February 25, 1964
Some of you may remember, or were reminded of it yesterday in the papers. February 25, 1964 was the night that Cassius Clay, soon to be known as Muhammad Ali, won the World Heavyweight Championship from Sonny Liston. Why mention it? Well, the referee of that fight was my uncle, Barney Felix. At that time, Barney was the senior boxing referee in New York State but, because New York didn’t sanction that bout, he was banned from officiating any future championship match in New York. Politics.
While I didn’t see Barney often, I did get him to tell me his first-hand experience. First, here’s what’s posted on Wikipedia:
At the end of round four, as Clay returned to his corner, he began experiencing blinding pain in his eyes and asked his trainer Angelo Dundee to cut off his gloves. Dundee refused. It has been speculated that the problem was due to ointment used to seal Liston's cuts, perhaps deliberately applied by his corner to his gloves. Despite Liston's attempts to knock out a blinded Clay, Clay was able to survive the fifth round until sweat and tears rinsed the irritation from his eyes. In the sixth, Clay dominated, hitting Liston repeatedly. Liston did not answer the bell for the seventh round, and Clay was declared the winner by TKO (Technical Knockout).
Uncle Barney observed it a little differently. He told me that when Clay was complaining of something in his eyes Barney went over to check things out – first to Clay’s corner and then to Liston’s. Barney found no ointment or other substance on Liston’s gloves. Barney felt Clay was scared of Liston and was afraid to come out for the next round. But he did and the rest is history.
But Barney wasn’t the only Felix Family member who was connected to boxing. Harry Felix, the oldest of 7 was a welterweight. The records show he had 52 bouts. His record was 42 wins vs. 10 losses. Harry boxed a lot of club matches – small venues with small prize money. Any money he won went to feed the family. Harry lost an eye due to boxing. But, Uncle Harry was the gentlest soul you can imagine. I remember him from family gatherings (sometimes called reunions that we had as some hall in Brooklyn somewhere – I was very young). However, from what my father, Manney, told me. Harry was not the best boxer in the family.
A lot of the early years were spent in ‘cold water flats’ (apartments with no hot running water) on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and Brooklyn. The family moved frequently. The father had pretty much abandoned the family and money was very, very scarce. One story goes that they were living in a fourth-floor walk up on Orchard Street in the Lower East Side. They hadn’t paid rent for several months. The landlord was climbing up the fire escape (not sure why he didn’t take the stairs but the story is better this way) and Lena, the mother, noticed him coming up. Knowing he was there to evict them, she poured a pot of hot (I hate to say boiling although that’s how the story went) water on him to scare him away. Apparently, he backtracked down the fire escape but the next day the family left and moved to another apartment somewhere else.
In those old neighborhoods, different ethnic groups tended to live on different blocks. As my father said, they were on a Jewish block, the next block over were the Irish, etc. The boys used to play in the streets and sometimes the games would turn into one group’s top fighter challenging the other group’s champion. The brother that was the street fighter of the Felix family was Daniel (known to all as Doody). As it goes, he never lost a fight!
The night of the Liston / Clay fight I had gone to see a Seton Hall University basketball game in South Orange, NJ. After the game, walking to get some ice cream at Gruning’s in South Orange Village, I mentioned to my friends that my uncle was refereeing the fight that night. My recollection is that it wasn’t on TV. They were impressed.
To bring this story full circle – a number of years ago I was at an annual meeting of The Hoyt Fellows – a primarily academic real estate society – of which I am a member. At dinner, I was seated with Norm Miller, a top professor of real estate at the University of San Diego. He introduced me to the fellow to his left, sitting directly across from me. “Steve, do you know Mike Sklarz?” We shook hands and I looked at Mike. Something was familiar. I asked him if he went to Livingston (NJ) High School. He said he did. I’m not sure if he remembered me at first but when I reminded him about the night of the Seton Hall game and the Liston/Clay fight he remembered: it was he, Greg Schultz and myself that had gone to the Seton Hall game together!
Mike, excuse me, Dr. Sklarz founded a company called Collateral Analytics which develops real estate analytic products and tools to support financial institutions, institutional and retail investors as well as property capital market activities.
Just another run of the mill small world story!