The excitement and the controversy surrounding Sugar Ray Leonard's comeback against Marvelous Marvin Hagler have a precedent of sorts in the fight game's seamier past. In 1922, nine months after suffering a detached retina, middleweight Harry Greb stepped up in class to beat Gene Tunney for the light heavyweight title. In one of the most brutal bouts in ring history, Greb broke Tunney's nose 10 seconds into the fight and continued to bloody the bigger man for 15 rounds before giving him his only professional defeat.
Amazingly, Greb was half-blind when he won the decision. He had permanently lost the sight in his right eye a year before because of an errant thumb in a bout with light heavyweight Kid Norfolk.
Before and after the injury to his eye, Edward Henry Greb was one of the busiest, most notable—and dirtiest—fighters in his era. He was also, despite his tactics, considered to be one of the best. Of his 294 officially recorded fights between 1913 and 1926 he lost only five by decision and two by knockout. This record is all the more remarkable when one realizes that Greb, a natural middleweight who stood only 5'8" tall and seldom weighed more than 160 pounds, routinely faced light heavyweights, and in Tunney's case, a future heavyweight champion.
In contrast to the clean-fighting Sugar Ray, Greb was a master of holding and hitting, butting, thumbing—and he was not averse to belting the occasional referee who became too obtrusive.
Greb's slashing attack kept him competitive despite his limited vision, and continued to make him a major drawing card. He was the sort of Broadway character Damon Runyon, who often covered Greb's fights, would later make famous in his short stories. Greb was also a ladies' man who usually climbed into the ring wearing makeup and hair pomade, though neither was particularly attractive on someone who looked like Charles Bronson on a bad day.
Like that of any typical Runyon character, Greb's life had elements of fraud and double-dealing. After losing a rematch to Tunney in 1923, he set his sights on middleweight champ Johnny Wilson. When Wilson's manager, Marty Killelea, refused him, Greb devised an ingenious solution. First he paid a few speakeasy waiters in Pittsburgh and New York to serve him colored water in whiskey tumblers. Then he would pretend to pass out, muttering about his lost championship. When Killelea himself saw Greb apparently sleeping one off on a table top one night, he decided Greb was ripe for the picking. Instead, Greb plucked Wilson's title, winning 13 of 15 rounds.
Greb was also famous for betting his entire fight purse on himself and wasn't above influencing the odds when it suited him. At 2 a.m. on the day of his middleweight championship fight with Mickey Walker in 1925, Greb rolled out of a cab in front of Lindy's restaurant, where a number of gamblers hung out. After waving hello, Greb fell to the concrete in an apparent swoon, and two women he was with rushed him off in the cab. The gamblers meanwhile rushed to the phones to change their bets, shifting the odds from 7 to 5 for Greb to 3 to 1 for Walker.
The following night as Greb sat on his ring stool, he looked down at the reporters and asked, "How did those dumb gamblers like that act I put on for them last night?" He then went on to beat Walker by a decision and tripled his winnings.
The vision in Greb's good left eye was steadily deteriorating by this time, but he kept on fighting for another year to keep the money coming in. Greb, with the complicity of his personal physician, Dr. Charles S. McGivern, kept the severity of his injury secret. No boxing authority of integrity would have allowed him to fight had his true condition been known.
Greb successfully defended his middleweight title six times before losing it to Tiger Flowers on an extremely close 15-round split decision in 1926. Six months later, on Aug. 19, Greb dropped a rematch to Flowers, although many observers, including New York athletic commissioner William Muldoon, thought he had won. It was his last fight. Greb died just two months later during an operation intended to fix his battered nose.
While volumes have been written about Dempsey, Tunney and other fighters of the period, Greb's name has all but disappeared. Only a slim biography, written by James R. Fair in 1946, marks his passing. The title, Give him to the Angels, seems inappropriate, if not ironic. Greb might have preferred different company.