Hot Movie Takes – “The Bronx Bull”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
1980’s “Raging Bull” is a great film that captures the demons of boxing legend Jake LaMotta through stylized filmmaking expressing the state of this complex figure’s tortured soul. Until I found it on Netflix the other night I didn’t know that a new filmic interpretation of LaMotta came out in 2016 – “The Bronx Bull.” While it’s not on the same level as the Martin Scorsese-Robert De Niro classic, it’s a good film that takes a less arty and more traditional look at those demons that made LaMotta such a ferocious fighter and haunted man.
Veteran character actor William Forsythe plays the older adult LaMotta and delivers a stellar performance that in many ways has as much or more depth as De Niro’s famous turn as LaMotta. Don’t get me wrong, De Niro’s work in “Raging Bull” is one of cinema’s great acting tour de forces for its compelling physical and emotional dimensions. but Forsythe gives perhaps a more subtle and reality grounded performance. In this telling of the LaMotta tale, the violence of his character is rooted in a Dickensian growing up that saw him abused and exploited by his own father. We are asked to accept that LaMotta was the way he was both inside and outside the ring because he had basic issues with rejection and abandonment. And he can’t forgive himself for apparently killing a fellow youth in a back alley fistfight for pay. Reality might be more complex than that, but these are as plausible explanations as any for what made LaMotta such a beast and Forsythe draws from that well of hurt to create a very believable flesh and blood man desperate for love and forgiveness.
There’s a lot of really good actors in “The Bronx Bull” and while the writing and directing by Martin Guigui doesn’t always do them justice, it’s great to see all this talent working together: Paul Sorvino, Joe Mantegna, Tom Sizemore, Ray Wise, Robert Davi, Natasja Henstridge, Penelope Ann Miller, Cloris Leachman, Bruce Davison, Harry Hamlin and James Russo.
Mojean Aria is just okay as the very young LaMotta. I think a more dynamic actor would have helped. Then again, the young LaMotta is not given many moments to explain himself or his world. That’s left to his cruel father, well-played by Sorvino. But this is Forsythe’s film and he’s more than up to the task of carrying it. Whenever he’s on screen, he fully inhabits LaMotta as a force of nature to be reckoned with. Forsythe very smartly stays away from a characterization that’s anything like what De Niro did in “Raging Bull.” Forsythe finds his own way into LaMotta and pulls out some very human, very tender things to go along with the legendary rage. The trouble with the film though is that writer-director Guigui sometimes apes “Raging Bull’s” style, either consciously or unconsciously, especially in some of the scenes inside the ring and in the way he handles the Mob characters, and since he’s no Martin Scorsese, those scenes don’t measure up.
Any story about professional boxing set in the 1940s and 1950s, as this one is, must deal with the Mob, which controlled the upper levels of prizefighting in this country in that period. This story doesn’t so much go into what Mob influence looked like during LaMotta’s career as it does what it looked like after he hung up the gloves. That said, the movie begins with a retired LaMotta testifying before a U.S. Senate sub-committee on how the Mafia ordered him to throw a fight and how he did what he had to do to get the title shot he craved. The story then picks up on how what LaMotta always feared – the Mob getting their hooks in and not letting go – catches up with him years later.
Tom Sizemore is pretty good as one Wiseguy but Mike Starr wears out his welcome playing the same kind of bungling Wiseguy he’s played in one too many pictures. In a very brief but telling scene Robert Davi is superb as a character who appears almost as a ghost to LaMotta. Natasja Henstridge is every bit as good as Sally as Cathy Moriarty was as Vickie in “Raging Bull,” and that’s saying something. After a strong opening, Penelope Ann Miller’s character of Debbie is mishandled. Debbie and LaMotta make an unlikely but interesting pairing and then she’s almost dismissed as irrelevant when she begins to tire of his antics and he’s once again threatened by rejection and abandonment. As Debbie’s mother, Cloris Leachman is fine but she’s basically reduced to being a cliche.
Joe Mantegna is a good actor and his character of Rick is compelling at the start but by the end he seems to be there more as a plot-point device than as a real figure and by then he’s frankly irritating.
