Friday, October 13, 2017

PUNCH DRUNK: THE STORY OF WOLF LARSEN


Wolf Larsen was not yet 30-years-old when he made the long walk down Woodhull Street in Brooklyn on his way to the Bethesda Mission. With his busted up features and cauliflowered ears - unfortunate reminders of his career as a prizefighter - made worse by the bloating effects of liquor, Larsen didn't look like a young man. Most thought he was well into his 40s. Maybe a few people recognized him. Maybe they'd seen him  brawling  with cops, or singing in the street in a loud, drunken voice. Maybe he just looked like another local mug who had come to the mission for help. The kind people there took him in and let him rest on a cot.

He would be dead inside of 18 months, worn down by a decade of heavy drinking and reckless living. But as he did in many of his fights, he managed a rally. There was almost always a moment in Larsen's fights, usually when he was hopelessly behind, when he'd start throwing haymakers, gambling on his heavy right hand,  just to keep the bout interesting. Those desperate moments were exciting, but ultimately, he'd just tire himself out and barely make it to the final gong. That is, if he didn't get knocked cold. The way he rallied at the mission was by making himself useful as a cook, handyman, and night watchman, fixing things and sweeping up and being respectful. But as usually happened when Larsen tried one of his late round bursts, it wasn't enough. Yet, the people at the mission spoke well of him when he died; they said he was a good guy who had been helpful in his final months. 

It was as if Wolf Larsen knew his days were numbered and he wanted to change the way people saw him. 

He was born Magnes Andreas Larsen Ros on May 14, 1901 in Ostre Moland, Norway. According to legend, or the imaginings of a slick press agent, he was the grandson of the sea captain Wolf Larsen, a character fictionalized by Jack London for his novel  The Sea Wolf. Like most of the men in his family, he became a seaman at a young age. For amusement he would often box his fellow seafarers. At age 18 he found himself face to face with none other than Battling Siki, the great Senegalese fighter who would soon be the light heavyweight champion. 

The Siki story was told in many ways, sometimes set on a ship, or at a circus - the most fantastic was that Siki was scheduled to fight but his opponent didn't show, and Larsen came out of the crowd to fill in - but it always ended with Larsen and Siki in an impromptu 10-rounder, with Larsen getting the best of it.

When Siki went on to win the title from Georges Carpentier of France, it was Larsen himself who told the tale to The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, explaining that he and Siki had been sparring partners at the Amsterdam Club gymnasium in Holland. 

"He was striving to pick up the fine points of the game," Larsen said, "and was anxious to have me box with him. He knew little about boxing, but possessed some hitting ability. I was very much his master at that time, and still think I am, granting that he has improved much since then."

But even this version of the story is suspect. From what we know of Larsen  - a New York writer once described his style being as "wide open as a Havana cafe" -  we can't imagine him at 18 being remotely familiar with the "fine points of the game." Also, by 1919, Siki had been a professional for years, and had earned medals for bravery during the war.  It's doubtful he would be schooled by Larsen, a novice. 

Regardless, after the alleged encounter with Siki, Larsen left Holland for Australia, did a bit of boxing down there, and then shipped off for the states. Once in New York, some buddies coaxed him into entering an amateur tournament. Larsen was a thrill seeker, and brawling for an audience seemed more exciting than being an anonymous figure on a schooner. At the time, Jack Dempsey was the biggest thing in the country, and boxing was enjoying unprecedented coverage. It's no wonder Larsen wanted in.

By dominating the local amateurs in New York, and winning the AAU title at 175 pounds, Larsen became a hero to the Norwegian Turn Society, a collection of immigrants that had started their own athletic organization. Though boxing wasn't as popular among Norwegians as gymnastics and wrestling, Larsen won his countrymen over with his free-swinging style. Besides, he was a winner. Everybody likes a winner.

Larsen entered the professional ranks on the winds of blowhard manager Tom O'Rourke, whom we can probably thank for the of hype that accompanied Larsen during the early months of his career. This included everything from Harry Greb wanting to fight him, to Dempsey wanting to hire him as a sparring partner. This was probably all nonsense, but it was good stuff. It could almost distract you from the fact that Larsen lost his first two professional bouts.

