In memoriam: Laszlo Papp (25.3.1926 – 16.10.2003)

17.10.03 – By Janne Romppainen: Boxing is a spending sport as we know. Usually the fighters are not on the top of their game for very long and there are obvious reasons to that. Stepping inside the boxing ring is always a risky business for anybody and staying on the top demands tons of hard work. A fighter who has won three Olympic Gold medals in the time span of twelve years has to be counted as one of the greatest fighters who have ever lived. So far in the history of boxing only three men have been able to do it. The Cuban heavyweight legend Teofilo Stevenson won three golds between 1972-1980 and his countryman Felix Savon did the same between 1992-2000. The third fighter who has reached this achievement was the Hungarian Laszlo Papp, a legendary middleweight who passed away today at the age of 77 years.

Laszlo Papp was born 77 years ago in a town named Angyalföld, Hungary, near the capital city of Budapest. As a youngster he had to grow in the middle of the Second World War. When the war was over, Papp started to get interested in sports. At first he played soccer like so many other Hungarian boys, but after seeing a boxing movie called “The Final Round” all that changed and the young Laszlo picked up a sport that would make him a legend. Few could have guessed at the time what this young boy who had been enchanted by the movie would yet achieve.

Papp was only 19 years old when he first represented Hungary in an international tournament. He got his chance somewhat luckily when the reigning national middleweight champion Gyula Bicsak didn’t have an opponent for the elimination contest. Papp got up from his ringside seat and stepped in the ring and the champion accepted him as the opponent, of course not knowing what kind of a man he was about to meet. Papp knocked him out in the second round and in the international bout he won his Czechoslovakian opponent in the very first round.

In 1947 Papp already represented his land in the European championship tournament. His time had not yet come however, a Czech fighter called Torma defeated him and dropped him out from medals. Papp was still relatively unknown internationally when he attended the Olympic Games in London the next year but after one week everybody knew his name. Apart from his semi-final foe, the Italian Ivano Fontana and the final opponent John Wright from the Great Britain, Papp knocked out all his opponents and won his first gold in a convincing manner at the age of 22.

Papp was a bit too good for his own good as he found out after his success in the Olympics. His huge punching power drove his opponents away and it was hard for him to get fights. The next time he faced the best of his division was in the next European championships in 1949. Now Papp was the favourite and he didn’t let his supporters down. None of his opponents could really challenge him as he marched on to take the gold medal again. The same path continued after another two years when the next European championship games were organized. Papp was now the big favourite to win the gold in a new weight class of 71 kilograms (156.4 lbs) and again, he was overwhelming as he won the title for the second time in row.

After winning three big tournaments and being only 25 years old, many of his countrymen advised him to retire, but Papp didn’t want to have any of that. He trained hard for the Olympic Games that were held in Helsinki, Finland in 1952. In his weight class there were 23 participants and in the first round Papp faced the other big favourite of the division, the American Ellsworth “Spider” Webb. Webb gave Papp a harder fight than anybody else before but after a great battle, Papp knocked his foe out in the second round. In the next rounds Papp had little difficulties. He knocked out one opponent and outpointed three. Five fights and five victories meant another gold medal for the Hungarian who now was a national icon.

Papp’s critics still wanted him to quit his career and when he wasn’t willing to do that, they directed their attack to his trainer Adler. Adler had to quit his job and in the next year Papp had to train for the upcoming European championships by himself. In the ring, he wasn’t near to his best and a Russian Olympic bronze medallist Boris Tisin defeated him on points. After the letdown Papp demanded that he should get his old trainer back. This was not accepted however, and thusly Papp didn’t participate the next European championships in Berlin in 1955 at all.

Despite the disappointments the dream about the third Olympic gold medal was still alive on Papp’s mind. He even got his old trainer Sigi Adler back to his corner. But before the Olympics Papp faced trouble that he hadn’t had before. In an international tournament that was held in Warsaw, Poland, a Polish fighter called Zbigniew Pietryzykowski knocked Papp down in the second round of their bout. It was the first and only time Papp had ever been in the floor. He got up in time, but the fight was stopped in favour of the skilful Pole.

Papp wasn’t willing to participate the tournament at the first place and the result from there certainly didn’t help him in his training for the Olympics that were held in Melbourne, Australia in 1956. The competition was harder than ever for Papp, but once again he showed his tremendous fighting spirit. He defeated his conqueror Pietryzykowski handily on points on his way to the finals. In finals he met Jose Torres from the United States who would later become a professional world champion. The fight was very evenly-matched but in the end Papp won via 2-1 split decision and conquered yet another gold.

After three Olympic gold medals there were little left for Papp to achieve in the amateurs. He had gathered an unbelievable record of 301 victories against only five losses and six draws (which were allowed also in the amateurs in the Eastern Europe). Papp was interested to fight as a professional and even though it was against the principles of the Communist society, the officials gave him their blessing as a contribution for all the success Papp had brought to his homeland.

Papp couldn’t live in Hungary anymore since the country didn’t like professional athletes and thusly he moved to Hamburg, Germany to train. His professional career started slowly with victories over unknown German opponents. The professional style suited the hard-punching Papp well but at the age of over 30 he had some learning to do with it.

Things started to go faster when Papp changed his manager and moved to Wien, Austria where he was closer to his home and family. From Wien it was also easier for him to get to fight in Paris where most of the important boxing matches were made. Papp became a popular figure in professionals too. He marched on towards the European championship fight, but years that he had lost early in his professional career were now paying dearly too; he was also getting older and running out of the time. He finally got his chance to fight for the title in 1965 and he also took it by knocking out the Danish champion Chris Christensen in eight rounds. Papp won the rematch twice faster than that and defended his title successfully for total of five times. A victory over Sugar Ray Robinson’s former challenger Ralph “Tiger” Jones proved that Papp was to be taken seriously on the world level as well.

A world championship fight against Dick Tiger and also his successor Joey Giradello was planned often for Papp but it never materialized. Papp had already a contract of facing Tiger in the United States and he was willing to travel there, but the Hungarian officials prevented it. They announced that it was time for the 38-year-old Papp to end his career and to come back to his homeland to help the up-and-coming prospects. The loyal man that he was, Papp did just that and finished his professional career being undefeated at 29 fights. Papp’s European championship went to Italian Nino Benevenuti, who would later become a great middleweight world champion. Around 1964 was one of the best middleweights in the world, some magazines even ranked him to be the first contender for Giradello. After his active career Papp worked long as the coach for the Hungarian national team.

Papp was known as a quiet, honest man who never bragged about himself but did his talking inside the ring. And in there, his fists told a story that will never be forgotten from the minds of the boxing fans. Condolences to Papp’s family and friends, he, if anybody, has deserved his rest. Rest in peace legend!

Comments/questions: janneromppainen@hotmail.com

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