|PHILLY BOXING HISTORY - August 04, 2014||
THE BARON OF LEIPERVILLE
by Richard Pagano
[Editor's note: The
following is an excerpt of the newly released book by
Richard Pagano about local boxing legend James "Baron"
Dougherty. Copies of the book can be purchased directly from
the author for $19.95. For more info contact Rich Pagano at email@example.com.
The Black Shadow of Leiperville
“I still believe George Godfrey was the most handcuffed boxer of all time.”
Hasson – Boxing historian and voting member of the
International Boxing Hall of fame.
Jack Johnson brought big George Godfrey to Leiperville sometime in 1922, and asked Jimmy Dougherty if he would be interested in buying Godfrey’s contract for $1,000 and managing Big George. Johnson, who was good friends with Dougherty, said this was his gift to the Baron, and that Godfrey had the makings to become the next world heavyweight champion.
However, the story of who bought Godfrey’s contract gets a little confusing because of various conflicting newspaper reports taken from interviews with Dougherty himself.
Dougherty originally told the story like this, “Jack Johnson, shortly after serving his term in the federal penitentiary, took Godfrey on as a sparring partner, paying him $75 a week. Big George was a little too much boy for Johnson to handle safely in exhibition matches and was making Johnson look bad so he brought him to my hotel, and I agreed to purchase his contract for $1,000.”
Another account by R. A. McNally of the Philadelphia Bulletin has Dougherty buying Godfrey’s contract from Dempsey’s manager Doc Kearns for $1,000. “I had no use for Godfrey because I wasn’t interested in backing fighters at that time and certainly could see no reason for handing Johnson $1,000 for him, said Dougherty. “But just at that time Kearns was looking for a good hefty sparring partner for Dempsey, who was getting ready to start training for his fight with Tommy Gibbons. So I sent Godfrey on to Kearns, and Jack bought his contract.”
Later, at some point, Dougherty bought Godfrey’s contract from Kearns. “That’s all bunk about Kearns and Godfrey,” stated Dougherty. “I’m the only boss that Godfrey recognizes, and I bought his contract from Kearns for $1,000.
The Godfrey/Dougherty/Kearns story took another twist when in February of 1925; Edgar T. Gleeson of the San Francisco Call interviewed Dougherty and wrote that Kearns had always been the manager of Godfrey.
“Kearns signed Godfrey for ten years at Atlantic City,” said Dougherty. “And he signed him for one purpose. Every time now, that Harry Wills starts a drive for a Dempsey match, somebody pops up with the question, ‘Can Wills lick George Godfrey?’ If he can’t, why does he set up the claim that he is the champion of his race?’”
Nat Fleischer in his book, “Black Dynamite, Volume V”, wrote, “Ex-heavyweight champion Jack Johnson was preparing for a vaudeville tour and wanted a big sparring partner, impressive-looking, but not too clever, so that the former boss of the heavies could make a good showing on the stage in exhibitions. Godfrey was tried out by Johnson, who decided that the youth was a bit too fast for his purpose. At the same time, Jack considered George entirely too fine a future prospect to remain in obscurity.
“Back in New York, Johnson looked up his friend, Jimmy Dougherty, known in sportdom by the sobriquet of ‘The Baron of Leiperville,’ and advised him to take hold of Godfrey.”
“I’m making you a present of the next world heavyweight titleholder,” said Jack.
“Dougherty naturally had respect for Johnson’s judgment in such matters and at once took Godfrey under his managerial wing,” wrote Fleischer. “
Fleischer, who had just published his first issue of Ring Magazine in 1922, was also aware of stories concerning who really managed Godfrey.
In “Black Dynamite, Volume V”, Fleischer wrote, “Dougherty was Godfrey’s manager by record, but about this time it was rumored that Kearns bought Godfrey’s contract for $1,000, with the intention of using him as a sort of buffer between Dempsey and Wills. Jack Kearns, manager of champion Jack Dempsey, was being annoyed considerably just then by the persistent challenges hurled at the Manassa Mauler by Harry Wills. The idea was that Kearns would tell Wills to go whip Godfrey first, whenever the Black Panther got too busy on Dempsey’s trail. Godfrey was then without any experience worth speaking of, yet there were many experts who thought he would prove too strong for Wills in battle.
“While Kearns used Godfrey as a sparring partner for Dempsey, he always denied that he managed Godfrey. However, that may have been, certain it is that the champion’s pilot did on several occasions inform Wills that the latter must defeat Godfrey before Harry could get a shot at the heavyweight title.”
“Godfrey is really the property, pugilistically speaking, of Kearns,” wrote Alec X. McCausland of the San Francisco Call. “Sam Langford put a high recommendation on him to Kearns. Kearns at that time didn’t want opposition of too serious a nature and color lines were rather severely adhered to. Kearns took Godfrey over, shipped him into pugilistic oblivion by turning him over to his pal Dougherty, and he allowed Godfrey to knock off minor fighters. In other words, Godfrey was Dempsey’s buffer just as John Pesek has for years been Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis’ buffer in the wrestling game. You see folks; it is strictly business both in wrestling and in fighting. Pesek can throw Lewis and a great many wiseacres believe that Godfrey, a 240-pound boxing giant, whose speed, footwork, boxing and blocking are amazing, can whip Dempsey.”
George Godfrey was born Feabe Smith Williams in Mobile, Alabama, on February 27, 1896. The ring name that he later adopted was chosen because of his admiration of a former great black fighter, George Godfrey.
The original Godfrey was known as “Old Chocolate,” and he fought a long list of outstanding boxers such as: Peter Jackson, Joe Choynski, Peter Maher and Jake Kilrain.
For many years, the major black challenger to John L. Sullivan’s title was George Godfrey. Sullivan was the first of the modern heavyweight champions to draw the “color line.” Sullivan had stated that he would meet Godfrey in the ring anytime, if the purse was right, but he never came close to doing so.
Godfrey’s family moved to Chicago when he was two years old, however, when he reached school age, he was sent back to his hometown and attended classes in Mobile and Tuskegee.
Later, at age 17, he was employed full time by the Alabama Dry Dock and Ship Company.
“He was too strong for older men who tried to bully him,” wrote J.J. Johnston and Don Cogswell in their book UNCROWNED CHAMPIONS. “There was a big black man named Eddie Singleton who worked in the same boiler shop and was the local tough guy. The other workers made up a good-sized pot of money and matched the two big guys. Each man had his own fans. Singleton rushed out and hit young Feab with a powerful punch on the chest and Feab landed a right to Singleton’s jaw and broke it in two places. He wound up with several hundred dollars. A local druggist who dabbled in the boxing game became his first manager. Dr. Frank Caffey taught Feab the basics.”
When the United States entered World War I, Godfrey decided to enlist in the 131st Infantry Regiment before the draft, one of the first Negro regiments.
“One of the officers took a fancy to him, and when he found he could box, he encouraged him to exhibit his prowess against some of the other members,” wrote Edgar Gleeson of the San Francisco Call. “In a boxing show at one of the southern towns Godfrey donned the gloves against Sam Langford. He made such a good showing that Sam said to him,’Boy, yo’ ever come back from da war, hunt me up. I’d like to know you better.’
“In one bout,” explained Dougherty, “George tried to show Sam what it was all about and Sam poked him a stiff left that floored Godfrey. ‘That’s just to teach you a lesson,’ Sam remarked to George.
Gleeson continued, “After the war, Godfrey did come back. He joined up with Sam and was used by the latter in a number of bouts, soft spots around the country that Sam worked. Eventually, he was steered into Jack Johnson. The former champion was getting ready for a vaudeville tour and wanted somebody he could slam around. He signed Godfrey up to a contract and started working out with him.”
