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Friday, September 7, 2012

Andre Ward Comes From a Colorful Line of Bay Area Boxing Champs

Posted By on Fri, Sep 7, 2012 at 7:28 AM

click to enlarge Andre Ward, the Bay Area's latest great fighter.
  • Andre Ward, the Bay Area's latest great fighter.

With Andre Ward, of Oakland, and Nonito Donaire, of San Leandro, the Bay Area boasts two of the three best active American boxers (behind Floyd Mayweather). It's a proud moment for the Yay.

Boxing greatness in the U.S. has tended to emanate from gritty and cold East Coast cities -- New York, Boston, Philly -- and to a lesser extent, the factory and sharecropping towns of flyover country.

The Bay's own boxing history is modest but colorful. And as super middleweight champion Ward (25-0) nears his Sept. 8 Oracle Arena fight against light heavyweight champion Chad Dawson (31-1), it's a good time to recall some of the region's legendary pugilists.

Of the fighters recognized in boxing writer Bert Sugar's 100 Greatest Boxers of All Time, four called San Francisco home at some point during their careers. All four were born in the second half of the 19th century. Which means the Bay Area must have been due for Ward and Donaire.

Perhaps the most well-known of the group is "Gentleman" Jim Corbet (11-4-3), the heavyweight from the 1890s. He was a slippery and defensive jabber, in an era when boxing ability had been measured by toughness and brute strength. He only fought 24 bouts, in an era when guys were notching 100-plus. And he fought one of the best black fighters in the world at a time when the reigning heavyweight champion refused to fight any man who wasn't white.

Corbet is perhaps most famous for beating that champion, John L. Sullivan, in 1892. His fight several months before that, though, might have been his most epic. It was against Peter "Black Prince" Jackson.

The great-grandson of a freed West Indies slave, Jackson (44-3-4), another of Sugar's top 100, left Australia for San Francisco when he was 26, two years after winning the Australian Heavyweight Championship. Because of his skin color, though, he would never get a shot at the revered and racist long-time champion Sullivan. Instead, he fought the man who would subsequently take Sullivan's belt.

The Jackson-Corbet match-up was a true cross-town rivalry. Jackson was an instructor at the California Athletic Club, one of the two prestigious boxing gyms in San Francisco. And, naturally, Corbet was an instructor at the other, Olympic Boxing Club.

The pair squared off on May 21, 1891. They went back and forth for 61 rounds, before the fight was finally declared a "no contest."

Abe Attell (72-10-17) would have been nine years old then. It's likely he heard about the fight the next morning, as he hawked newspapers at the corner of Market and Eighth streets. He began fighting professionally at 17, then moved to Denver a year or so later. By the time he was 20, he was World Flyweight Champion.

They called him "The Little Hebrew." It wasn't even the most memorable nickname in his family. Abe's younger brother Monte, who also boxed, carried one of the all-time great San Francisco sports nicknames: "Nob Hill Terror."

Abe Attell became the rare athlete to leave his mark in the history books of two sports. He was charged with fixing the 1919 World Series, alongside the players from that ignominious White Sox team. He was said to associate with Arnold Rothstein, the New York gangster who allegedly orchestrated the gambling plot. Cook County, Ill., prosecutors claimed that Attell was the messenger between Rothstein and the players. The jury acquitted him.

Willie Ritchie (35-10-15), who rounds out the city's contingent on Sugar's list, took an opposite post-boxing career path from Attell -- he would serve as the California State Athletic Commission's chief inspector for nearly 25 years. Long before that, though, he was Gerhardt Anthony Steffen. He used the alias "Willie Ritchie" when he began his career in 1907, at 16 years old, so that his mother wouldn't find out he was boxing. At the time, she didn't approve of the profession. Five years later, "Willie Ritchie" was world lightweight champion.

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Albert Samaha

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