Publish date:

The only pro in the iron world of 'state amateurs'

The middleweight champion of Europe is Laszlo Papp, a handsome Hungarian who trains on hot paprika and always has to fight out of town

Last week in Paris, Laszlo Papp, a Hungarian prizefighter with waves of black hair and a Robert Taylor mustache, successfully defended his European middleweight title by knocking out Hippolyte Annex, a hitherto undefeated French gypsy, in the ninth round. Although this was Papp's 21st professional fight without a loss, it is unlikely that he will ever advance to the head of his class. For one thing, he is 36 years old. For another, he is a southpaw. Most ranking fighters agree with the bitter sentiment of Willie Pep: "They ought to take all left-handers, drop them in a sack and throw the sack in a river." Good fighters shun southpaws.

But fame has amply blessed Laszlo Papp nonetheless. He is the only man ever to win gold medals at three consecutive Olympic Games—1948, 1952, and 1956. And he is (manifestly, at any rate) the only professional athlete from an Iron Curtain nation.

Papp was born in Pest, the commercial half of Hungary's capital. He now lives across the Danube, or across the tracks, in posh, residential Buda. The interior of his home, a bungalow on the side of Liberty Hill, is light and airy, white with parquet flooring and carpets. The windows are curtained with Brussels lace and there are oil paintings on the walls. His car, a German 1962 Opel Rekord, is parked outside.

Life has not always been so good, Laszlo told a recent visitor, pouring him a cherry brandy from a cut-glass decanter. Papp's father was a plumber, his mother a peasant. After his father died of cancer in 1937, Papp's mother worked as a concierge and ran a small grocery to support Laszlo and his sister. Quitting school at 14, Papp became apprenticed to an optical firm, where he worked for three years. During this period he played soccer, ran on a 400-meter relay team and dabbled in shotputting. "I did about 43 feet," he says. "Like a firefly I darted from one sport to another. I even practiced wrestling."

He started boxing in 1944. "After two months," Laszlo says, "the coach told me I should take up the sport seriously. I didn't need a lot of persuading because I always seemed to be arguing with the manager of our soccer team and this was a good opportunity to escape him. It didn't take me long to realize that boxing was the sport I could do best in. The siege of Budapest during the war stopped my progress until 1945. when I joined the Budapest Railway Sports Club and came under the Coach Zsigmond Adler."

An almost dainty man with tiny feet, Adler is the guru of Hungary's 10,000 amateur boxers. In reverent tones, Budapestians say that Adler has "X-ray eyes." They mean he can spot talent a mile off, and mothers from the district of Angyalfold (The Land of Angels), which is roughly comparable to New York's Lower East Side, bring their sons to him in the hope he can make them champions.

There was never any doubt about Papp. The Railway Club got him a job carrying packages in a store, tough work that Laszlo feels helped develop his immensely powerful physique. In three years he had 51 bouts. He lost only one, on points, and had 47 knockouts. In 1948 Papp, then 22, went to London for the Olympics.

"I felt I could be satisfied if I made it through two or three matches," Papp now recalls. "A lesson would have been learned. I would know some new tricks. It was after the third match there that it occurred to me that instead I could be the teacher."

Laszlo knocked out his first three opponents. The fourth bout was against an Italian whom he had previously beaten, and Papp won by a decision. In the finals he faced a British sailor, Johnny Wright, who had the advantage of being a head taller and of boxing before a friendly crowd. Papp's punches seemed to have little effect on Wright. At the end of the second round, Laszlo was in despair and rapidly becoming exhausted. He then recalled the promise of two compatriots to leap fully clothed into a nearby swimming pool if he won and, stimulated by this prospect, he rallied to beat Wright. "From that time on," says Papp, with a wink, "I became a white-collar worker in the Central Railway Office."

Three gold medals

"In my second Olympics," Papp says, "it was not so easy because I fought several Europeans who were acquainted with my style, but in Melbourne it was not difficult at all. In the final I met José Torres of America [whose middleweight title fight with Paul Pender was called off last month]. He was young, inexperienced and I did what I wanted.

"When I left Melbourne I thought to myself: 'I have won three medals, something nobody has done before. What can I do now? Go for another Olympic medal?' Then the idea occurred to me. I decided I would like to test my skill among the professionals. Considering professionalism is unknown in my country, it was easy. When I got back, everybody asked about my plans and I told them I would like to be a pro. I just mentioned it and they said O.K." Nobody quite knows how this came about, except that Papp had served his country well. All told, he had lost only seven of some 300 amateur bouts.

