I ask all boxing fans, “do you remember the first time watching a fight?”
Imprinted in our minds with the first boxing memory of the moment is the family or friend responsible for introducing us to the sport. Every fight fan will immediately share a very personal story as to what fight they watched and who they watched the fight with.
The 1976 Summer Olympics
For me, it was the summer of the U.S. bicentennial. I sat on the blue, white, and black shag carpeted floor of our family room home in Madison, Wisconsin. I was watching the 1976 Summer Olympics with my Dad.
It was July 31, 1976, and I marveled at Sugar Ray Leonard. Leonard established himself for his hand speed and ability to control the ring with foot speed. Howard Cosell was calling the Olympic bouts and George Foreman was providing commentary.
I had asked my Dad a few days earlier how to defend myself from girls who wanted to fight me. I was a preacher’s kid. My Dad, a Lutheran minister, told me very clearly to turn the other cheek.
I didn’t question Dad, but I knew that I’d get scratched, punched or cut if I took his very conscientious and responsible advice.
Leonard defeated Cuban light welterweight Andres Aldama for the gold medal. Leonard had thrown rapid lefts to drop Aldama who never recovered. I was thrilled. It was an exciting fight. But I’d learned there were ways I could defend myself.
I Started Following Boxing
I started following the sport taking careful note of punches, style and how much more power came from follow through. Defense was important and countering, but more than that, speed was key.
I’ve been a boxing fan ever since. I’d always watched baseball and football with my Dad. We never talked about getting in fights again. Just watched the fights together on TV.
Sports were the only entertainment I watched while growing up outside of The Wide World of Disney Sunday nights.
There were four TV channels: ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS. Stations built excitement up before fights with previews, interviews on the daily and weekend sports roundups.
By 1977 Leonard turned professional, landed a 7-UP endorsement and began his trek towards titles in five weight divisions. He was the most visible athlete on TV at the time, second only to gold medalist Bruce Jenner.
I watched and listened to Cosell talking up Muhammad Ali. Ali-Norton, Ali-Shavers, Ali-Leon Spinks, Ali-Holmes, and finally, for Ali, Ali-Berbick.
15 Rounds Go to 12 Rounds
Fights were 15 rounds at that time until on NBC Friday night fights Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini stopped Deuk-Koo Kim, a South Korean, and suddenly WBA number-one ranked Korean champ with a 17-1-1 record. Kim passed out in the ring in the 14th round and died days later on Nov. 18, 1982.
I was a high school senior and this death shocked the sports world. I found it incredible that someone could die from participating in a sport. I played basketball, soccer, swam, ran track, threw discus and shot put, cross-country skied and lifted weights. I never boxed. But I did get in fights defending myself from girls who wanted to kick my tail.
After the Kim fight, all title fights went only 12 rounds per WBC Council President Jose Sulaiman, who on Dec. 9, 1982, said that beginning Jan. 1, 1983, championship fights would go from 15 to 12 rounds, and that referees could order standing 8-counts for fighters in trouble.
My First Sports Writing Job
In 1984 I got a job on the sports desk of The Wisconsin State Journal taking scores. Eventually I began writing and in 1985 I did my first investigative sports reporting: a series on the dangers and worst injuries in sports.
I didn’t cover boxing until in 1987, as a reporter for the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, I flew to Detroit to do a story on Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns and his trainer Emanuel Steward. Tommy had just KO’d Juan Roldan. My interest was when Tommy would fight Sugar Ray Leonard for the second time. (It would happen two years later June 1989.)
I Interviewed Leonard in 1988
In 1988, I interviewed Leonard for the first time in Detroit at a press conference at Joe Louis Arena. Leonard was on a publicity tour for his super middleweight fight against Donny LaLonde.
I’d made it to Detroit and was Sports Editor of The Michigan Chronicle. I was an impartial reporter, but was pretty thrilled to see Leonard in person. This photo shows the excitement that I was supposed to contain.
I never felt like a fan, but the impact of watching boxing, and the memory of watching fights with my Dad, who died in 1985, was monumental in my life.
That’s what boxing does for many people around the world. It brings back a moment in time when a fighter did what many people could not always do which is to win. And the remembrance of a family member or friend who we watched boxing with, comes right back to us.