The CBZ Newswire

A Salute to Willi Besmanoff

by on Feb.23, 2011, under Boxing News

By Pete Ehrmann

When Willi Besmanoff moved to Milwaukee in 1959, the veteran heavyweight boxer from Germany was already on the Autobahn to Palookaville. But he’d been down worse roads.

Born in Munich to a Jewish American father who didn’t stick around, when Besmanoff was 11 years old the Nazis called him an “enemy of the Reich” and shipped him off to the Buchenwald concentration camp until his mother changed his religion from Jewish to Protestant. He still had to report to the police every week.

At 13, Besmanoff was an apprentice baker whose boss talked him into putting on boxing gloves. He enjoyed the competition. “To be able to fight somebody was to be a man,” he said later. “I learned respect, discipline. I could do it myself. It was me, nobody else.”

He turned professional in 1952 and fought for the German light heavyweight (175 pounds) title. In 1956, after more than 50 pro fights in Europe, Besmanoff came to the United States and took what the New York Times called a “long stride in his bid for recognition” by beating ranked contender Bob Baker at St. Nick’s Arena in New York.

But then Besmanoff won just two of his next 10 bouts, and when he moved to Milwaukee hoping to become an attraction for the city’s large Teutonic population, he had fallen to journeyman status. His first fight at the Milwaukee Auditorium on January 26, 1959, was a disaster on several fronts. Besmanoff was pounded so hard by Texas light heavyweight Donnie Fleeman, who won a 10-round decision, that afterwards he told a reporter that he couldn’t remember anything after getting knocked down twice in the fourth round.

Then a lawyer barged into his dressing room with a writ attaching Besmanoff’s entire purse of $1,284. Before the fight, Besmanoff had tracked his long-lost father down in Chicago, and had spent a week there getting reacquainted. Now the old man was demanding $1,500 for Willi’s “room and board” during their reunion.

A judge told Besmanoff to pay $400. “I paid him,” he recounted later, “and I forgot that I had a father.”

Besmanoff won two subsequent fights at the Auditorium, one of them on points against Mike DeJohn. It was written that the 5’11”, 200-pounder “never had the agility of a ballet dancer, depending on his brute strength, ability to take a shock and pound away.” On December 29, 1959, Willi fought Sonny Liston, the most feared heavyweight in the world, in Cleveland. Liston couldn’t knock him down, but he the fight was stopped after six rounds when Besmanoff’s eye was badly cut.

Years later, Willie would call Liston the “only man I was afraid of. He was an animal, a mountain. I hit him with everything I had, and he only laughed at me.”

But that was later. In 1960, after ending a seven-fight losing streak with decision wins over Jimmy McCarter and Howard King, Besmanoff said, “I’m dying to fight Liston again.”

After consecutive losses to Bob Cleroux and Tom McNeeley, Besmanoff “covered himself with a fair share of glory,” wrote Evans Kirkby of The Milwaukee Journal, by hanging in against light heavyweight champion Archie Moore in their non-title bout on May 25, 1960, until the referee stopped the fight with a minute-and-a-half left because Besmanoff’s nose was a Vesuvius of blood. (Two years earlier, Besmanoff had knocked Moore down before losing a split-decision.)

In 1961, the 28-year-old fighter announced his retirement. “The best thing I got out of boxing,” Besmanoff said, “was getting my American citizenship and the chance to live in this country.”

Before the year was out, he had moved to New York was fighting again. Contenders George Chuvalo and Alejandro Lavorante both stopped him, and Cassius Clay — three years away from becoming heavyweight champion and Muhammad Ali — knocked Besmanoff out in seven rounds on November 29, 1961. After future 175-pound champ Bob Foster and heavyweight Amos Johnson stopped Willi in 1963, Milwaukee Journal sports editor Oliver Kuechle wrote a column headlined, “The Sad Case of Boxer Billy Besmanoff.” His opening sentence: “This sad saga might be entitled ‘recipe for Scrambled Brains.’”

Besmanoff finally quit for good in 1967, after 93 professional fights (51-34-8). “It was a tough life,” he said, “and that’s why I lost my first marriage.” His wife, Besmanoff said, “liked the money and excitement. But when it was all over, I guess I wasn’t good enough anymore.”

I met him in 1993 when he was living in Atlanta, and was happy to learn that contrary to Ollie Kuechle’s prognosis, Willi was just fine. “I have my good health, a little money, a wonderful family and, the best part of all, I kept all my marbles in the right place,” he said. Liston had died of a drug overdose, and Ali was a shambles. But Willi the Baker Boy, who, like the fictional heavyweight Mountain Rivera in Rod Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” could “take a cannonball in his face and you could fix him up with an aspirin,” was still standing and proud of what he did in the ring.

“I tried my best. I was honest. I didn’t become champion, but I gave a championship performance, in my opinion. Once in a while I meet somebody and they remember my name, and that makes me happy. Nobody can say anything bad about me,” he said.

News of Besmanoff’s death at 78 in Florida last October is just making the rounds now. It’s a shame to give the last word to old Ollie Kuechle, who hated boxing, but back in 1963 he was at least right about one thing when he wrote that Willi “was a competent pro boxer in his day. He wasn’t good enough to beat the best, but he was good enough to meet them.”

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