By Tracy Callis

Rules? For fighting? Bah, humbug, whoever heard of such a thing! According to historians, this was the theme of Harry Greb - the quick, bouncy, durable, feisty, sharp hitting violator of any kind of rules or restrictions. From the opening bell, Greb poured it on and he was reluctant to stop at the last gong. This man was a fighting machine and dishing it out was his pleasure.

“Harry Greb, of Pittsburgh, was one of the most ferocious fighters of modern times. From the first gong he would come out fighting like a wild cat." His was a "non-stop tearaway style with arms flaying in all directions" (see Golesworthy, 1960 pp 95 96).

The famous boxing historian, Gilbert Odd (1989 p 55) stated, "Greb was no gentleman in action: a master of ruthless in-fighting, he used every trick to wear down his opponents. He rarely took a lot of punishment, as his rivals were usually busy defending themselves from the torrent of punches he tossed from all angles."

Patrick Myler, the excellent writer, described him (1998 p 128), "One of the fight game's legendary characters, Harry Greb had only a passing acquaintance with the Marquis of Queensberry Rules. He was a rough, tough battler whose style was based on a high workrate, more than a single pay-off punch."

Paxton (2009 p 74) wrote, "His ability to defeat all comers, regardless of size, is one of the incredible accomplishments in fistic history and establishes Greb as one of the greatest boxers who has ever lived. He didn't slowly move up in weight over the years and gradually fight heavier men as he got older and heavier. Greb would weigh around 160 pounds and fight a middleweight one day, beat a heavyweight the next week, then a middleweight a week later, then a light heavyweight after that."

Lardner once recorded that a man is truly famous "... when many things both true and untrue are said about him - in other words, when a mythology begins to grow up around him ..." Paxton (2009 pp  216-225) elaborates and points out five major myths about Greb - (1) that he never trained, (2) that he was a heavy drinker, (3) that he was a dirty fighter, (4) that his name wasn't Greb and (5) that he had a glass eye. But, read on, and enjoy the words that have been used by observers to describe the raging fighter, Greb, true or untrue, in the ring and out.

Lardner (1976 p 253) asserted, "no fighter of any size ever gave his opponent a more confusing, frustrating battle." He continued, "In the ring he resembled a man who had just burst loose from his strait jacket. Blows rained on his opponent from every angle and altitude and with such rapidity that his opponent could not block or evade even a small proportion of them."

Describing him further, Lardner wrote, "Greb would bend far down and unleash a dozen fast punches with either hand. He would rapidly circle an opponent and fire a dozen blows to the head and body before his opponent could retreat or retaliate. The blows were not especially hard, but they stung and cut, and Greb's pace increased as the bout progressed."

Greb was not an extremely powerful hitter but he made up for it with his whirlwind variety of blows - legal and illegal - that seemed to come from everywhere. DeCristofaro (1982 p 52) wrote, "Along with craft and sublety, Greb brought to the ring a pugnacious instinct and a philosophy of win-at-all-costs with whatever means necessary. Myler (1998 p 128) commented, "He employed every dirty tactic the referee would let him away with. If the official was in a tolerant mood, that would include head, shoulders, elbows, low blows and sticking his thumb in his opponent's eyes." 

Burrill (1974 p 84) said of Greb, "blind in one eye, one of [the] ring's most fearless competitors." Greb had lost sight in one eye due to a punch from Kid Norfolk in one of their brawls. They exchanged bites in this fight too. Greb was frustrated at not being able to control Norfolk as he wanted, started fouling, and gave the Kid a bite. Norfolk bit him back. Inspite of numerous warnings from the referee, they continued to fight fiercely and illegally.

Like most other things in his life, Harry took it to the extreme and lived it to the fullest. According to Myler (1998 p 129), Greb was a "notorious womaniser" who "boasted that he liked to make love in the dressing room before a fight to help him relax."  

Greb was a great fighter who could have been even greater had he taken training seriously. Instead, he preferred to live it up but with his crafty fighting skills, he was extremely successful. Myler (1998 p 129) wrote, "Greb hardly ever trained. He relied on his frequent fights to keep him in shape." He packed an unbelievable number of fights into 14 years in the ring.

Like many of the other true greats, it didn't matter who he fought. If a man wanted a fight, he had it. Grombach (1977 p 110) asserted, "He burned the candle at both ends, yet fought more than 500 bouts and was only knocked out once, and that time when he first started in 1913. He was middleweight champion from 1923 to 1926."  

Lardner (1976 p 253) stated, "Greb did not bother to train for his fights. He partied most of the time he did not spend in the ring, and he dreaded going to sleep lest he miss something. He ate what he pleased and was fond of entertaining ladies in his hotel or dressing room just before a fight."

Harry visited the Jack Dempsey training camp in 1920 when the heavyweight champion was readying for Billy Miske. When Jack Kearns, Dempsey's manager, lined Greb up to spar with Jack, some men at camp pulled a joke on him by telling him that the plan was for Dempsey to cut him up and then knock him out. Greb responded by cleverly boxing Jack and pouring on the punches - of all types - making the champ look bad. In a following session, the same thing happened again. Greb had Dempsey out of synch and the "Mauler" could not get untracked. Kearns finally stopped the contest and sent Jack through other drills. Greb left camp. (see Lardner, 1976 p 254).

