“All he wanted to do was fight, fight, fight.” Paul Gallico
He tore out of the Great American Desert to make a mockery of the carefree Jazz Age, trailing behind him the dark shadow of the lawless frontier, snarling, heeling, butting, permanent stubble underpinning his perpetual scowl. From the High Plains he scratched his way to riches in Los Angeles before winding up, incongruously, under the whirling lights of Surf Avenue in Brooklyn, New York, where he ignored the carousels on his way to doing what he loved doing best: raising cain. To hell with kewpie dolls, red hots, and armadillo baskets; the roughneck who once said, “It gives me a thrill to see a man bleeding and his flesh sliced like the top of a baked ham,” was here to kick up a ruckus. It was a warm night, June, 1926, and the careening Thunderbolt roller coaster on nearby Bowery Street was a fitting backdrop to what would soon occur. In less than fifteen minutes he left his exact opposite–a quiet teenager named Ruby who had soulful eyes and doted on his mother–draped helplessly over the bottom strand of the ring ropes.
His name was Ace Hudkins. They called him “The Nebraska Wildcat,” and this is the story of how he introduced himself to New York City in 1926. He did it the only way he knew how: with a snarl and a sock on the jaw.
Hudkins, so cool he was actually christened “Ace,” was the scourge of lightweights, welterweights, and middleweights for most of the 1920s. Born in Valparaiso, Nebraska, in 1905, Hudkins probably began fighting as a newspaper boy in 1917 or 1918. His first recorded professional bout took place in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1922, when he was only sixteen. Over the next two and a half years, Hudkins razed his way through murky clubs and auditoriums across Nebraska, scrapping under thunderheads of cigarette smoke in townships and hamlets like Tecumseh, Wahoo, and Harlan.
In late 1924 Hudkins left the hardpan behind and drifted into Los Angeles, where his no-holds-barred ferocity made him an overnight star in Hollywood. Not the kind with two yachts and a Mission Revival house, of course, but the kind that could draw thousands of screaming spectators to watch him maul his opponents in cold blood. Damon Runyon once described the Ace Hudkins experience succinctly. “When I watch him fight,” he wrote, “I visualize a vicious jungle cat clawing the guts out of a helpless antelope.”
Hudkins thrashed it out with West Coast headliners like Mushy Callahan, Spug Myers, and Joe Benjamin, sometimes losing, sometimes winning, sometimes settling for stalemates, but always ready to knock the Tinsel out of Tinseltown with a sneer. Nothing less could be expected from a man Paul Gallico described as, “tough, hard, mean, cantankerous, combative, foul, nasty, courageous, and filled at all times with bitter and flaming lust for battle.”
To say Hudkins was ornery was like saying Doc Holliday had a quick trigger-finger. “Ace lived up to my concept of what a prizefighter ought to be,” wrote Stan Windhorn. “He was dirty in the ring, a back-alley brawler out of the ring, and, to the best of my knowledge, Ace was never kind to anyone—not even his mother.” Hudkins was a walking, no, swaggering, firestorm who left charred ruins wherever he went. Indeed, during his heyday, Hudkins–who was the guest of honor at a minimum of three riots in his career–was suspended at one time or another in California, New York, Kansas, Illinois, Milwaukee, and even in his hometown of Nebraska for, incredibly, conduct “detrimental to the best interests of boxing.”
Years later, after he had retired, Hudkins stalked the City of Angels with a sawed-off shotgun looking for trouble. He got it, too, for the same reason a Marsh Hawk always gets its prey—it was just something he was born to do. In 1933 Hudkins was shot twice in a cafe brawl that left him so close to death that obituaries had already been written up by the press corps, ready for printing. But he survived out of sheer contrariness.
In 1926 Hudkins, on the prowl, brought his special brand of cussedness East and was immediately matched with an 18-year old wunderkind named Ruby Goldstein.
Reuven Goldstein was born on October 7, 1907, in the Lower East Side of New York City. Desperate poverty–the Jacob Riis kind–blighted his childhood. His father died a few months before he was born; his mother sewed and took in laundry; his grandfather worked inhuman hours at a sweat shop for a pittance. Not even the $3 a month public relief chipped in to help the Goldstein family could make ends meet. Goldstein dropped out of school when he was fourteen years old and, after ditching a job as an office boy, turned to amateur boxing full-time to help his family pay the bills.
Goldstein, sad-eyed and scrawny, showed remarkable ability and power at an early age. He was undefeated as an amateur and by the time he turned pro in 1924, underage at 17, Goldstein was already being compared to Benny Leonard. With smooth boxing skills and a right cross that doubled as a Howitzer, Goldstein won his first 23 bouts and became a hero to Jewish fans from Cherry Street to Pelham Parkway. “That was the Ruby Goldstein of 1925,” wrote Ted Carroll of The Ring, “a young fighter whose ability was almost unbelievable! Small wonder that Goldstein, during his brief heyday, was the greatest idol New York City ever had!” Just how popular was he? Dubbed “The Jewel of the Ghetto,” Goldstein was mobbed wherever he went, and his fights were nearly always sold out. Today it is nearly impossible to imagine, but Ruby Goldstein once drew over 40,000 fans to watch him slug it out with neighborhood rival Sid Terris at the Polo Grounds in 1927. It was a six-round bout.
Goldstein was on his way to a title shot when his manager, Hymie Cantor, decided one last tune-up bout was necessary. Incredibly, he chose Ace Hudkins for the role of patsy. Choosing Ace Hudkins to be a fall guy is like putting Leopold and Loeb in charge of the entertainment at a party. It was the biggest mistake Hymie Cantor ever made.
