By TRAVIS ROSTE
—Autograph March 2010
The average boxing collector is over 50 years old. After 17 years of searching the world for some of the most obscure heavyweight autographs, I feel like I’m 105. For the record, I’m a 40 year old collector from Hutchinson, Minn. Around 1992, I started collecting boxing autographs after realizing that a boxer from my hometown of Eagle Bend, Minn., population 500, fought for the heavyweight championship against Joe Louis in April of 1938. His name was Harry Thomas. He lost to Louis but won the Minnesota and Illinois heavyweight titles and died in 1971. I started researching Thomas’ career and I got hooked. It took two years and a lot of work but I amassed a superb collection of Thomas memorabilia, including a fine signed photo.
Next, I decided to collect the title opponents of Joe Louis. Combing the collector and dealer network netted me 21 out of the 22 autographs I needed to complete the Joe Louis challengers project. As I was waiting to find the 22nd autograph, that of Al McCoy, I was pondering what to collect next.
I decided that I would collect the autographs of every man to ever fight for the heavyweight title—the only collection of its kind. Not just the champions, but the contenders as well. Over 190 different men have fought for the heavyweight crown, starting with John L. Sullivan in 1892.
I was like an eager kid thinking that if I could dig a three foot hole in my backyard, I’d make China by suppertime.
Let’s Get Started…
I noticed Jim Stinson had many signed photos for sale from his Boxing Legends signing sessions. I didn’t have a lot of money, so springing for them all at once wasn’t in the cards. The photos averaged $20-$30 a piece, so I bought them in shifts. Over the course of two years, I’d completed the Boxing Legends set and my collection had definitely grown. But I still had a long way to go.
I kept in touch with dealers and collectors and discovered online auctions along the way. Years passed. I searched for the living boxers, whether they lived in a mansion or a shack.
I already had a nice cache of champions autographs, like James Jeffries, Joe Louis, Mike Tyson and the earliest known signature of Max Schmeling on a German postcard dated 1926. I also reeled in some very fine challenger’s autographs like Luis Firpo, Tom Gibbons and Gus Lesnevich. But some real challenges remained.
I started using a set of skills I call “going spider monkey.” Going spider monkey means going all out, hitting it hard and never giving up. Luckily, I had a mentor in Stephen Singer, a good friend and fellow boxing collector who has perfected this skill. He has an amazing autograph collection of Muhammad Ali, and Ali’s professional opponents. There are 50 of them, and Stephen has 49. Somewhere out there, Jim Robinson’s signature remains undiscovered, but not for lack of trying. I learned a lot from Stephen’s tenacity and never-say-die attitude.
The Hunt for Manuel Ramos
Manuel Ramos fought some of the top heavyweights of the day in the 1960s and ’70s. He was a fighter out of Mexico who had been the Mexican heavyweight champion. To this day he is recognized as being the best heavyweight that Mexico has produced. In 1968, Ramos’ skills were rewarded with a title shot at Joe Frazier’s heavyweight championship belt. Ramos put up a gallant effort, but succumbed in the second round by a technical knockout. He retired from boxing in 1977 and disappeared from public view, resuming a normal life in Mexico.
Ramos was one of the signatures that continued to elude me. I couldn’t find anyone who knew him well. If he had family, they were probably in Mexico, and I don’t speak Spanish. His hometown of Mexico City was the opposite of my hometown of Eagle Bend, comprised of teeming masses of nearly 20 million in the greater metropolitan area.
Research established with a reasonable degree of certainty that Manuel Ramos had died in 1999. There went my plan of finding him and asking him to sign something for me. My only hope now was to find something he had signed in the past. I went online and searched forever. I asked fellow collectors, dealers and boxing aficionados. No dice. I couldn’t travel to Mexico City—too far. My only hope was to network—find associates, organizations and other people who had been in close contact with Ramos.
