Mauler: Rumblin’ With Ron Lyle
By Mike Casey
Imagine that you are a Great White Shark and that you are
transported back to the Miocene and Pliocene epochs of some 60 million years
ago. Not being short on confidence and unaware of the level of competition in
your new surroundings, you assume that the balance of power will not be
radically disturbed and that you will continue to boss the oceans. Any
pretenders to your throne will be quickly dispatched and you will carry on
eating as much as you can get as the good life endures.
Then you come upon your ancestral brother, Megladon. He is three
or four times your size at a length of up to a hundred feet, his temperament is
just as vicious and his massive jaws make yours look like those of a goldfish.
He eats whales for lunch. He is the reigning world champion and you know at once
that he will beat you every time and probably snack on your remains into the
bargain. To heap insult on injury, you might not even make it past some of your
fellow contenders in this awesome age of giants.
Megladons and sharks popped into my mind when I decided to write
about Denver’s former heavyweight contender Ron Lyle and the top quality era in
which he fought. There were all sorts of fish in that great sea of the 1970s,
all hungry and dangerous in their different ways.
There were stingrays and swordfish in the likes of Floyd
Patterson, Jimmy Ellis, Jimmy Young, Gregorio Peralta and Larry Middleton. There
were whales of varying sizes and aggressive tendencies in George Chuvalo, Oscar
Bonavena, Joe Bugner and Buster Mathis. There was even an octopus on the
comeback trail in Ernie Terrell.
The members of boxing’s shark family were plentiful and assorted
in their potency and staying power. In the back waters were those who flattered
to deceive in Jeff (Candy Slim) Merrit, Stan Ward, Mac Foster, Jose Urtain, Jose
Luis Garcia and Alvin (Blue) Lewis.
Then there were the big sharks with real and enduring teeth, the
thrilling quartet of Jerry Quarry, Ken Norton, Ron Lyle and Earnie Shavers. The
heavy punching Lyle, from the Centennial State of Colorado, was a bona-fide
member of that select group of contenders, even if he wasn’t the leader of the
pack. But they all suffered the same, cruel twist of fate. They were ruled by
three megladons in Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Joe Frazier.
Ron Lyle was sitting on a park bench on a fine sunny day, looking
calm and relaxed and bearing that slightly glazed look that afflicted many
others when they were talking to boxing announcer, Howard Cosell. Lyle was being
asked about how he got into boxing after a lengthy prison stretch and Cosell was
taken aback by the casual way in which Ron related the details of a stormy and
near disastrous early life.
He discussed murder and a near fatal stabbing with the
matter-of-fact air of a nine-to-fiver describing another tedious day at the
office. “It was back in 1961 when I first got involved in a gang fight and a guy
got killed. I was sent to the penitentiary for first-degree murder. I was tried
for first-degree murder but found guilty of second degree. That was when I first
Watching other prisoners in the ring, Lyle didn’t think that
boxing looked too hard and figured he could do well at it. He fought for the
first time in 1964, but quickly got derailed in an arena where the fighting and
the jostling for power never stops at the ring of a bell.
“I got stabbed. When you’re in prison, man, everybody’s mean or
they wouldn’t be there. I was stabbed in the abdomen. One of the prison doctors
signed my death certificate, but another doctor wouldn’t give up. I guess he
thought he could get to the artery. I was bleeding internally. When they opened
me up, they couldn’t find the artery because of all the blood.
“They had to give me thirty-six blood transfusions. I went on the
operating table at ten o’clock that morning and didn’t get off it until about
five that afternoon.
“They sent me to the hole (solitary confinement). You have
nothing there but the letters you get from home and I wasn’t getting too many
To while away the long hours, Lyle began to exercise and
strengthen his body. He was a naturally big and strong man at 6’ 3” and around
215lbs at his fighting weight, and all the hard work soon bore fruit. Setting
himself new targets every day, Ron reached the point where he could do a
thousand push-ups in an hour. He made the decision to channel his energy into
boxing. He made his mind up about something else to. He would win the
heavyweight championship of the world.
Lyle always had a formidable presence about him, as well as a
suitably mean look. What he also possessed was great determination, fighting
spirit and heavy punching power in both hands. Ron additionally had the capacity
to learn fast and he quickly matured into an educated hitter who could mix up
his shots and inflict significant damage with both hands. Watch the films of him
as an amateur and as a learning professional, and you will not see a fighter who
just blasts away and hopes for the best.
