Hit ‘em hard,
hit ‘em fast: When roaring Tiger blew down Hurricane Carter at the Garden
By Mike Casey
Part of the fun of being youthful is that we know so little. Cold
logic and cynicism has yet to be poured on our innocent picture book of life as
we wander through each newly discovered wonderland and believe everything we see
Like so many other young boys getting interested in boxing for
the first time, my simple and thrilling yardsticks of new and exciting fighters
were the vivid pictures and purple prose that came with them. Plenty of both
came with Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter.
To most people at that time, Sonny Liston was the most
frightening fist fighter on earth. Liston seemed huge in that more gentle era, a
giant among pygmies whose great bulk and brooding features spilled across the
pages of every popular boxing magazine. No man could beat Sonny. Everyone said
he was invincible.
Then I saw that picture of Rubin Carter. I was six years old and
there he was, shaven-skulled and mandarin moustached, fists cocked and snarling
as he towered over the stricken Florentino Fernandez at Madison Square Garden.
Fernandez, one of the most vicious middleweight punchers of the day, had been
shot down by a new gunslinger and was draped helplessly over the ropes as Carter
hovered menacingly. Rubin had arrived on the big stage. Two knockdowns in one
minute and nine seconds of action, and Florentino Fernandez was all done for the
I kept looking at that wonderful picture, one pulsating moment
captured forever. Carter was the most frightening man I had seen and the purple
prose gushed in torrents as excitable scribes raved about the big hitter from
Paterson, New Jersey.
One veteran ringsider that night was quoted as saying, “This guy
Carter would give Liston one hell of a fight.” Now, of course, ‘veteran
ringsiders’ are never identified and are always extraordinarily present and
plentiful at such times. One or two even claim to be the long lost, illegitimate
sons of Jack Dempsey. But a young impressionable boy sucks up such tasty treats
like a chocolate milkshake.
Man, I thought, this guy Hurricane Carter is going to cut through
the middleweights like a knife through butter. And for a while, that is exactly
what mean old Rubin did. He was tailor made for TV, a wrecking ball of a puncher
with an intimidating appearance that was almost unique in the sixties. With the
likes of Bennie Briscoe and Marvin Hagler yet to come down the trail, Hurricane
Carter had a virtual monopoly on the chrome-domed look.
Like so many men with fearsome reputations, Carter seemed physically bigger than
he was, much in the way of Liston. In fact Rubin stood just five-feet-eight and
never had trouble making the middleweight limit, scaling between 155 and 158lbs
on average at the peak of his powers.
But he was a powerful man who could hit, the latest golden boy in
boxing’s historically golden division.
That snarl of Rubin’s was the snarl of a lion. But he would later
meet a tiger that would feast on him at the Mecca of boxing and send him down a
wholly different path.
Much later on, when Rubin Carter stopped fighting in the ring and
began the fight for his right to be a free man in his trial for the infamous
Lafayette Grill murders, his past would come back to haunt him. As a teenager,
he was convicted of assault and a stint in the Army failed to curb his wild
ways. A 1957 conviction on robbery and assault charges resulted in a prison
sentence, where his fellow inmates learned quickly that Rubin could do one thing
very well: fight.
Carter had impressed his coach on the Army boxing team, compiling
an impressive record and a string of knockouts. Rubin made the decision to
dedicate himself to the professional game and soon began to make significant
strides. Making his debut in September 1961, he won his first three fights and
then split a couple of decisions with Herschel Jacobs at the Gladiators Arena in
Rubin had moved his record to 10-1 by the time of his Madison
Square Garden debut, which Ernie Burford spoiled by taking a decision from the
Hurricane in June 1962. Carter gave us a hint of things to come just two months
later when he avenged the Burford defeat with a second round TKO and followed up
with a fifth round stoppage of Mel Collins. Rubin had just fourteen fights on
his slate when he exploded in earnest by ripping apart Fernandez, but the best
of the Hurricane’s fleeting fury was still to come, though not before a lull in
Cooling his heels, Rubin failed to add to his knockout tally in
his next six fights. He registered a couple of quality points wins over Holly
Mims and Gomeo Brennan, but suffered an untimely backward step against tough
cookie Jose Gonzalez, who opened a big cut over Carter’s right eye and stopped
him in the sixth round. Rubin had to work hard in his next outing to take a
split decision from the artful George Benton and had to go the full route again
to bag a points win against Farid Salim.
Then Carter ran into one of the great spoilers of the age. New
York stylist Joey Archer was a thorn in everyone’s side in the mid to late
sixties, a clever sharpshooter who could ghost his way around the big hitters
and drive them to exasperation. Carter chased Joey all night long and certainly
ran him close, only to come out on the thin end of a split decision. Rubin got
the vote of judge Al Berl by five rounds to four, but referee Arthur Mercante
and judge Tony Castellano sided with Archer.
