A Century Ago: Harry Greb’s Incredible 1922 (Part One)

At the dawn of 1922, Harry Greb, the rugged middleweight battler from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was riding high. He had not officially lost a fight since 1915, and in the year previous had scored wins over Joe Cox and future Hall of Famer Jeff Smith. In November of that same year, he made the most of his second appearance at New York’s Madison Square Garden by giving heavyweight contender Charley Weinert, who outweighed him by over fourteen pounds, a fifteen round thrashing, ending Weinert’s thirteen fight win streak. Greb’s reckless assault of opponents made him a fan favorite, not just in the Steel City but in any city that liked action-packed fisticuffs. Tex Rickard, promotional czar of boxing, had him scheduled to next meet Johnny Wilson on January 6th for the world middleweight championship.

The legendary Harry Greb.

They called Greb “The Human Windmill,” but “The Human Woodchipper” would have been a more accurate nomme de guerre. Greb’s opponents were not so much matched with him as fed to him like useless lumber, coming out the other side of their encounters with “The Smoke City Wildcat” nothing more than shredded and crushed piles of gore. Greb did not hit particularly hard, but he did not need to. With a bottomless supply of energy and punches flying from every angle, he simply tore away at his adversaries until there was nothing left.

But as the new year began, Harry Greb had a secret that threatened to derail his incredible success. On August 29, 1921, future Hall of Famer Kid Norfolk thumbed Harry in his right eye during a brutal clash at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field. Research by noted Greb biographer Bill Paxton has given credence to the likelihood that the foul caused a tear in Harry’s retina which would eventually lead to blindness in the eye. The extent to which Harry’s vision was immediately affected is not clear. He kept his condition secret from the press, the public, boxing commissions, and even his wife for the remainder of his life. He fought on, but as 1922 dawned and his vision became worse, there had to be a nagging secret doubt in his mind as to how long he could last with fading eyesight in the brutal trade of prizefighting.

Norfolk and Greb.

On January 2, things seemed to get off to an easy enough start. Greb looked “fit as a stake horse” as he trounced light heavyweight Chuck Wiggins through ten rounds in front of a holiday crowd at the Elsinore Club in Cincinnati. To the audience’s delight, the contest was not lacking in action as “gloves were flying through the air all the time,” but Greb had the better of the bigger man throughout. Though official decisions were still outlawed in Ohio, The Cincinnati Enquirer praised Harry as the clear winner, and so did the crowd.

Harry had little time to celebrate the victory. With his long overdue shot at the middleweight title just four days away, he and his manager George Engle were preparing to board a train to New York City after the Wiggins bout when a telegram arrived indicating that Johnny Wilson had backed out of the title match, violating a signed contract. “It’s an outrage,” cried Engle. Tex Rickard was equally beside himself, and he influenced the New York State Athletic Commission to suspend Wilson. But that was little consolation to Harry, who had turned down other paying fights for the title opportunity.

February found Harry in the ring for no-decision bouts against overmatched Hugh Walker and the excellent Jeff Smith, the newspapers reporting that he deserved both wins. But it was not until March that he got to return to the Garden in New York, where he faced future Hall of Famer Tommy Gibbons for a fourth time. Their previous encounters had been no-decision affairs, but with judges’ verdicts recently legalized in New York State, the two stellar pugilists had a chance to officially settle the score. Hailing from St. Paul, Minnesota, Gibbons was by this time a light heavyweight. He was known as a slick and crafty boxer who had grown into a fearsome puncher, and he had also enjoyed a terrific 1921, scoring twenty-one KO wins, ten of them in the first round. Tex Rickard was telling the world that Gibbons would be matched against heavyweight kingpin Jack Dempsey for the world title, just as soon as he mowed down Greb. Bookmakers installed Tommy as a two-to-one favorite.

Greb and Gibbons shake hands.

Over thirteen thousand packed the house to watch the two top talents settle their rivalry and to support the New York Milk Fund charity to which a portion of the $117,500 in ticket sales would be donated. The writer for The New York Times noted that members of high society, banking, and politics had flocked to the event, leaving standing-room-only for less well-to-do spectators. Among them were hundreds of women, “a fair proportion in evening dress,” a rare sight for a boxing match in this period. Men and women with names like Astor and Vanderbilt were ringside to cheer on Greb and Gibbons.

While Greb weighed just over 163 pounds to Gibbons’s 171, from early on he proved himself Tommy’s master. His aggression allowed him to land more punches, and he used expert head movement to avoid the larger man’s heavy blows. When Tommy did make contact, Harry “proved that he could assimilate all that Gibbons had to offer.” Greb out-landed Gibbons two-to-one in most of the rounds and, most surprisingly, seemed to match Gibbons for punching power. The Times reporter felt that Greb won all but three of the fifteen rounds. Though neither went down, the final round was a thriller, with both standing toe-to-toe and unleashing their entire arsenals. As the seconds ticked down, Gibbons rocked Greb with a right to the head, while Greb left a visible impression on Gibbons’s ribs with his body attack.

