Out Of Time: The
Long And The Short Of Young Stribling
By Mike Casey
Things never fell right for Young Stribling. Bad timing plagued
him throughout his career and the hard luck stories were tragically eclipsed by
an early death. He was killed in a motorcycle crash, still only twenty-eight
years of age. A long and impressive boxing record was crammed into a savagely
short life. It seemed that Stribling, the immensely likeable and popular young
ace of Georgia, was always in the wrong place at the wrong time.
To describe somebody as an all-round nice guy in this more
cynical age unfortunately invites suspicion and guilt. Suspicion because we can
never believe that any man can be that good. Guilt because of our inner desire
to take aim at him with a custard pie.
Young Stribling didn’t smoke or drink, read the Bible regularly
and loved his mom and pop. List those credentials in the harsh black and white
of the printed word and a mental picture forms of a fellow who remains
impossibly cheerful even as a tornado is levelling his house, killing his
family, wrecking his farm and depositing his livestock in another state.
Stribling was John Boy Walton in boxing mitts. Yet ‘Strib’ really was lovable
and hugely loved. In the southern states, he ranked second only to golfing
genius Bobby Jones in popularity. Strib was known as the King of the Canebrakes
or the Georgia Peach.
His boxing record, like so many of the wonderful scrappers of his
age, unfurls like a potted version of War and Peace. Look it up on your computer
and you seem to be scrolling forever before you reach the end of it. He once
jammed 55 fights into the space of a year, which represents a career for most
fighters of today. It is a great record and Young Stribling was a great fighter.
Let us be quite clear on that last point. He was acknowledged as such by Nat
Fleischer and many others.
Stribling never took the ten count and world champion Max
Schmeling was the only man to ever stop him.
Starting as a bantamweight in 1921, Stribling piled some 290
fights into the twelve years allotted to him, working his way right up to the
heavyweight division and suffering just a dozen official losses. He twice
defeated Tommy Loughran and Maxie Rosenbloom, drew with Paul Berlenbach and
notched wins over the clever Jimmy Slattery, Battling Levinsky, Jack Renault,
Primo Carnera, Tuffy Griffiths, Phil Scott and Otto von Porat. After blitzing
von Porat in a round at Chicago, Stribling received an ovation as he came to the
aid of his fallen opponent and helped him back to his corner.
Strib brought gasps of shock and admiration from London fight
fans as he unleashed a succession of fast and tremendous blows to stop Phil
Scott inside two rounds. Scott, he of ‘Fainting Phil’ fame, was in fact a very
decent heavyweight on his day, yet the rampant Stribling left the Englishman
glassy-eyed and wrecked.
Natural talent poured out of Stribling. He boxed beautifully, hit
with authority and feinted and shifted cleverly. Although he never much more
than a light-heavyweight, Gentleman Jim Corbett described him as the best
heavyweight for his poundage that ever lived. British writer James ‘Jimmy’
Butler reckoned Strib was one of the hardest natural punchers to ever grace the
Strib’s accredited 125 career knockouts represent a total that
has since been surpassed only by Archie Moore. But there were telling chinks in
the otherwise shining suit of armour. Stribling may have possessed the darkly
good looks and natural talent of his great pal Jack Dempsey, but Strib was never
blessed with Jack’s killer instinct.
Stribling didn’t care for the shadier side of boxing and the
corruption that would cruelly rob him of his greatest hour against Mike McTigue.
Strib saw himself as an artist of the roped square, trying to fashion
masterpieces on a mucky canvas. It was all noble stuff but the goodness in him
was his Achilles Heel. He had Jack Sharkey on the hook with a wonderfully timed
blow to the heart in their 1929 match at Miami Beach, but failed to capitalise
on the golden chance. Sharkey himself expressed astonishment at this, offering
the opinion that he would have murdered Stribling if the positions had been
reversed. Well, that’s a matter for conjecture. Let it be noted that Jack, for
all his great natural talent, wasn’t always on the ball himself in critical
Stribling had been so confident of his chances against Sharkey
and realised the importance of the match. “I’ve got to win this fight and I’m
not going to muff it. I am in great shape and expect to put up the battle of my
Strib apparently fought that battle with neuritis in one shoulder
but still gave Jack as much as he could handle before losing a close decision.
Jim Corbett would lament Stribling’s failure to bring down the
curtain when he scented blood. That mighty knockout total, achieved largely
against lower level opposition, was something of a misleading yardstick in
Stribling was never a world champion, but he should have been.
