LAS VEGAS — Jimmy Jacobs was talking the other day about old films of major boxing matches, a subject he knows more than a little about, since he owns all the films.
Well, almost all of them.
Jacobs, co-manager of 20-year-old heavyweight sensation Mike Tyson, began seriously collecting boxing films in 1952 and has amassed a collection so huge that he lost count a decade or so ago. If you wanted to watch all of Jacobs' boxing films, you'd be finishing up just about the time Mike Tyson was starting to lose his hair.
Jacobs made a hopeless gesture when a reporter asked him how many films he owns. He pointed at the carpet in his Las Vegas Hilton suite and said: "That would be like asking me how many carpet patterns like this exist in the world. You could say many thousands. I keep them in humidity-controlled vaults in a New Jersey warehouse."
Dempsey-Tunney, Willard-Johnson, Johnson-everybody, Robinson-LaMotta, Louis-Schmeling, Louis-everybody, Pep-Saddler, Marciano-Moore, Marciano-everybody, Corbett-Fitzsimmons . . . you name it, Jacobs has it.
Well, OK, so there's one missing.
"Edison invented the motion picture camera in 1894, and from 1894 to the present, only one great fighter is missing from my collection--Harry Greb," Jacobs said.
Jacobs, 56, has spent much of the last 30 years searching for a film of Greb, the 1920s middleweight champion from Pittsburgh, known primarily to sports trivia buffs as the only man ever to beat Gene Tunney. A brawler-slugger--his nicknames were the Pittsburgh Windmill and the Iron City Express--who fought more than 100 bouts after losing the sight of one eye, Greb remains one of boxing's elusive, mysterious figures. No film of any of his 294 fights in a career from 1913 to 1926 has ever been found, Jacobs said.
But somewhere, Jacobs is convinced, Greb lives on celluloid, in someone's attic, perhaps in an old musty trunk. Some day, Jacobs hopes, Greb will be seen again.
A film of Greb could be the crown jewel of Jacobs' collection. In his 1946 biography of Greb, "Give Him to the Angels," author James R. Fair presented numerous tales, the sum of which is the legend of Harry Greb:
--He enjoyed beating up policemen for fun.
--In 1922, Greb, at 162 1/2 pounds, broke Tunney's nose in the first 20 seconds. When it was over, Tunney, who had weighed in at 174 1/2, had to be carried to his dressing room, "his face a pulpy mess," according to Fair.
--Greb was once involved in a Pittsburgh auto accident and was hospitalized with major internal injuries and compound fractures. Sportswriters were dispatched to man a death watch. Obituaries were prepared.
The next morning, Greb escaped from the hospital and was on his way to Michigan to box a heavyweight, Chuck Wiggins, who outweighed him by 30 pounds. Greb went the distance to no decision. (In boxing's early years, many states, trying to discourage gambling, recognized only knockout wins.)
--When Greb was once suggested as a sparring partner for Jack Dempsey, the heavyweight champion responded: "No thanks. I want no traffic with that seven-year itch."
--Greb once broke his left forearm in a first-round accident during a bout with Ted (Kid) Graves. "His arm was so bent, his left jab really was a left hook," a handler told Fair years later. Greb was winning Round 2 when his corner men, horrified at the sight of Greb's arm, begged the referee to stop the bout.
Plainly, this is a guy you would want in your film collection. Greb died in 1926, at 32, during surgery to remove bone chips from his nose.
"I'm fairly certain films were made of at least three of his fights and I know for certain one was made of his 1922 Tunney fight in New York," Jacobs said.
That was the fight in which Greb beat Tunney badly in a 15-round decision. In subsequent bouts with Tunney, Greb lost two decisions and two fights went to no decisions.
"I have three frames of the first Greb-Tunney fight that I found attached to the copyright of the film in Washington, D.C.," Jacobs said.
"I've tried everything. I've run ads over the years in Australian and European newspapers, and checked with museums and archives in Australia and Europe. It's frustrating. Greb's the only great fighter I don't have.
"I've researched the thing completely. The guy who filmed the 1922 fight was George Dawson. I even know what hotel he stayed at the night before the fight. I've interviewed his heirs. None of them know anything about the film.
"The frustrating thing is that every other great fighter of Greb's era--Tommy Loughran, Benny Leonard, Paul Berlenbach--I not only have but I have extensively in my collection. But no Greb.
"You always have hope that a film will turn up. I'll keep looking."
Who knows, Harry Greb may walk in off the street some day.
"A couple of months ago, a truck driver carrying a brown paper bag walked into my office in New York and asked to see me," Jacobs said.