There is a new monument to the folly of those who run boxing. Right now it takes the form of an iron grave marker in St. Raymond's Cemetery in the Bronx, and it designates the resting place of middleweight Willie Classen. Classen, who was born on Sept. 16, 1950 in Santurce, Puerto Rico, died in Bellevue Hospital on Nov. 28, 1979 of brain damage inflicted five days earlier when he was knocked out in the 10th round of his fight against Wilford Scypion in the Felt Forum of Madison Square Garden. There is no epitaph, but if there were it might be words that Willie once uttered to his manager after a losing fight, "Titles are not made for guys like me."
Willie Classen is only one of four boxers who have lost their lives in this country in recent months as a result of injuries received in the ring, but he was the most prominent, a "semi-name," and he suffered beatings when he should not have been fighting at all, in bouts licensed by the British Boxing Board of Control and the New York State Athletic Commission, supposedly the two most responsible agencies in the sport.
The blame for Classen's death has been placed on a number of persons, starting with his manager, Marco Minuto. Like a loser who doubles up on his bets at a Vegas crap table, Minuto kept putting Classen in over his head in the hope that an upset win would put his fighter—also his friend—right up on top of his division. His fellow managers generally regard Minuto as inept. "Inexperienced" is the kinder word that matchmaker Gil Clancy of the Garden uses to describe Minuto. A Little League baseball manager in suburban Garden City, N.Y., Minuto had no experience in boxing three years ago when he decided to buy Classen's contract in an effort to help him. He became a manager simply by filling out the New York State form and paying a $15 fee to the New York commission. A couple of days later he received his license in the mail. Regardless of what others might say about him, Minuto has a high opinion of his managerial ability. "In 2 1/2 years, I've learned what some people don't learn in a lifetime in boxing," he says. "To have my fighters in Madison Square Garden, the Mecca of boxing, was an accomplishment in itself. As far as the knowledge of when a fighter is in shape or the kind of fight he needs, I know all that."
Minuto has another fighter under contract—Mike Tarasewich, who is known as the Mad Russian. The Mad Russian is a heavyweight who lumbers about the ring like some hobbled Frankenstein monster. Experienced boxing men say that if Classen had not been killed first, the Russian might have been. He suffered six straight losses before the New York commission suspended him last October. Both Tarasewich and Minuto regard the suspension as unfair. Minuto says, "I think the Russian is the best-conditioned athlete in the country, not just the best-conditioned boxer, but the best-conditioned athlete. On any given day, he can beat any heavyweight in the country."
Despite all this, it would be a mistake to write off Minuto as a fool. In his defense, Marco Minuto sees himself as a victim of the game. "Certain people who are promoters or matchmakers abuse their power," he says. "But you have to go back and deal with them again. They don't forget. When they're looking to build up a fighter, they want an opponent. [In boxing terminology, an opponent is a fighter not good enough to beat the fighter getting the buildup.] You don't take a fight they offer you, they say, 'O.K., so forget about the money. I was just trying to give you a payday. You don't want the fight, forget it. But don't call me no more!' There are managers who are undertakers, who supply tomato cans. The matchmakers made me that. That's the way it works."
Rollie Hackmer, an experienced manager who does not think much of Minuto, nonetheless says, "A lot of what Minuto says is true. Frankie Carbo [the late underworld czar of boxing] was a prince and an angel compared to what you've got today, but many managers are afraid to speak out because they're afraid of being blacklisted."
Mickey Duff, the London promoter and matchmaker, was looking for an opponent when he booked Willie Classen on only two days' notice as a fill-in against Tony Sibson, then the British middleweight champion, last Oct. 9 at the Royal Albert Hall. Sibson floored Classen three times in the first two rounds. After Classen went down the third time and was counted out, he complained of double vision. At the time, Classen should not have been fighting anywhere. His New York license had expired in September, and the previous April he had been placed on indefinite medical suspension, pending a complete neurological examination, as the result of a KO he had suffered at the hands of John Locicero in the Felt Forum.
In November, after the Sibson bout, Classen lied to the New York commission when he applied for a renewal of his boxer's license. He said that he had been stopped on cuts in London. Neither he nor Minuto said anything about the fact that Classen had been knocked out. At about the same time Classen was getting his new license from the commission, matchmaker Clancy and Jack Brami, his assistant, were looking for an opponent to fight Scypion, an up-and-coming headhunter who had knocked out everyone he had faced in his 12-bout career. Scypion is managed by Mike Jones, who with Dennis Rappaport also has Howard Davis, the Olympic champion, and Gerry Cooney, the heavyweight contender, and it is taken for granted in boxing that Clancy would like to do a lot of business with Rappaport and Jones.
