Home > Uncategorized > Omaha’s Fight Doctor, Jack Lewis, and His Boxing Cronies Weigh-in On Omaha Hosting the National Golden Gloves

Omaha’s Fight Doctor, Jack Lewis, and His Boxing Cronies Weigh-in On Omaha Hosting the National Golden Gloves


Omaha’s Fight Doctor, Jack Lewis, and His Boxing Cronies Weigh-in On Omaha Hosting the National Golden Gloves

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

For the first time since 1988, Omaha plays host to the National Golden Gloves boxing tournament, one of this nation’s showcases for amateur boxing. The 2006 tourney is a six-day event scheduled April 24 through 29 at two downtown venues. The preliminary rounds and quarterfinals will be fought at the Civic Auditorium the first four days, with the semi-final and championship bouts at Qwest Center Omaha the final two days.

Historically, the national Golden Gloves has produced scores of Olympic and world champions. Former Gloves greats include Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Evander Holyfield and Roy Jones, Jr..

Three men with long ties to the local boxing scene recently shared their thoughts on the Gloves with the New Horizons. The man heading up the event is Omaha’s fight doctor, Jack Lewis, a 71-year-old internal medicine physician. As a doctor who loves a sport that gets a bad name from the medical community, he’s a paradox. While a staunch supporter of amateur boxing, he’s a fierce critic of the professional fight game, which he’s come to abhor. His experience in the prizefighting arena included serving as ringside physician for the 1972 world heavyweight title fight here between champ Joe Frazier and contender Ron Stander. Dr. Lewis stopped the fight after the 4th round with a battered Stander blinded by blood in his eyes.

“I love the sport of amateur boxing. I was involved in pro boxing and I didn’t like that from a medical standpoint. After just a few years working with the pros, I quit. In some cases, I didn’t know who the fighters were. They were fighting under false names. I’d ask all these questions and the boxer would say the last time he lost a fight was a month ago in Chicago, and then some guy would come up later and tell me that same guy got knocked out last night in Chicago. These pro boxers move around, have fake names, won’t give you their true medical history. Those pro boxing days are behind me. That sport needs to be cleaned up,” Dr. Lewis said.

More than a fan of amateur boxing, he’s a veteran ringside doctor and longtime president of the Great Plains Boxing Association, the main organizing body for amateur boxing in Nebraska. This is the second time under his leadership his hometown of Omaha is presenting the Golden Gloves nationals. He’s optimistic about how the event will fare here even though recent national Gloves tourneys in cities like Kansas City have failed miserably at the gate.

“We’ve done this before. I think our sales are going very well,” he said.

With Omaha’s success as College World Series host and with the Qwest Center filled to capacity for Creighton men’s basketball home games and slated to host a slew of NCAA post-season events, plus the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, the city’s known as a sports-friendly town. That’s why there’s talk of Omaha vying to have the Golden Gloves on a regular basis. As the event is bid out a few years in advance, it would be awhile before Omaha could get the Gloves again.

“Omaha knows how to put people in the seats. Plus, this is really a fight town,” said Harley Cooper of Omaha, a former national Gloves champ serving as the 2006 tournament director. “It’s an outstanding event. Fans will see the best boxing in the country and probably see some future Olympic and professional champions.”

Omaha boxing historian Tom Lovgren joins many others in calling the Qwest “a great facility. The people there do a superb job.”

While he never boxed, Dr. Lewis lettered in football and rugby at Stanford University, backing up John Brodie at quarterback in the late 1950s. He said his athletic background and internal medicine specialization “lent itself” to begin treating athletes. After graduation from Stanford and the University of Nebraska Medical School, he did his internal medicine residency in Oakland, Calif. He came back to Omaha in 1964 to practice with his physician father. Right away, his sports medicine interest found him treating a variety of athletes: jockeys at the Ak-Sar-Ben thoroughbred race track; football players at his alma mater Central High School, where he’s been team physician since 1964; and boxers at the Omaha and Midwest Golden Gloves tournaments. His son John is now in practice with him.

His passion for amateur boxing has only grown. He enjoys the purity of the sport, he applauds the protective headgear and other measures taken to ensure fighters’ safety and believes the competition instills discipline in its participants.

“I think the gutsiest athlete is the guy that steps in the ring and some guy comes after you. I think it builds character. I think it teaches you restraint. It helps you collect yourself. Through those years I’ve been to many meetings and been to many nationals and I’ve been the ringside physician at hundreds of fights and taken care of a lot of medical problems at the fights. Even though I never fought, I’ve educated myself in boxing and in all the trials and tribulations of the kids.”