The downhill skid was on.

With only five fights on his resume, Larsen found himself matched against Gene Tunney.  O'Rourke should've been strung up by his ears for putting a rookie in with a sharpshooter like Tunney, who at the time was undefeated in 42 bouts. Still, Larsen was probably all for it. On October 25, 1921, at New York's Pioneer Sporting Club, Tunney stopped Larsen in seven rounds. The New York Tribune called it "a slaughter, pure and simple," and reported that Larsen  "absorbed enough punishment to put the average boxer in the hospital for several months." Other reports describe Larsen as "clearly outclassed," and "cut to ribbons." Tunney would recall Larsen a few years later as a "powerful and rushing slugger," but "an easy one, a 'wolf' in name only."

Larsen's next handful of opponents were unknowns - soldiers returning from the war, a local fireman who had taken up boxing to cash in on the Dempsey craze, young Irish and Jewish men trying to make a buck with their fists - perhaps fed to him to rebuild his confidence; he knocked most of them kicking. Charles Mathison of The New York Herald pegged Larsen as "a stocky, phlegmatic chap, guiltless of boxing skill but with a battering ram punch in his right mitt." There was more talk, obviously planted by O'Rourke, that Larsen was being groomed to meet Dempsey. In reality, Larsen had all he could handle from such characters as Tarzan Larkin, the "Minnesota Cave Man," who decked Larsen six times before finding himself on the wrong end of Larsen's right hand. 

More often than not, Larsen simply got his head beat in, like when he faced "Sailor" Maxted in what the Eagle called "a one sided contest." One report had Larsen hitting the canvas a dozen times during the first two rounds, though he managed, in one of his familiar but futile comebacks, to put the much larger Maxted down once in the third. Larsen simply ran out of energy by the sixth, which prompted his manager to throw in the towel, saving Larsen from what one reporter termed, "utter annihilation."

Larsen would often do well enough in his losing battles that he'd keep his status as an entertaining opponent, a lovable loser. His October 1922 loss to California's Billy Shade earned raves from The New York World, particularly in the late rounds when,"to the astonishment of the spectators," Larsen "suddenly braced and stuck his stout jaw out inviting Shade to hit (him) at will." 

By 1923, New Yorkers had seen enough of Larsen. Under the guidance of new manager Jim Buckley, Larsen began a two year stint in the Boston area with a few stops in Maine and Canada. He lost most of those fights, too. He was often matched against bigger men, on a schedule that saw him fighting (and losing) sometimes three times per month. In one of his Boston bouts, Larsen grew angry when he thought the referee had tried to trip him; he let his frustration out by knocking the ref down with a single crack on the chin. Not waiting to hear that he'd been disqualified, Larsen fled the ring and went home. 

Still, Larsen kept fighting. Boston newspapers called him the "Swinging Swede," and he even scored a third round knockout win on the undercard of an event at Braves' Field, "hitting all together too hard and  often" for Dan Lucas, a soldier from nearby Camp Devens. But after a TKO loss to Hambone Kelly at Mechanics Hall in Boston, Larsen collapsed and had to be taken to a local hospital. It turned out he was fighting too soon after an appendix operation and shouldn't have been in the ring, anyway. 

Larsen never got near Dempsey, but he did fight and lose to some pretty good men, including Kid Norfolk, Ad Stone, and Lou Bogash. A valiant losing effort against heavyweight prospect Jim Maloney earned him praise from The Portsmouth Herald's Norman Brown. Larsen, Brown wrote, "gave Maloney one of his toughest battles," and nearly "knocked him cuckoo."  

