As noted here before, storytellers are drawn to boxing for the rich drama and conflict inherent in the sport. So when I learned that Holt McCallany, star of the new FX series, Lights Out, spent a formative part of his youth in my hometown of Omaha and that his mother is singer Julie Wilson, a native Omahan, I naturally went after an interview with the actor, and setting it up proved unusually easy. In wake of the series’ cancellation, I know why. Producers and publicists were desperate to get the show all the good press they could but even though the show was almost universally praised by small and big media alike it never found enough of an audience to satisfy advertisers or the network. Because I enjoy charting the careers of Nebraskans who make their mark in the arts, particularly in cinema, I expect I will be writing more about McCallanay, who is a great interview, in the future. In addition to his television work, which between episodic dramas and made-for-TV movies is extensive, he has a fine tack record in features as well. I am also planning a piece on his mother, the noted cabaret artist Julie Wilson.
Canceled FX Boxing Show, ‘Lights Out,’ May Still Springboard Omahan Holt McCallany’s Career
©By Leo Adam Biga
As published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Storytellers drawn to boxing’s inherent drama invariably find redemption at its soul and conflict as its heart.
Ring tales are on a roll thanks to Mark Wahlberg’s Oscar-winning film The Fighter and FX’s series, “Lights Out,” (the series finale airs next Tuesday, April 5 at 9 p.m.). Although FX recently announced it has decided not to renew the show for a second season, the show received favorable reviews from critics while generating more than usual interest locally, as it stars former home boy Holt McCallany in the breakout role of the fictitious Patrick “Lights” Leary, an ex-heavyweight champ attempting a comeback.
McCallany grew up in Omaha, the eldest of two rambunctious sons of Omaha native and legendary New York musical theater actress and cabaret singer Julie Wilson, and the late Irish American actor/producer Michael McAloney.
Like his hard knocks character, McCallany was truant and quick to fight. He was expelled from Creighton Prep. He says most of the “unsavory crew” he ran with outside school “wound up in jail.” At 14, he ran away from home — flush with the winnings from a poker game — to try to make it as an actor in Los Angeles.
“I was a very rebellious and a very ambitious kid,” he says.
In the spirit of second chances linking real life to fiction, he got some tough love at a boarding school in Ireland and returned to graduate from Prep in 1981, a year behind Alexander Payne, whom he hopes to work with in the future. McCallany, who’s returning to Omaha for his class’s 30th reunion in July, appreciates the school not giving up on him.
“I got kicked out but they eventually took me back, and they didn’t have to do that. Near my graduation I said to one of the priests, ‘Why did you guys take me back?’ and he said, ‘Because we believe in your talent, Holt. We see a lot of boys come through here and we believe you can be one of the first millionaires out of your class and a good alumnus.’ When you’re a kid you take that stuff to heart and it kind of stays with you, and if you believe it, other people will believe it about you, too.”
Tragedy struck when his troubled kid brother died at 26 in search of another fix. It’s a path Holt might have taken if not for finding his passion in acting.
“I felt like I had a calling. My brother didn’t have that, and my brother’s dead now, and I can tell you a lot of the pain and suffering he went through is related to this subject. When you don’t know what it is you want to be and you’re lost and you’re floundering and you’re going from job to job and kicking around and nothing really works out, it’s a very dispiriting place to be. It can lead to substance abuse and a lot of negative things.”
In the show, Leary’s a devoted husband and father trying to rise above boxing’s dirty compromises, but he and his younger brother get sullied in the process.
McCallany, who infuses Lights with his own mix of macho and sensitivity, is the proverbial “overnight sensation.” He’s spent 25 years as a journeyman working actor in film (Three Kings) and TV (Law & Order), mostly as a supporting player, all the while honing his craft — preparing for when opportunity knocked.
Everyone from co-star Stacy Keach, as his trainer-father, to series executive producer Warren Leight to McCallany himself says this is a part he was born to play. Why? Start with his passion for The Sweet Science.
“Boxing was my first love, and way back when I was a teenage boy in Omaha. My brother won the Golden Gloves. We had an explosive sort of relationship, he and I. We would often get into fistfights and all of a sudden he was getting really good.”
