It’s 1968 and a preadolescent version of me is lying in bed, up past my bedtime, blanket pulled up to my chin, listening to a fight on the radio. Okay, sort of a fight, in that it was brought into existence through equal parts imagination and technology without any actual flesh whatsoever. It was the latest installment in a tournament that featured the most famous boxers of their time, or at least reasonable facsimiles. Legend versus legend on a weekly basis for three months running. My heart beat in rhythm to every percussive combination. Never in my long, varied and lustre-free career have I cared so much about a sports event as I did those bouts that I never saw, that no one saw, not even those in attendance at the “arena” where no blood was spilled, no rib bruised, no jaw snapped asunder by even the flushest hook or uppercut.
When I was 12, the analog age was in its death spiral. We knew nothing about computers but what we could glean from NASA missions, the flight deck of the Enterprise on Star Trek or the offices of Cogswell Cogs on The Jetsons. A.D. 1968 wasn’t the dawn of the information age so much as the dawn of the idea of the information age. NASA advanced the notion that the agency’s computers would guide its heroes to the moon and safely back to earth before the decade was out. In primetime, computers designed by Gene Roddenberry enabled man and Vulcan alike to travel into deep space and field the advances of green-skinned women. Meanwhile, on Saturday mornings, Hanna-Barbera followed the travails of a futuristic nuclear family whose beleaguered paterfamilias reported for work to enter punch-cards into the maw of a state-of-the-animated-art computer, the whirring, buzzing, clicking spawn of IBM.
Whether it was the new frontier, the final frontier or selling cereal and board games to pajama-clad brats, the message was plain: Life itself was never going to be the same; computers would make everything possible; microchips could do what mere grey matter couldn’t.
Today, miracles in CGI barely cause a ripple. No one batted an eye this May when NBC broadcast a computer-generated showdown with all the Triple Crown winners on what would have been Derby Day. In 1968, though, little thought had been given to sports applications for computer technology. We had table hockey in NHL team colours, Strat-O-Matic baseball with MLB’s heroes and, well, that was about it.
My friends had Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots, too, but I was, at 12, a boxing purist and accepted no substitutes for the real thing. These days kids don’t grow up on boxing like I did. I didn’t have to be coaxed into going to the barber because he had a huge stack of The Ring, the magazine that modestly described itself as “the Bible of Boxing.” I dove into A.J. Liebling’s The Sweet Science even though the references to myth and classic literature broke the sound barrier as they flew over my head. I loved boxing more than any other sport, even though pacifists were calling it inhumane and lobbying for its abolition.
The best sign of the health of the sport had always been its heavyweight champion, the baddest man on the planet. Sadly, in 1968 the reigning champ of the Tiffany weight class was nobody. Not “a nobody,” but nobody at all. Muhammad Ali had been stripped of his title by the boxing authorities for his refusal to report for duty when his draft number came up. The World Boxing Association, which no one had previously heard of, then staged a tournament featuring an eight-pack of contenders, pretenders and dead-enders to inherit Ali’s crown. The New York Boxing Commission declared its title would go to the winner of a bout between Joe Frazier, the 1964 Olympic champion, and Buster Mathis, who had beaten Frazier at the U.S. Olympic Trials. The Ring continued to recognize Ali as champion. For a vacancy, it was getting pretty crowded.
Enter Murry Woroner, a radio exec and promoter in Miami with an idea not just out of the box but, more importantly, untethered to reality. Many beers had already been spilled on bars over arguments about who was the best ever. Was it Jack Dempsey? Joe Louis? Rocky Marciano? Could any of them take out Ali? Woroner’s brainwave, was to put such conjecture to the test using the best available tech, that being the NCR 315 Data Processing System, a bungalow-sized computer housed at the HQ of its manufacturer, National Cash Register. A field of 16 champions would be reduced to data and fed into NCR’s state-of-the-art unit — eventually it would spit out a champion. Far-fetched as it might seem now, especially considering that the hardware was less sophisticated than a first-gen iPhone, Woroner was a worthy heir to P.T. Barnum. He staged his circus without having to pitch a tent or clean up after the elephants.
All arguments about the best of all-time would be settled once and forever by 16 legends going head-to-virtual-head. Supposedly. Purportedly. Thus was fantasy sports born, the most ancient of champions stepping into this ring of the mind and data, John L. Sullivan, dating all the way back to the 19th century. If you can’t sell fact, sell intrigue.