When Classen was being considered as an opponent for Scypion, Brami was reportedly against using him. "Can you imagine making a match like this?" Brami asked when he learned that Clancy had arranged the fight. Both Brami and Clancy knew that Classen had been knocked out in London. Ben Greene of New York, who books fights and who knew the true story about Classen's loss in London, says, "I got a call from Clancy. 'You got anyone to box Scypion?' he said. I said no. Then I got word that Clancy had signed Classen. I called Clancy up. I said, 'For Christ's sake, don't put that match in. Classen can't fight anymore.' I warned him, and I blame him. Clancy knew what went on in London, and yet he put the guy in. I knew Classen. I once made a match for him in Europe, but after he was knocked out by Locicero I didn't want anything to do with him or Minuto. After the Locicero fight, Minuto came around to me to ask about a fight for Classen in Europe. 'No,' I told Minuto, 'I'm not having anything to do with your fighter.' There was talk Classen was on drugs, that he wasn't in the gym. And he was taking too many punches." Greene also told another manager, "The guy [Classen] is a basket case."
Brami was away on vacation when Clancy actually signed the Scypion-Classen fight. When Brami is asked now if it's true that he said, "Can you imagine making a match like this?" he pauses and then shrugs. Asked again, he does the same. Asked a third time, he pauses again and then says, "Let's put it this way. We'd like to have much better opposition."
Both Brami and Clancy acknowledge they knew about Classen's loss by a knockout to Sibson. Clancy says, "We were looking for an opponent for Scypion, and Classen had fought some good fights here, win or lose. It was a good match of a veteran against an up-and-coming fighter." What about the loss in London? Clancy says, "Mickey Duff said the match was a farce. Classen never got any beating in the fight at all, and it was so bad he [Duff] would have held up the purse. You have to know fighters. He [Classen] went over there for a payday. If he had fought here before a Puerto Rican audience, he wouldn't dare do that. The macho in him would have come out. I spoke to the referee in the fight, Harry Gibbs, and his exact words about Classen were, 'He took no hiding at all.' " Gibbs, in Las Vegas to judge the Sugar Ray Leonard-Wilfred Benitez fight last November, said that he had ended the Classen-Sibson fight because Classen "showed no inclination to fight."
Clancy denies that anyone warned him against putting Classen in against Scypion because Classen was finished as a fighter. Asked if Greene did not call him to decry the match, Clancy says, "Nobody called me." Not Ben Greene?' "Nobody," Clancy says, "not to my recollection."
The train of events that led to Classen's death also runs straight to the door of the New York commission. When Hugh Carey became governor five years ago, he did all he could to downgrade the commission. Admittedly faced with economic hard times in 1975, the governor cut back the commission's budget. Only recently did the commision get its first photocopying machine ever, but even then staffers had to go upstairs in the State Office Building in lower Manhattan to borrow a roll of paper for it—ironically enough, from the office of Senator Roy Goodman, who has been investigating boxing in New York as the result of Classen's death.
The commission has traditionally served as a resting place for political hacks and hangers-on. Indeed, this magazine noted editorially two years ago (SCORECARD, March 6, 1978) that Governor Carey had some explaining to do for his appointment of Jack Prenderville as chairman. Following a long search, Carey picked Prenderville to succeed James A. Farley Jr., his previous appointee, after Farley resigned in the wake of the scandal involving the Don King-ABC U.S. Boxing Championships.
Prenderville has no qualifications of any kind for the boxing post. His political connections go back to the days when he ran Carey's Brooklyn office when the governor was in Congress. As it is, Prenderville does not even give full time to the commission he was supposed to put in order, because he has another state job as deputy commissioner in the Office of Parks and Recreation and has to spend most of his working hours in Albany. "But I'm just a phone call away from any major trouble," Prenderville insists.
After Classen collapsed during his fight with Scypion, Prenderville called a meeting of the commission the next morning and promptly announced there was no need for an inquiry into the bout. "We've talked with everyone involved—doctors, persons in charge of the boxing shows, the referees and even some reporters," he said. "It all comes down to the same thing. Everything was done and properly so." Calling Classen's brain damage "a tragic accident," Prenderville declared, "No one is responsible."
