Willie was proud of his new robe, and showed it off in this snapshot from the mid 70s. Willie never got a proper salute from a boxing community that didn't want attention paid to unsuitable regulation...so let this remembrance be his ten count.
On the night of March 17, 2012 at Madison Square Garden's Theater, 16 men stood across from each other, heard a bell ring, and fought each other to determine who was the better physical being among them.
Sweat flowed, blood painted the canvas but, thanks be to God, or to fate, no life was lost.
If fate had taken a cruel twist, if a fighter there absorbed one too many blows, and got knocked out, and his body reacted vehemently, if his faculties became compromised, the fighters at that arena could be certain that in timely fashion, he would be loaded into an ambulance, and sped to a hospital, where he would receive copious medical attention. For that peace of mind, all the fighters on the card, which was headlined by a middleweight clash between Sergio Martinez and Matthew Macklin, can thank a man whose name I dare say not one of them was familiar with: Willie Classen.
If not for Willie Classen's enormous and ultimately self destructive reservoir of pride, I dare say there might be more than the 12 deaths stemming from taking part in a boxing match which have occurred in New York City since 1950. Classen died on Nov. 28, 1979, five days after absorbing some brutal shots at the hand of Wilford Scypion in a bout at the Felt Forum. One could reduce Classen's legacy to say he finished with 16-7 record, and a reputation as a tough nut to crack, a boxer who could stay right in the thick of it with a world class pugilist; but it would be more correct, and beneficial to those still aggrieved by his passing to consider his death in a broader, and elevated, context. Willie Classen died, so other men following his path didn't have to. ****
Classen was born, with boxing blood, on Sept. 16, 1950 in Puerto Rico. His grandfather fought as a pro in Puerto Rico, under the name Kid Martin, but his career was curtailed when he suffered a blood clot from a bout. Kid Martin deteriorated, and died two years later. Little Willie was one of two kids--Anita was an older sister--born to dad Guillermo and mom Alicia. Alicia was 14 when she had Willie.
As a prepubescent, living in NY, Willie moved with Alicia to Spanish Harlem. He blew off school after third grade, and started boxing in Harlem youth clubs. At 15, Alicia moved to the Bronx, and there, Willie drifted to the streets. But as the streets tugged, the ring tugged harder. He won a Golden Gloves crown in 1970, and that same year, bore a daughter, Brenda, to Gloria Beniquez.
Willie tried his best to walk a straight line; he impressed visitors by changing Brenda's diapers, something of a rarity in that age. He flirted with street life but his fondness for boxing overwhelmed that pull. Gloria didn't care for the sport, but he was insistent. He proclaimed boxing was his true love, and told her, when she questioned his ardor, that he was more than willing to die in the ring.
Romances came and went. Willie had a way with the ladies, and no shortage of interested parties batted their eyelashes at the hard-bodied hitter. Gloria and Willie split, and Willie took up with Luz. They had baby Willie Jr in December 1970. Willie turned professional two years later. The debut was fitting for a journeyman sort; he drew with Willie Taylor in a high school gym in Bayonne. Maybe fightgame insiders early in his run had him pegged as a steppingstone type, a gatekeeper that a sharp prospect would need to better to prove he was worthy of being promoted to contender. But he didn't see himself that way; he loved to hear his nickname, "Machoooo," said loud and proud by the ring announcer, and he saw himself one day fighting for a crown.
