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April 06, 2007

By Michael Katz

On Saturday, in Cardiff, there is another boxing event besides Joe Calzaghe's scheduled 20th defense against the seemingly overmatched Peter Manfredo. There, in conjunction with the fight in the Welsh capital, a book, "Occupation: Prizefighter - The Freddie Welsh Story," will be launched and besides being a fascinating peek at the sport around the time of the War to End All Wars, there might be some intriguing literary import.

According to author Andrew Gallimore, Freddie Welsh was the role model for F. Scott Fitzgerald's towering 20th Century tragic hero, "The Great Gatsby." Gallimore can not be lightly dismissed as a Welsh fanatic. In the last four years, he has directed television documentaries on histories of land mines, war crimes and genocide. We're not talking musical comedies here.

Whether or not Freddie Welsh was fictionalized into Jay Gatsby does not matter. Gallimore doesn't attempt to make that case until page 329 of the Seren Press book (pounds 14.99). The book is still much more likely to entertain, and inform, than the apparent HBO mismatch. Welsh was a fascinating character, chasing champions such as Battling Nelson and Ad Wolgast for six years - Samuel Peters complains about losing three months to Dennis Rappaport - before finally getting a title shot from Willie Ritchie in 1914 on the eve of the Great War.

Think 20 defenses is a lot? Welsh held the title through maybe 40 fights - most of which may not have been called "defenses" in today's world since they were scheduled for ten rounds with no judges so even if Welsh lost a "newspaper decision," as he did to Benny Leonard, he kept the title. However, if he had been knocked out in any of those "newspaper decision" contests, he would have lost the title to his conqueror. It is, of course, the origin of today's wrong-headed belief that a challenger has to "really beat" a champion to take the title. Welsh, a masterful defensive fighter, fought these "nontitle" title matches as often as he could because he felt no one could knock him out and he preferred earning a living that way rather than appearing in vaudeville, like most of the champions of that time.

He apparently was a great boxer, though not much of a puncher. His final record was something like 109-25-15 with 32 knockouts, but many of those victories and losses were from "newspaper decisions" and you can't always believe what you read in the New York Evening World or Fort Wayne Sentinel. His personal story was the stuff of which black-and-white movies should be made. But he also read and wrote copiously, and Gallimore's book whets the appetite for erudite pugs. Gatsby was considered unusual when it turned out the vast libraries in his West Egg mansion on Long Island contained not just cardboard covers, but real books - though the virginal pages had not been cut apart.

Welsh toted a library around with him and would while away time reading Ibsen and Materlinck. According to Gallimore, before a fight with Johnny Dundee in New Orleans, Welsh captivated a New Orleans press by defending George Bernard Shaw from a reporter who thought the great writer was "insincere." Welsh told him, "When I first read his 'Quintessence of Ibsenism,' I was amazed that any human being could have such thoughts and be brave enough to put them on paper. Since then I have just concluded that Mr. Shaw just thinks ahead of the rest of us. I believe the world will come around in the next couple of hundred years o adopt a lot of his most apparently scandalous ideas."

Just as Floyd Mayweather Jr. meant to say.  

That Sugar Ray Leonard, who Friday celebrates the 20th anniversary of his spectacular upset of Marvelous Marvin Hagler has been advising Manfredo has inspired many a story to hype a rather silly contest. With Calzaghe about a 10-1 favorite, modest odds it seems to me, it might have been far better for the promoters to latch on to "The Great Gatsby" and hint that another Welsh prizefighter was heading for a sad ending.

Gatsby is one of the great tragic figures in American literature, a knockout victim of the pursuit of the materialistic American Dream. But Freddie Welsh's downfall will strike familiar chords with anyone who knows a bit of boxing history. Tough kid grows up, becomes champion, loses money. We're not talking trips to Disneyland.

Freddie Welsh, like Gatsby, was a self-made hero. Maybe it would be better to describe them, as Gallimore does, as "self-invented." Fitzgerald's tragic hero was born James Gatz in North Dakota, probably around 1885. The lightweight champion of the world was born Frederick Hall Thomas in Pontypridd, Wales, in 1886. They scuffled early life. Gatsby was a clam-digger and salmon fisher. He fell in love with a rich society bitch, Daisy Buchanan, and turned himself into a mysterious man of wealth.

Welsh washed dishes, waited tables, spent six months as a hobo and worked on cattle ship before discovering he could make $2 - which could be translated into a steak dinner, complete with pie and coffee, in New York - boxing.
Both were officers in the American Army during World War I, both had considerable help from unsavory backers.

Through his friend, the great sportswrier, Ring Lardner, Fitzgerald was well-acquainted with Welsh. The writer, who coined the expression, "Jazz Age," sparred three rounds, at least, with the Welsh Wizard at Welsh's New Jersey health farm after the fighter's 1922. Like Welsh, Gatsby was big on physical fitness; the boxer was a disciple of Bernarr Macfadden, the health icon. Welsh was a vegetarian and owned a large health spa and training camp in New Jersey, one of his dreams, though he could not make a financial success of it.

When the money was rolling in, almost weekly, like most fighters he figured there would be no end and he spent lavishly. He was generous and affable, but when he lost his title to Leonard, many of his "friends" developed amnesia. He continued fighting for another five years, not very successfully. He drank - making his own lager during Prohibition and becoming one of his best customers - and sank into depression. His health faltered and he died in a broken-down New York hotel room at the age of 41. Though many of the men he had befriended had ignored him at the end of his life, they showed up 5,000 strong for his New York funeral.

In "The Great Gatsby," the hero's funeral was attended by about 4,995 fewer.

