Requiem for a Heavyweight, the Ron Stander Story
This is the first story I wrote about Omaha sports legend Ron Stander, a journeyman heavyweight boxer who got his Rocky and Great White Hope moment in the sun when he fought reigning world champion Joe Frazier for the title in the challenger’s adopted hometown of Omaha, Neb. My story appeared some 30 years after that 1972 bout in which Frazier bloodied and bruised but did not knock down Stander. The fight was called after four rounds. As a fighter, Stander was strong and brave and always stood a puncher’s chance. But he forever sabotaged whatever chance he had to be a legit heavyweight contender by the way he conducted his life, which was to overeat and drink and recreate and to avoid training whenever possible. He paid for that lack of discipline in a number of ways, both professionally and personally. But the reason why people have always loved Stander is that he’s a sweet, generous Every Man whose triumphs and struggles we can identify with. At the time I wrote this article he was somewhat a sad, down-and-out figure. More recently, his life has taken an upswing I am happy to report. I understand he’s now writing his life story. It should be one helluva read.
Requiem for a Heavyweight, the Ron Stander Story
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the defunct Omaha Weekly
It is tempting to cast local boxing legend Ron “The Bluffs Butcher” Stander in the role of a heavyweight in need of a symbolic requiem. A certain sadness surrounds this one-time contender who, since retiring from the ring in 1982, has often battled opponents he could not lay a glove on — including himself. While this smart ex-pug is no permanent resident of Palookaville and clearly still has all his wits about him, he does fit the part of a man haunted by having had the world in the grasp of his beefy hands only to let it all slip away.
Like some real-life Rockyesque figure, this hometown Great White Hope was just another up-and-coming club fighter when he got a once-in-a-lifetime chance to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world. It happened 30 years ago right here in Omaha, Neb. On May 25, 1972 he squared-off with “Smokin” Joe Frazier at a jam-packed Civic Auditorium. What transpired next has defined Stander ever since. Unlike the fictional “Rocky,” his moment in the sun ended not in fame or fortune but as the answer to a trivia question: “The last fight Frazier fought as champion? It was against me,” Stander will tell you at the drop of a hat.
Before sitting down for a recent interview at the comfortable south Omaha home he shares with his second wife Becky and their two children, he excused himself, saying, “I have to put my teeth in,” referring to the denture plate he inserts to replace the many ivories he lost over the course of his ring life. Reposed in a recliner, his fleshy face a contour map of scars and crevices, he spoke about the Frazier fight and its implications in his life.
For four brutal rounds the local slugger stood toe-to-toe with the fierce Frazier, then only months removed from having beaten Muhammad Ali in the first of their epic fights, and traded body blows and head butts with him. They were like two big-horned antelope locked in mortal combat, neither giving an inch. “We could have fought the fight in a telephone booth,” is how Stander describes it. The challenger got in a few good licks, even stunning the champ in the 1st, but by the time the bell sounded to end round 4 his pasty face was a bloody, swollen mask. Ringside physician Dr. Jack Lewis put a stop to the slaughter before the start of the 5th.
Local boxing fans fondly recall Stander’s courage in waging war the way he did. It was a frontal assault all the way, as he absorbed multiple blows just to connect one or two. His friend and former matchmaker, Tom Lovgren, said, “Ron Stander was not going to be embarrassed. He was not going down at the first thing that came close. He had a heart the size of a house. He’d walk right at you.”
Never one to pull his punches, even when discussing himself, Stander said, “As far as taking several punches to land one, that’s not the smartest thing. It was more a result of my short height and short reach.” Despite all the techniques and strategies he was taught over the years, in the heat of battle the Butcher always returned to his unschooled, bull-rush style. “You resort back to whatever comes natural to you, I guess,” he explained. “I was just a slugger. I was very aggressive.”