Three days later, however, under pressure from the press, Governor Carey ordered a "complete and thorough investigation." Prenderville immediately agreed. He now calls his original finding, that no one was responsible, "a poor statement." But the very notion of having the commission, which had already whitewashed the case, investigate itself was so shocking to Senator Goodman, a Manhattan Republican, that he announced that the State Senate Committee on Investigations, of which he is the chairman, would conduct its own inquiry.
An investigation into the short life of Willie Classen reveals that it was tormented with recurrent nightmares and dreams of glory. A boyhood TV addict, Willie was eight years old when he tried to emulate Superman by leaping from a third-story window with a sheet tied around his neck. He broke his right leg, and he could never bend it properly, even when he fought in the ring. Nonetheless, early in his professional career, when he would shadowbox in his slum apartment, he would proclaim he was going to be as great as heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali.
Classen was programmed to be a fighter. His grandfather fought professionally as Kid Martin in Puerto Rico; and his father, Guillermo, had a few amateur bouts. When Willie was four, his grandfather, still an active fighter, suffered a blood clot from a beating in the ring, became a derelict and died two years later. Willie's father, an electrician, was only 20 when Willie was born, his mother, Alicia, only 15, and yet the Classens already had a daughter, Ana, who was born when Alicia was 14. Later there were 11 other children. When Willie was six or seven, his mother accused his father of flirting with another woman and attacked him with a knife. Willie saw all of this happen, and for the rest of his life had nightmares as a result. His mother went to prison for a brief period, and his father looked after him.
When Willie was eight, his mother divorced his father and took Willie and Ana to Spanish Harlem in Manhattan, where they lived on 105th Street. In hard times, the mother would leave Ana and Willie on the steps of welfare homes. Willie came to love Ana. It was his older sister and himself against the world. Soon, his mother had Willie's half brother, Julio, by one man, and his half sister, Rafaela, by still another.
Willie never went to school past the third grade. "Everything Willie learned, he learned in the street," says Gloria Beniquez, the first woman Willie lived with. Even so, Willie doted on his mother. "He knew she was trying her best," says Minuto. Willie's mother sent him to learn boxing at boys clubs in Harlem, and she saw to it that he kept himself clean and neat. Yet to punish him, she would occasionally beat him on the top of the head with the heel of her shoe. "He had the marks on his head from his mother's heel," Minuto says.
When Willie was 15, the family moved to the Bronx. In 1967, when he was 16, he had the first of his numerous encounters with the police, being arrested for assault and robbery. The case never came to trial. A year later he went to work at the Consolidated Laundry in Manhattan as a "tumbler man," removing sheets and towels from the dryer. There, in 1968, he met Gloria, who was in the pressing department and who had emigrated from Puerto Rico two years earlier. That year, when he was 17 and she was 26, they began living together. "He always liked older women," says Gloria.
Gloria speaks mostly Spanish. She is sitting in the living room of her Bronx apartment near Yankee Stadium. Standing by her are two shy but curious girls, Brenda, 10, her daughter by Willie, and Wanda, 5, her daughter by another man. Gloria lives on welfare.
"When we began living together, his family didn't like it," she says. Willie kept up his boxing, training at St. Mary's, a local gym, and in 1970, the year that Brenda was born, he won the Daily News' Golden Gloves championship in the 160-pound sub-novice class. "After Brenda was born, Willie's family began to help in all sorts of things," Gloria says. "They did everything for me. Willie cleaned, he did everything around the house. When Brenda was 22 days old. I remember my uncle came up from Puerto Rico and found Willie doing the diapers. This is something you don't see a Puerto Rican man doing, but Willie told my uncle, 'I had to learn someday.' My uncle went back to Puerto Rico and told my mother, 'Your daughter has found a good man.' "
Unfortunately, soon afterward Classen was arrested for pulling a knife on a man during a fight at a dance hall, and, Gloria recalls, he was sent to a detention center for six months. When he got out, he resumed boxing. Gloria says, "Willie always told me, 'I'm going to be like my grandfather and be in the sport of boxing.' Willie wanted to be in the same light as Muhammad Ali. He was always talking about boxing. I didn't like boxing. I told him it was not a fit sport, and he told me, 'The woman who tells me that boxing is not my sport, I will no longer look at her. I will die in this sport.' I got tired of it, so I reconciled myself to it and made his boxing robes and his boxing trunks. I was always taking care of him. Although I never went to a fight, I was like his manager in the house. When a fight was scheduled for him, I would not let him smoke or drink."
