Timeless , Indefinable, Incredible: Was Harry Greb the Greatest Fighter Ever?
16.12.05 - By MIKE CASEY: Some men just look like fighters. They don’t have to make a fist, strike a pose, strut around the place or talk the talk. One look into their eyes, one scan of their features, and you know they’ve got the right stuff. Harry Greb, like the great Stanley Ketchell before him, looked like a fighter all over. The tight eyes, the harshly scraped hair and the lean body told you at a glance that Greb was a man apart even in the toughest sport of all.
Article posted on 17.12.2005
Legions of great pretenders have discovered to their disappointment that you cannot buy, steal or fake what is only given to the chosen few. A mean look and a hard attitude won’t protect you from a harsh dose of reality if you are not cut from the right cloth. Nor will an intimidating name. New York super-middleweight Michael Corleone has learned that harsh lesson in his eleven-year, 11-23-3 career.
There have been a great many fighters who have tried to imitate Harry Greb and inherit his impregnable armour and fighting heart. Most of them are tucked away and forgotten in boxing’s vast A to Z archives with maybe ten or twelve fights on their log.
If Harry Greb had a dozen fights in a year alone, he was going slow. Nicknamed the Human Windmill because of his perpetual motion style, Harry was no less fast and furious in the rate at which he swelled his astonishing ring record. When he was all done, he had jammed 299 fights into the short space of fourteen years, having fought everybody who was somebody in a golden era of teeming talent.
For those interested in the finer details of decimal points, Greb averaged 21.5 fights a year, and only the Grim Reaper finally stopped him in 1926. Boxers of Harry’s era had to fight frequently to earn any meaningful money, and winning a world championship didn’t necessarily buy them a ticket to a more leisurely lifestyle. The heavyweight champion was just about the only guy who could afford to take a walk on easy street. The difference between the average annual salary of Harry Greb and Jack Dempsey was immense.
A perfect illustration of this fact is that between winning the middleweight championship from Johnny Wilson in 1923 and losing it to Tiger Flowers in 1926, Greb defended his title six times and engaged in a total of fifty-six fights.
As for the list of illustrious fighters he faced, many of them in ongoing series and most of whom he defeated, we can only shake our heads at the sheer breadth and depth of talent. Harry bounced around the weight divisions like a mischievous rubber ball, whipping the cream of his own class, thrashing top quality light-heavyweights and heavyweights and even roughing up Dempsey in their famous sparring sessions of 1921.
Greb defeated George Chip, Al McCoy, Jeff Smith, Mike McTigue, Eddie McGoorty, Tiger Flowers, Gunboat Smith, Battling Levinsky Jimmy Slattery and Maxie Rosenbloom.
He was two and one over the brilliant Tommy Gibbons, and also split a pair of decisions with Tommy’s gifted brother, Mike, the legendary Minnesota ace whose marvellous defensive skills won him the nickname of the St Paul Phantom.
In four out of five meetings with that other master boxer, Tommy Loughran, Greb was the boss.
He twice bested heavyweight contender Bill Brennan and was also too good for one of the greatest light-heavyweights of all in the Hoosier Bearcat, Jack Dillon. Giant killer Jack also specialised in terrorising bigger men, but little ol’ Harry was all over him in their two meetings.
In their second match at the Toledo Coliseum in Ohio in 1918, Greb administered a terrific thrashing to Dillon. The local newspaper reported that Harry pounded Jack’s nose to a pulp, staggered him and overwhelmed him.*
Greb gave Gene Tunney a brutal beating in their first fight at Madison Square Garden in 1923, so much so that an infuriated Gene retired to his bed with his sore body and applied his formidable intellect to devising a game plan for his revenge.
Tunney was undoubtedly Harry’s master in their wonderful five-fight rivalry, though not as comprehensively as the history books suggest. Historians and researchers have lately credited Greb with the newspaper decision in their fourth fight at Cleveland, which would make Gene the three to two winner in their series. After their final scrap, Greb reportedly visited Tunney’s dressing room and good-naturedly barked, “I never want to fight you again.”
Forever eager to get to the next place and the next thrill, Greb didn’t hang around killing time in the early phase of his career either. In 1915, while still serving his boxing apprenticeship, he engaged in successive fights with Billy Miske and the dangerous Jack Blackburn, who would go on to achieve greater fame as the master trainer of Joe Louis.
Even the loss of sight in one eye failed to curb Greb’s enthusiasm or dull his ability. Historians disagree on which fight caused the injury, but it is most commonly believed that Harry suffered a detached retina in the first of two vicious fights with Kid Norfolk. Greb kept the injured eye a secret from all but his wife and closest friends, finally consenting to its removal in a private operation in Atlantic City. A perfectly matching glass eye was substituted, attached to the eye muscles by sheep tendons.
However, a further operation later on proved too much for even Harry’s great heart. Shortly after his second title match with Tiger Flowers, Greb underwent an operation to remove facial scars sustained in an automobile accident and from his multitude of tough fights. He died on the operating table on October 27, 1926.
Writers, fans and fellow opponents came to praise Harry Greb when he was alive, and they praised him when he died. Incredibly, nearly eighty years after his passing, Harry’s name is still writ large on the boxing landscape.
Many of today’s fighters use Greb as the ultimate reference when the talk turns to giving every last drop and fighting to the death. His name is mentioned in reverence in cult TV programmes. The International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO) recently voted him the greatest middleweight of all time. Many fight fans and experts also rate him tops in the pound-for-pound stakes.
The accolades are endless and the conclusion is crystal clear. In the era of five-minute fame, Harry Greb has become an icon for all the ages, a roguish and familiar ghost we are happy to have in our house as a permanent guest. Not because of sentiment, but because he earned the right to be there.
