James W. Carter lost his lightweight title to Bud Smith in Boston a week ago. If the fight was wet around the edges, as some of the fans suspect whenever Jimmy operates, the on-again-off-again champion did this one the hard way. Three cuts and 15 stitches isn't the way most boys like to blow the odd ones. The little band of onlookers who actually paid for the privilege of seeing Smith catch up with Carter were convinced they saw a savage, earnest brawl. Chances are they did. Carter will count 32 candles on his birthday cake this December (and one to grow into a welterweight on). It may be he is coming to the end of the line. Behind him are nine and a half years, almost 100 fights and the most curious career of any modern-day champion. If fans question not his ability but his integrity whenever he loses a close one, he has no one to blame but Jimmy Carter and his manager Willie (The Undertaker) Ketchum. Willie has never buried anybody, but he has dragged a lot of bodies back to their corners. Boxing writers have been saying for years that Ketchum is one of Frankie Carbo's managerial egos, and maybe this accounts for Carter's erratic performances.
Let's go back four years to Jimmy's first season as champion after knocking out Mr. Palermo's Ike Williams in 14 heats. Jimmy, as an odds-on favorite, proceeded to lose to California's Art Aragon, nontitle. Accidentally or no, it was the ideal buildup for the title bout. Jimmy was in shape for that one and won convincingly.
The year 1952 was Jimmy's Salas period. He dropped the title to Featherweight Lauro Salas in an eyebrow-raising upset and then won it back from him with embarrassing ease a few months later.
In 1953 Jimmy—the best lightweight around whenever he was in the mood—lost to Eddie Chavez, whom he was supposed to fight for the title. Somehow that act was never booked.
He knocked out Tommy Collins and George Araujo in title defenses but dropped a nontitle bout to Johnny Cunningham (a square from nowhere) and to Armand Savoie, the Canadian champion. That made a Savoie return go for the championship a natural for Montreal. Jimmy was on that night, as usual when the chips are down, and knocked Armand out of time in five.
In 1954 the spectacle of you-lick-me-and-I-lick-you found Jimmy starring opposite Paddy DeMarco. The champion of inconsistency dropped his title to Paddy in a 15-round affair that enriched the long-money bettors more than it did Jimmy's reputation for forthright performance. Jimmy couldn't care less that night. He let Paddy outscore him with left hands and carried his dangerous right peacefully on his chest throughout the strange encounter. Seven months later Jimmy won the lightweight championship for the third time in four years, giving Champion Pro Tem Paddy DeMarco a vicious going-over in San Francisco before knocking him out in the final round.
OLD DOG, OLD TRICKS
This year Jimmy lost a nontitle 10-rounder to Orlando Zulueta, the light-hitting Cuban, and it looked as if this old dog was up to his old tricks. Now he would fight Zulueta for the championship and, without the handcuffs, he seemed a shoo-in to mangle Orlando as he had Lauro and Armand and Paddy in those payoff return bouts. But the match fell through. This corner received a batch of APPPFF letters decrying the affair, probably reflecting boxing-fan opinion that Carter was beginning to overdo the Yo-yo act. Carter is obliged to defend his title every six months, and the best available opponent was Bud Smith, the former amateur champion whom Jimmy decisioned five years ago. According to the old Carter-Ketchum (and probably Carbo) script, Jimmy would drop this one and then win the 90-day return. That's two fights for the price of one, and the first one is inevitably a startling upset nicely actioned tor a betting coup.
But the Carter-Smith battle in Boston was an interesting variation on the old scenario. In his losses to Aragon, Salas, Chavez, Savoie, Zulueta and DeMarco there had been a studied indifference to Carter's work. He looked as if he was fighting just hard enough to lose as if he was trying to win. You may not admire this sort of thing, but it was pretty masterful. It takes a lot of skill to lose close ones as though you were gunning for the wins. "I had an off night.... I couldn't get going.... I didn't figure out his style until the last few rounds...." These are some of the stock dressing-room replies for the studied loser. He hasn't taken a dive, he's just done a little wading. This time, Smith's victory over Carter (and by the narrowest of margins it was, too) was flawed only by Jimmy's spotty past. If Carter was really under wraps in this one, he rates as a contender for next year's Academy Award. Jimmy's wounds seemed to be honorable ones, and in the closing rounds he was fighting with the viciousness for which he has come to be noted, primarily in the return bouts.
So let's give him the benefit of the doubt this time, even though it does seem mighty odd that his return bout with Smith will probably install him as the first pug ever to regain his championship three times. "Jimmy doesn't ever lose his title, he just loans it to the other fella for a little while," I heard an old fighter say in an Eighth Avenue bar the other day.
NO BOSTON TEA PARTY
If Jimmy loaned the title to Bud Smith, the new champion certainly did not treat the old one with the deference traditionally accorded to creditors. Face cuts requiring 15 stitches are a novel way of paying interest. This was no Boston tea party, and maybe the firm of Jimmy the Jobber & Willie the Undertaker is going straight in its old age.
Anyway, I still like Carter to win the lightweight championship of the world for the fourth time in five years. It's hard to break a habit like that.