television wants to hang a title label on a fight that would have been a walkout in the old days. (Note: Murray wrote this in 1990. Needless to say, things have gotten worse.)

Portrait of an old-time fight manager:

His office was Eighth Avenue, his phone had coin slots in it, and he went through life in a cloud of cigar smoke and kept no books – at least none the government ever found out about.

Jim Murray wasn’t keen on women’s boxing:

How would you like to say ‘I want you to meet my wife – The Manassa Mauler?’ or ‘meet my daughter – the Belting Brakeman?’

– – – –

Folks that write opinion pieces, and have been at it a long time, invariably write some that, in hindsight, they would like to take back. Jim Murray was probably no exception. He was slow to warm up to Muhammad Ali, both as a fighter and as a person. He was even slower to acknowledge that Larry Holmes was a worthy heir to the heavyweight throne.

Murray, who was legally blind from 1979 to 1982 (surgery corrected his vision), didn’t think the first Bowe-Holyfield fight was sufficiently robust to warrant a rematch. My goodness, what fight was he watching?

As for Hagler-Leonard, he wrote that “It wasn’t even close…(Sugar Ray) didn’t just outpoint Hagler, he exposed him. He made him look like a like a guy chasing a bus. In snowshoes.”

That’s not the way I remember it. Like many at ringside, I had it a draw.

Jim Murray’s humor was often caustic. He once wrote that Detroit ought to be left on the doorstep of the Salvation Army. However, in person he was unassuming and if he had a mean bone in his body, it never showed. At major sporting events, most A-list sportswriters wrap themselves in a cocoon of other A-list sportswriters. Not Jim Murray. Affable and approachable, he was as likely to be seen shooting the breeze with a cub reporter from Altoona as a colleague from a major metropolitan daily.

No sportswriter was more imitated and that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Those that tried too hard to emulate him left behind a trail of clunky metaphors. But Murray was special and when he left us we lost a great wordsmith, a man who brightened our days.

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