Abe Attell: The
Masterful Little Hebrew
By Mike Casey
He was in the autumn of his
sprawling career now, a world champion no more and fighting desperately for
another chance to climb back to the to the top of the pile. Abe Attell, the
great Little Hebrew, was outweighed by 10lbs and getting as much as he was
dishing out against Harlem Tommy Murphy at Coffroth’s Arena in Daly City.
Abe’s face and hair were
smeared with the blood of his wounds. He resembled a tottering soldier who had
been hurled clear of a major explosion. But then Harlem Tommy was liberally
coated in his own claret, so at least the fighters were even in the gore
Abraham Washington Attell
was looking to prove a point and he could have picked a less demanding
assignment. Harlem Tommy Murphy was teak-tough, persistent, a hard puncher and
no obliging stepping stone for anyone. He was a familiar old thorn in Abe’s
side. The two men had already battled to three no-decisions, although Harlem
Tommy didn’t have a particular preference for Attell.
Murphy had fought them all
in his rumbling, nine-year career, pitting his hardy dukes against such sterling
customers as Leach Cross, One Round Hogan, Packey McFarland, Pal Moore, Owen
Moran, Ad Wolgast and Matty Baldwin.
But Attell had to beat
Harlem Tommy Murphy on this day in Daly City. The sun was threatening to go down
on Abe’s long career and the old maestro wanted to stay out and play a while
longer. It was March 9, 1912, less than a month after the foxy Johnny Kilbane
had ended Attell’s mighty reign as the featherweight champion of the world.
Abe, a spunky, feisty little
fellow, was still bristling over that fight. “Kilbane should have been ashamed
of himself,” he said. “He was the challenger but he wouldn’t do anything but lay
back and play it cute. I would have made the fight but I couldn’t go forward, my
legs were gone.”
Abe’s punishing duel with
Harlem Tommy remains one of the bloodiest fights ever seen, waged in a stark era
when lighter and far less resilient gloves quickly became slashing tools. How
Attell tried. His old guile and cleverness were still very much intact, as was
his ability to mix it up and take his lumps when the going got tough. But Abe,
who normally read a fight so well, made a costly tactical blunder in the opening
rounds when he chose to park his artful boxing at the door and trade punches
with a tough cookie who relished nothing more than a good old-fashioned fight.
aggressiveness and weight advantage soon told on Attell, who knew by the middle
rounds that he would be beaten if he failed to revise his game plan. It was then
that Abe the old boxing master took centre stage again, and he very nearly
pulled it off. Suddenly he was flying, avoiding Murphy’s big punches and
slamming home a succession of lefts to the body that slowed Harlem Tommy’s pace
and took much of the steam from his attack.
However, there was only so
much gas left in the tank for Abe, a twelve-year veteran of more than 150
fights. He had reached that time of life when an old ring mechanic has to bluff
and stall and engineer a brief respite that won’t be found out and punished.
Harlem Tommy just kept coming on, and Attell’s clever boxing was no longer
sufficient to fashion a hiding place as the hazy finishing line came into sight.
Abe had to revert to
fighting Murphy and hope for the best. The old champion’s defiance was something
to behold. As Harlem Tommy marched forward in the eighteenth round, Attell
opened fire, showing tremendous bravery. His face a mask of blood, Abe’s
ferocious resistance stunned even his most ardent admirers. From that point, to
the end of the twentieth and final round, the Little Hebrew met Harlem Tommy
head on and waged war with him.
Attell’s grandstand finish
wasn’t quite enough. The decision went to Murphy, but Abe had convinced many
that he stood an excellent chance of regaining the featherweight championship
from Johnny Kilbane.
Attell never got the chance.
Five months later, he went back to Coffroth’s Arena to fight a twenty-rounds
draw with Harlem Tommy in their final meeting, but Abe’s glory days were over
and he could never fully muster his old magic after that.