I doubt if Welsh could be considered Fitzgerald's "role model" for Gatsby. He may have adopted a modicum of the fighter's attitude for his character. But one argument Gallimore makes, about the "ashes" wasteland Fitzgerald's characters had to pass through on the way to and from New York from West Egg, could not have referred to the fire that destroyed Freddie Welsh's New Jersey farm. The fire occurred in 1927; "Gatsby" was published in 1925.

I hope the Welsh publishers will eventually bring the book to these shores, where Freddie Welsh spent most of his life. The details of a fighter's life back then are wonderful. And waltzing through the pages are such as Jim Jeffries (who promoted many of Freddie's California fights), Jack Dempsey, Packy McFarland, Jack Sharkey, Young Stribling's (whose mother actually made a go of Freddie's farm for a while), Pete Latzo and Jim Driscoll. It certainly held my interest more than the buildup for Calzaghe-Manfredo.

FLIP TO FLOP: So Friday is the 20th anniversary of Leonard's upset of Hagler. Thursday, then, was the anniversary of one of my great flip-flops. For months and months, I had been in the minority,  picking Leonard to come back after three years and knock off the great middleweight champion. Leonard decided he could do it after watching Hagler's reduced reflexes from ringside as an HBO commentator for Marvin's unexpected struggle with John (The Beast) Mugabi. Marvelous actually made Mugabi look like a skilled boxer in that one.

But I had seen a tell-tale sign of Hagler's decline in his magnificent victory over Thomas Hearns. In fact, I had even called that one - when conventional wisdom said Hearns early, Hagler late. In a one-on-one interview, I said to Hearns that in every fight, eventually someone becomes the puncher and someone the boxer. Which would he be? I asked.

"I'm always the boxer," he said, and sitting in Hearns's Miami Beach hotel room, I figured he would upset Hagler.

Then he added, "But if I get him hurt, I'm going to go for it."

Game, set and match, I decided. Hearns, with much faster fists, was certain to strike Hagler early and with his great power, he would be sure to stun Marvin. And as soon as he went for the gusto, he would put himself into Hagler's range and get destroyed.

Hagler in three, I predicted.

Now, here we were again. I went to see Leonard when he opened camp at a small college in Virginia called George Mason. He stood there, flat-footed, and beat his sparring partners to the punch. Then I saw him at the end, in Las Vegas, days before the fight. I was there when, again standing flat-footed, he got his nose squashed by one of his sparring partners - and future middleweight titlist - Quincy Taylor. Most of the onlookers were shocked. I wasn't. Taylor's hands were quicker than Hagler's.

I didn't think much of it until I turned to Gil Clancy, who was also in the gym. The great trainer had visited Leonard at Hilton Head, where Ray had his main camp. "Was he flat-footed there, too?" I asked. Clancy said he had not seen Leonard move.

Suddenly, my pick seemed a bit of a reach. Hagler was, in my mind, the fighter with shot legs. If Leonard could not take advantage of that, he would be in trouble. It was too late to change my pick for a London paper that had asked me to preview the fight, and though I had been on HBO proclaiming my faith in Leonard and had written a whole page of "Why Leonard Will Win" for my main customer, the New York Daily News (whose sports editor, and best buddy, Vic Ziegel, penned a page, "Why Hagler Will Win").

The day before the fight, I was due to write a column. I had hoped to get Goody Petronelli, Hagler's great trainer, to talk about how he was waiting for another kid to walk in off the streets in Brockton, Mass., and show the world that he didn't run a one-horse gym. But Goody was tied up and I happened to run into my old Lion's Head buddy, Larry Merchant.

He wanted to know if I still liked Leonard. I said I felt like I often did at the race track, when after betting on one horse, I'd go outside to suddenly figure out why another would win. He suggested I write a column changing my pick. He said there was no news coming out of Vegas and that column would be the talk of the town.

I was flattered, and so I wrote it. Leonard's legs were fine and in England, I may have been looked upon as a genius for picking him; back home, I was a schmuck again.

The next day, while heading over to the late lamented "Flame," watering hole for the Boss Scribes in Vegas, my cab driver started talking about the fight and how, after watching Leonard train, he knew Ray would win.

"Did you see the way he jumped rope, his knees were hitting his chest, showed what kind of legs he had," said the driver.

The schmuck knew too much to watch Leonard jump rope. Ray didn't need to practice moving around the ring; in sparring, he was working on other things. The legs would be here when he needed them in the fight.

PENTHOUSE: John Beyrooty was a terrific boxing writer in another lifetime, one where newspapers were still around in numbers. Since his paper, the Los Angeles Examiner went down for the count, Beyrooty has become one of the great publicists. One of his clients at the firm of Brener Zweikel is Showtime and so there was a message about Firday night's ShowBox fights in the e-mail. Beyrooty had discovered that two of the heavyweights in the featured bouts had both knocked down a champion in sparring.

Yes, an interesting note. Showtime gives helpful hints in its press releases. HBO gives the times of its mismatches.

Anyway, back in November, 2005, Raphael Butler (25-3 with 20 KO's), had used a body shot to knock down Vitali Klitschko, who was preparing for his never-consummated match with Hasim Rahman. The next day, according to Beyrooty's eyewitness, trainer Dick Wood, Travis Walker (22-0-1 with 19 KO's) dropped Klitschko with a counter right hand. The champion went down, twisted a leg and the fight was called off.

Walker faces another undefeated heavyweight, George Garcia (13-0) in the ShoBox main event. Butler meets Art Binkowski (24-1-3) in the eight-round semifinal.

OUTHOUSE: The Roy Jones Jr. pan club. Leave the poor delusional guy alone and maybe he'll go away and play with his chickens.

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