Sunday, September 21, 2008

Young Firpo

Courtesy of Rick Farris

Randy and I both had a connection with Young Firpo's trainer Mel Epstein, as you know. Firp will be inducted into the WBHOF this year, and perhaps this information will introduce the former light heavy contender to the world today.

Dear Rick ...Let me reminisce with you somewhat if you are so inclined and take a look at a fight that occurred 74 years ago this evening.

The fight got started around 10:00 p.m., September 20, 1934 at Multnomah Stadium in Portland, Oregon. A capacity crowd of about 7,000 fans filled the stadium to see if Firpo could withstand the Pacific Coast titular aspirations and assault of challenger John Henry Lewis as Firpo had so withstood the challenge, on August 28, 1934, when he left bits and pieces of Tiger Jack Fox scattered about the same Multnomah Stadium ring.

Prior to fight time, Lewis had declared that he was the rightful claimant to the world light heavyweight championship which had been declared vacant when the National Boxing Association striped Maxie Rosenbloom of the title days earlier. When Rosenbloom was stripped, Lewis was selected as one of seven fighters selected by the NBA to determine Rosenbloom's successor. Firpo's name was not included within those seven selected by the NBA. However, the Portland Boxing Commission, a member of the NBA, balked at casting any vote stating that it wanted to see whether how Lewis performed as a challenger to Young Firpo in his bid to annex Firpo's Pacific Coast Light Heavyweight Championship and whether the Portland Commission would cast its vote for Firpo or Lewis.

Firpo had won the Pacific Coast Light Heavyweight title in 1933 and successfully defended it against not only Pacific Coast Title aspirants but World title challenger's in the personages of George Manley, Wesley, KO Ketchel, and Tiger Jack Fox --- all who had all gone down to crushing defeats in trying to garner the crown from the head of its proud holder, Young Firpo. A writer stated: "It would be easier for someone to beat the light heavyweight champion of the world and win that title than it would be for any fighter to take the Pacific Coast Light Heavyweight crown from the head of Young Firpo. He wears the crown with dignity and pride and it means the world to Firp."

Prior to the Lewis-Firpo encounter, Lewis had fought Rosenbloom three times in non-title affairs and was awarded the decision in two of the fights. In their third encounter, Lewis floored Rosenbloom three times during the fight but avoided a knockout. The Lewis entourage were vocal about defeating "that man Firpo" and wresting Firpo's title as further evidence of Lewis' claim that he was the uncrowned light heavyweight title. Frank Schuler, San Francisco boxing promoter who had an interest in Lewis, declared that Lewis would "knock Firpo out in short order" adding that Firpo "had no chance with John Henry."

Firpo was on edge as fight time drew near. During the eve of the fight, he had been awakened around 11:00 pm on September 19th, and advised that one of his longterm and best friend, Edgar Benson, had been killed in an automobile accident in northern Idaho. Visibly upset and saddened, Firpo had a difficult time getting back to sleep that evening he carried that sadness with him as he passed time awaiting the call to enter the ring. If anything, it provided within his psyche even more resolve to defeat Lewis.

In the dressing room before the fight, as he and Mel Epstein shared the comfort of one another's mere presence, awaiting the call to depart toward the ring, Firpo, as dictated by his temperament, would let no one talk with him or engage in frivolity or humor of any kind or nature, including any so called "last minute instructions" from trainer Mel Epstein. Mel Epstein himself was on edge yet was convinced Firpo would knockout John Henry Lewis because of Firpo's physical conditioning. Furthermore, Mel Epstein knew Firpo's temperament and he understood when Firpo "was ready" as evidenced how edgy and vicious Firpo became as fight time drew near ... an edginess and viciousness precisely displayed when he was about to defend his title on August 28, 1934 in a Multnomah Auditorium battle with Tiger Jack Fox. The somberness within the dressing room on that occasion some twenty days earlier was filled with questioning about how badly Young Firpo had been hurt in a motor vehicle accident in March of 1934 as he embarked for Butte, Montana, to fight Gorilla Jones and what reserve was left in Firpo's system.

An August 1934 match had been made for Young Firpo to fight Maxie Rosenbloom in a non-title affair to take place in Portland. A gate dispute brought an end to a classic confrontation of the consummate boxer with a crushing bounding and weaving slugger. When the Rosenbloom fight fell through, Tiger Jack Fox was offered a shot at the coast title and immediately affixed his signature to a contract to fight Young Firpo. Most Portland writers thought Firpo was taking on more than he bargained for because Fox had been very active in 1934, while Firpo had not fought anyone as a consequence of the motor vehicle accident. Additionally, there were questions raised concerning the injuries sustained by Firpo in the accident were thought to be so serious that Firpo's ring career was over. The Firpo-Fox encounter was more than a test for Young Firpo. Against a slugger and fighter of Fox's resolve, Firpo health and very life was being put on the line.

The injuries sustained in that auto wreck brought about a decline to the greatness of Firpo's fighting capabilities. The very fact that his first two fights after those career changing injuries were against Tiger Jack Fox and John Henry Lewis reveal something about Firp's greatness as a fighter. Indeed, year's later, Mel Epstein would lament in multiple interviews about the life and times of Mel Epstein and Young Firpo that "until that damn car wreck, Firpo was unbeatable, he was practically unbeatable." And, when one examines the fights and comes to the realization that Firpo not only fought Fox and Lewis as handicapped as he was but, in reality, defeated both and had each on the verge of knockouts several times during the fights, one comes away from an interview of Mel Epstein understanding the greatness he had been associated with and the basis for his personal sadness.

