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Aging Legend Manny Pacquiao Fighting Father Time as Much as Keith Thurman

Bernard Fernandez

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The great Sugar Ray Leonard, he of the five retirements from boxing that didn’t stick, was musing about the reasons why aging boxers of all levels of accomplishment find it so difficult to quit the ring. His thoughts on the subject might not be of particular interest to another legendary fighter, 40-year-old Manny Pacquiao, who takes on WBA welterweight champion Keith Thurman, 10 years his junior and still presumably at or near the top of his game, in the PBC on Fox Pay-Per View main event on July 20 at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand. But if history tells us anything about the natural laws of diminishing returns, “Pac Man” would be well-advised to take note of what Leonard said of his own personal experience.

“You always think of yourself as the best you ever were,” Leonard offered. “That’s human nature. And that’s not just how highly successful people think. Everybody thinks that way. Most fighters come back for the money. They need another payday and there are people around them feeding their egos, telling them how good they still are, because they want a piece of the action. Maybe they come back because they really don’t know anything but boxing and they’re apprehensive about entering the next phase of their lives that doesn’t include it.

“But even if money is not an issue, and you have other options, you never lose that belief in yourself as a fighter, particularly if you’ve been to the very top of the mountain. (Being retired) eats at you. It’s hard to find anything else that can give you that high.”

The Sugar Man, one of the finest fighters of his or any era, knows of whence he speaks. Everyone – well, almost everyone – thought he was off his rocker to try to come back after 35 months of inactivity to challenge seemingly invincible middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler on April 6, 1987. But Leonard, whose list of defeated opponents includes such stellar names as Wilfred Benitez, Thomas Hearns (against whom he was 1-0-1), Roberto Duran (2-1), and a significantly larger Donny Lalonde, reached back in time to dethrone Hagler via split decision, albeit a controversial one, in the process showing flashes of his electrifying former self.

No wonder Leonard allowed himself the luxury of believing that he was somehow immune to the bits and pieces of excellence that Father Time siphons from top-tier fighters who linger too long in a brutal profession. But then, why shouldn’t he have thought that? When he shocked Hagler, Leonard was still a month shy of his 31st birthday.

It should have gloriously ended there for one of the all-time greats, just as it should have ended on a similarly high note for Muhammad Ali after his epic conquest of George Foreman in Africa. But when you’ve been to the very top of the mountain and remained there long enough to savor the view, it’s easy to convince yourself you’re still as good as you ever were. After a nearly four-year hiatus, the 35-year-old Leonard came back again on March 1, 1997, and took a frightful beating from an updated version of himself, 23-year-old WBC super welterweight champion Terry Norris, who floored him twice en route to winning a lopsided unanimous decision at Madison Square Garden. It is a testament to how much fans continued to love and believe in Leonard that he actually went off as the betting favorite that night. As was the case when a depleted Ali was battered into submission by Larry Holmes in Las Vegas, some Leonard devotees were seen weeping as they left the Garden.

There was, of course, one final act that had to be played out before Sugar Ray could come to grips with the realization that there was no more magic for him to make inside the ropes. Then a nearly 41-year-old grandfather and coming off a six-year layoff, Leonard was stopped in five rounds by light-punching Hector “Macho” Camacho on March 1, 1997, in Atlantic City.

“This is indeed my last fight, my last venture into the boxing ring,” Leonard announced of the retirement that finally was written in fast-drying concrete instead of wet sand. He had been away so long that the five-year mandatory waiting period for induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame had passed and he would be enshrined a little more than three months later in Canastota, N.Y.

Almost all truly special fighters – with the exception of Rocky Marciano, Hagler and Lennox Lewis, who stepped away while still at or near the top of their game and somehow were able to resist the urge to again lace up the gloves – yield to the temptation to try to relive past glories. Just as Napoleon had his Waterloo, a depleted Joe Louis was confronted with harsh reality in the form of the younger, powerful Marciano and Bernard Hopkins’ personal Fountain of Youth at long last dried up against construction worker Joe Smith Jr.

Which brings us back to Pacquiao, the Fab Filipino who is the only fighter ever to win world championships in eight weight classes. He is a mortal-lock first-ballot Hall of Famer and a source of wonderment to those who have followed his remarkable career. Nothing that happens going forward can detract from that gleaming legacy. But consider the mounting evidence that Manny the Magnificent has been a downgraded version of himself for quite a while. The whirling dervish and three-time Boxing Writers Association of America Fighter of the Year who pummeled, among others, Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales and Miguel Cotto has won only one of his last 16 bouts inside the distance, a seventh-round stoppage of Lucas Matthysse on July 15 of last year, which snapped a nine-year, 15-fight KO-less streak in which he was defeated four times, including a one-punch knockout in his fourth meeting with Juan Manuel Marquez.

The Pacquiao (61-7-2, 39 KOs) who will swap punches with Keith “One Time” Thurman (29-0, 22 KOs) remains as imperious and defiant as ever, and he points to his most recent ring appearance, a wide decision over Adrien Broner on Jan. 19, as proof that any erosion is minimal, if at all.

“I’m never scared or intimidated by any opponent,” Pacquiao said of the rarity of going into a fight as an underdog. “My time is not yet over. My journey will continue. That’s what I will prove on July 20.

“The feeling that I have right now, I don’t feel this since the De La Hoya fight. I feel like I’m fighting with De La Hoya again. I’m excited and I like being the underdog for this fight. Sometimes in the past I became careless and overconfident because I am favored in nearly every fight. This time is different. I chose Keith Thurman because he’s undefeated and I want to prove that at the age of 40 I can still beat an undefeated fighter like Keith.”

