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Sunday, May 30, 2021

A Look Back: The Two Augie Ratners

August Ratner was born on May 20, 1894 in New York. A 5'8" middleweight, he took on- and beat some- legends of the ring.

Samuel Ratner was born on March 15, 1901 in Russia. He immigrated to Minneapolis, Minnesota as a four year old. At 5'3", his boxing career as a featherweight was largely nondescript, but he lived a memorable post-career life.

Both men were better known as Augie Ratner.

The Bronx Middleweight Contender
A decorated amateur, Augie Ratner turned pro at 21 years old in the Bronx. He was busy scoring knockouts in 1915, mostly at the Fairmont Athletic Club. His first big fight came against Mike McTigue, a future light heavyweight world champion. In those days, a winner was declared only if a knockout was scored. Boxing writers served as unofficial judges in what were called newspaper decisions. Ratner won the writers' favor over McTigue in 1916 and again when the two met a year later.

The year 1918 was an eventful one in Ratner's life. He fought future Hall of Famer Harry Greb on January 21. Though Ratner had never officially lost a fight- he was 33-3-4 including newspaper decisions which accounted for all three losses- Greb entered the ring as the favorite. Including newspaper decisions, the Pittsburgh Windmill sported a record of 84-9-12 heading into the bout. Though he had faced the likes of Battling Levinsky, Jack Dillon, and a young Tommy Gibbons, this was still not the Greb who would not only face all three again multiple times, but battle Kid Norfolk, Tommy Loughran many times, Maxie Rosenbloom, Tiger Flowers, and pin Gene Tunney with his only career defeat. Nevertheless, Greb whipped Ratner 17 rounds to one, with two even in a twenty round affair.

Ratner's career then spiraled, losing three in a row and  four out of five official decisions over the next four months. Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1917, he saw combat in September of 1918 when he fought in the Battle of Meuse-Argonne during World War I. While in the service, Ratner fought on a charity card to help fund the War Department and later participated in the Inter-Allied Boxing tournament in the United Kingdom at the end of 1918. In one bout, Ratner bested Marty Cross, the brother of Leach "The Fighting Dentist." It was the second of three fights in which the two men would engage- all won by Ratner.

Staying across the Atlantic, Ratner scored a memorable draw with the British welterweight king Johnny Basham in 1919. A back-and-forth affair, Ratner shook up Basham in the seventh and tenth rounds with left hooks. The New Yorker next challenged world middleweight champion and future Hall of Famer Mike O'Dowd in September and again in March of 1920. In the former, Augie was competitive in a quick-paced scrap and briefly stunned the champ in the fifth despite giving up ten pounds. The latter was Augie's shot at the title. If he could knockout the champ, he'd take his title. Anything less, and the St. Paul Cyclone would retain the belt. Ultimately, O'Dowd won both by newspaper decisions, the second by a comfortable margin.

Ratner's best wins were against the legendary British Jew, Ted "Kid" Lewis. Their first fight took place at the Manhattan Casino in New York on April 13, 1921. Lewis displayed his superior boxing skills in the opening round, but the iron-chinned Ratner, who held an eight-pound advantage, wouldn't budge. Understanding he couldn't hurt the rugged Bronxite and having tasted his power, Lewis spent the rest of the fight in a defensive mindset. Ratner shrewdly focused his attention on the smaller man's midsection in the middle of the fight just to ensure there would be no last minute comeback.

Their second bout came at Royal Albert Hall in London on July 30, 1923. Ratner lost a dubious twenty-round affair on points to Roland Todd in England the month before. In an exciting fight, the English crowd howled their disapproval at the decision for the English fighter. The first ten rounds against Lewis were far slower. Lewis, who landed lots of  low blows, knew what he had in Ratner and waited for his chance. It was Ratner, however, who belted Lewis in the twelfth with a sustained combination. Lewis, only four pounds lighter for this contest, scored with a left hook that drew blood by Ratner's right eye.

In the seventeenth, Lewis fired bombs hoping for a knockout. Instead, Ratner wobbled the great champion with a counter right. He pressed his advantage in the next round and closed the fight strong. Ratner earned a hard-fought victory on points in the Kid's hometown.

On New Year's Day 1925, Ratner faced Harry Greb nearly seven years after their first meeting. Heading into this bout, Ratner had won only once in eight fights since the win over Lewis. In Pittsburgh's Motor Square Garden, the Pittsburgh Windmill punished the tough pug from the Bronx. Ratner did well to hear the final bell from a standing position against the legend. "Greb was not as other men," Augie would remember years later. "He started his fights at a fast pace and accelerated as the fight wore on." Augie's last significant fight came against future light heavyweight champ and future Hall of Famer Jimmy Slattery nearly three months and three fights after the battle with Greb. Ratner's corner threw in the towel after two brutal rounds, the only time in his 101-fight career he was stopped.

The Cab Driver
Ratner finished fighting in 1926 at the age of 32. His record was something like 62-28-11 (including newspaper decisions) with 14 KOs. A fan-friendly fighter, Ratner exhibited his toughness against numerous Hall of Famers. Ultimately, he fell just short in most of his bouts with greatness. His boxing ability was good enough to compete with the best, but not quite enough to beat most of them.

When his ring career completed, Ratner continued to live with his mother Lottie, a Russian immigrant, in the Bronx. He drove a taxi in New York. In 1933, he spoke at a protest in Times Square denouncing a fare tax. The drivers at the rally called for the election of Fiorello La Guardian over incumbent Mayor John O'Brien. Staying out of the limelight thereafter, Augie lived to the age of 84. He died on May 15, 1979 in  San Diego, California.

