Big Julie is a talker—not the oratorical kind, but compulsive, like the characters who show up around paddocks with racing programs in one hand, cigars in the other and enough advice to lose a thousand races. Julie's last name is Isaacson. He loves the track and cigars, but these are not his only sporting diversions. Occasionally he is also seen around the fights. This is because he has a boxer named Ernie Terrell, a very long and very pleasant young man who is quite a talker himself. Taken together, Big Julie and Bigger Ernie are engaging originals—and sometimes they are almost as good as they sound.
Terrell is 6 feet 6 inches tall, and he weighs about 200 pounds. On March 5 in Chicago he is fighting Eddie Machen for the heavyweight championship of the world—a title held at the moment, in the eyes of the world and everyone but Big Julie and the World Boxing Association, by Muhammad Ali-Cassius Clay. "I don't really win it until I beat Clay," said Julie the other day, using an I that meant we, in the manner of generals and field marshals. "I don't know I am going to get him in there with me."
Terrell is handsome and, in his quiet way, as outspoken and as confident as Clay. While Machen is the man he is meeting now, Cleveland Williams is the man he was supposed to fight before Williams was shot in the stomach during a hard disagreement with a policeman near Houston. Terrell repaired to Chicago to get himself ready for the fight against Machen not long ago and in search of guidance he called Big Julie, who, right then, was busy being president of the Electrical Novelty Workers Union Local No. 118 in New York.
"Hi, Julie," he said. "I can't train in this YMCA, because the ring is right up against the wall. I get hit in the head on the ropes, my head hits the wall and I don't like that."
March 1, 1965
"So?" Big Julie hollered, loud enough for people to hear it in Chicago without the phone. "You got to fight, not me. So find a good place."
"O.K.," Ernest said. "Any place?"
"Money don't matter," Big Julie hollered. "You be happy."
Terrell moved out of the YMCA the next day, and Big Julie went from New York to Miami Beach.
"I don't think I know enough about boxing to bug my fighter all the time," he said a day or so later, studying a racing form at Hialeah. "What I do, I get the best trainer I can get, I let him get the fighter ready. Am I going to tell him how to fight? I don't know. So I stay away from the training camp. I get very nervous two, three days before the race—I mean the fight. This No. 4 horse gets out of the gate fast, it can't miss."
Big Julie has been on a diet and he is not so big anymore. He used to weigh 250-odd pounds, but now he is under 230 and he looks trim.
While Big Julie was handicapping horses, Terrell was boxing in his new location in Chicago, an armory which had been converted into a gymnasium. It was cold in the armory, and there were only a few people watching him. He boxed two rounds against a light heavyweight named Allen Thomas, then two more against an overblown heavyweight named O. C. Talbert. He used his left hand very well; his left jab is genuinely strong and straight and it found the light heavyweight often, and although delivered with less than its full force, knocked the 225-pound heavyweight off balance. Once Terrell used 23 straight left hands before throwing a right.
"Something wrong with your right hand?" a member of his small audience asked him when the sparring was over. A polite man, Terrell reassured him with a negative shake of the head. Then he said: "The right hand is dangerous to throw, I don't use it until I know where it is going."
At Hialeah, Big Julie marked his program and nodded.
"I got to find Joe Louis," he said. "He's here somewhere. I know him, like I know lots of big athletes. Me, Big Julie from Brownsville in Brooklyn, used to shine shoes for lots of people. Now I know people like Roger Maris and Whitey Ford and Carmen Basilio. I got a den named the Carmen Basilio Room because I like Carmen so much. I want to name another room the Roger Maris Room, but my wife don't think so much of the idea. Roger, he's my best friend. He tells people I'm his best friend. How come they bad-mouth him?"
For those who doubt Julie's word, he really is Maris' best friend.
At the cold armory, Terrell finished his workout. He weighed out at 198 pounds and shook his head.
"I'm too light." he said. "I'd like to come in at 205. I can carry that." He is built very thin, like a jockey. His waist is small and so are his hips; his legs are slender and he is slightly knock-kneed. But, as with most successful athletes, there are pluses in his build. His chest and shoulders and arms are very strong.
