Joltin' Jeff Chandler rolls a red-hot cherry gumdrop around in his mouth and tries to think big. He has been the WBA bantamweight (118 pounds) champ for 2½ years, and in a few hours on this day last July he'll move up temporarily to the super bantamweight (122-pound) division. For now, he's watching a monster movie in his Atlantic City hotel room. The monster on the screen grows larger and larger. Chandler gets inspired. "When the lizard guy came out of the jelly, he was the size of one of my toes!" Chandler says. "Now they're sending planes, tanks, helicopters at him, but he just smacks everything out of the sky and throws big pieces of wall at them. Wow." "Wow" is the operative word in Chandler's vocabulary.
By the time he gets to the weigh-in, he thinks he's the Creature From the Black Lagoon. Forget about his opponent. Hector Cortez, a 33-year-old from Ecuador. Chandler is ready to take on the 101st Airborne.
"I am the Lizard Guy," he shouts. Chandler pounds on his chest like Tarzan of the Weightwatchers. He puffs, snorts and stares down Cortez like a freeze-dried Muhammad Ali. He's got the errant charm of a guy in the 56th minute of a happy hour.
"Cut it out, Becky, I mean Jeff," says Russell Peltz, the promoter. "Becky?" the Lizard Guy says incredulously. "The man calls me Becky? Aw, shucks!"
Becky is Chandler's pigtailed manager, "K.O. Becky" O'Neill. A lot of people think she's a midget. "I ain't a midget," she explains in a voice that sounds like a pair of mating cheese graters. "I'm a Jewish pixie. Midgets are three-foot-five. I'm four-foot-eight."
Chandler, who's 5'7", feints and shadowboxes in the direction of his 5'9" foe. "Lemme at him," he roars as Becky does her best to restrain him.
"That's enough of these antics," says Roy Johnson, the New Jersey deputy boxing commissioner. "Jeff, you're a champ. Act like one. If you don't, I'm gonna cut 10 percent off your purse."
The Lizard Guy looks ready to hide under a rock. "Wow!" he whispers to K.O. "I'm a big fighter, and he wants me to be a quiet little boy. If I was Ali...."
"You're not," says his trainer, K.O.'s husband, Willie O'Neill.
Chandler bites hard on his lip. But soon he returns to the psych-out routine. "Gonna take Cortez' eyes out," he says, less forcefully. Chandler wants to find out how Cortez is holding up.
"Cortez is used to fighting big guys," Peltz reports back. "He asked me, 'What's with the shrimp?' "
That's the problem with being bantamweight champ. You don't get no respect. Chandler, 27, is the first American to hold the title since California's Manuel Ortiz in 1950. Latins and Orientals dominate the division, and the WBA keeps threatening to strip Chandler of his title unless he fights second-raters from Seoul to San Salvador.
Chandler has beaten Eijiro Murata of Japan three times in mandatory defenses, twice in the same year. He had to fight the unheralded Miguel Iriate of Panama, and he taunted and teased and tormented Iriate before taking him out in the ninth round. "They put me in the ring with nobodies," Chandler says. "Iriate was a clown, so I did the clowning." Chandler feigned wooziness, threw mock bolo punches and tottered around. "The WBA embarrassed me," he says, "so I embarrassed them."
For some unfathomable reason the three networks, which this year have televised 76 fights in all divisions, have virtually ignored this exciting American champion. The Cortez fight, which Chandler easily won by a decision, was televised by NBC. But only four of Chandler's seven title defenses have been shown on national TV, and his biggest purse has been $200,000, lizard feed compared to what a lot of pretenders are pulling down in other divisions.
Chandler isn't macho, and his punches don't go boom-boom, but he's smart, rarely gets hit and has an effective, quick left jab. "I'm a three-armed fighter," he says. "I'm able to slip in an extra punch with my extra arm."
With nothing much left in the bantamweight division, Chandler has made overtures to his WBC counterpart, Lupe Pintor, for a unification match, but nothing has come of it. And he had hoped to fight Wilfredo Gomez, but the WBC junior featherweight champion moved up to featherweight before Chandler could make his intentions known. "Sometimes I feel like I'm the only bantamweight in the world," he says.