Lyle fared well as a Simon Pure, but time was of the essence
after his seven-year stint at Uncle Sam’s pleasure and he had to move fast. He
was already thirty when he turned professional in the spring of 1971 and he
needed to make rapid and impressive progress if he were to realise his great
ambition of winning the richest prize in sport. He was to come up short in his
quest to attain that great goal, but how he tried and how he thrilled us in the
As a teenager with a typical love of the heavyweights, I was
always scanning the rings around the world in various boxing publications, eager
to spot the coming of the next colossus who would smash through the existing
order and start a new era. One has yet to acquire a meaningful perception of
talent at that age, and I was disappointed many times. I remember following the
progress of Mac Foster, Jeff Merritt and Spanish slugger Jose Urtain, picturing
them as thunder-punching destroyers who would blitz their way to the very top.
New sensations would come and go, lighting up the sky briefly before being badly
found out. Merrit would collapse in just 47 seconds against Henry Clark, Urtain
would be easily humbled by an old Henry Cooper and Foster would be severely
beaten by the eternal Comeback Kid, Jerry Quarry.
Ah yes, that great wrecker of reputations, Jerry Quarry. It was
Jerry who rose up to halt the rampaging charge of Ron Lyle at Madison Square
Garden in 1973, by way of a comprehensive boxing lesson that Quarry fans still
love to recall. The master class snapped Ron’s winning streak at nineteen, but
the Denver puncher showed his class by doffing his hat to his conqueror and
vowing to improve.
I wondered about Ron Lyle after that defeat. Would he simply
trail off and become another in-and-out journeyman? Quarry, for all his erratic
ways, had a peculiarly permanent effect on others. Thad Spencer never won
another fight after being pounded by Jerry. Mac Foster became a trial horse.
Buster Mathis never hit the heights again.
But there was something gloriously rugged and contrary about
Lyle. He didn’t care for being anybody’s doormat. He had first caught my eye in
1972 with crushing knockouts of Mathis and the tough and tricky Larry Middleton.
Big Buster was often mocked, but he was an awfully tough man to knock over. Only
Joe Frazier had managed the feat before Lyle. Middleton, just seven months
before his third round knockout loss to Lyle, had won many plaudits in London by
taking Quarry all the way and losing a razor-thin decision.
Lyle bounced back from the Quarry defeat by winning seven
straight before being held to a draw in Germany by Argentina’s canny old fox,
Gregorio Peralta. Ron’s next assignment would be against another fighter from
the land of the Gauchos. On March 19, 1974, Oscar (Ringo) Bonavena came to
Let’s get physical
“I never thought I was in trouble,” said Lyle, after sharing
Bonavena’s company for twelve bruising rounds on a rough old Tuesday night. “But
he’s very physical. The first three rounds were the worst. Man, this guy is
tough. Bonavena’s a lot more physical than Jerry Quarry, though Quarry had the
finesse. Oscar hits a lot harder.”
Brawling Bonavena, never shy about promoting himself, predicted
an early knockout victory over Lyle and came out in determined style. The
thick-set, muscled Argentinian wasted no time in swinging big punches at Ron,
scoring with a meaty left and a succession of body punches. Lyle was always a
slow starter and those hard lefts troubled him for the first three rounds. But
Ron seemed to be finding his rhythm by the third as he used his four-inch
advantage in height and began hit back at Ringo. Lyle was the heavier man by
nine pounds at 216lbs and Oscar was forced to crouch and grapple as his
opponent’s stinging blows struck home more often.
Bonavena had broken his hand two years before and injured it
again more recently, but it was serving him well and continued to be his most
effective weapon as the fight went into the later rounds. Oscar had a game plan,
but Ron wouldn’t oblige him for long enough. The South American bull repeatedly
tried to trap Lyle on the ropes and shell him with heavy artillery, but Ringo
was taking some jarring shots in return. He appeared to lose his orientation for
a few fleeting seconds in the sixth round when Ron connected with a slamming
right cross. The punch knocked out Bonavena’s mouthpiece, but he fought back
viciously as Lyle followed up with combinations.
Oscar continued to come on strong in the seventh round, but he
was always making up the slack and never quite reeling himself back on level
terms. He got a break of sorts in the tenth, albeit a painful one as Lyle winged
one south of the border. Referee Joe Ullman called a time-out as Ringo retired
to his knees in some discomfort.
Bonavena knew he needed a big finish and upped his work rate over
the last two rounds as the fighters traded heavy blows. But his big surge came
too late in the day. He credited Lyle for being a strong and powerful man.
Ron continued to show that power throughout the remainder of his
exciting and eventful career, but the boxing ‘cuties’ would always give him
trouble. Four months after the Bonavena victory, Ron was going the full route
again to gain a unanimous win over the faded but still crafty former WBA
champion, Jimmy Ellis. Lyle rumbled on with stoppage victories over Boone
Kirkman and Memphis Al Jones, but then ran into an artful trickster in Jimmy
Young, who had run into a rich vein of form. Young had been an erratic
journeyman for the best part of his career, plying his trade in different parts
of the world as one of the game’s classic spoilers. Then he had suddenly learned
how to win consistently. Oddly enough, it was after getting stopped in three
rounds by Earnie Shavers that Jimmy seemed to see the light. He was unbeaten in
eight bouts coming into his match with Lyle in Honolulu and had held Shavers to
a draw in their return.
