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Harley Cooper, The Best Boxer You’ve Never Heard Of

August 5, 2010 8 comments

Even if you consider yourself a real student of boxing and its history in America, chances are the name Harley Cooper isn’t familiar to you.  Yet, pound-for-pound, he was as tough as they come in the ring and he just may have been the best boxer you’ve never heard of.  The highlight of his amateur career — he never went pro — was winning two National Golden Gloves light heavyweight titles. He was in middle of a long U.S. Air Force Career at the time.  My New Horizons story about Cooper sort of makes the case for him as this unsung warrior whose achievements have been largely forgotten today, but who came oh-so-close to joining the sport’s ranks of immortals before a bad break prevented him from fighting on the world stage in the Olympic Games.  Then, when he opted not to turn pro, but rather continue his military career, his amateur feats soon faded into obscurity.  No one can ever take those Golden Gloves titles away from him though.  Cooper didn’t fight anymore but he remained in boxing as a coach and amateur boxing organizer, and continues to be active in the sport today.  He’s also a devoted family man with 13 grown children and many grandchildren.

 

 

 

 

Harley Cooper, The Best Boxer You’ve Never Heard Of

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

Then Air Force tech sergeant Harley Cooper never saw the punch Joe Frazier knocked him down with during a Washington, D.C. sparring session in preparation for the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. A tough Savannah, Georgia native, Cooper grew up fighting in The Hood, but got schooled in the Sweet Science in the military. Upon winning the second of two national Golden Gloves titles while boxing out of Offutt Air Force Base, he then won the right to be the U.S. Olympic light heavyweight entry by capturing the Olympic Trials. In peak fighting trim and riding an unbeaten streak, he was primed to bust some heads in Tokyo.

For his Olympic training, Cooper often worked out with team heavyweights Frazier and alternate Buster Mathis, the actual Trials champ who lost his Tokyo shot after suffering a broken hand. Fate then took a sad turn in Cooper’s own bid for Olympic glory when, on the eve of leaving for Japan, he was medically disqualified. During an earlier assignment in Germany, Cooper, born with a deformed kidney, developed problems with his other kidney after drinking water from a mountain stream, causing doctors to remove the damaged organ. Left with a single kidney, he boxed with no ill effects right up until officials nixed his Olympic trip. “They had an Air Force officer there who told me I could go, but I couldn’t fight. They felt it was a danger to me, even though I’d been fighting for about three-four years with one kidney. I told them if they wouldn’t let me fight to let me go home. Now, I wish I would have went,” says Cooper, his soft eyes filled with regret even now at the thought of missing all the Olympic pomp and pageantry.

This seemingly arbitrary decision denying him a chance for Olympic gold, especially when so close to pursuing it, hurt him to his core.

“That was really, really tough,” says the soft-spoken Cooper, an inscrutable man with the pensive demeanor of a scholar. “Honestly, I believe if I would have gone, I would have won. Well, I gotta believe this, because in boxing, if you don’t think you can win, you’re lost.”

Only a couple years before, he’d transfered to Omaha. His new training ground became Hawk’s Gym, where his sparring partners included pro heavyweight Lou Bailey. He shot up the amateur ranks by sweeping thw Golden Gloves. It was his first Gloves action, but he was no rookie, having already compiled hundreds of hours in the ring and dozens of bouts in the military, winning service titles wherever duty called, including Japan and Europe. Once here, he out-classed the field. “In all honesty, I had the advantage because of my experience,” he says. “I had the strength. I had the discipline. I had the knowledge. I had the ability.”

He’d dabbled in the sport earlier, when he trained for one bout and lost, but only got serious following a scene straight out of the movies. He was based in Japan when, one night, he and a buddy went to a service boxing exhibition. There was a call, just like in carnivals of old, for a volunteer to have a go at one of the fighters. He took the bait. “Being young and dumb,” he says,. “I put my hand up and I went in, and me and this guy started boxing. At this time, I didn’t know how to box, but I could fight, OK? I knocked this guy down and the coach came and asked me to join the team. I joined…and that’s how I got into boxing.”

Boxing gave him something other sports he tried, didn’t. “I was always involved in some kind of sport, but once I started boxing than I stopped doing all the rest. For some reason, it just fit me. In boxing, you’re the only one…you either rise to the occasion, alone, or you don’t. With my background, it was more the challenge…of the give-and-take. And when you survive and win…there’s no other feeling like it.”

The youngest of eight children in a poor, working class family, he quickly learned how to use his fists. “As the baby of the family, I know I got tough from the older kids picking on me. When you’re the small one, you get all the lashings. And I was born and raised in a family where you didn’t back down, especially if you got in a fight,” he says. “If I got beat up and I went home crying, than my brothers would smack me a couple times and take me back. You dried your tears before you got home. So, I was pretty tough. But I wasn’t a bully.”

Playing the usual team sports as a youth, he says “I could hold my own” but was no superstar. He left home at 17 to join the Army and after a year’s hitch he signed up with the Air Force, where he found a home.

By the time he got to Omaha, Cooper was a mature 27-year-old veteran of both the ring and the military and the father of eight. The arrival of such a man and fighter on the local pugilistic scene soon turned heads and started tongues wagging.

“Everybody wanted him to fight for them,” says Omaha boxing historian Tom 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.”

Boxing is replete with back room dealings and personal jealousies. So, once local coaches got a gander at Cooper, they vied like mad to get him to train with them and fight for their teams. That’s when, Lovgren says, the late Omaha World-Herald sports columnist, Wally Provost, stepped in and told Cooper, “You’re fighting for me,” to squelch any in-fighting and bad feelings. A few local figures worked with Cooper during his amateur career here, including the late Jack Fickler, but Cooper says, “I was seasoned enough that I trained myself. I knew what I had to do.”

He was able to do this, he says, thanks to his strict military training, which complemented boxing. “It’s not only the mental toughness I learned, but the confidence and the discipline. I would get up around 6 to go run. I’d run until I was exhausted. Then I’d come home and shower and go to work by 8. I’d get off work around 4:30 or 5, and by 6:30 I’d be in the gym, working out for a couple hours. I had a large family, so to supplement my income I refereed sports on weekends, but I still worked out every day. That’s commitment, man.” In the ring, this single-minded dedication paid off, too. “In boxing, you have to be very, very disciplined. You go into the fight with a plan, but once it’s on, things change and, so, you have to adapt to it, and if you don’t have the discipline to control what you’re doing, well, you’re not going to survive. I guarantee you, what separates the guys who are successful from the other guys is focus. I was so focused I didn’t feel the pain of the punches that hit me. Not until the next day.”

