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Collector's Films of Boxing's Glory Days Still Pack a Punch

January 16, 1986|BOB MUIR | Times Staff Writer

Remember Bob Fitzsimmons' "solar plexus" punch that sent James J. Corbett to the canvas in their 1897 bare-fisted heavyweight title bout? What about Jack Dempsey pummeling heavyweight champion Jess Willard in 1919 for the title?

Recall Joe Louis in his prime? What about the sleek Sugar Ray Robinson?

Nick Beck, a Cal State Los Angeles journalism instructor, certainly remembers.

Beck can weave tales about the greatest bouts as if he saw them yesterday because, chances are, he did. Beck owns one of the most extensive boxing film collections in the world.

40 Years of Collecting

Shelved in boxes in a crowded closet in Beck's Benedict Canyon home in Sherman Oaks are thousands of fights preserved on 8- and 16-millimeter film reels and videocassettes--products of more than 40 years of collecting and a schoolyard friendship.

Boxing has intrigued Beck since he mail-ordered his first 2-minute, 8-millimeter highlight film of the first Joe Louis-Billy Conn fight and viewed it on a small hand-cranked projector when he was 12.

"I was fascinated by it and wanted to get other fight films," said Beck. "There were other companies that offered mail-order fight films, and I got interested and got them all."

Since that first acquisition, Beck and boxing have enjoyed a close relationship.

As a sportswriter for United Press International, Beck has seen and written about thousands of matches, including fights in three Olympic Games (Rome in 1960, Tokyo in 1964 and Mexico City in 1968).

Beck has even stepped into the ring. As a 140-pound welterweight in 1955, Beck finished with a 4-1 amateur record.

"I figured most people who wrote about baseball and basketball had played (those sports). But few people who wrote about boxing ever went into the ring," said Beck about his short amateur career.

Beck's boxing film and memorabilia collection is a boxing enthusiast's dream, his house a boxing memorial.

He has more than 100 books on boxing, along with dozens of photographs. Pictures of a young Jack Johnson and Billy Conn hang in his kitchen and a signed photograph of a 17-year-old Jack Dempsey is in his living room. Boxing gloves worn by Sugar Ray Robinson and signed on the thumbs are displayed in a hallway. Posters and old tickets clutter drawers.

Obsessive Collector

"You name it, I've got it," said the 53-year-old Beck, who is also an avid collector of novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and other authors. Thousand of books are stacked in nearly every room in his house. He also collects Charlie Chaplin artifacts and movie memorabilia.

"It's an obsession," said Beck. "People, when they like things, have to possess them in some way. Obsessive collectors collect absolutely everything. It's impossible to throw anything away."

While Beck compiled or filmed most of his 8-millimeter fight films himself, his 16-millimeter and videocassette collection was given to him by a boyhood friend, Jim Jacobs. Beck, who went to Hollywood High School, met Jacobs, who attended Los Angeles High, at the Hollywood YMCA. Soon, Beck's boxing enthusiasm spread to Jacobs.

"When I was a kid in high school, you could go to the fights five nights a week," said Beck, remembering when he and Jacobs used to watch amateur fights at the Olympic Auditorium, Hollywood Legion Stadium and the Ocean Park Arena in Venice. Today, only the Olympic remains as shrine to boxing in the Los Angeles area.

As time passed, Beck's interest in boxing films remained a hobby, while Jacobs parlayed his collection into a business. Today, Jacobs, who lives in New York, owns copyrights to about 95% of all fight films and has what is considered the largest collection of them in the world, Beck said.

Jacobs also manages fighters, including junior middleweight Wilfredo Benitez and young heavyweight hopeful Mike Tyson.

"It's probable . . . I have what would be called the second-best collection in the world. Because Jimmy and I were very close friends as children, he has given me a print of virtually every film he has," said Beck. "If he had anything that I'd like, he'd give it to me. But it's not something I've built or collected on my own. It's really his collection."

Most of the fun of having such a collection is showing it off.

"There's nothing better than showing fight films to an appreciative audience. There is this great fascination people have with boxing. Everybody comes up to me and tells me about the great fights they've seen."

Although Beck's is mainly a personal collection, he has been known to do an occasional fund raiser.

In 1982, Beck raised over $2,500 for Cal State Los Angeles' athletic budget with a 2 1/2-hour film show of boxing's greatest bouts. More than 500 people paid $5 each to see old ghosts like Corbett, Johnson and Dempsey fight again.

"I'm not in the business to show the films for a profit," Beck said. "After all, the films are Jimmy's. He owns the copyrights, so I can't take my films into a theater or auditorium and charge admission."

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