- Don Stradley
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No less an authority on embellished sports tales than Damon Runyon once said, "Ninety-five percent of sports tradition is fiction. Lies, if you like. But harmless. Who the hell cares if the facts get twisted?"
He wasn't referring directly to the bout on July 2, 1925, between Harry Greb and Mickey Walker, a classic that saw Greb beat Walker down the stretch to earn a 15-round unanimous decision, but he may have had it in mind, for after the fighters left the New York Polo Grounds, they wandered onto the murky landscape of boxing mythology.
"That night we met in a nightclub," Walker told author Peter Heller in 1970. "I had a date, and Greb, of course, had his gal, too."
According to Walker, he and Greb enjoyed some drinks and left together, sans female companionship. Once outside, Walker teased Greb about his less-than-sportsmanlike style. Greb offered to pick up Round 16 right there in the street.
"So he started to take his coat off, and when he had his coat down around both his elbows so he couldn't move his arms, I wound up with my best punch and hit him on the chin," said Walker.
Just then, a cop named Pat Casey happened to walk by and separate them. "And nobody was around," Walker said. "Only Pat Casey, to see that I won the second fight. They say I licked Greb the second time."
The story, which has been passed down in various forms, usually takes place outside the glamorous Silver Slipper club. But the story has long been suspect.
"The better a story is, the more likely it's a lie," Bert Randolph Sugar told ESPN.com. "But what a wonderful story."
The tale is bursting with pure 1920s color, from Manhattan glitz to Irish cops. All it needed was for Babe Ruth and Harold Lloyd to show up wearing camel-hair coats. But the story has a shaky feel to it.
For instance, if a playboy like Greb had a woman on his arm, he certainly wouldn't have leave with Walker. Also dubious is the notion that Greb challenged Walker to a street fight. Greb had over 290 professional bouts, the key word being professional. Greb wouldn't even make a fist unless he was getting paid.
Also odd is Walker's claim that "nobody was around." This was Manhattan during the '20s, mind you, and the men were outside a popular gin joint. Yet nobody was around?
The comic aspect of the fight itself is fishy, with Greb getting tangled up in his coat like something from a Charlie Chaplin movie. Even the sudden appearance of the cop sounds a little too convenient.
Still, the story remained a part of boxing's hidden history for decades. With each retelling, the tale became more savage. One magazine story had patrons flooding out of the club to cheer Walker on.
When columnist Bugs Bear had heard enough, he drove a stake into the heart of the story.
"Walker may have scuffled with him, and Greb may have cuffed his ears, but there was no fight," Bear wrote in 1937. "We know there wasn't any second fight. What a story that would have been."
Happy Albacker, a friend of Greb's, also dismissed it. "They squared off, but someone stepped between them. No blows were struck. They went into the Slipper, took separate tables and that was the end of it."
In 1945, Billy Duffy, a Manhattan club owner and friend of Walker's, told a version that had Walker knocking Greb down, with Greb cracking the back of his head against the running board of a parked automobile. "He jumped up and they fought in the street like crazy men," Duffy said. Duffy's version ends with Greb and Walker entering the Silver Slipper, where they partied like old buddies.
Columnist John Lardner brought the story back to life in 1947, only in his version, Greb won. Eight years later, Lardner recanted, largely because a friend of Greb's, Eddy Deasy, had offered $1,000 to charity if any reliable witnesses came forward. There were no takers.
A 1946 biography of Greb by James Fair dismissed the story as fiction. In fact, it was rare for any associates of Greb to give the story any credence, although a 1951 column by New York writer Jack Hand had Greb's manager, George Engle, claiming the story was true.
During the 1950s, the staunchest supporter of the myth was Mickey Walker himself. By that time Walker was enjoying a new career as an artist, his primitive water colors gaining good notices in European galleries. Naturally, the story of the Silver Slipper resurfaced, and since Greb was long dead -- he died from complications after surgery for a cracked nose bone -- Walker had the tale to himself.
One of the more fanciful versions of the story was given by Walker to syndicated columnist Scott Baillie in 1954. In this version, Greb lands on top of a parked taxi, leaving a large dent in the fender. Then, after the pugs left in separate cabs, Walker began to worry about his girlfriend. From his hotel, Walker called several nightclubs looking for her, only to learn that his girl was now with Greb!
But this version gets even weirder. A rematch was soon in the works, according to Walker, with each fighter guaranteed $100,000. A moment before they signed, Greb had a change of heart. He extended his hand to Walker and asked for his friendship.
It's hard to believe Greb would turn down $100,000 to fight a guy he'd already whipped, but Walker was polishing the story to his own liking.
Walker was at it again in 1961 when his autobiography was published. "I lost the first fight to Greb, but I always thought I won the second one," he wrote.
Walker's manager, Jack "Doc" Kearns, was sometimes accused of starting the rumor to create interest in a rematch, but when Sports Illustrated published his memoirs in January 1964, Kearns not only verified the Silver Slipper story, he made himself a major part of it. He took credit for separating the fighters and playing peacemaker. Kearns is barely mentioned in any of Walker's versions, but when Kearns told it, he played a key role in the proceedings.
In 1971, Walker told the story to the Syracuse Post Standard. This time, Walker added a new character, a former pug named Sailor Grande who was employed as the Silver Slipper's doorman; he patiently held the door while Greb and Walker fought.
"Great stories have legs," said Sugar. "Stories are what made the Roaring '20s roar."
Walker's final years were spent in a Freehold, N.J., rest home. When Sugar visited one afternoon, he asked about the Silver Slipper incident.
"Nah, never happened," Walker said.
"Mickey said they were just nightclub-hopping, trying to get lucky," Sugar said. "It seemed to me he didn't want to talk about it."
If Walker was putting the story to sleep at last, he was doing so reluctantly. He'd been welterweight champion for 3½ years and middleweight champion for 3½ years, but the part of his career that thrilled people most was that Silver Slipper story.
Perhaps Walker liked the way a listener's eyes brightened when he told the story. As Damon Runyon said, it was harmless, and who the hell cared?
The story also served as a way to put a positive spin on one of Walker's worst nights. You see, not only did Walker lose at the Polo Grounds, but there was a second story about the fight on July 2, 1925 -- a story that didn't have legs.
Late in the bout, a microphone placed in the ring for a radio audience allegedly picked up a voice saying, "Carry me along. Don't put me away." Since Greb was winning the bout, the voice could only be Walker's.
The Walker camp denied its fighter had said anything, but the story persisted before it died down.
With two rumors swirling around the bout, one in which Walker asked to be carried and another in which he dusted Greb outside a nightclub, it's no surprise that the latter survived. The legend of the Silver Slipper tapped into a fantasy enjoyed by all fight fans -- a fantasy in which a macho man's fury has to be taken to the streets.
Don Stradley is a regular contributor to The Ring.