He said amateur boxing has suffered unfairly from the ills of its pro counterpart. “There’s been a lot of deaths and those deaths really hurt amateur boxing because then parents don’t want their kids to go into boxing. There’s been a lot of unscrupulous stuff. When I started it was a more popular sport. Today, kids are into doing all kinds of other things. They just don’t go into boxing anymore. And the coaching ranks have really declined. It’s an uphill battle.”

Despite smaller numbers, Lovgren said “there are kids around that can fight and the Golden Gloves is still a major contributor to the U.S. Olympic boxing team. It’s a feeder.” He said a Gloves title “still carries weight. If you’re a national Golden Gloves champion, you’re highly respected when you make a turn to the pro ranks.”

Dr. Lewis said another thing unchanged is racial-ethnic minorities drawn to boxing. “Our best boxers in the state now are Latinos. There’s been a great influx of Spanish-speaking kids. Unfortunately, many of them don’t have U.S. citizenship and the rules require you to be a citizen in order to compete at nationals.”

In the history of the Golden Gloves, there’s been but five champions from Nebraska. According to Lovgren, the best of the bunch was Harley Cooper, who won his titles when he was in his late 20s, much older than the typical Gloves fighter. Since retiring from the ring, Cooper’s devoted time to developing and supporting area amateur boxing.

“Everybody wanted him to fight for them,” said Lovgren, a former prize fight matchmaker and a longtime observer of the local fight scene. “The first time anybody saw him in the gym they knew this guy was going to be a national champion. He could punch. He could box. He could do it all. He was the most complete fighter I ever saw from around here. I never saw Harley Cooper lose a round in amateur fights in Omaha. He was that dominant.”

A hard-hitting, smooth-moving boxing machine, then Air Force tech sergeant Harley Cooper twice won the Golden Gloves Trinity by taking the Omaha, Midwest and National titles in both ‘63 and ‘64. The tough Savannah, Georgia native got schooled in the Sweet Science in the military. He first started training for the Gloves after he was assigned to Offutt Air Force Base.

His first title run came, unexpectedly, at heavyweight, culminating in the ‘63 finals in Chicago. Cooper was a natural light heavyweight but after an overseas transfer to Nebraska he didn’t have time to cut weight in advance of the local Gloves. Over the light-heavy limit, his handlers convinced him, against his better judgment, to compete in the heavyweight division, where he felt woefully undersized at 183 pounds. Even after winning the local-regional heavyweight titles, he still campaigned to go back to light-heavy, where he was more comfortable, but “they wouldn’t let me move down,” he says, referring to his trainers. “They kept saying, ‘Well, let’s see how far you can go.’” He went all the way.

In ‘64, Cooper fought at his accustomed light-heavy spot, plowing through to the nationals in Nashville, where he won his second title. In the proceeding 40 years, only one other Nebraska fighter has won a national Gloves title. Lovgren said Cooper was so dominant that the “Harley Cooper Rule” was enacted to set the maximum age limit at 27.

Cooper’s win in Nashville put him in line for the Olympic Trials box-off in New York, which he won. In peak fighting trim and riding an unbeaten streak, he was primed to bust some heads in Tokyo. Fate then intervened in his bid for Olympic glory when, on the eve of leaving for Japan, he was medically disqualified.

Besides Cooper, the only other Nebraska boxers crowned national Gloves champions were Carl Vinciquerra and Paul Hartneck in 1936, Hartneck again in ‘37, Ferd Hernandez in 1960, and, most recently, Lamont Kirkland in 1980. A number of Nebraskans advanced to the semi-finals or finals, only to lose. In general, Dr. Lewis said, area kids are at a distinct disadvantage. “Amateur programs here are not strong. We don’t have enough coaches to train these kids. We don’t have enough fighters to have regular smokers that season them. Every year, our kids go to nationals with maybe 10-12 fights under their belt and they face opponents with 70-80 fights.”

Cooper said by Omaha holding the nationals it can only help raise the level of the amateur boxing scene here. “It will let our kids see what they have to strive to obtain — the different skills and knowledge they will need to be a world class boxer, and seeing is much better than someone explaining to you.” He added that “the biggest difference between our fighters and the fighters from bigger cities is that they’re stronger and bigger and more skilled. Its a big step up.”

“It’s going to be a great weekend for amateur boxing in Omaha, Nebraska,” Lovgren said. “I just hope a couple guys from Omaha can go as far as the finals..”

A raucous home crowd could help spur a local fighter to do great things. “It can’t hurt,” Lovgren said. “Who knows? Anything can happen. Boxing’s a funny game.”

“There’s still some kids out there. We should see some real good boxing,” added Dr. Lewis.

A final elimination stage before the nationals will be held March 17 and 18 at the Civic’s Mancuso Hall. Winners in this Midwest Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions will complete Nebraska’s 11-man contingent for the April national tourney.

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