In 1972 Willie and Gloria separated. "Personal differences," says Gloria. Even so, Willie would always show up on Saturday to take Brenda out for the day. Willie then began living with another woman, Lou, and had a son by her, Willie Jr.
It is a chilly, sunny winter's day. Marco Minuto is sitting in the pizza parlor on Burnside off Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, his back to the pinball machines, dragging on a cigarette. Minuto is 30. He is now a sales manager for a company that makes Jamaican patties (a meat pie) and he is revisiting the old neighborhood. It is a rough area. The cancer of arson and burnt-out buildings that stunned Jimmy Carter in the South Bronx has crept into the West Bronx. Across the street are gutted apartment houses. Two blocks away is 2101 Harrison Avenue where Willie once lived. The building is a shell. The wind whistles in and out the windows of Willie's old apartment. The brass numbers marking the street address were ripped off long ago. The address is now marked on the side of the building with spray paint.
Minuto takes a drag on his cigarette. He has his hat on the back of his head, and he is running to fat. He's out of the Bronx himself by way of Sicily. He moved here when he was eight because his mother wanted him and his brother to have the advantages, as he puts it, of being "brought up American." Minuto dropped out of James Monroe High School six months before graduation to work in a pizza parlor. He opened up his own parlor on 183rd Street, then sold it to his brother when he opened another on Burnside, which is where he met Willie Classen in September 1971.
That day, Minuto recalls, "Willie said he wanted a slice of Sicilian pizza, so I gave him a slice. I saw his boxing gear. I could see that he was well dressed, neat, and, comparing him to the other guys on Burnside, you could see that he was different. I started running with him. Our relationship got closer. He was a lonely guy. He was having a problem with Gloria. Between 1971 and 1974, we were very good friends. This is a dangerous area. There were some late-night scuffles in the pizza store, and Willie helped me out."
In the fall of 1972, Classen, then 22, decided to turn pro. "He asked me to manage him," says Minuto, who was the same age as Willie. "I said I had no experience. He was working with me in the store then, and he offered to let me have a piece of the contract. I said no." Al La-Cava, a Bronx businessman who had been active in boxing for a number of years, became Classen's manager. His first fight was in Bayonne on Dec. 7, where he fought a four-round draw with Willie Taylor. Classen fought Taylor in a rematch and lost, but then won his next six straight. His best purse was $150. On April 8, 1974, he lost a split decision to Eddie Gregory, and, Minuto says, his manager kept him out for almost three years, except for one fight in 1975.
"We lost touch. He moved. I moved," Minuto says. "Then I met his half sister, Rafaela, in my mother's store. 'Where you been?' I asked. She said, 'My mother passed away. Willie's not like he used to be.' I went to see him that evening. It wasn't the same Willie Classen I had known. The bums that were outside on the street, he was part of them. He used to say, 'Look at those bums,' but he was one of them in a sense—he had become one of them. I saw needle marks, but I never saw him take drugs. I said, 'Willie, we'll go like the old days.' He told me that he had a problem when his mother died. She was the one who gave him strength."
With Minuto back as his friend, Classen won three fights by knockouts in the winter and spring of 1977. "That September I spoke to Al LaCava about my managing the fighter," Minuto says. "Actually I wanted to be a partner in managing, but that didn't work out. Al was like all other managers. A fighter is like a wife. You don't mess with my fighter or my wife. You want my fighter, you buy him. Al says, 'The kid owes me $1,200 or $1,300 personally. I never made any money. Give me $2,500 and you take the fighter.' I did."
Minuto applied for a manager's license, got it and signed to have Classen meet Roy Edmonds on Nov. 30, 1977 in White Plains. "A tremendously hard puncher, Edmonds," Minuto says. "Willie was knocked down for the first time in a professional bout. It was in the second round, and Willie said, 'I see six guys.' But I knew Willie was in tremendous shape. He started to come back, and he knocked out Edmonds in the sixth round." Three more wins and a draw followed.
"Willie fought Bob Payton. He won the decision," Minuto continued. "Then there was the Tumbler Davis rematch in the Garden. Willie had beaten him before, but he had sprained both hands and broke the knuckle on the ring finger of his left hand in the first fight. Teddy Brenner [then the Garden matchmaker] always wanted blood on the floor. He says, 'You got a beast. You bought a lot of aggravation. No one will fight him.' Then Brenner says, 'I don't need the fight. I'll give you six rounds.' But I said, 'Teddy, Willie's a 10-round fighter.' Brenner says, 'I'll give you a thousand dollars for six. You beat Tumbler, and I'll bring you back.' It was an easy fight."
