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Fighting Back Hall of Fame heavyweight Jimmy Bivins is on his feet again, only a year after he was found neglected and near death, a virtual prisoner of his own family

Aug. 09, 1999
Aug. 09, 1999

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Aug. 9, 1999

Fighting Back Hall of Fame heavyweight Jimmy Bivins is on his feet again, only a year after he was found neglected and near death, a virtual prisoner of his own family

At 6:30 p.m. on April 6, 1998, two rookie patrolmen from
Cleveland's Sixth Police District, Christopher Gibbons and
Matthew Putnam, answered a call from social-service workers to
pick up a six-month-old child whom they believed was suffering
from neglect. By the time Gibbons and Matthews entered the house
of the infant's parents on Glencoe Road in northeast Cleveland,
the mother, Josette Bivins-Banks, had fled with the baby out the
backdoor. This left the two rookies facing her belligerent
husband, an ex-con named Darrell Banks, who told them they could
not have the child. "You're gonna have to arrest me," Banks
said. So the cops obliged him, reading him his rights as they
cuffed him for "obstructing official business."

This is an article from the Aug. 9, 1999 issue Original Layout

As Putnam walked Banks to the squad car, Gibbons stayed behind
to search for the infant. At one point, he says, Banks's
seven-year-old son pointed upstairs and asked, "You know who's
up there?"

"No, who?" said Gibbons.

"That's Jimmy Bivins up there," the boy replied.

Gibbons vaguely recognized the name, but it meant little to him
until he saw the boxing pictures lining the walls of the
stairway as he climbed to the second floor. Moments later, he
was approaching an open bedroom door. The room was almost dark,
with blankets thrown over the windows and a single socket
hanging bulbless from the ceiling. The only light came from a
small television screen on which was playing an episode of The
Simpsons. Gibbons stood at the door, his eyes adjusting to the
darkness. He winced at the foul, acrid odor that suffused the air.

Stepping inside, Gibbons glanced about the room, from the TV to
a single bed off to the side. There, through the reek, he saw a
pair of bony hands. He drew closer until he made out the
emaciated figure of a man in repose. "I thought he was dead,"
Gibbons recalls.

"Jim?" Gibbons whispered. "Jim? What's goin' on?"

The 78-year-old Bivins raised his head, brightening when he saw
the uniform. "Oh, hey!" he said. "How are you?"

The patrolman asked him how he was doing. "Oh, not too good," the
old man said. "I haven't been eating too well lately."

Gibbons leaned over and looked closer. Bivins was covered with
bedsores; his clothes and blanket were soaked by urine and
flecked with excrement. Frail and sticklike, with sunken cheeks
and with skin as dry as parchment, he looked to Gibbons like a
Somalian refugee or a death-camp survivor. The middle finger of
his right hand was cut to the bone and crudely bandaged, and
Bivins kept cradling it in his lap as though in pain. His legs
were swollen, and he did not have the strength to rise. He knew
his name and Social Security number but not what year or day it
was. "I was kind of horrified," Gibbons says. "I'd never seen a
person alive in that condition."

The officer tried to roll up the sweatpants that Bivins was
wearing so he could photograph the old man's legs, but the
calves were so swollen that the pants "looked like sausage
casings," Gibbons says. "I tried, but I couldn't do it." Later
Gibbons went out to the car and told Putnam what he had found.
"We gotta call the paramedics," he said.

Two hours later Bivins was being wheeled into Meridia Euclid
Hospital, where he began a long struggle to survive.

Bivins's weight that day, 110 pounds, was nearly 75 pounds below
his fighting weight of the mid-1940s, when he was the No.
1-ranked heavyweight contender in the world. (The undisputed
title, held by Sgt. Joe Louis, had been frozen while he served
in the Army during World War II.) Over a 15-year professional
career, from 1940 until 1955, Bivins had 112 fights, of which he
won 86, 31 by knockout. He whipped eight men who had been, were
or would soon become world champions, from Joey Maxim to Ezzard
Charles to Archie Moore. A graceful, smart and very quick
ambidextrous boxer schooled by the renowned Cleveland trainer
Whizzbang Carter, Bivins took on everyone and feared no one.

Indeed, when he fought his way through a 26-bout undefeated
streak, beginning with a decision over Maxim on June 22, 1942,
and ending when he lost a split and much-disputed decision to
future heavyweight champ Jersey Joe Walcott on Feb. 25, 1946,
Bivins ruled a boxing mecca. Cleveland was the hometown not only
of Bivins but also of Maxim and former light heavyweight champ
Anton Christoforidis, and the three young fighters used to pack
the city's old Arena. Bivins loomed nearly as large on the
national sporting scene as that other black hero from Cleveland,
Jesse Owens.

