The Human Windmill: The Best Boxer You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

harry-grebIndefinably fearless and nearly unstoppable—this doesn’t come close to adequately describing the boxing phenomenon Harry Greb.

“The Pittsburgh Windmill” as he’s known among his most devout circle of fans, was born in June of 1894. Boxing historian Eric Jorgensen had this to say about Greb:

Greb may have been the greatest fighter, pound-for-pound, who ever lived. Certainly, he was among the top 2 or 3. He combined the speed of Ray Robinson, the durability of Jim Jeffries, the stamina of Henry Armstrong, and the unbridled ferocity of Stanley Ketchel with a will to win unsurpassed in the annals of sport. At his peak, he was unbeatable, defeating virtually every middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight of his generation. A great, great fighter.

He fought a record 299 times in 13 years. This is an especially amazing feat given that most contemporary boxers fight no more than 40-45 times throughout their careers. In addition, he won a record 261 times and lost only 20 matches, with his other fights either draws or no contests.

Furthermore, Greb became the World Middleweight Champion from 1923 to 1926, and the American Light Heavyweight Champion from 1922 to 1923. He defeated the likes of fellow boxing legends such as Al McCoy, Tiger Flowers, Battling Levinsky, Mickey Walker, Kid Norfolk, Jack Dillon, Jimmy Slattery, Maxie Rosenbloom, Tommy Gibbons, Tommy Loughran, and even went on to twice best heavyweight contender Bill Brennan.

Greb also holds the distinction of having become the only man in history to give Gene Tunney a brutal beating in their first fight at Madison Square Garden in 1923. If you’re not familiar, many boxing experts regard Gene Tunney as one of the greatest heavyweight champions of all time, with an incredible record of 65 wins, and 1 loss–to Harry Greb. Gene Tunney himself admitted that the “Pittsburgh Windmill” gave him a run for his money,

 He was never in one spot for more than half a second, all my punches were aimed and timed properly but they always wound up hitting empty air. He’d jump in and out, slamming me with a left and whirling me around with his right or the other way around. My arms were plastered with leather and although I jabbed, hooked and crossed, it was like fighting an octopus.

However Gene Tunney, having a significant weight and height advantage in his favor, would become Greb’s worst nightmare and he would ultimately win four of their legendary five-fight rivalry. In fact, after their last fight, reportedly Greb visited Tunney’s dressing room and jokingly said,

I never want to see or fight you again.

Harry Greb, nonetheless, never avoided anyone and always challenged himself to fight the best opponents possible; he gave everybody a shot, regardless of their weight division and race, showing a kind of open-mindedness that was uncommon in his era. For instance, in 1926, he became the first white middleweight champion to give a title shot to an African-American boxer when he fought Tiger Flowers.

Despite his ignoring an opponent’s size, he still won many times against men who outweighed him by 30, 40, and even 50 lbs. Rumor has it, that legendary heavyweight champion, Jack Dempsey, was scared to give Greb a title shot, though Dempsey did defend his heavyweight crown against several fighters whom Greb, a natural middleweight, had already beaten decisively.

Another hindrance for Harry, besides often fighting those bigger than him, was that he was thought by doctors to have sustained a detached retina in a fight with Kid Norfolk in 1921. After that, he had some eye trouble, but was not yet blind in that eye. In 1922, though, Greb’s fight with Bob Roper left him totally blind in his right eye.

Yet, despite that, Greb managed to become the middleweight champion of the world. He continued to fight against top contenders, all while half-blind, for more than five years. Even the loss of sight in his right eye failed to dishearten Greb, spoil his talent, or deter him from continuing to fight despite the risk to his remaining working eye. With that one good eye, Greb continued to beat his opponents with a snowstorm of punches until the very end of his career.

Unfortunately, on October 22, 1926, Harry Greb’s name would hit the headlines in the news for one last time, but not for his boxing labors,

Atlantic City, N.J. Oct 22.- Harry Greb, former middleweight champion, and the only man to beat Gene Tunney, present world’s heavyweight champion, died in a sanitarium here this afternoon, following a minor operation last night for the removal of a fractured bone from his nose, an injury received in an automobile accident at Pittsburgh two weeks ago.

Following the operation Greb fell into a state of coma from which he failed to rally, and death was attributed to heart failure superinduced by the shock of the operation combined with the injuries received in the accident. Attending physicians declared tonight that Greb came out of the anesthetic fairly well, but not entirely. Later his heart action became very weak, and he gradually sank, despite the fact that every restorative known to medical science was applied.

Only 32-years-old at the time, Greb’s early death cut short what is nonetheless one of the most impressive boxing careers in history.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Even to this day, the International Boxing Research Organization ranks Greb as the #1 middleweight and the #2 pound-for-pound fighter of all-time (behind Sugar Ray Robinson).
  • Greb was once stopped in his car by five robbers and by the time police arrived to the scene, they found blood all over the road—but not Harry’s. When the police called Greb to the station to identify one of the robbers, once Greb arrived and saw the robber’s wife and child crying, he dropped the charges and paid the robber’s bail.
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