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Buffalo’s Best: No. 6 male – Jimmy Slattery

The Buffalo News polled sports staffers as to the top 10 male and female athletes from Western New York. Here’s No. 6 among men:

Name: Jimmy Slattery.

Sport: Boxing.

Hometown: Buffalo.

High school: Masten Park.

Born: Aug. 25, 1904, in Buffalo.

Died: Aug. 30, 1960, in Buffalo, age 56

Career overview: Slattery was called “the best boxer that ever lived, and the best liver that ever boxed.” He was celebrated in the 1920s, the Golden Age of Sport. But he was generously carefree with his money and an incurable carouser whose career drowned in a scotch bottle on Chippewa Street. Slattery is in the International Boxing Hall of Fame and was considered by Jim Braddock – the subject of the motion picture “Cinderella Man” – the greatest boxer of all time. “I know from experience. I fought him,” Braddock told Boxing Illustrated in 1959. Braddock, who also fought Joe Louis, said Slattery “had a pair of hands that worked so fast you couldn’t see them. … Joe was a fine boxer, but Jim Slattery was far better.” Today, there can be as many as four sanctioned world champions in 17 weight divisions. Slattery twice held the light heavyweight title when there were only eight divisions and a single recognized champ for each. Because boxing was outlawed in some jurisdictions, Slattery’s record is in dispute. The Hall of Fame lists him at 113-12 with 50 knockouts. In one 17-month stretch he went 17-1 with one no-contest, the only loss to future Hall of Famer Young Stribling, whom Slattery had beaten two years earlier.

Memorable moment: In February 1930, Slattery met fellow Buffalonian Lou Scozza in the grandest boxing event ever staged here. At stake was the vacant New York State Athletic Association championship, generally considered the world title. An estimated 11,000 fans crammed into Broadway Auditorium, with another 1,200 or so turned away. Slattery built up an early lead on the scorecards but had to avert catastrophe in the 13th round, when Scozza sent him sagging into the ropes, to survive all 15 rounds and regain his title by majority decision.

Darling of the gods: Top journalists around the world wrote feverishly about Slattery, considering him in the same stratosphere as Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange and Man o’ War. Slattery was a favorite of New York Daily News sports editor Paul Gallico, pioneer of the national Golden Gloves tournament and author of “The Poseidon Adventure.” Influential New York sportswriter Hype Igoe called Slattery “the darling of the gods.” They were mesmerized by his “weeping willow” defense. Slattery would dangle his arms at his sides and rake opponents with powerful bursts. “Fighting him was like fighting a ghost with three hands,” Hall of Fame light heavyweight Tommy Loughran told Sport magazine in November 1955. But it wasn’t merely Slattery’s speed. Another Hall of Fame light heavyweight, Paul Berlenbach, said Slattery was the hardest puncher he ever faced.

Disgraceful decline: Slattery made an estimated $400,000 in his career. That would be around $7.1 million today. He gave much of his money away and drank the rest. Even while in the prime of his career, he often would be seen staggering along Chippewa Street or passed out drunk against a building. He “only lost about 12, 15 fights, and those were when he had hangovers,” Jim Slattery Jr. told The Buffalo News in 2006. “He was partying the night before until about 4 the next afternoon, and the fight was at 7 that night.” After the last of Slattery’s seven fights against Maxie Rosenbloom, Frank Wakefield of The Buffalo Evening News wrote: “That Slattery wasn’t fair to himself or his adoring Buffalo audience was evidenced the night before the fight, when he elected to dance and drink in the old Palais Royale on Main Street until 2:30 a.m. and had to be helped into a taxi by busboys.”

A pauper’s death: Slattery was 38 years old when diagnosed with tuberculosis. He moved to Tucson, Ariz., for the dry climate but was too broke to subsist minus handouts from his friends. So he moved back home. Slattery was found dead on the floor of his $10-a-week room at the Windsor Lane Hotel on Franklin Street. He was 56. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Holy Cross Cemetery. “Suppose I had invested my money,” Slattery is quoted in “Cinderella Man,” the Braddock biography written by Michael D. DeLisa. “I’d only have lost it in the crash, wouldn’t I? I have had a hell of a good time. What the hell, Jack, one can’t eat that stuff.”

Legacy: Jimmy Griffin, Buffalo’s late mayor, said his four heroes were his father, Harry S. Truman, Warren Spahn and Slattery. Griffin’s affinity for Slattery became the basis of Anthony Cardinale’s hit local play “Jimmytown! The Rise and Fall of Jimmy Slattery” in the New Phoenix Theatre. The narrator (as Griffin) tells the tale of Slattery’s boxing greatness and personal tragedies.

email: tgraham@buffnews.com