Ron Stander, a One-Time Great White Hope, Still Making the Rounds for Friends in Need
I did this follow up story on ex-Omaha heavyweight boxer Ron Stander about seven or eight years after the first story I did on him, which you will also find on this blog. In that earlier piece Stander was still fighting some demons, still in the throes of recovery. In the interim, Stander had come to terms with some things in his life and by the time I did this second story he seemed more at peace with himself and his place in the world. Stander was and is a tough dude, but he’s also a big teddy bear of a man with a heart of gold. That’s one thing that’s never changed about him. This story, which originally appeared in the New Horizons, portrays Stander as the good man he is, just a regular guy who helps his friends, including some fellow ex-boxers who have fallen on various hard times. To a man, his buddies love him. It’s heartening to know that Stander is now happily remarried and writing his life story. It should be a helluva read.
Ron Stander, a One-Time Great White Hope, Still Making the Rounds for Friends in Need
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Far from the spotlight he inhabited when he fought for the world heavyweight boxing title 35 years ago, Ron “The Bluffs Butcher” Stander goes about his daily routine these days in relative obscurity. That’s fine with him. He had his moment in the sun. He’d rather be remembered anyway as a good man, a good father and a good friend than as a good fighter.
“Yeah, right, that’s exactly it,” he said. “I just want to be a good person.”
He lives a simple life, both by choice and circumstance. He may be poor in finances, but he’s rich in friends. Despite his own problems, he aids folks less well-off and able than him, often making the rounds to visit old pals, many of whom he knows “from boxing.” Some, like Tony Novak, Gabe Barajas and Art Hernandez, are ex-fighters. Novak and Hernandez sparred with Stander back in the day.
Fred Gagliola coached a young Stander as an amateur Golden Gloves fighter. Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon is an ex-pro wrestler quite popular here. Stander and Vachon know the highs and lows of life inside and outside the ring. Tom Lovgren was the matchmaker for many Stander fights and at one time managed him.
Each man suffers some kind of health impairment or disability. All befriended Stander at one time or another and he’s never forgotten it.
“They all helped me. Now I attempt to give back in some way. I like to help out. They were in my corner and now I’m in their corner,” said Stander, who variously does chores, runs errands and offers companionship for them.
Lovgren is afflicted with multiple sclerosis. The effects of the advanced disease confine him to a wheelchair. When his wife Jeaninne broke a leg last winter she could not get her large husband out of his chair into bed.
“So I called Ronnie and said, ‘Can you come down and help me into bed every night?’ — and he did,” Lovgren said. “He came down at 10:30 every night and put me to bed. I paid him, because he didn’t have to do that. He’s a good friend.”
Not long ago Lovgren took a fall at home, unable to get up by himself or even with an assist from his petite wife. Enter Stander.
“It was about 10 o’clock at night. I was beat, tired. I worked hard that day and I was all out of gas. I’d just had my first beer of the night when Jeaninne called. ‘Can you help out?’ I went down to their place. He was flat on the floor and I had to pick him up…and put him in his chair. It was a tough lift. Boy, he’s getting heavy. Probably weighs 250. Dead weight,” Stander said. “I about didn’t make it. Jeaninne had to get on his side and grab his pants and pull him up. We got him though.”
Stander’s glad to help the man who so much did for him. Lovgren not only got him fights, but was part of the team that readied him for his May 25, 1972 title bout with champ Joe Frazier in a jam-packed Civic Auditorium. Lovgren prodded Stander to get in fighting trim and stay away from late night beer binges.
“He would always get me to do the road work real good,” Stander said. “He’d take me running, count laps. He was a real disciplinarian. But fun, too. I respected him.”
Before he challenged for the championship, Lovgren arranged what Stander called a “steppingstone” match with future contender Earnie Shavers. Considered one of the hardest punchers in the heavyweight division, Shavers’ blows “felt like getting hit by a night stick or a ball bat,” Stander said. “It was like a whip cracking at the end.” After a slow start that saw him get pummeled, he KO’d Shavers in the fifth. Shavers reportedly had to be carried off by his corner.
That became Stander’s signature win. His most notable loss, of course, came in his title bid. After losing to Frazier, Stander sank into a deep depression and his career nose-dived. “I didn’t have any desire,” he said.
