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THE HIT PARADE
On Saoul Mamby 1947‒2019
by Carlos Acevedo, Author of Sporting Blood: Tales From The Dark Side Of Boxing
It took more than ten years for Saoul Mamby, who died on December 19, to win a title, more than ten years of being the underdog, more than ten years of bad decisions, more than ten years of wayfaring for short money. He was thirty-two when he finally reached the top in 1980. To earn the WBC light-welterweight strap, Mamby traveled to Korea, where he stopped defending champion—and local hero—Sang Hyun Kim in the fourteenth round. “I chased this title around the world,” he told the New York Daily News when he returned to the States. “I went through hell. I couldn’t even get a title fight on television, but the networks were showing other fighters dug out of the graveyard.”
An unusual background—he was part Spanish and part Jamaican—led to Mamby sticking out on the mean streets of the Bronx, where he grew up in the 1950s. But it was his religion that really drew second looks: Mamby, you see, was Jewish. “I was bar-mitzvahed in the Bronx at Mount Horah Congregation Temple,” he once recalled. “My parents converted when I was an infant.”
Being Jewish invariably lead to bullying—“I would be walking down the street and the kids would pull my yarmulke off my head or grab at my tallis bag.”—and bullying invariably led to the boxing gym.
In the mid-1960s, Mamby used his middle name—Paul—as an amateur and won a sub-novice title in the Golden Gloves. He represented the PAL, and the Leatherpushers AC from the Bronx before the Vietnam War interrupted his earthbound pursuits for more than a year.
When Mamby turned pro on September 13, 1969, with Al smith as his trainer and George Ford as his manager, he was considered a prospect, of sorts, but not a sure thing, for the simple reason that sure things vis-à-vis the fight racket were rare then. In 1970, jazz trumpeter Miles Davis presented Mamby with an “Outstanding Boxer of the Year” trophy, hardware without any discernible provenance. At that point, Mamby was 6-0-1, and his first name was butchered by typesetters across the city: he was Sol, Saul, Sal, and only sometimes Saoul.
Before long, Mamby was just another hard-luck pro trying to get by. That meant moonlighting, and Mamby supplemented his meager ring earnings by driving a cab between fights. (Although Mamby would later excoriate managers as a species, he appreciated the fact that Ford had purchased the car for him.) As New York City disintegrated, eventually becoming the backdrop for grim/grimy films such as Panic in Needle Park, Death Wish, and, ironically, Taxi Driver, Mamby gave up the hack business because of the growing dangers of urban fallout. Instead, he became a full-time journeyman, a less risky vocation, no doubt, but hardly more remunerative. (Exhibit A: For facing ex-junior welterweight champion Antonio Cervantes in Venezuela, Mamby earned $3,500.)
Somehow, given the grueling nature of the New York club fight scene in those days, Mamby managed to avoid a KO loss, despite facing Roberto Duran and Cervantes within six months of each other. With his defensive guile and ring smarts, Mamby would trouble Duran en route to a decision loss in a non-title bout and keep Cervantes honest eight months before “Kid Pamblee” won his second world championship. When Mamby received a surprise title shot (against Saensak Muangsurin) in 1977, it was likely because of his pedestrian 20-11-5 record. Imported to Thailand as a Grade A sacrifice, Mamby instead nearly gave Muangsurin a bad case of salmonella. The obscene scorecards in favor of Muangsurin, however, left Mamby feeling ill.
But Mamby had an unlikely ally in Don King, who pulled the marionette strings on Jose Sulaiman and procured another title shot for him. This time, the defensive cutie made sure the judges remained irrelevant.
A counterpunching style and a lack of KO power (along with his mediocre record) kept Mamby off national television for most of the 1980s golden age, even when he was champion. “TV doesn’t want to buy me,” Mamby told Steve Farhood in a 1982 interview. “They claim I’m boring, not exciting.” Forced to scramble for a living, Mamby became a globetrotter whose passport stamps competed with those of an international diplomat.
In an interview with KO, Mamby explained why his was a vagabond profession: “Because of my promoter. I make more money fighting out of the country. And when I make more money, my manager makes more money. So therefore, my promoter, Don King, would prefer to see me fight out of the country because his son is my manager. Then he will make more money.” Naturally, Mamby soon found himself at odds with King, who would eventually sue his vexed fighter for breach of contract.
Despite his anonymity, “Sweet” Saoul sported mink and cruised the streets in a white Datsun 280ZX with vanity plates that read “MAMBY.” It was a jarring contrast to his neighborhood in the Norwood section of the Bronx. At that time, Mamby lived in Tracey Towers, off Mosholu Parkway, one of the few buildings designed by Brutalist architect Paul Rudolph to blot the outer boroughs. In a few years, Tracey Towers, a sinister-looking gray monolith with the (in) famous corrugated facade, a Rudolph trademark, would fall into disrepair. The same fate awaited Mamby, as it does most fighters.
