By Keith Terceira
Part 1 of 3
Several months ago, while researching and reading newsprint on Jack Dempsey, I ran across an article on Harry Greb done by the great boxing writer of the roaring twenties and beyond Joe Williams in the Modesto, California Bee. As is always the case I pulled my file on Harry and stuck the news copy in, next I discovered a Sport-o-graph column done by legendary Frank G Menke an tossed it in As well and then forgot about them.
Late in the evening a few months after I was awoken by an idea, some puzzling questions and a realization. Sifting through the several inch thick file already in the works had I began putting the pieces together and adding even more. With the advent of the internet and digital images, newspapers and articles that had never before been available to the public without travel at the touch of a finger.
The legend and history of Harry Greb, is somewhat based on rumors, mostly on facts and in my opinion a great many issues created to allow Greb to psyche out his opponents. This piece is not about whether or not Harry’s name was really Berg (reversed Greb). That question was answered several years ago with the release of the 1900 and 1910 census for Pittsburgh, an honestly, who really cares if he picked an alias.
First, If Harry Greb was portrayed in his later years as a drunkard, a womanizer and someone that did not train for his fights properly, and fought dirty (nearly everyone knew the tricks). I was struck by the need to find the first report of these issues . I began in 1913 articles done in the Pittsburgh area and advanced into the early 1920’s with no hint what so ever that this was the case at least not put out to the public in fight reports. Fact is out of the hundreds of newspaper stories for that time from 1914 -1920 no one prints a word about Greb’s lifestyle or training routine. To the contrary people are comparing him to Stan Ketchel and others.
Consider that Greb fought on the average of 32 bouts a year taking into account that most say he fought 3-4 hundred bouts in 13 years or a fight every two weeks or so. Anywhere between 6 and 15 rounds per.
Just after Greb defeated Gene Tunney for the American light heavyweight title is when some of the training questions began popping into the press. Factually, what I found was the louder that Greb screamed for a bout with Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey , the more bad press began appearing mostly by New York writers and writers syndicated from the Mecca of boxing at the time.
From 1916 - 1922 over three dozen newsprint articles appear that mention Harry Greb showing up at training camps throughout the country to spar or work with fighters while on the road. Allowing for healing time, travel by rail or Harry’s favorite mode auto, and a fight many times once a week or slightly more my question to historians is when did Greb have time to not be in shape.
The most famous appearance of Greb at a training camp revolves around Jack Dempsey, only it seemed more rumor then reality because of in the accounts of this happening everyone reported a different camp for a different Dempsey opponent. Some say they had heard that it was while Dempsey was preparing for Bill Brennan, others said it was when he was going to face Carpentier, only one writer in my research ever printed that he himself witnessed Greb’s drumming of Dempsey, and that was Sparrow McGann, who in July of 1925 wrote this account.
“This writer recalls the torrid afternoon in Toledo, when Dempsey working up to a climax in his training for Willard, was taking partner after partner and messing them up good and plenty. Then into the ring came a dark-faced, beautifully built middleweight whose face was as serious as was Dempsey’s. “
Further down the paragraph after providing historical background on Harry’s name and opponents to that date Sparrow continues with what transpired between Dempsey and Greb.
“As soon as Jack Kearns who was keeping time said the word Greb sailed into Dempsey in precisely the same manner which has subsequently become so familiar to the fans. Before Dempsey knew what sort of wildcat partner had been tossed into the ring with him he had been cuffed and basted and slammed until his black eyes glowed like little fire balls and he set himself to hand his energetic tormenter something that would keep him quiet for a short time at least”
“But Dempsey never did land squarely upon that elusive human dynamo in front of him and when time was called Greb had hardly been touched” Greb was asked to leave camp and never return.
Other Newspaper stories report Greb in camp with Otto Wallace, Billy Shade, and several others.
Harry maintained his entire life that he could handle Dempsey and Tunney gave credit to his 5 bouts with Greb that he learned the skills to defeat Jack. Tunney did this on his return from acting as pallbearer at Greb’s funeral in a piece written by Joe Williams. Williams quoted Gene Tunney as saying in reference to Greb’s enthusiasm for boxing.
“You don’t find that in many fighters, but Greb had it in a marked degree. That’s one reason that why he preferred to fight himself into condition instead of training himself on the road or in gymnasiums. It was more fun.”