Except when Lovgren got him a marquee match against former contender Ken Norton on the undercard of the Muhammad Ali-Jimmy Young bout. Norton won when the fight was stopped in the fifth due to cuts he opened up on Stander, who was prone to bleed, but to this day “The Butcher” feels he would have had a tiring Norton “out of there in another round or two.”
Coulda’, woulda, shoulda’. “You can’t fight destiny” Stander said.
Away from the ring, the fighter admires how Lovgren has never given up in his own battle with MS. Despite the debilitating disease, Lovgren has raised a family, worked, traveled and maintained his passion for sports, especially boxing.
“He’s been an inspiration,” Stander said. “He’s paid his dues.”
The other men Stander helps are inspirations to him, too.
Former world middleweight contender Art Hernandez lost a leg after a freak fall from a roof, but he hasn’t let it stop him from living a life and enjoying his family. “I’ve got all the respect for him, too,” said Stander, who, like Lovgren, considers Hernandez to have been the best fighter, pound-for-pound, to ever come out of Nebraska. As an undersized but much quicker sparring partner, Hernandez used to frustrate Stander in the gym, confounding and evading the lumbering heavyweight. “I couldn’t hit him with a handful of rice,” Stander said.
Stander admires too how “Mad Dog” Vachon has not allowed the mishap that cost him a leg to embitter him.
“’Mad Dog’s’ a good guy,” he said. “He has a great attitude.”
Through “Mad Dog” Stander met an array of pro wrestling legends, such as Andre the Giant. “When I shook his hand it was like grabbing a pillow,” he said.
When Hernandez first got fitted with his prosthesis Stander brought him over to “Mad Dog’s” place so these two old warriors with artificial limbs would know they were not alone. The gesture touched the two men.
“He did me a favor that day,” Hernandez said.
“He’s got a heart of gold,” Vachon said. “He’s a very nice man. A real softee. He’s the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back.”
Since suffering a series of strokes Fred Gagliola, the man who helped show Stander the ropes as an amateur, has trouble getting by.
“I was just weeding in his yard the other day,” Stander said one summer morning outside the south downtown home of the man he calls Coach. “He can’t do much. I sweep and mop the floor for him.” “He cuts the grass, he throws out the garbage,” Coach said. “Whatever it takes,” added Stander. “I just try to help him however I can. He was on my side in the Gloves, you know. He backed me, supported me. He did favors, I do favors. He helped me, I try to help him now. So it’s pay back.”
Although he can use the money, Stander doesn’t lend a hand for the “couple bucks” he earns “here and there.” “Other things,” besides money, “make him happy,” Vachon said. Like doing good deeds.
Friends and family are all that are left once the money runs dry and the glory fades. “Mad Dog” and “The Butcher” made names for themselves in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Vachon reigned as an All-Star Wrestling king on cards at the Omaha Civic Auditorium. That’s where Stander enjoyed his greatest ring success, topped by challenging Frazier for “all the marbles” in what may have been the biggest sporting event Omaha’s ever seen.
The title fight was the pinnacle of his career. But life goes on. Things change. Stander was 27 and fighting on the biggest stage his sport has to offer — in his adopted hometown no less. Before friends and family and the assembled boxing world he put himself on the line and he failed. The fight was stopped after four rounds, Stander’s face a bloody, pulpy mask. He never went down, though. He pleaded for the fight to continue, but ringside physician Jack “Doc” Lewis made the only call he could given that Stander was blinded by blood from ugly gashes and could no longer defend himself. A longtime friend said Stander cried in the dressing room, sure he’d disappointed everyone. The friend assured him he hadn’t.
The incident reveals a couple things: how much Stander, often accused of taking a nonchalant approach to his training, cared about representing his hometown; and his never-say-die attitude. “I trained hard for the fights I cared about. I wanted to prove I was a legitimate contender,” he said. No one could ever call him a quitter.
“He’s got a heart the size of this room,” Lovgren said from his spacious living room. “When Joe Frazier is unloading on you and you’re still standing, you’re something special. Tough guy.”
