Benny Jay: Gypsy Joe Harris

July 9th, 2015

My unceasing obsession with Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier has finally led me to Ghosts of Manila, Mark Kram’s book about their “fateful blood feud.”

I probably should have come to Kram’s book long ago–as it was published in 2001. But, as always, I’m running behind.

It’s a great read, even if I disagree with most of Kram’s Ali-bashing.

One of the delights is that it’s led me back to a character I’d forgotten–Gypsy Joe Harris, one of the toughest boxers of the `60s.

According to Kram, he was a “scuffed marble of a welterweight, five five…a skittering electron that released a volume of leather from any angle.”

Good line–Mr. Kram.

He won 24 out of 25 professional fights. His only loss came in a 1968 title match against Emile Griffith, speaking of tough fighters.

“Gypsy saw life as having no more distance than that from his nose to the end of a pool stick,” Kram writes. “He carried a knife almost as long as he was, and once asked to describe it he called it `sixty years in jail.'”

On top of it all, Gypsy had a way with words.

Two months after his fight against Griffith, the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission revoked Gypsy Joe’s boxing license on the grounds that he was blind in one eye.

Apparently, he lost sight in his right eye at the age of 11 in a street fight.

There are few things in life harder to do than be a one-eyed boxer.

gypsyjoeharrisThe great Gypsy Joe Harris…


Turns out that Gypsy Joe and Frazier were good friends. They sparred together in Philadelphia and had the same trainer. And Gypsy played a minor role in Frazier’s feud with Ali.

One day, back in 1969, Frazier got tired of hearing Ali call him names, like “Uncle Tom.”

Deciding to settle things once and for all, Frazier drove over to Ali’s house in New Jersey–with Gypsy in tow.

Man, I wish I could have been along for that ride.

At the door, they were met by two guards “with shoulder arms.”

Upon seeing Gypsy, Ali said: “Who’s the shrimp?”

And Gypsy said: “Gimme five inches, and I whup your faggot ass good.”

Well, no one said the man had any sense.

At that point, Ali and Frazier went at it.

Joe told Ali he didn’t appreciate the name calling.

And Ali said it was just in fun.

And Joe said some names “just ain’t fun.”

As the body guards stepped closer, Frazier said: “Them guns don’t mean shit to me.”

They managed to get out without fists flying or shots fired.

But now you can understand why Ali and Frazier fought with such ferocity in the ring.

Gypsy Joe died of a heart attack in 1990 at the age of 44.

To the end, I bet he believed he could whoop Ali–one eye and all.

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