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The Beast of Stillman’s Gym, Part 1

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The Beast of Stillman’s Gym

PART 1: CROSSROADS

In the years after World War I, a ghostly lodge of southern terrorists reemerged as a movement with real clout. By 1924 it was at the peak of its power and Texas was the most infested state in America with 170,000 Ku Klux Klansmen armed and organized, every one of them a member of the Democratic Party. Republicans, the Grand Old Party of Lincoln (and then-President Calvin Coolidge) often failed to even muster a candidate for state and local elections.

Like a cactus before the setting sun, fascism cast its lengthening shadow. Dissent wasn’t stifled so much as stomped to protect the interests, real and imagined, of white Protestant Texans. Those guilty of morals violations were taken from their homes and flogged, beaten, shot, or left blind-folded with placards leaning against their broken forms. “Undesirables” were ordered out of town. At Sour Lake, a justice of the peace was tarred and feathered as was a U.S. Marshal in Brenham who later resigned. The governor spoke out publically against the Klan on Independence Day in 1921 and the Klan responded with warnings posted right there on the grounds of the State Capitol.

To black Texans scattered throughout the arid landscape in the early 1920s, it was a reign of terror. Lynch Law was ever-present and selectively applied: Between 1900 and 1924 nine whites were lynched compared with 171 African Americans, and the latter were almost invariably mutilated before and after death by mobs. Simply being friendly toward white women could mean permanent disfigurement if your skin was dark. Neither respectability nor age made any difference. A dentist was mutilated for “associating” with white women. Two bellboys were snatched within two weeks in the same city, beaten, and held down while the letters “KKK” were burned into their foreheads with acid.

These atrocities were committed with impunity because the machinery of government –-the legislature, city halls, the courts, law enforcement–- was infested. When a thousand members marched in full regalia through Dallas carrying torches and waving banners like a conquering army, city authorities added to the spectacle by extinguishing the lights. In 1923, the KKK even managed to deliver one of their own into the United States Senate.

President Coolidge was no friend of the Klan. In 1924 alone he granted Native Americans full citizenship, gave a speech at the Catholic Holy Name Society in Washington, and stood, however stiffly, at a podium in Howard University where he declared the “progress of the colored people on this continent” as one of the “marvels of modern history.” He unsuccessfully urged a Democrat-dominated Congress to pass anti-lynching laws and appointed black men to federal positions. Emmett J. Scott, Secretary-Treasurer at Howard University thanked him for the “great encouragement” he was bringing to the twelve million African Americans who suffered “persecution by a hooded order which seeks to exclude them from the privileges of American citizenship.” “They know Calvin Coolidge,” Scott wrote. “They know his traditional friendship and they know of his distinguished services in behalf of their race.”

In Victoria, Texas on January 24th 1924, a black auto mechanic welcomed his second son into the world. The infant was given the name Calvin Coolidge Lytle.

The city of Victoria is thirty miles north of the Gulf of Mexico at the intersection of three highways. That fact and its equidistant location from four major cities earned it a nickname: “The Crossroads of South Texas.” For George W. Lytle and his wife Virginia, it was good place to raise a family.

Calvin’s playpen was his father’s auto shop. He was tinkering early and probably scolded regularly for coming into the house with greasy hands. After school and on Sundays, he was a barefoot newsy hawking the Victoria Advocate. He didn’t have to worry about his turf because his big brother, whose name was Loyal, held rivals in check. There was one fight Calvin had when he was eleven: “The kid was a lefty. I was a righty. He gave me such a licking I decided if I ever got into another fight I’d fight like him. So I turned around. I bat left-handed. In football I pass with my left-hand. I’m left-handed all the way now.”

South Texas was far from idyllic for African Americans, but the diminished influence of the KKK, which can be traced to the year of Calvin’s birth, cut the tension in half. Not unlike any other American family, the Lytles huddled up as the Great Depression fell on the country and business slowed to a crawl at the shop. The family of four went on relief and soon became a family of three. On October 22nd 1936, Virginia Lytle died after a common accident became something worse. Calvin was all of twelve years old.

