To people who followed boxing in the 1920s and 1930s, the name Young Stribling evokes images of unfulfilled promise, of blazing talent cleft by tragedy. His given name was William Lawrence Stribling Jr., and he was a smooth, fast counterpuncher out of Macon. Ga., who lost only 11 of more than 286 bouts over a 13-year professional career. During that time, he fought in every division, from bantam to heavyweight. It was the considered judgment of most who saw him that he had the stuff of a champion and would certainly have become one had he not been killed in a motorcycle accident at the age of 28. What many did not know was that Stribling did make it to the championship, in a way, at least.
Young Stribling's boxing success was an embodiment of his father's dream. As a boy the elder Stribling had devoured magazine and newspaper articles on the sport, and for a time took up serious training. But as a teen-ager he recognized that he did not have the physical equipment and put his ambition aside until his firstborn arrived the day after Christmas in 1904. Almost from that moment Pa Stribling began to prepare his son for a boxing career.
Through the early years of the century the elder Stribling had held a number of different jobs—sideshow barker, traveling photographer, insurance salesman—but after the birth of William Jr. and another son, Herbert, he settled into a career as a vaudevillian, with an act featuring all four members of the family in juggling and tumbling routines. They called themselves The Four Novelty Grahams and, not surprisingly, they soon incorporated a strong boxing flavor into their performance.
Willie Stribling—he did not get the nickname Young until he entered the ring—saw his first real prizefight in San Francisco in 1909, a battle between two slugging middleweights. "My Willie," said Pa Stribling afterward, "is going to be a boxer with class, not one of these brawlers. Wait and see." The lad soon was doing his own "single" within the family act—challenging any kid his own age from the audience to come up and box with him for three rounds. Pa Stribling offered $10 to anyone who went the route. Few did.
The Four Novelty Grahams finally ended their vaudeville days in 1917, and Pa Stribling settled the family in Macon, his own hometown. Willie began to work out at the YMCA under his father's tutelage, and four years later—having just turned 17 and weighing 117 pounds—he had his first pro fight, winning it with ease. Through high school he had 75 bouts, losing but three.
Pa Stribling's confidence in his son's skill was hardly misplaced. In the years ahead the frequently outweighed Young Stribling would take on nearly all comers at any weight, and the list of his conquests includes several men who later became world champions. Tommy Loughran, Jimmy Slattery and Maxie Rosenbloom, all future light-heavy-weight kings, fell before the tough kid from Macon.
The fight that won him the championship he was to hold only three hours occurred on Oct. 4, 1923. Mike McTigue, who had won the light-heavyweight crown seven months earlier, was offered a purse of $10,000, win or lose, if he would come to Columbus, Ga. to take on the 18-year-old kid, who by that time had become a ring sensation in the South. McTigue and his manager, Joe Jacobs, readily agreed to the terms. They were so confident that they even agreed to put the light-heavyweight title on the line, though the fight was to go only 10 rounds. One element that helped sustain them was that they were bringing their own referee, Harry Ertle—a common practice in those times.
Only when Jacobs, McTigue and Ertle arrived in Columbus from New York did reality begin to crowd in. Georgians were betting on Young Stribling as if the fighters' roles were reversed. The scuttlebutt Jacobs picked up around town was disconcerting; clearly, Stribling would be no pushover. Jacobs began to look for an out. When it was obvious that the fight could not simply be canceled, Jacobs tried to remove the title from contention. But the local promoter was a determined Army major named John Paul Jones, whose motto seems to have coincided with his naval namesake's. "The fight will go on as contracted," he told Jacobs. So Jacobs tried another dodge. He announced that McTigue had broken a bone in his hand. Jones ordered X rays taken, and they showed the fracture to be an old one that had long since healed. With that, Jacobs gave up trying to duck the bout. After all, there was still Harry Ertle.
The fight itself was an anticlimax. Stribling was the aggressor all the way, but McTigue's years of ring experience saved him from humiliation. He managed most of the time to keep Stribling tied up or at a distance with his strong left jab. The teen-age middleweight pursued the champion but never managed to land solidly. Nevertheless, most of the writers there scored it in Stribling's favor. Ertle was clearly up against it
While the crowd murmur grew to a noisy rumble, Ertle cowered in a neutral corner, pretending to tally his score sheet and glancing nervously out at the restless crowd. Finally, after an agonizing delay, the reference went to Jones and declared the fight a draw. "Then get back out there and tell the folks your decision," Jones yelled. Ertle went back to the center of the ring, took one look at the now-frenzied mob, and caved in. He raised Stribling's hand. It was probably the only thing he could have done to keep the crowd at bay.