A hard-hitting, smooth-moving boxing machine, Cooper twice won the Golden Gloves Trinity by taking the Omaha, Midwest and National tournaments in both ‘63 and ‘64. His first title run came, unexpectedly, at heavyweight, culminating in the ‘64 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.

The underdog used his superior quickness to offset his opponents’ greater size and power in winning only the second national gloves title by a Nebraska boxer since the 1930s. For Cooper, boxing is all about being smart enough to discern a winning strategy, often on the fly, and then having the requisite skill and heart to carry out the plan. Brains over brawn. “It’s like, when I fought at heavyweight. I didn’t win because I was the strongest guy and the biggest guy,” he says. “I knew if we got to pushing arms on arms, man, I wouldn’t stand a chance. It was the traps I set for those guys, and I took advantage of them.” Ah, traps — among the key tenets of Cooper’s cerebral boxing philosophy.

“See, I don’t see boxing as two guys swinging at each other,” he says. “I see boxing as people setting traps for other people, OK? Like, I would come out and do some things and, honest to goodness, I could predict what that person was going to do by his reaction to what I did. Like, I could make a guy jab at me by feinting at him, and he would expose himself and then the next time I could slip under his jab and get into him. You don’t think about it. That’s just something you see, and it goes somewhere back in your head, and the next time you do it, you know it’s going to be there. You’ve already set the trap, and then you take advantage of it.”

Traps are a two-way street, however. “Now, remember, the other guy is setting traps for you also,” he says. “So, you have to maintain, like a poker face, that coolness and not get excited, and just continue what you’re doing. It’s knowing traps are being set for you and out-thinking the other guy.”

In ‘64, Cooper fought at his accustomed light-heavy spot, plowing through to the nationals in Nashville, where he won. In the proceeding 40 years, only one other Nebraska fighter has won a national Gloves title. That same weekend in Nashville, then-Cassius Clay met Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title. Cooper and his fellow Gloves boxers were guests at the fight. While the introspective Cooper would never use the braggadocio style of the man later known as Muhammad Ali, he says he did learn from him that “you have to think you are good, before you are good.”

Cooper’s win in Nashville put him in line for the Olympic Trials box-off in New York, which he won. Whatever bitterness he felt over his Olympic bid later being snatched away has long faded into the realm of rich anecdotes. And he has plenty of stories from his two-months long Olympic training experience that put him in the same ring with some then and future legends whose respect he earned.

Like the time he sparred then-light heavyweight champ Bob Foster, a fellow Air Force vet. The way Cooper tells it, after sparring a couple rounds, Foster said, “Man, where’ve you been? I’m sure glad we never fought,” which he took to mean he would have given Foster fits. “This guy’s a big-time pro and world’s champion and he’s saying it would have been a helluva fight. That made me feel good.”

Or the times he and Smokin’ Joe Frazier traded leather, Frazier boring in, looking to corner Cooper on the ropes or sucker him into slugging it out, and the dancing, probing Cooper staying clear of trouble, looking for openings to counterpunch. Cooper says he held his own, except for that one time he got caught by an uppercut that dropped him, although he’s quick to point out, “I got right back up.” Today, he can talk about getting tagged by Olympic and world heavyweight champ Joe Frazier like the badge of honor it is. Years later, during an Omaha appearance with Ron Stander, Frazier told then-Husker linebacker Ira Cooper, one of Harley’s 13 children by two marriages, that his old man “was the best amateur fighter I ever saw who never turned professional.” High praise, indeed.

Why Cooper never turned pro despite attractive offers, including an overture from boxing legend Henry Armstrong, reveals much about the man. “Well, you gotta remember, I had a big investment in the service at that point,” he says, adding that with a large family to support he chose the sure thing rather than chancing it. “I’m satisfied with my life. If I had to do it over again, I don’t know I would change anything. One part of my life I would not change is having kids.”

After his first marriage ended in divorce, Cooper retired from the Air Force in ‘73 and came back to Omaha, where he raised a new family with his present wife, Edie. Their kids are grown now and he’s a grandpa many times over. He post-military work life has centered, not surprisingly, around kids — at the North Omaha Boys Club, Glenwood State School and the Cornhusker Striders track program.

But the pull of boxing never left and, so, for 30 years he’s volunteered with the Great Plains Amateur Boxing Association, the organizing-sanctioning body for local-regional boxing cards such as the Golden Gloves. He’s even helped train some kids.

“I love boxing. I’m lucky I have a wife that understands it’s such a big part of me.”

Occasional what-might-have-beens creep in. “There’s still some times when I kind of wish I had of…” Turned pro, he means. “I was better than I realized I was at the time. I see these guys now and they just don’t look that good to me, man.” Lace ‘em up, Harley‘s in the House of Pain and he’s lookin’ to whup somebody.

The Fighting Hernandez Brothers

July 6, 2010 17 comments

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Image via Wikipedia

Another of my boxing stories is featured here, this time about a family of fighters, the Hernandez brothers.  It’s a story of overcoming odds, winning great victories, enduring brutal losses, experiencing tragic events, and, where possible, keeping on despite all the blows.  Rarely has a single family produced as many good boxers as this one did, but as the story goes into, there was a price to be paid.  The article originally appeared in a paper that no loner exists, the Omaha Weekly. Boxing seems to give journalists license to take a more literary approach and I pulled out all the stops in this one.

NOTE: The Hernandez brother who was perhaps the most accomplished in the ring, Art Hernandez, passed away recently. He was a world-ranked contender for a time, holding his own with some tough hombres.  He once fought an aging but still dangerous Sugar Ray Robinson to a disputed draw in Omaha. Most observers felt Art should have been given the decision.