In February 1978, Classen married for the first and only time. Minuto attended the wedding reception. "Willie told me, 'I've finally met the right woman,' " Minuto says. Marilyn Classen, who is the mother of two of Willie's children—Isaac and Destiny—will not talk to interviewers, on her lawyer's instructions. (Her lawyer is Mike Capriano Jr., who is also the lawyer for his father, Mike Capriano Sr., a veteran fight manager, and Al LaCava, both of whom were in the corner with Minuto in the fatal fight against Scypion. By odd coincidence, Capriano Jr. was also the lawyer for the late Benny Paret, who died after being knocked out by Clancy's fighter Emile Griffith in Madison Square Garden in 1962. "It's $500 to speak to Marilyn," Capriano Jr. says. "It's for Marilyn, not me. Somebody's got to get up a donation. Five hundred dollars. Short numbers.")
On Aug. 25, 1978, Willie Classen got his big break—a fight in Madison Square Garden against Vito Antuofermo. Minuto recalls Teddy Brenner saying. "You beat Antuofermo, you're made."
Minuto says, "Teddy knew how to give the public their money's worth. I signed for $2,500. I asked for more money, and Teddy said, 'I've got tremendous overhead.' My intentions were to upset Antuofermo and get world recognition for Willie. The first five rounds, Antuofermo makes you fight like you never fought in your life. He was taking energy from Willie he never knew he had. When Willie lost, he's as much affected as it affected me. It upset Willie a lot."
It was a close decision, and Willie's fans were upset, too. There was bedlam when Minuto re-entered the ring carrying Classen on his shoulders, and they waved to the crowd. Chairs were heaved into the ring, the riot squad had to be called. The commission suspended Minuto and Classen for two months.
Minuto attempted to console Classen for the defeat. "I said, 'Willie, you can always bounce back.' He said, 'Titles are not made for guys like me. Let's make some money.' He started to get very, very bitter. I got him a small club fight in the Audubon Grand Ballroom on 116th Street." Classen not only lost but was also knocked down several times.
The defeat added to Minuto's suspicion that his fighter "just wasn't the old Willie Classen, that his whole way of thinking was lost. He was very negative. I said to him. 'You've got to get tuned in, otherwise you'll get hurt.' I sent him to Europe to fight Jose Duran. Ben Greene was the booking agent. They needed a middleweight in Sicily. He stopped Duran in three [on Dec. 2, 1978]. Christmas is coming now, and Willie says, 'I want to take time off from the gym.' But afterward he didn't return to the gym. In February, my heavyweight, Tarasewich the Russian, fought in the Felt Forum."
Tarasewich lost, but what made the evening memorable was the scuffle Minuto and Classen had in the hallway afterward. "Willie grabbed me by the throat," Minuto says, "and he shouted, 'You're not paying attention to me!' I said, 'Get your hands off my throat. I can't stay on top of you. You're not in the gym.' I threw a punch at him. Eleven specials grabbed me. Willie screamed, I want him arrested.' He hit me with a jab. But I didn't press any charges."
Several weeks later, Classen resumed training, and on April 6, 1979 he met John Locicero in the Felt Forum. Locicero gave Classen a beating and in the eighth round sent him to the canvas beneath the ropes. "He rolled out, got up, but he didn't come back into the ring," says Minuto. "It looked like he quit." Classen was counted out. While Minuto protested to the referee, the fighter appeared dazed. "That night I told him to get a job," Minuto says. "Our relationship was different. I tried not to get emotionally involved. After the Locicero fight, he lost it."
In accordance with the policies of the New York commission, as a result of the knockout Classen was suspended for medical reasons for an indefinite period. Dr. Edwin Campbell, the commission's medical director, ruled that Classen would have to undergo a neurological examination, including an electroencephalogram, before being permitted to fight again in the state.
Classen stayed away from the gym, but continued to work part time in a Pathmark supermarket near his home, where he stacked bread in aisle 16 for $3.10 an hour, the minimum wage. "We liked to give him the hours," recalls bookkeeper Eileen Sweeney. "When you called Willie, he would always come. He was very respectful. He always had something nice to say, that you looked nice, any little thing to make a person feel nice. He was a soft-spoken, well-mannered type of guy."