He went away to dress, as Talbert, a powerful-looking man who was a good club fighter in the mid-'50s, watched.
"That's a tough left hand," he said. "It don't sting, it hurt. I'm making a comeback. I was good and I been in construction work. I think if I got time, I time that left hand, bloo! He don't hardly never use the right hand. You notice?"
The 4 horse sat in the gate at Hialeah, and by the time it started to run, it was far too late.
"I told myself a long time, don't bet that jock even if the race is over and the official sign is up and his horse win and I got a license to bet all the $2 tickets I want to after the race is over." It was Big Julie speaking again, bitterly. "How can I be so uneducated?" he asked in an anguished growl. He threw away his ticket and started the long walk back to the paddock.
"I'll go to Chicago about two weeks before the fight," Big Julie said. "That Terrell is a good man. Last year there's this fight in St. Louis. It ain't really a fight, it's a program for maybe 10 charities—Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, 10 charities, one way or another. So they want Ernie to fight, they give me a contract for $3,000. They got George Jessel, Tony Martin, all kinds of big stars. So the priest gives me the contract, says $3,000, and I look at it and I say, 'How much these big stars gonna get?' and he says, 'Nothing.' So I sign the contract, then I tear it up and I say, 'Write it again for $1.' "
Big Julie halted and stared at his companion. Julie is dark, but his eyes are light blue and they express something his heavy voice cannot when he is exercised. "So I fight there," he said. "I'm fighting some bum and I win, and when it is over, I tell Ernie, I say, 'You go out there and tell them next year you gonna come back as the heavyweight champion of the world and you gonna fight for that same dollar. And he did and all them famous people got up and stood on their feet and they give him a standing ovation."
He shook his head in admiration of both Big Julie and Ernie.
"Then he took out his guitar and he played them three songs and Bob Hope come on and he said, 'How am I going to follow a man like that? Can't only fight, but can play the guitar and sing.' "
Back in Chicago, Terrell was dressed and ready to leave the gym. He wore an elegant light-brown suit and he stopped for a moment to talk to some of his brothers. He is one of 10 children—there are seven boys and three girls in the family. His father owned a 60-acre farm in Mississippi until Ernie was 12, then moved his family to Chicago so that the children could get a better education.
"Come on up to my room," Ernie said softly. "We can play a little music."
"I know Ernie don't throw the right hand enough," Big Julie said, studying his racing form. "He can knock you cold with the left, so he use the left a lot. But he knocked out Bob Foster with the right hand, so he got a good right, no matter what they say. If he just use it more. This No. 2 horse, if it can get out of the gate, it can't lose."
He walked over to a group of jockeys' agents and began to shoot the breeze, which with Big Julie is something more like working up a gale. He has a thing about betting on Bob Ussery because Ussery is a neighbor of his on Long Island. He was looking for someone to tout him on Ussery's horse and he had no trouble finding his man.
"He gets a horse out fast," the informant said, in answer to several loud and leading questions.
When the race started, Ussery's horse was counting flamingos on the Hialeah infield. It lost. Walking back to the paddock, Big Julie tried to forget the race.
"I got a big mouth," he said. "So I know it. I don't mind. I got three terms high school, I'm president of a union local. I made the local myself. But I want my fighters to get educated. I miss it. I don't laugh at educated people the way some do. I had Billy Daniels. He beat Clay. They give the decision the wrong way, and it took eight cops to keep me off them. But I paid Daniels' way through school. He went through barber school, now he's got rent property, got his own barber shop, he don't have to worry. Ernie, he's got his music. And he's confident, too. Not big mouth, like me. Confident."
On the way to the Sheraton-Chicago Hotel, Terrell went over the current crop of heavyweights.
