It’s been quite a while — like upward of 30 years — since boxing had a regular presence in Richmond, with amateur and pro events at the old Arena and elsewhere, wherever promoters could find a hall big enough to seat enough paying customers to make it worthwhile. Shortly after I began my 47-year stretch with The Times-Dispatch, promoters I. Brooks Bowen and Ray Brown became rivals in staging for-pay pugilism locally. The cards were both good and bad, with some in between, but both had their share of all of the above.
As was mentioned before in one of these look-back babbles, Brown took exception to a critical piece he said would hurt attendance at his next promotion and brought an $8 million lawsuit against yours truly and the newspaper, as well as Bowen. Bowen accused Brown of a conflict of interest, a claim that was quickly shot down by state athletic commission boss Doug Beavers. In the end, a judge gave the suit the old heave-ho the day we were scheduled to give depositions.
Frankly, the old memory needs considerable prompting when trying to recall many specifics about the old fights and fighters here. One that still stands out, however, was the pro debut of Rodney Elam, who attended the high school formerly known as Lee-Davis and played football at the University of Richmond, where he was all-Southern Conference and won the SC’s version of the Jacobs Blocking Trophy.
Brown and Bob Trent, best known in these parts for his on-air work at WTVR-6, were co-promoters at the Arena for the first pro boxing program here in more than two years. The date was Aug. 5, 1977. Elam’s opponent was said to be from Philadelphia. The poor guy looked scared from the moment he stepped into the ring wearing tennis sneakers. It was a mismatch from start to first-round finish. The 23-year-old Elam would hit him, and the poor guy would fall down regardless of the severity of the blow. After a short while, Bermuda shorts began to slip down from under his track shorts masquerading as trunks. The referee mercifully called a halt.
Bowen and Brown have long since passed to the great ring in the sky. Boxing is no longer fashionable like it once was. It’s become a made-for-TV sport. OK, name one that isn’t. Gosh, even corn hole has a regular network time slot. And ultimate frisbee. While the heavyweights remain — somewhat — in our consciousness (Tyson Fury, Deontay Wilder), boxing recently took a couple of giant steps back. First, Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr., announced they’ll give it a go against each other and undoubtedly will try to con the public into buying it on pay-per-view. Now Oscar de la Hoya says he’s available for some serious fisticuffs. All three are so far beyond their prime you can only assume they’re too punch drunk to know better.
Boxing always has lived on the borderline between credulity and fake. It’s too easy to throw a fight, at the very least fix the outcome via poor, incompetent or just plain friendly judging. Put it this way: Judges don’t have to be told who better win certain fights. That might be the exception rather than the rule but it happens, sports fans. Then there are the deliberate mismatches designed to pad the record of a fighter on the way up or, worse, somehow maintain his box-office appeal — and legacy — on the way down. We witnessed two of the more egregious examples. This is Volume 21, Part I of our limp down memory lane. Call it: “And What Do You Think of THAT Decision, Bob Ferry?”
Next time we’ll reminisce about our experiences with Bowen, Brown, Bill Brennan, and the rest of the good old boys on the local boxing scene of the past, but first …
He was beyond the twilight of his career in 1965 but still hanging on, living off his name and reputation as pound-for-pound the greatest fighter of all time, when Walker Smith Jr., tap-danced into town. That was “Sugar Ray” Robinson’s birth name, and he was 44 years old for a mid-summer (July) bout with Harvey McCullough, who billed himself as Young Joe Walcott, at the Arena. It was almost like a traveling road show, given this was the second of three tussles between the two in three months. Better they had called them exhibitions, but this ostensibly was for real and would count among Robinson’s reportedly 285 outings — including 85-0 as an amateur — until his retirement two and a half months later.
Like most boxers, “Sugar Ray” retired several times. His first was in 1952 after an ill-advised fight with light-heavyweight Joey Maxim, outdoors where Robinson was said to be ahead on points when the heat got to him in the 14th round. He announced he would become a song-and-dance entertainer, which he was, off and on, for 2½ years until deciding to put on the gloves again to chase the middleweight championship — again.
Now, beloved by millions because of his success and likability, Robinson was beating the bushes and still talking about one more championship fight. Talk about sad! But this was the real “Sugar Ray” himself, after all, and a crowd estimated at 1,900 turned out, most of them fight fans who knew he was only a reasonable facsimile of the winner of five titles as a welterweight as well as middleweight — and didn’t care.
So, in that sense they weren’t disappointed by Robinson’s performance in a 10-rounder with McCullough, 20 years his junior who had lost his last six and was 7-24-2 overall. “Sugar Ray” was awarded a unanimous decision although the fight — such as it was — was closer than the judges made it out to be. McCullough was given only one round (the first) by only one of the three judges, which was silly but no one was surprised, not even McCullough. Hey, nobody got hurt, did they? Well, the bout WAS stopped for a while in the eighth round because of a cut over McCullough’s left eye. After the attending doctor said it was OK to continue, McCullough’s trainer was allowed a few more moments to stop the bleeding. Robinson, who turned pro in 1940 at age 19, said he had never seen that before — but then he didn’t seem to mind.
The whole thing had been so casual, by normal boxing standards that, at one point during an exchange, they stopped to exchange pleasantries. “Good punch,” McCullough said. “Thank you,” said Robinson.
The fans didn’t seem particularly excited about it, either. Most of their applause for “Sugar Ray” came during pre-fight introductions. There was some brief, light cheering at the end, no doubt because it was over. They had come to see a legend in person, after all, with little expectation of a virtuoso performance. Those lucky enough to get his autograph finished ahead of the game.
Later, Robinson at least sounded disappointed that McCullough, who retired in 1970 with an 11-fight losing streak (7-30-2 overall), didn’t give a better effort. “He stayed in a shell most of the time,” Robinson said. “The first fight, he tried to fight me.” They had another meeting scheduled in September in Philadelphia where guess-who would get another unanimous verdict.
