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Leonard Morrow–The California Kid: Part I

A talented light-heavyweight/heavyweight boxer from the stacked 40's and 50's
Publish Date: 09/05/2017
Fact checked by: Mike Goodpaster
Morrow managed to obtain the California State Light Heavyweight Title in his short career

While most students at McClymonds High School in Oakland, California sat at their desk contemplating about being a teacher or a doctor, Leonard Morrow had plans on breaking into the beak-busting business. Morrow, even as a teenage kid, had more confidence than he could hide behind a straight face, so he often kept a warm smile or a slight on his face. After McClymonds High School had changed its name more than a half of a dozen times, along with its location and multiple renovations, Morrow and his fellow classmates referred to the old school as “the school that couldn’t stay still.” Little did Morrow know that the school that couldn’t stay still would be a reflection of his future boxing career. Time and again he would be torn down and built back up like the very walls of McClymonds High School.

Morrow stood just over six-feet tall on a somewhat lanky frame. He carried the lean muscles you would see on an Olympic track star with the confidence to go with it. Alan Ward from the Oakland Tribune said Morrow looked amazingly like the welterweight Earl Turner in the face, a fellow Oakland fighter. Ward also mentioned Morrow having a brief amateur boxing experience, with only six fights before turning pro.

During Morrow’s amateur days he was a protege of Young Jack Thompson, former World Welterweight champion. On August 9, 1945, Morrow would suffer a first-round knockout loss in just 17 seconds to Ray Gonsalves in the amateurs. A punch that landed just under the ear and made contact to Leonard’s neck would be the punch that stopped the 19-year-old just short of beating the count. Morrow was up just after the count and thought the punch to the neck was a lucky one. Before the men could even leave the ring, Morrow wanted another shot at the two-fisted power-puncher. He would get a return match against Gonsalves like he wanted just a week later. Unfortunately, the result was not much better. Morrow would be stopped again in the first round but this time at two minutes and fifty-five seconds and Morrow would be on the deck for several minutes after absorbing the sledgehammer right hand of Gonsalves who could knock out anyone he could hit.

When a young fighter takes two bad losses like the ones Morrow suffered you have to keep them in high spirit and remind them that it is a rocky road that leads to fistic fame and fortune, and you have to keep going no matter what. For Morrow, the supreme confidence that he had was a necessity because his mentor, Jack Thompson, the very man that would give such reminders, would die on April 11, 1946, from a heart attack. Still confident, still determined and showing the tremendous natural fighting ability that his former mentor talked about, Morrow continued on as an amateur and won an easy TKO victory over Marvin Moore on August 9, 1946. Just six days after his win over Moore, Leonard would lose an unpopular decision to Bob Greene who Moore had substituted for when he met Morrow six days before. Morrow decided to box Greene and fight him on the move. He was cautious for the first three rounds and then let loose in the final round winning it easily but his cautious boxing and dancing early on persuaded referee Bobby Andrews to give the decision to the aggressive Greene, even though Morrow had the better of the bout.

With these setbacks, you couldn’t blame a fighter for throwing in the towel, especially before he even starts his pro career. But Morrow didn’t have the quit in him. He was a natural fighter and you just know he was sitting in a small, stuffy gym afterward, where the only two things you can smell are sweat and leather; thinking about picking up and moving forward. Like McClymonds High he just couldn’t stay still.

On October 30, 1946, Leonard Morrow was just 20 years-old when he would fight his first professional contest against Allen Arnett. Arnett was a much more experienced fighter with 36 fights to his record. He had been fighting professionally for nearly 4 years. It made no difference to Morrow who was more than confident in his ability in the ring. Morrow had moved on and was ready to rebuild as a professional. Morrow would go on to beat Arnett by decision in their four-round bout but Arnett would just be the start of opponents Morrow would face who carried more experience into the ring than himself and it wouldn’t be the last time the odds were not in his favor.

Morrow would have his next fight about 4 months later on March 5, 1947. Before he could even get into the ring to meet his opponent there was a battle to get the match made. Morrow was paired with Gil Moore Mojica at the Oakland Auditorium. Mojica was far more experienced than Morrow, with 27 fights under his belt—seventeen wins, eight losses and two draws, with 11 of his 17 wins coming by stoppage. Just over a month before meeting Morrow, Mojica had met an up-and-comer named Carl “Bobo” Olson who was 17-0 with 14 knockouts. Mojica would lose the fight but would not fall victim to a knockout, which was a moral victory at the least. Olson would later become middleweight champion of the world but even at that time, he was not an easy man to fight.

