|PHILLY BOXING HISTORY March 26, 2012||
It was an all-Philadelphia grudge match, pitting the ferocity of a fading star against the natural talents of a teenage phenom. On November 26, 1946, a crowd of 12,416 filled Convention Hall to witness what many believed would be the passing of the torch from the fists of venerable champion, Bob Montgomery, to the sensational young Wesley Mouzon.
The “Bobcat” was only 27 years old, though with his grinding, in-the-trenches style, the wear and tear of almost ninety professional contests was starting to show. Only three months earlier, in a non-title affair, Montgomery had been separated from his senses in less than two rounds of action against Mouzon. A perfect right hand had started the trouble, and a follow-up hail of leather sent the titleholder crumpling to the canvas for the full count.
That surprising first clash, contested at a rainy Shibe Park, had set the tone for a contentious atmosphere heading into the rematch. Montgomery, a notorious slow starter, felt that he’d been rushed into the ring, with the commission wanting to make sure the crowd of 15,000 saw a show before the rains became too heavy. He discounted the challenger’s win, prompting Mouzon to suggest that Montgomery was a “crybaby.”
The word incensed Montgomery and he revealed a growing hatred for the 19-year-old challenger to the press. Described as a “modern day Battling Nelson” by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s John Webster, Montgomery was a mean, unforgiving fighter between the ropes. Said to be in a foul mood throughout his camp, he had been trained to a razor’s edge by Dick Kain, and now with a little extra incentive, the champion promised to deliver havoc. Rather than try and bob and weave from a distance and look to pick his spots, he would attack violently. “I won’t be waiting for him, I’m going to plough right in,” Montgomery promised.
Nothing had ever been easy for Montgomery. One of nine children, he had come north from South Carolina during the Depression, finding his way into a local Philly gym known as the Slaughterhouse. He paid his dues, earning $25 for his professional debut in 1938. The title that he’d won, lost, and regained in three grueling contests with Beau Jack was not about to slip easily from his grasp. “I have never wanted anything better in all my life than to win this fight,” he said about the return clash against Mouzon.
Montgomery was concerned over having to cool down while the pre-fight announcements were made, and the commission appeased him by ruling that the fighters would remain in their dressing rooms until the bout was ready to start. There would be no more than a two-minute delay from the time both men were in the ring until the opening bell for the scheduled fifteen-rounder. Mouzon felt the request was a out of line but agreed, saying, “It makes no difference to me either way.”
At the physical, Mouzon tried to talk to Montgomery, but the champion refused to acknowledge his foe. The angry title-holder further declared that as far as he was concerned, “anything and everything will go” in the fight. “This is for the title,” he said, “and he can fight as dirty as he wants; if he wants, because I’m going to give him the works.”
Mouzon, also born in South Carolina, came north with his family to Philadelphia when he was just a child. Having turned pro a couple years earlier, his rise up the ranks–to the number 2 spot among lightweight contenders–had been rapid. A year earlier, he’d scored a draw against Ike Williams in a fight many spectators felt he’d won. The only blemish since then had been a ten-round loss to rugged welterweight Danny Kapilow. There was no shame in losing to a fighter like the New Yorker, though Mouzon had appeared lackluster in the bout, and the way Kapilow had successfully forced the issue had some believing that Montgomery, if he could survive early, would be able to do the same.
Long, lean, and quick as a whip, Mouzon preferred to battle from range, earning the nickname “The Chocolate Blur” for his lightning-quick hands. In addition to a long jab and fast feet, he used a dangerous right to dissuade the incoming, and though not known as a heavy puncher, the knockout of Montgomery–along with news that he’d just busted up a light-heavyweight in sparring– appeared to indicate the teenager was growing as a puncher.
Despite a height advantage of several inches, he hinted at a desire to battle at close quarters, and predicted he’d wear Montgomery down for a mid-round stoppage. On the surface, it seemed like more talk than anything, as Mouzon was far more of an artist than a brawler. Yet, during the workout sessions leading up to the fight, trainer Gene Buffalo had the rangy speedster standing his ground and freely engaging with his sparring partners. “He’s doing it under orders…. it’s good for Wesley to get the feel of leather against his face.” Buffalo added that his fighter wouldn’t run from Montgomery; Mouzon would use footwork to step around the champion’s bulldog style.
Adding another layer of intrigue, Mouzon was co-managed by Montgomery’s brother Tom, and it was the commission’s ruling that the champion’s sibling would not be allowed to work the challenger’s corner.
