Lords of the Ring
Boxing in New Orleans
“The last time anyone from New Orleans moved as fast as Pete Herman was when they raided a Storyville pleasure house.”
So goes a popular description of New Orleans boxer Pete Herman, a diminutive former shoeshine boy who might have been more at home in jockey silks, but whose body punching style and in-fighting skills earned him the world bantamweight title in 1917.
My grandfather taught me about the “sweet science” of boxing in the late 1950s and early ’60s when we would watch the Gillette Friday Night Fights from Madison Square Garden. Under clouds of his cigar smoke we watched Sugar Ray Robinson, Gene Fullmer, Archie Moore, Emile Griffith, Floyd Patterson and a brash newcomer named Cassius Marcellus Clay. He would regale me with stories of the great Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano. He also told me that New Orleans played an important role in the history of boxing.
The popularity of boxing in New Orleans dates to the early 1830s, when waves of Irish immigrants provided an enthusiastic audience. The Irish became masters of prize fighting in the 19th century as a way to profit and to gain social recognition in much the same way that blacks would in the mid-20th century.
A statue in Kenner commemorates the site where in 1870 British Jem Mace fought American champion Tom Allen.
Prizefights occurred infrequently in and around New Orleans mostly because it was illegal. Early bouts were held in rural settings – barns or clearings in the woods – anywhere where wooden posts and ropes could be hastily erected to define the ring and where paying crowds could be accommodated. Sometimes fights were held on barges anchored in the river to prevent police interference. The Metairie Course, a racetrack established in 1838 where the present day Metairie Cemetery is located, was a popular destination.
Bare knuckle fighting was carried out under London Prize Ring Rules, a mixture of boxing and wrestling. Rounds would last as long as both fighters were standing, whether it was for 10 minutes or 10 seconds. If a fighter went down, the round was over.
In 1870, British champion Jem Mace chose New Orleans as the site for his next title bout against American champion Tom Allen for a $2,500 purse and the world championship. The two camps set out on May 10 for a location described as “13 miles from New Orleans” which was, in fact, a small town known as Kennerville, easily reached on the Jackson Railroad. Mace defeated Allen in 10 rounds over 44 minutes before several thousand fans, including General Phillip A. Sheridan and former American champion John Heenan. This match is thought to be the very first world championship prizefight, and a bronze statue in Kenner’s Rivertown area commemorates the event.
Billed as the “Second Battle of New Orleans” James Corbett (right) defeated heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan (left) in 1892.
New Orleans was the intended location for the 1882 match between John L. Sullivan and Paddy Ryan, which was relocated to Mississippi City (near Gulfport) as well as the famous 1889 fight between Sullivan and Jake Kilrain, which was moved to Richburg (south of Hattiesburg). The latter was the last bare-knuckle championship fight in America. Both were forced to relocate based on political opposition from state and local authorities.
Soon enough boxing promoters in New Orleans found a way around the 1882 state law that prohibited “personal combat with fists” by arranging bouts under the Marquess of Queensbury Rules which required, among other things, that fighters cover their fists with padded gloves. In January of 1890, the New Orleans city council revised city ordinances to categorize prizefights sponsored under Queensbury Rules by regularly chartered athletic clubs as “permissible exhibitions.”
The most famous of these athletic clubs was the Olympic Club, chartered in 1883 and located on Royal Street between Montegut and Clouet streets. Its 3,500-seat area hosted local fighters and boxing’s elite, including Bob Fitzsimmons, Jack Dempsey (the original), Billy Myer, Jimmy Carroll, Peter Maher, Charlie Mitchell and Frank Slavin.
CARNIVAL OF CHAMPIONS
The high point of New Orleans boxing and the Olympic Club came in 1892 with the “Carnival of Champions” featuring three title bouts over three days. Their arena was expanded from 3,500 seats to 10,000 seats for the event.
