All right, enough with the boxing stories for now. Keeping with the martial arts theme, however, try this pro wrestling story on for size. Growing up, my brothers and I religiously watched the televised pro wrestling matches from our living room’s ringside seats in front of the old Zenith. Omaha pro wrestling cards had the usual lineup of villains and heroes and their cheap theatrics. We loved the bravado and silliness of it all, right down to the animated pitch man hawking elixirs between matches. About 10 years ago I finally caught up with a few of the wrestling stars I used to gawk at on TV, including villain extraordinaire Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon, for the following story I did for the now defunct Omaha Weekly. I had great fun working on this piece, which I think comes out in the writing.
Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon giving an opponent the business
When We Were Kings, A Vintage Pro Wrestling Story
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Omaha Weekly
“Like with any performer, we fed off the crowd and they fed off us. There’s nothing more difficult than wrestling in front of empty bleachers. But if it’s packed, it’s easy. The people do the work for you. They either love you or hate you,” said former profesional wrestling king Maurice Vachon, better known by his stage name — Mad Dog.
There was a time when Mad Dog and his old cohorts inside the ring lorded over the pro wrestling world.
For decades Omaha was a wrestling hotbed where matchmakers Max Clayton and Joe Dusek annually staged dozens of live cards featuring stars with monikers like Butcher, Bruiser, Crusher, Killer. Omaha produced wrestling greats of its own in The Baron, Dr. X, The Dirty Duseks, Iron Mike DiBiase and Jumpin’ Joe Scarpello. Rabid fans came out in droves. Locally televised All-Star Wrestling matches further stoked the fire of fans for upcoming arena bouts. It was a simple, grassroots thing. Then it all changed, and a way of wrestling passed with it.
Combining the comic mayhem of Jackie Chan, the pop flamboyance of Little Richard and the dynamic derring-do of the Flying Wallendas, pro wrestling today rules as the new Greatest Show on Earth. Long an over-the-top attraction, it has in recent years assumed a whole new theatricality courtesy of the World Wrestling Federation and its flashy costumes, inflated muscles, martial arts moves, elaborate sets, suggestive routines and intricate storylines. Depending on who you talk to, it is either a vulgar spectacle or a colorful romp. However you feel, there is no denying it is plugged into this era’s in-excess culture. “Sports and entertainment have become more extreme products. Like it or not, that’s the way it is. And the WWF has embraced and perfected that,” said lifelong wrestling fan Ray Whebbe, Jr. of Minneapolis, MN, where he is a veteran wrestling promoter, manager and agent.
Extreme has not always been part of the scene, however. Before the WWF became The Bomb, pro wrestling operated via regional promoters whose old school product, while wilder and woollier than its amateur counterpart, remained far tamer than today’s heavily scripted showpieces. Wrestlers of yesteryear were showmen too, just not cartoon action figures. Bouts were calculated for dramatic effect, just not off the charts crazy. In short, it was a lot of corn, just not borderline porn. It was a grittier, less-adorned brand of action in which the primal physical challenge of the ring, pitting heroes and villains in classic good versus evil duels, took center stage. Strip away the pay-per-view hype and that is still the essence of this popular sport-entertainment hybrid.
Whebbe, who admires the contributions made by wrestlers from the past, agrees the sport used to be “a lot less contrived and a lot more reality-based,” but adds, “it was also a lot more boring. There were fewer charismatic performers.” For fans like him, the Golden Age of pro wrestling is passe. Old time wrestlers, meanwhile, consider today’s new age product a travesty and dismiss it as coarse, brazen, rude, artificial. They rue the decline of their halcyon days, when they commanded huge, enthusiastic crowds with a mix of good old fashioned hand-to-hand combat and theater. These legends remind us they too were once wrestling kings.
Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon was the prince of villains in the old American Wrestling Association (AWA), a Midwest federation run by Vachon’s main ring rival — clean cut Mr. Good Guy Verne Gagne. The man who made the sleeper hold famous, Gagne was among the few wrestlers of his era to cash-in as both a performer and an entrepreneur. After a stellar amateur career in his native Canada, including competing on the Canadian national team as a 174-pound freestyle wrestler in the 1948 Olympics, Vachon wrestled pro from 1951 to 1986. His early years in the business were a struggle. Before becoming Mad Dog, he had no real niche, no catchy nickname, no signature hold to establish himself. He was just another rough guy leading a gypsy-like existence from one bout to the next.
His breakthrough came during a stint on the Pacific Northwest circuit when a Portland, Ore. promoter suggested the short but stocky Vachon do a makeover emphasizing his fierce, dark looks. The plan was for him to act the bit of “a wild man from Algeria.” The promoter added, “And you better do something loud, otherwise you’re going to be hard to put over.” Vachon took the advice to heart.
“I knew I had to do something different, so five minutes before my first match I got the idea of attacking my opponent before the bell sounded. I was supposed to be this wild Algerian and I wanted to show the image I was trying to project. As soon as my opponent showed up I jumped on him and gave him a couple of body slams and then threw him out of the ring. The referee came over and I did the same to him. Then I dropped down out of the ring and gave them both a body slam on the floor. A police officer showed up and I threw him in the third row. Everybody thought I was crazy. The referee disqualified me and I got fined and suspended for two weeks,” said Vachon, a gentle, cultured man away from the mat.
“When I got back to the dressing room the promoter said, ‘You look just like a mad dog.’ And I said, ‘You know what? That sounds good.’ There’d never been a wrestler with the name Mad Dog and I took advantage of it. I would have been crazy not to. Plus, it fit my image. I had quite a few teeth missing, complements of my opponents, which made me look like I had fangs. My (guttural) voice was courtesy of injuries to my vocal chords and larynx. And I was born with hair on my chest. So, I looked like the Mad Dog, and when I was in the ring I acted like one.”
As part of his transformation Vachon perfected the snarling bad guy routine, complete with mean catch phrases (“It’s a dog eat dog world”) and dastardly maneuvers (like the pile driver). His publicity photos captured him straining to break free of chains wrapped round his hairy torso. One thing Vachon did not have to act was being tough. He grew up fighting in a Montreal ghetto. Before going pro he worked as a nightclub bouncer and punched-out more than his share of challengers. He said during his pro career he often had to prove himself off the mat, as his rep followed him wherever he went — like a gunslinger.
“I had to live it inside the ring and outside the ring. It was hard, but I was prepared for it. I could really wrestle. I had a lot of dog in me. Believe me. I had to do it. I had to do it for real. I had to be the Mad Dog to survive.”
For Omaha native Jim Raschke, a former collegiate wrestler and school teacher, the conversion from his normally mild-mannered self into the fearsome Baron Von Raschke, applicator of the dreaded Claw hold, was life-changing. “I started out life as a very shy, introverted person and when I became the Baron it kind of opened up doors for me. I could be what I wanted to be. Even if it was obnoxious, it was better than what I was. I enjoyed that part of it — letting my alter ego go,” said Raschke, who typically ended interviews with his enigmatic “That’s all the people need to know” declaration. His career floundered until he teamed up with Mad Dog, who convinced the imposing Raschke to discard his vanilla persona for the imperious Baron.
Baron Von Raschke
The tag team pair first made a splash in Quebec, where fans had never seen anything like them before. According to Raschke the two did not set out to be bad guys — it just worked out that way. “We walked out to the ring and the crowd started hissing and booing. It was just because of our physical appearance — a big ugly guy and a little ugly guy. It wasn’t anything we’d done. Neither of us had appeared in that area for awhile. Well, when they reacted that way we just reacted back and by the end of that first night we were made as villains. Our reputation spread throughout the province. We just went with it.”
