By Mike Casey
Things never fell right for Young Stribling. Bad timing plagued him throughout his career and the hard luck stories were tragically eclipsed by an early death. He was killed in a motorcycle crash, still only twenty-eight years of age. A long and impressive boxing record was crammed into a savagely short life. It seemed that Stribling, the immensely likeable and popular young ace of Georgia, was always in the wrong place at the wrong time.
To describe somebody as an all-round nice guy in this more cynical age unfortunately invites suspicion and guilt. Suspicion because we can never believe that any man can be that good. Guilt because of our inner desire to take aim at him with a custard pie.
Young Stribling didn’t smoke or drink, read the Bible regularly and loved his mom and pop. List those credentials in the harsh black and white of the printed word and a mental picture forms of a fellow who remains impossibly cheerful even as a tornado is levelling his house, killing his family, wrecking his farm and depositing his livestock in another state. Stribling was John Boy Walton in boxing mitts. Yet ‘Strib’ really was lovable and hugely loved. In the southern states, he ranked second only to golfing genius Bobby Jones in popularity. Strib was known as the King of the Canebrakes or the Georgia Peach.
His boxing record, like so many of the wonderful scrappers of his age, unfurls like a potted version of War and Peace. Look it up on your computer and you seem to be scrolling forever before you reach the end of it. He once jammed 55 fights into the space of a year, which represents a career for most fighters of today. It is a great record and Young Stribling was a great fighter. Let us be quite clear on that last point. He was acknowledged as such by Nat Fleischer and many others.
Stribling never took the ten count and world champion Max Schmeling was the only man to ever stop him.
Starting as a bantamweight in 1921, Stribling piled some 290 fights into the twelve years allotted to him, working his way right up to the heavyweight division and suffering just a dozen official losses. He twice defeated Tommy Loughran and Maxie Rosenbloom, drew with Paul Berlenbach and notched wins over the clever Jimmy Slattery, Battling Levinsky, Jack Renault, Primo Carnera, Tuffy Griffiths, Phil Scott and Otto von Porat. After blitzing von Porat in a round at Chicago, Stribling received an ovation as he came to the aid of his fallen opponent and helped him back to his corner.
Strib brought gasps of shock and admiration from London fight fans as he unleashed a succession of fast and tremendous blows to stop Phil Scott inside two rounds. Scott, he of ‘Fainting Phil’ fame, was in fact a very decent heavyweight on his day, yet the rampant Stribling left the Englishman glassy-eyed and wrecked.
Natural talent poured out of Stribling. He boxed beautifully, hit with authority and feinted and shifted cleverly. Although he never much more than a light-heavyweight, Gentleman Jim Corbett described him as the best heavyweight for his poundage that ever lived. British writer James ‘Jimmy’ Butler reckoned Strib was one of the hardest natural punchers to ever grace the ring.
Strib’s accredited 125 career knockouts represent a total that has since been surpassed only by Archie Moore. But there were telling chinks in the otherwise shining suit of armour. Stribling may have possessed the darkly good looks and natural talent of his great pal Jack Dempsey, but Strib was never blessed with Jack’s killer instinct.
Stribling didn’t care for the shadier side of boxing and the corruption that would cruelly rob him of his greatest hour against Mike McTigue. Strib saw himself as an artist of the roped square, trying to fashion masterpieces on a mucky canvas. It was all noble stuff but the goodness in him was his Achilles Heel. He had Jack Sharkey on the hook with a wonderfully timed blow to the heart in their 1929 match at Miami Beach, but failed to capitalise on the golden chance. Sharkey himself expressed astonishment at this, offering the opinion that he would have murdered Stribling if the positions had been reversed. Well, that’s a matter for conjecture. Let it be noted that Jack, for all his great natural talent, wasn’t always on the ball himself in critical situations.
Stribling had been so confident of his chances against Sharkey and realised the importance of the match. “I’ve got to win this fight and I’m not going to muff it. I am in great shape and expect to put up the battle of my career.”
Strib apparently fought that battle with neuritis in one shoulder but still gave Jack as much as he could handle before losing a close decision.
Jim Corbett would lament Stribling’s failure to bring down the curtain when he scented blood. That mighty knockout total, achieved largely against lower level opposition, was something of a misleading yardstick in Strib’s case.