As for himself, McCallany’s a gym rat. He’s logged countless hours sparring — “sometimes those turn into real wars” — and training with pros. He appeared in the boxing pics Fight Club and Tyson. He’s steeped in boxing lore. He brought in his friend, world-class trainer Teddy Atlas, as technical adviser on Lights Out.
The pains taken to get things right have won the show high praise. The only critics who matter to McCallany are pugilists. “The response from the boxing community has been really positive,” he says.
“There are a lot of similarities I find between boxing and acting,” he says. “In the theater the curtain goes up at 8 and the audience is in their seats and you’ve got to come out and give a performance, and it’s similar in boxing — there’s an appointed day and appointed time when you know people are going to be there ringside and it’s time for you to come out and perform.”
In both arenas, nerves must be harnessed.
“The anxiety is your friend,” he says. “That’s what’s going to ensure you’re going to do what you’re trained to do and, as Ernest Hemingway said, ‘remain graceful under pressure,’ which is really what it’s about.”
As much as he admires great boxing films he says “Lights Out” is not constrained by the limits of biography or a two-hour framework.
“We have all of this time to explore in rich detail a boxer’s life and his relationships and his psychology,” he says. “With this character the writers and I have the freedom to really create and really see where this journey is going to take us, and that’s very exciting. I can’t tell you exactly what’s going to happen in season two because I’m not sure, and I promise you they’re not sure either. That’s what’s different.”
While they’ll be no second season now, McCallany’s up for a part in the nextBatman installment and has a script in play with
- Holt McCallany and Warren Leight Interview LIGHTS OUT (collider.com)
- Five Reasons to Watch Lights Out (seattlepi.com)
- ‘Lights Out’: A Total Knockout Of A Boxing Drama (npr.org)
- FX’s ‘Lights Out’ has more than punches to throw at viewers (latimesblogs.latimes.com)
- So long, “Lights Out” — you coulda been a contender (salon.com)
- Life is a Cabaret, the Anne Marie Kenny Story: From Omaha to Paris to Prague and Back to Omaha, with Love (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Home Girl Karrin Allyson Gets Her Jazz Thing On (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Home Boy Nicholas D’Agosto Makes Good on the Start ‘Election’ Gave Him; Nails Small But Showy Part in New Indie Flick ‘Dirty Girl’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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.
- Golden Gloves…& golden heart (nydailynews.com)
- Gildardo Garcia finds redemption in ring and in life (denverpost.com)
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 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.
- For Better or Worse…..Old versus New (yougabsports.com)
- The killer instinct in boxing (trueslant.com)
- 40 Years Later, Ali-Frazier Still An MSG Classic (newyork.cbslocal.com)
- Happy Birthday To The Greatest: 10 Best Moments In Muhammad Ali’s Career (bleacherreport.com)
- Trainer Gil Clancy, 88, guided Emile Griffith to world title (thestar.com)
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.”
- Golden Gloves…& golden heart (nydailynews.com)
- Gildardo Garcia finds redemption in ring and in life (denverpost.com)
- “The Latin Snake” Sergio Mora Could Bite Shane Mosley In Three Weeks (bleacherreport.com)
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 C.W. 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 C.W., 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 C.W., 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 C.W. 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 C.W.’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 C.W. 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 C.W. 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.
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.”
When Perales decided to enter the pro ranks he shopped around for a gym to begin his comeback at and decided on the C.W.
“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.”
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 C.W. 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 C.W.) 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 C.W. 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 C.W.’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.”
He was introduced to the sport after being caught fighting in school by an administrator, who brought him down to the C.W. 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 C.W.’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 C.W. 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.
C.W. 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 C.W. 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.”
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I knew the name Morris Jackson growing up because my older brother Dan was a boxing fan and I think he saw one of the grudge bouts between Jackson, the slick boxer, and Ron Stander, the Great White Hope slugger. Jackson was undeniably the superior boxer but it was Stander not Jackson who got a title shot against Joe Frazier. As the years went by I lost track of Jackson, only to read one day in the local daily about how he had gotten in trouble with the law and done time behind bars. There, he had a born again experience of such magnitude that after serving his time he went on to become a minister. His chosen ministry is poetic justice, too, as he pastors to incarcerated men. I finally got to meet and profile Jackson a few years ago. The story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about Jackson and his transformation follows. My stories about Morris’ then-nemesis, Ron Stander, can also be found in this blog site, along with other stories about Omaha boxers, boxing coaches and gyms. Like most writers, I am always down for a good boxing story. There are several yet in me that I wish to tell and I am sure that others will reveal themselves when I least expect it.
