Boxing’s "Might Have Been" Men – Part One & Two
By Lee Groves from Max Boxing
Potential can be a fighter’s best friend or his worst enemy. Every so often, an athlete comes along whose abilities are so incandescently brilliant that the talk isn’t about whether he would become the man of the moment but whether he could become the best of his generation.
Boxing is a sport prone to hyperbole. It’s easy for writers to get carried away and deem a fighter the "greatest" when he was only the "latest." When a luminous talent performs extraordinary deeds, we who observe them can’t help but wonder how high they will set the bar and how they eventually will compare to those who have already completed their course. Only a precious few blue chippers over the past 30 years have fulfilled the destinies predicted for them. Two of them – Roberto Duran and Pernell Whitaker – will write the ultimate chapter of their athletic stories this June when they are inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
More often than not, though, the flavor of the month ends up being just that after they run into an opponent who forgets to read the advance press clippings. Others are able to succeed inside the ring for a time only to find that their most formidable opponent is either life beyond the ropes or the personal demons that constantly eat away at their souls. But the cruelest impediment of all happens when a fighter on the road to lasting greatness is tragically struck down before he has a chance to completely perform his personal symphony.
The American poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier put it best when he wrote, "For all sad words of tongue and pen/The saddest are these, 'It might have been.'" This three-part story will profile 12 star-crossed individuals who had the talent to put together extraordinary achievements only to fall short. All of them had achieved a measure of renown, and some of them are either Hall of Famers or soon will be. But for all of them, there will always be that pang of sadness that always comes when the mission is not quite accomplished. Without further adieu, here is one man’s list (in alphabetical order) of some of the fighters who could be deemed boxing’s "might-have-been" men:
Tony Ayala Jr. – 1980-2003 (31-2, 27 KOs): Along with Bobby Czyz, Johnny Bumphus and Alex Ramos, Ayala was part of the "Tomorrow’s Champions" group that was prominently featured on NBC in the early 1980s. Of the four, "El Torito" was the most explosive as he splattered opponent after opponent with his deadly left hook. In just his ninth pro fight, Ayala proved against Mario Maldonado that he had grit as he overcame a resounding first-round knockdown to polish off the fringe contender in the third.
"I wasn’t as high on him as other people were as I was about 8 or 9 years old when he was coming up. I was comparing him to guys like Hagler and Leonard," said HBO "Boxing After Dark" analyst Max Kellerman, who covered several of Ayala’s comeback fights when he was on ESPN2’s "Friday Night Fights." "He demonstrated during his comeback that his level of talent was top, top shelf. He was beating up lesser caliber guys even though he took a 17-year hiatus that was spent mostly in prison. You could see that he had the physical tools all along but he didn’t have the stuff psychologically to make himself a truly great fighter. But people responded to his ferocity and naked aggression."
Though he experienced nothing but success inside the ropes, Ayala had problems containing the fury that drove him forward in the ring. Robbie Epps had once been a stablemate but he left Ayala’s trainer/father Tony Ayala Sr. The younger Ayala took out his anger on Epps as he scored a one-round demolition, after which he got in a few extra punches after the stoppage. Still, Ayala continued to rack up knockouts and his world rating zoomed up as quickly as his profile.
Following a third-round TKO over former title challenger Carlos Herrera, Ayala, still just 19, was in line to fight WBA junior middleweight champion Davey Moore and a potential showdown with Roberto Duran had fans and media alike salivating. But all that fell away on New Year’s Day 1983 when Ayala broke into the home of a New Jersey woman, then tied her up and raped her. Ayala was sentenced to 15-35 years in prison, and it appeared his meteoric career was at an end.
"As was the case with Tyson, nobody wanted to hear a Teddy Atlas kind of guy talking about the warning signals," Kellerman said. "The natural reaction after something like this is to be disappointed because fans are not following them as human beings but as athletes. If you find out your star number-three hitter, your star point guard, your star wideout or your favorite fighter has off-the-field problems, the primary concern is how it could be affecting them on the field or how it affects your team. At the time, there was disappointment in his behavior because he wouldn’t be able to fulfill his potential as a fighter and as a human being."
But it ended up that all was not lost for Ayala the boxer. He was released in 1999 after serving a little less than half the maximum sentence. The 36-year-old resumed his boxing career with a third round KO of Manuel Esparza and followed it up with four more knockouts. There was even talk of Ayala securing a world title shot, but all of that stopped after Yory Boy Campas scored a ninth round TKO.
"Ayala was beating the hell out of Campas early on, and I was thinking ‘wow!’" Kellerman said. "Campas was a world-class fighter for a number of years and a guy who was in jail for 17 years shouldn’t have been able to do this for any amount of time, yet he was doing it. He showed he had this physical potential but when Campas wouldn’t go away, Ayala showed he had some give in him psychologically."
Ayala continued to have his issues with the law as he was convicted of burglary with the intent to commit aggravated assault after he broke into a young woman’s home in San Antonio, Texas. During the incident, Ayala was shot in the left shoulder. He wore an ankle bracelet during his 10-round decision win over Santos Cardona and went on to score three more knockouts before losing his final fight by 11th round TKO to future "Contender" star Anthony Bonsante on April 25, 2003. A little more than a year later, Ayala was stopped for speeding and charged with possessing drug paraphernalia. Ayala refused to take a drug test and he was summarily sentenced to 10 years in prison for violating his probation from the burglary conviction in San Antonio.