Much like he fought, Stander approached life head-on also, over-indulging in food and drink, taking risks, making rash decisions, leading with his chin and heart instead of keeping his guard up. He paid the price, too. His tempestuous first marriage ended in divorce. He became estranged from his first two children and his grandchildren. There were much publicized drunken driving offenses, the second of which landed him in a men’s reformatory and a detox unit for several months (“That was pretty bad.”) There was the failure of his Council Bluffs watering hole, The Sportsman’s Bar. His weight ballooned to nearly 300 pounds.
He lingered far past his prime as a prizefighter, hoping against hope another big pay day would emerge. It never did. He entered the title fight with a promising 21-1-1 record, including 15 KOs, and staggered to a disappointing 14-19-2 mark after it, often going into fights poorly conditioned and mentally unprepared. Near the end, Lovgren refused putting him in with heavy hitters or expert boxers for fear his fighter might be badly hurt. Friends feel Stander hung on too long. “Yeah, that’s probably true,” the Butcher said. “You know when you’re almost done. You don’t have the desire or the hunger. You’re tired of the roadwork. You’re tired of 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 more giggled. You just lose it. But a guy’s gotta have money. It wasn’t like I was earning a pension working for U.P. (Union Pacific).” He was a fighter. That’s all he knew.
Along the way, he was exposed to the seamier side of boxing. While training back east he met some wise guys who had their hooks into boxers. He heard stories of fighters refusing to take dives being thrown off a pier or getting their hands busted with hammers. “Yeah, it happened,” he said. “There’s a lot of backstabbers in boxing.” Then there’s the whole dirty business of being a gladiator under contract, which is like being an indentured servant. He got only a small piece of the financial pie. “Everybody gets their hands in the till, see? I got $100,000 for the Frazier fight and I only came home with $40,000 by the time my manager took his cut, somebody else took his and the IRS took theirs,” he said. On three occasions his contract was bought outright by managers in other states and he had no choice but to pack-up, relocate and take his marching orders from a new boss. “You move to their town, you train in their gym, you fight in their fights and they take half,” is how he put. All in all, though, he feels he was well treated, especially by Noland and Lovgren. “They did right by me.” One of the quirks of being a once-name fighter is hanging out with sports icons. On several occasions he was with Ali as The Greatest prepared for fights. He witnessed him practicing pre-fight poetry out loud like an actor running his lines and lording over his entourage like some sultan overseeing his minions. He was with a young Mike Tyson (of whom he does a dead-on impression) in Las Vegas. He chummed around with pro wrestlers like Jesse “The Body” Ventura. He made friends with such ringside characters as Cus D’Amato and Bruce “The Mouse” Strauss.
With the perspective of time, Stander now blames his many travails on the deep funk he says he descended into after losing the title shot. “After the Frazier fight I was really depressed. I wanted to win so bad,” This once hometown hero became seemingly overnight, a has-been. Upon his retirement he stayed on the fringes of the game refereeing bouts and appearing on fight cards, where he was a bloated shadow of his former self. He searched in vain for something, anything, that could replace the rush of stepping into the ring to throw leather. For a while, alcohol became his elixir. It didn’t help when he endured the loss of his mother and step-father, who adopted him and whom he idolized. As a child the future boxer and his mother were abandoned by his biological father. He said when she remarried (getting hitched to Frank Stander, a hard working World War II vet who accepted Ron as his own) it “was the greatest thing that ever happened to me.”
With the help of his second wife, Becky — “She’s a doll” — with whom he has two boys, ages 11 and 13, Stander is clean and sober these days, but out of work. When a reporter recently read him a litany of his troubles and asked what went wrong, this man who never took a dive in the ring answered candidly about the hard fall he took after hanging up the gloves. “Yeah…yeah…yeah. Depression. Losing the Frazier fight. Yeah, that and stupidity. Probably irresponsibility. I made some wrong decisions. I didn’t know when to say no. I was like, ‘Let the party begin.’ When I had to go away (for rehab) it was like shock treatment. I was going to grow up sooner or later and maybe going away helped me to. Now, I just want to raise these two kids and enjoy my grandkids and try to be a role model and do the right thing. I have to show them the right way to go,” he said sheepishly.
