There is a new monument to the folly of those who run boxing. Right now it takes the form of an iron grave marker in St. Raymond's Cemetery in the Bronx, and it designates the resting place of middleweight Willie Classen. Classen, who was born on Sept. 16, 1950 in Santurce, Puerto Rico, died in Bellevue Hospital on Nov. 28, 1979 of brain damage inflicted five days earlier when he was knocked out in the 10th round of his fight against Wilford Scypion in the Felt Forum of Madison Square Garden. There is no epitaph, but if there were it might be words that Willie once uttered to his manager after a losing fight, "Titles are not made for guys like me."
Willie Classen is only one of four boxers who have lost their lives in this country in recent months as a result of injuries received in the ring, but he was the most prominent, a "semi-name," and he suffered beatings when he should not have been fighting at all, in bouts licensed by the British Boxing Board of Control and the New York State Athletic Commission, supposedly the two most responsible agencies in the sport.
The blame for Classen's death has been placed on a number of persons, starting with his manager, Marco Minuto. Like a loser who doubles up on his bets at a Vegas crap table, Minuto kept putting Classen in over his head in the hope that an upset win would put his fighter—also his friend—right up on top of his division. His fellow managers generally regard Minuto as inept. "Inexperienced" is the kinder word that matchmaker Gil Clancy of the Garden uses to describe Minuto. A Little League baseball manager in suburban Garden City, N.Y., Minuto had no experience in boxing three years ago when he decided to buy Classen's contract in an effort to help him. He became a manager simply by filling out the New York State form and paying a $15 fee to the New York commission. A couple of days later he received his license in the mail. Regardless of what others might say about him, Minuto has a high opinion of his managerial ability. "In 2 1/2 years, I've learned what some people don't learn in a lifetime in boxing," he says. "To have my fighters in Madison Square Garden, the Mecca of boxing, was an accomplishment in itself. As far as the knowledge of when a fighter is in shape or the kind of fight he needs, I know all that."
Minuto has another fighter under contract—Mike Tarasewich, who is known as the Mad Russian. The Mad Russian is a heavyweight who lumbers about the ring like some hobbled Frankenstein monster. Experienced boxing men say that if Classen had not been killed first, the Russian might have been. He suffered six straight losses before the New York commission suspended him last October. Both Tarasewich and Minuto regard the suspension as unfair. Minuto says, "I think the Russian is the best-conditioned athlete in the country, not just the best-conditioned boxer, but the best-conditioned athlete. On any given day, he can beat any heavyweight in the country."
Despite all this, it would be a mistake to write off Minuto as a fool. In his defense, Marco Minuto sees himself as a victim of the game. "Certain people who are promoters or matchmakers abuse their power," he says. "But you have to go back and deal with them again. They don't forget. When they're looking to build up a fighter, they want an opponent. [In boxing terminology, an opponent is a fighter not good enough to beat the fighter getting the buildup.] You don't take a fight they offer you, they say, 'O.K., so forget about the money. I was just trying to give you a payday. You don't want the fight, forget it. But don't call me no more!' There are managers who are undertakers, who supply tomato cans. The matchmakers made me that. That's the way it works."
Rollie Hackmer, an experienced manager who does not think much of Minuto, nonetheless says, "A lot of what Minuto says is true. Frankie Carbo [the late underworld czar of boxing] was a prince and an angel compared to what you've got today, but many managers are afraid to speak out because they're afraid of being blacklisted."
Mickey Duff, the London promoter and matchmaker, was looking for an opponent when he booked Willie Classen on only two days' notice as a fill-in against Tony Sibson, then the British middleweight champion, last Oct. 9 at the Royal Albert Hall. Sibson floored Classen three times in the first two rounds. After Classen went down the third time and was counted out, he complained of double vision. At the time, Classen should not have been fighting anywhere. His New York license had expired in September, and the previous April he had been placed on indefinite medical suspension, pending a complete neurological examination, as the result of a KO he had suffered at the hands of John Locicero in the Felt Forum.
In November, after the Sibson bout, Classen lied to the New York commission when he applied for a renewal of his boxer's license. He said that he had been stopped on cuts in London. Neither he nor Minuto said anything about the fact that Classen had been knocked out. At about the same time Classen was getting his new license from the commission, matchmaker Clancy and Jack Brami, his assistant, were looking for an opponent to fight Scypion, an up-and-coming headhunter who had knocked out everyone he had faced in his 12-bout career. Scypion is managed by Mike Jones, who with Dennis Rappaport also has Howard Davis, the Olympic champion, and Gerry Cooney, the heavyweight contender, and it is taken for granted in boxing that Clancy would like to do a lot of business with Rappaport and Jones.
When Classen was being considered as an opponent for Scypion, Brami was reportedly against using him. "Can you imagine making a match like this?" Brami asked when he learned that Clancy had arranged the fight. Both Brami and Clancy knew that Classen had been knocked out in London. Ben Greene of New York, who books fights and who knew the true story about Classen's loss in London, says, "I got a call from Clancy. 'You got anyone to box Scypion?' he said. I said no. Then I got word that Clancy had signed Classen. I called Clancy up. I said, 'For Christ's sake, don't put that match in. Classen can't fight anymore.' I warned him, and I blame him. Clancy knew what went on in London, and yet he put the guy in. I knew Classen. I once made a match for him in Europe, but after he was knocked out by Locicero I didn't want anything to do with him or Minuto. After the Locicero fight, Minuto came around to me to ask about a fight for Classen in Europe. 'No,' I told Minuto, 'I'm not having anything to do with your fighter.' There was talk Classen was on drugs, that he wasn't in the gym. And he was taking too many punches." Greene also told another manager, "The guy [Classen] is a basket case."
Brami was away on vacation when Clancy actually signed the Scypion-Classen fight. When Brami is asked now if it's true that he said, "Can you imagine making a match like this?" he pauses and then shrugs. Asked again, he does the same. Asked a third time, he pauses again and then says, "Let's put it this way. We'd like to have much better opposition."