As harebrained as it sounds now, born suckers like me just presumed the unquestioned infallibility of computer tech and regarded the outcome as beyond dispute. Woroner and the perpetrators better understood the ratio of entertainment value to science in the enterprise and the same could likely be said of the programmers of the 380 radio stations across North America who aired the weekly syndicated broadcast — blow-by-blow accounts of fights scheduled for 15 rounds. To sweeten the offering, Woroner ran a mail-in contest — whoever’s tournament bracket came closest to the final result would win a 26-foot Sea Bird Sedan Cruiser with a 200-horsepower inboard.
In the ramp-up, Woroner solicited 250 boxing writers and industry experts who filled out detailed statistical profiles of the fighters in the field, rating their virtues and flaws in assorted categories (including but only starting with speed, power, jab, defence, chin resistance, susceptibility to cuts, killer instinct and courage). The broad survey of insiders was yet another great selling point for the promoter to take to market: This would be a comprehensive case built around the testimony of an unmatchable assembly of eyewitnesses to boxing history.
Still, even among this throng, Woroner had a star witness. Detailed reports from the time noted that a man named Hank Kaplan, a boxing historian with the world’s most extensive collection of source material and memorabilia, had done most of the research “in his own home.” By day, Kaplan was a marine biologist and harbour inspector for the U.S. Public Health Service, so his collection, a passion project more than a professional one, was archived in his abode. All this expertise came together in the quest to render the intangibles tangible and the theoretical indisputable.
Woroner claimed that the action in the ring was entirely information-based, each round the product of “four-million computations.” He cited the NCR 315’s ability to process 160,000 “memory positions” and take into account more than 2,000 variables for each champ in making 60-million calculations over the 18 months of around-the-clock prep work. All the computer punch cards stacked would stand stories high, and all this from a computer whose manufacturers boasted of its core memory being expandable to 40 KB. No misprint, 40 KB.
Woroner understood exactly what he was pulling. “I’m in the radio syndication business and my job is to sell what I produce,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1968. “Sure, I believe in what I do. I don’t peddle garbage. But I don’t ordinarily get involved in things deeply unless I’m pretty sure they’ll be a successful commercial venture. Period. This mythical thing seems to turn people on. This could open the doors at the U.S. mint. [Radio] is the real medium of imagination. It’s magnificent what you can do with it.”
“This mythical thing” had to be magnificent and then some for Woroner, who had mortgaged his home, taken loans against the car and probably even traded pints of blood for cash to finance the quixotic production.
As much as he needed the gelt, Woroner also had to get the seal of approval of the “participants.” Lending the shows unwarranted legitimacy was the participation of, and occasional commentary from, all but one of the living champions in the promotion, including the oldest among them, 86-year-old Jess Willard, who had beaten Jack Johnson for the title in 1914. The only former champ who declined to participate was Gene Tunney, who held the belt in the late ’20s. Tunney had always been a different bird: a self-styled Renaissance man who married an heiress and managed to amass a fortune of at least $80 million, capitalizing on his friendship with a former sparring partner, J. Paul Getty, then the world’s richest man. No honorarium would buy Tunney’s time.
The first fight of the tournament featured Jack Dempsey, the feral “Manassa Mauler,” versus James J. Corbett a.k.a. “Gentleman Jim,” the dandy who held the title when bare knuckles gave way to gloves. I remember tuning in to the first broadcast on my transistor radio like it was yesterday.
The show opened with whirring, clicking and static, as if a computer were trying to speak out loud. And then the voice came in, a voice owned, it seemed, more by a practiced salesman than a sports-radio announcer. A single word was hung out there, suspended by its significance:
After the listeners’ minds raced for a moment, the commentary established the premise and set the scene against the piped-in sound of an arena-sized crowd buzzing.
“From the magic city, the fun and sun capital of the world, Miami, Florida. Through the incredible speed of the NCR 315 computer, Woroner Productions proudly presents the All-Time Heavyweight Championship Tournament. This is Murry Woroner from the Miami Convention Hall for the first fight in the 15-fight all-time heavyweight tournament.”
Woroner then acknowledged his co-conspirators. The broadcast was …
“… made possible by the City of Miami, Mr. Nat Fleischer, the publisher of The Ring magazine; Chris and Angelo Dundee; and Mr. Hank Kaplan, former president of the World Boxing Historians Association.”
The broadcast lasted about 90 minutes with commercial breaks and the former champions, celebrities and the historian, Kaplan, providing pre-fight predictions and post-fight opinions.
The opening bout was no classic, Dempsey pulverizing Gentleman Jim, but it didn’t matter because the premise was established: fighters whose careers were far from overlapping meeting in dream matchups made possible through the wonder of technology. And announcer Guy Lebow’s Shakespearean reading of the blow-by-blow made it all the more dramatic and seemingly real.
