One Eye & a Bag of Tricks That Was Philly’s “Gypsy” Joe Harris
By: Ken Hissner
In the 60’s the baddest gym in Philadelphia was the 23rd PAL on Colombia Avenue. Such boxers as “Bad” Bennie Briscoe, “Cyclone” Hart, “Sugar” Hart, “Classy” Al Massey, Jimmy Young, “Boogaloo” Watts, “Smokin” Joe Frazier and the one-eyed “Gypsy” Joe Harris trained there.
“I came to the 23rd PAL from the 39th PAL and was one of the few boxers. The others there liked to go to war. One day in order to see whowas the baddest guy in the gym insteps none other than “Bad” Bennie Briscoe and “Gypsy” Joe Harris into the ring. There was no referee or trainers involved. It was only for about a one when police officer Duke Dugent who ran the gym with an iron hand jumped in the ring pulling the two of them apart! Duke yelled at the two and said NEVER AGAIN! You’ve heard of Philly Gym Wars?
This was best of the best,” said Al Massey.
Briscoe was the AAU 147 champion and had a jab coming up from the floor like a sledge hammer always coming forward. Harris on the other hand was as slippery as you could get using angles (due to the eye) with arms wrapped around himself and weaving around hard to hit.
“He don’t make plans because he don’t know what he going to do until he do it,” said Willie Reddish (trainer). Born in Camden, NJ, word is Harris was “bag snatching” on Halloween and got hit in the right eye with a brick! He was a jokester so when he took eye exams he joked and got by them.
I was there the night Harris was fighting “Irish” Bobby Cassidy, a southpaw, who was holding Harris with his right hand on Harris’ left shoulder and he still couldn’t hit him! He had a bald head and could slip punch after punch.
Harris’ biggest win was over then welterweight champion Curtis Cokes in a non-title fight at Madison Square Garden in New York City. He would be asked afterwards “where’s the party?” He replied “ain’t no party here man, I’m from Philly!”
Today Cokes would have been stripped of his title for he was “nowhere to be found” when Harris showed up in Dallas for the rematch this time for the title! There was no ring in the hotel lobby and Cokes was “out fishing” per the local newspaper with picture in a row boat! Harris would move up to middleweight never to get close to a title fight again.
Harris turned professional in November of 1964 in Worcester, MASS, stopping Fred Walker in 3 rounds. In 1965 he went 9-0. In 1966 he defeated C.L. Lewis over 6 rounds in a bout filled with bad blood between the two of them. In May of 1966 he took on fellow Philly fighter Johnny Knight, 14-4-1 improving to 13-0 with the last 12 fights all in Philadelphia.
In October of 1966 Harris took on fellow Philadelphian Stanley “Kitten” Hayward, 22-2-1, stopping him in 6 rounds though coming off the floor in the third round. Next up was Cuban Jose Stable, 27-8-2, defeating Sidney “Sweet Pea” Adams and C.L. Lewis in NY. Then he defeated Cokes, Philly’s Charley Scott and Hayward in NY before coming to Philly to defeat Dick Turner, 19-0-1. In 1965 he lost in a title fight to Emile Griffith before returning to Philly losing to Percy Manning. He would lose to Harris in 1966.
Harris would go onto stop Knight in a rematch in 1967. Then he had the non-title win over Cokes weighing 151 improving to 18-0 at MSG before returning to Philly weighing 160 defeating Teddy Wright, 46-15-10.He would return to Dallas in the co-feature to Cokes defending against France’s Francois Pavilla. Harris posted a win but was at 158 ½ while 3 months later down to 152 in a war against Miguel Barreto, 15-1, winning a close one. Then coming off the canvas in the ninth to defeat Cassidy and win a rematch with Barreto. In February of 1968 he beat Dick DiVeronica, 38-8, just 6 months to his career ending fight against former world champion Emile Griffith, 55-9 in Philly.
Just before the Griffith fight Harris would marry a bar maid in Atlantic City and disappear showing up at the 23rd PAL Gym. “I only had a week to get him back in shape for Griffith,” said Duke Dugent (ran the gym). He was up to 160 losing to Griffith over 12 rounds. His offense was not there but his defense was. His 24 bout win streak was stopped. This fight set an indoor attendance record in Philly.
Getting back into the ring with Manny Gonsalves was to be his comeback fight when it was finally discovered at the examination he had no sight in an eye. The charade and career for Harris was over. It was blamed on a gym war with C.L. Lewis who thumbed him and Harris hit him in return in the “family jewels!” With a blood filled eye it brought the attention of the physician.
This writer made an attempt to get Harris to either Puerto Rico or Canada where he would possibly be able to fight. I was with him at the 23rd PAL with Dugent and we went to his family doctor to get the records to prove he had been blind fighting for some time but the doctor was not there. I never saw Harris again and he never fought again! Harris was one of the most “colorful” boxers out of Philadelphia in their history! He was only 22 and lived another 22 years before dying from a heart ailment at age 44! He is still talked about in Philly gyms this day.