Records show that Loyal Lytle enlisted in the U.S. Army in June 1941. When Calvin turned 17 in January, he became eligible to join the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC, one of the most popular of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, operated between 1933 and 1942 and was intended for unmarried, unemployed young men from families on relief. Between April and September, Calvin was a member of Co. 2873(C) with the “C” standing for “colored.” He lived in a segregated barracks at Ascarate County Park in El Paso and worked 40 hours a week doing heavy, unskilled and semiskilled labor outdoors for $30 a month, with $25 of that being sent home. After September, he returned home to live with his father.

On December 1st 1941, his father died.

Calvin turns up in San Antonio as the ward of a county judge named C.W. Anderson (whose name is now attached to a loop on the San Antonio freeway). He got a job, or Anderson pulled strings and got him a job as a soda jerker. It was a plum of a position, particularly for a black teenager in Texas. Those weeks or months that Calvin wore that black bow tie must have been a high point, flipping scoops of ice cream into malts for tips, and girls.

On March 8th 1942, he found himself standing in a Navy recruiting station in Houston. Pearl Harbor had been attacked and American men hoisted up the flag, beat their plowshares into swords, and went to war. Calvin didn’t have much of a choice. His enlistment papers reveal that Judge Anderson signed him up to become a messman in the naval reserves. They reveal more than that. Calvin wrote “serve my country” as his reason for enlisting. It’s a boiler plate answer that required no thought and that was probably transcribed. He scrawled the names of four men as character references, all of them black and from Victoria, two of them mechanics like his father, and none of them known by him for more than a year. There was no one else he could find in his life.

Reading his application for enlistment seventy years after he completed it is enough to make one feel oddly anxious for him. Confused, alone, and about to be sent headlong into something he was completely unprepared for, he was anxious for himself. His handwriting tells it all. The careful script, clumsy with mistakes that he took pains to correct, reveals a nervous hand. It looks like the work of an undereducated man writing his will.

Calvin was shipped off to the messman training center in Norfolk, Virginia. Eight weeks of boot camp included immunizations, gas mask instruction, swimming lessons, and training to properly polish shoes and silverware and set white officers’ tables. Calvin wore a bow-tie again, though it was a step down from the soda fountain. In the United States Navy, African Americans could expect to be nothing but mess attendants and mess attendants were nothing but servants on the lowest rung of the ship’s pecking order.

He was stationed at the U.S. Naval Air Station in the Panama Canal Zone from the end of May until the beginning of August 1942. He’d get a lousy two day pass, and would do what many sailors did –-swagger into a kit kat club and stagger out with rum on his breath and a good time girl on his arm. Calvin’s sexual experiences may or may not have earned him accolades from other messmen; they definitely earned him the “burn.” Contracting venereal diseases was common enough to become proverbial. Enlisting in the Navy, the saying went, was “to be sent out a sacrifice and come home a burnt offering.”

When he wasn’t on what might loosely be called active duty, he played baseball. One rainy day, he found his way into a boxing gym. A 6-foot white man was waiting around for a sparring partner when a coach spotted Calvin and invited him over to see if the gloves fit. They fit just fine. “I just tore into the guy. He was in no condition. I could see that,” he recalled in an interview a few years later at Stillman’s Gym. “I knocked him down with a left to the solar plexus and a right to the jaw.” The white man got up and proceeded to give Calvin, who had never boxed before, his first lesson in leather-pushing. “He started to get me,” he would later admit, “and hurt me a little.”

As he climbed out of the ring, the surprised coach walked up to him.

“You know who you were in with?” he said, “That was Billy Soose!”

Billy Soose was the former middleweight champion of the world. Calvin was signed up for the Navy boxing team on the spot. He remembered that it was a Thursday; on Sunday he had his first three-round, two-minute bout and scored a knockout.

