Boxing fans today…we think we know tough. Television specials showing fighters greased up and spitting out teeth is a familiar image from both the sport itself and popular culture. Nothing takes away from the dedication and toughness that comes from contemporary boxers, as it is a level of elite fitness that few can attain, and even fewer can sustain.
I recently pondered the popular idea of GOAT. GOAT, for the casual sports fan, stands for Greatest Of All Time. Each generation believes their sports heroes to be the GOAT, and hours are spent by sports analysts comparing statistics from athletes of one generation to the next. Searching the archives for boxers from yesteryear with intentions to do just that, I tumbled down a rabbit hole, and discovered a legend in my own backyard.
What we—Generations X, Y, Z, etc.—know of depression-era boxing is often neatly tied up in a bow for our cinematic viewing pleasure. It's easy to forget that these bouts happened with real people, and weren't today's pay-per-view events; they were true warriors who often went on to become our grandpas and uncles who didn't talk much of their younger years. To be a boxer during the Great Depression meant fighting in a time before ambulances were ring-side and doctors were on staff. A time before stricter rules, sanctions, and commissions. A time when young men—many just teenagers—would throw leather for fifteen face-smashing rounds, often using 8-oz gloves to boot. Fighters would often get knocked down several times throughout the bout, only to keep going to the end. The products of this boxing era seem to be a different breed, and the fighter I discovered in my hometown certainly fits that description. Winfred "Moon" Mullins was born on July 7, 1911 in Vincennes, IN. Moon's family spent time living in Florida and Alabama before making their way back to Indiana. Three of the 4 Mullins brothers—including Moon—took an early interest in boxing, eventually attaining professional status…and don't underestimate the fourth brother, Frank…he served as a paratrooper in World War II. So you could say that the Mullins boys were…tough. As Moon's son, Steve Mullins, describes the brothers, while they were each pretty good pros, they were more "club fighter-type guys." The down-and-dirty club fighting was not all that young Moon strove to attain, however.
Moon turned pro right around 19-years old, working his way through opponents like Texas State Champ Fred "Young Kid" Granite and Georgia State Champ Govan Simms "Gavin" Rhodes. That success seemed to come easily to Moon, and he developed a pro-style of fighting, maintaining a crouched stance and utilizing a lot of bobbing-and-weaving and hooks. In fact, Moon's KO on Rhodes was so powerful it took a full 16 minutes for the young Rhodes to regain consciousness after the fight. Success as an amateur wasn't the only motivating factor for Moon to turn pro…keep in mind many starved during the Great Depression. Steve jokes, "dad said he turned pro because he got hungry and wanted to eat a steak and the promoter says, if you fight this guy, I'll buy you a steak."
As Moon's prowess as a featherweight grew he amassed a record of 155 wins and 18 losses. Moon fought five world champions during his five-year career, with three of them becoming the champ while Moon was fighting professionally. Moon secured the Indiana State Title in 1933, defeating fellow Hoosier Billy Frick for the second time, this fight taking place in Moon's hometown of Vincennes. That title fight was not the only time the hometown boy put on a show for the locals. The following year Moon took on Minnesota fighter and fan-favorite Jackie Sharkey. Moon defeated Sharkey by decision in a tough, ten-round fight. Just two months after the Sharkey fight, Moon took on the reigning champ, Freddie Miller, who hailed from Ohio. That bout also lasted a full ten rounds, but this time the judges determined that the win should go to Miller.
Indiana Featherweight Title
Following the Sharkey and Miller fights, Moon continued his pro career, traveling from southwestern Indiana, to Chicago, then California and back, fighting in Texas, New York, and Florida. While in New York Moon fought out of Stillman's Gym, where the likes of Ruby Goldstein and James J. Braddock (a.k.a.-the Cinderella Man) could be seen training as well. He occasionally returned home to Vincennes, IN for events, to the delight of his hometown. Being a pro-boxer in what Steve describes as the "Hollywood hey-day of boxing" meant Moon gained popularity with Hollywood Royalty, including Mae West, Anne Rutherford, Harpo Marx, and Pat O'Brien and Moon was somewhat of a celebrity both in his own right and for his glamorous friends. Moon's biggest title shot, and largest pay-day, came against all-time champ and boxing legend, Henry "Homicide Hank" Armstrong. Though he didn't pull out the win with Armstrong, Moon maintained his trademark sense of humor following the TKO loss, as according to Steve, Moon would tell people "I had Henry Armstrong worried…in the (fifth) round, he'd thought he'd killed me." Moon and Armstrong ultimately developed a friendship that lasted the rest of their lives.
Moon had his last professional fight in Dayton, OH on December 30, 1938, a loss to Joe Marinelli. Despite being a young man the years of a sometimes brutal sport still took their toll on Moon, who ended up with only half an eyebrow, as well as boxers' signature "cauliflower ear." Moon hung up his boxing gloves for good, and finally settled down with wife Martha in 1950, in Vincennes. Together they had two children, son Steve and daughter Sylvia. Moon worked as a cement finisher in construction, maintaining his athleticism long into his later years. For Moon, the religion of boxing was something to he handed down, and he worked with son Steve in what he called the "sweet science" of boxing in their backyard ring.
Moon, forever a roughneck with a sense of humor, once set Steve up with a new "sparring partner." The new partner, a former boxer, had just been released from prison. While Steve's initial fear of the inmate eating his lunch was unfounded, that interaction did ultimately shape Steve's future, as it put the final nail in the coffin that was Steve's own indecision over whether to pursue a pro-boxing career. You see, the convict was "punch drunk", suffering from dementia pugilistica. Seeing this ugly underside of a sport he revered was the deciding factor in Steve not making a professional career in the sport. Perhaps Moon knew how to teach a lesson without using his fists too. Moon's shenanigans didn't stop with scaring the bejesus out of his teenaged son. Many years later, Moon and Steve were out on the town with a friend for the evening when an individual began causing problems, while they were en route to a watering hole—a huge man of about 6'6" tall—threatened Moon and company. According to Steve, Moon—who was a diminutive 5'2" tall—and the man traded insults, until finally the unknown aggressor announced, "I'm just going to whip all three of your asses," Moon reached up and popped the goliath would-be-bully in the head, knocking the guy's hat off. After that, Steve says, the bully returned to his car "real fast." Oh to be a fly on the wall of THAT establishment!
Moon Mullins is a quiet legend of yesteryear, but the boxing world remembers him as a force to be reckoned with. He continued to spread his love for boxing on into his later years, coaching local youth in a boxing program in his small Indiana town. In 1983 Moon lost his battle with pancreatic cancer, robbing the world of his huge personality, but becoming the embodiment of "they don't make 'em like that any more."
Information and sources for this article were obtained from The Vincennes Sun Commercial Newspaper, BoxRec, and Steve Mullins.