the People: Mickey Walker
By Mike Casey
People love to tell funny stories about Mickey Walker. Lord
knows, the boxing archives are bulging with them. I hope you will forgive me if
I depart from well-worn tradition and simply praise Magnificent Mick for the
truly fabulous fighter he was.
It seems that Mick, like his great rival and pal Harry Greb,
never goes out of fashion. Walker’s rugged and mischievous face stares out
gloriously from the old newspapers and magazines, forever young and vibrant,
forever hip and cool. Pick any trendy word from any era and it fits the Toy
Bulldog as snugly as a meaty bone clamped between the jaws.
He looked every inch a real fighting man, as did so many men of
his great and quality-laden era. The rugged face was topped by a head of thick
and tousled hair, while the powerful chest and muscled arms channelled down to a
solid waist and sturdy, chunky legs.
Mickey Walker loved to fight, and there is the important
difference with those who have it in their blood. Walker didn’t dread an
upcoming battle or regard it as an inconvenience. He positively relished the
He was often too tough and willing for his own good, especially
during his later forays into the heavyweight division. Yet he remained a vicious
proposition right to the end, always winning more fights than he lost.
It is important to remember that many of Mick’s contemporaries
were of the opinion that he was past his best by 1926, when he stepped out of
his natural element of the welterweight division to take the middleweight
championship on a debatable decision from the Georgia Deacon, Tiger Flowers.
Mick had already waged many a ferocious and punishing battle by that time. Yet
he ploughed on until 1935, defeating the hefty and classy likes of Johnny Risko,
Bearcat Wright, Jimmy Maloney, King Levinsky and Paolino Uzcudun.
Walker conceded 42lbs to Bearcat Wright in winning a thrilling
decision after being pounded, floored and nearly knocked out in the early going.
The Bulldog was outweighed by 14 pounds in his astonishingly brave, losing stand
against Max Schmeling. Against Jack Sharkey at Ebbetts Field in 1931, Mick was
the lighter man by nearly 30lbs yet hacked out a gutsy 15-rounds draw.
How he raged against Sharkey! Coldly hammered for long periods
and reeling in the fifteenth and final round from repeated rights to the jaw,
Walker simply wouldn’t go under. He blazed back at Jack all night long and had
the crowd in uproar in a fantastic ninth round. Mick snapped Sharkey’s head back
in that session with a big right uppercut to the chin and followed up with a
furious body attack. As Jack fired back, he walked into a cracking left hook to
the jaw that made him hold.
Low blows cost Sharkey dearly and the draw decision was described
by reporters of the time as one of the greatest upsets in boxing history.
Mickey, covered in blood from a ripped eyebrow, was given a thunderous ovation.
Mickey Walker was a terrific body puncher who would often fire
his punches in rapid blitzes. He could lead with a fast left hook, hurt and
knock out opponents with either hand and possessed a hard and flashing right
cross. His ability to punch damagingly at short range was exceptional. Much like
Jack Dempsey, Bob Fitzsimmons, Jim Jeffries and Joe Gans, Walker learned the
priceless value of the short and paralysing dig to the heart or stomach.
He loved to scrap, loved to live and possessed electrifying
charisma. He was almost a lighter version of Dempsey in fighting savagery and
box office allure.
Nat Fleischer wrote of Mickey: “He rated close to the top. A
terrific hitter with an abundance of courage, he fought in every division from
welterweight through heavyweight. Though far outweighed, he always gave a
“He was a fabulous character, colourful, a powerful puncher; and
while for a good portion of his career he was only an overstuffed welterweight,
he made the grade in the three top divisions.”
Mick always saw himself as the little guy fighting giants, right
from his days as a pugnacious young kid in his New Jersey neighbourhood of
Keighry Head. Across from his favourite hangout of Cooper’s Corner was a big
freight yard where hobos from all across America would stop off while waiting
for the next ride out.
Walker inevitably got into fights with some of the toughs and
quickly learned that he was most at home fighting bigger men. They were slower
in their movement and made for much better targets than the smaller, slippery
Before boxing, Mickey Walker was going to be an architect. After
boxing he became a very accomplished painter. But it was the fight game that
snared him and enabled him to build and paint with the greatest effect.
