Mitch Levin, dapper in a purple shirt and dark tie, stands in front of a sparse audience at the Sulzer Public Library, talking about boxing great Sugar Ray Robinson. From the back of the room, Mitch's younger brother Joel yells corrections and additions. Then the lights go down and Robinson does a job on Jake LaMotta in the 1951 "Saint Valentine's Day Massacre" at the Chicago Stadium--the fight immortalized in the film Raging Bull.
Like his favorite pugilist, Stanley Ketchel, it takes Mitch a while to warm up. He'll talk for hours about boxing but put up his guard once the questions turn to him. By the end of the program, he's waxing poetic about Robinson's charisma and penchant for becoming friends with his opponents. Then it's on to Robinson's 1958 fight against Carmen Basilio at the Chicago Stadium, in which Basilio nearly loses an eye and even the referee takes a punch. Basilio's final beating is repeated in slow motion. "Look at the fantastic close-up of that all-important eye," intones the announcer.
Mitch, a social worker, and Joel, a teacher at Cook County Jail, have been collecting boxing films for more than six years, and they've been screening their finds in area libraries since 1990. The two caught the bug while growing up in Albany Park, watching fights on TV with their father. "In those days, TV was relatively new, not like today with 50 million cable channels and everything," says Mitch, who also recalls hearing a Rocky Marciano bout on the radio. But it was his mother who got him hooked on the sport when she brought home a boxing magazine from the restaurant where she waitressed. The magazine included the second part of a series on the great middleweight Stanley Ketchel, "the Michigan Assassin." It told the story of Ketchel's illustrious career in the early part of this century, when fights could last for 30 or 40 rounds, sometimes longer. Ketchel's career was cut short at the age of 24, when he was shot to death "by the common-law husband of the woman who was cooking his breakfast," in the words of the article. Mitch says, "From that day I read everything I could on boxing. I'd look up fights on microfilm and read about them. I would sit there in the library for hours."
Today the Levins have "thousands" of films in their collection. The rarest is a jumpy print of a 1900 fight at Tattersall's, an arena at 16th and Dearborn. It features Joe Gans against "Terrible" Terry McGovern. Mitch says Gans supposedly threw the fight and that's the reason for a subsequent drought of professional boxing in Chicago. The fighters wear tight shorts, and the men at ringside sport bowlers and handlebar mustaches. The old black-and-white films make blood look like chocolate, and the pugilists' movements are soft and fluid, like ballet dancers. Since videotape came into vogue in the 1980s, old fight films have become harder to find. "The films are my children, and the tapes are my stepchildren," says Mitch, who's single. "They lost a lot of the drama today with boxing. I think that's why they add so much hype. The prefight thing, the mariachi bands, the hoopla, the ceremony. Unfortunately, over the years that has become almost as important as the fight itself."
This Saturday the Levins will show films of Joe Louis, "the Brown Bomber," in observance of Black History Month. Included in the program will be Louis's 1938 one-round rematch against Germany's Max Schmeling. Louis won in one minute and 20 seconds, dealing a blow to Hitler's notion of the master race and cracking several of Schmeling's ribs in the process. "No World Series or anything can equal the drama of Louis beating Schmeling the Aryan," says Mitch. "Schmeling was not technically a Nazi, but after becoming the first man ever to knock out Louis in 1936, he sort of became their man by default. After he lost, it was another story." Indeed, after that fight Louis became a hero, and the streets of Harlem and Chicago's Bronzeville filled with revelers. Schmeling later turned against the Nazis and was sent to the front lines of World War II as punishment. After the war he became an executive for Coca-Cola. Louis, a former sharecropper and World War II veteran who would often donate his entire purse to the army during the war years, died in 1981 owing a fortune to the IRS.
"Boxing, either the greatest thing in the world to watch, or the worst," admits Mitch Levin. "It's rarely in between, and there's nothing worse than a bad fight." Either way, the sport is universal. "Everyone understands a punch in the nose," he says, laughing.
The Levins' films of Joe Louis will be shown this Saturday at 2 PM in the Mabel Manning Public Library, 6 S. Hoyne, near the remains of the old Chicago Stadium, one of the greatest boxing meccas in the world. Admission is free. Call 746-6800 for more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Nathan Mandell.