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This Title Shot is a Hart-to-Hart Production

Bernard Fernandez

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Tucson Convention

As much a political activist as a boxing promoter, Top Rank founder and chairman Bob Arum is providing 500 free tickets for Friday night’s ESPN-televised fight card at the Tucson Convention Center to so-called “Dreamers,” children of illegal immigrants, mostly from Mexico, whose status for remaining in the United States has been called into question by the Trump administration.

“They’re as American as my grandchildren,” says the Brooklyn-born Arum, who often finds ways to combine his business operation with his social-justice agenda.

In a manner of speaking, another dream may or not be fulfilled in the co-main event of the TV doubleheader, in which WBO super middleweight champion Gilberto “Zurdo” Ramirez (35-0, 24 KOs), of Mazatlan, Mexico, defends his title against Jesse “Hard Work” Hart (22-0, 18 KOs), the WBO’s No. 1 contender from Philadelphia. But the dream team in this instance is not so much comprised of the Ramirez family as by the Harts, whose long, thus-far-fruitless quest to claim a world championship now rests on the wide shoulders of the 28-year-old Jesse, who has been raised almost since birth to achieve something that his once-world-rated middleweight contender father and trainer, Eugene “Cyclone” Hart, and other assorted relatives could not.

The other co-featured marquee bout pits WBO featherweight titlist Oscar Valdez (22-0, 19 KOs) against No. 4 contender Genesis Servania (29-0, 12 KOs), of Bacolod City, Philippines.

“My family, both sides of it, were brought up with boxing,” noted Jesse, who is co-promoted by Top Rank and Peltz Boxing. “My dad, obviously, but also on my dad’s side were my uncle (Alfred Lowery) and my dad’s uncle (Jimmy Hart) as well as a cousin on my mom’s side (Rick Williams).

“Now I have my own family (manager-wife Starletta and daughter Halo). To bring back that belt to my household would be something I almost can’t describe. It would mean everything.”

Perhaps, if Cyclone Hart had won a world title – or even been afforded the opportunity to fight for one – Jesse’s sense of purpose might not be so clear and defined. But who’s to say? Children born into the Wallenda family are raised from an early age to become high-wire walkers because … well, just because. Sometimes there is no escaping who we are meant to be in life.

“Mentally, I have been prepared for this (to fight for and win a world championship) since I was just a little kid,” Jesse said. “My whole life has been directed toward this moment. My dad showed me tapes of all the great Philadelphia fighters, fighters that became champions of the world or could have been, from as far back as I can remember.

“Now that I’m so close to doing what I have so long prepared for, I can honestly say I’m ready. Of course there’s going to be a little nervousness, but it’s not going to overwhelm me or anything like that. Nothing can or will stop me from performing at my highest level. I’m not going to freeze up. How could I, when I’ve been groomed for this since I was six years old?”

At 6-foot-3 and 168 pounds, Jesse is not a carbon-copy of his 5-11½ father, either physically or even stylistically. He considers himself a boxer-puncher, more capable of winning with a varied attack than was his dad, a legendarily devastating puncher who went into every fight looking to score a knockout, as early and as emphatically as possible. It was a strategy that either worked well or didn’t, as evidenced by Cyclone’s 30-9-1 record, which included 28 knockout victories (18 coming in the first three rounds) and eight defeats inside the distance.  Cyclone’s weapon of choice was that Philly favorite, the left hook.

“Jesse’s a good puncher, but he’s not in his father’s league when it comes to pure punching power,” said J Russell Peltz, who promoted Cyclone and now is involved with the son. “I’m just telling it like it is.”

One of a quartet of Philadelphia middleweights who were all world-rated at the same time in the early 1970s – the others being Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts, Willie “The Worm” Monroe and the late Bennie Briscoe – Hart was being talked up as a possible  challenger to Argentine great Carlos Monzon when misfortune struck. During a fight with former junior middleweight titlist Denny Moyer on Sept. 21, 1971, at the Spectrum in Philly, both men tumbled through the ring ropes in the sixth round. Moyer suffered an injured ankle and Hart was knocked unconscious after striking his head on the floor, resulting in a no-contest.

Cyclone Hart did not fight again until Feb. 7 of 1972, a second-round knockout of Matt Donovan, but in his next bout after that he was stopped in eight rounds by Nate Collins and any hope of procuring a shot at Monzon vanished.