“Jack found him too good,” said Dougherty. “He called on me one day, ‘I’ve got one of the greatest boxers in the world,’ said Johnson. ‘But he isn’t any use to me. I can’t show off against him in the way I would like. But he’ll make anybody a wonderful present. I’ll pick up a big, strong fellow that I can display my stuff on. But it’s a shame if this fellow Godfrey doesn’t get a chance in the ring.’”
“I didn’t have any cause to sign Godfrey,” continued Dougherty. “But I thought of Kearns and mentioned the incident to him; Johnson wanted a thousand dollars for Godfrey’s contract. And Kearns bought it.”
When the war ended, Godfrey was transferred to the 421st Labor Battalion, stationed in Camp Sheridan in Montgomery, Alabama.
Langford had been so impressed with Godfrey; he told him if he wanted a job after the war was over, to look him up in Chicago. Knowing Langford’s reputation, Big George headed to the Windy City.
In Chicago, he became a pupil of Langford’s, as well as Bobby Dobbs and Jack Blackburn, who years before had trained boxers for Dougherty at Leiperville. Blackburn had also fought most of his career and resided for many years in Philadelphia and Chester. Under their expert instruction, Godfrey improved considerably in a very short period of time.
Godfrey was knocked out by Langford twice in regular bouts, and he was also stopped by Jack Thompson and Battling Norfolk.
Boxing historian Chuck Hasson explained, “I believe that the Langford knockouts of Godfrey were set-ups as Langford used Godfrey in his employment with his touring troupe.”
Johnston and Cogswell wrote, “Godfrey was now living in and fighting out of Chicago. Sam Langford turned his protégé over to Johnnie Tholmer, and ex-fighter and now a good trainer. All these men imparted their knowledge to George who was becoming both skillful and a powerful puncher. He was also very fast for a big man.”
Under the management of Dougherty, Godfrey had his first fight in the northeast against George Ward on October 20, 1922, at the National Club in Philadelphia. In Godfrey’s first bout in the City of Brotherly Love, he was victorious, scoring a knockout in the fifth round.
The Philadelphia Bulletin reported, “It begins to look as if Philadelphia would have a heavyweight fighter of class, something that has been lacking in this city in many years. On Friday night, at the National Club, Jimmy Dougherty turned loose a giant colored man, who is sure to make boxing history if nothing happens to cut short his career. This man, George Godfrey, is the best young heavyweight boxer since the days of Jim Corbett and Jack Johnson. He is 6 feet 3 inches tall, weighing 210 pounds, hard as iron, without a pick on his bones; all hard muscle, with feet as large as ordinary canoes.
“He is going to make his home in this vicinity, and for the future will represent Philadelphia in the boxing world. From now on there will be no necessity for any heavyweight fighter looking for trouble to pass by Philadelphia. It will be a case of bring them along, first come, first served. The city of Philadelphia has long been celebrated for its boxers in various classes, but it has not had even a good third-rate heavyweight for a long while, but there was never so promising a heavyweight prospect here as this big fellow Godfrey.”
After three more victories, Godfrey took part in a box-off to see if he was good enough to fight on a Madison Square Garden program.
In 1923, Leo P. Flynn, the matchmaker for Madison Square Garden, arranged a box-off at Billy Grupp’s Gym in the black section of Harlem,” wrote Nat Fleischer. “The bouts were to decide if any of the contestants were worthy to fight on the Garden program.
“George was one of those contestants, and in his first bout, he knocked out Clem Johnson, a promising heavyweight, in two rounds. George then took on the Canadian heavyweight, Jack Renault. They sparred four rounds, at the close of which Renault had taken such a battering that he was practically ‘out on his feet.’”
It was after this performance that Flynn, who was also Renault’s manager, decided to put Godfrey in a main event at Madison Square Garden. A Winnipeg syndicate had announced before the fight a proposal to match the winner of this fight with Harry Wills.
The fight turned out to be a real learning experience for Godfrey. As a result, he was knocked out in the eleventh round. Nevertheless, the bout was surrounded by controversy because Big George never really threw a single hard punch the entire fight.
In “Black Dynamite Volume V”, Fleischer wrote, “Godfrey, aware of how he had handled Renault in the gym, felt confident of victory. However, before the fight, Flynn told Godfrey that he had received a warning tip that if Godfrey whipped his white opponent, the Ku Klux Klan would have him kidnapped and hanged. The consequence of Flynn’s fine strategy was that Godfrey, who firmly believed the horrible tale, was so scared when the hostilities began, that he never threw a single hard wallop through the entire contest, which ended with Renault scoring a knockout in the eleventh round.”
It was just the beginning of an up and down career in the ring, which at times was no fault of Godfrey’s.
Dougherty got Godfrey back to Leiperville so he could start doing more roadwork and boxing at his training camp. From there, Godfrey headed to Dempsey’s training camp in White Sulphur Springs, New York, where the champion was preparing for another title defense, this time against Luis Firpo, the “Wild Bull of the Pampas”at the Polo Grounds in New York. Dempsey and Godfrey would pick up where they left off during training for the Tommy Gibbons fight in Shelby, Montana.
Three days after Dempsey floored Firpo, Godfrey had has one and only bout in Delaware County when he scored a TKO in the second round over Buddy Jackson at Smedley Field in Chester on September 17, 1923.
It seemed that Big George did not like to train. “George’s roadwork would consist of running from Leiperville to Springhaven Golf Course and then back again,” recalled Howard. “There were days when he didn’t return and I would go looking for him, and he would be sitting by the creek with a dog. He would take water from the creek and put it on his face to make it look like he was sweating. Other days, I would find him sleeping by the creek. I always had to get after him about training, especially when he had to do roadwork.”
Godfrey, who was now 6 ft. 3inches tall and 235 lbs., scored knockouts in his next two fights against Big Bill Tate and Rough House Ware. However, he lost on fouls against both Battling Owens and Tom Cowler. He was beating Owens convincingly before he hit him low, and Owens was given the fight on a foul in round five. He actually knocked Cowler down with a left and followed with a right while Cowler was on one knee, fouling again to give Cowler the win in the second round.
Godfrey knocked out his next two opponents, Farmer Lodger and Jack Thompson, but unfortunately, he went to New York and lost on another foul, this time to Jack Townsend.
“Before the ‘no foul’ rule went into place in most states, a low body blow would win for an opponent who wanted to take the easy way out,” explained authors Johnston and Cogswell. “Or a referee who was crooked could award a fight on a foul to save or win a bet. George Godfrey was one of the hardest punchers in ring history. He learned that skill from the great Sam Langford who told him ‘kill the body and the head dies’. Many times in his career Godfrey, who could give or take a punch, was accused of hitting low instead of knocking out an opponent to save or win a bet for the gamblers.”
On September 8, 1924, Godfrey fought Jack Renault in a rematch before a large crowd in Philadelphia at Shibe Park.
“In the first half of the contest, Godfrey was clearly superior to the Canadian,’ wrote Nat Fleischer. “Fearing lest making too good a showing would scare off other prospective opponents, he eased up and coasted in the latter rounds. Many spectators thought he was entitled to the decision. That he failed to get it was due to his own poor judgment.”
Godfrey scored knockouts in his next five fights against Joe White at the Arena in Philadelphia; Black Soldier Jones in Pottsville, Pennsylvania; Tut Jackson in Madison Square Garden; Vic Alexander in Wilmington, California; and Sam Baker in Vernon, California.