Raschke said what helped keep the grind of wrestling fresh for him was the excitement generated by the fans and, in turn, playing to them. “The more excited they got, the more excited you got. That’s where a lot of the energy came from. It was the crowd’s response that determined what we did. It was always changing. That was part of the fun of it. You were always improvising.”
Raucous crowds worked into a frenzy are a hallmark of pro wrestling. Vachon recalls being spat on, punched and hit by beer bottles from overzealous fans. George Murphy, a former broadcaster who worked as ring announcer and timekeeper at Omaha Civic Auditorium matches, said of the fans, “They were passionate. They would throw things, they would stomp their feet, they would shout profanities, they would choose sides. Fans came there to get involved. I think that’s part of it. We had regulars, too. There was an older lady who sat in the same spot every week. She cursed and banged a beat-up umbrella on the floor. She wanted a piece of those wrestlers for some reason.” Verne Gagne recalls Omaha fans as generally knowledgeable — “they appreciated the wrestling side of it, not just the hammering” — which is not to say the town didn’t have its nuts too. Once, a crazed fan scaled the chain-link fence around the ring to enter the fray: “Jerry Blackwell, a mountain of a man, was waiting for his match to start one night when a little fella from the audience jumped over the fence and came after him,” Murphy said. “Wrong thing to do. Blackwell just grabbed him by the hair and punched him in the face. The police tried grabbing the guy by the legs to pull him out and Blackwell just kept hitting him. It took six police to put the guy out.”
The mayhem was not always confined to fans and performers. Murphy said he sometimes became an unwitting part of the act. “I never worked from a script. Whatever happened, happened. Once we had a Battle Royal where Mad Dog threw his opponent over the top rope and, as the ring announcer, I said, ‘Mad Dog Vachon is out of the match,’ and he hauled off and hit me right in the jaw. He was the only wrestler who ever hit him, and he was a friend. I didn’t know it was going to happen. If I did, I would have nixed it right away. Another time, The Crazy Polock carried one of his mother’s homemade sausages in the ring and shoved it in my mouth. I could either choke on it or eat it, so I ate it.” Then there was the time Murphy was prepping for a TV interview with wrestler Chris Markoff. “I said to him, ‘I’m going to say the way you won that match was terrible, Then I want you to get upset with me.’ He said, ‘Okay, George, I do that.’ So, we’re doing the interview and I begin, ‘Chris, the way you won that match was terrible…’ and he gave me a shove and I sailed about 15 feet. The director said, ‘Cut, we’re going to do it again,’ and I said, ‘No, we’re not.’”
Gimmicks, Vachon said, have always been part of pro wrestling, which traces its roots back to when carnivals still featured “freaks.” One tent invariably housed a ring inside which a burly, well-trained grappler took on locals sufficiently goaded by a barker to test their manhood. When this sideshow curiosity turned legitimate arena attraction it pitted genuine combatants in competitive matches long on technique but short on action. A few wrestlers, like Ed “Strangler” Lewis, became celebrities with their colorful nicknames, mysterious holds and exotic alter egos. Wrestling, once sanctioned by state sports authorities, began operating without restraints when it dropped all pretense of being real. Midgets, females, tag teams, cage matches and tantrums were added to the mix. The arrival of TV only loosened the reins more on wrestling, which embraced the medium with an over-the-top style that made instant stars of some performers. As Vachon said, “If you wanted to make it, you had to know how to talk when the mike was turned on.”
Among the most image-conscious performers then was Gorgeous George, who rose to stardom on the strength of his pretty boy image, complete with coiffured hair, flowing robe, vanity mirror and valet. “He was 40 years ahead of his time,” Vachon said. Indeed, many wrestlers in the ‘50s and ‘60s anticipated the personalities seen today. “It’s all been done before,” Whebbe said. “It’s just done differently now — a little more dramatically and with a little more depth of character.”
The men calling the shots behind the scenes then were a disparate band of independent promoters whose territories formed a loose circuit nationwide. Ruling their territories like czars, the promoters directed everything — from marketing campaigns to payouts to schedules. There were no standards for things like performance fees, although the general rule was each wrestler got paid based on the size of the gate. “Everybody had a reputation,” Vachon said. “Some were good, honest pay off men and some were crooks. The promoters paid you what they wanted. If they didn’t pay you right, you didn’t wrestle for them again. It was to their advantage that you were an attraction and that they treated you right.”
Still, wrestlers had little recourse or protection. They had no labor agreement, no arbitration board, no insurance. They still don’t. Vachon said he and his brother Paul (who wrestled as The Butcher) once led a bid to organize the ranks, but got no where due to fear of reprisals. “We called a meeting in Chicago and maybe only a dozen wrestlers showed up. The others were scared to death. They were afraid for their jobs. The promoters told them if they came they would never wrestle for them again. They wanted nothing to do with it. We tried, but it didn’t work out.”
Nebraska was considered “a hot territory” and its main promoter from 1957 until the late ‘70s-early ‘80s, the late Joe Dusek, enjoyed stature as one of the best payoff men in the business. Joanne Dusek, who kept books for her father, said, “People didn’t have to have a contract with him. If he told you something, you’d shake on it and that’s the way it was going to be.” Verne Gagne said, “Joe Dusek was one of the most honest guys I ever met. It was a delight always to work with him.” Jim Raschke said Dusek brought “the top stars of the time” here: “They would make more money in one night here than they would the rest of the week.”
During wrestling’s peak in Omaha, Joanne Dusek said her father held as many as 30 shows a year at the auditorium. Most, she said, were near sell-outs. “For those Saturday night shows we averaged 8,000 to 9,000 people, which for a town the size of Omaha was great. I think we had as many as 11,000 there once.” Crowds filled even bigger arenas in other cities, with overflow fans watching matches on closed circuit TV. In the summers before the Omaha auditorium was air conditioned, outdoor shows commenced at Rosenblatt Stadium. In two of the most famous matches wrestled there Verne Gagne won the AWA heavyweight title from Edouard Carpentier and beat the mysterious masked Dr. X, whose mask was removed to reveal he was none other than Dr. Bill Miller of Omaha. Then there was the stadium show that a heavy rainstorm halted only to see the entire program moved to the auditorium thanks to the foresight of its late manager, Charlie Mancuso, who had rigged the arena for wrestling in the event of just such an occurrence. “Everybody marched from the stadium down to the auditorium. We held up the show until they got there. And, by golly, they all went. It was really something,” Joanne said.
Besides Nebraska, Joe Dusek also handled parts of Iowa, Kansas and South Dakota. Before turning promoter he wrestled professionally with three of his brothers (Rudy, Ernie, Emil). Billed as the Dirty Duseks for their unruly demeanor in the ring, they often performed together — forming a wrestling dynasty. Joanne said the Duseks first hit it big on the east coast, where all four were often on the same card, and later “drew big crowds in Omaha” too.