According to this telling of the LaMotta story, the fighter and those close to him paid a high price for his deep reservoir of insecurity but through all the hell he put himself and others through he did eventually find peace and atonement. In the end, I wanted it and bought it, too.
This is not a great film and not even a great boxing film but you may well find it worth your time. It’s title got me thinking about a much better film with the name Bronx in it – “A Bronx Tale,” the first movie Robert De Niro directed and the project that made its writer and star, Chazz Palminteri, a star. It’s the subject of my next Hot Movie Take.
40th Anniversary of “Rocky”
By writing the screenplay for “Rocky,” holding out to play the title character and then delivering the goods in a surprise monster hit that earned industry praise, Sylvester Stallone pulled off a miracle every bit as dramatic as his fictional alter-ego Rocky Balboa going the distance with Apollo Creed.
Stallone literally wrote his own ticket to stardom. When he made the deal to sell the script to United Artists on the condition he star in it, he was an obscure character actor with no real prospects for a feature career. Stallone, much like the character of Rocky himself, had nothing to lose. That’s why he could afford to decline big money offers to sell the material so that the studio could cast Ryan O’Neal, Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Robert Redford or some other established star as the lead. He was in a once-in-lifetime bargaining position to say, you either make the movie with me or I take it somewhere else. Of course, there was no guarantee UA or any other studio would want his script bad enough to accept his terms.
Rocky is an interesting property because it bridges old and new trends. On the one hand, it’s very much in the tradition of old Warner Bros. urban dramas with the requisite love story and comedic relief thrown in. On the other hand it’s very much in tune with the new humanistic, ultra realism of late ’60s-early ’70s cinema that’s stripped away of easy sentiment. Under John Avildsen’s direction, the story is anchored in that dour, gritty, work-a-day world truth yet, when called for, it’s carried away by delirious, romanticized sentiment. The movie even anticipates the flawed Marvel superheroes who would come to dominate the American cinema box office decades later. As over the top as the ending of “Rocky” gets, it somehow all works and I think it’s because of the cumulative weight of all that transpires before it and by how much we invest emotionally in the lovable loser characters Stallone created.
Stallone followed his heart,, passion and instinct in drawing on real life elements and populist themes to create an original script that had box office written all over it but that no one outside Stallone, producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler and director Avildsen believed he could carry. Sure, any number of actors could have played the role, but no one knew the character as well as Stallone because Rocky Balboa grew out of his own personal and professional struggles. Stallone tapped his own demons and aspirations to conceive this anti-hero and then he used all those emotions again to bring that character to life on the set and on the screen.
Rocky hit at just the right time, too, in terms of the national zeitgeist. America was cynical and weary coming out of Watergate and Vietnam and so the moviegoing public was ready for an escapist, feel-good experience, Just as “American Graffiti” and “Jaws” had before it and just as “Star Wars” and “Superman” did after it, Rocky caught the wave of popcorn fare, only not relying on nostalgia or thrills or special effects like other blockbusters of that era, but on good old-fashioned storytelling and richly developed characters. Rocky was much closer in tone and content to, say, “On the Waterfront,” than to the other major boxing-themed movies of that period, John Huston’s “Fat City,” Martin Ritt’s “The Great White Hope” and Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull.” Which is to say that at the end of the day Rocky, like those other pictures, is not so much a boxing movie per se as it is a slice of life portrait of someone who just happens to be a boxer. “On the Waterfront” is essentially a crime film and morality play whose protagonist, Terry Malloy, is an ex-prizefighter. “Fat City” is a stark, nihilistic view of down-and-outers in skid-row Los Angeles, where a veteran club fighter mentors a new arrival. “The Great White Hope” profiles a black man, Jack Johnson, who refuses to live by the white man’s rules. “Raging Bull” is an expressionistic look at the demon’s that drove Jake LaMotta.
In my opinion, there are better movies about boxing than “Rocky,” such as “Creed,” “The Fighter,” “The Set-Up” “Ali,” and “Cinderella Man.” The fight scenes in “Rocky” are just too unrealistic for my tastes, though they mostly do work dramatically. But, again, “Rocky” transcends the boxing genre into something else again.