Boxing was the only credit on his ledger. His tour of duty was fixing to be about as pleasant as the clap. While researching his book The Messman Chronicles: African Americans in the U.S. Navy 1932-1943, Richard E. Miller was warned that many veterans would deny that they served as “lowly messboys.” Deprived of the chance to prove themselves in battle, the vast majority of black sailors had to contend with daily humiliations instead. American prejudice could be rabid in the forties, but in the confined society of a ship it was magnified, particularly when southern officers and soldiers were involved. Messmen generally coped by keeping a low profile and preserving their dignity as best they could, though a few played the role of the smiling ‘Sambo’ servant in hopes of having an easier time.

Calvin rebelled.

Nine days after being transported for duty to the naval air station in British Guiana in September 1942, he was in the brig. He spent five days in solitary confinement for disorderly conduct. In December he was “absent from duty” for six days and ended up back in the brig. In March he stole a Navy truck. The commanding officer took away his liberty for two months as well as $32 of the $42 he earned during that time. In April he earned five more days solitary confinement on nothing except bread and water for “Neglect of duty”; in May he earned another month’s restriction for “Falsehood.”

In June he was transferred. During his new assignment on board the U.S.S. Surprise, he was disciplined for shirking watch duty, profane language, insubordination, leaving ship without proper authority, theft, and possession of another man’s liberty card and “a lewd picture.” All told, he was at captain’s mast for disciplinary issues no less than eight times. By November 1943 he was locked up at a U.S. Naval receiving station in New York and awaiting a summary court martial. The problems didn’t end. Calvin was in a U.S. Naval Hospital for twenty days for a medical issue that was “the result of his own misconduct.”

When his enlistment expired in March 1944 no one complained; least of all him. The court martial’s sentence stipulated that he be given a “bad conduct discharge” and further stipulated that he “IS NOT recommended for reenlistment. IS NOT recommended for Good Conduct Medal. IS NOT entitled to mustering out allowance.” Understandably, Calvin didn’t want to go back to Texas and face Judge Anderson. There was nothing left for him there, nothing and no one, and so he formally requested permission to disembark in New York. Permission was granted. With his head in a sling, Calvin was furnished with civilian clothes, handed his discharge certificate, and sent on his way.

“The navy mess attendant,” said one veteran, “had to be a fighter. He had to fight the Germans and the Japanese at sea, red necks in every port, and ignorant Negroes who wanted to insult him for being what he was when he got home.” Calvin managed to make a bad thing worse. After two years in the service, he managed to forfeit almost all of the privileges granted a navy man. He would receive no pension to help him along while he lived and no cemetery plot to help him along when he died.

He drifted over to Brooklyn and got a job at a garage near King’s Highway. As the son of a mechanic, he would have been comfortable in greasy coveralls with a rag sticking out of the pocket. Boraxo soap and gasoline fumes would have reminded him of home, of those all-too-brief better days when the Lytles were together, when he wasn’t alone. He hadn’t been working there long when the familiar bell announcing the arrival of a patron became a fortuitous one. During the conversation that followed, Calvin mentioned that he boxed a little and wanted to get back into it. The patron told him that he had a friend who managed fighters and took down his name. Calvin must have been pleasantly surprised when he received a phone call and then a visit from Bernie Bernstein, who operated out of Sammy Aaronson’s office over on Broadway.

Bernstein took Calvin over to the fabled Stillman’s Gym and threw him in the ring with a professional middleweight –-“just to see if he could really fight.”

____________________________

The most remarkable breed of boxers is called “natural fighters.” One of them will surface at the center of the boxing universe in PART 2 OF “THE BEAST OF STILLMAN’S GYM.”

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Graphic: Messmen serve a meal to junior officers on board a cruiser during World War II. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, U.S. National Archives.

