Finally, Baltimore native George 'K.O.' Chaney earns Hall of Fame spot

56 years after death, boxer inducted into International Boxing Hall of Fame on Sunday

June 08, 2014|By Mike Klingaman, The Baltimore Sun

"I don't intend to quit boxing as long as I am able to push a fist into the face of a rival and keep him from knocking me over the ropes."

George Chaney, 1923

He hailed from the squalid streets of East Baltimore, an Irish-American kid with calloused hands, a tough will and a means to make a buck. They called George Chaney the Knockout King and his punch, the Highland(town) Earthquake. And though he never won a world title, he captured the heart of a brawling, blue-collar city that embraced the fighter with the lightning left hook.

On Sunday, 56 years after his death, "K.O." Chaney was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y. — the third boxer from Baltimore so honored after Joe Gans, a world lightweight champion from 1902 to 1908, and Kid Williams, who won the bantamweight crown in 1914. Gans was enshrined in 1990; Williams, six years later.

Chaney began boxing in 1910, two months after Gans' death. Twice, Chaney defeated Williams — once by knockout — before the latter's title drive. But while Gans, the first black title-holder, and Williams remain boxing legends, Chaney's name has dimmed for all but die-hard fans and history buffs.

His 15-year record: 140 victories, 34 defeats and six draws, according to the Hall of Fame. A southpaw, Chaney won 80 times by knockout and was rated by Boxing Illustrated in 1993 as the fourth-hardest puncher, pound for pound, in history. Harder than Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey and George Foreman.

"He was one of the great ones," said Don Majeski, a boxing matchmaker and member of the Hall of Fame selection committee. "Chaney fought twice for the title and lost both, but he was a tenacious fighter, an exciting puncher and a terrific attraction."

He fought often, sometimes three and four times a month, everywhere from the Gayety Theatre in Baltimore to Madison Square Garden in New York. Once, Chaney boxed twice on the same card, winning both. He scored 11 straight knockouts in 1920-1921 and decked one opponent in 32 seconds.

The media rallied around Chaney, proselytizing the wallops of a man who stood 5 feet 1. "The boy with the blacksmith's punch," one reporter called him. Another, describing the flurry from Chaney's fists, wrote that his rival ""was buffeted about the ring ... like a weather vane spinning around in a a terrific thunderstorm."

After one knockout, the groggy fighter asked his corner "if a trolley car had hit him. They told him it was merely Chaney's left."

Even Chaney's manager chimed in. "When George's fist connects, I never stop to see the other fellow counted out," Sam Harris said. "I rush to the box office to count our end."

'Hall of Fame material'

Chaney grew up at the foot of Fells Point, in a skinny rowhouse at 841 South Dallas St., then an alley paved in sawdust. One of seven children raised by his mother, an oyster shucker, he left home at 14 to work as a lumberjack in Western Maryland — a job that readied him for the ring.

"When I left that camp [in 1910], I was as tough as a bear. I was bulging with muscles," he told The Sun in 1922. "It took a good-sized man to give me a battle. And I had 'em, too. A lumber camp is no place for a boy who expects to be coddled. They coddled me with punches."

Chaney returned home at 17, broke but smitten with a girl whom he wanted to date. Having learned of a coming boxing show at Albaugh's Theater on Charles Street, he signed on, kayoed his opponent in the first round and pocketed $1.

Three months later and still undefeated, Chaney rushed home after his seventh victory, placed $150 in $1 bills on the table and said, "Mother, you will never have to shuck another oyster!"

Chaney fought until 1925, scoring knockouts in 57 percent of his victories and earning enough money that he never had to work again. Married at 18, he divorced and wed again in 1920. His second wife, Elizabeth, insisted he hand her his winnings, which she invested for them.

"Before I met Elizabeth, I was just like nearly every other fighter," Chaney told the Baltimore Post in 1931. "Although I had earned more than $100,000, I hadn't saved a penny of it. I'd be in a bread line now, I guess, if it hadn't been for her."

Chaney took his lumps in the ring. In 1912, at Albaugh's, he was floored time and time again by Brooklyn's Charley Goldman, who scored nine knockdowns in the first eight rounds.

"I tried my best to fight back, but Goldman kept slamming me all around the ring," Chaney recalled years later. "My ears were ringing and the birds were chirping. I have never experienced such fatigue. However, I recuperated, and though I was foggy from the 10th round on, I won the decision [in 15]."

But nothing matched the beating Chaney took at Oriole Park in August 1920 against lightweight Rocky Kansas of Buffalo, N.Y. For 12 rounds, the partisan crowd winced as Kansas pummeled their hero.

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