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Leon Spinks, Dead at 67, Fell Far and Fast After Shocking Muhammad Ali

Bernard Fernandez

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No one could ever confuse former heavyweight champion Leon Spinks, who on Friday night finally succumbed to the multiple cancers that for several years had been slowly devouring his internal organs, with handsome film star Robert Redford. But achieving a seemingly impossible goal, in real life for “Neon Leon” and on the silver screen for Redford, does suggest a possible link.

It is one thing to fulfill a dream few thought possible. It is quite another, once the dream becomes reality, to enjoy the tsunami of attention that can make a sudden and unprepared star a sort of Cinderella in reverse. In 1972’s The Candidate, Redford portrayed a young and ambitious senatorial nominee who, against all odds, wins election. In the final scene, he slips out of the victory party to be alone with his thoughts. Upon being joined by his campaign adviser who tells him he has to come back to meet with a throng of journalists, the stunned new senator-elect asks, “What do we do now?”

Leon Spinks, who someday would shock the world by upsetting the great Muhammad Ali, launched his longest-of-long-shots plan to become heavyweight champion when, at age 13 and constantly picked on by older boys in St. Louis’ notorious Pruitt-Igoe housing project, he heeded the advice of a Teamster official named Mitt Barnes to take up boxing as a means of better defending himself on the street. The oldest of seven kids (six sons and a daughter) raised by his mother Kay after the father had left home, Leon proved a quick study in the pugilistic arts, if not academically. A dropout midway through his junior year of high school, he became a father at 17, enlisted in the Marine Corps at 19, and by the time his service hitch ended had won 178 of 185 amateur bouts and was fast-tracked for eventual success as a pro.  He was a bronze medalist at the inaugural 1974 World Championships, a silver medalist at the 1975 Pan American Games and then a light heavyweight gold medalist at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, at which his younger brother Michael also took gold as a middleweight.

In 1994, Michael, who would go on to win both light heavyweight and heavyweight titles as a pro, recalled how he frequently got the worst of it in sparring sessions with his older brother, until the day when he proved to himself that he at least had significantly narrowed the gap between them.

“It was back in St. Louis, in the early ’70s,” Michael said. “Me and Leon were passing by this gym, somewhere we’d never been in before. Leon said, `Hey, let’s check this place out.’ There was a ring in there, and Leon found a couple of pairs of gloves. We pulled them on and went at it for three rounds.

“I couldn’t believe I was actually winning. You have to understand, Leon had always beaten the dog out of me. He always beat the dog out of everybody. Leon was the man in those days. There wasn’t anybody who could beat Leon. There wasn’t even anybody who could last three rounds with him. He used to beat me up so bad, I’d cry. He beat me like we weren’t even brothers. But he was trying to help me, in his own way. He’d say, `Mike, I know I take it hard on you, but if I took it any easier, you wouldn’t learn anything.’

“I threw off the gloves and said, `Hey, man, I beat your ass. I got you.’ And that was it. We never sparred again. Looking back, that might have been my proudest moment in boxing. I figured if I could do that well against Leon, I could hold my own against anybody. From that point on, I was a completely different fighter. I had confidence in myself.”

Maybe Michael was even as confident in his ring abilities as was Leon, who wangled a lucrative contract with Top Rank after the Montreal Olympiad while Michael went back to his old job as a janitor at a St. Louis chemical plant, where his duties included, as one co-worker later observed, “scrubbing floors and cleaning toilets.”

For Michael, who later joined Leon in the Top Rank fold, his star turn as a pro would come later. It arrived startingly soon for Leon, who, with just seven pro fights (6-0-1, 5 KOs), was tapped to challenge WBC/WBA champ Ali on Sept. 15, 1978, at the Las Vegas Hilton. Virtually no one gave Leon much chance to even be competitive, much less win, but the 24-year-old underdog believed he had a fight plan to get the job done, one previously authored against Ali by Joe Frazier.

“I watched him fight Joe Frazier, and I knew then I had to give him pressure like he’d never seen before,” Leon said of the punches-in-bunches he intended to throw at Ali, then 36 and as overconfident as Spinks was hopeful. “By the time I got to Ali, I knew how to beat him before I ever fought him. Then I learned the pressure of being champion.”

The shocking split decision for Spinks, accomplished before just 5,298 paying spectators, did not appreciably diminish the star power of Ali, but it made the victor an instant sensation. It also changed his life and career in ways he could not have anticipated, both good and, even more obviously as it turned out, bad. Being the new heavyweight champion and conqueror of arguably the greatest heavyweight of all time had the same effect on Leon, even more so, in fact, than winning an election he never thought he could, had on Redford’s fictional character six years earlier.

In quick order, the WBC stripped Spinks of its version of the title for declining to fulfill a mandatory defense against Ken Norton in favor of a much-better-paying, much-higher-visibility rematch with Ali, who was determined not to make the same mistakes he had made the first time around. Guys from Leon’s St. Louis neighborhood and hordes of other aspiring hangers-on sought to gain the champ’s ear, and in many instances did.