With the large difference in experience between Morrow and Mojica, there was a major concern by the chief inspector of the area, Donn Shields. When Shields heard about the matchup he was outraged and he immediately tried to stop the fight from happening. His concern was, of course, the depth of résumé between the two. Matchmaker of the bout, Jimmy Murray, argued that Morrow had more than proven he was a legitimate match for the more experienced Mojica when he beat Arnett. Arnett was far more experienced and had been in the main event of several smaller clubs and had even been in the semi-windup at Legion Stadium and Morrow beat him. Murray had shown his willingness to give an up-and-comer a chance before and believed it was good for boxing in Oakland. Once, when Murray was asked about matching prospects too quickly he made a few statements explaining his way of thinking. Murray explained to the Oakland Tribune, “Oakland for several years has had success in boxing. Part of that success was due to the promotion’s willingness to give the young fellows a chance.” Murray continued saying, “Most of the kids lifted from the preliminaries into main events made good in a big way. If a fighter has what it takes he doesn’t need soft touches. If he lacks ability it is well to discover the fact early and turn to other prospects.”

After the fight was appealed to Commissioner Dave Stevenson and he looked over the matter, the fight was finally permitted and scheduled for March 5, 1947.

Morrow, a man of great confidence, went right after Mojica in the first round and showed no fear of the veteran. Morrow was dropped in the first round but got right up and continued to press the action. After the scheduled six rounds, Mojica was declared the winner but no one in the crowd or the Oakland Tribune seemed to agree with the decision. It was yet again another upsetting and controversial decision for Morrow, much like the fight against Greene in the amateurs. According to Lee Dunbar of the Oakland Tribune, two of the judges scored for Mojica but Toby Irwin, who Dunbar called “one of the best in the business,” had Morrow the winner.

Morrow, who was not satisfied with the decision and wanted to show he was better than Mojica, got a rematch with him two weeks later. There’s little doubt that Morrow wanted to prove a point in the rematch and go for the knockout, however, this would prove to be a mistake. Morrow would get careless and Mojica’s ring experience would show. Heavy right hands in the second round would stop Morrow short of victory.

Morrow would go on to beat Arnett again by decision and win two fights over Mojica, getting his revenge with a decision win and a TKO stoppage over him. He would rack up a victory over heavyweight local, John Donnelly, who outweighed him by 17 pounds. Donnelly had been in the ring with men like Oakland Billy Smith, Pat Valentino, Rusty Payne, Fitzie Fitzpatrick and more. Morrow would then face heavyweight Al Spaulding on January 14, 1948. Spaulding packed a good punch in both fists and was not someone Morrow should take lightly. Some even said Morrow was being rushed along too fast and overmatched once again when he was matched with Spaulding.

Morrow, a man who was pushing for greatness, was looking past Spaulding, far past him in fact. Morrow had already spoken about matching up with the power-punching fighting Irishman, Fitzie Fitzpatrick, in February. Leonard had looked even further than the Irish Blockbuster. He had planned on a fight with Oakland Billy Smith, who had been the California light-heavyweight champion until he had to step away from the crown after Judge Oliver Youngs sentenced him to six months in jail for beating his wife.

That all would have to wait because he now had Spaulding to deal with. In the opening round, Morrow must have been thinking about a possible fight with Fitzpatrick instead of the one he was in because he got careless with the heavier man and got popped around the ring and dropped for a nine-count. Instead of the knockdown frustrating Morrow, it lit a fire under him, and not only did he get up but he carried the fight to Spaulding. Showing the speed of a lightweight, he left his opponent groggy and baffled trying to figure out what switch he flipped to unleash such a flash of black fury. Thereafter it was his hand-speed that Morrow used as his weapon of choice. Spaulding, exhausted, all out of air and options, began to stand in the center of the ring with his feet planted as is if they had grown roots. He started to toss wild haymakers when Morrow got close. Morrow was jabbing and stinging right crosses as he pleased but not taking the time to set his feet to put power behind them so none of his opponent’s wild shots could land. His dancing around the ring would have made Fred Astaire envious.