Yes, when asked to step up, against an Eddie Gregory, or a Vinnie Curto, Classen would often clip the hurdle. The Gregory loss, combined with the death of his mom, sent him into a bit of a spin in 1974 and 1975. Willie was something of a sensitive soul, not uncommon for a fighter who is often seen from the eyes of the strangers as a hard-boiled specimen, but just as often owns an exterior armor more sturdy than their interior, emotional shell. Classen had perennial nightmares featuring the vision of his mom attacking his dad with a sharp object after she saw him flirting with another lady. And yes, didn't do himself any favors with the way he treated his body. Mind you, these were different times. Matchmaker Johnny Bos, who booked Classen for his second to last fight, against Tony Sibson in London, recalls that it far from uncommon for a fighter to drink, toke, toot, whatever was on hand, in between bouts. Behavior that would today spur an intervention in that era would spawn proclamations of incredulity and bemusement. This one would drink a bottle of Scotch a day, train for a week while going cold turkey, and go ten hard rounds. That one would stop by the dealer for a couple baggies of dope in the AM, nod off and groove for half a day, and then head to the gym for sparring to get ready for an eight rounder at some armory. These were different times. ****
Friend from the hood Marco Minuto, a pizza shop owner, began managing Classen, and that helped Willie come out of his life-slump. The boxer went 8-0-1 in 1977 and 1978, which helped him get his highest profile gig to date, a ten rounder against future middleweight champ, New York's Vito "The Mosquito" Antuofermo on Sept. 25, 1978, the main support bout to the Wilfred Benitez-Randy Shields scrap. Willie's chest puffed with pride to share the bill with Benitez, a jewel of a pugilist from Puerto Rico. No one said to his face that he was there to give some rounds to Antuofermo, who was in a holding pattern until terms for a title shot could be negotiated in some smoke-filled back-room. Vito had sparred with Willie, and Vito's team had actually been offered bouts with Willie before, and turned them down, knowing his skills spoke louder than his record. The scrap, a rough rumble, went to distance. This wasn't Tony Manero stuff at Studio 54; this was the mosh pit at a Sex Pistols show. It was a tight tussle at MSG, and Willie had high hopes as they went to the cards. He jumped into Minuto's arms and they both grinned in anticipation of the good news, the life-changing good news. The scores were read...7 rounds to 3, 7 to 3, 6 to 4...for the much better connected Antuofermo. The crowd, Classen rooters aplenty, showed their displeasure. Bottle and chairs were thrown, guns were waved about, and the flames were fanned when a Team Classen member--was it Willie?--grabbed the mike and busted on the decision, yelling, "Viva Puerto Rico!"
"I got robbed," Willie said after. "They don't give black people no breaks in this place. You got to knock them dead or you don't win," he railed. After that twist of fate, Classen didn't have the same optimism. "Titles are not made for guys like me," he'd carp. This was the start of a slide.****
Classen lost his next outing, to Al Styles, three months later, and then grabbed a win against Jose Luis Duran on Dec. 2, 1978. If there was one more run towards the upper reaches of the rankings, those hopes were dashed with a KO8 loss to John LoCicero at the Felt Forum on April 6, 1978.
The streets, where they called Willie "champ," where kingpins could try to enlist him, with his rep and cred, beckoned again. The tug-of-war, or volatile romance, re-commenced.
His NY license was revoked pending medical exams, but he wanted to fight on, and Minuto got him a last-minute scrap in London, against future world title challenger Tony Sibson. That fight was halted in round two, and people looking to assess blame, assign scapegoat status, or simply make sense of a system to allows a man to get pummeled to death in front of 15,000 fans in an arena wonder if the punishment Classen absorbed in the Sibson fight made him damaged goods going in to the Scypion bout. Bos wasn't present in England, but says the promoter of the event, Mickey Duff, indicated to him after that Classen didn't take eat excess leather. He tells me, in so many words, that back in the pre-Internet day, when fans and even officials didn't receive results right away, and maybe never, unless it was in a monthly newsletter, perhaps, journeyman sometimes fought with more or less fervor depending on where they were. It's quite possible, Bos says, that Classen more than lived up to his "Macho" nickname in front of neighbors, friends and fellow Islanders in the Scypion bout, more so than he did in front of a bunch of Brits. Bos actually offers another moment that could've set the stage for the tragic ending for Classen. Bos was present the night Classen fought Styles. He saw Styles tag Classen with a nasty, clean shot in the fourth round. "He hit Classen with a shot, and Classen had a real sick look to me," Bos says. "That shot might've taken a lot out of him."
Stocking shelves at a Pathmark in the Bronx meant so-so pay, and none of the purpose, and none of the buzz that come with packed arenas. Willie, a grown man with a nickname to live up to, and big dreams to overwhelm those nightmares he'd still get, decided to fight on after the disappointing London showing.
