NO EXIT: The Short Life & Strange Career of Eddie Machen


Perhaps he crossed the path of a black cat once too often, or was given to recklessly overturning saltshakers. Whatever he did, Eddie Machen, a top heavyweight in the late fifties and early sixties, was the personification of bad luck in a business–prizefighting–where bad luck is an accepted occupational hazard. A naturally gifted boxer, Machen had a habit of bringing more than just his gloves into the ring; he also dragged with him the kind of bad juju common to characters in a Cornell Woolrich novel or a particularly bleak film noir.

Eddie Machen was born in Redding, California on July 15, 1932. During the midst of the Depression, Redding was an anomaly: a Boom Town–or at least as close as you could get to one in those lean days. The construction of the Shasta Dam, which began in 1936, nearly doubled the population of Redding, and brought in its wake a blue collar workforce as well as the rough and tumble atmosphere typical of hard laborers during lean times. Eddie Machen was one of 6 children. His father was a mail carrier and his mother was a housewife.  Somehow lower middle-class prosperity did not appeal to Machen; he soon dropped out of high school to pursue other interests: among them boxing and its ugly stepsister, trouble. His amateur career lasted all of three fights before he was arrested for armed robbery in 1952. Machen spent three years in prison. “I went in as a kid,” he told The Saturday Evening Post. “I came out grown up, determined never to be jailed again.”  

After being released from prison in 1955, Machen fought ten times for Lee Hughes before hooking up with San Francisco fight manager Syd Flaherty (who by then had “Bobo” Olson under his wing) and setting off on one of the most perplexing heavyweight careers in boxing history.

With power in both hands but a strange reluctance to use it, Machen employed his superb defensive skills to fluster opponents and spectators alike. “Cautious Eddie,” as he was known, defeated several tough customers on the way to a 24-0 record, including Nino Valdes, Johnny Summerlin, Howard King, Bob Baker, John Holman, Tommy “Hurricane” Jackson, and weathered ex-light heavyweight champion Joey Maxim. Poor Valdes needed smelling salts after Machen was through with him, and Jackson took such a beating that he was never the same again.  After little more than a year as pro, Machen was already a top contender generating significant buzz.

In April 1958, Machen struggled to a draw with skittish jab artist and top contender Zora Folley. This fight, dull enough to ward off fans for the rematch two years later, was an early sign that for all of his natural talent, something in Machen was missing. But it was his disaster against Ingemar Johansson in September, 1958 that seemed to define the rest of his up-and-down career. A crowd of over 55,000 watched as Johansson dropped Machen three times in the opening round to score an effortless stoppage. The right hand that initially capsized Machen was uncorked with such quickness as to seem nearly invisible. But its force was undeniable. “Later,” Machen told The Los Angeles Times, “I studied the films, looking for my mistakes. I ran it time after time, but it was just a case of getting nailed right on the chin.” The second knockdown was just as heavy as the first, and Machen rose like a man with vertigo. With less than a minute to go in the round, Machen was battered to the canvas and out onto the ring apron in his own corner, where his seconds rushed in to halt the slaughter. In a surreal image, and one that is a stark reminder of the clinical brutality of boxing, referee Andrew Smyth continued the 10-count while Machen was being frantically attended to by his cornermen.

Before his loss to Johansson, Machen was unquestionably avoided by reigning champion Floyd Patterson. As Arthur Daley put it, “In 1958, the super-cautious Cus D’Amato, the proprietor of Patterson, kept ducking Machen just as he ducked most of the top heavyweights, charging they were all under the sinister control of the forces of evil.” While D’Amato seethed against the wickedness of man from rickety soapboxes, the heavyweight championship went through the ignominy of having Pete Rademacher and Tom McNeely contest it in spectacles closer to pratfall conventions than prizefights. In his never-ending jihad against unholy forces in boxing, D’Amato frothed over Sid Flaherty, who, like 98.5% of fight managers, maintained a working relationship with Jim Norris and the IBC. This flaw, one that brings to mind the poor crones in medieval Europe accused of witchcraft due to an unsightly mole or an affinity for cats, was enough to demonize Machen. Behind all of his righteous bluster, D’Amato was merely trying to protect his fragile champion, whose chin made tin resemble titanium. In eleven Patterson title fights from 1956 to 1963, over 40 knockdowns were scored, with Patterson suffering 15 of them. Years later, Patterson, the most dignified of fighters, was embarrassed at being protected, and when the world demanded that he face Sonny Liston, Patterson insisted that the fight be made. Public demand, unfortunately, never reached those heights for Machen.

