Gypsy Joe Harris, Boxer, Dead At 44

Posted: March 07, 1990

Gypsy Joe Harris, 44, the one-eyed fighter who went from a legend to a welfare recipient and spent his last days trying to scrape a living on the street, died yesterday.

Mr. Harris, the former welterweight contender who was born in Camden and reared in North Philadelphia, was admitted to Temple University Hospital on Feb. 10 for what doctors described as a "weak, flabby heart."

He died at 3:25 p.m., hospital officials said, and his sister, Daaiyah Waheed, attributed the death to heart failure.

He had suffered four heart attacks in the past two years, but friends said he tried to remain optimistic despite his health problems.

"I saw Gypsy Joe a few months ago," said Slim Jim Robinson, a former middleweight and light heavyweight who now trains local fighters. "He was always jolly, always joking. He could have been in the worst shape of his life, but he would always give you a smile. It's tremendously sad. Gypsy Joe is gone."

Mr. Harris, who was banned from boxing when the Pennsylvania State Athletic

Commission discovered that he was blind in his right eye, fought for the last time on Aug. 6, 1968, when he lost a decision to former champion Emile Griffith.

"I think Gypsy Joe Harris was about as good a natural fighter as I'd ever seen," said Gil Clancy, who trained Griffith. "I think Griffith was just a little too big, a little too strong, for him that night."

Mr. Harris built up a record of 24-1, his last bout representing the only loss of a brilliant career that ended before he got a chance to fight for the world title.

"Harris had the ability to be a champion," Clancy said. "It was just the luck of the draw."

Mr. Harris, one of four children whose father abandoned them during their youth, lost the use of his right eye during a street fight when he was 11 years old - a tragedy that would prove to be almost unbearably ironic, because it led to both his triumph and his downfall.

"He did things in the ring that had not been done before or since," local promoter J. Russell Peltz said. "Gypsy Joe was a magician, very tough to hit. He was a very big attraction in Philadelphia."

Mr. Harris, nicknamed "Gypsy" for his flashy style in and out of the ring, compensated for his handicap by developing a ring technique that Boxing Illustrated once described as "weird." He dipped, bent and twisted, moving constantly in order to keep his good eye on his opponent. Welterweight champion Curtis Cokes, who lost to Mr. Harris on March 31, 1967, in Madison Square Garden, referred to this peculiar but effective style as "acting the monkey."

"He fooled all of us," Robinson said. "I never knew he was blind in one eye. I sure didn't. Fans would just sit there and marvel at the things he did. It was amazing."

Then, on the morning of Oct. 11, 1968, Mr. Harris made a harsh discovery that he would never understand: The disability that carried him to the threshold of his dreams would be responsible for pushing him onto the street, where he struggled with poverty and despair.

It was on that morning, during a routine physical checkup, that Mr. Harris was determined to be blind in one eye; the medical report described the eye as a "blind, degenerative globe."

Mr. Harris, once termed "the menace of the welters" in a Sports Illustrated cover story, would discover that his disability was a greater handicap outside the ring.

He never fought again.

"His will be another one of those could-have-been stories," Peltz said. ''It's very sad. I remember going up to Madison Square Garden in '67 to watch Joe Frazier fight George Chuvalo. Gypsy Joe was there. He was wearing this gorgeous outfit with a mink bow tie. He was a showman, in and out of the ring. He was always enjoying himself."

In an interview last year, Mr. Harris said he resorted to drugs and liquor after his boxing license was taken away, sometimes staying in a drug-induced stupor for days. He entered a local hospital in the mid-1970s in an effort to

break the addiction, which was killing some of his close friends. The former contender said last year that he had been off drugs and liquor "for years."

After he was stripped of his boxing license, Mr. Harris found jobs as a janitor, street cleaner and construction worker, but he held none of those jobs for long. His true vocation seemed to be roaming the streets of North Philadelphia, recounting his past glories as if they were part of an overall design that would lead to greater triumphs in the future. Mr. Harris was living on welfare at the time of his death.

"I know God must want me here for a reason," Mr. Harris said in an interview last year. "Otherwise, I would have been dead a long time ago."

For many boxing experts, Mr. Harris was a reminder that not all champions are awarded belts or crowns. And, in the small, intimate world of North Philadelphia, the former fighter remained as big a celebrity as he had once been throughout the country. He could hardly walk a block without having someone recognize him and slap him on the back. Mr. Harris loved it.

"Everybody knows Gypsy Joe Harris," he once said.

Mr. Harris is survived by his wife, Barbara Harris; his mother, Helen Mollock; one brother, Anthony Mollock; three sisters, Waheed, Arneta Miller and Renee Rex; two sons, Joe Lee Harris and Tyrone Merritt, and three daughters, Debra Merritt, Maria Merritt and Charmane Nancy.

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