Might Cyclone have taken out the seemingly invincible Monzon had he landed that vaunted left hook just so? Possibly, although Peltz wonders if that proposed fight ever could have advanced beyond speculation.

“Teddy Brener (Madison Square Garden’s esteemed matchmaker) was trying to get him a title shot late in 1971, but Monzon was not controlled by the Garden, despite of how powerful Teddy was,” Peltz said. “I don’t believe Monzon actually was going to fight Cyclone, who just wasn’t a big enough name internationally. Anyway, that’s as close as he ever got.”

Ironically, the dream matchup that might have gone to Hart instead went to Moyer, who fell in five rounds to Monzon on March 4, 1972, in Rome.

Jesse was not around to witness his dad’s rise nor his fall; he was born on June 26, 1989, 10 days before Cyclone’s 38th birthday and nearly seven years after his final bout.  His not-inconsiderable power and some of his moves were passed along by his father, but some of his finer technical points came from another veteran Philadelphia cornerman, Fred Jenkins, the original trainer of 1996 Olympic gold medalist David Reid.

In addition to his dad, of course, Jesse lists Reid as a hero and role model. Jesse was not quite seven when he watched Reid, who was trailing on points, win the gold medal with a turn-out-the-lights overhand right in the final round against Cuba’s Alfredo Duvergel. That punch instilled in Jesse a dream of his own, in which he would go to the 2012 London Olympics and win a gold medal. He admits to feeling crushed when, as the favorite, he missed out on a chance to represent his country by the narrowest of margins, losing on a controversial second tiebreaker in the U.S. National Championships against Cleveland’s Terrell Gausha.

“That still haunts me,” Jesse said. I wanted so much to go to the Olympics and win a gold medal like David Reid.  I was bitter about how that all ended for me. But it probably helped me get this far in the pros, and this fast. And besides, my father’s dream for me wasn’t so much about going to the Olympics as it was for me to win a world championship as a pro.”

One thing Jesse apparently does better than his dad is talk. Peltz described him as “a marvelous self-promoter” who, should he get past Ramirez, a formidable southpaw, might stage his first title sometime in the first quarter of 2018 in Philadelphia. Asked for his thoughts on “Zurdo,” Hart gave him short shrift.

“All due respect, but when I look at him I see a boy, not a man,” Jesse said. “I don’t see somebody who thinks on his own. He’s always looking to his corner for instructions. His main weakness is his mind.  Everything he does, I’ll have an answer for.”

Ramirez has said Hart “must pay” for such remarks, and that his dream is to shut the challenger’s mouth. Then again, that’s the nature of dreams. Not everyone’s gets to come true.

RIP David Bey

Sometimes the boxing gods dispense or withhold their favors with no particular sense of rhyme or reason. Fringe heavyweight contender Chuck Wepner wangled a dream if ultimately doomed shot at the great Muhammad Ali, registered a knockdown (or maybe it was a trip), thus inspiring Sylvester Stallone to launch the Rocky film franchise, and just this year was portrayed by Liev Schrieber in a movie, Chuck, based on his improbable life. Another fringe heavyweight contender, Buster Douglas, was served up as a sacrificial offering to Mike Tyson in Tokyo, but shocked the world in scoring the biggest upset in boxing history and was rewarded with a $24 million payday in his first and only title defense. Still another fringe heavyweight contender, Randall “Tex” Cobb, became something of a celebrity after losing every minute of every round to champion Larry Holmes and rode that notoriety to some nice movie credits as a craggy-faced tough guy.

Then there’s David Bey, a Philadelphia native whose heavyweight ring career can be likened to, in one way or another, all of the aforementioned passers-by in boxing’s more exclusive neighborhoods. But Bey, who was 60 when he died on Sept. 13 in a construction accident in Camden, N.J., reaped few residual benefits from his brief flirtation with fame and fortune, other than his induction earlier this year into the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame. Like Wepner, Douglas and Cobb, Bey was granted an opportunity to fight for the IBF heavyweight championship of the world, and he gave a credible account of himself in a 10th-round TKO loss to Larry Holmes on March 16, 1895. Unbeaten at 14-0 with 11 KOs the night he entered the ring against Holmes, Bey’s status as a fighter on the rise quickly flamed out as he lost five of his next six bouts, three inside the distance. There would be no calls from Hollywood, even though Bey had a face that leaned more to handsome than to hammered and he did briefly date Grammy Award-winning singer Natalie Cole, daughter of the legendary Nat “King” Cole.

