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Boxing’s Dia de los Muertos

BY Phil Woolever ON November 20, 2005
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It was El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, a time in these southwestern parts where many pronunciations and traditions honor the deceased. It is usually a vibrant celebration of both life, and life no more.

Tucson has a parade, a Mardi Gras-type procession of costumed hundreds, in tributes and tears meant to deal with grief, and symbolically let beloved spirits move on. Strange magic floats about the crowded, merry line of tuxedoed skeletons. A figure in a hooded boxing robe came toward me and stopped at the curb. It’s eyes looked familiar in a thousand ways. The specter wore a pair of frayed sparring gloves, and raised them into the hazy beyond.

I found myself on a familiar though clouded road, leading to Nevada. A thick mist surrounded me. At first I thought it was smoke from my cigar, which I was unaware of holding. As the air along the blacktop grayed and thickened, I understood the cloud was actually an expanding puff of scattered ashes.

Somehow, I saw a winding highway that stretched past tributes to the greater fistic family. Roadside, fresh shrines to the dead became greater in size and number. Beyond the sky somewhere a bell chimed a ten-count. The wind carried a torn fight poster.

Some call this time All Souls Day. Meals are prepared for the Spirits. Cookies left by the graveside. I rolled by memorials from the soul of boxing. Many had not come to a good end, inherent tragedy a mortal truth few escape.

In this realm, only names and records were left behind. When you came in or when you went out didn’t matter. It’s what got done between first and final bells, while you were here.

Eddie Futch was someone who left this scene well. I got to hang around the dignified, cheerful Futch during the days Riddick Bowe was on his way up. Friends and family threw Futch a great birthday party before he died. Smokin’ Joe was there and I was told Quincy Jones handled the music. Either way, Futch held a festive farewell court, and the jazz that night was some of the best I’ve ever heard.

One of Futch’s contemporaries, Albert “Beto” Martinez, also went to that big gym in the sky. Beto trained Nico Perez, who fell short in a 1979 title shot against Wilfredo Gomez and provided many of Tucson’s wayward kids with an alternative to dead end lives. His funeral looked like a southwestern trainer’s convention.

Jerome Blanton, Sports Editor of the Arizona Informant, one of the too few African American newspapers, was another who left many behind who understood the planet was a better place while he was on it. Jerome may have been the sweetest guy on press row.

If not Jerome it was generous Albuquerque writer Carlos Salazar, who embodied peace of mind. Carlos lost part of his leg in WWII but it never slowed him down and he never complained about anything, like getting seated in the bleachers when undeserving goons got better credentials. He didn’t have an ego like most of us bums, either. After he died I heard Carlos broke the Ali/Clay draft refusal story. Many would still be patting themselves on the back.

Jimmy Young was a hard luck fighter who’s passing from health problems could have been noted more. Young lost a split decision to Eddie Richardson in the first main event I covered. Along the way he helped revitalize the boxing scene around here for a little while. The thing I remember most about Jimmy was how he befriended the hotel maintenance and housekeeping staff. His career was almost over, but while in Arizona, Young was a fine ambassador.

Announcer Chuck Hull was a booming voice in big-time boxing before fans got ready to rumble. His wonderful monotone “Ladies and Gentlemen, the time…” or “And the new…” enhanced many classic fights of the ‘80s.

Jack Welsh, sportswriter, introduced me to many of the finest characters I met in Vegas. I got to know folks like the renowned scribe Jim Murray, an encyclopedia of L.A. sports history, John Hodges, sweetheart publisher, and Hall of Famer Ike Williams, the old school hero who seemed to embody a timeless dignity. They are all gone now. In many travels, the fights were supplemental. I went to Vegas to see Jack, who had become adopted family.

For some, there were too many hard times to carry on, without even a break between rounds. I hope they found peace.