Henry Peck Fry’s The Modern Ku Klux Klan pp. 185-189. “Lynching in Texas,” by David L. Chapman, thesis, 1973. Emmet Scott’s letter quoted in an essay by Alvin S. Felzenberg entitled “Calvin Coolidge and Race: His Record in Dealing with the Racial Tensions of the 1920s” (1988). U.S. Census report, 1920, 1930; Telephone interview with Ellen Choyce, October 2011; Texas Death Index, 1936,1941; James Wright Heeley’s Parks for Texas: Enduring Landscapes of the New Deal offers details about where CCC Co. 2873 was assigned before WW II. “Needed Some Exercise –Mauls Ex-Champ” and “Bert Lytell, The Black Streak of Lightning in Gloves” from The Ring, circa 1940s, courtesy of Douglas Cavanaugh. An invaluable resource for this essay was “The Negro in the Navy: First Draft Narrative” prepared by the Historical Section of Naval Personnel, and Black Submariners in the United States Navy, 1940-1975 by Glenn A. Knoblock. Michael E. Ruane’s interview of Lanier W. Phillips in the Washington Post, 9/20/10 accurately depicts the Navy’s treatment of African American messmen during World War II; statements regarding the navy mess attendant as a “fighter” quoted in Richard E. Miller’s The Messman Chronicles: African Americans in the U.S. Navy 1932-1943 pp. 280-281. The military service record of Calvin Coolidge Lytle was obtained from the National Personnel Records Center, Military Personnel Records, in St. Louis, MO through the Freedom of Information Act. The Ring spotlighted Bert Lytell in the December 1944 issue and this was kindly provided by Alister Ottesen for use as a resource.

Springs Toledo can be contacted at scalinatella@hotmail.com“>scalinatella@hotmail.com.

Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel.

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 288: Jake Paul and Amanda

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No Texas this time.

Jake Paul and Amanda Serrano take their show to Florida with a new interesting cast of fighters after heavyweight legend Mike Tyson was forced to withdraw.

Paul (9-1, 6 KOs) faces bare knuckle champion Mike “King of Violence” Perry (6-0, 3 KOs) in a cruiserweight match on Saturday July 20, at Amalie Arena in Tampa. The Most Valuable Promotions event will be shown on PPV.COM and also on DAZN pay-per-view.

“I love to take risks. He’s a dangerous man,” Paul said. “Really this came about because he has a crazy fan base.”

Also, in a dangerous match, Serrano (46-2-1, 30 KOs) faces potent knockout puncher Stevie Morgan (14-1, 13 KOs) in the super lightweight class.

Both Paul and Serrano are taking risks.

It’s another interesting match devised by Paul who has a knack for piquing the interest of fight fans one way or another. This time he chose bare knuckle titlist Perry who also has loads of experience in MMA including more than a dozen UFC fights.

Perry is the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship titlist and no stranger to boxing, jujitsu or MMA. He’s known for knockout power in both hands, little defense, but a very strong chin.

“I’m doing it for me, for the fans, for BKFC, for MMA but mainly for me. I believe in myself,” said Perry at the press conference. “I’m a brawling boxing mug.”

Paul chose Perry mainly because he feels MMA or bare knuckle fighters cannot defeat him.

“You’re going to see what I do to their best fighter. This guy has no skills,” said Paul about BKFC or UFC fighters.  “You saw what I did to Nate Diaz.”

In the female fight, Serrano chose Morgan who has a large fan base in Tampa. The hometown fighter believes this is a perfect match for them both.

“I’m not being disrespectful. I’m just stating facts. Amanda has a fighting style that best suits me,” said Morgan who is slightly taller.

Serrano was dead-eyed serious about the fight and Morgan’s comments.

“I don’t pay attention to that. That doesn’t pay my bills. You’ll see Saturday night,” said Serrano. “I don’t look past any opponent.”

Several other interesting bouts are on tap including another boxer versus MMA as Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. faces Uriah Hall in a cruiserweight bout. Undefeated lightweights Ashton Sylve and Lucas Bahdi are set for 10 rounds. And female super middleweight contender Shadasia Green meets Natasha Spence in an eight-round fight.

According to Most Valuable Promotions the previously scheduled fights between Paul and Tyson and Serrano versus Katie Taylor will take place in November.

Prelims begin at 4 p.m.

Golden Boy at Fantasy Springs

Hard-hitting welterweights Alexis Rocha (24-2, 16 KOs) and Santiago Dominguez (27-0, 20 KOs) head the main event at Fantasy Springs Casino in Indio, Calif. on Friday, July 19. DAZN will stream the Golden Boy Promotions card.

