Sports records are coveted accomplishments. Special victories, impressive feats and important “firsts” were all held sacred even in the ancient Olympic games. The first winner of the first Olympics in 776 B.C.E., Koroibos of Elis, was remembered, as have been many since.
Records are no less intriguing or essential to boxing. Archie Moore’s 131 (or more) knockouts, Joe Louis’ 25 straight title defenses, 130,000 spectators paying to see Julio Cesar Chavez vs. Greg Haugen — all seemingly timeless records that may never be broken, and not only because they’re insane statistics that transcend everyday reality. The reality of boxing itself has been altered numerous times since each other these records was set, and it may never be possible to break them.
When Albert “Chalky” Wright finally became featherweight champion in 1941, he had been a professional fighter for over 13 years, and had more than 175 fights on his rap sheet. Perhaps neither of those separately are records, but together, they speak to a hard-headed perseverance that would be difficult to rival.
As with any war or major event that throws society into upheaval, World War Two’s gravitational pull on all things found its way into boxing relatively early. If it wasn’t the jingoistic manipulation of the sport, it was high profile fighters entering into the service and disturbing the natural order of it all. The heavyweight title picture put an exclamation point on that.
Lawton Carver, sports editor of the International News, said of New York, which boomed with fight business in the 1930s, “All is quiet along ‘Jacob’s Beach,’ quieter than it has ever been during Mike Jacobs’ promotional regime dating back to 1934. You will run into a manager here and there along the beach, dodging the sun and inhaling deeply of the invigorating, health giving gas fumes from the few passing autos, but the managers lack their customary enthusiasm and discuss their problems and the Louis situation without working up a sweat. Mostly, they wonder aloud when there will be another fight around here so they can replenish their cabbage.”
The aforementioned “Louis situation” referred to Joe Louis actively serving in the U.S. Army. As a result of that service — and the service of fighters like Billy Conn, Gus Lesnevich and Tony Zale — there was a palpable absence in the sport. Chalky Wright became champion in that veritable vacuum of power.
During what could be described as Wright’s slow ascent, he was stopped by great fighters like Henry Armstrong, Baby Arizmendi and Freddie Miller, and dropped fights to other men like Cocoa Kid, Pablo Dano and Eddie Shea. But thanks to a 1941 streak that included beating top 10 fighters Sal Bartolo and Jackie Wilson, he was granted a title shot against featherweight champion Joey Archibald, and made the most of it, thumping Archibald before stopping him with a combination in the 11th round.
Wright’s performances remained spotty, even as a champion. His punching power, while respectable, wasn’t huge, and he was prone to following opponents around, giving away points. Between winning the title and making his first defense against Harry Jeffra, Wright lost three times to unheralded opponents. And on June 19, 1942, he was marching into Jeffra’s territory to make his first official title defense at Oriole Stadium in Baltimore.
A former bantamweight and featherweight champion with nearly 100 fights on his ledger, Jeffra knew his way around a ring. Knee high to a blade of grass at 5’4″, Jeffra had a high energy style that often saw him bouncing about, and earned him the nickname “the poor man’s Harry Greb.” Jeffra generally wasn’t as aggressive as your average Harry Greb effort, but he kept things moving. Reclaiming the old featherweight title that he had forfeited to Archibald was Jeffra’s aim, and while Jackie Wilson held the NBA belt, both Jeffra and Wright held wins over Wilson in the recent past.
For a featherweight bout between two men without much of a following, ticket sales did surprisingly well. Said Baltimore publication the Afro American, “Interest in the fight, which has been steadily mounting since the signing of the two classy 126-pounders, is at fever pitch. The Century Athletic Club, with Lou Fisher and George Goldberg, promoters, revealed that advance sales of tickets indicate a crowd of 8,000 to 10,000 fans. A last minute rush for tickets is expected near fight time, which may well the crowd to record-breaking proportions. The current trend indicates a gate close to $20,000, which if realized will break all existing local records.”
Wright set up camp at the Druid Hill Street YMCA in Baltimore, using his twin brother Lee as his chief sparring partner, as he often did. However, Wright cut his twin brother’s left eye badly in a nasty exchange during sparring about a week before the bout, and had to to finish up with other sparring partners.
Jeffra worked out at the Century Club gym across town on Baltimore St.
There was a complication, though. Eddie Walker, Wright’s manager, was suspended before the fight, as the New York State Athletic Commission wanted Wright to defend against Lulu Constantino, who beat Jeffra that April before losing to Wright in May. The commission initially refused to sanction the fight, but relented once Constantino was promised a shot at the winner.
A slow start for Wright set him back a few points, while Jeffra’s cautious approach wasn’t particularly appreciated. Jeffra’s movement was frenetic enough that Wright’s often measured pace dipped while he searched for opportunities to land huge. But in the meantime, Wright’s body work wasn’t going totally unnoticed — especially not by Jeffra.
In the 6th round, Wright was pegged for a foul as he hit low, though Jeffra’s trunks were reportedly up in the rafters. Still, Wright lost the round and was beginning to fall behind.
The Afro American’s sports editor, Art Carter, reported, “Jeffra’s stab-and-run tactics were impressing the judges for the first six rounds, though his blows were carrying little sting. In the seventh, however, Chalky began to put the pressure on the Monumental City foe and from here the champion had everything his own way, pounding Harry at will with hard rights and power-laden lefts…Wright opened a cut over Jeffra’s right eye in the fifth and had the optic bleeding in every subsequent round. By the eighth, the optic was half closed. In the ninth Chalky sent Jeffra to the floor for a nine-count with a one-two pasting to the chin. Jeffra, showing courage but no defense, tried to fight back in the tenth, but he was an easy target for Chalky by this time, so Referee Brockman stepped in as a man of mercy as the Pilmico Kid bowed out helpless on his feet, his eye and mouth dripping blood profusely; his face and torso reddened with pain.”
The AP wire summarized the bout thus: “After a fairly even go for six rounds, Wright took command in the seventh and in the ninth landed a one-two punch in his own corner to send the Baltimorean down for a count of nine. Only through sheer determination was Jeffra able to get to his feet and stave off the negro’s rushes. In the tenth, bleeding profusely over the right eye and about the mouth, Jeffre tried gamely, but after one minute and 50 seconds was caught again by the champion. This time he staggered about the ring, badly hurt, and referee Eddie Brockman stepped in to end it.”
After the fight, Wright was quoted as saying, “They fooled me about the way he fought. Why, he’s easier to hit with a right than a left hook as they said he would be. I found this out when I started him going in the eighth. He never hurt me.”
A reported attendance of around 6,000 turned in a gate of $16,800. With Wright’s guarantee being $7,500, the total left little for all others involved, and fell short of pre-fight hopes.
Considering the wartime narrative, it was fitting that a sparring session between Joe Louis and George Nicholson raised about $7,000 the same day at Camp Upton, N.Y. There was about as much press about Louis, his sparring session and whether or not he could return to the ring soon, as there was about Wright’s defense of a world title.
Wright had previously worked as a chauffeur for actress Mae West, but after he lost his title to Willie Pep later in 1942 and his fighting career ended, he gambled most of his money away and had to move back in with his mother.
Jeffra enjoyed a decent winning streak after his fight with Wright that included notches over Phil Terranova and Lou Salica, before he began to fizzle out at about the same time Wright did, which just happened to be after WWII came to a close.
It’s unlikely that any Allied vs. Axis gravity affected the career of either man in that way, but it does seem fitting that, as one of the globe’s widest-reaching conflicts churned up matter in its wake, two warriors began to lose steam, as if having no more crimson fuel to operate on.