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A Prayer For Frankie Ryff

Glen Sharp

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When Benny Paret fell into a coma as he lost his welterweight championship to Emile Griffith in Madison Square Garden on March 24, 1962, he was taken to New York’s Roosevelt Hospital.

Paret’s wife, Lucy, two months pregnant and at home in Miami, rushed to New York with their son Benny, Jr., so she could be with her husband and her son could be with his father.

Mrs. Paret was comforted at the hospital, to whatever degree comfort was possible, by Marie Ryff, the wife of lightweight boxer Frankie Ryff, who was Paret’s roommate at the hospital and had been in a coma himself since January 19. 

Benny Paret had been a world champion, and besides Griffith had fought the likes of Gene Fullmer and Don Jordan and Jose Torres. Frankie Ryff, although world-ranked at one time, had yet to find a way to get beyond contender status, but was still trying.

Not many years before this scene, Ryff had the world by the proverbial tail. He had been a national Golden Gloves champion, and turned professional in 1951, winning all five of his fights that year, three by KO. A two-year stint in the Army and a broken knuckle suffered when a jack fell while changing a tire slowed Ryff’s progress somewhat, but by the end of 1954 he was 16-0 and had won a Rookie of the Year award.

His manager of record was Charlie Black, but a silent partner in the operation was Cus D’Amato, the manager and trainer of Floyd Patterson. Patterson had been New York’s Rookie-of-the-Year in 1953, so the future looked promising for D’Amato and his boxers.

Ryff’s last fight of 1954, a split decision victory over the fourth-ranked Orlando Zulueta, was the turning point of his career. The victory solidified his position in the world rankings and New York’s love affair with him was in full blossom. Ryff himself was talking about a title shot, saying he would ready within six months to fight the likes of Jimmy Carter and Wallace Smith, the current and future lightweight champions of the world, respectively.

Major newspapers featured articles on his home life, complete with photographs of him eating meals with his family or playing cards with his girlfriend. Frankie Ryff was news even when it was not fight night.

Gene Ward of the New York Daily News described Ryff perfectly when he wrote of Frankie as “…a lanky Irish kid with blue eyes, a shock of sandy hair, and a way of fighting that sent charges of electricity through the smoke-filled hall.”

Frankie Ryff debuted as a pro in 1951, and his last outing came in 1959.

Ryff was a poised, economical, efficient boxer, and in his fight with Zulueta appeared to be much more mature than his experience of only 15 fights would suggest. He threw fast, crisp punches and, as Ward wrote, was “silky smooth” and “harnessed lightening in his left.” Ryff was an absolute pleasure to watch. The only concern entering the Zulueta fight was the lack of thunder to accompany that lightening. After stopping three of his first five opponents, Ryff would only score one more KO for the remainder of his career.

The Zulueta victory was such a meaningful moment in Ryff’s career not only because of the celebrity it brought him, but also for the price of the victory itself. Ryff’s career was altered by this fight, and he would never again be the same boxer who entered the ring ready for battle. He would always retain the poise and skill and beautiful silky movement, but Ryff suffered three cuts by Zulueta – two over the right eye and one over the left – and took more than 20 stitches to close the wounds. Never again would Frankie Ryff enter a dressing room prepared to fight without being accompanied by a doctor holding a needle and thread.

Ryff fought five times in 1955, and although he was cut in each fight, his only loss was to top-ranked Ralph Dupas by ten round split decision in a May rematch of Ryff’s decision victory a year earlier. The first fight had been held in New York, and limited to eight rounds because Dupas was still a teenager, and New York law did not allow anyone under the age of 20 to box in ten round matches. 

The rematch was held in New Orleans because Louisiana Boxing Enterprises outbid the IBC for Ryff’s services. Ryff was always aware of boxing’s financial perspective, and didn’t understand fighters for whom receiving money was not as important as the more physical form of competition. So, he took more money for fighting Dupas in his home of New Orleans and lost a split decision that even Dupas’ hometown fans booed. 

Ryff went where the money was, fighting Joey Lopes in Detroit and former lightweight champion Paddy DeMarco in Baltimore. Boxing for him was a way to get a start in life. “I don’t particularly like to fight,” he said, “but I don’t dislike it, either. I think I’m good at it, and it could take me a long way, maybe even to the top as lightweight champion.”