Stribling was never a world champion, but he should have been. Indeed, the elements of hard luck and bad timing keep coming back like aching teeth when we get to the crux of Strib’s career. He should have dethroned McTigue for the light-heavyweight championship, yet Stribling was horribly robbed by corruption and bizarre circumstances in a fight he clearly won.
He should have beaten Sharkey and perhaps could have beaten Max Schmeling if the big chance hadn’t come too late in the day. Strib was a jaded and grizzled veteran by the tender age of twenty-six when he challenged the prime Schmeling for the heavyweight championship in 1931. After mounting a game challenge, Strib was ground down by the German champion and stopped in the fifteenth round.
Two years before, Stribling had exposed gaping holes in the fistic make-up of the cynically manufactured Italian behemoth, Primo Carnera. The two men fought twice in just over a month, first in London and then in Paris, and it was the comparatively diminutive Stribling who did all the fighting.
Fight fans were in awe of the seemingly mighty Carnera. He was one of the biggest and strongest men that boxing had ever seen, which of course made him indestructible to those who are hypnotised by size and steadfastly refuse to examine the cracks and crevices. Stribling was a 185-pounder. Primo set the scales whirring beyond 270. What could the poor lad from Georgia possibly do? Well, he fouled out in their London set-to and nobody could understand why. For up to the unsatisfactory conclusion, he had given Carnera a sound beating.
Stribling shook Primo to the very foundations that night, rifling the Italian with cracking punches and easily avoiding the slow and crude returns. In the fourth round, Strib pulled the trigger in earnest when he sent Carnera crashing to the boards. Primo arose shakily, full of rare fury and aggression. He charged Stribling and that was when the Georgia Peach planted a big one way down south and got himself disqualified. Was the match fixed like so many of Carnera’s fights? That has always been the rumour, although it was Primo who got heaved for fouling in the seventh round of their sequel in Paris.
Whatever, Young Stribling had certainly proved that he was a formidable little ‘un.
The Stribling family prayed together and stayed together and Young Stribling was the dashingly handsome star of the brood. But Ma and Pa Stribling were something in their own right. Determined to keep everything fair and clean and above board, Pa Stribling became his son’s manager and promoter, while Ma was more than just a token trainer. A tough and spirited lady, Lillie Stribling regularly donned the gloves to spar with her boy. Anything to keep him away from the clutches of boxing’s nefarious characters.
“I used to box with him myself until he was fourteen,” said Ma. “Pa hit too hard so I used to put the gloves on with him.”
Ma was a fan of the great Jim Jeffries and believed that her boy (she always referred to him as W.L.) could become a champion by following Jeff’s example of clean living and total commitment.
“I always wanted W.L. to be a fighter and I hope that some day he will be the champion of the world.”
The Striblings were entertainers to the core and criss-crossed America with their popular vaudeville act when Strib was a little boy. Ma and Pa were trained athletes, trapeze artists and acrobats.
Showmanship would remain in Young Stribling’s blood, dovetailing nicely with his passion for the dangerous and challenging pursuits of boxing, flying and motorcycle riding. He would regularly fly his aeroplane to his fights at the height of his career and served as a lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve.
It was boys’ paper stuff, a delightful rip-roaring mix of Jack Dempsey and Robert Redford as Waldo Pepper. When Strib treated his pal Dempsey to a ride one day, Jack apparently found the experience more thrilling than any of his fights.
But real life isn’t Hollywood of course and professional boxing certainly isn’t The Waltons with a happy punch. In Stribling’s time, especially, there were minefields and rigged agendas at every turn. The infuriating and indecisive era of the no-decision only offered additional artillery to the unprincipled and the downright vicious.
The Devil came down to Georgia when Stribling challenged Mike McTigue for the light-heavyweight championship at Columbus on October 4, 1923. The trouble was, nobody could quite figure out the guise in which the Prince of Darkness was doing his business.
Stribling, in the view of just about everyone present, beat McTigue convincingly over the ten-rounds distance in what was actually quite a dull fight. But, oh, how the affair livened up at its conclusion when referee Harry Ertle raised his hands and began doing an interesting version of semaphore.
Stay with me here, dear reader, for this juicy saga goes really deep. The soap opera of Mr Ali and Mr Liston at Lewiston has nothing on the shenanigans of the McTigue-Stribling story.
