Ronnie Shields is one of the most successful and well-respected boxing cornermen in the world today. But before Shields was training elite class fighters for world championship runs, even before his own two-time title challenging career as a professional prizefighter, Shields was an outstanding amateur boxer. In fact, Shields amassed an overall record of 242-21. He fought and beat some of the very best amateur fighters ever including Thomas Hearns in 1974 and Donald Curry in 1978, and he was achingly close to making the US Olympic boxing team in both 1976 and 1980.
Despite his incredible amateur resume, he’s seldom included in lists of all-time amateur greats. Perhaps it’s because he’s so incredibly slow to mention such feats. Everything he talks about these days relates to the fighters he trains and boxing as a sport in general.
In the many years I have spoken to him and asked him about his own fighting career, Shields (pictured working with Tomasz Adamek) has never mentioned—even once—the time he spent time as an amateur in the ring with Sugar Ray Leonard, Aaron Pryor, Curry and Hearns. In fact, he sums up his entire fighting career in one sentence pretty much every single time I ask.
“I was pretty good.”
Shields will never tell you how good he actually was. He’ll never bring up how he, as an amateur, defeated Hearns and Curry, and narrowly missed out on the 1976 Olympic team after losing to maybe the greatest U.S. amateur fighter ever, Leonard.
He’ll never mention how the late Emanuel Steward hailed Shields as one of the greatest amateur fighters he ever saw, alongside Mark Breland, Howard Davis, Leonard and Hearns.
“Ronnie never did make it big professionally,” Steward told Geoffrey Ciani of Boxing247.com in 2012. “I think a lot because he didn’t get anyone to really manage, and care for him, and move him properly, but as an amateur boxer he was phenomenal… with the hands up, the movement, the balance, and the precision punches. He was like an example of a perfect boxer.”
Perhaps for Shields it was a little bit of bad luck here and there, too. It was, after all, something that seemed to plague his entire sports career.
Before his bad luck in boxing, Shields experienced bad luck in his first sports love, football.
“My dad was an avid football fan, and every Saturday morning, we watched Notre Dame football,” said Shields. “Every Saturday, and Notre Dame is still my favorite team. So I wanted to be a football player.”
Shields still beams about making his seventh grade football team, no small feat in the history-rich area of southeast Texas. Shields, whose gym is situated on the outskirts of Houston, was born and raised in Port Arthur.
“When I got to the seventh grade, I told my dad I was going out for the football team. I was small. I was like 80 pounds. But I was fast and I made the team. I told my dad and he was so happy I made the team.”
But bad luck struck big.
“Then we found out they were making the school I was in an elementary school and we had to move to another school they made a middle school. Then the coach we had, they put him somewhere else so they said we had to try out again. I said, man, I’m not trying out again. I was so mad because I had made the team and everything was good. “
Shields was encouraged by the new coaches and his classmates to try out for the team again, but he had already moved on.
Shields had friends who trained at the nearby Manchaca Boxing Gym, owned and operated by the first Texan fighter to ever win the National Golden Gloves championship, Dick Manchaca. “I asked my friends…all of them boxed…to take me to the boxing gym. So I told my mom I was going to the gym with the guys. It was right by my house anyway, and I fell in love with it.”
There was a rough start to what would someday become Shields’ passion in life.
“They put me in sparring the first day and I didn’t know nothing. I got beat up pretty bad by one of my friends, and I said, man, I can’t quit this thing until I get this dude back.”
Shields’ tenacity, the same that once earned the diminutive footballer a spot on his middle school football team, served him just as well in the sweet science.
“I went to the gym every day and he didn’t. So after about a month, he came back to the gym and I beat the hell out of him.”
Shields used the experience as a springboard to success. He was National Junior Olympics featherweight champion in 1974, National Golden Gloves featherweight champion in 1975, and National Golden Gloves light welterweight champion in both 1976 and 1978.
Shields was on course to box at the 1980 Olympics before it was boycotted by the United States in opposition of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
“I had just missed making the 1976 Olympic team,” Shields told Robert Cassidy of ESPN.com. “But USA Boxing convinced me to wait around for the next Olympics. They felt I was talented enough to make the team. They told the same thing to Johnny Bumphus and Jackie Beard. But looking back, we all should have turned pro sooner.”
Shields explained how he remembers making the decision to turn professional.
“After the Olympic trials in the 1980s, [the United States] decided they weren’t going to go to the Olympics,” said Shields. “I fought Johnny Bumphus and lost a very controversial decision. There wasn’t a box-off though because we weren’t going to the Olympics so I got mad and said forget it. I’ll just turn pro.”
Noted historian Steve Farhood told Cassidy how the missed opportunity of representing the United States at the Olympics impacted the lost 1980 class when they finally did turn professional.
“The boycott significantly hurt these fighters when they turned pro,” Farhood told Cassidy. “In those days, there was more mainstream media coverage of Olympic boxing, and upon turning pro, the gold medal winners would’ve received royal treatment from the promoters and TV networks.”
Shields fought as a professional for eight years. He finished with a record of 26-11-1, fighting twice for the WBC junior welterweight title and twice coming up short via decision.
Since then, of course, Shields has gone on to work as a trainer in the corners of some of the best fighters in the world, including Evander Holyfield, Pernell Whitaker and Mike Tyson. Today, his stable includes junior middleweight titlist Erislandy Lara and Jermall Charlo, who recently vacated his junior middleweight title to move up to middleweight. Shields was the World Boxing Hall of Fame’s Trainer of the Year in 2003 and has been inducted into several Hall of Fames. His resume as a trainer is impeccable and easily accessible in today’s information age.
Lost in the transfer of media from newspapers and magazines to the World Wide Web, is Shields’ outstanding resume as an amateur fighter. In fact, the only mention of him in such high regard was the Boxing 247.com interview of Emanuel Steward.
“I hadn’t paid much attention to him, and then I saw him nationally the next year in a tournament and he beat Tommy Hearns, and he went on to win that tournament,” said Steward. “Then actually in ’76 in the National Golden Gloves, he and Ray Leonard were going to be fighting each other in the semi-finals I think, or the quarterfinals. Ray pulled out. Ray said his hand was hurt or whatever injury he had, but at that time I’ll be very honest with you, I think Ronnie had a good chance of even beating Ray. That’s how good he was.”
That’s pretty good.
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