He graced the cover of Ring Magazine in May of 1955, which featured an article about his quest for the championship. New York papers discussed his chances of taking the title from Smith, acknowledging his talent and ability earned him a shot against the best, but were unsure if his eyes could take the punishment.

Delicate tissue, especially over that right eye, would prove to be a sore spot for Ryff.

For a boxer lacking power, Ryff was a distinctly aggressive counter-puncher, always ready to mix it up, not looking to minimize contact. He was exciting and fan-friendly, but being attractive in this way comes at a cost. 

Allowing his cuts to heal required increasingly long periods of inactivity between fights, and rustiness from a six-month recuperation period before his first fight of 1956 might have contributed to Larry Boardman stopping Ryff in nine rounds in June.

The November 11, 1956, edition of Elmira, New York’s Star-Gazette described Ryff as someone who “cuts easily and bleeds freely.” Another paper wrote that once Ryff was found “to be a bleeder he started on the road to oblivion.” The Associated Press wrote that cuts “have been a source of trouble in his entire career.”

But he returned from this setback to decision Frankie Ippolito before losing in ten rounds to Kenny Lane in Miami. Then he was stopped on cuts in his first two fights of 1957 – in six rounds to the notoriously light-hitting Lane in a rematch and in the seventh to Gene Butler in Providence, Rhode Island.

The Butler fight was particularly galling for Ryff and his camp. Frankie had won every round before local referee Sharkey Buonanno stopped the fight. Butler, whose record entering the ring was 9-18-1, had fought in Providence six time previous to meeting Ryff, and had become something of a house fighter there. 

Ryff complained to the press after the fight. “I’ve been cut in practically all of my fights, much worse than this one, but they never stopped me. I wouldn’t have minded if I was losing, but I took every round. This jeopardizes my livelihood.”  

No longer world-ranked, it had to hurt Ryff that he was becoming known as an opponent rather than a contender. He wasn’t the Golden Boy anymore, not always receiving the subtle, preferential treatment that stars enjoy. He had become someone other guys wanted to beat to make a name for themselves.

Taking more time off to regroup and undergo plastic surgery to remove scar tissue and shave his eyebrows, Ryff returned in December to once again take a decision over Ippolito. This was the first fight in over three years in which Ryff was not cut, and he would not be cut in the following fight, either.

But Ryff was cut in three of the six fights he had in 1958, although not seriously enough to affect the outcomes, losing only to Eddie Perkins on November 12. In his fourth fight that year, against Tommy Tibbs at the St. Nicholas Arena, Ryff only bled from the nose and, although he won by decision, all ten ringside reporters that night scored the fight for Tibbs. 

Ryff’s record was 27-6, and he was 6-1 since undergoing the plastic surgery. But all was not well in the world of Frankie Ryff, who was still trying to grab the brass ring. Everything was a struggle, and would be from then on. The newspaper coverage he received was much less than only a few years earlier. It was more difficult for him to beat younger, less experienced boxers than was once the case. 

His manager had been pleading with him to retire, saying he could no longer make a good living as a boxer. And Ryff had given that option consideration. During the eight-month break from boxing to recover from his surgery, he drove a cab to support his family and help pay for the operation. He admitted that he had “once tried to quit boxing,” investing in a dry-cleaning business that would eventually go bankrupt. Ryff kept boxing, but manager Black “publicly” retired him after the Johny Gorman fight in April, 1958.

The owner of the cab company Ryff drove for introduced the boxer to the great Barney Ross, former lightweight and welterweight champion, and Ross became Ryff’s manager when Ryff and Black parted ways.

Frankie aims while Barney Ross holds the bag. Not sure the year, but the tissue over the right eye looks clean, so there was that.

Ryff was clearly not ready to give up the dream, and a doctor’s examination determined, toward the end of 1958, that his eyes were healthy enough to continue boxing. Ross would manage him for the last two fights of 1958 – against Gale Kerwin and Perkins – and the six Ryff fought in 1959.

The 1959 fights involved a bit of travel – Houston, Miami Beach, New Orleans, and Los Angeles, as well as Syracuse and New York. He won the first three of those fights, coming off the loss to Perkins, within a 32-day span. He stopped Aldo Mente on January 13, his first KO in nearly eight years.