“Rocky” is a classic redemption story. In this first iteration of Rocky Balboa, Stallone gives us a man who could have been something as a fighter but has given up on himself just as others have given up on him. Then, he finds the love of a good woman and when presented with an extraordinary opportunity, he rededicates himself to his craft and rises to the challenge of facing the champ. Stallone was able to pour himself into the character in writing the script because he could so closely identify with the story of a guy everyone considers a loser who gets one chance to make things right. Art imitated life again when the studio relented and bankrolled his movie with him in the lead despite their grave reservations and he turned this million to one shot into the talk of the 1976 movie season and the catalyst for a career and, as it happened, for a four-decade long franchise.
In the sound era when has an actor been as responsible for his or her own star-making vehicle as Stallone was with Rocky? After all, he wrote the part that launched him into mega-stardom and gave him an enduring character he’s still playing 40 years later. The closest comparisons I can come up with are Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane,” which he co-wrote, directed and starred in, though that film didn’t really make him a star, and Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in “Good Will Hunting,” which “the boys” co-wrote and co-starred in, though Damon already had several major screen credits before Hunting.
Of course, in the silent era Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton wrote and directed pictures starring themselves and in the process created their own signature comic personas. In the early talkies era Mae West wrote the scripts for her own popular starring vehicles.
Surely other come-out-of-nowhere Hollywood stories have followed, but I doubt if any compare to what Stallone did with Rocky. First, there’s the enduring appeal of that original film that won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Editing. Everything had to come together to make Rocky work and it did. Stallone found the right producers in Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler and the right director in John Avildsen and the right supporting actors in Talia Shire, Burt Young, Burgess Meredith and Carl Weathers.
The authentic locations in Philadelphia brought a real sense of verisimilitude to the action.
Then there’s the fact that Rocky was hardly an isolated experience for Stallone. He has “screenplay” and “written by” credits on dozens of films. including some very good ones: “F.I.S.T.”; “Paradise Alley”; “Rocky II”; “First Blood”; “Rocky Balboa.” And his interpretations of Rocky in the franchise’s later movies, as the character’s moved into middle age (“Rocky Balboa”) and beyond (“Creed”) are richer and more nuanced, filled with the experience of a life lived. Even though I am not that big a fan of his work, I personally rooted for him to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for “Creed” because I thought he gave a superb performance that totally anchored that very good movie. I actually think his work in “Paradise Alley”, as an actor. writer and director is among the best he’s ever done but that cult favorite remains little seen and appreciated and apparently the studio forced him to make cuts against his wishes. I also admired what he did as an actor in “Cop Land,” when he played against type, though I think the script and direction by James Mangold undercut the power of Stallone’s performance by making his character’s slow burn too gradual.
Now that Stallone has aged into character roles, I love that he’s playing a succession of mobsters in upcoming projects: “Scarpa”; “Omerta”; and “Idiot’s Eye”. He has the presence, the charisma and the chops to bring his own take to these familiar types and to perhaps make them new.
Stallone’s path after “Rocky” has followed the inevitable highs, lows, excesses, failures and comebacks that accompany anyone’s life and career over a long span of time. It’s been 40 years since he gave us “Rocky.” It’s a testament to the indelible figure of Rocky Balboa he created that the film, the character and the resulting franchise still resonate this many years later. The “Rocky” brand is still going strong alongside other movie franchises. But unlike the others, “Rocky” doesn’t rely on visual effects and superhuman conceits. Even with its occasional flights of fancy, the “Rocky” series is firmly rooted in reality. That’s saying something in today’s CGI cinema universe.
I had an idea for an anniversary screening of “Rocky” in Omaha with hometown world champ Terence “Bud” Crawford introducing the film and serving on a panel after the screening. Fellow panelists would have included Ron “The Bluffs Butcher” Stander and Bruce “The Mouse” Strauss. Sadly, I couldn’t get support for the project. Oh, well, maybe for the 50th.
Mikey Williams/Top Rank
Terence “Bud” Crawford is Nebraska’s most impactful athlete of all-time
©by Leo Adam Biga
Has there ever been a native Nebraska athlete who has made as big an impact as Terence “Bud’ Crawford? I submit there has not. In fact, it’s not even close when you consider the concentrated impact he’s made in a short time.