"I always thought he would knock out Davey Moore," Kellerman said. "Moore was a good natural talent and a good skilled fighter but he wasn’t greatly talented or greatly skilled. Ayala had more physically than Moore. Everyone was talking about Ayala fighting Duran but I thought Ayala would end up fighting Hagler. In retrospect, Duran would probably beat Ayala in an awesome action fight. Physical attribute for physical attribute, Ayala could have gone one on one with Duran but not psychologically. As for Hagler, I think he dismantles Ayala."
Jose Becerra – 1953-1960 (71-5-2, 42 KOs)
Like Ayala, Becerra showed incredible talent even though he was barely out of his teens. At 20, he twice outpointed perennial contender Joe Medel in a span of three weeks and turned the trick a third time the following year. In 1959, Becerra knocked out former bantamweight champion Mario D’Agata and two fights later he captured the 118-pound crown by eighth round knockout over Alphonse Halimi.
"I’ll never forget his first fight with Halimi," said Hall of Fame boxing historian Hank Kaplan. "I even remember who I watched the fight with; his name was Sal Vunetta and he was the brother of the director of ‘The Honeymooners’ with Jackie Gleason. He used to train a lot of good fighters like Mike McCallum and he used to train my stable of fighters. Becerra really surprised me that night. Even though I didn’t know much about either of them, I thought Halimi was going to beat him."
When sizing up Becerra, Kaplan saw the complete package.
"Becerra was a pretty good all-around fighter," he said. "He used to throw this cute little double hook to wherever he found an opening and he was a good puncher with both hands. He was a great competitor at close range. He was a guy who never clinched and was always busy on the inside. He was a good defensive fighter who used to block punches well and he didn’t leave himself wide open and flail aimlessly. He also loved to fight off the ropes and he was good at rallying to get out of a tight spot. He was one of the great early Mexican stylists that became visible to us because of television."
After capturing the title from Halimi, Becerra continued to add to his budding legend. He knocked out Halimi in nine rounds nine months later, then decisioned Kenji Yonekura in Tokyo. Becerra seemed primed for a long reign but was shockingly stopped in eight rounds by Eloy Sanchez. Then, at just age 24, Becerra stunned the boxing world a second time by announcing his retirement. His decision to stop fighting was probably prompted by a non-title bout that took place three months after capturing the title from Halimi. Becerra knocked out Walter Ingram in nine rounds, and Ingram died from his injuries just two days later.
"No doubt it had a great influence on his decision," Kaplan said. "He must have been a very sensitive guy and he must have considered his own mortality as a fighter. He decided that it was time to retire. Perhaps he was admonished by his own family about being a fighter and was advised by his parents to quit. That’s what made the decision for him."
Unlike most other boxers who retire – especially those who do so that young – Becerra was never tempted to launch a full-scale comeback. He did make one more ring appearance at a benefit show on October 13, 1962, winning a six-round decision over Guadalajara’s Alberto Martinez, and he remains one of the most popular boxers Mexico has ever known.
At the time Becerra retired, the career of another great fighter – Brazil’s Eder Jofre –was beginning to blossom. Had Becerra chosen to fight on, a match-up between the two stars would have been inevitable. But Kaplan believes the peerless "Golden Bantam" would have taken the measure of Becerra.
"Jofre was a superior boxer and would have out-boxed Becerra in a 15-round fight," he said. "Jofre knew all of the tricks and was a beautiful fighter to watch. He was a real treat if you’re looking for boxing skills. Becerra’s and Jofre’s style would have had some electricity and it would have been a great fight. But Jofre would have been too clever for him."
Still, Kaplan would have rated Becerra highly among the bantamweights, which has historically been a very deep division.
"Throughout the years there have been a lot of great, great 118-pound fighters," he said. "If you’d put the names down on paper, you’d be amazed about all the great bantamweights who covered the landscape in the 1920s and 1930s. There were a lot of great bantamweights who had never won a title. But Becerra belongs up there with the best."
Hector Camacho – 1980-2005 (78-5-2, 37 KOs): Born in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, Camacho and his family moved to New York’s Spanish Harlem when he was a boy. The young Camacho loved to fight and when he wasn’t competing in karate or amateur boxing, he was doing so on the streets. As an amateur, Camacho won three New York Golden Gloves titles, defeating Paul DeVorce and Tyrone Jackson to earn the final two.
After turning pro in September 1980 with a four-round decision over David Brown, Camacho quickly made a name for himself with his blazing hand and foot speed as well as his flamboyant personality. Camacho won the NABF super featherweight title by decisioning Blaine Dickson and stopped the usually durable Refugio Rojas in a single round to earn a spot in his first nationally-televised fight. On July 11, 1982 at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum – and before CBS’ cameras –Camacho was in prime form as he halted the previously undefeated Louis Loy in seven rounds and from then on he was a TV staple.
