A huge amount of people will gather to celebrate Christmas with their family and friends on Sunday. Over in Belgium, though, 12 fighters will called be into action, barring withdrawals or cancellations, as they take part in the country’s annual Christmas Day fight card.
Christmas Day boxing shows are an increasingly rare breed, especially in recent decades, but there used to be a plethora of small bills across the globe. Sadly, the not-so-traditional festive punch-ups have slowly ground to a halt, leaving Belgium and Tanzania as two of the few places where boxing fans can get a live Christmas Day boxing fix. It is a shame, as in days gone by this fixture has thrown up oddities aplenty.
Anyone who has complained about the long, stressful preparation that goes into Christmas dinner should spare a thought for the well-travelled, Georgia-born Bobby Dobbs and South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s Pete Sheenan. The two met in Trenton, New Jersey on Christmas Day 1899 for a scheduled 20-round bout.
Sheenan retired after the ninth-round after having the stuffing knocked out of him. It was a quick return to form for Dobbs, who was KO’d in six by Joe Walcott on the fifth of December. The Deseret News reported the Walcott result (in the December 6 1899 issue) and also signed off by pointing out “Dobbs and Walcott are negroes”. In those days adding a “bit of colour” to a fight report or dispatch had a whole different meaning.
More recently, Hull’s Tony Booth and Manchester’s Pat Barrett have both fought on Christmas Day. Booth travelled to Belgium in 1992 and dropped a decision to Franco Wanyama; Barrett registered a points win over Marino Monteyne in Belgium in 1994.
Further back, there was a show in Newcastle in 1925 that featured Jack Dempsey—not THE Jack Dempsey, but not THE Nonpareil Jack Dempsey, either—in a scheduled six-threes against Sunderland-based Swede Hans Tonkinson. The “British Jack Dempsey” scored a second-round TKO win.
The war years were fighting years in the U.K. in more ways than one, as Christmas shows went ahead in London and Belfast in 1939, just a few months after the announcement that the country was at war with Germany. Further shows were held in 1940, in Belfast and Glasgow, and 1941, Belfast. Elsewhere, the tradition of fighting on Christmas Day continued throughout the war.
Perhaps watching two men honestly going at it in the ring was a welcome distraction from the slaughter and ideology of WWII. Once the horror show was over and the dust had settled, Christmas Day shows started up again in the U.K., but appeared sporadically and then petered out completely.
Talking of war, there was a famous Christmas Truce between German and British soldiers in 1914. Twenty-two boxing shows, some club shows, took place in the U.S.A. that day, and there was also one in Mexico. The soldiers briefly left the fighting to the boxers—if only life was that simple.
Christmas Day 1915 was a busy one in Brooklyn. Philadelphia’s Battling Lewinsky and Fireman Jim Flynn met in the famous borough—a 10-round newspaper win [Writer’s note: Remember that newspaper wins and draws are only to be used as an indication that a fight took place, rather than indicative of the definitive, objective result] for Lewinsky [The New York Times].
A reporter wrote that: ‘[T]he veteran Flynn was treated to a bad lacing. Time and again Levinsky landed rights flush on Flynn’s jaw,’ [The Toronto World, December 27 1915], before noting that Flynn landed approximately one shot to every 25 landed by Lewinsky. A painful day, then, for the Colorado-born boxer.
There were eight shows in New York State that year, but Brooklyn was the place to be. The Clermont Avenue Rink hosted a bill that saw Newark’s Patsy Kline KO Pennsylvania’s Young Tommy O’Toole in a single stanza while Brooklyn’s Zulu Kid was given a 10-round newspaper decision over Preston-born, Brooklyn-based Young Ahearn. The Hungary-born, New York-based fighting legend Soldier Bartifeld completed the line-up; he was stopped in eight by Brooklyn’s Italian Joe Gans. A third show was held at Vanderbilt AC.; Allentown Joe Gans won a 10-round newspaper decision over Boston’s Wee Wee Barton.