Then in the sixth round Spaulding got his second wind and Morrow decided to prove a point. He stood toe-to-toe with his heavier adversary and exchanged punches. The crowd who produced a small gate of only $3,563, roared with its approval as Morrow got the better of the exchanges. Spaulding managed to remain on his feet after the final bell but there was no denying that Morrow had won the fight. With this win, Morrow had shown not only could he be matched with higher caliber opposition, but he was a headliner who could give the crowds a show.

Just ten days before the Morrow-Spaulding fight, matchmaker Jimmy Murray had announced that all fights he would be a part of would have all the tickets sold at one location, the smoke shop he owned at 414 on 14th street. With Murray organizing the ticket sales to one location to clear the confusion customers were having, along with the win for Morrow, things were looking up for the up-and-coming light-heavyweight.

There’s no fun beating a palooka

Just a week after Leonard Morrow beat Al Spaulding, Morrow sat ringside to watch Bert Lytell fight Oakland Billy Smith. Morrow had planned to fight Smith, the former California light-heavyweight champion, but Smith entered the ring with some ring rust from his lengthy absence and got beat by the clever southpaw. Smith picked a rough opponent for his first fight back in the ring but he knew a win would pay off big time, bringing him bigger bouts and maybe a shot at the title he left behind. Lytell figured the bout with Smith would bring him a boost to his already high stock, as he was hot on the trail for the middleweight title and a top contender for it. Smith knew a win over the crafty southpaw would help make up for the lost time he had out of the ring and bring his name back out east to New York where he could make a bigger payday, but it didn’t happen and he couldn’t lick his lighter rival.

As Morrow sat and watched as Lytell was declared the winner, he blurted out from behind his charming smile, “There’s one fellow I can whip.” Morrow no longer wanted a fight with Oakland Billy Smith after this loss, he wanted Lytell and he was sure that he could lick him. Once again, Morrow’s inexperience was a serious concern when he told promoter Frank Tabor he wanted a fight with Lytell and this time, promoter Jimmy Murray had the same concerns. Tabor told Morrow he was just too young and way too green for that kind of fight. Tabor may have been right but Morrow didn’t think so and he wasn’t looking for any soft touches. He had seen Lytell in action and he was sure he could whip him and all he needed was the chance to prove it. Morrow pleaded with Tabor and Murray time and again for the Lytell fight, and with a young up-and-comer showing so much confidence and willingness to match against a much more experienced opponent like Lytell, you can bet it was a breath of fresh air for the Oakland promoter and matchmaker. It was Morrow’s confidence and persistence that finally broke through to Tabor and Murray and they agreed to give Morrow a fight with Oakland Billy Smith instead. This wasn’t good enough for Morrow, however. He wanted the man that beat Smith and he wasn’t taking no for an answer. Morrow was looking for the best fight available and you can bet that Murray was reminded of his willingness to match Morrow with Mojica when others wouldn’t.

Finally, his persistence paid off and Morrow was able to get the fight with Lytell from Frank Tabor and he was going to make the best of his opportunity. Murray still had his concerns and expressed them to the Oakland Tribune: “If the kid had another year’s experience on his side there wouldn’t be a squawk about his fight with Lytell. I hope he doesn’t get hurt. If Leonard whips Lytell it will be the upset not of the year but for a 10-year period.”

The concern that most people had was not baseless. Lytell was far more experienced and was rated as one of the best middleweights in the world. Lytell could box with his opponents or swarm all over them like the late Harry Greb, making him a nightmare, especially for an inexperienced fighter. Aaronson, Lytell’s manager, compared him to the legendary Harry Greb before the Smith fight saying, “He’s a great kid. He fights like Harry Greb. Now I’m not saying Lytell is another Harry Greb. There never will be another Greb. But his style is plenty like Harry’s.”

Morrow was going into this bout with a mere thirteen fights, almost all of which was against local talent and here Lytell is with sixty-five bouts and against fighters at the national level. Lytell had wins over Charley Burley, Holman Williams, Oakland Billy Smith, Cocoa Kid and had been in the ring with Archie Moore, although he lost. None of this mattered to the California Kid because he believed in his ability and so did the people around him, including one of Morrow’s managers, Billy Newman. But Newman knew that this was not going to be an easy fight and one of the major concerns for Newman was that portside stance of Lytell.