Mick never did forget beating up on those guys in the freight
yard. From the moment the inimitable Jack Kearns took up the reins as his
manager, Walker was nagging him for fights against the heavyweights. But Mick’s
blood-and-thunder affairs with the dreadnoughts were preceded by some glorious
chapters in his natural domain. The welterweight and middleweight divisions were
already gold-plated in their history and quality as boxing entered the Roaring
Twenties. Then along came Mickey Walker. He was dubbed the Toy Bulldog by New
York sports editor, Francis Albertini. And how the Bulldog could bite!
Historian Tracy Callis puts Mick’s fighting style and wonderful
achievements into perspective: “Walker belongs in that class of fighter called
iron men. He was tough, rugged and willing. His nickname of the Toy Bulldog was
very appropriate. For like that breed of creature, he was short, stocky, sturdy,
tenacious, determined and game. The size of his opponents did not matter. Fight
meant fight against whomever stood before him, big or small.
“Mickey was a relentless warrior who could dish it out and take
it too. In the heat of battle, he bobbed, squirmed, charged, weaved, ducked,
slammed and smashed. Jack Sharkey described Mickey as ‘much tougher than Max
“For the last half of his career, Walker fought at something like
164-173lbs. Only two or three times did he exceed this weight, the heaviest
being 179lbs for one fight.
“During his career, if we use the latest BoxRec statistics as our
yardstick, Mickey was outweighed by 10 or more pounds in 28 contests (rounding 9
1/2 or more to ten). Of these bouts, the difference was at least 15 pounds on
seventeen occasions, and in 14 of these fights he was outweighed by 23 or more
“Against the huge foes (heavier by 23 or more pounds), Mickey’s
record was 11-1-2 with six knockouts. Against men who were 15 or more pounds
heavier, his record was 14-1-2 with seven KOs. When he was fighting men who were
ten or more pounds heavier, Walker boasted a record of 22-2-2 with 13 knockouts.
Two bouts were no-decisions in which Mickey won the newspaper verdicts.
“The list of fighters Mickey Walker beat includes Maxie
Rosenbloom, Mike McTigue, Tiger Flowers, Paul Berlenbach, Jack Britton, Lew
Tendler, King Levinsky, Paolino Uzcudun, Jimmy Maloney, Johnny Risko, Bearcat
Wright, Jock Malone, Dave Shade, Leo Lomski, Arthur DeKuh and Paul Swiderski.
“In a poll of old-time boxing men conducted by John McCallum in
1974, Walker ranked as the number one all-time welterweight. Broadway Charley
Rose ranked Mickey as the number three all-time middleweight. Nat Fleischer and
Herb Goldman ranked him as the fourth greatest middleweight, as did the
International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO) in its poll of 2005.”
At The Garden
Jack Britton was a wonder and quite fittingly known as the Boxing
Marvel. Counting the number of fights on Jack’s vast record required great
concentration and a clear mind. He had fought them all and beaten most of them.
The names of his illustrious opponents jumped off the page like jolting little
boxing gloves on springs.
Britton was thirty-seven years of age and was the oldest living
world champion when he defended his welterweight laurels against Mickey Walker
at Madison Square Garden on November 1, 1922. But Jack was still a ring mechanic
of sublime skill, toughness and endurance. He would eventually retire in his
mid-forties with some 350 fights on his record, quite probably more, with only
one knockout loss suffered as a novice.
Britton made a noble and brave stand against the hungry young
Walker, but Jack’s know-how couldn’t offset his challenger’s youth, strength and
power. It was an engrossing and exciting battle between the old king and the
heir apparent, although the knowing and more cynical members of the crowd
wondered if everything was on the level when the fighters first stepped into the
ring. A certain hum went around the Garden following an announcement on behalf
of the New York Commission and promoter Tex Rickard that all bets were off.
Britton had been a 6 to 5 favourite the previous day, but Walker was the 3 to 5
choice by the time the preliminary bouts got under way.