Minuto got him another scrap, this one against a guy who packed true venom in the mitts. Wilford Scypion, a Texan who'd knocked down 12 men they'd talked ill of his mom and stolen his lunch money every day in grade school was being handled by the same guy, Mike Jones, who co-managed Long Islander Gerry Cooney. Willie was to be paid $1,500 for the ten rounder at the Felt Forum. Those close to the game knew that Classen wasn't the same man who'd been neck and neck with Antuofermo 15 months before. The fighter himself did what someone with a fighting heart, blood and pride did: he played down any mention of anything that might hinder his licensing. He was checked out by the ringside physicians who were on duty the fateful night, Drs. Richard Izquierdo and Roger Warner, at the same-day weigh in, and before the bout, and pronounced fit to fight.
The fight itself has seldom been seen since it was shown on Madison Square Garden network on fightnight. You can't watch it on YouTube, which actually isn't unusual, since most televised ring deaths are not available on the video buffet channel. (There is a feeling that it is macabre, and disrespectful to the deceased, if the tragic action is freely accessed. I don't personally agree with this line of thinking; much in the same way I feel that the carnage from war should be made available in print and video, so the public can get a clearer picture of the effects, I think ring deaths should be made public, to remind fight fans of the ever-present potential for severe consequences.) Willie Junior's wife Suzan was kind enough to track down a copy of the bout for me, and that disc picks up right before the start of round three. One sees a long shot of the ring, with Minuto, who was basically the chief second for the bout, waving a towel to cool down Classen, on his stool, on an unseasonably warm night. (Willie's longtime trainer David Vasquez, who'd been with him since he was 14, at St. Mary's Rec Center in the Bronx, parted ways with the boxer a few fights before, when he saw he wasn't treating the sport as seriously as he should've. So Minuto worked the corner on the fateful night, along with gym vets Mike Capriano and Al LaCava. We can only wonder if Vasquez might have prevented Willie's pride from being his undoing if he was chief second on Nov. 23, 1979.) A bit into the third round, Scypion scores a knockdown, off a right to the side of the head, on Classen.
"Scypion has Classen in a lot of trouble," says John Condon, calling the fight with featherweight prospect Davey Vasquez, noting that Classen has looked tired since the very first round. "His legs are gone completely," Condon says, with 20 ticks left in the round.
But his pride, his fighting spirit, are by no means sapped. Classen rips a sharp left hook that throws Scypion, a busy banger with pop in both hands, off stride. At the bell, Minuto, dressed in suitpants, a collared shirt and vest matching the pants, like he finished a shift at his accounting firm, tore off his suitcoat and hustled to the arena, runs into the ring, grabs Classen, and ushers him to his stool. Mike Capriano and Al LaCava assist Minuto in the corner.
In the next round, Condon senses that Classen is close to being stopped, but Vasquez, who knows Classen from the local gym scene, pipes up.
"Willie's an unusual type fighter sometimes. When you least expect he can throw some bombs, so you can never really count him out. When you least expect it he comes through with something," the boxer-analyst says. With 22 seconds to go in the fourth, Vasquez offers a cryptic tidbit, asking aloud if "something happened" in the last week, because Vasquez said Classen told him a week before that the New Yorican had been sparring with middleweight great Marvin Hagler, and it had gone well.
In the fifth, an uppercut buzzed Classen, to the point that the ropes held him up. Before the bell rings to start the sixth, Classen is on his feet, bouncing, looking reasonably energized. Vasquez, at the start of the sixth, mentions that Classen has lost something from his peak. And then Classen manages to unload left hooks that tell Scypion this his foe was in no mood to fold. The Texan, not usually keen to move unnecessarily, gets on his bike to clear his head.
"Willie's got all the desire he needs, as much as he has in his body," Condon says to start the round, "but it just seem to be enough, he doesn't seem to have the physical equipment to go with the desire." Vasquez offers that Classen is actually gaining confidence, knowing that he can find and hurt Scypion a bit. The seventh round is no lopsided session, as Scypion's launches have slowed down, and Classen is still slipping shots, still tagging Scypion.
