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Friday, February 11, 2011

Grandpop Groff

My fondest memories of Grand pop Groff were those of the hours we spent watching the Friday Night Fights together.

The fights were sponsored by Gillette Blue Blades and were often broadcasted from Madison Square Garden. It ran for 14 years which is, by far, the longest continuous run for a boxing program in the history of television and lasted until June of 1960.

Don Dunphy was the longtime announcer. In my book he rates as the greatest blow-by-blow announcer of them all. I watched so many fights on those glorious Friday nights that I can’t remember them all.

I was always thrilled when I watched one of the fight contestants land a knockout blow to his opponents chin or temple. It only took one shot. One shot and your done! It was just amazing. The victim would invariably crumble to the canvas and make a heroic effort to command his battered body to respond to his foggy impaired brain, struggling to lift himself drunkenly from the canvas, often to no avail.

When one of those guys was on the floor, it looked as though there were invisible hands holding him down while the referee tolled off the fateful seconds. The downed combatant just couldn’t make his body respond to his brains’ instructions. I always felt sorry for the man on the canvas. In the years to come I would be on that canvas three times during my forty-eight amateur fights and forty-four professional starts. Not once did I ever hear the referee holler “ten” in my ears. Not once!

Two of those Friday Night Fights stand out in my mind to this day. The first was a rematch fight and featured Gene Fullmer, who was to become my all-time favorite boxer and another of my favorites, Dick Tiger. Both were later voted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, NY.

My hero, Gene Fullmer was a tough, crude brawler from Utah. As unlikely as it may seem, he once beat the great Sugar Ray Robinson in a fifteen round decision to win the title. “The Sugarman” would later regain the title in a rematch, by landing what has been called “the perfect left hook” to knock Fillmer loose from the title, in the fifth round. It was the first time he was ever kayoed in his long and glorious career and he fought every tough guy in the Middleweight Division, and I mean everyone! Fillmer ducked no man.

His opponent Dick Tiger, who hailed from far away Nigeria, had beaten Fullmer previously in San Francisco, in the first of their three fights, on a fifteen round decision. Those were the days when men were men and title fights were fifteen rounders not like the watered down twelve rounders we’re fed today.

The Friday Night Fights rematch between Tiger and Fullmer was held in Las Vegas. Tiger was the out-and-out favorite. Since he had beaten Fullmer decisively in the first encounter in San Fran he was expected to repeat the performance in the rematch. But Fullmer changed his style. Instead of employing his usual “bull in a china shop” style, he turned boxer and almost pulled off an upset. He was by no means graceful because he wasn’t a boxer. But he almost grabbed the crown that night, though the officials called it a draw. I remember that Grand pop and I both expected Tiger to win, so the decision came as a surprise.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. If Fullmer was your favorite why did you and Grand pop Groff pick Tiger to win? Simply because I learned something early on about picking winners in the fighting game; don’t let your heart interfere with your head. Always bet with what you know. My adherence to that principle has never change.

Once, when I was at the Concord Hotel in the NY Catskills to spar with Wilford Scypion, Gerry Cooney was there too, getting ready to fight Larry Holmes for the title. One of Cooney’s friends asked me who I thought would win the fight and I told him Holmes would be the winner. He got pissed off and said, “I thought you liked Gerry?” I replied, “I do like Gerry.” But no matter what my feelings for Gerry were, they didn’t change the fact that he was facing a contender who was at the top of his game and Cooney had only fought six rounds in the previous two years and against washed up fighters like Norton, Young and Lyle.

Sorry to say, I was right. Cooney’s managers had cost him the title. I put most of the blame on Dennis Rappaport. Fighting stiffs and has-beens certainly doesn’t get you ready for a real fighter like Larry Holmes. Rappaport should have had Cooney fighting top contenders and had he, maybe; just maybe, Cooney might have stood a chance of staging an upset against Larry Holmes. As it was Cooney gave a much better account of himself than I had expected. But a loss is still a loss! Cooney never really recovered from the beating Holmes gave him that night in Vegas.

Although that terrific Friday Night Tiger-Fullmer re-match ended in a draw, Tiger retained his title because a draw decision is considered a loss for the challenger. In their third and final match, which was held in Nigeria, Tiger proved his superiority once and for all. He stopped Fullmer in seven rounds. Although it was only the second time Fullmer had ever been stopped, it was to be the last fight of Fullmer’s career.

The second most memorable Friday night fight for me was the one between defending champion Harold Johnson and the challenger, Willie Pastrano. It was not a good fight to say the least. Johnson lost his title that night due to a highly controversial decision. Years later, just before I weighed in for one of my own fights at the Philadelphia Spectrum, I met Johnson. I was like a kid in a candy shop! This was great, I thought. Right here, in front of me, was the very same Harold Johnson, who I had watched lose his title to Willie Pastrano all those years before with my Grand pop Groff.

I told him that I had seen that fight and he just gave me a look like, “Did you have to remind me of that night!” I told him I though he was ripped off and that as far as I was concerned he had been the winner that night. He just smiled and said “Thanks.” Johnson was a class act in and out of the ring. It was very cool meeting guys like Johnson, who I had idolized when I was young.

Those memorable Friday nights with Grand pop Groff inspired me to pursue my love of boxing and get my first set of boxing gloves from Wallach’s, the local sporting goods shop in Toms River. As a kid, I would get all my equipment there. What little money I received was always spent on something related to boxing. I will never forget Mr. Wallach. He was a real nice guy who always encouraged me to do well. His store was directly across the street from the Office lounge, where I now meet with a lot of my friends.

I can still envision Grand pop Groff, sitting in his big easy chair in front of that small black and white TV while Grandma conversed with us as she rocked and knitted in her old rocker. She never cared much for the fights.

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