So he had to beat himself. In a non-title fight last July with Oscar (The Boxer) Muniz, Chandler delivered more punch lines than punches. He took the fight on a week's notice when ABC, which needed a replacement for the Eddie Mustafa Muhammad-Michael Spinks non-fight, came calling. Chandler trained for the fight by strolling down the Atlantic City boardwalk in a Groucho Marx disguise. He wanted to see if anybody would recognize him in glasses, a black mustache and a large white nose.
"Do you know who I am?" he asked a woman pushing a baby carriage.
"Rusty Staub?" answered the woman a little hesitantly.
"Guess again," Chandler said, shaking his head. "Guess again."
But the woman wasn't the guessing type. She threw him a strange sideways glance and pushed on fast.
"Come back!" Chandler yelled after her. "Don't you know who you've been talking to? I'm Joltin' Nose Chandler."
In the bout with Muniz, Chandler grimaced, groaned and grinned his way around the ring for 10 rounds, and lost a split decision by a single point—his first pro defeat after 33 wins and two draws. The Philadelphian opened up a cut the width of the Schuylkill River under Muniz' left eye in the second round. All Chandler had to do to ice the fight was try some boxing in the 10th round. But instead of sticking Muniz with his jab, Chandler stuck out his tongue. It was a performance deserving of an Academy Award. The crowd, which had booed Muniz before the bout, was chanting "Oscar, Oscar," by the end.
"I was not in the best of shape, and I got anxious when I saw I couldn't pick up my attack," Chandler explained later. "I fooled with Muniz to bring him in closer, but when he got in, I didn't feel like having him there, either. I felt like fighting, but my body didn't. When they announced I had lost, I figured this was the end of my career. I'd told myself that if I ever got beaten, I'd quit. So I was thinking, 'Wow! Maybe I've had it.' "
Chandler is obsessed with ensuring his place in boxing history. He wants to win titles in three divisions, which only seven men in history—Bob Fitzsimmons, Tony Canzoneri, Barney Ross, Henry Armstrong, Wilfred Benitez, Alexis Arguello and Roberto Duran—have done. He carries a Ring Record Book with him to all his fights. "I look in the book and see the Z-boys, Alfonso Zamora and Carlos Zarate, who made defense after defense," he says. "I get dizzy looking at all the defenses they had." He flips to page 909, which is worn from much thumbing. "Wow!" he says. "Look at this record. It's a great record."
It's his own. He scans the list. Chandler has faced two Americans in his last 22 fights and knocked out both.
"September 26, 1979," he says. "I hit Baby Kid Chocolate with a right jab and a left hook, and he melted.
"March 27, 1982. My fifth defense. Johnny (Bang-Bang) Carter, the Dancing Machine. I broke the machine down."
Chandler's plans to brighten his record by taking titles in two more divisions have been temporarily shelved by the loss to Muniz. Chandler will seek to settle his score in a rematch—with his title on the line—on Dec. 17 in Atlantic City.
There may be no more unusual trio in sports than Chandler, his manager and his trainer. They look like a family running a Ma-and-Pa hoagie shop in South Philly. Willie and K.O. dote on their champion like grandparents, which they are. "Willie and Becky are part of my strength," Chandler says. "I can go over to their house to eat and sleep or do anything I want. I'm in love with them, and they love me."
Willie took K.O. to her first fight in 1961. It was Joey Giardello vs. Jesse Smith in Philadelphia's Arena. Then the next year she saw Giardello, a local favorite, decision Henry Hank. "I never seen so much blood," she recalls. "I says, 'Willie, I'm not going back.' A week later he gets his coat and I says, 'Where you going?' And he says, 'To the fight.' And I says, 'I'm going with you.' " She's been going ever since.
When Chandler was fighting at the Spectrum in the late '70s, Willie and K.O. used to follow him to his dressing room to congratulate him. They always had ringside seats. Chandler wasn't a stylist then; he was strictly an arm puncher whose best shot was his overhand right. On a whim, with no formal training, he had walked into Philadelphia's Juniper Gym in the fall of 1975. Two months later he turned pro. Soon after, he asked Willie to be his handler. Willie showed Chandler how to block punches with his shoulders instead of his gloves, and use his jabs to set up more damaging punches. Chandler, who had only one knockout in his first nine bouts, K.O.'d his next three opponents.