Margaret, the youngest of the Baron’s eight children, was very young when Godfrey was training at the Dougherty house in Ridley Park.
“He trained in a ring in Daddy’s garage, and he was always in our house,” remembered Margaret. “He’d come in every morning for breakfast before his training run. He’d take two eggs and crack them and swallow them. It used to make me sick.
“I’d play school with him. I’d ask him to spell a word, and he would misspell it on purpose. Then I’d say, ‘Now you have to stand in the corner,’ and this great hulking man would do it. I just adored George.
“One day he took me to the circus, and he carried me on his shoulders, this little red-headed child on the shoulders of this huge black man. There had been a kidnapping about that time, and the police stopped us, I guess to make sure George hadn’t kidnapped me.
“I really loved George. He was a real doll and very gentle.”
“There were times when Damon Runyon would drive George and me down to that little island near Walber’s on the Delaware River,” recalled Mary Damico, Margaret’s older sister. “We would both go in the river and swim together.”
The Vic Alexander fight was Godfrey’s first bout in the state of California. After knocking out Alexander in six rounds, Godfrey preceded to win five more consecutive bouts on the west coast.
During this time, Howard traveled all over the country with Godfrey. He was out of school, having graduated from Ridley Park High School in 1924.
“I went to St. Rose Lima School in Eddystone,” recalled Howard. “I got in fights all the time and finally was kicked out, and the Baron sent me to Penn Charter, the prep school. Later, I went to Ridley Park.
“Out of high school, I went to California for two years, training the Baron’s fighters and spending a lot of time with George. I traveled all over the country with George and even went to Mexico with him.
“One time we were driving through Texas, and there were some areas we went through where I told him to slide down in the seat because certain people in that area did not take kindly to blacks and whites being together. Remember, this was the 1920’s. So I got stopped by the state police for speeding and George got out of the car. Remember, at this time, he was 6’3” tall and weighed about 240 pounds. The state cop said, ‘That is the biggest black man I have ever seen.’”
Godfrey’s second fight in California was against Sam Baker at the Arena in Vernon.
“Godfrey was matched in Los Angeles with a monstrous black fighter, Sam Baker, whose hands were so big that he had to have special gloves made,” wrote Cogswell and Johnston. “Film star Douglas Fairbanks managed him. George knocked him out in four rounds”
Baker was actually down 20 times in the contest, including eight times in the fourth round alone.
Hap Navarro, who is a boxing historian, writer and an expert on California boxing, wrote, “From the night of his power-punching display at Jack Doyle’s Vernon Club, Godfrey’s fame grew steadily until the magnitude of his achievements was reflected generously at the ticket windows wherever he performed.
“Godfrey was the main draw for three California outdoor promotions during the first nine months after the state’s ten-round law had taken effect January 1, 1925. It was this Alabama giant who gave the heavyweight ranks in the west a much-needed jump start.”
While in California, and with his popularity growing with every victory in the ring, Godfrey decided to try acting. He was a natural actor and audiences seemed to enjoy watching him on the big screen. This acting talent definitely ran in his family, because his brother was also an actor and comedian who worked under the name “Crybaby Godfrey”.
Remember, the movie industry was in its infancy. After World War I, the American movie industry gradually moved to Hollywood, California. Sport’s icons like Babe Ruth, Red Grange, and Jack Dempsey were all making films in Hollywood. The film studios didn’t seem to be concerned with whether these athletes could act, but they were more concerned with their popularity and star power. People wanted to see these legendary sports figures on the big screen and that translated into big bucks for the heads of the film industry. However, at the time, few movies offered blacks parts with any authenticity. Most blacks generally played conventional roles as chorus girls, convicts, racetrack grooms, boxing trainers, and flippant servants.
That was not the case for Godfrey as he landed a part in James Cruze’s production of “Old Ironsides”. Godfrey played a cook on board the USS CONSTITUTION. “Old Ironsides” was a real classic from the silent movie era about romance and adventure in the battles against the Barbary pirates. Besides Godfrey, the cast consisted of some really fine actors which included: Esther Ralston, Charles Farrell, George Bancroft, and the legendary Wallace Beery. Also, Boris Karloff and Olympic gold medal winner Duke Kahanamoku had bit parts as pirates.
Many years later, critic Tim Lussier wrote, “Finally, to Cruze’s credit, and remember this is 1926, George Godfrey’s color was not exploited for humor. Cruze uses one running joke for Godfrey’s character, the bit where he spits through his fingers for good luck. Also, when the four men are captured and sold as slaves, there is no distinction between each one as they are chained together and escape to freedom.”
Godfrey was definitely featured in a more significant role than black actors of the time were usually given.
“The movie was shot in and around Catalina Island,” explained Howard. “I was out on the West coast at the time training George, and I got the opportunity to be an extra in the movie. If you look close enough, you can see me in some of those crowd scenes.
“George also had an embarrassing moment when he had to jump overboard to save Ralston, Bancroft’s love interest in the movie, and they found out he couldn’t swim.”
Budd Schulberg, who is well known for his 1954 Academy- award- winning screenplay for “On The Waterfront”, wrote in his book, “Moving Pictures: Memories of a Hollywood Prince”, “My father produced the movie Old Ironsides, and I spent an idyllic summer at the film’s location on Catalina Island. I took swimming lessons from the Olympic champion Duke Kahanamoku and received the obligatory attention of the cast. The formidable black heavyweight George Godfrey, also aboard the USS Constitution, talked fights and sparred with me.”
Godfrey was also a big hit with all the cast, hired hands, and the thousands of extras from OLD IRONSIDES. Many of them would attend his fights and followed his boxing career.
In his next two movies, Godfrey was no longer in front of the camera, but wrote the screen stories for “A Sailor’s Sweetheart” and “One Round Hogan”, both in 1927. In “One Round Hogan”, Godfrey and F.L. Giffen worked together on the screen story about the son of a champion boxer (played by real-life-champion James J. Jeffries). Hogan has a lot of trouble living up to his father’s reputation, but wins the big fight and the love and devotion of the leading lady. “One Round Hogan” was produced by the legendary Mack Sennett.
In 1929, Godfrey was back to acting again, this time in a movie called “Sea Fury”. He finished his acting career in two movies in 1937, a western called “The Riders of the Whistling Skull”, where he played professor Fronc; and BIG CITY, a movie where Godfrey played a character by the name of Nathan. “Big City” had a cast which included quite a few former athletes, especially boxers. Those cast members were: Man Mountain Dean, Jackie Fields, Frank Wykoff, Jim Thorpe, Maxie Rosenbloom, Jimmy McLarin, James Jeffries, and Jack Dempsey.
Godfrey was one of the first blacks to be given a respectable movie role in those early Hollywood years. He also acted with some top notch actors and even wrote two screen stories. He obviously had the ability to read and write, and besides boxing, he held his own in front of the camera.
During that time, I think it was important to white America to portray Godfrey as a big loveable buffoon, someone who was a mountain of a man without much upstairs.
In the article, “Dempsey’s Favorite Sparring Partner”, the following was written, “Godfrey is illiterate and untrained, and famed reporter Willie Ratner spent endless hours teaching George how to write his name and when the loveable fighter finally learned to scratch out the letters in proper order, everybody in camp felt a glow of satisfaction and warmth; especially Dempsey.”
That doesn’t sound like the Godfrey who a few years later would not only be acting in Hollywood but also writing screen stories.
By late 1925, he was still fighting the best heavyweights who would fight him and challenging all the rest. Dougherty felt that he should claim the title for George since Dempsey hadn’t fought in two years.