Bey retired with an 18-11-1 (14) record after his final bout, an eighth-round stoppage of David Jaco on Sept. 17, 1994, in Macao, China, whereupon he returned to Philly and a blue-collar life. The guy who managed to get Holmes’ attention with a crisp left hook in the second round of their title fight was a member of Local Carpenters 179, operating a pile driver, when he was involved in the fatal accident.

Informed of Bey’s death, Holmes recalled him as “an awkward fighter” who “gave his all.”

“He could fight. He hit me pretty good” (with that second-round left hook),” Holmes continued.

As for those parallels between himself and other fighters who got a brief taste of heavyweight nectar, the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Bey turned pro on Nov. 6, 1981, with a first-round TKO of, yes, Buster Douglas in Pittsburgh, thus making him a man who beat the man (Tyson), and his Philly roots gave him a kinship of sorts with Cobb, who relocated from his native Texas to Philly to advance his boxing career.

Rest in peace, David.

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Stonewalled by the Coronavirus: Dee-Jay Kriel’s Unhappy Story

Arne K. Lang

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They say that good things come to those who wait, but that old bromide gives little solace to a boxer whose career has been frozen by the great pandemic. Some cases evoke more sympathy than others and the case of Dee-Jay Kriel in particular strikes a sympathetic chord.

It’s been 13 months since Kriel last had a fight of any consequence. Opportunities arose but then for one reason or another were pulled off the table. And then finally the logjam was broken, a match with IBF title-holder Felix Alvarado on a big Golden Boy Promotions card later this month on April 25.

The pandemic torpedoed that show and ultimately every other boxing show slated for the month of April and who knows how far beyond? And once again, Dee-Jay Kriel was left in limbo, not knowing when he would fight again.

Chances are you are not familiar with the name Dee-Jay Kriel. Boxers in his weight class, with very few exceptions, toil in anonymity outside the Orient. But Dee-Jay is no club fighter; he actually won a world title, achieving that distinction on Feb. 16, 2019 in Los Angeles when he upset previously undefeated Carlos Licona.

If you missed it, you weren’t alone. The match was left off the televised portion of the show which aired on FOX. In fact, some ringside reporters missed the fight, or at least left it off their post-fight story. It was the walkout fight and they were likely busy interviewing the victorious headliner Leo Santa Cruz  back in his dressing room.

That’s what happens – indifference or downright disdainfulness — when you compete in the smallest weight class. Licona vs. Kriel was contested for the IBF minimum-weight title. And, so it is that when Dee-Jay Kriel looks back at the proudest moment of his pro career, his self-satisfaction is tempered by the realization that few people got to share the moment with him.

“That’s too bad,” he says, “because it was a very exciting fight.”

Indeed it was. Heading into the 12th round, Dee-Jay was ahead by one point on one of the cards but trailed by seven points on the others. It wasn’t sufficient that he go out and hammer Licona from pillar to post in the final stanza; he needed a knockout to win. And he rose to the occasion, scoring three knockdowns before the referee waived it off with less than a minute remaining on the clock.

“It was like a Rocky movie,” says Kriel.

Kriel is from Boxburg, South Africa, a community on the outskirts of Johannesburg. The Licona fight, which he took on short notice, was his U.S. debut. He had come to Las Vegas six months earlier to hone his game under the tutelage of veteran trainer Kenny Adams.

“There just wasn’t enough opportunity in South Africa,” he said. Like many other boxers around the world looking for that one big break, Las Vegas was seen as the promised land.

In Las Vegas, things have not proceeded as quickly as he had hoped, but frequent sparring sessions with Nonito Donaire sharpened his tools and increased his confidence. “I learned a lot from Nonito,” says Dee-Jay.

It’s a long way from Johannesburg to Las Vegas, more than 10,000 miles. You can’t fly there non-stop and you can’t get there in one day. And for a young boxer leaving home for the first time, heading off to a strange land, the trip must seem even longer. Kriel is very close to his extended family and came here without his wife Denica (pictured) who wasn’t able to join him until October of last year.

When he was just starting out, Kriel seemed like the longest of long shots to win a world title. He was 0-3 as an amateur and lost his pro debut. But he stayed the course and would not lose again. He currently sports a 16-1-1 (8 KOs) record, the most recent “W” coming in an un-taxing, stay-busy fight in Tijuana.

