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Thursday, May 14, 2009

"Mouse" Strauss in the House

Journeyman ~ a technically competent, but undistinguished, boxer. 

It's all in the eye of the beholder.

"Mouse could walk on his hands across a football field," Bob Dylan says of Bruce "The Mouse" Strauss in a recent Rolling Stone interview. "He taught me the pugilistic rudiments back a while ago, maybe 20 or 30 years."

Probably sometime in the late `70s or `80s, then. The Mouse fought his last professional match in 19 and 89 at age 37, winning a unanimous decision over Terry Jesmer in the sixth round.  It was Mouse's 136th battle in a pro career stretching over 13 years.  During that time he stood up for 736 rounds, won 77 fights (55 by knockouts), lost 53 (28 where Mouse was KO'd himself), and fought six opponents to a draw.

Those are the numbers.  Numbers don't tell you much.  But maybe I can.

Think about it. 136 fights over 13 years. Probably doesn't sound like a lot. It only averages out to around 10 bouts a year, a fight a month or so. But in contrast, as David Letterman remarks in the video clip at the end of this article,  Muhammad Ali fought just a total 61 times in his 21-year professional career. Mike Tyson retired after 58 fights,  Smokin' Joe Frazier stepped into the ring only 37 times as a pro.

And we've only produced the record for one Bruce "The Mouse" Strauss, stats that may be suspect anyway, as another on-line authority claims says Strauss had 145 fights and a 79-60-6 record. But, we still haven't counted in the fights of  "Pretty Boy" Floyd Bernstein, "Machine Gun" Kelly Jones, and the boxer with the very Dylanesque moniker of "Reuben Bardot."  All Bruce Strauss under a variety of  pseudonyms.

By his own count, Mouse guesses he had somewhere around 250 fights, and was in the ring an average of two to three times a week.  Even if that's an exaggeration, we're still talking about a fight nearly every week every month for 13 years.

Picture getting clearer?

The kinder name is "Opponent." The term used in the gym and in the back rooms where the deals are signed is a lot cruder:  "Tomato Can." The name reportedly comes out of the `20s, with a manager telling his fighter, "Listen kid, you got nothing to worry about. That guy is as easy to knock over as an empty tomato can."  Maybe it comes from the fact that most tomato cans are bleeders, squirting out that ol' tomato juice, losing many of their fights on a decision because they cut too easily.

Bleeder or not, a tomato can is a boxer who can take a lickin' and keep on tickin' until knocked out or the fight is stopped.  He's the one who can be relied on to put up a good fight and put on a good show... no complaints about tanking. Back before the AIDs scare your classic tomato can would be a crowd-pleasing bleeder, squirting out that tomato juice into the seats back to the third row.. Chuck Wepner, the Bayonne Bleeder who almost upset Muhammad Ali, was the epitome of tomato cans, fighting Ali into the 15th with a broken nose and cuts over both eyes masking his face with blood.  Rocky Balboa, who was based on Chuck Wepner, is the movie idealization of a tomato can.

What a tomato can can best be counted on is for losing if the other fighter is any good. He's the one you get when your boy is on the way up and needs a shot of confidence.  The one you look for when you need a tune-up fight or good workout. The one you pick when your champ doesn't want to work too hard - one of Ali's string of unknowns during the `70s, or Joe Louis' "bum of the month."  He's the one the promoter signs for the undercard, usually a local who you've never heard of unless you follow club fighters.  Lost in the smoke and lights, noisy crowd ignoring him until he goes down or starts bleeding, making a few hundred for the night.

Although he didn't squirt out the tomato juice (and indeed retained his good looks to the end of his career), Bruce "The Mouse" Strauss was the very model of a tomato can, a sobriquet he cheerfully applied to himself. "I've been knocked out on every continent except Antarctica," the Mouse claimed in several interviews, noting that he had missed out on the South Pole only because he didn't like the cold. "I have been knocked out more than any other fighter. And I am the losing participant in the world's shortest fight - 11 seconds, counting the 10-count."  The Mouse is so comfortable with the tag as one of the biggest tomato cans in history that he staged his Kayo boxing card to reflect his usual ring position - knocked down, eyes blacked, gamely grabbing the rope as he stares into the camera and prepares to get back on his feet and back to work.

