It’s one of the most well-known nicknames in boxing history, yet the guy who was tagged with it was, by all accounts, one of the nicest, most jovial people you could wish to meet. Outside of the ring. When conducting his business inside the ropes, Elmer “Violent” Ray was one tough, mean and hungry fighter. Ray finished with an official record of 97-23-11(69) yet almost certainly had more fights that were never recorded – Ray perhaps boxing under another name during the earlier stages of his career; one that officially began with a majority draw with Walter King on Halloween night in 1933.
During his action-packed career, Ray fought, as the saying goes, ’em all.
Born in Florida in March of 1911 (again, officially, the exact date possibly different to this), Ray grew up on a farm and at a young age, he worked, worked, worked. Never complaining, the young Elmer developed his muscles, his desire to go on to do something with his life, and his sheer hunger. Not having a regular amateur boxing career, Ray instead went through the ordeal plenty of young African/Americans experienced back then should they want to become fighters (almost all of these kids having little to no choice other than facing the rigors of the ring if they wanted to get someplace in life).
The young Ray fought in “battle royals,” events wherein Ray’s words (courtesy of thegruelingtruth.com) – “They’d have ten big negroes in the ring. They could have their best hand free, but the other was lashed to their belt behind their back.”
Free-for-alls, these fights would entertain the audience, made up of mostly rich white people. Ray was excellent in these brawls, fights that gave no man a chance at a fair fight, and he was on his way. Turning pro in ’33 (again, officially, but almost certainly sooner than this, and younger than his supposed 21 years), Ray would go on to prove his punching power, his toughness, his overall ability.
During these early years in the ring, Ray mostly fought local guys and he had what could charitably be referred to as mixed results. Often fighting for peanuts, the man who had once wrestled alligators! (yes, true) was rarely stopped when he was defeated. Still, Ray might nevertheless have grown discouraged had he been made of less stern stuff – the young fighter winning only one of his first ten (listed) pro fights; drawing three, losing six. In 1943, Ray was stopped in a round by a guy colorfully named Turkey Thompson.
It was during these earlier years of his career that Ray began his unimaginably tough rivalry with a fighter names Obie Walker. Walker of Georgia was as strong as an ox and he was described as being built “like a bank safe.” These two avoided black fighters fought each other at least 12 times (BoxRec says 14 fights between the two). All of the fights were hard, often brutal affairs. In the end, having beaten plenty out of one another, Ray was credited with five-win, Walker with four victories, with two draws and one no-contest (the additional two results as per BoxRec are down as TKO wins for Walker).
After the loss to Turkey Thompson, Ray romped to a quite astonishing 50 wins on the bounce, 44 of them coming via KO. Ray had a great three-week spell in July of 1947 when he won three in a row (three fights, in less than a month!) that culminated with a close decision win over Ezzard Charles (a fight that was “as close as your next breath” according to one fine writer of the day). Ray had beaten another future heavyweight king in Jersey Joe Walcott the year before (a split decision; this after having been stopped by Walcott, when way too green, back in 1937; KOby3) but, not too long before the win over Charles, Ray lost a decision to Walcott in their third fight. Then, to make things worse, Ray was stopped in nine rounds by Charles in their 1948 rematch.
This cost Ray a shot at heavyweight ruler Joe Louis. Now growing tired of the fight game, and the business side of things, Ray got the chance to box an exhibition with “The Brown Bomber.” Ray had briefly sparred with Louis and in early 1949 the two boxed an exhibition (exhibitions a big deal in those days). Ray took Louis the full six rounds and both men had the marks of battle to show how tough the bout had been. Who knows how tough time of things Ray would have given the great Louis if the two had fought for real?
In a second exhibition, in February of 1949, Louis almost KO’d Ray with a brutal right hand in the 3rd round. Ray knew he was all but finished as a fighter. Two consecutive losses, to Kid Riviera and John Holman, the latter a stoppage defeat, convinced Ray to call it a career.
Ray never got the chance to fight for the world title yet he had more than proven his worth as a fighter – wins over Charles, Walcott, Lee Savold showing as much. Years later, Ray was ranked by Ring Magazine as the 44th hardest-hitting heavyweight in history.
Ray passed away in May of 1987, officially aged 76. It could be argued how Elmer “Violent” Ray was the finest heavyweight contender never to have boxed for the crown. Very much a mysterious figure, there is next to nothing known about Ray’s final years; what he did after hanging up the gloves. But fans who have a care look back at his career (what is fully known of it) come to the inescapable conclusion that he was one quite incredible fighter.
Just look at those numbers again: 97-23-11(69) – stopped just seven times.