By the summer of 1939, Aaron “Little Tiger” Wade was regularly knocking down white men for pay. Chuck Vickers was one of them, and he had a big mouth. He arrived in Peoria from Cincinnati bragging that he had “never been beaten by a Negro.” When reminded by a local reporter of Wade’s reputation as a ferocious puncher, Vickers flexed his muscles. “He’ll know he has been in a fight,” he said.
Wade told the Peoria Star that he would do something about “the Vickers situation.”
In the third round, Vickers dropped his guard for a moment and that was that. A right-hand blast came out of nowhere and 2500 fans saw him go down like he got shot. After he was counted out, Vickers clawed his way up the ropes only to collapse to the canvas in a daze. He wasn’t saying much on the train home to Cincinnati.
According to the Peoria Star and the Peoria Journal-Transcript, it was Wade’s 61st win in 62 professional fights. That was in August 1939. It had had been four years since he left the amateur circuit and nearly as long since he left his mother behind to follow big brother Bruce to sunny San Francisco.
Bruce, known as “Big Tiger” Wade, spent years competing alongside his younger brother as an amateur and won two localGolden Gloves championships. He turned professional in 1935 and migrated to California by the end of that year, destined to become a journeyman going nowhere. Leroy, the youngest of the four surviving brothers, joined his brothers in California in 1942. Known as “Young Tiger” Wade, he was a Golden Gloves champion in Illinois and Wisconsin before embarking on a professional career that saw him down and out more often than Bruce and Aaron put together. They called him “Canvas Back.”
At eighty-three years old, Bobby Warren is one of only a handful still around who witnessed Murderers’ Row tearing up the West Coast. He spends his afternoons at the King’s Gym in Oakland training fighters. I called him there the day after New Year’s to poke around his memory. “Yeah, I remember the Wades,” he said. “Aaron was the best of the three brothers.” He sure was. Where Bruce was knocked cold by Tony Zale and Leroy was trounced by Carl “Bobo” Olson, Aaron would defeat a future light heavyweight champion now revered as one of boxing’s gods.
The secret of Little Tiger Wade’s success was his power. It was downright startling at times. When he stepped into the ring at National Hall to face Ray Campo after a long layoff, Eddie Muller, the boxing writer for the San Francisco Examiner, sat peering over his typewriter. “A savage left hook caught Campo on the chin and dropped him in a heap,” he wrote. The time was 18 seconds—including the count. Muller never failed to remind sports fans about that power. “Too many guns,” he said, “a deadly puncher with both hands”; “strictly a socker.”
Fists that carry a general anesthetic tend to make light work of opponents. Most trainers consider power a gift, but like most gifts, it comes with a shadow. “Punchers” can get infatuated by the instant gratification of singular shots and early nights; so jabs get put on the shelf and combinations which set up shots and pile up points diminish in frequency. They’re tempted to sleep late too—why bother to train for ten rounds when all you’ll need is three? Wade was gaining weight. By the time he was 26, he had eaten his way out of the welterweight division permanently. “He had a passion for pork,” his son Alan Roy Wade, now 66, told me. “Pork chops, sausage; everything pork. Every day.” There was a butcher shop in the Bay area that he frequented in the forties and he was good to go there with whatever remained of his divvied-up purse. The press noted an ever-widening torso over short legs that inexplicably stayed spindly. “Roly-poly Wade,” said the Baltimore Sun;“The chunky little fellow,” said Muller.
Muller tells us that Wade stood a little over 5’5 and fought small. Crouched and bent at the middle, he got under long arms to “root with both hands in close.” His bull-neck was turned so that his chin was pressed into a shoulder to protect it and make himself a moving target, bobbing like a buoy on stormy seas and winging thunder as he came up. His arms were abnormally long and his punches, Muller noted, were accurate. To old-timers, he was the second coming of the “Barbados Demon” Joe Walcott—which made for a frightening image in the opposite corner. As a result, he was avoided by nearly every contender within reach, and that partially explains why he spent only two months of a twelve-year career in The Ring Ratings.
In his search for fame and fortune, the Little Tiger roamed back and forth between Peoria and San Francisco until 1940, when he established his territory in the City by the Bay. He was known to spend days at Billy Newman’s Gym in Nob Hill, waiting for calls. He’d take a six or eight-rounder just to maintain some kind of an income stream, and became a reliable stand-in for desperate promoters—fighting short-notice fights against Big Boy Hogue in place of an injured Billy Soose, Jack Chase in place of Archie Moore, and R.J. Lewis in place of Charley Burley. Sometimes the calls didn’t come and Wade became frustrated enough to go on hiatuses doing God knows what. One of them lasted a year; and in an era when up-and-comers would fight twice a month, a year off would render a fighter near forgotten.
Sometimes other black gypsies looking for trouble drifted in and Wade would rouse himself for an ambush. R.J. Lewis and Harvey Massey were among his victims.
Lewis had been a professional for four years and fought in fifteen states when he arrived at the Coliseum Bowl. His game plan to beat Little Tiger Wade went out the window when a left hook gonged off his head. A right whistled in next, exploded off his chin, and “when Lewis went down,” Muller tells us, “his head thudded on the canvas and his legs went straight up in the air.” He wobbled up, but the fight was called off by the referee—in 58 seconds. Lewis was dumbstruck. He called it a fluke and demanded a rematch. Two weeks later he went down five times in four rounds before the fight was stopped.
Not long after that, Wade faced Harvey Massey. In over a hundred professional bouts, only two fighters stopped him—Charley Burley and Lloyd Marshall. Wade stopped him in four rounds and became the third. After the fight, Massey went around telling anyone who would listen that he wasn’t hurt and demanded a rematch. Muller tells us more: “A firm believer in his own ability, Massey insisted the match be made on a winner-take-all basis.”
Two weeks later, he was knocked into retirement.
Wade took both purses and went to the pork store.
Fight reports and other points of facts found in Reno Evening Gazette 11/22/35; Nevada State Journal 11/23/35;San Francisco Examiner 8/8/42, 6/6/43 (Wade avoided); 7/17, 18, 19, 20/43; Wade’s style, build, and avoidance issues in San Francisco Examiner 12/11/44, 6/29/40, 6/20/43, and 6/23/43; Joe Walcott comparison, Holyoke Transcript-Telegram, 10/14/47.
Springs Toledo can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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