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Bunce Diaries: The gods at ringside

Bunce Floyd Patterson
When fight writers like George Whiting and co went to work in the 50s and 60s the boxing world paid attention, writes Steve Bunce

THE reporters at ringside for fights in the Sixties packed their tiny typewriters, their opinions and expertise for trips to the exotic where they became the eloquent recorders of our history.

They walked with the sport’s greatest during a time of change, a time of social explosion and they sat in silence to write their prose for a desperate public, a public wanting details about a fight somewhere off in the boxing Promised Land.

Boxing fans waited on the street for the bundles of papers to land, tossed from trucks to the afternoon newsstands; they read the reports from great men like George Whiting at London’s Evening Standard. They would stand, not moving until every word was gone.

The reports were critical lifelines, often the only way to find out how Terry Downes had done in Boston against Paul Pender or Alan Rudkin against Fighting Harada in Tokyo; the report from Tokyo was live, filed as the rounds unfolded, not lovingly crafted in an after-hours bar between slow cigarettes and hard booze.

And to file like that – I know, I have done it hundreds of times – you need a few lines from earlier, a few words to fill some space. Here’s Whiting’s detail in the live and under-deadline Rudkin report: “Freddie Hill, Rudkin’s Cockney trainer, was early on the inspection scene. He was exploring Rudkin’s corner a full hour before the start of the fight, inspecting the sand pit, the steps, the nasty blue spittoon and heaving his 15-stone bulk against the four ropes of the ring – not three, as in most other countries.” I love that detail. It went the full 15, ended as “they stood slamming each other with every ounce of guts and glory they possessed” and Harada retained.

Here is Whiting at the often overlooked world heavyweight title fight between Floyd Patterson and Tom McNeeley in Toronto from 1961. The fight is over, Tom has been ruined, dropped 10 or 11 times and then his wife, a former pageant winner, makes her way to the ring. I can just see George spotting her move, watching her as she edges up the steps, concern on her face and that is all that George was watching. “Nancy was helped up to kiss away her husband’s obvious distress – they broke their brief clinch, there was blood on her face.” That is proper copy.

Whiting had not been happy with the fight and questioned McNeeley’s ability to go unbeaten in 23 fights. Whiting wondered if the number had been reached “by the careful selection of harmless non-entities.” When it was over and Nancy’s bloody face had been cleaned, George set to work. “You could call it a fight if you like, but you would be much nearer the blood-splattered truth if you came up with a description of a misconceived massacre.”

The following year George was in Chicago for Patterson’s long overdue defence against Sonny Liston. This is the opening paragraph of his preview: “They’ve built a spotlit wooden ring on a four-foot-high platform. It’s a punishment pit – and it looks like a scaffold. They’ve got padding on the floor, velvet-covered ropes, spittoons, bottles of water, bags of ice, a stretcher, and a cylinder of oxygen. A not unpleasant breeze from off the placid waters of Lake Michigan suggests a nice night for an execution.” Whiting, by the way, was one of 648 newspaper men in attendance. You had to be good to stand out against that many rivals – George was very good.

And 126 seconds later Liston was the champion and Whiting went off snooping in the dressing room corridors, ears open for a morsel. He watched Patterson’s weeping mother looking at her son. “His mother stood awaiting him – sobbing and with arms outstretched. But Patterson seemed not to see her. The losing corner is no place for sorrowing parents.”  Liston, meanwhile, was surrounded by policeman: “Tonight, the law was on the side of Sonny Liston – the man they had so often called in for summary conviction.”

Nobody cried for Patterson’s departure and some of the American press were brutal. Here is the veteran Red Smith in his bombastic preview, picking Liston heavily: “We will then have a heavyweight champion who is not a mixed-up, sensitive, confused muddle of complexes. We will merely have a great big ugly rough heavyweight prizefighter for champion. It will make life a lot simpler for all of us.”

Next year there was the most unnecessary rematch in boxing history. Liston stopped Patterson again in the first, needed just 130 seconds, four more than the first time. Whiting was ringside for the first heavyweight title fight to take place in Las Vegas. It was a great crowd, but they complained at the end. “The summer-clad crowd of Las Vegas gamesters, vacationers, shop-front cowboys and party-dress sheriffs howled their disapproval.” Nothing has changed in Vegas and “shop-front cowboys and party-dress sheriffs” often make the ringside seats look like a Village People convention. 

In 1964 George Whiting, his hat, tie and portable typewriter went to Miami in February. The rest, as they say, is history. He went for Liston, so many did, but he knew it would be a big event. “We observe the decencies – and yell for blood. Middle-aged buffs and their blue-rinse beauties will be there on a mink parade.”

And then it was over, the boxing world and the chroniclers at ringside left dazed. The old days finished that night in Miami, gone forever. This is Whiting opening his report. “Cassius Marcellus Clay, the lissom Kentucky Kid the world derided as a shrill and raucous false alarm, is now the Heavyweight Champion of the World.” And then he delivered a line of pure and utter simplicity and lasting truth: “The horizon is his, and all its rainbows.” Lovely.

Thanks for that, George.

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