Happily, there was nothing in the tough and gruelling battle
between Mickey and Jack that offered so much as a hint of foul play. The
Associated Press reported: “After 20 years in the ring, Britton, the crafty and
ringwise master of defense, twice the holder of the crown that toppled last
night, was a poor match for the aggressive Jersey man who displayed more than
ordinary knowledge of the science of fisticuffs. Walker won all the way.”
Indeed, Jack might well have been knocked out in the later stages
of the battle, had it not been for the hardness and resilience that had always
been married to his innate skill. Most of the crowd had a fondness for the
fading champion and didn’t want to see him take the ten count. Mickey’s
tiredness probably saved Jack from that fate. The challenger was still punching
hard in the closing frames, but the effort of trying to trap and finish the old
master had taken much of the steam from Walker’s blows. When Mickey’s forceful
wallops rendered Britton glassy-eyed and uncertain, the champion’s great boxing
brain would click back into gear and engineer a timely retreat.
Jack didn’t wait for the decision to be announced before
congratulating Walker. “I wish you luck, boy,” was the dethroned champion’s
sporting message. Mick told reporters that Britton was the gamest man he ever
Mickey was a proud and successful welterweight champion, but was
always hunting bigger game. His first crack at the middleweight championship
proved a step too far too soon, but only because the reigning king was a certain
Mr Harry Greb.
When Walker stepped up to challenge Harry for his crown on July
2, 1925, before a crowd of 50,000 at the Polo Grounds in New York, one of the
greatest and most celebrated battles in middleweight history was contested. The
two warriors waged a furious, fast-paced thriller, one of the best ever seen at
the famous old venue, with Greb putting the seal on a memorable victory after a
terrific rally in an unforgettable fourteenth round.
Harry suddenly nailed Mickey with a big right in that round that
had the Toy Bulldog hurt and tottering. Walker backed into his own corner and
swayed glassy-eyed as Greb unloaded punch after punch.
Then there followed a magical microcosm of what Mickey Walker was
all about. He shook his head, water spraying from his dark hair, and cracked
Harry on the chin with a big right. The heaving crowd went wild. As Damon Runyon
reported, “A roar rolled up out of the bowl under Coogan’s Bluff that must have
echoed over all Harlem and Washington Heights.”
The pace of the fight had been tremendous throughout and Walker
closed strongly to win the final round. But it wasn’t enough. Greb had once
again prevailed with his almost unique mix of ferocity, speed, guile and
It was all too much for referee Eddie Purdy, who twice fell and
injured a knee joint in trying to keep up with the whirling dervishes.
The sporting Walker forever credited Greb as being the greatest
fighter he ever met.
Tiger Flowers and Ace Hudkins
The record-breaking crowd of 11,000 at the Coliseum in Chicago on
December 3, 1926, couldn’t quite make up its mind. First the people booed the
decision and then they cheered it. Many of those polled believed that Tiger
Flowers had retained his middleweight championship by edging Mickey Walker by a
5-4-1 count in rounds. Others believed that Flowers had won by a greater margin.
But the decision of referee Barney Yanger went to Walker as blood
ran down the Toy Bulldog’s chest from a badly gashed left eye he had sustained
in the second round. Tiger grabbed Mick’s gloved fist and congratulated him,
while 20 or more police officers climbed into the ring to protect the fighters
from any crowd trouble.
Walker Miller, Flowers’ manager, had been concerned for some time
beforehand that Tiger would be robbed if the fight went to a decision. Miller
had demanded a forfeit from Walker’s manager, Jack Kearns, which guaranteed
Flowers a return match within 90 days. Kearns further agreed that Flowers would
be Mickey’s first challenger. Alas, Tiger Flowers would die a year later from
complications following surgery.
Walker Miller was philosophical about Barney Yanger’s decision.
“We had a good referee in there. He decided Walker won, so it must be so.
However, Flowers was hit low two times and those punches took the steam out of
It was a sensational fight that night in Chicago, with Mickey
starting fast and finding immediate success with the first right hand punch he
threw. Flowers fell to his haunches but was quickly on his feet again.
Thereafter, the defending champion boxed wisely, preventing Mick from launching
his damaging body attacks by moving well and fending off the Bulldog with raking
long lefts and right crosses that flashed in from all angles.
