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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Look Back: Saoul Mamby

In an effort to link the past with the present, The Jewish Boxing Blog will present monthly a short biography of notable former Jewish boxers.

"Gentleman" Glen Johnson, alias the Road Warrior, recently retired from boxing at the age of 43 after nearly 20 years in the ring. The career of Johnson, who won a world championship after a prolonged period of time in the sport, resembles that of "Sweet" Saoul Mamby in many ways. Mamby, also a former world champion, was the ultimate road warrior, traveling all over the world in order to exhibit his classy skills and legendary toughness.

Saoul Mamby was born on June 4, 1947 in Bronx, New York. His mother converted to Judaism when Mamby was four years old and Saoul spent much of his childhood in shul. Mamby later said of his youth, "I would be walking down the street and the kids would pull my yarmulke off my head or grab at my tallis bag." As a result, Mamby got into numerous fights as a youngster. He took up the sport of boxing at the age of 16.

Within a couple of years, he found some success in the amateurs and, by 1968, he was shipped off to Vietnam. "I was in 'Nam for one year, six days, and four hours. Did I see combat? Yeah, enough. And boxing is easier." After he was discharged, he returned to his father's homeland of Jamaica, where he started his professional boxing career. Mamby didn't lose any of his first nine bouts. In his fourteenth fight, he was the aggressor against the talented and undefeated Edwin Viruet, a fight that ended in a draw.

Losses then dotted Mamby's record over the next four and a half years in hallowed places such as Madison Square Garden in New York and Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan, Puerto Rico. On May 4, 1976, Mamby took on Roberto Duran. "I survived," Mamby said of that fight. Later that year, Mamby went the distance with another star, Antonio Cervantes.

Saoul was a crafty boxer, who worked off of his jab. He threw punches even more rapidly in a three minute span than a politician can spew lies. And his attacks came from all angles. He was the master of the feint. Mamby was adept at tucking his chin underneath his left shoulder and rolling with his opponent's punches. But if Mamby was hit, he exhibited a chin made of granite. He chose not to represent his Jewishness on his trunks. "I figured I was here to execute my talents, not my religion," he reasoned.

In 1977, Mamby got the opportunity to fight for the WBC light welterweight title against Saesak Muangsurin in the champion's home country of Thailand. Two of the three judges decided that the hometown man had won the fight, denying Mamby his championship. Mamby later credited Muangsurin as being one of the two strongest opponents he's ever faced.

Mamby saw more of the world than the Harlem Globetrotters. He was always the road fighter. He'd take fights on short notice. But Sweet Saoul's preparation couldn't be questioned. "I'm always ready. Whenever I train for a fight I make my opponent out to be as good as possible. I visualize a strong, fast, smart opponent... That way, when the fight comes, if he has those qualities I'm ready. And if he doesn't, I'm ahead of the game."

In 1980, the 5'8" Bronx man with the abnormally long reach was ready when he traveled to Seoul, Korea to fight the WBC 140 pound champion, Sang-Hyun Kim. A straight right on the tail end of a one-two combo put the southpaw Kim down in the 14th round. As Kim was guided back to his corner, the fight was stopped. Mamby collapsed to his knees and his arms jolted into the air. Screeches of joy exploded from his mouth. As would be the case with Glen Johnson, it took Mamby over ten years to become a world champion. "It was a shock to the boxing world that I won," Mamby later explained, "It wasn't a shock to me." He had been trailing on the cards at the time of the stoppage.

Mamby, a poet in addition to a boxer, wrote in part after the fight:
In the fourteenth round we stood toe-to-toe
And I said to myself he must go.
So with a right hand straight to the chin
I knew then and there I was going to win.

The unexpected champion defended his title five times. In that span, he became the only man not named Duran to stop Esteban De Jesus. As with most of Mamby's opponents, De Jesus wore down physically and mentally. Mamby held his foe the way Mozart composed music or Albert Einstein thought. Not only would his holding neutralize the competitor's offense, but it would sap his strength, leaving him susceptible to Mamby's attacks in the later rounds. Jo Kimpuani managed to last until the final bell, but as with De Jesus, he wasn't nearly as crisp as Mamby by the end of the fight.

In 1983, Irish Leroy Haley took Mamby's title away. Haley pressured the champion early and then backed off later. This seemed to confuse Mamby enough to throw him off a bit. Mamby kept his jab active. Saoul was always relaxed in the ring, another reason that allowed him to stay fresh as Haley faded. But Haley held on to take a split decision. In the return bout eight months later, Haley won a close unanimous decision to retain his belt.

Mamby's final shot at a world championship came on November 3, 1984 against Bill Costello. Unsurprisingly, the fight took place in Costello's hometown of Kingston, New York. Initially, Haley was supposed to be Costello's opponent, but an injury forced him out less than a week before the fight. CBS suggested Mamby. Costello's manager Mike Jones said, "I don't want Mamby. Styles make fights. Everything Billy has worked for the last five years could go down the drain." Costello's trainer Victor Valle concurred, "Mamby's style is all wrong for Billy."

But the fight was forced down their throats. Mamby used his cagey skills to wear down Costello. But Costello wouldn't relent and despite exhaustion, carried virtually every round. In the 11th, Costello landed an uppercut that would have knocked cold a mere mortal. Blood gushed out of Mamby's mouth. But as Costello put it, "When you hit Mamby, he gets tougher."  He continued, "I hit him [with] about ten good shots that would have knocked most fighters down, and he just kept coming."

Afterwards, Mamby admitted, "My mind told me what to do, but my reflexes just wouldn't do them." He seemed to take the hint his body was offering him. "I'll miss it. I love boxing. Everything passed too soon." He was 37 years old.

But like that woman you just can't do without no matter how much she hurts you, Mamby continued to make his livelihood inside the ropes. He was back in the ring within a year and fought often for the next ten years. Notable fights in that span include a loss to Buddy McGirt and a split in two fights with Glenwood Brown.

After four years off, Mamby returned to the ring in 1998, fighting four more times. He retired at the improbable age of 53. But that wasn't it. Mamby returned to fight in 2008, losing a ten round decision at the age of 60, making him possibly the oldest sanctioned boxer in history. His record is 45-34-6 with 19 KOs. He was KOed once; he was 46 years old at the time. Rest assured, a large number of those 34 losses were dubious hometown decisions for the other guy.

Nowadays, Mamby talks a little slower, but he still hangs around the gym in his native New York, a reminder, as Glen Johnson has been, of a bygone era of tough men in boxing.

Saoul Mamby vs. Esteban De Jesus
July 7, 1980
Bloomington, Minnesota
Metropolitan Sports Center
WBC light welterweight title

Blady, Ken. The Jewish Boxers Hall of Fame. 1988.
Hauser, Thomas. The Black Lights: Inside the World of Professional Boxing. 1986.
Malinowski, Scoop. "Saoul Mamby: When I Boxed A Legend... Roberto Duran." Boxing Insider. 2012.

1 comment:

  1. I was at his fight against Jo Kimpauni;Mamby's one of the artist's I really miss.