Two days before defending his WBA bantamweight championship, Joltin' Jeff Chandler was explaining the difference between boxing and South Philly street fighting: "In the street, you lead with your power. Oh my, yes! In the ring, you touch them first. Then you lower the boom."
And that is exactly what happened last Saturday at the Resorts International Hotel in Atlantic City. Chandler was fighting the man he had taken the title from last November, Julian Solis, a 24-year-old Puerto Rican. With nearly 21 minutes gone in the fight, Chandler threw a left jab at Solis—the same left he had been missing with most of the afternoon. Solis leaned back and the left barely brushed him. That was the touch. Then, with startling speed, Chandler lowered the boom, a straight right hand that caught Solis on the chin. "The right was on its way before the left had really extended itself," Chandler said afterward. Solis staggered forward, clutching at Chandler as he fell. "When he rolled over onto his back, I could see his eyes cross," Chandler said and smiled. The champion, once accused of being a patty-cake puncher, guessed that that right hand may have been the most devastating blow of his career. It ended the fight at 2:58 of the seventh round, extending his record to 26 wins, no losses and two draws.
An hour later he was slipping his greyhound-taut body into a whirlpool full of great, fleshy gamblers. The 5'7", 115-pound Chandler is well known in Atlantic City, where he has fought six times, and he graciously accepted the congratulations that were showered on him. Then he spoke of what will probably be his next defense—not in the ring but in the courtroom. Chandler faces a charge of possession of cocaine, and his trial has been set for late September in Philadelphia. The incident occurred in early June as he was driving his wife, Charlotte, to the hospital. A policeman stopped him, and when Chandler handed the officer his wallet, two packets of coke allegedly fell out. "It's a very heavy charge, but I'm innocent," Chandler says earnestly. A conviction could mean the loss of his title, and right now that's a greater threat to him than any bantamweight fighter on the horizon. In the past six months Chandler has defended the 118-pound championship against the top three WBA contenders, and the WBC champion, Lupe Pintor, apparently wants none of him. "I'm just trying to protect the title," Chandler said last week. "I hope I'll have the same outcome in my trial as I did in this fight."
Chandler, who will be 25 on Sept. 3, is the first American bantamweight champion in 30 years. The last was Manuel Ortiz, a Los Angeles fighter who held the title in 1950. Remarkably, Chandler never stepped into a ring until he was 19. He still remembers the date—Oct. 6, 1975—when he followed a friend into the Juniper Gym in South Philadelphia for his first workout. "I paid my dues the next day and I haven't looked back since," he says. But Chandler had a good job as a foreman with a waterbed manufacturer, and he entertained no intentions of pursuing boxing as a career. "I was working, but there wasn't a sport in my life," he recalls. "I just wanted to stay in shape." At first he boxed as a southpaw—because, as mentioned above, in the streets of South Philly one leads with one's power, which in Chandler's case meant his right—but the coach at the gym, Pat Patterson, turned him around. And he saw something in the kid. "I was rough," Chandler says, "but I had good hands and a good heart."
As with so many top fighters. Chandler's hands and heart were the product of his environment. He learned to fight out of necessity. As a kid he was constantly challenged because, as he says, "everybody wants to fight the little guy because that's a win, right? Only pretty soon I got a reputation for having good hands. But I was also very smart and a very good talker." Walking to school, he had to pass through other neighborhoods, other "turf." The boys there would demand a quarter or a dime to let him pass. "So I learned to punch them in the eye and run two miles home," he says. "That's how street gangs are formed. Ten guys from one neighborhood get together to walk to school, fight their way there and then fight their way back home. You help me and I'll help you."
In December 1975, a little more than two months after putting on the gloves for the first time, Chandler fought his entire amateur career in a single week. On Monday he knocked out his first opponent in the second round. On Friday he lost a split decision to a highly touted amateur with 75 fights behind him. "I thought I'd won," says Chandler. "I figured if I was already as good as a guy with that much experience, I'd just be wasting my time fighting amateur." So in February 1976 he turned pro.