(Also in September Robinson fought “Bill Henderson” in Norfolk. The bout was declared a no contest when he lay down on the canvas in the second round and refused to go on. He later was identified as a fugitive wanted for robbery, Neil Morrison. Robinson couldn’t go much lower on the boxing totem pole than that. The man who once won 91 fights in a row and had 109 knockouts among 173 wins was now ready to call it quits — and this time mean it.)
A lavish spender earlier in his career, “Sugar Ray” fought 14 times in 1965 including six more after Richmond. He obviously needed the money, and Robinson admitted later he was broke. His last bout was Nov. 10 in Pittsburgh against notoriously light-punching Joey Archer who took a 10-round decision. (Archer, 26, was 40-1 and hoping for a middleweight title fight when he appeared in Richmond a year earlier against 4-29 Gaylord Barnes. You don’t have to ask who won a unanimous decision, do you?) Robinson was being treated for diabetes and was diagnosed as having Alzheimers when he died April 12, 1989. “Sugar” Ray was 67.
Handing Robinson a ‘W’ at this time of his fading career, although a setup by any definition, was innocent enough. A variation of the no-harm, no-foul unwritten but vastly followed rule. Nobody had reason to complain, least of all McCullough, who knew the reality of the situation and gladly went along with it. In other words, he got paid — again — for being the stooge.
Now, how to explain what happened Friday night, April 30, 1976, at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., where promising youngster Larry Holmes was aided and abetted by the judges to keep his unbeaten streak alive? His opponent was Roy “Tiger” Williams, clearly a big step up for the future heavyweight champ and Hall of Famer who, to that point, had faced a bunch of Humpty Dumptys. Holmes was 21-0 coming into the 10-rounder on the undercard of a heavyweight championship go between Muhammad Ali and Jimmy Young.
Williams was no easy mark. From Frankfort, Pa, Williams, 31, was 23-4 in 10 years as a pro. He would call it a career three years later with a record of 30-6-0 and 22 knockouts. Still, the former Golden Gloves (amateur) champion was a nobody who hoped to become a somebody with a win over the 26-year-old Holmes who had his first pro fight in 1973 — and wouldn’t stop until beating butterball Butterbean in Norfolk in 2002 at age 52.
Holmes had scored a second-round TKO over another patsy 25 days earlier in Landover. It was his last fight prior to stepping into the ring against Williams. Perhaps the Easton (Pa.) Assassin was overconfident, who knows? Or, possibly his handlers thought Holmes was ready to move up in class. Whatever the reason, they had made a major miscalculation, and only the judges could save them — and Holmes — from embarrassment.
I was sitting ringside in the second of several rows of seats and tables set aside for the media and assorted hangers on. Behind me was Bob Ferry, then general manager of the NBA’s Washington Bullets (now Wizards).
The longer the fight went on the more difficult it was to determine who was the undefeated prospect and who was the journeyman. Williams had his way with Holmes, who might have had the edge in three rounds total. That’s being generous but not nearly as what the judges were. You could call them the three blind mice, but that would be an insult to rodents everywhere. Besides, they knew what they were doing. Count on it.
Holmes got a unanimous decision. No sooner had the ring announcer let everyone know how the judges allegedly saw the fight than Ferry reacted by yelling an obscenity, throwing his hands in the air and coming that close to falling backward in his chair, all 6-7, 250 pounds-plus of him. Regaining his equilibrium, not to mention his composure, the Bullets’ GM continued to express his displeasure. I was laughing too hard to hear or record Ferry’s exact words, but he clearly was offended by the verdict and felt sorry for Williams.
Meanwhile, the Tiger sat on a stool in his corner of the ring, expressionless, staring off into space. He knew he had been robbed, but what’s a stooge to do? He would take his cut of the purse, be knocked out by big-hitter Earnie Shavers seven months later then close out his career in 1979 by winning seven straight, five by KO. Holmes did not get back in a ring for more than eight months, winning an eight-round decision over the renowned Jack Prater. The 6-3 Holmes was 48-0 before losing to Michael Spinks in 1986 in what was considered an upset.
- Elam was more embarrassed than upset by his pro debut that attracted a crowd of 2,400 to the Arena. That was by far the largest turnout for live fisticuffs in Richmond during the Bowen-Brown era. No question Elam was the major attraction, and there were more boos — for the poor guy, Willie Thompson — than cheers at the end. “How bad do you think that hurt us?” asked co-promoter Trent.
It didn’t hurt Elam. Veteran trainer Mac Lewis, from Baltimore, said he thought Elam, 6-3, 230, “can be making a million dollars in three years. He has appeal. What he needs is a lot of work with good heavyweights.” Wow! He knew this after watching one non-fight?
What we didn’t know at the time was that Elam had spent time between football seasons in Tennessee, sparring — and occasionally duking it out with bad intentions — with such then-amateur standouts as John Tate and Greg Page. Elam also had a couple of strong AAU outings against another fighter of note, Trevor Berbick who, like Tate and Page, was destined to become heavyweight champion then die at an early age. Tate was 43, Page 50 and Berbick 52, murdered by a nephew.
Elam celebrated his 67th birthday Friday. No, he didn’t make a million dollars. He had one more pro fight, earning a unanimous decision, then called it a career. He has no regrets, Elam said the other day. He sure sounded happy and content he made the right choice. Elam has been working for the railroad for the last 30-plus years and is about to retire. Had he pursued boxing, Elam said, “I wouldn’t have met my wife, and I wouldn’t have four great children. I believe everything happens for a reason. Some things are just meant to be.”
Until next time ...
Jerry Lindquist can be reached by email