The story of "Gypsy" Joe Harris is like one of those movies that switches up on you without warning, turning from a light comedy into a stomach-churning tragedy. The headstone that will be dedicated at Harris' grave tomorrow in Bala Cynwyd on a plot that was unmarked for 16 years, will have to serve as a happy ending.
From 1964 to 1968, Harris was Philadelphia's biggest boxing sensation. He was a bigger draw than Joe Frazier, his friend and stablemate from the Police Athletic League gym at 22d and Columbia. Fans who saw the 5-foot-5 1/2 Harris fight - there are no known films - still marvel at his oddball artistry. He'd shimmy and dance, windmill and bolo-punch. He'd put his arms down and dare opponents to hit him. He'd walk away from clinches and come back firing from weird angles. And he'd dominate.
"He did things that I have never seen a fighter do in the ring, before or since. And I have seen untold thousands of fighters," says Nigel Collins, the editor of The Ring magazine in Blue Bell, who saw Harris fight at the old Philadelphia Arena. "A lot of people labeled him a clown, but that was a misnomer. He was an improvisational genius."
The Inquirer's account of Harris' October 1967 win over Bobby Cassidy was typical: "in the third round, he did his Indian was dance and blew kisses at his opponent. In the fourth, he kept up a fairly sustained body attack, and then he cut Cassidy's right eyebrow [a half-inch gash] in the fifth."
"The thing that impressed me was how strong he was," said Cassidy, who knocked Harris down in the ninth round and lost by close decision.
By age 22, Harris was 24-0. He had outclassed welterweight champion Curtis Cokes in a non-title bout and in 1967 was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Then came his one and only loss - and, suddenly, the end of his career.
Harris boxed with a secret that he later said was an open one: He was blind in his right eye. As a child, he had been in a Halloween-night fight over a bag of candy he had snatched.
Promoters and regulators overlooked his handicap while he was winning and drawing crowds, he said. But his cavalier attitude outside the ring caught up to him. Harris drank too much and ate too much. He missed weigh-ins, sometimes while playing pool. He was suspended after a 1967 bout for "jeopardizing the show by coming in so far overweight" (he weighed 161 pounds for a 147-pound welterweight match). His fights were made and then often cancelled. He drove promoters crazy.
"It reached a point where they no longer wanted to protect him," Collins said.
In October 1968, in an examination requested by the state commission, a doctor discovered Harris' eye problem. Although Harris was in line for a welterweight title shot, his boxing license was revoked and never reinstated. He was 22.
"All I want to do is fight. ...I'll sign a wavier. Nobody will have to be responsible if they'll just let me fight," he said in a 1971 Inquirer story that described him as "25 with a face that says 40,"After that, he drifted. He got and lost a job as a trainer in Frazier's gym. (He worked briefly as a sparring partner for Frazier, helping him prepare for Muhammad Ali's speed.)
Harris slipped into alcoholism, then heroin addiction. Gypsy Joe Harris: Son of Philadelphia, a new book by Harris' brother, Anthony Molock, says Harris contemplated jumping off the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. Harris died after his fourth heart attack, in 1990, at age 44. The second half of his life was a long, sad might-have-been.
John DiSanto started the Web site PhillyBoxingHistory.com as a shrine to the city's boxing memories. He's 44 himself, too young to have watched Harris. Last year, working on a project to procure a headstone for boxer Tyrone Everett, DiSanto went to Merion Memorial Park in Bala Cynwyd - and looked and looked for Harris' grave.
"I was looking in the right place. There just wasn't a headstone," he says. Now thanks to DiSanto and his contributors, there is one. It will be dedicated in a ceremony, open to the public, at 1 p.m. tomorrow at the cemetery.
"There are a lot of fighters without headstones," says DiSanto, who is accepting donations for future memorials in the Web site and at Fairhill Street Productions/Gravestone Fund, Box 428, Sewell, N.J. 08080.