Middleweight boxer Willie Classen is knocked out during fight at Madison Square Garden 11/23. Classen did not regain consciousness and died 11/28 following brain surgery at Bellevue Hospital. (Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

In some ways, Willie Classen was typical of the fighters who inhabited many of the city’s gyms, far from championship bouts and million‐dollar purses. Like most boxers back then and even today, he grew up poor with no schooling, he spent time in jail, and he had scars to show for a life hard-lived–the tracks of heroin addiction on his arm; a three‐inch scar on his neck from a broken bottle wielded by a crazy girlfriend; the marks of his profession around his eyes and on his body; and even in his soul. Willie’s total earnings for a seven‐year career, covering 16 victories, 7 losses, and 2 draws, was less than $35,000. The $10,000 in insurance benefits his widow got was sadly his biggest payday.

Who was Willie Classen

Classen was the proverbial street fighter, tough and durable—a banger, a beast in the language of cornermen. Classen wasn’t afraid of anything and that heart would lead to a tragic night that would end his life. Despite his middling success, he talked of title shots as almost boxers all do, scratching out a living as a supermarket security guard while running the streets of the Bronx at dawn to keep his legs strong.

Willie was one of five children and early in life he was running with the toughs and avoiding school. His first arrest was in 1967 for robbery and felonious assault. He was later put on probation in connection with a school burglary. Not a great start to any life.

He then moved to the South Bronx area and was encouraged by his mother to take up boxing and he did. Classen won the city Golden Gloves championship as a sub‐novice welterweight.

Then things took a turn for the worse as he was convicted of statutory rape of a woman who later became his first wife. Yes, you read that right, Classen’s life was very complicated. He was placed on probation and a while afterward he was sent to jail for six months for a parole violation. About this time, he met Marco Minuto, who would become his last manager. Marco owned a pizza parlor on Burnside Avenue and used to try to interest neighborhood youths into St. Mary’s program. One night, during an attempted robbery at the store, Classen stepped in to help Minuto and they became friends. Minuto started attending Classen’s fights and driving him to do his roadwork.

A troubled existence

By 1976 Willie was on his third marriage and already had four kids when he was once again arrested for armed robbery. To make matters even worse it was obvious to Willie’s friends that he was a heroin addict.

Willie had begun his career in 1972 but fought too sporadically to really do anything, but he did carry a 6-fight win streak into the ring to fight Eddie Gregory but a loss set Willie’s win streak aside and made him question why he was even fighting. He also had lost a tough fight to Vito Auntofermo.

Classen’s decline and eventual downfall began in his next bout, on April 6, against a young up and coming prospect named John Locicero at the Felt Forum. Classen took a pounding and in the eighth round was pushed to the canvas. He rolled under the ropes and was counted out before he could return to the ring. It was the first time in his career that Classen had been stopped. Classen was put under the mandatory 30‐day suspension required after a knockout. (The waiting period has been lengthened to 90 days as a result of Classen’s death.)

A disaster overseas

Next up came a disastrous trip to England to battle Tony Sibson. The fight was on short notice and Willie did not even have an active license to fight in England at the time the fight was set up. Ordinarily, the British Boxing Board of Control would require that New York fighters have a valid New York license, but because of the shortage of time, Classen was given a physical in London and was pronounced fit to fight.

He wasn’t! Classen took a hellacious beating from the up and coming Sibson and was knocked down repeatedly and eventually stopped in just the second round. In his post-fight examination, he complained to the ringside physician of double vision and was told to go to Moorfields Eye Hospital immediately for an examination. The trouble was he didn’t, he said he was hungry and disappeared for most of the night and never went to the hospital.

A disturbing and tragic ending

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Minuto, Classen’s manager at the time, then scheduled a club fight for Nov. 23 and Classen went through the process of regaining his New York license. On Nov. 13 he was given an electroencephalogram, a test of brain reflex, and on Nov. 20 a complete physical. He told Dr. Edwin A. Campbell, the medical director of the athletic commission, that his London fight had been stopped because of “cuts.” Back then there was normally no exchange of information about contests between London and New York, and the commission did not try to check Classen’s version. Minuto did not contradict the fighter. As you can see the problem here was lack of communication between commissions and ultimately Minuto did not take care of his fighter.

The club fight was postponed after Classen got clearance, so Minuto signed for a 10‐round bout the same night at the Felt Forum against Wilford Scypion of Houston, who had a perfect record of 12 knockouts in 12 bouts. Classen was to get $1,500. Scypion was a soon to be ranked contender that a few years later would get a shot at Marvin Hagler’s World Middleweight Championship, so throwing Classen in the ring that quickly with a fighter of Scypion’s quality was downright criminal!

On fight night the bout was more competitive than anyone could have imagined, but it did not start out that way as Classen was knocked down in the third round but came back smartly until the ninth. One judge had a score of 4‐3‐1 in Scypion’s favor after eight. With 47 seconds left in the ninth, however, in a five‐second burst, Classen was struck on the left side of his head by three devastating rights. He stayed on his feet and took a standing 8‐count from Lew Eskin, a referee who had also handled two of Classen’s previous fights, both victories. After asking Classen if he was okay and getting an approving nod, Eskin allowed the bout to continue. Scypion himself looked at Eskin questioningly. Classen struggled through the rest of the round, then felt his way along the ropes to his corner.

The doctor in charge was Dr. Richard Izquierdo, a pediatrician, and the backup was Dr. John Warner, a urologist. Yes, you read that right, a pediatrician and a urologist! Both men testified they had not seen the ninth-round punches. Dr. Izquierdo had never supervised a fight before, having served previously as a backup. Dr. Warner said he had never treated a knockout. Dr. Izquierdo said Classen answered questions about his name and the round of the fight satisfactorily in both English and Spanish.

The end came in the very next round as it took seven seconds for Classen to just get up from his stool when the bell rang. He took three side steps to his left and was leveled by a right to the head by Scypion. Eskin tried to step in but Scypion, following through, hit Classen again in the same place as he was falling. Classen was semiconscious for a few seconds. Then his left side became paralyzed, followed by the right. He fell into a coma and never regained consciousness, dying five days later at Bellevue Hospital. The cause of death was given as acute subdural hematoma—a hemorrhage between the lining of the brain and the brain itself.

Punishment ensued as boxing was suspended for a period of time after the fight because the commission looked into what could be done to make boxing safer for the fighters. It is a shame during the history of the sport that the only change comes from the death of the boxers. What rules came from the death of Willie Classen was to extend suspension from 30 days to 90 days after being knocked out and better training for ringside doctors. Too bad nothing was done to Minuto, who should have been looking out for his fighter, but as we all know that is the way boxing goes.

Most fight fans will never know of the story of Willie Classen or who he was, but even if you have never heard of him you already know the story: Born poor, fighting was a way out, he had some talent and was destroyed by the people that were supposed to watch out for him.