We turn the clock forward to
1952 and Abe Attell is holding court in his New York saloon, telling it like it
was. Abe loved an audience and was only too happy to talk to anyone who asked
him about the tough old days at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was
his era and there hadn’t been anything like it since. Most ageing men will tell
you this. However, perhaps the fellows of Attell’s generation had more of a
right than most others to bemoan the loss of a certain brand of toughness and
the muddying of a certain clarity. They were brutal days for sure, but people
seemed to have a clearer idea of where they stood and what they had to do. They
worked hard and reached for the sky because there was no patronising nanny to
kiss them better if they stumbled and scratched their knees.
Clarity? How about hand
wraps in the days of yore? Here’s how Attell described the meticulous attention
paid by the referees of his day: “In my time, we didn’t have boxing commissions
and all kinds of rules and regulations, and we fought over longer distances. We
would load up our hands with layers of bicycle tape and tin foil, and if one
fighter and his seconds complained about it, the referee would say, ‘Put some
more on your hands’. He wouldn’t make you take the stuff off. And we wore three
“When you got knocked down,
the referee would stand up and start counting to ten with his arm going up and
down, not the way they do it now with a referee getting down close to the
fighter. These referees hollering that way in a fighter’s ear wake him up, and
if he gets off the floor, by the time they wipe off his gloves and monkey
around, he has had a thirty second rest.
“I don’t say these things
are wrong. I do say they are far different from conditions under which I fought.
The conditions in the old days made the fighters tougher, and, the way I figure
Ketchel’s Nose Buster
An intrigued boxing fan
couldn’t wait to ask Abe Attell the big question. Attell invited the fan to
shoot. The fan wanted to know how a master boxer like Abe could have ever
acquired such a bent and busted beak. Since a certain Stanley Ketchel played a
pivotal role in re-shaping of Attell’s nose, the story was bound to be
colourful. So it was as Abe related it to writer Stanley Weston.
“It happened at Miller’s
training quarters in Daly City, California, many years ago. I was training for a
fight with Owen Moran. Ketchel was there too working for a bout with, I think,
Joe Thomas. We had only one sparring ring and an arrangement where I would use
it from two to three in the afternoon and Ketchel from three to four. It worked
out well. Ketchel was more fun than a pogo stick.
“I enjoyed being around him.
He loved a joke and although he never meant any harm, once in a while he pushed
people a little too far and someone got hurt. In this case that someone was me.
“One day, two weeks before
the Moran fight, I had just finished sparring and was about to give the ring
over to Stanley. I had a towel wrapped around my head and started to walk toward
the main cabin, which stood about 200 yards from the ring. I could see Ketchel
and one of his trainers heading from the cabin toward me. When they came to
about a hundred yards of where I was, Ketchel suddenly grabbed this trainer and
flopped him face down into the water trough which they used for watering horses.
“Stanley laughed so hard, he
doubled over and began banging his thighs. I thought he was going to choke. This
to him was great fun. Finally he caught his breath and ran at top speed toward
“Meanwhile the trainer
picked his soaking body out of the trough. His face was a red purple and he
cursed at the top of his voice. He spotted a brick laying close to his feet and
picked it up and heaved it toward the back of Ketchel’s head. But the brick
missed him. Instead it caught me smack on my nose. I was knocked out. My nose
ripped open and spouting blood all over the place.
“Ketchel turned around to
see what happened. He was horrified and panic-stricken. Stanley picked me up in
his arms and carried me into the cabin. He wiped off my face and put ice behind
my neck. When I woke up, I noticed, and was touched, by the expression of deep
concern on his face. As soon as my eyes flicked open, he leaned over and
shrieked, “Abe, are you all right? God, Abe, I’m sorry!’
“He stayed with me most of
the night and left only after the doctor finished patching me up and told me to
get some rest.”
Abe Attell was one tough
little fellow. His diminutive size never bothered him. On the contrary, he
revelled in the business of conquering bigger opponents. He was bucking the odds
from the time he started out in the profession.