Bivins was born in Dry Branch, Ga., but moved to Ohio as a boy
with his parents and three sisters. Jimmy came of age in the
Depression, tracking his father, Allen, from job to job, whether
it was cutting wood or cleaning and firing up boilers. "My dad
took me everywhere he went," says Bivins. "He taught me boiler
work until I could do it as well as he could. He bought a Model
T Ford and taught me how to drive when I was eight years old."

The family lived in an integrated, middle-class neighborhood on
the east side of Cleveland, and Jimmy, like many of that city's
youths in the 1930s, idolized Owens. "I used to go out and watch
Jesse practice running at East Tech," Bivins recalls.

The pivotal event of his youth came the day an uncle took him to
the Globe Theater to see former heavyweight champion Jack
Johnson. "Johnson fought an exhibition," Bivins says. "He was
after the money then. I said, 'I want to be like him.'"

Bivins was an honor student, and a cocky one at that. He says,
"I used to hold up my homework in class and say, 'Can you beat
this?' I was smarter and more studious than the other kids. They
chased me home every day. They never could catch me. One kid
chasing me was a Golden Gloves fighter. I got to a place where I
couldn't run anymore, so I stood and fought. I beat the stew out
of him! The day I stopped runnin' is the day I started fightin.'"

That led him into the arms of Carter. "Whizzbang taught me the
manly art of self-defense," Bivins says. After an amateur career
in which he won two city Golden Gloves titles, Bivins turned pro
as a welterweight on Jan. 15, 1940, and stopped a pug named
Emory (KO) Morgan in the first round at Cleveland Public Hall.
His first paycheck: $25. Bivins had 20 fights in '40 and won 19,
rising to the middleweight division along the way and becoming
the world's No. 6-ranked contender. Except for 1944, when he had
only one fight before entering the service, Bivins fought at
least eight times a year from 1941 through 1945, and the record
shows him beating one roughneck after another, including former
middleweight champions Billy Soose and Teddy Yarosz and former
light-heavyweight champ Melio Bettina.

When he first fought the great Charles, on Jan. 7, 1943, as a
light heavyweight, Bivins tipped the scales at 174 1/2 pounds,
nine more than Charles. Bivins put the future heavyweight champ
on the deck four times and won nine of the 10 rounds. "He was
tryin' to knock me out, but he couldn't hit me," says Bivins. "I
was slippin' and slidin' with Ezzard Charles."

After whipping Tami Mauriello in a 10-round decision on March
12, 1943 (Mauriello's pal Frank Sinatra sang the national anthem
before the fight and wept afterward), Bivins was crowned the
"duration heavyweight champion of the world," which is to say,
the unsanctioned champ until the war ended. In a ceremony held
that July, the spiffily uniformed Louis presented Bivins with a
crown bearing the title DURATION CHAMP. "You're the champ while
I'm gone," Louis said. But then Louis added that in his first
bout after the war, he wanted to fight Billy Conn, the white
light heavyweight who had nearly beaten him in '41.

Bivins fought on, facing whomever Whizzbang put in a ring with
him. "One of the truly great fighters," says 86-year-old Larry
Kent, who trained Sugar Ray Robinson for 14 years and sent
Curtis Sheppard against Bivins four times, losing them all. "And
Whizzbang, what a character! The both of them thought alike.
Nobody wanted to fight the guy. Anytime Bivins and Whizzbang got
offered a fight, they took it. Bivins met every situation. If he
was in there with a rough guy, he boxed. In there with a boxer,
he became a rough guy. He made all the adjustments."

Bivins may have been the greatest modern heavyweight who never
got a shot at that crown. Or at any title, for that matter, after
the '39 Golden Gloves. "They froze me out," he says. "A mob guy
came down from New York and told me I'd get this or that if I
'played ball.' I told him I was a fighter, not a ballplayer."

On March 11, 1942, in a nontitle bout against reigning light
heavyweight champion Gus Lesnevich, Bivins won so easily that he
killed any chance he had to fight Lesnevich for the title. "We'll
never fight Bivins again!" one of the beaten boxer's managers,
Lew Diamond, cried. "He's too good for Lesnevich."

