Boxing Clever: Harry Greb – Tougher than the rest

The “Pittsburgh Windmill” ranks as one of the greatest middleweights of all-time and unarguably one of the toughest ring warriors in boxing history.

(Photo credit: Darwall, R H (Lt))

Harry Greb (261-17-19) looked exactly what he was; a tough, tough guy. In the old ring photos, resplendent in a suit or even pictured reading his daughter Dorothy a bedtime story. With his tightly slicked hair he had the menacing yet debonair look of Jon Dillinger or other mobsters of the day. He didn’t need trash talk to intimidate or drum up support for his trade. He was the acme, the original, the natural born hard man. Others have attempted to copy him but what he had is impossible to replicate due to its essential naked dynamism. 

Greb merely had to look at you with that broken nose and crooked smile, to let you know that you were in serious trouble. Mike Tyson understood it. He cultivated his stripped down ring image from old fight reels at Cus D’amato’s house in the Catskills. But even “Iron” Mike was just a cypher. Nobody could out-Greb, Greb. Pubs, bars, gyms and boxing rings are full of people that have tried, but nobody has ever got close. 

Building a record

The Pittsburgh-man exuded “Prize fighter” from every inch of his being. Known as “The Pittsburgh Windmill” his all-action street fighter style, was incapable of fear, surrendering or ever taking a backward step.  Outside the ring he is mythologised as a fast-living, hard drinking, womaniser. Greb certainly enjoyed life but the reality behind the myth is that Greb was a devoted family man that rarely drank alcohol. For a minute, an hour or day what we would give to take hold of those intrinsic Greb qualities. 

In a 13-year career the Pittsburgh-man fought absolutely everybody. He remains the only man to dent the proud record of the great Dempsey-slayer and world Heavyweight champion, Gene Tunney, in one of the bloodiest fights in history. In a 15 round decision, Greb took his US light heavyweight championship belt, despite conceding 12 lbs and weighing in comfortably within the middleweight limit. 

His ring victories feature a “who’s who” of the immediate post-war era. Notable successes including: Tommy Loughran, Mickey Walker, Maxie Rosenbloom, Mike McTigue, Johnny Wilson, Battling Levinsky and Jimmy Slattery. To a man they were all past, current or future world champions. 

In the ring, Greb was the perfect example of the unreconstructed ring-warrior. He didn’t much care where and with what he hit his opponents and was infamous for his dirty tactics. He would happily attack with his elbows, forearms and laces. He was apt to throw out kidney punches, rabbit punch in the clinch and utilise his thumb to gouge and blind opponents. Every method of attack was deemed fair-game in Greb’s version of the Queensbury rules. 

Greb would besiege his opponents with all the vigour and intent of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Launching roundhouse punches from all angles, to batter and wear down the opposite corner. He was more than an uncultured slugger though and was technically proficient and sufficiently mobile to manoeuvre himself out of trouble. Much of his legend rests on his ability to deliver and absorb punishment. Something that can be evidenced by the statistic that he was only ever stopped twice in nearly 300 appearances. The one essential element missing from Greb’s vast armoury was a concussive knockout punch. With this weapon absent he relied on volume punching and limitless reserves of stamina and endurance. 

However, as a natural middleweight, this partial lack of power did not prevent him from reaching the advanced heights of the light heavyweight division or holding the middleweight crown between 1923 and 1926. The independent and statistically based BoxRec rates Greb as the third best middleweight of all-time ahead of Carlos Monzon and behind only the peerless Sugar Ray Robinson and 19th century scrapper Tommy Ryan. 

37 fights in a year

Harry Greb originated from a German immigrant family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and was born in 1894. He began his career in 1913 via a 6th round newspaper decision over the long-forgotten Frank Kirkwood at the Pittsburgh Exhibition Hall. Within two years he was facing-off to top class opposition, even twice taking on the reigning middleweight champion George Chip in non-title fights, and losing only via newspaper decisions.

By the time 1917 came around Greb fought a remarkable 37 times within the calendar year and won all but three. This included a win over the current world light heavyweight champion Battling Levinsky and a reversal of his earlier losses to Chip. Despite or possibly because of these non-title victories, Greb found his path to a world championship belt resolutely blocked. Instead, he secured his reputation via a 15-round annihilation of the previously unbeaten US-champion Gene Tunney. It was to be the only defeat of “The Fighting Marine’s” remarkable career. It was meted out in an abattoir fashion that just wouldn’t be allowed in the modern fight-game. 

Within seconds of the opening bell the “Windmill” had smashed Tunney’s nose and heavily cut him above his left eye. Greb dominated the one sided blood drenched encounter- with the referee even having to towel the blood from Greb’s gloves between rounds. The Ring hailed it as their fight of 1922.  The following year Tunney gained his revenge via a controversial points decision.

