RIP Jimmy Bivins
By Grant Segall
JULY 4, 2012 - Jimmy Bivins, Cleveland’s iron-tough boxer who whipped eight world champions in his youth and, decades later, survived after nearly starving in his family’s filthy attic, died this morning, July 4, at McGregor Home. He was 92.
During his boxing career — which spanned the 1940s and 1950s — Bivins’ powerful left jab and equally mighty bravado made him a star whom boxing fans across the country loved to hate.
Yet in retirement, while driving a bakery truck around Cleveland and coaching local kids, many grew to love the grizzled fighter for his gentle and generous ways.
“He was one of the last of the blue-collar workers in boxing,” Gene Glen, president of the Lake Erie Assocation of USA Boxing, said Wednesday. “He worked an eight-hour shift and came to the gym and worked out. He was an outstanding person, always fun to be around, always looking out to assist other people.”
Gary Horvath, a local boxing champion and coach, said, “Jimmy pulled out all the stops for you.”
Bivins was born in Dry Branch, Ga., in 1919, and his family moved north to Cleveland three years later.
It was clear from the start that Bivins was smart, cocky and confrontational.
When he was an honor student at Central High School, he taunted classmates, holding up his grade-A homework, asking if they could do better.
Angry kids chased him home every day until the afternoon Bivins grew weary. He stood and fought. Bivins beat a boy who turned out to be a Golden Gloves champ.
And Bivins never ran again.
He entered organized boxing in 1936 at 112 pounds. Four years later, he turned pro, stacking silver dollars in his shoes to make himself heavy enough to qualify.
His first fight was against a guy named Emory Morgan. Bivins knocked Morgan out in the first round, earning $25. Later that year, after 20 more fights, Bivins clobbered future world champion Anton Christoforidis and earned $2,500.
“The champs of today, they couldn’t lick their own lips when I was fighting,” Bivins said in recent years. “I’m not bragging. It’s the truth.”
Bivins knocked the biggest names in boxing onto the mats of the biggest venues in the world. When he came home to Cleveland for an occasional Friday-night match, the event shattered one attendance record after another.
Yet hardly anyone liked him. “They would stand crowded in the rain just to boo him. I never understood it,” the late Maria Baskin, one of Bivins’ sisters, told The Plain Dealer in 2003. “He was the fighter they loved to hate.”
Bivins never let it bother him. Somehow he used their hatred to pump up his bravado. In 1943, when Bivins fought Tami Mauriello at New York’s Madison Square Garden, it seemed like no one was in his corner.
Gambling was a no-no, but everyone there knew that the odds makers favored Mauriello.
Frank Sinatra, a friend of Mauriello’s, sang the national anthem that night. And everyone also knew that Sinatra bet a bundle on Mauriello.
Bivins wasn’t intimidated. When the bell rang, Bivins pummeled Mauriello. “I beat his butt so bad, I made Frank Sinatra cry,” Bivins would say later.
It was a sweet victory. Some boxing insiders said afterward that Bivins was the guy who could finally knock Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis from his throne.
Louis, who was in the Madison Square Garden audience that night, might have thought the same thing. But he faced no immediate challenge. Boxing officials had frozen Louis’ title while he served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army during World War II.
A couple months after Bivins beat Mauriello, Louis presented Bivins with a cardboard crown and bestowed him with the honorary title of “duration” heavyweight champion.
“You’re the champ while I’m gone,” Louis told Bivins.
It was a spectacular moment. Bivins, who later joined the Army himself, knew Louis respected him as the No. 1 contender. The two men would surely fight for the title when the war was over.
But it never happened. Louis refused, choosing to fight lesser-ranked boxers instead.
Bivins grew increasingly bitter and, as the years passed, obsessed with the idea of whomping Louis.
“All I wanted was a chance. I deserved a chance,” Bivins told people.
In the late 1940s, Bivins finally sparred with Louis in a meaningless exhibition. A few days later, Bivins’ wife told police her husband had beaten her unconscious.
Dollie Bivins said the violence erupted while Bivins was telling her how he could earn $500,000 in a fight with Louis. When Bivins paused and asked his wife what she was cooking for dinner, she told him they had no money for food.
Bivins, she said, punched her in the head.
When a reporter called Bivins to get his side of the story, Bivins was watching a film of Louis battling another boxer. He denied hitting his wife. “Maybe our prosperity has gone to her head,” Bivins said.
Bivins and Joe Louis wouldn’t meet again until 1951, when Louis was trying to make a comeback. Louis bet his whole purse that he would knock out Bivins in four rounds.
Louis lost the bet.
After the fourth round, Bivins was undaunted. Showing off his 79-inch wingspan, he taunted the champ, “I’m still here, I’m still here.” Outraged, Louis punched Bivins in the back so hard that he broke a rib.