Lester Bromberg once wrote
of him: “Attell’s natural weight was 117. In fact he gloried in being small –
and in whacking round bigger guys. There were instances when he gave away as
much as 20 pounds. As he often phrased it, ‘I like being called The Little
Champ, there’s added honour to it’.
“Attell wasn’t yet eighteen
when he left his birthplace to campaign in Colorado, where easy-come mining
conditions were making it possible for fighters to strike it rich, relatively
“George Dixon, whose style
Attell had studied and imitated in part, was boxing in the same area. With Young
Corbett III dethroned as champion, the title again was Dixon’s. Abe was matched
with him at 122 pounds, 20 rounds. The kid made a remarkable showing in holding
the champ to a draw.
“Then eight days later –
illustrating the fantastic frequency with which they boxed in those days –
Attell and Dixon met again in St Louis, 15 rounds and for the title. Abe got the
decision and the championship. And, at this time, he still was four months shy
of his eighteenth birthday!”
Abe Attell’s pedigree,
however, was already as solid as a rock. His fighting instinct and skills had
been hewn long ago from countless brawls and scraps on the tough old streets of
San Francisco. Writer Robert Edgren saw Abe for the first time in Alex Greggains’
gym on Howard Street.
Edgren later recalled: “I
saw Abe Attell, a wiry and muscular little fellow, sail into a tough, red-headed
fighter from the docks and knock him out with a punch. Attell won many fights in
less than a round. After a year or so, he became ‘clever’ and deliberately won
on points to save his opponents for future bouts. Abe was a businessman. But he
could fight like a streak.
“When Abe was a small boy on
Minna Street in San Francisco, he had to fight every day in the week.
Eventually, he could whip anybody anywhere near his weight in the neighbourhood,
and other district champions were brought in to fight him ‘down the alley’. He
whipped them all.”
Duelling With Owen Moran
And Bat Nelson
Abe Attell had some great
fights. He claimed he had more than 360 all told. In 1908, just two months
apart, he fought two of the toughest guys of any era in Owen Moran and Battling
Nelson over the combined total of 40 rounds. Just one such battle would surely
force many of today’s fighters to lie down in a dark room and contemplate a
On January 1, 1908, at the
Coffroth’s Arena in the great old fight town of Colma, Attell fought the first
of his five battles with the stoic and ferocious Englishman, Owen Moran.
The two little titans were
well matched, to the extent that referee and former heavyweight champ James J
Jeffries was unable to decide a winner after 25 rounds of clever and hard-
hitting duelling. So aligned were Moran and Attell in pure talent that one could
barely slip a cigarette paper between them.
The tough and versatile
Moran could adapt his style to cope with any assignment. He had played a
masterful wait-and-bait game for much of the time in his magnificent win over
Frankie Neill, but the game plan against the artful and cagey Attell required
more urgency. Moran knew that he couldn’t afford to lay back. Much as the
American public had quickly grown to adore him, he would learn that the more
hardened officials of the game would do him no favours against their own.
Owen willingly took the role
of the aggressor against Abe, pursuing the champion constantly and aggressively
but always with great speed and deft skills. Attell, in turn, needed all of his
tricks to bank the fire and keep his distance.
Abe’s punches lacked their
normal snap and authority as Moran blunted their effect with his skilful and
evasive form of aggression. But Attell was a wonderful fighter who could still
leave his mark when under pressure. He found the range sufficiently to give Owen
a black eye and a bleeding nose.
Moran clearly relished the
examination paper that had been set. Abe was no less adept than the Englishman
at feinting and slipping and was just as much of a tough cookie at taking his
medicine. He avoided many of Moran’s hooks and swings to the jaw and didn’t
appear greatly hurt by the body blows that were ripping into his stomach.
