It is unfortunate that some fighters are remembered more for the fight or fights they lost than for any of the positive accomplishments they had in the ring.
Randall “Tex” Cobb won 43 fights out of 52 and had 36 knockouts to his credit. Not a bad record. But what is he remembered for? His lopsided decision defeat at the hands of heavyweight champion Larry Holmes in November of 1982. He knocked out Earnie Shavers and lost split decisions to Ken Norton and Michael Dokes. But those performances don’t enter into the equation most of the time when people think of Cobb.
Ray Anderson was a pretty good light-heavyweight from Akron, Ohio in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His list of ring victories includes decisions over Jorge Ahumada, Gregoria Peralta, Karl Zurheide and Angel Paez. He also had draws with Jimmy Dupree and Avenamar Peralta. What is he remembered for? His tentative performance in a title shot against champ Bob Foster in April of 1971. It’s as if none of the other fights ever happened.
Pete Rademacher won the gold medal for the U.S. in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. A sterling achievement. After turning professional, he posted victories over such contenders as George Chuvalo, Bobo Olson and Lamar Clark. Rademacher, however, is remembered almost exclusively for his ill-advised pro debut, a KO defeat at the hands of champion Floyd Patterson in August of 1957.
And that brings us to the case of a rough-and-tumble cowboy from Cut and Shoot, Texas. When boxing fans hear the name Roy Harris, they usually think of three things. One is the distinctive name of his hometown. One is his 13-round KO loss to champ Floyd Patterson in August of 1958. The third thing they remember is the brutal 1-round KO loss to powerful Sonny Liston in April of 1960 in one of Sonny’s final bouts before winning the crown from Patterson.
It’s too bad because there’s a lot more to the story. Harris was a decent fighter with a stiff left jab and the kind of rawhide toughness that rural Texas breeds in a fellow.
Harris, who turned 83 on June 29 and still practices law, was a Texas sensation as he came up through the amateur ranks, particularly in Montgomery County, where he and his three fighting brothers were local ring legends. The Harris brothers enjoyed success, but Roy is the one who really stood out. His exploits as a middleweight and light-heavyweight in the annual Golden Gloves tournament in Houston marked him as a young man with a bright future.
In April of 1955, Harris made his pro debut in Houston. He started what would become a 23-fight win streak with his 3-round TKO of Tommie Smith. Along the way, he posted wins over some journeymen fighters and also some pretty good ones. The biggest early win came in his 12th encounter. Just seven months into his career, Harris decisioned rough Buddy Turman in Tyler to win the Texas heavyweight championship.
Decision wins over veterans Alvin Williams in May of 1956 and Charley Norkus in October of 1956 put Harris on the pugilistic map. A KO of promising Claude Chapman in January of 1957 pushed Harris’s record to 19-0 and placed him on the outer fringes of the heavyweight rankings.
Harris came through with four impressive victories in a row after that. A decision over experienced journeyman Joey Rowan in February was followed by his toughest battle to date, a majority 12-round decision over highly regarded Bob Baker in Houston in April. Baker, a hard-punching product of western Pennsylvania with a 47-9-1 record, knocked Harris to the canvas in the fourth round, giving the kid from Cut and Shoot his first taste of the canvas as a professional. Harris prevailed, however, to improve to 21-0.
Then came back-to-back decisions over “name” fighters. Future light-heavyweight champion Willie Pastrano bowed to Harris in a June encounter. Pastrano had a 41-4 record coming into the fight. Then in October Harris earned a nod over tough, experienced Germany native Willi Besmanoff.
The victories over Pastrano and Besmanoff officially put Harris on the list of eligible contenders to face champion Floyd Patterson. After serving a short hitch in the U.S. Army, Harris was officially given his shot at the crown. The match was made for August of 1958. Harris would take an unbeaten record and the hope of Texas with him into the ring.