But there was the other side of Classen's personality. Last July 7, a transit police officer arrested Classen and two other men for holding a man at knifepoint on a subway in the Bronx. Along with the two others, Classen was charged with kidnapping, attempted robbery, possession of a weapon and possession of marijuana. The charges were reportedly dropped when Marilyn and the wives of the two other defendants told the complainant outside the courtroom that nothing would happen to him if he didn't press the case any further.
Soon thereafter Minuto got a call from Marilyn Classen. "She said they were six months behind on the rent," says Minuto. "Then the landlord called me and said, 'Willie's been telling me that he's gonna fight.' I said, 'He's not in shape. As soon as he comes to the gym, I'll look for a fight.' Willie started to train again. He was training for about a month until one Sunday evening early last October I got a call. John Bos, a booker, told me he had a fight in England for Willie if he wanted it for $2,000. I said no deal. I also said, 'He doesn't have a license.' [Classen's license, even though invalid because of the medical suspension, had expired, as do all New York boxing licenses, on Sept. 30.] Bos said, 'That's no problem.' He called me back and offered $3,000 and expenses. 'O.K.,' I said, 'the fight's yours.' It was a three-way conversation on the phone, Johnny Bos, Mickey Duff and myself." Duff was looking for a substitute to go against Sibson. "The fight was in London Tuesday night, and they were very amazed that I would take a fight with two days' notice," Minuto says. "Fighters like Willie Classen have to pull off upsets and take last-minute fights. That's their only chance. We arrived in London Monday morning. I allowed one day for jet lag."
Fight manager Paddy Flood says, scornfully, "Just two days' notice so the fighter can't get acclimated. Duff has to reach over here because all the fighters are known in England. He doesn't want to stink out the house, but he doesn't want anyone who's going to hurt Sibson. Yet if you wanted Sibson to fight over here. Duff would demand that he came a month and a half beforehand to get acclimated. No fighter in New York should be allowed to go overseas without at least 10 days to get acclimated."
In London, Classen told officials that he had not had time to get a certificate of medical clearance in New York so Dr. Sydney Gould of the British Boxing Board of Control sent him to Dr. John K. Dauncey, a Harley Street general practitioner, who certified Classen as fit to fight Sibson the next day. Dr. Gould also gave Classen his pre-fight check and declared him fit to fight. Neither Classen nor Minuto told either doctor that Classen was under indefinite medical suspension in New York. Had he known that, Dr. Dauncey says, "In no way would I have passed him fit to box."
But the matter goes deeper than that. Classen did not have a license from the New York commission, and Denis Lehane of The Sunday Times of London, who has been digging into the affair, has reported that the regulations of the British Boxing Board of Control demand that five individuals were each required to prove that Classen had a valid license before he entered the ring against Sibson. They were his manager, Minuto; the matchmaker, Duff; the promoter (or co-promoter in this case with Duff, Mike Barrett); Classen's British agent, Al Phillips; and the whip, Harry Davies, who is supposed to see that the boxers arrive in the ring on time, provide the gloves and perform other tasks, such as checking licenses. Further, Lehane reported in The Sunday Times, "It is usual for a Board Inspector to check all boxers' licenses at the weigh-in before the fight." Finally, the board's Regulation 22, Paragraph 1(b) states, "Every boxer from overseas must be in possession of a current boxer's license, and a medical certificate of fitness to box issued by his National Federation or Control Board, before being granted a BBB of C Boxer's License or Certificate of Authorization." Despite all this, the board refuses to explain why Classen was permitted to fight, and its chairman, Alexander Elliot, has refused even to discuss the subject with Lehane, saying, "There is no Act of Parliament that says I have to speak to you." Until Elliot speaks, the explanation of whip Harry Davies as to why he never tries to check the licenses of foreign boxers will have to do: their managers object and "Mickey Duffs people clear all that long before I ever see the fighters."
When Gibbs stopped the fight, fans booed and pelted the ring with programs. Minuto says, "Willie was knocked down in the first round, and he says, 'I see double.' I said, 'Well, cover up and keep moving.' The second round he got hit early, went down and got up. Then he's down again like to take a breather when the bout was stopped." Classen complained of double vision to Dr. Adrian White-son, who was in attendance at the fight, and Dr. Whiteson told him to go to Moor-fields, London's premier eye hospital. "But Willie wanted to eat," says Minuto, "so we went to a Kentucky Fried Chicken. He seemed fine. The next day we flew back to New York. On the way home, Willie was apologetic. 'I'll try harder,' he says."