 

The Fighting Hernandez Brothers

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly

 

Armed with fists of fury and cajoles of brass, the Fighting Hernandez brothers strode into town from the sun-baked Panhandle to whip nearly all comers in Omaha ring events from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s. Ferd, Art and Dale Hernandez each left their mark on the amateur and professional boxing scene, not only here, but regionally and nationally as well. The brothers’ lives inside the ropes were filled with more than the usual pugilistic triumph and failure. Three of them achieved Top 10 rankings — Dale as a lightweight and both Ferd and Art as middleweights. They fought all over the globe. They crossed gloves with several world champions, including some legends. They held titles. They got robbed of some decisions. An injury ended the career of one. A bad beating spelled the beginning of the end for another. A fourth brother, Chuck, never really had the heart for boxing and quit after a brief and uneventful career.

Life outside the ring has also held more than its share of highs and lows. There have been wives, girlfriends, kids, breakups. Separated by a year in age and quite a bit older than their male siblings, Ferd and Art were fast buddies and, by all accounts, bad influences on each other — indulging in vices that fighters-in-training are supposed to avoid. “We had too much fun together,” Art said from the south Omaha home he shares with his wife, Mary, and their children. “We were bad — that’s for sure. I guess we had no will power.” He said things got so bad even his big brother realized it was best if he moved on. “He knew that if we were together we wouldn’t be right, so he went west. The greatest thing he ever did for himself and for me was to get the hell out of town.” Ferd went to Las Vegas of all places.

After compiling a 35-10-3 record as a pro, Ferd incurred a detached retina that forced him to retire early at age 33. He stayed on in Vegas, becoming a main event referee, a straight man in the “Minsky’s Burlesque” show at the Aladdin and a casino bartender, before contracting liver disease that killed him at 57. Art finished with a 44-20-2 pro mark. In his post-boxing life he worked the security detail at Douglas County Hospital, often responding to calls in the psyche ward, before becoming chief of security. A freak accident in 1997 led to his left leg’s amputation. Dale, the hardest puncher of the bunch, slugged his way to a 37-6 pro record, but his disdain for training led him to quit before ever maxing-out his ability. A trucker by trade, Dale has spent the last several years in and out of prison for assault. Today, he is persona non grata with his surviving brothers.

Born in Minatare, Neb., Art and Ferd moved with their family to Sidney, where the Hernandez boys were weaned on The Sweet Science by their father, Perfecto “Pete,” a former glove man himself. The old man worked his sons hard. For Perfecto, now caring for his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife and the mother of his six children, Rebecca, in Cheyenne, Wyo., boxing was an art form whose object was skillfully avoiding being hit while laying leather on your opponent. “His thing about boxing was defense,” said Art, the only brother still living in-state and, according to some local ring observers, the best boxer, pound-for-pound, produced by Nebraska the past 40 years. “His philosophy was, ‘Hit, and don’t get hit.’ We just moved and moved and moved and threw a lot of jabs. He never yelled. He just told you exactly what you were doing wrong. ‘Throw more jabs, boy. Throw more upper cuts, boy.’ It was always, ‘boy.’”

From the time they were 5 and 6 years old, respectively, Art and Ferd were urged to scrap by the old man, who fashioned a makeshift ring at home and ran a gym Sidney boxing boosters built for him in town. “That’s where we learned everything that we knew. There were always fights,” is how Art describes those early years. “He had us sparring all the time. He was a great inspiration.” The two tykes became a kind of novelty opening act on local fight cards when their dad had them fight exhibition matches before regularly scheduled bouts. Art said that while definitely pushed into boxing, he genuinely liked the sport and only threatened quitting once under his father’s heavy hand, “but it never happened.”

As the brothers began dominating the junior boxing circuit, they quickly made names for themselves as tough little hombres. The Midwest Golden Gloves tournament, once a huge draw at the Civic Auditorium, became their personal showcase. They represented the southwest Nebraska district out of Scottsbluff. Art so outclassed the field he became the first fighter to win five Midwest Gloves titles and, after capturing his fifth, tourney officials told the then-19 year-old he was not welcome back. Ferd won two Midwest crowns and used the second as a springboard to do something his younger brother could not — win a national Golden Gloves championship (taking the 1960 welterweight division title in Chicago). Despite the brothers being virtually the same size, their father kept them in separate weight divisions for good reasons: one, to double the family’s chances at winning trophies and titles; and, two, to placate Mama Hernandez, who forbade her sons from ever fighting each other “for real.”

Fresh off his championship, Ferd, along with Art, competed for spots on the 1960 United States Olympic boxing team during tryouts in Pocatello, Idaho. At the tryouts Ferd lost in the finals and Art bowed out in the first round. While their bid for Olympic glory ended before it could begin, they scored a coup when Idaho State University boxing coach Dubby Holt, scouting prospects for his program, offered them scholarships. “He wanted a brother team and, so, we said, ‘Sure, why not?’ and we went there,” Art said. Things did not pan out for the pair in Pocatello, where they spent more time carousing than working, a pattern that played out over and over again whenever they teamed-up. Back home for Christmas break, Perfecto sized up his sons and determined while they were not cut out for school, they just might have the right stuff for prizefighting.

Art turned pro first, signing with Omaha promoter Lee Sloan, who acted as his manager and matchmaker. “When I turned pro, Sloan asked me, ‘Do you think you can be a world champion?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Well, then, you’re mine.’ That was a motivating thing my whole life.” He trained under the tutelage of veteran handler Sammy Musco, a former prizefighter. Musco refined his punching style. “When he first started training me, my left hook used to come all the way around, where his style of fighting was to stay in tight and just throw it with leverage. Just a real short punch. It worked all the time. He was a good trainer — no doubt about it. He’d make you work and make you work.”

As Hernandez tells it, his first pro fight was nearly his last. Matched in a 4-rounder against Ray Terry of Chicago, he easily out pointed his foe the first three rounds but in the fourth he got careless and was dropped by a hard left to the jaw. He won the decision, but the pain was so brutal for so long he considered hanging up the gloves for good. “I thought, ‘Oh, shit, if this is the way it’s gonna be, I don’t want to do it anymore.’ I went back home for a whole year. I was weighing not to come back at all because that punch hurt me so bad. But there was nothing there for me in Sidney, and so I just decided to go back and do it to it.”