The Duseks, said Vachon, “were legends.” As a boy, he saw two of his idols perform during their prime. “Ernie and Emil were the first tag team ever to come to the Montreal Forum. They came with their brush cuts and big cauliflower ears and stubby hands. They looked like the dirty, rowdy Duseks. When things went wrong in the ring they started fighting each other. It was no act, believe me.” The ornery brothers grew up on the banks of the Missouri River south of downtown Omaha. Their father was a commercial fisherman and employed his boys in hauling huge catches of catfish and carp. The oldest brother, Rudy, was the first and probably the best wrestler of the bunch. A former YMCA champ, he came under the tutelage of the renowned wrestler Farmer Burns. “Rudy built a ring on the river bank and Farmer Burns would bring his pupils down there. He’d lecture and Rudy would demonstrate the holds,” Joanne said.
Rudy turned pro in 1922, Joe followed him in 1932. Ernie and Emil came later. The Duseks long association with pro wrestling spanned most of its evolution in America. Rudy was the epitome of “scientific wrestling,” which emphasized technique over showmanship. “Back in those days everything was very scientific,” Joanne said. “They didn’t move around and have all the action like they did later. They might get a hold and lay on the mat for several minutes. I’m told one of Rudy’s matches lasted five hours.” As wrestling morphed into more of a no-holds-barred show, the brothers adapted with it and played their feisty, roughhouse roles to a tee.
Veteran Omaha sportscaster Joe Patrick, who worked with Joe Dusek on local wrestling telecasts and promotions, said, “You know, Joe swore there was nothing fake about it. He would always say, ‘This is all legit.’” As if to prove the point, Patrick said, Dusek once “invited anyone from the crowd to come up in the ring and wrestle one of the guys. A big kid who’d been a pretty tough college wrestler came up one night and the pro he wrestled almost crippled him. Afterwards, Joe said, ‘Well, the guy wanted to show the audience he could handle some of these pros but it didn’t turn out that way.’ Dusek was a throwback to the original tough guy. He used to say, ‘I’m one tough Bohonk,’ and, boy, he was.” But there was a kind side to the man, too. Patrick has fond memories of fishing with him. Jim Raschke recalls how Dusek “would pamper wrestlers. He’d sometimes drive us in his car to the next match. He’d feed us on the way up and on the way back. He was a big rugged guy but he was a real teddy bear of a man. A real sweetheart.”
Long after wrestling became a TV staple, the industry remained defensive whenever someone questioned its authenticity. In an infamous incident, ABC reporter John Stossel got rudely cuffed on the ear when he challenged wrestler David Schults with, “It’s all fake, isn’t it?” According to Whebbe, “At the time, David Schults did the right thing. He protected the business. It was pounded in people’s heads — you’ve got to protect the business.” Then, a funny thing happened. The old promoters were pushed aside in the mid to late 1980s by aggressive upstarts like Vince McMahon, Jr., who ignored the territorial fiefdoms to raid talent pools, buy TV time and exploit wrestling for all its dramatic worth. As the industry became a franchise, it started “letting people in on the joke.” Whebbe explained, “It’s an unusual business practice when you’re trying to trick the fans into believing you’re something you’re not. Everybody knows it’s fake — to a certain extent. It’s a pre-rehearsed match. In the end, the business bloomed a lot more when nobody worried about protecting the business and instead just sold the damn show.”
Asked what Joe Dusek would make of today’s product, Whebbe said, “He would be repulsed by it.” Joanne confirmed as much. Vachon and Raschke dislike what they see too. Vachon said, “It’s garbage. Indecent.” In Raschke’s view, “It’s gotten to be one of the lower forms of entertainment. It’s not wholesome. They should expurgate the name wrestling from what they do now because they do very little of what even looks like wrestling in those productions. I don’t have much respect for the business anymore.” In Gagne’s opinion, “There are hardly any real wrestlers in wrestling anymore. It’s just showbiz. Glitz.” However they feel now, Vachon and Raschke have participated in WWF events honoring their legends status.
More than the presentation of wrestling has changed, though. The whole way the business operates today is bigger, louder, more extreme than before. As Joe Patrick said, “It was a whole different atmosphere then.” Indeed, where today’s top wrestlers travel first class as part of huge entourages, the old time stars usually drove themselves by car. Vachon said, “We were on our own. We provided our own transportation. Always by car. For over 20 years I probably traveled 100,000 miles a year by car. People talk about how tough professional wrestling is. Never mind that. The traveling alone would kill the average human.” As Raschke said, “It was grueling all the time. We traveled every day.” Both men averaged 250 to 300 matches a year, forcing extended separations from their families. Vachon, who is married to his third wife, saw his first two marriages end in divorce. And where star wrestlers today may have agents, managers, handlers and personal trainers, old timers did it all themselves. “Everybody was a free agent,” Vachon said, adding the difficulties of that life had him “close to quitting” many times.
TV made celebrities of some wrestlers, but most languished in obscurity. “Mad Dog and I were among the lucky ones,” Raschke said. “We made a good living, but it wasn’t a fabulous living. We weren’t living the lifestyle of a rock star or anything like that. I’m sure it’s the same way today as it was then. There’s a handful of stars or featured wrestlers making the majority of the money and the rest are hanging on and probably not even making a living at it. In our time, there were a lot of part-timers. They were never going to make it. They just liked being around it.”
Despite hardships, including myriad injuries that still bother them, the old time wrestling kings cherish their glory days. They would not change a thing. “It was a wonderful life. I got to see the world. It was my ticket to freedom,” said Vachon, whose wrestling career took him to many far-off places (Japan, Europe, South America, Alaska) he dreamed of traveling to as a starry-eyed boy collecting stamps. “If I had to do it all over again, I would.” For Raschke, too, “it was a great experience that can never be duplicated. I met a lot of great people from all over the world. It was just fun.” By the end of their careers these two arch-villains became beloved figures, which they remain today. They are recognized wherever they go. Vachon, an icon in Quebec, enjoys the attention. “I’ve met so many nice people all over the world who tell me they grew up watching me wrestle.” For a wrestling king, the adulation never grows old. “We didn’t really do it for the money, you know. We did it for the applause,” said Vachon.
- Pro Wrestling Overload: Are We Being Hit With Too Much Wreslting? (bleacherreport.com)
- Pro Wrestling: How It Has Survived Over 100 Years (bleacherreport.com)
- The Fabulous Freebirds: The Greatest Tag Team In Pro Wrestling History (bleacherreport.com)
- The Diary of a Pro Wrestling Fan (Ch. 1): Getting Interested in Pro Wrestling (bleacherreport.com)
- Event to Honor Pro Wrestling Legend Boris Malenko (your-story.org)
I knew the name Morris Jackson growing up because my older brother Dan was a boxing fan and I think he saw one of the grudge bouts between Jackson, the slick boxer, and Ron Stander, the Great White Hope slugger. Jackson was undeniably the superior boxer but it was Stander not Jackson who got a title shot against Joe Frazier. As the years went by I lost track of Jackson, only to read one day in the local daily about how he had gotten in trouble with the law and done time behind bars. There, he had a born again experience of such magnitude that after serving his time he went on to become a minister. His chosen ministry is poetic justice, too, as he pastors to incarcerated men. I finally got to meet and profile Jackson a few years ago. The story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about Jackson and his transformation follows. My stories about Morris’ then-nemesis, Ron Stander, can also be found in this blog site, along with other stories about Omaha boxers, boxing coaches and gyms. Like most writers, I am always down for a good boxing story. There are several yet in me that I wish to tell and I am sure that others will reveal themselves when I least expect it.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
In his best three-piece, GQ-style suit, Morris Jackson looks like just another slick do-gooder to prisoners seeing him for the first time at the Douglas County Correctional Facility, where he’s chaplain with Good News Jail and Prison Ministry. But the large man soon separates himself from the pack when he tells them he used to be a prizefighter. Rattling off the famous names he met inside the ring — Ron Stander, Ernie Shavers, Ron Lyle, Larry Holmes — usually gets their attention. If not, what he says next, does. “My number is 30398.” That’s right, this preacher man did time. The former convict now stands on the other side of the cell as a born-again Christian and International Assemblies of God-ordained minister.