It was apparent that the two
chess masters were cancelling each other out, but the crowd of some 8,000 found
the battle of wits constantly engrossing. Moran switched between orthodox and
southpaw to get close to Attell, following up with fast and hard blows on the
inside. Abe jabbed and countered and hustled as each man searched for a weakness
in the other’s game.
The twenty-fifth and final
round saw Owen making a grandstand charge to grab the fight and the decision.
Keeping his head down, he sailed into the champion with a volley of lefts and
rights as Abe hit back in a thrilling finish. The fighters continued to tear at
each other after the bell, and referee Jeffries needed much of his famous muscle
to separate them. Jeff would tell reporters that he found it impossible to name
a winner after such a close and intensely fought battle.
Many old timers believed
that Attell’s next fight encapsulated what was possibly his greatest
performance. The fearless little featherweight champ gave away significant
weight to test his mettle against the great Durable Dane and lightweight
champion designate, Battling Nelson. Bat was only four months away from
dethroning the mighty Joe Gans, with whom he had already waged a titanic battle
in the hellish heat of Goldfield.
Abe Attell proved to be some
kind of ‘tune-up’ fight for Nelson at San Francisco on March 31, 1908. It was a
sensational battle, which pitted Abe’s speed, skill and agility against Nelson’s
aggression, heart and famously insatiable desire to win. The crowd regularly
jumped to its feet in excitement throughout the fifteen rounds of action.
Attell had announced some
days before the fight that he would stand his ground and meet Nelson, rather
than dance and run from the bigger man. Abe fought a clever, tactical battle
that clearly took Nelson by surprise. As well as treating the crowd to all his
wonderful boxing skills, Attell also showed toughness and tenacity as he
out-slugged Bat in the early rounds. This truly was something of a revelation,
since few men ever bettered the astonishingly tough and rugged Nelson in a
But Bat’s greater weight and
power began to tell over the long haul and Abe was forced to bluff and stall and
use all his know-how to see him to the finishing post. It was in this fight,
intriguing and exciting all the way, that Attell impressed onlookers as one of
the greatest fighters who had yet graced the stage. His judgement of distance
was greatly praised, as was his hitting ability. Some had believed him to be a
light and ineffective hitter, but Attell showed this to be a fallacy.
Attell’s performance gained
him a legion of new admirers. Nelson also impressed with a display that was as
bullish and as aggressive as ever, but without the foul tactics for which he was
famously renowned. As one reporter dryly noted: “At no time was he unnecessarily
rough or at no time did he try to use his head as a battering ram.”
Bat, in typical gung-ho
fashion, raced from his corner at the opening bell and was all business
throughout, constantly leading and looking to wear down and demoralise Attell
with smashing blows. Both boys were looking to exchange. Nelson looked his
familiar, bull-like self with his head lowered, but he found it difficult to hit
Abe cleanly as the smaller man employed outstanding footwork to avoid the blows,
whilst returning fire with accurate jabs. Attell’s clever ducking and
side-stepping impressed some reporters as the best defensive work they had ever
Bat was often thrown off
balance by the force of his missing blows, while Attell displayed incredible
quickness in counter punching with short and accurate bursts. This pattern
continued through the next two rounds, but nobody made Bat Nelson look foolish
for long. From the fourth round, Bat began to come on, rushing from his corner
and catching Abe with a right-left combination that clearly affected Attell and
slowed his pace. Nelson was using his famed short-arm blows to force Attell to
defend. Abe was now having to pace himself wisely and spend more time protecting
himself against his marauding attacker, who never stopped punching.
Attell rallied magnificently
in the fifth round, which was the quality round of the fight. He outboxed Nelson
and stunned the crowd by out-punching him too, often toe-to-toe. The crowd
roared its approval at the close of the session. But Abe’s great effort forced
him to stall through the sixth and seventh rounds, when he stayed close to
Nelson and often locked his arms. In the last minute of the seventh, however,
the artful Attell sprang another surprise as he burst into life again and
slugged with Bat.