Not unexpectedly, Thurman has a different vision of how his matchup with the living legend will end. “I’ve never lost to a fighter who’s lost seven times,” said Thurman, who obviously has yet to lose to anyone. “I have no intention of losing to Manny Pacquiao. I don’t see him winning in any way, shape or form. He’s 40, I’m 30. I want to show him I ain’t Adrien Broner.

“This most likely will be Manny Pacquiao’s last fight. In the welterweight division, the king was Floyd Mayweather. He is gone. The legend, Pacquiao, he’s here. Come July 20, he will be gone, too.”

Maybe so, and maybe not. It is difficult for any unabashed fan to acknowledge the rust spots on a favorite fighter, and particularly so if you feel as if that individual should forever remain as fresh and unsullied in our memory as when we first detected whatever qualities that so obviously set him apart. For me, that initial glimpse came on June 23, 2001, at the MGM Grand. A 22-year-old Pacquiao, whose 32 previous pro bouts had all been staged in his native Philippines or Japan, was making his United States debut as the virtually anonymous challenger to IBF super bantamweight champion Lehlo Ledwaba of South Africa. They met on the undercard of a show headlined by De La Hoya’s dethronement of WBC super welterweight titlist Javier Castillejo.

Although the announced attendance for the main event was 12,480, maybe only a third of that number were in their seats for the opening bell of Ledwaba-Pacquiao. Even the press section was mostly empty. But I nonetheless was moved to compliment the new champ, who stopped Ledwaba in six rounds, in my story for the Philadelphia Daily News. I wrote that Pacquiao had “electrified the crowd,” what little there was of it, while “flooring Ledwaba three times and beating him bloody.” I remember thinking, “Geez, this guy is really, really good. He could be something special.” As it turned out, he has been all that, and more.

In 1972’s Academy Award-winning film The Godfather, there is a scene in which temporarily exiled American Michael Corleone is walking the hills in Sicily with two bodyguards when he glimpses the lovely Apollonia and is instantly mesmerized. It might be the best example ever captured on celluloid of someone falling in love at first sight.

“I think you got hit by the thunderbolt,” one of the bodyguards tells the smitten Michael.

My “discovery” of Pacquiao was not the first time I was so immediately taken by an athlete that he would forever occupy a place in my heart and mind. It began when I was nine years old, in 1957, when I decided that St. Louis Cardinals superstar Stan Musial, then in his 15th major league season and on his way to winning his seventh and last National League batting championship, would be my personal hero. In Stan the Man’s final season, 1963, the Cardinals won 19 of 20 late in the season to close within a game of pennant-winning Los Angeles, but they were swept by the Dodgers in a three-game series, denying Musial, 42, a return to the World Series he had not appeared in since 1946, the year before I was born. I would have sold my soul, or at least rented it out, had it meant Stan would get to take his cuts in the Fall Classic against the New York Yankees.

There would be athletes in other sports who also would move me to such a degree: Billy Cannon, the All-America halfback of the national championship LSU Tigers in 1958, and the 1959 Heisman Trophy winner; quarterback Roger Staubach when he played at Navy; Walter Payton, whom I came across when he was a sophomore at Jackson State and I was a young sports writer in Jackson, Miss. I did a story for The Sporting News before the 1975 NFL draft in which I asserted that Payton would be much better in the pros than two-time Heisman winner Archie Griffin of Ohio State, which prompted a deluge of hate mail from Buckeyes boosters. In time, I believed I would be proven correct, and I was.

No matter how much we might wish it weren’t so, the inexorable march of time serves as a diminisher of skills and reflexes. Those who make it to the pinnacle of their profession at some point are obliged to begin their descent. Three years ago I authored another story, perhaps a tad prematurely, the gist of which was that Manny Pacquiao no longer was the Manny Pacquiao he had been. He was 37 then, dropping the occasional hint that he was as human and thus as vulnerable as the rest of us. It gave me no pleasure to make the case that “Pac Man” had entered his exit stage. This is how I put it:

The encroachment of age is something no boxer can stave off indefinitely. At first, it approaches even the finest practitioners of the pugilistic arts almost imperceptibly, on little cat’s paws, but the sound eventually becomes noisy enough that it can no longer be disregarded.

One has to wonder if the sound of those little cat’s paws in the mind of 37-year-old Manny Pacquiao has been replaced by the clamor of a snarling, charging tiger. No fighter wants to entertain doubts about his athletic mortality, and that is especially so for those who know the giddy feeling of having been touched by greatness. The best of the best are almost always adherents to the message of resistance authored by British poet Dylan Thomas, who wrote:

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Pacquiao had enough gas in the tank then to outpoint Timothy Bradley Jr. in their rubber match, and the knockout of a faded Matthysse and the points nod over Broner (a gifted head case who increasingly is demonstrating that he might always have been at least somewhat overrated), could be enough to convince Manny’s most ardent supporters that there is more success to be wrung from the caboose of his lengthy train of once-dominant ring performances.

Trainer Freddie Roach, back in Pacquiao’s corner as his chief second, is convinced his guy can and will reveal himself as the goods, and he’s prepared to put his money where his mouth is.

“I haven’t made a bet in a long time, but the oddsmakers brought me back,” Roach said. “I’m going to make a huge score betting on Manny in this fight. Manny loves beating undefeated fighters, especially the younger ones. That makes it fun for Manny, and when Manny is having fun, his opponents had better watch out.”

Roach’s optimism is countered by Bob Arum, Pacquiao’s longtime former promoter, who is concerned that his onetime drawing card might find out that he is risking more than the mere outcome of a mere boxing match.

“I love Manny Pacquiao. I have a whole lot of history with Manny Pacquiao. I’m really rooting for Manny Pacquiao,” said Arum. “But you have to realize he’s 40 years of age. When a fighter passes his late 30s he’s not going to be as good as he was in his prime.”

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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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