Ferd entered the prizefighting arena a few months after Art’s debut. Once Art overcame those nagging doubts to resume his career, he and Ferd notched a few more wins under their belts. Then, according to local boxing historian and former matchmaker Tom Lovgren, their shared manager, Sloan, decided one or the other had to go. It seems the two were raising such hell together that, in Sloan’s view, they were holding each other back and, so, he decided to separate these modern Corsican Brothers. He reportedly asked a promoter friend to overmatch the boys, vowing to keep the one showing the most poise in defeat. The fights were made and, as expected, each lost. The verdict: Art stayed on, while Ferd left for Las Vegas, just then evolving into a hot fight market.

By the mid-60s the brothers’ careers began taking off — each emerging as middleweight contenders. Before long, they were fielding offers to fight each other. “Yeah, we had offers,” Art said. “Well, he was rated No. 2 and I was No. 3. I asked my dad what he thought about it and he said, ‘Hey, you’re in the game for money. If the money’s right, take it.’ But, you know, our mom said, ‘No,’ and that was it.” In 1964, a young, inexperienced but promising Art got his first brush with immortality when matched with six-time world champ Sugar Ray Robinson, by then in his 40s but, as the saying goes, possessing every trick in the book. When the fight was initially made, Hernandez admits he felt intimidated by the Robinson legend. “When my handlers first mentioned the fight I thought, ‘I’m going to be killed,’ but then as I was training I got in terrific shape and I thought, ‘Well, shit, I’ve got nothin’ to lose — I’ll give it all I got.’ Which I did.” A steamy Civic Auditorium was the site of the 10-rounder, which went the distance and ended in controversy when a cagey Robinson, sensing he was behind, twice hit Hernandez below the belt. No fouls were called, much to the fans’ dismay. “I’m sure he hit me below the belt intentionally, but…that’s the fight game, you know?” Hernandez said.

Most ringside observers gave the decision to Hernandez, but the judges scored the fight a draw. “I won that fight. There’s no doubt about it,” Hernandez said. “I boxed him superbly, and then he tried making a butt of me. He slipped a punch one time and spun a little bit and slapped me on the ass. It made the crowd laugh.” He said while Robinson was ring savvy, his arsenal had little else left. “He didn’t have real hard, sharp punches. It was mostly slapping stuff. He never hurt me.”

Mere months after that tussle, Hernandez’s manager, Sloan, died of a massive heart attack. “That broke my heart,” he said. For the next few years he fought for Dick Noland, also the manager of heavyweight Ron Stander, who often sparred with Hernandez at the old Fox Hole Gym and once said of his much smaller and more agile partner, “He’s harder to hit than a handful of rice.”

Ferd was at the Robinson fight and after seeing how well his kid brother performed he grew confident he too could trade leather with the best. He proved his point a year later by winning a split-decision over Sugar Ray at the Hacienda Hotel, among the venues Ferd headlined at during the “Strip Fight of the Week” cards his promoter, Bill Miller, founded. Although both brothers became top contenders in the middleweight division, neither ever got a title shot. Art always felt Ferd hampered his chances by letting his Las Vegas camp change his style from the pure boxing stratagem their father instilled to more of a close-in style ill-suited to him. “That was his downfall. Instead of moving and boxing and slipping punches, he became a come-in fighter. He got hit too much. Then, he got that detached retina (in 1968). It’s too bad…he was a terrific boxer.” As for himself, Art chalks up his lost opportunities to ring politics, bad breaks and stupid choices. In a career of what-might-have-beens, he was often only one win away from landing a championship bout, but could never quite close the deal.

Perhaps his biggest frustration came in a 1969 duel with former champ Emile Griffith, then still in his prime. Fought in Sioux Falls, S.D., the well-boxed bout went the full 10 rounds and, in a reversal of popular opinion, Griffith was given a split decision. “The fight was a good fight,” Hernandez recalled. “I loved it. He was well-versed in boxing. I can remember bulling him into the ropes and throwing a lot of body punches, which is something I never did. I just saw where he was susceptible to it.” As against Robinson, Hernandez felt he clearly won, but again fell victim to scoring vagaries. “I don’t think it was close at all. Those yokels that judged the fight for Griffith were completely out of line.” What hurt most, he said, was the fact a victory might have set-up a title challenge. “I knew I was at my peak when I fought Griffith. If I had won that fight I probably could have fought for a world championship.” In the end, he said, “I guess I wasn’t impressive enough. There’s a lot of politics in boxing with the judging and the ratings and all that kind of crap.”

Hernandez had other chances to catapult himself into a title slot, but he always came up short, whether it was bad breaks or just plain bad habits. For example, a cut he suffered to his eye forced the stoppage of his first fight with world champ Nino Benvenuti in Rome and a leg injury he suffered in preparation for his second fight with Benvenuti in Toronto hampered his movement during the 10-round fight, which he lost by unanimous decision. The night before his match with former champ Denny Moyer in Oakland, Art reverted to his old ways by partying with Ferd. He paid for it in the ring the next night, losing a unanimous 12-round decision. He had more than his share of success, too, twice winning the North American Boxing Federation middleweight title and evening the score with Moyer in a 12-round decision in Des Moines. Ferd also faced the best, losing to Benvenuti and Luis Rodriguez, beating Robinson and boxing to a draw with Jose Gonzalez for the World Boxing Association American middleweight title in Puerto Rico in 1966.

Art’s toughest opponent? “That would have to be Jimmy Lester. He never stopped coming. I was in very good shape for that fight, but God, he would just pump and pump and pump. He was a tough guy. He beat me in a split decision.” Hernandez said while he never made much money fighting, and didn’t care much about the size of his purses anyway, boxing did let him see the world. His favorite stop? Marseilles, France. “The Mediterranean. Beautiful, man.” The worst stop? Vietnam, where he went as part of a USO tour during the war. “It was really disheartening to see all those kids in hospitals with their arms and legs shot off. It was terrible.”

