Near Hollywood's central business district lie the remains of an old boxing and wrestling arena, the 7,000-seat Legion Stadium. In 1959, to make way for new land use, concrete slabs were laid over the stadium, burying what had been one of the West's busiest fight clubs during the 1920s, '30s and '40s. But the place still draws fans. On a recent afternoon some 80 members of the Cauliflower Alley Club, an organization of old-time ring stars (average age 67), met above the spot where many of them once threw punches or wrestled. "Maybe they buried the joint," said 71-year-old Jimmy McLarnin, the world welterweight champion in 1933, "but they haven't got us yet."
That defiant spirit marks the CAC, the country's largest fraternity of ex-fighters and wrestlers. The club was formed 11 years ago to salute yesterday's heroes of the ring, to help them escape the loneliness of retirement and hear some cheers again—if only from their peers. "Having a club to come to fills empty days for the boys," says Marshall Wright, one of the CAC's founders. "Many of them live on small savings and pensions, although we have a few millionaires. They may need a cane or wheelchair to reach the sessions, but they keep coming. Mickey Cohen, for instance, collapsed at the door and we had to carry him in. He died not long after." (Cohen, Los Angeles' most notorious gangster in post-World War II days, qualified for the club because he was a popular Cleveland lightweight years earlier.)
Weekly meetings, which are usually held in the Golden State Hotel in Burbank, are called to order by striking the bell used at the Dempsey-Tunney "long-count" fight of 1927. The death of an Alley Clubber is observed by striking the same bell 10 times. Last words are often spoken by Kid Chissell, 69, once the U.S. Navy's top-ranked welterweight. Not long ago, during a eulogy for a departed comrade. Chissell declared. "Friend Ed isn't dead, he's sleeping." From a side table came the reply, "I'll lay 8 to 5 against that."
Some club members are so old they can recall Lillie Langtry sitting at ringside before World War I. Eighty-six-year-old Phil Bloom, a noted lightweight in his day, knew John L. Sullivan. Fidel La Barba, 74, held the world flyweight crown during the Coolidge Administration. Young Abe Attell, a wispy 84-year-old who had 300-odd bouts beginning in 1910, says, "Cuts didn't stop you in those days—they used a solution so damned powerful it blinded some guys for good when it got into their eyes."
One of the few honorary members of the Cauliflower AC is Mae West, 86, a lifetime boxing fan. One day, arriving at a club meeting in a cloud of chiffon, Miss West glanced over the elderly crowd and asked, "Where am I, boys—in a wax museum?"
Many famous names of the past attend the club's gatherings, among them Willie (Gorilla) Jones, 73, a former middleweight champion who toured New York with a pet lion on a leash; Jackie Fields, 72, once welterweight champ; Henry Armstrong, 67, unique holder of three world titles simultaneously; Lou Nova, 64-year-old inventor of the "Cosmic Punch," who twice KO'd Max Baer; Jimmy Dime, 82, who, when hit with a full uppercut some 60 years ago, performed a backward somersault, landed on both feet and went on to win the fight.
But not all club members are noted for their deeds in the ring. Dr. Brad Levin, for instance, a spry 84-year-old from Los Angeles, was a fighter's dentist for half a century. Levin probably replaced more teeth than anyone in his field and perfected the protective mouthpiece back in the days of Jack Johnson. And some members still hold jobs. Among them is Harvey Parry, who, though over 70, is the active dean of Hollywood stuntmen. "At 80 I plan to quit stunting," says Parry, a feared body puncher in his youth. Parry taught Jimmy Cagney to fight for the movies, cauliflowering one of Cagney's ears in the process. Cagney, by the way, is an honorary CAC member.
At a typical gathering CAC members might watch boxing movies, form committees to visit ailing and bedridden ex-fighters or hand out awards. In a recent poll the 420 cardholders chose those club members they felt most qualified for various honors. Among the winners: "Worst hands," Jimmy McLarnin, whose knuckles are shoved halfway to his wrists; "Worst nose," Mushy Callahan, 74, junior welterweight champ in 1926-30, with a nose so pancaked it's hardly a hose at all; "Worst ears," Mike Mazurki, 6'6" club president, a one-time professional wrestler and a current movie tough guy, whose ears fold down from the top, then flatten into doglegs; "Prettiest," the one and only Sugar Ray Robinson, still handsome at 58; "Ugliest." Count Billy Varga, ex-heavyweight wrestler, who's also the biggest noisemaker, agitator and program pest during the luncheon meetings.
Many of the former boxers and wrestlers miss the excitement of the past, a yearning expressed in the club anthem which they sing at the end of every CAC meeting:
Bless us all,
Bless us all,
The heavy, the light and the small,
Bless our flat noses and cauliflowered ears,
For we are the ones whom
They stood up and cheered.