His 1975 armed robbery conviction sent him to the Nebraska Men’s Reformatory for a term of three to nine years. He served 22 months, plus seven more on work release. But being locked away wasn’t enough to reform Morris. His rebirth only happened years later, after squandering his freedom in a fast life leading to perdition. Referring to that transformation, one of several makeovers in his life, is enough to make even hardcore recidivists listen to his message of redemption.
“Then they hang on every word you’ve got to say, because they see a change. They really can’t believe you were there once yourself. Having Christ in your life really makes a big difference. Actually, it’s almost a visible presence — in your eyes, in your demeanor, in your voice, in your conversation — that people can notice,” said Jackson, whose prison ministry work dates back to 1992.
He first returned to the correctional system doing mission work for northwest Omaha’s Glad Tidings Church, where he still worships today. Reliving his incarceration experience behind the secured walls made him anxious.
“The first time I went, it was with fear and trembling because the last place I wanted to be in was anybody’s jail, hearing the doors close behind me,” he said.
To his relief, though, he sensed he had found a calling as an evangelist to cons.
“It was just as if I was right where I was supposed to be. The words were there. The life. The testimony. The word of God. My studies. The first time I did a service in the county jail there were 66 men present and 44 of those professed faith in Jesus Christ when given the opportunity. I said, ‘Man, I like this. I could do this all the time.’ Like I tell people, ‘Be careful what you say, because God is listening.’ I’m exactly where God wants me to be and I’m doing exactly what he wants me to do.”
Jackson’s had many occasions to reinvent himself, stemming back to his Texas childhood. As a youth, he lived with his family in an upper middle class part of Dallas. Then, he found out the man he thought was his father was actually his step-father. His real father was killed when Jackson was a year-old. Soon after this revelation, his mother and step-father split up and his world unraveled again. His mother got custody of him and his sister, but she could only afford a place in the projects. Already distraught over the divorce and the discovery he’d been lied to, he expressed his rage on the streets, where fighting was a rite of passage and survival mechanism in an area ruled by gangs.
“In Dallas, in the projects, you either had to be a good fighter or a fast runner, and I never could run too fast. I went from being a person who would see a fight coming and move away from it, to initiating fights. If you’d so much as look at me wrong, I’d haul off and hit you. I was getting into three-four fights a week. It was crazy. I guess I was an angry young man. Yet, I considered myself a meek person. I describe a meek person as a steel fist in a velvet glove. I would do everything I could to get out of a fight, but when I got cornered and I had to fight, I never lost one. Sometimes, I lost my temper and did something stupid.”
During this time, he lived a kind of double life. He was a star high school football and basketball player and a regular churchgoer, but also a notorious gangsta. His mother had grown up in the church before drifting away. When she found religion again, she made Morris and his sister attend services. He chafed at the fire-and-brimstone admonitions hollered down from the pulpit.
“The church I was raised in, you never heard a lot about grace. It was a lot of dos and donts and laws. You don’t smoke…don’t chew…don’t drink…don’t mess with girls. Of course, when I came of age where I could make my own decisions, there was no way I could live that kind of life when everybody else was having fun and I wasn’t doing anything.”
When his rebellion got to be too much, his mother kicked him out of the house. He went to live with his sister, stealing food to help support themselves.
His mother relocated to Omaha, where she had family, and she sent for her unrepentant son, hoping he’d find himself here. For a time, he did. He even prayed to lose his hair’s-edge temper, and it did leave him. When a neighbor training for the Golden Gloves prodded the strapping Jackson to join him at the old Swedish Auditorium, the newcomer did and soon found a home in the sport. Recognizing his talent, veteran handlers Harley Cooper, Leonard Hawkins, Ronnie Sutton, Don Slaughter and Yano DiGiacomo variously worked with him at the Foxhole Gym.
In his first amateur bout, he laid out cold his hulking opponent in a Lincoln smoker. His very next fight pitted him against the man who proved to be his main nemesis — Ron “The Bluffs Butcher” Stander. From the late 1960s through the early 1970s, they met six times — four as amateurs and twice as pros — in highly competitive, well-attended bouts. “People came out to see us fight,” said Jackson. Their matches drew crowds of 6,000-7,000. Each took the measure of the other, although Stander, Omaha’s then-Great White Hope, usually came out on top. Stander took four of the contests, including one by KO, Morris won a decision and a sixth encounter ended in a controversial draw most felt should have been a Morris win.
“Every time I turned around, there was Morris. He was my biggest, toughest opponent,” Stander said.” “Yeah, we went at it quite a bit. We just happened to come along at the same time,” Jackson said.
The intense rivalry was tailor-made for fans as the fighters embodied the classic adage that styles make fights. Jackson was the boxer, Stander the puncher. Jackson relied on his feet. Stander, on his brawn. One was black, the other white. In the era of militant Muhammad Ali, Jackson was the closest thing Omaha had to a righteous Brother bringing down The Man. Stander, meanwhile, was a real-life Rocky who got his shot at the title in a 1972 bout with champ Joe Frazier.
Morris Jackson in his fighting days
“I don’t know if I patterned myself after Ali, but I was somewhat like him because I would stick, move, think, box. I was light on my feet. But I wasn’t the type of person who talked a lot. I didn’t have any gimmicks or shuffles. I just got in and took care of business,” Jackson said.
The two long retired fighters reside in Omaha, but rarely mix. While their rivalry was too close for them to ever be friends outside the ring during their fighting days, they’ve always maintained the mutual respect warriors have for each other.
Stander is well aware of the transformation Jackson has undergone and admires his old foe for it. “He turned himself around. Yeah, he went from bad to good in a big way. God blessed him. God grabbed Morris by the neck and said, ‘Come over to me.’ Yeah, he’s a beautiful man now, I’ll tell ya.”
CreditUnited Press International
By most measures, Stander’s career surpassed Jackson’s, whose early promise ended in missed chances, bad matches, poor management, and too small takes. The familiar litany of a club fighter who never got his shot the way Stander did. Former Omaha matchmaker Tom Lovgren feels Jackson could have gone farther. Still, the fighter was once in line to join promoter Don King’s stable. He was a main eventer in Omaha’s last Golden Era of boxing. A two-time Midwest Golden Gloves champion, he compiled a 28-5-1 career pro record, including a KO of then-British Commonwealth champion Dan McALinden, a win Lovgren rates as the top by any Omaha boxer in the ‘70s. Jackson was also a sparring partner for ring legends Ron Lyle, Ernie Shavers, Joe Bugner and future champ Larry Holmes.
But then the good times ended. His run-in with the law came during a dry spell when the journeyman “couldn’t get any fights.” As he tells it, “I started running with some old friends who’d been in the joint and I was influenced by them to make some quick money in the hold up a Shaver’s food mart.” Once nabbed, he was almost grateful, he said, “because eventually somebody was going to get hurt.”
