Greatest Crawford: This way a few people know my name. I’m somebody. To me, that’s important.”
By Garry White
Sometimes the best things reside in the smallest of packages.
Poet Adrian Mitchell understood that in his 13-word tribute to Jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker. A little masterpiece and the go-to work for any school kid forced into reading aloud in class from a dog-eared old anthology.
As a recital it was done in a blink, hitting straight to its mark like a Rocky Marciano right-hand, but instead of blood, its lacerations dripped with art.
“He breathed in air, he breathed out light.
Charlie Parker was my delight.”
Some would have us believe that the likes of poetry and Jazz have had their day.
Discarded rhythms left behind somewhere in a smoke-filled room of booze and coffee, where the time is always 3 am and the minute hand never more than one stroke from despair. But through Mitchell’s skilful use of that handful of words, even the unappreciative can comprehend the specialness of someone like Parker.
If the poet had turned his pen to boxing, then these lines could have adequately reflected Sugar Ray or Ali. A two-line hymn to their unmatchable balletic grace of twinkled toes and dizzying hands.
Such depths of flawless magic –not acquired from the perspiration of endlessly repeated calculations but something innate and within- can only ever be possessed of the ‘chosen few.’
Whereas Ali had it in abundance, his old foe Joe Frazier knew only how to instigate dizziness via the brutal finality of his fists.
‘Smokin’ Joe was not the stuff of poetry. When he gasped in air and bit on his gumshield he breathed out only fire and anger. The anger of a man that was the 14th son of an impoverished sharecropper and who saw his dead-end destiny beckoning him at a Philadelphia slaughterhouse.
Frazier’s reputation, so hard-won between the ropes, proved to be carelessly and unsympathetically unwound by the rapier-like tongue of Ali outside of them.
As ‘The Greatest’ tied him up and humiliated him with his dextrous speech he could only use his lips to stammer and stumble. His background music was the din of the hammer in the foundry. Its sound a violent tuneless beat driven by brute force and physical effort; a stranger to such unknown frivolities as music or art.
But Frazier was still far luckier than Greatest Crawford. When Greatest breathed in air all that came back out was hot breath and silent anonymity. It may have been stoic, honest and decent, but was laced with the limitations of the everyman and not those of a champion.
If the likes of Ali and Robinson were the stars of the show, then Crawford wasn’t even in the chorus. His blue-collar destiny raising him little beyond mopping the auditorium floor and taking out the trash. The name his mother gave him in hope and expectation serving only to mock him.
There are only really two enduring notes on the flimsy eight years of sheet music that give voice to Crawford’s career. The first was a night he didn’t fight and the last was his final fight. From front to back he fought 29 times and won 17. Not the stuff of which Tin Pan Alley hit records are made.
Almost everything else about Crawford is forgotten beyond a Sports Illustrated piece from the mid-sixties and snippets of old newspaper articles of good and bad nights at the Garden or Sunnyside, where he shuffled honestly and reliably down the bill among the supporting cast.
His few column inches rarely expanded beyond the bare statistics. Even then he often found himself to be merely a secondary character in someone else’s story. A 52-word fight report from the New York Times of December 1964 abruptly places Crawford’s career into its limited context:
“Levan Roundtree of The Bronx, 176 pounds, outpointed Crawford of Brooklyn, 175 ½, in the eight-round main bout last night at Sunnyside Garden, Queens. It was the sixth straight victory for Roundtree.
“Referee Johnny Conlan and Judge Johnny Grant both saw the fight 7-1 for Roundtree, and Judge Ray Bozak awarded it to him by 5-2-1.”
Outside of the big arenas, Crawford had nights as a headliner, but like the Roundtree fight, they would mostly end in defeat. A pugilistic Mr. Bojangles treading the boards in Canton, Tacoma or Boise: far away from ‘Fight City’. His ‘dog’ of a career upping and dying whilst he was still trying to live up to his name.
By the time Crawford walked out for his final fight Muhammad Ali had already stolen it. Terence ‘Bud’ Crawford would do something similar a couple of generations later. These are the champions that your internet search engine is immediately drawn to should you ever try and locate a forgotten light heavyweight from the appropriately named Hurtsboro, Alabama.
Yet there will always be that one night of shining defiance at Shea Stadium as spring strolled towards summer in May of 1966. On the same day that Muhammad Ali stopped Henry Cooper in five rounds at London’s Arsenal football stadium, Crawford was booked for a card closing six-rounder at the home of the New York Jets.
To those that bothered to stump up their dollars, this additional action promised to be little more than an unwanted cherry atop of an inedible cake.
On a blustery evening, Jose Torres topped the bill in defence of his light heavyweight crown against ‘Irish’ Wayne Thornton. The gulf in class was obvious from the first bell as the lantern-jawed challenger was twice introduced to the canvas inside the opening three minutes.
From that point on the Cubans’ punches had quickly and effectively done their job in anaesthetising Thornton from any fanciful notions of trying to win the fight. Focused exclusively on survival, and faced with a champion that barely had one eye focused on proceedings, the “fight” mothballed its way through the championship distance.
The eventual victory via the judges’ cards was predictably large, for anyone that cared to see the fight through to its inevitable conclusion.
