Look at the picture below. Here are a boxer and his father. Nobody has heard very much about them yet. But everyone will—and soon.
The boy is Vinnie Ferguson, 18 years old, first-team freshman at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. His father, Ed, a peppery, voluble Irishman, is a Tammany Hall politician in New York. Five years ago Ed sat down with his son Vinnie and planned out a campaign to win an Olympic boxing championship in 1956. Vinnie's dad knew what he was talking about: in his younger days he had been an amateur boxer and is a fight manager today ("Carlos Ortiz, outstanding undefeated lightweight prospect from New York's East Side"). The plans were carefully laid, exactingly carried out. The result: until the National Collegiate Athletic Association championships in Madison last week Vinnie Ferguson had won 51 of 51 fights, 25 by knockouts.
Those wins were not easy to come by. Since 1951 Ed has had Vinnie campaigning in the amateur ranks, and Vinnie has responded by winning six amateur titles, among them two international boys' club championships, one in London and one in New York. Furthermore, Vinnie has been just as familiar a sight around Stillman's Gym as Lou Stillman himself. In the Still-man's ring Vinnie has perfected his art by sparring with such fighters as Car-melo Costa, Frankie Ryff, Chico Vejar, Hector Constance, Del Flanagan, Billy Graham, Walt Cartier, Gene Fullmer, Bobby Dykes and Hurricane Jackson. All in all, Vinnie Ferguson has had ample chance to show that he is truly a prodigy of the ring.
The Five-Year Plan is almost fulfilled now. This month Vinnie, a light middleweight, competed in the three-day National Collegiate Athletic Association boxing championships at Madison. An NCAA championship qualifies the winner for a tryout for the U.S. Olympic team, so the goal was in sight. For the occasion, Ed flew out to Madison to help guide his son through to victory.
April 29, 1956
On Friday morning Vinnie, who had drawn a first-round by the day before, weighed in at 154 pounds (or simply "54," as Vinnie says, just like the Still-man's crowd). After the weighin, Ed took his son back to the Hotel Park for a strategy conference in his room. The talk concerned Gus Fiacco of Syracuse, Friday night's semifinal opponent. Ed had scouted Fiacco the day before.
"Now listen to me," Ed said, stripping his coat off. "We go from fight to fight. I want you to remember that. You've fought this guy before, and you beat him. But from what I hear, you fought his fight!" Vinnie tried to get a word in, but his father cut him off. "Just listen!" Ed cried, assuming a stance. "You're not arguing with me. You're out to beat him! You beat him to the punch. He jiggles," said Ed, jiggling. "He gets inside, then boom! You don't let him get inside. Now you know that when he jiggles from side to side that he's getting ready to go in with a jump." Ed jiggled from side to side.
"You keep your head down in behind that jab," Ed said, as he pushed Vinnie's head down and straightened his left arm out. "You're a boxer. You're a class fighter. Show him that class. Even show him a piece of chin. Sucker him in. Then biff-bop-bam!" Ed cried, thrashing the air. "Two things to remember," he shouted. "You keep this guy busy by going to the right. And no two-punch deal. No boom-boom. But biff-bop-bam. You set him up with the jab, then hit him with the right hand. If he ducks the right hand, then throw the left hook. But don't throw that left hook around. He'll be waiting for it. Box with him."
Vinnie nodded. "Biff-bop-bam," he grunted.
"That's it," Ed said, approving, from the bed. "Keep in action, keep circling and don't expose yourself with that left hook."
After the strategy talk, Vinnie left for a steak at Troia's Steak House. Ed waited in the hotel. When Vinnie came aack, he rested until 6:45. Then he jumped out of bed and roused his rather.
"Oh," cried Ed, looking at the clock. He jumped up and ran for his clothes. 'You dress like a fireman," Vinnie called after him. Ed stopped, assumed a stance and threw a left jab and a right at his son. "A biff-bam to you," he shouted. Ed dressed, and he and Vinnie ran downstairs and caught a cab to the fieldhouse. Vinnie went to the dressing room, and Ed took his ringside seat in the fieldhouse.