Life hasn’t been a bed-of-roses since the Frazier fight. Stander’s contentious first marriage ended. He didn’t get to see much of his oldest two kids growing up. He remarried and had two boys before this second marriage soured. He has custody of the boys, Rowan and Ryan. He tried being an entrepreneur, owning his own bar, but that didn’t last. Long an imbiber, he developed a problem with alcohol and a DWI landed him behind bars. “I was stupid. I made some wrong decisions. I didn’t know when to say no. Let the good times roll. Let the party begin. When I had to go away for three months it was like shock treatment,” Stander said. “I was going to grow up sooner or later. Maybe it helped me to.”
The biggest blow — to both his pocketbook and ego — was losing the best job he ever had, as a machinist at Vickers. Through it all, he’s stayed sober and tried to do the right thing for his kids and his pals.
“He’s a good guy,” Lovgren said. “He’s a good father. He takes good care of those kids. He’s really a caring person. If you ask him to do something he makes a real effort to do that. If I need anything I know he’ll come.”
Largely unemployed since 2000, Stander leads a hand-to-mouth existence that finds him scrounging for discarded cans and car batteries he brings to the recycler for chump change. He also does odd jobs for people who reward him with scratch. “Most of the time I’m trying to hustle some gas money and food money,” he said.
One of his frequent stops is A. Marino Grocery, a South 13th Street throwback, or as Stander likes to say, “blast from the past.” Proprietor Frank Marino joked, “He’s my pacifier. If somebody doesn’t pay a bill we send him out to collect.” In reality, Marino said, “We have him do little things, cleanup a little bit, make a delivery every once in awhile for me.” “Take some boxes out,” added Stander, who on a recent visit grabbed a bundle of flattened cardboard boxes and deposited them in the dumpster out back. “It’s the same at Louie M’s (Burger Lust). We’re paisan.”
It puts a few extra dollars in Stander’s pocket. Otherwise, he gets by on his monthly Social Security check. There’s no pension, no nest egg to draw on. Fighters don’t have retirement plans. He does have a 401K through Vickers, but he’s had to dip into it to make ends meet. All of which makes things tight for a man raising his two youngest boys alone. One silver lining is that his house, a mere two blocks from Rosenblatt Stadium, is paid for. Another is that his son Rowan, a senior at Creighton Prep, is a top wrestler who might earn a college athletic scholarship.
Stander’s a robust 62, but he has health issues. He’s overweight, with high blood pressure and diabetes. He’s missing several teeth. For comic relief he slips his dentures out and opens wide to show his bare mouth. He has trouble remembering things. It’s what becomes of old fighters, even one as strong as an ox like him
He doesn’t complain much, except to bemoan the loss of that machinist’s job at Vickers, where he operated drill presses, grinders and lathes. The Omaha plant closed just before Christmas 2000, leaving him and more than 1,000 co-workers out in the cold. He was 55, an age when it’s hard to start over. With only a high school education and no marketable skills, he’s got few prospects.
“When Vickers closed up, that was it, that was the final straw for me,” he said, “because by the time you’re 55 or 60, if you’re not locked into something, you’re done, you’re screwed. So I’m screwed.”
He sometimes wonders if he did the right thing pursuing a boxing career. He began at Vickers in ‘65 while still an amateur. After turning pro in ‘69 he quit his job, even though his early purses were negligible. He got $75 his first fight. A few hundred each the next few bouts. Until Frazier his biggest purse was a few thousand.
“I had a good job at Vickers…If I had stayed there all those years and not taken a shot at the title I’d be retired right now. I went back to Vickers in ‘93 and when I finally started getting the big money in ‘95 they closed the plant. That’s what grieved me. People say, ‘Well, you can start over and work your way up again’ Yeah, right, whatever.”
Men his age aren’t in demand by employers.
“I’m ready to work, but people don’t want to hire ya. I’ve talked to friends in construction and they say, ‘We’re looking for guys 35, not 55. I talked to a friend in the heating and air business and he said, ‘Well, you know, Ron, at your age we don’t want you to be up on a roof when it’s 120 degrees working on an air conditioning unit. You could have a heart attack.’ There again, the age factor.”
He did attend Vatterott College to learn a trade. He was an apartment maintenance man, but tired of tenants calling in the middle of the night demanding their leaking toilets be fixed. His pride won’t let him take an $8 or $9-an-hour job. Until a few years ago he made extra dough refereeing boxing matches in Nebraska, Iowa, the Dakotas and Minnesota. He even did a few televised title bouts. But those gigs dried up with the loss of independent promoters. He’s shut out by the casinos, where the fight action is these days, and their contract refs. Besides, with two boys, in his care he can’t be gone on those overnighters anymore.