Ron never could figure out Jimmy Young. Lyle was widely
outpointed in one of the great heavyweight surprises of 1975, and the result was
no fluke. Twenty-one months later, Jimmy would repeat the trick in a return
engagement in San Francisco.
But that first loss in the Aloha State handed Ron the opportunity
he had long sought. The word was out that Lyle couldn’t handle the smart guys,
and the smartest guy of them all decided that the big hitter from Denver was a
sufficiently safe option for a title defence. World champion Muhammad Ali gave
Ron his big chance at the Convention Center in Las Vegas on May 16, 1975.
If Muhammad figured that Lyle’ ambition was to simply look
respectable, it was a foolish assumption. The strong challenger fought with
great heart and determination and was ahead on the judges’ scorecards going into
the eleventh round. His movement was intelligent and he had scored effectively
to the body throughout. It was then that Ali, so often slothful until he was
pushed to the very edge, woke up to the realisation that he needed to work and
fashion a major offensive. A sudden right to the jaw shook Ron badly and sent
him staggering to the ropes. Ali continued to fire well placed punches, driving
the challenger into a corner where he sagged under the hail. Referee and former
middleweight contender Ferd Hernandez halted the fight, much to Lyle’s anger.
Like every brave and proud fighter, Ron would remain bitter about
the stoppage, regarding it as premature. “It was tough,” he said. “I felt I was
robbed of the greatest honour in all sports.”
Shooting Down Shavers
The man from the mountains went back to his hometown of Denver
angry and motivated. Lyle was never the best man to have a fight with when he
was in a bad mood and it seemed only fitting that he should hook up with another
renowned gunslinger to clear the air. Lyle against Earnie Shavers was a match
made in heaven for heavyweight thrill seekers. To this day, a good old Rocky
Mountain pal of mine describes the meeting of Ron and Earnie as one of the
greatest slugfests he has ever seen. And he has seen a great many.
The big guns clashed in Denver on September 13, 1975, firing
everything they had at each other in fifteen minutes and forty-seven seconds of
mayhem. When it was all over, Lyle’s business partner Bill Daniels threw up one
of the most loved questions in boxing: What if?
Ali had hurt Lyle in Las Vegas but had failed to deck him. What
if Ron had hit the canvas in that fight and got up as flaming mad as he did
against Shavers? Lyle was livid over his carelessness when Earnie drew first
blood in the second round. The two fighters were exchanging punches when Ron
stepped back a little too leisurely and got hammered flush on the jaw by the
famous Shavers left hook. It required an awful lot to knock Mr Lyle off his feet
and he went slowly as he first wobbled against the ropes before dropping to one
knee. He took the eight count and was seething when he straightened up his big
“I saw him come out mad in the third round,” recalled Bill
Daniels. “That’s the real test of an athlete – to come back – and Ron did it. If
that had happened in the Ali fight, Ron might be champion today. We needed this
one badly. That comeback showed how badly Ron wanted it.”
And how Lyle came back! He and Earnie continued to test each
other’s mettle with some tremendous blows before Ron brought the curtain down
with a devastating right cross early in the sixth round.
Foreman at Caesars
Depending on who you are, or perhaps more importantly, what you
are made of, a fight with George Foreman can either be perceived as a plum award
for all your hard work or an invitation that is only marginally less
intimidating than a personal audience with the Prince of Darkness.
After Lyle knocked out Shavers, Big George came back to boxing to
get a piece of the action for the first time in fifteen tortuous months. The
only fighting he had done since his monumental loss to Ali in Zaire was in a
series of embarrassing exhibitions in which Foreman’s lack of confidence was
When George got serious and returned against Lyle at Caesars
Palace in Las Vegas in January 1976, the erstwhile ‘invincible’ colossus of the
division was spinning the wheel of fortune every bit as hopefully as Ron. All
sorts of doubts continued to penetrate Foreman’s mind. He became obsessed with
what he perceived to be his lack of stamina in the Zaire fight and began to
tinker with his natural style in an attempt to better pace himself. He had a new
trainer in wise old Gil Clancy, who was secretly concerned and irritated that
George was listening to advice from too many other people.
The Foreman-Lyle confrontation was therefore a dangerous match
for both men and might well have been more appropriately staged at those famous
crossroads down in Mississippi, where Old Nick is reputed to come strolling up
those in need of a favour with his latest brochure of attractive offers.
