R.I.P. Jack Obermayer – Two boxing legends, each of whom set standards that likely never will be surpassed, died 22 days apart in June.
One, you almost certainly know about. Guy named Muhammad Ali. Called himself “The Greatest,” and, as he often said, if you can do it, it ain’t bragging. The three-time former heavyweight champion was 74 when he passed away June 3 from complications of the Parkinson’s syndrome he was originally diagnosed with more than 30 years earlier.
The other, Jack Obermayer, well, his fame is not quite as far-reaching as Ali’s. But, in his own way, “KOJO,” as he was known to his many admirers in the boxing community, was also a GOAT. He wasn’t just a boxing fan; he might have been the boxing fan, the most dedicated, the most obsessed, the most addicted follower of the sweet science to ever devote himself to the proposition that every fight card, no matter how important or seemingly insignificant, required his presence at ringside to be fully validated. It was always a sorrowful occasion for Jack when two cards took place on the same night, forcing him to make the agonizing decision of choosing one to attend instead of the other.
Obermayer was 72 when he, like Ali, was obliged to face the harsh reality that even the most obstinate members of the human race can’t outpoint death forever. Stricken a second time with a particularly virulent form of cancer that only temporarily had been in remission following a lengthy and debilitating surgery, he took his eternal 10-count at 2 a.m. Saturday morning in his adopted hometown of Lindenwold, N.J. Ironically, the end came on the very day that WBA middleweight champion Keith Thurman was to face Shawn Porter at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the first prime-time, over-the-air boxing broadcast on CBS since Leon Spinks shocked the world by upsetting Ali on a 15-round split decision at the Las Vegas Hilton on Feb. 15, 1978. Had his weakened body been as resilient as his indomitable spirit, it’s a certainty that Obermayer somehow would have found a way to be in the house for the historic event.
It is a fact that Obermayer was working on almost all the occasions when he indulged his pugilistic passion, but his sundry duties in an official capacity – as a boxing writer, historian, record-keeper and occasional judge (for bouts staged in Pennsylvania and Montana) merely provided him the sort of unfettered access any died-in-the-wool fight fan would kill for. He was more than capable on all fronts, so much so that he was inducted into the New Jersey and Pennsylvania Boxing Halls of Fame in 2005 and 2016, respectively, as well as being voted the Barney Nagler Award (then known as the John F.X. Condon Award) for “Long and Meritorious Service” from the Boxing Writers Association of America in 2010. But the reality is that Obermayer primarily was recognized for showing up at fight venues more often than Cal Ripken Jr. at baseball games, Gordie Howe at hockey rinks or the Washington Generals’ Red Klotz as a foil to the Harlem Globetrotters.
Chew on these numbers for a while: as best as can be determined, Obermayer attended a staggering 3,514 fight cards in 400-plus cities spread over 49 states. Somehow, he never made it to Alaska.
“I want to keep going to fight cards as long as I can,” Obermayer, whom I was proud to have as a friend and frequent neighbor on press row, told me in April 2011, a year after he was first diagnosed with the Big C. “But you never know. I’ve had some health issues and my body is beginning to creak. Fortunately, I’m not broke yet. I’ve managed to keep my head above water financially.”
Obermayer was an amateur boxer in 1961 and ’62 (during which time he went 7-3), but his all-consuming fascination with the sport preceded his relatively brief fling as a participant, when, as a child, he and his father bonded while watching televised fights in their Staten Island, N.Y., home on Friday nights. But the hook was set, deeply and permanently, when he attended his first pro fight in person, which pitted Cassius Clay (or Ali, before he was Ali) against Doug Jones on March 13, 1963, at the old Madison Square Garden.
Obsessive-compulsive by nature, Obermayer began recording his observations in meticulous detail during that fight, going on to fill hundreds of loose-leaf notebooks, old-school style, over the course of his career. He also took copious notes on the quality of the cuisine at every roadside diner at which he ate during his many boxing excursions, with fellow boxing junkie Jeff Jowett frequently serving as his wingman.
The emergency liver-transplant surgery Obermayer underwent on March 1, 2010, at Thomas Jefferson Medical Center was the first sign that boxing’s iron man might not be indestructible. He was obliged to stay away from the sites and sights he loved best for the better part of four months. But, not surprisingly, even a life-threatening operation merely served as a knockdown, not a knockout, for a man who made a career of going the distance. His weight dropped from 195 pounds to 140, but he vowed to make it all the way back, and he almost made it. But he wasn’t quite the same as he had been before, nor would he ever be again.
Looking back, the two phases of Obermayer’s journey are as distinct and remarkable as the two phases of Ali’s professional life, divided neatly by the 43-month enforced layoff Ali had to endure for his refusal to be inducted into the Army as a conscientious objector on religious grounds. The post-layoff Ali was a bit heavier, a bit slower, but able to override that by demonstrating a facet of himself that he seldom had to showcase previously, namely the ability to soak up punishment like a sponge while continuing to fire away.
For KOJO, the dividing line was the liver transplant. When his convalescence had progressed to a point where he again felt he could go on the road, he was lighter – a lot lighter – and had less stamina, but like Ali he found a way to take punishment and fight on, his resolve as strong as ever, a testament to the flame that never stopped burning hot within him. While serving in the U.S. Army in an engineer battalion in 1966 and ’67, he took some of his precious R&R time to go to Bangkok, Thailand, to see Walter McGowan defend his WBC flyweight title against Chartchai Chinoi. Why? Because he wanted to, and because the U.S. government was picking up his travel costs.
Dedication such as that can make an avocation more of a vocation than one’s supposedly full-time profession. Obermayer retired in July 2000 from his day job, as the office manager of a small plastics firm owned by the father of his first wife, who apparently gave his onetime son-in-law a fairly long leash. But not long enough to save that marriage, or even his second try at matrimony, as Obermayer admitted that the huge chunks of his time that went to boxing didn’t always make for domestic tranquility at home.
“In the early 1980s, when Jow-Boy, Nigel Collins (the former editor of The Ring magazine) and I were all going to three shows a week, we called ourselves the `Three Sickos,’” Obermayer said.
Obermayer was to have attended the John Molina Jr.-Ruslan Provodnikov fight at the Turning Stone Resort Casino in Verona, N.Y., on June 11, the night before the induction ceremony for the International Boxing Hall of Fame in nearby Canastota, N.Y. But Jack was too ill to be in his familiar ringside seat for Molina’s upset of Provodnikov, nor was he able to make it to the IBHOF induction, which Jowett also missed so that he could attend to his ailing buddy. Both men were to have been seated next to me, and when those chairs went unfilled it brought a cold realization that, as was the case with Ali, this was a fight to the finish that even so relentless an individual as Jack Obermayer was destined to lose.
I will miss him. And so, too, will boxing. It is a sport that, like any sport, thrives on the passion of its devotees, whose enthusiasm can be contagious. Jack Obermayer was a joyful carrier of that passion, and he spread it everywhere he went, unabashedly and unapologetically.
Obermayer is survived by a daughter, Ellen Kaplan, 44; two granddaughters, Alexis Clawans, 18, and Sydney Clawans, 15, and by his understanding companion of 16 years, Darlene Dontoville.
There will be a viewing at Harmon Funeral Home at 571 Forest Avenue in Staten Island from 2-4 and 7-9 p.m. A funeral Mass will be held Friday at 10:30 a.m., at a site yet to be announced.
R.I.P. Jack Obermayer