(In 1964 Machen finally got to meet Patterson, but by then both fighters had seen better days. Machen lost a tepid 12-round decision to the former two-time champion in Sweden.)

After seven easy comeback wins, Machen seemingly put the Johansson catastrophe behind him and signed to face Zora Folley again on January 18, 1960 in San Francisco. He was outboxed by Folley in their dreary rematch, and as if  to underscore just how hard hard luck can be, the fight was a financial bloodbath for Machen as well. In the end, Machen, who was to pay Folley $15,000 out of his own purse, wound up $270 in the hole that night, and did even further damage to his reputation with an uninspired performance. “Referee Vern Bybee,” reported The New York Times, “proved to be the busiest man in the ring last night…”

On September 7, 1960, Machen got another shot at the big time when he faced Sonny Liston in a nationally televised bout from Seattle. Machen looked dreadful dropping a 12-round decision against “Night Train,” then considered the uncrowned heavyweight champion of the world. “Machen simply would not fight,” wrote Harry Sanford. “Instead, he got on his bicycle and ran for twelve rounds, save when he would tackle, grab, hold, shove, and pull at Liston, who stalked him all the while, trying to land the big punch, a punch that did not come.” After the fight Machen revealed that he had injured his right arm sparring against Willy Besmanoff and that he fought Liston at a serious disadvantage. Like most fighters who enter the ring injured, Machen needed the money. “With two hands I can take him,” he said ruefully. Once again, “Cautious Eddie” had come up short in an important bout.

Less than a year after the Liston fight, Machen was outpointed by crafty NBA light heavyweight champion Harold Johnson in Atlantic City. From then on Machen became more inconsistent.  Once in a while he would still spring an upset (as in his impressive  decision over undefeated Doug Jones) or post a solid win (his destructive knockout of Mike De John), but he was fighting less frequently, and soon money would become an increasing worry. “It got so bad I took a job as a bouncer in a night club,” Machen told the Saturday Evening Post.  “The Number One challenger shouldn’t have to hold down a job. That’s for when you’re on the way up. And it’s just asking for trouble–all those guys with a few belts in them thinking you don’t look so tough.” He seemed uninspired fighting to a stalemate with Cleveland Williams in July 1962, and once again drew criticism for his performance.  Despite his spotty results, however, Machen was named number one contender the following October. But he would never get a chance at the title. In fact, it would be over a year before Machen fought again.

Over the years Machen struggled variously with the ups-and-downs of prizefighting, as well as with marital difficulties, alcohol, lawsuits, and depression.  Soon he began to give beneath the strain.  On December 12, 1962, Machen was discovered sitting in his car on the shoulder of the Cummings Skyway by a police officer. The despondent fighter had a gun and a suicide note in the vehicle with him; presumably he intended to put both to use. Machen was arrested and taken to the psychiatric ward of Napa State Hospital. His wife told the Associated Press that Machen “had been disturbed over money matters and failure to get a fight. He was trying very hard to get a fight with anyone.  Fighting was his profession and he wanted to work at it. He was worried about family finances.”

Over the next few days Machen made headlines for his harrowing behavior in the psychiatric ward–twice attacking hospital staff and having to be restrained by tranquillizers and straitjackets. After a brawl with seven hospital attendants, Machen was declared “schizophrenic.” Machen spent the holidays at Napa State Hospital, and after showing improvement was transferred to a private clinic at the request of his family. Within a few weeks he was discharged.