Many of the opening-round fights weren’t so very memorable. Hard to get excited by a turn-of-the-century champ such as “Ruby Robert” Fitzsimmons, known only through hyperbolic newspaper accounts and photos. Harder still to be rooting for Jack “The Boston Gob” Sharkey or the “Cinderella Man” Jimmy Braddock, transitory figures who served as placeholders until legends emerged, their wonderful period nicknames notwithstanding.
The single disappointment was the matchup between Tunney and Rocky Marciano, the two men who had retired as champions having never lost a title fight. Per the NCR 315, Marciano, the fearless brawler, won a one-sided decision over Tunney, a master technician, which didn’t ring true to fans versed in ring lore. How Tunney felt about it we’ll never know and, maybe, the computer took his embargo into consideration.
One head-scratcher busted my bracket: Max Baer, an undisciplined brawler (and father of the actor who played Jethro through nine seasons of The Beverly Hillbillies) taking a 15-round decision over Jack Johnson, the first African-American who held the heavyweight crown. The venerable boxing writer Nat Fleischer had long ranked Johnson as the best he ever saw and, though no official Las Vegas sports book took action on the tournament, celebrity oddsmaker Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder had installed Johnson as a 3-to-1 favourite. Nonetheless, the computer had Johnson winning just a single round. Goodbye to my Sea Bird Sedan Cruiser.
Form mostly prevailed in the quarter-finals: Dempsey knocked out John L. Sullivan, Marciano knocked out a stubborn Baer, and Joe Louis, the insiders’ favourite, pummeled Fitzsimmons. The lone fight that went the distance caused an uproar — both with the canned jeers in, cough, the Miami Convention Center and from the losing side. Despite being soundly outpunched, Jim Jeffries, another turn-of-the-century figure, was given a decision over Muhammad Ali. (As if being stripped of his title wasn’t indignity enough, the radio-play repeatedly referred to him as Cassius Clay, the name he had dropped after aligning with the Nation of Islam.) Credit the NCR 315’s programmers for building fickle judges into the mix. When Ali called Jeffries “history’s clumsiest, most slow-footed heavyweight” and sued the producer for $1 million, claiming defamation … well, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
The most-awaited fight of the tournament was the semi-final between Dempsey and Louis, who held the record for title defences and made even former champions look overmatched. Interest was so intense, Woroner said, that “not a ticket is left.” The “capacity crowd” watched Dempsey hit the deck twice but also put Louis on the canvas four times to win a narrow decision. In the other semi, Marciano scored a 14th-round knockout over Jeffries despite giving away about 30 pounds — perhaps the NCR 315 had come around to Ali’s low opinion of the bygone champ.
In the final installment, Marciano brutalized Dempsey, scoring six knockdowns on the way to a 13th-round KO. Marciano seemed almost sheepish about the victory: “He was always my idol. I copied everything from him,” he said.
For his part, Dempsey was unbowed, saying, “It’s only a computer,” and establishing himself as the era’s first late adapter.
However silly all this might sound now, Woroner’s production was a whopping success. Listeners dialled in and advertisers took out $3.5 million worth of commercials — not the U.S. mint, but close enough for Woroner. The promoter followed up the series with an all-time tournament featuring champions of the middleweight division — same format, same experts and same computer. (Sugar Ray Robinson beat Stanley Ketchel in a violent epic final that I found even more spellbinding than the heavyweight version.) This proved to be a runaway hit. Sports Illustrated called the middleweight sequel “one of the most astonishing marketing successes in radio history,” and noted that, “no less than 650 stations signed up, the most ever to buy an independently produced series of programs.”
Fifty-two years before NBC staged its virtual Run for the Roses, Woroner brought together transistorized versions of the greatest thoroughbreds in history for a dream race. (Railbirds bristled when Citation beat Man o’ War.) And Woroner talked up the idea of expanding into football and baseball, but those efforts didn’t get off the ground.
Ultimately, it was Ali’s lawsuit that served as a catalyst for the promoter’s legacy production. Woroner convinced Ali to abort the court case by giving him $10,000 and a title shot at the computer tournament champion, Marciano. This time, the two fighters would act-out their “fight” in a television studio in February 1969, with the edited production going out to 1,500 theatres on closed-circuit in North America and Europe for a one-time-only showing 11 months later. Ali and Marciano would each earn a cut of the gate.
Woroner knew keeping the outcome a mystery was key to the draw and thus the two boxers fought 75 scripted one-minute rounds, which would be patched together to best approximate the NCR 315’s blow-by-blow. As noted, Ali had been stripped of his title and was in exile from the ring, so the cash came in handy. And for his part, Marciano embraced the event wholeheartedly — at age 46, he shed 50 pounds and donned a toupee to best approximate the version of himself who had last entered a ring with bad intentions in 1957. And when word of behind-the-scenes news from the production leaked, the rumours had it that it was Ali who’d absorbed significant bodily harm from a seemingly rejuvenated Marciano. (This was later confirmed by Ali.)