"Until Floyd Mayweather came along, Camacho was the greatest junior lightweight I’d ever seen with my own eyes," said Kellerman. "People have a tendency to put all quick fighters in a group but Camacho was even quicker than the quickest fighters. At 130 he was untouchable; he was not only beating fighters he was destroying them. His fight with Bazooka Limon was no contest, though Limon was past his prime, and he was moving up and down between 130 and 135 and beating everybody. He was a phenom."
The quicksilver southpaw blended his speed with a finely honed mean streak to produce fireworks. Against John Montes, the 21-year-old Camacho demonstrated veteran skill (and borderline dirty fighting) by missing with a jab, holding Montes’ head in position and letting go just before driving a pulverizing left uppercut to the jaw. The fight was stopped a little more than a minute after the opening bell, and Camacho was really on his way.
Two fights later, Camacho won the WBC super featherweight title that was stripped from Bobby Chacon by knocking out Rafael "Bazooka" Limon in five rounds and defended it for the only time against Rafael Solis. Camacho moved up to lightweight and was at his brilliant best when he decisioned Jose Luis Ramirez to win the WBC 135-pound title.
"I agree that this was Camacho at his best," Kellerman said. "I think that Camacho-Ramirez – more than Hagler-Hearns, Duran’s performance against Hagler or the rise of Donald Curry – made Leonard come out of retirement. Camacho-Ramirez showed Leonard that ‘here is this lightning-fast, scintillating performer who is about to occupy the same space I did in this sport.’ It made him jealous – and there was some bickering between those guys at the time – and it was as responsible as anything for his eventual comeback. That’s the kind of performance it was; it said that it was ‘Macho Time,’ and that boxing is his sport."
His first defense against former WBA champion Edwin Rosario would prove to be a huge turning point in Camacho’s career. Camacho and Rosario fought evenly over the first four rounds, but 45 seconds into the fifth, Rosario landed a torrid hook to the jaw that badly wobbled Camacho. The champion survived Rosario’s follow-up assault but was hurt again with a hook-cross combo in the final minute of the 11th. Camacho again showed his resourcefulness by weathering Rosario’s storm before receiving a split decision win. Camacho may have preserved his perfect record but he lost the aggressiveness that had made him so special. For nearly the rest of his career Camacho was a safety-first stylist and his "Macho" nickname became the butt of jokes instead of a point of pride.
"Usually the story isn’t so simple; we tend to construct a narrative that follows a story but in this case it was that simple," Kellerman said. "I think Camacho thought he was invincible, he got shook up by an incredible puncher and it ruined his career. Looking back, the Rosario fight was probably Camacho’s greatest win. He fought an absolute prime and motivated Rosario, who was the greatest lightweight puncher of my lifetime and one of the great pound-for-pound punchers ever. Rosario was an awesome puncher and a good counterpuncher and he was completely motivated to fight him. Though Rosario can be called an underachiever, on his best night he was a formidable guy. The Rosario that fought Chavez gave Chavez his best fight at lightweight, and that Rosario wasn’t as good as the one who fought Camacho. When you consider that Camacho survived some shaky moments and still won a close decision against that (version of) Rosario, it was his best win."
Though Camacho kept winning, he showed only flashes of brilliance in the ring from that point on. Greg Haugen controversially snapped Camacho’s win streak at 38 and his life outside the ring was dotted by various run-ins with the law. At 43, Camacho fights on but chaos continues to follow him. A riot broke out both in the ring and outside the ropes following his most recent fight, a 10-round decision win over Raul Munoz in Tucson, Ariz.
"When people talk of all-time disappointments – not just in boxing, but in all sports – Mike Tyson’s name comes up immediately but Camacho is right there with Tyson, though not in terms of character," Kellerman said. "Camacho had all-time great talent and every time he took a hiatus it was unimaginable to me that he wasn’t going to come out of this cycle and get back to dominating. Camacho was a wild hoodlum from Spanish Harlem who used to steal cars and use drugs. He was a crazy dude, not a bad guy in personal interactions, but a guy who had a negative impact. He was an awesome physical talent and for a while he was a truly great fighter. I think that the closest parallel to Camacho – though the styles are totally different – was Tyson."
Could Camacho have made it into boxing’s all-time top 20? Kellerman said that while the top 20 is a very exclusive neighborhood, Camacho proceeded down the road farther than most of his peers could have.
"When you look at a prospect over his first 20 or so fights, you get an idea of what he might become," Kellerman said. "Camacho was such a phenom that what he did early in his career didn’t disqualify him from consideration as the greatest lightweight of all time someday, though he ended up falling way short. It’s instructive to look at what a fighter’s contemporary audience thought of him, and I remember a quote from Michael Katz at the time of Camacho’s prime that said ‘this is the greatest fighter I’ve ever seen.’ Based on what I had seen, he kept the hope alive until after the Rosario fight. That alone is very impressive and speaks to his level of athleticism and talent."
Tyrone Everett - 1971-1977 (36-1, 20 KOs): Mention the name Tyrone Everett to any hardcore boxing fan and one fight will immediately spring to mind: His split decision defeat to WBC super featherweight champion Alfredo Escalera.
Escalera-Everett is universally recognized as one of boxing history's worst decisions, and the injustice is further magnified by the fact that the 24-year-old Everett would be dead two fights and six months later after his girlfriend shot and killed him during a domestic dispute.