Born in Omaha, Nebraska in 19 and 52, the Mouses' boxing career began at age 24, when he went backstage to visit a friend who was on that night's boxing card. The promoter needed a replacement for a pug who had a last-minute case of an ailment known in boxing circles as frigis pedis, and recruited Strauss. Even though his entire experience with fighting up to that point was as a college wrestler, the soon-to-be Mouse stepped into the ring and defeated his opponent in a four-round decision. Strauss liked the squared circle so much that he signed on for a fight the very next night in Topeka, Kansas. He knocked his opponent out in the third round.

It was the brilliant start to what could charitably be called an uneven pro boxing career.  The Mouse guesstimates that he lost roughly half of his estimated 250 fights, once losing two fights in the same night, which has to be some sort of record. After getting knocked out in an earlier fight, Strauss regained consciousness to find the promoter arguing with another boxer who had come down with a severe case of  frigis pedis and refused to get into the ring.  The Mouse convinced the promoter that with a change of trunks he could go on as a replacement with no one the wiser.  "Wait a second," a ringsider yelled as Strauss headed into battle a second time.  "Didn't I just see that bum get knocked out?"

"That was my twin brother," the Mouse calmly replied. "I'm 'Moose' Strauss."

"Moose" retained the family honor, getting knocked out too.  But he collected two paychecks for his efforts.  The Mouse also wasn't shy about changing divisions if the price was right, simply dropping a few weights into his trunks to move from light- to middle- to heavyweight before getting on the scales.

By the mid-'80s, the tomato can lifestyle was getting hard to maintain, with tighter health and safety regulations and computerized records making it close to impossible for a fighter to endure two or three beatings a week or mysteriously changing weight divisions from fight to fight.  The Mouse retired in `89,  having taking on future world champions Marlon Starling (welterweight), Mike McCallum (middleweight), and Bobby Czyz (light-heavyweight and cruiserweight) over the course of his career.  Typically, he lost all three fights.

About a decade late Strauss' life story was made into a movie titled with his nickname, The Mouse; starring John Savage in the title role, Burt Young (Paulie in Rocky), Randall "Tex" Cobb, another tomato can and close friend of the Mouse, Dominic Chianese (Junior Soprano), and Rip Torn.

How, when, and where The Mouse hooked up with Bob Dylan is unknown.  As the Rolling Stone article implies, Mouse was a regular for many a year in The Bob Dylan Show touring cadre. He was probably also a fixture at the gym Dylan is rumored to own somewhere in Santa Monica where' he's knocked and been knocked about by luminaries such as Quentin Tarantino (Dylan reportedly dropped him on his ass), Gina Gershon (she reportedly dropped Dylan on his ass), and Sean Penn (outcome unknown). "Tex" Cobb's wife noted that Mouse was a close friend of Dylan's, and introduced her and Tex to him in the early `80s.  Dylan himself gave a shout-out to the Mouse in an April 2000 Omaha concert, saying from the stage with tongue firmly-in-cheek, "I want to say hello to my good friend World Champion Boxer Mouse Strauss. Mouse if you're out there, stand up and take a bow."

But as chatty and full of stories as Bruce "the Mouse" Strauss could be, he was - and is - consistently mum on one subject.  If you write about the man long enough, you find that's not unusual.  The people closest to Bob Dylan don't talk about Bob Dylan.

It's kind of like the first rule of Fight Club.

Below, Bruce "The Mouse" Strauss on David Letterman.


Jennifer in Seattle said...

Great post, Fred. So happy Dreamtime hasn't said "Goodbye" yet.

Dylan Gaughan said...

Thank you for posting this... Bruce is a close family member of mine and is easily one of my favorite people I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. Genuine, sweet and so much fun to talk to because even with a million stories of his own, he's 100% interested in what you have to say, no matter who you are.

He is as tight-lipped about Bob Dylan as you say. As much as I'd love to hear those stories, you really have to respect the guy for being such a loyal friend.

fhb said...

Thanks for the nice comment, Dylan. Give my regards to The Mouse the next time you see him. I was a big fan even before the BD connection.



Anonymous said...

Was the movie The Mouse (1996--starring John Savage) released?? I cannot find it anywhere

Fred Bals said...

Hi anon,

It's currently streaming on Amazon Prime, and possibly on Netflix.