“As I feel sure that Jack Dempsey will never fight again,’ said Dougherty. “I claim the world’s heavyweight championship for Godfrey. George will fight anybody in the world.”
Godfrey would never get the opportunity to fight Dempsey for the title. A black fighter by the name of Harry Wills was always talked about at the time as Dempsey’s next opponent. Wills was considered the number one contender to Dempsey’s world championship belt. However, after becoming champion in 1919, Dempsey said he would not fight a black boxer.
California sportswriter Sol Plex explained promoter Jack Doyle’s offer to Wills, “Thoroughly convinced that Jack Dempsey will never again sidle through the hemp for the purpose of defending his world championship, Jack Doyle, veteran Vernon promoter, today telegraphed Paddy Mullins a flattering offer for Harry Wills to meet George Godfrey at Maier Park on the afternoon of June 6, in a bout that would determine the Manassa Mauler’s successor.
“Doyle told Mullins that he would give Wills a $5,000 diamond belt emblematic of the title. All he asks is that the “Brown Panther of New Orleans’ give Godfrey the first shot at the crown.”
“The color line was the chief obstacle in Godfrey’s path, as in the case of Wills,” wrote Nat Fleischer. “The race issue was formerly much evidence where pro boxing was concerned. Also, those Negro fighters often had to take what they could get in the way of matches and frequently ‘fight to order,’ and carry opponents whom they could have defeated.
“Godfrey, an easy-going, good-natured chap, fought ‘under wraps’ many times. Not being of a worrying disposition, he seldom protested against such conditions, but did as commanded, even though he knew his reputation was bound to suffer in consequence of obeying.”
“The Baron and I had to tell George at times to carry opponents or we would not be able to get him fights,” recalled Howard. “We made concessions in order for George to meet high rated fighters including carry opponents, and fouling out.”
Chuck Hasson, a top boxing historian and a voting member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, wrote, “I still believe Godfrey was the most ‘handcuffed’ boxer of all time. His loss to Johny Risko was a case in point as some fair eyewitness scribes have noted that Godfrey easily handled Risko for the first eight rounds at Ebbetts Field, then Risko made a courageous stand in the last two rounds and they awarded him the decision.
“It was widely understood in Philly that Godfrey agreed to ‘carry’ Risko, that his first two matches with Jack Renault were ‘smellers’ and his ‘foul-outs’ were ordered. Today, people don’t realize that one leading black challenger(Wills) was tolerated because of his ‘good name’ with the New York commission but two top black challengers were frowned on. Godfrey and his management (Dougherty) tried to alleviate the situation by attempting to lure Wills into the ring by any means, but of course Wills and Paddy Mullins were not about to risk their position that they earned by taking on young, and very dangerous opponent like Godfrey.
“By the way, if you look at photos of Godfrey before 1926, before his frustrations caused him to gain weight. His body was ripped with muscle and he was always in top condition.”
Sportswriter Harry Newman wrote, “While all the fuss is going on about matching Harry Wills with Jack Dempsey, why wouldn’t it be a good scheme to send Harry in there for a bout with that fellow George Godfrey, who is now looming up as a pretty bright prospect, and one that might make a formidable opponent for any of the boys in the heavyweight division.
“It may be that Wills will never get a chance with Dempsey, so why wait on the champion any longer? Godfrey and Wills ought to make an ideal fight. A wonderfully molded athlete is George Godfrey, possessing speed, plenty of skill as a boxer and has shown that he has plenty of sting in his punches.
“Right now it looks like Godfrey has arrived. For a while George didn’t look so good, and was suspected of being chicken hearted. We saw him stopped by Jack Renault about a year ago, but we suspected at the time the bout was a Barney and that it must be thrown out of the reckoning.
“Since the queer one, we were there the night George knocked out Bill Tate in the Garden, and now his decisive victory over Tut Jackson stamps him as a logical opponent for any of the heavies.”
Many of the newspaper write-ups from this time period seem to find fault in Godfrey’s lack of aggressiveness in some of his bouts. Some sportswriters found him too good-natured and not vicious enough in the ring. I think they were unfair evaluations of his ability as a boxer because in many of those bouts he was handcuffed and could not give his all.
“Godfrey will beat Wills just as certainly as the Day of Judgment if they get in the ring together,” said Dougherty in the Albuquerque Morning Journal in 1925.”
Dougherty denied the stories sent out from Los Angeles that Wills and Godfrey had been matched definitely for a fight in Los Angeles on August 1, but said that a match was practically assured, although the date has not been settled. Dougherty did meet with Wills ‘manager Paddy Mullins in Los Angeles and Mullins promised that Wills will meet Godfrey. Dick Donald, a Los Angeles promoter, promised to promote the match and said it would probably be in September.
“Godfrey will dispose of Wills alright,” said Dougherty. He’s too young, too strong, too fast and too good a boxer to let Wills beat him. That boy can box like Benny Leonard. Wills is overrated.”
Actually, at one time, Wills’ manager Paddy Mullins turned down a $125,000 offer from Tex Rickard to fight Godfrey in New York. The story was confirmed in a wire from a special correspondent in New York and was confirmed by a telegram from Dougherty.
“I don’t believe Wills will fight Godfrey,” wrote Dougherty. “Rickard today offered me a $50,000 guarantee for my end and more than twice that much to Mullins for Wills. Mullins flatly refuses to sign Wills for a Godfrey match. That means that Godfrey will stay in California. I’ll go anywhere to fight Wills and the same goes for Dempsey if he means what he says in those European stories about his desire to battle.”
In their third fight, Godfrey finally beat Canada’s Jack Renault in San Francisco.
Renault never had a chance with Big George,” said Dougherty. “The only time the Canadian tried to stand up and fight was in the fourth round, and he hit the floor twice before the welcome sound of the gong. The rest of the time, he spent principally in trying to keep Godfrey from knocking his head off.”
After the Godfrey-Renault fight on the west coast, Dougherty headed east on a train where he was going to attend the Harry Greb- Mickey Walker bout in New York. He was accompanied on the train by several coast newspaper men and by Jack Ketchell, a young Philadelphia light heavyweight who had been fighting on the coast for several months.
“My father was always traveling to California,” remembered daughter Mary Damico. “I would drive him to the train station in Philadelphia, and it would take him four days to get to the west coast. He would stay out there for weeks at a time.”
“During a period of ten years,” wrote H. Walter Schlichter of the Philadelphia Inquirer,” Jimmy Dougherty made sixty round trips from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts besides innumerable long trips of lesser mileage. With his fighters, with his promotional enterprises and with his refereeing jobs, Jimmy said that he had been in every town in the United States that had 200,000 or more inhabitants, besides many cities in Mexico and Canada.”
As a referee, Dougherty was brought in from Leiperville to be the third man in the ring for a fight on Washington’s Birthday in Fresno, California in 1925. It was a bout that marked the return of big-time boxing in California. Professional boxing in the state had been banned, allowing only four-round bouts. That ban was lifted in 1925.
The principals for the contest were Joe Benjamin and Jack Silvers and they were fighting for the Pacific Coast lightweight championship.
John Brannigan of the San Francisco Call wrote, “The bout between Benjamin and Silvers turned out to be a big success fistically and money wise. A crowd of 20,000 and receipts of $43,000 was remarkable considering prices ranged only one, two, three and five dollars.
“Benjamin became the champion, and not a murmur went up from the gathering of 20,000 when Dougherty lifted Benjamin’s hand in victory. It was one of the fiercest fights ever waged in a California ring. Benjamin’s aggressiveness and timely punches no doubt prompted Dougherty to raise Benjamin’s hand.”
