FRIDAY the thirteenth proved unlucky for old Battling Levinsky that cold January night in 1922. The veteran, having lost his world heavyweight title to Georges Carpentier, was trying to get back on top again.
Reviving the American championship, Promoter Tex Rickard put the Battler in with young Gene Tunney at the old Madison Square Garden and promised a diamond-studded belt to the winner.
Well, Gene won okay, but he didn’t get no belt unless you throw in the unkindly right which Levinsky planted on his jaw after whispering to Gene: “Please let me stay”.
Lucky for Tunney the Battler had no punch.
If no one else took his title seriously the young ex-Marine from Greenwich Village certainly did. He announced that he was ready and willing to defend against all comers. He didn’t have long to wait for a challenger.
The night of March 13, 1922, on a Milk Fund Show sponsored by none other that Mrs William Randolph Hearst and attended by the cream of the social register from the Astors to the Vanderbilts, Pittsburgh terror Harry Greb tangled with Tommy Gibbons, the pride of St Paul.
Tunney was introduced from the ring by old Joe Humphreys who told fans that Gene would box the winner. Then Gene retired to a ringside seat to study the action.
Secretly, Tunney was hoping for a Greb victory because he didn’t think he could beat Gibbons, then a perfect fighting machine with a knockout punch.
Gibbons never saw Harry Greb that night. Outweighed 7 1/2lbs and on the short end of 2-1 betting, Greb climbed all over his bigger foe and won twelve of the fifteen rounds.
“Bring on Georges Carpentier and then Jack Dempsey.” declared the winner.
So the scene was set for a Tunney-Greb match for the American light-heavyweight title.
Tex Rickard signed the match for the Garden, the date, May 23, 1922. The fighters went in to training and that’s where fate started lining Tunney up for his first, and only, defeat.
Gene’s left eye was opened and both hands injured in sparring. And if that was not enough, a reoccurrence of an old elbow injury appeared.
When the fight day arrived, Greb, usually not one to make predictions before a fight, told all and sundry that he was going to punch Tunney full of holes and take his title back to the Steel Town of Pittsburgh.
The New York gamblers, recalling what he had done to Tommy Gibbons, installed him a 2-1 favourite.
Since early morning the ‘Greb specials’ had been rolling in to Penn Station, loaded with loyal, hard-drinking, hard-gambling admirers of the ‘Pittsburgh Windmill’.
But as they made their noisy way in to the Garden that night, they couldn’t have known of the drama being played out in Tunney’s dressing room.
With the doors securely bolted, Dr Robert Shea, a close friend of Gene’s who had supervised his training, injected a solution of adrenaline chloride over his left eye in order to prevent bleeding in the event of the cut being opened by Greb, which was almost a certainty.
Also at Gene’s request, the Dr injected a hypodermic solution of novocaine into the knuckles of both hands, before the bandages were put on.
All this time Greb’s manager, George Engel, was banging on the door and shouting to be let in.
When he was finally admitted, he demanded Gene unwind his bandages which the New Yorker refused to do.
However Engel made such a fuss that Tunney gave in to his demands and bared his hands to inspection.
Satisfied, Engel departed to look after his own tiger.
With the two men in the ring, excitement in the Garden reached fever pitch. The weights were announced with Greb again giving away poundage, nothing unusual for him.
At 11 stones, 8 1/4lbs he was conceding Tunney twelve 1/4lbs. Such details didn’t dim the fighting spirit of Harry Greb.
He was a firm believer in the old ring adage, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
Harry Greb went in to the fight with some nine years of savage ring warfare behind him. He had been blind in the right eye since tough veteran, Kid Norfolk, had stuck his thumb in to the optic, and the sight in his left eye was getting worse.
But you wouldn’t know it from the way he fought Tunney.
Gene, young, strong, on the way up, had studied Greb as he did all his opponents and figured he had the beating of him with a right jolt to the heart, a punch he practised hour after hour in the gym.
But he never got a chance to use it.
Hardly had the sound of the opening bell died away than Harry was across the ring, throwing leather for all he was worth. That first exchange broke Tunney’s nose in two places!
Worse was to follow. Before the round ended, Greb’s furious onslaught opened a cut four inches long on Gene’s left eyebrow.
What a way to start a fifteen round battle with one of the toughest, and probably the roughest, fighter ever to pull on gloves. Tunney was a sorry sight as he returned to his corner.
