Elijah P. “Smuggy” Hursey was only 21-years-old when he fought his last battle near the frozen Manchurian border in late November 1950. A few years earlier, boxing only a couple of miles from where the Korean War Veterans Memorial now stands to commemorate his sacrifice, Hursey drew some of the biggest crowds the city had ever seen.
Image courtesy of Bill Schutte
The powerfully built teenager and his wheelchair-bound trainer, Mel Stevenson, made an unmistakable pair at D.C. boxing events. The youngster used to push his chief second down the aisle on the way to the ring, and between rounds, Hursey would lean over the top rope, looking down below where Stevenson would give instructions.
With a torrid, all action bob-and-weave hooking style reminiscent of Henry Armstrong (who briefly trained and managed the boxer), Hursey captured the imagination of the D.C.’s boxing fans like no fighter before or since, scoring rousing victories in all-action scraps over Billy Arnold, Aaron Perry and Bee Bee Washington in the spring of 1947, followed by a 41-second destruction of previously steel-jawed Danny Kapilow in July. The string of wins brought the city’s fight fans to a fever pitch and earned Hursey an honorable mention in the National Boxing Association’s 160lb rankings.
Madison Square Garden expressed an interest in Hursey, while there was talk of meetings with some of the division’s established stars. Eventually he was matched with Tommy Bell in September, with Sugar Ray Robinson, who had been offered a sizable sum to fight Hursey, in attendance for the bout. It proved too-much, too-soon, as Hursey, too tough for his own good, was punished badly over 10 sessions by the veteran sharp shooter. Hursey returned to the ring several months later, though the spark was gone and a run of poor results followed, culminating in another loss to Bell, this time via tenth-round TKO and by January of 1949, Hursey was through as a prizefighter.
Reported missing in action, like thousands of other American soldiers, the Defense Department eventually declared the fighter dead in 1954. The following week after word had spread through the local boxing community, promoter Vince McMahon (father of the WWE impresario) arranged a memorial evening at Turner’s Arena, where a ceremonial ten count was tolled out for the fallen soldier.
Stevenson, who had trained Hursey since he was 12-years-old, shared a few memories of his pupil with the Washington Post…
Smuggy was a wonderful boy, very likeable, very nice and very quiet. Many a day, he pushed me in my wheelchair from my place near the Navy Yard to the Liberty A.C. gym on Ninth Street, NW. Rain or snow, it didn’t make any difference to Smuggy. He had a world of confidence, figured he could beat anybody.