“Boxers last only a short time, but managers go on forever.”—Joe Greb
Gus Dundee, an ex-heavyweight champion of the world played by Pat Comisky, and the menacing Buddy Brannen, suitably cast by Max Baer, met in the movie The Harder They Fall and Buddy rendered a terrible beat down on Gus who thereafter suffered from severe headaches and brain damage going into his next fight with the Argentinean giant, Toro Moreno (played by Mike Lane). The feather-fisted Moreno knocked the helpless Dundee out. Gus then lapsed into a coma and died. Gus, of course, was terribly damaged goods going into the Moreno fight and everyone knew it except the naïve Toro who had feasted on a buffet of fixed fights.
This was make-believe and contributed to one of the best boxing movies ever made. What was not make-believe was that Ernie Schaaf compiled a record of 49-15-1 that included wins over Max Baer, Jim Braddock and Tony Galento. In August 1932, he lost a decision to Baer in a rematch. However, he was actually saved by the bell when Baer knocked him out with seconds remaining in the fight. Six months later, another feather fisted giant named Primo Carnera, to whom Toro Moreno was compared, knocked out Ernie in 13 rounds. Schaaf died four days later. Many believe the injuries suffered in his bout with Baer contributed to his death. Gus Dundee, of course, was the real life Schaaf.
Willie “Macho” Classen vs. Wilford Scypion (1979)
“He’s hurt, he’s hurt, John. They oughtta stop the fight…He’s a sitting duck right now, any kind of a good punch will do it…”—Prospect Davey Vasquez helping announcer John Condon call the fight.
“He’s out on his feet, John, he don’t know where he’s at.”—Vazquez
God Bless Willie. [I] trained many rounds with him at Gleason’s in the 70’s. Right up to his last fight…. he was the nicest, kindest man you could ever meet. [He was] a beautiful soul and a very talented athlete. He wanted nothing more than to provide for his family and he died doing just that. RIP Mr. Class! –Poster named Dr. Whatnot
“…a great trainer stops a fight when the boxer has no chance of a win.”—Dr. Margaret Goodman, Special to SI.com
“I killed a man in the ring…Willie Classen was his name. The ref should’ve stopped the fight.”—Wilford Scypion
Willie Classen (15-6-2) was knocked through the ropes 12 seconds into the tenth round of his fateful fight with Wilford Scypion (12-0) at Madison Square Garden on November 23, 1979. The fight itself has seldom been seen since there are no YouTube videos of it, but I lived and worked in the New York City area at the time and watched it on MSG Network television. Along with hundreds of thousands of other horrified witnesses, it left its indelible mark on me.
After some give and take, the durable Willie (who at times rocked the Texan) absorbed some horrific punishment towards the end of the fight including six unanswered jackhammers at the very end of the ninth. “Macho” had been decked a couple of times earlier in the fight from shots from that would have sent other fighters into dreamland. Clearly, he was in dangerous condition going into the final round. After the ninth stanza, he needed the assistance of the ropes to get back to his corner. As the bell sounded for the last round, Willie hesitated off his stool and then was seemingly lifted off it and pushed out into the ring by his handlers. The heavy-handed Scypion was poised and ready to finish the slaughter. Willie was immediately met by a left hook and straight right. A second right smashed him through the ropes before his manager could get into the ring and get the fight stopped.
The fight had become hard to watch because you knew something ugly was going on. Everyone except those responsible for keeping the fighters out of harm’s way knew it. The commentators knew it. Ringsiders knew it. They stood up and hollered for referee Lew Eskin to stop, but it was not to be. Later, when Classen was on a stretcher waiting to receive badly needed medical assistance, blood was seen gushing out of his mouth like a fountain.
The fact that no ambulance was parked in the wings of Madison Square Garden and that it reportedly took 30 minutes to flag down an ambulance in the street and take Classen to a hospital, where he died of a brain hemorrhage five days later, has been the grist for many a story. And so have the subsequent multiple lawsuits and eventual settlements. Suffice it to say that Classen’s death was not in vain. Many important reforms arose from the contributing circumstances. Two significant court cases followed as well. One (Classen v. State of New York, 131 Misc. 2d 346 (1985)/500 N.Y.S. 2d 460 (Ct. Cl. 1985)) led to a requirement for ambulances at fight venues, and the other (Classen v. Izquierdo, 137 Misc. 2d 489 (1987)/ 520 N.Y.S. 2d 999 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1987) established the precedent that a ringside doctor’s failure to stop a fight on medical grounds could subject him to charges of malpractice.