Back home, Willie continued to train and stack bread at Pathmark. Rose Lejeune, who works at the market and lived in Willie's neighborhood, saw Willie running in the morning. Willie told everyone in the market that he had won in London, but they soon heard otherwise.
Because Classen was planning to box again, he had to renew his New York license, which meant he had to take the annual medical examination, consisting of a general physical, a neurological exam, an electroencephalogram and an electrocardiogram. On Nov. 13, Classen reported to the commission for the EEG, which was also required by his medical suspension after the knockout by Locicero. On Nov. 20, Classen took the rest of the medical exam. Dr. Edwin Campbell, who examined Classen, found no evidence of current drug use. Classen told him that he had fought in London and had been stopped on cuts. He said nothing about the knockout. Minuto said nothing, but to appease his conscience he told the doctor during Classen's first visit on Nov. 13 to be sure to give him the EEG. Campbell cleared Classen to fight.
Then Jack Brami asked Minuto if Classen would fight Scypion in a 10-rounder at the Felt Forum. As Minuto describes it, Brami hardly appears to have been against the match: "Brami says, and I'll give you his exact words, 'I'll give you $1,000. Who do you think would want to use your fighter? He's been stopped twice.' " Asked what Brami meant when he said that Classen had been stopped twice, Minuto says, "What does it mean? It means, of course, that Brami knew he'd been stopped in England by Sibson. Do you think they don't know? If you were a matchmaker, wouldn't you know? You know who you're putting in a show."
Minuto turned down the offer. He had never heard of Scypion, even though Scypion had knocked out every opponent he had faced. The Ring magazine had prepared an article stating that "When opponents step into the ring against him, they fight to survive, not to win." Minuto decided to check out Scypion, who was training in Gleason's Gym. "He was very raw," Minuto says. "Scypion was not the fighter his record showed. I thought Willie could hit him and knock him out. Willie was peaking in his training. I saw Gil Clancy and signed for $1,500. My feelings were that if Willie beat the hottest fighter in the country, he'd be right back on top. Those two other fights [Locicero and Sibson] when he was stopped meant nothing."
On Nov. 23, the day of the fight, Drs. Richard Izquierdo and Roger Warner, the attending physicians, checked Classen at the weigh-in at 11 a.m. They also checked him that night before the fight and found him fit. Izquierdo was later to become the subject of controversy when it was learned that he also was Classen's personal physician, thus creating a possible conflict of interest. Neither doctor had any training in neurology.
The referee was Lew Eskin, who is unpopular with some managers who say he can't control a bout because he won't put his hands on fighters to break them. Six months previously in New Jersey, Paddy Flood had complained to promoter Al Sesto, "This guy Eskin will get a fighter killed or start a riot."
Eskin counters criticism of his style by saying, "I think that when you put your hands on fighters you lose control." Eskin also contends Classen shouldn't have been allowed to fight Scypion. "I knew about the knockout in London, but the commission okayed the match. Clancy knew it. Why wasn't he suspended?"
Classen's cornerman, Al LaCava, says Classen asked him to work the fight that night. Mike Capriano, the other cornerman, later testified that Classen did not look good in the dressing room and that he told that to Minuto. Minuto says he was not in the dressing room but outside watching the other fights.
Scypion knocked Classen down in the third round. "In the fourth Willie didn't look right," Minuto says. "I turned around to Capriano and said, 'Give me the razor. This fight's off. I want to cut the gloves.' " Minuto remembers Capriano responding, "Don't worry about it. You know this kid's a beast. No one can stand toe to toe with Willie. Sooner or later he'll get him. When the kid wants to fight, he can take care of anybody." So the fight continued. "In the fifth round," Minuto says, "Willie hit Scypion with a left hook, and Scypion started to run. In the corner we said, 'You hurt him,' and he said, 'I know.' Willie became the aggressor. After the sixth round I told him, 'You're chasing. You'll walk into a right. Take your time.' In the seventh and eighth rounds, he chased with his guard down. Early in the ninth, Willie got caught with an overhand right, and Scypion saw that he had hurt Willie and just went after him. Then Willie got hit with a second overhand right that was devastating. It caught him right by the back of the head. I saw that Willie was hurt, and [after the bell] I went to the middle of the ring to take him to the corner. He was cut inside the left eyelid. I gave that first priority because I could talk to him as I was putting pressure on the eye. As I started to talk to him, Dr. Warner came from the right, then Dr. Izquierdo from my left. I backed off. Both of the doctors started talking to Willie and he's responding to them."