To start the eighth, the TV duo both marvel that Classen is in the fight, being that things had started off poorly for him. By now, Classen was the aggressor, with the Texan looking to get time to breathe by moving more, and minimizing exchanges. After the round, Minuto, in his office garb, fans the fighter with a towel. Before the bell to start the ninth, Scypion has strode to center ring, ready to rumble. Did he cruise in the last couple rounds? Because the Texan has more zip on his hooks and uppercuts than in sixth, seventh and eighth. A right cross, from in close, and another, even harder, hurt Classen badly with 44 seconds left in the round. A third chopping right bends Classen over, and he looks like he'll topple. Scypion hesitates, to let his man drop, but "Macho" won't capitulate, bless his stubborn soul. An overhand right sends Classen back into the ropes. His butt is on the second strand, and he uses the rope for support. Scypion pauses, looks to ref Lew Eskin to make his presence felt. Eskin does, giving a standing eight count, which allows him to assess Classen. Eskin asks him if he's OK, and Classen says he is. 24 seconds remain in the ninth round.
Scypion moves in to finish and Vasquez pipes up.
"He's hurt, he's hurt, John. They oughtta stop the fight," he says, while Scypion unloads. "He's a sitting duck right now, any kind of a good punch will do it," Condon answers. "One good punch will do it."
Classen returns fire, trying to land a right uppercut, but that misses, and Scypion won't be staved off. A right hand to the chin lands clean and Classen bends over at the waist, his eyes on the floor, his gloves covering not enough of his face and head. His back to the ropes, Scypion winds up and slams six unanswered shots on Classen, who is ducking for cover as the bell rings to end the round.
Classen straightens up, looking unsteady, and uses his left arm to steady himself on the top rope as Minuto helps him to his corner.
"He's out on his feet, John, he don't know where he's at," Vasquez says. Classen is slumped on his stool, and ref Eskin walks over to check on him, but not as carefully as one might hope. He takes his eyes off Classen while he fills out his scorecard--that practice was soon abolished, so the ref could concentrate fully on a single task, incidentally--and then looks up to see one of the ringside physicians get onto the ring apron, to take a look at Classen. If Eskin had done a more thorough Q n A, would he have sensed that the fighter wasn't all there? It may be immaterial, but some will ask the question for their duration in this Earth. During the court case that followed the death, which was filed by Classen's wife Marilyn, Izquierdo, who was also Classen's personal physician, testified that he examined Classen after the ninth round assault, and deemed him fit to fight on.
Vasquez weighed in during a replay of the blows that preceded the standing eight, saying, "His legs must be really strong to hold him up." We'll add his heart, and his immense pride, as well. Classen simply didn't want to be knocked down, and didn't tell his corner that he wanted to quit on his stool after the grueling ninth. "No mas" was not in his lexicon.
"One round!" a fan can be heard yelling before the start of the tenth, to Classen.
"Go get him, Willie baby!" screams another booster.
The bell rings to start the tenth, but Willie stays on his stool. Four, fix, six seconds pass before he stands up, and girds himself to meet Scypion, who is in center ring, wondering if his foe will answer the bell. That, Willie always did.
Scypion throws a left hook, and then a clean right hand on Classen, who is just a few steps from his corner. Scypion fires another hard right on Classen, who is nearly limp, but still on his feet. Minuto has never bothered to walk down the steps to his stool; he's on the apron and hops into the ring while the second right is hurtling toward Willie, as Eskin is moving in to halt the fight. Classen falls through the ropes, on his behind, and is on his back, with his legs draped over the second rope. Twelve seconds have elapsed in the tenth and final round of Classen's career. He looks dazed, as he lifts his head up, while Scypion, through his sternest test as a pro, parades about the ring, unaware that his punches have been lethally effective.
While a cluster of concerned folks gather around Classen, Condon theorizes that Classen didn't perhaps wants to come out for the round.
