By John Wharton: many people will agree, a nickname is easy to come by but difficult to shrug off...just ask ‘Skidmark Mooney’ from my junior school days. In sport, however, a nickname can encapsulate just who you are and what you do, and one sport in which it is seemingly essential to have one is boxing. Some nicknames are meant to make an opponent tremble; others are less intimidating but nonetheless represent what kind of fighter you are.
Nicknames were a part of the game pre-Queensberry Rules, and one of the most famous champions of that era was William ‘Bendigo’ Thompson. The nickname came about because of his middle-name, Abednego, and his other nickname, ‘Bendy’, due to the agile nature of his boxing stance. This evolved into ‘Bendigo’.
Another colourful character from that era was John ‘Old Smoke’ Morrissey, who was a member of one of New York’s Five Points famous gangs, the Dead Rabbits. Morrissey earned his nickname during a fight with a rival gang member Tom McCann. Morrissey found himself pinned on his back on top of a pile of burning coals left by an overturned stove. Morrissey managed to overpower McCann and beat him senseless, despite the agony and the smoke rising up from his burned back.
1867 saw the introduction of the Queensbury Rules, and the use of nicknames continued. John L Sullivan, the first heavyweight champion, had the nickname ‘The Boston Strong Boy’, and the man who eventually dethroned him, James J Corbett, was known as ‘Gentleman Jim’ due to his rumoured college education. The difference in personality between the two men could not have been wider. Sullivan was reputed to be a racist who refused to fight black fighters, and he certainly did refuse to give Commonwealth Champion Peter Jackson a title shot. Corbett, meanwhile, fought Jackson to a 61 round draw in 1891. This was the era of the Jim Crow Laws in the USA, and boxing was no different. The nicknames reflected this less tolerant age and Jackson himself was known as ‘The Black Prince’. Canadian heavyweight Sam Langford was known by the abhorrent nickname of ‘The Boston Tar Baby’ and nicknames of this ilk continued into the 20th century with ‘The Brown Bomber’ - former heavyweight champion Joe Louis - and ‘The Dark Destroyer’ - world middle and super middleweight champion Nigel Benn.
The 1930’s and 1940’s was a golden era, with boxers such as Joe Louis, Ray Robinson, Archie Moore, and Henry Armstrong all fighting regularly. In this time before TV, boxing was broadcast on the radio, and the era is defined by the unmistakable tones of Don Dunphy. Dunphy’s commentary was so rich and detailed that you could smell the smoke and sweat, and feel the punches as they landed. If it was a golden era for the sport, it was also a golden era for boxing writing. The greats AJ Liebling and Bud Schulberg were plying their trade, and so in many ways it is fitting this era gave us some of the greatest boxing nicknames of all time.
Henry Armstrong, a fighter who held three world titles at the same time - featherweight, lightweight and welterweight - had the intimidating and apt nickname of ‘Homicide Hank’ as he had knocked out 101 of his 150 victims. The great Willie Pep, with his classy and slick style, earned himself the nickname of ‘Will O’ The Wisp’, and in one fight Pep won a round without landing a single punch.
Boxing in those days was not the complicated, jumbled mess it is now - nowadays, there are seventeen divisions and upwards of seventy world champions, but back then there were only eight weight divisions and eight world champions. Nicknames served to set a fighter apart from his rivals. Walker Smith of Detroit became Ray Robinson when he tried to enter a boxing tournament at the age of fourteen and was told he needed to be sixteen to acquire an Amateur Athletic Union Card. Smith overcame this obstacle by borrowing his friend Ray Robinson’s card, and a few years later his future manager George Gainford Smith Junior would complete the name when he told young Robinson that his style was ‘as sweet as sugar’ – boxing was given one of its most iconic nicknames and a legend was born.
Robinson’s nemesis, Jake La Motta, had the nickname ‘The Bronx Bull’ due to his aggressive fighting style. In one fight with Robinson, on 14th February 1951, he was stopped in round 13, beaten so badly that many boxing writers refer to the fight as the St Valentine’s Day Massacre. The fight was immortalised in the movie ‘Raging Bull’, and when referee Frank Sikora stepped in to stop the fight La Motta reputedly said to Robinson ‘you never put me down Ray!’
Some nicknames were less inspired - former middleweight champion Rocky Graziano took the obvious nickname of ‘Rock’. A man whom he fought three times - former steel worker Tony Zale from Gary, Indiana - took the more creative nickname of ‘The Man of Steel’. Archie Moore, the light heavyweight world champion who fought both Rocky Marciano and Cassius Clay, had the nickname ‘The Mongoose’, due to the speed of his reflexes.