The Sept. 5 match was between lightweights Jack McAuliffe and Billy Myer; McAuliffe won with a 15th round knockout for the title and a $9,000 purse. The Sept. 6 match was between featherweights George “Little Chocolate” Dixon and Jack Skelly, which saw blacks admitted to the Olympic Club for the first time (albeit in a segregated section). Dixon pounded the title out of Skelly in eight rounds, causing such an uproar that it was Dixon’s first and last fight in the South.
The Sept. 7, 1892 feature match was between John L. Sullivan and James Corbett – billed as the “Second Battle of New Orleans” – and saw Corbett out-maneuver, out-fight and out-last the champion, eventually knocking out Sullivan in the 21st round, winning the heavyweight title and a $25,000 purse.
This fight marked the start of the modern era in boxing – from quasi-legal bare-knuckle fights held outdoors during the day to gloved matches held indoors in the comfort of an electrically illuminated arena. The torch had been passed.
On April 6, 1893 a fight between local favorite Andy Bowen and Jimmy Burke of Galveston would become part of boxing history when the two lightweights battled for 110 rounds over seven hours and 19 minutes at the Olympic Club. Bowen was a scrapper who came at you like an alley cat fighting for his ninth life. Burke broke both wrists and nearly every bone in his hands, but the bout ended in a draw, becoming the longest prizefight in United States history.
Legal and social issues continued to plague boxing in New Orleans. Following Bowen’s death from injuries he received in a December 1894 fight with Kid Lavigne, the city once again clamped down on prizefighting and New Orleans was no longer was a preeminent site for title bouts.
During the 19th century, boxing, like baseball and horse racing, had become a commercial pastime for urban residents of all ranks. Boxing didn’t disappear with the turn of the century. Indeed, the 20th century saw boxing become an Olympic sport at the 1904 games in St. Louis.
In New Orleans, interest in the sport continued to grow. On Jan. 9, 1917, native son Pete Herman captured the world bantamweight title from Kid Williams in a 20-round bout with Herman getting the decision from referee Bill Rocap. Born Pete Gulotta, Herman had his first professional fight at the age of 16 against Eddie Coulon at the New Orleans Athletic Club. He won 100 fights before deteriorating eyesight forced his retirement in ’22. He operated a popular French Quarter nightclub on the corner of Burgundy and Conti streets until his death in ’73.
New Orleans produced other notable fighters in the 1920s including Ray Culotta, Eddie Coulon, Joe Mandot, Johnny Fisse and Happy Chandler. But the best of them all was Tony Canzoneri.
Born in Slidell, Tony Canzoneri is considered the most successful boxer to come from New Orleans.
Born in Slidell, Canzoneri won his first fight on July 24, 1925 against Jack Grodner, the first of 19 consecutive victories. He became one of the best lightweights of all time and was ranked by Ring Magazine as the 34th best fighter of all-time and by ESPN as their 21st best fighter of all-time. He is probably the most successful boxer ever to hail from New Orleans, winning 80 percent of his 175 bouts.
The 1930s saw the emergence of heavyweights Jimmy (Lacava) Perrin and Whitey Berlier; lightweights Ervin Berlier, Joe Brown and Johnny Cook; welterweights Eddie Wolfe and Henry Hull; and featherweights Harry Caminita, Lawson Disoso and Red Hart.
Under Coach Tad Gormley, Loyola University’s boxing program produced a number of talented fighters in the 1930s.
Amateur and collegiate boxing was also alive and well. Under Coach Tad Gormley, Loyola University’s boxing program produced a number of talented fighters, such as Eddie Flynn who was the 1933 AAU National Champion when he won a gold medal at the ’32 Olympics in Los Angeles as a welterweight. Loyola also produced boxers Clem Sehrt, Chester Schmitz, Pete Capriotti and Sewele Whitney in the early ’30s, followed by Santo Cuchinotto, Mike Dimaio, Jack Flynn, Ed Fallon and Pascal Glaviano in the late ’30s.
