The Alhambra Ballroom in Philadelphia was once a movie theater: now it is used chiefly for roller skating. The walls are pink, the ill-advised pink of dyed poodles, with red cutouts of cupids and hearts pasted here and there. From the ceiling hangs a great fringe of tinsel. As Bill Nieder, who is the Olympic shotput champion and world record holder, waited last week in a dressing room in the Alhambra for his first professional prizefight, he could hear the promises and laments of love bleating over the loudspeaker, the restive whistlings and stampings of the audience, someone yelling, "Bring on the broads!" and, as the first bout started, two violent shouts: "Kick him in da troat!" and, "A shotputta! What's a putta? Some kind a golfa?" He said later in the week: "I felt out of place; like a little lost puppet, you might say."
Nieder, who is 26, is certainly not little. He stands 6 feet 3 and weighs 216 pounds. Until he started training to become a boxer a few months ago, he weighed 242. "He used to drink two-and-a-half gallons of milk a day," said W. G. Johnson, one of his managers. "It made him sluggish." "I miss my food," said Nieder, wistfully. "I can't throw down all the cake and ice cream I want. Pastries make a soft stomach." He is also, obviously, uncommonly strong. One of his hobbies is holding, at arm's length in front of his chest, a bar bell weighing 300 pounds.
Although Nieder has a cheerful disposition, in the week before the fight he was at turns melancholy, apprehensive and, indeed, lost. "You're looking at a nervous boy," he said one day. "I've had more difficulty sleeping in Philadelphia than at any time in my life. Maybe it's because it's my first fight. I don't know if it is thinking about the fight or being in a fighting atmosphere.... I dread to go into the gym. Back home [Nieder lives in Santa Monica] I loved to go to the gym. Not that I've lost confidence. It's not knowing. Thinking about it all the time. In the beginning of the week I was real depressed, at the bottom of the world. What am I doing in the boxing business? I'm sick of boxing, of the gym. The last two days I couldn't relax. I lay in bed with my eyes wide open. It's difficult to learn how to relax. That's the secret of all sports." Yet, at other times, Nieder carelessly insisted he was ready to fight Floyd Patterson. If Patterson had been his opponent instead of a pants presser named Jim Wiley, the Alhambra would have been declared a disaster area.
Nieder, however, had no delusions that his size and strength would alone make him a proficient boxer. "It's not all brawn in the ring," he said judiciously. "Size doesn't necessarily mean you can hit a whole lot harder, but I think you can hit harder proportionately. Taking a blow is another thing. Our heads are all about the same size."
May 28, 1961
A graduate of the University of Kansas, Nieder did not become a boxer, if, in fact, he has become one, out of economic necessity. It was, instead, a matter of ego, a compulsion to see how he would fare in the ring with his legendary strength. There is a story that he once killed a cow with a single blow. "I'd rather not talk about that," Nieder said. "They've made me out to be the crudest man in the world." There is also a story that he was a spirited, awesome bouncer in a San Francisco joint called The Red Garter. "I just worked the door," Nieder pleaded. "Checked ID cards." "Let's say he was a man seeking order," said W. G. Johnson, for history.
Besides boxing, Nieder has some pretensions to acting. This stems from his being taken in by a fellow who told him he had arranged for him to play Jack Dempsey in a film of Dempsey's life. "I'm one of those unfortunate people with a college education," Nieder said, "who are taken in by phony baloney." Once in Hollywood, however, he enrolled in dramatic school at the Desilu Studios. "I've played," Nieder said, "the mean detective in Detective Story who learns his wife had an affair with another man. I find out, fly in a rage, tell her to get out, the end. I played the lover in Casablanca who has been dating a woman he hadn't realized was married. I find she had been married but hadn't told me, thought her husband had been killed, I get very upset, the end. I played the stoker in The Hairy Ape. You know, a world I don't belong."
A highly paid protégé
Nieder is indulged in these endeavors by a fortuitously named outfit—J.A.B. Enterprises. J.A.B. stands for the three partners: Johnson, who says he is in "finance, merger, acquisitions and underwriting"; John Alexander, an engineer and builder; and Dr. William Boyd, an otolaryngologist. Nieder, who has signed a six-year contract with J.A.B., draws $200 in salary a week; J.A.B., hopefully, gets 50% of his boxing earnings and 25% of his commercial wages. "He's the highest-paid protégé in history," said Johnson, proudly.
He's also no bargain, W.G. It was obvious after the fight that it should never have occurred. In fact, Jersey Joe Walcott, who trained Nieder in Philadelphia, said (again after the fight) that he told Johnson he should pull out because Nieder wasn't ready. It was true, too, that Nieder was overmatched, but perhaps that was just as well, whatever Wiley's record was. Wiley said he didn't know how many fights he had had; the Pennsylvania commission said he had had 10, winning five, losing five; the Philadelphia newspapers variously reported it as 9-10-6 and 11-9-6; the Ring Record Book says 3-9-3. Certainly, Wiley didn't look like a fighter. He looked like a somewhat overweight, balding Nasser with extensive sideburns. But at the opening bell Wiley rushed tumultuously across the ring into the astonished Nieder, who grabbed him about the waist, whereupon they wrestled furiously like Hercules and Antaeus for several ludicrous moments. At no time in the two minutes the fight lasted did Nieder throw a worthwhile punch, but worse still, and sadly, he had not the faintest notion how to defend himself. Whenever they untangled themselves, Wiley, who later was cheered by his buddies as "Wiley, The Giant Killer," would throw as many punches as he could. One of these, a left, floored Nieder. He bounced up at one, bewildered. In the ensuing melee Wiley hit the incredibly hapless Nieder at will, or would have but for the collisions and entangling misalliances. Finally, a right, I believe it was, sent Nieder, in his pretty white shoes, crashing through the ropes and out of the ring. He disappeared below the first row of spectators. Then he stood up, apparently a vast, naked man in the crowd, and, with the good-humored support of those around him, tried to climb back into the ring. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your feelings), he failed in his first attempt, like a drunk trying to climb stairs. On his second he made it but stumbled over the middle strand and went flying into the ring much as he had gone out, as though a film of the fight had been reversed. By the time he rose, the count had been completed.
"The kid got fighting heart," Walcott announced in the dressing room, "but he shouldn't have been fighting for another three or four months." Both are indisputable statements. "The finesse of fighting I do not have," said Nieder, also indisputably. "I definitely need defense. I'm very embarrassed. I want to prove to people I'm not so terrible and clumsy. I have no one to blame but Ole Bill Nieder. But if I had not gone into boxing, I'd have never known; there would have been a frustrated feeling inside myself. I want one more fight to prove to myself this isn't a fluke. Patience and relaxation is the key. It's a matter of conquering the mind. You know, when you throw an iron ball it doesn't come back at you."