The computer couldn’t fully erase the passage of time. Ali looked flabby, Marciano less sure on his feet than the rawest club fighter. Punches above the shoulders were conspicuously pulled, and the blood shed by Marciano came out of a bottle. Wearing what looked like black Oxfords, the referee, Chris Dundee, followed the fighters at a distance, stalking them around the ring but staying out of reach, in fear of walking into a stray punch. The action wasn’t like any bout I’ve ever seen — apparently the technical-support team had failed to program the NCR 315 for clinches (Dundee stepping in on only one occasion throughout the entire fight). And yet, I remember watching it in a crowded, smoky theatre, utterly lost in the action, like most who had forked out the astronomical five bucks. Covering the fight from a film house on Broadway, Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times wrote: “With the exception of the few who jeered at the theatrical gore on Marciano’s face, the audience readily suspended belief [sic].”
The computer came up with split decision — Marciano winning by a 13th-round knockout in North American theatres, while, in another version of the fight that aired in Europe, Ali won by a decision. Marciano would never know the outcome and reasonably good reviews; he died in a plane crash just weeks after the last punch was thrown in simulated anger.
The Marciano win in full:
The closed-circuit production earned about $5 million worldwide and 10 months later a rebroadcast on ABC’s Wide World of Sports generated the show’s largest ratings for the year. Still, The Super Fight generated no significant follow-up, not with the courts paving the way for Ali to return to the ring and chase the heavyweight title once more. When Woroner found that copies of Marciano’s win were being shown after the original date, he had them destroyed and, over time, the fantasy tournaments and The Super Fight became a footnote to history.
In 2005, a surviving print of the Ali-Marciano bout was discovered in the Library of Congress and shortly thereafter I set about writing about this long-forgotten curiosity. Though Woroner had already shuffled off this mortal coil, I managed to track down a surviving principal, who just happened to be the most indispensable of all the pieces: Hank Kaplan.
If one man could tell the backstory of The Super Fight, I thought, it’d be the fella who provided the data to be processed, the godfather at the birth of computer sports. When I spoke to Ed Brophy, an official with the International Boxing Hall of Fame, he painted a vivid picture. “Hank keeps it all in his place,” Brophy told me of the historian’s personal collection. “He has to walk around it. He’s tripping over it.” His meticulously indexed files on champions and boxers of interest filled filing cabinet after filing cabinet, the stuff from the late 1800s so brittle that you could blow history into dust with one good puff.
When I got Kaplan over the phone at his home in Miami, he told me he was willing to tell his side of things for $1 million, which exceeded my budget by a million dollars minus a meal for two at Denny’s. I stayed in touch with him, hoping to change his mind or lower his price, but he never budged. He died in December 2007, just months after our one brief conversation at the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, NY. In the coverage of his life and times, his generosity was duly noted. From his son-in-law, Jerry Haar: “His quiet charisma, his patience, his understanding, and complete lack of pretension were what impressed me. No sincere question posed to him … was deemed silly, stupid, or irrelevant.”
Upon his death Kaplan donated his immense archive to The City University of New York. According to the New York Times, the collection was worth about $3 million, which might sound like a lot but was only three times his asking price to participate in my magazine article. At that point, it was clear that Kaplan would have not just been tripping over boxes but would, in fact, have been physically wedged within the loosely assembled history of boxing.
The description of the archive on a CUNY library’s webpage:
Because of Hank Kaplan’s devotion to collecting the stories that often went untold, and his commitment to obscure and ephemeral objects, the scope of the collection is vast. The collection features 2,600 book titles, 500,000 rare prints and negatives, hundreds of linear feet of newspaper clippings from 1890-2007, more than 300 audiotapes and videotapes, over 1,200 posters, approximately 200 boxes of publications, dozens of scrapbooks, reams of correspondence, and over 100 boxes of memorabilia items … Kaplan rarely purchased items for his collection, instead amassing items mostly through donation and trade. Much of the material will make the researcher wonder how Kaplan ever received them. A good example of this is the large amount of plaster mouth casts and rubber mouth guards.
In this coverage of Kaplan’s posthumous contribution to boxing history I found no mention of the fantasy computer tournaments on syndicated radio, nor the Super Fight that played out in the theatres.
Murry Woroner’s fantasy tournament and the Ali-Marciano fight seemed like the world of tomorrow in 1970. Two decades later, first-gen boxing video games would have brought that same sense of wonder. Today even those video games seem like an exercise in camp. I’m not nostalgic by nature but I still long for that era when boxing held the main stage — when men were men and champions were punch cards.
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