In 1920, Harry Greb beat Jeff Smith over 10-rounds to earn a newspaper decision win. He took on Tommy Loughran on Christmas Day 1923, another 10-round victory. The Gazette Times reported that Loughran had missed the middleweight title limit by a whopping 8½lbs, robbing the fans of a title fight. According to reports, Greb earned the win but looked jaded in the process.
In mitigation, though, “The Pittsburgh Windmill” had taken Gene Tunney the full 15-round championship distance two weeks prior to fighting Loughran. Greb lost out on the American light-heavyweight title in that one and Tunney was no slouch, so he could be forgiven for feeling the effects of the Tunney fight.
Readers who enjoy the outlandish names of some of these old-timers would have enjoyed the 1925 Christmas Day show at Portland’s Exposition Building. Pancho Villa (AKA Clifford Castilloux, not THE Pancho Villa) fought to a draw with Kid Levine, and the show featured another four-round newspaper draw in Rip Van Dyke Vs. Major Lessard (not Lessard from Police Academy, mind). Over in Philadelphia, Tommy Loughran had a better Christmas Day than the one he endured in 1923—he beat Emilio Solomon over ten.
An example of Christmas Day star power and tinsel occurred in 1950 when Sugar Ray Robinson stretched out Hans Stretz in Frankfurt, Germany. ‘He [Stretz] was floored six times in the first four rounds, and in the fifth was shelled to the canvas with series of left hooks and right crosses],’ [Baltimore Afro-American, December 30 1950].
Robinson had been in action 13 days earlier, stopping former EBU welterweight titlist Robert Villemain in nine. The Frenchman had challenged Robison for the Vacant Pennsylvania State World Middleweight Title, a 15-round decision loss, earlier that year and was no match for Sugar Ray.
In fact, Robinson’s form against Villemain even impressed the Communist press, who had criticised the American visitor before the bout. This contest also drew a sizeable pre-Christmas crowd, 20,000, and a lot of money, 30,000,000 francs, which amounted to an $85,000 gate [Ellensburg Daily Record, December 23 1950].
L’Humanite, the Communist paper, wrote that: ‘Robinson without trickery of irregularities confirmed what had already been suspected, to wit, that he is a great champion and that he can win without recourse to American methods.’
It was a welcome change from the criticism they levelled at Robinson before the bout, slating him for speaking out against Communist denunciations of segregation in the U.S. and accusing him of possessing an “irregular” boxing style. Robinson’s take on the matter was succinct, he said: “(They’re) nuts!”
Promoter Sam Silverman was a busy man during his career; he put on a stack of shows in the New England area and was involved in 32 of Rocky Marciano’s 49 professional fights. Therefore it’s no surprise that his name has popped up.
Silverman promoted a show in Portland, Maine in 1968—Maine, along with Pennsylvania, was a veritable hotbed of Christmas Day boxing action in decades gone by—that was topped by Bangor’s Paul Kasper banging out New York’s Jimmy Cherrico in three plus had solid support in Leo DiFiore, who beat New Jersey’s Tony Cruz via a 10-round decision.
Maine was in the frame again in 1969, and so was DiFiore, in action for a successive Christmas. This time, though, DiFiore lost to Canada’s Artie Jones. The Portland-based featherweight was dropped in the third and fourth rounds before losing on points over 10. No matter how stressful your Christmas Day is, it is unlikely to as painful as the one DiFiore went through.
One of the undisputed kings of Christmas Day action also fought for the heavyweight world title. Can you guess who it is? Here’s a hint: the reason he fought on that particular day so many times is because he was born in and fought out of Belgium. Step forward “The Lion of Flanders” Jean-Pierre Coopman; he was stopped in five by Muhammad Ali in February 1976, his only world title shot, and fought fives times on Christmas Day: 1972, 1974, 1976, 1979 and 1980.
Coopman beat Neville Meade in Izegem, Belgium on Christmas Day to round off 1976. He began the year with the fight with Ali and also suffered a low blow DQ loss to Hennie Thoonen in Rotterdam in May, which he avenged in his very next fight by stopping the Dutchman in the sixth-round. It was the very definition of a Topsy-turvy year for Coopman.