Kenny Adams, who turns 80 this year, has had health problems that have forced him to cut down on his workload. Brandon Woods has assumed the role of chief trainer. Woods is a fixture at Bones Adams gym in Las Vegas, or was until the coronavirus turned the world upside down. Now, instead of working with boxers in a communal setting, Woods trains fighters one-on-one in his home.

“I still work out every day,” Kriel told this reporter by phone. “I run and jump rope and work the mitts with Brandon.”

It can’t be very much fun. Woods is a no-nonsense trainer. In the gym, he runs the show like a drill sergeant. It is the camaraderie that makes it easy to digest; there’s a sense of community there, a family-like atmosphere that can’t be replicated in a one-on-one setting.

Winning a title wasn’t life-changing. The IBF ordered Kriel to defend the belt against Pedro Taduran, but Taduran’s management offered less money than Kriel had made fighting Carlos Licona and they insisted that the fight had to take place in the Philippines. Ergo, Kriel relinquished his belt without defending it, moving up to a higher weight class.

Kriel’s dream fight was a unification bout with long-reigning WBC title-holder Wanheng Menayothin, aka Chayaphon Moonsri, whose record, currently 54-0, gives him a Mayweather-like aura, if only in his native Thailand. (Ironically, Menayothin was also slated to appear on Golden Boy’s April 25 show, but against an opponent who would not have posed as big a threat to him as Dee-Jay Kriel; such are the politics of boxing.)

Dee-Jay could be forgiven for walking away from the sport in frustration, but returning home right now isn’t an option. South Africa’s COVID-19 lockdown is among the world’s most stringent. Jogging and dog-walking are prohibited. In Johannesburg, the militia are patrolling the streets.

The Republic of South Africa has produced a few good heavyweights and one great junior lightweight in Brian Mitchell, but for whatever reason an inordinate number of South Africa’s best fighters have toiled in the smallest weight classes. Baby Jake Matlala, who had to stand on his tiptoes to be five feet tall, became a national hero after upsetting Michael Carbajal at Las Vegas in 1997. Zolani Tete, a former two-division champion, began his career at 111 pounds. Moruti Mthalene is the reigning IBF world flyweight champion and former world minimum-weight title-holder Hekkie Budler is currently ranked #1 by the WBC at light flyweight.

As shown by Matlala, and many years earlier by mighty-mite Vic Toweel, South Africans revere their world boxing champions, no matter how big or how small. When Dee-Jay’s sponsors Ryan Erasmus and Kagiso Mokoduo chose to back him, the potential return on investment was obviously a lesser motivation than the chance to be involved in a project that would hopefully uplift the spirits of their countrymen. Erasmus and Mokoduo are the co-founders of a prominent South Africa law firm.

“They are good guys,” says Kriel. “They look after me.”

Does he worry that in these troubled economic times his sponsors may be compelled to pull the plug? “It preys on my mind,” he says, “but so far there has been no indication of that.” Should that transpire, Dee-Jay couldn’t count on financial help from his wife. Denica was a bookkeeper for a financial services firm in South Africa but is in the U.S. on a student visa that prohibits her from entering the work force.

Dee-Jay knows that he has it a lot better than other fighters who can no longer afford to keep their nose to the grindstone. He’s also lucky to live in the Internet age where keeping up with the home folks doesn’t involve the post office. He communicates with his family in South Africa by video every day. His father has a small towing business. “We were never poor,” he says, “but my parents never had a lot of money. I want to help them out. That’s my first goal and then I would like to leave a legacy.”

Dee-Jay bucked big odds when he snatched away Carlos Licona’s title. Licona had 75 amateur fights, was schooled by the renowned trainer Robert Garcia, and was fighting in his backyard. And he will be a substantial underdog again when and if his bout with Nicaragua’s Felix Alvarado comes to fruition. Alvarado is 35-2 with 30 knockouts, has won 17 in a row, and has been in with stiffer competition. His twin brother Rene Alvarado recently won the WBA 130-pound title.

Alvarado seemingly has another factor in his favor. As I write this on April 3, Nicaraguan strongman Daniel Ortega has yet to impose social distancing. One presumes that Alvarado’s regular routine hasn’t been disturbed.