Mind you, I’m not suggesting he’s the best athlete to ever come out of here, but the one who’s had the greatest affect.
These things really can’t be measured because much of what I refer to by impact is intangible stuff like motivation, inspiration, popularity, hopes and dreams. However you look at it though, you have to concede that Crawford has surely given a lot of youth a new or renewed sense of possibilities because of how far he’s come from humble beginnings to being on top of the professional boxing world. That’s not to mention the sheer entertainment he’s provided by his winning performances in the ring, including three sold-out fights at his hometown CenturyLink Center, where there’s about to be a fourth sell-out for his championship fight this weekend against John Molina Jr. He has a following unlike anything we’ve seen around here before for a native born athlete.
Then there’s the pride he’s engendered in his huge hometown fan base who love his success and how he’s put Omaha on the map as a boxing city that matters for really the first time ever nationally, except for the time Ron Stander fought Joe Frazier in that heavyweight championship bout at the now reduced to rubble Civic Auditorium. But that was 44 years ago and it was a one-off event – there’d never been a title fight here before then and there hadn’t been one since then until Bud emerged as a title holder a few years ago. Thanks to Bud, it’s becoming a regular thing. This won’t last forever, but it’s a wonderful ride for him, for the city, for the sport and for anyone who needs affirmation that dreams do come true with enough talent and work.
Omaha also hosted the national Golden Gloves a couple of times, once notably when Bud lost a close, controversial decision in what turned out to be his final amateur bout. But by the time the city held those tournaments the Gloves were not what they used to be in a sport that had fallen far off most people’s radar.
Bud’s emergence as a world-class, perhaps one day hall of fame worthy fighter and his hugely embraced title defenses on his home turf, broadcast on HBO and pay per view no less, have taken boxing from irrelevance here to renewed interest. He has made boxing big time again, at least for his fights, and he’s become a local sports hero every bit as big or bigger than legends Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Marlin Briscoe, Johnny Rodgers, Mike McGee, Ahman Green and Eric Crouch ever were at their respective peaks. I mean, he’s even gotten a coterie of movers and shakers to endorse and advise him. Plus, he’s been feted in every way a sports figure can be – named athlete of the year, inducted in local athletic halls of fame, throwing out the first pitch at ballgames, using his name and fame to raise funds, being featured in big print spreads and in television documentaries. And on and on…
He’s big news and his fights mean big gates and presumably big business for downtown, Old Market, midtown and North Omaha bars and restaurants
Then there’s the fact that Bud has remained thoroughly rooted in his community. His family still lives in The Hood, an environment that he’s never really left and that’s never really left him, and his B&B Boxing Academy is right there within a stone’s throw of where he grew up and where he still trains part of the time.
As I have posted before, in my opinion the single greatest indicator of his impact is how he has dominated his sport over a few years time in a manner that no other Nebraska athlete has since Bob Gibson’s dominance from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s as a pitcher with the St. Louis Cardinals. Bud has a ways to go to match that extended period of mastery but he appears fully capable of doing it.
I have been privileged to help document some of Bud’s unfolding story and rise to greatness. You can find my collection of stories about him, including a trip to Africa I made with him, at the following link–
Let me also reiterate a point I’ve made in previous posts that the trajectory of Bud’s career and the impact he’s made is similar in many ways to another native Omahan who’s risen to the top of his profession – filmmaker Alexander Payne. They are from the same city but from two totally different worlds and generations and yet their single-minded pursuit of their passion has gotten them to where they are and in that respect they both model the benefits of hard work, intense study, laser sharp focus and ultimate commitment to craft. Their rise to the top didn’t happen overnight but only with deliberate, intentional steps with their eyes always fixed firmly on the prize,
The same parallels can be seen in another Omahan, Warren Buffett, who has in fact jumped on the Crawford bandwagon because he recognizes a fellow winner when he sees one.
