THE RICKY WOMACK STORY — Thomas Boswell, the respected sports columnist of the Washington Post, once predicted that the 1984 U.S. Olympic boxing team showed promise of being just as good and as packed with human interest angles as that famous 1976 team led by Sugar Ray Leonard, Howard Davis Jr., and the Spinks brothers which won seven medals, including five golds.
As Boswell wrote about the prospects of each of the potential 1984 team members (such as Pernell Whitaker, Mark Breland, Paul Gonzalez, and Meldrick Taylor), he questioned if brash and volatile Ricky “Wonderful” Womack, who was built like a linebacker or weightlifter, would keep his 178-pound world title. Or would his raging style and sometimes troubled personality derail him? Ricky (his first name was often spelled Rickey) liked to bull rush his opponents and go for monster punches, a style that international amateur judging did not necessarily favor. Still, Womack, of Detroit, was thought by most to be a cinch for the Olympic team and a guaranteed medal winner in Los Angeles. He was fearless, a heavy-handed puncher and had bested every contender in sight. In many ways, he was like a young Mike Tyson.
As Ricky put it, “Most people think a boxer wants money…That’s true. But right now all I want is to win a gold medal at the Olympics.”
Among his accomplishments, he beat Evander Holyfield in amateur fights that are still talked about by aficionados. Some say he split a legendary eight-fight series with Holyfield but that could not be corroborated. Holyfield says that he was 4-2 against Ricky but it might have been 2-2.
Whatever the case, on successive days in the box-offs in July, a fast-improving and relatively unknown Holyfield came on with a rush and upset the heavily favored Womack twice becoming the United States representative in the 178-pound class. In each fight, four of the five judges awarded Holyfield the decision.
Womack, who believed he had been the victim of unfair judging, went back to Detroit where he sulked– sulking being a part of his often nasty out-of-the-ring persona. He turned down going to Los Angeles as an alternate and even refused to watch the Olympics on television.
Holyfield testified to Ricky’s nasty side in a 1987 conversation with the late New York Times boxing writer Phil Berger: ”We both had our gloves on, and were warming up and Womack walked all the way across the room and casually stomped on my toe, the big toe. Then he made a face at me. Like, ‘So what?’ I was so mad, there were tears in my eyes. I remember there was a little kid in the dressing room, and he turned to his father and said, ‘Look, daddy, he got that guy crying.’”
Ricky Womack’s childhood was anything but as it was marred by a father (Alfred Womack) accused of physically abusing his mother and who was once accused of murdering his two-year-old son, Ricky’s brother. The senior Womack was eventually murdered during an armed robbery. Ricky was later put into foster care.
Boxing appeared to be an escape from his horrific childhood, but his eventual involvement with robbery and attempted murder led to a sixteen-year jail sentence at the age of twenty-two.
He was 9-0-1 as a professional boxer at Christmas time in 1985 (one of his victims being future world cruiserweight titlist Uriah Grant) when he walked into a video store, reportedly pistol-whipped the female clerk with his 9mm handgun, and walked out with a few hundred dollars and a handful of tapes. Two weeks later, he tried to rob another video store in the same Detroit suburb but panicked when a customer walked in. Womack shot him. Police found Womack’s car keys on the counter and his wallet on the front seat of a beige Volvo parked outside. The customer lived, so Womack was only sentenced to one count of assault to murder and two of armed robbery, receiving three 12–25-year sentences plus two years for using a gun in a felony.
While in prison, he continued to train and found faith in God, hoping that he could continue his boxing career where it had left off. However, Father Time plays no favorites, as Ricky would find out.
The Detroit native with an Adonis physique chiseled even more during his long stay in prison was released in November 2000. He quickly resumed his boxing career and reeled off four wins under the tutelage of Kronk Gym skipper Emanuel Steward. His first fight was against Curt Paige (10-5, 10 KO). After loosening up and getting some of the long-accumulated rust off, he pressed the action in the third, forcing Paige’s corner to halt the action.
Two months later in May of 2001, Ricky followed up with a four-round stoppage over limited Gesses Mesgana. Then in July he continued his comeback by pounding out a four-round unanimous decision over journeyman Kenny Snow. Finally, in November, he fought veteran Willie Chapman and won a UD in six. However, by now, it was clear that Womack’s dream of becoming a world champion was only an illusion and Ricky, now 40 years old, probably knew it better than anyone else.
He fought Chapman in front of 10,000 people at the Palace of Auburn Hills. His showing was less-than-stellar, drawing boos. On the way home from the arena, upset with his performance, Ricky informed his manager, podiatrist Dr. Stuart Kirschenbaum, that he was contemplating suicide. Then, just two months later, after an altercation with his wife Angela, a lawyer, he took his own life. Early on the morning on January 19, 2002, Rickey Womack sat down on a couch in his basement apartment, took out a gun he had borrowed from his nephew and after allegedly threatening his wife with it, put it to his head and pulled the trigger.
It probably wasn’t a single event that triggered Ricky’s suicide, though the last straw perhaps was the booing that accompanied his poor showing against Willie Chapman. More likely it was the accumulation of a lifetime of factors, many horrific and traumatic. It was the totality of a process that went from simmer to boil. In the end, it’s difficult to imagine anything worse than when a confluence of events comes together and leaves one with no emotional escape hatch — with no more options, and with no way to end the pain.
“A prisoner in his own life,” is how those closest to him described Ricky after his death. “Ricky just couldn’t make the adjustment back to society,” said one of his trainers, Rick Griffith. “We tried to extend ourselves as friends, but he couldn’t even accept it. Those sixteen years (in prison) made it hard for him to come back home.” Added the aforementioned Kirschenbaum, Boxing Commissioner of Michigan from 1981 to 1992 and manager, mentor and friend of Ricky,“The shadow over Ricky wouldn’t break and he couldn’t get to the sunshine.”
Dr. Kirschenbaum later added in a post to a related article that “The truth…the questions…the answers of what went on during the last days of Rickey’s life can be only be understood by few people, that being Rickey, his wife, his twin brother Mickey and myself. Rickey was very complex…he was caring, loving, articulate, had a great sense of humor but his insecurities and dark side prevailed. I lived those last eighteen years of Rickey’s life in an attempt to bring him into the real world, prepare for the future, however the foundation of his early life was so powerful that it could not be altered. What happened to Rickey has deeply affected my life and I continue to try to make a difference in the lives of boxers after the final bell.”
In 2002, over 30,000 people died by suicide in the United States. Ricky “Wonderful” Womack was one of them.
“Suicide is not chosen; it happens when pain exceeds resources for coping with pain”. -—Unknown source
Ted Sares is one of the world’s oldest active power lifters and holds several records in the Grand Master class. He has won the EPF Nationals championship four years in a row. A member of Ring 4’s Boxing Hall of Fame, he enjoys writing about boxing.
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