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LEE STREET, ZANESVILLE, OHIO

Glen Sharp

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While researching the history of West Sacramento boxer Joey Lopes I came across an Associated Press release in the April 18, 1956, issue of the Sacramento Bee, which detailed how the world-ranked featherweight Teddy “Red Top” Davis had been hospitalized following an altercation with Rudolph Bishop, a tavern manager in Zanesville, Ohio. In the words of one reporter, Davis went down “for the count.”

The police report is fairly straightforward. Davis entered Joe’s Café on the corner of Lee and Liberty Streets in Zanesville, Ohio – where both Davis and Bishop lived with their families – around 5:15 PM on April 17, 1956. Davis dropped a knife on the ground, and when Bishop “requested” he pick it up, Davis “declined.” This led to an argument, which led to a fight. The fight led to a front window being broken, before Bishop “threw” Davis out the door. 

Bishop left to obtain another window to replace the broken pane. When he returned, Davis was waiting for him with a .22 caliber rifle. Undeterred, Bishop wrestled the gun from Davis and hit him with it, knocking him to the ground. Bishop then took the shotgun to a “nearby home,” which might have been Davis’s dwelling, 1113 ½ Lee Street, on the same block as the tavern, because this is when Davis’s wife, Norma Jean, became a witness. 

Davis followed Bishop into the home and tried to regain possession of the gun, but was unsuccessful. Bishop beat Davis on the head with the rifle stock, knocking him to the ground for good. An ambulance was called, and Davis was treated for a cut right hand, severe head lacerations, and possible fractured ribs. 

Both Davis and Bishop were charged with crimes, but in May would be found innocent in a bench trial. Almost like a “no harm, no foul” type of ruling, since Bishop was clearly trying to defend himself, and Davis had suffered enough, with his wounds and embarrassment. “Red Top” was not the criminal type, and didn’t have much involvement with the police or court system. He was training and traveling to fight 10 or 15 times a year, which would lead to him having domestic, but not criminal problems. 

The reason this event was being reported in newspapers across the country is because it seemed, on the surface, to be ironically humorous, almost to the point of absurdity. How was a world-class boxer in the prime of his health, someone well trained in both protecting himself and in attacking others, someone who fought world champions and often guys substantially larger than himself, put in the hospital by a 130-pound bartender? And why did he feel the need for ballistic reinforcement? It would have made more sense, it seems, for Bishop to be looking for a gun. Most boxers can address trouble on the street as easily as the proverbial “taking candy from a baby.”  

Adding to this surreal collection of events, Bishop, buoyed by his success with Davis, registered to fight in the Golden Gloves the following year, even though he was probably 30 years old.

What I knew about “Red Top” Davis before looking into the Rudolph Bishop situation was what I had read in A. J. Liebling’s account of his challenging Sandy Saddler for the featherweight title in The Sweet Science. But Liebling’s report focused on the future Hall-of Famer Saddler, assigning Davis a minor role in the story, without his character being developed fully enough to learn much about him. To know Teddy Davis, even in the limited sense that I do now, required some work. 

The real story of Davis and Bishop, and of their lives on Lee Street, is not as humorous as the newspaper headlines would suggest. You realize after you turn the front page that what you are reading is a sad, social drama, something much more tragic than it is laughable. 

The Ohio towns of Zanesville and Putnam, which Zanesville subsumed after the civil war, were philosophically opposed to one another regarding slavery. Separated by the Muskingum River, and connected by a bridge, Putnam was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Zanesville was generally opposed to the abolition movement. The area of the larger Zanesville township most closely surrounding the river is in the flood plain, which is the term insurance companies now use to describe what was once called the river bottom. Lee Street is part of the bottom, and living on Lee Street was a hard life.

Zanesville got tagged as a low key Prohibition-era hotspot, but these days is wouldn’t be described as a rollicking region.

Born one of 12 children in South Carolina, Murray Theodore Cain was raised in New York, which is where he began boxing as a young adolescent.

Serving in the military, he reportedly won 148 of 152 fights before returning to South Carolina upon his discharge, when in 1946 his professional career began in the West Virginia area. Jack Daener of Zanesville, Ohio, became an early manager. “Sugar” Cain’s early fights were along the southern Midwest circuit that centered around Cincinnati and Columbus.

