The Pugilist (Not) At Rest
Michael Tarnoff of the Warshafsky Law Firm is boxing again—after 50 years
Published in 2009 Wisconsin Super Lawyers magazine on November 16, 2009
Let’s ask the obvious question: You’re boxing … in your 70s?
There were some who thought it was foolish and risky and so forth. But I’ve played sports all of my life. When I was young I’d drop anything for a ballgame. But you get to a certain age and you can’t play basketball anymore, you can’t play football. And I missed competition.
Then I read this article about some of these older boxers and what they call “white collar boxing” in Gleason’s Gym in New York, and other places around the country. I used to box in my 20s and hadn’t boxed for many years, so I decided to make a comeback.
Last August I went to a national tournament in Kansas City and there were five guys my age and weight. There was one guy who was 78. It’s not as dangerous as people seem to think. We’ve got headguards, and we’ve got 16-ounce gloves, and as I’ve said a number of times, in my view, bicycling is more dangerous. Almost everyone who bicycles, including myself, has been in an accident of some kind, some serious, some minor. I’ve never been scared when I stepped into the ring. And I’ve had 17 fights in the last four years.
What’s your record?
Some of the bouts are exhibitions. They don’t give you a decision, but you usually know if you won or lost. I’d say about even, 50-50. Some of my losses were to guys who were in their 30s.
They allow that?
Well, USA [Boxing] wouldn’t sanction it. But if you label it an exhibition, and most of us don’t care what they label it, then they’ll bend the rules.
What was most difficult about returning to boxing?
Getting into boxing shape. When I’d tell my friends I was going to box three two-minute rounds they’d say, “Oh? Is that all?” You try it sometime, see how tired you get.
I saw footage of you boxing on YouTube. You looked pretty intense.
I said I wasn’t scared but you are apprehensive. Am I going to do well? Am I going to box well? Am I going to box smart? The first time I boxed this one guy in Chicago I boxed really dumb. I watched the tape later and saw how dumb I fought. And he won—he deserved to win—he got the decision. When I boxed him in the rematch about six months later, I changed my tactics and beat him pretty handily. In fact he took a standing eight-count in the third round.
Were you a Gold Gloves boxer when you were young?
No, I boxed at University of Wisconsin and at Marquette University. I was never good enough at UW to be the No.1 guy in my weight division. There were maybe 50 guys on the team but only seven or eight competed in matches with other schools.
But in 1960—that’s the year I graduated undergrad—a guy on our team was killed at the NCAA finals. I was at the bout, as a matter of fact.
Do you remember his name?
Sure: Charlie Mohr. He was very good, too. Skillful. He was fast and moved a lot, so guys didn’t want to box with him, they wanted to slug with him. He wasn’t real strong as boxers go. He looked like a professor. He was boxing a guy from San Jose State whom he had beaten before; but when this guy got inside and was able to roughhouse with him and nailed him with a couple of punches, he went down. It didn’t look like he got hurt that bad but he obviously was because he later collapsed. Massive brain damage. He died three days later.
That ended college boxing. There was a big uproar. “How could you have a sport where someone’s trying to hurt his opponent?”
How did you get into boxing?
When I was real young we used to listen on the radio to “Friday Night Fights.” And my Dad took me to boxing matches sometimes. I guess part of it was showing how tough I was. (Laughs)
How is going into the ring like going into the courtroom?
It’s a matter of self-reliance when you’re in the boxing ring. It’s not like other sports where you can depend on your teammates to help you out. You’re in there alone. Same thing when you’re in a jury trial. You’re in there alone. You just have to keep fighting back, have to be resourceful, can’t give up. Just like in boxing, you’re looking to jump on any weakness.
What drew you to the law?
I was an honors graduate as an undergrad and I was planning on going on to grad school of some kind. Never thought I could be a doctor, I wasn’t good enough in science, and my three closest friends at the time went to law school, so I went.
Once you started practicing, how did it differ from what you thought it would be?
You start dealing with real people, with real problems, and you start to feel for your clients—which you must do if you want to be a good lawyer, especially in our kind of practice.
Which is PI plaintiff, right?
It’s all we do now. When I first started many years ago—July 1st  will be 46 years as a lawyer—we did some criminal work, which I hated. I admire certain criminal lawyers, but I didn’t like criminal law. The only kind of law I ever liked is the kind I’m practicing.
What are some of your toughest cases?
Start it off this way: There are many cases that are routine cases. I’d handle it the same way 30 other lawyers would handle it.
However, I like to think there’s a fair number of cases where I can say to myself, “Not just any lawyer could’ve done this.” I had one where a woman was dealing with her insurance company without a lawyer in an uninsured motorist claim and they cheated her. About six months later, after she signed her release and got her money, her brother-in-law told her, “Oh, you should’ve gotten more money,” so she came to me and I tried to reopen it. Aetna Insurance wouldn’t do it. They said, “No, she signed her release, the case is over.” So I started what was fairly new in those days: a first-party bad faith case. And the case went to trial. Not only did I get her compensation for injuries but I got her $100,000 in punitive damages as well.
I’m also proud that I’ve argued 11 cases before the Wisconsin Supreme Court and I won eight of them. And five of the eight were as an appellant.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
The two lawyers who taught me most of what I know about law are our senior partner, Ted Warshafsky, and my partner, Mert Rotter. One of the best pieces of advice Ted gave me was: “Don’t do everything I’m doing. You’ve got to have your own personality. When you’re in a trial and in front of a jury you’ve got to be your own person.”
What about the changes in the 46 years you’ve been practicing?
In a civil case, either side can request a jury trial. When I first started, juries were thought to favor plaintiffs and we always wanted the jury. Starting 15, 20 years ago, insurance companies wanted juries. By and large, juries have swallowed some of the insurance-company propaganda about rates going up if you give too much money in a case, and cases are clogging up our courtrooms, and all this stuff, which is greatly exaggerated. Now insurance company lawyers, they can’t wait to pay the jury fee.
Do you have a favorite boxer?
I always liked Ali. I liked him as a human being. I’ve argued this with other boxing guys. “Who’s the best heavyweight ever?” In my opinion it was clearly Muhammad Ali in his prime.
When he was 26, 27 years old. His speed and his strength. People who don’t understand boxing don’t realize what a tough guy he was. He wasn’t just a fancy boxer with tremendous hand speed and fairly good punching power. In the first Frazier fight—he fought Frazier three times, he lost the first, won the next two—but in the first fight he got knocked down by a left hook that would’ve knocked a building over. It was in the 12th round, meaning he must’ve been tired, but he got up and kept fighting. And he almost won that fight. He could really take a punch. Which is why, in his prime, he would’ve easily beaten a guy like Jack Dempsey, and would have almost certainly beaten Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano, and in my opinion was the greatest heavyweight ever.