Over the next two years, Chandler went 8-0-1, but only one of his wins was by knockout. "The jokes about not being able to dent a marshmallow had already started," he says. But in fact he was being matched against heavier opponents, featherweights mostly, because there just weren't that many bantams around. Further, he was just learning his craft. He was raw and prone to reaching instead of putting what little weight he had behind a punch.
Late in 1977, Chandler's manager, Arnold Giovanetti, disappeared without a trace. Giovanetti's car was found at the Philadelphia airport, but he hasn't been seen or heard from since. "It makes you wonder what kind of a sport you're getting into," Chandler says. He approached Willie O'Neill, a jovial white-haired Irishman who was always hanging around the gym and going to the fights. O'Neill is regarded locally as a walking encyclopedia of boxing. He even remembers Manuel Ortiz. Chandler asked him to be his manager.
Chandler asked him a second time.
This time O'Neill, a retired operating engineer who had no interest in managing, thought of a solution. Her name was K.O. Becky O'Neill (nèe Birenbaum), his wife.
"With me as manager," K.O. Becky says, "we knew Joltin' Jeff would get more publicity, because I'm a midget, a pixie, a Jewish shamrock." Check the box marked: all of the above. She's 4'8", 87 pounds, and two minutes after she meets you, she'll challenge you to try to lift her off the ground. Don't bite. Her pixieish thumbs press into some nerve center in your wrist, and 87 pounds might as well be 87 tons. Or if you're so foolish as to try to lift her by the elbows, she will practically dislocate her shoulders to forestall you. Muhammad Ali failed to get her off the ground in front of 400 people at his training camp. Last Friday night Sugar Ray Leonard crept up behind her at the casino to try it, but like the Titanic, K.O. Becky refused to be raised.
Vaudeville lovers of the '40s might remember K.O. Becky as Tiny Baron, who was Madison Square Garden's national jitterbugging champion between 1944 and '46 and part of a successful nightclub comedy act. "I saw her show a hundred times," Willie O'Neill says, "and I giggled every time."
K.O. Becky, now 53, is the only woman manager with a world champion. She overcame such minor obstacles as the sign outside Juniper Gym that reads: MEMBERS ONLY—NO WOMEN ALLOWED, and, with her husband's advice, made it a policy to match Chandler against fighters his own weight. Chandler responded with 11 knockouts in his next 16 fights, culminating in his 14th-round KO over Solis in Miami to win the title.
Before Saturday's rematch, Chandler was miffed because he felt Solis wasn't reciprocating the respect he had shown Solis when Solis was champ. Indeed, at a press conference early in the week, Solis pushed Chandler disdainfully, inciting Joltin' Jeff to try to strangle him. When the two were separated, Solis walked away muttering, "He crazy, he crazy"—the first English words Chandler had ever heard Solis utter.
In the early rounds of their fight, the left jab Chandler had promised to stick in the challenger's face was ineffective, as time after time Solis ducked underneath and moved inside, delivering shots to the body. Then he would hold on. In the fourth round, Solis' best, he stung Chandler with three right hands to the left ear. But Chandler was showing no signs of tiring, and slowly the fight began to turn his way. In the fifth and sixth, having abandoned the jab, he started connecting with right hand leads and left hooks. Solis stopped coming in as aggressively. Then, in the closing seconds of the seventh round, Chandler showed the left one more time to set up that final thundering right.
"He tried to rough me up and stay close to me," Chandler said afterward. "Our strategy was to push him off, but he was a little too quick at first. When he started to tire, it worked just like Willie said it would."
Just about everything worked for the Chandler camp this weekend in Atlantic City. Joltin' Jeff bolted from the blackjack tables with $700 of Resorts International's money, in addition to the $80,000 he earned from the fight, and Willie's pockets bulged obscenely with 240 quarters he won when he hit the jackpot on a slot machine. As for K.O. Becky, she was sky-high with happiness, but her feet never left the ground.