A SURPRISE PARTY WITH PUNCH

Virgil Akins becomes welter champion by finding a fatal flaw in Vince Martinez' otherwise perfect defense
June 15, 1958

Less than a minute of the first round had gone by and handsome Vince Martinez was a slack-jawed, wobbly-legged travesty of the serene stylist he had always been before, even in rare defeat. Until now he had never been more than momentarily confused by an opponent. Largely because he has always known how to back off from sudden adversity, no one ever had knocked him out or even properly knocked him down. A tactical retreat, like so many he had organized in the past, was now called for but he had lost the knack.

One rather obvious defect in an otherwise superb boxing style was his undoing. Instead of slipping a straight punch he has a trick of pulling his head straight back from it. In prefight studies Virgil (Honey Bear) Akins had noted the defect and now, at the first opportunity, took savage advantage of it. He won thereby the welterweight championship of the world, estimated to be worth a quarter of a million dollars at going rates. It was quite a step up in class for a fighter who less than two years ago fought in Holyoke, Mass. for $52.

The fight was a tragicomic melodrama of calculation and miscalculation. Before the bell, the ringside buzz in the St. Louis Arena had been that, since Akins was notoriously a slow starter, nothing much would happen in the first few rounds except that Martinez would outpoint him. It was felt that after those few rounds the 2-to-1 odds favoring Akins would be justified, once Honey Bear began his stretch run. The Martinez corner had the early rounds figured that way, too. The Akins corner, in turn, had figured that that was the way the Martinez corner would figure it. Akins, therefore, fought as he never had fought before against a major opponent. He made a surprise party of it. Instead of waiting, Akins delivered the key punch of the fight a mere 30 seconds after the opening bell. He forced his opportunity with a long left jab, nothing much in itself. All it did was to send Martinez' head straight back, not from the power of the blow, which landed lightly, but because that is the characteristic Martinez way of neutralizing a jab. It is an unorthodox way, unworthy of him. By classical standards, and Martinez is in all other respects a classical boxer, a straight punch should be avoided by a slip—a sideways movement of the head that lets the punch glide harmlessly over a shoulder.

"Straight punches you slip," an old boxing professor explained later. "Hooks you move with."

But for years Martinez has been getting away with his backward movement. Until last week none of his opponents had thought to follow a jab with an overhand right to the well-exposed, upward-tilted chin that results from the maneuver. Akins thought of it and did it. Martinez, off balance, went down.

Down he went for the first time in his career of 65 fights and 60 victories, and when he arose there was written on his face the astonishment of a sinful man finally facing an unexpected judgment. After the fight Martinez said he thought he had been knocked out in the first—"or maybe the second"—round. He had no clear memory of it. Despite dousings with sponges dipped in ice water he never fully recovered from that punch. He went through the motions of fighting from a deep wellspring of courage in his subconscious. In the past he had been denounced for lack of courage in adversity when, in fact, he has never lacked courage. He has simply exercised more intelligent caution than is appreciated in ring society. Now, with intelligence blanked out, he responded from a natural resource that forced him to rise to loose-ankled feet time after time—and get knocked down, time after time. He was knocked down four times in that first round, stumbled stupidly to the canvas another time without a punch being thrown and went down four times more in other rounds for a total of eight clear knockdowns in the fight. The eighth, in the fourth round, ended it. Referee Harry Kessler, who had resisted a plea from Akins' corner that he stop the fight between the third and fourth rounds, called a halt without a count.

"Why count 10?" he asked later. "I knew I could have counted 30."

Akins proved himself a true successor to Carmen Basilio, who had given up the title so that he might briefly rule over the middleweight division. The fact that he did not take out Martinez with a single punch by no means implies that Akins is not a deadly puncher. Martinez proved long ago that he is no glass-jawed Fancy Dan. Most fighters could not have survived a round of the punishment he took, not only to the head but to the body, where Akins landed telling blows in fits of fury that sent Martinez reeling about the ring.

Basilio was at ringside to study a possible future opponent. There was instant speculation that a Basilio-Akins fight was in the sometime offing, and Akins was more than willing, foreseeing the greatest gate the welterweight division has had in years. Basilio wisely ducked the issue for the time being. There was, he pointed out, the matter of Sugar Ray Robinson's uncertainty about the future of the middleweight title, which Carmen would like to win back. Sugar Ray, on his part, was chasing a mysterious star that told him he could get a million dollars fighting Floyd Patterson for the heavyweight title in California. The matter of a Robinson-Basilio fight will, it is clear, be in abeyance for some little time.

The fight went on against serious competition from the Municipal Opera, which featured that glorious tenor, Andy Devine, in Show Boat and drew 9,527 admissions; a Cardinals-Phillies baseball game which drew 17,599; and nighttime Thoroughbred racing at the Cahokia Downs track just across the Mississippi which attracted 6,740. Even so, 9,777 fans paid $62,810 to get into the arena, a most respectable showing in view of these counterattractions.

The fight was further distinguished by the presence of members of the St. Louis police hoodlum squad, an organization dedicated to the perpetual harassment of the unsavory, and so successful that bookmaking no longer is good business in St. Louis. Odds on the fight were made out of town.

