“The City of Philadelphia is all about the underdog”- Zach Ertz
When an out of work actor wrote a screenplay based on the fighting culture of the city of Philadelphia little did he know he would immortalise it in a series estimated to be worth over 1 billion dollars.
Although Sylvester Stalone and the Rocky franchise have embedded Philadelphia's boxing scene in the world's cultural zeitgeist, it's the rough and tumble fighting men that have shed their blood to make it legendary.
The story of boxing in “The City Of Brotherly Love” starts at the beginning of pugilism in America. Joseph Francis Hagan better known as Philadelphia Jack O'Brien, was born in 1878 and in 1905 he put Philadelphia on the boxing map.
After knocking out Dido Plum, the British middleweight champion, and George Crisp, the heavyweight title holder He took on former Heavyweight champion and current reigning Light Heavyweight champion, Bob Fitzimmons.
Despite only weighing 158lbs but proudly bearing the name of his city he pummelled the former champion into submission in the 13th round. Heavyweight title challenges followed, taking on Tommy Burns twice and Jack Johnson too. He finished his career facing pound for pound giants like Sam Langford and Stanley Ketchel.
Jack retired having had 194 fights, 145 wins,16 losses and 28 draws. He was known by some as ‘Jack the Giant killer’, because of his ability to knock out far bigger men, starting the Philadelphia tradition of the underdog.
Barney Lebrowitz, better known as Battling Levinsky, would pick up where O'Brien left off. In his first 100 fights between 1910 and 1914, he lost only three of his bouts. This led to a world title series against Light Heavyweight champion Jack Dillon.
After losing twice Levinsky would finally snatch the title in their trilogy bout. On October 24, 1916, he won a 12 round decision over Dillion and became a champion. Losses to upcoming greats like Dempseyand Carpentier for the title, but his showdown with the legendary Harry Greb would go down in History. The Pittsburgh Post called it "one of the most brilliant big glove exhibitions ever staged".
The 1920’s didn't start well for Philly. In or out of the ring, Levinsky lost his title to carpentier against the backdrop of the 20th century's worst pandemic. The Spanish Influenza mixed with policial incompetence caused 12,000 people to die in Philadelphia alone. Famous writer W.E.B Dubois wrote “Few large cities have such a disreputable record for misgovernment as Philadelphia.".
Despite this though the plucky underdog fought back and produced three iconic 20’s fighters. Tommy Loughran, Benny Bass and Lew Tendler.
First came ‘Lefty’ Lew Tendler who, like Levinsky, came from Philly’s thriving jewish immigrant community. He is generally regarded with the likes of Harry Wills and Sam Langford as the best fighters not to win a title, coming up against some of the best fighters ever in Benny Leanord and Mickey Walker.
Bass, on the other hand, would win both the Featherweight and Junior Lightweight titles. Born in Kiev Ukraine, his family had like so many fled anti-semitic persecution and settled in Phildepia.
He would be one of the first to adopt what is now recognised as a true Philly Style. Crouched, explosive, with a heart the size of Independence hall and a left hook that would crack the liberty bell. He was in many ways a proto-Frazier.
’The Phantom of Philly’ Loughran, was two time light heavyweight champion whose resume reads like a roll call of greats. He won a decision victory over Harry Greb and defeated two future world heavyweight champions Max Baer and James J Braddock. When you add Gene Tunney, Jack Sharkey, Georges Carpentier, Primo Carnera and Tommy Farr to his ledger, few compare.
The 40’s saw the first of Philadelphia’s world heavyweight champions. In typical Philly fashion though Jersey Joe Walcott didn’t do it the easy way. Born just over the river in Pennsauken Township, New Jersey, Arnold Raymond Cream would change his name to that of his idol, Barbados Joe Walcott when he crossed the river to pursue boxing.
Joe fought for the heavyweight title three times, twice against the great Joe Louis and once against the Cincinati Cobra Ezzard Charles before he eventually got the better of Charles and won the title aged 37. The oldest man ever to win it at the time.
If Joe had it tough, philly legend Joey Giradello had it excruciating. He had a hard up and down fighting career and did not become a real contender until he was 33, when he faced a diminished Sugar Ray Robinson. HAfter beating sugar though he defeated; Dick Tiger (to win the title), Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, Billy Graham and Gene Fullmer, each in a more bloody affair than the last.
Joey is now immortalized by a bronze statue in the East Passyunk Crossing section of South Philadelphia, remembered forever as a true champion for the city.
The only other (Non-Fictional Fighter) to be immortalised in bronze in Philadelphia is its most famous son. The man upon whose credentials all other philly fighters, and for that matter all other tough fighters, will be measured. The peerless Smokin Joe Frazier.
