ALMOST a century has passed since Harry Greb breathed his last, frenetic breath but his legend shows no sign of fading. Among the afficionados any hint of something new prompts waves of delight – a fresh four-second clip of him play-sparring with Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, an Instagram site dedicated to his memory, a new press clip of one his fights…
Part of his appeal is that he died at 32 rather than descending into a punch-drunk haze, which surely would have been his fate had he lived on. Part too is that aside from two clips of him messing around with O’Brien, the quest for the Holy Grail of a fight film has drawn a blank. Just about every other old-timer is captured on celluloid but all Greb fight films are lost. However, in recent years his followers have collected an impressive portfolio of data on his fighting life, including those famed public sparring sessions with Jack Dempsey.
There’s good reason for fans to indulge in iconoclasm when it comes to big names of the past – to show a wariness about reputations that have more to do with promotion and pulling power than brilliance. And yet, occasionally, boxers emerge who are so far ahead of their time that we suspect they’d thrive in any era. With Greb we are hampered by a lack of the eyeball test, but ringside reports, films of those he beat, comments of opponents and his remarkable record all suggest he was unique and that he deserves his place alongside Sugar Ray Robinson and Henry Armstrong on the pound-for-pound top rung.
Contemporary press reports suggest Greb would swamp opponents with a blur of leather. Several observers claimed he “got stronger” as fights progressed, which is physiologically impossible. Rather, he [i]seemed[i] to because while his opponents slowed he could maintain his busy workrate. He trained hard for the big fights and always had significantly better stamina than the opposition (and bear in mind he sometimes fought more than 40 times a year).
But there was far more to the Pittsburgh Windmill than workrate and aggression. Ringside accounts suggest he had remarkable speed of hand and foot and was frustratingly hard to tag. You read constant references to how much quicker he was than anyone else. Jack Johnson, who boxed an exhibition with Greb, commented: “It’s almost impossible to set you up for a punch. You’re the fastest man I ever boxed.”
He was well past his best when he fought Mickey Walker but the Toy Bulldog marvelled at the speed of his lateral movement. “Greb could hit from impossible angles. I still don’t know how he did it but once he hit me in the mouth while his hands faced in the opposite direction.”
A key aspect of Greb’s arsenal was his defensive skill. He was often described as ‘unorthodox’, which is another way of saying opponents couldn’t work out how to tag him. His crouching, chin-low stance, foot speed, head movement, anticipation, timing, and ability to pivot and change direction, meant he was exceedingly slippery. He had moves seldom used by his rivals, including his leaping left hook lead. He was also unusually versatile – referred to as “the great improviser” by some writers – able to rough it up on the inside as against Gene Tunney, box from longer range, as when winning every round against future world light heavyweight champion Maxie Rosenbloom, or a bit of both, as against Walker.
A bit like Muhammad Ali, his constant movement prevented him from setting himself up for single knockout punches, but his natural physical strength meant that even heavyweights failed to hold him off. Again, this is a feature of the fight reports – how much stronger he was than the opposition – and he had one of the best chins in boxing history. Giving away as much as 32lbs, the 5ft 8 ½ins Greb tangled with several of big men, and all of the world’s best light heavies, taking his share of flush punches, and yet in 299 recorded fights he suffered only a handful of knockdowns.
Harry was also remarkably consistent. When you fight every week or two you’re bound to have off-nights – a cold, a niggling injury, exhaustion – but Greb went through scores of fights without losing, even via newspaper decision.
He was undoubtedly a dirty fighter – thumbing, headbutts, low blows, rabbit punches – but his foul tactics were clever, usually on the blind side of the referee. Only one of his eight career losses was via disqualification and that was for punching after the bell.
The renowned American sportswriter Grantland Rice asked in 1926: “How was it that any one man, able to make 160-pounds at any time, could accomplish such astounding results for so many years? In the first place Greb has great natural speed. Something of the elastic qualities of high-grade rubber. In addition to this he has unusual physical strength. He is a Hercules on a smaller scale. Also, he has rare mental and physical coordination, unlimited courage and splendid stamina. He is far out of the ordinary in this respect, with a system that has been able to defy both time and nature for more than a decade.”