“I believe a fighter needs to fight,” says Kriel, “just as a footballer (i.e, a soccer player) needs to keep playing football.” Expressed more tersely by an old-time fight handicapper of this writer’s acquaintance: rest makes rust.

The Dee-Jay Kriel story isn’t a great tragedy like so many COVID-19 stories, but it’s hard not to feel for him and for all the other boxers who have been marooned, in a manner of speaking, by this surreal situation.

Hang in there, guys.

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 91: Los Angeles Boxing Nights 1960s

David A. Avila

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A name popped up recently that shot memories of 1960s boxing nights at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles.

That name was Sho Saijo, a Japanese featherweight prizefighter.

The night Saijo fought Jose Pimentel for the first time at the Olympic Auditorium on February 15, 1967 was my first time watching a prize fight live. All my previous experience was amateur boxing or watching pros fight on television.

Just walking down the slanted aisles toward our seats at the Olympic Auditorium was an experience. The gray smoke drifted around the boxing ring and the smell of cigars and popcorn permeated the air. Vendors were hawking beer and other stuff and people seemed generally excited to be there.

My father was a former prizefighter and we had strong ties to Pimentel, who was a close friend of my cousin. Also, the trainer and manager of Pimentel was Harry Kabakoff, my dad’s former trainer and manager when he began fighting as a pro in the early 1950s.

We arrived a little late from our home in East L.A., so the only fight we saw that night was the main event that featured Japan’s Saijo against Mexico’s Pimentel. It was special.

Both fighters showed tremendous technique and surprising durability. They whacked each other with shocking impact with concussive sounds that left an impression on me. It was an exhibition of power that made me understand the difference between professional and amateur boxing.

It seemed every time one guy connected solidly with a booming shot the other guy returned fire with an equally impressive blow. This went on for 10 rounds and the crowd shouted each and every frame.

The Japanese fighter had four losses when he walked in against the undefeated Pimentel, but that night in Los Angeles, he convinced fans that he was equal or better than Pimentel who was the younger brother of contender Jesus Pimentel.

Finally, the featherweight clash ended and fans cheered both fighters for their electrifying performance. Two judges favored Pimentel but one judge saw Saijo as the victor. It was a split decision win for the hometown fighter, but Saijo’s performance endeared him to the knowledgeable L.A. boxing crowd. Aileen Eaton, the promoter, would bring them back again to the same venue in a month. In the rematch, Saijo was determined the victor by decision.

A year and a half later Pimentel would travel to Japan to face Saijo a third time but for the WBA featherweight world title. It ended in a knockout win for the Japanese fighter who defeated a slew of Los Angeles-based fighters along the way. Among those he defeated were Tony Alvarado, Pedro Rodriguez, Marcello Cid, Felipe Torres, Frankie Crawford, and Raul Rojas, who he defeated to win the WBA featherweight title in September 1968 at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles.

But the night Pimentel defeated Saijo, we met the boxer after the fights at a local late night spot on Figueroa Avenue. It was across the street from the Pantry at some place named the Limelight or Candlelighter or something. The actual name is a foggy memory.

We waited along with my cousin for Pimentel at the downstairs restaurant and he arrived with his trainer and manager Kabakoff.  When the husky manager saw my father they hugged and chatted a bit. The trainer had talked with my father about training me and asked me my weight. At the time I was about 135 pounds at six feet. But I declined. I had stopped boxing regularly and was concentrating on baseball fulltime. He said my size would give me a big advantage. But after watching pros like Saijo and Pimentel whack each other for 10 rounds, I was certain I made the correct decision.

Later, a few fighters like Ruben Navarro and Mando Ramos stopped by to say hello. It was a pretty exciting moment for me to meet all these boxing stars face to face. Watching them perform on television was one thing, but watching them actually trade blows and hear the impact was extremely impressive. It also made me have the utmost respect for all prizefighters, not just the winners and champions.

Those were different times.

Boxing Life

When I first met the late Bennie Georgino, famed manager and trainer, he would invite me to breakfast to talk boxing. He loved to talk about prizefighting in the 1950s and 1960s. He called that era a very exciting time, but claimed it was even better in the 1930s when boxing was really the king of sports in Los Angeles.

He had a point.

During the 1960s he ran a sandwich spot that he strategically located across the street from the long defunct Herald-Examiner newspaper and also walking distance to the Olympic Auditorium.