“In reference to Jimmy Dougherty acting as a referee in California, he is in my ‘Famous Firsts’ section in ‘California Boxing Scrapbook’ for that very reason,” wrote Hap Navarro. “He was the first ever ‘imported’ referee for a fight in the state after the law of 1925 took effect.
“The commission here finally decreed in 1940 or 1941 that no third man could be imported to officiate at a local fight. I guess the local guys were complaining about the payday.
“You see, refs out here are paid a fixed fee for weekly bouts, but they get a small percentage of the gate for the outdoor biggies.”
Godfrey’s next fight on the coast was against Sully Montgomery, who had been a former pro football player for the Cardinals and Frankford Yellow Jackets before he jumped in the ring. Over the years, many pro football players have tried to make that transition from the gridiron to the ring. Another football player, who actually played on the Frankford Yellow Jackets’ 1926 NFL Championship team, was Tex Hamer. Interestingly enough, Hamer made a stop in Leiperville when he fought Pat Patterson on August 8, 1929, at Leiperville’s Open Air Arena.
Against Montgomery, Godfrey had him down a couple of times before he won on a foul.
BoxRec.com wrote the following about the Olympic Auditorium bout, “In defeat, Montgomery gave one of the worst exhibitions of mucker tactics ever seen in a California ring. The only thing he didn’t do was bite. Montgomery was guilty of at least a dozen fouls. Frank Holborow, the referee, over looked all of Montgomery’s muckerism until Dr. Lloyd Mace examined Godfrey, between the seventh and eighth rounds. He declared Godfrey had been badly fouled and Holborow then awarded the bout to Godfrey.”
Still with no chance of Godfrey fighting Dempsey, Dougherty continued to challenge Harry Wills.
“From late 1923, Baron Dougherty issued challenges almost daily for Wills to take on Godfrey, who was Philadelphia’s greatest drawing card,” explained Hasson, boxing historian and co- author of ‘Philadelphia’s Boxing Heritage 1876-1976’. “Promoters Herman Taylor and Bobby Gunnis figured such a match in Philadelphia would do between $250,000 to $500,000, and the winner would be the ‘logical challenger’ for Dempsey. Dougherty offered all kinds of perks to Wills including that Godfrey would take the match for $1.00.
“We do know that Wills would not fight him. Even the dean of the black newspapermen of that period Rollo Wilson was critical of Wills for not meeting Godfrey, claiming Godfrey would beat Wills.
“Being the ‘most handcuffed boxer of all time’ in my opinion doesn’t necessarily mean that he was the best of his period, just the ‘most feared’ with the cuffs off.”
Just like Harry Wills with Dempsey, no promoter was going to put up the money to see Godfrey or any black boxer get the opportunity to fight for the title. The public just wasn’t interested; Jack Johnson was still fresh in white America’s mind.
Godfrey fought Chuck Wiggins on June 6, 1926, one of the dirtiest fighters in ring history. Johnston and Cogswell in their book entitled, “Uncrowned Champions”, gave the following description of the fight, “Wiggins drove Godfrey wild by using the laces of his gloves on Godfrey and stomped on his feet. Then he went to work inside and gouged George’s eye. This all happened in the first round.
“By the sixth round Godfrey’s neck and waist were raw from glove-lace scraping and the giant Negro was limping from repeated stomps on his feet. Finally George started fouling back and Chuck never complained. Instead, he got in close and worked with his thumbs in George’s eyes until George finally landed a hard one in Chuck’s groin. The referee gave the fight to Wiggins on a foul.
“Wiggin’s got away with his mayhem, and George was suspended for 30 days.”
After that debacle with Wiggins, Godfrey lost a close one to Jack Sharkey in Boston, and then defeated Bob Lawson on the under card of the Dempsey-Tunney fight at the Sesquicentennial Stadium in Philadelphia (later called JFK Memorial Stadium).
That same stadium was also used that year as the home field of the Philadelphia Quakers of the new American Football League (AFL). In 1926, the Quakers captured the AFL championship, and the Frankford Yellow Jackets brought home the NFL title. It was the first and only time in Philadelphia history that football teams from two different leagues captured championships in the same year.
Godfrey went on a tear after the Sharkey loss to register twenty-two consecutive wins, with sixteen of them coming from the knockout route. His last fight before losing to Johnny Risko at Ebbet’s Field in June of 1928, was against Spain’s Paulino Uzcudun at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, California.
Godfrey was the greatest drawing card during this time in California, and it really peaked when he outpointed Uzcudun in ten rounds. A huge crowd of 40,000 paid $128,000, which set a new California record and was the first bout ever in California to draw a $100,000 gate. Uzcudun received $35,000 and Godfrey got the biggest payday of his career, $22,000.
“After the fight, Godfrey rented a big house in Beverly Hills,” recalled Dougherty in a Chester Times interview after George’s death. “He set himself up with a Chinese cook and a Japanese butler. He invited lawyers, doctors, and the cream of Negro society, to dinners and banquets. He lived high.
“Inside of 90 days, he called me. He was broke and he wanted a fight. I got him a fight for $7,500. The day he was weighing in he handed me a paper. ‘Take care of this,’ he said. ‘It’s the law. I don’t know nothing about it. You take care of it.’ It was a bill from the telephone company for $900. He had been calling all over the country since he didn’t have to put any money in the box.
“Even after the fight he bought himself a Chrysler and a Ford. The Ford just to run around in, and hired himself a chauffeur. He even bought my son, Howard, a huge Cadillac with all the shiniest decorations and trimmings. And he was broke again in less than two months.”
“My father was really upset about how he spent all his money and the fact that he bought me a car,” remembered Howard. “George and I drove all the way home across the country in that Cadillac. Boy, the Baron was really angry at George.”
During this time, Godfrey was being called the “Savior of the fight promoters” because everywhere he fought, he sold out the arena. He was the biggest draw in California, selling out the Olympic in Los Angeles twice, and he also was a big draw in Philadelphia.
“Promoters Gunnis and Taylor, of Philadelphia, were in the red to the tune of $15, 000,” recalled Nat Fleischer. “They called upon the services of Godfrey and set a new indoor record for the City of Brotherly Love. The Arena Corporation in Philadelphia was in financial straits when Godfrey was matched to fight Jack Gross and once again, the towering charge of Baron Dougherty sold out a house and shoved the club into the money-making brackets.”
Fleischer continued to explain Godfrey’s blight, “Instead of the fight convincing the fistic powers the Godfrey was the outstanding challenger in the division, and it only caused contenders to duck the issue all the more. They too were convinced that he was tops, or very close to it, in the heavyweight class, and they wanted no part of him. They knew when to leave well enough alone, and once more George had to content himself with fighting in the smaller clubs for very little money.”
Having been in the top ten of the world heavyweight rankings since 1924 when he was ranked eighth, Godfrey had now moved up to second in 1928. Dempsey had been beaten by Gene Tunney and boxing had a new world heavyweight champion. Now, like he did with challenges to Wills and Dempsey, Dougherty was concentrating on challenging Tunney.
However, Dougherty and Tex Rickard’s friendship really turned sour when Rickard said, “Godfrey is one of the worst fighters I ever saw. Fought three times here in the Garden and never showed anything. Besides Tunney wouldn’t meet a Negro, even if Godfrey knocked out a few more setups.”
“This talk of Rickard is ridiculous,” explained Dougherty. “Rickard should be the last man to draw the color line, inasmuch as the first money he made out of boxing came through Joe Gans, a Negro.
“When Tex first came east to secure Jack Johnson, he ate, drank and slept in the same room with Johnson.
Dougherty then sent a telegram to Rickard that said, “George Godfrey is a clean living fellow and the heavyweight champion today.
