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Wednesday, August 23, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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EMMETT WATSON

In this corner, boxing buccaneer, fight freebooter George Chemeres

Seattle Times columnist

A story endures to this day that an old-time, crafty and probably amoral boxing manager stepped into a Catholic confessional. His mission was to absolve himself of sins by outlining his misdeeds.

A few minutes later the priest bolted out of the confessional and ran down the street, screaming for a police officer.

The story is probably exaggerated. Having known a few old fight managers myself and having read of many more, I know none of them who was ever convicted of armed robbery, aggravated assault, homicide or breaking and entering.

They were more subtle. They used their brains. Landlocked pirates, they ranked up there with such seagoing buccaneers as Blackbeard and Jean Lafitte.

The old-time fight manager is in the picaresque tradition. He lived on his wit and skill. One of them, Jimmy Johnston, explained, "I make my way by the sweat of my imagination."

These and other thoughts occurred to me yesterday, the 43rd anniversary of Seattle's only heavyweight-championship fight.

In 1957, Pete Rademacher, the Olympic heavyweight champion, met titleholder Floyd Patterson at Sicks' Stadium.

Across from me at lunch yesterday, was George Chemeres, who managed Rademacher in that fight. Chemeres, at 86, is one of the last survivors of boxing's historic, freebooting tradition.

Also present was journalist J. Michael Kenyon, a sage of the Northwest. Kenyon is a towering silo full of knowledge about sports. He is currently at work on a book-length history of boxing.

Chemeres invested some 72 of his 86 years in boxing. He studied under most of the great managers: Johnston, Jack Kearns, "Dumb" Dan Morgan, Joe Gould, Nate Druxman, Billy McCarney, Joe Jacobs and last, but by no means least, Seattle's gray fox of the Northwest, Jack Hurley.

It is Chemeres' opinion that no clash of intellects occurred between Kearns and Hurley. "That was because they couldn't con each other," he said. "They were both such great con artists themselves they couldn't fool each other."

Kearns, the manager of four champions, is a demigod to Chemeres.

Chemeres has visited Shelby, Mont., site of the Kearns-Jack Dempsey scam, in the same spirit that a lover of great art might visit the Sistine Chapel.

Shelby is where Kearns let his fighter, Dempsey, defend his heavyweight title against Tommy Gibbons for a $300,000 guarantee.

In applying the screws to Shelby, Kearns broke four Montana banks. He escaped town with two large bags of cash in a hired train caboose, leaving many liquored-up Montanans in a lynching mood.

The 1920s, when many such great acts of piracy occurred, has been called "the golden age of boxing." But as writer John Lardner has pointed out, it was also the low-tax age.

Fighters like Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Georges Capentier and Luis Angel Firpo became millionaires because they were able to keep what their managers extracted for them.

Most of the old fight managers were masters of sports propaganda.

This, of course, included Chemeres, who campaigned Seattle light-heavyweight Eddie Cotton in South America and Europe.

Arriving for a match in Glasgow one time, Chemeres held a news conference and demanded that three potential Scottish referees take eye exams from a reputable ophthalmologist. The British press erupted in outrage, and the resultant publicity got Cotton a packed house.

"That was me; I lived by the sweat of my imagination," Chemeres said.

Emmett Watson's column appears Wednesdays in the Local section of The Times.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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