Bivins stiffened Moore, a future light heavyweight champ, in
Cleveland on Aug. 22, 1945, knocking him down seven times on the
way to a sixth-round knockout. Even so, Bivins was not the same
swift fighter he had been before his year of service in the Army.
The next year, at age 26, Bivins lost three straight decisions--to
Walcott, Lee Q. Murray and Charles. He never beat Moore again,
losing to him four times before the end of his career.

Louis, meanwhile, was true to his word: After mustering out of
the Army, he passed over the No. 1-ranked contender, Bivins, and
fought Conn again, knocking him out. Then Louis walked through
Mauriello, Sinatra's pal. Louis's handlers were loath to match
him against black heavyweights. He defended his title 25 times,
but on only three occasions--twice against Walcott and once
against John Henry Lewis--did Louis risk it against a black man.

Bivins still savors the memory of the day he finally fought
Louis. The former champ had come out of an 18-month retirement
in search of his old crown, and on Aug. 15, 1951, he fought
Bivins in Baltimore. This was to be Bivins's biggest payday,
$40,000, and he meant to earn it. Louis announced at the
weigh-in that Bivins would fall in four. "You got to hit me
first, Big Red," Bivins told him, using the fighters' nickname
for Louis.

Staying in front of Louis, Bivins baited him with calls of, "Hit
me if you can, Big Red!" He still laughs about it today. "Around
the sixth round," he says, "we were in a clinch, and I told him,
'I'm still here, Big Red.' Made him so mad he could've jumped
out of his skin." Louis won the fight on all cards, but he
failed to land a damaging blow, and almost 50 years later Bivins
squirms with joyous indignation when he recalls that fight:
"Shoot, how is he gonna knock me out if he can't even hit me!
Shoot!"

Bivins left the prize ring in 1955 and joined the Teamsters. For
the next 28 years he drove a delivery truck. Like many old
fighters, however, Bivins never really left the gym. He spent
his leisure time training fighters for the Golden Gloves and the
Olympic trials. In the 1960s he trained Gary Horvath to four
Ohio Golden Gloves titles. In 1988, Bivins took a 38-year-old
Cleveland cop named Jim Davidson, who had never had any formal
training as a fighter, and in only six months molded him into
the 175-pound boxing champion at the National Law Enforcement
Olympics. "I'd never have won if it hadn't been for him,"
Davidson says of Bivins. By 1995, the year his wife, Elizabeth,
died, Bivins had a band of former students and gym rats who were
devoted to him.

Not long after he was widowed, Bivins moved in with the Banks
family--his daughter, Josette; her husband, Darrell; and their
four children--and over the ensuing two years his friends and
his sisters Maria and Viola began to see less and less of him.
By mid-1997 they were finding it difficult to reach him at all.
The Reverend Emory Kirk, a longtime friend of Bivins's, says
that when he showed up at the house on Glencoe Road to pay the
old man a visit, Josette told him he could not talk to her
father, and Kirk threatened to call the police. One of Bivins's
boxing friends, a cabbie named Tom Mangan, recalls that three
times he arranged to take Bivins to the gym. "Jimmy's not
feeling well," Darrell Banks would tell Mangan when he called to
say he was on his way to pick Bivins up. "He can't go to the gym."

Horvath says that he tried repeatedly to see Bivins, his mentor,
but that Banks would turn him away. "It got worse and worse,"
Horvath says. "[Banks's] stories and his alibis." In the fall of
'97, Horvath called to ask about Bivins, and Banks said, "Tell
everybody: Stop coming around. He doesn't want anything to do
with you boxing guys anymore."

By then Bivins had sold both of the houses he owned--the one he
had bought in 1943, where he and Elizabeth had lived, and the
house he had bought for his mother. Davidson, the boxing cop, who
had become commander of the Third District of the Cleveland
police, recalls visiting Bivins in the fall of '97 and noticing
that the diamonds were missing from his ring. "What happened to
the stones?" Davidson asked him.

Banks, who was present, jumped in and, according to Davidson,
said, "Oh, the stones got loose and fell out."

"You lost your stones, Jimmy?" Davidson asked.

"Yeah, I guess," Bivins said.

That winter, Bivins's friends say, he was nowhere to be found.
Banks told callers that Bivins had moved to South Carolina.

Horvath and others came to believe that Bivins was a captive in
that house. Once, when no one answered the door, Horvath walked
around the place calling Bivins's name, only to hear a child's
voice yell from within, "Nobody's home!"

