The collision between Young Stribling’s motorcycle and Mr. R. V. Johnson’s car sent “Strib” airborne, somersaulting onto his back and off the side of the highway leading to Macon, Ga. Stribling’s right leg pointed toward a ditch while his left foot hung on to the rest only through the strength of a tendon and some skin.
Usually Stribling hurtled down that highway, but not on October 1, 1933. His wife Clara gave birth to their son two weeks earlier and awaited Stribling at the hospital for a visit. While en route he slowed down to greet pal Roy Barrow, who was driving the opposite direction, and the car following his friend attempted to pass without seeing Stribling, crushing his leg at about the ankle.
“Well, kid,” Stribling shakily told Barrow, “I guess it means there will be no more roadwork.”
The fighter’s humor contrasted the chaos brewing: Stribling’s leg bled profusely, shots of crimson spurting out as people leaving a nearby church service and employees of Buck Ice & Coal gathered and stared in horror. Chatter grew and bystanders attempted to direct the rescue efforts. Fortunately Barrow happened to be cruising with a young nurse graduate named Frances Jones who wrested control of the scene and placed a makeshift tourniquet on Stribling’s leg with her cape.
Had Miss Jones not been with Barrow, doctors later said, the fighter would not have made it to the hospital alive. Even so, the young nurse fiddled with Stribling’s nearly-detached foot for some moments, attempting to reattach it at the correct angle like some gruesome puzzle piece.
In the 12 previous years, Stribling ended an incredible sum of fights early, scoring more than 125 knockouts in roughly 250 professional bouts despite earning a reputation as a deft ring craftsman. He turned professional shortly after his 16th birthday, but his career truly began as a young child.
As William, Sr., aka Pa Stribling, later told it, he saw heavyweight champion James Jeffries defend the title not long before William, Jr. punched his way into the world and quickly vowed to raise a heavyweight king of his own. The Striblings became a traveling vaudeville act known as “The Three Grahams” and “The Novelty Graham Trio.” When Ma and Pa added baby brother Herman to the mix, they became “The Four Novelty Grahams.”
If the fables are true, the Striblings traveled the globe. Stories morphed to urban legend and myth, however: they stared down bubonic plague in China, narrowly avoided revolution in Cuba before surviving a massive earthquake, blew through Japan and touched down in Australia. Such extensive traveling was nearly unheard of at the time.
Stribling became “the world’s youngest acrobat” at only five. By seven he regularly played the knockout victim to little brother Herman was part of the the act.
Much of his own life story didn’t even come from him; “Strib” was too shy to self-congratulate amid writers and reporters. Ma and Pa did plenty of talking on his behalf anyway. Stribling preferred small town life near Macon, where he might not have known everyone in town, but they all adored him, win or lose.
Stribling lay there on the side of the road as Barrow hailed a milk truck heading for Macon. “Don’t leave my foot,” Stribling mustered while being loaded into the truck. Bystanders immediately began tearing at Stribling’s motorcycle hoping to break off a souvenir before it was rescued by the owner of the ice and coal business.
Ma and Pa, already en route from negotiating Stribling’s next bout in Texas, doubled their speed and raced home to their boy, who’d been rushed to a Macon hospital. Incredibly, Stribling reportedly showed the presence of mind, through unbelievable pain, to demand hospital staff examine his pelvis.
Clara happened to be staying in the room immediately below that of her husband, who had been given ether so doctors could amputate his foot and x-ray his pelvis, which had been horribly shattered. Clara finally visited with Stribling for a few minutes later in the evening, before Ma and Pa finally arrived.
The hundreds of ring squabbles, the knockouts, the people of Macon, the canebrakes… They all faded, becoming less important with every passing moment, as it became clear Stribling could tab his 14th and final loss.
The following day Stribling’s consciousness waned and improvements became sporadic. Later that afternoon, his heartbeat became irregular, his breathing shallow and he spiked a 105-degree fever.
“Listen, son,” Pa told him. “We’re in the tenth round now and we’ve got to fight. I’m your manager and you’ve got to do what I say. And I say, ‘Fight!'”
Stribling grinned at his dad, who left the room. Ma slowly walked over and Stribling asked, “Ma, am I going to die?” Bravely she told him the truth, that doctors were concerned and circumstances were dire.
“Well, come here and kiss me then,” Stribling told Ma. And she did. Right on the forehead, before exiting the room and losing all semblance of the stiff upper lip all knew her for. She begged doctors to do something — anything.
In 1933 there was nothing to be done. Doctors pumped Stribling full of morphine and missed his arm vein when attempting to administer intravenous fluids. His injuries were simply too severe.
As the sun rose on October 3rd, hospital staff wheeled Clara and the newborn into Stribling’s room.
“Hey baby,” he said in nearly a whisper.
Stribling, an avid pilot, made more than one dozen successful emergency landings in his airplane. He’d traveled every nearby highway at dizzying speeds on his motorcycle. Stribling even stood in front of Primo Carnera, world’s biggest heavyweight, and courted danger without much of a flinch.
Then, with a veritable timidity, Stribling drew his final breath and departed. In 36 hours Stribling went from sailing down a Georgia highway to pondering whether a career in pugilism could be possible, and finally, back to the canebrakes forever.
Max Schmeling, Jack Sharkey, Jack Dempsey and Johnny Risko were among dozens, if not hundreds, in the fight community who either wired newspapers with their condolences or sent Stribling’s family flowers.
At the Macon Auditorium, Stribling drew thousands. Mourners overwhelmed the front steps as they flowed out from the viewing service and local pilots flew overhead in tribute. It was unusual pageantry for a simple man.
George D. W. Burt, writer for the Macon Telegraph, reported the scene.
“The darkened copper casket was covered with a flowery ecstasy of roses, orchids and valley lilies,” Burt wrote. “On the stage above the casket was an enormous wreath of deep red roses, Young Stribling’s favorite flower.”
In the space of 10 years, from 1923 to 1933, boxing mourned a surprising amount of recognizable fighters following accidents or ring deaths. There was the great Harry Greb, his successor Tiger Flowers, Filipino wrecking ball Pancho Villa, and heavyweight Ernie Schaaf. In fairness, boxers were legitimate celebrities in days gone by, thus making the empty spaces they left all the more recognizable.
With already 250 fights on his ledger, it’s impossible to know what else Stribling could have accomplished. But with Joe Louis nearly four years away from making the heavyweight division his own, there was room to for a 28-year-old Stribling to maneuver.
Golfer Bobby Jones and violent baseball great Ty Cobb helped Stribling round out what Georgia radio announcer Archie Grinalds called “Georgia’s Triumvirate” in the sports realm. With Jones and Cobb retired, Stribling’s untimely death brought an era to a sorrowful close.
Ma Stribling used to carry a stop watch when she worked William, Jr.’s corner. With 15 seconds remaining she would look to Pa and say, “Get ready Daddy, the round’s nearly over.” Her watch ticked only for Baby Stribling after her eldest son’s death, the family’s pugilistic hopes riding on Herman. But Baby retired in seven months, fighting only twice after his brother’s accident and leaving behind a career of more than 100 victories to work at Ma and Pa’s lumber business in South Carolina.
“The Four Novelty Grahams” went back to a trio, and when William, Jr. left, so did the novelty.