When the Vicker’s plant closed a few years ago, Stander lost his well-paying machinist’s job there and has lately been attending Vatterott College’s heating and air conditioning school in an attempt to learn a new trade. He worries, though, how a man his age can find a job that will enable him to support a family. “People say, ‘Well, you can start over and work your way up again.’ Yeah, right. Whatever,” he said, sarcasm dripping from his tongue. “I’m ready to go, I’m ready to work. But people don’t want to hire ya when you’re my age. I talked to friends at Hawkins Construction and they said, ‘We’re looking for guys 35, not 55.’ I talked to a friend who’s in the heating and air business and he said, ‘Well, you know Ron, we don’t want someone your age up on a roof when it’s 120-degrees. You could have a heart attack. Heart attack, hell, I feel fine. I can fight Frazier tonight.”
Like many athletes who once enjoyed success and celebrity, Stander clings to the memory of his halcyon days as the popular hard-hitting heavyweight who, as Lovgren said, “put asses in seats better than anyone ever has in Omaha, Nebraska.” Lovgren, a boxing historian, feels Stander was “one of the last good heavyweights under 6’0 tall.” To be sure, Stander made some waves in the fight game. Early in his career he peaked at just the right time for a fight with the formidable Earnie Shavers, widely considered one of the hardest punchers ever in the heavyweight ranks, and knocked Shavers out in five. In total, he faced nine men who fought for the title, never ducking anyone. But he admits he often didn’t train as hard as he should have. According to Lovgren, Stander lacked a fire in his belly. “It was hard to get Ron enthusiastic about fighting,” he said. “When he fought for me I was on him all the time, but there was no inner drive, no fire in the furnace, except for certain fights. I don’t know why he didn’t have it. I tried talking to him about it. I tried playing mind games with him. I did everything I could do.”
As for himself, Stander holds fast to the dream of what-might-have-been glory days if he had only connected with one solid blow that fateful May night 30 years ago. There is still enough cockeyed machismo and never-say-die hope left in him that when discussing old ring rivals Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and Muhammad Ali, he says, not entirely facetiously, “I have all the respect in the world for those guys, but the simple fact is if we fight today — I knock ‘em out. I’d knock ‘em all three out in less than one round because of their poor physical condition. Frazier’s got diabetes. His weight’s down. His arms look kind of arthritic. Norton was in a coma for months after a car wreck. He can’t hardly walk now. Ali’s got Parkinson’s.” Then, as if catching himself in the absurdity of boasting over dismantling such debilitated old men, he added, “That and 50 cents will get you a cup of coffee.”
Stander, today a robust 57 with a big belly and forearms as hard and round as telephone poles, appreciates the irony of how he, the once prohibitive underdog, would now be the odds-on favorite, given the ravages of time, in imaginary pugilistic contests against these old greats. Even though his own post-boxing life has been anything but a joy ride, Stander is physically unscarred compared to his fellow warriors. And he undoubtedly could whip their asses today, too. A lot of good that does him now, though. The point is, as he knows all too well, is that “when it really counted — when all the money was on the line, it would have been different,” he said. “I would still have been a 10-1 underdog.” And he still would have lost for the same reasons he did when he fought Frazier and met Norton in a matchup of former contenders. The simple fact is Stander, even in his prime, had a bad penchant for being cut in the ring. Sure, he could take you out with one punch, but the slim chance of landing a haymaker made him a long shot against elite fighters, who pummeled him at will and invariably opened up gashes over his eyes from which blood obscured his vision. Cuts led to the early stoppage of both the 1972 title bout and his 1976 fight with Norton. He never faced Ali, but if he had the results would surely have been the same. Making matters worse, Stander was a notoriously slow starter and sometimes he had barely warmed up before cuts opened up and the fight was halted.
