Sunday, August 8, 2004

Lords of the ring

With two more Olympians and a rich legacy, Cincinnati is America's amateur boxing capital

By John Erardi
Enquirer staff writer

Remember that scene in Rocky, in which the prizefighter, played by Sylvester Stallone, runs to the top of the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and raises his arms to the city to show that he's ready to "go the distance" against Apollo Creed?

Former champ Aaron Pryor

Freddie Miller

Cincinnati's first world boxing champ was born Frederick Mueller in 1911.

As a 5-foot-5 featherweight boxer (126 pounds), he took the name Freddie Miller, and after beating the best other American featherweights, took on the champs throughout Europe in Liverpool and London, Paris, Glasgow, Belfast, Madrid, Barcelona and Brussels and went 34-2 (the latter two were nontitle matches) to unify the title.

He held the title for two years, making two more world tours and fighting in 37 countries back in the days when international bouts were the rage. He was a left-hander, but posed as a right-hander in case his opponents had never seen him fight - which was often true back in those days before television.

His last bout was in 1940 at Music Hall against the local up-and-comer Herschel Joiner, who stopped Miller on a technical knockout in the eighth round - the first time Miller had been stopped in 237 bouts.

Miller was an all-around athlete (he averaged over 190 in bowling and galloped horses at Latonia Race Course) and was a contract bridge champion as well as one of the top ballroom dancers in Cincinnati. He died May 8, 1962, at age 51.

Wallace 'Bud' Smith

The first of Cincinnati's Olympic boxers (London, 1948, where he finished fourth at 136 pounds, narrowly missing a medal) turned pro upon his return home to the West End, where he'd been born 19 years earlier.

His first pro manager was John Joiner Sr., brother of Herschel. Longtime Cincinnati Post sportswriter Pat Harmon wrote in the 1978 book, Cincinnati's Greatest Sports Stories, that if Smith had remained with Joiner, many of his later financial problems with managers never would have occurred. Smith won the world lightweight title from Jimmie Carter in June 1955, and won a rematch at Cincinnati Gardens the following October.

On July 10, 1973, Smith was walking in the 400 block of Erkenbrecher Avenue in Avondale, where he saw a man beating up a woman and stepped in. The man pulled a gun and shot Smith in the head, killing him. He was 44.

Ezzard Charles

Charles was born in 1921 in Lawrenceville, Ga., but moved to Cincinnati when he was 9 to live with his grandmother and great-grandmother. As a youngster, he walked into Bert Williams' gym with 50 cents he'd earned from washing cars and selling newspapers, and paid for his first workout. Williams, a pint-sized Welshman, supervised the fast-handed Charles to 42 straight victories as an amateur and two national AAU titles.

In 1940, Charles turned pro as a middleweight. He was managed by three local men: Charlie Dyer, George Rhein and Max Elkus, a relationship that Charles later said made for the happiest days of his life. He won his first 22 pro fights. Soon after, he moved to light heavyweight - winning two decisions over the top-ranked Joey Maxim and three over Archie Moore.

Charles was in a stretch of having won 30 of 31 fights when heavyweight champion Joe Louis retired. Charles beat Jersey Joe Walcott in June 1949, and was recognized as heavyweight champion everywhere but New York - where Charles beat Louis, who came out of his 15-month retirement.

Charles defended his title seven times, losing it in July 1951 to Walcott. His greatest fame came in June 1954, when he became the only fighter to go the distance - 15 rounds - with Rocky Marciano. And it wasn't as though Charles was dancing. He led early, cutting Marciano's nose and pouring it on. But Marciano won the closing rounds and the decision.

In 1970, Charles was inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame. He died of Lou Gehrig's disease in Chicago on May 18, 1974, at age 53. Lincoln Park Drive in Cincinnati was later renamed Ezzard Charles Drive in memory of the great boxer. A classy and gentlemanly 175-pounder, his natural weight class was light-heavy. He fought at heavyweight because that's where the money was.

