Duane Bobick: Sadness Prepared Me

BY Robert Mladinich ON February 03, 2008
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Duane Bobick received an inordinate amount of press coverage in the time leading up to the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany.

Although he hailed from the tiny town of Bowlus, Minnesota, he had honed his boxing skills in the U.S. Navy. After being stopped by future heavyweight title challenger Ron Lyle in 1970, he built up a string of 60 straight victories.

He won scores of military honors and beat a lot of world-ranked amateurs. Included among was Cuban legend Teofilo Stevenson at the Pan Am Games and future heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, who was disqualified against Bobick in the Olympic box-offs.

Early on in the Olympic competition, Bobick beat the Russian who had been favored to win the gold. In his next fight, however, he was stopped in the third round by Stevenson, who would remain the most fearsome amateur heavyweight for over a decade.

Bobick believes that the slaughtering of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Games contributed to his loss. “It scared me, and took away my concentration,” he said. “It really messed up my thinking.”

As frightened as Bobick was, never for a moment did he think about leaving once the shooting started.

“I was there for the Olympics,” he said. “This was my shot.”

Bobick returned home without a medal, but was still considered a blue-chip professional prospect. He turned pro amid much fanfare in April 1973, and began barnstorming the country under the tutelage of his first manager, Bill Daniels.

Among the who’s who of contenders Bobick beat on his way up were future champion Mike Weaver, Chuck Wepner, Randy Neumann, Larry Middleton, Scott LeDoux, and the previously undefeated Fred “Young Sanford” Houpe, who garnered his nickname because he was managed by comedian Redd Foxx, who at the time was the star of the hit television series “Sanford and Son.”

(At one point, in the early 1980s, Larry Holmes and Mike Weaver simultaneously held versions of the heavyweight title, and Bobick had scored stoppage victories over both of them).

Besides the fact that Bobick beat most of those fighters handily, promoters always advertised the fact that he had made Holmes quit during the Olympic qualifications.

As Bobick was progressing through the pro ranks, Holmes was utilizing his rapier jab and tremendous right hand to steamroll his way toward a seven-year run as the universally regarded heavyweight champion of the world.

Bobick believes that his use of his own jab helped make Holmes realize the value of that punch. During Holmes championship tenure, he was known more than anything else for his sizzling left jab.

“I think I gave him so much of my own jab, in the chest, in the face, that he realized how important a jab is,” said Bobick, now 57 and a member of the City Council in Little Falls, Minnesota.

“At the time I fought him, I had not even heard of him. But he must have been pretty good to be in the box-offs. I dropped him in the second round. After that, he grabbed and held and the referee disqualified him. I remember him having a decent jab, but he didn’t use it very much. Later on, he used it all of the time.”

Peter Wood, a 1971 New York City Golden Gloves finalist and author of two books, “A Clenched Fist: The Making of a Golden Gloves Champion” and “Confessions of a Fighter: Battling Through the New York Golden Gloves,” remembers training alongside Bobick at Gleason’s Gym when it was located in the South Bronx.

“He was a real nice guy, who was glad to offer advice if he was asked,” said Wood. “In the heart of the South Bronx, he always seemed a bit miscast with his sock hat, Midwestern accent and warm smile. But he could fight”

As Bobick neared his 30th fight, former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier took over as his manager and Chickie Ferrara and Murphy Griffith became his full-time trainers. Griffith and Bobick’s relationship went back to the fighter’s amateur days.

He had amassed a professional record of 38-0 (32 KOS) when he was matched with Ken Norton at Madison Square Garden in May 1977.

Although Norton was 37-4 (30 KOS) at the time, many people expected Bobick to beat him. The fight received a tremendous build-up, because the winner was in line to receive a $1.2 million payday against champion Muhammad Ali. That only made the inglorious result more difficult for Bobick to accept.

In uncustomary fashion he stormed out of his corner, only to be blasted in the throat by a well-placed Norton uppercut. Fifty-eight seconds into the fight, Bobick had his first loss on his record.

The loss was so high-profile, even “Saturday Night Live” did a parody of it. All of the toil and hard work that Bobick had put forth was for naught. The swiftness and brutality of the knockout was hard to forget.

