Few fighters from bygone days still captivate fight fans to the degree of the legendary Harry Greb, world middleweight champion between 1923 and 1926. This non-stop fighting fury from Pittsburgh made his mark as one of boxing's most outstanding and intriguing figures. At 5ft 8in and 11stone 6lbs he dished out hidings to the leading light-heavyweights of his day; he was the only man to defeat world heavyweight champion Gene Tunney, and he fought through his best years while blind in one eye. His death at age 32 on a hospital operating table during a routine nose op is equally puzzling, and rumours of foul play still flourish.
The life and ring exploits of Greb are now well known, particularly in light of Bill Paxton's 2009 biography, The Fearless Harry Greb. What isn't so well known is the fact that Greb fought three British opponents – one of whom came close to beating him.
In the early 1920s Britain had five decent middleweights with aspirations of earning a world title shot: Tommy Milligan, George West, Frank Moody, Roland Todd and Ted Moore, all of whom ventured to America in the hope of tempting Greb into the ring. Of that quintet, only the last three succeeded, and only Moore earned a world title fight. But back then each weight class had only one world champion, so securing a shot was no easy feat. These are the Brits who took on the legendary Greb.
Frank Moody (Pontypridd)
The first Brit to challenge Greb was Welshman Frank Moody, who Ernest Hemingway describes in the 2010 'restored edition' of A Moveable Feast as 'quite a good fighter', which is praise indeed from a writer not given to easy compliments.
The most successful of seven fighting brothers from Pontypridd, Moody worked as a miner from age 11 and started boxing for money aged 13. He learnt his trade the hard way, round the tough rings of Wales, losing occasionally but gaining vital experience. KO defeats to top men Roland Todd, Bermondsey Billy Wells and the legendary Ted 'Kid' Lewis failed to dent Moody's confidence, and he sailed to America in 1923 with over 120 pro fights under his belt.
A string of wins in US rings, including victories over the tough Lou Bogash and world title challenger Jock Malone, earned Moody a fight with Greb. They met in a non-title bout at a baseball park in Waterbury, Connecticut on 16 June 1924.
Greb, well aware of Moody's lethal right hand, which had already put to sleep several of his countrymen, gave the Welshman few chances to land it. The American floored his man with a right to the heart in the fourth, then finished him off in round six with a fusillade of blows that stretched the Brit for the full count.
Moody remained in America for another two years, meeting some of her best, including three more world champions in Jack Delaney, Tiger Flowers and Maxie Rosenbloom. He topped off his Stateside stay by KO'ing the highly regarded Kid Norfolk – who, incidentally, is said to be the man who blinded Greb's right eye, during their 1921 battle.
On his return to Britain, Moody won the British middleweight and light-heavyweight titles, before retiring in 1931. Four years later he made a comeback, at age 34, and amazed everyone when he drew with 22-year-old future world heavyweight title challenger Tommy Farr. But Farr KO'd him in a return, and Moody was compelled to hang up his gloves not long after.
Roland Todd (Doncaster)
Though he later boxed out of Doncaster, Roland Todd was born and taught to box in Marylebone, west London where he joined the gym of 'Professor' Andrew Newton, one of Britain's leading trainers of the day.
It was Todd's master boxing that built him an unbeaten 39-fight run, which led to a November 1922 British, Empire and European middleweight title clash with Ted 'Kid' Lewis. Todd lost over 20 hard-fought rounds, but his performance was good enough to earn him a return with the famous 'Kid' two months later.
This time Todd's marvellous defence and skilful boxing put Lewis out of his usual stride, and the Doncaster man was crowned British, Empire and European middleweight champion. Three months later, in another 20-rounder, Todd defeated the top American Augie Ratner, which prompted him to try his luck in the States.
In his first American bout, over 10 rounds at Madison Square Garden, Todd conceded 11lbs to future world light-heavyweight champion Tommy Loughran, and unsurprisingly lost on points. He had four more US fights – two losses to Jock Malone, plus victories over Malone and Allentown Joe Gans – before returning to Europe, where he lost his European title to the Italian Bruno Frattini.
Four fights later Todd was back in America, this time determined to get a world middleweight title fight with Greb. He got Greb into the ring at the Coliseum in Toronto, Canada on 11 January 1926, but with no title at stake. Despite conceding 5lbs to the champion, Todd made the first three rounds very close. After that, however, Greb's whirlwind tactics won him every round, and Todd's attempts to match his aggression proved futile. But the Englishman's defensive boxing was first-rate. He frequently made Greb miss and was there at the final bell to hear the champion declared a points winner.
After five more US fights Todd returned to Britain, and though clearly passed his best, boxed on for another three years. After boxing he worked on the railways until his retirement in 1965. Tragically, he died in hospital on 22 May 1969, after being knocked down by a car close to his Doncaster home.
Ted Moore (Plymouth)
A product of Plymouth's renowned Cosmopolitan gym, Moore learnt to fight on a travelling boxing booth, touring the West Country between the ages of 15 and 16. While Roland Todd was a safety-first defensive master, Moore was a teak-tough all-action body puncher, and just the sort of fighter US fans loved.
At age 23, with 82 fights – and only 11 defeats – behind him, Moore sailed to America, where he made his debut in November 1923. It took 15 contests – of which he lost just two (to world-class opponents Tommy Loughran and Dave Shade) – before Moore secured a match with Greb, and a world title shot no less.
On 26 June 1924, in front of 45,000 screaming fans, Moore climbed into the open-air ring at New York's Yankee Stadium for a shot at the undisputed world middleweight crown. Just 10 days earlier Greb had KO'd Frank Moody in six rounds, so the pressure was on for Moore to show America that British fighters could mix it with the best. Moore stayed the distance but won just two of the 15 rounds, leaving Greb's title intact.
Unperturbed, Moore remained in the States and scored some decent wins before securing a return fight with Greb, on 26 January 1926. Though Greb's title wasn't at stake, it was a chance for Moore to earn redemption. This fight, as the San Francisco Chronicle observed, was a different story from their first encounter:
'Moore body-punched his way through most of the fight and appeared on the verge of a decision over [Greb], but a stiff right uppercut that landed and slowed up the Briton had much to do with raising the champion's right hand. Moore was in tip-top condition and Greb needed all of his muchly advertised legs to keep him bouncing around.'
It may be that Moore fought the fight of his life that day, and perhaps Greb wasn't his usual self. In any case, this should not detract from Moore's achievement. He had accomplished a feat none of his British contemporaries managed: he had proven his mettle against the great Greb and almost caused a sensation.
The Plymouth man had several more fights in America before returning to Britain to challenge twice for the British middleweight title, and once for the light-heavyweight crown, but lost all three fights. Moore then headed for Canada to continue his career, where he later worked as a trainer, matchmaker and promoter. He died in Vancouver of cancer on 14 August 1945, one day short of his 45th birthday. Sadly by then he was penniless.
Alex Daley is the author of 'Nipper: The Amazing Story of Boxing's Wonderboy'. Visit www.nipperpatdaly.co.uk for more information.