PHILLY BOXING HISTORY - March 11, 2015                                                              
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Tales of Struggle and Survival
by Gabe Oppenheim

An Excerpt from "Boxing in Philadelphia"

Courtesy of Rowman & Littlefield


The man from Philadelphia that night had been a pro for nine years, since the age of 18. In that time, the former drug runner had gained 15 or so pounds to reach the light-heavyweight limit of 175. He had also lost chunks of his flesh to stab wounds and bullet holes; time to trials and charges; and that crucial bit of freedom that comes with an education. It had been a decade since he had dropped out of school.

All fighters lose immeasurable parts of themselves, in sweat and pain and joy. Men are physical creatures. We wear down. But one thing Eric Harding had not lost was a fight. He had crawled through the ropes 19 times, and not once had the ref raised his opponent’s hand. As long as he kept forcefully willing that hand into the ref’s, he wouldn’t worry. Not that it had been easy – it had been far from that. After his first fight, he had entered the Philadelphia night with a draw. Less than a month later, he was back in the ring, knocking out his opponent in one round. In his 16th fight, they put him against a 34-1 former champion on four days’ notice. He was knocked down, as he would be many times more in his career, but he won a split-decision. The final judge favored him by just four points.

Now it was June 2000, and in his 20th fight, Harding was facing a former Olympic medalist. The winner would become the world champion’s mandatory challenger. Yet the New York Times was calling the bout “little-anticipated.” This is how it was for a boy from his city. But Harding broke the Olympian’s jaw and two of his ribs and won.

Less than three months later, as a 30-1 underdog, he gave the champion all he had. In the second round, he threw an overhand left – his power punch as a southpaw. The champion blocked it with his right hand. Harding’s biceps tore like paper.

But he persevered eight more rounds, and would’ve gone all 12 had his trainer let him. Instead, the trainer took the ringside doctor’s advice and threw in the towel. Eric Harding couldn’t close his fist – and might never have again had he continued. It was considered a technical knockout for the champion, but it almost didn’t matter: To that point, the judges’ scorecards were grossly skewed for the champ, even though some ringside writers thought Harding had been winning.

The Philadelphia boy lost motivation after that. He bulked up to 40 pounds more than his fighting weight. And in 2002, they paired him again with the lefty Olympian he had crushed, who hadn’t lost since. In the fourth, the Olympian knocked him down with the perfect left. He rose, on gelatin legs, and wobbled around the ring until the bell.

Fifth round: The Olympian caught him with another left. And he plunged into the wide blue canvas like a brick smacking the face of the sea. A pause. He struggled to his feet as the ref counted to eight.

“Can you continue?” the ref asked. “Are you okay?”

"I'm from Philadelphia," he said, to indicate his readiness and willingness, moments before being decked again - this time for good.

 In colonial times, Philadelphia was a vital city – lots of laborers and shopkeepers and merchants in the colonial days. A trade center bordered by two rivers, with a population of 23,700, it was bigger than New York, brighter. Its planners invented the city grid that New York would soon copy.

Soon, actually, everything would be lost. Philly lost the state capitol to Lancaster (later Harrisburg) and the national one to D.C. Baltimore’s exports surpassed Philly’s in value. After the War of 1812, European merchants made New York their harbor of choice. And then New York overtook Philly in population.

Philly bounced back – it always does (or seems to promise to). In the 19th century, using coal and steam, Philly built up a city of plants and factories, becoming the world’s foremost maker of everything from high-quality iron to dental appliances.  Philly did more than just develop industry, though. It developed an industrial culture – a culture that valued the work a man could with his hands. Because the thing about Philly’s plants was that they weren’t massive and impersonal. Didn’t employ thousands of people or rely heavily on machines. No, Philly plants were smaller and more refined than those in Boston and Baltimore. They were often owned by artisans and charged with producing detailed, intricate items – items that could be assembled only by a skilled pair of hands.

So this culture was one that didn’t look down on machine-like efficiency but didn’t see it as the be-all-and-end-all either. Philly’s was a work culture that valued both productivity and skill. Slugging and boxing. A guy who could pound away and use his technique to be crafty and slick –that was a Philly worker. And a Philly fighter.