Perhaps the explanation for Greb’s enduring and universal appeal really isn’t that complex. Even when he was alive and kicking in the roaring twenties, Harry seemed timeless and oddly ethereal. He was rock ‘n’ roll thirty years before the term was invented, and yet he wasn’t. He was too special and too indefinable to be shoe-horned into any era or hitched to any passing trend.
Greb loved to fight and he loved to live. He did both with total conviction and commitment. Once in your life, if you are lucky, you get to brush against such an individual. You can feel the electric and sense the danger, but you know to your frustration that you can never step into that special zone and be that man.
How does a guy who rarely visits a boxing gym beat some of the greatest fighters who ever came down the trail? How does he drive cars at breakneck speed without breaking his neck? How does he drink through the early hours after going fifteen brutal rounds with Mickey Walker and then wrap up the celebrations with a return fight out on the sidewalk? Greb did all of those things.
Other fighters spoke of him in awe. Gene Tunney observed, “Greb could move like a phantom and had ring cunning far beyond estimates made of him in the press.”
Such was Tunney’s admiration for Harry, he was a pall bearer at Greb’s funeral.
Jack Dempsey described Greb as the fastest fighter he ever saw. Irish ace Jimmy McLarnin said, “If you thought I was great, you should have seen Harry Greb.”
It would be interesting to know how Harry regarded such flattery. Quite possibly, he lapped it up. More probably, he wondered what all the fuss was about.
He certainly had a sense of humour and seemed to admire honesty and candour in others. During some lusty infighting in one of his two wars with Tiger Flowers, Greb suffered the rare experience of being caught off guard. As he was going through his usual repertoire of punching, thumbing and cussing, he was taken aback by Tiger’s polite request not to take the Lord’s name in vain. “I thought he was kidding,” Harry said later, “but I’ll be damned if he didn’t mean it.”
Greb had even more devilish fun with fellow great, Mickey Walker. Mickey, the pugnacious Toy Bulldog, was the reigning welterweight champion when he stepped up to challenge Harry for his crown on July 2, 1925, before a crowd of 50,000 at the Polo Grounds in New York. The two warriors waged one of the greatest fights ever seen at the famous venue, with Greb a commanding winner.
But their rivalry didn’t end there. Greb and Walker met up later at the Guinan club, a noted New York nightclub of the time, where they drank champagne and chatted to the glamorous owner and hostess, Texas Guinan. Happy and well oiled by the time they hit the night air at around two or three in the morning, Harry and Mickey began discussing their fight for the first time.
It was then that Mickey put his foot in it, offering the opinion that he would have won the match if Greb hadn’t thumbed him. Harry couldn’t have that and offered to beat Walker again right where they stood. Greb couldn’t wait to get his coat off, but it got stuck around his elbows as he pulled too hard and Walker belted him with a terrific uppercut. Mickey always bragged thereafter that he won their unofficial return.
The two men got lucky. The only person around at that hour was a massive Irish beat cop called Pat Casey, whom Walker described as being as big as Primo Carnera. Familiar with Greb and Walker and their idea of a good night out, Casey waived the incident and told them to get off home.
Walker enjoyed ribbing Greb but always acknowledged Harry’s superiority as a fighter, placing him on the gold standard with Ketchell and Dempsey.
Mickey never forgot one incredible incident from the Polo Grounds classic. “Harry could hit you from impossible angles. Once, after he missed a right to my face, he spun all the way around so that his back faced me. I relaxed my guard and waited for him to turn around. But before I knew what was happening, his left was stuck in my mouth. I still don’t know how he did it, but he hit me while his hands faced in the opposite direction.” **
How I wish that I could visit a fighter’s saloon bar in heaven (assuming the old gentleman upstairs permits such a facility) and find Greb, Stanley Ketchell and Carlos Monzon sitting at the same table discussing their greatest fights. They have always struck me as spiritual brothers, despite the span of years and circumstances that separated them. They were giants of men who lived and fought with a burning passion and then left us suddenly just as we were beginning to wonder if they were eternal.
Ketchell was shot to death when he was twenty-four. Greb died at thirty-two and Monzon was gone at fifty-two. It is easy to become maudlin about such things and trot out the old Marvin Gaye line about the good dying young.
But in all truth, do we really enjoy watching wild horses grow old?
In the Mike Casey All-Time Rankings on my website, in which varying points values are accorded to fighters across 22 different categories, Harry Greb places fifth in both the middleweight and light-heavyweight divisions.
The middleweight rankings are thus: 1. Sugar Ray Robinson 2. Carlos Monzon 3. Tommy Ryan 4. Marvin Hagler 5. Harry Greb 6. Mike Gibbons 7. Stanley Ketchell 8. Sam Langford 9. Marcel Cerdan 10. Mike O’Dowd.
This is some achievement on Harry’s part, when one considers that he fought in the no-decision era. Exhaustive research has enabled historians to determine the winners of many of these fights according to original newspaper reports, but the outcome of many others remain a mystery. Since the results cannot be assumed, fighters of Greb’s era inevitably lose a few points here and there in any results-based ranking.
There is little doubt that Harry would otherwise rank higher than he does. Was he really the greatest middleweight? Was he the greatest pound-for-pound fighter of all?
What’s your opinion? Who are your top middleweights and pound-for-pound masters?
MIKE CASEY is a boxing journalist and historian, a member of the International Boxing Research Organization and founder and editor of The Grand Slam Premium Boxing Service for boxing historians and fans. www.grandslampage.net
* Newspaper research by BoxRec
** Stanley Weston, Boxing and Wrestling, October 1954
Photo courtesy of Harry Greb.com
previous article: Two More Fans for Women’s Boxing
next article: Ed Mahone Loses Tough 12 Round Decision to Henry Akinwande