Greb, Edward Henry ("Harry")

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GREB, Edward Henry ("Harry")

(b. 6 June 1894 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; d. 22 October 1926 in Atlantic City, New Jersey), professional boxer who won both the world middle-weight and American light heavyweight titles in the 1920s.

Greb was born Edward Henry Berg to Pious and Anne Berg in a Pittsburgh street car on the corner of Fitch and Dauphin Streets. Legend has it that he was a fighter from the start, giving his mother an inadvertent black eye when he was just a day old. He grew up in a strict household to parents who, according to record, never went to see him fight in the ring.

After winning his first five amateur bouts, Berg was signed to a professional boxing contract by James M. "Red" Mason. He fought his first pro match under the name Harry Greb (reversing the letters of his last name) on 29 May 1913, a six-round no-decision against Frank Kirkwood.

Greb's first pro victory came in his next bout, a second-round technical knockout of "Battling" Murphy on 19 July. He followed with a first-round knockout of Lloyd Crutcher in Punxatawney, Pennsylvania, on 13 August, Greb's first fight outside his native Pittsburgh. Three six-round no-decision bouts followed before Greb suffered his first pro defeat, a second-round knockout, to Joe Chip on 29 November.

In 1914 and 1915, Greb fought thirty-one straight no-decision bouts. Standing five-foot-eight, his career weight varied between 142 and 173 pounds, but his relatively small size was never a limitation. "Big guys don't bother me," Greb said. "They just get in their own way." His willingness to take on all comers resulted in bouts against such luminaries as Jack Blackburn, a lightweight who later earned fame as the principal trainer of heavyweight champion Joe Louis; former middleweight champion George "Chip" Chipolunis; and Tommy Gibbons, who would later fight Jack Dempsey for the world heavyweight title.

From 1916 to 1920 Greb battled his way through the middleweight ranks. He fought 152 times and earned wins over middleweight great Mike Gibbons and former light heavyweight champion Jack Dillon. In time, Greb earned a reputation as one of the more colorful fighters in ring history. Not known for his punching power, he overwhelmed opponents with quick, accurate punches thrown from a variety of angles, earning him the nickname the Human Windmill. Greb fought so often he rarely needed extensive training for his bouts. His ring endurance remains virtually unmatched in boxing history.

Greb's 299 career bouts included a record forty-four fights in one year, and he fought more bouts than Jim Corbett, Jim Jeffries, Gene Tunney, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, and Muhammad Ali combined. His ring record includes many of the most famous fighters in history, including Gene Tunney, Mickey Walker, Battling Levinsky, Tommy Loughran, Mike Gibbons, Jack Dillon, Al McCoy, Tiger Flowers, and Gunboat Smith.

Greb's greatest boxing ambition was to fight Jack Dempsey for the heavyweight title. He was considered a serious challenger to Dempsey's crown in 1922, sparring with him twice that year. Both times, however, he was thrown out of the champion's camp by Dempsey's manager, Jack "Doc" Kearns, who accused Greb of being "too rough with my fighter." Asked in 1925 how he would have fared had he fought Dempsey, Greb remarked, "If I didn't blind him by the sixth round, he would have killed me in the seventh."

Sportswriters of the time labeled Greb one of the dirtiest fighters they had seen, accusing him of biting, butting, gouging, and thumbing his opponents. Boxing writer W. O. McGeehan described Greb's ring style as "the manly art of modified murder." Greb laughed off such accusations but did acknowledge that his style was less than refined. "Prize fighting ain't the noblest of arts," he said, "and I ain't its noblest artist."

Despite his reputation for roughness, Greb lost only one fight via disqualification—to Kid Norfolk on 19 April 1924—and it is generally accepted that it was against Norfolk three years earlier, on 29 August, that he permanently lost the sight in his right eye due to an errant thumbing. (Other accounts have Greb losing his sight following a head butt against Jeff Smith on 1 February 1922.) Greb also had poor vision in his left eye. Though unable to see clearly as far as across the ring, he passed pre-fight physicals by memorizing eye charts.

In contrast to his rough style in the ring, Greb kept himself impeccably groomed. He slicked his hair down with Vaseline prior to each fight and was said by close friend and stablemate Cuddy DeMarco to get angrier about getting his hair mussed during fights than he was about getting punched.

Greb engaged in the most memorable bout of his career on 23 May 1922. Then under the tutelage of manager George Engel, he challenged undefeated light heavyweight champion Gene Tunney. Though Tunney was more than two inches taller and twelve pounds heavier than Greb, the challenger battered him for fifteen rounds to win the title. Tunney's beating was so severe he lost two quarts of blood during the bout and spent the week after the fight in a hospital. This fight was the first of a five-bout series between Greb and Tunney. Of the remaining four contests, Tunney won two and two resulted in no-decisions.

After reuniting with his original manager, Red Mason, Greb lost his title to Tunney in their first rematch, a fifteen-round decision on 23 February 1923 in New York City. Tunney had enlisted the help of world lightweight champion Benny Leonard, a master boxer who showed him ways to combat Greb's hard-charging style, namely through punches under the heart to slow Greb down. The strategy worked, but six months later Greb won the world middle-weight championship when he defeated Johnny Wilson on 31 August. He defended his title six times, including a famous fifteen-round decision over Mickey Walker in New York on 2 July 1925. Legend has it that Greb and Walker continued their contest outside a New York nightclub later that same evening. Two weeks later, the irrepressible Greb boxed future light heavyweight champion "Slapsie" Maxie Rosenbloom to a ten-round no-decision in a nontitle bout.

Greb lost the middleweight title on a split decision to Tiger Flowers on 26 February 1926. The two rematched six months later, and when Greb lost a controversial decision, the Madison Square Garden crowd rioted.

Greb announced his retirement following this bout. He was thirty-two years old, married, and had one daughter, whom he loved dearly. Shortly after retiring, Greb was involved in an auto accident that left his nose broken and both legs injured. A bone fragment was hampering his breathing, and since he was contemplating a ring comeback, he decided to undergo surgery to have his nose fixed and a cataract removed from his eye. On 21 October 1926 Greb underwent surgery in Atlantic City, New Jersey, during which he was given ether mixed with nitrous oxide and oxygen. He slipped into a coma and the next day died of heart failure induced by shock from the operation.

Greb's career record was 115–8–3, with one no-contest and 178 no-decisions. His 299 career fights ranks third in ring history. He was the American light heavyweight champion from 1922 to 1923 and the world middleweight champion from 1923 to 1926. An inductee of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, Greb is remembered by ring historians as one of the great fighters of all time. While he is said to have lived the high life outside the ring, friends who knew him discount those stories as exaggerated segments of the Greb legend.

Greb's colorful career is documented in James R. Fair, Give Him to the Angels: The Story of Harry Greb (1945) , the only full-length account of his life. Biographical accounts appear in Gilbert Odd, Boxing: The Great Champions (1974); James B. Roberts and Alex Skutt, The Boxing Register (1999); and Bert Randolph Sugar, The 100 Greatest Boxers of All Time (1984).

Edward Gruver