Indeed, the elements of hard luck and bad timing keep coming back like aching
teeth when we get to the crux of Strib’s career. He should have dethroned
McTigue for the light-heavyweight championship, yet Stribling was horribly
robbed by corruption and bizarre circumstances in a fight he clearly won.
He should have beaten Sharkey and perhaps could have beaten Max
Schmeling if the big chance hadn’t come too late in the day. Strib was a jaded
and grizzled veteran by the tender age of twenty-six when he challenged the
prime Schmeling for the heavyweight championship in 1931. After mounting a game
challenge, Strib was ground down by the German champion and stopped in the
Two years before, Stribling had exposed gaping holes in the
fistic make-up of the cynically manufactured Italian behemoth, Primo Carnera.
The two men fought twice in just over a month, first in London and then in
Paris, and it was the comparatively diminutive Stribling who did all the
Fight fans were in awe of the seemingly mighty Carnera. He was
one of the biggest and strongest men that boxing had ever seen, which of course
made him indestructible to those who are hypnotised by size and steadfastly
refuse to examine the cracks and crevices. Stribling was a 185-pounder. Primo
set the scales whirring beyond 270. What could the poor lad from Georgia
possibly do? Well, he fouled out in their London set-to and nobody could
understand why. For up to the unsatisfactory conclusion, he had given Carnera a
Stribling shook Primo to the very foundations that night, rifling
the Italian with cracking punches and easily avoiding the slow and crude
returns. In the fourth round, Strib pulled the trigger in earnest when he sent
Carnera crashing to the boards. Primo arose shakily, full of rare fury and
aggression. He charged Stribling and that was when the Georgia Peach planted a
big one way down south and got himself disqualified. Was the match fixed like so
many of Carnera’s fights? That has always been the rumour, although it was Primo
who got heaved for fouling in the seventh round of their sequel in Paris.
Whatever, Young Stribling had certainly proved that he was a
formidable little ‘un.
The Stribling family prayed together and stayed together and
Young Stribling was the dashingly handsome star of the brood. But Ma and Pa
Stribling were something in their own right. Determined to keep everything fair
and clean and above board, Pa Stribling became his son’s manager and promoter,
while Ma was more than just a token trainer. A tough and spirited lady, Lillie
Stribling regularly donned the gloves to spar with her boy. Anything to keep him
away from the clutches of boxing’s nefarious characters.
“I used to box with him myself until he was fourteen,” said Ma.
“Pa hit too hard so I used to put the gloves on with him.”
Ma was a fan of the great Jim Jeffries and believed that her boy
(she always referred to him as W.L.) could become a champion by following Jeff’s
example of clean living and total commitment.
“I always wanted W.L. to be a fighter and I hope that some day he
will be the champion of the world.”
The Striblings were entertainers to the core and criss-crossed
America with their popular vaudeville act when Strib was a little boy. Ma and Pa
were trained athletes, trapeze artists and acrobats.
Showmanship would remain in Young Stribling’s blood, dovetailing
nicely with his passion for the dangerous and challenging pursuits of boxing,
flying and motorcycle riding. He would regularly fly his aeroplane to his fights
at the height of his career and served as a lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve.
It was boys’ paper stuff, a delightful rip-roaring mix of Jack
Dempsey and Robert Redford as Waldo Pepper. When Strib treated his pal Dempsey
to a ride one day, Jack apparently found the experience more thrilling than any
of his fights.
But real life isn’t Hollywood of course and professional boxing
certainly isn’t The Waltons with a happy punch. In Stribling’s time, especially,
there were minefields and rigged agendas at every turn. The infuriating and
indecisive era of the no-decision only offered additional artillery to the
unprincipled and the downright vicious.
The Devil came down to Georgia when Stribling challenged Mike
McTigue for the light-heavyweight championship at Columbus on October 4, 1923.
The trouble was, nobody could quite figure out the guise in which the Prince of
Darkness was doing his business.
Stribling, in the view of just about everyone present, beat
McTigue convincingly over the ten-rounds distance in what was actually quite a
dull fight. But, oh, how the affair livened up at its conclusion when referee
Harry Ertle raised his hands and began doing an interesting version of
Stay with me here, dear reader, for this juicy saga goes really
deep. The soap opera of Mr Ali and Mr Liston at Lewiston has nothing on the
shenanigans of the McTigue-Stribling story.