He was born Edward Harry Greb in 1894, one of four children in a working-class family in Pittsburgh. He was a boxing fanatic from childhood, known to be handy with his fists, regularly standing up to bullies. His strict father, Pius, opposed the fighting so Harry left home at 16 and worked as an apprentice electrician while visiting boxing gyms, although he only formally started his amateur career at the age of 18 in 1913, winning six bouts in two months before turning professional at just above lightweight with a second-round knockout.
After six months as a professional the 140lb youngster gave away 14 pounds to the leading middleweight contender Joe Chip and lost on a second-round knockout. More than six years on they fought again with Greb dishing out a 12-round beating, the local newspaper reporting that Harry “overwhelmed” Chip whose “foot and hand speed was so much slower than Greb’s that his punches were mostly futile.”
This was the pattern with several early opponents. The world middleweight champion George Chip (Joe’s brother) edged Harry for a newspaper decision in 1916. Eleven months on Greb reversed the favour and then trounced him in their third fight. In 1917 the outstanding middleweight Mike Gibbons was given the newspaper decision against Greb, but in 1919 Harry got the better of him. The same happened with Mike’s light heavyweight brother, Tom Gibbons, who took two newspaper decision over Greb. But Harry won seven out of ten rounds against him in their third fight in 1920 and then gave him a one-sided 15-round beating in 1922.
Along the way Greb refined his skills by fighting incessantly. Most were “no decision” fights with no verdict given if it went the distance but invariably Harry came away with the newspaper thumbs-up.
In one of these no-decision fights, in 1918, the 23-year-old Harry took on Mike O’Dowd for the world middleweight title. The fight went the distance so the title couldn’t change hands the newspaper verdict was a draw – the last time in the next eight years and 229 fights that a middleweight would fight on anything close to even terms with Greb.
He was at his peak between 1919 and 1922 – a spell in which he fought 104 times and beat a string of world middleweight and light-heavyweight champions and several heavyweight contenders without getting a title shot at any weight.
Some trace his decline from August 1921, when he gave away 17 ½lbs to take on Kid Norfolk, one of the best heavyweights and light heavies of his era. It was a tremendous battle, with Greb taking over down the stretch, ending up with the newspaper verdict after a no-decision ten rounder. Norfolk was said to have thumbed Greb in the right eye. Some reports suggested he was permanently blinded at this point but this is unlikely, considering that he fought again a week later.
More likely is that that he sustained a retinal tear from Norfolk’s thumb but that the retina only became detached after he was gouged in the eye when beating the heavyweight Bob Roper in November 1922, which prompted a seven-week layoff (including a fortnight with bandages over both eyes). He fought Roper again (for the ninth time) in January 1923 and the heavyweight, who had a 26-pound advantage, once again used his thumbs. After this, Greb did indeed go blind in his right eye but continued to outbox the best although press reports suggest he was taking more punches than before and had to adjust his style.
He was never given a shot at the world light-heavyweight title despite beating all the world’s best 175-pounders but he was finally given a shot at the middleweight title, outpointing Johnny Wilson in January 1924. He defended it three times while also getting the better of several more top light-heavyweights, including Tommy Loughran, Max Rosenbloom, and Gene Tunney.
He lost his title in February 1926 on a split decision Tiger Flowers, whom he had previously outboxed in a non-title fight – a result prompting Jack Dempsey (who never fought a black man in the last 12 years of his career) to remark: “I don’t see why Greb gave that n****r a chance.” Greb, who had no issues about the colour of his opponents, fought a return with Flowers but again was outpointed – his final fight. Most of the ringside press gave Greb the decision in both these title fights.
Two months later, on October 22 1926, the 32-year-old died during an operation to fix his nose, although injuries sustained in a prior motor accident may have contributed to his death. His wife, Mildred, had died six years earlier and his daughter, Dorothy, was raised mainly by his sister.
