After his brilliant but erratic welterweight, Vince Foster, had been killed in an auto accident, Jack Hurley, the tall, thin, caustic manager and promoter who has a genius for developing mediocre fighters into rich ones, began snooping around for another boxer. Into his office one day in 1949 walked a skinny middleweight named Harry Matthews, who had won 67 out of 70 fights on the West Coast, had been fighting for 12 years and had succeeded only in getting deep into debt. Hurley agreed to take him on for his usual 50%. Matthews screamed in anguish. "Listen, young man," said Hurley, "you've been boxing for 12 years and you've made exactly nothing. Now, 50% of nothing is nothing. You don't know how lucky you are. What is happening is that you are getting 50% of me."
Hurley watched his new gladiator work out and was appalled. "He got all his ideas from amateurs. It's a wonder he hadn't been seriously hurt. His idea of how to defend himself was to grab and run. That's all he knew. He didn't even know how to eat. He'd eat two meals a day. I said, "if you were a truck driver, would you eat like that?' He said, 'No, driving a truck is hard work. If I were a truck driver, I'd eat like one.' I said to him, 'Let me tell you something, young man. If you and I are to stay together, you'll work so hard you'll think truck driving is a soft racket. Don't ever lose sight of the fact that fighting is a hard and brutal business, and you gotta be in shape for it. From now on you eat like a truck driver.' He did, and he finally went up to 182 pounds.
"But oh, he was such a bad fighter at first. He couldn't punch, he couldn't take a punch. He was an agony fighter. Looking at a fighter that can't punch is like kissing your mother-in-law."
Hurley brought Matthews along slowly and one night put him into the ring with a carefully selected opponent who had had only 12 fights and was too light to cope with Matthews. "I figured Matthews would make his name overnight," says Hurley. "He figured to knock the kid out easy. But it went 10 rounds and nobody got hit, although Matthews wins the decision. The next day Matthews comes into the office, and he says, 'How did you like the fight?'
"I says, 'What fight?'
"He says, 'Last night.'
"I says, 'Harry, that was the most disgraceful thing I ever saw. If you and that kid were to go down to the street corner right now and go through the same antics, that traffic cop wouldn't even come over and break it up.' "
But Hurley has never needed a superfighter; all he needed now was a property, and Matthews, game and willing to learn, was it. The two of them set up shop in Seattle, and Hurley began the great campaign. Traveling the Northwest like a couple of drummers, Hurley and Matthews built up a legend that still has boxing's public-relations experts scratching their heads in amazement. The soft-punching, glass-chinned Matthews reeled off a dazzling skein of 35 consecutive wins, 28 by knockouts, and even began to learn a little about boxing. Hurley explains in detail how the feat was accomplished:
"I made sure he didn't fight any great fighters. I picked 'em mostly by their styles, guys that had styles just right for Matthews. So all his fights appeared to be sensational. I wouldn't put him in there with a fencer and a runner, because this guy isn't gonna fight, and he isn't gonna let you fight. By the time Matthews runs him down and gets him cornered where he might nail him, the guy jumps into a clinch and the referee rescues him, and he's off and running again. This doesn't make for a good fight or good box office, and even if Matthews wins he has hurt his earning power. So I always picked fighters that really wanted to get in there and fight and lick my fellow, and while they were doing this my fighter was counterpunching and looking great."
As the string of victories began building, sportswriters started to take notice of Matthews, and Hurley decided it was time to throw his "athlete" in with a genuinely tough opponent, "Irish Bob" Murphy. At first glance the fight looked like a cinch for Murphy, and the bookies made him the favorite. Murphy was a sort of left-handed, junior-grade, muscle-bound Marciano; he turned every fight into a street fight, and few could beat him in a street fight. As a pure boxer, however, he would not have lasted six rounds with Maria Ouspenskaya. Hurley knew this, and he also knew that there was one thing Matthews could do superlatively well, and that was fight a southpaw. "He had an instinct for fighting them, and by now he also knew how to fight a guy who comes to him. The fight was a natural for him."