Gypsy Joe: fire and music and miniculture

Joe Harris burst upon New York—and welterweight king Curtis Cokes—like an infant Muhammad Ali. He danced and feinted and landed just often enough to win a fight his opponent was having little part of
April 10, 1967

His name is Gypsy Joe Harris, and he should be, it seems, in some toy window, along with Bellcycle Rabbit and Bruno, The Spectacle Bear. He is 5'5", his legs are bowed, his stomach protrudes, and the head, shaven and like an old, scuffed marble, belongs to some 20th Century-Fox Mongolian warrior. Call him boxing's contribution to miniculture. Last week he crashed into Madison Square Garden like a wrecker's steel ball.

Gypsy's opponent in his first New York appearance, an over-the-weight nontitle bout, was Curtis Cokes, fighting for the second time in New York. Cokes is the welterweight champion, but hardly anyone really believes this except the World Boxing Association, an organization equally unbelievable. Nobody gave Cokes much of a chance against Harris, either—not even Cokes, a laconic, inconspicuous gentleman from Dallas who does not inspire thunder-clapping flack.

"I know if I don't knock him out," he said before the fight, "I don't win."

He was right. Harris, whose name and abilities were trumpeted louder than those of any newcomer to New York in years, unanimously decisioned Cokes for his 17th straight victory, but the fight seemed much closer than most of those present concluded. True, Harris was the aggressor ("If he don't make the fight they got to fumigate the joint," said one observer), but Cokes was a neat technician at times—that is, if you were careful to watch him. Gypsy's style dominates any fight.

There has never been a style like Gypsy's. It is all fire and music. Rockin' music. It comes at you from off the wall, even from the moment he steps into the ring, a black hood over his head, a three-quarter-length, double-breasted, red-satin jacket with a black bow on the back as his robe. That alone, at least in Philadelphia, is enough to break up a place, but there is much more to come when he sheds the robe.

His punches pile out from all angles, and they are thrown from any position. He is a machine gun and a jester, with a Chaplinesque walk and the brass of a pickpocket. Frequently, with his arms dangling by his sides, he gives you his chin to hit, and sometimes, in a corner, he will hold the rope with one hand and keep cracking you with the other.

"I don't make plans," he says. "I just fight. The guys I fight don't know what I'm gonna do next, because I don't know what I'm doing."

Against Cokes, Harris was a bit more subdued than he generally is, but he did take enormous risks, rolling in with his arms folded by his chest and his chin stuck out. He wanted Cokes to bang him, to flurry with him, but the champion declined. Instead Cokes stayed outside, pawing at Harris with soft jabs and rocking him with good right hands. Harris caught more solid shots than anybody would admit.

It was obvious that Cokes was the more effective puncher in the fight. In two of the major wars, corner fighting in the eighth and 10th rounds. Cokes dealt out the most punishment. But in the end Cokes beat himself. He simply did not fight enough. He was beaten by a performer who reminds you of a ball club that knocks you over with slow rollers, bunts and pop flies that nobody can reach. Gypsy, despite a sharp, damaging left hook that was on target throughout Friday night's fight, is not a devastating puncher. He depends on volume to mark you up. He is an animal in the ring, and he has to be handled like one. Had Cokes been less timorous, he might have had his knockout, and nobody would be wondering still who the welterweight champion is.

The question now is where is Gypsy going?

Gypsy Joe Harris is a Philadelphia fighter. Professionally, that means he is a savage who would fight you if you had a whip in your hand. Historically, that means his future, his chance for greatness, is suspect.

Always they come out of Philadelphia with the same equipment; great heart and a sweet purity of skill. Somewhere they lose it quickly. They lose it in the gyms, where wars are fought every day. Nobody just spars in a Philadelphia gym. He fights, and each victory, because of the bitter competitiveness between boxers, trainers and managers, seems to become more important than an official success, say, in Washington or Baltimore. No one knows how many careers have been left behind in these dark holes jammed with desperate kids.

"All these kids, they're animals." says Peg Leg Bates, a manager and trainer. "They got to be, if they wanna survive here. That's why I just don't take any old boy. When a boy comes around here and says he wants to fight I do some checkin". I go 'round to their homes, and if the mother and father is livin' and the house is kinda neat, you know, then I tell him, no, I'm not gonna let him fight. If he ain't livin' with nobody but a relative who don't care and the house is lookin' like it oughta be torn down, then I say, yeah, boy, you can be a fighter."

The Philadelphia fighter, if he survives the gyms, often gets whipped by the night. The good fighter gets respect in the neighborhoods, but if he is very, very good he becomes a badge the hustlers wear on their lapels, and soon the night, with all its throbbing music and cooing foxes, is calling. This is the route many of them have taken in Philadelphia. The world, success, begins and ends in Philadelphia.

"They don't do no listenin' down here," says one trainer. "You try tellin' 'em what's out there waiting for 'em, but all they ever hearin' is that rockin' music and everybody tellin' 'em what big men they are."

Gypsy Joe isn't going to leave it all behind in any gym. He does not like the gym, or the loneliness of training. He prefers the action around Columbia and Ridge, where the race riots once occurred. One time when he became suspicious that Joe Frazier, his stablemate, who was training for a heavyweight fight with Doug Jones in Atlantic City, was receiving more attention than he was, Harris begged his trainer, Willie Reddish, to allow him to go to Atlantic City to train, too.

"He begged me," says Reddish, "but he didn't have to. I wanted to get him out of that neighborhood, anyway."

"That's right," says Yank Durham, his cotrainer, "and then when he got to Atlantic City he's sick all the time. I know what he's sick for, though. He was sick for Columbia and Ridge. He didn't like it in camp. Too quiet. He had to work, too. Joe, he didn't want to wash dishes or anything. He's a star, he say. He can't eat in camp, either. Like in the city, you see him walkin' around with his pockets bulgin' with candy."

Durham and Reddish, although they laugh most of the time, know they have their hands full, but they cannot do much about it. Gypsy lives the way he fights: cool it and don't get all strung out over fighting or living. "We do the best we can with him," says Reddish, scratching his head. "Only way you keep him in a gym is put one of those big, old German shepherds by the door. He ain't gonna do no movin' then." Willie was smiling, but the Garden wasn't when Gypsy disappeared for three days at one point during his training for the Cokes fight.

"Where were you?" Gypsy was asked.

"Around," he said.

"Around where?"

"Anywhere the wild goose flies," he said, tugging at his checkered cap, which hung over one eye.

"Where's the party after you win?" somebody asked.

"Ain't gonna be no party, man," he said. "This ain't my town. I'm from Philadelphia. I don't belong here."

He does now, but he just does not know it. He is the biggest thing to hit New York and the Garden in a long time. He is a natural in the ring and at the box office, and the Garden is not apt to let him stray far. One hopes that he is not just a natural Philadelphia fighter.

PHOTOLEANING BACK A LA ALI, HIS GUARD A GHOST, GYPSY MAKES COKES MISS BADLY

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)