Incredibly, and unlike his institutionalized contemporaries Johnny Bratton and Johnny Saxton, Machen returned to the ring on September 16 1963, less than a year after being committed and scored a sixth round knockout over Ollie Wilson.  He did not, however, return to the ring with what might be considered a rosy outlook. “What do I have to show,” he lamented, “for all my years as a ranking heavyweight? Nothing.”

Three more tune-ups followed the Wilson fight before his disappointing flop against Patterson in Sweden. At 32, with nine years of adversity behind him, Machen could have been forgiven for thinking that his chances at a world championship were gone, and with them his days as a top-flight heavyweight. But if the topsy-turvy world of prizefighting specializes in anything, it is Absurdity, with a capital “A.” When Muhammad Ali was stripped of the WBA portion of his heavyweight title for facing Sonny Liston in an immediate rematch, Machen was paired off against contender Ernie Terrell to fill the “vacancy.” After years of unsuccessfully toiling for a shot at the title, Machen suddenly found himself ironically being handed one for a fugazi belt no one would respect. Still, it was an opportunity for a paycheck and the possibility for bigger fights down the line. Unfortunately, “carpe diem” was not a concept Machen ever seemed to fully grasp. He underperformed on the big stage yet again, losing an eyesore of a decision to Terrell on March 5, 1965, in Chicago.  “It was difficult for the spectators to stay awake,” wrote Lew Eskin.

By now it was clear that Machen would never live up to his potential. It was also clear that strange things would never stop happening to Eddie Machen. After the debacle with Terrell, Machen went on to lose on points to Karl Mildenberger in Germany, in a match where Referee Gerhard Seewald was replaced in the 7th round for incompetence and, more likely, favoritism. The contest itself was described by The Chicago Tribune as “a slow, dull fight,” and Machen returned to America further dispirited.

As if fed up with by his own tedious fights, Machen soon turned in some exciting–if uneven–performances in Los Angeles, uncharacteristically brawling with Manuel Ramos, Joey Orbillo, and Scrapiron Johnson. His most notable fight–and most impressive victory–during this strange fit of temper was a bruising split decision nod over a 20 year-old steamroller named Jerry Quarry. But after being shredded by a young Joe Frazier in 10 rounds in November, 1966, a declining Machen became little more than a stepping stone, losing his last two fights to Henry Clark and undefeated Boone Kirkman. Machen announced his retirement after being stopped by Kirkman.  His final career record was 50-11-3.

After retiring from boxing, Machen, who had declared bankruptcy in 1966, worked as a bartender and a truck driver before settling as a longshoreman. He also began behaving erratically again.  In 1966 he was arrested for a drunken café brouhaha and once more in 1968 for a roadside brawl with a policeman who needed mace to subdue the former heavyweight contender. Financially unstable, newly divorced, bitter at his fortunes (or, better said, misfortunes) in the ring, without the fame prizefighting brought him, Machen found himself battling depression once more and turned to psychiatrists for help.

On August 8, 1972 Machen was found dead, in his pajamas, after falling from his window in the Mission District of San Francisco. Whatever hex he suffered from persisted until his last moments: Machen lived on the second floor, and where most might suffer broken limbs, fractures or concussions from a two-story drop, the former number one heavyweight contender died from a ruptured liver. There has always been mystery surrounding the actual circumstances of his death–was it suicide or an accident? His girlfriend at the time, Sherry Tomasini, told officials that the troubled ex-boxer was prone to sleepwalking. Machen suffered from insomnia, a common byproduct of depression, and often took pills to help him sleep.

It is hard to imagine anyone thinking a fall from a second-story window would prove fatal; perhaps Machen was performing some sort of subconscious wish fulfillment when he stepped into oblivion that night. Perhaps he felt he had nowhere to go. “I was a fighter for almost 13 years,” he once said. “It was hard for me to walk into something else after all that time.”  Machen was 40 years old when he died.

This article first appeared, in a different version, in Boxing Digest Magazine.

Tags: Boxing BOXING HISTORY Eddie Machen Ernie Terrell Floyd Patterson HEAVYWEIGHTS Jerry Quarry Muhammad Ali Oaklan Redding Sonny Liston Suicides

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