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March 2002

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Former middleweight champ Carl Olson was a true ring mechanic who mixed it with the legends. GRAHAM HOUSTON recalls the career of the recently deceased Hawaiian

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There was nothing fancy or flashy about Carl “Bobo” Olson, the Hawaiian-born former middleweight champion who died at the age of 73 on 16 January. He was by no means a hard puncher, either. But he could fight.

The prematurely bald Bobo, who sported tattoos decades before they became a fashion statement, was a hard-working pressure fighter with great stamina. He knew how to stay on top of the slick boxers and break them down, and he was too smart for the slugger types. What the old-timers call him a ring mechanic, in fact.

American boxing writer Jack Hand, of the Associated Press news agency, summed up Olson’s style this way in a 1953 article: “Bobo is a cutie who slips punches, bobs and weaves, hides his face in a peek-a-boo shell and, above all, keeps punching. No great puncher, Olson wears a man down with his steady attack, throwing some of his punches with a half-open glove.”

Author Budd Schulberg, writing about Olson in 1954 in Sports Illustrated, observed: “He is busy, crafty, businesslike, and even when he is losing an occasional round on points he gives the impression of being in charge.”

Bobo was one of my favourite fighters of the 1950s, the decade when I first became intrigued by what then seemed a magical world of boxing, when the top fighters had a larger-than-life quality.

It is unfortunate for Olson that people think of him mostly for the four losses to Sugar Ray Robinson — the last two of them blowouts in two and four rounds respectively — and the third-round knockout defeat he suffered against Archie Moore, when Bobo moved up to challenge for the light-heavyweight title.

There was much more to Bobo Olson than these losses.

Just take a look at his record. He had 109 fights in a career that lasted 21 years and he won 91, with 16 losses and two draws. Olson stopped 42 opponents. The fact that he was halted seven times seems to indicate he did not take a great punch, but I think his chin “went” when Moore blasted him out of the fight in a humiliatingly one-sided loss on 22 June 1955.

After that, Bobo seemed to “go” more easily when he got hit. He was to lose nine times after the Moore debacle, and five times he was stopped — including the night in Chicago that Robinson knocked him out in the second round in December 1955, when Sugar Ray became a three-time middleweight champion. In a fourth and final fight with Sugar Ray, in Los Angeles, Robinson knocked him out in the fourth round.
Olson was fighting light-heavies and even heavyweights in the closing years of his career, but he was still beating world-class opponents well into his 30s.

The veteran Los Angeles promoter Don Chargin promoted a number of Bobo’s later fights — including his final bout, a loss on points to Don Fullmer, younger brother of middleweight champ Gene — and remembers him with admiration and affection. Over the phone from California, Chargin said: “This guy, before Archie Moore knocked him out, was considered unbeatable except for Ray Robinson. He was probably the best body puncher I’ve ever seen. He used to handle the good, tough, tough middleweights. After Archie Moore knocked him out something happened — he was known for having a great chin before. After, everything was shattered.

“Robinson was a great fighter and the first time he knocked Olson out, in 12 rounds, Carl was young, really a kid. He used to always tell me that ‘Robinson could be 80 years old and still knock me out’ — he just had that thing. But his fights with Pierre Langlois, Robert Villemain [well-respected contenders from France], Joey Maxim [the former light-heavy champion whom Olson beat twice], these were tough, tough guys. At the time he wasn’t underrated — but he is now.”

It might seem astonishing, but the grandiose and obviously too far-reaching plan was for Olson to meet Rocky Marciano for the heavyweight title if he could get past Moore. 

Chargin said: “That was the whole thing at the time. He was told: Maxim, Archie Moore, Marciano. They had him just convinced [that he could take on Marciano]. He beat Maxim easy, but Moore was just too big for him. It was evident the night of the fight. Archie didn’t get his hair mussed.
“He was a real likeable guy. We remained close until Alzheimer’s got him. In fact when his granddaughter [Eliza] started boxing [two years ago] he called me and made me promise I’d watch out for her the best that I can, and I am. That was right at the time the Alzheimer’s really hit. He showed up one night when she boxed for me in Sacramento but then it was really starting.”

How would Olson have fared with, say, Bernard Hopkins, who looked like an old-school champ himself when stopping Felix “Tito” Trinidad last September? “Believe me,” Chargin said, “before the Trinidad fight you would consider it a no contest — now you have to look at Hopkins differently. But up to the time, you wouldn’t consider them in the same breath.” 

It’s true that Olson could never beat Sugar Ray Robinson but he gave him a difficult time in the second bout of their four-fight series, on 13 March 1952, in San Francisco, when Robinson won a unanimous but hard-fought decision.

After Robinson retired, in 1952, Olson captured the vacant middleweight title with a unanimous 15-round decision over Britain’s Randy Turpin at Madison Square Garden on 21 October 1953.

Turpin started the fight well, but Olson wore him down on the inside, overwhelmed him on the ropes for long stretches of the fight and dropped him twice.

News agency reporter Jack Cuddy noted: “Probably never in any previous title fight in any division has a contender appeared so amazingly helpless when penned against the ropes as Turpin did . . . On 16 different occasions the English Negro was backed into the ropes and into corners and subjected to a battering while he stood there with his hands almost at his sides and rolling his head from side to side.”

Turpin was going through divorce proceedings at the time and said afterwards that “mental troubles” and not Olson were his problem on the night, but the fact is that Olson went in and did what he had to do in a highly effective performance.

Olson successfully defended the title three times in 1954, the most significant being a 15-round decision in Chicago over Kid Gavilan, the great “Cuban Hawk” who held the welterweight title and was moving up a division.