Win or lose this weekend, Bud’s story will continue to be one worth following because his legacy will only grow with time, not diminish. That’s how special what he’s done is and he has a whole lot of fighting left in him to ever more burnish his record and impact. But even if he were to quit fighting after the Molina match, I believe he’s already become the most impactful Nebraska athlete of all time. As someone who has covered Alexander Payne for 20 years, I believe the best is yet to come from the Oscar-winning filmmaker, and as someone who’s covered Bud for five years, I believe the best is yet to come from the world championship fighter. Bring it on.
The coronation of Terence “Bud” Crawford as the world’s best prizefighter pound-for-pound has officially begun, though this crowning has been in the works for three years. His complete dismantling of Viktor Postol last night in a unification bout waged in Las Vegas on Pay Per View sealed the deal, as it was the latest and perhaos most complete performance yet in a string of dominant showings Bud’s made against top contenders and champions. You could just hear in the ringside commentators’ words that there is no longer any doubting his greatness. His opponents always look vastly inferior. That’s caused some to question the quality of his foes but now the consensus is that while they may not be all-time great fighters themselves, they are world-class for this era and the fact of the matter is that Bud is that much better than them because he is The Truth and for real as an elite figher on his way to all-time great status himself. His dramatic rise to the top of his profession took many by surprise and caused some to wonder if he’d really been tested. Well, there are precious few fighters left in his division to issue much of a challenge. He’s answered the call every time. Now, it seems, he’s fought his way into position to finally facing one of the two legends in the lighter divisions, Manny Pacquiao, who is ending his retirement. They could meet as soon as November. That matchup would push Bud into the $100 million range as far as purses go and should he win, and I would guess he’d be a slight favorite, Bud will become a legend in his own right and join the likes of Manny and that other icon, Floyd Mayweather, in the pantheon of Boxing Gods. Mayweather would then presumably come out of retirement to square off with Bud. The growing greatness of Omaha’s own world champion is happening before our eyes and it’s a beautiful thing to see. In the space of a little over three years he’s gone from being a rising young star with potential to the No. 1 fighter in the world, period. He’s become a darling of HBO, whose new documentary about him has helped to immortalize and mythologize him while simulataneously making him more human. He’s become Bob Arum’s and TopRank’s new moneymaker and branded superstar.
The grooming of him to be the next big thing in boxing has been under way and Bud keeps reinrforcing that image and reality. This has all happened in a very short time by pro boxing standards. Bud’s become a fan favorite well beyond Omaha for his success in the ring, where he has proven to be a master tactitian and technical fighter who also has great toughness, heart, stamina and more power than you might think. His ability to fight both lefty and righty and to go back and forth betweent the two is not only uncanny but unnerving to foes. His gift for diagnosing fighters and adapting his strategy and tactics as needed while in the throes of action is rare and makes him especially difficult to beat. And as the commentators admire, Bud uses the first two or three founds to feel and figute out his foe and then once he adjusts to whatever he’s seeing, he really gets down to business and presses the attack with great skill and patience. Then there’s the story of his life that appeals to many because, as that HBO film makes clear, he’s always had to fight to get ahead. Well, he’s made it to the pinnacle of his sport and he’s remained fiercely loyal to his hometown, family and friends. He represents his community like no one else.
The Champ is the best fighter in the world and the single most important and dynamic athlete to ever come out of Nebraska, with the possible exception of Bob Gibson and Gale Sayers. The biggesst difference between them and Bud is that they achieved their brilliance within the context of team sports, whereas Bud is all on his own in that square circle. Of course, Bud’s the first to acknowledge the superb team he has around him in his trainers, coaches, managers, mentors and advisors. But pound-for-pound, man-for-man, Bud is the best and no one, not Gibson, not Sayers, not Johnny Rodgers, was as masterful at what they did as Bud is at what he does. Hail, hail, Omaha’s own champion of the world.
