Boxing History And The Catskills

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Frank_Moran_cropHundreds of fighters, champions and also-rans alike, have come to the verdant Sullivan County countryside over the years to train for upcoming fights, providing the Catskills with a permanent link to the sport.  And that link transcends the fact that heavyweight contender Ed “Gunboat” Smith grew up in Obernberg, heavyweight champ Jimmy Braddock owned a home in North Branch, and featherweight champ Abe Attell, generally regarded as one of the greatest pound-for-pound fighters in history, is buried in Beaverkill.

It has not been recorded when the first professional fighter came to the county to train, but there is lots of information from which to make an educated guess.  While it isn’t clear whether or not he ever actually trained in the county, Robert Prometheus Fitzsimmons, the undersized British fighter who wrested the heavyweight crown from Gentlemen Jim Corbett in 1897, is known to have frequented many of the Silver Age resorts in the region, primarily those favored by New York City’s policemen and firemen. That probably meant Brophy’s Mountain House in Hurleyville, which was so closely associated with New York’s Finest and New York’s Bravest prior to its demise in a fire in 1910 that is was often referred to as Brophy’s Mad House, due to the unrestrained antics of the off-duty officers.
Kid Wilson, a rather nondescript journeyman fighter, set up a training camp at Ortman’s Road House outside Centerville in 1900. Surely he was one of the first fighters to actually hold a training camp here. Frank Moran, “The Fighting Dentist” from Pittsburgh, who fought twice for the heavyweight championship, losing to both Jack Johnson – in 1914 – and Jess Willard – in 1916 — trained at White Sulphur Springs for a 1916 bout with the underrated Jack Dillon, which he lost.

A few years later, in 1920, Battling Levinsky, one of history’s greatest light-heavyweights, trained for his championship fight with the colorful Frenchman, Georges Carpentier, at White Sulphur Springs. Levinsky lost the fight.

Throughout the 1920s, there were regular boxing cards held in Monticello and in Liberty, and some of the fighters – mostly wanna-bees, and a few soon-to-bees – spent a short while in makeshift local training camps before the bouts, mostly to build up interest among potential ticket purchasers.

Jimmy McLarnin, world welterweight champion, trained here for several fights beginning in 1933, and Barney Ross, who became a regular fixture at Grossinger’s, was training for his own bout with McLarnin at the Long Island Bowl in 1934 when he first came to the G.

It was marketing genius Milton Blackstone who had the idea to bring Ross to Grossinger’s to train, free of charge. Ross was the lightweight champ, and a recognizable name who was certain to attract a crowd and generate publicity for the resort, but Malke Grossinger was hard to convince. Concerned about whether or not a fighter, even a world champ, would project the right image for the resort, the diminutive matriarch balked at the notion of allowing him to train at the hotel.

“What is this Ross, a drinker, that he must do such a thing?” she reportedly asked. “He can’t hold a steady job?”

Despite the fact that she initially refused to greet him or acknowledge his presence, once Malke spotted Ross at Friday night services, she became his biggest fan. He would return to the hotel again and again, and eventually was employed there.

The story of Jimmy Braddock’s amazing transformation from a broken down light-heavyweight to a heavily muscled heavyweight with a devastating punch at the Hotel Evans in Loch Sheldrake in 1935, when he trained there for his championship fight with Max Baer, is well documented, but far fewer folks know that the German great Max Schmeling spent six weeks in the Catskills training for his 1936 thrashing of soon to be champion Joe Louis.

By the 1950s, it was common for fighters of all sizes to train at the Sullivan County hotels. Often there would be more than one high profile fighter in the area at the same time; occasionally opponents training for the same fight would be at neighboring hotels. When Rocky Marciano was training at Grossinger’s for his 1954 championship bout with Ezzard Charles, Charles trained at Kutsher’s. The County received national publicity that summer when Edward R. Murrow interviewed both boxers from their respective camps, utilizing a split television screen for the first time in doing so.

Of course, Marciano and Grossinger’s would become synonymous before long, and the undefeated champ would enter the ring for many of his later fights in a robe with the hotel’s name– which also happened to be the name of the Rock’s adopted hometown, since Grossinger’s had its own post office– embroidered on the back.

In 1961, legendary middleweight Jake LaMotta came to Arcy’s Wayside Cottages in Cochecton Center, not to train, but to rest.  LaMotta, immortalized by the gritty film “Raging Bull” if not for his prowess in the ring, was close friends with local resident Pete Petrello, president of Callicoon Dress, Inc.

Other greats from Sonny Liston and Ingemar Johansson to Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes and from Joey Archer and Emile Griffith to Roberto Duran and Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini have called the Sullivan County Catskills their temporary homes while training for fights, and for most of the 20th century, very few places in the world could claim a greater link to professional pugilism.

Photo: Frank Moran, heavyweight boxer, dental student, and later movie actor, trained in White Sulphur Springs for a 1916 bout.

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