While an injury forced Ferd to stop fighting, it took Art getting KO’d three consecutive fights to finally call it quits in 1973. “Bennie Brisco stopped me in three. Jean-Claude Bouttier stopped me in nine. And, in the last fight I had, Tony Licata stopped me in eight. After that, I thought, ‘Well, there’s no place else to go.’ So, I just gave it up.” He made an aborted comeback attempt when he started sparring with his up-and-coming brother Dale. “Once, he hit me somewhere on my head and I just tingled all over. I took the gloves off and said ‘That’s it. I’m done forever.’” He turned his attention to helping train Dale, the last great fighter in the Hernandez line. Where Ferd and Art were consummate boxers, Dale was a classic slugger. “He was a terrific puncher,” said Art, who often worked his corner. “Dale’s whole idea was he could knock anybody out and so he didn’t think he had to train too much. That was his problem.” The approach worked well enough for a time, with Dale securing a No. 9 world lightweight ranking, but the gambit caught up to him in a junior welterweight bout against Lennox Blackmoore. The sight of his brother beaten to a pulp at the hands of the counter punching Blackmoore was too much for Art to take. “I about had a heart attack in that corner because he got the shit beat out of him. I told Dale at the end of the fight, ‘I’m done working in your corner. I will not take it anymore.’ I never worked his corner again.”

After that thumping, Dale was never the same again, falling farther and farther off the training wagon. Away from boxing, Dale’s behavior spiraled violently out of control. He has done hard time for a series of aggravated assaults, the latest of which finds him serving a stretch in a Cheyenne, Wyo. jail. He is estranged from his once close-knit family. “I don’t know what his problem is. I have nothing to do with him anymore,” Art said. “I don’t even talk to him.” Just thinking of what his brother once was and could have been makes Art sick. “He could have been world champion. At 135 pounds he could whip anybody in the world. At 142 pounds he was too small. But he wouldn’t train to get down to 135. He wanted to play.”

With Dale out of the picture and Chuck living quietly in Des Moines, Art pined for the old days with Ferd, but they were separated by miles and lifestyles. Then, when Ferd became terminally ill in the mid-90s, Art and his wife Mary, a nurse, flew him out to Omaha. The change in the former world-class athlete was drastic. “I did not recognize him,” Art said. The couple cared for him the last three weeks of his life. He died in their home on July 17, 1996. Most of all, Art misses his brother’s “sense of humor. He was a funny guy.”

Two years later Art experienced the next biggest test of his life when, while clearing storm-strewn branches from the roof of his father-in-law’s house, he slipped and fell to the pavement below, his lower left leg shattering upon impact. He underwent eight surgeries to repair the damage. Then his recovery suffered a severe setback when infection set-in. Faced with months more of painful rehab and the possibility of infection redeveloping, he opted to have the leg amputated below the knee. “I knew that in order to get well, it had to be done,” he said, massaging the stub under the prosthetic he wears. He fought depression. “A lot of times I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’” He credits his wife for seeing him through it all. “If it weren’t for this woman, I’d be dead.” Friends helped, too. His old sparring chum, Ron Stander, hooked Hernandez up with another ex-athlete amputee — legendary pro wrestler “Mad Dog” Vachon, who lives in Omaha. “Ron called me and said, ‘I’m going to take you to Mad Dog’s because he’s got a leg like yours,’ and from there we become friends.” Hernandez made a quick recovery, resuming work four months later. He retired a couple years ago and, today, draws a county pension, enjoys watching televised fights and, like many old jocks, doubts this era’s competitors could have stacked-up with his generation of warriors.

In an era when boxing is largely dead in the state, Hernandez is the last link to one of Nebraska’s great sports dynasties. Leave it to Omaha boxing historian Tom Lovgren to put the family boxing legacy in perspective. About Art and Ferd, he said, “They could step up to fight anybody in the world. They showed no fear. They were animals.” About Dale, he reminds us, “At 135 pounds, he could beat anybody in the world.” Today, many pounds over his fighting trim, Art Hernandez battles diabetes and high blood pressure, but this still proud man is not one to wallow in Why me? pity. “Things happen,” he said, “and you just gotta go with the flow.”

Brotherhood of the Ring, Omaha’s CW Boxing Club

June 19, 2010 2 comments

I couldn’t resist posting another boxing story. This one is about an interesting venue that is one part hardcore gym for amateurs and professionals and one part community resource center for at-risk youth. The CW fills a lot of missions and many of those missions coalesce around boxing.  Like any gym worth its weight in sweat, the CW is full of characters straight out of a Ring Lardner story. It’s those personalities, combined with the harsh discipline and many rituals of the ring, that I try to capture in this story, a shorter version of which appeared in the Omaha Weekly.  This won’t be the last boxing story I post either.

 

Brotherhood of the Ring, Omaha’s CW Boxing Club

©by Leo Adam Biga

A version of this story was originally published in the Omaha Weekly

 

It owns a rep as perhaps the toughest, most competitive boxing gym in town. Its junior and amateur fighters shine at local tournaments. It is the training ground for many of the area’s top prizefighters. It routinely matches young pugs with grizzled veterans in an effort to raise the level of beginners. Its members are primarily African-American, but include whites, Hispanics and Asians too.

It is a sanctuary for some and a springboard for others. It is a place filled with colorful ringside characters straight out of a Damon Runyon yarn. It is the CW Boxing Club at 1510 Cass Street, and its take-no-prisoners approach and chip-on-the-shoulder attitude makes it the envy and the outcast of the fractious Omaha boxing community.

Rivalries are strong on the Omaha boxing scene. Every gym has its own stable of fighters, its own turf and its own image to maintain and sometimes when conflicts erupt stupid things are said. When a fighter leaves one gym for another, he may be called disloyal or the other gym may be accused of stealing him away.

In the case of the CW, there is a perception that it caters only to blacks, which even a quick survey of its training roster soon dispels. Disparaging things are also said about the character of the fighters who train there, but in reality it is far from the wild-and-woolly den of thugs that some rival boxing coaches portray it as. Instead, the CW, which gets its name from founder and director Carl Washington, features a no-nonsense, professional environment where serious fighters work intensely under the watchful eyes of experienced trainers Midge Minor, Larry Littlejohn and Chucky Brizendine.

The gym itself is only one part of what Washington, who coached the club’s talented first crop of fighters to national prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, calls the CW Youth Resource Center. The center offers near north side youth a venue for making music, working out, hanging out and performing community service projects. According to Washington, the gym’s fighters often get booed or jeered at local competitions because of racism and because the CW’s history of success breeds jealousy. He said his club has nearly boycotted area Golden Gloves events due to the ill treatment he believes his fighters receive.