“Bobick became a national punchline,” said Steve Farhood, a broadcaster on ShoBox: The New Generation and a noted boxing historian. “It was very unfortunate because he was a pretty good fighter. But the only fights he is remembered for are losing to Stevenson in the Olympics and getting hit in the throat and stopped against Norton. Nobody remembers him running Holmes out of the ring in the amateurs.”

Bobick says there are a number of reasons for his loss to Norton. The most crucial was the fact that he deviated from his usual game plan, which was to cautiously move forward at the onset of the bout.

“The night before the fight Eddie Futch moved me to a prestigious hotel, away from the people I was familiar with,” said Bobick. “I was alone in that room all night, and it was as cold and harsh in the room as it is in late January in Minnesota.”

On the night of the actual fight, Bobick again spent too much time alone because Futch and Griffith were working the corner of several fighters on the undercard.

“Prior to the fight I had been alone in the dressing room for over an hour,” he explained. “I came out cold and did not have a plan.

“I was very upset and disappointed in myself, and it took me a long time to figure out what went wrong,” he continued. “I would usually play a little bit in the beginning, and not show any of my arsenal until the last 30 seconds of the first round or in the second round. I wasn’t myself that night.

As if losing to Norton wasn’t enough, Bobick would face an even worse experience less than a month later. His brother Rodney, who had served as a sparring partner for the Norton fight, was tragically killed in an auto accident. To say Bobick was devastated would be an understatement.

“I lost the fight with Norton, and then I lost my brother and drained into emptiness,” said Bobick. “I couldn’t get over the fact that he was dead.”

A month after Rodney’s death, Bobick returned to the ring with an impressive eighth round TKO over LeDoux, who also hailed from Minnesota. The fight, which was held at the Metropolitan Sports Center in Bloomington, attracted over 9,100 fans and a live gate of $75,000.

Besides being sold as a comeback for Bobick, it was also billed as a grudge match because LeDoux had once won a 10 round decision over Rodney.

And, 15 months earlier, Duane had scored a 10 round decision over LeDoux at the same location. That fight attracted nearly 14,000 fans and a live gate of almost $114,000.

“Scott had one style, and that was to come in and bang,” said Bobick. “Before the fight I walked into his dressing room and said, ‘You don’t beat up my brother.’ That set the tone. I pulverized him, really took him apart. Sometimes, when he was on the ropes, I’d lift him up and punch him some more.”

The comeback continued with a third round stoppage of New York journeyman Pedro Agosta, but again screeched to a halt when Bobick was shockingly stopped in the third round by the then unheralded Kallie Knoetze in South Africa.

Futch immediately went back to America to train Joe Frazier for a comeback, while Bobick and his publicist, David Wolf, stayed behind. Disgruntled by his relationship with Futch, a dejected Bobick asked Wolf, a former sportswriter and author of the classic basketball book “Foul,” to manage him.

“Joe and Eddie had lost interest in Duane after the Knoetze fight,” said Wolf. “Duane had good reason to feel abandoned, if you ask me. But the chemistry between Duane and Eddie was never really good. Eddie always had other things to do, both personally and boxing (wise). Duane was not getting enough of his time.

“For the few weeks we were in South Africa, Eddie was not focused on Duane,” he continued. “Duane felt that acutely. When they left South Africa, Duane asked me to be his manager. I told him I had no experience in that area, but he said it can’t be worse than it already is.”

Wolf accepted the offer and quickly displayed the managerial savvy that would come to define him through his work with Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini and Donny LaLonde. He decided to keep Bobick in South Africa for a spell.

He didn’t want him to return to the United States with a fresh loss on his record. He also wanted to take advantage of the abundance of positive press that Bobick had accumulated over there.

Six weeks after the Knoetze debacle, Bobick stopped South African Mike Schutte in eight rounds in Cape Town. Taking even more advantage of Bobick’s newfound popularity, Wolf learned of a South African boxing movie being filmed that he hoped to land Bobick a walk-on role in.

“I got a job doing rewrites on the script, so I asked for a screen test for Duane,” said Wolf. “He wound up getting the lead.”

The film was called “Billy Boy,” and Wolf jokes that the movie “never made it off the African continent,” except for one brief screening in New York.

“Duane was a big star in South Africa,” said Wolf. “The boxing commission said they would welcome him there but for political reasons they didn’t want an American making his base in South Africa. They said he could base himself elsewhere and come back and fight.”