"I don't know if he wanted to come out, I think he was still asleep," Vasquez says. "They shoulda never let him outta the corner that last round." ****
Fairly quickly, it was determined that Classen was not in good shape. The call was put out for an ambulance, but there was a delay. Back then, it wasn't mandatory to have an ambulance present onsite. After about 30 minutes, an AAU boxing official present at the card flagged down a passing ambulance on 8th Avenue. The fighter was rushed to Bellevue, the closest hospital equipped for an emergency neurosurgery procedure. Within two hours, Classen underwent surgery, two and a half hours worth, to remove a blood clot in his brain.
He never regained consciousness, and five days later, at 7:42 PM on Wednesday, Nov. 28, Willie Classen was pronounced dead, from a subdural hematoma.
Finger wagging commenced. The head of the New York State Athletic Commission, Jack Prenderville, didn't distinguish himself in the immediate aftermath. "Upon review of the commission staff reports and other information available to us, it is the opinion of the New York State Athletic Commission that the unfortunate incident. . . was handled promptly and capably by the staff," he said in a statement two days after the bout. "Unless there is information available that we are not aware of, it is the decision of this commission to terminate the review." Prenderville came off, to use a term germane to that era, as a boob when in February 1980, during a State Assembly hearing to discuss improving NY boxing rules and regulations, he basically opposed a rule mandating an ambulance be present onsite for every bout.
"To tell some of the promoters that they have to have an ambulance -which will cost $100 or $150 - that could be his profit margin for that night," Prenderville said. "If it means driving promoters out by mandate, let's mandate that the state should pay the cost.'' He added that would add up to "literally hundreds of thousands of dollars - and nobody is going to put up that kind of money."
Minuto drew considerable heat in the days following the tragic bout. One press account said he lifted Classen off his stool and pushed him from the corner into center ring. Inspection reveals that he did no such thing, that Classen arose of his own volition and that nobody pushed him toward Scypion. Minuto's not around to defend himself, or process the events on fightnight, or the aftermath, having died in 2008. His widow Lucille tells me that her husband's conscience was clear in the years following his friend Willie's death.
"He took it very hard," says Lucille, Marco's childhood sweetheart and wife of 42 years. "It was a turning point in his life. He was always involved in doing things the right way. If it was totally up to Marco, Willie would not have been fighting (at the end)." She says Marco went to the commission at one point, probably after the Sibson fight, and lobbied for them to not re-license Willie. Lucille says Willie protested, saying that he had a family to feed, that he couldn't stop fighting.
"Can you blame the death on Marco? Absolutely not," she says. "Marco tried to give him guidance but he was a grown man."
Joe Bruno was one of the judges on Nov. 23, 1979 at the Felt Forum. He thinks Minuto should have done more to keep Scypion from fighting.
"The person to blame was Classen's manager Marco Minuto," says Bruno, the author of 'Mobsters, Gangs, Crooks and Other Creeps.' "He surely knew Classen was KO'd in England by Sibson, and Classen never should have been licensed to fight in NY State. A good manager doesn't risk his fighter's heath like that. Besides, Classen was on the way down and Scypion, a great puncher, was on the way up."
For those wanting to lay blame on the head matchmaker, the late Gil Clancy, Bruno says that's not fair. "Because of the way things were in 1979, there wasn't any real communication between states, let alone countries," he says. "Gil told me he didn't know about the Sibson fight and I believed him."
The ringside physicians of course were placed under a microscope. "I take the responsibility for letting the fight continue," Izquierdo said, before adding an aside that shared blame with Minuto. "His manager (Marco Minuto) never said a word to me. To give you an honest answer, there was so much noise, my concern was with the fighter. I wouldn't have sent the kid out if he hadn't been coherent." Warner stated in court that he was urologist by trade, had no formal training in medicine specifically pertaining to the fight game. He maintained that he was getting ready to examine Classen after the ninth round, but was blocked by Classen cornermen and camera operators, so Izquierdo instead sized up Classen.