Doc Bagley, in charge of Tunney’s corner, tried in vain to stem the flow of blood, but he might as well have tried to stop Niagra Falls. An artery had been severed over the left eye drenching the game ex-Marine in his own blood, which also poured from the double fracture of the nose.
In the third, although Gene held his own, another cut was laid open over his right eye and he saw Greb through a red film for the remainder of the fight.
Maybe fight is the wrong word to use here, for it was fast developing in to a carnage, a slaughter, a brutal one-sided beating such has rarely been meted out in the ring.
Greb’s gloves became soggy from slushing in the blood and sweat and every now and then he would step back, or push Tunney away, and hold out his gloves for referee Kid McPartland to wipe on a towel.
“Wanna stop it?” Harry would ask, McPartland would look at Tunney, who would mutter, “Don’t you stop it” the Kid would step back and Greb would go back straight in throwing punches, punching, pushing, bullying Tunney round the blood-soaked canvas.
The ref must have used half a dozen towels wiping the blood from Harry’s gloves while his shirt caked with gore. Had this not been a championship fight there is little doubt it would have been stopped long before the fifteenth round.
But Tunney was a champion and he was going out like one. Gene had taken in to his corner a bottle containing a 50% mixture of brandy and orange juice in case he became weak from loss of blood. At the end of the twelfth he decided he need a swig from the bottle. No sooner had he swallowed it than the ring started whirling around, the bell rang for the thirteenth round and his seconds pushed him off his stool. Tunney actually saw two Greb’s coming at him. One was more than enough for most fighters.
Fighting on pure instinct Gene kept Tunney kept up a semblance of a defence and even tried to throw a few punches himself. Harry just batted his gloves aside as his own fists tore at the man in front of him who didn’t know when he had enough.
The bell ending the fifteenth round eventually brought the carnage to an end and Tunney, legs wavering as nausea swept over him, shook his conqueror’s hand.
“You were the better man tonight, Harry” he muttered through his torn and bruised lips.
The unmarked Greb smiled “won the championship” he said before one of his corner dragged him away.
Tunney hauled his aching body through the ropes and headed for the sanctuary of his dressing room, but he couldn’t quite make it. He collapsed and had to be carried the rest of the way by his handlers. Nature had surrended.
Yet even as Tunney lay on the rubbing table, his mind clear but his body too weak to move, his mind was on a return fight with Greb. From the early rounds of the fight, Tunney was convinced he had the beating of Harry.
Immediately after Greb’s victory, promoter Tex Rickard cabled light-heavyweight world champion Georges Carpentier of France an offer of $150,000 to defend his title against Greb in the United States. Carpentier’s manager declined the offer, saying they had already signed for two other fights. Greb said, “I’ll fight Carpentier any time, any place.”
The second fight between Greb and Tunney was arranged for February 23, 1923, again at Madison Square Garden. And again Tunney had bad luck in training coming down with the ‘flu. The Garden was a sell-out and there was no question of a postponement as far as Tunney was concerned.
That second battle was one of the most bitterly fought contests ever seen in New York. Greb was at his roaring best, using every trick and foul he had learned in the fight jungles across America.
After doing well for six rounds, Tunney felt the strength drain from his body. As if sensing his opponents weakness, Greb batted the New Yorker all over the ring. But his foul tactics did not escape referee Patsy Haley.
In the eighth round, Haley stopped the fight and told Harry to watch his step… or else. Greb promptly told Haley where he could go as they glared at each other, Tunney caught a welcome breather.
At the end of the twelfth, Haley threatened to disqualify Greb.
Harry turned to Red Mason, his then manager, and said, “Didya hear what this two bit ––– said about heaving me out’n the ring? I’ll turn him inside out if he tries it!”
At the end of fifteen vicious rounds, Tunney got the nod from the referee and one of the judges, making him American champ again. Then all hell broke loose in the Garden as the Pittsburgh and New York elements clashed.
Even Tunney thought Harry had won, and was man enough to say so.
Undismayed, Harry went out and won the world middleweight title in his next fight beating Johnny Wilson, and in December was back in the Garden for his rubber match with Tunney. But by this time Tunney was coming fast and Harry was starting to slip.
It was one of Tunney’s best fights and one of Greb’s cleanest, with Tunney taking the nod after fifteen furious rounds.
Twice more these two stalwarts clashed in the ring, both times in No Decision bouts, at Cleveland and St Paul. Tunney got better with every fight, and after their fifth, and final fight, Greb told him he had had enough.
