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Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Willie Buff: Amateur Star, Professional Journeyman

Willie Buff was an outstanding amateur boxer who became a journeyman pro and stayed in the sport after retiring from the ring. He died young and now has unfortunately been largely forgotten.

Born in Russia's Pale of Settlement, likely in early 1903, William Buff came from a big family. His father Jacob was born in 1854 and his mother Mariam was three years younger. Both were in their 40s when Willie was born. Mariam had ten children, but sadly only six were alive by 1910. The family immigrated to Rochester, New York somewhere between 1905-1908.

While Willie went to school, his older siblings worked in Jacob's tailor shop. At some point during Willie's adolescence, his parents split up. By 1920, Jacob was a boarder at the Levin family's house. He was still a tailor and had not obtained citizenship. Meanwhile Mariam changed her name to Mary and lived with four of her kids including Willie. Mary was also not a citizen and couldn't read or write English. Seventeen year old Willie was unemployed while his mom and siblings worked as custom tailors in a clothing factory. Jacob listed his marital status as single while Mary claimed she was widowed.

Willie had fought in a few smokers when he took on Young Kauff of Montreal on June 14, 1920 on the undercard of a Kid Norfolk fight. According to the Democrat & Chronicle, Buff won the six-rounder by close decision. It's possible this opener was an amateur bout, or it was a pro fight later swept under the rug and forgotten, because Buff went on to have success as an amateur in the coming years.

By March of 1922, Buff became the amateur lightweight champion of Rochester. In October, Buff moved down to featherweight where he was knocked out in the first round by southpaw Willie Singer. Buff had tried to make the 118-pound bantamweight limit, but missed weight. He was allowed to fight in the featherweight division, but gave up too many pounds in the process.

By January 1923, Willie was dubbed the amateur featherweight champion of Western New York. In March, he won the Upper New York amateur featherweight title. In 1924 he won the same titles at lightweight. Beginning in 1924, Willie was often described as the AAU lightweight champion in the papers, but his title was limited to Upper New York. Fred Boylstein (who, despite the name, it seems was not Jewish) won the national amateur lightweight title that year and fought in the Paris Olympics where he captured the bronze medal.

The May 1924 issue of New York Central Lines Magazine (pg. 70) described Buff as a "member of the Olympic Team." This would begin a lifetime of Buff's fabricated association with the 1924 team.

In September of 1924, a Buffalo newspaper ran a headline that Buff would turn pro, but it didn't happen. He continued to find success in the amateur ranks despite suffering the occasional setback. In February of 1925, Buff was knocked unconscious by Tommy Lawson in a scary scene. It took him days to regain consciousness. A couple of days after he woke up, Buff was granted his boxing license in New York (pg. 184), but didn't fight for a while due to the knockout.

On July 2, Willie took part in what seemed like a pro bout. He was stopped at the Arena in Syracuse, New York by Jackie Brady in the fourth round. Buff soon resurfaced in Chicago and still kept his amateur status, fighting several times there. He last fought as an amateur in January of 1926. He aso earned work as a sparring partner for future lightweight world champion Sammy Mandell

He got a scheduled eight-rounder with future two-time welterweight champion Jackie Fields on February 24 at the Wilmington Bowl just outside of Los Angeles. Buff was highly touted in the L.A. papers for notching over 100 amateur wins. The so-called AAU lightweight champ was known for a jab that could do damage from range and for possessing quick hands, but he didn't have a good chin.

Fields had been an actual member of the 1924 U.S. Olympic team and won the gold medal in the featherweight division in Paris. But he had just suffered his first loss, a two-round drubbing at the right hand of Jimmy McLarnin back in November. At seventeen years old, Fields had briefly retired from the ring. Buff was his comeback fight and his first at 135 lbs. The winner of Fields-Buff was said to be in line to challenge Tod Morgan for the world junior lightweight championship, but it proved not to be true.

Fields knocked down Buff in the second round for a nine count and put out Willie's lights in the next round. An L.A. Times article the next day erroneous called him Willie Buck, but many other papers spelled his name correctly, probably to Willie's dismay. A week later, he took on Wildcat Evasco in Fresno in a six-round snooze-fest at the Civic Center. Fields was in attendance to watch Buff have a good second round, but otherwise, look dreadful. He had, of course, been out for the count just the week before.

BoxRec lists Willie Buff of New York with only two fights and Willie Buck of Chicago with two, too. They are the same person and many of his fights are missing from the record. Willie moved back to Chicago where he had several scraps over the next two years. Some of them are:

date unknown, fought Chick Miller of Chicago, result unknown
date unknown, lost to Paul Adducci
July 29 at Buda Club faced Johnny Zale, result unknown
date unknown, lost to Ramon Castillo (via BoxRec)


April 20 at Eagle Auditorium, in Galena, Illinois, fought Tony Rindone
May 10 same venue as above, fought Ben Peitman
July 24, fought Johnny Gregg of Gary, all three '28 results unknown.

For the two fights in Galena, Buff was billed as the "Olympic Champion." Rindone was billed as the "Champion of Little Italy" and Peitman was "Ghetto Star." Jewish heavyweight great Joe Choynski was the referee for the Peitman fight.

During the 1930s, Buff coached boxing on the Southside of Chicago. He married Estelle, a bookkeeper whose parents were from Lithuania. In 1935, the couple had a son named Wayne. Willie became a good golfer and competed at the amateur level, even winning a tournament in 1940. But the Great Depression hit him hard and he had trouble finding steady work. In 1940, he listed his occupation as physical director with a salary of $846, less than average at the time. He claimed he had been born in New York, just in case anyway questioned his citizenship. That same year, his father Jacob died at the age of 85.

Willie got some work as a referee here and there and when he made the papers he was the "Olympic world's champion of 1924." As the years ticked by, his old amateur accomplishments had improved astonishingly.

In 1944, Willie Buff died at the young age of 41. He was buried back in Rochester.

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