In 1981, Mamby saw the biggest payday of his career vanish—in a flash—when his scheduled bout against Aaron Pryor was postponed after Pryor had been shot by his future wife. It was, seemingly, a doomed matchup. Pryor and Mamby had both aligned themselves with MAPS, a renegade promotional outfit whose events were underwritten by millions of dollars embezzled from Wells Fargo by Harold Rossfields Smith, who would wind up in prison. By March 1981, MAPS was kaput, sending Mamby back to Don King.
When Mamby finally lost his title, in his sixth defense, against Leroy Haley, he blamed the cabalistic forces of boxing. In fact, he blamed his promoter, Don King, whose son, Carl, not only managed Mamby but also managed Haley. A 1983 rematch against Haley produced the same result: a narrow points loss. Mamby, who had struggled so long to achieve distinction, was now on the verge of a free-fall.
As a late substitute (a status that echoed his early years as a pro, and would augur his grim future, as well), Mamby challenged Billy Costello on November 3, 1984, and dropped a grueling fifteen-round decision. His last hurrah was an upset over undefeated Glenwood Brown in 1990, when Mamby was forty-one years old. The symbolic contrast between the cynical buildup of Brown (18-0 at the time) and the struggles of Mamby as a young pro in the 1970s was impossible to overlook. Mamby fought, and lost, regularly until 2000, before returning for a final fight in 2008, one he dropped via decision to a man nearly thirty years his junior.
Although Mamby was not a great fighter, he still established a few landmarks during an up-and-down career that overlapped five decades. His unanimous decision over Obisia Nwankpa in Nigeria earned Mamby a then-record purse for a light welterweight: roughly $300,000. A majority decision win over neophyte Thomas Americo (with only two starts at the time) was the first world title fight ever staged in Indonesia. And his last outing, when he was sixty, surely stands as some sort of world record.
Not only was Mamby one of the last of the international contenders, but he is also emblematic of another disappearing figure in boxing: the journeyman champion. Even with twice as many belts now than there were when Mamby first became a titleholder, there are fewer and fewer dark horses who reach the big money. Because nearly every fighter is viewed as some sort of commodity (regardless of his or her inherent star quality), grinders such as Buster Drayton, Bruno Rabanales, Freddie Pendleton, Glenn Johnson, Johnny Nelson, Steve Robinson, and Orlando Salido have all but disappeared. Today, The Ring ratings for the junior-welterweight division (where Mamby was champion) reveal a weight class with a combined ten losses. Mamby was 26-12-5 when he won his title.
In 1985, a battered Mamby made a cameo appearance in The Black Lights, where he rued his profession after losing a title fight against Billy Costello. Saoul Mamby to Thomas Hauser: “This is some way to make a living, isn’t it?”
Hector Camacho’s Vida Macho—by Paul Solotaroff, Men’s Journal
The last sordid years of Hector Camacho were documented by Paul Solotoroff not long after “Macho” was shot to death in Puerto Rico. One of the saddest tales of lost promise, the story of Camacho is dominated by dysfunction–right up to his free-for-all of a wake.
The tragic life of Charles “Kid” McCoy—by Dawn Mitchell, IndyStarCharles “Kid” McCoy, aka Norman Selby, is one of the enduring legends of boxing. And while some of his antics may be apocryphal–like so much in this formerly outlaw sport–McCoy lived a tumultuous life that hardly needed embellishment. Champion, murderer, suicide– his tragic story was retold by the Indianapolis Star a few years ago.
Here Comes the Story of the Hurricane—by Lona Manning, QuilletteFor years, Rubin Carter was a cause celebre, drawing attention from Bob Dylan, Muhammad Ali, and George Lois, and highlighting the horrors of wrongful convictions. In 1999, Denzel Washington portrayed Carter in a fact-free Hollywood biopic that brought “The Hurricane” back in the spotlight. Recently Quillette asked the question few seem to want answered: was Carter actually guilty?
IN THIS CORNER
“In 1946 I was the number one contender for the middleweight championship of the world. They wrote me up in all the papers and took my picture … and they wrote me up in Collier’s and all the magazines. They called me killer and tiger and bruiser and gang fighter and street fighter. I told them I was in a protectory for delinquents when I was a kid, and that the Army kept me on K.P. for a whole year, and they ate it all up and called me an ‘underprivileged East Side kid punching his way out of the gutter.’ Sometimes I couldn’t help laughing when I told them this story of my life. What would they print about me if they knew the whole truth?”—Rocky Graziano