In 1999, Thailand’s Pongsaklek Wonjongkam stopped compatriot Ritichai Kiatprapas in three in Bangkok to close out a year that had seen him fight six times up to that point. It set him up nicely going into the new millennia, where he had six years of dominance in his first run as the WBC’s flyweight boss before running into Daisuke Naito in 2007.
2005 featured a whopping 24-fight bill in Osaka, Japan, a string of four rounders topped by two six-threes featuring Yoshio Kojima against Masaya Idomoto (W6) and Yosuke Hamada taking on Takashi Tayama (W6). It was an avalanche of action that must have taken an almighty chunk from the day and probably caused a few very quiet and polite family rows.
A few familiar names were in action during the 2006 show in West-Vlaanderen, Belgium as Mike Algoet and Ismail Abdoul boxed on the same show for the second time that year. The Belgian boxers had appeared on a bill in Manchester in June, against Jamie Moore (L TKO 5) and David Haye (L12) respectively, but they fared much better this time, registering decision wins over Abdel Mehidi (SD 8) and Jean Claude Bikoi (UD 8).
Algoet must love the festive period. He picked up a win on Christmas Day 2002, a six-round decision over John Ameline. Algoet had lost to another British fighter, Tony Dodson, in his previous outing. Throw in previous Christmas Day wins over Bruno Wuestenberghs (W TKO 1 in 1996), Marino Monteyne (W6 1997) and John Ameline (W6 2002), all in Belgium, and Algoet could be forgiven for wishing it could be Christmas every day.
As for title fights, Santa’s not been generous when it comes to the marquee bouts, saving them for the more traditional fight dates, yet some title tilts do slip through. Pramuansak Posuwan put in a full 12-round stint in Phang Na, Thailand in 2007, decisioning Eric Barcelona for the WBO Asia Pacific Super flyweight title. Rust never sleeps, not even on Christmas Day, and nor do the Alphabet Boys, clearly.
Jimmy Winkle’s worth a mention, mainly because of the Belgium’s amusing surname, but there was no gift for him in the Stedelijke Sporthalle, Belgium in 2008, when he lost to France’s Cherif Benchadi, his second defeat in a row, and had to wait until January 2010 for his next win.
That’s Christmas, then, and when the final bell tolls in Belgium on Sunday another show will be lodged in the record books. There might not be as many as there used to be, and they are not quite as eventful, but it is good to know that Christmas Day punch ups are not just confined to dinner tables, pubs and the Soap Operas.
Imagine what it is like to fight on Christmas Day, making sacrifices leading up the fight and then putting your life on the line on a day when most people are overeating and drinking their fair share of Christmas cheer. Pat Barrett has experienced the Christmas Day experience, and it is no fun if you’re fighting away from home.
Barrett knew deep down that it was the end, even if he won, when fighting Marino Monteyne in Belgium in 1994. He knew that his boxing career was in the rear view mirror. He felt it even as the tape was applied to his fists and went through all the familiar rituals, performing familiar tasks on unfamiliar ground on a day when he would rather have been at home.
No longer a champion, but still a fighter, he knew his own body and that the edge had gone. When he came back to the dressing room after registering a decision win over eight rounds, he realised that it was the end of the road rather than the start of a new beginning.
“The last fight I had was on Christmas day in Belgium,” said Barrett, 37-4-1 (28), who moved into training and promoting after his retirement. “I went over on my own. I remember it as the worst day of my life. It is Christmas day and I’m in Belgium having the last fight of my life. [His trainer] Brian [Hughes MBE] didn’t want me to make a comeback, but I was told to go over to Belgium and make a load of money. It was good to be told that I was just as good as I used to be. You just want that hype of someone telling you that you still have it, but Brian was telling me the truth.
“I went over there and beat the kid on points, but I realised then that those types of kids wouldn’t have lasted with the old Pat Barrett. I was kidding myself. I was disappointed but I had to tell myself that I was no longer as good as I thought I was. I had to accept the truth myself and that was one of the hardest things to cope with and deal with.”