His crime spree was brief but telling and foreshadowed a later descent that threatened to land him back in jail or kill him.
While serving his stretch, Jackson studied Islam and became a Black Muslim. His dalliance with spirituality was short-lived, however. After getting out, he tried resurrecting his career but after three fights called it quits. Like many an ex-pug, he had few prospects beyond the ring and, so, he grabbed the first thing offered — bouncing at strip clubs.
“I got caught up in this lifestyle. I got to smoking marijuana and doing all the things that go with that lifestyle. My wife was working days and I was bouncing nights. We hardly ever saw each other. I was just kind of in limbo and that led to the brawls and the drinking and the drugs,” he said.
He never imagined being saved. “No. If someone would have told me, I would have said, ‘Yeah, right, you’re crazy man. Give me some of what you’re smoking.’” It was his mother who finally pulled him from the brink and back into the fold of the church. In March 1983 she staged a one-woman intervention with her wayward son. “My mother came over to my house to talk to me about what my life was like and how Christ was calling me. She shared the gospel with me in such a way as I’d never heard it before. She spoke of God’s grace. How He loves you. How He has a purpose and a plan for your life. And how it’s up to you to accept and follow the path God has for you.” What came next can only be called salvation.
“I had this sense and I heard this voice that said. ‘The line is drawn in the sand and if you don’t make the decision now, you’ll never get another chance.’ I know just as sure as I’m sitting here today that if I wouldn’t have accepted Jesus Christ in my life, I’d be gone. I’d be dead. My mother prayed. We prayed. And the next day I went to church with her.”
Church bible classes led to college religious studies and, ultimately, his ordination. His first ministry was on the streets of north Omaha. Then came the prison gig. In the mid-’90s, then-Nebraska Governor Ben Nelson granted him a full pardon.
Now, he can’t imagine going back to that old life, although he keeps memories of it nearby as a reminder of where he came from. “There’s a peace in my life. Serenity. Stability. Certainty. It makes a difference when you come from darkness to light,” he said. “I know what my life used to be like. The turmoil, the uncertainty. Spinning my wheels. Living for the weekends. No purpose.”
Living his faith, which he loudly proclaims from the inscription above his home’s front door to the message on his answering machine, is his way of telling the good news. As he tells prisoners: “You’ve got to believe in something.” He’s seen enough cons turn their lives around to know his story is not an aberration.
The proud old fighter sees his ministry as his new battleground, only instead of knocking heads, he’s about saving souls and staying straight. “Most of my teaching is biblical principles applied to our lives. I’m still a warrior. Only now when I put on my armor and go to war every day, I don’t feel turmoil. My wars are fought in my prayer closet. I pray before I do anything,” he said.
But once a fighter, always a fighter. He repeated something Ron Stander said: “If they told us to lace ‘em up again, we’d go at it.” The Preacher versus the Butcher. Now wouldn’t that be a card?
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This is another of my favorite boxing stories. I wrote it for the New Horizons. It profiles the same downtown Omaha boxing gym as featured in the House of Discipline story also recently posted here, only this time I concentrate more on the two old men who ran the gym, Kenny Wingo and Dutch Gladfelter, both of whom are now gone. I suppose my approach to this story and all the boxing stories I’ve done reveals influences of the boxing movies and documentaries and magazine articles I’ve been exposed to in a lifetime of being both thrilled and sickened by the sport. You’ll find on this blog site a handful of boxing articles I’ve written over the years, and there will be more to come.
Heart and Soul, A Mutt and Jeff Boxing Story
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
The heart and soul of Omaha amateur boxing can be found one flight above the dingy 308 Bar at 24th & Farnam. There, inside a cozy little joint of a gym, fighters snap punches at heavy bags, spar inside a makeshift ring, shadowbox and skip rope.
Welcome to the Downtown Boxing Club, a combination sweatshop and shrine dedicated to “the sweet science.” A melting pot for young Latino, African-American and Anglo pugilists of every conceivable size, shape and starry-eyed dream. They include die-hard competitors and fitness buffs. Genuine prospects and hapless pugs. Half-pint boys and burly men. They come to test their courage, sacrifice their bodies and impose their wills. For inspiration they need only glance at the walls covered with posters of boxing greats.
Whatever their age, ability or aspiration, the athletes all work out under the watchful eye of Kenny Wingo, 65, the club’s head coach, president and founder. The retired masonry contractor keeps tempers and egos in check with his Burl Ives-as-Big Daddy girth and grit. Longtime assistant Dutch Gladfelter, 76, is as ramrod lean as Wingo is barrel-wide. The ex-prizefighter’s iron fists can still deliver a KO in a pinch, as when he decked a ringside heckler at a tournament a few years back.
Together 17 years now, these two grizzled men share a passion for the sport that helps keep them active year-round. Wingo, who never fought a bout in his life, readily admits he’s learned the ropes from Gladfelter.
“He’s taught me more about this boxing business – about how to handle kids and how to run a gym – than anybody else I’ve been around,” Wingo said. “I’ve got a lot of confidence in his opinion. He’s a treasure.”
Kenny Wingo, seated
The lessons have paid dividends too, as the club’s produced scores of junior and adult amateur champions; it captured both the novice and open division team titles at the 1996 Omaha Golden Gloves tourney.
Ask Gladfelter what makes a good boxer and in his low, growling voice he’ll recite his school-of-hard-knocks philosophy: “Balance, poise, aggressiveness and a heart,” he said. “Knowing when, where and how to hit. Feinting with your eyes and body – that takes the opponent’s mind off what he’s doing and sometimes you can really crack ‘em. I try to teach different points to hit, like the solar plexus and the jaw, and to stay on balance and be aggressive counterpunching. You don’t go out there just throwin’ punches – you have to think a little bit too.”
Gladfelter’s own ring career included fighting on the pro bootleg boxing circuit during the Depression. The Overton, Neb., native rode freight train boxcars for points bound west, taking fights at such division stops as Cheyenne, Wyo., Idaho Falls, Idaho and Elko, Nev. (where the sheriff staged matches).
“I fought all over the Rocky Mountain District. You’d travel fifty miles on those boxcars for a fight. Then you’d travel fifty more to another town and you were liable to run into the same guy you just fought back down the line. They just changed their name a little,” recalls Gladfelter, who fought then as Sonny O’Dea.
He got to know the hobo camps along the way and usually avoided the railroad bulls who patrolled the freight yards. It was a rough life, but it made him a buck in what “were hard times. There wasn’t any work. Fightin’ was the only way I knew to get any money. I got my nose broke a couple times, but it was still better than workin’ at the WPA or PWA,” he said, referring to the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration and Public Works Administration.
After hanging up his gloves he began coaching amateur fighters in the early 1950s. He worked several years with Native American coach Big Fire. Gladfelter, who is part Lakota, hooked up with Wingo in the late ‘70s when he brought a son who was fighting at the time to train at the Downtown Boxing Club. Gladfelter and wife Violet have five children in all.
“After his boy quit, Dutch stayed on and started helping me with my kids,” said Wingo.With Gladfelter at his side Wingo not only refined his coaching skills but gained a new appreciation for his own Native American heritage (He is part Cherokee.).“He took me to several powwows,” said Wingo. “He taught me what a dream catcher is and the difference between a grass dancer and a traditional dancer. He’s given me maps where the Native Americans lived. I ask him questions. I do some reading. It’s interesting to me.”