Bobick and Wolf soon headed home, where the fighter quickly got married. Wolf scheduled him a series of fights against relatively easy opposition in out-of-the way places throughout the United States. After seven knockout victories, Bobick was back in the rankings and Wolf tried to negotiate title fights with both Holmes and Ali.

When they accepted a nationally televised fight against 1976 Olympian “Big” John Tate in February 1979, much ado had been made about Bobick’s work with Nautilus fitness equipment, which at the time was about as cutting-edge as it got.

The television network that broadcast the fight touted Bobick as a rejuvenated heavyweight because of his improved physical strength from working the Nautilus program.

Bobick says the regimen made him stronger, but in retrospect realizes it did not suit his personal needs.

“I couldn’t sit there and pedal, I needed to get out there and run,” he explained. “At the time, it was very futuristic and revolutionary. What happened to it, I don’t know.”

What happened to Bobick, however, is something he remembers all too well. He was humiliatingly stopped by Tate in the first round, and then lost his next fight against Baltimore’s George Chaplin by seventh round TKO in July 1979.

“Against Chaplin, Duane just wasn’t there anymore,” said Wolf. “He didn’t get knocked unconscious, but his movement was slow and he had nothing on his punches. It was time for him to retire.”

The Chaplin fight would be Bobick’s last, and he left the game with a 48-4 (42 KOS) record, the highlight of which he says was his sixth round TKO victory over Wepner in Utica, New York, in October 1976.

“It was a very competitive fight, but I gave him (Wepner) a lot of stitches and the fight was stopped on cuts,” recalled Bobick.

Retired at the relatively young age of 29, Bobick was a man adrift. He quickly went into a downward spiral. He lived in Atlantic City, where he says he became inconsolably depressed for several years.

His second wife had left him, and he was living alone in a house where he could easily sit and watch television for 12 to 14 hours a day and “not see anything.” That lifestyle lasted until 1984, and is best summed up in a poem he later wrote to address this difficult period in his life:

I spent too much time with the wrong woman

I spent too much time alone

I made too many bad decisions

And they cut me to the bone

In 1984, a broke and despondent Bobick called his brother Leroy in Minnesota and asked him to come take him home. Leroy arrived shortly afterwards with a cousin, packed up his stuff, and went back to Bowlus. Eventually, Bobick’s depression lifted.

“Day by day things got a little better,” said Bobick. “I had to find work to stay above water, so I did some stuccoing with my father. I had a drinking problem, but got to the point that I had to choose between good food to eat or liquor to drink. I was in a little shell, but eventually found myself out of it.”

A high school friend introduced Bobick to his third wife, Debi, who he describes as “wonderful and beautiful.” They married in 1986 and have two daughters together.

Sarah is 20 and Anna is 18. In addition, Debi has a daughter named Tara from a previous relationship. Bobick says that Debi has been “a very positive influence in my life” and that he has never been happier.

Four years ago Bobick was employed at a paper mill when he was accidentally pulled into a rolling machine. His right arm was stripped of skin and muscle from the elbow to the wrist. He
was transported by helicopter to a trauma center, but still lost his index finger and has restricted movement of the entire arm.

If not for his positive attitude and the discipline he cultivated as a boxer, Bobick is certain that the outcome would have been much worse.

“I deal with it the best I can,” said Bobick. “I can’t put a lot of weight on it or pick up small items with my fingers, but I deal with it.”

As a U.S. Navy and National Guard veteran, Bobick has done plenty to pay back his country for all that it afforded him. He is now happy to be an elected official, and eagerly looks forward to having a positive impact on his community.

Little Falls has a population of 9,200 people, and Bobick makes no secret of how committed he is to working for them. He relishes the opportunity to make a difference, and to be involved in the day-to-day tasks associated with civic responsibility.

“I have a little bit of old school in me,” he said. “It’s easy to see that many politicians are wasting this country, but we’re not going to get into that. As I get older, I get more and more common sense. One thing I’ve learned is if it’s not broken it doesn’t need to be fixed.”

Bobick attributes so much of his current happiness to the lessons he learned from boxing. Some were harsh, but they all made him the happy, content and successful man that he is today.

“I’ve had a fantastic life,” he said. “It’s been sad at times, but who hasn’t been sad at times?

All of the bad times have only made me enjoy the good times more. Sadness prepared me for the good things I have now.”

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