The metamorphosis into Teddy Davis occurred in the late 1940s, and can only be partly explained by me. Cain had a sister in New York, Anna Lou Davis, so it is possible he assumed a step-father’s name. I’m not sure where “Teddy” came from. Perhaps it was what his New York family called him. 

The “Red Top” reference came from Daener dying Davis’s hair red, hoping for increased publicity and possibly some degree of sponsorship from the brewery that made Red Top beer, a popular refreshment in the southern Ohio area. 

He married Norma Jean Norris of Zanesville. The Norris family, besides being in-laws to Davis, were also in-laws with the Bishop family, as well. Davis, having been a resident of Lee Street and the husband of Norma Jean for nearly ten years when this incident occurred, surely knew Bishop well.

Upon realizing what a small world Lee Street was I could then see that the argument between Davis and Bishop was not about the knife. I can’t be sure what it was about, exactly, but it wasn’t about the knife.

I’m not even sure Davis dropping the knife was an accident. When someone is carrying a weapon and it falls out of their pocket, it is almost a spontaneous reaction to regain possession of the weapon. I don’t know if it was a statement or a threat, or if allowing the knife to remain on the ground was the statement made after the knife accidentally fell. But some part of this scene was not an accident.

Teddy was famous in Zanesville by 1956, but that had not always been the case. He had not come up easy, and was regularly over-matched in his fights, whether in size or experience, and often stepped into the ring knowing that regardless of how well he fought that night his hand was not going to be raised when the bout was over.

It is possible that at times Teddy played a part in his hand not being raised, whether willfully or not, as in his 1949 fight with the light-hitting Eddie Compo, which Compo won by 8th round KO. Compo was being groomed to challenge Willie Pep for the featherweight title, and the “win” over Davis occurred just before the shot with Pep was granted.

 Throughout this struggle, though, he was very rarely, almost never, stopped, and would lose by decision, legitimately or not. This is a testament not only to Teddy’s boxing skills, but also to his durability and calmness under fire. He wasn’t excitable and he didn’t quit. 

He had fought Joe Brown and Art Aragon. He split four fights with Percy Basset. He went ten rounds with Tony DeMarco not long before DeMarco became the welterweight champion. That is a 126-pound boxer fighting the future 147-pound world champion. He had fought featherweight great Willie Pep thrice, going 30 rounds with Pep in losing efforts, before wiring Pep and Pep’s friend and original manager, Mushky Salow, offering his services as fighter and sparring partner if he were fronted $50 travel money to Pep’s home of Hartford Connecticut. Pep and Salow partnered as Davis’s manager at first, until Pep soured on the idea, and Salow alone moved Davis into the number three ranking among featherweights, assisted greatly by Davis decisioning Bassett just before receiving his title shot. 

You think Salow was maybe a character? Dig that wording, in the Philadelphia Inquirer, which artfully informs the reader that Salow’s rep made him persona non grata to the NYAC.

Davis was not home much. In 1948, he fought 25 times. Once he hooked up with Salow, Davis spent a lot of time even further away from Ohio, training and sometimes fighting in Hartford, sometimes in New York. He liked the East Coast. By 1955, when he fought Saddler, Davis was effectively a New York resident. What was effective became official in January, 1956, when New York’s Bobby Gleason bought his contract from Salow. Zanesville was becoming a part of Davis’s history, although, sadly, that history included a wife and child.

Davis fought ten times in 1956, the year his son was born and his wife divorced him, in places such as Galveston and Las Vegas and Mexico City, as well as in Sacramento, where he lost a ten-round decision to Lopes.

Interestingly, Davis was covered by both the Zanesville and Hartford papers as though he were fighting out of their respective towns.  Once Davis signed with Salow, he was introduced in the ring as being from Hartford, even though he was in Zanesville when on a break from training. But the Zanesville Times Recorder still wrote of him as if he were a full-time resident. The Hartford Courant, acknowledged him as a resident, but made it clear he was not a native of the area, as was Pep.