Like the old pug in Requiem for a Heavyweight, he’s at a loss what to do now. Fighting is all he knew. For a time he did have his own bar, The Sportsman’s Club, but his weakness for the drink made that an unhealthy environment for him to be in. He’s clean and sober now, but that alone doesn’t pay the bills.
Money worries nag at him, especially with the boys to clothe and feed. “It’s a struggle,” he said. “We live on $953 a month Social Security.”
Come College World Series time he pulls in some much-needed cash parking fans’ cars, at $5 a pop, on his property. His record for one game is 26 vehicles. But that happens only two weeks a year. He also makes some money from autograph signings he does in Omaha, Lincoln, Des Monies, et cetera.
Enough time has passed that he doesn’t carry the cachet he once did, when his mug and name were enough to buy him drinks and meals and perks wherever he went. As Omaha’s last Great White Hope, everyone wanted a piece of him then.
“It’s not like it used to be,” he said.
The Vickers job seemed like a sure thing and then, poof, it was gone — the steady paycheck, the security, his self-esteem. “When I had money, when I had a job,” life was good, he said, “before things went from sugar to shit in a short time.”
Quicker than you can say, Whatever happened to?, the career club fighter blew the six-figure purse he earned for his only shot at immortality. There were a handful of other big paydays. But the pay outs in his era were small potatoes compared to the millions contenders command today.
Long gone are the days when media hounded him for quotes. His last real exposure came in 2001, when he appeared with Joe Frazier, the man who gave him a Rockyesque chance at the title. For only the second time since that fight, the two warriors met — for a Big Brothers, Big Sisters of the Midlands promotional event in Omaha. In the way that old combatants do, they embraced like long lost buddies. They were never close, but the mutual respect is real.
The ensuing years wrought much change. Their hair’s flecked with gray, their mid-sections grown soft, their speech slowed. Yet, to their good fortune, each shows few effects from the punishing blows to the head they absorbed as sluggers who took many shots to land one of their own. They still have their wits about them.
But Stander’s life is a far cry from the ex-champ’s. Frazier is an icon within the larger sports canon for his Olympic gold medal, undisputed heavyweight crown, his three memorable fights with Muhammad Ali and the dramatic way he lost the championship against George Foreman. He has his own gym and other business interests in his hometown of Philly. His much sought-after autograph brings hundreds of dollars, compared to a fraction of that for Stander’s.
Where Frazier is a featured storyline in boxing history, “The Butcher” is a sidebar and footnote. Or an answer to a trivia question: Who was the last fighter Joe Frazier beat while world champ? Ron Stander. Stander’s match with “Smokin’ Joe” came between Frazier’s two most historic fights — eight months after beating Ali at New York’s Madison Square Garden and eight months before being brutally beaten in Jamaica by Foreman, who took the crown only to lose it a year later to Ali.
The boxing world can be a small community. Even though Stander’s career is
forgettable by all-time Ring Magazine standards, he’ll always be a part of boxing history for having fought for the title. The fight occasionally shows up on ESPN Classic. His bid, too, came at a time when the title was still unified. Plus, he squared off with some of the sport’s biggest names — Frazier, Shavers, Norton, Gerrie Coetzee. Then there’s the fact his career intersected with other legends, like Foreman, who was at the title bout in Omaha and reportedly saw something he exploited when he later faced and destroyed the champ.
Specifically, Stander worked on an uppercut to take advantage of a flaw in Frazier’s defenses. In the third round he saw his opening and let the uppercut fly, missing by an inch. He figured he’d only get one chance and he was right. Conversely, Foreman pushed Frazier off and caught him coming in with the same punch.
Then there were Stander’s meetings with The Greatest. He said on four occasions he was a surrogate member of Ali’s entourage. He said Ali liked having him around for his parodies of Aliisms like, “I’m the greatest of all time.” Stander does a fair impression of Ali, of sports broadcaster Howard Cosell, who once interviewed Stander, and of Mike Tyson, the troubled ex-champ.