Morris Jackson today
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
In his best three-piece, GQ-style suit, Morris Jackson looks like just another slick do-gooder to prisoners seeing him for the first time at the Douglas County Correctional Facility, where he’s chaplain with Good News Jail and Prison Ministry. But the large man soon separates himself from the pack when he tells them he used to be a prizefighter. Rattling off the famous names he met inside the ring — Ron Stander, Ernie Shavers, Ron Lyle, Larry Holmes — usually gets their attention. If not, what he says next, does. “My number is 30398.” That’s right, this preacher man did time. The former convict now stands on the other side of the cell as a born-again Christian and International Assemblies of God-ordained minister.
His 1975 armed robbery conviction sent him to the Nebraska Men’s Reformatory for a term of three to nine years. He served 22 months, plus seven more on work release. But being locked away wasn’t enough to reform Morris. His rebirth only happened years later, after squandering his freedom in a fast life leading to perdition. Referring to that transformation, one of several makeovers in his life, is enough to make even hardcore recidivists listen to his message of redemption.
“Then they hang on every word you’ve got to say, because they see a change. They really can’t believe you were there once yourself. Having Christ in your life really makes a big difference. Actually, it’s almost a visible presence — in your eyes, in your demeanor, in your voice, in your conversation — that people can notice,” said Jackson, whose prison ministry work dates back to 1992.
He first returned to the correctional system doing mission work for northwest Omaha’s Glad Tidings Church, where he still worships today. Reliving his incarceration experience behind the secured walls made him anxious.
“The first time I went, it was with fear and trembling because the last place I wanted to be in was anybody’s jail, hearing the doors close behind me,” he said.
To his relief, though, he sensed he had found a calling as an evangelist to cons.
“It was just as if I was right where I was supposed to be. The words were there. The life. The testimony. The word of God. My studies. The first time I did a service in the county jail there were 66 men present and 44 of those professed faith in Jesus Christ when given the opportunity. I said, ‘Man, I like this. I could do this all the time.’ Like I tell people, ‘Be careful what you say, because God is listening.’ I’m exactly where God wants me to be and I’m doing exactly what he wants me to do.”
Jackson’s had many occasions to reinvent himself, stemming back to his Texas childhood. As a youth, he lived with his family in an upper middle class part of Dallas. Then, he found out the man he thought was his father was actually his step-father. His real father was killed when Jackson was a year-old. Soon after this revelation, his mother and step-father split up and his world unraveled again. His mother got custody of him and his sister, but she could only afford a place in the projects. Already distraught over the divorce and the discovery he’d been lied to, he expressed his rage on the streets, where fighting was a rite of passage and survival mechanism in an area ruled by gangs.
“In Dallas, in the projects, you either had to be a good fighter or a fast runner, and I never could run too fast. I went from being a person who would see a fight coming and move away from it, to initiating fights. If you’d so much as look at me wrong, I’d haul off and hit you. I was getting into three-four fights a week. It was crazy. I guess I was an angry young man. Yet, I considered myself a meek person. I describe a meek person as a steel fist in a velvet glove. I would do everything I could to get out of a fight, but when I got cornered and I had to fight, I never lost one. Sometimes, I lost my temper and did something stupid.”
During this time, he lived a kind of double life. He was a star high school football and basketball player and a regular churchgoer, but also a notorious gangsta. His mother had grown up in the church before drifting away. When she found religion again, she made Morris and his sister attend services. He chafed at the fire-and-brimstone admonitions hollered down from the pulpit.
“The church I was raised in, you never heard a lot about grace. It was a lot of dos and donts and laws. You don’t smoke…don’t chew…don’t drink…don’t mess with girls. Of course, when I came of age where I could make my own decisions, there was no way I could live that kind of life when everybody else was having fun and I wasn’t doing anything.”
When his rebellion got to be too much, his mother kicked him out of the house. He went to live with his sister, stealing food to help support themselves.
