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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.

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Tom Lovgren, A Good Man to Have in Your Corner

August 3, 2010 1 comment

Headgear and boxing gloves are mandatory in Ol...

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In the course of developing boxing stories over the years I met the subject of this story, Tom Lovgren, who at one time or another was involved in about every aspect of the fight game.  He’s still a passionate fan of the sport today and is the unofficial historian and expert on boxing in Nebraska.  Tom is one of those plain talking, call-it-like-is sorts, and I love him for it.  He’s also a good storyteller, and his rich experiences in the prizefighting community provide him with plenty of material.  Prior to profiling Tom, he was a source for me on several boxing pieces I did, including profiles on Ron Stander, a once Great White Hope who was billed as the “Bluffs Butcher.” Lovgren was in the Stander camp when Stander fought Joe Frazier for the world heavyweight title in Omaha in 1972, still the biggest boxing event in the city’s history. You’ll find my Stander pieces on this site. Tom also contributed to stories I did on Morris Jackson, Harley Cooper, the Hernandez Brothers, Kenny Wingo, the Downtown Boxing Club, and Dr. Jack Lewis. all of which can also be found on this blog. My story about Tom originally appeared in the New Horizons.

 

Tom Lovgren, A Good Man to Have in Your Corner

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

 

During one spring night in 1972, Omaha, Neb. became the center of the professional boxing world. A record Omaha fight night crowd of 9.863 jammed the Civic Auditorium to witness the May 25 heavyweight title bout between the challenger, local favorite Ron “The Bluffs Butcher” Stander, and the popular champion, “Smokin’” Joe Frazier. A gallery of veteran boxing reporters covered the event. Film cameras fed the action to a national syndicated TV audience. Canadian heavyweight champ George Chuvalo did the color commentary. Area dignitaries and sports celebrities mingled in the electric crowd. Top heavyweight contender George Foreman looked fearsome at ringside. Legendary referee Zack Clayton appeared spiffy in his bow tie. Nervous Dick Noland ran the Stander corner while his counterpart, the sage-like Yank Durham, led the Frazier contingent.

In terms of sheer impact, the fight remains arguably the biggest sporting event ever held in Omaha. The allure of the heavyweight championship was enough that, with the title on the line, the results made headlines around the globe. And while Stander-Frazier does not rank highly in the annals of title bouts, it proved a smashing success, pulling in live gate receipts of nearly $250,000 in an era when tickets went for a fraction of today’s prices. For former Omaha boxing promoter and matchmaker Tom Lovgren, one of the men responsible for making the fight happen, it was the apex of a 20-year career that saw him put on fight cards featuring everyone from world-class boxers to journeymen pugs. A blunt man with a biting wit, Lovgren recalls a well-wisher that night praising him for pulling off such a coup, whereupon he quipped, “It’ll all be down hill from here.”

The sardonic Lovgren sat for a recent interview in his ranch-style Omaha home near Rosenblatt Stadium and explained his seeming pessimism the night of his crowning feat. “What I meant by down hill was I’d been to the peak. What was the chance of developing another heavyweight in Omaha, Neb. who drew like Stander did and who could be ready to fight for a championship? It’s all got to work together. And that time it did. All the dreams came true. A lot of people talk about doing something like this, but a lot of stuff can go wrong. A guy can get cut in training camp. Tempers can flare up and the whole deal get called off. With this situation, everything worked. It came off.” Proving himself a prophet, Stander-Frazier was indeed the one and only title fight he promoted.

What made the event possible in the first place was the fact that in Stander, Lovgren delivered the right man at the right time to face Frazier, who was but a year removed from having scored his greatest victory — a 15-round decision over Muhammad Ali. Frazier had fought just once since that memorable and epic bout, having KO’d Terry Daniels in New Orleans. When word reached Omaha the Frazier camp sought another tune-up for the champ against a game if not too dangerous foe, plus a nice pay day to boot, Lovgren and company swung into action and offered to make the fight in the River City, where the then 23-1-1 Stander was a blue collar, hard-hitting hero.

