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Pugilistic Nicknames

Favorites? How do you have a favorite? Designating a favorite would mean choosing between Frank Moran, who was billed as the "Battling Dentist," and George "Boer" Rodel, a handsome South African with a glass chin who earned the nickname "Diving Venus." Some boxing nicknames are easy to explain. At the end of 1895, a Baltimore fighter named Joe Gans had managed to win 31 consecutive fights to establish himself as the top of the fisticuffs line. To the surprise of no one familiar with the way boxing promotion works, over the next decade or so there emerged "Allentown Joe Gans," "Baby Joe Gans," "Cyclone Joe Gans," "Dago Joe Gans" (as well as the considerably more politically correct "Italian Joe Gans"), "Michigan Joe Gans," "Panama Joe Gans", and four different fighters calling themselves "Young Joe Gan."

I learned all this foolishness from Geoffrey Ward's magnificent new book, "Unforgivable Blackness, the Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson," and there is more silliness where all the "Young Joe Ganses" came from.

Consider the fighter known as "Kid Carter," whose real name was Edward Blazwick. He was, as Ward points out, "born in Austria to Croatian parents, but because of his yellow hair, he began his career as "Young Olsen, the gangling Swede."

Then there were "Rough House Wilson," "Truck Hannah." "Bombo Chevelier," and "Frenchy the Coal Man." And there was not only "Battling Levinsky," but "Battling Norfolk." "Battling Norfolk?" Any relation, I wonder, to the guy who fell beside Richard the Third at Bosworth Field? "Battling Richmond" might have been a better choice.

There is no lack of great and memorable names in baseball and basketball, of course, but only boxing gives us "Mysterious Billy Smith," who, according to Jack Dempsey's manager, "Doc" Kearns, was so named because he was always doing something mysterious, such as stepping on your foot and then biting your ear.

But a favorite? All right. A favorite. Reduced at the end of his career to fighting Patsy's, Jack Johnson once faced "Blink" McCloskey, whom Geoffrey Ward tells us was "so-named because before the bell rang, he carefully removed his glass eye and handed it to his cornerman for safe keeping."

This program aired on December 15, 2004. The audio for this program is not available.

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