So there was Harry Ertle, a barely noticeable bit player during the main action, suddenly pointing at both corners with outstretched arms before leaving the ring and leaving all and sundry in utter bewilderment.
What was he signalling? Who had won? What is a draw? Ertle claimed he had signalled a draw, but that was still only the beginning of a classic roaring twenties pot-boiler. By the time the saga had run its ever-changing course, the confusion and the diversity of the various statements issued was such that even skilled journalists were incapable of writing coherent reports the following morning.
The Associated Press report kicked off thus: “Mike McTigue, of Ireland, retains his world’s light-heavyweight championship by virtue of three decisions by Harry Ertle, New Jersey referee.”
It wasn’t the best introduction for those thousands of half-blind and half-conscious readers who were having enough trouble steering their breakfasts to their mouths. From there, the report spluttered into a steady nosedive as it attempted to clearly explain the chain of events.
Harry Ertle, you see, wasn’t through when he left the ring. He came back to declare Stribling the winner. Then Ertle changed his mind again. From the safety of a private establishment, he signed a written statement to say that the fight was a draw as he had originally indicated. Harry additionally claimed that promoter Major John Paul Jones had performed a swift and crafty manoeuvre in the ring. As an expectant Stribling placed a glove in Ertle’s hand, so the good Major had promptly grabbed hand and glove and thrust them in the air.
To say that all hell broke loose would be a grand understatement in this case. Major John Paul Jones was not amused by Mr Ertle’s version of events. He accused Ertle, Mike McTigue and Mike’s manager Joe Jacobs of collaborating in a ‘colossal fake’. Jones believed that McTigue had been ‘played for a sucker’ by the famously creative Jacobs, who had apparently advised his charge that Stribling would be easy pickings.
That blithe assessment of Stribling didn’t hold much water with McTigue when he got his first look at Strib. Mike saw a young tiger that could give him plenty of trouble. There were other factors for the champion to seriously consider. Big offers, as high as fifty thousand dollars, were coming in for McTigue to defend his title against former holder Georges Carpentier, who had recently knocked out Joe Beckett in London. A loss to Stribling would scupper that tasty payday.
On the morning of the Stribling fight, McTigue announced that a broken bone in his left thumb hadn’t healed sufficiently for him to be able to go through with the bout. He and Jacobs would later claim that they had been forced into the ring virtually at gunpoint.
By the time the bizarre sequence of events had been played out, an early version of Monty Python’s Flying Circus was taking shape and Major John Paul Jones was seething. Good grief, these dastardly rogues were trying to turn the whole thing on him! Jones fired off a telegram to Chairman Muldoon of the New York Boxing Commission and said: “Harry Ertle rendered several decisions in the McTigue-Stribling championship bout. The entire vote of all the newspapermen gave the decision to Stribling by a wide margin. At the conclusion of the bout, Ertle pointed to both men but did not raise either hand.
“Newspapermen and officials asked him to make the decision. He stated that he would make the decision three hours after the bout. We insisted that he make his decision in the ring. We informed him that over 150 police and 200 soldiers were present for his protection. All we wanted was a square deal. After a great amount of argument he lifted Stribling’s arm and declared him the winner. Three hours later he issued a statement that his decision is a draw.
“This morning ten of the best surgeons in this state declared after X-ray examinations that McTigue’s injury was an old one and that same injury to his thumb occurred prior to his signing the contract on Labor Day for the bout held today. After much wrangling, McTigue agreed to enter the ring to defend his championship. He lost six rounds, carried two and two were draws. This was the average opinion.
“Prior to entering the ring, Joe Jacobs insisted that in the event that Stribling won the fight, an opportunity be given McTigue.
“He (McTigue) was unable to run out on us and had to fight. We desire you to make a thorough investigation, as 8,000 fans here are adhering to Ertle’s decision giving Stribling the world’s championship.”
Major Jones added that he later realised that McTigue and Joe Jacobs were in danger after receiving various death threats and sat up with them during the night in case anything untoward happened.
There was one last dig at Harry Ertle too. Jones claimed that Ertle had visited him before the fight and asked that it be declared a no-decision affair or an exhibition contest to be declared a draw.
Mike McTigue, as we can imagine, was feeling very much a major villain of the piece by the time he left Columbus and recorded his own thoughts on the sordid affair. Mike claimed he had been visited in his hotel and threatened before the fight, though he didn’t say by whom.