Link to my other stories about Bud at–
Some thoughts on the HBO documentary “My Fight” about Terence Crawford–
©by Leo Adam Biga
There are sections of contemporary life in this city that most Omahans would rather forget and would certainly do eveything to avoid because they represent uncomfortable truths and realities. Terence Crawford’s rise to professional prizefighting’s upper ranks cannot be divorced from where he grew up and from where he still has his heart and continues to have a strong presence. That place is northeast Omaha. The inner city. The Hood. Its tough people and conditions formed and forged him. Rarely if ever is there a screen portrait of that community that goes beyond stereotype or surface. Usually, those screen representations are TV news reports about the afternath of violent crimes. Over and over again. An exception is the new HBO documentary “My Fight” that profiles Terence in advance of his July 23 title fight with Viktor Postol. It shows an authentic glimpse of the neighborhood and streets, the family and friends he comes from. Not all of northeast Omaha is like what is portraysd. It’s a more diverse landscape than this or any media report paints it to be. But his film gives us a well-rounded look at this man’s life. His routines, his hangouts, his grandmother’s home, his childhood block, his church, his gym, his fishing spot. It’s good for all Omahans to see this film because it does, as much as any one film can, virtually place you there in that community and lifestyle. The psychic-social-cultural-economic-political barriers that continue separating folks are not going away anytime soon but maybe a film like this can at least help put folks there who would never venture there other than maybe for a church mission project. It shows that we’re all just people doing the best that we can. In Terence Crawford, northeast Omaha has a local hero and champion in a way that’s it’s never quite had before. Along the way, as the film makes clear, he’s become Omaha’s hometown champion who is embraced by diverse fans. Perhaps there is more to Terence’s ascendance than we know. Perhaps he can be a unifying figure. He has stayed in Omaha. He remains true to his roots. But at the end of the day he is only one man and this is only one film. Unless and until we can openly, freely and without fear or judgement sit down and break bread together, work togetther and live togeher in every part of the city, then a film like this will remain a safe way for people to look with curiosity at how the other half lives and leave it at that. Sadly, that is still how it is in much of Omaha. Maybe just maybe though we can all rally behind Terence and what he wants for his community, which is opportunity and justice.
Northeast Omaha has only been portrayed on film a handful of times. There was “A Time for Burning” Then “Wigger” Now add to the list the new HBO documentary “My Fight” that pofiles Terence Crawford in the inner city neighborhood and community that he sprang from and that he still has close ties to. Meet some of the key people in his life. You get a real sense for how things are there and for the people he is a part of. Those conditions and characters made him who he is. Click below to watch the full film, which is produced at a very high level. I have covered Terence for a few years now and my stories touch on just about everything the film does. I even went to Africa with Bud. I accompanied him on one of his two trips to Uganda and Rwanda with Pipeline Worldwide’s Jamie Nollette. I have charted his life story in and out of boxing and I look forward to doing more of this as his journey continues.
Link to my stories about The Champ at–
Come to my July 21 Omaha Press Club Noon Forum presentation Seeing Africa with Terence Crawford and Pipeline–
It is with heavy hearts that we share the passing of Dr. Jack Lewis. A 1952 graduate of Central, Dr. Lewis served as the team doctor at Central for over 50 years, performing thousands of physicals and walking the sidelines of hundreds of football games. Dr. Lewis received numerous recognitions and sat on many different boards, including being inducted into the inaugural Central High School Hall of Fame in 1999, Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame, and Omaha Public Schools Athletic Hall of Fame. After receiving his first degree from Stanford University, Dr. Lewis obtained his medical degree from the University of Nebraska College of Medicine where he then served as a professor of internal medicine. Football games won’t feel the same this fall when Dr. Lewis isn’t on the sideline, offering decades of expertise to our student athletes. Dr. Lewis loved Central, and we will miss him dearly.
The visitation will be held on Thursday, June 23, from 4 – 6:30 pm at the Heafey-Hoffmann Dworak & Cutler Bel Air Chapel on 12100 West Center Road. The service will be held on Friday, June 24, at 11 am at the Presbyterian Church of the Cross on 1517 S 114th Street.
Dr. Jack Lewis
Omaha fight doctor Jack Lewis of two minds about boxing as the city readies to host the National Golden Gloves
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
For the first time since 1988, Omaha plays host to the National Golden Gloves boxing tournament, one of the nation’s showcases for amateur boxing. The 2006 tourney is a six-day event scheduled for April 24-29 at two downtown venues. The preliminary and quarterfinal rounds will be fought at the Civic Auditorium the first four days, with the semi-final and championship bouts at the 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, Dr. 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, Lewis is a fierce critic of the professional fight game, which he has come to abhor.
