Last week in Paris, Laszlo Papp, a Hungarian prizefighter with waves of black hair and a Robert Taylor mustache, successfully defended his European middleweight title by knocking out Hippolyte Annex, a hitherto undefeated French gypsy, in the ninth round. Although this was Papp's 21st professional fight without a loss, it is unlikely that he will ever advance to the head of his class. For one thing, he is 36 years old. For another, he is a southpaw. Most ranking fighters agree with the bitter sentiment of Willie Pep: "They ought to take all left-handers, drop them in a sack and throw the sack in a river." Good fighters shun southpaws.
But fame has amply blessed Laszlo Papp nonetheless. He is the only man ever to win gold medals at three consecutive Olympic Games—1948, 1952, and 1956. And he is (manifestly, at any rate) the only professional athlete from an Iron Curtain nation.
Papp was born in Pest, the commercial half of Hungary's capital. He now lives across the Danube, or across the tracks, in posh, residential Buda. The interior of his home, a bungalow on the side of Liberty Hill, is light and airy, white with parquet flooring and carpets. The windows are curtained with Brussels lace and there are oil paintings on the walls. His car, a German 1962 Opel Rekord, is parked outside.
Life has not always been so good, Laszlo told a recent visitor, pouring him a cherry brandy from a cut-glass decanter. Papp's father was a plumber, his mother a peasant. After his father died of cancer in 1937, Papp's mother worked as a concierge and ran a small grocery to support Laszlo and his sister. Quitting school at 14, Papp became apprenticed to an optical firm, where he worked for three years. During this period he played soccer, ran on a 400-meter relay team and dabbled in shotputting. "I did about 43 feet," he says. "Like a firefly I darted from one sport to another. I even practiced wrestling."
He started boxing in 1944. "After two months," Laszlo says, "the coach told me I should take up the sport seriously. I didn't need a lot of persuading because I always seemed to be arguing with the manager of our soccer team and this was a good opportunity to escape him. It didn't take me long to realize that boxing was the sport I could do best in. The siege of Budapest during the war stopped my progress until 1945. when I joined the Budapest Railway Sports Club and came under the Coach Zsigmond Adler."
An almost dainty man with tiny feet, Adler is the guru of Hungary's 10,000 amateur boxers. In reverent tones, Budapestians say that Adler has "X-ray eyes." They mean he can spot talent a mile off, and mothers from the district of Angyalfold (The Land of Angels), which is roughly comparable to New York's Lower East Side, bring their sons to him in the hope he can make them champions.
There was never any doubt about Papp. The Railway Club got him a job carrying packages in a store, tough work that Laszlo feels helped develop his immensely powerful physique. In three years he had 51 bouts. He lost only one, on points, and had 47 knockouts. In 1948 Papp, then 22, went to London for the Olympics.
"I felt I could be satisfied if I made it through two or three matches," Papp now recalls. "A lesson would have been learned. I would know some new tricks. It was after the third match there that it occurred to me that instead I could be the teacher."
Laszlo knocked out his first three opponents. The fourth bout was against an Italian whom he had previously beaten, and Papp won by a decision. In the finals he faced a British sailor, Johnny Wright, who had the advantage of being a head taller and of boxing before a friendly crowd. Papp's punches seemed to have little effect on Wright. At the end of the second round, Laszlo was in despair and rapidly becoming exhausted. He then recalled the promise of two compatriots to leap fully clothed into a nearby swimming pool if he won and, stimulated by this prospect, he rallied to beat Wright. "From that time on," says Papp, with a wink, "I became a white-collar worker in the Central Railway Office."
Three gold medals