Santa Ana’s Rocha has faced the better-quality opposition, but Mexico’s Dominguez remains undefeated despite almost stumbling in his first fight in California last March.

Will Rocha’s experience be too much for Dominguez who won a split decision in his last fight?

Also on the card will be a number of undefeated prospects including Bryan Lua, Jorge Chavez and Grant Flores.

Nakatani

Three-division world champion Junto Nakatani (27-0, 20 KOs) defends the WBC bantamweight title against Vincent Astrolabio (19-4, 24 KOs) on Saturday, July 20, at Tokyo, Japan. ESPN+ will stream the Teiken Promotions card.

Nakatani, 26, is considered by many to be the next best Japanese fighter to Naoya Inoue. Many also consider Nakatani among the best dozen pound for pound fighters in the world.

The southpaw slugger is familiar to Southern California boxing. He trains with noted trainer Rudy Hernandez who has developed him into one of the best and most feared fighters below featherweight.

Fights to Watch

Fri. DAZN 6 p.m. Alexis Rocha (24-2) vs Santiago Dominguez (27-0)

Sat. ESPN+ 2 a.m. Junto Nakatani (27-0) vs Vincent Astrolabio (19-4).

Sat. PPV.COM and DAZN ppv 6 p.m. Jake Paul (9-1) vs Mike Perry (6-0); Amanda Serrano (46-2-1) vs Stevie Morgan (14-1).

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The Mirage Goes Dark and Another Storied Venue for Boxing Bites the Dust

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Life comes at you fast. It seems like only yesterday that I stood in a crowd of rubberneckers gawking at the artificial volcano that fronted the spanking new Mirage Hotel and Casino. After sundown, it erupted every 15 minutes, sending fireballs into the sky accompanied by a soundtrack of actual eruptions as the air was perfumed with the scent of a pina colada. In those days, late November of 1989 and beyond, the artificial volcano was Southern Nevada’s #1 tourist attraction, supplanting Hoover Dam. (The “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign at the south end of the Strip hadn’t yet become a magnet for hordes of camera-toting tourists.)

I didn’t come to the 3,044-room Polynesian-themed resort to see the volcano. I came there to see the centerpiece of the grand opening festivities, a prizefight between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran, the third meeting between the two gladiators. The Mirage had actually opened for business two weeks earlier, but it was a soft opening, as they say in the trade. The boxing event on Thursday, Dec. 7, 1989, was the cherry on the cake, a spectacle in every sense of the word. Celebrities were chaperoned to their ringside seats on a red carpet, mirroring the Oscars, and a mesmerizing fireworks display, better than New Years Eve, lit up the sky in the interlude between the last preliminary bout and the main event.

Leonard-Duran III was the first of 13 boxing shows at the Mirage, the last of which was staged in 1995. Thirteen isn’t many, but they included some of the biggest fights of the era, five of which – the first five – were staged under the stars in makeshift arenas built specifically for boxing. And now, with the closure of the Mirage today (July 17), another place that housed historic prizefights has dissipated into the dustbin of history.

The accoutrements were more memorable than the fight. Roberto Duran had turned back the clock in his most recent bout, unseating middleweight title-holder Iran Barkley at the Atlantic City Convention Center, but against Sugar Ray he looked older than his 38 years. Leonard was content to out-box Duran and won nearly every round. The final chapter of the Four Kings round-robin (Leonard, Duran, Marvin Hagler, and Tommy Hearns) was a dud.

Two months after the Leonard-Duran rubber match, fringe contender James “Buster” Douglas shocked the world with a 10th-round stoppage of Mike Tyson.

Tyson-Douglas was in faraway Tokyo, but the Mirage became a sidebar to the story of the fight when mischievous Jimmy Vaccaro, who ran the Mirage Race and Sports Book, just for the fun of it posted odds on the match. That gave the Mirage a monopoly as it would be the only property in the bookmaking universe to take bets on the outcome of the fight.