This proved to be Greb’s immediate cue to set his sights on the middleweight belt held by mob-linked Johnny Wilson. A no better-than-average champion that had held on to his title chiefly due to cautious inactivity in the intervening two years. Sensing that Greb was a step too far Wilson’s management steadfastly rejected Greb’s protestations toward a title challenge. To combat this reticence, Greb concocted an elaborate scheme of feigning heavy drunkenness at all the local speakeasies. Little did anyone know he had tipped the waiters to serve him water rather than prohibition era moonshine. Greb’s theatrical ensemble performance must have been to Olivier standards as it was sufficient to dupe Wilson and his team. 

Convinced that Greb was in poor shape they signed for a hastily arranged fight in August 1923. Not surprisingly the finely conditioned challenger triumphed via a 15 round points decision. It was a dirty foul-laden street fight in keeping with both men’s causal disregard for the rules. In one moment of pure comedy -that in many ways encapsulated the fight-game of the 1920s- the referee pulled Greb out of a violent clinch and asked him incredulously to explain what he was doing. The fighters retort is legendary “Why? Gouging Johnny in the eye. Can’t you see?”

This moment is an open window into the style and makeup of Greb, who considered these allegedly illegal tactics as completely fair game. Only Patsy’s played within the rules and Patsy’s didn’t survive long when confronted with the “Pittsburgh Windmill”. 

Middleweight supremacy

Greb held onto his title through a rematch with Wilson and an epic points victory over welterweight champion Mickey Walker. Legend has it that the man known as the “Toy Bulldog” gained his revenge by knocking out the champion later that even in an impromptu altercation at a nightclub. The story goes that, following an argument, and as Greb struggled to remove his coat, Walker decked him with an uppercut to the jaw. One can only wonder what 21st century social media and rolling news would have made of that exchange. 

Still only 32 -years-old, but a veteran of nearly 300 fights, the ring-worn champion eventually lost his middleweight crown to Tiger Flowers, via a split decision at Madison Square Garden. Flowers’ tight defensive skills proving enough to neutralise Greb’s “bee-swarm” attacks. A rematch was scheduled six months later, but the result proved to be the same. At the end of another close affair many ringsiders thought Greb had done enough to earn the decision and a cacophony of boos were rained down from the gallery.  Greb later stating “That was one fight I won; if ever I won any.” 

However, it is hard to believe anyone would have given an African-American fighter like Flowers a break in an era when the colour bar was still apparent in American sport. To Greb’s eternal credit, he was one of the few American boxers that would literally fight anyone regardless of race or anything else. 

Taken too soon

Following the defeat the Pittsburgh-man finally called time on his impossibly active career. He had his troublesome right eye removed –he had been almost blind in it since an injury vs Kid Norfolk in 1921-and replaced with a glass version. Following this he checked into an Atlantic City hospital for a routine operation on his nose, to repair the years of ring damage, and correct difficulties breathing. Due to unforeseen complications he died on the operating table aged only 32. 

This has always felt a poor and unsatisfactory end for such a lion-hearted ring-warrior. But if the Grim Reaper was ever going to come for Greb, it had to be silently and covertly. Anything else would have been met with those famous windmill punches, a thumb in the eye and a resulting broken scythe.  Old age probably wouldn’t have suited such a vital character, anyway. Better still, to be locked down in his prime in those old photographs. “The Pittsburgh Windmill” or “The Smoke City Wildcat”- the man that ducked nobody and beat almost everybody. 

This is the enduring essence of Greb. In his illustrious career he fought an unprecedented 48 contests against opponents considered as all-time greats and came out with a record of 33-9-6. It is tempting to look back at these ancients and disregard them as primitive museum pieces operating in a different world and a markedly different sport. To inflict this judgement on Greb would be to serve him with a great injustice.

Ever since I first discovered Greb as a school kid in the early 90s, via some battered old library boxing book, he has stood among my heroes of the fight-game. The civilian’s exemplar of the perfect prize fighter. A man that would fight anyone, in any circumstances, no matter how disadvantaged. Life even took him young in the manner of James Dean and others, to ensure that the vigour never faded, the sleek, raw-boned menace surviving unaltered and uncompromised.

That Greb achieved most of this whilst being half-blind in his right eye, and later completely blind is beyond marvel. He only maintained his licence by memorising optical eye charts prior to medical examinations. 

The “Pittsburgh Windmill” resides in my top 10 across all eras and weight divisions. The old cigar-chomping sage Bert Sugar also agreed, placing him in his all-time pound-for-pound top 10. Make no mistake that if Greb were around in today’s middleweight division, he would give GGG and Canelo the fight of their lives.

Where would Greb rank amongst today’s middleweights? Comment below…

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