Arcel, Ray

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Arcel, Ray

(b. 30 August 1899 in Terre Haute, Indiana; d. 7 March 1994 in New York City), boxing trainer who handled twenty-two world champions, including Benny Leonard, Barney Ross, Jim Braddock, Tony Zale, Billy Soose, Ezzard Charles, and Roberto Duran.

Arcel was one of two children of David Arcel, a Russian-born Jewish immigrant who worked as a peddler in the fruit and candy business, and Rose Wachsman, a home-maker from Brooklyn, New York. Arcel’s mother suffered from diabetes and died when Arcel was four years old. The family, who had moved to New York City’s Lower East Side prior to Rose’s death, next moved to East 106th Street in East Harlem, then a predominantly Italian neighborhood. The multiethnic streets of Harlem were where Arcel was introduced to fisticuffs. “You had to fight in those days,” he later recalled. “We were the only Jewish family there.” Arcel graduated from the academically elite Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan in 1917.

While learning to box at Grupp’s Gymnasium on 116th Street near Eighth Avenue, Arcel became the protégé of the Welsh-born trainer Dai Dollings, who worked with champions Ted (“Kid”) Lewis, Jack Britton, and Johnny Dundee. Dollings preached the importance of treating each fighter as an individual. “That was the one thing he inspired me with,” Arcel recalled. “Everyone’s style is different.” Arcel’s other key mentor was Frank (“Doc”) Bagley, manager of heavyweight champion Gene Tunney. Bagley, a legendary “cut man,” taught Arcel the art of closing a boxer’s wounds during the one-minute break between rounds.

Following the 1920 passage of the Walker Law, which legalized professional boxing in the state of New York, Arcel became one of the city’s leading trainers. He seconded three champions in three years: flyweight Frankie Genaro in 1923, bantamweight Abe Goldstein in 1924, and bantamweight Charley Phil Rosenberg in 1925.

From 1925 through 1934, Arcel was partners with the trainer Whitey Bimstein. Stillman’s Gym, on Eighth Avenue between Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth Streets, near Madison Square Garden, became their headquarters. Together, they handled junior welterweight champion Jackie (“Kid”) Berg, middleweight champion Lou Brouillard, and bantamweight champion Sixto Escobar, among countless other champions and contenders. While Bimstein was gregarious, Arcel was, as A. J. Liebling put it, “severe and decisive, like a teacher in a Hebrew school.”

In 1931, when former lightweight champion Benny Leonard, age thirty-five, was forced out of a six-year retirement by financial setbacks suffered as a result of the stock market crash of 1929, Leonard asked Arcel to train him for a comeback. Arcel always considered Leonard the epitome of a great boxer. “His main asset was his ability to think,” said Arcel, for whom boxing was always the triumph of “brains over brawn.” Arcel seconded Leonard in over a dozen fights in small venues, building to Leonard’s 1932 loss in Madison Square Garden at the hands of future welterweight champion Jimmy McLarnin.

Arcel handled thirteen opponents of the heavyweight champion Joe Louis, earning the nickname “The Meat Wagon” because he so frequently dragged Louis’s unconscious victims from the ring. After looking across at Arcel for the fifth or sixth time, Louis famously asked before the start of a bout: “You here again?” Arcel simply burst out laughing. While working in heavyweight champion Ezzard Charles’s corner in 1950, Arcel finally earned a victory over Louis. “As glad as I was that Ezzard beat Joe,” Arcel recalled, “I was sad for Joe.”

Moving into the promotional end of boxing, Arcel, in partnership with two of his colleagues, created The Saturday Night Fights, which aired weekly on the ABC television network, starting in January 1953. This put Arcel and his partners in competition with the International Boxing Club (IBC), controlled by Jim Norris of Madison Square Garden. Norris’s group, which ran boxing shows on rival networks, was associated with the organized crime elements that had a stranglehold on boxing in the 1950s. Returning from Yom Kippur services at a Boston synagogue on 19 September 1953, Arcel was struck on the head with a lead pipe by an unseen assailant. He had round-the-clock police protection during the nineteen days he was hospitalized following the attack. Arcel soon returned to work on his television series, but it went off the air in January 1955 when he lost his sponsor. Discouraged by the state of boxing, Arcel accepted a job offer from the referee Harry Kessler, founder of the Meehanite Metal Corporation where Arcel worked as a purchasing agent for the next seventeen years.

In 1972 Arcel, age seventy-three, was lured back into boxing by the wealthy Panamanian manager Carlos Eleta, whose fighter, Alfonso (”Peppermint”) Frazer, was challenging for the junior welterweight title. Arcel traveled to Panama, where he donned a disguise to spy on the secret training sessions of Frazer’s opponent. After Frazer won the crown, Eleta called on Arcel to help with a young lightweight named Roberto Duran. Together with the veteran trainer Freddie Brown, Arcel took Duran to the lightweight championship in 1972 and a highly publicized June 1980 victory over Sugar Ray Leonard for the welterweight championship. Arcel was also in Duran’s corner in November 1980 when Duran, after being ridiculed by Leonard in the ring, quit in the middle of the eighth round, saying, “No mas!” (Spanish for “no more!”). Arcel’s ring career ended on a high note in June 1982 when he worked in heavyweight champion Larry Holmes’s corner during Holmes’s victory over challenger Gerry Cooney.

Arcel’s first wife, Hazel Masterson, whom he had married in the mid-1930s, died in 1946. Their adopted daughter died in 1990. On 12 August 1954, Arcel married Stephanie Howard, an actress who later worked in the fashion industry; they did not have children. In his later years Arcel lived on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. Arcel died of leukemia at the Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan. His ashes were spread on a hillside in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Dapper, soft-spoken, and scholarly, Arcel was a rare gentleman in a brutal sport. Serving as his fighters’ psychologist, father figure, friend, and teacher, Arcel often said, “There wasn’t one fighter I worked with that ever got hurt. At least not with me in his corner.” With six decades at the pinnacle of his profession, Arcel was a gifted storyteller and a living encyclopedia of boxing whose intimate recollections of ring legends from Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis to Benny Leonard and Roberto Duran were incomparable in their range and insight.

Arcel wrote an unpublished memoir that is the source for much of the personal information cited. Ronald K. Fried, Corner Men: Great Boxing Trainers (1991), devotes a chapter to Arcel, as does Dave Anderson, In This Corner: Great Boxing Trainers Talk About Their Art (1991). ’New York Times columns by Anderson and Red Smith during the 1970s and early 1980s also capture much of Arcel’s personal story and accounts of boxing history. A description of Arcel’s influence on Roberto Duran can be found in Jerry Izenberg, “Boxing’s Last Great Trainer,” Sport (Jan. 1979). An obituary of Arcel is in the New York Times (8 Mar. 1994).

Ronald K. Fried