The betting line bounced around a little bit and at one point the odds favoring Mike Tyson stood at 42/1. This price would come to be etched in stone. “42 to 1” became the title of an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary.

It wasn’t lost on Mirage founder and chairman Steve Wynn that Buster Douglas would be the perfect poster boy for a gambling establishment. After all, Buster was the Joe Blow that knocked out Superman and won the big jackpot. Wynn’s attorneys succeeded in extricating Douglas from the clutches of Don King and he was matched against Evander Holyfield, a former cruiserweight champion who was 24-0 with the last six wins coming as a heavyweight.

Worldwide, Douglas vs. Holyfield was a much bigger attraction than Leonard-Duran III. The Mirage reportedly credentialed 1,200 members of the media, many from overseas.

In the days leading up to the fight, there were rumors that Buster Douglas had been lax in his training. Those rumors were confirmed when Douglas weighed-in at 246 pounds, 14 ½ pounds more than he had carried for Mike Tyson.

Counting the intermissions between rounds, the fight lasted a shade over nine minutes. In the third frame, Buster missed with an uppercut and Holyfield countered with an overhand right that landed on the temple. Buster fell to the canvas and made no attempt to rise as referee Mills Lane tolled the 10-count. As he lay there, picking at his nose, the scene was reminiscent of the famous photo of Jack Johnson lying on his back with his right arm shading his eyes from the sun at the conclusion of his 1915 fight with Jess Willard, a match that would always beg the question of whether Johnson was faking it.

Steve Wynn, who could be charming but was a perfectionist with a volatile temper, was livid. On the streets of Las Vegas, there was talk that Wynn had Douglas and his crew evicted from their hotel rooms even before the arena was locked down. If it were true that Buster Douglas was given the bum’s rush like some deadbeat inhabitant of a fleabag hotel, he would have been the first millionaire to experience this indignity. His purse was reportedly $24 million with $19.9 million guaranteed (roughly $40 million in today’s dollars).

Wynn partnered with promoter Bob Arum for the Leonard-Duran fight. For Douglas-Holyfield, he decided to go it alone, eliminating the middleman. By his reckoning, he had people on staff who were quite capable of getting all the moving parts to mesh into a coherent whole. But manufacturing a megafight is a complicated undertaking and Wynn would discover that he had over-reached. Plus, he had soured on boxing after two stinkers.

History would show that Steve Wynn would never again commit a large amount of money to host a prizefight. But this didn’t mark the end of boxing at the Mirage as Wynn owed Don King some dates as part of the out-of-court settlement that freed Buster Douglas from King’s grasp and a handful of promoters with lesser clout (e.g., Kathy Duva, Cedric Kushner, Dan Goossen) would anchor an occasional show there in a four-wall arrangement.

Don King’s first two Mirage promotions pit Mike Tyson against Razor Ruddock. Tyson stopped Ruddock in the seventh round on March 18, 1991. The stoppage by referee Richard Steele, which struck many as premature, sparked a wild melee in the ring between the opposing handlers. The sequel in June went the distance. Tyson copped the decision. Take away the three points that Ruddock was docked for low blows and Tyson still would have won.

King also promoted the last of the outdoor shows at the Mirage, a September 14, 1991 card topped by Julio Cesar Chavez’s super lightweight title defense against Lonnie Smith. In hindsight, this event was historically important.

Although Chavez was a massive favorite and the weather was oppressively hot, the Mexican Independence Day weekend fight attracted a larger-than-expected turnout of mostly Mexican tourists with deep pockets. In future years, many big fights in Las Vegas would be noosed to a Mexican holiday weekend. Chavez vs Smith was the ice-breaker.

In addition to Leonard, Duran, Holyfield, Tyson, and Chavez, future Hall of Famers Riddick Bowe, Jeff Fenech, Azumah Nelson, Buddy McGirt, and Michael Carbajal appeared at the Mirage. “Big Daddy” Bowe never headlined a show at the Mirage but had three fights here preceding his memorable trilogy with Evander Holyfield.