Tiger was the 8 to 5 favourite and carrying a
four-and-a-half-pond weight advantage at 159lbs. It seemed that he was now in
gear and cleverly navigating his way to a fairly comfortable points victory.
But there was always a certain fragility about Flowers that
denied him true and enduring greatness in the minds of many. He was in trouble
again in the fourth round as Walker, in his increasing frustration, mounted a
ferocious charge. Tiger bravely and intelligently continued to hold back the
tide, but then the oncoming Walker nailed him in the ninth. A big right dipped
Flowers’ knees and a similar punch sent him to the canvas seconds later.
Tiger showed great defensive skill in making Walker miss with his
big shots as Mickey burrowed in and tried to finish the champion. Mick was
constantly handicapped by blood running into his eyes and kept trying to clear
his vision as he punched away. But the decision was his and so was the
Mickey, for all the tough fights he had already had, thus opened
another golden chapter in his career in which he seemed to gain a new lease of
life. At twenty-five, he was a grizzled veteran by the standards of the day, yet
he lost only one fight over the next three years as he narrowly failed in his
bid to wrest the light heavyweight championship from the artful Tommy Loughran.
Mick was fortunate to get the decision over the vicious and
uncompromising Ace Hudkins in a middleweight title defence at Comiskey Park in
1928, but how the Toy Bulldog made up for that in the return match!
Hudkins, the gloriously named Nebraska Wildcat, got his second
chance at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles on October 29, 1929. A crowd of 25,000
saw Walker turn the clock back in spectacular fashion. Summoning all his old
fire and brimstone, Mickey met Ace’s aggressive rushes with brilliantly timed
counter fire. Over the course of ten rounds, Walker punched the teak-tough
Hudkins virtually to a standstill with solid blows to the jaw and a consistently
powerful body attack.
Mick had Ace in trouble from the outset with short and explosive
lefts and rights to the jaw. The fast right to the jaw was always a speciality
of Walker’s, and Hudkins was forced to hold on tight again in the sixth as
Mickey crashed home his pet blow.
The fight was a great demonstration of the power and
effectiveness of short-range punching, as Mick and Ace fought frequently at
close quarters. Some of the greatest damage they did was with jolting little
digs to the body and jaw. Walker, superbly fit and bronzed by the California
sun, was always mixing up his shots, tagging the onrushing Hudkins with hooks
Ace finished the punishing duel bleeding from a cut over his
right eye and suffering from a split lip. Most neutral observers awarded Mickey
eight of the ten rounds.
Mickey And The Greats
Regular readers will be aware of my admiration for that wonderful
boxing writer of yesteryear, Robert Edgren. In general, Mr Edgren was fair and
objective in his summations of fighters. He was also extremely knowledgeable and
possessed a rare, instinctive feel for boxers and boxing technique.
He maintained to the end that no middleweight could compare to
the astonishing Bob Fitzsimmons. However, lest you should think that Edgren was
obsessed with the fighters of his day, consider what he said as an older man
when comparing Mickey Walker to past legends of that weight class. Edgren’s
observations, published shortly after Mick’s storming victory over Ace Hudkins
in 1929, might well surprise you as much as they did me.
“Barring Fitzsimmons, Walker looks just about as good as any of
the middleweights. There is a glamour and a glory about past champions that
makes them seem greater when they are gone from the ring than they seemed when
we looked at them in action.
“Tommy Ryan was a great middleweight, but if you analyse his
fights, they were no better than Walker’s. The same could be said of any of the
rest – barring only Fitz.
“Harry Greb never knew much about boxing. He was a tireless
windmill in action, swinging from bell to bell and able to sop up any amount of
“Even the great Stanley Ketchel doesn’t figure so much better
than Mickey if you look at facts and cut out the past glory. It took Ketchel 32
rounds to beat Joe Thomas, a clever middleweight, for the championship. Of
course, in four fights he ruined Thomas completely, but I doubt that this tough
egg Ace Hudkins would go through as many rounds with Mickey without being sent
to the pugilistic dump.