So there was Harry Ertle, a barely noticeable bit player during
the main action, suddenly pointing at both corners with outstretched arms before
leaving the ring and leaving all and sundry in utter bewilderment.
What was he signalling? Who had won? What is a draw? Ertle
claimed he had signalled a draw, but that was still only the beginning of a
classic roaring twenties pot-boiler. By the time the saga had run its
ever-changing course, the confusion and the diversity of the various statements
issued was such that even skilled journalists were incapable of writing coherent
reports the following morning.
The Associated Press report kicked off thus: “Mike McTigue, of
Ireland, retains his world’s light-heavyweight championship by virtue of three
decisions by Harry Ertle, New Jersey referee.”
It wasn’t the best introduction for those thousands of half-blind
and half-conscious readers who were having enough trouble steering their
breakfasts to their mouths. From there, the report spluttered into a steady
nosedive as it attempted to clearly explain the chain of events.
Harry Ertle, you see, wasn’t through when he left the ring. He
came back to declare Stribling the winner. Then Ertle changed his mind again.
From the safety of a private establishment, he signed a written statement to say
that the fight was a draw as he had originally indicated. Harry additionally
claimed that promoter Major John Paul Jones had performed a swift and crafty
manoeuvre in the ring. As an expectant Stribling placed a glove in Ertle’s hand,
so the good Major had promptly grabbed hand and glove and thrust them in the
To say that all hell broke loose would be a grand understatement
in this case. Major John Paul Jones was not amused by Mr Ertle’s version of
events. He accused Ertle, Mike McTigue and Mike’s manager Joe Jacobs of
collaborating in a ‘colossal fake’. Jones believed that McTigue had been ‘played
for a sucker’ by the famously creative Jacobs, who had apparently advised his
charge that Stribling would be easy pickings.
That blithe assessment of Stribling didn’t hold much water with
McTigue when he got his first look at Strib. Mike saw a young tiger that could
give him plenty of trouble. There were other factors for the champion to
seriously consider. Big offers, as high as fifty thousand dollars, were coming
in for McTigue to defend his title against former holder Georges Carpentier, who
had recently knocked out Joe Beckett in London. A loss to Stribling would
scupper that tasty payday.
On the morning of the Stribling fight, McTigue announced that a
broken bone in his left thumb hadn’t healed sufficiently for him to be able to
go through with the bout. He and Jacobs would later claim that they had been
forced into the ring virtually at gunpoint.
By the time the bizarre sequence of events had been played out,
an early version of Monty Python’s Flying Circus was taking shape and Major John
Paul Jones was seething. Good grief, these dastardly rogues were trying to turn
the whole thing on him! Jones fired off a telegram to Chairman Muldoon of the
New York Boxing Commission and said: “Harry Ertle rendered several decisions in
the McTigue-Stribling championship bout. The entire vote of all the newspapermen
gave the decision to Stribling by a wide margin. At the conclusion of the bout,
Ertle pointed to both men but did not raise either hand.
“Newspapermen and officials asked him to make the decision. He
stated that he would make the decision three hours after the bout. We insisted
that he make his decision in the ring. We informed him that over 150 police and
200 soldiers were present for his protection. All we wanted was a square deal.
After a great amount of argument he lifted Stribling’s arm and declared him the
winner. Three hours later he issued a statement that his decision is a draw.
“This morning ten of the best surgeons in this state declared
after X-ray examinations that McTigue’s injury was an old one and that same
injury to his thumb occurred prior to his signing the contract on Labor Day for
the bout held today. After much wrangling, McTigue agreed to enter the ring to
defend his championship. He lost six rounds, carried two and two were draws.
This was the average opinion.
“Prior to entering the ring, Joe Jacobs insisted that in the
event that Stribling won the fight, an opportunity be given McTigue.
“He (McTigue) was unable to run out on us and had to fight. We
desire you to make a thorough investigation, as 8,000 fans here are adhering to
Ertle’s decision giving Stribling the world’s championship.”
Major Jones added that he later realised that McTigue and Joe
Jacobs were in danger after receiving various death threats and sat up with them
during the night in case anything untoward happened.
There was one last dig at Harry Ertle too. Jones claimed that
Ertle had visited him before the fight and asked that it be declared a
no-decision affair or an exhibition contest to be declared a draw.