World Boxing Council
I remembered that the World Boxing Council, one of the sanctioning bodies of boxing, is headquartered in Mexico City. I shot off an email to one of the officers of that organization, hoping they might help me find the signature. The WBC has a reputation for helping fans with any reasonable requests. To my astonishment, I got a fast reply from the WBC. They were glad to help me find the signature of El Pulgarcito—Ramos’ nickname among Mexican fight fans. I was ecstatic. I knew the WBC had many friends in Mexico City. Maybe they could help me bag Ramos’ elusive autograph.
The WBC email instructed me to hold tight and give them two weeks to find it. A couple of weeks passed and I gingerly emailed them and asked how it was going. I didn’t want to seem pushy. The WBC replied and told me that it was harder than they first estimated, but they were in contact with Ramos’ former managers, trainers and friends, and to give them some more time.
I let another week pass. Worried that they would forget about me, I emailed again. They had some good news. Through their contacts, they’d found a couple of men who had some information on Ramos and were coming to the WBC headquarters. The men were from a dangerous part of Mexico City. I imagined trench coats and fedoras and a dimly lit, smoky room. I was intrigued.
A few days later, I got an update. One of the men was Manuel Ramos’ brother, Jorge. He brought Manuel’s last work identification card, issued to him in the mid-1990s. It had a signature on it, but it seemed to be a facsimile signature of the original ID document that Ramos had signed. Even though I was delighted by this first glimpse at Ramos’ signature, I needed a genuine autograph.
The ID card was from the Armada de Mexico, the Mexican Navy, which they called the Marines, where Ramos had worked as an office manager. The WBC assured me they would talk to their contacts in the Marines and try to find a genuine Manuel Ramos signature for me. I couldn’t believe the lengths the WBC was going to in order to help me.
Again, I waited. They couldn’t find the signature. It was tough going. It was a week, then two. I got worried. They were searching personnel files in a warehouse the size of the one in Indiana Jones.
Finally I received an email with about two dozen exclamation marks. They found it! They found it! Somewhere deep in the Marine’s files, they found the resignation letter that Ramos had signed on May 24, 1995, just four years before he died at the age of 56. I was on cloud nine. I couldn’t believe it. A week later they sent me the autograph, free of charge.
I was, and still am amazed at the effort the WBC put into preserving boxing history and uncovering the autograph.
It is the only original autograph of Ramos’ I have ever seen. I posted it along with the facsimile signature and a photo of his cemetery headstone on my Web site, www.joeheavyweight.com. I’m still searching for the autographs of every man to ever fight for the heavyweight championship. And I still smile every time I think about my collection. It’s a sign that I’m still having fun.
Want to Join the Fun?
Most boxing collectors don’t start out in boxing—they may collect stamps or baseballs, but once they find boxing, that’s it. We call it the “boxing bug.” Boxing has some of the most interesting characters in sports, especially early boxing where a guy could go from being a bum in an alley to champion of the world if he could just land that one big punch. There have been drunks, womanizers, ne’er-do-wells, and some who were just plain crazy. Some boxers have died in the ring and a number of others have died in mysterious circumstances—murdered, shot, car accidents. They are notorious for blowing their winnings and returning to the streets, homeless.
The community of boxing collectors is great. Smaller than baseball collecting, it provides an opportunity to get to know your fellow collectors. We swap want lists and show each other signatures for help on authentication.
If you’re just starting to collect boxing autographs, I’d recommend buying from established dealers who specialize in boxing. I’ve put together a list of the dealers and Web sites I frequent (see sidebar), and I encourage you to get to know them—don’t be afraid to ask questions. The boxing collecting hobby also has a monthly newsletter: Boxing Collectors News. It’s been published for about 20 years by Don Scott, one of the leading collectors of boxing memorabilia. You can check it out at www.boxingcollectors.com.
What to Collect
Signed memorabilia in boxing is limited only by your imagination. The most desirable signed photo used to be the 8×10, but that’s getting replaced these days with the 16×20 you’ll find at most signing sessions. At signing sessions, the athletes almost exclusively autograph non-personalized photos, since that is what is most popular among boxing collectors today. But you’ll find personalized photos from the older champions before mass signings came into play.