Scott “Pink Cat’ Walker, was a Phoenix urban cowboy type who gave his offbeat nickname dignity (it was based on his love of ‘50s-style bop). Walker could play some decent sock hop piano, and fight a little bit too. He beat an ancient Alexis Arguello and got stopped by Julio Cesar Chavez. He found some temporary glory, but personal defeats were tougher to handle than A-rated foes. Walker counted himself out in a lonely house. Maybe he could have hung on if he saw all the sincere mourners who showed up for memorial services.

Tony Trundlich was a Vegas boxing guy who managed some fringe fighters and oversaw various small promotional ventures. Whatever the scene was, it got too heavy and he checked out for the millennium. I heard he was a Vietnam veteran, maybe another misused casualty that never got recognized.

Mitch Halpern, a Mr. Nice Guy, was one of the top referees in the business and handled many of Vegas’s biggest fights in the ‘90s. He pulled the trigger with a young daughter in the next room. Some men take mysteries with them.

I met George Francis while he was in Arizona training Frank Bruno for the first Tyson fight. Foolishly, I had been conned into asking Bruno about rumors that he had gay tendencies. Bruno freaked out. Francis restrained him. I laugh now, but needed new underwear at the time. I ran into them in an empty casino at dawn a couple days before Bruno’s second Tyson debacle. They hugged and mock-kissed to remind me of my folly. Bruno seemed so confident this time I thought he had a chance. In the end, there weren’t enough laughs for Francis, who hung himself a few years back. I hope Francis’s spirit protects his troubled charge.

The hardened but happy faces of Arizona standard bearers like Steve Eisner and Kenny Queen begin to blur.

My unearthly ride changed, at the speed of life. I was in a flashback, cursing stuck traffic on the way to the Staples Center, hoping to see Brian Viloria on the Chavez Adios card in Los Angeles. I barely missed the contest and found that Viloria’s opponent, Ruben Contreras, was in a life-threatening coma. Luckily he came out of it. I was glad to have missed that bout. I’ve never seen a fatal fight and pray things stay that way. Robert Wangila and Leavander Johnson are the only fighters I’m aware of I saw fight who subsequently died while working in the ring to which they gave everything. Even the connection haunts me.

I wished I could pull over and seek out the spirits. Hear the voice of John L. Sullivan. Let Jack Johnson know how recognition finally caught up to him. Tell guys like Joe Louis what enduring class they had, maybe ask Rocky Marciano if all that money was still lying around. See if Sonny Liston felt like sharing what really happened in his final hours. Light a candle for Salvador Sanchez, and ease my foot off the accelerator.

Maybe the ghosts would have some questions of their own, like “what’s going on in the fight game today?” I’d try to explain why there are so many belts, how other sports eclipsed the dukes in the eyes of mainstream sports fans. I wonder if any of my news would sound good. At least the game lives on.

Driving to Sin City, over the valley from Henderson, the music is usually loud. The approaching horizon grows with mega-resort silhouettes. I start to see images, like I always do, of those whom have passed on, but who stopped by this mortal arena for a while. Bless them and all their comrades.

One way or another they were all involved in a strange, glorious scenario laced with danger, as in death. Maybe that’s what makes boxing such a precious slice of life. That doesn’t mean everyone else still involved, like me and you and those on the business end, can’t help make it better for the guys who do the hardest part; who contemplate actually being killed or incapacitated instead of just worrying about watching it. All participants deserve better regarding safety, insurance, and retirement.

On the road back from Vegas is Veteran’s Memorial Cemetery, at the edge of Boulder City. Those still walking around here pay big bucks for the view. I leave souvenirs from the fights at the gravesite of Jack Welsh, USMC. I stand in contemplation, thoughts of family and friends who passed away. I pray for the fighters both here and somewhere else, hopefully better.

Had the Klitschko – Rahman affair come off, I’d have seen the flags put up for Veteran’s Day. It’s a bittersweet comfort to know those flags will still be there, long after I’m gone with my trinkets. Maybe the cliché about those we keep in our hearts and minds living on through us are friendly ghosts after all.

I might cry about that at the graveyard, but I will not be sad.

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