Newman brought in Larry Carter who was a southpaw that fought out of Cleveland to prepare Leonard for his fight with Bert Lytell. They sparred 4-5 rounds daily at a San Fransico gym and after each session, Carter would sit down with Morrow to discuss strategies on beating the backward stance. Like most orthodox fighters, Morrow had trouble with the puzzling and backward southpaw stance. It was not an easy style to fight against even for the more seasoned pros.

Billy Newman told the Oakland Tribune, “At first Leonard was tied in knots by Carter. That southpaw stuff certainly confused my boy. But after a couple of sessions Morrow got the combination. The past day or two he was making a great showing against Carter. I realize Lytell is better than Carter, and Bert has some tricks he’ll pull on my kid, but I’m not worried. Leonard will take care of himself.”

Newman was confident in his kid and he wasn’t shy about saying it either, but Newman was one of the few in the business that gave his boy a chance.

Bash Boulevard, the stretch of Franklin Street between 10th and 12th, was the boxing forum of Oakland where boxing enthusiasts chatted about up-and-coming fights. Right at the heart of the boulevard was a bar called The Ringside which was owned by Jimmy Dundee, an ex-prizefighter, and Harold Broom, who was one of the best cornermen in the business at one time. The Ringside’s walls were filled with pictures of fighters new and old from all over the country and the bar was packed with cigar-smoking patrons who filled the place with smoke and heated debate over who was going to win the up and coming fights. However, the thick cigar smoke wasn’t blocking anyone’s view on this fight. There was clearly no debate in sight when it came to Morrow’s chances of winning. He was unfavored at 3-1 odds by the local gamblers and patrons of The Ringside bar. Many weren’t sure he would even last the distance. Of course, Billy Newman’s confidence in Morrow hadn’t dwindled in the least when asked what their future plans were if Morrow conquered Lytell; Newman’s response was, “If Morrow whips Lytell…then the sky is the limit. Wait a minute, not quite the sky. The kid wouldn’t be ready for Joe Louis until he has had a few more fights.”

On February 11, 1948, at the Oakland Auditorium, Morrow, and the tricky left-hander finally met for their 10-round bout. Morrow, who weighed 174 pounds carried to the ring with him an eleven-pound weight advantage. After working up a sweat and having a slow start in the first, Morrow started giving the portside fighter a dreadful time. For the first 6 rounds, Morrow was looking sharp with his performance, matching his inherent self-confidence. At times The California Kid was outboxing Lytell, other times he was outpunching him, and it seemed like the sparring sessions with Larry Carter in camp were paying off for Morrow. Lytell was far from being in a one-sided beating, however, he was right in the mix of it all.

But it was in the 6th round that Lytell got the motivation to let loose. During that round, according to Alan Ward of the Oakland Tribune, Lytell slipped to the canvas at the same time he lost his balance. Morrow landed a punch but no count was started. Shortly after the first knockdown, Morrow pushed Lytell back while simultaneously landing a hard shot that dropped Lytell for a count of two. After the two trips to the canvas that seemed to enrage Lytell, he came on strong in the 7th round and gave a Morrow a rough going over as the game Morrow started to fade. Lytell continued to come on strong for the last four rounds and Morrow continued to fizzle out, until in the 10th round, Morrow showed a glimpse of what he had been at the beginning of the bout. The momentary success didn’t last long and he dropped the last four rounds, including the 10th.

Going into the last two rounds, gamblers had the odds at 7-1 in favor of Lytell.

In front of a crowd that produced a gate of $6,126, Morrow was declared the winner of the ten-round bout. As Morrow did a dance of joy in the ring when he heard the decision, Commissioner Dave Stevenson shook his head in disbelief while sitting ringside. Sammy Aaronson, Lytell’s manager, went to Commissioner Stevenson after the fight to see what could be done to reverse the decision. Stevenson said, “I thought your boy won without question. If I had my say the decision would be reversed. It was a mistake, a bad mistake.”

Many ringsiders seemed to agree that it was a bad decision, although some did say they could have seen a draw, at best, for Morrow. Although not a popular win for Morrow, it was still a win and he showed he could box as well as punch with a crafty southpaw who never could tie the Oakland boys in knots.