The blame game went on in earnest as lawsuits were filed. By 1981, Willie's wife Marilyn filed a $500 million suit against Madison Square Garden, ref Lew Eskin and four doctors, including Izquieredo and Warner, as well as a $250,000 suit against the city and its medical examiner, for allegedly bungling the fighter's autopsy, and causing her excess suffering. In 1987, Marilyn settled for a six-figure sum, with the final judgment citing Izquierdo and Warner, and Madison Square Garden. A judge had ruled shortly before the settlement that a case against the two ringside physicians could proceed to trial to decide if there was negligence on their part. Eskin died about ten years ago, so I couldn't ask him how he'd processed the tragedy. Some thought he should have pulled the plug at the end of the ninth, and wished he'd taken a harder look at Willie, instead of taking a cursory look, and then filling out his scorecard. That practice would end not long after, with three judges being the norm in professional boxing in the US, not coincidentally.
Right after Classen's death, there was a stampede to enact stricter rules and regulations, so this sort of thing wouldn't happen again. As always, as time passed, the urgency faded. But on July 17, 1981, Governor Hugh Carey signed a bill which made it mandatory for the boxing promoter to have an ambulance present during a fight card. Also, a requirement was enacted to compel the State Athletic Commission's Medical Advisory Board to develop medical education programs for all fightgame personnel and review the credentials and performance of all Commission physicians. A rule stating that a fighter must make it out of his own corner, unaided, of his own volition, the so-called "Classen Rule," was also added to the rulebook.
Improvements to the rules side of the sport did come in the wake of the Classen death, and the sport stayed in the crosshairs for several years, especially after South Korean boxer Deuk-Koo Kim died from a brain injury four days after his Nov. 13, 1982 fight with Ray Mancini in Las Vegas. But ripples of remorse, sadness and guilt still ripple decades on. I tracked down Scypion, who retired from the ring in 1991, with a 32-9 record. He finished with 24 KOs, most accumulated before the Classen fight. Scypion struggled mightily to put the Classen death behind him.
"You've got to live with it," he'd tell people. "You've got to put it out of your mind." Easier said than done...
In 1983, he secured a world title shot against Marvin Hagler but was knocked out in round four. Scypion today lives in Port Arthur, Texas. He is 53 years old, suffers from dementia and Parkinsons, and would be a ward of the state if not for his Mary Wiltz, his younger sister and one of 13 Scypion children. Wiltz says that Wilford started showing symptoms about eight or nine years ago, and he has deteriorated from there. Scypion does speak, but he cannot be left alone, for fear that he'd wander from the house, and be unable to find his way back. She says that sadness and guilt from the Classen fight drove her brother to drink and use drugs, to blot out the pain. Through his haze, the pain still eats at him. At least three or four times a week, he will reference the fateful night.
"I killed a man in the ring," he'll say. "Willie Classen was his name. The ref should've stopped the fight."
Wiltz says she's having a hard time making ends meet. She cares for her brother full-time, and makes do on a meager monthly ration, $698. a month sent to Wilford from Social Security/disability. An adult daycare worker comes and gets Wilford from 9-2 PM Monday through Friday, but Mary can easily get a job that would let her work a 9:30-1:30 PM schedule, and besides, she'd have to have flexibility to run after Wilford when he inevitably wandered away from the adult daycare.
"I do need a break," she tells me, "but thank Jesus, I'm OK. God is good. ****
Following a tragedy of this sort, the turbulence typically never settles fully, but by and large, Willie's are doing pretty well. He had four children, Brenda, Destiny and Isaac, and Willie Jr. Today, Willie Jr. is settled, happily married to wife Suzan, living in Rego Park, Queens, and has a thriving personal training-strength and conditioning business, with a rep of being the guy to go if you're a supermodel who booked a high-profile shoot in a week and you need to be trim and sleek. But every day, he wishes he could talk to his dad, share stories from his work, about his kids, reminisce about the walks they used to take in the Bronx, on 139th St. The fighter and Willie's mom Luz had split by the time of the Classen fight, but Junior, who was living with his grandma, fondly recalls their walks. Usually, they'd stop at their favorite donut shop, near the Willis Avenue bridge. They'd get jelly donuts, and Junior would soak in the prideful feeling of being in the company of a world-class boxer.