"We were talking to Don King about a rematch," said Everett's promoter J. Russell Peltz, who was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2004. "He had personal problems with his girlfriend and she shot him. Some people say that if he had won (the Escalera fight) that he would have moved out of the neighborhood, he wouldn't have gotten involved with those people and he'd still be alive today. I don't know if he would have moved out or not. He made $15,000 for a title fight that took place 30 years ago and we sold ringside tickets for $25. That probably would have translated to about $100,000 today."
Most observers had Everett winning 10 of the 15 rounds as the slick southpaw used his speed and quickness to befuddle the champion.
"He was too quick for Escalera," Peltz recalled. "He embarrassed Escalera in that fight with the way he dominated. Escalera would be winging punches and Tyrone would be gone by the time they got there. There were only one or two rounds that Escalera clearly won. I was standing at the ring when (ring announcer) Ed Derian read the decision. There was one Philly judge that we knew would be OK and a Puerto Rican judge who we knew would vote for Escalera no matter what. We focused all our attention on the Mexican referee. We never thought that the Philly judge would ever vote against Everett and when Ed announced he voted for Escalera I said, 'Ed, you idiot, you read the scorecard backward.' I was sure he made a mistake. And the Mexican referee ended up being the only one voting for us."
The robbery against Escalera hurt both boxer and promoter to the core because they were so sure that Everett had done more than enough to become the new champion.
"It was like he got raped in front of 16,000 people," Peltz said. "It's hard to believe that a bunch of outside people could come into Philly and embarrass you like that, and you're standing like a little kid with your pants down. It was just frustrating. Every magazine I've ever read since then said it was one of the worst decisions of all time. Everett came into my office a couple of days after the fight and he told me 'I made Escalera s**k my d**k.' And he did. It was terrible. It took Philly boxing a long time to recover and get over the stink of that fight."
Everett was an immensely skilled boxer who had the ability to dominate while fighting on the road, and Peltz compared him favorably to two of the 1980s greatest speed merchants.
"He had a little bit of (Hector) Camacho without the B.S., and though he didn't have quite the technique of (Pernell) Whitaker he had better hand and foot speed," Peltz said. "He was not in too many competitive fights. There were a couple, but he outclassed everybody with his speed. In the pre-casino era, there were no neutral sites; you either fought at home or you fought in the other guy's backyard. (Tyrone) wasn't afraid to go on the road and we would never worry about where he would fight. He beat Ray Lunny in San Francisco and he beat a Colombian (Hugo Barranza) in (Caracas) Venezuela in the rain. And he even won decisions on the road, which is even tougher to do. If you're a big puncher, you can knock him out but if you're a boxer and you still get a decision, that's the sign of a very good fighter."
Despite being a defensively-oriented southpaw, Everett was a popular attraction.
"Everett was drawing $50,000 to $60,000 houses and attract between 7,500 and 10,000 fans," Peltz said. "I could afford to fly in guys from Korea, Argentina, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and he was beating them up."
Had Everett lifted the belt from Escalera, Peltz said a long reign would have been possible, but he said the toughest challenge might have come from Alexis Arguello.
"Arguello was big and rangy," Peltz said. "But then again, Arguello struggled with Ruben Olivares, who was a slow methodical body-punching Mexican who was a little past his prime. Escalera had two sensational fights with Arguello and Everett dominated Escalera, so Everett could have pitched a shutout on Arguello too. Arguello would have had his hands full with Everett and I'm not sure if he wouldn't have licked him. Arguello was the best at 130, but I'm not sure if he would have been better than Everett."
Unfortunately, we will never find out.
Boxing’s Might Have Been Men - Part II
By Lee Groves (Jan 31, 2007)
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The first installment covered the careers of four boxers who had the talent to make a significant mark on the sport’s history but were denied due to a variety of circumstances. Some, like Tony Ayala Jr., Hector Camacho and Ike Ibeabuchi, engaged in self-destructive behavior while others, like Jose Becerra, willfully cut short his career following an opponent’s death. Today, four more boxers whose lives and careers suffered from Fate’s cruel hand – and in some cases, misdeeds of his own making – will be profiled. No matter how the events unfolded these men remain united under the unenviable cloud of unrealized potential.
Ike Ibeabuchi – 1994-1999 (20-0, 15 KOs): Samuel Peter is known as today’s "Nigerian Nightmare," (a nickname first bestowed upon former NFL running back Christian Okoye), but for a time in the mid- to late-1990s, the nickname certainly would have applied to Ibeabuchi. At 6-2 and between 235 and 244 pounds "The President" was a muscular force of nature with boulders for hands, yet he could also work behind a snapping jab and skillfully blend combinations between head and body.
"Ibeabuchi captured the imagination of boxing fans like nobody since a teenage Mike Tyson," said MaxBoxing’s Tim Graham, now the president of the Boxing Writer’s Association of America. "People saw him as potentially unbeatable, the type of guy who could go 50-0 if he stayed interested."