Liebling described Davis as boxing similarly to Pep, with a bobbing, circling style, which provides, at a minimum, a satisfactory defensive posture. But boxing stylistically similar to Willie Pep is something different than boxing as successfully as Willie Pep, and Davis didn’t have enough of an offense to make Saddler cautious about punching, or enough of a defense to perform the magic Pep regularly could against the best fighters in the world. Davis lost a clear decision to Saddler but, in his defense, Pep himself lost to Saddler three times out of four.

Teddy was struggling after the loss to Saddler, with months-long periods of inactivity between fights, something previously alien to a boxer who had fought 130 times in ten years. The end of his relationship with Salow had to be a shock.   

He was arrested for public intoxication at least once. Norma Jean filed charges against him for non-support of a minor child. She finally filed for divorce in 1956, which would have become final in 1957, and she applied for a marriage license in January, 1958, the year she married William Smith.

Davis had been drinking the night of his trouble with Bishop in Joe’s Café. Regardless of how drunk he might have been, Teddy knew Rudolph Bishop was not someone to take lightly. The authorities were very familiar with him, and for good reason.  

For years, Bishop had been regularly cited for minor, misdemeanor-level infractions. Driving without a license. Operating a vehicle with the wrong license plates. Driving an unsafe vehicle. Operating a vehicle without a muffler. Failing to comply with city income tax laws. Allowing rubbish to accumulate on his property. He was once sentenced to 10 days in jail for failure to pay child support.

Bishop would be accused of backing his car into a neighbor’s parked car. This might have been how residents of Lee Street expressed displeasure with each other, as Bishop would later receive the same treatment from someone down the block. 

His wife Leona filed assault charges against him multiple times, which were dismissed when she failed to appear in court. A suit for divorce was filed and then withdrawn. But Leona was no wallflower. She had an arrest record for disorderly conduct, and was once charged with assaulting a neighbor. 

The crimes for which Bishop was arrested would become more serious. While living at 1117 Lee Street, just a few doors down from Teddy, it is a certainty the neighbors were witness to the growing potential for this behavior long before law enforcement would become involved. 

Henry Smith charged Bishop of assault, and he received three years of probation for cutting his friend, Ralph Caliman, Jr. He was charged with aggravated assault for striking Maynard Phillis on the head with an empty beer bottle. Phillis suffered a brain concussion and skull fracture. In 1974, Bishop shot and killed another man, Mark Jesse Gaiters, near a Lee Street bar. Gaiters was found in the front seat of his car.

From the March 6, 1974 “Times Recorder.” Yes, things could get real rugged outside the ring in that Zanesville area.

Initially planning to plead innocent by reason of insanity, Bishop eventually pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter, and was given a sentence of 7 – 25 years. 

In April, 1981, apparently having been released from prison, Bishop was shot twice in the abdomen with a small caliber handgun in a domestic dispute with an unnamed female at a Lee Street tavern. Bishop recovered following surgery. The woman was hospitalized with head bruises.

When Leona Bishop died in 2001, no mention of Rudolph Bishop was made in her obituary. 

The fight with Saddler was the highlight of Teddy’s professional life, and his star fell quickly. His career ended with three fights in the Philippines, and his ring record following his title shot was 8-24-1.

Norma Jean Norris Cain Smith Flood did not have an easy life after she and Teddy parted, and she died June 26, 1990, following a long illness. She had four children with her second husband, whom she once charged with assault. She shot David Thomas, with whom she had one child, in the hip after he returned home from a “long weekend” when she was weeks away from giving birth.

Teddy died in 1966 of a heart-attack at age 42. He is buried in St. Albans. A Hartford Courant article in April mentioned him being in Queens General Hospital, requesting visits from friends and fans. His obituary mentioned his survivors as a New York sister and his son, Kevin. When Kevin died in 2017, though, no mention was made of him being the son of Teddy “Red Top” Davis. 

–Author Sharp has contributed before to NYF. Read his July 5, 2020 contribution here. His book, “Punching From the Shadows: Memoir of a Minor League Professional Boxer,” expertly relates how the mind is more important than the body as it relates to moving up the ranks as a professional pugilist. 

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