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Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Toe-to-Toe with Ira Berkow

When Rocky Graziano stopped Tony Zale in the sixth round of their world title bout at Chicago Stadium, a seven-year old Jewish kid from the nearby Lawndale neighborhood sulked for the rest of that balmy July day in 1947. Young Ira Berkow was a fan of Zale, the dethroned middleweight champion from Gary, Indiana. The heartbreak caused by the loss would become the future Pulitzer Prize winner's first boxing memory. In a phone interview with The Jewish Boxing Blog, Berkow was quick to boast that Zale took two out three against Graziano.

Growing up on Springfield Avenue near Roosevelt Road, Ira Berkow wasn't an academically strong student. He managed to matriculate to Miami University where a friend encouraged him to write about sports for the school newspaper. Soon, he brazenly shipped a couple of his articles to famed sportswriter Red Smith. Smith's written reply explained that his editor either nods his head when he likes what Smith has written or mutters, "Try again." Smith advised Berkow to "try again." He added that while he considered providing critical comments of Berkow's work, he didn't want to make the young writer unhappy. Berkow quickly sent his articles back and wrote, "Mr. Smith, please make me unhappy."

For the next fifty years, his editors constantly nodded their heads as Berkow brilliantly covered countless sports, including boxing. He treated the fighters he wrote about with dignity and empathy, perhaps because his relationships with boxers started at a young age.

As a ten year old, Ira regularly visited the Midwest Gym on Chicago's West Side to watch the boxers train and to snag an autograph or two. A middleweight contender named Charley Fusari obliged. So did another fighter. "Cisco Kid came into the gym shooting blanks," Berkow recalled. "It scared everyone!"

From age 11 until 19, Berkow worked in the vast market on Maxwell Street, a ghetto that was once home to Barney Ross, Jackie Fields, and Kingfish Levinsky. Berkow cut his teeth selling women's nylons near Union Avenue, three pair for a dollar. He was promoted to men's socks and a new stand close to Halstead Street. At the age of 16, his dad advised him to start his own business hawking second-hand belts.

Years later as a sportswriter, the former peddler interviewed the legendary boxers of Maxwell Street. Though he missed Ross who had died young, Berkow describes Fields, the Olympic gold medalist and two-time welterweight world champion, as "warm" and "very courteous." He remembers Levinsky, who became a tie salesman, choking him with one of the heavyweight's goods. Though Levinsky challenged for the heavyweight title, he was unfortunately perceived as something of a clown. Berkow explained, "Kingfish Levinsky, I called him King, didn't have a reputation of being an intellectual. Against Joe Louis, he put his boxing shoes on the wrong feet. The right one on the left one, and the left one on the right."

As a kid, Berkow followed the Willie Pep-Sandy Saddler featherweight battles and admired Sugar Ray Robinson. As a young reporter, he met the fearsome heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. Berkow asked Liston his age and noted, perhaps unwisely, that it was different from the officially listed number. The writer quavered in fright when after an icy glare, the goliath bellowed, "Are you going to dispute my mother?"

After a lifetime of memories and mementos in the world of sports, the legendary scribe was eager to share one of his most prized possessions, a correspondence with the great Muhammad Ali. Berkow asked his wife Dolly to bring over the letter, but she couldn't quite locate it. So, at 84 years old and recently recovered from a one-two combination of pneumonia and the flu, he retrieved the letter hanging from the wall and read it aloud. In the correspondence, Berkow thanked the champ for his time and patience regarding a New York Times article that ran on May 8, 1985 in which Ali was the subject. They shared an inside joke about the word "figure," a word Ali would jokingly mishear in his playful-yet-poignant way. Berkow's voice swelled with pride as he related Ali's graceful reply.

After gifting the world a couple dozen books worth of invaluable stories and 25 years of priceless columns as a writer for the Times, the old storyteller added one more tale from long ago.

On the corner of Madison Avenue and 36th Street in New York, he spotted an elderly man sitting in a wheelchair with a blanket around him and an aide standing next to the feeble gentleman. Berkow, who lived a couple blocks away, greeted the enfeebled former boxing trainer. "You're out watching the people?" he asked.

Ray Arcel answered, "I got used to being around crowds."

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