Like the tough guy he is, Stander still believes he could have taken out both Frazier and Norton if the fights hadn’t been stopped on account of what he calls “chicken shit cuts.” Indeed, anyone who worked with Stander will tell you he was not hurt during those fights or during any of his fights for that matter, that he was rarely dropped and that he was never counted out. Despite ineffective defensive skills, his massive neck, sturdy chin, heavy leather and refusal to go down made him a pain-in-the-ass for any foe. His losses could be attributed more to his poor training and his accursed propensity for bleeding than anything else. Of his legendary ability to knock men out cold and to stay on his feet, he said, “I was just blessed with it. You either have it or you don’t, I guess.”
That’s not to say Stander didn’t incur his share of punishment during his ring career. His injuries included an oft-broken nose, fractured hands, shattered teeth and myriad cuts requiring more than 200 stitches. His face is a kind of Frankenstein monster’s patchwork. He feels fortunate he avoided long-term damage. Therefore, he does not take lightly how his more famous fellow ex-practitioners of The Sweet Science have suffered physically in recent years. About Frazier, with whom he was reunited last summer for a Boys and Girls Club of Omaha promotion, he said he was shocked by how much the former champ has failed. “I’m not putting him down. I’m just telling you the facts. He had 41 brutal rounds with Ali. And Big George Foreman scrambled his brain, too. Frazier’s a mucho-macho champion, but all that pounding takes its toll on a guy. Norton hasn’t been right since his car wreck. And Ali, with his rope-a-dope tactics, took a lot of shots he shouldn’t have late in his career.”
Still, Stander, who once said, “I’ll fight any living human and most animals,” can’t resist, as crazy as it sounds, entertaining the notion of a seniors boxing circuit pitting him against the men who kept the crown out of his reach. “Let’s do it, please. Line it up,” he said, smiling at the thought of cashing-in once more on his God-given KO punch, stiff chin and brave heart. As ludicrous as it may be, boxing is given to extremes, whether it’s an ancient George Foreman returning to fight after a more than decade-long hiatus or Roberto Duran still mixing it up well into his 50s. He knows the fights he imagines can’t happen, of course, but it’s all he has to content himself with after missing out on boxing’s money parade. As he puts it, “I fought the title in 1972, B.C. — that’s before cash and before cable.”
He has watched the film of the Frazier fight countless times by now. Viewing it is part penance and part nostalgia. He trained hard, even staying with Lovgren and his family in the weeks preceding the action so that Lovgren could act as a kind of chaperon closely monitoring his roadwork, escorting him to and from the Foxhole gym where he trained under the watchful eye of Leonard Hawkins, supervising his diet and ensuring he did not stray far from home for nights out on the town. Lovgren can recall Stander giving him the slip only once to, presumably, go out and party. But even with Stander mostly attending to business, there were distractions galore. Fans clamored for his autograph. Old “friends” came out of the woodwork and pleaded for tickets. The media hounded him for interviews, ranging from the foreign press calling to even the venerable CBS newsman Heywood Hel Broun showing up at Lovgren’s doorstep one day with a camera crew in tow. Then there was the marital strife Stander and his then wife Darlene, who was widely quoted disparaging her husband’s chances, were coping with. Finally, there was the broken nose he suffered two weeks before the fight while sparring with “Mighty” Joe Young in Boston, where Stander trained for a time under Johnny Dunne.
It all got to be too much. “It was annoying and aggravating,” he said. “I just know there were some distractions. It was hard to concentrate. It was a mess. Plus, the anxiety of it. It was for all the marbles. The stress was a factor. Well, you know how they say — Never let them see you sweat? – well, you would have seen me sweating fight night. My armpits were wet. I was anxious, you know? I wasn’t scared. It was psychological. You were going to fight no matter what, but you were just tense. Ready to rumble.”
