THEY just don’t make them like Harry Greb any more. Come to think of it, they probably didn’t make them like him before he came along either.
Greb was middleweight champion of the world for only two and a half years but that was towards the end of a phenomenal career.
He was the only man to beat Gene Tunney and hammered the future heavyweight champion so badly Gene admitted years later: “How I ever survived the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth rounds is still a mystery to me.”
The great writer Grantland Rice said: “Greb handled Tunney like a butcher hammering a Swiss steak.”
Gashed over both eyes and cut on the lip, with a broken nose as well, Tunney had to be half-carried to his dressing room. That was in Madison Square Garden, New York, in May 1922 – and was made for Tunney’s American light-heavyweight title. Gene had scaled 12st 6 1/2lbs, Greb only 11st 8 1/4lbs, but in his magnificent heyday Harry didn’t care a jot about little niceties like conceding a chunk of weight.
It is a tribute to Tunney’s bravery that they fought four times more after that. In February 1923 Greb lost a 15-round split decision, again at light-heavyweight. Tunney won the third and fifth fights beyond dispute, and the fourth, a No Decision 10-rounder in Cleveland in September 1924 left press opinion divided as to who had the better of it.
Jack Dempsey declined an offer to defend his heavyweight crown against Greb in May 1920. Instead he settled for three days of public sparring before a packed house in New York at the end of July. Dempsey retired early on the third day when a right hand split his left eye open.
At the beginning of September they sparred again before Dempsey’s defence against the ill-fated Billy Miske. Dempsey always sparred hard, and Greb was happy to oblige, steaming into him and forcing him back on the first day, splitting his tongue on the second before both appeared to ease up on the last.
Greb wanted to fight Dempsey for real. It never happened.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on 6 June 1994, he had only a handful of amateur contests, then turned pro just before his 19th birthday. By 1917 he was keeping up a crazy pace – 37 fights, against such accomplished men as the reigning middleweight champion Al McCoy. Greb got the better of McCoy in a 10-round No Decision bout in Pittsburgh in April 1917 but under the rules of the day a title could not change hands on points.
Not content with that he also ‘won’ a No Decision contest with the light-heavyweight champion Battling Levinsky in Pittsburgh in September 1917.
In 1918 he had less fights – only 23 – because of war service, but in 1919 he crammed in an incredible 45, most of them at world level.
Greb was the best middleweight in the world but could not get a shot at the title. Instead he took delight in dealing with heavyweight contenders like Bill Brennan and Billy Miske, and old Gunboat Smith, whom he destroyed in a round in 1920.
He had his own style – there is no surviving film of him, but there is a strange piece of footage of him enjoying a light-hearted, fool-around spar with the old light-heavyweight champion Philadelphia Jack O’Brien. Today, some might think him so awkward as to be agricultural, but the results speak for themselves and the fact that he earned the utmost respect of smart, slick boxers like Tunney, the Gibbons brothers, Tommy, who also fought Dempsey, and the masterly Mike, as well as another light-heavyweight champion of the 1920s, Tommy Loughran.
At one point or another, Greb outfought them all.
Greb won the world middleweight title by outpointing the southpaw, Johnny Wilson, over 15 rounds at the Polo Grounds, New York, on 31 August 1923. They had made him wait until he was 29 years old, but finally he had the championship.
What nobody knew by then was that he was fighting under an incredible handicap. Greb had lost the sight in his right eye, following a foul-filled No Decision bout a seriously tough light-heavyweight, Kid Norfolk, in 1921. As the decade wore on, so the sight in his left eye began to deteriorate too to the point where he said with deep regret: “I can’t tell a dame from a priest until she’s close enough to smell her perfume.”.
He also suffered a terrible personal tragedy when, following a harrowing struggle, his wife, Mildred, died from tuberculosis in March 1923. They had a three-year-old daughter, Dorothy, and he took the only break in his career as he came to terms with his loss and new domestic circumstances. Dorothy went to be raised mostly by his sister.
Greb’s reputation as a womaniser was legendary – but it grew only after his wife’s death. He enjoyed letting the press believe he rarely trained and devoted himself to long and hard nights in clubs, It is true that after his classic 15-round championship fight against Mickey Walker, which Greb won on points at the Polo Grounds in July 1925, they did meet in one of New York’s clubs and drink and argue the night away in Billy LaHiff’s Tavern on West 48th Street. The story ran that things overheated a little and they had a rematch out on the sidewalk in the small hours. And some say, like much of Greb’s legend, it was just a story.
The great man lost his world title to the remarkable Georgia southpaw Tiger Flowers on a split decision over 15 rounds in Madison Square Garden in February 1926 and six months later lost to Flowers again on a another split verdict. That was the last of his amazing run of around 300 fights in 13 years – that’s a rate of almost one a fortnight, the great majority of which were over 10 rounds or more.
And only two months later, he was dead. Incredibly, in spite of his terrible eyesight, he had gone on driving his car. Not surprisingly he had crashed – and he underwent supposedly minor surgery to remove bone splinters from the back of his nose, a result of his road accident, and his ring career.
He failed to recover from the operation in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and died on 22 October 1926, aged just 32.