The Life and Times of Nat Fleischer
“It’s Over Joe! He’s out!” As the newly named Muhammad Ali goaded the semi conscious Sonny Liston, Jersey Joe Walcott looked round confused and pandamonium reigned, only Ring Magazine Editor Nat Fleischer retained his clarity.
Checking the time keepers watch Fleischer informed Joe that Liston had been counted out and he stopped the fight.
With one shout Fleischer had altered the landscape of heavyweight boxing forever, cementing the most well known and controversial champion firmly at the top of the mountain. Though this was far from all he would do for boxing.
The road to his history changing words in Lewiston Maine started on the 3rd of November 1887 when Nathaniel Stanley Fleischer was born in New York City.
He attended his first boxing match when he was just 12 years old, falling in love as Terrible” Terry McGovern pummeled Pedlar Palmer for the world Bantamweight championship in record time. Watching McGovern would ignite a passion for boxing that would last a lifetime.
In a bid to imitate his idols the young Nat would take up boxing. As an amateur out of the Oregon Athletic Club, he was a 122-pound amateur and a stable mate of Leech Cross, who would later become a top list contender.
This was short lived however and he instead turned to academia, graduating from City College of New York in 1908. Fleischer then took a job with New York Press while studying at New York University.
His first journalistic breakthrough came when he was on the night desk on the night of April 14th 1912 and was among the first to break the story of the sinking of the Titanic. His breaking reports in New York were read by thousands and his journalistic stature improved immeasurably.
After this he moved into his role as sports editor for the Press and the Sun Press, where his interest in boxing was allowed to bloom. He began to personally cover as much of the boxing he possibly could.
He traveled the length and breadth of the United States trying to watch and cover as much boxing as he could. East coast to west Nat was a ringside fixture, reporting on every blow.
I’m 1958 Nat recounted his proximity to boxing’s Heavyweight division, his long time personal favourite; “I have been on intimate terms with every heavyweight champion since James J. Corbett. I have seen almost every heavyweight championship bout in the past half century, and most of those in other divisions that reach across a stretch of many exciting years.”
Across these years he was a dogged advocate for the sport. When the so-called ‘Walker law’ (New York’s boxing ban) went into effect from 1917 to 1920 it nearly brought about the demise of boxing in America. Nat went into overdrive to stop that from happening.
He flooded the New York State Assembly and Senate with self penned pamphlets outlining the reasons for opposing the bill. Nat received the support of every sports writer in New York, unifying a group normally defined by rivalry and conflict.
In the pamphlet they described all the positives of the sport and won the battle to save boxing. Boxing was reinstated in New York with the creation of the New York State Athletic commission.
During this struggle Nat became close personal friends with legendary boxing promoter Tex Rickard. A true eccentric Rickard had founded the New York Rangers, built the third incarnation of Madison Square Garden and promoted some of boxing’s biggest bouts.
The two actively campaigned together against the Walker Law together and after that Rickard convinced Fleisher to start a boxing only publication. They both believed that a dedicated boxing magazine would spread the word and grow the sport so it could never come under attack in the same way it had in the walker years.
To help him Nat enlisted the help of the so-called “Dean of American Baseball Writers” Dan Daniel. Famous in his own right Daniel was a superb writer and alongside Nat helped to fill the pages of the inaugural issue of Ring Magazine.
The debut issue would feature Rickard and his European contemporary Lord Lonsdale, who most will recognise from the british title belt which bears his portrait. Dedicated cover to cover to boxing, the American continent had never encountered a publication like this and it spread word about the sport further than ever before.
Fleischer’s chief aim was to use the magazine to bring respectability to boxing. To shun the stigma and change the perception. We see this most clearly with his contents page disclaimer, printed in every magazine while he was the editor;
"The Ring is a magazine which a man may take home with him. He may leave it on his library table safe in the knowledge that it does not contain one line of matter either in the text or the advertisements which would be offensive. The publisher of The Ring guards this reputation of his magazine jealously. It is entertaining and it is clean."
Not only do we see in this Nat’s penchant for virtuosity and traditionalism but also the control he exerted upon every issue.
Ambitious to the last in 1929 Fleischer acquired sole ownership of the magazine and now in conjunction with his status as editor he renounced all other journalistic endeavours and made the Ring his life.
Throughout the next years he would catalogue in immense detail the fistic exploits of the prize ring with eloquence and vigor.
His descriptions of the great Joe Louis however remain some of his most interesting prose;
Of his fight with Jack Roper Nat wrote; “He sails in, crashes his blows to the body and head, gives the opposition little chance to get set for a counter-attack and wards off blows with the cleverness of a Jack Johnson. Only Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey compare to Joe Louis of today in all around ability...No human body can take the punishment that Jolting Joe dishes out once he goes after his prey.”
Cataloging an era defining fighter like Louis filled the magazines pages and ensured copies flew off the shelves but it was to be two other pursuits, away from selling magazines that would define Nat’s legacy.
The first would be books. Not content with articles and editorials Nat would author and co author over 30 books across his lifetime.
Jack Dempsey: an Icon of Fistiana, Gentleman Jim: The Story Of James J. Corbett, The Michigan Assassin: The Saga of Stanley Ketchel, and Terrible Terry, The Brooklyn Terror: The Life And Battles Of Terry McGovern would all prove huge hits.
He also published a phenomenal series of “Ring Record Books” which cataloged every pugilistic endeavour from the bare knuckle days of Tom Cribb to the shining stars of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.
They logged every bout and victory, every championship win and loss. In later years they grew to include round by round scoring for each title fight held on the year prior. At its peak, the book consisted of close to 600 pages of records and stats.
Despite their huge statistical nature they remained idiosyncratically Fleischer.
He refused to list any ‘TKO’ victories ruling them instead as simply knockouts. This was in dogmatic adherence to the marquess of Queensbury rules, which didn’t include the term technical knockout.
Ever the traditionalist he clung onto this long after technical knockouts were common boxing parlance.
These books were a must have for trainers and matchmakers and later became the inspiration for the sites like ‘Boxrec’ that we see today.
Nat’s other lasting legacy is the Ring Magazine belt and it’s adherence to the lineal principle of succession in boxing.
Having come of age in the golden era of lineal-ism he firmly believed that boxing titles had to be won and lost within the ring.
His policy in recognizing world champions followed a principle that a fighter could not be stripped of a title by any state or national boxing commission. Bodies for whom he had held only contempt since the Walker fiasco.
In Fleischer’s book only retirement, death or a weight class change could stop you from being a champion.
So when the first Ring magazine belt was awarded to Jack Dempsey in 1922 and Pancho Villa in 1923 this became the established norm, and it remains so to this day.
These rules, put to the test in his by Muhammad Ali and his three year suspension, galvanised the boxing purists and thus the Belt has endured as a symbol of boxing purity, even into the present day.
Nat Fleischer’s career went from Corbett to Clay, from Dixon to Duran, from Langford to Liston. His eyes and mind were the lens through which many saw boxing for more than half a century.
He pursued structural change to boxing to make it more meritocratic, and to ensure its longevity well after he was gone. Fleischer’s mind was always on exactly that, to build something to make sure that boxing would outlast him.
Nelson Henderson once said; “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” I think when you look at boxing today it’s hard to find a corner untouched by Nat Fleischer. A fitting legacy indeed.
Ewan Breeze for SimBoxx