After the win, promoter Jimmy Murray decided the kid could handle himself and looked for an even bigger name. Murray picked up the telephone to call an old friend, a friend named Archie Moore. Murray told Moore that he needed a well-known fighter to fill a slot against a prospect from Oakland and he wanted Moore because he was a good draw. Moore hesitated at first, telling Murray that he hadn’t had time to prepare for the fight and didn’t know anything about the local boy. Murray assured Moore that he didn’t have to worry, he just needed Moore for his drawing power. Moore was the California light-heavyweight champion, a title that he had won 10 months prior when he beat Bobby Zander who had picked up the vacant title that Oakland Billy Smith had left when he went to jail. Moore had just fought Oakland Billy Smith and was in line for Gus Lesnevich’s World Light-Heavyweight title, so a match with a kid who was relatively unknown outside of Oakland sounded like a break for him. Moore told Murray he would take the fight.

Moore was scheduled to meet Morrow on June 2, 1948, at the Oakland Auditorium. Moore arrived in Oakland by plane on May 28 to start training. Morrow had already been hard at work at Harry Fines gym where both men would do their preparation. Jack Russell was the one who would look after Moore once he arrived in Oakland until Lynn Plattner, Moore’s Western manager, arrived the day of the fight. Russell went to watch Morrow workout and didn’t see an easy opponent, stating, “The boy has class. He is young and ambitious. Plenty of confidence and courage. Moore is in fine physical shape for the fight and it’s a good thing too. Were Archie off form he could lose to Morrow. Maybe be knocked out.”

Again the whispers on Bash Boulevard were that Morrow was being overmatched. This time when Morrow was questioned about the matchmaking he had an answer for them: “There’s no fun beating a palooka.”

This would sum up Morrow’s entire mindset and views on the fight business. He was not looking for an easy fight and he thought he could whip any man that got into the ring with him, including the Mongoose.

Before the fight, Moore could be found reading his Bible while in a relaxed state of mind. He had been here many times before with some of the best fighters in the world and this kid from Oakland had nothing he hadn’t seen before. To start off the fight, both men were feeling each other out, learning the other man’s style as fighters often do. Moore was pumping out stiff jabs that were connecting when all of a sudden, Morrow shot out a left and a short, quick right hand that dropped Archie to the canvas. Moore, showing a baffled look on his face that matched those in the audience, took a count of six before getting to his feet. The second Moore got to his feet and the fight continued, Morrow swarmed the veteran, throwing bad intentions in every shot. Some of the heavy blows were missing but out of the flurry, a left hook caught Moore on the chin. Once again Moore was in an unfamiliar place—on the canvas. This time the count hit 9 from referee Frankie Brown before Moore would rise. Moore got to his feet, groggy, hurt and desperate. He went after Morrow, but on the way in the California Kid let loose his trip-hammer right hand, landing it flush to Moore’s chin, dropping him for the third time. Moore tried to rise at the count of 8 but he didn’t get far from where Morrow had put him and was counted out.

The crowd roared with excitement from the upset knockout but Morrow showing class and composure, that which you would see from a seasoned veteran, focused on helping up his fallen opponent and then helped back to his corner. Morrow was always a showman, but never a show-off, and Archie Moore was no palooka.

The next day the offices of the Oakland Tribune were slammed with calls from fans hollering a fake. People couldn’t believe that Morrow had just pulled off the biggest upset of the year in one round against a man that not only was lined up for a shot at the world light-heavyweight title but who most thought was sure to win it. As Alan Ward pointed out in the papers later, it wouldn’t have made any sense for Moore to take a dive. He was in line for the World Light-Heavyweight title which he had already sent out big offers for. He would lose his California light-heavyweight title, and no bets were made on the bout. Not to mention the gross gate was $4,140, and when it all was said done, the net gate was only $3,241, which meant Moore would take home less than $1,000 for his efforts.

Years later when asked about the fight with Morrow, Archie would claim he had accidentally fouled Morrow and reached out his hand as a sign of an apology, but this wasn’t what happened. He had also forgotten he had told the newspapers what had really happened while he was in California before his fight with Bob Dunlap, saying, “I never dreamed this kid could hurt me. I thought I’d spar a bit and see what he had. He hit me hard. I got up and he swarmed all over me. Never was I so humiliated.”

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