They were called the Roaring Twenties, the roaring decade after World War I, when the economy was booming, “speakeasy” opened on every corner, “flappers” began to show a little skin below the knees, and professional sports were second only to the dancing craze for public entertainment. There were many stars in the ring: Jack Dempsey in the first place of course, but Benny Leonard, Panama Al Brown, Villa Pancho AND Mickey Walker were also the main attractions. But he was probably the best fighter of them all Harry Gripalso known as the “Pittsburgh Windmill”, “Wildcat from Smoky City” or, at Greb’s own preference, “The Pittsburgh Bearcat”.
What set Greb apart from the rest of the elite boxers was his fierce, relentless fighting style, which was rarely seen in the ring, both before and since. Think about the mix Aaron Pryor AND Henry Armstrong paired with a mongoose and a kangaroo and you’re on your way. Or, as writer Douglas Cavanaugh puts itGreb “deceived, jumped and slid, coupled with his speed and work rate … he mixed the senses and timing of even the most composed technical boxers and rushing sluggers.”
As for writers who have actually seen Greb in action, descriptions of his style are both striking and uniform. “He can hit a man more from different angles than any man who has ever lived,” wrote Grantland Rice. “When Greb fights, it feels like the arc-lit air of the ring is swarming with boxing gloves thrown from thirty to forty directions in gunfights, volleys, volleys. Attacks the enemy like a swarm of bees. No matter how fast his opponents were, Greb was always a little faster.
Scribe Ring Lardner used similar terms: “In the ring, he was like a man who had just freed himself from a straitjacket. Punches rained down on his opponent from all angles and heights… He quickly circled his opponent and landed a dozen blows to the head and body before his opponent could retreat or take revenge. The punches weren’t particularly hard, but they stung and slashed, and Greb’s pace increased as the fight progressed.
Greb also, at least according to some observers, had a particular knack for dodging sneaky tactics, mixing fouls with the avalanche of uninterrupted punches he delivered to his opponents. At various times, he was accused of using headbutts, elbows, low punches and thumbs to the eyes. It was also noted that he often intimidated the referees by yelling at them as they tried to break up the fighters, as he enjoyed maiming and wrestling in the middle, all the better to land arrows south of the border or an inadvertent elbow to the larynx.
The “Human Windmill” was extremely active, averaging over twenty fights a year and amassing some 270 professional wins (including press decisions) with only twenty losses in one of the most competitive eras in boxing history. He was world middleweight champion from 1923 to 1926, and although he never won a championship, he was also one of the top two or three light heavyweights in the world. Greb didn’t mind tangling with heavyweights either, even though he rarely weighed much more than 170 pounds.
Greb had victories over no less than eighteen world title holders, an astounding number considering there were only eight weight divisions at the time. He wasn’t a knockout because his swarming style meant sacrificing strength for speed and frenetic pace. Nevertheless, he defeated Who’s Who great fighters, including Tiger FlowersLevinski fight Mickey WalkerTommy Gibbons, Al McCoy, Maxie Rosenbloom, Jack Dillon, Tommy Loughran and Gunboat Smith.
His all-time dominant win is great Gene Tunney in 1922 is perhaps Greb’s most famous victory. Tunney’s one and only loss in a career of 66 professional fights is considered one of the bloodiest fights of all time. By today’s standards, he would have been stopped at fifteen rounds. Greb surprised Tunney with his aggressive attack, breaking Gene’s nose in the first round. The nose was bleeding profusely, and “The Fighting Marine” also suffered cuts to the mouth and around the eyes. It is estimated that Tunney lost at least two quarts of blood during the fight. It was a clear victory for Greb and some thought Tunney would never recover. In fact, he then defeated Greb before becoming one of the great technicians in boxing history.
“He was never in one place for more than half a second,” said Tunney of Greb during that first bloody battle. “All my punches were properly placed and timed, but they always hit the void. He would jump in and out, hitting me with the left and then turning the right or vice versa.”
On another occasion, Tunney described Greb as “…the wildest tiger. Neither a boxer nor a boxer. He won with incredible speed, a pair of rubbery legs that never seemed to get tired, and must have been one of the greatest fighting hearts God had ever put into a man. It was the closest thing to a perpetuum mobile that had ever entered the ring, delivering blows from all sides in a vile tornado of torn, torn and torn skin.
Interestingly, Greb was one of the few who chose Tunney to beat Jack Dempsey before their first heavyweight title meeting in 1926, which was a huge upset at the time. But Greb had an intuition like no one else because in addition to his five battles with Tunney, he sparred with Dempsey on more than one occasion. According to reports, Harry was able to slap the great “Manassa Mauler” practically at will.
Greb’s other famous battles included three with greats Tiger Flowers, one of them was the last fight of his career in 1926. While the judges gave the decision to Flowers, most thought otherwise, and the ring was pelted with garbage when they announced the verdict. Ringside was Tunney who commented that Greb clearly deserved the win. Two days after this fight, Greb was seriously injured in a car accident. A few weeks later, he underwent surgery to treat his injuries and died on the operating table.
One of the most amazing things about the career of the great Harry Greb is that most of it was done with a physical handicap. We never know exactly when, but at some point Greb suffered a retinal detachment and lost sight in one eye. Some speculate that the injury occurred in his fight with Kid Norfolk in 1921, which would mean that Greb fought half-blind for five years against some of the best boxers in history.
Over the decades, Greb’s legend only grew. Despite the fact that no film exists of this boxing legend in action, few boxing historians do not rank him as one of the top ten boxers of all time, pound for pound. Nat Fleischer ranked Greb as the third best middleweight of all time; Charley Rose ranked him second, while Herb Goldman ranks him the all-time best at 160 pounds, a ranking many agree with. — Robert Portis