At the time, Lovgren was a one-quarter partner in the recently formed Cornhusker Boxing Club, which staged most of Omaha’s top fight cards in the 1970s. Club president Dick Noland was Stander’s longtime manager. Noland and Lovgren were friends from the days when Lovgren was a correspondent for Ring Magazine. A Sheldon, Iowa native, Lovgren fell in love with boxing watching televised bouts as a kid. His short-lived amateur boxing career came to a halt at 16 when he got “dropped” three times in round one of a Golden Gloves bout. “It was at that point I decided, If you’re going to do anything in this game it’s going to have to be as something other than a boxer, because you obviously don’t have the talent it takes.”

Outside the ring, the University of Denver-educated Lovgren was a food services manager at many different stops, including Omaha’s Union Stockyards Company. Wherever he, his former school teacher wife, Jeaninne, and their four sons settled, Lovgren made it a point to acquaint himself with the area boxing scene — its gyms, fighters, managers, trainers — and to attend bouts. He often traveled 100 miles or more just to see a good fight.

He promoted his first fight card in Ohio, later detailing the highs and lows of that experience in an article he authored for Boxing Illustrated entitled, “So You Want to Be a Promoter?” His wife was skeptical about the promotion racket until he emptied his pockets after that first fight card and hundreds of dollars in gate receipts came tumbling out. Catching fights and filing stories around the Midwest helped him develop contacts among the boxing brotherhood. After contracting multiple sclerosis in 1970 Lovgren retired from the food services field, which gave him more time to feed his passion. Always the fighter, he’s not allowed MS to break his spirit, noting that managing the disease is a matter of “knowing what you can do and what you can’t do.”

When asked by Noland to join the Cornhusker Boxing Club, Lovgren jumped at the chance. Before teaming with Noland he had bailed-out the manager more than once by finding last-minute replacement opponents for Stander, whose reputation as a heavy hitter preceded him. “I was very good at coming up with fighters, and right now,” Lovgren said. “Good fighters, poor fighters, whatever it was, I would get those opponents. My strong suit was my ability to deliver a body. I knew a lot of people. I’d been a lot of places. I knew what talent was available.”

With Noland in charge of getting Stander fight-ready and Lovgren taking care of the business side of things, “The Bluffs Butcher” became their meal ticket. But getting Stander in shape was a daunting task given the fighter’s notoriously lax approach to training. “It was hard to get Ron enthusiastic about training,” Lovgren said. “There was no inner drive, no fire in the furnace, except for certain fights. I tried talking to him about it. I tried playing mind games with him. I did everything I could.” With his matchmaking acumen, Lovgren helped build Stander into a contender by putting him in “against the right guys at the right time to develop his skills.”

“He made some good fights for me,” recalls Stander, “Like the Ernie Shavers fight (a Stander KO victim). He got me in shape. We had a good time”

By the end of ‘71 Stander owned credentials for an inside track to a title shot. First, he was a Great White Hope. Second, as a short-armed slugger he played into Frazier’s smothering style. Third, he cut easily, reducing the chances the fight would go the distance and hazard a decision. Finally, he was a crowd-pleasing brawler with a knockout punch. A guy who, as Lovgren likes to phrase it, “put asses in seats,” guaranteeing a good gate. “Ron drew better than any fighter who ever fought in Omaha. There were guys with more talent, but Ron had the charisma that drew people like no one else. Some people came to see him win and some came to see him get beat. I didn’t care why they came, as long as they came.”

To ensure the chronically overweight Stander got fit, Lovgren moved him into his home for the fight. Training under Leonard Hawkins at the Fox Hole Gym in Omaha and under Johnny Dunn in Boston, Stander steeled himself. “Ron was a real fighter who asked no quarter and gave none. He backed away from no one and had no fear. He’d walk right into you. He was not going to be embarrassed,” Lovgren said.

In a confrontation that could have served as an inspiration for Rocky, Stander, the 10-1 underdog, showed admirable courage by standing toe-to-toe with the champ and exchanging haymakers. Despite taking a beating, he kept wading in until, bloodied and blinded by cuts, the fight was stopped after the 4th round. Still, there was a moment early on when the underdog appeared to rock the champ, even buckling his knees. “A lot of people say that Frazier slipped. He did, but he was hit with a shot by Stander and that’s why he staggered. Another time, Ronnie missed with an uppercut that was about that far away,” said Lovgren, holding his fingers about two inches apart. “If he landed that punch he may very well have been heavyweight champ of the world. That’s how close he was.”