Carter’s career seemed to be spluttering after the Fernandez
breakthrough, and Rubin was doing little more than treading water as 1963 drew
to a close. From his frustration, he fashioned a bomb that stunned the boxing
world. On December 20, at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh, the Hurricane did a big
loop and unleashed its full force. In just two minutes and thirteen seconds,
Carter floored welterweight champion Emile Griffith three times for an automatic
TKO. It was an awesome performance. Never before had the tough and wily Griffith
been so obliterated. Emile’s hopes of moving up and challenging for the
middleweight crown had been brutally swept away in less time than it takes to
boil an egg. Carter was on a roll and now apparently unstoppable.
Buoyed by the huge Griffith victory, Carter had moved up a gear
and pushed himself into the top elite of the world rankings. In his next fight,
he floored and outpointed future WBA heavyweight champion Jimmy Ellis, before
heading west to destroy Clarence James in one round at the Olympic Auditorium in
Rubin had earned his spurs and secured his now famous fight with
champion Joey Giardello. Those of you who saw the movie Hurricane will no doubt
recall Hollywood’s fanciful version of Carter’s challenge. We see Giardello
being royally pounded as Rubin (Denzel Washington) steams ahead to what seems a
sure victory: only to be robbed by the officials.
True? Not on your life. This was all grist to the Carter
publicity mill at a time when Rubin was the hip cause for those who feel the
compulsion to jump on every bandwagon that rolls into town. Rubin might well
have been tragically wronged for the great many years that he languished in
prison. But distorting the truth of other events never wins you any friends,
whether your name is Rubin, Denzel or Fred. Not surprisingly, Joey Giardello was
more than a little miffed by this impudent re-interpretation of one of his
The facts are these: All three officials voted emphatically for
Joey on that December night at the Convention Hall in Philadelphia, with scores
of 72-66, 69-64 and 70-67. Giardello was also the overwhelming choice of the
ringside reporters. It wasn’t a runaway victory, but I vividly recall the
reports of the time and nobody was screaming that Carter had been unfairly
treated. Rubin gave Joey a rough night, but it was the challenger who came up
The second big myth perpetrated by the Hurricane movie is that
Carter was in the prime of his fighting life when he and he and his alleged
accomplice, John Artis, were arrested on suspicion of committing the murders at
the Lafayette Grill. This is patent rubbish. By the time of the murders on June
17 1966, Rubin’s career as a fighter was seriously on the slide. It had reached
its apex with the Giardello fight and Rubin never hit those heights again.
Two fights in particular took the eye out of the Hurricane, two
fights a month apart that he should have won comfortably against English
journeyman Harry Scott.
Scott was a tough man from the tough town of Liverpool, one of
those quietly dangerous plodders who would lose two or three in a row and then
pop up to spoil somebody’s party. Harry didn’t have much regard for other
people’s reputations and he never took the ten count. He bulled into Carter in
the same way that he bulled into everyone, and Rubin soon discovered that he was
batting away at an immovable object. Scott was the George Chuvalo of the
middleweights, possessed of feet that seemed to anchor him to the canvas. Trying
to dislodge Harry was as fruitless a pursuit as attempting to uproot a fire
hydrant with an uppercut.
Carter was very lacklustre in the first fight and trailed on
points before stopping Scott on a cut in the ninth round. In the return match,
Rubin started fast and did indeed uproot the fire hydrant, if only temporarily.
Decking Scott in the first round, Carter seemed set to put the record straight
and get his faltering major league career back on track. But he didn’t. Rubin
never did figure out the peculiar conundrum that was Harry Scott and lost the
decision. Nothing dodgy about that verdict either! Now the word was going round
that Rubin Carter was something of a bully- boy who wasn’t so fearsome in the
face of adversity.
Carter was now drifting, albeit still in the biggest ocean, and
he badly needed to blow hot again and beat a big name. He got his chance against
the one warrior nobody else wanted to fight.
Dick Tiger was a brooding and dangerous man by the time he got to
Rubin Carter. A slow starter who had been plying his trade since 1952, Tiger had
worked long and hard to climb the greasy pole and haul himself to the top.
Starting out in his native Nigeria, Dick had fared well in his early fights but
soon found the going a lot tougher when he moved his base of operations to
England. For the life of him, he couldn’t string together a consistent run,
losing four straight at one low point and appearing destined to be filed away as
nothing more than a tough and reliable journeyman.
But Tiger was a man of immense fortitude and perseverance. He
kept plugging away and his fortunes took a dramatic change for the better when
he made America his hunting ground. Dick fought the toughest available
opposition, notching first class victories over Gene ‘Ace Armstrong, Hank Casey,
Henry Hank and that quality contender of the era, Ellsworth ‘Spider’ Webb.