Harry was not "the man who shot Liberty Valence" but he was "the man who defeated Gene Tunney." Mullan (1990 p 215) commented that "he gave the future heavyweight champion a savage beating." In 1922, Greb fought the unbeaten, "up and coming" Gene Tunney at New York. It was an education for the brilliant Tunney who took his licking and learned from it. Two No Decision bouts and two in which Tunney was judged the better man followed. Greb learned plenty about Gene too. Years later, when Tunney fought Dempsey for the heavyweight crown, Greb told everyone to put their money on Gene. He was right.

Grombach (1977 p 110) reported, "He is the only man who ever beat Tunney, and he made Jack Dempsey look very bad in a number of training sessions. Few fighters ever landed a solid punch on Greb, and few fighters were ever permitted to do any leading or follow any preconceived plan in any round of a bout with this dauntless exponent of perpetual motion."

He went on to say, "He was just as eager to fight outside the ring as in it." A popular story is that Greb and Walker ran into each other at a night club following their title bout in 1925. They had some drinks together and during the chit-chat, Walker bad-mouthed Greb for his eye gouging and frequent fouling. Greb responded that he would take him on again right there on the spot and starting taking off his coat. Walker jumped up and punched him in the face and they went at it again. The brawl ended up on the street where it was finally broken up.

DeCristofaro (1982 p 51) states that "Greb was a natural middleweight but, like Stanley Ketchel and his [Greb's] rival, Mickey Walker, he relished and was ideally suited for rough-and-tumble brawls with bigger and heavier opponents of the likes of Bill Brennan, Gunboat Smith, and Tommy Gibbons" while Mullan (1990 p 215) reported, "he frequently fought light-heavyweights and even heavyweights, and in a career that began in 1913 he had boxed world champions and title claimants such as Battling Levinsky (six times), Jeff Smith (five), George Chip (four), Mike McTigue and Tommy Loughran (three times each), Al McCoy, Frank Klaus and Mike O'Dowd. He also boxed heavyweight title challengers Tommy Gibbons four times and Billy Miske thrice."  

Not only did Greb fight this outstanding list of opponents, he met just about anybody who was anybody, a true list of "Who's Who In Boxing." Men such as Maxie Rosenbloom, Jimmy Delaney, Tiger Flowers, Johnny Wilson, Kid Norfolk, Mickey Walker, Frank Mantell, Jimmy Slattery, and numerous others were fought by Harry.

Harry experienced an early death at the age of 32 while undergoing surgery. Mullan (1990 p 215) stated, "Boxing has never seen anyone quite like Greb. He defied all the rules of training and conditioning, and his appetite for drink, women, and high-living was awe-inspring even for those free-spending Prohibition days. He showed a similar disregard for the rules of boxing, and gloried in his reputation as the dirtiest fighter of the day."

Paxton (2009) wrote, "The legendary Harry Greb stepped into the ring more than 300 times between 1913 to 1926, defeated opponents who outweighed him by more than 30 pounds, held the middleweight and light heavyweight titles and beat every Hall of Fame boxer he ever faced ..."

Greb was elected to the Ring Boxing Hall of Fame in 1955 and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. He was ranked as the #1 boxer to ever fight out of the city of Pittsburgh (The Ring, March 1996).

In a poll of old-time boxing men conducted by John McCallum in 1975, Greb was ranked as the #2 All-Time middleweight. Nat Fleischer ranked Greb as his #3 All-Time middleweight while Charley Rose placed him at #2.

Herb Goldman, former editor of The Ring magazine and The Ring Record Book insists that Harry was the best of them all and ranks him as his #1 All-Time middleweight fighter. Many boxing historians agree with Goldman.

In the opinion of this writer, Greb was the #4 All-Time middleweight and #10 All-Time "Pound-For-Pound" but could well deserve a higher rating.


Burrill, B. 1974. Who's Who In Boxing. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House.

DeCristofaro, S. 1982. Boxing's Greatest Middleweights. Rochester, NY: S. DeCristofaro.

Golesworthy, M. 1960. The Encyclopaedia of Boxing. London:
Hedgerow Books.

Grombach, J. 1977. The Saga of the Fist. New York: A,S, Barnes and Co.

Lardner, R. 1972. The Legendary Champions. New York: American Heritage Press.

McCallum, J. 1975. The Encyclopedia of World Boxing Champions. Radnor, Pa: Chilton Book Company.

Mullan, H. 1990. The Great Book Of Boxing. New York: Crescent Books.

Myler, P. 1998. A Century Of Boxing Greats. New York: Robson/Parkwest Publications.

Odd, G. 1989. The Encyclopedia Of Boxing. Secaucus, NJ: Chartwell Books.

Paxton, B. 2009. The Fearless Harry Greb. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.

The Ring Record Book
. 1987. New York: The Ring Publishing Corp.

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