Along with his win over Walker, Greb is best known for his five bouts with Tunney and a common misconception is that an inexperienced Gene learned from their first fight and returned to whip Harry in their next four, but this is simply wrong.
In May 1922, Harry (162lbs) mauled Gene (174 ½lbs) for the US light-heavyweight title. Greb was possibly past his peak – his sight in the right eye deteriorating – while Tunney was no greenhorn, having his 53rd fight but Greb was all over him, breaking his nose, gashing his eye and putting him through a world of pain.
Some trace Greb’s reputation for wild living to the aftermath. Tunney signed with a new, well-connected manager Billy Gibson who was said to have used his press contacts to smear Greb, portraying him as a drunkard and philanderer outside the ring and a dirty fighter within it. It is true that Greb had a taste for fast cars and ‘womanising’ but there is no reliable record that he was a drunkard or that he neglected training. Before the Walker fight it would seem Greb played on his reputation to get more favourable betting odds for his backers. He made sure he was seen by the press staggering out of a club, pretending to be drunk, supported by two women. But it was all an act and he trained hard.
Anyway, by the time of the Tunney return in February 1923, Greb was blind in one eye, but the majority ringside view was that he deserved the nod and the crowd booed the decision. William Muldoon, New York State’s Athletic Commission boss, called the verdict in Tunney’s favour “unjustifiable” while Gene admitted, “No one was as surprised as I was when Joe Humphries lifted my hand in token of victory.” He went on to say: “Realising there was some justice in Greb’s claim of a bad decision, I offered him a return.”
This time, their third fight, Gene deserved the win. However, in their fourth bout in 1924, Greb won the newspaper decision. By their fifth, in March 1925, the 181lbs Tunney was at his peak while Greb was in decline and came in with a rib injury, and he was soundly beaten in another no decision 10-rounder.
So how should we view Greb in retrospect? At middleweight it’s hard to rate him as anything other than number one. Watch films of Walker and you see a two-fisted dynamo, and yet a one-eyed, 31-year-old Greb, having his 279th fight, trounced him, coming close to knocking him out in the 14th round. Walker went on to become an outstanding world middleweight champion. Harry also got the better of all the other leading middleweights of his era.
At light-heavyweight he belongs near the top. Films of Loughran reveal a boxer of dazzling skill and yet Greb outfought him in three of their five fights (one draw, one loss). He beat six world light-heavyweight champions and many top contenders. And although he seldom weighed much more than a middleweight, he had 41 fights against heavyweights, beating several among the top ten.
His performances compare favourably with Dempsey’s against common opponents. Dempsey had five fights against Willie Meehan, losing two, winning one with two draws. Greb twice fought the 198 lb. Meehan, winning 15 of their 16 rounds. In 1921 Dempsey defended against Bill Brennan who gave him hell – wobbling him, tearing his ear and outboxing him before getting stopped with body blows in the 12th. Greb fought Brennan five times, each ending in a one-sided trouncing of the bigger man. In 1923 Dempsey laboured to a points win over Tommy Gibbons. In 1922 Greb won almost every round against a fresher version of Gibbons. Greb also did better against Gunboat Smith and far better against Tunney.
When Jack opted to defend against Gene, Harry was one of the few to predict the title would change hands. Having been many competitive sparring rounds with Dempsey and 60 with Tunney, he was in a good position to judge. “I fought ‘em both,” he said. “Gene’s too smart for him. He’ll counter-punch him silly. He’s tough as hell too and the best body puncher I ever fought. He looks like a gentleman in the ring, and he acts like one, but there the resemblance will end if Dempsey plays rough.”
So how would Greb have coped against the Manassa Mauler? Dempsey had advantages of 20+lbs and four and a half inches in height and reach. He was stronger, a heavier hitter and his aggression would have made life rough in the early rounds. But Harry was so much quicker and retained his speed and workrate through 15 rounds. He was far more elusive and had a more reliable chin and no-one could master Greb when it came to the rough stuff. The longer it went, the better fHarry’s chances because Dempsey tended to fade. But we’ll never know. Dempsey’s manager Jack ‘Doc’ Kearns responded to an offer of a Greb fight with these words: “No, thanks. We want no traffic with that Seven-Year Itch.”