Nelson took this little
rally in his stride. He knew that Abe was tiring. In the eighth round, Bat went
for the kill and his superior strength and weight was now telling on Abe. The
featherweight king was clearly looking to conserve his energy by fighting in
spurts, yet still his slippery and evasive skills were preventing Nelson from
landing the decisive blows that would stop the upstart in his tracks and bring
down the curtain.
By the start of the
fourteenth round, the fight was very much one of interpretation. Was Abe ahead
by virtue of his great skill and artful tactics? Or was Nelson, gloriously
defiant as usual, edging to victory as the engine driver of the contest? Attell,
now visibly tired, was slow coming out of his corner and his lethargy cost him.
Bat rushed across the ring and nailed Abe with a powerful right to the body. The
punch had a debilitating effect, and Abe was forced on the defensive again as
Nelson tried to follow up and inflict further damage.
The fifteenth and final
round was evenly fought and both boys felt they deserved the decision when it
was over. But the bout was declared a draw, which most onlookers considered to
be a fair verdict.
The stalemate drew
interesting responses from Abe and Bat when they talked to reporters. Said
Attell: “I am not complaining about the decision, but on points I believed I was
entitled to the verdict. In the first half of the fight, I had a lead by a wide
margin, and in the last round I believe honours were easily mine. Nelson tried
to make a whirlwind finish of it, but I fought him at his own game. I was never
in danger during any stage of the contest and I finished up fresh. I showed the
crowd that I could stand up and slug, and, as I promised, I met Nelson at his
own game, notwithstanding he had several pounds the better of it in weight. I am
willing to meet the Battler again, and I believe I could make a better showing
next time as I think I have learned his style.”
Nelson was more gracious,
but couldn’t resist a dash of sarcasm. “What did you say that decision was? A
draw? Well, now, that is tough, isn’t it? I thought that I had a slight lead and
all my friends believed that I did have a shade. Still, I am not going to
holler. It was a surprise to me. I was sure that I would knock Attell out, but
he made the greatest fight of his life. I did not think it was in him. He stood
up and slugged with me so many times that it sort of dazzled me. I am as fresh
now as when the bell brought us together. Attell’s blows did not hurt me at all.
I could start right in and fight fifteen more rounds faster than I fought the
last fifteen. I am ready for Abe again any time he says the word. The next time
I will beat him. If I had five more rounds tonight, I would have scored a
Much later in life, when he
could relax and look back on all his glittering achievements, Abe Attell was
inevitably asked to name his toughest opponent. “I can’t answer it,” Abe
replied. “They were all great fighters. How can you choose between an Owen Moran
and Jem Driscoll? Between a Freddie Welsh and Battling Nelson? Between Johnny
Kilbane and Ad Wolgast? Between KO Chaney and Charley White?
“Driscoll was great beyond
explanation. So was Freddie Welsh and Owen Moran. This guy Moran was the
toughest, meanest rat in the business. And a hell of a fighter on top of it.”
It was no surprise that
Attell singled out the brilliant Driscoll, either. Jem pitched a virtual shutout
against Abe in their 1909 classic, which went down in history as one of the
greatest exhibitions of pure boxing ever witnessed.
Attell always maintained
that he didn’t fix any of his fights, but the question followed him around
throughout his career. More than once was Attell accused of trying to work out
an unconventional deal. It was Abe’s contention that there wasn’t enough money
to be made from such arrangements, although it wasn’t uncommon to ‘carry’ an
opponent and save him for another day and another chance to earn. “Then,” Abe
said, “you’d bang him out.”
But as Robert Edgren wrote,
“Abe was a businessman.” Attell allegedly tried to do some business with Harlem
Tommy Murphy before their Daly City fight, floating the idea that Harlem Tommy
might care to ‘lay down’. Murphy and his manager firmly rebuffed the offer and
Abe vehemently denied ever having made it.
Then, of course, there was
Attell’s avid interest in baseball. Ah, but let us not go there for now!
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