A self-described frustrated athlete, Wingo grew up a rabid baseball (Cardinals) and boxing (Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson) fan in Illinois. He saw combat in Korea with the U.S. Army’s 7th Regiment, 3rd Division. After the war he moved to Omaha, where a brother lived, and worked his way up from masonry blocklayer to contractor.
He got involved with boxing about 25 years ago when he took two young boys, whose mother he was dating, to the city Golden Gloves and they insisted they’d like to fight too. Acting on the boys’ interest, he found a willing coach in Kenny Jackson. Hanging around the gym to watch them train sparked a fire in Wingo for coaching boxers.
“And I’ve kind of been hooked on it ever since. It gets in your blood,” he said.
Before long Wingo became Jackson’s cornerman, handling the spit bucket, water bottle, towel, et cetera, during sparring sessions and bouts. He increased his knowledge by studying books and quizzing coaches.
When Wingo eventually broke with Jackson, several fighters followed him to the now defunct Foxhole Gym. Soon in need of his own space, Wingo found the site of the present club in 1978 and converted empty offices into a well-equipped gym. He underwrote much of the early venture himself, but has in recent years used proceeds from pickle card sales to fund its operation. No membership fees are charged fighters, whose gloves, headgear and other essentials are provided free. He annually racks up thousands of miles on the club van driving fighters to tournaments around the Midwest and other parts of the nation. Except for fishing trips, he’s at the gym every weeknight and most Saturday mornings.
What keeps Wingo at it?
“I like working with the kids, number one. And when a kid does well it just makes you feel like all this is worthwhile. That you did your job and you got the best from him,” Wingo explains.
He enjoys helping young men grow as boxers and persons.
“When kids first come into the gym, they want to fight but they’re scared to death – because it is physical contact. But if you’re intimidated, you’ve got no chance. You try to teach them to be confident. I tell them from day one, and I keep tellin’ ‘em, that there’s three things that make a good fighter – conditioning, brains and confidence.”
Wingo feels boxing’s gotten a bad rap in recent years due to the excesses of the pro fight game.
He maintains the amateur side of the sport, which is closely regulated, teaches positive values like sportsmanship and vital skills like self-discipline.
The lifelong bachelor has coached hundreds of athletes over the years – becoming a mentor to many.
“Growing up without a father figure, Kenny’s really kind of filled that role for me,” notes Tom McLeod of Omaha, a former boxer who under Wingo won four straight city and Midwest Golden Gloves titles at 156 pounds. “We developed a real good friendship and a mutual trust and respect. I think Kenny’s a great coach and a great tactician too. He always told me what I needed to do to win the fight. He gave me a lot of confidence in myself and in my abilities. He took me to a level I definitely couldn’t of reached by myself.”
McLeod, 27, is one of several Downtown Boxing Club veterans who remain loyal to Wingo and regularly spar with his stable of fighters. Another is Rafael Valdez, 33, who started training with Wingo at age 10 and later went on to fight some 150 amateur and 16 pro bouts. Valdez’s two small sons, Justin and Tony, now fight for Wingo and company as junior amateurs.
“When my kids were old enough to start fighting,” said Valdez, “Kenny was the first one I called. He treats the kids great. There aren’t many guys who are willing to put in the amount of time he does.”
This multi-generational boxing brotherhood is Wingo’s family.
“Winning isn’t everything with me. Fellowship is,” Wingo said. “It’s the fellowship you build up over the years with fighters and coaches and parents too. I’ve got friends from everywhere and I got ‘em through boxing.”
A 1980 tragedy reminded Wingo of the hazards of growing too attached to his fighters. He was coaching two rising young stars on the area boxing scene – brothers Art and Shawn Meehan of Omaha – when he got a call one morning that both had been killed in a car wreck.
“I really cared about them. Art was an outstanding kid and an outstanding fighter. He was 16 when he won the city and the Midwest Golden Gloves. And his little brother Shawn probably had more talent than him. I’d worked with them three-four years. I picked ‘em up and took ‘em to the gym and took ‘em home. I took the little one on a fishing trip to Canada.”
Wingo said the Meehans’ deaths marked “the lowest I’ve ever been. I was going to quit (coaching).” He’s stuck with it, but the pain remains. “I still think about those kids and I still go visit their graves. It taught me not to get too close to the kids, but it’s hard not to and I still do to a certain extent.”
Quitting isn’t his style anyway. Besides, kids keep arriving at the gym every day with dreams of boxing glory. So long as they keep coming, Wingo and Gladfelter are eager to share their experience with them.
“We’ve done it together for 17 years now and we’re gonna continue to do it together for another 17 years. We both love boxing. What would we do if we quit?”
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Most writers are drawn at one time or another to write about boxing. There’s just so much atmosphere around the sport and so many characters in it. I’ve done my share of stories on boxers over the years. Every now and then I get the hankering to do another. I’m overdue for one now. This was my first and still one of my favorites. I believe it was the very first assignment I did for an Omaha news weekly called The Reader (www.thereader.com). It was 1996 and I’ve been contributing articles to that paper ever since. The story concerns a classic urban boxing gym and its denizens. A sidebar or companion piece to this feature follows below.
The Downtown Boxing Club’s House of Discipline
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The Powers Building at 24th and Farnam holds a dingy little dive called the 308 Bar, whose sodden patrons belly up in pursuit of oblivion. Directly above the bar, yet a world apart, lies an athletic retreat where sturdy, modern-day spartans engage in a punishing physical regimen offering personal renewal and redemption. The first is a public house of pain. The second, a private house of discipline.
As dusk falls over downtown on a raw, windy day in February, a short but well-chiseled uniformed cop with dark, brooding good looks – Vince Perez – glides with cocksure grace towards the bar, which he bypasses to step inside a glass-fronted entrance next door. A shabby carpeted staircase – enclosed by water-stained and paint-peeled walls – takes him one flight up to a dim landing poised between empty offices. He follows a hallway to a bare, unvarnished pine door, behind which the rhythmic sounds of leather-lashed discipline reverberate.
Vince has once again arrived at 24th Street’s House of Discipline, otherwise known as the Downtown Boxing Club, where once inside he’s transformed from peace officer into fighting warrior. He says a warrior’s mentality is vital for entering a 20’ by 20’ ring to test yourself – one-on-one – against another man: “I think that’s the attitude you have to have to even get in the ring. Because that’s the way it is – you and him. The other guy wants to hurt you and it’s a challenge to see if your body is in good enough shape to try and withstand that.”
If your only boxing references are Hollywood-based, then the club will surprise you. The gym doesn’t ooze a moody “Raging Bull” atmosphere. The utilitarian brick-walled space is a non-profit center for amateur boxing – a closely regulated sport featuring many safeguards, such as mandatory headgear, that are worlds away from the anything-goes excesses of the pro fight game. Knockouts and serious injuries are rare here. No punch-drunk pugs hang around the gym. It doesn’t reek of stale sweat, urine and blood.
The gym lays out on one level, comprised of tidy work stations – the largest of which is a makeshift ring. Two medicine balls sit against a ring post. Outside the ropes four heavy bags hang in a row – like sides of beef – from chains fastened to the ceiling’s metal crossbeam. Speed bags stand at opposite ends of the room.
Banks of tall windows filter in natural light, which blends with the fluorescent tube lighting overhead to cast a vague yellowish tint over the place. Rusted radiators and exposed pipes run along one wall. Plastered to another wall are posters of famous pugilists and snapshots of club fighters – all silently bearing witness to the men at work there.
