The Second Coming Of Eddie Booker
The second coming of Eddie Booker was a short visit. Not a household name, the odds are highly unlikely that anyone who saw Booker fight is alive today, and since no video exists of him in action, only those aware of boxing’s history would know of his greatness.
Booker was a member of “Murderer’s row,” the collection of black fighters who were too good for their own good, with the color of their skin as much an impediment to their success as their talent was a benefit. The term “uncrowned champion of the world” was created to describe people like Eddie Booker.
Boxing professionally for a decade until 1944, when he retired due to failing eyesight, the Hall-of-Fame former world champion Archie Moore – another black man who was fortunate enough to compete long enough for some of the racial prohibitions to fade away – claimed Booker to be the best boxer he had ever fought. “With better luck, he would have been the middleweight champ,” Moore said.
This from the man who challenged Rocky Marciano for the heavyweight title, was the light-heavyweight champion until nearly 50 years old, and had fought another heavyweight champion, Ezzard Charles, three times. Moore considered Charles to be the second best boxer he had encountered.
In his three fights with Booker, all Moore could salvage were two draws and an 8th round KO loss. Within the small, elite group that comprised “Murderer’s Row,” Booker and Charley Burley were the real killers, and everyone else – Jack Chase, Holman Williams, Tiger Wade among them – were more like their accomplices.
The San Francisco Examiner’s Eddie Muller wrote, in 1942, “If there is a middleweight in the world who can beat Eddie Booker we can’t name him. After the masterful performance he turned in when he decisively outpointed Lloyd Marshall” – the Sacramento middleweight who suffered similarly to Booker from racial bias – “he would be an odds on choice if he were to fight Tony Zale, division boss.”
Tony Zale was making money and gaining fame by officially being the best 160-pound boxer in the world, and had no interest in risking that status by fighting the likes of Eddie Booker and Lloyd Marshall.
Surprisingly, of the three Booker brothers – Earle, Eddie, and Fada – born in Alto, Texas, but growing up and learning to box under Happy Pross in San Jose, California, it was the elder brother Earle who was the amateur standout, who showed greater promise. Eddie was good, but Earle was very good.
Faster and more stylish than Eddie, Earle won the San Francisco Golden Gloves three consecutive years from 1933 to 1935 and competed in national tournaments. Eddie, who would reach the finals of the Gloves but could not win the tournament, turned professional in 1935, and was undefeated in his first 41 fights, with 37 victories and 4 draws.
Earle would begin boxing professionally in 1936, proving not to be as durable as his younger brother, nor as hard a puncher. He retired in 1937 with an 8-4 record after being stopped in six rounds by the light-hitting Kid Ray.
Losing for the first time in 1939 to Fritzie Zivic at Madison Square Garden was clearly the end of Booker’s honeymoon with boxing. His manager, John Burdick, could not successfully maneuver Booker into high profile fights, the racial problem exacerbated by Burdick’s being, in Muller’s words, “a homebody” who “didn’t like to travel.”
Booker then hooked up with manager Larry White, who arranged for a trip to the East Coast. Physical maturity and muscular development from employment as a railroad porter contributed to Booker outgrowing the welterweight division, but White made a match for him at 147 pounds with Zivic, the Conrad Dobler of boxing.
Examiner columnist Prescott Sullivan wrote of White, “If, in the past, we have written little that Mr. White might construe as a compliment to his managerial talent, it is only because Mr. White has done little to merit a flattering word.”
Booker’s involvement with White would only support Sullivan’s argument, as he lost to both Zivic and Cocoa Kid within a month. Returning home, Booker would not again have an east coast opportunity.
Fighting for the most part at what we now call the junior-middleweight limit of 154 pounds, Booker won seven straight before drawing with Moore while weighing 159. A couple days after this fight, Moore experienced severe abdominal pain, at first thinking his discomfort was a consequence of Booker’s body punching. But surgery for a perforated ulcer required multiple blood transfusions, and Booker provided the blood. The two became dear friends.
Booker would leave Burdick, signing with Frank Schuler, hoping to catch some kind of break by which he might be compensated commensurate with his talents. Continuing to pack on muscle through his day jobs, including work at the shipyards, Booker would grow into a large middleweight, fighting comfortably at 170 pounds, sometimes with heavyweights, and could only make the 160-pound weight limit with increasing difficulty.
He began fighting differently than he had when young, being stronger and more powerful, fighting more aggressively, as his new manager wanted, hoping crowd excitement would open pathways for him so he would be known as more than a fighter’s fighter, wanting the public’s acclaim, and its money, too.
Booker did not punch as hard as his good friend Lloyd Marshall, though, which created the dramatic tension for their upcoming fight. “Booker has a better assortment of punches than his rival, but Marshall is a much harder puncher with both hands,” Muller wrote.
To fight Booker, Marshall waived his self-imposed ban on fighting his fellow blacks, especially close friends with whom he regularly trained and his colleagues on “Murderer’s Row.” Rent needed paid and children fed, so the purse, for both Booker and Marshall, eased the discomfort of meeting professionally.
The betting favorite was Booker, but only because the fight was held in his home of San Francisco. If the fight were held 90 miles east in Sacramento the odds would have been reversed.
Booker outworked Marshall, who did not open up until the last two rounds, cracking Booker three times in the tenth with hard right hands. This was clear evidence of Booker’s great chin, and helps to explain, along with his defensive prowess, why he was never stopped in over 100 professional fights, often fighting the very best black fighters his size, which meant the very best fighters his size.
The Marshall fight would be the end of the party of Eddie Booker – his right eye would be damaged this same year, 1942, although there is no certainty of what exactly happened, or when.
