Nat Fleischer, “Mr. Boxing”
Sportswriters tabbed Nat Fleischer (1887-1972), founder of The Ring magazine, as “Mr. Boxing” because of his deep knowledge and association with his beloved sport. Fleischer’s story in many ways is the story of boxing. His experience is unlike that of anyone else from boxing’s past and certainly no one will ever be able to make his claims in the future.
Nat attended his first professional fight in 1899 at the age 12 when “Terrible” Terry McGovern won the world’s bantamweight championship in record time against the previously undefeated Pedlar Palmer. From that moment Fleischer fell in love with the manly art.
In 1958 Fleischer wrote, “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.” Fleischer in fact saw every heavyweight champion from Jim Jeffries and Jack Johnson to Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier from ringside, most of those from the first row. Possibly no one else in history can make that claim. Fleischer’s unique perspective demands respect from those who are interested in the history of boxing.
Fleischer was not only a journalist and boxing historian but was quite a little athlete who himself boxed and understood the fundamentals of the sport. Nat boxed 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 lightweight contender. Although he was only 5 2” Nat was a capable athlete once winning a high jump in an intercollegiate match between Pratt Institute and New York University.
Fleischer became interested in journalism in high school. In 1904 he became a City College correspondent for the Morning and Sunday World and New York Press. He graduated from college in 1908 with a Bachelor of Science degree. He worked for the Press in the sports department upon graduation.
Fleischer made his breakthrough as a journalist working the late night shift on the night of April 14, 1912. Those who saw the hit movie “Titanic” will recognize that date for it was the night of the sinking of histories most famous ocean liner. The New York Times and New York Post already had their early editions out when the news came across the wire that the Titanic hit an iceberg. Nat’s team scored a coup by getting the New York Press to be the first paper to hit the stands with news of the tragedy.
The Walker law went into effect from 1917 to 1920 and nearly brought about the demise of boxing in America. Some powerful politicians allied themselves together in an effort to try and outlaw boxing altogether. As a sports writer Nat had come to know many of the personalities that surrounded the sport. He was a personal friend of promoter Tex Rickard. Rickard asked Nat what could be done to stop the legislation. He suggested flooding the New York State Assembly and Senate with pamphlets outlining the reasons for opposing the bill. Nat received the support of every sports writer in New York. In the pamphlet they described all the positives of the sport and won the battle to save boxing. After that Nat decided a publication devoted wholly to the sport would be worthwhile and that is why he said he started The Ring in 1922. The Ring is now considered a classic a magazine like Time, People, and Sports Illustrated. The Ring was the first to devise the ratings of fighters and began awarding championship belts in 1922. The first Ring belt was awarded to heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey.
Nat Fleischer was one of the founders of the Boxing Writers association and he twice received the James J. Walker award for long and meritorious service to boxing. The Ring Record Book was also conceived and compiled by Mr. Fleischer and first published in 1941; it was the most comprehensive of all annual reference sources on boxing.
Nat tended to just report the fights as he saw it from ringside and did not editorialize too much. Nat was well known for his ability to break down and describe the styles of fighters and the action that took place in the ring. Here are some descriptions of fighters there is film on so we can compare what Nat said of them to what we know from the films. We can then know that what he said about fighters whom we have little film on is also accurate.
Of Joe Louis he penned, in the April 1939 Ring, “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. That has been proved conclusively in his last few contests.”
In the Mar. 1942 Ring, after Louis' destruction of the 6'6" 250 pound Buddy Baer, Nat Said that “Not even in the second fight with Max Schmeling did the Detroit Destroyer show as much as he did against Buddy. Joe had everything. He was magnificent. He was a whirlwind on attack, a master of defense, a terror with his devastating punches.”
Of Ray Robinson Nat spoke reverently of the Sugar Man, July 1950 Ring, “Most of the old timers in the fight business agree that only Benny Leonard and (Joe) Gans rate with the Harlem Hotshot in the skill and punch departments…”
“Unlike some of the other mechanically able boxers there is nothing drab or uninteresting about his ring technique. Louis, Johnson, Gans and most of the other great Negro fighters fought out of a flat footed shuffle. Sugar is up on his toes like a ballet dancer…”
“(The) qualities which add up to making Ray Robinson a near perfect fighting machine are the ability to take a punch unusually well for such a frail looking fellow, and an ability to maintain full possession of his shrewd fighting brain. Ray seems immune to panic if the going gets rough. He can whale away and tear like a little Dempsey at times, for all his skill.”
In evaluating Rocky Marciano he wrote December 1955 Ring, “Those who believe that he lacks the necessary qualifications for gaining a niche in the fistic hall of fame as one of the greatest heavyweights of all time won’t argue that as a puncher, he takes his place alongside such greats as Fitzsimmons, Jeffries, Louis and Dempsey. They limit his qualifications for greatness to the category of “hitting power”, strength and durability all of which Rocky possesses to a high degree but which are insufficient to gain for him a place among the greats of the past…”
“…Despite his crudeness, he can move about the ring at a pretty fast gate and can toss more punches than any heavyweight of recent years. But misses more frequently than any champion I’ve ever seen.”
“He has faced very few real punchers during his career. The two best, Walcott and Moore- both thirty-eight at the time-had Rocky on the canvas. Joe Louis is not included since when he met Rocky, the Brown Bomber had long since lost his once devastating punch.”