“Lots of the reporters like Bud Furillo and Mel Durslag would stop by for a sandwich,” said Georgino to me in an interview in 2000. “It was a heck of a time for boxing. We’ll never see that again.”

Georgino grew up in Lincoln Heights, a section of East Los Angeles that was primarily an Italian neighborhood back in the 1930s. He and his brother were boxers and, according to Georgino, there were boxing shows every day of the week if you include amateurs. He also claimed that amateurs got paid a small sum.

As a youth he boxed amateurs and as an adult he became involved as a trainer and manager of prizefighters. He was a close friend of Art “The Golden Boy” Aragon who was a massive gate attraction during the 1950s. Both would later own bail bonds businesses located next to each other in Los Angeles.

“Art was quite a character,” said Georgino. “You never knew if he was kidding or serious.”

Georgino later moved to Riverside, California. He was still promoting boxing shows in the state of Washington into his 90s.

Boxing in 1960s Los Angeles was a much different era.

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Remembering Hedgemon Lewis (1946-2020); Welterweight Champ, Hollywood Pet

Arne K. Lang

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Hedgemon Lewis, who came up short in three stabs at the world welterweight title but won the New York version of this diadem, died on Sunday, March 30, at an assisted living facility in Detroit. Lewis, who was 74, had health issues in recent years that made him vulnerable to COVID-19, and that vulnerability was compounded by residing in Detroit which has become one of the epicenters of the scourge. The evil pathogen sought him out and in his debilitated condition it wasn’t a fair fight.

Lewis was 72-6 as an amateur and won a National Golden Gloves title as a lightweight and AAU and National Golden Gloves titles at welterweight. He was 53-7-2 (26 KOs) as a pro. But those numbers barely tell the story of a fighter who led an interesting life and was admired by his peers for what he accomplished outside the ring.

Hedgemon Lewis turned pro in 1966 under the guidance of Luther Burgess who would be best remembered as one of Emanuel Steward’s chief lieutenant’s at Detroit’s fabled Kronk Gym. Burgess, a fine featherweight in his fighting days, had been trained and managed by Eddie Futch.

Lewis was eight fights into his pro career and not quite 21 years old when Burgess brought him to Los Angeles where Futch was then plying his trade. Futch loved what he saw and Burgess left his young fighter in the care of his former mentor who was better able to “move” Lewis as the Southern California fight scene was then percolating.

Undoubtedly it wasn’t merely Hedgemon’s potential that excited Eddie Futch. The two had much in common. Both had been born in small towns in the Jim Crow South and had spent their formative years in Detroit. Moreover, a Futch Fighter was a fighter who conducted himself like a gentleman outside the ring and Hedgemon Lewis fit that mold. Futch had no tolerance for loudmouths.

Hedgemon became a staple at the Olympic Auditorium where he had 15 pro fights. When paired against a top-shelf opponent with a Mexican bloodline, these bouts drew big crowds. An estimated 4,000 were turned away when he fought Ernie “Indian Red” Lopez on July 18, 1968. The teak tough Lopez, then ranked #2 in the world, saddled Hedgemon with his first defeat, winning by TKO 9. The bout was so exciting that Lopez’s manager and chief cornerman Howie Steindler fainted during the battle and would be taken to a hospital for observation.

By then, Hedgemon had wealthy backers that allowed him to give boxing his full attention, or we should say his full attention when he wasn’t studying for his real estate license or taking classes in speech and drama at Los Angeles City College.

When Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier turned pro, they both had syndicate backing. The syndicates were comprised of wealthy businessmen in Louisville and Philadelphia, respectively. A California man named Dell Jackson put together a syndicate to back the next world heavyweight champion but with no good heavyweights available, the consortium settled on Hedgemon Lewis.

Jackson had friends in show business. The actor Ryan O’Neal, the comedian Bill Cosby, and the Broadway star and recording artist Robert Goulet hopped on board. The Hoover Street Gym, where Lewis trained and where his backers were constantly popping in to check on their investment, became a hot spot for the paparazzi. Lewis always looked good in the gym because he was a stylish fighter (which curried no sway with the legendary LA Times columnist Jim Murray who was partial to boxers of the blood-and-guts stripe; Murray did Hedgemon Lewis no favors when he described Hedgemon’s style as “mostly ballet.”)