He remains to this day the greatest of Cincinnati's boxing champions, not only for what he accomplished in the ring, but for the way he conducted himself outside it.

Aaron Pryor

Aaron "The Hawk" Pryor turned pro in 1976, right after barely missing a spot on the Olympic team.

When he blew his way through the lightweight ranks, and nobody at the top wanted to fight him, he jumped to junior welterweight (140 pounds). For his 25th fight as a pro, he challenged the legendary Antonio "Kid Pambele" Cervantes to a fight at Riverfront Coliseum.

Cervantes, a terrific pound-for-pound fighter, had made 17 successful title defenses of his crown over two reigns. He knocked down Pryor in the first round, but Pryor, displaying the ferocious nonstop approach that would characterize all his fights, TKO'd Cervantes in the fourth round.

Five title defenses later - Pryor won them all by knockout - he faced future fellow Hall of Famer Alexis Arguello in the first of two ring classics, both won by Pryor. The first was at Miami's Orange Bowl. The action was so unrelenting - borderline savage - that it was named "Fight of the Year" in 1982 by Ring magazine, which later called it "The Fight of the Decade."

Arguello was trying to become the first boxer ever to win world titles at four different weights.

From 1980 to 1985, Pryor was the reigning champion at 140 pounds. As a story on HBO Sports News has said: "If Sugar Ray Leonard was the best fighter of the '80s and Thomas Hearns was the most exciting, (then) Pryor was the best fighter who was also exciting."

At the end of the millennium, the Associated Press dubbed Pryor the greatest junior welterweight of all-time. He retired with a career record of 39-1, with 35 knockouts.

Truth is, though, nobody ever really beat Pryor. He did it to himself with too much street life - most notably crack cocaine, which he began smoking in 1983 after the second Arguello fight. He says he has been clean since 1993, and he is now an ordained deacon at New Friendship Baptist Church.

Olympian Ron Siler, a fighter who has a good chance of being Cincinnati's next great pro - says trainer and television commentator Emmanuel Steward - wants Pryor to be part of the team that trains him.

"He's been through it all in the ring," Siler says.

Tony Tubbs

Tony "TNT" Tubbs was born Feb. 15, 1958, and grew up as one of nine children in the projects of Walnut Hills. He learned to box at St. Mark's Catholic Church in Evanston when he was 16. Six years later, after an impressive amateur career spanning almost 250 fights, he was a favorite to medal in the 1980 Olympics. But the United States boycotted the Games, and Tubbs skipped the trials to turn pro.

Known for his hand speed in a highly competitive heavyweight division during the 1980s, Tubbs ran his record to 21-0 before getting his first shot at a world title. He won a unanimous decision over Greg Page on April 29, 1985, in Buffalo to capture the WBA championship. Nine months later, he lost the crown in a split decision to Tim Witherspoon. Tubbs fought in other big fights. Mike Tyson knocked him out in two rounds in 1988 and he lost a controversial decision to Riddick Bowe in 1991.

Eventually, his career spiraled downward as he battled drug addiction. In 1989, Tubbs won a decision over Orlin Norris for the NABF title, but the verdict was later changed to a no-decision after Tubbs tested positive for an illegal substance.

Now clean and sober, the 46-year-old who once sparred with Muhammad Ali and calls himself "the last of the 15-round heavyweights," is planning to fight again. He fought twice in 2003, losing on a unanimous decision and a technical knockout.

Tim Austin

Pound for pound, the 118-pound Austin is rated one of the best fighters ever.

The fight that defined this hard-hitting left-hander came on July 19, 1997, after a 17-month layoff.

International Boxing Federation champion Mbulelo Botile broke Austin's jaw with a left hook in the first round, but Austin fought through the pain and knocked down Botile in the seventh round - then right-hooked him into la-la land in the eighth.

Austin has made nine defenses of his IBF bantamweight title. He has been a regular on big pay-per-view cards, including those of Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Felix Trinidad and Julio Cesar Chavez.