Stander met Tyson in Las Vegas in the ‘90s, long after his own career had ended. There’s a story behind their encounter. In preparation for Frazier, Stander manager Dick Noland wanted him far from distractions and so shipped him off to Boston to work under famed Johnny Dunn. After the Frazier fight Stander parlayed the connections he’d made back east and went to the Catskills to train under legendary Cus D’Amato. It was D’Amato who went on to mentor the young Tyson.
Stander was in Vegas, where Tyson was training for a title defense against James Broad, when he paid a call on the then-champ. As dissimilar as the two men were, they did share a pedigree in the person of Cus D’Amato.
“He knew all of Cus’ disciples and he knew I was with Cus, so he let me in the gym. No introduction, he just came right up to me, ‘Hello, Mr. Stander.’ ‘Hey, champ, how ya doin’?.’ ‘I’m working on an uppercut that will drive that nose bone into the brain.’ ‘Yeah, that’s a good move, champ,’ said Stander in a wickedly dead-on Tyson impersonation — childlike voice, silly lisp and all. “He was something.”
“The Butcher” even ended up in a film, The Mouse, based on the life of his real-life friend, ex-boxer Bruce “The Mouse” Strauss.
Stander also hung out with non-sports celebrities — as a bodyguard for the Rolling Stones and The Eagles. He said Evel Knievel, whom he got to know, offered him $3,500 to work the security detail for his Snake River Canyon jump. Instead, Stander took a fight in Hawaii, where he’d never been, for the same money.
All these brushes with fame please Stander, but as he likes to say, “That and 50 cents will get you a cup of coffee.”
He experienced about everything you can in boxing. Good, bad, indifferent. He never really announced his retirement, but he knew when it was time to quit.
“You know when you’re almost done,” he said. “You don’t have the desire or the hunger. You’re tired of the running and the road work. You’re tired working out all the time. The stitches start mounting up. Your nose gets a little flatter. Your teeth get a little looser. Your brain gets a little jiggled. You just lose it.”
If anything, he hung on too long, waiting for one more big payday that never came. “Yeah, that’s probably right,” he said. “There at the end I fought a lot out of shape because I didn’t care. But a guy’s gotta have money. It wasn’t like I was gaining seniority working for U.P.”
Rather than work for meager wages today, he scrapes by. He’d like to run his own gym, but that takes moolah. One benefit of not having a regular job is that he has time to spend with his kids and help friends.
“I try to be a role model and do the right thing for these kids. I have to show them the right way to go,” he said.
As for his friends, Stander said, “They did right by me,” and now he’s trying to do right by them. Gabe Barajas appreciates having Stander as a friend. Barajas, the former owner of Zesto’s near the zoo and stadium, said, “We’re pretty close. He used to come up and help me out there, too, shaking everybody’s hand, bringing the heavy pop coolers up to us. He did lots of things. He ate a lot, too.”
Stander’s visits to the nursing home Barajas resides in bring a smile to his friend’s face. Stander sometimes takes Barajas, who has MS, for drives, down to old haunts. He lifts Barajas from the bed or recliner into his wheelchair and puts him and the chair in his car. Stander said his friend needs outings like these. Otherwise, “that’s his life — in that room and down in the dining hall,” he said.
Fred Gagliola, Stander’s old coach, knows he can count on him. “Oh, hell, yeah. He comes down here all the time to help me out,” Gagliola said. “He’s a good friend.”
Tony Novak, Stander’s first sparring partner, lives alone in a Carter Lake trailer home. Stander frets over his buddy’s health. “Ron’s been a good, true loyal friend for 40 years. He checks on my every day,” Novak said.
The breaks maybe haven’t gone “The Butcher’s” way since he lost to Frazier, but he just chalks it up to “fate” and appreciates what he does have.
“No matter how good you are, how smart you are, how well-built you are, you gotta have a little bit of luck to go along with it,” he said. And you gotta have “a few good friends.” That he has. It’s why he’s not about to quit now. There are too many rounds to go, too many friends in need.
“You gotta do whatchya gotta do. Hang in there. You can’t fight destiny.”
- World Heavyweight Boxing Championship 1960-1975 (sportales.com)
- Top ten hardest punchers in boxing history (trueslant.com)
- Foreman gains respect even in losing title (jta.org)
- Liston and Ali: the Ugly Bear and the Boy Who Would Be King by Bob Mee: review (telegraph.co.uk)