Frazier retained his belt, only to lose it the very next fight to Foreman. Meanwhile, Stander got a one-way ticket back to Palookaville, where for another decade he toiled in obscurity as a club fighter whose main claim to fame was having got that one-in-a-million crack at immortality. Yet the fight that will forever link these two men almost didn’t come off when negotiations bogged down over money. “Frazier’s Philadelphia lawyers sent us a couple proposals and we turned them down because there wasn’t any money for us. Until the contracts were squared away to where we were going to make some money, that fight was not going to happen,” Lovgren said. “Then, television got involved and all of a sudden there was money enough for everybody.” With the bout confirmed, Omaha took center stage in the big time boxing arena. “Once the word was out that this title fight was on, everybody from the world of boxing was there. Everything you wanted was possible. Everybody wanted something. That’s how it is.”

Besides promoting Stander fights, he showcased the fighting Hernandez brothers (Art, Ferd, Dale) of Omaha. He considers long retired welterweight contender Art Hernandez the best fighter, pound-for-pound, the city has produced. He also organized cards featuring such top-ranked imported talent as Sean O’Grady, Lennox Blackmore and Jimmy Lester.

In his career, he saw it all — from guys taking dives to being handed bad decisions to getting “beat within a whisker of their life.” When it’s suggested boxing suffers a black eye due to mercenary, deceitful practices, he sharply replies, “Do I think there are crooks in boxing? Yes. Did I ever deal with any? Yeah, I probably did. I’ve heard a lot of bad stories, but every time I dealt with Mr. Boxing types, and I did a lot, they delivered the product and were straight down the line with me.” He feels a few unsavory elements sully the image of an otherwise above-board sport. “Anybody who ever fought for me got paid. If I said you were going to get $100, you got $100. I paid what I thought was the going rate for a 4-rounder or whatever it was, and that meant you got paid whether there was one person in the auditorium or whether the auditorium was full. If you’re going to play the game, you better be able to afford it.”

Stander-Frazier fight

 

Stander said Lovgren has always owned his trust and respect. “Tom always took good care of me. You could count on him right to the end, every bit of the way. He’s just a stand-up guy. Straight as an arrow. His word is as solid as a rock, as good as gold. I love the guy.”

Because all manner of things can cause a fighter to drop out of a scheduled match, a savvy promoter like Lovgren must be able to improvise at a moment’s notice. “Once, I had a couple fighters pull out the night of the fight. These two guys that trained at a local gym had come to watch, and I went up to them and said, ‘Hey, you’re here, you can fight. You guys don’t have to kill each other — just go out and put on a good show, and I’ll pay ya.’ So, they fought an exhibition. Does that kind of thing happen? Yes. Often? Yes. Too often? Yes.”

Lovgren, who’s aimed his cutting remarks at referees, judges and athletic officials, makes no bones about the fact his frank style rubs some people the wrong way. “If you took a poll of all the boxing people in Omaha I wouldn’t make the Top 10 friendliest guys, but you’ve got to have people’s respect” and that means speaking your mind and stepping on some toes. Venerable Omaha amateur boxing coach Kenny Wingo, who’s worked alongside Lovgren organizing the Golden Gloves, admires his friend’s penchant for “telling it like it is,” adding: “He’s very opinionated and he’s a little rough around the edges. He takes no prisoners. He runs everything with an iron fist. But if he tells you something, you can take it to the bank. He’s honest. He’s got quite a history in the boxing world and he’s done a lot of good things for the sport along the way.”

If Lovgren leaves any legacy, it will be his role in bringing off Stander-Frazier, an event whose like may not be seen here again. Since retiring as a promoter in the early 1980s, this self-described “serious student” of The Sweet Science has continued his love affair with the sport by organizing his vast collection of boxing memorabilia (books, magazines clippings, tapes, wire service photos) and by writing a pair of boxing histories. The first, which he self-published, chronicles the life and times of Ron Stander, with whom he’s remained close friends. The second, which he just started, details the career of Art Hernandez, a man who fought five world champions and, in retirement, lost part of a leg following a fall at his home. The materials and histories are his attempt at preserving a record of local ring greats.

Like most passions, once boxing gets in your blood, it never leaves you. Even if many of the gyms, watering holes and ringside characters he knew are now gone, Lovgren still closely follows the sport. “You never get out of the game,” he said.

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