"Where's your girlfriend at?" Willie would tease his son, just nine years old.
Junior would ask about dad's work, and Willie would tell him he was fighting for his family. "I'm doing this for you guys, fighting so you don't have to," he'd tell the kid.
On the night of the fateful fight, Willie Jr. was at his aunt's house in the Bronx. MSG network, a cable channel, would be showing the Classen-Scypion bout, and Will Jr. was going to watch his dad in action. He recalls falling asleep right when he dad was knocked out, at the start of the tenth and final round. He found out the scope of the tragedy when he work up the next morning. His mom picked him up, and they went to Bellevue. The nurses didn't want the little boy to see his dad unconscious, with tubes coming out of his nose, so they didn't let Willie Jr. see his dad. "Let me in," the boy pleaded, to no avail. Four days later, his mother broke the news to him, that his dad, who he was really just getting started to know, was gone.
Willie Jr. makes sure to hammer home that he is as happy as can be today. But he floundered for awhile. Boxing was in his blood, so he took up the sport, and showed flair, though his grandma obeyed Willie Senior's desire that Willie Jr. not get too deep into the savage science. He'd hang with Hector Camacho, another "Macho." As Camacho's star rose, he wouldn't come around as much, and Junior felt spurned, and the tug that his dad tried to resist. The streets, with its easier payoffs. The glittering watches and chains and such that Camacho showed off, Willie Jr. sported.
"The big chains he had, I had," he says. "He had a Rolex, I had a Rolex. He had a Ferrari, I would've had one, but I had no license."
But Junior's bling didn't come from fat purses for defending his world lightweight championship. By his mid to late teens, he'd become a heavy-duty drug dealer.
"I was depressed, I didn't know what to do," Willie Jr. says. "I never thought that would happen."
Junior was locked up from 1989-2004. Does he believe his path would have been the same if his dad didn't die?
"Not at all, not a chance. He was so into the sport, I would have been right there with him. To grow up without a man around, to not have that leadership, my dad saying, 'Let's go to the gym.' It makes me sad to not have him around, show me how to be a man."
For those wondering, no, Junior doesn't curse the sport boxing. But he would like to see his dad honored the way he should have been, with a proper ten count salute.
"I don't hate boxing, I hated the way they took care of Willie. They didn't help my father live. The referee, the doctors, his manager, someone should have made the call, enough is enough. I am just angry he could have been with us. But I love boxing. It's a great sport."
One of the main reasons he decided to cooperate with this piece, and dredge up painful memories is to remind the fans, the media, the officials, that the rules and regulations are there for a reason, and have been refined over the years because of incidences such as the death of his dad.
"I love the sport to this day, and boxers will be protected and not be hurt as long as right people are involved," Willie Classen Jr. says. "I want people to know that there are rules, that boxing isn't a brutal sport as long as you got the right people there in charge, and when it's time to stop fight they're gonna stop it." ****
For all of us who watch the action in the ring with a jaded eye, not pausing often enough to ponder the very real dangers inherent in hand-to-hand combat, and too easily offering critiques on the boxers' lack of heart, or skills, it seems a worthwhile task to familiarize oneself with Willie Classen's life and death, and maybe take a moment to thank him, for unknowingly sacrificing himself so that pushes to reform the state rules could coalesce. His sacrifice helped spur a statistical shift in New York ring fatalities. Courtesy historian Joseph Svinth, here were four in-ring deaths in the 60s in NY, two in the 70s, 2 in the 80s, 0 in the 90s, 1 in the 2000s, and 0 thus far in this decade.
For those still litigating his death, and parceling blame, well, that case could drag on infinitely. Yes, there are any number of people who if they took a harder stand in principle might have been able to head off the tragedy, but no one odious target emerges after the case is re-examined, these decades later. Surely a flawed system contributed as mightily to Classen's death as anything else. And Willie himself aided a system check and upgrade, so yes, it seems only right that every area fight fan who enjoys the sport knows the name Willie Classen, and every so often sends a silent thanks to that man who was blessed with just a bit too much pride for his own good, for doing his part to better the sport that was in his blood, for which he gave his life.
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