Collector's Films of Boxing's Glory Days Still Pack a Punch

Times Staff Writer

Remember Bob Fitzsimmons' "solar plexus" punch that sent James J. Corbett to the canvas in their 1897 bare-fisted heavyweight title bout? What about Jack Dempsey pummeling heavyweight champion Jess Willard in 1919 for the title?

Recall Joe Louis in his prime? What about the sleek Sugar Ray Robinson?

Nick Beck, a Cal State Los Angeles journalism instructor, certainly remembers.

Beck can weave tales about the greatest bouts as if he saw them yesterday because, chances are, he did. Beck owns one of the most extensive boxing film collections in the world.

40 Years of Collecting

Shelved in boxes in a crowded closet in Beck's Benedict Canyon home in Sherman Oaks are thousands of fights preserved on 8- and 16-millimeter film reels and videocassettes--products of more than 40 years of collecting and a schoolyard friendship.

Boxing has intrigued Beck since he mail-ordered his first 2-minute, 8-millimeter highlight film of the first Joe Louis-Billy Conn fight and viewed it on a small hand-cranked projector when he was 12.

"I was fascinated by it and wanted to get other fight films," said Beck. "There were other companies that offered mail-order fight films, and I got interested and got them all."

Since that first acquisition, Beck and boxing have enjoyed a close relationship.

As a sportswriter for United Press International, Beck has seen and written about thousands of matches, including fights in three Olympic Games (Rome in 1960, Tokyo in 1964 and Mexico City in 1968).

Beck has even stepped into the ring. As a 140-pound welterweight in 1955, Beck finished with a 4-1 amateur record.

"I figured most people who wrote about baseball and basketball had played (those sports). But few people who wrote about boxing ever went into the ring," said Beck about his short amateur career.

Beck's boxing film and memorabilia collection is a boxing enthusiast's dream, his house a boxing memorial.

He has more than 100 books on boxing, along with dozens of photographs. Pictures of a young Jack Johnson and Billy Conn hang in his kitchen and a signed photograph of a 17-year-old Jack Dempsey is in his living room. Boxing gloves worn by Sugar Ray Robinson and signed on the thumbs are displayed in a hallway. Posters and old tickets clutter drawers.

Obsessive Collector

"You name it, I've got it," said the 53-year-old Beck, who is also an avid collector of novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and other authors. Thousand of books are stacked in nearly every room in his house. He also collects Charlie Chaplin artifacts and movie memorabilia.

"It's an obsession," said Beck. "People, when they like things, have to possess them in some way. Obsessive collectors collect absolutely everything. It's impossible to throw anything away."

While Beck compiled or filmed most of his 8-millimeter fight films himself, his 16-millimeter and videocassette collection was given to him by a boyhood friend, Jim Jacobs. Beck, who went to Hollywood High School, met Jacobs, who attended Los Angeles High, at the Hollywood YMCA. Soon, Beck's boxing enthusiasm spread to Jacobs.

"When I was a kid in high school, you could go to the fights five nights a week," said Beck, remembering when he and Jacobs used to watch amateur fights at the Olympic Auditorium, Hollywood Legion Stadium and the Ocean Park Arena in Venice. Today, only the Olympic remains as shrine to boxing in the Los Angeles area.

As time passed, Beck's interest in boxing films remained a hobby, while Jacobs parlayed his collection into a business. Today, Jacobs, who lives in New York, owns copyrights to about 95% of all fight films and has what is considered the largest collection of them in the world, Beck said.

Jacobs also manages fighters, including junior middleweight Wilfredo Benitez and young heavyweight hopeful Mike Tyson.

"It's probable . . . I have what would be called the second-best collection in the world. Because Jimmy and I were very close friends as children, he has given me a print of virtually every film he has," said Beck. "If he had anything that I'd like, he'd give it to me. But it's not something I've built or collected on my own. It's really his collection."

Most of the fun of having such a collection is showing it off.

"There's nothing better than showing fight films to an appreciative audience. There is this great fascination people have with boxing. Everybody comes up to me and tells me about the great fights they've seen."

Although Beck's is mainly a personal collection, he has been known to do an occasional fund raiser.

In 1982, Beck raised over $2,500 for Cal State Los Angeles' athletic budget with a 2 1/2-hour film show of boxing's greatest bouts. More than 500 people paid $5 each to see old ghosts like Corbett, Johnson and Dempsey fight again.

"I'm not in the business to show the films for a profit," Beck said. "After all, the films are Jimmy's. He owns the copyrights, so I can't take my films into a theater or auditorium and charge admission."