“I have never known before of a champion being forced to enter the ring with one hand at the point of a gun. The gun was displayed at my hotel but not actually pointed at me.
“So I finally decided to go into the ring and asked if there was any way of fixing my hand. They said only by the use of cocaine, which was used. Instead of helping me, it hurt me. It made me sick all during the fight.”
Referee Harry Ertle wasn’t going to lie down and take the blame either. He certainly didn’t believe that all those cops and soldiers at ringside had been for his protection.
Harry declared that it was Major Jones who had done all the threatening. Ertle claimed that Jones visited him before the fight with the dark message that Mike McTigue, Joe Jacobs and Ertle himself were being watched and that all railroads were covered in case they should try to shorten their stay in Columbus. When Ertle asked Jones what he meant, Jones didn’t answer.
Ertle then explained his actions in the ring. “When I put both my arms out pointing to both corners to signify a draw, Jones was the first man to come to me and demanded that I give the decision to Stribling, and I told him that my decision was given. Then he said to me I’d better get back in the ring and I said my decision was given and I could only give it a draw – that if he wanted to give the decision to Stribling, he could….
“Then he said that I would never leave the ring alive. Then he called several newspapermen into the ring and said he would ask them for their decision. And I said no matter what they say, I cannot reverse my decision. I have given them a draw.
“Then Stribling came over to me and put his hand in mine, and Jones walked up and raised his hand while I had hold of it. I did not raise his hand as the victor. I still say that it is a draw.”
A local reporter noted that no sooner had Ertle stepped out of the ring than a member of the military police pushed him back in again. An angry mob began to surge towards Ertle, but the police pushed the protesters back.
It was a bizarre, farcical night in Columbus, to which there never was a satisfactory conclusion. At the end of it all, Young Stribling was an unofficial king without a crown.
Three times he did it in that tenth round. Three times Young Stribling jumped in the air, his hands at his sides, in defiance of Mike McTigue. Well, after all, Strib did have a point to prove. And he proved it emphatically in his return non-title engagement with McTigue in March 1924. It was a no-decision bout in Newark, New Jersey, but everybody knew who won the decision.
Stribling was the superior fighter of the two men and drove the point home with a comical slice of pure vaudeville. On descending from his third leap into the air, he rifled a long left flush to McTigue’s chin that all but knocked the champion out on his feet. Mike reeled and staggered around the ring as Stribling took chase and decked him with a follow-up right. McTigue, a tough and canny old pro, fiddled and jiggled his way to the safety of the bell and eventually navigated his way through the full twelve rounds.
Stribling, ever philosophical, moved on to his next fight. There was always another fight, another aeroplane ride. It seemed he couldn’t cram enough into each day.
Young Stribling never did stop fighting, right to his untimely end. His later adventures among the heavyweights were no less interesting, but Strib never really possessed the natural power and lust for blood to go all the way in those deeper waters. He never took great punishment, save for the hammering that Schmeling gave him, but the sheer volume of fights inevitably took some juice out of the Georgia Peach.
Stribling just couldn’t stop. He loved life, loved to entertain and loved to put the gloves on. Much like Sam Langford, Johnny Dundee, Jack Britton, Maxie Rosenbloom and the other marathon runners of boxing, the fight game was in Strib’s blood. He never forgot how to win either.
He was fresh and lively as ever on September 22, 1933, after posting his second win over Maxie Rosenbloom. Less than a month later, the Grim Reaper came calling. Twenty-eight year old Strib was hurrying to the Macon hospital in Georgia on his favourite motorcycle, eager to greet his wife Claire and their newly born son.
A collision with an oncoming automobile severed Strib’s left foot and crushed his pelvis. He clung onto life until six o’clock the following morning, before dying from complications arising from his internal injuries.
Physicians at the hospital were amazed by his tenacious fight to survive as his temperature soared to 107 degrees and his pulse to 175. Such resilience, they said, was due to his incredible fitness and determination.
Moments before he drew his last breath, Young Stribling looked up at his doctor and asked, “Can I have a small glass of beer, Doc? It gives a fellow strength to die.”
Mike Casey is a boxing journalist and historian and a staff writer with Boxing Scene. He is a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO) and founder and editor of the Grand Slam Premium Boxing Service for historians and fans ( www.grandslampage.net ).