"I got to rank me first," he said seriously. For all his quiet mannerisms, there is nothing bashful or backward about Ernie Terrell, who is, in this one sense, as articulate an appreciator of his own skills as Big Julie. "The next best is got to be Sonny Liston. After him come Williams. Clay I don't figure better than 4 and Patterson is No. 5. Eddie Machen, No. 6, Zora Folley, No. 7. Then the German—what is his name? Mildenberger? Maybe so. Anyway, he the 9. I left out 8, but that George Chuvalo. And Billy Daniels 10."
He settled himself uncomfortably in the back seat of the car, trying to find room for his long legs.
"They is no way for Machen to fight me," he said. "Only way he wind up even, he don't even get in the ring.
"Patterson don't have nothing left. No way possible for him to beat me. I don't think he would ever accept a fight with me. Whatever he can do I can do better. I got too much height for one thing. He couldn't ever reach me. I could take advantage of my advantage with him."
Big Julie was talking to a jockey's agent at Hialeah. But for once he was unnaturally quiet, his face cast in serious bronze. He came back away from the agent studying his program.
"No. 2 horse gets out of the gate, it gonna walk in," he said. "Probably pay $9 and change."
He marked his program and looked up at the big board near the paddock which flickered with the late odds changes.
"Patterson," he said. "How can you figure the Garden giving him the big shot? Second time he fought there in what? Six year? I ain't ever going to fight in the Garden again. They don't give my fighters a break, I ain't going to give them a break. How do I need the Garden? They's lots of other places in the country to fight. Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia. Lots of places. I don't need the Garden. I ain't in this business for money. I'm in it because I like fighters. I like athletes. I was a pitcher for seven years in the Dodger farm system. I was a kid and I didn't know from what to do. I mean now, I know what I do, I would of been serious. Then, I was a cocky kid. Durocher, he liked me because I was cocky. But I wasn't serious enough. Now, I'd be serious. But that ain't what we been talking about. I don't like the Garden, I don't like Patterson. I figure him a cancer on boxing. Never fought the good ones coming up. He did more to hurt boxing than anyone."
Terrell was getting out of the car in Chicago. The weather was unseasonably warm, and he carried his overcoat on his arm. "I got the advantage on Clay, too," he said. "When he lean back with both hands down to get away from a shot at his head, the short man, he can't reach him. But I'm taller than he is. I can reach him with the left hand. Maybe with the right. Either one, it gonna hurt him bad."
He hauled out the case carrying his guitar and tucked it under his arm. "Patterson and Clay," he said. "I call them wetback champions. They was smuggled in as champions. Didn't fight me, didn't fight Cleveland Williams. Didn't fight any real good fighters. Had to be smuggled up to the championship."
His brothers and a sister and friends came with him, and he went to a small suite in the Sheraton-Chicago, headquarters for the fight. Terrell's background is different from that of most fighters. His father, the Mississippi farming days long since behind him, now makes a fairly comfortable living as a silverplater in Chicago. "I never been hungry in my life," he says. "We always had enough."
At Hialeah, Big Julie placed his bet and walked out to watch the horses being led into the gate. "This horse don't like to get in the gate early," he said. "Man told me they going to lead him in last. He's a horse like I was a boy—itchy. In Brownsville I didn't have no easy shot when I was a kid. I shined shoes, worked on a bagel truck, delivered groceries. I shined shoes for guys like Abe Reles, who got his out a Coney Island window, Pittsburgh Phil Strauss, Duke Maffetore, Dasher Abbandando, guys like that. Tough guys. I didn't know who they was, but I knew they was tough. Then I played baseball and for some time I put eyes in dolls in a doll factory. I was athletic director in the Catskills. I done all kind of things. But I loved athletes, not hoodlums. I could of gone the wrong way. You got to have moxie to go the right way. A Jewish kid from Brownsville."
In Chicago, Terrell was unlimbering his guitar. It is a beautiful instrument, hooked up to a glittering amplifier and to loudspeakers. He touched the strings of the guitar and began to sing. His voice is baritone and pleasing, and the song he sang was one of the 50-odd he has written. This one was called Dear Abby and was directed to Abigail Van Buren, writer of the column for the lovelorn, asking her advice on what to do about a lost love.