Mike McTigue, as we can imagine, was feeling very much a major
villain of the piece by the time he left Columbus and recorded his own thoughts
on the sordid affair. Mike claimed he had been visited in his hotel and
threatened before the fight, though he didn’t say by whom.
“I have never known before of a champion being forced to enter
the ring with one hand at the point of a gun. The gun was displayed at my hotel
but not actually pointed at me.
“So I finally decided to go into the ring and asked if there was
any way of fixing my hand. They said only by the use of cocaine, which was used.
Instead of helping me, it hurt me. It made me sick all during the fight.”
Referee Harry Ertle wasn’t going to lie down and take the blame
either. He certainly didn’t believe that all those cops and soldiers at ringside
had been for his protection.
Harry declared that it was Major Jones who had done all the
threatening. Ertle claimed that Jones visited him before the fight with the dark
message that Mike McTigue, Joe Jacobs and Ertle himself were being watched and
that all railroads were covered in case they should try to shorten their stay in
Columbus. When Ertle asked Jones what he meant, Jones didn’t answer.
Ertle then explained his actions in the ring. “When I put both my
arms out pointing to both corners to signify a draw, Jones was the first man to
come to me and demanded that I give the decision to Stribling, and I told him
that my decision was given. Then he said to me I’d better get back in the ring
and I said my decision was given and I could only give it a draw – that if he
wanted to give the decision to Stribling, he could….
“Then he said that I would never leave the ring alive. Then he
called several newspapermen into the ring and said he would ask them for their
decision. And I said no matter what they say, I cannot reverse my decision. I
have given them a draw.
“Then Stribling came over to me and put his hand in mine, and
Jones walked up and raised his hand while I had hold of it. I did not raise his
hand as the victor. I still say that it is a draw.”
A local reporter noted that no sooner had Ertle stepped out of
the ring than a member of the military police pushed him back in again. An angry
mob began to surge towards Ertle, but the police pushed the protesters back.
It was a bizarre, farcical night in Columbus, to which there
never was a satisfactory conclusion. At the end of it all, Young Stribling was
an unofficial king without a crown.
Three times he did it in that tenth round. Three times Young
Stribling jumped in the air, his hands at his sides, in defiance of Mike McTigue.
Well, after all, Strib did have a point to prove. And he proved it emphatically
in his return non-title engagement with McTigue in March 1924. It was a
no-decision bout in Newark, New Jersey, but everybody knew who won the decision.
Stribling was the superior fighter of the two men and drove the
point home with a comical slice of pure vaudeville. On descending from his third
leap into the air, he rifled a long left flush to McTigue’s chin that all but
knocked the champion out on his feet. Mike reeled and staggered around the ring
as Stribling took chase and decked him with a follow-up right. McTigue, a tough
and canny old pro, fiddled and jiggled his way to the safety of the bell and
eventually navigated his way through the full twelve rounds.
Stribling, ever philosophical, moved on to his next fight. There
was always another fight, another aeroplane ride. It seemed he couldn’t cram
enough into each day.
Young Stribling never did stop fighting, right to his untimely
end. His later adventures among the heavyweights were no less interesting, but
Strib never really possessed the natural power and lust for blood to go all the
way in those deeper waters. He never took great punishment, save for the
hammering that Schmeling gave him, but the sheer volume of fights inevitably
took some juice out of the Georgia Peach.
Stribling just couldn’t stop. He loved life, loved to entertain
and loved to put the gloves on. Much like Sam Langford, Johnny Dundee, Jack
Britton, Maxie Rosenbloom and the other marathon runners of boxing, the fight
game was in Strib’s blood. He never forgot how to win either.
He was fresh and lively as ever on September 22, 1933, after
posting his second win over Maxie Rosenbloom. Less than a month later, the Grim
Reaper came calling. Twenty-eight year old Strib was hurrying to the Macon
hospital in Georgia on his favourite motorcycle, eager to greet his wife Claire
and their newly born son.
A collision with an oncoming automobile severed Strib’s left foot
and crushed his pelvis. He clung onto life until six o’clock the following
morning, before dying from complications arising from his internal injuries.
Physicians at the hospital were amazed by his tenacious fight to
survive as his temperature soared to 107 degrees and his pulse to 175. Such
resilience, they said, was due to his incredible fitness and determination.
Moments before he drew his last breath, Young Stribling looked up
at his doctor and asked, “Can I have a small glass of beer, Doc? It gives a
fellow strength to die.”
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