It didn't take long for the spectators around Ed to learn that he was Vinnie's father. "Nervous, Pa?" the man belind him asked. "I'm always nervous," Ed replied. Someone reminded Ed that it was Friday the 13th, and that Vinnie was fighting Fiacco in bout 13. "It's just as easy to get punched on the nose on the 18th," Ed remarked. along about bout six, Ed got up for a smoke. He was back in a minute. He had forgotten his cigarets. "Can't smoke my finger," Ed quipped to the man behind him. "Pa's nervous," the man announced at large, and the crowd around him laughed sympathetically. When Vinnie came out with Wisconsin Coach John Walsh, Ed raced over. He gave Vinnie a big kiss and wished him luck. Then Ed raced back to his ringside seat.
"Tonight he'll right-hand this guy to death," Ed whispered, as the bell rang for round one. Fiacco came out, jiggling from side to side. Vinnie, following instructions, circled to the right. His dancing left hand caught Fiacco on the nose. "One-two, Vince! One-two," Ed cried, jumping up from his seat. "Take it easy, Pa," the man behind Ed said. Vinnie took the first round easily. He had Fiacco off balance. The bell rang for round two, "Double it up! Double it up!" Ed yelled as Vinnie began to land combinations. "Let's stick! Let's stick!" he yelled as Vinnie landed two quick left jabs. Vinnie threw a left hook, and Fiacco crowded inside, landing punches to the body. "Box! Box. For the love of life, box," Ed screamed in dismay. The round ended. The bell rang for round three. "Over to your right and box," Ed yelled. "Your fight, not his, Vince! One-two and relax. One-two." The bell rang, ending the fight.
"Fiacco had the fight all out of him, Pa," the man behind Ed remarked.
"Yeah," muttered Ed weakly.
The ring announcer gave the decision: the winner of the semifinal bout, Ferguson of the University of Wisconsin. Vinnie remained at ringside with Coach Walsh, and Ed joined them to scout Dick Wall of Oklahoma in the next semifinal. Wall won, and Ed said: "We'll get Mr. Wall tomorrow night."
On Saturday, after a luncheon at the Maple Bluff Country Club—Governor Walter Kohler of Wisconsin, chief speaker (SI, April 23)—Ed took Vinnie back to the hotel for another strategy talk. "Mr. Wall has let the word out: 'I hope he don't press me.' He wants you to press him. But we aren't going to press him. This guy is a boxer, a spot puncher, and he hopes that while he's strong—I watched him tire last night—that you'll come in so he can bop you. Strictly a counter-puncher. Don't underestimate Wall. He knows how to dance. He's been around [Wall was a Chicago Golden Gloves champion in 1953 and 1955, fighting at 147 pounds]."
Ed assumed a stance. "We'll outsmart him," Ed announced. Vinnie nodded. "Wall's the kind of guy that will fall for feints, if they're properly fed to him," Ed observed, pausing to let the remark sink in. "He'll move with the feint. Now, Wall gets tired in the latter half of the fight. In the first round, we'll feint him and con him. We'll do the same thing halfway in the second. Then we'll open up and go. We'll slug him."
"I'll pop-shot him," said Vinnie, who, as Ed says, is not the kind of kid to hide behind doors when it comes to talking about boxing.
"It's a war," said Ed.
"I gotta get him," said Vinnie seriously.
"I seldom call for a war," said Ed, wagging a finger. "But with him, we gotta war."
After a nap Ed and Vinnie took a cab to the fieldhouse. "Remember the change of strategy," Ed warned before Vinnie left for the dressing room. "And good luck."
The double-decked fieldhouse was beginning to fill up. "We got less to wait tonight. He's fighting in the seventh bout," said Ed, smoking a cigaret beneath the stands. "We've been sweating through 52 fights now. This is it, or no Olympics." The Wisconsin band played a march, and the crowd of 14,000, almost double that of any Madison Square Garden crowd in the last two and a half years, began to warm up for the NCAA finals. Ed paced back and forth beneath the stands. The lights dimmed, and the band played The Star-Spangled Banner, and the crowd actually sang the words. "First time I ever heard that," Ed said with a smile.