"I don't know much about his singing," Julie said at Hialeah. "I know he conned me out of the amplifier just before the fight with Doug Jones. He come to me in the hotel the afternoon of the fight and say, 'Julie, come for a walk!'
" 'Gid outa here,' I told him. 'I ain't fighting. You're fighting. I don't feel like a walk.'
" 'Julie,' he says, in that quiet mouth, 'I got something to show you.' I don't want to see it,' I said. 'Tell me what is it.'
"But he won't tell me and he won't tell me, and finally I say I ain't going with, no matter what, and he says he sees this amplifier in the window and he wants to buy it. 'How much?' I ask him, thinking nine, 10 dollars, who is that going to hurt?
"A hundred and fifty, he tells me and I like to go out of my mind. But he was very serious, and I figure this way about a fighter. If he is unhappy, he ain't no good to me or to him or to anyone else. I got maybe $20,000 in Terrell so what is a yard and a half? So, O.K., I say to him, 'You get it for a hundred and it's yours.' I give him the hundred. A friend of mine goes with him and sure enough he gets it, for a hundred."
Terrell's family is not one that would be called musical. That is, his parents did not surround the children with music or training. They had neither themselves, any more than they had an ancient Mississippi boxing background to hand on to their offspring. But there is definite talent—more, perhaps, than Ernie realizes.
"They is only four of us is musical," he said. "Me, J. C, Leonard and Jean. And I didn't study about the guitar until just before a fight maybe four years ago. I didn't have anything to do in training camp, and I bought a secondhand guitar and fooled around with it. I never studied music, but I like it. I got a group called the Astronauts, we play spots around in Chicago. And I want to make some tapes and see if I can sell them. Fighting for me is just a way up. When I get through, I want to go to college, get me a business. I don't know what business; maybe music."
He began to sing, and Jean and Leonard and J. C. joined him, the voices blending cleanly. The song was one of his own and it sounded like folk music, not rock 'n' roll. The long fingers of his left hand flickered easily over the frets and the right hand strummed the strings.
Julie was on his way back to his seat to watch the race, sure that Ussery's mount was a shoo-in. Suddenly, he stopped.
"There's Joe," he said and walked over to intercept Joe Louis. Louis looks fit, but old. He greeted Julie warmly. They moved aside to talk privately for a moment, then Julie came back.
"I got him," he said. "He's going to come to Chicago, show Ernie how to throw that right hand. With the left he got, if he can throw a right like Louis, he's gonna be the champion for sure. I don't see how I can miss. I'm gonna be the next heavyweight champion. Me, the kid from Brooklyn."
In Chicago, Leonard, the youngest of the Terrell children, took over the guitar and played hesitantly, but well. Most of the Terrell boys are tall—Ernie is the tallest—but Leonard, at 15, is not. As he played and Jean, the youngest sister, sang in a voice as clear and melodious as Joan Baez', Ernie pondered his chances for getting a match with Clay.
"If Liston win, I'm gonna be all right," he said. "Liston will fight me. But I told you, Patterson don't want any part of Terrell. And here's what Clay gonna do. He got to fight Liston. If he beat Liston, he's trying to con that poor Patterson into the ring with him. When he beat Patterson, you think he gonna fight me? I don't. I imagine Clay will go to the graveyard and try to dig someone else to fight."
Leonard gave him back the guitar and Ernie started another song. Big Julie's horse, with Ussery up, was leading by four lengths as it turned into the stretch. Another horse made a run at it, and Ussery went to the whip. As he tried to change the whip from one hand to the other, he dropped it and then lost the reins. As he grabbed for them, he caught only one. The horse behind came on strong and caught Ussery's in the stretch. Sadly, Julie tore up his ticket. "Got left in the gate," he said, speaking as much for himself as for those around him. "Then the man got to drop his whip."
He started to leave the track and stopped. "I better get to Chicago early," he said. "I got to make sure Ernie gets off his stool in a hurry."