Ray Arcel: A Boxing Biography--Book Review by Thomas Hauser
The image of Ray Arcel that exists today is that of a sage old trainer who knew the science of boxing and was a gentleman. He preached patience as the foundation of training and never made himself the center of attention.
Ray Arcel: a Boxing Biography by Donald Dewey (McFarland and Company) explores Arcel’s life in detail. The author has an appreciation of boxing and boxing history. His writing is a bit ponderous at times, but the book is intelligent and insightful.
Arcel was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1899. His family moved to New York when he was young so that his dying mother could be near her parents. Dewey questions the veracity of certain stories that Arcel told about himself that were repeated by others so often that they came to be accepted as true. For example, Arcel told people that he graduated from Stuyvesant High School in New York (a school for gifted students). The school records don’t support that claim.
Stephanie “Steve” Arce (Ray’s second wife, who was married to him for thirty-nine years) told Dewey that her husband “wasn’t really much of a family man.” The facts appear to support that statement. Arcel’s daughter attempted suicide at age 23 by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. He didn’t talk much about that or the death of his first wife from cancer. Indeed, Steve was married to him for more than three decades before she learned that Ray’s father had remarried after Ray’s mother died. Even then, he didn’t tell her about a half-sister and step-brother that he had.
One thing that Arcel did talk about, though, was boxing. He often emphasized the following themes:
* “A trainer can only work with the talent that’s there. He can’t give some kid a talent for boxing. What he can give him are the moves and steps that will help him give a good performance in the show when it counts.”
* “Just to train your fighters, to have them hit the bag and skip rope and develop stamina; that doesn’t mean anything. Get it out of your head that this is just some blooming gymnasium.”
* “Every young man that came to me, I made a complete study of his personal habits, his temperament. There are some people you can scold and some people you have to be careful with. No two people are alike. Unless a kid was obviously not cut out for the ring, I always took my time figuring him out.”
* “Never overestimate yourself or underestimate the other guy. See what the other guy has. See what his strengths are. See what his weaknesses are. See how you can overcome anything he has to offer.”
* “The name of the game has always been outsmarting the other fighter, not beating him to a pulp. If you can’t outsmart him, [if you] don’t use your brain, you’re going to be a loser.”
* “One thing you see far too often is a fighter coming back to his corner after a round and immediately being manhandled by everybody there. This one has this to say; that one has that to say. I always kept in my mind that the fighter came back to rest. The last thing he needed was all that screaming at him.”
During the course of Arcel’s career, he trained champions in each of boxing’s eight classic weight divisions. At various times, he worked with Benny Leonard, Jackie “Kid” Berg, Barney Ross, James Braddock, Max Baer, Tony Zale, Kid Gavilan, and Ezzard Charles. There came a time when he was in the corner for a succession of charter members of Joe Louis’s “Bum of the Month Club.” Johnny Paycheck, Al McCoy, Paulino Uzcudun, Nathan Mann, Abe Simon, Buddy Baer, and Lou Nova were all knocked out with Arcel in their corner. Before one of those bouts, when the fighters met in the center of the ring for the referee’s final pre-fight instructions, Louis looked at Arcel and blurted out, “You here again?”
Arcel was most active as a trainer during the years that organized crime was a commanding presence in boxing. Dewey acknowledges that Ray trained fighters who were controlled by mob figures like Owney Madden and Frankie Carbo. In that regard, Arcel once said of Madden, “Any other business he was involved in; that was his business, not mine.” Carbo’s fighters fell under the umbrella of, “When a manager asked me to train a fighter, the first thing I asked was to see his manager’s license. If he had a license, that meant he’d been approved by the licensing commission. If the commission didn’t have a problem with the people behind that manager and his fighter, why should I?”
That said; Arcel was aware of the moral ambiguities of his position. “All I know is the boxing business,” he offered. “There’s nothing else I can do. Nothing else I’d want to do. But sometimes . . .”
Sometime came in the 1950s. On September 14, 1953, Arcel was knocked unconscious on the streets of Boston by a man wielding a lead pipe. He was taken to Massachusetts Memorial Hospital in critical condition and remained there for nineteen days. It was widely assumed that the assault resulted from his involvement on the business end of a Saturday Night Fights series televised by ABC that threatened the TV monopoly established by James Norris and the IBC.
Thereafter, Arcel took a job in the purchasing department of Meehanite Metal (a company that blended alloys for foundry use). He returned to boxing in 1972 to work with Roberto Duran, who challenged Ken Buchanan at Madison Square Garden for the lightweight crown.
Arcel stayed with Duran through some glorious highs and one particularly heartbreaking low. The worst moment in the trainer’s career came in New Orleans on November 25, 1980, when Duran pled “no mas” is his rematch against Sugar Ray Leonard.
Dewey writes, “For all his insistence that every fighter had to be handled differently and no two boxers were the same, all [of Arcel’s] perceptions answered to very fixed laws. The first of these laws, inscribed more deeply the longer his career stretched, was that he simply didn’t want to be surprised by anything that happened. Whatever he had assured himself of with Duran over years of professional collaboration, ‘no mas’ had never been an ingredient of it.”
Longtime friend Jerry Izenberg accompanied Arcel back to his hotel after the fight and described him as “looking like a heart attack.” Later that evening, Arcel broke down in his room and cried. “The whole situation was more than I could take,” he admitted later. “It took a long time for me to get over it, if I ever did.”
Yet Arcel never asked Duran why he quit, “I didn’t think it was my business,” he said.
Nineteen months later, at age 83, Arcel notched his last victory in a fighter’s corner when Larry Holmes knocked out Gerry Cooney at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
Dewey’s book is filled with anecdotes. One of my favorites involves the time that Arcel was training Charlie Phil Rosenberg, who was struggling to make the 118-pound limit for a bantamweight title fight against Eddie Martin in 1925.
Arcel had some strange ideas, including the belief that a person shouldn’t drink water or anything else during meals. For a fighter struggling to make weight, water was rationed in particularly sparse quantity.
“I always had to sleep with one eye open,” Arcel said of the nights leading up to Rosenberg’s fight against Martin. “Charlie would get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, and I would stand there with the door open. He kept cussing me. ‘I just want to gargle,’ he’d say. And I’d tell him, ‘I’m watching your Adam’s apple, Charlie. Don’t swallow that water.’”
“After this fight is over,” Rosenberg told Arcel, “I’m going to kill you.”
Rosenberg beat Martin on a fifteen-round decision.
Arcel lived another sixty-nine years.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His next book (And the New: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing) will be published later this summer by the University of Arkansas Press.