“You would be glad to enter Godfrey in your so-called elimination tournament if you thought he could be beat.”
Dougherty also charged that the heavyweight boxing situation is controlled by gamblers and called Rickard the chief of the gang.
Hap Navarro also wrote about the strained relationship between Dougherty and Rickard, “One of the early reasons Godfrey was bypassed as a titular contender was because of the strained relationship between promoter Tex Rickard and George’s manager, Jim Dougherty, who was quoted as telling Tex to ‘go hang himself’ for not using Godfrey in any of his important fistic extravaganzas. It seems Rickard repeatedly snubbed the big man in favor of lesser lights.”
Dougherty was in Portland, Oregon, in late 1927, to see one of his boxers, Tiger Thomas, fight at the Armory Arena. While there, he saw and was able to talk to Tunney, who was acting at a local theatre, but there was no talk about fighting Big George.
The local newspaper reported, “He enjoyed Gene and got a real kick out of the one-round slow motion picture work staged between Tunney and a sparring partner in which the champ shows his famous punch to the solar plexus and chin. It is the big riot of the act.
“When Jimmy walked into the champion’s dressing room, he was given a rousing welcome by the king of the heavies. The two quickly got their tongues to wagging about the past and present.
“As Jimmy left the room for a minute, Gene whispered to several of the writers about the time that he first met the Baron and how Dougherty could have been his manager only that six years ago the name Tunney was never heard of outside of the ham and egg class.”
“Jimmy, bet you can’t remember when you first met the champion,” asked Don Skene, local dramatic critic and famous French sports writer.
“Yep, twas at Vincent Treanor’s desk, sports editor of the Evening World in New York,” said Dougherty.
“Correct,” said Tunney. “Jimmy didn’t give me much of a tumble, but told me to see so and so and that Vincent would treat me right. He was great to me. I never forgot the Baron for the few minutes we talked. Jimmy told me a few things about the game and shot me into a few chiefs of publicity, and he did it because he has a big heart and everybody that knows Jimmy Dougherty always speaks the name. Jimmy could have been my manager, only he didn’t want to butt into some other fellow’s business. You don’t find many Dougherty’s in the fight racket. They come few and far between,” explained Tunney.
Now that Dempsey was out of the picture, Dougherty was hoping to get Godfrey a shot at the new champion, Gene Tunney. The challenging of Tunney did not last that long because on July 31, 1928, Tunney surprised everyone when he announced that he was retiring from boxing. With the announcement, Tunney stunned promoter Tex Rickard and even his manager Billy Gibson.
With a vacant heavyweight crown, Frank Wiener, chairman of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission, stated that Godfrey should be a foremost contender for the title.
“To my way of thinking, Godfrey is just as much a contender for the heavyweight title as Jack Sharkey, Max Schmeling or Primo Carnera,” explained Wiener.
“I certainly am glad Wiener is giving Godfrey the support George deserves,” said Dougherty. “What the Pennsylvania chairman says about Godfrey’s right to be in the championship picture ought to make other commissions throughout the country come to their senses.”
In 1928, Dougherty took his complaint about Big George being ignored to T. Von Ziekursch, the sports editor of the Philadelphia Daily News. Ziekursch, who wrote a column entitled, “In the Groove”, allowed Dougherty to be a guest columnist for a day. Dougherty wrote the following,
“On my last trip around the country, it occurred to me that it would be a good idea to find out what the sports writer thought of the situation. Well, I decided to see what men who really know the boxing game, the sports writers, would say about Godfrey privately and about the heavyweight situation as a whole. Now I am going to pass it along to you. I’m only picking some of the most famous of the writers I talked to.
“Mark Kelly of the Los Angeles Examiner thought Godfrey was a great fighter, even before I did, and said so in his paper. Jim Woods, chairman of the California boxing commission, who isn’t a newspaperman, by the way, told me Godfrey is bigger and stronger than Jack Johnson ever was.
“”Johnson was a waiting fighter,’ said Woods. ‘If he was fighting in these ten-round fights today, they’d throw him out of the ring the same as they would Jeffries. Godfrey is bigger and stronger than Jeffries was, too.’
“Now to get back to the writers, Bob Cronin of the Los Angeles News, and Jack James of the Herald, both told me there is nobody in the heavyweight division to give Godfrey a fight. Paul Lowry of the Los Angeles Times said Godfrey can call the round when he’s really trying to knock any of them out, and isn’t playing with them, like he did with Neill Clisbie. Did I ever tell you about that? You know Clisbie was a sensation in the west, a big colored boy who weighed over two hundred pounds, and was knocking them all cold. They thought they had Godfrey at last. Godfrey stuck out his chin and let Clisbie hit it four or five rounds. Then he knocked Clisbie cold.
“Now, to get back to the writers, Harry Bullion of the Detroit Free Press; Frank O’Donnell of the Detroit Times; and Sam Greene of the Detroit News, all told me there isn’t a man living that can beat Godfrey.
“Scoop Gleason of the San Francisco Call said there is no fighter in the ring who has a chance with him. Tom Laird of the San Francisco News said that too, and told me Jack Renault has never gotten over the beating Godfrey gave him. Laird refereed that Renault fight and another of Godfrey’s fights.
“Dick Kain and Gordon Mackay of the Philadelphia Record and you, yourself, have all told me Godfrey could take this bunch of second-rate tramps that are being lined up as heavyweight contenders and make monkeys of them, if they aren’t already monkeys.”
Frank Wiener, chairman of the Pennsylvania commission, told me he didn’t think there were any two men in the ring who could lick Godfrey.
But to get back to the writers, Ed Frayne of the New York American, and Grantland Rice, Sid Mercer, Vince Treanor, Sam Taub, Murray Lewin and Jackie Farrell, all of them New York experts, have told me the same thing.
“Now if anybody is going to have the picking of a champion, why shouldn’t it be somebody who knows something about fighters and fighting? If it was left up to the sports writers with their reputations at stake in the public mind they would be picking a fighter like George.”
Nat Fleischer, the editor of Ring Magazine, always felt that Godfrey was the leader in the field of heavyweights after Tunney vacated the title.
“Leaving the race question out of my discussion, for I don’t believe it should enter, Godfrey is the outstanding heavyweight now before the public,” wrote Fleischer. “Were he permitted to fight as he can, were the color line not drawn, the next world’s heavyweight champion would be George Godfrey.
“Were Godfrey to obtain the recognition he deserves, he, and not Schmeling, would now be in line for a crack at Jack Sharkey to determine Tunney’s successor.”
Unfortunately, that did not happen, and after almost two years of elimination bouts, Jack Sharkey met Max Schmeling on June 12, 1930, at Yankee Stadium in New York to fill Tunney’s vacant title. Schmeling won the contest on a foul and the world heavyweight championship was now held for the first time by a citizen of Germany.
Eleven days later, Godfrey fought the gigantic (6’6”, 260 pound) Primo Carnera from Italy on June 23, at the Baker Bowl in Philadelphia, the home of the Philadelphia Phillies. Carnera was not only known as the biggest heavyweight champion ever, but was also known to be backed by the mob. That mob was a gang headed by mobster Owney Madden. Most of his fights were fixed with some victims falling without taking a punch, but now and then they took a chance with more willing competitors like Godfrey.
Owney “The Killer” Madden, who was a leading underworld figure in Manhattan during prohibition, bought the Club De Luxe in Harlem from former heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson in 1923 and reopened it a year later, renaming it the Cotton Club.