Austin grew up in Cincinnati's West End, home to so many of the city's top fighters over the years. His idols were Tony Tubbs and Tommy Ayers, who trained at the Emmanuel Center, which Austin began visiting at age 6. Austin was also inspired by his older brother, Tommy, also a boxer.

"I liked going to the gym and smelling the aromas," Austin recalled. "My brother would come home with trophies and bags of Skyline Chili and McDonald's, and I thought that was awesome," Austin recalled before a title defense in Cincinnati in 2001.

Reporter Ryan Ernst contributed

Well, re-shoot it, Mr. Director Man.

Re-shoot it on the hills of Mount Adams overlooking the Ohio River, because Cincinnati's amateur fighters are kings of the national hill now.

Says who?

Says famed trainer and television commentator Emmanuel Steward, of Detroit.

Pound for pound, Cincinnati is the top producer of high-quality amateur boxers in the country, Steward says.

"I can't think of any city that produces more," he said. "Just look at the Olympic teams."

With Ron Siler and Rau'Shee Warren on this year's 12-man squad, it means that Cincinnati has placed six fighters on the last four Olympic teams.

That's two fighters in 1992, none in 1996, two in 2000 and two in 2004.

No other city can match it during that period.

To become the new king of the hill, Cincinnati had to knock off Chicago (six boxers on four teams, 1988-2000) and Philadelphia (six Olympians on five teams, 1980-96).

Boxing experts offer three key reasons for Cincinnati's success: a tradition of excellence dating back to the early 1930s; a feeder system and coaching infrastructure that nurtures young boxers; and financial backers like Buddy LaRosa who help talented kids reach their potential.

The result?

"Today at the tournaments, everybody watches the Cincinnati boxers, because they are so well-coached," Steward said. "They know how to box, and everybody knows it. They have a reputation."

A rich history

Much of Cincinnati's recent success can be traced to the late Rolly Schwartz, the guru of Cincinnati boxing who coached the 11-man 1976 Olympic team to a record seven medals in Montreal: five gold, one silver and one bronze.

"Rolly Schwartz's influence is still be being felt in Cincinnati," Steward said.

Schwartz, who died in 1998, was born in Chicago in 1914 and raised in an orphanage. He took up boxing in a gym run by the Catholic Youth Organization.

After serving in World War II, Schwartz came to Cincinnati, where he coached boxing at Xavier University.

As the Olympic coach, the 62-year-old Schwartz personally led his athletes on three-mile runs every morning.

Ironically, there were no Cincinnatians on his 1976 team. Aaron Pryor, who would go on to become a world champion as a junior welterweight, was edged out by Howard Davis, who won a gold in Montreal.

But fighters knew to be wary of opponents coming out of the Queen City, says former world heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield. Holyfield, who is from Atlanta, noticed it while coming through the amateur ranks in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

"They had an attitude," said Holyfield, a 1984 Olympian, during a recent visit to Cincinnati.

"They were good, and they knew it. For me, it was too much attitude, but they lived up to it."

They had a lot to live up to. Cincinnati has had five world champions, beginning with Freddie Miller in the 1930s, Bud Smith and Ezzard Charles in the 1950s, Pryor and Tony Tubbs in the 1980s and Tim Austin in the 1990s.

"Those guys were always around - in the gyms, in the media, out in public - and the kids see them and want to emulate them," Steward says. "It becomes part of the culture. It's true in a lot of the older cities with a lot of boxing history."

"In Cincinnati, the fighters know their roots," agrees 2004 Olympian Siler, 24. "There's always somebody in the gym who's your idol, and that person had a person before him who was an idol. For me it was Ravea Springs. And I watched tapes of Aaron Pryor fights."

Al Mitchell, a former Philly boxer, coached the 1996 U.S. Olympic boxing team and is a technical adviser to this year's squad. He said the fascination with boxing by young people in Cincinnati reminds him of home.

"Cincinnati, Philly, Chicago, St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit, New York, that's the breadbasket for fighters," he says. "You'll always see boxers come out of there, because it's in their blood. It's in the roots of the community."