“Jack Kearns always says that Mickey Walker is ‘another Joe
Walcott’. He is like Walcott in build, although with bigger legs in proportion.
Walcott was 5’ 1” tall when he was welter champion, and his neck and arms
measured just 16 inches. He had the fighting equipment of a big heavyweight as
far as strength was concerned.
“In the Hudkins fight, Walker showed amazingly good condition. I
never saw him in better shape, even as welterweight champion. He was baked to a
dark brown by the hot sun of the Ojai Valley and looked like a thick-set Jack
Dempsey. When they fight for Kearns, they have to be aggressive.”
Would Mickey Walker have been even greater if his love of
fighting had been matched by a natural love of training?
No!! The latter discipline always made Mick bristle with
irritation and restlessness. But in common with other like-minded souls, there
was a deception to his lack of enthusiasm that was frequently misunderstood.
Damon Runyon often wrote amusingly of Walker’s slothful,
half-hearted sparring sessions. Casual visitors to the gym would gawp in
disbelief as they watched the famous killer of the ring engaging in a series of
quaint and inoffensive waltzes with his partners.
Mickey was a wild horse and a free spirit who simply had to do it
his way, the only way that worked for him. That meant walking the tightrope and
maintaining a precarious balance between the rigours of training and the
pleasures of wine, women and song. Ketchel, Greb, Monzon and Duran were from a
similar mould. To them, there was no challenge to punching a bag or running for
miles. It bored them. But each was sensible enough to know that the monotonous
groundwork was a necessity. They simply tilted the conventional plane and
fashioned their own schedules.
Here is how Mickey Walker saw it when he spoke to writer Peter
Heller in the early seventies: “The most important thing for young fellows now
who are thinking about boxing is to be in shape. Don’t neglect that. Get in
training. You need that, and your training consists of roadwork and boxing in
the gymnasium. These amateur fighters of today are making a big mistake because
they don’t do enough hard work. They get in the gym and all they do is box three
rounds, punch the bag maybe two rounds, and maybe do a little exercise and
that’s their day’s training. You need more work than that.
“What you should do in the gym is box about four three-minute
rounds every day when you’re in there training. When you’re in the ring it gives
you endurance, and you need endurance. Punching the heavy bags, that’s good, but
punch them more than a minute. Punch them three minutes and you’ll find that a
big difference. In our day, we had real professional trainers who knew all that.
I followed their advice. In the morning, you’d be up and you’d do from five to
ten miles roadwork daily. You run half of that and walk the other half. That’s
in the morning.
“Then in the afternoon, if you’re fighting a 10-round fight,
you’d box a fight in the gymnasium, eight or ten rounds, punching the bags, and
you’d do stomach exercises to harden you up. You have to be hardened from toes
“Today, the boys in there, they look like they’re only training
for speed. Well, you need more than speed. You need endurance, you need
something in your body that you can take a punch, and that’s what they’ve got to
“In the modern times, everything is fast, speedy. But there’s
some things in life we can’t do that fast or speedy. Only one thing about
fighting – you need to be able to punch, you need to be able to take a punch,
and if you go too fast in your training you miss a lot.”
What made Mickey Walker different from the norm was that he
couldn’t do such things within the boundary of a set timetable. For Mick, the
difference between day and night needed to be blurred. Time and timepieces were
of scant importance to him.
Manager Jack Kearns made this discovery when he got it into his
head that a more regimented training regime would work wonders for Walker and
push him to greater heights. Jack got his great idea at Madame Bey’s camp while
Mickey was preparing for a fight with King Levinsky. Trainer Teddy Hayes, much
more knowing in such matters, was out west on other business and blissfully
unaware of this potentially fatal change to Walker’s civilised routine. Kearns’
fanciful notion was at once doomed to failure. It gave Mick the collywobbles and
upset his entire system.
Jack wanted him to cut down on the booze, eschew sweet and fatty
foods and go for long runs at the crack of dawn. The great plan quickly bombed.
The clincher, the one rule that gave Walker the shudders more than any other,
was that he had to go to bed early.
As hard as he tried, Mick simply couldn’t persist with what he
regarded as the sacrilegious act of retiring to his bed on the same day he got
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