It was, indeed, a credit to grit, endurance, physical and mental toughness, that Firpo successfully defended his title against the great Tiger Jack Fox and, in the process, administered Fox a sound trouncing although tested himself during the course of the fight. Make no mistake about, Fox was a great fighter as evidenced by his career knockouts, his one round knockouts and his two wins over Jersey Joe Walcott, one being a knockout victory. In the later thirties, as Fox sought a title fight with Joe Louis Fox stated in an interview: "They say if Joe Louis hits me on the chin he might knock me out. If I hit Louis on the chin I will knock him out."

Mere shop talk? Consider then an interviewed of Jersey Joe Walcott I conducted in 1974. Walcott told me that the greatest fighter he every fought was "a fighter by the name of Tiger Jack Fox. In my opinion, Fox was greater than Louis, Marciano, Charles, Baksi, or Lee Q. Murray. I learned more in my two fights with Fox than I learned in all my other fights together. There wasn't anything he couldn't do in the ring and do it well. Stick and jab, move, dangle his arms and invite you to hit him and he could punch."

Firpo eliminated Fox from consideration as a claimant to Rosenbloom's crown. The fight crowd in Portland was ecstatic that John Henry Lewis was to test the leather encasements of Young Firpo. Bring on your John Henry.

The mood in the dressing room for both the Fox and Lewis encounters was somber and Firpo was very testy if anyone tried to communicate with him including Mel Epstein. He allowed no one in his dressing room aside from Mel Epstein and even then Firpo would not allow Epstein to engage him in insipid conversation or even talk to him about any aspect of the fight --- so focused was Firpo on retaining his crown and staving off the threats of both Tiger Jack and John Henry Lewis.

Let's let Billy Stepp take over from here. Stepp was at ringside --- I wasn't --- and I must defer to Stepp's account of the fight with the exception of certain things that a writer could not know which were imparted to my brother and I by Young Firpo and others many years later in countless discussions regarding the fight. I'll share those insights during another writing. Without further delay, take it away Billy Stepp.

FIRPO STAGES GREAT BATTLE AGAINST LEWIS by Billy Stepp, Sports Editor News-Telegram (Portland, OR) With defeat staring him in the face, Young Firpo, the lion-hearted miner from the sagebrush of Burke, Ida., staged a sensational rally to fight himself to a draw in 10 torrid rounds with John Henry Lewis, the colored boxing master from Phoenix, Ariz., in the headline brawl at the stadium last night before more than 6000 fans who almost went into hysterics as the two light-heavyweights fought round by round. Referee Tom Louttit's decision was met with a terrific roar of music that put the Bronx on the Rand-McNally. Nine out of ten looked upon the Bull as the winner after his zero-hour attack on the colored boy.

The writer's scorebook showed the first, third, fourth and fifth in favor of Lewis who autographed the miner with everything in his category of pet socks, but none made the wild man quit walking in. The sixth, seventh, eight and ninth were given Firpo, while the second and tenth were even-steven. John Henry started off to make it a one-side affair by plastering Firpo with straight lefts and rights in the first round, while Firp didn't land a punch. Firp landed his first punch of the fight in the second heat, a wild right crashed against Lewis' jaw, and he staggered back, but quickly fought off the Bull's attack.

In the third Lewis again opened up with his long left that blew Firpo's schnoz a burning red and the claret dripped. Firpo let one fly from nowhere in the fourth and John's nose got in the way and the red ink dripped. Lewis quickly punched Firpo around the ring with both hands.

In the fifth, Lewis' long range guns kept booming on Firpo's face and a right dropped into the bread basket to say, Morning, Samuel, while Firpo went around aimlessly trying to connect on the huge brown-skinned battler.

The sixth Firpo clipped over a few teasers but Lewis held his ground and evened the round.

Firpo bounced up and down, and a wild swing found a resting spot on Lewis' jaw, and his knees buckled. That was like a streak from a blue sky to Firp and he opened with a savage attack of haymakers that bewildered the Arizona boy. It was the miner's big inning.

And again in the seventh Firp kept his relentless wild-swinging barrage that had Lewis looking for shelter. The boy whom the N.B.A. picked as a probable world's light-heavyweight successor to Rosenbloom was losing his early lead.

Firpo kept swinging like a bar room door on a busy day. His left and rights missed and some connected. One right almost tore Lewis' head off, and if ever a fighter folded, John Henry did, and like an old-fashioned canvas bag.

Firpo, with victory looming on his face after four rounds of terrific battling, was weak and in fact so was Lewis. The two tore into the final three minutes with nothing barred. John H. dropped three far below the belt, while Firpo almost untied Lewis' shoes with an uppercut. It looked for a second that the miner was going to blow the duke as he hung on, but with 10 seconds left on the ticker came Firp and he almost tore Lewis' dome off with two haymakers that were thrown from the 50 yard line.

The bell ended the 30 minute party and, of course, Referee Louttit's decision caused a near riot. It was O.K., but if a winner was to be picked yours truly would have to give the silverware to the Bull of Burke, who certainly turned what looked like a defeat into a moral victory.

Two other writers wrote:

The large crowd of 7,000 booed Referee Tom Louttit's decision for five minutes after arms of both gladiators were raised. Although officially declared a draw, every sports writer and the majority of the spectators thought Firpo the winner. The once wild-swinging unorthodox Firpo, nee Guido Bardelli, is now a shifting, sharpshooting demon who had the Negro on the verge of a K.O. several times in the bout.

No comments:

Memorial Day 2024

To those that gave the ultimate sacrifice defending American ideals and freedom, and to the families that endured the loss, we g...