His mother relocated to Omaha, where she had family, and she sent for her unrepentant son, hoping he’d find himself here. For a time, he did. He even prayed to lose his hair’s-edge temper, and it did leave him. When a neighbor training for the Golden Gloves prodded the strapping Jackson to join him at the old Swedish Auditorium, the newcomer did and soon found a home in the sport. Recognizing his talent, veteran handlers Harley Cooper, Leonard Hawkins, Ronnie Sutton, Don Slaughter and Yano DiGiacomo variously worked with him at the Foxhole Gym.
In his first amateur bout, he laid out cold his hulking opponent in a Lincoln smoker. His very next fight pitted him against the man who proved to be his main nemesis — Ron “The Bluffs Butcher” Stander. From the late 1960s through the early 1970s, they met six times — four as amateurs and twice as pros — in highly competitive, well-attended bouts. “People came out to see us fight,” said Jackson. Their matches drew crowds of 6,000-7,000. Each took the measure of the other, although Stander, Omaha’s then-Great White Hope, usually came out on top. Stander took four of the contests, including one by KO, Morris won a decision and a sixth encounter ended in a controversial draw most felt should have been a Morris win.
“Every time I turned around, there was Morris. He was my biggest, toughest opponent,” Stander said.” “Yeah, we went at it quite a bit. We just happened to come along at the same time,” Jackson said.
The intense rivalry was tailor-made for fans as the fighters embodied the classic adage that styles make fights. Jackson was the boxer, Stander the puncher. Jackson relied on his feet. Stander, on his brawn. One was black, the other white. In the era of militant Muhammad Ali, Jackson was the closest thing Omaha had to a righteous Brother bringing down The Man. Stander, meanwhile, was a real-life Rocky who got his shot at the title in a 1972 bout with champ Joe Frazier.
Morris Jackson in his fighting days
“I don’t know if I patterned myself after Ali, but I was somewhat like him because I would stick, move, think, box. I was light on my feet. But I wasn’t the type of person who talked a lot. I didn’t have any gimmicks or shuffles. I just got in and took care of business,” Jackson said.
The two long retired fighters reside in Omaha, but rarely mix. While their rivalry was too close for them to ever be friends outside the ring during their fighting days, they’ve always maintained the mutual respect warriors have for each other.
Stander is well aware of the transformation Jackson has undergone and admires his old foe for it. “He turned himself around. Yeah, he went from bad to good in a big way. God blessed him. God grabbed Morris by the neck and said, ‘Come over to me.’ Yeah, he’s a beautiful man now, I’ll tell ya.”
Ron Stander in his fighting days
By most measures, Stander’s career surpassed Jackson’s, whose early promise ended in missed chances, bad matches, poor management, and too small takes. The familiar litany of a club fighter who never got his shot the way Stander did. Former Omaha matchmaker Tom Lovgren feels Jackson could have gone farther. Still, the fighter was once in line to join promoter Don King’s stable. He was a main eventer in Omaha’s last Golden Era of boxing. A two-time Midwest Golden Gloves champion, he compiled a 28-5-1 career pro record, including a KO of then-British Commonwealth champion Dan McALinden, a win Lovgren rates as the top by any Omaha boxer in the ‘70s. Jackson was also a sparring partner for ring legends Ron Lyle, Ernie Shavers, Joe Bugner and future champ Larry Holmes.
But then the good times ended. His run-in with the law came during a dry spell when the journeyman “couldn’t get any fights.” As he tells it, “I started running with some old friends who’d been in the joint and I was influenced by them to make some quick money in the hold up a Shaver’s food mart.” Once nabbed, he was almost grateful, he said, “because eventually somebody was going to get hurt.”
His crime spree was brief but telling and foreshadowed a later descent that threatened to land him back in jail or kill him.
While serving his stretch, Jackson studied Islam and became a Black Muslim. His dalliance with spirituality was short-lived, however. After getting out, he tried resurrecting his career but after three fights called it quits. Like many an ex-pug, he had few prospects beyond the ring and, so, he grabbed the first thing offered — bouncing at strip clubs.
“I got caught up in this lifestyle. I got to smoking marijuana and doing all the things that go with that lifestyle. My wife was working days and I was bouncing nights. We hardly ever saw each other. I was just kind of in limbo and that led to the brawls and the drinking and the drugs,” he said.