It was clear that Greb had little time to train with his schedule and more likely knew the issues of over training while fighting so often. Still it was difficult to track down just when Greb got the reputation for being such a rapscallion.
In the early 80’s I had the pleasure of interviewing during Ring 8 functions trainer Ray Arcel and we had touched twice on Harry Greb who was a often on the New York scene while fighting at Madison Square Gardens . Arcel relayed to me on Greb’s fondness for drink that often Harry would visit the New York night spots while in town, always with a beautiful women or two on his arm and pretend to get plastered while in the establishment. This is also reported as occurring the week before a fight by both James Red Mason and Engle his managers at different times.
“ I once ran into Harry coming from a gin mill, somewhere on the eastside I think, nice place with a beautiful woman on his arm holding him up. As they passed thru the doors, I went to grab Greb and he straightened right up and laughed, “Screw em “ Harry said “let them think I’m a lush and print it to the world, they will anyway, this way that sorry bunch will beat my guy for me. Serves the robbing press right.” Arcel explained. “ When Greb fought Walker they almost dropped when he was a pound under weight. He had everyone believing that he wasn’t going to make weight and was shot. Mickey paid the price that night.”
Second; Let’s figure as well that had Harry Greb been all the things that much of the press wrote how did he accumulate a net worth reported as $200,000.00 in 1926 when others with behavior problems had fallen into misfortune and died so broke. To put it into prospective, in 1926, in Pittsburgh, you could purchase a 7 room house for three to four thousand dollars cash.
Obviously the women issue came up only after Greb had been widowed in 1920. Greb had married his hometown sweetheart and had a daughter. He was deeply in love with his wife and was heartbroken watching her suffer for two years before passing at young age and Greb was only 26 at the time of her death. Widowed with young children, on the road always, over 25, and famous, shame on Harry Greb hanging with the ladies who showed him interest.
So just why did the New York Media remind the public so much about Greb’s behavior after around 1922-23. Perhaps one piece of reasoning is that Greb made the mistake on opening his mouth at the wrong time and the New York powers decided to drop a load of bricks on him as pay-back or perhaps when Greb ratted out to the public that New York reporters were trying to extort money from him they attempted to ruin him.
In December of 1923 Frank G. Menke in his Sport-o-graphs column called Greb a “two-time liar”
Over a interview Greb gave on his return to Pittsburgh after one of his fights with Gene Tunney. In that interview Harry told Charles Doyle a sportswriter “
“that certain sports writers in New York had demanded thousands of dollars from him and if he didn’t “Come across” it would make it more or less impossible for him to do any further fighting in New York” from that point on things went out of control and shortly Greb had also involved George Daley of the Morning News and another legend Ed Van Every . Greb was so angry at the judging that he also was quoted by Van Every as saying Promoter Tex Rickard had attempted to push him into signing a fight for his middleweight title with Johnny Wilson the night of the Tunney fight and accused Tunney of being in with members of the Boxing Commission and the judges had fixed the fight (Referee had called fight for Greb). “
While he did retract a little after a meeting with Tex Rickard in a letter to the press he only states that it was the judges decision and he would live with it. Never does he retract about the reporter etc.
No one ever honestly thought Greb would continue on to again become Middle weight Champion so killing his New York Career was out, but they could hurt him in other ways.
He also told Ed van Every in his piece that,
“I am through with this state (New York). I will never give them a chance to steal my title hear as long as I am Champion”
Basically Greb shot himself in the foot with everyone from the boxing commission to the press. In my opinion evidence suggests that is the point that everything started concerning Greb’s personal life and put a final spike in the attempt to face Dempsey .
Even in death his obits mentioned his only trouble was his dislike for training and staying in the gym. One year alone Greb fought 46 bouts against top talent and champions beating them all according to published accounts . If that isn’t in shape I don’t know what is.
To run down the opponents he faced is another article in itself.
Other questions have to be answered but this piece is already long winded enough. In part 2 I’ll revisit Greb and the stories his battles to No Decisions and give you newspaper reports on those bouts to 1921.
Harry Greb is perhaps the toughest pound for pound fighter to have ever lived and in the last part of the series we will explore Harry Greb from 1921, when a thumb to his eye by Kid Norwalk may have blinded one eye, how newspaper accounts of his changing style may confirm just when his vision effected his bouts, and eventually led to his death in 1926 at age 32.