“He broke two of my ribs,” said Harry. “He’s getting to big and too strong for me now, let somebody else fight him for a change. He’ll beat Dempsey for sure, maybe knock him out.”
Eighteen months later, on September 23, 1926 Tunney and Jack Dempsey fought for Jack’s heavyweight crown. And as Tunney’s hand was raised as winner and new champ, guess who was saying “I told you so?” you guessed it… Harry Greb.
Tragically Greb would never get to see Tunney defend the crown as less than a month after Gene’s great triumph, Harry would be dead.
Pittsburgh’s wildcat had controversially lost his middleweight crown the February before to southpaw Tiger Flowers at the new Madison Square Garden.
Greb was a 4-1 favourite to retain his title, but the fancied Greb was a tired Greb, a balttle-weary Greb, an old Greb showing the wear and tear of hundreds of ring wars over long years under the bright lights.
The strain of making the middleweight limit was also becoming harder and harder for the man who regularly fought and beat much bigger opponents.
After fifteen hard-fought rounds, the referee, Gunboat Smith, who Greb had beaten twice many years before, voted for Greb, with the two judges at ringside awarding Georgia’s Flowers the championship.
The return was set for August – Greb had won two tune-ups in between – and Harry was much sharper this time and had trained diligently to recapture his old belt.
To many in the Garden that night, it appeared the old ‘Windmill’ was on his way to reclaiming his throne.
After a good start – he cut Flowers over the left eye – the southpaw champion came on strong, but over the final third Greb was entirely the aggressor chasing Tiger all over the ring.
For Flowers, in the closing rounds, it was a matter of survival, of weathering Greb’s relentless bombardments.
It was vintage Greb, perpetual motion that had earned him the nickname of ‘The Pittsburgh Windmill’. Slashing, chopping, belting and punching Flowers with every shot in his arsenal.
The decision again was split after fifteen tough sessions. Referee Jim Crowley gave Harry the nod, but once more, it was the judges who voted for Flowers much to the dismay of the crowd who showered the ring with hats and newspapers in disgust.
The result was a huge disappointment to Greb – Gene Tunney, at ringside, had Harry a winner – but Greb accepted it without bitterness and wished his old rival luck.
Harry stood forlornly in his corner as his handlers draped his robe over his shoulders.
Teary-eyed, he slipped from the ring, in what would be, for the last time.
Harry’s death was a shock to his legions of followers in Pittsburgh. The day before he departed for Atlantic City for an operation to aid his breathing and remove a bone from his nose, he was in good spirits, talking and joking with his friends.
“I’ll be back in a few days lookin’ better than ever,” quipped the notoriously vain warrior.
Other than the condition of his archetypal flat boxer’s nose, that had suffered years of abuse from rivals and which had began to cause breathing difficulties, he appeared in good health.
As good health as one can be after nearly 300 prizefights, blind in one eye and poor vision in the other.
Harry’s reputation as a womaniser had been legendary, but now in his thirties he was maturing as a man, leading a more serene life, he had a young daughter and was engaged to a Pittsburgh gal, Miss Naomi Braden.
His daughter Dorothy’s mother, Greb’s late wife, Mildred had tragically passed away in 1923 after illness.
On October 22, 1926, Harry Greb went on the operating table in a New Jersey sanitarium and died of haemorrhage following the operation.
“The operation was started under local anaesthesia”, said Dr. Charles L. McGivern, physician, “and later during it’s course this was supplemented by nitrous oxide and oxygen gas. He left the operating table apparently in good condition at 8:30 last night. At 10 o’clock this morning his heart began to fall and rapidly grew weaker despite the administration of stimulants until he died at 2:30 o’clock this afternoon”.
Braden was at his bedside when he passed.
The world was stunned at the news of his death. The people of Pittsburgh could hardly believe it.
In an odd twist of fate, Greb and Flowers, such different personalities in life, were in death, taken in almost identical circumstances.
The Georgia southpaw died on a New York operating table on November 17, 1927 while undergoing surgery on his eyes. He too, never woke from the anaesthetic.
Harry Greb, the amazing prizefighter with nearly 300 fights to his name, was just 32 years old. He was survived by his parents, Mr and Mrs Pius Greb, his 6-year-old daughter Dorothy, and three sisters. He was the only son.
And there will never been another like him.
Harry Greb, born June 6 1894, died October 22 1926