A member of the Igbo tribe (the same tribe that produced middleweight great Dick Tiger), Ibeabuchi produced two signature wins: An action-packed 12 round win over David Tua and a five-round knockout over future heavyweight champion Chris Byrd. In the Tua fight, Ibeabuchi maintained a very high work rate and ended up throwing a CompuBox heavyweight record 975 punches. In fact, Ibeabuchi and Tua set an all-time record for most combined punches in a heavyweight fight with 1,730, 139 more than the previous record holder – Ali-Frazier III. Ibeabuchi dominated early and withstood a furious Tua rally to score a stunning unanimous decision over the previously unbeaten Tua, the man thought to be the best young heavyweight in the world.
"The win over Tua put Ibeabuchi on everybody’s radar," Graham said. "The sheer number of punches between two guys who could decapitate each other made for riveting action. Whoever won that fight was going to be the next great contender, and even the guy who lost was probably going to improve his stock. It was that kind of fight."
Against Byrd, whose defensive prowess was a constant source of frustration for opponents, Ibeabuchi demonstrated impressive patience. Even though he whiffed on most of his bombs, Ibeabuchi was never discouraged. Ibeabuchi began to break through in the third and in the fifth he decked Byrd with a monstrous left hook and finished him off with a flurry capped off by two more left hooks that prompted referee Ron Rall to call a halt.
"In the Tua fight he showed he could handle a slugger, and against Byrd he proved he could dominate a slick boxer," Graham said. "Ibeabuchi’s knockout of Chris Byrd established him as the man any champion would need to face eventually if he wanted to remain legit. Ibeabuchi was the fearsome, unpredictable menace out of Africa. He was prominent enough in the heavyweight conscience that dodging him would have elicited calls of cowardice from anybody who might have shrunk from his challenge."
The spectacular win put Ibeabuchi in prime position to challenge the winner of the Lewis-Holyfield rematch down the road but this Nigerian turned into a true nightmare away from the ring. A few months after the Tua fight, Ibeabuchi abducted the son of a former girlfriend and drove into a concrete pillar along Interstate 35 north of Austin, Texas. The boy suffered injuries to his legs and will probably never walk normally again while Ibeabuchi served a two-month jail sentence and paid a $500,000 civil settlement.
"Behind the scenes, people were afraid of him and for him," Graham said. "The smallest matter would trigger a trip wire in his brain. I recall the story Lou DiBella told me about the time Ike pulled a knife on him during a dinner meeting with Cedric Kushner at a Manhattan restaurant. There were the recurring stories about Ike and his mother seeing demons in their home. Today, he explains away the demon rumors as misunderstandings due to a language barrier. He said he was merely telling people he thought his home was cursed in a figurative sense because things kept breaking. But even if that’s true, people were geniunely scared of what was going through this guy’s head. People still had to be shocked when the kidnapping and the car accident and the Las Vegas escort incident went down. But the warning signs were there."
Ibeabuchi was sentenced to five to 30 years for the battery and sexual assault of an escort at The Mirage in Las Vegas. He was denied parole on August 24, 2004 and will not be eligible again until December 2007, when he will be 34 years of age.
"To guess where Ibeabuchi would be today had he not gone to jail is difficult," Graham mused. "The problem with trying to guess is he probably would have gone to the slammer for something else or gotten deported or murdered or who knows what. Like Mike Tyson, there were way too many X-factors in Ibeabuchi’s personal life to predict a long championship reign. I think his handlers would have been able to coax a world title out of him, but he was getting more and more out of control. Some very embarrassing things would have befallen him and the degrees could have ranged from trivial to tragic."
Stanley Ketchel – 1903-1910 (53-4-5 with four no-decisions, 50 KOs): "The Michigan Assassin" is still regarded as one of history’s greatest middleweights though his career lasted just six years. Standing just 5-9 and weighing around 154 pounds at his best, Ketchel fought with a savage fury that mirrored his chaotic life outside of the ring. He was orphaned at age 14 and after running away from his adoptive family he lived the life of a hobo, traveling the rails through Canada and the West Coast of the U.S. While living in Butte, Mont., he worked as a bouncer and fought unsanctioned bouts at a local theater against anyone brave enough to step inside the ropes. His first recorded pro fight, a one-round knockout of Kid Tracy, took place in Butte.
Of his first 48 fights he only lost twice, both times to Maurice Thompson (L 6 and L 10). Just about everyone else ended up being pulverized. After losing to Thompson for the second time, Ketchel went 31-0-4 with 30 knockouts, which included 14 in a row.
"He was a very determined guy with an incredible fighting heart and a great chin," Kaplan said. "As I look at his film he was not the greatest boxer or the most skilled boxer. With Ketchel the biggest thing about him was his determination. That is very, very important because a lot of fighters who weren’t that skilled won their fights because that kind of determination can take the heart out of his opponents. He was the kind of guy who was never going to quit, and if you weren’t ready to fight then you might as well have jumped through the ropes and go back to the dressing room."
Ketchel won the middleweight title on May 9, 1908 by knocking out Jack "Twin" Sullivan in 20 rounds and defended against Billy Papke (W 10), Hugo Kelly (KO 3) and Joe Thomas (KO 2). In the rematch with Papke, the challenger sucker-punched Ketchel while at ring center to shake hands before the fight. Ketchel never recovered from the punch and was stopped in 12 rounds.