On any given night fighters train under the scrutiny of three men: Club founder, president, head coach and chief guru Ken Wingo, 64, wields a commanding authority befitting his Burl Ives-as-Big Daddy girth and grit; resident ring historian and assistant coach Dutch Gladfelter, who hopped freight trains to fight on the pro bootleg boxing circuit during the Depression, offers priceless pointers on feints, footwork and kill shots; and swarthy assistant coach John Glatgakos, a martial arts aficionado turned boxing buff, barks instructions in his thick Boston accent.
Wingo, who never fought a round in his life, describes himself as the ultimate frustrated athlete. He started coaching out of sheer love for the sport. He credits much of his boxing acumen to Dutch, a ramrod at 76 whose arms hang like thick lengths of lead pipe from his sloped shoulders.
Through mid-February the coaches paid special attention to Vince, Steve Ray, Andy Schrader and Craig Price, who were all preparing for the Midwest Golden Gloves Tournament (Feb. 16-17). Vince, who usually trains at Offutt Air Force Base under former world-class amateur boxer Kenny Friday, and the others fought gamely in the Midwest competition. But this story isn’t about wins or losses. It’s about how and why the men of the House of Discipline dedicate themselves to the rituals of the ring.
Wingo himself says, “Winning isn’t everything with me. Fellowship is.” Indeed, everyone at the club is treated the same. There’s a fraternal, democratic spirit that keeps many members coming back for years. A boxing brotherhood borne from grueling workouts and sparring sessions as well as long road trips to smokers and tourneys. For example, after sparring combatants touch gloves as a sign of sportsmanship, telling each other, “Good work.” There’s no animosity because it’s all about being pushed to your limits through clean hard work and competition. The sport breeds mutual respect because it takes courage to do what boxers do.
Club members can’t be pigeonholed. Most are men in their late teens or early 20s, although many boys compete in the junior ranks and an occasional woman works out there. There are family men like Vince, whose wife Heather is expecting the couple’s first child. A fireman named John. Blue-collar types like Steve and Craig. College students. Some members come purely for the exercise. All share a passion for boxing so intense they sacrifice long hours training for a chance at not so much winning a title or trophy as a measure of honor and comradeship not found anywhere else.
“I love coming down to the gym just for the camaraderie with the guys,” says Steve, who’s trained there since 1991. “We work out together and try to push each other and help each other out as much as we can.”
Rafael Valdez, 33, started training under Wingo as a 10-year-old junior amateur and a quarter-century later still spars with Wingo’s stable of fighters, who now include Rafael’s two small sons, Justin and Tony. He fondly recalls Wingo driving him and other youngsters to regional competitions, something Wingo still does today. After 150 amateur and 16 pro bouts, Rafael, an electrician, remains loyal to his friend and mentor.
The club is proving ground, training facility and sporting haven for boxers like Rafael. The physical and mental discipline learned there is all fighters have to fall back on when, as Craig says, you’re alone in the ring and wild with adrenalin and “somebody’s tryin’ to take your head off.”
Steve describes “the rush you get at the beginning, when you’re almost so scared you want to back out and you’ve got to push yourself to go on. It’s not fear of being hurt. It’s fear of losing and not doing well.” Of losing face among the brotherhood.
“Boxing’s the only sport in the world where the intent is to hurt the other guy, so there’s that little bit of trepidation there,” notes Wingo. “But if you’re intimidated, you’ve got no chance. You try to teach fighters to be confident. You say, “You can go with this guy, otherwise I wouldn’t have put you in there.’ You have to be a bit of a psychologist. You have to know when to build them up and when to settle them down.”
Rafael says “the nerves” usually fade after the first blows are struck, although doubts sometimes creep in, making you wonder, “‘What the hell am I doin’ in here?’” The answer is you’re trying to prove something. Not your manhood or prowess exactly, but more your heart, your skill, your determination – to meet the challenge and go the distance.
“For me, the sport of amateur boxing isn’t so much about who’s tougher, but more about how far I can take my body,” says Vince, who despite being 29 is a relative newcomer to the sport. “I’m more concerned about getting hurt on my job than in the ring. Boxing’s more a test of whether my style, my skills, my training are better than yours. For me, life is just a series of goals and this is just a goal I have.”
The eight-year Omaha Police Department veteran is a superb athlete who’s competed in baseball, basketball and bodybuilding. He started boxing in 1994 – drawn by the keen fitness it develops and the steep athletic challenges it poses: “It’s such a demanding sport. Unless you’ve tried it, you have no idea what it entails. You’re always on your feet, moving around. There’s a lot of hand-eye coordination. It truly is an art. And if you’re out of shape, two or three minutes can be an eternity.”
Wingo says, “It takes more hard work to go three two-minute rounds than it does for a football player to play a whole game because boxing’s non-stop action. Three things make a good boxer – conditioning, brains and confidence. You’ve got to pay the price to be a good boxer by training hard – getting up in the morning to go running when you’d much rather lay in bed. You’ve got to be smart and to be able to think on your feet.”
Although boxing’s macho ethic is what first appealed to Steve, a husband and father two, he’s grown to love the competition and the self-reliance required to compete. “You’ve got to do a lot of stuff, like running and dieting, when nobody’s around. If you’re not disciplined, you’ll never do it.” The 24-year-old drywall construction foreman says boxing’s’ given him a new resolve that’s carried over into other aspects of his life. “I’ve learned discipline from the gym. I didn’t do well in school. I was lazy. But how well I dedicated myself to boxing and how fast I learned boxing made me feel confident. Now I know if I set my mind to something I can accomplish it. It’s extended even to my work. I’ve excelled at work.”
Wingo admires the tenacity displayed by fighters like Steve and Vince – family men with demanding full-time jobs – who “have to pay a steep price” in order to box. “Anytime you love something like they love boxing, you’re going to be good at it,” he says.
Vince pays the price every day by juggling his patrolman’s schedule with classes at Bellevue University – where he pursues a dual major in sociology and psychology – with a workout that includes a 2-mile run, 40 minutes at the gym (usually on his lunch break) and 500 sit-ups. “It’s tough. I really have to prioritize my time.”
At the gym the fighters follow a routine that hardly varies from night to night. All arrive with a business-like attitude that’s relaxed enough for them to trade jibes with Wingo and company. Inside a cramped locker room they change from street clothes into assorted shorts, sweats, T-shirts and tank-tops. They wrap their hands with rolls of cloth. In the gym they stretch out on the scuffed wood floor and variously jump rope, work the Stairmaster or treadmill, ride the stationary bike and do push-ups or sit-ups.
They lace on gloves to hit the heavy bags – throwing furious combinations of straight lefts and rights, hooks, uppercuts and jabs – and drum away at the speed bags. When all the bags are going at once, the pounding, pulsing noise cascades around the room, pierced every few minutes by a ringing bell that calls time. The fighters climb in the ring to shadowbox – glancing at large mirrors propped against the windows – fighting their reflected images. And each takes turns punching bang pads (overstuffed mitts) worn by John, who exhorts them to “double up.”