The Minneapolis Featherweight Journeyman
Little Sammy Ratner didn't really want to box. As an immigrant in the early 1920s in Minneapolis, boxing was a way to add to his family's means. The Russian featherweight wasn't particularly good at his trade either. His brief career lasted just five mediocre years.

His first bout came against a veteran New Yorker named Al Norton who sported a good, if inflated, record heading into his 1922 match with Ratner. Sammy garnered the newspaper decision in that one, an auspicious start. But the buzz around his career quickly faded as he dropped his next three newspaper decisions to unimpressive opposition.

In 1925, Ratner took on Archie Bell,  a future multiple-time world title challenger at bantamweight and featherweight. Heading into the bout Sammy was no climber. He mostly fought in the Twin Cities area, particularly at Kenwood Arena. Bell, whose picture would be featured on the cover of The Ring in two years, pounded a game Ratner over ten rounds to earn the newspaper decision. Ratner's primary attack relied on wild swinging lefts Bell avoided with ease.

For the Bell fight, Ratner still went by "Sammy" in the papers. It was likely around this time he assumed the moniker "Augie" in the ring. He chose the name partly in a halfhearted attempt to keep his profession from his mother and partly to honor the New York middleweight, who Sammy greatly admired. Interestingly, he would go by the name Augie for the rest of his life.

The newly named Augie fought his friend Ernie Fliegel in 1926. Ratner and Fliegel would run establishments for many years on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis after their boxing careers ended. Fliegel's career finished when he lost an eye in the ring a year after fighting his friend. He later partnered with future Lakers and Vikings owner Max Winter in running the famed 620 Club.

Fliegel wasn't a world beater in the ring, but he bested Augie in a six round newspaper decision. Soon after, Augie traveled down south to San Antonio, Texas and fought four times in the shadow of the Alamo. The biggest fight of his career came down there on January 5, 1927 against Johnny McCoy, a future world flyweight champion. McCoy would move down in weight after his clash with Ratner. Augie lost the ten-round newspaper decision.

McCoy would then draw three times in a row to Mexico-native Kid Lencho, all in ten round affairs. In the middle of that trilogy, Ratner actually beat Kid Lencho in a newspaper decision, earning some revenge against McCoy, albeit indirectly.

Ratner finished all of his fights on his feet, but so did his opponents. BoxRec lists him with a record of 8-9-2 if newspaper decisions are included. It's possible- probable even- that he had more pro fights, perhaps many more. Regardless, Ratner's level was that of a tough, wild-swinging club fighter.

The Influential Club Owner
Augie's last match came at the end of 1927. The twenty first amendment wouldn't repeal prohibition for another six years, so the ex-boxer got into the bootlegging game. Jews had a big piece of that game in Minneapolis, and Augie played his part by running a speakeasy not far from where his infamous club would sit.

After alcohol became legal again, Augie's club on Hennepin Avenue would be, in some form or fashion, a hub for celebrities from the sports world and the underworld from the mid 1930s until the mid 1960s. Ratner managed to eschew trouble by playing the role of loveable buffoon. Neal Karlen, his grandnephew, asserts that it was merely a shrewd act to avoid making enemies and stay in business in a tough part of town.

Ratner knew local Jewish gangsters such as Kid Cann and Dave Berman. Through his local gangster connections, he met Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Sigel. Augie had to navigate the greedy gangs and the corrupted city officials to remain in business for three decades. He handled the task like a seasoned diplomat.

The club owner became tight friends with legendary comedian Henny Youngman of "Take my wife... please" fame. Jimmy Hoffa, "Mr. Television" Milton Berle, singer Peggy Lee, and restauranteur Toots Shoor were also acquittances. Through his friends Fliegel and Winter, he knew Minneapolis sports stars such as the greatest NBA big man of his day, George Mikan. Fliegel was also good friends with former heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey. Dempsey had introduced Fliegel to his wife. Through Ernie, Ratner became close friends with the champ.

In the early 1970s, a healthy Ratner began contemplating death. Like most of us, he wondered who would attend his funeral when he passed. Unlike most us, he took out a personal ad in the newspaper asking for a headcount.

The unusual gesture garnered national attention when Sports Illustrated wrote about. Jack Dempsey jokingly answered Augie, "I'll go to yours if you come to mine."

Two and a half months after his namesake passed, Augie Ratner died at the age of 78 on August 1, 1979. He was buried in Hennepin County, Minnesota.

"Augie Ratner Takes Bout from Ted Lewis." The Washington Post. July 31, 1923. Pg. 14.
"Bell Outslugs Ratner in Bout at East Chicago." Chicago Daily Tribune. October 18, 1925. Pg. A1.
Karlen, Neal. Augie's Secrets: The Minneapolis Mob and the King of the Hennepin Strip. 2013.
"Lewis Outpointed by Augie Ratner." New York Times. April 14, 1921. Pg. 23.
Silver, Mike. Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing. 2016.

1 comment:

  1. Augie was a fast talking man with a million stories. I would try to listen to Augie and Ernie telling their tales from Ernie's screened in porch during summers outside Minneapolis in the 1960s. My childhood friend Jack Burton lived in Ernie's home with his mother. Jack and I would sneak around the rose gardens to listen to the banter coming from the Porch on hot summer nights. The conversation was garbled at best, yet we were fixated. When our presence was noted by Ernie or Augie we were quickly dispatched out of ear shot. Oh to have been a fly on the wall inside that porch.