Ketchel and Papke fought again six weeks later and the vengeful Ketchel unleashed his full fury. He stopped Papke in 11 rounds to become the first man to regain the middleweight title. In a 10-round no-decision bout against Philadelphia Jack O’Brien in March 1909, Ketchel absorbed a frightful beating in the first six rounds but came back to deck O’Brien four times in the ninth and 10th rounds. Had it not been for the final bell, O’Brien would have been a knockout loser. In their rematch 75 days later, Ketchel officially polished off O’Brien in three rounds.
"Most of his middleweight fights were life-and-death affairs," Kaplan said. "He made great fights with everybody because he wasn’t necessarily too difficult to hit. He wasn’t a great defensive fighter, but his determination and aggressiveness allowed him to neutralize the skills of a boxer like O’Brien. As young as he was, he was able to hang in with those kind of guys because of that."
After decisioning Papke over 20 rounds four weeks later, Ketchel challenged heavyweight champion Jack Johnson in Colma, Calif., on October 16, 1909. The 6-1 ¼ Johnson towered over Ketchel, who weighed just 170 ¼ to Johnson’s 205 ½. After a cautious first six rounds Ketchel began to let his hands go while Johnson landed enough punches to bloody Ketchel’s face, but no more. In the 12th, Ketchel decked Johnson with a right that glanced off the top of the head. Enraged, Johnson rushed at Ketchel and landed two right uppercuts that not only knocked Ketchel unconscious but broke off several of his teeth.
Ketchel returned to the ring five months later and resumed defending his middleweight title as he scored a six-round no-decision over Frank Klaus. After a six-round no-decision bout against Sam Langford and a non-title three round KO over Porky Flynn, Ketchel notched the sixth and seventh defenses of his second reign by polshing off Willie Lewis (KO 2) and Jim Smith (KO 5). Ketchel wanted another shot at Johnson, but in the meantime he stopped at Conway, Missouri to get in some training. It was here that Ketchel’s story came to an abrupt end when a farm hand shot and killed Ketchel because he thought the fighter was trying to steal his girlfriend. The farm hand, Walter Dipley, was convicted of first-degree murder and served 23 years in prison.
Though Ketchel died at a very young age, Kaplan believes the career of "The Michigan Assassin" was close to running its course.
"I have a feeling that Ketchel was peaked out," he said. "I don’t think he would have become much better as a fighter if he had continued for two, three, four years longer. He wasn’t going to learn any more and he wasn’t going to get any better. In each successive fight you get beaten up and that takes a toll. There has to be a balance there. In every fight you are becoming less physically but you maybe get smarter mentally. But how do you put it together if you don’t have the physical ability to take advantage of it? He just fought too many wars early in his career."
Bernard Mays 1978-1985 (26-1-1, 15 KOs) – Of all the great champions who have walked through the doors of the Kronk Recreation Center in Detroit, Bernard Mays had the potential to become the greatest of them all. His blend of speed and power was such that the nickname "Superbad" was eventually bestowed upon him. One story had it that his awestruck fellow boxers gave him the memorable moniker but Emanuel Steward, who handled Mays when the fighter was between 12 and 18 years old, tells a different story.
"The first guy that everybody was crazy over at Kronk was Ray Leonard, who trained there for about a month in 1976 when he was trying to win a spot on the Olympic team," he said. "The nickname was really for Ray Leonard but Charles Davis (who was to later manage Mays) remembered that and gave him the nickname when he turned pro. But ‘Superbad’ was what he was."
Mays, however, wasn’t a natural talent like Leonard; his skills came as a result of intensive one-on-one instruction from Steward that lasted months.
"The most naturally gifted kid I’ve seen was Ray Leonard at 15, but that wasn’t the case with Bernard," Steward said. "I had a Golden Gloves team that won the team championship but in 1971 six members of that team joined the Marines. There was nobody at the gym and I was working at Detroit Edison as a lineman. I stopped by the area between the swimming pool and the locker room and I saw Mays sitting there waiting to go swimming like the other kids. I remembered him because he was a friend of Louis Holland, one of the boxers from that team, and I asked him if he wanted to learn to box. I wanted to teach somebody to box and I started picking him up every day.
"When he first came in he was not super-talented, but I gave him my full undivided attention for seven to eight months with nothing but me and him when I got off work from Edison," Steward continued. "We spent hours and hours in the gym and I taught him every little trick I knew. It was a situation that never happened before and hasn’t happened since, and I developed a tremendous fighting machine. When he had his first amateur fight, everybody was shocked at how good he was. He was a 12-year-old that was knocking out 16-year-olds. Every kid in the city and their parents were coming to Kronk because of this one kid I taught. Hearns and the other kids came coming in because of Mays."
As an amateur, Mays was a terror. According to Steward, Mays was 114-2, and the two losses came as a result of a bad decision and a retirement after Mays broke his right thumb during a fight.
"He was a child amateur star and he and Leonard used to go to tournaments and people would crowd in just to see them fight," Steward recalled. "Leonard even loved to watch Bernard and I’ve never seen a 12- or 13-year-old that was as big as he was; he was attracting 2,000 people as an amateur. He was a combination of Joe Louis and Ray Robinson; he could box and punch and didn’t waste motion. He could slip a punch by half an inch on either side and then nail you."