A battle of big punchers always generates a big buzz and a packed
crowd of 4,500 simmered with anticipation as Foreman and Lyle answered the first
bell and squared off.
The fighters circled each other warily, as if bracing themselves
for the inevitable collision that would assuredly wreck one of them. They didn’t
take too long to get down to serious, hard-hitting business, and the tension
around Caesars was palpable as the battle rumbled on. The first round passed and
the two titans were still standing. Then the wonderful and the bizarre took full
rein. A faulty electronic clock curtailed the second round by a full two
minutes, but only served to heighten the suspense.
The blip mattered little to such no-nonsense men. Each knew that
one would get the other, irrespective of time or any other intervention. Both
were fired up for the challenge and began punching in earnest in the third
round, rocking each other with heavy blows. It was interesting to study their
facial expressions as the pressure increased.
Lyle’s face hid nothing and showed the full effects of the
struggle: eyes wide with the intensity of the effort, mouthpiece bared. Foreman,
ever impassive, had the slightly bored look of a man who was being made to watch
a film he had already seen before.
There were moments in the round when both men looked on the verge
of going down as they coldly hammered each other with their best punches. It was
the kind of see-saw brawl where fortunes changed so rapidly that anyone with a
sizeable bet on the outcome must have been suffering fits.
Yet the best was still to come. The fourth round sprang so many
sensations that Caesars Palace seemed to shake to its very foundations from the
thunderous noise of the crowd. It was a round of primitive, hit-or-be-hit
action, a round of three knockdowns and three shattering minutes in which
Foreman and Lyle probably learned more about themselves than in all their
Memories of the Ali fight must have come flooding back to George
when Lyle suddenly cut him down with a clumping right-left combination. There
was pandemonium at Caesars when Foreman hit the deck. Getting knocked down
wasn’t expected of George, even after the Ali fight, any more than it was
expected of Sonny Liston after being humbled by the same tormentor at Miami
Beach and Lewiston. Monsters don’t get slain and we don’t believe it even when
George arose quickly to take the mandatory eight count and gamely
took the play away from Lyle by knocking out Ron’s mouthpiece and flooring him
with a clubbing right.
Now each man had sampled the full impact of the other’s power,
and it was clear that the survivor of this war of wills would be the man with
the biggest heart. Foreman’s advantage was short-lived. Amazingly, Lyle turned
the fight around again as he stormed back to pound George to the canvas for the
Fight announcer Howard Cosell claimed that he heard something
very significant at this point. What he heard was Gil Clancy saying of his
fallen charge, “He’s through.” Gil, of course, later denied that he had said
anything of the sort.
The bell rang within seconds of the knockdown, but the count
continued and Big George staggered to his feet at ‘four’. As he and Lyle made
their way groggily back to their corners, Caesars was a cacophonous hub of
frantic activity. Phil Spector couldn’t have concocted a more formidable wall of
sound. Spectators bounced up and down like excited children, reporters hurriedly
updated their notes and cornermen worked feverishly on their respective
fighters. I don’t know of any other sport that could paint such a beautifully
What was Foreman thinking during the minute’s rest? His world had
been so full of thunder and lightning over the previous fifteen months. After
Ali, was it all going to end for good here? Nobody had ever floored the big man
twice in a round before, yet any negative thoughts going through George’s mind
must have surely been tempered by the satisfaction of pulling himself back from
the brink of oblivion to keep his championship dream alive. The stakes were so
much higher in those still largely innocent days. There was still only one
heavyweight championship and sometimes only one chance to get it back, whatever
the small alphabet family of the WBA and WBC told us to the contrary.
Lyle had snatched back the initiative in that uproarious fourth
round and he threw the dice in the fifth in a grandstand effort to finish
Foreman off. He staggered George with a combination of punches, but he was now
going after a man who was desperate to prove himself a warrior to a cynical
public. Wounded men of Foreman’s talent, much like wounded bears, never stop
Launching a violent counter attack, George sent Lyle’s mouthpiece
spinning from his mouth a second time as he drove his hurt opponent into a
corner with a volley of blows. This time Ron was too stunned to respond. One
could see the resistance seeping out of the Denver slugger as his body took the
full force of Foreman’s big swings and hooks.
Lyle sagged as if to go down, but he was trapped in the corner
and for a moment he had nowhere to fall. Then he slowly toppled forward and
rolled onto his side as referee Charley Roth picked u the count. Ron struggled
manfully to get up, but Foreman’s incessant attack had proved decisive.
What a fight! What a finish!
Ron Lyle came again but never quite so gloriously. He never did
win the heavyweight championship of the world, but he survived and prospered
admirably in a heavyweight era of numerous, true giants. He was a fighting man
who continues to be a source of intrigue and something of a cult figure to
boxing fans and historians.
I called him the Mile High Mauler. After all, he was from classic
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