In 1931, shortly before the end of Prohibition, Madden got out of bootlegging and became partners with boxing promoters “Broadway Bill Duffy and George Jean “Big Frenchie” DeMange. Between them, they controlled the careers of several boxing champions including Max Baer and Primo Carnera. His arranged fixed fights for Carnera eventually led to Carnera capturing the World Heavyweight title in 1933.
Before the bout began, Howard Dougherty was in the dressing room with Godfrey as he made the final preparations before heading into the ring.
“I was in the dressing room with George, and these two racketeers came in and grabbed and started to slap and push around the boxing commissioner,” recalled Howard. “They said they especially needed a cup for Carnera in the fight with Godfrey. During that era, the cups were air filled and they couldn’t get one to fit Carnera. They said he would have to fight without one, and we didn’t want that because it would be easier for them to cry foul for any of George’s low blows. The referee was on the side of the gangsters.
“I was in George’s corner for the whole fight, and I jumped in the ring when they called a foul for a low blow on George.”
In the fight, Johnston and Cogswell, authors of “Uncrowned Champions”, wrote, “Godfrey went to the body for most of the fight, and he and Primo put on a pleasing fight. But George did not go for Primo’s chin with anything hard and made just enough action to make it look good. In the fifth round, he hit Carnera with a left hook that landed in the groin and lost the fight on a foul.”
“There is not the slightest doubt that Carnera’s fight with Godfrey was fixed for the former to win,” wrote Fleischer. “The Italian’s foxy handlers would not have spoiled their racket by permitting him to tackle Godfrey otherwise. They knew what Godfrey could do to their mammoth charge, if allowed to fight in his real form.
“Knowing what instructions he had to carry out, Godfrey still with his heavy punches weakened Carnera and on several occasions it looked as though the huge Italian must go down. When that happened, Godfrey eased up and clinched to aid Primo. But at the half-way mark George was so far ahead on points, it seemed impossible that he could lose.
“There was but one way for George to execute his orders, by earning disqualification. So he began hitting low. He was warned by referee Tom Reilly to keep up his punches, but in the fifth round Godfrey deliberately struck his opponent below the belt. Carnera dropped as if he had been shot. The bout was stopped and Primo declared winner on a foul, thus saving the day for the mob that controlled him.”
As Godfrey left the ring and headed towards the dressing room, there was a lot of booing, profanity and catcalling from the fans. They even started throwing soda bottles, old newspapers, and cuds of chewing tobacco, cigar butts and cushions into the ring.
Sports writer Bill Corum, who was one of the first to talk to Godfrey in the dressing room, wrote in his book OFF AND RUNNING, “I took quick advantage of the situation. ‘George,’ I said, ‘I want you to tell me just one thing and I want you to tell me the truth. Can this fellow Carnera fight?’”
“Mr. Corum,” he replied promptly and earnestly, “the man can’t hurt you. He’s big as a house an’ he kin box a little, but he can’t punch, he can’t punch.”
“At this juncture, Godfrey’s manager, Jim ‘The Baron’ Dougherty, rushed in and dragged the sweating fighter off into a corner where they conferred briefly, wrote Corum. “ By the time the rest of the sports scribes had got inside, Godfrey was rolling his eyes and saying, “Most terrible man I ever did see; man can knock your head right off; man’s dangerous, going to be champion.
“I held to the belief that Godfrey, alone and free to speak, had told me the truth.”
In the February, 1948 issue of Sport Magazine, Jack Sher wrote that Godfrey “had a terrible time losing to Primo. It was almost impossible for this boy to fight badly enough for the huge Italian even to hit him. He finally solved the dilemma by fouling Primo in the fifth round.”
That Godfrey and Carnera bout has the fifth highest attendance total in Philadelphia boxing history. The fight brought in 35,000 fans paying a total of $180,175.
Hap Navarro wrote, “It seems that the gate was tremendous, up in the hundred thousands, and Primo’s camp got the larger share, many times over Godfrey’s end, which supposedly came to $10,000, a pittance. George’s purse was held up by the Commission, and he didn’t get all of it back, but rather something like one-half and only after a year had gone by. Meantime, he was banned from boxing in the state.”
“Predictably Godfrey was made the fall guy and his license was suspended in Pennsylvania for a year,” said noted boxing historian Chuck Hasson. “He engaged in pro wrestling contests in the Camden, New Jersey, area while on suspension.”
He also had a wrestling match at Borchert Field in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, against 6’4’, 230 pound Ernst “Ernie” Scharpegge, who a year earlier fought Gus Sonnenberg for the world heavyweight championship.
After ten minutes of wrestling, Scharpegge won the first fall with a crotch hold and body slam.
What followed was what the Wisconsin News called “one of the worst, and yet one of the most exciting, grin and grunt affairs in Milwaukee history.”
Pete Ehrmann wrote, “When the best two-out-of-three falls match resumed, it was Scharpegge who resorted to fisticuffs after Godfrey got him in a strangle hold, punching George in the stomach and chin. Godfrey retaliated with a right that sent Scharpegge to the mat.
“At that point. More than 12 uniformed policemen rushed into the ring and surrounded Godfrey. As the bell rang and the crowd started to boo, ‘It looked like the start of a riot, ‘reported Ronald McIntyre of the Milwaukee Sentinel.
“But then Scharpegge and Godfrey shook hands and the match resumed, and within moments, Scharpegge took another swing at Godfrey, and when the referee objected, he took a swing at him. The cops rushed into the ring, and Scharpegge took a few of them too. The result was a win by disqualification for Godfrey.”
“When the punching started,” wrote McIntyre.,” Godfrey might just as well have quit for he realized that if he started slugging, a race riot might have ensued.”
With Godfrey being banned from fighting in Pennsylvania, he and Dougherty traveled to Mexico in late December of 1930. While in Mexico City, Godfrey engaged in two bouts. One contest was with Salvatore Ruggirello on News Year Day, with Big George knocking out the Italian in the first round. His other bout was in late February against Ricardo Rosel, which was also a first round knockout for Godfrey.
While in Mexico City, Dougherty and Godfrey also attended a bullfight, where the greatest bullfighter in Mexico performed and killed a bull for the Baron and George.
Gordon Mackay of the Philadelphia Record wrote, “Mr. James F. Dougherty sent me a letter from a far-distant land, and its contents told me that the biggest bullfighter in Mexico killed a bull for Dougherty and Godfrey, which was something of a treat for Jimmy, as he usually had to kill all the bull for George before this.”
After the Carnera debacle, Dougherty had become so disgusted with Godfrey’s inability to get a fair shake in the boxing world that he decided to leave the country for a short time. His letter to sportswriter Mackay indicates his displeasure with Godfrey’s blight.
Dougherty wrote, “I write to let you know that I am still the Wandering Jew, and I’m in a new country, but I want to say that in all my travels I never struck a more freer and prosperous country than Mexico, where all men and women are equal. After all, it’s a great trip for American citizens to be able in their lives to visit some place on this earth where they can enjoy the freedom and liberties that they are deprived of in their country, and where their fore parents bled and laid down their lives for it.
“I’ve been here now three days, and all cafes and places of amusement are wide open, and I’ve got the first time to see a man or woman under the influence of liquor. In my home town of Leiperville, you would see more drunken men than in all of Mexico City.