Willie is a gentle, soft-spoken little man with thinning white hair, a stubbly chin and a pack of Camels bulging from his shirt pocket. He dispenses fight wisdom and red-hot cherry gumdrops with equal facility. He speaks in a murmur. To hear him, you almost need a stethoscope. But he's plenty loud when scolding Chandler about his comportment in the ring. "After Muniz beat me, Willie got all over me," says Chandler, "and Becky chopped my head off with a long-handled ax."
K.O. shows up at Chandler's fights decked out in a red velour jacket with her name stitched in black letters on the front and Jeff's on the back. She pads around in black moccasins with little beaded birds stuck on the toes. Itsy-bitsy leather boxing gloves dangle from her ears, and around her neck is a 22-karat gold mezuzah that comedian Georgie Jessel gave her in 1945.
K.O. used to be in vaudeville. She was Tiny in the Al Fisher, Tiny and Lou comedy team, later known as Fisher and Marks. She worked with some of the biggest names in show business: Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, The Three Stooges. "Those Stooges were as funny in person as in their films," she says with a laugh that makes her shoulders rattle.
As part of her act, K.O. would dress up as a waitress and heckle Fisher from the audience. "Sometimes I'd put a blonde mop on my head and pretend I was one of the Andrews Sisters," she says. "I did jokes, jitterbugging and try-to-pick-me-up. The usual." K.O. has this amazing ability. She's only 82 pounds, but no one has ever been able to lift her by the elbows. It's almost as if she's welded to the floor. Even Muhammad Ali wasn't able to budge her when she visited the heavyweight champion's camp in the '70s.
Chandler's boyhood idol was Jeff Chandler, the late actor who played Cochise in the movie Broken Arrow. One day while glancing at the TV page of a newspaper, the fighter discovered he had a double. "Wow!" he said. "I'm in a movie."
As with many fighters who come out of the Philadelphia ghetto, Chandler learned to fight as a means of survival. Thanks to a decade of gang wars, his scar-lined forehead looks like a roadmap. A hideous circular scar between his shoulder blades came compliments of a street rumble just last March. To hear Chandler tell it, it was nothing more than a light workout. He was cruising down South Philly's Carpenter Street in his '79 Pontiac. The driver ahead of him stopped and got out of his car to chat with some friends sitting on a wall. After five minutes had passed and the guys still hadn't moved, Chandler blew his horn.
"Excuse me," Chandler said, "could you please move your car to the side and let me pass?"
The other driver walked back to Chandler's car and peered in through the open window. His reply landed flush on Chandler's chin. "I thought, 'Wow! I don't take too many shots like this in the ring,' " says Chandler. So he got out and introduced himself with a right hook. "Then the 15 guys jumped off the wall," he says, "and were hitting me—bip, bip, bip—on the chin. I was thinking, 'Wow! These guys are bigger than me, and I'm still standing here.' I got a lot happier then. I finally got my hands moving. They were moving just fine. It was a good fight. I started to drop them one by one. I was doing just fine."
Until one of them jabbed a broken bottle into Chandler's back. "I could feel the warm, thick blood coming down," he says. "It's too bad. By the time that guy stabbed me, I'd already got the others off me. Respect was sinking in.
"Then one of them yelled, 'Yo, man, that's the champ! Let him go.' But we'd already been through 20 minutes of warfare." So Chandler called, "Time-out!" and somebody drove him to the hospital.
"You'll never hear me brag about it, never," says Chandler, "but I was dropping some pretty big guys. I mean, some of them must have been 150 pounds."
On a recent Sunday in the kitchen of the O'Neills' South Philadelphia row house, K.O. scrutinized a letter from an old friend, Ed McMahon. Stuffed in the envelope with a sheet of stickers for cheap magazine subscriptions was a note that began: K.O. BECKY O'NEILL MAY HAVE JUST WON ONE MILLION DOLLARS! IMAGINE ONE MILLION DOLLARS IN THE O'NEILL BANK ACCOUNT!
"Guess what, Willie," said K.O., rather matter-of-factly. "We just won a million bucks." Willie was sprawled on a couch in the living room, reading H√§gar the Horrible. "Get outta here," he said without looking up from the funnies.
Chandler sat with K.O., eating a sandwich and lamenting the fact that he'd never get to fight Larry Holmes and be the champ of all the world. "I could beat Marvin Hagler," he said flatly. "Of course, he'd have to come down to my weight."
"You hear that, Willie?" said K.O. "Jeff says he could beat Hagler."
Willie didn't take his eyes off the paper. "Not by sticking his tongue out," he said.