On June 25, 1926, Ruby Goldstein and Ace Hudkins faced off at Coney Island Stadium. Since neither participant was 21, the bout, by New York law, was limited to six rounds. Still, it was one of hottest tickets in town. By 1920 the Seabeach Line had been extended to Surf Avenue and the New West End Terminal had been built, allowing the New York City Subway system to deliver masses of underclass revelers to Luna Park and Coney Island Beach for five cents. It was the Nickel Empire, and Ace Hudkins was ready to conquer it. Around 15,000 fans paid to see their hero, Ruby Goldstein, go up against a red-headed sourpuss the likes of which New York sports had never seen before.
Hudkins, a 6-1 underdog, entered the ring wearing a short jersey sweat-shirt with, believe it or not, a popped collar. He was seconded by his brothers Clyde and Art, and the crowd booed the trio unmercifully. Goldstein, described by nearly every contemporary account as “cherubic,” followed to a deafening roar of cheers, accompanied by Cantor and two future corner superstars: Ray Arcel and Whitey Bimstein. Referee Patsy Haley gave the final instructions, and the two men returned to their corners. The bright lights of the Wonder Wheel could be seen beyond the stadium walls.
Within seconds of the opening bell, Goldstein dropped Hudkins with a straight right that landed with an explosive thud. “I knocked Hudkins down with my first punch,” recalled Goldstein. “A feint…a stab as he moved into me…then a right hand on the chin. He was hit so hard he rolled over.” But Hudkins, however, was mean and tough. He rose with a snarl, charged into Goldstein with both hands whipping, and rode out the first three minutes of a sensational slugfest. In the second and third rounds, the two fighters traded shots without pause, Goldstein sharper and more accurate with his fluid moves, Hudkins clubbing and chasing furiously. Although Hudkins took many more blows than he landed, he was relentless. “No matter how well I hit him, “ Goldstein wrote in his autobiography, “he seemed to be getting stronger. Then, near the end of the round, he nailed me on the chin with a looping right hand. I was hurt. I began to fall. The bell rang. I lurched toward my corner as Hymie and Ray and Whitey swarmed through the ropes to catch me.”
Goldstein came out for the fourth like a man who had been stuck on the Human Roulette Wheel overnight. Hudkins, smelling blood, moved in for the kill. An overhand right dropped a wobbly Goldstein to his knees. He beat the count, but was floored moments later by a hard uppercut. Once more Goldstein rose, and Hudkins, flaming hair and lips bared in a sneer, charged, crashing home a left hook that sent Goldstein reeling into the ropes, where he lay suspended horizontally for a moment, like something out of the Funhouse, before ricocheting back into the ring and onto his hands and knees. When Patsy Haley tolled “10” over Goldstein, he counted out both “The Jewel of the Ghetto” and his future as the most promising lightweight to emerge since Benny Leonard.
Goldstein was hit so hard that he had little recall of what happened to him after the knockout blow was landed. “I do not remember leaving the ring, although I was told that it was some minutes after I had been counted out and that I sat in my corner crying…” he wrote. “Even the picture of the dressing room when I returned to it is not clear, except that I was still crying. I was not hurting from the punches, but the grief and disappointment were too much for me.”
Goldstein was not the only one suffering from grief. Jack Conway in The Evening Journal reported: “The tears that Ruby Goldstein shed after he had recovered consciousness and realized he had been knocked out by Ace Hudkins were only the beginning of a weeping Niagara that has flooded Broadway. Ruby wept because his pride was hurt; the others because their bankroll was flattened.” It was said that the notorious gangster Waxey Gordon, who had a piece of Goldstein, took the biggest hit of all: a loss of $45,000, roughly half a million simoleons today.
Goldstein, not yet 19, was finished as a fighter after being mangled by Hudkins. He was so psychologically damaged that he skipped town the day of his comeback fight and somehow wound up in San Francisco, on the run from shame and humiliation. He returned to New York and continued fighting. “I didn’t have the zest for boxing,“ he wrote, “but it was a living—a better living than I could have made any other way.” A few big purses still followed: a first round KO loss to Sid Terris that netted him a payday of $22,500, a fortune in the 1920s, and a brutal KO defeat against lethal Jimmy McLarnin, who floored him three times. Goldstein went through the motions until 1937, finishing with a record of 54-6. All of his losses were by knockout. After World War II, Goldstein went on to become one of the most famous referees in history, but here, too, he found himself devastated: Goldstein was the third man the night Benny “Kid’ Paret died at the hands of Emile Griffith in 1962. Goldstein came back after two years of guilt, refereed one more fight, and never stepped into the ring again.
Hudkins became a villainous smash in New York City, drawing huge gates in fights with Phil McGraw and Stanislaus Loayza before heading back West to wreak havoc in a friendlier climate. Ace Hudkins, you see, was despised in all five boroughs of The Big Apple. “There was no love or even warmth in Hudkins,” wrote Stanley Weston. “He disgusted the press and the fans came out hoping to see him slaughtered.” Hudkins fought on until 1932, twice challenging Mickey Walker unsuccessfully for the middleweight championship and even going so far as fighting at heavyweight. Despite beating King Levinsky and winning the California State heavyweight title, Hudkins lost his edge with each pound he gained and hung up his gloves at 27. He finished his career with a record of 67-17-12.
Hudkins was in and out of trouble with the law for years after he retired, until a near-death experience, provided via bullet, settled him down. He bought a stable and then made a living supplying horses for movie Westerns. Then, Ace Hudkins being Ace Hudkins, he became a Hollywood stuntman.
Although he failed to win a world title, Hudkins would never be forgotten by New Yorkers who saw this pitiless red-headed discontent come out of the dying frontier, like the Bad Man from Bodie, step into the urban dreamland of Coney Island, and knock the living daylights out of a nice Jewish boy named Ruby Goldstein.
This article originally appeared in The Queensberry Rules.