As the letter continued, the Baron talked about Godfrey’s reputation as an outstanding boxer, “Godfrey and I attended the bull fight on Sunday as the guests of honor of ‘El Matador Liceaga’, who threw his caps into our box seat, and we were honored by the fact that Liceaga killed a bull for Goerge Godfrey and Dougherty. I understand that this is the greatest honor that can be bestowed upon any guest, whether he is a native of Mexico or of a foreign country. The only other American ever given this honor here in the last 25 years was Colonel Lindbergh, although Mexico City has had some of the most prominent men in America visiting here. Only a few months ago, one of the most prominent men in Philadelphia visited here for the purpose of helping to fiancé their government. Samuel Vauclain, Senator Morrow, who was Ambassador here, never had that honor bestowed on him. That goes to show that Godfrey is honored and respected for no other reason than that he has always been honest in his contests of sports and is recognized as the champion of all champions.
“A funny thing happened at the bull ring. Someone got up in the audience and hollered out, ‘Hello Baron how’s Leiperville?’ It happened to be a boy Alfonso Perez, who years ago his parents moved up to Leiperville, and he was one of the small kiddies that I used to take out on my annual free picnics for the children in Leiperville, and believe me, I was glad to see him, and he also to see me.”
Dougherty continued to show his dissatisfaction with the treatment of Godfrey when he wrote, “Get me a buyer for the barn sheds of Leiperville, as I think I will settle here and make this country my permanent home, as I love liberty, of which the country of my birth has none.
“Any man that has the courage to fight Godfrey, and with some reputation, can come into his country and get himself a lot more money by fighting Godfrey here than he can in the States. The promoter here will give Sharkey or Schmeling $100,000 in American money to fight Godfrey. They say they will give Carnera $50,000. They do not think Ruggirello is any match for Godfrey, and neither do I, but it’s not our fault. We don’t pick opponents; we take whatever the club offers. This year, Godfrey has had 12 fights, one draw and 11 knockouts.”
The Carnera bout was the last big fight of Godfrey’s career, but in 1931, when he returned to the ring, he was still ranked third in the world. He was fighting regularly that year, and in 1932, he reeled off eleven consecutive knockouts, including a win over Ace Clark for the Negro heavyweight championship.
By 1933, Godfrey was back doing some more wrestling but was also boxing and lost his Colored Heavyweight Championship to Obie Walker at the Arena in Philadelphia. Godfrey had held that title for seven years, from 1926 to 1933. Later, Walker was beaten by Larry Gaines, and finally it was Joe Louis’ long reign as world champion that would put an end to the World Colored heavyweight title.
That loss to Walker just about finished Godfrey off as far as big time U.S. boxing was concerned. However, he was still wrestling, and this time it was against some really big names like Strangler Lewis, Sandor Szabo and Jim Londos.
In late 1934, Godfrey was offered to have a series of bouts throughout Europe. Fighting in Belgium, Sweden, France and Romania, Big George chalked up eight victories. On October 2, 1935, Godfrey captured the International Boxing Union (IBU) World Heavyweight title by decisioning Pierre Charles in fifteen rounds in Brussels, Belgium. It was really a title that no one outside of Europe recognized.
It seems that in late 1934, the IBU had ordered world champion Max Baer to defend his title against the reigning European champion, Pierre Charles of Belgium. When Baer instead opted to fight James J. Braddock, they withdrew recognition of him as champion.
Subsequently, the IBU matched Charles with Godfrey for their version of the title. After his victory, Godfrey did not press any claim to the championship and it was inactive for the next two years. Then the IBU recognized Baer’s successor, James J. Braddock, as their champion.
“George was treated like royalty overseas, and he indulged himself in wine, women and food,” wrote authors Johnston and Cogswell. “He was soon up to 300 lbs. again and wrestling in Europe and the United States.
“Finally in 1937, George, managed by the colorful Baron von Stumme and Frank Garbut, was granted a California boxing license. He took off a lot of weight and knocked out a couple of sparring partners getting in shape for Hank Hankinson who wouldn’t have lasted a round with the old Godfrey. They drew a decent house and Hankinson had a good night and finished George off in round eight.”
The Hankinson bout was Godfrey’s last fight, and he finished out his life living in a one room apartment. It was reported that he worked as a bouncer and doorman at various nightclubs.” Knockout Magazine” reported that he was working as a doorman and bouncer at the LaConga Nightclub in Long Beach for $10 a night. During this time, he was one of the most popular figures along Central Avenue.
“I got to see and hear George Godfrey after he had retired and set up a small business at the entrance of the original Main Street Gym back in the early 1940’s,” recalled Hap Navarro. “I was just a kid, but I stood by and watched him cut up with Jack Johnson, who was also around the gym in those days. I will never forget his klieg-light smile nor his feet, which were always swollen so badly he could not lace up his shoes.”
His health was not good during his retirement years, and he suffered from heart and kidney problems. On August 13, 1947, Godfrey was found dead of a heart attack in his apartment at the young age of 51.
When Dougherty got word of Godfrey’s passing, he said, “George was one of the nicest fellows who ever lived. He wouldn’t get mad. He was just like a big kid. He would spar ten rounds with Benny Bass, a featherweight, and never hurt him.
“He could knock them all dead. When he was right, he could have taken on Louis, Tunney, and Dempsey, all of them in a Battle Royal and cleaned them up. Godfrey was never knocked down. He was never on the floor. I toured all over with George; he never had to extend himself. In most of his matches, he had to carry the fellows for a couple of rounds. We couldn’t get the topnotchers to fight.
“As IBU champion, George cabled me and asked me to get him a fight with a young newcomer, Joe Louis. I tried through Damon Runyon, but Damon told me that Boxborough, Black, and Blackburn, Louis’ managers, had barred only one fighter for Louis. That was Godfrey.
“I wish I could fly out to the funeral. I would, too, if I weren’t in the middle of my political campaign. Yes, I’d like to go. George was one of the nicest fellows I ever knew.”
Godfrey was extremely popular and there was a large turnout at his wake and funeral. There were reports that Jack Dempsey gave the eulogy at his funeral, but others said it was his close friend Dr. Darrington Weaver. Dempsey did attend his funeral, and some said he even offered to foot the bill, but it seems that the Southern California Boxers and Wrestlers Fund paid for the funeral.
In the book “Uncrowned Champions”, Johnston and Cogswell wrote about Jack Roper, a local heavyweight who had fought Louis, Dempsey and Godfrey, and Roper said, “When Godfrey hit you solid it was all over.”
Also, Primo Carnera, who fought both Godfrey and Louis, said, “Louis had to hit me many times to do what Godfrey did with one punch. There was no comparison with their power.”
Even though the Baron could never get Big George a title shot, Godfrey did win close to a half million dollars in the ring. In his 18 year boxing career, he won 100 bouts and scored an amazing 83 knockouts.
Godfrey lived to see another black heavyweight champion when Louis took the title from James J. Braddock in 1937. He also lived just long enough to see baseball integrated when Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Unfortunately, Godfrey was never given the opportunity that was given Louis or even Jack Johnson. Many historians feel that Johnson ruined it for Godfrey and other black fighters because after he won the title, he easily bowled over the White Hopes sent up against him, plus his very public fondness for fast cars and white women brought hatred from white America. The people running boxing weren’t about to go through that again.
It is such a shame how Godfrey is so overlooked in the history of boxing. Unfortunately, when people look strictly at his record, those handcuffed fights damage his reputation. But pound for pound, he was one of the most dangerous fighters of his era.
Interestingly enough, six years before Dougherty took on the management of Godfrey, he had the opportunity to manage another fighter, who would become one of the greatest heavyweight champions in the history of the sport. His name was Jack Dempsey, and he would spend time in Leiperville like so many other fighters of that era.
To purchase a copy of the book "The Baron of Leiperville - The Life and Times of James F. Dougherty", e-mail the author, Richard Pagano, at firstname.lastname@example.org. The price per copy is $19.95 by check.