As a 14-year-old, Mays won the 106-pound national Junior Olympic title and two years later he won another one at 139 pounds. He also won two Ohio State Fair titles in 1976 and 1977, and the later title came despite having not trained for the better part of a year.
"He won the Ohio State Fair, took off a year, and came back in 1977 in the open class," Steward recalled. "He hadn’t been in the gym no more than a week and he won everything down there. He stopped Kevin Rooney in one round in the final and was named the most outstanding fighter."
But while he was spectacularly successful inside the ropes, his out-of-the ring behavior was far less so. He began drinking beer and smoking at age 14 and his father, Prince Milton, left the household.
"By the time he was 17, he was like a lot of kids going off to do other things," Steward said. "Bernard was a superstar at age 12 or 13 and he experienced a lot of success early in life, but when they get a certain age they may lose their desire or discipline. He kept things away from me and he quit coming to the gym for about a year. When he showed up, I was surprised and I couldn’t believe he good he looked after a year off."
Despite his damaging nocturnal habits and difficult home life, he continued to shine in the ring, destroying every opponent placed before him. Not long after he won the 1977 Ohio State Fair, he crushed the European amateur champion. He was too young to try out for the 1976 Olympic team and decided not to wait for the 1980 Moscow games.
Mays turned pro in 1978 without Steward, who had hounded him about his drinking. ("He knew it would be a problem with me, so he ended up signing with my friend," Steward said.) In his first pro fight he smoked Sammy Myatt in two rounds and from then on it was off to the races. His best wins came in consecutive fights against Ralph Moncrief (W 10), former middleweight contender David Love (W 10) and onetime junior middleweight champion Oscar "Shotgun" Albarado (KO 9) – all of which took place over just 56 days.
In his next fight two months later, Mays fought a 10-round draw with Ted Sanders but rebounded with a solid 10-round win over Lamont Lovelady. On November 21, 1985, the 25-year-old Mays fought Matthew Lewis at the Great Western Forum. A heavy right to the side hurt Mays badly and the fight was eventually stopped. The years of drinking had finally caught up with Mays as his damaged pancreas had inflamed. The examining physician told Mays that he would be risking his life by continuing to fight.
"I never managed him professionally and I never saw him fight as a professional," Steward said. "Bernard’s reputation as a pro was never as good as it was when he was an amateur."
Mays lived with his mother Victoria until she died about a year later. Broke, he moved into the New Light Nursing Home in Detroit, and approximately a year after doing so his condition began to deteriorate. He suffered from diabetes, chronic pancreatitis and chronic malabsorption syndrome and Mays died on March 1, 1994. He was just 33 years old. Before then, Steward saw Mays one last time.
"After I heard that he was sick, I stopped by his house and asked his mother how he was," Steward recalled. "That was the first contact I had with him (since the days at Kronk). We sat down and talked about the old days, and he was laughing and rocking in his chair. I was out of town at a training camp when somebody told me that he had died. It was hard to believe. I believe that he had the ability to be right up there with Leonard as one of the all-time greats; he was that good. Even today, I’ve psychologically blanked it out because it’s too painful."
Gerald McClellan – 1988-1995 (31-3, 29 KOs): Like Mays, McClellan got his start at the Kronk and like several of his teammates of the past he developed into a spectacular offensive force whose fireworks were worthy of a highlight reel. "The G-Man" possessed explosive power in both hands and is still regarded as one of the most fearsome punchers in middleweight history. His 30-second destruction of Jay Bell was the quickest middleweight title fight until Bernard Hopkins broke the mark with his 24-second icing of Steve Frank.
"He was a combination boxer-puncher, but a very good puncher," said trainer/manager Emanuel Steward. "He’s one of the few natural punchers that I’ve been involved with. He hit hard with both hands and he was a very good body puncher."
McClellan received the benefit of excellent sparring from a host of world-class athletes at and around his weight class, and because of that it was difficult for McClellan to make a real mark among his Kronk teammates.
"At the time of his heyday, I boxed Gerald with guys like Frankie Liles, John David Jackson, Tommy Hearns, Michael Moorer, Leoonzer Barber and James Toney," Steward said. "I had other fighters like Michael Bentt, Oba Carr, Dwight Davison and Jemal Hinton, so it was difficult for him to be a standout in that group. He did OK in the sparring sessions but he wasn’t anything super-special. A group like that is like having a gifted basketball team with guys like Shaquille O’Neal and all those top players in a group."
Following a successful amateur career that included a victory over Roy Jones in the semifinals of the 1988 national Golden Gloves, McClellan turned pro with a first-round knockout of Roy Hundley in August 1988. McClellan quickly rolled up 10 consecutive knockouts to start his career, all of which came in the first two rounds. But McClellan then experienced two surprising setbacks when he lost consecutive decisions to Dennis Milton and Ralph Ward, forcing Steward to become more personally involved in his training.
"I was not training him in 1989 because I was so focused on the rematch with Tommy Hearns and Ray Leonard. I had an assistant trainer working with him," he said. "He wasn’t training properly and I was so focused on other things at the time. I realized after the two losses that I had to spend more time with him myself and I got more involved with him personally. Not to fault anybody, but I saw that certain guys can be trained only by a certain person."