From 1939 through ’45, New Orleanians understandably preferred to read the sports pages rather than the front-page news from Europe, but in post-War New Orleans boxing came roaring back. The three most popular gyms at the time were Curley’s Gym on St. Charles Avenue and Poydras Street; Marty Burke’s Gym on Bourbon Street; and Robinson’s Gym on Baronne Street. Promoter Lou Mesinna specialized in bouts for fighters who trained at Curley’s. Popular local pugilists included twins Harry and Bob Shaw, Francis Kercheval and the Docusan brothers.
By June of 1948 Bernard Docusen was so well regarded that he earned a shot at welterweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson.
Bernard and Maxie Docusan – “Big Duke” and “Little Duke” respectively – achieved a measure of success both locally and nationally. By June of ’48 Bernard was so well regarded that he earned a shot at welterweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson. He went the 15-round distance with Robinson at Comiskey Park in Chicago, but lost the match to one of the greatest fighters the sport has ever known.
BATTLING TO THE TOP
During the mid-1950s, New Orleans businessman Blaise D’Antoni organized Louisiana Boxing Enterprises. Their first fight was on May 17, ’55 between Ralph Dupas and Frankie Rydd at Municipal Auditorium before a crowd of 9,200 fans. Dupas won the 10-round split decision.
Dupas escaped crushing poverty by becoming a professional boxer at age 15 after changing his birth year to qualify for a license. He soon became a world-class fighter, getting his first title shot in 1958 against lightweight champion Joe “old Bones” Brown in Houston. He would lose in six rounds, but would continue to face best-in-class fighters such as Emile Griffith and Sugar Ray Robinson. On April 29, ’63, in his 123rd fight, Dupas won the world junior middleweight title from Denny Moyer at Municipal Auditorium. Over 16 years he would compile a record of 106 wins, 23 losses and 6 draws.
In 1963 Willie Pastrano defeated Harold Johnson for the World Boxing Council (WBC) and World Boxing Association (WBA) light heavyweight championships.
His best friend and training partner was Willie Pastrano, who turned pro at 16 and quickly worked his way through the light heavyweight ranks until on June 1, 1963, he defeated Harold Johnson for the World Boxing Council (WBC) and World Boxing Association (WBA) light heavyweight championships. Trained by the legendary Angelo Dundee, Pastrano was a stablemate of Cassius Clay, now Muhammad Ali.
The fights of Dupas, Pastrano, Percy Pugh and Jerry Pellegrini – the “Battling Barber from St. Bernard” – filled the sports pages and provided a young fan ample conversation with his grandfather. But the glory days of boxing in New Orleans were coming to an end.
Leon Spinks lost his 1978 rematch and the heavyweight title to Muhammad Ali in the Superdome.
In the intervening years New Orleans would play host to a handful of premiere boxing events – the September 1978 bout between Muhammad Ali and Leon Spinks, the Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran “No Màs” match in November ’80 and Don King’s version of the “Carnival of Champions” in December ’82.
Boxing today is more bombastic spectacle than sport. It is an expensive proposition for local operators to attract and train young men in New Orleans given the lure of other sports. But boxing continues to have its devotees in New Orleans including Loyola University President Fr. Kevin Wildes, S.J., Olympic hopeful Desmond Brock and junior Olympic champion Elijah Wilson.
Sugar Ray Leonard defeated Roberto Duran and became the Welterweight champion in the famous 1980 “No Màs” match.
The alphabet soup of boxing organizations – WBA, WBC, IBF, WBO – each of which sanctions and promotes championship boxing, only serves to fracture and dilute the sport.
Questionable promoters, such as Don King, have done more harm than good to the reputation of boxing. The criminal antics of Mike Tyson, Hector Camacho and others have reduced the stature of boxers from premiere athletes to street thugs. And while I know it’s unfair to focus solely on the negative at the expense of all of the positive aspects of sports in general and boxing in particular, it appears that the sport of boxing may be down for the count.
As New Orleans continues to recover and prosper, we can be proud of so many aspects of the city’s rich history, including our role in the sport of boxing. I am reminded of it every time I think about my grandfather or when I thumb through my collection of boxing and baseball cards from the late 19th- and early 20th-century, not with a sense of melancholy, but with genuine hope for more than nostalgia.