1956: THE year of Suez, Jim Laker’s 19 wickets in a Test, Heartbreak Hotel, Devon Loch… and the year when a stumpy southpaw, Laszlo Papp, won a record third Olympic boxing gold medal.
The fact that Papp did that in Melbourne, less than a month after thousands of his fellow Hungarians had died in a crazy, futile attempt to free themselves from the shackles of the Soviet machine, makes it even more remarkable.
Papp’s amateur and professional career will forever be intertwined with what happened to Hungary in those strange days when the Cold War was at its height.
His gold medals, in London in 1948, in Helsinki in 1952 and then in Melbourne, were followed by an unlikely professional career that did not begin until he was 31.
Then in seven years he was unbeaten in 29 fights, won the European middleweight title and defended it six times, before at the age of 38 and on the brink of boxing Joey Giardello for the world championship, Papp had his passport pulled by an increasingly uneasy Hungarian government.
His death in 2003, after several years of suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, not only closed an era – it should remind us of how sport and politics, sometimes, cannot help but be intertwined.
Papp was invincible as an amateur, with his awkward, hard-punching style.
From childhood he lost only about a dozen of 300-odd contests. In London in 1948, he won the Olympic middleweight gold medal by outpointing Britain’s Johnny Wright in the final. He was European champion at Oslo in 1949 and in Milan two years later.
In the 1952 Olympics and now down at the new light-middleweight poundage, the first of his five victims was America’s Ellsworth “Spider” Webb, who years later was unlucky not to beat Gene Fullmer in a WBA title fight. (I know – I have the full tape.)
In 1956 the modest railway clerk from Budapest, who liked nothing better than to get away from the city to spend a day fishing in the Danube, completed his eight-year domination of the top amateur light-middles and middleweights when he beat in the Melbourne final, Jose Torres, later the world light-heavyweight champion.
Again, that was at light-middle.
Yet even though Papp’s victory was on the other side of the world, the significance of it was obvious to the people of Europe.
Only a month before the Hungarian people had demanded freedom from Moscow, had in their desperate enthusiasm attacked occupying tanks with nothing more than their Hungarian flags and their bare hands.
Three thousand of them died in the first three days of the uprising, but for a week or so it seemed they had been successful.
The leader of the Hungarian dissidents, a Roman Catholic cardinal named Mindszenty, returned to Budapest and celebrated Mass. “At last there is freedom of speech in Hungary and everyone can express their opinion,” he told the crowds.
On November 5, 1956 the Red Army crushed the revolution in a single morning with a grotesque display of military force.
One thousand tanks rolled into the capital, backed up by air assaults, artillery and infantry.
The last words from Radio Budapest were: “Help Hungary… help.”
A news reporter wired his story in between firing at Russians from his window.
“What is United Nations doing?” he asked. The grim answer to that was they were tabling a motion of protest.
For some, the Hungarian effort at Melbourne paled into insignificance. By then thousands of ordinary people were risking their lives by crossing the mined border area into Austria.
Some were blown to bits. The track athletes did not go to Melbourne.
Papp made a different point, though no doubt he would have enjoyed it better if he had been drawn against the Soviet representative.
Perhaps it’s as well he was not. The water polo semi-final between Hungary and the USSR was an ugly spectacle.
Surprisingly, Papp returned from Australia stating his intention to turn professional and the new government did not appear to try to stop him.
Maybe they had other things on their minds. He held a press conference and said his age was not an issue.
“If a boxer lives a sportsmanlike life and trains regularly he can be swifter, more durable and tougher even at 35 than a young person who does not think and live as a sportsman should. Naturally, I face a tremendous task. I realise the life of a professional fighter is a tough one. I shall have to learn to go 10 and 15 rounds.”
He worked with his trainer, Zsigmund Adler, on adapting and set to training six days a week, three of which he spent in the hills outside Budapest.
The debut proved difficult to arrange, but eventually he had three fights in Germany in a six-week spell in May and June 1957, before a promotional contract was terminated.
He didn’t box again for 16 months, then concentrated his career on Vienna and Paris, while still living in Hungary.
Progress was slow. He had a tendency to be too cautious, as if worrying about the distance: there were 10-round draws with Germinal Ballarin in Paris in April 1959 and with Giancarlo Garbelli in Milan in December 1960.
However, in March 1962 he put an American “name” on his record – the veteran Ralph “Tiger” Jones, whom he outscored over 10 rounds in Vienna.
Two months later he won the European title before a 17,000 crowd in the Austrian capital, stopping Denmark’s Christian Christensen on cuts after seven rounds.
Papp was in control almost all of the way and put Christensen on the floor in the seventh.
His first defence was against the British champion from Leicestershire, George Aldridge, in Vienna in February 1963.
Aldridge fought with enormous courage to keep it close for 10 rounds, but took a standing eight count in the 11th, only just survived the 14th and was floored and stopped with 36 seconds left in the 15th.
For the first time, Papp’s connections began talking world titles – and at the end of his career almost two years later, they were still talking.
Meanwhile, the 5ft 5 1/2in Hungarian stopped the outclassed Peter Mueller in four in Dortmund for European defence No. 2, floored and outpointed the popular American Randy Sandy over 10 and travelled to Madrid to outclass Luis Folledo, a part-time bullfighter who talked a great fight.
Papp’s one-sided eight-round win was witnessed by the Real Madrid superstars Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas, who has been a legend since the Hungarians shattered the myth of English soccer supremacy at Wembley in 1953. Puskas congratulated Papp in the ring.
As the world title passed from Dick Tiger to Joey Giardello, talk continued of Papp getting the next shot… and remained just talk.
In a non-title 10-rounder in Vienna he outpointed Harry Scott of Bootle, stopped old foe Christensen in four of a rematch with the European title at stake and then in Vienna in October 1964, well past his 38th birthday, outpointed Coventry-based Irishman Mick Leahy over 15 rounds.
Papp had announced his world title plans, after which, he said, he would retire and coach the Hungarian Olympic boxing squad.
The Hungarian government, however, were nervous about the project. They had grown accustomed to Papp as European champion – but for whatever reason decided the world championship was not a good idea.
Maybe they felt he would lose, maybe they didn’t want him to win. Who can guess how the minds of these anonymous bureaucrats worked? Whatever the reason, Papp’s permit to travel was withdrawn and his career over.
Information out of the Soviet bloc countries was not easy to decipher in the 1960s and 1970s, but Papp seems to have simply stayed in Budapest and lived fairly comfortably.
By the 1980s he was, as he had always planned, coaching the Hungarian national amateur team and was involved in a string of successes.
There is unlikely to be another boxer like him: in an amateur and professional career at world level that spanned 16 years, virtually nobody beat him. He should never be forgotten.
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