With Steward back at the helm, McClellan was back on track and he rolled up 12 consecutive victories (10 by knockout) to set up a fight for the vacant WBO middleweight title against John "The Beast" Mugabi in November 1991. Naturally bigger and a superior one-punch hitter than even the formidable Mugabi, McClellan scored three knockdowns before stopping him just 2:51 after the opening bell. McClellan never defended the WBO belt, instead knocking out four more opponents before meeting WBC champ Julian Jackson in one of boxing history’s most high-octane pairings. McClellan was well aware of Jackson’s power and opted to show unusual respect in the opening segments.
"Julian was a big puncher and Gerald was a little on the cautious side in the beginning," Steward recalled. "It was a big-time fight for Gerald. Even Mugabi wasn’t as big a fight because Gerald was just too young and strong for Mugabi and he physically overpowered him. Jackson had been known for coming on to knock out guys in the late rounds. Gerald had more physical size but he decided to be a more careful boxer here."
But the caution came to an end when Jackson hit McClellan with a low blow.
"The thing I remember most is that he was hit with a low blow, and instead of taking the five-minute break he said immediately ‘I’m OK,’" Steward said. "I knew by the way he said it that the careful boxing was going out the window and he was going to end it with a one-punch knockout. He knocked him out with what I call a ‘clean-up’ left hook. I’ll never forget the way his head hit the floor on the side of the ring. The wild streak came out of him and it exploded. It was one of the very special wins because after two losses virtually everybody gave up on him but I believed in him still. He was a personal project of mine who I spent a lot of personal time."
The knockout of Jackson unleashed a beast within McClellan and he became obsessed with producing awesome displays of power. Ignoring his boxing skills entirely, McClellan would rush out of the corner and overwhelm his opposition with sheer force. The results: A record-setting 23-second knockout of Jay Bell, a 97-second stoppage over Gilbert Baptist and a repeat knockout over Jackson that took just 83 seconds. McClellan was a man in a hurry, and Steward was not pleased.
"He had a real attitude about knocking out somebody quick," he said. "He felt if they went four or five rounds that they deserved to win and that he was supposed to knock people out early. Tommy Hearns would operate behind the jab; he was a very patient fighter and he would wait, then catch them with a sneak punch. McClellan would try to make the opening; he didn’t care about boxing at all. He just wanted to create the KO while Tommy waited until the time it would happen. It was getting to the point where it made Gerald start to go backward because I knew if his opponents would get through four or five rounds he would have been in trouble."
McClellan’s uncompromising mindset had both benefits and consequences, and both sides of the equation came to fruition when he challenged Nigel Benn for his WBC super middleweight title February 25, 1995 in London. McClellan nearly ended the fight in the first minute when he knocked Benn through the ropes. Though Benn was able to scramble back into the ring, French referee Alfred Asaro held off McClellan for several crucial seconds, giving Benn valuable time to recover his senses. Benn managed to survive McClellan’s opening assaults and gained momentum with each passing round.
Before and during the fight, Steward saw several troubling signs.
"Against Nigel Benn, I was surprised that he weighed only 165," he said. "When he was a middleweight he weighed right on 160 and on the morning of the fight he would be 170. It was hell making the weight, so I was surprised he was so light. He went all out for the knockout in his typical way. Had I still been managing, I would have known that the referee would have been all wrong and I wouldn’t have let him work the fight. Gerald gave a tremendous, all-out effort but he was getting fatigued. As I watched the fight something was bothering me. I noticed he had problems holding the mouthpiece in. It was the same mouthpiece he was wearing his whole career. I was watching that continually."
Though McClellan scored a knockdown in the eighth round, "The G-Man" fought unsteadily and following a clash of heads in the 10th he took a knee and allowed Asaro to count him out. At the time of the knockout, McClellan was ahead by one and three points and even on the third card.
"When I saw him slumped on the canvas, I knew something serious had happened," Steward said. He was right; McClellan suffered permanent brain injuries and has virtually no hearing or sight. He requires constant care from his family and will need assistance for the rest of his life.
McClellan’s almost supernatural punching power had fans salivating for dream fights against Roy Jones and James Toney among others, and Steward believes he would have matched up well with the two future Hall of Famers – provided he adopted a more balanced approach.
"Everybody thought that he would bowl over Roy Jones and James Toney, but I don’t know that for sure," Steward said. "By that time he was too dependent on the early-round KO and that would have been a problem against Toney. Toney was becoming a very balanced fighter, and though Gerald had great one-punch power he was becoming more one-dimensional. It remained to be seen.
"Gerald was a tremendous puncher and there was nobody else out there to challenge Roy Jones," Steward continued. "In the semifinals of the 1988 Golden Gloves he beat Jones in a very good, competitive fight. Roy was very fast and very good but Gerald punched a little harder. He landed a body shot that made Roy wince and he was just heavier handed. Those two would have been a super, super fight. It would have been a competitive match between Jones, Toney, any of them. He was a talented fighter who deserved to be right there with the other two."
For more information on Gerald McClellan, visit http://www.geraldmcclellan.com/
The third and final installment of "Boxing’s Might Have Been Men" will profile four more fighters for whom fate did not smile.