Steve Wynn divested his interest in the Mirage in 2000 and the property became part of the MGM consortium. In December of 2021, the property was purchased by the Hard Rock organization whose parent company, as it were, is the Seminole Indian tribe of Florida. The transition from the Mirage to the Hard Rock is expected to take almost three years. When the renovation is finished, the property will have a new hotel tower shaped like a giant guitar. The guitar, the symbol of the Hard Rock brand, couldn’t hold the volcano’s jockstrap, but it is what it is in the city that constantly reinvents itself.

Back when the Mirage opened, the charismatic Steve Wynn was the most admired man in town. An innovator and a true visionary, Wynn melded the sensibilities of Walt Disney and Bugsy Siegel and changed the face of the Las Vegas Strip. Wynn still has a large footprint in Las Vegas reflected in two look-alike five star hotel-casinos, the Wynn and the Encore, but, incredibly, he is now persona non grata in the city that once worshiped him. His fall from grace is not a proper subject for this website. Suffice it to say that Wynn, now 82, was quite the philanderer in his younger days and his recklessness caught up with him.

Yes, a lot of water has passed under the bridge since that magical night almost 35 years ago when Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran formally christened the newest and brightest jewel on the Las Vegas landscape. Those were the days, my friend, and for some of us it seemed like only yesterday.

A recognized authority on the history of prizefighting and the history of American sports gambling, TSS editor-in-chief Arne K. Lang is the author of five books including “Prizefighting: An American History,” released by McFarland in 2008 and re-released in a paperback edition in 2020.

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A Conversation with Legendary Phoenix Boxing Writer Norm Frauenheim

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It seems all along that Norm Frauenheim was destined to become a boxing writer.

Two critical elements were at play that led the 75-year-old scribe to that profession.

“I was always interested in boxing, even as a kid,” said Frauenheim who spent 31 years with the Arizona Republic beginning in 1977. “I’m an Army brat. I was born in January 1949 on a base, Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, a city I didn’t really see until I hit the NBA road covering the [Phoenix] Suns for more than a decade starting in 1979-80.”

Frauenheim, a longtime correspondent for The Ring magazine who writes for various boxing sites such as boxingscene.com and 15rounds.com, added more background: “One of the many places I lived was Schofield Barracks on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu from 1962 to 1966,” he continued. “I delivered The Stars & Stripes to troops with the 25th Infantry Division, which was headed to Vietnam, along with my dad.

“Anyway, boxing and Schofield have long been linked, mostly because of a novel and film, ‘From Here to Eternity’ (the James Jones novel starring Frank Sinatra on the big screen). The troops were still boxing, outdoors, at the barracks along my newspaper route. I was 13 to 17 years old. I’d stop, watch and get interested. I’ve been interested ever since.”

Frauenheim added: “From there, my father and family shipped to Fort Sheridan, then a base north of Chicago where I spent one year and graduated from high school “Then my dad went back to Vietnam and I went to Vanderbilt University in Nashville (1967 through 1971) and graduated with a major in history. I was also a competitive swimmer, pre-Title IX.

“Competitive swimming is also at the roots of my sportswriting career. I was frustrated that Vanderbilt’s student newspaper didn’t cover us. I offered to do it. The newspaper agreed. I don’t swim as well as I used to. I look at a surfboard and look at the waves I used to take on and wondered what in the hell I was doing. It’s a lot safer to be at ringside.”

After a more than five-decade stint covering boxing, Frauenheim is glad that the manly sport is still around but with more outside competition.

“It’s surely not the [Muhammad] Ali era. It’s not the Golden 80s, either. It’s a fractured business in a world with more and more options for sports fans. MMA is just one example,” he said. “Boxing is not dying. It has been declared dead, ad nauseam. I read the inevitable obits and think of an old line: Boxing has climbed out of more coffins than Count Dracula.

“Still, the sport has been pushed to the fringe of public interest. But it’s been there before. Resiliency is one of its strongest qualities. It’ll be around, always reinventing itself.”

In some respects, boxing, like the other sports, has always been dependent on rivalries like the NBA’s Celtics versus Lakers, which drives the public’s interest and storylines.