The fight was a barnburner from the opening bell, with Mouzon (132 3/4) setting the tempo early, marking up the champion’s face with a rapid-fire left jab while mixing in an assortment of uppercuts and bolo punches. It looked, as with the first fight, that the young star was too quick and too sharp from a distance for Montgomery (135) to bull his way inside.
But the champion pressed harder in the second session, and caught Mouzon with a short right hand that sent the youngster careening into the ropes. Despite the fact that Mouzon got rocked, the round, in the eyes of some, still belonged to the challenger, as did the third. Mouzon was peppering home jabs, whistling right hands, and anything else he could to keep the hard-charging champion off, though Montgomery’s forward march was unyielding. So hard did Montgomery press that he fell flat on his face at one point, after missing with a big hook.
Little by little, Montgomery broke through. He strafed his lanky foe’s midsection with a vigorous body assault, and as the fourth round progressed, it was apparent that the tide was turning, though Mouzon still managed to shake Montgomery in the session with a bolo punch. After the bout, the champion dismissed Mouzon’s power, though he admitted to being a little dazed from the blow.
The fifth saw Mouzon struggling from a big right hand to the stomach. It took the sting from his punches and the bounce from his legs, but more importantly, after the round he was heard telling his corner that he couldn’t see out of his right eye. How the injury happened was unclear. Mouzon claimed after the bout that he’d been thumbed, though it was revealed later that his retina had been partially detached before he’d even stepped in the ring. According to the commission doctors, a punch, not even directly on the optic, could have exacerbated the damage.
Montgomery poured it on, hooking to the body and head, and the sixth and seventh rounds saw Mouzon slowly wilt under the hammering. As Lanse McCurley of the Daily News put it, “Mouzon’s arms began to drop, his guard to fall, his body to bend, his legs to slow.”
By the eighth, the challenger was on shaky ground. He attempted one last stand, opening up on Montgomery with a valiant rally, though after soaking it up, the champion blasted Mouzon into the ropes and pounded him across the ring.
Finally, a left hook smashed against Mouzon’s jaw, and he fell backward into the ropes, before sliding down and landing face first over the lower strand, almost half out of the ring. He desperately tried to rise, and at eight it looked like he might pull himself up, though he sagged back down for the count. The time was 2:18 when Referee Charlie Daggert reached ten.
“Who’s a crybaby now? That boy had no right to talk that way,” Montgomery said after it was all over.
In the dressing room, a downcast Mouzon held an ice pack over his eye. He said he wanted a rematch, though it would be less than a half hour before he’d learn that his career was likely over. Two physicians were called in to see the teenager, and it was suggested that he rest for a couple of weeks, in hopes that the blood might drain from the eye and the condition heal itself. The months that followed would be difficult. After two surgeries to partially restore his vision, it was confirmed in January that his career was finished.
Years later, Mouzon would reveal that he knew going into the bout that his career was likely over. “I had no vision in the right eye going into the fight.” He had suffered the retina injury in training during a sparring session, after an opponent’s gloves had not been wiped off after a knockdown. Trainer Gene Buffalo wanted to call off the fight, but Mouzon was adamant about taking on Montgomery. “You know how young fighters are – any youngster, for that matter. I wanted to fight.”
When asked by the Associated Press how he’d managed to pass the physical, Mouzon said it was easy. “You just had to read an eye chart, and I had memorized it. All fighters memorized the chart in those days.”
Mouzon moved to New York a few years later, and gained an associate degree from Taylor Business Institute. Eventually he would return to Philadelphia and to boxing, training fighters, including Dwight Muhammad Qawi. Mouzon took great pride when his pupil won the light-heavyweight crown, stating that, “It was like my own dream coming true.”
For Montgomery, the win over Mouzon would prove to be his last successful title defense. The following August he took on Ike Williams. It was another rematch. In 1944 Montgomery had given Williams a savage pasting on the way to a 12th-round knockout. In the years since, Williams had brooded over the result, waiting for his chance at revenge. It would come in the sixth round, when Montgomery, who was starting to rally after his typical slow start, walked into a straight right hand. The punch sent him backwards, spinning over the second rope, before he slid down to the canvas. Never one to go down easy, Montgomery was up at nine, but was beaten into helplessness by his bitter foe. His time as a champion was over, as was his career. He would fight six more times after losing to Williams, without gaining a victory.
In retirement, Montgomery lived for a time off his ring earnings before working as a salesman for a beer company and as a city gang-control worker.
Montgomery and Mouzon stayed in touch, and still saw each other on occasion as old men. When Montgomery was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1995, Mouzon was happy to hear that his old foe was now recognized as one of the greats.
“Bob deserves the honor,” Mouzon said. “He should have made it a long time ago.”
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