Morris Jackson preaching the word
He never imagined being saved. “No. If someone would have told me, I would have said, ‘Yeah, right, you’re crazy man. Give me some of what you’re smoking.’” It was his mother who finally pulled him from the brink and back into the fold of the church. In March 1983 she staged a one-woman intervention with her wayward son. “My mother came over to my house to talk to me about what my life was like and how Christ was calling me. She shared the gospel with me in such a way as I’d never heard it before. She spoke of God’s grace. How He loves you. How He has a purpose and a plan for your life. And how it’s up to you to accept and follow the path God has for you.” What came next can only be called salvation.
“I had this sense and I heard this voice that said. ‘The line is drawn in the sand and if you don’t make the decision now, you’ll never get another chance.’ I know just as sure as I’m sitting here today that if I wouldn’t have accepted Jesus Christ in my life, I’d be gone. I’d be dead. My mother prayed. We prayed. And the next day I went to church with her.”
Church bible classes led to college religious studies and, ultimately, his ordination. His first ministry was on the streets of north Omaha. Then came the prison gig. In the mid-’90s, then-Nebraska Governor Ben Nelson granted him a full pardon.
Now, he can’t imagine going back to that old life, although he keeps memories of it nearby as a reminder of where he came from. “There’s a peace in my life. Serenity. Stability. Certainty. It makes a difference when you come from darkness to light,” he said. “I know what my life used to be like. The turmoil, the uncertainty. Spinning my wheels. Living for the weekends. No purpose.”
Living his faith, which he loudly proclaims from the inscription above his home’s front door to the message on his answering machine, is his way of telling the good news. As he tells prisoners: “You’ve got to believe in something.” He’s seen enough cons turn their lives around to know his story is not an aberration.
The proud old fighter sees his ministry as his new battleground, only instead of knocking heads, he’s about saving souls and staying straight. “Most of my teaching is biblical principles applied to our lives. I’m still a warrior. Only now when I put on my armor and go to war every day, I don’t feel turmoil. My wars are fought in my prayer closet. I pray before I do anything,” he said.
But once a fighter, always a fighter. He repeated something Ron Stander said: “If they told us to lace ‘em up again, we’d go at it.” The Preacher versus the Butcher. Now wouldn’t that be a card?
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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?”
- What can be done to revitalize boxing? (timesunion.com)
- Golden Gloves…& golden heart (nydailynews.com)
- Canceled FX Boxing Show, ‘Lights Out,’ May Still Springboard Omahan Holt McCallany’s Career (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Gleason’s Gym: Next Amateur Shows are September 8 and 10, 2011 (unlimitedfightnews.com)
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.
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.
Once the fight card begins, the crowd noise drifts into the staging area and the boxers steal peeks at the early action. As their own fights draw near, the club’s boxers get their hands wrapped and gloves laced. Each shadowboxes before following assistant coach John Glatgakos into a cement block hall to pummel the bang pads, Glatgakos urging them on: “C’mon, left-right, explode! Explode!” Wingo interrupts to matter-of-factly announce, “Time to go.” A short wait ensues in the wings before fighters and coaches walk the gauntlet – a stanchioned aisle – that passes through the crowd and leads to the ring. Wingo, towel strewn over one shoulder, sits in the corner at ringside beside Glatgakos, who as cornerman handles the water bottle, spit bucket and stool for fighters.
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.
- Mike Harden commentary: Longtime love’s ring is kind boxers use (dispatch.com)
- Better boxing regulation needed: coroner (news.theage.com.au)
- Boxing: Good or Bad? (xtratime4.wordpress.com)
- When is an amateur an amateur and other such Olympic conundrums | Kevin Mitchell (guardian.co.uk)
- Canceled FX Boxing Show, ‘Lights Out,’ May Still Springboard Omahan Holt McCallany’s Career (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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.
Ron Stander, a One-Time Great White Hope, Still Making the 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.”
- World Heavyweight Boxing Championship 1960-1975 (sportales.com)
- Top ten hardest punchers in boxing history (trueslant.com)
- Foreman gains respect even in losing title (jta.org)
- Liston and Ali: the Ugly Bear and the Boy Who Would Be King by Bob Mee: review (telegraph.co.uk)
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)