“[Larry] Bird-Magic [Johnson] was basketball’s Ali-[Joe] Frazier,” Frauenheim says. “It transformed the league, setting the stage for Michael Jordan. It can happen again, in boxing or any other sport.”

Boxing is still the same but with tweaks here and there.

“When I started, championship bouts were 15 rounds instead of 12,” said Frauenheim who began his journalism career in 1970 at the Tallahassee Democrat and worked at the Jacksonville Journal before being lured in Phoenix. “There were morning weigh-ins instead of the day-before promotional show. There was also a lot more media. A big fight in Vegas meant all of the big media people were there. The last time that happened was Manny Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather Jr. in 2015, a fight that failed to meet expectations and I think eroded much of the big media’s appetite for more,” continued Frauenheim whose byline has appeared in USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.

Mexican legend Saul Alvarez is still a major draw, but there are others on the horizon who are ready to step in and take over like the undefeated super middleweight David Benavidez.

“The clock is ticking on Canelo’s career, and I think he knows it. At this point, it’s about risk-reward. The 27-year-old Benavidez is too big a risk. Canelo, I think, looks at Benavidez and thinks he’ll beat him. I don’t think he would,” Frauenheim noted. “Benavidez is too big, has a mean streak and possesses a rare extra gear. He gets stronger in the late rounds.

“Even if Canelo wins, there’s a pretty good chance that Benavidez hurts him. There’s still a chance Canelo-Benavidez happens. But I think it’ll take some Saudi [Arabian] money.”

Boxers stand alone in the ring, literally and figuratively, but have a small supporting crew.

This makes them unique compared to baseball, football, basketball and hockey.

“Boxers are different from any other athlete I’ve ever covered. It’s why, I guess, boxing has been called a writer’s sport. There are plenty of NFL and NBA players who have grown up on the so-called mean streets,” Frauenheim said. “But they have teammates. They don’t make that long, lonely walk from the dressing room to the ring.”

Stripped naked, boxers are an open book, according to Frauenheim.

“They can be hard to deal with while training and cutting weight. But after a fight, no athlete in my experience is more forthcoming,” he said. “Win or lose, they just walked through harm’s way in front of people. In my experience, that’s when they want to talk.”

Selecting a career highlight or highlights isn’t easy for Frauenheim, but he tried.

“There are so many. I was there for the great Sugar Ray Leonard victory over Thomas Hearns [1981], a welterweight classic,” he recalled. “A personal favorite was Michael Carbajal’s comeback from two knockdowns for a KO of Humberto Gonzalez in 1993, perhaps the best fight in the history of the lightest weight class. I was also there for the crazy, including Mike Tyson-Evander Holyfield’s “Bite Fight” and the “Fan Man” landing in the ring like the 82nd Airborne Division midway through a Riddick Bowe-Holyfield fight behind Vegas’ Caesars Palace.”

Three boxers set the tone and backdrop for Frauenheim’s illustrious tenure as a writer.

“Roberto Duran is the greatest lightweight ever. His lifestyle sometimes got the best of him. That was evident in his infamous ‘No Mas’ welterweight loss to Sugar Ray Leonard in New Orleans,” he said of that November 1980 bout. “He told me that he took the rematch, on short notice, because of the money. “Women-women-women, eating-eating-eating, drinking-drinking-drinking,” he told me in an interview of what he had been doing before Leonard’s people approached him for an immediate rematch of his Montreal victory. But take a look at Duran’s victory in Montreal [June 1980]. Watch it again. On that night, there’s never been a better fighter than Duran.”

Frauenheim added another titan to that short list: “Leonard, who is the last real Sugar,” he said, and ended with the only eight-weight division king. “Manny Pacquiao, an amazing story about a starving kid off impoverished Filipino streets. He was a terrific fighter, blessed with speed, power and instinct. Add to that a shy personality unchanged by all the money and celebrity. He is an example of what can still happen in boxing. He’s the face of the game’s resiliency.”

That’s quite a trio, and they’re the best of the best that Frauenheim’s seen and covered from ringside.

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