After Dick Bartman won the 139-pound championship to clinch the team title for Wisconsin, Ed remarked: "The team pressure's off Vince." When Vinnie came out of the dressing room, Ed wished him luck, then sprinted for his seat. "Well, here's Pa," the man behind him remarked. Ed smiled.
The introductions were made, and Wall came out of his corner with a smile on his face. Vinnie looked serious. Wall waited for Vinnie to lead, but Vinnie didn't. Vinnie lashed out with a left jab, catching Wall on the nose. Wall fired back, but Vinnie slipped away. "Feint, Vin, feint!" Ed shouted, jumping up. "There goes Pa again," the man behind him chuckled. "Feint, Vin, feint. Attaboy! Attaboy!" The crowd roared as Vinnie caught Wall against the ropes. "Don't race him in there. Back out! Back out!" Ed yelled. Wall slipped away from Vinnie, and the bell rang. Vinnie walked back to his corner with his chest out. Ed smiled and turned to the man behind him. "Well," he said, "we got Mr. Wall now."
The second round began, and Vinnie came out, boxing. A minute passed with not much action, then Vinnie broke loose. He put his head down and rushed Wall against the ropes. Wall was taken by surprise. Vinnie landed a right to the jaw, and Wall's knees wobbled. The crowd screamed for the knockout. "This is it. Take him! Take him!" Ed screamed. But Vinnie forgot to follow with the left hook that would have ended the fight. Wall, in desperation, reached up with a right hand and drove Vinnie back away from the ropes. Vinnie landed a left, a right to the chin, a left hook to the body. Wall came back with a right on the headguard that shook Vinnie. Vinnie moved in under the right and banged away to the body. Wall was beginning to tire as the bell ended the round.
The fight was just as savage in the third. Vinnie did the leading, Wall the countering, but Vinnie took most of the exchanges. As the bell rang, both boys were still fighting in the center of the ring. "I think you got it, Pa," the man behind Ed shouted. "I think so too!" Ed shouted back. And they were both right. Vinnie was announced as the winner and NCAA 156-pound champion. Wisconsin supporters grabbed him as he stepped through the ropes and carried him on their shoulders to the dressing room. The band blared On Wisconsin, and Ed ran back to the dressing room with tears in his eyes. After embracing Vinnie, he ran out to phone his wife and daughter in New York. While he was gone, Wall came into the dressing room. He stuck out his hand, still taped, and shook with Vinnie. Both boys smiled. "Dang, boy, but it was a good fight," said Wall. "Thanks," said Vinnie. "Gee, thanks."
It was a memorable evening. Vinnie, along with Bartman, Dean Plemmons, Orville Pitts and Truman Sturdevant, the other Wisconsin champions, made a victory appearance on television. Ed, in turn, made a victory appearance at a party given by the Downtown Seconds at the Madison Club, and when he returned to the room at the Park he had just enough time and wind left for a few observations. He talked about Ivy Williamson, the Wisconsin athletic director, and Coach Walsh and his assistant, Vern Woodward. "These kind of people," said Ed, "they can make anything decent." He talked about the great interest in boxing at Madison and about Dr. Anthony Curreri, professor of surgery at Wisconsin, a former boxer who has done so much to make college boxing the safe, clean sport it is. And lastly, Ed touched upon Vinnie.
"Actually," said Ed, sitting back with a cigaret, "what all this amounts to is that we've been scheming and planning just to get the kid up there in the Olympics. It looks as though he'll make it. But another thing to me, something that's really important, is that sheepskin for the kid. I want him to get that degree so bad. Partly because I missed it myself, and then because the aim of any father is for the son to become a better man than he ever was. That's what this all really means to me. This school is great, and I hope that Vinnie appreciates that. They've done a lot for him."
Ed got up, squashed out his cigaret and put on the white-and-red flowered pajamas which his daughter had bought for him at Wanamaker's. He took a final look around the room before going to bed. "You know," said Ed, making his last observation of the night, "sometimes, just sometimes, I hope that maybe Vinnie will lose. Not in the Olympics or anything like that. But just a little tiny loss when it doesn't really count. It's 53 straight now, and I'm gettin' a little tired of holdin' my breath." Then Ed hopped into bed and turned out the light to dream of glory at Melbourne.