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

The win over Tunney had made Harry Greb the light heavyweight champion of America and promoter Tex Rickard spent the days before and after the victory dashing off cables to world light heavyweight king Georges Carpentier of France. He offered “The Orchid Man” as much as $150,000 to come to the States and take on Greb, and Carpentier had seemed amenable to the deal initially, but after reports of the performance by “The Smoke City Wildcat” made their way to Europe, he gave Rickard the cold shoulder. Four months later, Battling Siki of Senegal took Carpentier’s belt when he knocked him out in six rounds in Paris.

Denied yet another chance to battle for a world championship, Harry returned not to cheering throngs of Pittsburghers but to an ailing wife. Mildred’s illness had worsened, and she was soon after diagnosed with tuberculosis, at that time the leading killer of people in the United States. Her chances of surviving were fifty percent, and she was brought to convalesce at a sanitarium in Sarnac Lake in upstate New York.

Harry Greb
Greb with wife Mildred and their daughter, Dorothy.

Leaving half his heart behind in New York with Mildred, Harry returned to Pittsburgh to face defend his newly won title at Forbes Field on June 26 against Kansas City’s Hughey Walker. Walker had faced Tommy Gibbons on three occasions and was an experienced fighter, despite a record with nearly as many losses as wins. He was described as a slugger “in the Greb mold,” and he entered the ring weighing 181 pounds, a full-sized heavyweight standing 5’11” tall to Greb’s 5’8” and 165 pounds.

In the opening round, a Walker left hook circled around to the side of Greb’s disabled right eye and caught him unaware. The champion reeled backwards into the ropes, shocking his hometown fans, but after tentatively boxing for a bit, Harry recovered his senses and tore in at his opponent in the usual fashion. To Walker’s credit, he did his best to stand his ground, and he lasted the full ten round distance, but sportswriter Harry Keck felt Greb deserved every round. Walker looked ready to fall in the tenth, but bravely made it over the finish line. Because official decisions were illegal in Pennsylvania, none was rendered, but the champion’s dominance was obvious. Only Harry knew that it was a damaged eye that had nearly cost him his title in the first round of his first defense.

Hughey Walker

Again, rumors swirled of a match between Dempsey and Greb, this time to be held in a specially constructed stadium built in the Pittsburgh area, as Harry took on yet another future Hall of Famer and world champion in Tommy Loughran, the brilliant boxing phenom out of Philadelphia. Just 19 years old, Tommy already possessed one of the best left jabs in the history of boxing and had clashed with top contenders Mike McTigue and Jimmy Darcy. His match with Greb was seen as his acid test “to prove whether Loughran… is being pushed too fast or whether he is ready to go up against anyone – ‘bar none.’” Greb was the heavy favorite.

On July 5, after a high-speed chase, Greb was arrested for speeding while returning to Pittsburgh from a holiday visit in Wheeling, West Virginia. He paid a fine, bought the state trooper who ran him down a tank of gas, and then headed home to pack his bags for Philly. He arrived in the City of Brotherly Love two days later to finish his preparations for Loughran.

The match took place at the National League baseball park, home to the Phillies, on July 10th, with some twenty thousand Philadelphians turning out to cheer on the local boy. The bout was scheduled for just eight rounds, so Harry knew he had to get his work done fast. He came out as aggressive as always, but found his opponent clever and savvy beyond his years. Loughran backpedaled, jabbed, and held to nullify Greb’s inside work, and his quick and precise left lead routinely popped Harry’s head back in the early going.

The great Tommy Loughran.

It was not until the middle rounds, as Tommy began to tire under the tremendous pressure of the champion, that Harry started to secure a lead in the action, but during the last half of the final round, Tommy suddenly fought with a sense of urgency. He tossed combinations to Harry’s body and then switched to the head, bringing the startled Greb’s assault to a stop and putting him on the back foot. The partisan Loughran crowd “went into a frenzy,” but the final bell sounded just as their man seemed to take an advantage. In accordance with Pennsylvania law, no official verdict was delivered, but Louis Jaffe of The Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger gave Greb the close win by a margin of one round.

Loughran had impressed everyone with his ability to hold his own against the more experienced and heavier national champion, causing the sports pages to predict great things for the young lad, and they were right. The slick boxing Philadelphian built a Hall of Fame career, taking on the best light heavies and heavyweights of his generation and winning the world light heavyweight title in 1927. Considered among the finest champions in the division’s history, he defended it successfully six times before entering the heavyweight ranks. Like Gibbons and Tunney before him, he too got his shot at the heavyweight title, playing the David to Primo Carnera’s Goliath over fifteen rounds in 1934, losing the decision at an 84-pound weight disadvantage.