The foundation

But you can't produce fighters without facilities, and coaches to channel those desires, and the Cincinnati area has plenty of both.

Candy Lopez, who calls Cincinnati "a hotbed" of boxing talent, was an assistant coach for the 2000 U.S. Boxing Team. He credits the area's infrastructure for its success.

"Having a feeder system of young talent is absolutely key and Cincinnati has it," Lopez says. "In San Jose, where I train boxers, we have four (boxing) gyms in a city of 1 million people. Only four gyms, and I have two of them! I will guarantee you Cincinnati has a lot more than that, and a lot smaller population."

Lopez is right. There are eight boxing gyms in Cincinnati proper. Add gyms in Covington and Dayton, Ohio, and there are 16 gyms serving around 200 dedicated young boxers, says Marti Smith, who administers the amateur boxing operations of pizza magnate Buddy LaRosa.

Deeply intertwined with Cincinnati's boxing tradition is this fact: The coaches who were produced by the system now help sustain it.

"You've got all that in Cincinnati with guys like Mike Stafford (a technical consultant to the U.S. Olympic boxing team) and Billy Joiner, and Ricardo Williams Sr., and a lot of other people who work out front and behind the scenes," Steward says. "Some people there in (Greater) Cincinnati who run the other gyms might not get the national notoriety, but they continually turn out the boxers that upgrade the competition and add to the mix of the local team."

Financial backing

But for a feeder system to flourish, there must be financial backers to finance both the dreams, and the teams.

"In Cincinnati, that person is Buddy LaRosa," Steward says.

For years, LaRosa has funded the operation of Golden Gloves - now Police Athletic League (PAL) - gyms in Cincinnati and bankrolled the out-of-town trips that provide the youngsters with the boxing experience to become champions.

How in the world did this self-made pizza magnate - a multimillionaire who is a collector of fine art and quoter of the poetry of William Cullen Bryant - get involved in boxing?

LaRosa, 74, was raised in South Fairmount and began wrestling and boxing at age 14 at the old Fenwick Club on Commercial Square, where Procter & Gamble is today. His father, Tony, was a Cincinnati Golden Gloves champion.

"Talk to anybody and they're going to have role models in their lives," LaRosa said. "For Pete Rose, it was Joe Hawk. For me, it was (former boxer) Pat Iacobucci. He was an inspiration to me."

In the early 1970s, Schwartz approached LaRosa seeking financial help for Cincinnati's boxing scene. Together, they regained Cincinnati's affiliation as a regional center for Golden Gloves.

That meant area fighters no longer had to travel to Louisville to win the titles that would catapult them to the nationals. Regaining the Golden Gloves franchise was the key to Cincinnati regaining its national boxing pre-eminence, experts say.

It paved the way for Pryor's run in the 1970s and 1980s, and created the nurturing environment that has turned Cincinnati into a cradle for Olympic boxers.

And today, it's LaRosa who is approaching others for financial support for boxing.

"Every organization needs a conductor for the symphony, to direct the strings, the horns, the percussion," LaRosa says. "It's a team effort now, but yes, you're always looking for new blood. I'm still looking for some dynamic, take-charge guy."

The Olympians

• Bud Smith: Fourth at 136 pounds in London in 1948.

•  Tony Tubbs: He was the leading contender at heavyweight for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, which were boycotted by the U.S.

• Tim Austin: 1992 bronze medalist as flyweight in Barcelona.

•  Larry Donald: Non-medalist at heavyweight in Barcelona, 1992.

•  Ricardo Williams Jr.: Silver medalist at 139 pounds in Sydney, Australia, in 2000.

•  Dante Craig: Non-medalist at 147 pounds in Sydney in 2000.

•  Rau'Shee Warren: First Olympic fight for the 106-pounder will be Aug. 18 in Athens.

•  Ron Siler: First Olympic fight for the 112-pounder will be Aug. 17 in Athens. ---


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