“….young Mr. Greb, acting like Mr. Kipling’s mongoose, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, bounced, caromed, slid and glided from so many angles and in so many ways at the more orthodox and sedate glove man that Gibbons was all at sea and scarcely knew where he was at.”              –New York Telegram, March 14, 1922

“Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” is a short story from Rudyard Kipling’s famous volume, The Jungle Book, chronicling as it does the adventures of a fearless mongoose. And in fact no animal description of the great Harry Greb’s ring style captures it so clearly and in such a vivid way as that above by a New York Telegram writer.

Harry Greb circa 1926.

Harry was most often described as a “wildcat,” due to his boundless aggression, and as a “kangaroo” because of his occasional leaping attack and retreat tactics. But according to thousands of eyewitness accounts, Greb actually fought like a mix of both of those mammals, so describing him as fighting like a mongoose—an animal that slashed and tore like a wildcat while leaping and bounding around like a kangaroo—seems most appropriate.

Like a mongoose, Greb couldn’t care less that the object of his fury was much bigger than he, nor that it carried something that could be lethal if it found its mark. Secondly, and also like the mongoose, Greb’s war tactics had no set style that a foe could anticipate, no pattern that could be tracked so openings could be watched for and timed. His feinting, bouncing and skittering around, coupled with his speed and work rate, were so disruptive that it scrambled the senses and timing of even the most composed of technical boxers and rushing sluggers.

Harry was all over you. And then you couldn’t even get near him. Then he was all over you again. Then you couldn’t get near him even when he was all over you. He was a most perplexing opponent, an enigma within an enigma; his quirks even had quirks.

But getting back to the Kipling story … Within its pages there are battles between the heroic little mongoose and several deadly snakes. A boxing fan reading these accounts can’t help but be drawn in by the author’s brilliant descriptions of these showdowns, so reminiscent are they of contests between enraged pugilists, boxers who were natural enemies, who seemed born to hate and antagonize one another before tearing in for the kill. It keeps the reader on the edge of his or her seat until the end of the story.

The great Harry Greb. Painting by Damien Burton.

Now take that boxing fan and replace him with a boxing history fan; more specifically, one who has done much reading on the fighting history of Harry Greb (there are a few of us out there). Such was the case the other day when Yours Truly picked up “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” for the first time in some twenty years and gave it a re-read. Kipling’s fight descriptions sounded so eerily similar to what boxing writers wrote about Greb fights that it prompted pauses in the reading. A few examples:

“… he danced up to Karait with the peculiar rocking, swaying motion that he had inherited from his family. It looks very funny, but it is so perfectly balanced a gait that you can fly off from it at any angle you please …”

“Rikki-tikki was bounding all round Nagaina, keeping just out of her stroke … Nagaina gathered herself together and flung out at him. Rikki-tikki jumped up and backward.”

“Then Rikki-tikki danced in a circle to get behind her, and Nagaina spun round to keep her head to his head …with tooth and jump and spring and bite…”

Greb (right) battles Gene Tunney.

Now, for the sake of comparison, here are some actual quotes from first-hand accounts of Greb’s ring performances:

“If he isn’t hopping and dancing or bounding about, tossing gloves at all angles at a rate that makes opponents of ordinary speed dizzy, he is inside clawing away with both fists.”       —Harry Keck

“He was hopping, jumping, swinging, rushing, jabbing all the way.” Denver Post 4/6/1920

“He can hit a man oftener from more different directions than any man that ever lived.”    —Grantland Rice

“… he made his opponents look foolish at times by getting behind them …” –E.W. Dickerson

“When his opponent thought Harry was about to lead, he would jump back out of range and make the other fellow look silly.”     —George Barton

Uncanny, isn’t it? And that is just a small sampling. The decades of firsthand testimony regarding Greb’s style and how he fought could fill huge volumes. But for some odd reason, many modern fight fans still require “footage” to believe any of it, some of them even going so far as to refer to “The Pittsburgh Windmill” as nothing more than a “myth.”

Greb and Tiger Flowers mix it up.

Considering the manifold observations in regards to the great champion, coupled with an official record that tacitly stands as clear evidence, that fully backs up all previous accounts, it is nothing short of astounding that some remain unconvinced. We have no film of Pittsburgh Pirates great Honus Wagner or Ty Cobb either, so shall we rate them as being inferior to Bill Buckner or Mookie Wilson simply because we have film on the latter two and not the former?

With all due respect to the great Archie Moore — whose style was more akin to an armored snapping turtle than any species of quick moving weasel — perhaps it is Greb who should have been dubbed “The Ol’ Mongoose” rather than Moore. Because we know how Greb fought, down to the last detail. He fought like a mongoose: fast, mobile, erratic and deadly efficient.

Harry Greb, “The Ol’ Mongoose.” Sounds perfect to me. Now let’s just hope those lost films of Greb surface soon so it can silence the hordes of modern Greb-naysayers once and for all.                         

— Douglas Cavanaugh 

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5 thoughts on “Rikki-Tikki-Harry

  • March 8, 2018 at 6:51 pm

    If I had a time machine I’d have to see Langford, Wilde and Greb. Science needs to get this done. Lol

  • June 7, 2019 at 9:37 pm

    Excellent article. Love it!

  • Pingback: On Kipling, Harry Greb & The Old Mongoose | Prime News List

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  • April 22, 2024 at 2:40 am

    Young Archie did in fact look like a mongoose—the only animal the snake can’t bite. With age he became so crafty, experienced, and venerate, the young snakes couldn’t bite him still. An apt and rare transformation for an animal supposed to rely on his speed and reflexes.


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