The whole card, the first of only a trilogy of fight nights over a 16 month period at the 57,405 capacity stadium in Queens, did little to catch the public’s attention. Boxing Agent Don Majeski recalled in a childhood memory to ESPN in 2008 that:
“The card was a resounding disaster. We [Majeski and his mother] sat way up in the rafters, so my mother bribed some of the ushers so we could move down. It wasn’t hard. There were a lot of seats to choose from; something like 4,000 people showed up for the fight,” he reminisced.
By the time it was Crawford’s turn to climb into the ring only around a hundred spectators remained. The rest had departed, as a ringside Jerry Izenberg dryly commented:
“To beat the muggers to the subway.”
But it was to Crawford’s good fortune and for lovers of fistic fables that Izenberg remained firmly in his seat.
Faced with a near-empty arena the promoters were apparently desperate to call time and cut their losses. As Crawford moved to the centre of the ring the referee quietly advised the combatants that the promoter had cut their fight from six to four rounds. “What, you say?” bristled Crawford in response to a reduced shift.
Whether or not the words exchanged were exactly as Izenberg recorded them, it is impossible to confirm now, without conferring with the now 89-year-old doyen of fight writers. However, it is tempting to think so, and not unreasonable when one considers the unmolested tumbleweeds that were already making their safe passage through the vast and largely empty arena.
“Fuck him” recorded Izenberg concerning Crawford’s ongoing, incredulous response to the referee’s announcement, before noting Greatest’s reiteration of the same blunt expletive.
“Fuck him,’ he said a third time, although he needed the money. “I ain’t no four-round fighter.’ And then he walked slowly out of the ring, down the steps, and away from an easy pay night. I have never seen a prouder man,” wrote Izenberg.
It proved to be Crawford’s last sniff of a big arena or any kind of victory –moral or otherwise-between the ropes. Back on the road he topped the bill twice in losing points defeats in Portland, Maine; before appearing for the final time at the Memorial Auditorium in Canton, Ohio, against local favourite Marion ‘Thunderbolt’ Conner.
The hard-hitting Conner was then a relatively promising 22-6-1 before his career fizzled out into 29-22-2 anonymity. The ledger records that Conner knocked out Crawford in nine rounds in what would be the only stoppage defeat of Crawford’s 29 fight career.
Yet these forgotten, throwaway numbers hide within them a tragic permanency. The man that had proudly walked out of the ring in disgust five months earlier at a perceived lack of respect for his talents, vacated it this time on a stretcher. Taken to hospital with a bleed on the brain, the darkness never lifted and he died without regaining consciousness two days later. He was 29-years-old.
That’s the only other place you can find Greatest Crawford these days: as a bare name on boxing’s roll of honour. A once minor contender, who when he died had shipped five losses in his last six appearances.
The proud man’s record surely destined to decline further as the big venues forgot him and he slipped down the card in the provinces. For a man of Crawford’s dignity that would have been another very different kind of ‘death’.
It is tempting now to think of that solemn, silent face, lying there in the emergency room. The same face that valued professional pride over easy money and was once carried by the frame of a child as his mother moved him and his nine siblings from Alabama to Brooklyn in search of some kind of future. She even named him Greatest because, “To me, he just looked like the greatest,” she had once commented.
But out in the cynical world, where corporate imperatives remain dry-eyed to the allure of fairy tales, few others shared her positive belief.
Beyond his name, there was always something different and otherworldly about Greatest Crawford. Known to be a curiously eccentric character, his eclectic dress sense thought nothing of combining a goatee beard, with a beret, heavy boots and an ill-fitting suit.
He also trained on a diet that consisted of an endless supply of cigarettes. To such an extent that George Chuvalo once remarked that a shot to Crawford’s body would immediately be accompanied by a fog of exhaled smoke. Perhaps there was something of the frustrated Beatnik about him, yet despite his eccentric appearance he was considered to be a serious character, who spoke only rarely and when he did so, slowly and deliberately.
The Alabaman ultimately found his metier away from the bright lights and instead hidden in the shadows of locked gymnasiums he quietly played his role of the honest, diligent tradesman. An artisan in boxing gloves and shorts. It was in this domain that he could share the ring with top-contenders and champions in a way that he could never manage out in the bright lights.
The ‘Old Mongoose’ Archie Moore had used Crawford as a sparring partner in preparation for the successful defence of his portion of the world light heavyweight title against Italian Giulio Rinaldi.
Chuvalo had also availed of Crawford’s services ahead of his 1965 meeting with Floyd Paterson. It wouldn’t be fanciful to suggest that Crawford made substantially more income from these training camp contributions than he ever did from fighting for his own record.
Like Eddie Carbone in “A view from the bridge” Crawford was never destined to get back his “name.”
Perhaps, his mother had set too high a bar for him. Yet Crawford’s death in the ring has disposed on him a perverse immortality of sorts, a name to be absent-mindedly index-fingered on a list the next time another is added below poor Patrick Day on boxing’s pillars of stone.
But there will always be that night when Izenberg captured the real essence of Greatest Crawford, beyond the tragic end. The man that walked away from the ring with honour and did likewise from life. Never equipped or destined to be “The Greatest” but still nothing less than ‘Greatest.’
“If I had spent the last eight years in a factory or shining shoes, then I’d probably have some money and a pretty good job. But I’d be a nobody. This way a few people know my name. I’m somebody. To me, that’s important.”