Lewis won six straight after his setback to Indian Red, advancing his record to 28-1. The sixth was a rematch with Lopez wherein he avenged his lone defeat, winning a close but unanimous decision, but Indian Red won the rubber match, stopping Hedgemon in the 10th at the LA Sports Arena.

The top gun of the welterweight division in those days was Jose Napoles, a fighter of consummate skill who left Cuba when Fidel Castro came to power and settled in Mexico City. Napoles held both of the meaningful welterweight belts when Hedgemon caught up with him on Dec. 14, 1971 at the Inglewood Forum. Napoles prevailed in one of his toughest fights. Had he not won the final round, the bout would have been scored a draw.

They would fight again 32 months later in Mexico City and this would be a much easier fight for Napoles who scored a ninth round TKO. Between these two world title fights, Hedgemon had two 15-round affairs with Billy Backus on Backus’s turf in Syracuse, New York. Lewis won both by unanimous decision, winning the second fight by a more lopsided margin than the first.

Backus, the nephew of the great Carmen Basilio, had dethroned Napoles in December of 1970 in a fight stopped on cuts, some say prematurely. It was The Ring magazine Upset of the Year. In a better measure of their respective skills, Napoles dominated the rematch. Backus was a bloody mess when the bout was stopped in the eighth round.

The New York State Athletic Commission, in their infinite wisdom, demanded a rubber match. When Napoles refused, the NYSAC stripped him of his title. Both of Hedgemon Lewis’s bouts with Billy Backus were billed for the New York version of the world welterweight title, which was something of a joke although in an earlier day the New York version of a title had considerable cachet.

Lewis’s third stab at the world welterweight title came in what would what be his final bout. He walked away from the sport after suffering a 10th round stoppage at the hands of John H. Stracey in London.

Unlike so many fighters, he knew when it was time to say goodbye. “It’s such a strange thing when that happens to you,” Hedgemon told LA Times sportswriter John Hall, reflecting on his match with Stracey. “I trained well. I felt good. But once the fight began, it all went in an instant. Nothing worked. My legs, my hands. Suddenly I was a stranger in my own body.”

In retirement, Lewis became an assistant trainer under Eddie Futch, dabbled in fight promotions, and looked after his real estate investments. And he remained great friends with Ryan O’Neal who stayed with Lewis until the very end as other members of the syndicate dropped out.

Hedgemon Lewis was the oldest child and only boy of his mother’s five children. She raised her children alone after her husband walked out one day, never to be seen again. Lewis was very close to his mother and his sisters and when his mom took ill, circa 2002, he returned to Detroit to live out his days. Mrs. Lewis died in 2017.

This reporter first met Hedgemon Lewis in the late 1980s when Team Futch – Eddie Futch, Thell Torrence, Hedgemon, and the tyro, Freddie Roach, were training Virgil Hill at the long-gone Golden Gloves Gym in Las Vegas. In hindsight, I have come to believe that this quartet was the greatest team of trainers ever assembled. If not, it was undoubtedly the team with the best chemistry. “Everything we did was formulated around Eddie’s knowledge and techniques,” said Torrence.

The news of Lewis’s death prompted a call to Torrence. Eighty-three years young and still in-demand as a boxing coach, he had just gotten off the phone with Ryan O’Neal, informing him of the sad news. And he was kicking himself for not following through on the recent promise that he had made to himself to go visit his friend and former associate in Detroit. “And now it’s too late,” he rued.

Thell Torrence believes that Hedgemon left the sport in better shape financially than any boxer in his weight class who had a similar career. He credits O’Neal with making this possible, although when Lewis invested in a parcel of real estate, he had done his homework.

Lewis allowed himself a few luxuries. “He drove the first Mercedes I had ever seen,” said Torrence, and when he started to make good money, he moved into a fancy apartment in fancy Malibu. But he could have had many more luxuries if he had not felt an obligation to help out his family. He purchased a home for his mother in Detroit and, according to Torrence, put several of his sisters through college.

Hedgemon Lewis was inducted into the California Boxing Hall of Fame in 2006 and into the Alabama Boxing Hall of Fame — he was born in Greensboro – last year. Health problems prevented him from attending the induction ceremony in Tuscaloosa. Two of his sisters accepted the honor for him.

To reiterate, Hedgemon Lewis was 72-6 as an amateur and 53-7-2 as a pro. And that barely touches the surface of a very good fighter who was a credit to his sport.

R.I.P. Champ.

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