During the ninth round, fans in the crowd had started yelling for the fight to be stopped. Harold Valan, a referee at ringside, called out, "Lew! Lew! Stop it!" Eskin was one of several persons who could have stopped the fight. Either of the doctors could have stopped it, and so could Minuto, although he later testified he didn't know that he could. In any event, no one did.
"The bell rang [for the 10th round]," Minuto recalls. "Willie's on the stool. I said to him, 'What do you want to do?' He says, 'I want to fight.' "
Eskin did not have the fighters touch gloves for the final round. It is a custom, not a regulation. Scypion tore across the ring to meet Classen. "I was still on the apron," Minuto says. "Scypion measured him with a left, then bang, a right, then another right. I was still on the apron. As soon as the first punch hit, I thought the fight had to be stopped, and before Willie went down, I was in there.
"When he was lying on the floor, I cut the glove off his left hand, and while I was cutting the glove on the right hand, he grabbed me with his right hand like a vise and held on to me. I knew then he was unconscious, and I had to pull my hand out of his grip with my other hand. Then I knew that he was really hurt."
Confusion engulfed the ring. No one seemed certain of what to do. There was no established procedure to follow. Classen finally was placed on a stretcher and removed from the ring to an adjacent hallway. A call went out for an ambulance, but none came. By chance, Richard McGuire, an AAU boxing official, spotted an ambulance passing by on Eighth Avenue and he flagged it down. It was from Cabrini Hospital on East 19th Street, but Izquierdo and Warner insisted that the driver take Classen to Bellevue, where emergency neurosurgery was available. Warner rode in the ambulance across town with Classen and radioed Bellevue to be ready.
Within two hours of the knockout, neurosurgeons removed a large blood clot that had formed in the space between Classen's brain and its outer cover, the dura. Removal of the clot alleviated the pressure, but the brain itself had already been damaged. Five days later, at 7:42 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 28, Willie Classen died.
Peace did not follow Classen to the grave. The Ortiz Funeral Home in the Bronx would not release the body for the funeral at St. Joan of Arc and burial in St. Raymond's Cemetery until a bill of $2,000 was paid. Minuto had to come up with the cash. It was either that or a certified check, because the funeral home had been stuck with the bill after Benny Paret had died 18 years before.
There followed a series of curious reports and leaks from the office of the New York City medical examiner. Classen's brain and some tissues had been removed for autopsy. One rumor had it that Willie's brain was missing—it was proved false—but there was indeed a mixup involving tissues from another cadaver.
In mid-December, Senator Goodman's committee issued its report. It called for an immediate suspension of all boxing in New York until a six-point program to protect boxers could be enacted by the commission. The commission acceded to the suspension, and adopted all the recommendations, which included mandatory eight-hour neurological training courses for physicians, referees and supervisory officials, and the utilization of CAT scans for boxers when medically indicated. Goodman's committee also found that Classen's death was "a preventable tragedy" that provided "a glaring indictment of an archaic and inadequate system of boxing supervision," that the state had "failed" to screen doctors properly for its panel of ring physicians, that ring doctors and referees were "not properly trained to prevent serious boxer injury or death," and that boxers were endangered by a "failure of officials to have arrangements in place for rapid treatment of head and nervous system trauma." Goodman also urged acceleration of a computerized boxer identification system that would provide the various state commissions with a full record of a fighter's career and injuries.
The New York commission conducted its own investigation, and in January it announced that Izquierdo and Warner had resigned, that Minuto had been suspended for a year and that Eskin, La-Cava and Capriano were suspended for six months. Eskin called his suspension "ludicrous. It's a typical move by a...completely inept commission."
Informed of the suspension before he received official notice in the mail, LaCava said of the commission, "Those bastards! They have no business doing this. We were hired for one night, that's all. They're the murderers, not us. They passed this fighter."
A few weeks later, Marilyn Classen filed a multimillion-dollar damage suit against the New York commission.
Goodman's committee is now into the second part of its inquiry, a look at commission procedures and regulations, promoting, matchmaking and the possibility of future federal supervision. Unless the senator and his committee take a very hard look at what goes on in boxing, and initiate sorely needed reforms that are also adopted nationwide, the sport will continue as it has in the past, and Willie Classen's death will have little meaning.
An artist's dark, visionary rendering of Classen's last exit from the ring.
Classen had recurring nightmares and hallucinations and even a premonition of death.
Minuto says the system killed Willie.
A lonely grave marker: the end of the dream.