Coming of age in boxing’s golden era he was everything Stalone’s Rocky would imitate. Frazier was the one who worked in a slaughterhouse and punched the carcasses, it was Frazier who ran up those hallowed steps. It was Frazier who battled all comers and took three to land one. Ultimately it was Frazier who changed boxing by beating the best fighter to ever live.
Joe won gold at the 1964 Olympic games in Tokyo, then crushed a parade of professional contenders to fill the vacuum left by Muhammad Ali and his ban from boxing. Mathis, Quarry, Foster, Ellis, Bonavena and Chuvalo all succumbed to the relentless pressure and crushing left hook.
His story though, and therefore that of Philadelphia boxing in that era, is bound in blood with the story of Muhammad Ali. The two fighters did battle for 41 rounds across three fights, they went to hell and back courtesy of one another and in the process, became the world's biggest stars.
When he retired he opened up the training facility at 2917 N. Broad Street he had used during his reign as heavyweight champion to the public, training fighters as well as local kids until his death in 2011. The street is now known as "Smokin' Joe Frazier Boulevard", an indelible mark of boxing on the Philly streets.
In 1959, 3 miles south of what would become Frazier Boulevard, a five year old boy was found wandering on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, alone and frightened, not knowing even his own name.
Called Matthew Franklin (after the saint and where he was found) by the nuns who came to care for him, his was to become Philadelphia boxing’s next great life.
Like Giradello before him it was a hard road of ups and downs. After converting to Islam and changing his name to Matthew Saad Muhammad, he became a fan favourite for his destructive style, and win or loose always being in an exciting fight.
He reigned as WBC Light Heavyweight champion from 1979-1981 beating contenders like John Conteh, Marvin Johnson, Jerry Martin, Richie Kates and Yaqui Lopez. He also did battle with greats; Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad and Mate Parlov.
The Philly fighting culture of fighting until the last, would ultimately be the undoing of their next great champion. Meldrick Taylor followed in Joe Frazier’s footsteps taking gold at the 1984 Olympic Games.
At first, he didn’t fight like a Philly fighter. Flash, brash and lighting fast he captivated audiences on his way to an IBF Light Welterweight crown. Then he took on boxing’s most fearsome little man, Mexico’s Julio Caesar Chavez.
Taylor was sensational, boxing throwing flashing combinations and dancing around Chavez, winning the fight with ease, but as the pair began to tire, it became a firefight.
Instead of using his superior footwork to survive and win on points, he dug his toes in. He fought like a champion, he fought like a Philly fighter. Ultimately Chavez would stop Taylor in the dying seconds of the fight, but in fighting the way he did, he sustained damage that would ruin him forever.
He went 13-7 after the first Chavez fight, and has suffered multiple issues in his personal life as a result of suspected CTE (punch drunk syndrome), culminating in his 2019 arrest, another casualty of the sport we love.
The final great Philly champion would learn from Meldrick’s mistakes. Bernard Hopkins would develop his own style, and not get tied down in the stereotypes of his place of birth.
Despite being sentenced to 18 years in Graterford prison (31km northwest of Philadelphia) for a litany of offences including mugging and stabbing, upon his release in 1988, he went straight to boxing.
Campaigning in three weight classes in four separate decades Bernard Hopkins would unify world titles at Middleweight and Light Heavyweight. ‘The Executioner’ used his slick style to overcome the likes of Felix Trinidad, Antoni Tarver, Roy Jones Jr, Kelly Pavlik, Oscar De La Hoya and Winky Wright.
Hopkins’ career lasted so long that he inspired several different generations of Philadelphians to turn to boxing. In the present day his legacy, and the legacies of those that came before him, are very much secure.
Philly stalwarts like Danny ‘Swift’ Garcia, Julian ‘J Rock’ Williams and Tevin Farmer have all captured world titles and lurk around ready for another shot, but it’s not their success that excited boxing fans, it’s Boots.
Jaron ‘Boots’ Ennis is one of the most exciting prospects in world boxing. A golden gloves champion his meteoric rise and slick skills have drawn endless comparisons to Meldrick Taylor. The only thing that’s for sure though is Philly boxing is in safe hands.
The City of Brotherly Love, the cradle of Liberty, the Athens of America. Philadelphia is many things, but primarily it is the city of the underdog. Of the fight back. Of overcoming the odds, of daring to be great.
In a city blighted with economic hardships, boxing has offered street kids like Frazier and Franklin, O'Brien abs Ennis, the chance to be a champion.
The chance to be everything a Rocky movie told them they could be.
Ewan Breeze for SimBoxx as part of the Fight Cities series.