One of the Beck's most memorable exhibitions was in 1961 when he and Jacobs presented a celluloid fight show for sportswriters at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. The show compared some of the best fighters of that period to some of the turn-of-the-century boxers. Boxers like Corbett, Fitzsimmons, Johnson and Philadelphia Jack O'Brien would meet young upstarts, like Louis, Robinson and Willie Pep on the screen.

"For years and years, I used to read Ring magazine about these great old scientific boxers from the bare-knuckle days. After hearing about them for so many years, we finally had the opportunity to look at them," said Beck.

It was no contest, Beck said. Films showed the "scientific masters" to be clumsy, flat-footed brawlers, who rarely threw more than one punch at a time, as compared to the more refined talents of the modern-day boxers. In the early days of boxing, fighters didn't jab, hook or throw combinations and flurries, which today are boxing staples.

Old Rivalry Decided

Beck said that after the show some people came up to him and said they "didn't know whether to laugh or cry," at some of the older fighters. An old rivalry had finally been decided on film, thanks to Beck and Jacobs.

"For the very early fighters," Beck said, "it destroyed the myth of them generally being categorized as great scientific fighters. The last thing they were was scientific. With very few exceptions, they would be mediocre fighters by contemporary standards."

For Beck, "boxing is the most fundamental sport. It puts the biggest demands on a participant of any sport known to man."

"The great fighters are the ones that can perform under almost impossible pressure where the other guy is literally trying to rip your head off. You've got to keep control and know what you're doing, think and plan at all times while using every skill in your repertoire."

Legendary Fights

Most of the legendary fights are preserved in Beck's collection. Included are both Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney bouts, Tony Zale-Rocky Graziano, the last Robinson-Jake LaMotta match for the middleweight championship, Willie Pep and Henry Armstrong fights, along with many others.

"I don't know if I could ever place a price on my collection," said Beck. "I would say it's priceless."

But some filmed fights and fighters have eluded the grasp of Beck and Jacobs. Some bouts, like the first two Zale-Graziano fights, do not exist--the first bout wasn't filmed and the negative for the second contest was destroyed. Others have been lost over the years.

"There are many films that we know are out there because we've seen the clauses in the contracts. But no one knows where the prints are and if they exist anymore," Beck said.

Film of middleweight Harry Greb, who handed Gene Tunney the only defeat in his career in 1923, is one example. Although Beck has seen single frames of Greb bouts, he has not seen any extensive film of Greb fighting.

Greb In Demand

"If you asked any fight-film collector what fight film he would prize, it would be Harry Greb," Beck said. "It's the rarest of the rare. The Gutenberg Bible of boxing films."

Beck has his own favorites among the many fight films he does possess. Louis-Conn battle in 1941, where the 174-pound Conn appeared well on his way to winning a decision when the 200-pound Louis suddenly knocked him out in the 13th round.

"That's the most exciting fight on film to me," said Beck. "Everybody wants to see the Louis-Conn fight because they want to know if Conn was really that far ahead (on points), and would he have won the title if he was more careful and boxed."

Sugar Ray Was Best

Another favorite is the first Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight in 1971, with Frazier winning a unanimous 15-round decision.

"That's the most brutally punishing fight I have ever seen . . . 15 rounds with a very close decision," said Beck. "Both of those guys were at their peak."

Sugar Ray Robinson, who won the middleweight crown five times, is Beck's favorite fighter. Whenever Beck talks about boxing's greats, he mentions Robinson.

"Absolutely without a doubt, he was the greatest fighter I ever saw. You look at Sugar Ray Robinson in his peak and you realize that he was a magnificent fighter. He was so pleasing to watch. It's almost like watching Fred Astaire," said Beck.

Beck isn't as pleased with boxing as he used to be. He has become disillusioned with the sport because of the proliferation of boxing organizations and titles. Money now controls boxing even more that it did during the great scandals of the sport's early days, Beck said.

"I'd say that in the last 10 years, my interest in the contemporary fight game has been turned off," he said. "At one time, it was a very nicely conducted, highly organized sport.

"What's happened to boxing now is that instead of having one organization governing boxing, the promoters have created their own organizations in order to allow the number of champions and divisions to proliferate. So that instead of having eight champions, you've got all these crazy divisions. That means virtually every fighter in the ring is either a champion, former champion or a contender. The names and numbers are almost impossible to follow."

But, Beck said, "I still get excited when I see a great fighter come along, like a Sugar Ray Leonard or Mike Tyson."

And when Beck really gets in the mood, he'll dim the house lights, pull out the projector, dust the reels and let the show begin. Because to Beck, there's nothing better than a good fight.

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