Papp's first pro fight took place in Cologne. "I was very excited," he says. "I was not well prepared and I was away from home. I could not get the food I like: hot paprika, spices and onions that help to give me strength. Instead of feeling strong I felt sick. My heart was beating madly as I awaited my turn. When I finally climbed into the ring, all I wanted to do was to kill my opponent. I won."

Considering the odds against him, it is extraordinary that Papp has done so well. Discouragingly, Papp can never fight in Hungary, where pro sports are forbidden. His matches have taken him to Germany, France, Italy and Austria. Last May in Vienna he defeated a Dane, Chris Christensen, for the European title before a sellout crowd of 17,000 while another 3,000 watched on closed-circuit TV in a neighboring hall.

He appreciates his problems only too keenly. "Professional boxing is a different world," he says. "It is important to live in it, experience it continually alongside other professionals. Being away has its effect on my nerves. I have only amateur sparring partners who want to give me one but don't want to get one back. I have to take care of them and watch my blows. Whenever I go out I notice the difference immediately. They give me proper sparring partners who give and take blows equally.

"Yet, if I went and trained in a foreign country, I would always be homesick. I would never get the proper food. In France, for instance, they eat like cows. They put what looks like flowers on the table and tell me it is hors d'oeuvres. It is a great malady of Hungarians. They are always homesick."

Reconciled to training without professional help, Laszlo fulfills a lonely regimen with the counsel of Coach Adler. He does much of his training on the Buda side of the Danube—a cool, tranquil sanctuary on a summer's day for refugees from Budapest's stifling streets. When in serious training, he works as a lumberjack, chopping branches, then sawing them into firewood. "Don't think that on Sunday I lie in bed, either," he says. "I go for a walk." Sometimes he travels to the mountains of the High Tatra in Czechoslovakia, which rise over 8,000 feet. He works out at various heights to improve his wind.

Papp took his guest out on the spacious balcony of his home. Below was a green vista dotted with orange, red and brown roofs like autumn leaves on a lawn: Pasaret, the meadow of the pasha, the lovely site, four centuries ago, of the home of one of the Turks who conquered and ruled Buda.

"There have been very few times in my life," Papp reflected on the balcony, "that I have been on the receiving end of a good punch—touch wood. I was lucky to be born with good reflexes, a good feeling of time, a good feeling of speed and good nerves. I cannot even define my best punch, because at a given point in a fight I only know that something is telling me that such and such a punch is the right one. If you force your opponent to do what you want him to do, you win the match.

"To be a good boxer you certainly have to be an accurate judge of distance between you and your enemy's fists, and never close your eyes. You must have a placid family and social life with no money problems and no hate. Remember also, with women you can lose your strength, your reputation and your future, and so a sportsman must marry early. Have one or two children and know only one girl your whole life."

Such homilies, as memorable to Hungarians as Baden-Powell's exhortations to boy scouts, have helped make Papp the most beloved sports figure in Hungary. He has starred in a film based on his life, his fights are given unprecedented coverage in Hungarian newspapers and are shown on Hungarian television.

To negotiate his fights, Papp employs an Austrian-born agent who lives in Paris. His purses have helped make life more agreeable for him, his wife and their 7-year-old son, Laszlo Jr. But Papp is emphatic that he is not a real professional. "I'm a professional for the sake of the sport," he says. "I was too big for the amateurs." He still holds down a regular job, at present with the Ministry of Foundry and Machinery, designing workshop production lines, but time off seems to be liberal.

When Laszlo is tired he goes to a swimming pool on leafy Margaret Island in the Danube or reads. He enjoys the works of Maurus Jokai, a prolific, classical Hungarian of the 19th century, and Hemingway. His favorite Hemingway is The Old Man and the Sea, in which Papp sees a parallel to himself. "The old man's fighting for his prey," he says, "like the boxer in the ring."

Laszlo predicts that he will fight only two more years before retiring, "to enjoy my fortune and live with my family." His visitor asked him if his son would take up his father's sport. "If my son follows my advice," replied Laszlo Papp, "he won't be a boxer. I cannot tell you why, but I know why. I would like my boy to go to school, then university and be an educated man."