For older and more expensive boxing autographs, a lot of collectors resort to cuts—they’re more available and affordable. Some collectors go for signed gloves, and to a lesser extent, signed boxing trunks and robes. Signed shoes, speed bags, headgear and ring posts are available, although less popular. And as with all sports, there are signed programs, posters, magazine covers, tickets and more.
Pricing and Availability
All former heavyweight champion autographs are available in quantity, with the exception of Marvin Hart. Hart held the championship from 1905-06, but was not a popular champion and signed few autographs. A simple signed piece of paper from Hart sells for $8,000-$15,000. It’s on every serious boxing collector’s want list, but is often outside a collector’s budget. That’s why, among those of us bitten by the boxing bug, a champion collection is considered complete, even without Hart’s autograph.
The boxers from the 1890-1930 era are usually more expensive than the next group: the 1940s to 1960s. Autographs from the 1970s and ’80s are more plentiful and prices are generally lower. Boxing is baseball’s little cousin, and prices are significantly lower. For example, a signed cut by Jim Corbett, boxing’s second heavyweight champion in 1892, can be had for $150-$350. If Corbett were a baseball players of similar stature, you’d pay ten times that amount. That’s one of the allures of collecting boxing autographs—you can get an older champion’s autograph without breaking the bank.
A simple autograph from the first modern heavyweight, John L. Sullivan, goes for $1,300-$1,800, while the third heavyweight champion, Robert Fitzsimmon’s autograph, sells for $1,200-$1,600. Corbett’s is significantly lower because he liked to pen a lot of letters to friends, making his signature far more available.
As with all sports, you’ve got to watch out for forgeries. But in boxing, the main problem is with Muhammad Ali. I’ve heard that as many as 50 percent of boxing collectors collect Ali exclusively. He’s that popular. You should also be careful when buying Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis and Sonny Liston. These athletes are forged more often because authentic signatures are not as readily available. Popular champions who lived to a ripe old age, like Jack Dempsey, Max Schmeling and Floyd Patterson signed hundreds of thousands of items, making their autographs very affordable.
Ali is the exception. No matter how many he signs, his signature will never meet demand. I’ve heard estimates that 75 to 80 percent of the Ali autographs on the market are of questionable authenticity.
Define Your Target!
Boxing doesn’t lend itself to sets as readily as other sports. In baseball, you can collect a single team, or Hall of Famers, or players who have pitched a perfect game. Most boxing collectors collect the fighters they like. I’ve known people who collect everything they can find signed by Sugar Ray Robinson or Jake LaMotta, whether it’s a photo, program, ticket, press pass or whatever. Don Scott, who writes the boxing newsletter, is working on a set of all the programs for the Joe Louis Championship fights—all 27. He’s got 26 and is unsure whether the 27th, for the 1941 Joe Louis vs. Gus Dorazio bout in Philadelphia was even printed. No one has ever seen a copy of it.
Still At It!
So, no matter what or who you decide to collect, boxing offers a rich history, an amazing cast of characters and a friendly community of fellow collectors. By the way, after 15 years, I recently nailed down Al McCoy’s autograph to finish the challengers of Joe Louis subset of my collection. A 15 year overnight success story!
These dealers and Web sites offer a great introduction to boxing. They are well-respected in the field and many are experts in the history of boxing. All of these sites have autographs I personally wouldn’t hesitate to buy—I haven’t seen any bad ones from these guys. But as in any field of collecting, follow guidelines for safe buying: Make sure that the dealer offers a lifetime money-back guarantee, review their return policy, use a credit card and don’t hesitate to get independent, third-party authentication.
JO Sports Inc: Craig Hamilton
Antiquities of the Prize Ring: Harry Shaffer
Fight Toys: Mark Ogren
Pugilistica Boxing Memorabilia: Dave Bergin
Heavyweight Collectibles: Lou Manfra
Fistiana Boxing Memorabilia: Chris Tarr