Jose Canseco couldn't last a single round in his celebrity boxing debut against former NFL return man Vai Sikahema -- and we shouldn't have been surprised.
Canseco reportedly earned $35,000 for his embarrassing evening in Atlantic City, but along with the paycheck, came the lesson that retired baseball players have no business in a boxing ring, especially when your opponent, as was the case with Sikahema, has amateur boxing experience. Canseco boasted of a martial arts background, towered several inches over Sikahema and outweighed him by 45 pounds, but was dropped twice in 97 seconds.
Obviously, baseball doesn't prepare you for a clean shot on the jaw.
Sure, the sport has had its share of tough guys, from Ty Cobb to Billy Martin. Even Babe Ruth thought he was handy until Gunboat Smith jabbed the stuffing out of him during a gym session. Still, baseball players normally limit their fighting to bench clearing brawls or getting hit with ashtrays at adult entertainment venues.
One player who seemed wired for violence was 1920s Chicago White Sox first baseman Art Shires. Along with a lifetime batting average of .291, Shires busted up teammates, umpires, the club secretary, hotel detectives and opposing players. He twice kayoed his manager Lena Blackburne. United Press staffer Claire M. Burcky wrote in February 1929, "Shires is rated as the best man in the league with his fists."
It was inevitable that Shires' feisty attitude would lead him to prizefighting. In fact, eight decades prior to Canseco fighting Sikahema, Shires fought Chicago Bears center George Trafton at Chicago's White City Arena. The bout was still being discussed 15 years later when The Nebraska State Journal recalled it being "as vicious and spectacular as it was hilarious."
Shires, a tall, redheaded bolt of lightning from Italy, Texas, had a flair for self-promotion. He gave himself the nickname "Arthur the Great," a name that lasted throughout his life. But after being suspended for his umpteenth hotel brawl, Shires was scrambling for ways to supplement his baseball income.
A chance encounter with Jack Dempsey's trainer, Teddy Hayes, inspired Shires to pursue a ring career. Claiming that Dempsey had taught him the less sweet aspects of the Sweet Science, Shires kayoed his first opponent in one round.
"No more punk fighters get any free publicity through me," Shires said. "Get Tunney out of retirement!"
Gene Tunney wasn't available. Shires got Trafton instead.
Red Smith once described George Trafton with a single word: "carnivorous." After serving in the First World War, Trafton played football for Notre Dame until Fighting Irish coach Knute Rockne caught him playing semipro ball and had him expelled.
Trafton was 33 years old and overweight when the Shires bout was made, but he relished the opportunity to shut Shires' mouth.
"Before the largest crowd ever jammed into the White City Arena, Shires and his gigantic foe fought themselves into exhaustion while the spectators screamed," read the AP report. Indeed, the first round started out in a frenzy, as Shires flew out from his corner and windmilled a dozen punches in the general direction of Trafton's head. Trafton waited out the assault and then, with the timing of a silent film comic, popped Shires on the chin. Arthur the Great went down and the Chicago crowd went insane. According to the AP story, Shires bounced up and charged "back into the fire with the courage of a cub panther."
Trafton, who outweighed Shires by 40 pounds, took Shires' best and dropped him a second time. In all, Shires fell three times on that night and his nose bled profusely.
Despite the gore, the bout turned into pure slapstick. Unable to hear the bell ending the second and third rounds, Trafton and Shires continued throwing haymakers until they were separated by the referee. By the fourth, the men were so exhausted they could only circle each other, hoping the other guy wouldn't try anything. At one point the fighters were clinching along the ropes and nearly fell out of the ring.
Trafton, who mocked Shires by calling himself "The Super Great," would eventually play on the 1932 championship Bears team, and would be elected to the Football Hall of Fame in 1964. He wasn't much of a fighter, though. Four months after fighting, Shires would be stopped in one round by Primo Carnera and would never box again. But on this night, leaden legs and all, he bested Shires via five-round decision.
"Beating Shires was easier than getting kicked around on the football field," Trafton said years later, although reports of the time didn't depict Trafton as especially glorious in victory. AP reporter Charles Dunkley described the final round: "Trafton was too weary to fight, walking around the ring glancing over his shoulder at Shires, with Shires apparently unaware that a good wallop on the chin or a punch to the midsection might have knocked Trafton sprawling and out."
Undeterred by the loss, Shires hoped for a bout with rowdy Cubs outfielder Hack Wilson. Unfortunately, commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis ruled against baseball players doubling as prizefighters during the offseason. "The two activities do not mix," Landis said. That was bad news for Shires, as he had already earned more money boxing than he had made playing first base for all of 1929.
Ruined by injuries, Shires finished his baseball career with the Boston Braves in 1932.
Even a headline hunter like Canseco, would be impressed by Shires' extra-curricular activities. Along with his boxing exploits (his final record was 5-2 with five knockouts), Shires organized barnstorming tours with a semipro basketball team, worked in vaudeville, sold insurance, moonlighted as a bouncer, managed a minor league ball club, lost a small fortune in real estate and endured a very ugly and publicized divorce.
Shires rode out the Depression era as a professional wrestler in the Southwest. An automobile accident in 1937 left him with a damaged back, but he continued working as a grappler and referee. Fifty pounds overweight and hobbling on old baseball knees, Shires boasted that wrestling needed him the way baseball needed Ruth. Besides, he added, it paid better than piloting a minor league team.
Shires wasn't quite done butting heads with the law, though, and his famous temper got him in trouble one more time. In 1948, William "Hi" Erwin, a former player for the Columbus Red Birds, died weeks after Shires beat him and kicked him during an argument. Shires was arrested and charged with murder. After a lengthy trial, Shires was cleared of the charges, escaping with a $25 fine for aggravated assault.
The murder trial might have humbled Arthur the Great, for he wasn't heard from again until his death on July 13, 1967.
"I'm just an accident that saves you people in a dull season," Shires told the press after the bout with Trafton. "I came along at just the right time for you. During the last year there hasn't been much to write about -- the inauguration of a president, the Graf Zeppelin, the stock market crash, a few catastrophes here and there, but there wasn't much doing at all until I showed up."
Canseco, whose tell-all books about steroid use in baseball didn't generate enough royalties to keep him from seedy publicity stunts like this one, wasn't so loquacious after being hammered by Sikahema.
The New York Daily News reported on Canseco's loss: "As he [Canseco] climbed out of the ring, his face sweaty and red, he was jeered with expletives and steroid taunts as he slumped toward the right field exit under the stands."
Drunken fans and steroid taunts were probably the last thing on his mind at that moment. He was probably thinking about his legal fees, which at last count were in the ballpark of $350,000.
Don Stradley is a regular contributor to The Ring.