And as the factories were getting going, so too was the boxing game. In 1857, Philly heavyweight bareknuckler Dominick Bradley beat Sam Rankin of Baltimore (that loathed competitor city) in the 157th round for the heavyweight championship and $2,000 in bet winnings. At the same time, on a more local level, bar owners in Philly began erecting rings in the back of their establishments so that drunken patrons could watch a few matches and lay down bets. These “sparring contests” of four rounds, and then six, for “scientific points” were technically illegal if an official decision was rendered. So the gamblers agreed in advance to follow the judgment of a certain newspaper.

And so Philly became the fighting city.  In 1909, the light-heavyweight champ of the world, “Philadelphia” Jack O’Brien was once training in the gym when Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, the WASPiest, most upper crust Philadelphian of the time walked in with an opera tenor. Now, Biddle was known to have dabbled in boxing as an amateur and taken a real liking to the sport, so the sight of him in the gym wasn’t a total surprise. But what happened next was. The opera tenor hopped in the ring and went three strong rounds with the hall-of-famer. “It was a vigorous display,” reported the New York Times, “with both men slamming away as though they were fighting for a championship title.”

Biddle is actually the man who made boxing legal in New York – long after it had become standard in Philadelphia. In 1920, the Catholic governor of New York, Al Smith, didn’t want to sign the bill to legalize boxing in his state because he feared voters would see it as a Catholic ploy aimed at helping fellow Catholics (since many fighters then were Irish and Italian). So he told a state senator to gather 100 letters of support from Protestant clergymen over a single weekend. The state senator, figuring the job impossible, called up Biddle for help. Biddle mustered more than 600 Protestant clergymen’s telegrams and letters by Monday morning. And so boxing became legal in New York because of the work of the most prominent, ritziest man in Philadelphia.

It all came from Philly.

Jack Johnson, the controversial first black heavyweight champ, fought more times in Philly than any other city besides his hometown. Sugar Ray Robinson, perhaps the best boxer ever, fought under his first promotional contract in Philly, appearing there 20 times. Joe Louis, perhaps the greatest heavyweight of all time, was trained by Jack Blackburn, a lightweight who fought out of Philly at the turn of the century.

And then there were the fighters Philly produced on its own – characters nearly all of them, some funny, others tragic, many both. From Joe Grim to Gypsy Joe Harris to Meldrick Taylor.

I am reminded of a line from Joyce Carol Oates’ book “On Boxing”: “The defeat of one man is the triumph of the other: but we are apt to read this “triumph” as merely temporary and provisional. Only the defeat is permanent.” And another line, from the sad boxer Sonny Liston, whose own career was taken over by a Philly mobster: “Someday they’re gonna write a blues song just for fighters. It will be for a slow guitar, soft trumpet, and a bell.”

            And yet, somehow, Philly keeps moving along, keeps producing fighters. Head to the Joe Hand Gym in Northern Liberties on any given day and you’re sure to see a diverse group of amateur fighters, contenders, former title challengers jumping rope, shadowboxing, sparring.

Fifty-year-old light-heavyweight legend Bernard Hopkins’ story is by now well-known in the wider sports world. After learning how to box while in prison (strong-armed robbery was the crime) and making 20 successful defenses of his middleweight title, he moved up to light-heavyweight and later became the oldest champion in the history of the sport.

            What people forget after all these decades is how Hopkins began his career: in the legendary Blue Horizon, a former moose lodge on North Broad Street in Philadelphia that a magazine once rated the greatest venue in the world to watch a fight because of its low-hanging balconies.

Hopkins was a nobody that night. Just some ex-con facing another mug making his debut. And Hopkins went the full four scheduled rounds. And he lost. One judge had him down two points, one had him down one point, and one just had it a draw. A majority decision against him. That was in 1988. A champion today, he might as well have uttered the line himself when he left the ring that night. Was he going to quit?

“I’m from Philadelphia.”


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Gabe Oppenheim - Philadelphia - March 11, 2015
Courtesy Rowman & Littlefield