Dempsey and Greb: oh, what might have been.

The unanimous decision went Harry’s way. And while all agreed with the outcome, and the action had been intense, much of the crowd felt disappointed. Gibbons had failed to prove himself worthy of his chance at Jack Dempsey’s crown, while Greb had failed to knock Gibbons out, despite being in firm control throughout. Afterwards someone spotted Dempsey filing out of the arena and asked, “How long would it take you to put either of them away?” The heavyweight king wordlessly responded with an amused grin. Enough said.

Ultimately, Dempsey chose Gibbons, not Greb, as his next challenger. On Independence Day, 1923, Jack turned in a lackluster performance in remote Shelby, Montana, and Tommy became the only man ever to last a full fifteen rounds with the rampaging champion, the decision going Dempsey’s way.

The upset victory over Gibbons opened various possibilities for Harry Greb. It was easily the greatest win of his career thus far and Engle was talking up a match with Dempsey for July 4th, while theater promoters were booking Harry for a vaudeville tour. Before that, though, he enjoyed a marvelous homecoming parade in Pittsburgh on the morning of March 20. Greeted at the train station by a brass band, he and his wife Mildred were driven in a motorcade consisting of hundreds of automobiles through a roaring crowd along Liberty and Fifth Avenues, reportedly “the greatest turnout ever in the history of the city.” Once the parade reached the City Council Building, fans lifted Harry on their shoulders and carried the hometown hero to a reception inside.

Tunney and Greb weigh-in.

By April, Greb had signed to meet undefeated Gene Tunney, light heavyweight champion of America, for Tunney’s title on May 23 in the Garden. While he waited for that match, Harry crushed heavyweight contender Al Roberts, scoring seven knockdowns before the referee stopped the one-sided beating in round six. Then Harry packed his bags for New York City. Mildred, who had been ringside for so many of his fights and had always entertained the press with the pride she exhibited in her husband, did not come with him. She was ill and stayed home to hear the contest on the radio.

Known as the “The Fighting Marine,” Gene Tunney was undefeated in 49 bouts. Most recently, he had stopped Jack Burke in nine rounds in Burke’s (and Greb’s) native Pittsburgh. Like Gibbons, Tunney was quick on his feet, was a master of boxing technique, and possessed a varied arsenal of powerful punches. But the consensus was, anything Gibbons could do, Tunney could do better (a notion Gene would later prove true by knocking Gibbons out in 1925). Plus, Tunney enjoyed every possible physical advantage over Greb: youth, height, reach, and weight. Tunney would also have home field advantage; he was raised in New York’s Greenwich Village. Despite all this, Greb’s stunning victory over Gibbons convinced the bookies to post three-to-one odds in Harry’s favor.

“The Fighting Marine” and “The Pittsburgh Windmill” mix it up in Madison Square.

Over nine thousand fans paid to see the first Greb vs Tunney battle, and if Harry had been relentless against Tommy Gibbons, he was downright savage against the light heavyweight titlist. All the New Yorker’s advantages in technique and physicality were immediately nullified by the Pittsburgher’s speed, stamina and aggression. “[Greb] rushed Tunney all about the ring and flayed the local boxer with a two-fisted attack,” reported The New York Times. “It was not within his scope to halt the human hurricane in front of him.” Before the end of the first round, the ex-Marine appeared completely baffled by Greb’s wild onslaught of punches, and that look never left his face for the rest of the night.

In time, Tunney was convinced that his only hope was to stand and trade with his foe. “Like Don Quixote of old, he kept tilting away at the windmill,” mused famed columnist Damon Runyon. But that only meant more punishment, not all of it legal. During the bout, Greb drew a warning from referee Kid McPartland for punching on the break, and a headbutt opened scar tissue above Tunney’s left eye. The crowd routinely booed the out-of-towner for holding and butting. In both the third and sixth rounds, Tunney almost fell through the ring ropes from the force of Greb’s attack and his the wrestling tactics.

Cartoon from The Evening World newspaper tells the story of Greb vs Tunney.

After fifteen rounds, Gene was a “bloody ruin,” reported The Brooklyn Standard Union. He bled profusely from cuts above both eyes as well as from his nose and mouth. The writer for The Times scored twelve rounds for Greb and thought Tunney deserved no better than a draw in the other three frames. “They say Greb cannot punch much,” wrote Runyon. “Tunney probably wonders how they get that way.” After announcer Joe Humphreys declared the foregone conclusion of a unanimous Greb victory, Tunney showed sportsmanship in shaking his conqueror’s hand, but would later criticize Harry’s dirty tactics.

The win over Tunney would go down as the crown jewel of Greb’s legacy, as “The Fighting Marine” would never lose another fight. Four years later, he scored a momentous upset over Dempsey to take the world heavyweight crown. (To Be Continued … )       –Kenneth Bridgham