Of Muhammad Ali Nat wrote, June 1966 Ring, while covering the Chuvalo fight. “Clay a shifty, artful master of boxing, gave all he had to end the fight, especially in the fifteenth, but the powers of his punches were insufficient to put Chuvalo away.”
While in the February 1967 Ring covering the Muhammad Ali - Cleveland Williams fight Nat stated, “I have seen, and been with, Clay on all of his foreign trips, since the Rome Olympic Games, and at no time have I seen him unleash such power as against Williams. In contrast to other performances, Cassius was a fighting machine in Houston. Once he unlimbered his heavy artillery, he faced a confused, bewildered, floundering opponent, who was baffled by what was taking place.”
Nat is not so well understood today mostly because of his published all time heavyweight ratings. It is conceivable that in creating his list that Nat caved into pressure from the contemporaries of his generation, which definitely preferred the “old-time” fighters to the moderns. That is not provable but Ted Carroll, who wrote for the Ring said in the Feb. 19 1949 New York Age that Nat rated Jack Johnson and Joe Louis 1-2 at heavyweight at that time. Just exactly what happened in Louis comeback, when he was clearly past his prime and fighting only for the IRS that would make Nat drop Louis several spots in his ratings nine years later one can only wonder. Another curious question is how Nat would have rated Muhammad Ali had he lived to the see him regain the title against George Foreman and win 2 of 3 against Joe Frazier?
Practically everyone considered Ali as only a borderline top 10 all time heavyweight after his loss to Frazier in 1971. Ali was 31-1 and had lost the biggest fight of his career. Writing in the Sept 1971 Ring Nat hinted that he considered including Ali but “that meant ousting Marciano” which is something he clearly was not willing to do, especially considering the fact that Ali had just loss to Frazier. Nat did have respect for the fighting ability of Ali writing at various times that Ali was second only to Jack Johnson in his defensive prowess as a heavyweight and rated him among the three greatest combination punchers regardless of weight. It seems likely that had Fleischer lived to see Ali’s victories in Zaire and Manila he would have reacted favorably and rewarded him a high rating.
Based on his autobiography it is clear that Nat’s two favorite fighters were Jack Johnson and Bob Fitzsimmons. Nat rated fighters only at their best weight in his all time ratings, but Fitz was an exception. He rated Fitz at heavyweight. The problem with this was that Fitz was really only a middleweight even when he won the heavyweight title. Fitzsimmons weighed 156 ½ on the morning of the fight according to reporter Bob Davis who viewed a private weighing on March 17, 1897 the day of his match with Jim Corbett. Fitz himself said after winning the title ‘eavyweight champion of the world and I’m only a bleedin’ middleweight.”
Had Nat rated Fitz at middleweight where he belonged, followed his initial instincts regarding Joe Louis (1949) and saw Ali regain the title and win 2 of 3 against Frazier his heavyweight ratings would look something like this as of the mid 1970's:
Nat Fleischer’s WHAT IF Heavyweight Ratings:
1. Jack Johnson
2. Joe Louis
3. Jim Jeffries
4. Jack Dempsey
5. Muhammad Ali
6. Jim Corbett
7. Sam Langford
8. Gene Tunney
9. Max Schmeling
10. Rocky Marciano
That is not a bad list. His top 5 has the right names through the reign of Muhammad Ali as they were viewed by the majority of those who saw every name on that list. We might question certain aspects of his ratings but one must respect the fact that Nat actually saw them fight at ringside, which no one reading this can claim. Most old-timers rated Corbett over Tunney and one should recall that when those two sparred when Tunney was champion Gene was very impressed with Corbett’s skill and knowledge of the game. Corbett’s rating is not at all unreasonable as of the mid 1970’s and neither is Langford’s. I sense that Nat regarded Marciano and Schmeling about the same level, but Nat definitely was critical of Rocky’s lack of boxing skills. Nat appreciated boxing talent and boxing ability as much as punching power. He considered Schmeling “the most underrated” amongst all heavyweight champions. Others such as Hank Kaplan have said that Schmeling had the “best right hand straight down the pipe and between the gloves” of any heavyweight he has seen. A lower top 10 rating for Schmeling is not out of the question as of the early mid 1970’s.
Nat Fleischer is the one great sportswriter and boxing historian who actually lived through the history of the sports greatest moments. He knew the fighters, promoters, managers, trainers and ring personalities. He saw all the great fighters from the turn of the century up to his death in 1972. Nat was there when Jack Johnson whipped Jim Jeffries in 1910. Nat was at ringside when the great white hope Jess Willard downed Johnson in Havana in 1915. Nat observed the destruction of the Pottowatomie Giant when Jack Dempsey won the heavyweight title in 1919. Fleischer was there when Joe Louis annihilated Max Schmeling in 1938. Nat saw the rise of Ray Robinson as the great boxing master well before he won his first of five middleweight titles. Nat watched Muhammad Ali defy the odds and beat Sonny Liston and he was there in the Garden the night Joe Frazier whipped Ali in the most anticipated fight in history. Nat based his writing on what he actually saw with his own eyes as a veteran boxing pundit. Nat Fleischer was indeed “Mr. Boxing” and he lived a life that was rich in observation, scholarship, and appreciation of the sport.