Then there was the pressure of the money involved. Win or lose, more jack was at stake than he he had ever seen before. His share was $100,000 where his previous best pay day was maybe $1,500. Should he have won, he knew he could command riches even far beyond that. As it was, the money disappeared all too soon and he would never take home more than $5,000 for a fight again.
Another factor rarely mentioned in accounts of the fight was the huge disparity in experience between the two combatants. Frazier had been a world class amateur competitor, winning America’s only boxing gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Heading into the Stander fight his pro career saw him face one leading contender after another in top venues like Madison Square Garden. By contrast, Stander had a limited amateur career against mostly local foes and as a pro had fought, with few exceptions, much lesser lights than Frazier. Then there was the fact Frazier routinely sparred with top flight men in Philadelphia’s talent-rich boxing gyms while Stander made do with whomever he could find here. In short, Frazier outclassed Stander in every way. “Experience was a big part of it,” said Stander. “I had less than 40 fights, amateur and pro combined whereas Frazier had 100-some fights. I turned pro in ‘69 and then in ‘72 I fought for the title.” So, was it a classic case of too much, too soon? “Yeah…maybe,” he said.
That the fight came off at all was a golden opportunity for Stander, plus a coup for his manager, the late Dick Noland, and for matchmaker Lovgren, who were the president and vice-president, respectively, of the now defunct Cornhusker Boxing Club. Negotiations for the event, Omaha’s first and last title card, bogged down at one point, Lovgren said, over the size of the take that Stander and his people would get. Frazier’s camp wanted the lion’s share and only when syndicated national television entered the picture and anteed up big bucks for the live broadcast rights did enough money appear on the table to satisfy both parties.
Regardless of whether Stander was a worthy opponent for Frazier, he was a natural choice because he fit the bill for what the champ’s camp was looking for in a last tuneup before the Frazier-Foreman bout: First, Stander was an action fighter who would eagerly mix it up with the champ and therefore give him a good workout and provide some crowd-pleasing moments; next, he was prone to cuts and so the odds were good the fight would not go anywhere near the distance; and, finally, he was a popular white contender — when that was fast-becoming an endangered commodity in a division dominated by African-Americans — who would attract enough fans to guarantee a nice pay day. Stander gave them just what they wanted, too. He fought gamely, he bowed out before Frazier got in any real danger and he helped fill the auditorium and generate a nearly quarter million dollar gate.
If his later career was a letdown, there were some highlights. Perhaps his most satisfying post-Frazier bout came in 1975 when he knocked out Terry Daniels in the first round. Daniels, another White Hope, had also lost to Frazier and by destroying him Stander hoped to proved that he was still “a legitimate contender.” That win helped him secure the matchup with Norton but after losing that one he never fought a marquee fight again.
All these years later Stander’s still slugging it out, only now his fight is about trying to make a go of it as a middle-aged blue collar breadwinner amid a landscape of layoffs, cutbacks and tough times. He sometimes wonders what-might-have-been had fortune turned the other way in his life. “As good as you are and as hard as you work, you need a little bit of luck on top of everything else. Things just never happened for me. Now, I’m lookin’ for a job.” But at least when he’s low he can always take heart in the fact he once fought for the most coveted title in boxing. “It’s the biggest sporting event for one man in the world. It was a great time.” That and 50 cents will get you a cup of coffee.
- World Heavyweight Boxing Championship 1960-1975 (sportales.com)
- Heavyweight Boxing Division Losing Popularity to Lighter Weights (bleacherreport.com)
- Great White Hope: Not Great, Little Hope Against Johnson (nytimes.com)
- Requiem for a Fake Heavyweight (popculturehasaids.wordpress.com)
- 40 Years Later, Ali-Frazier Still An MSG Classic (newyork.cbslocal.com)
- Was “The Fight of the Century” the Greatest Sporting Event of All Time? (bleacherreport.com)