Heavyweights of the 1950’s and 1960’s have also provided us with some colourful nicknames. Ezzard Charles was known as ‘The Cincinnati Cobra’, whilst Rocky Marciano had the nickname ‘The Brockton Blockbuster’. Sweden’s first and only heavyweight champion, Ingemar Johansson, was nicknamed ‘Thor’ - a reference to his Scandinavian origins - whilst Sonny Liston was known as ‘The Bear’.
As the sixties progressed, a non-so shy or modest fighter burst onto the scene after winning a gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics under the name of Cassius Marcellus Clay. After winning the world heavyweight title in 1964, he legally changed his name to Muhammad Ali. The nickname this young man chose for himself modestly, ‘The Greatest’, and in hindsight it is difficult to argue with this claim. One man whose name was to become synonymous with Ali was Philadelphia heavyweight Joe Frazier, who took the nickname ‘Smokin’. His three fights with Ali are widely regarded as the greatest heavyweight fights of all time.
Yet, the 1960’s and 1970’s nicknames were not the sole dominion of the big men. Philadelphia middleweight Bennie Briscoe became ‘Bad Bennie Briscoe’; Carlos Monzon, the Argentine world middleweight champion, was nicknamed ‘Escopeta’, which translates from Spanish as shotgun; and Cuban born - Mexican based Jose Napoles’ smooth boxing style earned him the nickname ‘Mantequilla’, or ‘butter’ in English. Not the most intimidating of nicknames but one that seemed to suit his style perfectly.
One boxer and his nickname even became the subject of a Bob Dylan song, written about his miscarriage of justice using his nickname as its title. Eventually, thanks to a long campaign, Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter was released in 1985 after serving 19 years for a murder he did not commit. Denzel Washington starred in the 1999 film titled ‘The Hurricane’, which was about the life of Rubin Carter. In the 1970’s a quartet of fighters emerged who would entertain so many boxing fans for the best part of the next twenty years.
Marvin Hagler was so enamoured of his nickname, ‘Marvellous’, that in 1982 when TV commentators failed to refer to him as ‘Marvellous Marvin’ often enough, he went and had his name changed to it, legally! 1976 Olympic gold medallist Ray Leonard, who charmed the American public by strapping a photo of his childhood sweetheart Juanita on his boots, borrowed a nickname from his idol ‘Sugar Ray Robinson’ and became ‘Sugar Ray Leonard’, and his adversary Roberto Duran, the Panamanian four weight world champion, had the legendary nickname of ‘Manos De Piedra’ or ‘Hands of Stone’ in English. The final member of the quartet that made the 1970’s and 1980’s a memorable era for boxing was Detroit’s Thomas Hearns, who during his career earned two nicknames. The most famous one was of course ‘The Hitman’, but the one I prefer was the lesser used ‘Motor City Cobra’.
As the years progressed the quality of nicknames declined, although notable exceptions were the Jamaican Mike McCallum, whose wicked body punching earned him the nickname of ‘The Bodysnatcher’, and Bernard Hopkins of Philadelphia, who was nicknamed ‘The Executioner’ and used to enter the ring with a leather executioners hood over his face. Heavyweight legend Mike Tyson had the prefix ‘Iron’, whilst Texan welterweight Donald Curry was known as ‘The Cobra’. James Toney was known as ‘Lights Out’ – a fitting title, to which anyone who has seen his brutal knockout of Michael Nunn will testify.
By the time we entered the early 1990’s, nicknames were becoming clichéd and less original, numerous Hitmans, and countless Cobras. Britain’s Chris Eubank plumped for ‘Simply the Best’, certainly an ill fitting nickname after his fights with Ray Close and Dan Sherry.
The heavyweight division these days is testament to the sad decline of nicknames. Recent nicknames of heavyweight champions and contenders have included ‘Dr Steelhammer’ and ‘Dr Ironfist’, belonging to Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko respectively; whilst former WBA heavyweight champions Nikolai Valuev and John Ruiz were known as ‘The Beast From The East’ and ‘The Quiet Man’. British heavyweights are not exempt from this current trend, with former Olympic gold medallist Audley Harrison using the utterly dull ‘A-Force’, and the former WBA heavyweight champion David Haye using the obvious and empty ‘Hayemaker’.
Maybe the decline in quality of fighters is linked to the decline in quality of nicknames – and perhaps somewhere there is a new champion ‘Master of Disaster, ‘Count of Monte Fisto’, ‘Italian Stallion’ waiting to take their place in the pantheon of great boxing nicknames.
November 29, 2011