Andy, a 132-pounder, is a sawed-off Andre Agassi-lookalike whose scrappiness covers limited boxing skills. Craig, a 6’4” 200-pounder, is an impulsive fighter and powerful puncher. His wicked shots rock the heavy bags and send shudders through John’s arms and shoulders. Steve, who has a model’s rakish body and classic face, and Vince, who always looks just right or as Wingo puts it – “slick” – even in sweats, are the smoothest, most stylish boxers. A blur of bobbing, weaving motion – shifting weight from hip to hip, blocking and throwing punches from different positions. What Steve (147 pounds) and Vince (125 pounds) lack in power, they make up for with quickness, precision, smarts.
On sparring nights, the guys grow tense – pacing the room, unable to keep still – just like before a fight. Wearing headgear and mouthpieces, they spar three two-minute rounds. The action’s fierce but lacks the no-holds bar fury of the real thing. Guys hold back just a little. This, after all, is “only” training. During each session a harsh rhythm and momentum builds as arms flail, gloves thump, heads butt, and feet shuffle in a muscular dance around the ring – the partners variously swinging, clinching and bounding at each other at the most unexpected angles.
Wingo, Dutch and John clamber onto the ring apron and, leaning against the frayed ropes, cajole and challenge them: “Go ahead, throw the jab…jab, jab, jab. There you go. Snap it off, that’s it. Stick with ‘em now. You need to relax – you’re stiff as a wedding cake. Think. Are you thinkin’?”
The object is to teach fighters basic boxing skills and refine these through repetition. If fighters learn their lessons well, they respond swiftly, instinctively in the ring to opponents’ tactics and coaches’ advice. It all gets back to the discipline that a taskmaster like Wingo imparts.
“Boxing teaches discipline,” Wingo explains. “A coach is like a sergeant in combat. When the sergeant hollers ‘Charge!’ everybody’s got to move. If someone hangs back, then that messes up the whole works. They’ve (fighters) got to do what you tell them without even thinking. They’ve got to have that respect for you. It takes a little more discipline than most kids have these days. When you find kids who want to do that, than you’ve got something special. If it helps the kids (outside boxing), that’s a bonus. If we win championships, that’s a bigger bonus.”
Sergeant Wingo drills his soldiers in the finer points of competition – both in and out of the ring – at his very own House of Discipline, where everyone marches to the same regimented beat. Call it the boxing rag.
The House of Discipline Boys at the Golden Gloves
©by Leo Adam Biga
You arrive opening night at the Midwest Golden Gloves and find the site is not some grimy, smoke-filled, boxing noir pit. Instead, the Mancuso Convention Center is a clean air-filtered, too-bright, flat, open expanse of institutional tile and plastic-chrome chairs.
A creaking wooden ring stands on risers near the back. Even when empty the severe, boundaried square seems an incongruous, slightly menacing presence in a space where trade shows and sales meetings normally unfold. And even though you know the tamer, safer brand of amateur boxing will be fought there, you can’t help but feel queasy thinking blood might splatter you at ringside.
The meager, subdued crowd is an insider’s, sportsman’s audience made up of coaches and fighters, die-hard fans and friends and relatives of competitors. The mood is expectant and convivial, with much handshaking and playful sparring. The small turnout is typical of local boxing events now, but a far cry from the days when the Gloves packed the Civic Auditorium.
Just behind the arena is a hall (complete with stage) turned assembly area, where fighters, coaches and officials mill before bouts with nervous, pent-up energy. Ken Wingo and his Downtown Boxing Club crew (save Vince Perez, who’s received a bye into the finals) hold down a corner of the stage to wait. Fighters deal differently with the waiting: Andy Schrader sits on a chair, pumping his legs to music on his Walkman’s headphones – getting “in the zone”; Steve Ray stays loose stretching; Craig Price sits and stands and paces with quiet intensity. All say they feel confident going in.
Once the fight card begins, the crowd noise drifts into the staging area and the boxers steal peeks at the early action. As their own fights draw near, the club’s boxers get their hands wrapped and gloves laced. Each shadowboxes before following assistant coach John Glatgakos into a cement block hall to pummel the bang pads, Glatgakos urging them on: “C’mon, left-right, explode! Explode!” Wingo interrupts to matter-of-factly announce, “Time to go.” A short wait ensues in the wings before fighters and coaches walk the gauntlet – a stanchioned aisle – that passes through the crowd and leads to the ring. Wingo, towel strewn over one shoulder, sits in the corner at ringside beside Glatgakos, who as cornerman handles the water bottle, spit bucket and stool for fighters.
Wingo’s boys have a rough night of it. First,Schrader is retired (TKO’d) in round two after taking the second of two standing eight counts. Then the usually fluid Ray looks sloppy versus a rare left-handed foe and drops the decision. Wingo reminds both “there’s no disgrace in losing.” Finally, Price out-slugs a much shorter man to win a spirited bout that proves the crowd’s favorite. Later, Price’s red, puffy left eye is the only evidence he and the others have fought.
At ringside the fights flash by as bursts of pouncing torsos, thrashing arms and fast moving feet bouncing off the taut, worn tarp covering the floor. Many blows miss their mark, but with every solid impact a fighter’s face winces from the sting and his head whips back from the jolt – sending sweat, but thankfully not much blood, spraying over you. More than anything, each fighter tries imposing his will on his opponent inside that terribly small ring and is left spent from the effort. At the final bell – just like after sparring – men tap gloves, embrace and say “Good fight.”
Night two features the finals. The pre-fight rituals are the same. Perez and coach Kenny Friday arrive early since Perez’s 125-pound match tops the card. Even out of his policeman’s dress blues Perez carries himself with a certain aplomb. He looks every inch the fighting warrior with his grim face, swaggering walk and resplendent boxing garb – a black top and white trunks with blue trim showcasing his hard brown body.
He’s drawn the much younger, yet more experienced Rudy Mata. With Friday and Wingo in his corner and wife Heather in the crowd, Perez appears supremely confident despite this being only his fifth sanctioned fight. From the start Mata presses the action – boring in on Perez to pepper him with punches. Perez rebounds, using his mobility to escape serious trouble and his hand speed to bloody Mata’s nose, the crimson staining Perez’s white gloves. Entering the final two-minutes, it’s anybody’s fight.
Things turn quickly that last round when Mata comes out firing and traps Perez against the ropes. By the time Perez can counterattack, it’s too late. The bell sounds, ending the fight and the cop’s chance at victory. The two men fall into each other’s arms as the crowd sounds its approval. The decision, as expected, goes to Mata and the two warriors leave the ring proudly – knowing they’ve given a good effort.
Afterwards, Perez analyzes the fight: “After the first round I told Kenny (Friday), ‘I can beat this guy.’ Going into that last round I was real comfortable, but then I forgot my whole game plan. He stepped up the pressure and I stopped jabbing. I’m disappointed I lost, but I’m pretty happy I did this well.”
Later that evening Price loses the heavyweight championship to Emerson Chasing Bear who, true to his Native American name, nimbly pursues Price around the ring, slipping punches and assaulting him with jabs and crosses. It’s not even close. Afterwards, a dejected Price picks his performance apart: “My form wasn’t there. I wasn’t snapping my punches enough. I felt slow and clumsy. My head just wasn’t in it.”
Perez says his bout was probably his last, although he’ll still hit the bags and spar. He’s eying new athletic challenges now – like a triathlon (once he learns to swim). Schrader, Ray and Price plan on fighting a little while yet. Each echoes Price’s vow to get “back at the gym” and “work on what I did wrong.” None have ambitions of turning pro.
While boxing remains an avocation for these men, it’s also a way of life – just as the House of Discipline is not merely a gym, but a place for growth and self-discovery.
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