Water Man Spouts

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Gypsy Joe Harris: Son of Philadelphia

"Boxing was my pursuit of happiness. Now they say I can't do it anymore."
-- Gypsy Joe Harris

Last month's edition of The Ring had a review of a new book on a interesting chapter in boxing history, the welterweight/middleweight contender Gyspsy Joe Harris. The book, by his younger brother Anthony Molock, should be of as much interest to sociologists as boxing fans. Molock, a career educator, describes in graphic detail the rise and fall of one of the legends of Philadelphia.

The Ring's Nigel Collins writes, " 'Son of Philadelphia' is not a boxing book per se, but rather the story of a family's struggle for survival in the Philadelphia ghetto, and how one member of that family briefly soared to great heights before plunging headlong into a dark place from which he never really emerged."

He was born on December 1, 1945 in New Jersey. His family soon moved to North Philly, and Harris had to learn to fight at a young age. When he was about 12, an older kid tried to steal his bag of Halloween candy. When Joe refused to give up his bag, the other boy hit him on his head with a brick. Harris lost most of the sight in his right eye as a result.

I've ordered a copy of the book, and look forward to reading it when it comes in the mail. I remember Gypsy Jow Harris from when he was a young welterweight contender. He had been an outstanding amateur, and turned professional in 1964, in order to earn some money. Boxing has long been an attractive potential avenue out of ghetto for the poor young men in American cities. Harris came from what at the time was recognized as the toughest "boxing" city in the country. It's hard enough for any strong athlete to compete; for Harris, being blind in one eye presented difficulties.

He developed a style that was a strange variation of what we used to call "jail house" in those days. I looked through some scrapbooks to show my younger son articles about this guy. An AP sports writer, Ralph Bernstein, described him like this: "If you think Gypsy Joe Harris is a clown in the ring, try talking to him after a fight. The Gypsy did his little dance step, stuck his tongue out, dropped his hands to his side, and won as usual last night. .... Afterward, he was asked if he was a welterweight or a middleweight. 'I'm a heavy welterweight, and a light middleweight,' he mumbled."

Besides being between the two weight classes, at a time when the Jr. Middleweight division wasn't widely recognized, and being almost completely blind in one eye, Harris was also not a hard puncher. Although he won his first 24 fights, he only scored 8 KOs. But he easily outboxed many of the toughest Philly fighters of his day. He beat guys like Jose Stable , Bobby Cassidy, and Stanley "Kitten" Hayward -- easily. And these were all guys who were ranked in the top 5 in the welterweight division. Sports Illustrated had him on their June 19, 1967 cover, and in a feature article "Menace of the welters."

In early 1967, he fought a nontitle bout with the Weleterweight Champion, Curtis Cokes. Harris won an upset 10 round decision. Although that should have secured a title fight, Cokes would defend against a half-dozen other contenders, and avoided Harris.

Gypsy Joe was not considered one of the more disciplined athletes outside of the ring. He was noted for "indulging in fast food, fast women, and fast cars...," according to a book review. As I remember, some of the people who were promoting on the national level weren't fond of him. In 1967, they matched him against a contender that was expected to beat him. Harris won a decision. They had a rematch. Harris again won easily. But he couldn't get a title fight.

In early 1968, he fought a slugger from Canastota, the hometown of the great Carmen Basilio. (Carmen's nephew Billy Backus, from nearby Syracuse, would win the welterweight title in 1970.) Dick DiVeronica was a tough guy who could fight at welterweight or middleweight. Like Harris, he was hoping to earn a shot at either Cokes, or the middleweight crown. But the middleweight title was tied up in a series between Emile Griffith and Nino Benvenuti. Harris won a lop-sided 10 round decision over DiVeronica.

Next, they put him in against Emile Griffith, who lost his rubber match against Nino. Griffith was another fighter who went back and forth between the welter- and middleweight divisions. The winner of the match was going to get a match with Curtis Cokes. Griffith beat Gypsy Joe by decision, the only loss in Harris's career. (Cokes lost the title in a "tune-up" against Jose Napoles; Napoles beat Griffith, lost to Backus, then won the title back in a rematch.)

I remember that Gypsy Joe used to memorize the "eye chart," so that he could pass his physicals. The blows he took in the ring had resulted in the total loss of sight in his right eye, and I had heard he was going blind in his left eye. I'm not sure if that is accurate,and so I look forward to reading his brother's book.

After being forced to retire, Harris lived a sad life. He would deal with drug addiction, mainly abusing alcohol and heroin. He spent his ring earnings rapidly, and was on welfare for years. I remember a friend saying that even though he was depressed about having his career taken from him, Gypsy Joe was always trying to cover his internal pain by joking and making others laugh.

He died on March 6, 1990, at the age of 44, after having his 4th heart attack. His younger brother, who is a teacher in Atlanta, wrote "Gypsy Joe Harris: Son of Philadelphia," which tells the story of "unfulfilled destiny, always one step away from the true greatness he sought." It's available from AuthorHouse (paperback; 209 pages) for $16.50. Those interested can order it via e-mail at www.authorhouse.com or by calling 1-800-839-8640.


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