It was the worst injury Bivins ever suffered. Bivins lost the fight in a split decision but took home his largest-ever purse — $40,000.
During his career, Bivins boxed in 112 professional fights, accumulating 86 wins, 31 knockouts, one draw and 25 losses. He remains the only boxer ever simultaneously ranked the No. 1 contender in both the light-heavyweight and the heavyweight divisions.
But he never got a shot at a championship belt.
“These guys today don’t know what time it is, and they’re giving them belts, diamonds,” Bivins said through the years. “Somebody owes me a belt.”
A new leaf When he was boxing, Bivins’ personal life was rocky. His first marriage ended quickly. Dollie, his second wife, divorced him after claiming he beat her. Bivins even described himself as “nasty” during those years.
Things changed in the early 1950s. He married his third wife, Elizabeth, and she calmed him.
He joined the Teamsters, driving bakery and snack trucks, and spent most of his spare time trying to lure street-tough boys into local gyms. Bivins dazzled the kids with his colossal, leathery hands — nearly the size of catcher’s mitts. Each scar, each gnarled knuckle carried with it a different tale of knockouts, broken noses or busted lips.
At first, the boys wandered into the gym just to see Bivins or to hear his bloody stories. But many came back through the years to hear Bivins’ blunt, fatherly advice.
Most of the kids were poor like Bivins had been as a boy, and Bivins tried to help them.
He showed them how to land and duck a punch. He warned them about the dangers of drinking and drugs. And he counseled them on women.
“I talked to this doctor at the Cleveland Clinic one time, and he told me if you have sex it takes 72 hours to get your energy back,” Bivins told his aspiring boxers. “And that’s only one time. Some of these guys go four, five, six times. Shoot, you’re digging your own grave.”
Once a week, Bivins made sure the boys ate, ate all they could. On Sundays, he cooked a simple but massive feast and carted it to the gym. What he served changed — pot roast, chicken, noodles — but the meal always ended with sweet, homemade cobbler and store-bought ice cream.
Boxers came and went. None achieved Bivins’ success, but there were some highlights. Kids he coached won Cleveland’s Golden Gloves. Young boxers won amateur matches. And in 1988, a Cleveland police officer, Jim Davidson, won the light heavyweight national championship at the Police Olympics in Las Vegas.
Bivins, dressed in white from head to toe, walked the strip with Davidson after the victory. In Cleveland, hardly anyone knew who the old boxer was. But in Las Vegas, a boxing Mecca, everyone seemed to recognize him.
For that night, Bivins was again a star.
Slipping away When Bivins’ wife, Elizabeth, died in 1995, his life forever changed. He spent less and less time at the gym. He grew weak and depressed. And finally he quietly moved into the Collinwood home of his daughter and son-in-law, Josette and Daryl Banks.
As months passed, Bivins’ boxing buddies worried. No one knew where Bivins was.
In April 1998, Cleveland police found him. They had gone to the Banks house to investigate a report of child neglect. They found no child, but in the attic, they found Bivins.
The former heavyweight had withered to 110 pounds, about 75 pounds below his fighting weight. He was wrapped in a urine-soaked and feces-caked blanket that covered his face. At first they thought he was dead.
But when the officers asked Bivins if he was OK, he politely responded that he wasn’t doing so well. Then he asked the officers how they were doing.
Police initially charged Josette and Daryl Banks with felonious assault. Daryl Banks later pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was sentenced to eight months in jail. Charges against Josette Banks were dropped after investigators determined that her husband had made all decisions regarding Bivins’ care.
Many 78-year-olds might not have survived, but Bivins proved to be as tough as his leathery hands.
He spent most of his remaining years in the Shaker Heights home of his sister, Maria Bivins Baskin. Slowly, he started showing off the road map of his scars again, carefully unfurling his boxing stories to the nurses and visitors who tended him.
When children stopped by , he taught them how to throw a perfect punch, still marveling at the reach of his own long arms.
And, if someone asked, Bivins would tell them about his nemesis, the champ Joe Louis. “Somebody still owes me a belt,” Bivins said.
In 1999, a Sports Illustrated article said Bivins may have been the greatest modern heavyweight who never got a shot at the title crown.
The same year, Bivins traveled to New York, where he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Although Bivins was still a little wobbly on his feet, the tuxedo he wore couldn’t hide his boxer’s physique, thick again after months of good food and decent care.
In 2009, Baskin died, and Bivins moved into McGregor. The Ohio State Former Boxers and Associates threw birthday parties for him there.
“It’s been quite a life,” Bivins told The Plain Dealer. “It’s been quite a life.”
According to his family, Bivins outlived his two sons, three sisters and a step-daughter. He left behind a daughter, Josette Banks; four grandchildren and many great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.