Gavilan fought an almost exclusively one-handed fight as he nursed a sore right hand, and he was cut over the right eye from what he said was a butt in the ninth round. His left hooks were never going to be enough against the bigger, stronger Olson. But Gavilan fought a furious final round and one judge made the fight a draw although the referee and another judge had Olson winning by six and eight points respectively under the 10-point “must” system.

Later that year Olson won a unanimous decision over a durable and cagey challenger, Rocky Castellani, whom he knocked down, and halted Frenchman Pierre Langlois, a tough, seasoned fighter, who suffered a bad cut over the eye — both fights at the famous old Cow Palace in San Francisco.

But moving up in weight to challenge the 38-year-old Archie Moore in 1955 proved to be a disaster, even though many in the fight game gave Olson an excellent chance against the bigger but older fighter. Olson had not lost in three years and Moore, although a 14-5 on favourite, was known to be having problems making weight. For two rounds, Olson was doing well on that sweltering June night outdoors at New York’s Polo Grounds. Referee Ruby Goldstein gave the first two rounds to Olson while the judges each had it one round for each fighter going into the third. But then Moore landed a terrific left hook and was all over for Olson after 79 seconds of the third.

Olson fought on for another 11 years, however. He said that making weight weakened him for the last two bouts with Ray Robinson, when he suffered by far the worst defeats of the series. The last nine years of his career were fought as a light-heavyweight and he even took on heavyweights such as “Irish” Pat McMurtry, considered a hot prospect at the time and who knocked out Olson in two rounds, and the Olympic gold medallist, Pete Rademacher, who outpointed him.

But Olson scored some outstanding victories against light-heavyweights of world-class calibre. He outpointed the rugged Mike Holt in South Africa, knocked out Swedish hope Lennart Risberg in Stockholm and outsmarted American contenders such as Jesse Bowdry, Irish Wayne Thornton and Andy Kendall, all world title challengers. He boxed a draw with another world title challenger, the strong Italian Giulio Rinaldi — a European champion who had lost only to Archie Moore, on points, in the last three years — in Rome. You know that Bobo didn’t get any favours there.
And in his last bout but one, on his 36th birthday, Olson outpointed the European champion at the time, Italy’s Piero Del Papa, in San Francsico.
But when Bobo had these fights at 175lbs (12st 7lbs) he was in his declining years as a fighter. It was as a middleweight that he was at his best. 
On his way to the title — and what a hard road they travelled in those days — he had wins over a string of world top-10-calibre fighters.

Those that Olson defeated included solid professionals such as Robert Villemain, the Frenchman who defeated Jake LaMotta and Kid Gavilan and went 15 rounds with Ray Robinson; Boston’s capable Norman Hayes, who outpointed Robert Villemain and won and lost against future champ Paul Pender; the hard-hitting but erratic Walter Cartier; the deaf-mute Eugene “Silent” Hairston; Tommy Yarosz, a Polish-American veteran of 80 fights — with only five losses — who had outpointed the wonderful Aussie Dave Sands in London two months earlier; Anton Raadik, an Estonian who lost in 10-round fights against great middleweight champs Jake LaMotta and Marcel Cerdan and who stopped former welter contender Tommy Bell; Jimmy Beau, who was rated No. 5 in the world by Ring magazine in 1950; one Henry Brimm, who a year before meeting Bobo had held Ray Robinson to a 10-round draw (in Brimm’s hometown of Buffalo, New York, let it be said).

Even after all these wins, Olson had to fight an elimination match to earn the world title bout with Turpin, when he soundly outpointed the stubborn Irish Paddy Young (in a 15-round fight for the American title) at Madison Square Garden.

And — as the champ — Olson’s non-title bouts were not exactly pushovers, either, with wins over the durable and ever-willing Ralph “Tiger” Jones (who beat Sugar Ray Robinson in a huge upset in 1955), the classy-boxing contender Joey Giambra and, most importantly, a two-knockdown, unanimous decision over Joey Maxim, the former light-heavy champ, that earned Olson his chance against Archie Moore.

Olson was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York, two years ago, an honour that was well deserved, according to promoter and fight historian Russell Peltz.

Speaking from his Philadelphia office, Peltz said: “He was a better fighter than he got credit for because of the four fights with Robinson. That’s all anybody seems to remember — and one of them was a very competitive fight. It was nice to see that he got into the hall of fame; there were some people who had some sense although when they put Ingemar Johansson in [this year] — but that’s another matter. Look at the guys he [Olson] beat. But, unfortunately, all that people seem to remember are the fights with Robinson, especially the last two, when he rolled over.
“Even at the end, when he was an old man, he was beating good fighters.”

Promoter Don Chargin recalled an incident that illustrates what a competent fighter Olson was: “I can remember when Tiger Jones had beat Ray Robinson and Bobo just absolutely played with him [in Jones’s next bout]. In fact, I’ll never forget, he pulled Tiger Jones into him and was carrying on a conversation with Joe Louis at ringside.”

Also available to read from issue:

Magazine Contents:
Full details of the March 2002 issue - the complete contents listing.

World Rankings:
See where the top fighters were rated when March 2002 went to press...

Roy Jones rules the roost but Bernard Hopkins wants to execute the world light-heavyweight champion’s roosters. Sounds interesting. GRAHAM HOUSTON reports

Ask anyone, the light-middleweight powerpuncher from Wales is Britain's most exciting prospect. MICHAEL GILL reports

Former middleweight champ Carl Olson was a true ring mechanic who mixed it with the legends. GRAHAM HOUSTON recalls the career of the recently deceased Hawaiian

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