The detectives wanted most of all to pick up Mobster Frankie Carbo, who has followed Akins' career with perhaps more than a sporting interest. But Carbo stayed out of St. Louis, very likely in deference to the embarrassment his presence might cause Eddie Yawitz and Bernie Glickman, Akins' managers, who had been required, under subpoena, to testify before a New York grand jury about their relations with Carbo. The detectives were forced, therefore, to settle for Blinky Palermo, a fight manager who sometimes works in the shadowy background of the sport, and a friend, Abe Sands of Paterson, N.J. These two were picked up after the fight, not without a struggle on Blinky's part, and locked up overnight. Palermo carried papers indicating he is linked to Sonny Liston, the St. Louis heavyweight and sometime protégé of St. Louis mobster John Vitale. Liston now fights out of Philadelphia, which is Blinky's home town.

Glickman was indignant about the police surveillance of the fight. Akins, he announced, will not fight in St. Louis again "until such time as St. Louis wants boxing, and no investigations." Why, he demanded, didn't police send surveillance details to watch Cardinal baseball games? It is possible that the New York grand jury which heard Glickman's testimony will answer his question with some indictments next month.

Since New York State set up a medical advisory board to assist its boxing commission a few years ago there has not been a death or even a serious injury in a New York ring. Other states have improved their prefight medical examinations, too, in recent years, but by no means all. Among those which could stand improvement is Michigan. Johnny Summerlin is Exhibit A.

Summerlin, who had not fought an opponent of stature since 1956, was put in against Nino Valdes in Detroit last month. In the fifth round Valdes snapped a right hook to the jaw. It was not too hard a blow but Summerlin was off balance and he went down. He took a six count, then tried to rise. As he got up his left leg doubled under him and he fell. He tried to rise again, and just after being counted out managed to stand up-right with his weight on the right leg.

For many weeks before the fight Summerlin had been aware that his left side was numb but said nothing about it. Still, the night before the Valdes fight, he went to his personal physician, Dr. Robert Bennett, for a checkup. Dr. Bennett, who has been physician to Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, told Summerlin he should not fight Valdes and made an appointment for him at the neurology clinic of the Henry Ford Hospital two days after the scheduled bout.

RING PHYSICIAN INFORMED

"I noticed there was considerable difference in his reflexes between his left and right side," Dr. Bennett said. "I checked further and discovered that John could feel no pain in his left side and that this condition extended from his left foot right up through his face. He could not feel needles I pushed in his left side. I pushed one needle all the way in and John could not feel it.

"After John told me he was going to fight anyway I felt it was my duty to notify the boxing commission secretary [William Matney], who notified the ring physician [Dr. Leo Kallman]. I don't know why they allowed him to fight."

Dr. Kallman said he was indeed informed of Summerlin's numbness. Because of it, he said, he conducted a reflex test. The test: running a fingernail file over the length of John's left side. John said he could feel the file and that satisfied Dr. Kallman.

"All I can go on is what the fighter tells me," he said. "All these fighters say they feel fine."

On the basis of Dr. Kallman's report Summerlin was allowed to fight. When it was over Matney urged that Summerlin be taken to the Henry Ford Hospital.

There the condition was diagnosed as hypesthesia, an impairment of sensation associated with a "confluence of tiny hemorrhages in the brain," though the cause is unknown. Summerlin is, it was decided, "permanently disabled for boxing." The condition will not necessarily get worse unless he is injured again.

Kid Gavilan is still around and, in fact, winning more than he loses. One of the shrewder showmen of our time, the old welterweight champion has been matched to meet Yama Bahama at Miami Beach in a televised Wednesday nighter June 18. Since Gavilan has been beating such considerable opponents as Walter Byars, Gaspar Ortega and Ralph (Tiger) Jones over the past nine months he is favored to defeat Yama, a Bimini fisherman of such pleasant disposition that he never has realized the potential of his physique and skill.

On the following Friday night (June 20) Mike DeJohn returns to television in his home town, Syracuse, N.Y., where he lost recently to Nino Valdes, partly because Valdes had so bloodied Mike's tender nose that he could scarcely breathe. This time he will be in against none other than Bob Baker, who from time to time decides to quit the ring but never sticks by his decision. On the basis that Baker, once equipped with fast and dextrous hands, is now slowed down to a walk, and on the further basis that DeJohn is one of the mightier punchers among the heavyweights, it seems reasonable to expect a DeJohn victory. Just so long as he keeps his nose clean.

PHOTOFOR THE FIFTH OF EIGHT KNOCKDOWNS, AKINS CAUGHT MARTINEZ WITH A SOLID RIGHT HAND AS HE BOUNCED OFF THE ROPES PHOTOFIGHT FAN KAREN AKINS, 8, "JUST KNEW" HER DADDY WOULD BE THE CHAMPION PHOTOUNABLE to feel pain in his left side, Johnny Summerlin took a hard right (center) from Nino Valdes and then, in trying to rise, found his left leg would not support him. He got up by putting full weight on his right leg but by then he had been counted out. A Michigan boxing commission doctor had been advised of his condition before the fight.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)