Graham, William Patrick (“Billy”)
Graham, William Patrick (“Billy”)
(b. 9 September 1922 in New York City; d. 22 January 1992 in West Islip, New York), professional boxer and leading welterweight contender, known as the “Uncrowned Champion” for his performance in a championship bout in 1951 that he lost in a controversial and highly disputed decision.
Graham was one of four children born to William Graham, a candy store owner and later tavern proprietor, and Mary Hogan, a homemaker. Born and raised on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Graham became interested in boxing at an early age, receiving a pair of boxing gloves from his father and learning to box at a nearby Catholic Boys’ Club. Graham had several hundred amateur bouts, fighting at boys’ clubs, church athletic associations, and political smokers. In one such bout at about the age of thirteen he won a three-round decision over a young fighter named Walker Smith, who as Sugar Ray Robinson would be considered by many to be the finest fighter pound for pound who ever lived.
Graham was an indifferent student who spent two years at Gramercy Park High School before dropping out. After being rejected three times by a New York City Golden Gloves physician because he had a heart murmur, he turned professional in 1941, fighting in the lightweight division (at that time, lightweights ranged from 126 to 134 pounds). Managed by Irving Cohen and Jack Reilly, Graham was undefeated in his first fifty-eight bouts before suffering his first loss in September 1945. A superb boxer and defensive stylist, Graham—handicapped by several hand fractures—lacked only a knockout punch.
During World War II, Graham served in the U.S. Coast Guard on antisubmarine patrol. After being released from the service, he resumed his boxing career in April 1944. For a time beginning in December 1945, he was plagued by a circulatory ailment that affected his right foot. He overcame this handicap and advanced slowly through the ranks of the lightweight division, being rated the tenth leading lightweight in the world in 1946. In 1950 Graham—a five-foot, eight-inch boxer fighting in the welterweight division (a division ranging from 135 to 147 pounds)—won and lost two close decisions against Gerardo Gonzalez, better known as Kid Gavilan, a leading contender for the welterweight title, then held by Sugar Ray Robinson. When Robinson gained the middleweight title from Jake LaMotta on 14 February 1951, he relinquished the welterweight crown, and Graham met Gavilan for the title on 29 August 1951. After fifteen hard-fought rounds, the majority of the sports writers present and most of the highly partisan crowd believed that Graham had won, but Gavilan was awarded a split decision victory. A near riot ensued after the decision was announced and the police were needed to restore order. Writing thirty years later in Only the Ring Was Square (1981), matchmaker Teddy Brenner claimed that one judge who voted for Gavilan revealed in a deathbed confession that he had been ordered by “the boys” to do so. It was generally thought that Cohen’s refusal to give a percentage of Graham’s contract to the underworld boxing czar Frankie Carbo influenced the decision in favor of Gavilan.
Despite the defeat Graham remained a leading contender for the welterweight title and actively campaigned for a rematch. He fought Gavilan a fourth and final time, again for the title, on 5 October 1952 in Havana, but was decisively defeated in a fifteen-round decision.
Controversy continued to follow Graham’s ring career. On 19 December 1952, his narrow split-decision loss to young middleweight Joey Giardello was reversed by Bob Christenberry, head of the New York State Athletic Commission, who—upon examining the officials’ scorecards— altered the scoring of one judge, thus giving Graham the victory. Giardello’s managers sued to have the decision reversed, and on 17 February 1953 the New York State Supreme Court judge Bernard Botein ruled that the commission was not legally authorized to alter the original verdict, thus again declaring Giardello the winner. Subsequently, Graham would win a twelve-round decision over Giardello on 6 March 1953.
After 1953 Graham began losing to lesser fighters and was dropped from the ratings. He retired in 1955 with a career record of 102 wins, 15 losses, and 9 draws, with 26 wins by knockout. He was never knocked out and suffered no official knockdowns. Graham’s meticulous preparation and thorough professionalism were lauded by such prominent sportswriters as Jimmy Cannon, Red Smith, Frank Graham, Sr., A. J. Liebling, and W. C. Heinz. After Graham had retired from the ring, Heinz would model Eddie Brown, the protagonist of his boxing novel The Professional (1958), after Graham.
Always a tremendously popular fighter with a friendly personality, Graham was hired as a salesman and manufacturer’s representative for a liquor company in 1955. He worked as a salesman and representative for various distillers for thirty-five years until his retirement. For a time, he was a member of the New York State Athletic Commission and refereed and judged bouts. He enjoyed big band music and fashionable clothing.
On 2 October 1948, Graham married Lorraine Hansen. They had four children. With the help of a GI loan in 1950, he bought a modest home in West Islip on Long Island.
In 1985, after the publication of Brenner’s book, the New York State Athletic Commission reviewed the events surrounding the 1951 bout between Graham and Gavilan, but in the end the decision stood. In the final years of his life, Graham began to receive belated recognition for his boxing accomplishments. He was elected to the Ring Magazine Hall of Fame in 1986 and chosen for the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992. That same year the Boxing Writers of America nominated him for the James J. Walker Award for long and meritorious service to boxing. On 22 January 1992 Graham died of cancer at his home. He is buried in Pinelawn Memorial Park in Farmingdale, New York.
Graham was an excellent fighter who fought the finest fight of his life in the most important fight of his career, yet was denied the championship that many thought he clearly deserved. A modest man and a gentleman in a profession of scoundrels, Graham was a boxer whose skills were best appreciated by boxing purists in a time when the advent of television made most fans clamor for crude sluggers with little finesse. Highly regarded by the boxing fraternity, friendly and approachable to writers and fans alike, and universally respected by his opponents, Graham was perhaps best described in the words of A. J. Leibling: he was “as good as a fighter can be without being a hell of a fighter.”
James B. Roberts and Alexander G. Skutt, The Boxing Register (2d ed., 1999), contains details of Graham’s boxing career and basic biographical information. Graham’s last fight was memorably recounted by A. J. Leibling in “Next to Last Stand-Maybe,” reprinted in his book The Sweet Science (1956). Years after Graham had retired, W. C. Heinz renewed acquaintances with him and relived some of his past fights in “The Uncrowned Champion,” a chapter in Heinz’s Once They Heard the Cheers (1979). The background to the disputed Gavilan fight is in Teddy Brenner, as told to Barney Nagler, Only the Ring Was Square (1981). Ring magazine provided the best coverage of boxing in the years that Graham was a professional, and reported on his fights for the title (Nov. 1951 and Dec. 1952). Graham related his own frank assessment of a fighter’s life in Billy Graham, as told to Lester Bromberg, “You Don’t Get Rich Fighting,” Sport (Aug. 1952). W. C. Heinz, “Punching Out a Living,” Collier’s (2 May 1953), described Graham’s training in preparation for his final bout with Giardello. Obituaries are in the New York (Daily News and News-day (both 23 Jan. 1992), and Ring magazine (June 1992).
Edward J. Tassinari