Publish Date: 09/12/2021
Fact checked by: Mike Goodpaster
If a boxer wants to have any kind of success and not end up a human punching bag when steps into the ring, he better train and train hard. Through strenuous physical preparation and with an ambitious attitude, a fighter has hope of becoming a world champion and anything less than their full commitment can leave them busted up and forgotten.
The most important part of any fighter’s training is sparring. It allows him to see his flaws and work on correcting them so he doesn’t get bounced around the ring like a basketball during March Madness when it is time for the real thing. Once a fighter has reached the championship level and is now king of his class, or at least is a rising threat to the throne, he has all eyes on him and his work. Not only is the focus on him in his scheduled bouts but also in his training, specifically his all-too-important sparring sessions.
When a fighter chooses his sparring partners they are expected to help their employer with any preparations he needs to reach his fighting peak before his coming bout. However, there is also the role of making the employer look good during these sessions and if the sparring partner for some reason forgets his role, he oftentimes is fired and replaced immediately. The paid punching bag might let loose without realizing what he is doing during a heated exchange or he just might be thinking of the small wages he is being paid for such extreme work.
Some old-timers would say being a sparring partner for a top contender or world champion was a great learning experience, but many others said it was the worst job to have. Taking a licking from a top-notch fighter day after day for such little pay and with no one noticing your improvements can take a toll. Some of these sparring sessions make for some of the most interesting stories and shocking outcomes, leaving the shine from the star boxer just a bit dimmer.
If you know any boxing history then you know who Jack Johnson was. He was the first black World Heavyweight Champion, a brilliantly skilled boxer, who was well-known for his tremendous defensive skills. A tale that is hardly ever mentioned is during Johnson’s training camp on October 11, 1909, at Seal Rock House, he fought a fast four-round sparring session with Gunboat Smith. Smith at the time was a novice of the pro rankings and had only fought as a pro for four months and had been picking up bouts on the West Coast. From the opening bell it looked more like Smith was fighting for the World Heavyweight title rather than preparing Johnson for his up and coming title defense against Stanley Ketchel in 5 days. Both the champion and his spar-mate landed heavy leather throughout and Smith showed no concern or respect for the champion’s power. In the last round, with still a minute to go, Smith came out of a clinch and landed an overhand right to the champion’s chin that sent him flat on his back, causing George Little, Johnson’s manager, to stop the session short. Even when Johnson came to his feet he was still in a fog and Little decided that was enough sparring for the day with Smith.
Another fast-paced sparring session that always deserves a mention involved two swarming tough guys when World Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey clashed with Pittsburgh’s own Harry Greb. Dempsey was preparing for his 3rd fight with Billy Miske and a speedy and durable spar-mate was just what Dempsey wanted. Like usual Dempsey was ripping up sparring partners like an untrained dog rips into the Sunday paper. He needed a speedy workout and Greb was the man to give it to him.
Dempsey was at the end of his training and worked three rounds with middleweight Marty Farrell and then went three rounds with Harry Greb. Standing in front of Greb’s assault was like standing in front of a levee when it breaks, you get hit from all over and are completely engulfed by his punches; you don’t get a chance to breathe and all you can do is hope not to drown in the mayhem. Greb was being paid to give the champ hell and that was just what he was going to do. During the chaos, Greb was said to have staggered Dempsey twice, which didn’t set well with the champion who wanted to show the crowd he was in fine form. Dempsey ripped and thrashed lefts and rights into the smaller man and sent a right hand to Greb’s midsection that lifted him off the canvas in a sparring session that showed more action than some World Title bouts.
On November 1, 1943, Curtis “Hatchetman” Sheppard who weighed 184 lbs., knocked out the 245 lb. Big Boy Brown in the 11th round with one of his notorious right hands, leaving Brown’s jaw broken as he rolled to the ring apron in agony. According to Archie Moore, Sheppard’s right hand was harder than Rocky Marciano’s and Jersey Joe Walcott said it was harder than any punch Joe Louis had in his arsenal, so it’s no surprise Sheppard could stretch out someone who outweighed him by 61 pounds. But what is a surprise is where Brown’s injury actually started from, a sparring session at Brewster Recreation in Detroit leading up to the Brown-Sheppard bout.
