Chatham Township, NJ, 27 October 2018
Basque heavyweight boxer Paulino Uzcudun (1899-1985) prepared for several of his New York bouts at a training camp here about 30 miles west of the city, run by a remarkable immigrant woman born in Constantinople around 1881: Hranoush Aglaganian, alias “Madame Bey.” Today we visited the site of Madame Bey’s “Home to Boxing Legends” with Uzcudun’s granddaughter, Paola, and just a few miles away, in New Providence, we interviewed Gene Pantalone, the author of a wonderful book that vividly and painstakingly recreates the story of this camp and its larger-than-life owner and residents.
For a couple of hours, as Paola Uzcudun swapped images and anecdotes with the encyclopedic Gene Pantalone, a sharp picture of the Golden Age of Boxing emerged: the antics and epics of that impossibly colorful cast of immigrants and schemers, dreamers and misfits, who a century ago, did their roadwork along the Passaic River, and sparred in Madame Bey’s outdoor ring, nestled among the oaks and elms of New Jersey’s Orange Mountains.
Throughout his book, Pantalone captures the humor and pathos of the world of pugilistic cosmopolitanism –a film waiting to be made– that reigned at Madame Bey’s place:
“The reporter, Holmes, needed an interpreter to question Paulino. The interpretation process became complicated. Holmes spoke English to sparring partner Gitlitz to tell him what he wanted, In a mixture of French, English, and sign language, Gitlitz talked to Arthus, Paulino’s manager. Arthus questioned Paulino, who then answered. In cases of extreme difficulty, Pierre Gaudon, a French middleweight, intervened and tried to resolve misunderstandings. Paulino’s answer took the reverse path…”
It would be hard to exaggerate the importance that boxing enjoyed in the 1920s and 30s, not just as a sport or as a constant source of celebrity gossip, but also as a gallery of heroes and villains, particularly for communities –racial, ethnic or national communities– jostling to establish their identities and their prestige on the streets of New York, Boston or Chicago, as well as in the boxing ring of History, of Posterity. Though often neglected, the community of Spanish-American immigrants is no exception. The coverage of Paulino’s career in the US Spanish-language press of the period makes it abundantly clear that Spanish immigrants imagined boxers like Uzcudun as representing the traits and values of their community. In fact, New York’s “La Prensa” used its extensive coverage of Paulino’s preparations and fights as selling points to potential subscribers; and on the days of important bouts, the editors would have to plead with their readers not to jam the newspaper’s phone lines with calls inquiring about the progress and outcome of the fight!
Weekend excursions from Spanish enclaves to the boxer’s training camp were not at all uncommon, like this one to Madame Bey’s, quaintly described on the pages of La Prensa:
“Last Sunday, under the command of Mr. Valentín Aguirre, a caravan of four automobiles full of friends of Paulino Uzcudun left New York. Loaded down with casseroles of bacalao a la vizcaína (and its appropriate accessories), the delegation’s arrival to Madame Bey’s farm in Summit, New Jersey was a real and pleasant surprise for everyone, especially given the delectable treats that the committee brought with them, prepared just for the occasion by Mr. Julian, the chief engineer aboard the ship Cabo Villano.
Those in attendance were: Valentin Aguirre, Juan Zabal, Tomás Aguirre, Bonifacio Arrezabalaga, Captain of the Cabo Villano; Delfín González, representante de La Prensa; Raúl Ortega Elquezada , Laureano Sanjurjo, Carlos Martínez e hijo, Ricardo Laborde, Ramón Bovarder, Anastasio Gaviña, Felipe Bilbao, Emilio Osta, Joaquín Astoresca [sic], Pedro Astarbi y otros.”
The granite quarry workers of Barre, Vermont made a similar outing to visit The Basque Woodchopper when he trained in Hoosick Falls, New York, for his 1929 bout against Max Schmeling. The trip was captured in a remarkable International Newsreel Photo from June 16, 1927:
Having now visited both Hoosick Falls and Chatham Township, Paulino’s granddaughter and namesake will take back with her to Spain a deeper understanding of the prominent place occupied by Uzcudun in the history of boxing, and of the prominent place that Paulino and boxing occupied in the lives of tens of thousands of Spanish immigrants in the US, just a little less than a century ago.
Historian Brian D. Bunk insightfully explores Paulino’s story, and the place of boxing and boxers among the Spanish and latino communities of the US in “Boxer in New York: Spaniards, Puerto Ricans, and Attempts to Construct a Hispano Race.”