 

 

 

 

Every gym has its own vibe, and the insistent tone of the CW is set-off by the throbbing bass rhythms and the grating harsh lyrics of rap music blaring from a boom box that plays incessantly in the background. Unlike the foul language of the music, however, there is little profanity heard in the gym, whose walls are plastered not only with the usual boxing posters but emblazoned with a detailed list of rules (which include no spitting on the well-scuffed hardwood floor and no horse playing) and printed mantras that express the philosophy of the place: Lead with Speed, Follow with Power; Only the Strong Survive; and If You Want to Box, Train — If You Want to Win, Train Harder. It is a place where if you can hold your own, you earn respect, but that respect is always tinged with the tension of proving you belong or, if really brazen, proving you’re the top dog.

The gym is a study in contrasts. Take the way that Minor, a four-time Midwest Golden Gloves champion who got his training start at the noted Olympic Gym in Los Angeles, deals with fighters. He is a taskmaster when one of his guys needs pushing and a buddy when one of them needs a pat on the back.

As 13-year-old junior fighter Rosendo Robles prepares to enter the ring one night for some sparring, Minor fastens the headgear and laces the gloves of this angelic, wide-eyed youth with the attentive tenderness of a father helping his son. “Am I going three rounds?” the boy eagerly asks Minor. “If you’ve got three rounds in you,” his smiling coach replies, rubbing the boy’s shoulders. “I’m going to try and get comfortable with my jab first, and then when I get comfortable, I’m going to work on throwing combinations,” the lad tells Minor, his big eyes looking for approval. “That’s right. Your jab sets everything up. It sets up combinations,” Minor tells him in a way that confers the approval Robles seeks. “But I don’t want to see you in there jumping around wasting energy like a little Easter bunny.” Robles grins at his coach’s funny remonstration.

Meanwhile, as this gentle interlude plays out, a rapper performing on a CD explicitly describes various sex acts. The contradiction does not seem to faze anyone, not even born-again Christian Servando Perales, a professional fighter who found religion during a stint in federal prison. To take the contrast even further Minor has the little boy, Robles, spar with the grown man, Perales, in an attempt “to elevate” the kid’s abilities.

Throwing his youngest fighters in with the wolves is one of many ways in which the CW veers from business-as-usual in its training methods. Washington, who began the gym’s tradition of working young fighters with their more experienced counterparts, said, “The reason boxers from Nebraska usually come home after the first round of a national tournament is they don’t have the experience of fighting the skilled fighters you find on the east and west coasts. Guys have to know how to slip punches. You have to work around guys at a certain level or you’ll always be coming home early.” Minor follows the Washington formula with the C.W. crew: “I work all my guys. That’s how they learn,” he said. “Every once in a while I have to elevate them to see where they’re at. I work my fighters a little different than they (other gyms) do. I don’t breed nothing but winners.”

In Robles, Minor sees a kid with “a lot of promise. He wants to learn, That’s what I like about him.” The youth is following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, both of whom boxed in their native Mexico. “My grandpa wants me to carry on with the tradition,” Robles said.

He has dreams of his own, too. “As soon as I can, I want to go to the Olympic Games, and if I do good there I’m thinking of a professional career when I get older.” As for training with adults, he appreciates the tricks of the trade he picks up from such savvy fighters. “I feel comfortable training with them because I learn from them in the ring. I like to learn new techniques. Sparring with these older guys is getting me prepared for bigger guys. Like with Servando (Perales), he puts pressure on me and I work on getting him off me. When I get done sparring I ask, ‘What’d you see wrong in me?’ and they tell me.” He also likes the attention his coach gives him. “I really like Midge. He shows interest in me. He says I’m his little project. That he’s going to build me up.”

Minor’s final words to Robles that night are, “Don’t be intimidated. Every chance you get you try and knock his ass off.” It is all well-supervised, with the adult Perales acting as a kind of moving punching bag — keeping his gloves open at all times to ensure he does not in any way injure the youth, whose father watches the action from ringside, yelling pointers to his son in Spanish.

During the three-round sparring session, Minor, leaning against the corner ropes from atop the ring apron, alternately shouts instructions to Robles with a sharp, disapproving edge in his voice and offers encouragement with a soft, approving tone. “You’ve got to move in closer. That’s the only way you’re gonna reach him,” he tells Robles, who is dwarfed by his sparring partner. “There you go, cut the ring off. Remember what I told you — if you miss with one hand, you lead with the other. Double jab. Stick — don’t wait on him. There you go. Shorten your hook up…too wide. Good hook.”

Robles, a surprisingly skilled little punching dynamo, is spent after the first round, but Minor denies him water. “You tellin’ me you’re tired? Like I care. You don’t need water yet. Show me you need some water.” After a rousing showing in rounds two and three, Minor lets his protege drink all he wants. As a soaked Robles climbs out of the ring, the chiseled Brezendine catches his eye and says, “If you keep fightin’ like that, you’ll be a world champion some day.” The boy’s eyes light up. “Really, Chucky?” “Certainly, Sando.”

 

Dreams of glory and chances at redemption are all over the gym. Take the story of Servando Perales, for example. The Omaha native showed tremendous promise as a junior competitor. Fighting for Kenny Wingo out of the Downtown Boxing Club, he won a National Silver Gloves title at 10 and captured second-place in the same competition at 14 in addition to winning a slew of city, state and regional championships. Then, just when Perales was on the verge of really making a name for himself in the sport, the bright, handsome young man got sidetracked by drugs, alcohol and gang-related mischief.

“Drugs had me real paranoid. I thought I always had to be carrying a gun. I had a few convictions for guns and for basically just acting like an idiot. Crime just caught up to me. It was hell. I was basically living in hell on earth. I was in darkness. Finally, I got sentenced to 18 months in a federal prison in Waseca, Minn. for illegal possession of firearms,” he said. “It was there that I gave my heart to Christ. Inside, I ran into a friend of mine whom I grew up with — Francisco Granados. He had been one of my number one crime partners or road dogs. He had given his life to the Lord a couple years prior to me arriving. He just began to minister to me and I just surrendered.”