Brown’s trainer Eddie Futch said the x-rays showed a compound fracture and said Brown had told him that he had broken his jaw in sparring and it had hurt him non-stop from the time Sam Hughes, his sparring partner, had hit him until he stepped into the ring for the Sheppard bout. Detroit doctors confirmed that he had aggravated and already existing injury in his contest with Sheppard. What makes this even more intriguing is Sam Hughes, who did the damage, was a left-hander who had converted to fighting orthodox and was a junior at Northwestern High School, and only weighed 155 pounds. To add insult to injury, this was done with oversized sparring gloves. There’s no doubting Sheppard’s power but that 155 lb. high school student packed a sledgehammer of his own.
Another man with underrated power is Hawaii-native, Carl “Bobo” Olson. Olson was training for his first fight with Dave Sands, the heavy-hitting Australian, when he knocked out Tom Laming in sparring. Laming was set to spar Olson for two rounds in Dunleavy’s gym and was picked up as a sparring partner because he had fought Sands twice, losing both bouts by knockout. In the first round Olson feinted a left to Laming’s body and sent a short, sneaky right hand to his chin which put his lights out. Laming was carried out of the ring by three men, still unconscious and with no signs of coming to on his own until he was given smelling salts, which still didn’t clear the cobwebs entirely. He remained in such poor condition that he had a friend drive him home.
Although it was sparring and Laming had taken many blows to the chin before, the following day he said, “I have never had a punch like it before; I was completely surprised, it traveled only a few inches.” Laming would go on to say it was the hardest blow he had ever taken and Olson was the hardest puncher he had ever met.
Not all sparring sessions are as intense as the one between Olson and Laming, and when you hear that this next one starts off in New Orleans, a city known for good times, great food and as the root of jazz music in the United States, you might would think such a scene would cool off any possible heated feuds. You would be wrong.
Tommy O’Loughlin tells the story of when he brought his middleweight named Charley Burley to New Orleans in April of 1943 to fight Cocoa Kid. Burley was putting faces on his sparring partners that their mothers wouldn’t recognize and he wasn’t getting the workouts he needed. Someone suggested to bring in Elmer Ray, a heavy-handed heavyweight who was a former alligator wrestler out of Florida. O’Loughlin, who managed both fighters, figured it would be a good workout for the Hill District Horror who needed it for his coming fight with Cocoa Kid, thinking it would trim off some of the hog-fat Ray was holding on to.
Sparring heavyweights was nothing new to Burley and as soon as the first round started Burley was giving Ray a boxing lesson. Burley, the smaller and faster man, was showing to be a harder opponent than the alligators Ray wrestled with back in Florida. But Ray finally had had enough of it and let loose a thudding blow to Burley’s body: “Oof,” Burley let out as he crashed back and fell entangled into the second and third rope.
Just a couple months later Burley was in California preparing for another fight and again needed a better sparring partner. He himself suggested Elmer Ray be brought in. Burley was looking for revenge for the last meeting he had with the big man and told O’Loughlin that he was in shape “and that he owed this big bum a beating.” O’Loughlin said that it again was a heated engagement but this time Ray let his vicious left hook land on Burley’s chin and “Burley went out cold.”
On this last war behind a closed door we see a David vs Goliath story in the prize ring, so to speak. Being an aspiring partner is not a glamorous or easy job as we know, but when you are a middleweight in there with a heavyweight it makes your job all the less desirable, especially when that heavyweight is a prime Sonny Liston.
Jesse Smith often took beatings from the heavy-handed brute of a man and one day a visitor at Champ’s gym walked up to Smith who was pressing a cold towel to his bloodied and mangled nose and asked him, “Don’t you wish they would stop putting you in there with Liston?” Smith replied in anger, “Naw, I just wish I was 40 pounds bigger and then I’d flatten the big stiff.”
Well, Smith was brought in to Miami Beach to prepare Liston for his fight with Mike DeJohn and the first morning there Liston came back from doing his roadwork in full sweats, prepared to spar with Smith that afternoon. The morning workout took a toll on Liston and when he met Smith in the ring, Sonny caught a hard hook on the chin. He was all but out. Liston wobbled and buckled but didn’t go down, but he was in such a bad way that his trainer Joe Pollino had to call time. Smith didn’t take his man down but he did create inspiration for the next time he found himself hurt in a fight. All he had to think about was the time he put one of the most feared heavyweights in the world on queer street.
Sometimes the best wins and losses, biggest upsets, hardest punches and most memorable fights happen in the wars behind closed doors.