Heart and Soul, A Mutt and Jeff Boxing Story
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.”
Kenny Wingo, seated
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?”
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