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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 department.

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.

Harlem Tommy’s 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 ounce gloves.

“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 it, better.”

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 me.

“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 speaking.

“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 year’s sabbatical.

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 head-on shootout.

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 seen.

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 knockout.”

Attell’s Greatest Opponents

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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