His experience in the prizefighting arena included serving as ringside physician for the 1972 world heavyweight title fight in Omaha between champ Joe Frazier and contender Ron Stander from Council Bluffs. Lewis stopped the fight after the fourth 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,” Lewis said. “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 fake 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.
“Those pro boxers move around, have fake names, won’t give you their true medical history.”
Lewis continued, “Those pro boxing days are behind me. That sport needs to be cleaned up.”
More than just a fan of amateur boxing, Lewis is 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.
Lewis is optimistic the event will fare better than recent national Gloves tourneys in cities like Kansas City, where the event 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, with the Qwest Center filled to capacity for Creighton University men’s basketball home games, with the arena slated to host a slew of NCAA post-season events over the next several years, plus the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, the Omaha’s known as an amateur sports-friendly town. That’s why there’s talk of Omaha trying to host the Golden Gloves on a regular basis. The event is bid out a few years in advance, so it would be awhile before Omaha could host the event again after 2006.
“Omaha knows how to put people in the seats. Plus, this is really a fight town,” said Harley Cooper of Omaha. The former two-time national Gloves champion is seving 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 for boxing.” “The people there do a superb job,” he added.
While he never boxed, Lewis lettered in football and rugby at Stanford University, backing up future NFL great 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 Standford and the University of Nebraska Medical School, Lewis did his internal medicine residency in Oakland, California. He came back to Omaha in 1964 to practice with his physician father.
Right away, Lewis’ 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 has been team physician since 1964, and boxers at the Omaha and Midwest Golden Gloves tournaments.
Lewis’ 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. He believes the competition inside the ropes instills discipline in its participants.
“I think the greatest 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 resraint. It helps you collect yourself. Through those years I’ve been to many meetings and been to many nationals. I’ve been he 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.”
Lewis said amateur boxing has suffered unfairly from the ills of its pro counterpart.
“There has 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 the smaller number of young boxers, Tom 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. He said a Gloves title still carries weight in the world of boxing.
“If you are a national Golden Gloves champion, you’re highly respected when you make a turn to the pro ranks.”
Lewis said another thing unchanged in the sport over the years is that ethnic-racial minorities are disproportionately drawn to boxing.
“Our best known boxers in the state now are Latino. 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 (Golden Gloves).”
In the history of the Golden Gloves there have been but five national champions from Nebraska. According to Lovgren, the best of the bunch was Harley Cooper, who won his titles in 1963 and 1964 (the first at heavyweight and the second at light heavyweight). He won those titles when he was in his late 20s. which is much older than the typical Gloves fighter. Since retiring from the ring, Cooper’s devoted time to developing and suporting area amateur boxing. He never turned pro.
“Everybody wanted him to fight for them,” said Lovgran, a former prize fight matchmaker and a longtime observer of the local fight scene. “The first time anybody saw hiim 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.”
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 other Nebraskans advanced to the semi-finals or finals, only to lose.
In general, Lewis said, area kids are at a distinct disavantage.
“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 to 12 fights under their belt and they face opponents with 70 to 80 fights.”
Harley Cooper said Omaha holding the nationals can only help raise the level of the amateur boxing scene here.
“It wil 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. Seeing is much better than someone explaining it to you.”
He added the biggest difference between “our boxers and the fighters from bigger cities is the opponents’ strength, size and skill.”
“It’s going to be a great weekend for amateur boxing in Omaha, Nebraska” Lovgren said. “I just hope a couple of 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,” Lewis said.
A final elimination stage before the nationals will be held March 17 and 18 at the Omaha Civic Auditorium’s Mancuso Hall. Winners in this Midwest Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions will complete Nebraska’s 11-man contingent for the April national tourney.
Tickets for the nationals may be purchased at the Qwest Center box office or via Ticketmaster by phone at 402-1212, or online at http://www.ticketmaster.com.
For more details, call the Qwest Center at 997-9378 or go online at http://www.qwestcenteromaha.com.