Boston dried up, and then it was back to New York where the losses continued. Al Roberts, a plodding, unimaginative heavyweight from Staten Island who had lost to the likes of Tunney, Greb, Jack Sharkey, Billy Miske, and others, scored two decisions over Larsen, which meant Larsen was now a punching bag for other punching bags. By the summer of 1926, after a 'no contest' in Brooklyn with a character named Johnny Urban, Larsen  disappeared from the scene. According to one columnist, an altercation with the police had left him with such injuries that he had to stop boxing for a while.

Why didn't Larsen live up to the promise he'd shown as an amateur? True, he didn't exactly look after himself, he preferred drinking to training, and his management treated him like a piece of meat. But the real reason may go back to the Tunney fight. When Larsen saw how a seasoned professional, as the Tribune put it, "battered him all over the ring," he may have realized that he was simply an awkward second rater. So, in the words of one journalist, he decided to  "live a life of enjoyment." By the time Larsen heard the news that his old sparring partner Siki had died in the gutter, he was well aware that being a top fighter didn't guarantee a good life.

When he couldn't get fights, Larsen worked as a seaman on the Great Lakes, or bounced around Red Hook. Though he tried to present himself as a sort of roguish playboy, he was just a local lunatic, a rock-bottom alcoholic known for crazy street brawls that sound like the stuff of silent movies. He once knocked a man through a wooden wall at the Columbia Street subway station.

"He won plenty of decisions," Buckley said. "But more of them were against cops than prizefighters."

Larsen became a kind of walking urban legend. Among the slew of farfetched tales he inspired was one that involved his attempt to steal a pony from a neighborhood fish peddler. As legend has it, Larsen simply picked the animal up and started walking in the direction of the nearest pawnshop. When the police asked him where he was going with the pony, Larsen said, "Pony? I thought it was a calf."

But not all the stories were fun. On one of his aimless strolls along the waterfront, Larsen saw a couple of men breaking into a speakeasy. Thinking this might be a nice way to score some liquor, he tried to assist the robbers. They responded by cutting Larsen's face and leaving him for dead. He survived, though. In January 1929 he was stabbed again in a restaurant brawl in Red Hook. 

Larsen's final ring appearance took place in April 1929 against journeyman Joe Lill at the New Broadway AC in Philadelphia. John Webster of The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that Larsen, "gamely stood up under a hail of leather until the referee halted the bout in the third." Fittingly, Larsen went out with an "L." His record was approximately 28-40-2, but anyone who says they know Larsen's exact record is a liar.

By 1930, Larsen was homeless, sleeping in a stable, and  seen regularly in New York breadlines and Salvation Army kitchens. 

"Broadway is a funny place," Larsen said. "Everybody'll give you  a drink, and nobody'll  give you anything to eat."

Ironically, a successful film version of Jack London's The Sea Wolf began playing in New York around that same time. There was a "Wolf Larsen" on the big screen, played by  Milton Sills. There would also be, in the ensuing years, a number of "Wolf Larsens" in football, baseball, and wrestling. But the Wolf Larsen of boxing was now on the streets of New York, drinking as if he had a personal vendetta against the Volstead Act.

At the Bethesda Mission, Larsen behaved himself. He never mentioned having a home or a family; it was as if he'd been born simply to drink and fight. For several months, he was a model citizen. Then, during the first week of July, 1931, he wandered out into the evening and returned drunker than he'd been in a long time. He died a few days later at King's County Hospital of pneumonia.

But, if one may use this soggy old cliche, he was a fighter to the end, literally, as a mission volunteer named John Olsen recounted. Upon hearing Larsen had died, Olsen told the press, "I saw a fellow he hit the night before he went to the hospital, and the fellow was still bent over, a cripple."

 Why write about Wolf Larsen? Well, fighters like him provide the grease and fuel on which the boxing machine runs. Sometimes they're named Wolf Larsen. Sometimes they're named Augustus Burton, or Garing Lane. Without them, how would the young, well-connected contenders fatten their records? Dismiss Larsen as cannon fodder if you like, and maybe you wouldn't want to be around him when he was drunk, but he deserves a tip of the cap. Besides, he spent the last months of his life cooking for other lost souls at the Bethesda Mission, and that deserves a tip of the cap, too.





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