After besting the Philly upstart, Harry and manager George Engel headed to New York in the hopes of firming up some big fights, including one with Jack Dempsey on Labor Day. But negotiations fell through, and on July 12th Harry publicly conceded that he would not get his shot at the heavyweight crown. It was recalled that Greb had been a sparring partner for Dempsey back in 1920, and word had spread that Greb had made Dempsey look so bad in their public sessions that Jack wanted nothing to do with the little guy from Pittsburgh. His face bandaged from cuts he suffered against Loughran, a dejected Greb told the press he was taking a break for a month to six weeks. The New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC) wanted him to face Dave Rosenburg for the world’s middleweight title vacated when Johnny Wilson refused to fight Harry, but Greb declined. “I’ve had a long, strenuous campaign and feel pretty well tired out,” he admitted to the sportswriters. He said he wanted a match with George Carpentier when he returned.

Dempsey and Greb.

The NYSAC suspended Harry indefinitely for refusing to meet Rosenburg, and he went upstate to stay at Sarnac with Mildred. Outside of two exhibition bouts in Pittsburgh, Greb stayed out of the ring until September 26th, when he returned with a two-round demolition of the overmatched Al Benedict, who boasted a 9-26 record, in Toronto, Canada. The only thing 210-pound Benedict had going for him was his 37-pound weight advantage, and that was all that allowed him to survive the first round. Afterwards Greb announced from the ring that he wanted a match with the new light heavyweight champion of the world, Battling Siki, “anytime, anywhere, for any reasonable amount of money.”

Just three days after whipping Benedict, Harry dominated Chicago heavyweight Captain Bob Roper in a no-decision match at the Armory in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and on October 27, he stopped Larry Williams, promoted as the light heavyweight champion of New England, in four rounds at the Marieville Gardens in North Providence, Rhode Island.

Between the Roper and Williams bouts, George Engel managed to get Harry’s boxing license reinstated in New York State, and Harry was then free to box another match with Roper in Buffalo on November 10th. Roper was the former American Expeditionary Forces heavyweight champion and it was his custom to enter the ring with a live snake wrapped about his shoulders. The pair had battled on four occasions thus far, and though Roper had done well against other heavyweights, he had not gotten the better of Greb. This time around was no different. For twelve rounds, Harry handed Bob “the beating of his life” and used him as a “human punching bag.” By the eighth round, the bigger man was fighting only to prevent being knocked out. Harry won another easy newspaper decision.

Harry Greb
Greb and Roper shake hands. Note the snake around Roper’s neck.

Nonetheless, the Roper fight proved the most damaging of Greb’s career. Newspaper reports surfaced that Roper had “injured” Greb’s eyes. If the torn retina experienced the previous year against Kid Norfolk began degeneration of his eyesight, the Roper fight likely separated the retina completely and left him totally blind in his right eye. Two weeks after the bout, he showed up at Madison Square Garden for a meeting with Tex Rickard with patches over both of his eyes, evidence that he had visited a doctor. The NYSAC granted Henry an extension on his contract for a rematch with Gene Tunney due to Mildred’s illness, but Henry may have secretly sought the delay as a result of his own ailment.

On November 19, The Pittsburgh Daily Post ran a long article detailing Greb’s breakup with his manager George Engel after a vitriolic phone call the prior day. Greb confirmed to the press that he would be managing his own career for the time being. He afterward checked into Pittsburgh’s West Penn Hospital, telling the press his visit was due to “infected eyes,” and stayed there until December 7th, saying he would not return to the ring until January.

Ultimately, Harry would go from November 10th, 1922 to January 1st, 1923 without competing, the longest break of his nearly decade-long career thus far. Clearly, something was wrong. Doctors told The New York Times there was “no immediate danger of the sight being impaired.” However, nearly a century later, Dr. Albert Ackerman, an eye specialist interviewed by Greb’s biographer Bill Paxton stated, “I highly suspect that he had a detachment in November of 1922.”

Manager Engel and Greb.

Thus, as Harry Greb convalesced in a Pittsburgh hospital at the end of his fighting campaign for 1922, he could look back on yet another undefeated year, despite tremendous challenges and disadvantages. He had engaged in twelve prizefights, bested four future Hall of Famers (Smith, Gibbons, Tunney, and Loughran) and four legitimate heavyweights (Walker, Benedict, Roper, and Williams), some of them multiple times. He did it all while losing his vision and worrying for his ailing spouse. Champions Johnny Wilson, Georges Carpentier, Battling Siki, and Jack Dempsey had avoided his repeated challenges to meet them for a title. By the end of 1922, Harry Greb was not just the best boxer out of Pittsburgh. Nor was he simply the best middleweight of the era. Nor was he merely the light heavyweight champion of America. He was the best fighter in the world.

Greb continued to keep his debilitated eye a secret, both publicly and privately. He did not worry his dying wife with the news of his blindness as Mildred would die on March 18, 1923, leaving her husband devastated. Despite this, Greb later won the middleweight championship of the world from Johnny Wilson on August 31, 1923 and went on to defend it successfully six times. In September, 1926, Greb’s right eye would be surgically removed. The press and public never knew of his blindness until his death at the age of 32 during an operation for reconstructive facial surgery on October 22, 1926. Only then did physicians admit that the great Harry Greb had likely fought the last four years of his tremendous career while completely blind in one eye.              –Kenneth Bridgham