Dempsey and Greb traded leather several times, without headguards. The first was at New York’s Kelton’s Stadium the day before Greb outboxed Tommy Gibbons in July 1920. The New York Times had this headline: ‘Dempsey Gets a Black Eye: Harry Greb Does Trick in Exhibition Bout’. They reported that a left hook did the job. Some reports said they fought four, two-minute rounds with their second session cut short after two rounds.
Their next series took place in Benton Harber, Michigan in September 1920 when Dempsey was preparing for Billy Miske. Both were at their peaks and their sessions were widely reported. Each account drew the same conclusion: Harry was boss.
Their three rounds on September 2 was described by the New York Times as a “real” fight. “Dempsey hasn’t seen so many gloves in a long time as Greb showed him,” they reported. “Greb was all over him and kept forcing him around the ring. Dempsey could do but little with the speedy light heavyweight, while Greb seemed to be able to hit Dempsey almost at will. Time and again Greb made the champion miss with his famous right and left hooks to the head and countered with heavy swings to the head and hooks to the body.” They added that Greb managed to land at will “without leaving himself open to Jack’s snappy hooks and short swings.” The Pittsburgh Post reporter wrote that Greb “went into Dempsey like a hurricane, piling up points with his rapid, erratic style and eluding the champion’s retaliatory efforts with ease.”
They sparred again on September 3. The Washington Post reported Greb cut Dempsey’s tongue “so severely that he spat blood for the remainder of the round”, while the Pittsburgh Post noted this injury was the result of “a crushing right”. The NYT reported: “Greb promptly rushed Dempsey. The onslaught was so sudden that Jack was caught off his guard and took a solid left hook into the body, plied with all the force at Greb’s command, which is considerable. Then the fur began to fly. It was a whirlwind three rounds for the edification of the biggest crowd that shoe-horned its way into the grandstand at the baseball park. There were 2,000 people present and they were treated to as much action in three rounds as is usually crowded into a real bout.” This prompted the crowd “to burst into cheers and prolonged applause”. It noted that Dempsey “was puffing very hard…. It was an unusually fast workout, but it seemed to take him longer than it should to recover his wind.”
They sparred again on September 4 but this time Greb was under instructions to take it easy, because the Miske fight was only two days away.
One account said they also sparred four rounds in Atlantic City in 1924, though I have seen no other reports of this. According to Boxing and Wrestling Magazine, “Harry came snorting out of his corner raising hell with the heavyweight champion’s middle. Dempsey looked confused, he hesitated about throwing punches at first. He became desperate along about the second round and started putting ginger behind his left hooks. But Greb raced around so fast and poked so many jabs into Jack’s face that the great Mauler couldn’t land one solid wallop during the entire exhibition.” The next day, one local paper carried the headline ‘Greb Makes Dempsey Look Like a Kitten.’”
Grantland Rice told of how Greb never stopped trying to get a fight with Dempsey, who kept on defending against men Harry had beaten. “The heavyweight champion may have recalled the day when Greb, weighing 164 pounds, came to his training camp and boxed three rounds,” he wrote, referring to one of their 1920 sessions. “In that meeting Dempsey’s flying fists failed to land a solid blow as Greb swarmed all over the champion and hit him more times than he had ever been hit before.”
Dempsey on Greb, 1922: “The fastest thing I ever saw in action. Hitting him is one of life’s most difficult jobs… he’s always doing the unexpected… he’s one of those phantom targets which you hit more by luck than through the use of skill.”
Greb on Dempsey 1922: “A bout with Dempsey is the ambition of my life… I feel that I can outbox Dempsey in a bout of 12 to 15 rounds. There would always be the chance of a knockout by Dempsey of course. That would be his best bet.”