Tiger hit the jackpot in November 1962, when he out-hustled the
brawling Gene Fullmer to win the WBA middleweight crown at Candlestick Park in
San Francisco. Gene confused Dick and just about everyone else in their Las
Vegas rematch by going against type and cheekily boxing his way to a draw. But
Tiger saw off Gene in their rubber match to win the plaudits of the boxing press
as a very formidable world champion.
Then a couple of guys called Joey spoiled everything. Joey
Giardello, who had earlier split a couple of decisions with Dick, went 2-1 over
his old opponent by taking Tiger’s crown in December 1963. Giardello, a
teak-tough and wonderful old pro, called on all his vast experience to finally
land the big one after fifteen up-and-down years of campaigning.
Tiger redoubled his efforts, confident of a quick return match
with Joey. Dick beat Jose Gonzalez and took another swipe at the Fullmer family
by outscoring Gene’s younger brother, Don.
Then along came Joey Archer with all his infuriating smarts.
Tiger never did excel against the clever men who could move and feint and dance.
A year after taking a split verdict over Rubin Carter, Joey scalped Dick in the
same fashion. Suddenly Dick’s long awaited return with Giardello seemed over the
horizon and out of sight. Tiger was not at all happy with the Archer verdict.
Not normally a greatly demonstrative man, Dick leaned through the ropes that
night and made some very forceful comments about trying to win a fight in New
York against a New Yorker. He rebounded quickly to savage the tough Rocky Rivero,
but it was Rubin Carter who would sample Tiger’s most ferocious bite on the
night of May 20 1965 at Madison Square Garden.
The thrashing that Dick Tiger administered to Rubin Carter
couldn’t have been more single-minded or comprehensive. The breathtaking
performance was arguably the masterpiece of Dick’s career, and he wasted little
time in establishing his authority. He was the superior man in every department
of the game and presented his first chilling evidence in the second round. He
was pounding Rubin from a distance and pounding him just as emphatically at
close quarters. A left hook suddenly dropped Carter for the mandatory eight
count, and Rubin’s famous snarl was now blending with a wide-eyed look of
disbelief. He had lost his share of fights in a tough life but nobody had batted
him around like this. Carter wasn’t on his feet for long before another whiplash
left hook put him over again just before the bell. Referee Zach Clayton counted
to eight before realising the round had ended, and Rubin headed for the wrong
corner before correcting his mistake in that certain unconvincing way that
shaken fighters do.
Carter was cautious in the third, employing his jab more and
steering clear of Tiger’s left hook. Dick just kept stalking and punching, as if
powered by a sure knowledge that he could not be beaten. If Rubin thought he had
found sanctuary, his hopes were shattered in the fourth round. He was jabbing
and moving nicely when Tiger found the mark with a left and a right to the head.
Another right-left combination spilled Carter onto his back and now it seemed to
everyone in the house that Rubin was on the way back to his dressing room.
But the Hurricane wasn’t quite blown out. Bravely, Rubin met
Tiger head-on in an exciting fifth round and began to outpunch his opponent for
the first time. Carter fired off some tremendous blows to the head and body and
Dick seemed hurt and a little confused by the sudden turnaround. But the
Nigerian warrior was a tremendously tough and durable man. He had never been
knocked off his feet and only the freakish Bob Foster would put him down for the
count in his 81-fight career.
Carter was done. Even before the fifth round was out, Tiger had
resumed command, punching and whittling away with his ceaseless aggression.
Rubin gave it one last try in the seventh, mastering Dick briefly in a
two-fisted exchange, but Tiger launched a punishing body attack that had his foe
wilting and on the verge of going down again.
By the tenth and final round, Dick Tiger had people saying that
he was the best middleweight on the planet, whatever the claims of Joey
Giardello. Tiger closed the show in style against Carter, controlling the last
of the exchanges to ease his way over the finishing line. It had been a
thrilling and intriguing fight, despite its one-sidedness. Tiger hadn’t pitched
a shutout but had done the next best thing on the scorecards of the officials.
Referee Zach Clayton saw it 6-2-2 for Dick, while judges Jimmy Riccio and Johnny
Dean tabbed the fight 9-1 and 8-1-1 respectively.
After the fight, the two combatants would head off down very
different roads. Dick Tiger would get his shot at Joey Giardello and regain the
middleweight championship by way of an overpowering, unanimous decision just
five months later.
Rubin Carter would commence the longest fight of his career to
prove his innocence in the ongoing investigations and trials of the Lafayette
Grill murders. The original indictment charges against him and John Artis were
finally dropped in February 1988, but neither man, to my knowledge, has ever
been officially pardoned.
Did they do it?
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