He had an operation in early 1943 for what was reported to be a detached retina, but there were rumors of an illegal substance having been rubbed on an opponent’s glove during a fight which damaged Booker’s eye. Medical attention didn’t provide for a complete recovery, though, and his eyesight continued to deteriorate.
Booker became an even more aggressive fighter as his sight diminished, and this cannot be fully attributed to his physical development or adaption to a more crowd-pleasing style. He could no longer track punches as he once could. Fists could no longer be seen as clearly. Depth perception would be diminished. This certainly would have adversely affected Booker’s defensive capability, his ability to slip or parry punches, to thread a fine needle while countering.
He was losing the ability to fight in the refined style for which he was known, relying more on strength and power and durability and courage. He got hit much more than had earlier been the case.
“Since he changed from a boxer into a fighter Eddie Booker seems to have lost the effectiveness that once made him an almost unbeatable ringman,” Muller wrote. “He forgets to use his left hand for jabbing purposes, a left that once was a cutting, jolting weapon. Now he hooks with his punches.”
“Booker has changed from a boxer into a fighter,” Muller lamented in multiple 1943 columns. He would wade into his opponent, putting “everything behind each blow, seldom attempting to block a punch and then counter as he did when he was fighting as a welterweight.”
The California State Athletic Commission had imposed a prohibition on licensing one-eyed fighters in 1938, and Booker knew his line of work was coming to and end. He wore “an odd looking face mask while sparring in the gymnasium,” to protect his eye.
Booker knew he had to retire, but would give the world something to remember him by. Of his last five fights, three were against Hall-of-Fame talent, two with Holman Williams and the third fight with Moore. He won two and lost one of these fights, which might have been Booker’s finest run.
Operations in retirement restored his sight, and he vowed never to fight again. He and Earle began training young boxers, Eddie sparring with his kids as he taught them.
But an accident while working as a mechanic left a steel splinter in his left eye. A week in hospital and two operations removed the splinter. Doctors said Booker’s vision would be fine, but he was virtually blind upon his death at age 57.
He lived in San Francisco holding various jobs – a hotel bellman, a clerk at a hardware store. Earle raised a family in Oakland and his son, Kim, gifted with the athletic pedigree of the father and uncle, wrestled and played football, among other sports, through the 1960s.
But one does not grow up in a boxing dynasty without being immersed in the boxing culture, and even though Kim would not engage competitively until his older teenage years, it is not difficult to imagine him learning how to throw a professional quality jab before being old enough to attend kindergarten.
It did not take long, once Kim became serious about boxing, for ringside observers to make comparisons to the elder Bookers. After only a handful of amateur fights – literally less than ten – he was being discussed in the local newspapers as a top professional prospect.
Becoming a national AAU champion with less than 20 bouts of experience, Kim would turn professional, winning his first seven fights, including a victory over future California state champion Lonnie Harris, before the United States Army took him to Vietnam and then Germany.
After the two-year hiatus, Booker returned to score six more victories, including a decision over Orlando de la Fuente – who split his time between boxing and acting – coaching Elvis Presley in the film “Kid Galahad” and being cast in an episode of “Dr. Kildare.” Booker and de la Fuente would meet again six months later, with de la Fuente losing to George Cooper in an attempt to take Cooper’s state title in the interim.
Kim was impatient, envious of Harris’s success while he was serving in Vietnam. But as skilled as Booker was, and as much as he was appreciated by boxing aficionados, fans were less than excited to spend their money on someone who did not get hit much or unnecessarily risk himself in order to hit the opponent.
With the talents of his father and the frustrations of his uncle, Kim took on a new manager, one as ambitious as he was, Ed Barbieri, both making noise about wanting to fight the best in the world. The difference between Kim Booker and his uncle, though, was that the elder Booker had paid his dues. Not just standing in line, fruitlessly waiting for his turn, for an opportunity that would never come, but by honing a craft, in the simple gaining of experience.
Kim was complaining about not being world-ranked only a dozen fights into his career. His uncle Eddie almost averaged that number of fights a year for the first five years of his professional life. That experience allowed Eddie to learn what he was about. It is what allowed him to adapt how he fought upon losing his sight in one eye and still beat the best in the world. To know what he could do and could not do. What he could get away with and what he couldn’t. That kind of wisdom demands much more than raw talent and athleticism.
For all Kim Booker’s physical gifts and cultural pedigree, he didn’t prepare himself for the rigors of what life as a professional boxer will be. He didn’t come to know himself gradually, but wanted everything quickly, and that meant what he learned he was going to learn the hard way.
De la Fuente was a good but nowhere great fighter with middling power. To think another victory over him would prepare him for a fight with Emile Griffith was wishful thinking.
A split-decision loss to de la Fuente was followed by the future world champion Rodrigo Valdez stopping him in five rounds at New York’s Felt Forum, the UPI describing Booker as being “hopelessly outclassed.”
Proving to have neither great power nor great durability, Booker’s career foundered. Maybe he tried too hard to carry too much of the Booker legacy too soon. Maybe the time in Vietnam unsettled him in some way. But a couple of easy wins after a year layoff were followed by a first round KO loss to James Marshall, who was barely out of the prelim ranks.
Three months after that, in November, 1974, Booker was ahead on points in the last round when he was knocked down and nearly out by the notoriously light-hitting Rudy Robles, losing the decision. This would be his last fight.
The death of the dream in which Eddie Booker would be resurrected coincided with Uncle Eddie’s literal death. He suffered a heart attack in April, 1974, and another in May while still under care. A stroke that September left him hospitalized until dying on January 26, 1975. Brother Earle lived until he was 83, dying in 2000.