On February 13, he decisioned Cisco Andrade at Madison Square Garden, going into the fight a 13-5 underdog. Andrade, whose record was 39-4-1, had lost to Joe Brown in a quest for the lightweight title and was a tough customer. A few years earlier, when Ryff was in the hunt for the championship himself, the Ryff camp had considered fighting Andrade as a way of angling into a title fight with Bud Wallace, but decided not to due to Ryff’s tendency to cut, thinking a fight with Andrade would be too risky.

By April of 1958, the press that Frankie got was much less likely to be glowing. Leaving the sport lingered in his head.

At this point in Ryff’s career, however, he didn’t have the luxury of playing politics when taking fights, and he had to take chances, so beating Andrade must have done wonders for Ryff’s confidence. But, to be honest, the Cisco Andrade that Ryff beat in 1959 was not the lightweight terror he had been five years earlier, and the loss to Ryff was the beginning of the end of Andrade’s career, which would close with nine losses in his last 16 fights.

Whatever euphoria Ryff might have felt following the Andrade fight soon evaporated, as he lost his next three fights, being stopped in three rounds by Paolo Rosi, losing another decision to Dupas in New Orleans, and being floored three times and knocked out in the first round by the undefeated Battling Torres in Los Angeles.

Under Barney Ross, Ryff was trained by Whitey Bimstein, with Freddie Brown also in the corner. But that relationship would end after the Torres fight.

Ross told Ryff to retire, saying, “I don’t want your blood, and I don’t want your money.” That was the end of Ryff’s career, at least for a while.

A succession of jobs was, of course, unfulfilling, compared to the life of a once top-ranked lightweight contender. And even though Ryff found employment as a maintenance man with the Otis Elevator Company, he still thought about boxing. He said he wanted to make a couple more paydays for his family, and that was certainly true, at least in part, because even as far down the ladder as Ryff had fallen, he could make more for a ten round fight than he could installing elevators for six months or more.

But anyone who has spent much time around boxing knows it was not just the money. Ryff’s birth certificate might have had the correct name printed on it, but being Frank Ryff, citizen, was not the same thing as being the Frankie Ryff who thousands of people had once cheered for, so he began training again in late 1961, asking Gil Clancy to guide his career. By all reports, Ryff was looking good in the gym, and Clancy agreed to train and manage him with the provision that Ryff retire for good when Clancy said so.

On the morning of January 19, 1962, Clancy met with matchmaker Teddy Brenner to discuss Ryff’s first opponent in his second comeback. While a fight was being made, Ryff was installing an elevator in the Sperry Rand Building of Rockefeller Center as it was being constructed. 

He was standing on the roof of an elevator car on the 8th floor when planking that supported him gave way and Ryff began to fall. His body struck more planking on the third floor, which slowed his descent and possibly saved his life, but when he hit the ground, he lay broken and unconscious. 

At Roosevelt Hospital, Ryff underwent exploratory brain surgery on January 30th, remaining in poor condition following the operation, still in a coma. Paret would die April 3rd, but Ryff would eventually awaken, leaving a three-month coma behind him. With doctors once having described him as being “a fraction away from death,” it was, as Marie said, “a miracle he’s even living.”

Paralyzed and in a wheelchair when discharged from the hospital, Ryff would receive therapy from the Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in New York, spending weekends at the family apartment in Queens. 

Although unable to walk, Ryff could use his right hand. A converted southpaw as a boxer – which helps to explain how brilliant he was with his left – Ryff had to train himself to use his right hand as part of his therapy. He was very proud of making a cradle for his daughter’s doll as part of his rehabilitation. 

“I don’t know if he will ever be able to walk again,” Marie said. “In any event, it will be a long drawn out affair.” Which it was. But even though Ryff is gone now, he is not forgotten. 

“Tell Frankie Ryff that someone still remembers how great he was against Zulueta that bloody night in the Garden,” Pete Hamill wrote in the Daily News. And later, in a Christmas of 1978 column, introspective and almost melancholic, Hamill lamented that in the harshness of this world he had lost the ability to pray. But if he could, Hamill wrote, “I’d pray for Frankie Ryff, in memory of the Zulueta fight, in that glorious year before everything went bad.”

 

–Click here to purchase “Punching From the Shadows,” a memoir by Glen Sharp. You can read more Sharp on NYFights, too. 

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