The story here is that Classen was a middleweight journeyman who had been in the ring with tough competition—with guys like Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Al Styles Jr., ultra slick Vinnie Curto, and future champ Vito Antuofermo. On April 6, 1979, Willie was KOd by bomber John LoCicero, but some earlier damage may have been inflicted when Styles Jr. put some major punishment on Macho who was 14-2-2 in his first 18 and was known as a tough customer. Willie had lost a 10-round bout to Antuofermo before the Styles fight but he gave a decent account of himself. Still, he was 1-3 going into his two days notice bout (yes, that’s two day’s notice) with the very tough Tony Sibson (32-2-1) in London on October 10, 1979. Sibson KOd his sacrificial lamb opponent in the second round.
As Robert H. Boyle wrote in his definitive article in SIVAULT dated March 24, 1980:
“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.”
Classen had lied to the hacks at the New York commission when he applied for a renewal of his boxer’s license, claiming that he had been stopped on cuts in London. And 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 Commissioners sent him to Dr. John K. Dauncey, a general practitioner, who certified Classen as good to go. Dr. Gould also gave Classen his pre-fight check and declared him ready and fit to fight. Neither Classen nor Marco Minuto told either doctor that Classen was under indefinite medical suspension in New York. Had he known, Dr. Dauncey said, “In no way would I have passed him fit to box.” In short, when Willie and company went to London, they lied about what happened in New York with LoCicero. Then, when they came back from London to New York, they lied about what happened in London with Sibson. Thus, just a month after being knocked out by Sibson in London, Classen took on the unbeaten Texan Wilford Scypion (with all 12 of his wins coming by KO) at the Felt Forum. The rest is tragic history.
Whether or not Willie Classen was damaged going into this fight is subject to debate. What is not debatable is that he had been knocked out by Tony Sibson only one month prior to the Scypion fight and had been KOd by John LoCicero six months before the Sibson fight. Also not open to argument is that Willie was 1-4 going into the Scypion bout and had been caught up in a pack of lies that set him up for the final fight of his life
After this incident, Scypion would never again fight with the fury and even perceived meanness for which he was known. He lost his edge and finished 32-9 losing every time he stepped up. Today, he lives in Port Arthur, Texas and reportedly suffers from dementia and Parkinson’s disease.
As for political hack and Chairman of the New York Boxing Commission Jack Prenderville (who had been appointed by then Governor Hugh Carey), he had this to say:
“We’ve talked with everyone involved—doctors, persons in charge of the boxing shows, the referees and even some reporters…It all comes down to the same thing. Everything was done and properly so.” He called Classen’s brain damage “a tragic accident” and concluded that “No one is responsible.” (Incredibly, during a later State Assembly hearing to discuss improving New York’s boxing rules and regulations, Prenderville opposed a new rule mandating an ambulance be present on site for every bout arguing that it would be too costly.)
Notwithstanding the hacks contentions to the contrary, there was plenty of blame to dish out. Not everything was done that could have been done; not by a long shot. This fatality did not arise out of the culture of boxing. No, this one arose because too many things were not done properly.
In the case of Willie Classen, there were abundant flashpoints for criticism and culpability. It was not an unfortunate accident which must be accepted as a fact of life. Willie died in the worse of circumstances. I got by it, but not without walking away from boxing for several years.
Willie’s wife Marilyn eventually filed a $500 million suit against Madison Square Garden, referee Lew Eskin, and four doctors,, as well as a $250,000 suit against the city and its medical examiner for allegedly bungling the fighter’s autopsy. In 1987, Marilyn settled for a six-figure sum.
Will Classen witnessed the fatal blow that took his father Willie Classen’s life in the boxing ring in 1979. He was just 9 years old. Here is a poignant YouTube in which Willie’s son talks about the relationship between a fighter and his son: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Khxxvf7hwPg
By the way, if this article reminds you of another more recent fight—also held in New York City, then perhaps you will agree that the more things change, the more they seem to be the same.