For Perales, the reunion with his buddy behind bars was a life-saving one that went well beyond mere chance. “I was like a walking time bomb. I had no peace in my life. No joy, No nothin’. I was really a heartless heart. I wouldn’t open up to anyone other than somebody that I trusted and knew from my barrio. And I’m just so grateful for Francisco being there in my path. God put him there for that reason.” Today, Perales does volunteer work with Granados and his Overcomers in Christ ministry in south Omaha, where they counsel kids to stay away from the drug and gang culture they got caught up in. Perales, who works full-time as a maintenance supervisor at Sapp Brothers, is married with three sons. A fourth son is being raised by his ex and her husband.

In an unusual move, Perales, who had not fought in several years, turned pro only months after his 1997 release from prison. He was 26 and out of shape, but hungry to rededicate himself to a sport he viewed as an expression of his new found faith. “Boxing is the only way for me to say to kids, Hey, this is where I was then, and now look at me today, when I have Christ within me. I believe Christianity and boxing are a lot alike. As a Christian you’re always under attack by the Devil. He knows your weaknesses. It takes a lot of discipline to stay strong. Just like with boxing, you can’t get comfortable. You’ve got to continue training. Besides, boxing is just something I’ve loved all my life. I’ve come up short of some victories, but my real victory has been beating drugs and alcohol.”

 

 

Servando Perales

 

When Perales decided to enter the pro ranks he shopped around for a gym to begin his comeback at and decided on the CW.

“It’s the toughest gym in Omaha. Everybody said, ‘If you can make it at the C.W., you can make it anywhere because here, when you spar, you don’t just spar — you go to war. Basically, it’s a test to see what you’re capable of. I came down here and I got my butt kicked the first three times until I got my timing and my punch back. It took me awhile.”

Regarded as a mediocre pro, Perales is 11-5 and has no real prospects of making a mark, although he is widely admired for his heart. At age 30 he knows his fighting days are numbered, but his sheer determination keeps him going, sometimes to his own detriment. “In a fight I lost in Las Vegas I was a bloody mess, but I wouldn’t quit. I’ve got too much heart. I came out in the 6th and final round and I almost knocked the guy out I was that determined to win, even though my nose was broken, my eyes were closed and my face was bloody.” He has vowed to his wife he will quit rather than endure that type of punishment again.

Once Omaha’s “Great White Hope” — heavyweight Dickie Ryan may soon be facing a crossroads of his own. The battle-scarred 33-year-old, a solid contender a few years ago, is one of the most successful local pros since Ron Stander, but after 56 bouts (his record is 51-5) and countless thousands of rounds sparring his best fighting days are surely well behind him. Like so many men of the ring, he is unwilling to admit he may be past his prime and should, for his own good, hang-up the gloves.

“Everyone says, ‘When you gonna retire?’ I don’t know. I still feel like I’m in good shape. I still like fighting. I’m still trying to develop the best skills I can bring out in me. I don’t think I’ve done that yet, but I’m working on it,” he said. “I’ve been a pro since I was 19. I’m glad I’ve carried on this long because I turned pro the same time as a lot of other guys but I’m the only one still around after all these years, which is special. I wish it could last forever, but unfortunately nothing lasts forever.”

Ask him if he worries about the risk of permanent head injury, and he shrugs off the question with, “If I get brain damage or whatever, than that was my choice. I made it. Just like Dale Earnhardt made his choice and died doing what he loved doing. I have a friend that has Parkinson’s and the doctors think it was caused from boxing. I don’t know. Who knows? Boxing’s been around forever, though. Even if it was banned there’d still be underground boxing, and I’d probably be the first one there, you know, because that’s how I make part of my living.”

 

Dicky Ryan.jpg

Dick Ryan

 

Ryan has a passion for what might be called the Brotherhood of the Ring that he and other fighters share and it is this bond forged from sweat and courage and discipline that helps explain why he toils on. “We get these big muscle guys coming in the gym. These tough guys who knock everybody out on the street. They say, ‘I wanna box.’ We say, ‘Okay,’ and they box a couple days and we never see them back. I don’t know what it is, but it takes a special person. I won’t say it takes a tough person, but it takes a certain type of person to sacrifice your body the way we do. It really is hard. In boxing you can’t have a big ego because right when you think you’re all that somebody’s gonna knock you on your ass. And that’s the truth. If you’ve got an ego going into boxing, you’ll be humbled afterwards.”

According to Ryan, there is a camaraderie in the gym, any gym, that transcends race or religion or age. “It’s one of the only places you can go where there’s no racism at all. It’s neat. Everybody gets along. I never try hurtin’ no one in the gym. I can work with anybody. I can work with a guy that’s 150 pounds and I can work with a guy who’s 250 pounds. I can work with kids just coming up. I’ll help ‘em out. And hopefully by working with me they’re going to get better and then eventually they’re going to be good sparring partners. I’m helping them out and they’re helping me out. It works both ways.”

In a long career that’s seen him be a marquee sparring partner (for the likes of Lennox Lewis and Tommy Morrison) if seldom a main event draw, Ryan has trained at gyms across the country. He could train anywhere in Omaha, but the CW is where he’s gone to work the past eight years.

“I’ve been to Gleason’s Gym in New York and a lot of other big gyms and this (the CW) is as good as any gym around. Me and my manager, Mouse Strauss, seen that Midge (Minor) and Larry (Littlejohn) here were really good coaches and Mouse felt it would be good for me to come here. There’s a chemistry between me and my trainer Midge. He’s just a straight-up guy. He’s not the type of trainer to go, ‘You’ve got to kick his butt’ or ‘You’ve got to do this or do that.’ He’s just got a way of telling me to stay focused. He’s not afraid to cuss me out, though. He’s shows no favoritism.”

After 14 years of grinding out early morning runs and long nights hitting the bags and absorbing poundings as a much sought-after sparring partner Ryan said he stays motivated by the chance for a shot at the title or a big payday — even as remote as that possibility is now.

“I think a lot of it is just knowing in the back of your mind that, Hey, I’ve got to keep going because they might call me for that big fight and I’ve got to be ready.’ Before a fight I don’t have any fear at all because I know I’m in shape and ready to go.”