No wonder such a firestorm broke when patrolman Gibbons found
that skeletal man lying alone in the dark in a stinking room. It
was the turning point in a crisis that had begun unfolding weeks
before. On Feb. 11, 1998, Banks took Bivins to Meridia Euclid
Hospital and reported that the former prizefighter was "talking
like a baby" and "falling down more frequently." He was
suffering from dementia as well as hypothermia (low body
temperature) and pancytopenia (reduced red and white blood cells
and platelets). During his two-week stay at the hospital Bivins
also suffered a gash on his right middle finger, and nurses
soaked the hand in Betadine.

On Feb. 24, Bivins was transferred from the hospital to a
nursing facility. There, over the next 11 days, the former
top-ranked heavyweight contender lost 38 pounds, from 164 to
126--perhaps, one of his doctors said, as a result of edema,
depression or loss of appetite. On March 8 he was released from
the facility, and Banks, claiming to be Bivins's son, took the
responsibility of caring for him. Bivins was considered a
"functionally impaired person" who, under state law, required
24-hour supervision.

By the time the ambulance whisked him back to Meridia Euclid on
April 6, Bivins was suffering from more than bedsores and
dehydration. The cut on the finger, now infected, had become
untreatable, leaving doctors no choice but to amputate the tip
of it. "I figure if I came this far, I can keep on," Bivins said
after the surgery. "I don't give up."

Banks was charged with "failing to provide for a functionally
impaired person," a fourth-degree felony to which he pleaded
guilty on Dec. 8, 1998, in an agreement according to which
charges against Josette were dropped. Cuyahoga County chief
trial counsel Steve Dever called for the maximum penalty of 18
months in jail. "You wouldn't treat a dog in the way that Mr.
Bivins was treated," Dever said at the Feb. 12 sentencing hearing.

"I tried my best, but I had other family members I also had to
attend to," Banks told the court, "so the only thing I can
say...is I'm sorry about it." Judge J.A. Villanueva gave Banks
eight months in jail.

Bivins remembers little about his months of isolation and
loneliness. "Why didn't you contact us?" asks his sister Maria,
with whom he now lives in Shaker Heights, one afternoon before
dinner. Bivins grimaces.

"They wouldn't let me go to the phone," he says. Did he feel
like a prisoner? "I couldn't do nothin.'" Memories of the
experience come and go, flitting ghosts of the past. "Sometimes
I get flashes, and I see myself lyin' up there," he says.
"Sometimes I dream about it, too."

Bivins's world today bears no resemblance to what it was just 18
months ago. Last time he checked, in early July, he weighed over
200 pounds, prompting friends to tease him that he had finally
become a true heavyweight. Horvath, now his legal guardian,
chauffeurs him on errands around town, takes him to physical
therapy and regularly escorts him to Cleveland's old Papke Gym,
now called the Jimmy Bivins Hall of Fame Boxing Club. There the
elderly gent offers counsel to aspiring sweet scientists. One
evening in June he watched a young ruffian who was learning how
to jab. "You're pushin' it out," explained the man once known as
Jabbin' Jimmy. "Put your weight in front.... Do it slow. You're
doin' it too fast."

Wherever he goes, Bivins draws a crowd when he flashes his new
gold-and-diamond ring, which commemorates his inclusion in the
International Boxing Hall of Fame, in Canastota, N.Y. At the
induction ceremony on June 13, the crowd of 5,000 gave Bivins a
minutelong standing O. "Thank you for cheering like that for
me," Bivins said. "I never figured I would get a chance to be in
front of so many people who liked me." He tried to relate his
favorite Joe Louis story, the one about Joe calling that
knockout in four, but his voice broke, and Horvath stepped
forward to thank the crowd again. The whole place purred through
another long, embracing ovation. For all that Bivins had been
through, over the months and years of surviving, you just knew
what he was thinking.

I'm still here, Big Red.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER Still in the game Bivins may need a walker, but it gets him back to the ring in the Cleveland gym that now bears his name. B/W PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS Always a bridesmaid In his prime the quick, versatile Bivins beat Lee Savold (above) and countless other fighters, but he never got a title shot against Louis (in robe) or any other champion.B/W PHOTO: CLEVELAND PUBLIC LIBRARY [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER Role reversal Bivins once trained Davidson, but now the cop is one of many friends and relatives who look after the old fighter.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER Jab master Since his recovery Bivins has resumed his schooling of younger fighters.
"Bivins met every situation," says Kent. "Against a rough guy,
he boxed. Against a boxer, he became a rough guy."
"In the ring with Louis at long last, Bivins baited the former
champ with calls of, "Hit me if you can, Big Red!"
"Sometimes I get flashes and I see myself lyin' up there,"
Bivins says of his ordeal. "And sometimes I dream about it."