Ironically, the fight was not held in Houston, where it was a natural draw. It was held instead in Los Angeles. The chief reason was Patterson’s paranoid manager Cus D’Amato, who spied a conspiracy in every shadow. Cus foresaw a hometown decision for Roy and wouldn’t abide any site in Texas. And so the show went to the coast.
Harris became somewhat of an overnight sensation during the media buildup to the fight with Patterson. While in L.A., Roy even recorded a song extolling the virtues of his hometown and the benefits of a fine Texas upbringing. Harris and his hometown of Cut and Shoot captured the imagination of the sporting public; the big question was if Harris could also capture the heavyweight championship.
The answer was no. Harris had the guts and the toughness to hang in with Patterson. He didn’t have the speed, the ring generalship, or the experience, though. Harris took a pounding, especially in the later rounds. Roy’s father, who was also his trainer, wouldn’t allow Roy to come out for the 13th round. Roy had suffered four knockdowns and was badly cut.
Roy’s big moment of glory came early in the fight. In the second round, Harris countered one of Patterson’s lunging jabs with a right uppercut and sent Floyd to the canvas. Floyd got up and slowly began to take control of things, pretty much dominating the action from the seventh round on. Harris was on the deck once in the seventh and twice in the eighth. He could have rationalized that he had given his best shot and stayed on the canvas after any of those three knockdowns. No one would have blamed him. That just wasn’t in the makeup of this tough Texas kid, though. He got up each time and continued to battle on. He was down again in the 12th before his dad finally called a halt to things.
The pride of Cut and Shoot had suffered his first loss in the ring but wasn’t about to retire. He got back on the saddle and posted seven straight victories during the next year-and-a-half. Included in those wins were two successful defenses of the state heavyweight title against Donnie Fleeman and a decision over Charley Powell, who owned a 20-3-2 record.
In April of 1960, Harris bravely stood opposite Sonny Liston in the Sam Houston Coliseum. The month before, Liston had savagely dispatched of murderous punching Cleveland Williams in a short, brutal nationally televised slugfest. Now it was Roy’s turn to take on Sudden Sonny.
Liston wasted little time, using his forceful jab to control the action against Roy. Harris, outweighed by 17 ½ pounds, refused to run, however. He engaged Liston and paid a price for it, though he landed some decent shots on the future champion. Liston had Harris on the deck three times (though the first two knockdowns appeared to be “push downs” by Liston) before referee Jimmy Webb halted matters at the 2:35 mark.
Liston went on to win the heavyweight title from Patterson a year later with another 1-round KO that was very similar to the one that Harris suffered. Harris went into the twilight of his career, losing three of his next four bouts, including two KO defeats against Canadian Bob Cleroux and a decision loss to Britain’s Henry Cooper.
After a 5-round KO loss to Cleroux in May of 1961, Harris hung up the gloves. He finished his notable career with a 31-5 record. He had the honor of fighting for the heavyweight title and he also fought future champion Liston.
After his fighting days ended, Harris proved he was not a one-trick pony, as they say in Texas. He earned his law degree and served with distinction in Cut and Shoot, where he remains a local celebrity to this day. The local post office was even named in Roy’s honor.
Outside of Mongomery County, though, memories of Roy aren’t as vivid or as favorable, and that’s too bad. When the name of Roy Harris is brought up it is usually in association with the Patterson and Liston fights. Those are the fights that the typical boxing fan remembers. And those are fights that Harris lost.
The one consolation, of course, is being remembered at all. Harris had his day in the sun and made the most of it, recording a song about the small Texas town of Cut and Shoot while training in L.A. for the Patterson fight. He didn’t gain the title but he did gain a national following. He didn’t ride off into the sunset with the riches that only a heavyweight championship can bring. He did walk away from the ring with his dignity intact and his toughness unquestioned, though, and for a proud Texas cowboy like Roy that’s worth more than all the gold in Fort Knox.
Mike Dunn is a boxing historian and writer who lives in Lake City, Mich.