The closest he came to realizing his dream was when he upset Brian Nielsen in dramatic fashion before a hostile crowd in Denmark in 1999. In what was supposed to have been a tune-up bout for the Dane before an expected match-up with Mike Tyson, Ryan rallied late and knocked out Nielsen in the 10th and final round. Ryan said he was given the match with only two weeks notice but, as usual, was in peak condition. However, the victory did not earn Ryan any title shot but instead a rematch with Nielsen, which he lost.

Ryan, who describes himself as “mellow” even on the eve of bouts, is almost embarrassed to say that, apart from his work in the ring, he is not much of a fight fan. “Not really. I don’t go to the fights around here because I don’t like to see friends of mine get hit. It seems kind of weird, but that’s just how I am. I wish I wasn’t like that, but I am. I’d never encourage anyone else to fight. That’s just my opinion. Boxing’s been great for me. I’ve made a few bucks. It’s a good side job.”

The reality for pros fighting out of Omaha, a burg way off-the-beaten track in the boxing world, is that they must work regular jobs to support their pugilistic dreams. When not engaging in the Sweet Science, for example. Ryan is a meter reader for the Omaha Public Power District.

Featherweight Mike Juarez, another CW regular, is a part-time parcel handler at United Parcel Service. “If you’re in Omaha you’ve got to work a job. There’s no sponsorship around here like there is in big fight towns,” said Juarez, 31, who has compiled a 25-9 record during a 12-year pro career that has seen him fight and lose to several contenders and former world champions. The compactly-built Juarez has been something of a boxing vagabond over the years, including stops in Indianapolis and Vegas. After experiencing some hard knocks on the road, he’s returned to his Omaha roots.

“It’s pretty rough out there, you know? It’s a mean game. I didn’t get the fights. I went broke. I really wasn’t ready for the type of (mercenary) atmosphere that I put myself in. There’s nothin’ like being home around guys that I know,” he said while skipping rope one evening at the C.W. He feels the high-caliber training he gets at the Omaha gym sets it apart. “Midge Minor is a professional coach. He knows his stuff. He’s been in boxing forever,” he said. Like Dickie Ryan, Juarez is pushing the upper limits of his boxing career. He said the decision to retire will “depend on how long I can stay winning. There’s no money in it for losers, you know.”

In keeping with the CW’s belief that young fighters need pushing to reach the next level, Juarez often spars with amateurs much younger than him and possessing far less experience. Two of his regular partners are 20-year-old RayShawn Abram and 19-year-old Kevin Nauden, a pair of brash, promising fighters who, along with a third young phenom, Bernard Davis, are looking to make their marks as pros in the very near future. “I’m fast, I’m strong and nobody my size is going to touch me. I don’t lack for confidence,” said Abram, a 112-pounder sporting two gold front teeth. “I’m looking to win a national championship this year.”

 

 

With his penchant for splash and dash, Abram admits he enjoys ”the attention” that performing in the ring brings him. “When you’re in the ring and you’re doing real good — you’re throwing combinations and looking fast and start dropping your hands and showboating a little bit — then everybody’s cheering for you, and it’s a good feeling.” Nauden, like several young men who have come through the CW ranks, views boxing as a safe haven from the mean streets on the near north side. “I think if it weren’t for the gym I’d probably be in jail or dead or something,” the 132-pounder said. “It’s kept me out of a lot of trouble — for real.”

He was introduced to the sport after being caught fighting in school by an administrator, who brought him down to the CW to get his hostility channeled inside the ring. In Midge Minor he has found a confidante and mentor. “I sometimes get in with the wrong crowd and I sometimes talk to him about it and he keeps me out of trouble. He also helped me get through the time my grandma died. I can call him anytime.”

Nauden and Abram feel they benefit from going against older foes when sparring, but there is no any doubt who is boss inside the ropes. “They’ve got that grown man strength that we ain’t got yet,” Nauden said. “When I first came here and I hit some of the pros with a hard shot, they let me know this ain’t gonna be goin’ on for long. They ain’t gonna hurt you or nothin, but they’ll tap you and let you know they could.”

While Abram won his weight class (as did the CW’s Bernard Davis at 125 pounds) in the recent Midwest Golden Gloves tourney at Harvey’s Casino and is prepping for the national gloves in Reno. Nev., Nauden lost. As for their future plans, the young men are weighing pro offers and, if the money is right, may end their amateur careers later this year and sign contracts to enter the prizefighting arena. They intend to stay under the training arm of Minor and company.

Whether Nauden and Abram ever make any real money in the fight game, they epitomize what the coaches and trainers at the CW strive to do — get the most out of their fighters.

“It’s like a challenge to me to see how I can develop somebody,” Minor said. “I don’t try to change their style. I just try to better the style they’ve got.” He said he can be blunt with fighters, but they seem to respond to his straight shooting. “If I see a bum, I call ‘em a bum. I’m kind of mean to ‘em. but they work for me, though. They perform for me.” Larry Littlejohn is also known as a hard-driving sort. “We do demand quite a bit of you if you’re going to stay in this gym. This is not the place to be down here joking around. We don’t want those guys. We work hard. We want to win,” Littlejohn said.

CW amateur fighter Shabia Bahati said that when Littlejohn shows up “there’s no cutting corners on your workout,” adding, “He keeps us honest. He’ll put us to the test.”

Bahati, a Midwest Golden Gloves runner up at heavyweight, has trained at other gyms in town and he said the C.W. is not for the faint of heart or the frivolous. “It’s real competitive down here. You’ve got to be on your toes when you come and spar. There’s no play time. They take the boxing down here serious.” Jacqui (Red) Spikes is another amateur fighter who has found the CW more rigorous than other gyms. “I was at a different gym and the training was soft there. Here, it’s all business. There are no wimps down here. It’s got the best pros and amateurs in town. They get the most out of you.”

Heart and Soul, A Mutt and Jeff Boxing Story

June 4, 2010 1 comment

 

 

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.”

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?”

The Downtown Boxing Club’s House of Discipline

June 4, 2010 1 comment

 

 

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.

Sidebar

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.

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.

Ron Stander: One-time Great White Hope still making rounds for friends in need

May 31, 2010 19 comments

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.

Boxing-Standers

 

 

 

Ron Stander: One-time Great White Hope still making 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.”

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