The do-over was scheduled for Sept. 15, 1978, in the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, the lead-up to which was a spectacle of excess to rival Mardi Gras. Some 63,350 fight fans packed the arena, among them such celebrities as Sylvester Stallone, John Travolta, Jackie Onassis, Liza Minnelli, Jerry Lewis, Telly Savalas, Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge and Lily Tomlin.

It was hoopla to an extent that Ali, as much as any boxer ever, could handle in stride. Not so for Spinks, who even before arriving at the fight site had demonstrated that he was crumbling under the demands of his newfound notoriety.

The late Butch Lewis, who promoted both Spinks brothers, recalled how Leon disappeared for days at a time when he should have been in the gym and focusing on the task at hand. Rumors flew that he was pub-crawling not in the comparative safety of the French Quarter, but in dives in crime-infested neighborhoods that even the local police were hesitant to go into.

“He was drunk every night he was there,” disgusted Top Rank founder Bob Arum said of Leon’s hard-partying ways. “Leon went to places our people didn’t dare go to. I’m surprised he didn’t wind up with a knife stuck in him.”

The shenanigans weren’t so amusing to highly regarded Philadelphia trainer Georgie Benton, who had been brought in to plot Leon’s strategy for the first fight and stayed on for the second, ostensibly in conjunction with lead trainer Sam Solomon. But Benton and Solomon seldom agreed on anything, and then there was the matter of Leon’s 70-member entourage, all of whom figured they merited a spot in his corner on fight night.

Shortly before the fight, Solomon told Benton that Spinks’ small army of would-be advisers would take turns working in his corner. “Sam said, `You go up one round and work and then Leon’s brother (Michael) can go up one round,’” Benton said of a mob scene unlike any seen for a fight of that magnitude. Benton’s frustration increased until, after the sixth round, he simply walked away, out of the Superdome and into the night.

“It was a zoo,” he would say later. “It was like watching your baby drown. There was nothing you could do about it. I had no more control of the guy. I was useless. All I could do was get the hell out of there.”

The unanimous decision for Ali – by margins of 11-4 and 10-4-1 (twice) in rounds – was a foregone conclusion, and pretty much evident to everyone early on. Ali was back on top, a king re-crowned, and Leon Spinks was generally dismissed as a one-hit wonder that never should have enjoyed even a temporary stay in his sport’s throne room.

“I don’t think Leon Spinks will ever fight again,” a miffed Arum said after the fight. “It’s only my opinion, but I don’t think so. He doesn’t like to fight, he doesn’t like to train. He was drunk about every night down here. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to get him back into a gym.

“He has money and he doesn’t have to go back (to boxing). To tell you the truth, I think down deep he’s glad that he lost that title. He is a simple guy. He doesn’t need the lifestyle of Muhammad Ali. Leon Spinks’ money will last a long time. He doesn’t live like Muhammad Ali.”

Well, Spinks’ career ring earnings – pegged at $5 million, with $3.75 million for the second Ali fight – didn’t last as long as Arum had predicted. Nor did Leon slip away from the fight game, never to be seen or heard from again; he did get another shot at the heavyweight title, losing on a third-round TKO to Larry Holmes on June 12, 1981, and then on a sixth-round stoppage to WBA cruiserweight ruler Dwight Muhammad Qawi on March 22, 1986. His final bout, an eight-round points loss to Fred Houpe on Dec. 4, 1995, left him with a record of 26-17-3, with 14 KO victories and nine defeats inside the distance. The only boxing Hall of Fame in which he is enshrined is Nevada’s. Michael, on the other hand, was 31-1 (21) as a pro, along the way becoming a multimillionaire and first-ballot inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1994.

“I know I could have made Leon upwards of $50 million if he had disciplined himself doing the right thing for four or five years,” said Butch Lewis, who died in 2011.

After his boxing career ended, Leon lingered on the fringes of combat sports. For someone who had outhustled and defeated a legend like Ali, it had to hurt his fans to see him go into a ring with a wrestler named the Mighty Wojo who lifted him up and threw him onto a cold concrete floor. He capitalized on what remained of his celebrity status here and there, including a gig as a greeter at Mike Ditka’s restaurant in Chicago.

“I have no regrets,” Spinks, his voice a bit slurred, said during his time at Ditka’s restaurant. “I had my good times. I won a gold medal. I won the heavyweight title. I reached as high a point in sports as I could.”

And if he had to do it all over again, what changes would he make?

“People pull you here, they pull you there,” he said of his hectic seven-month title reign. “I was not the type who trusted people right away. I was trying to take care of my business and box, too. You can’t do two things at one time. It was my downfall. When I did start to trust people, they took advantage of me. I found myself with a bunch of people around me I didn’t even know. They had me running in the fast lane.”

Leon was able to find some domestic happiness with wife Brenda Glur Spinks, whom he married in Las Vegas on Oct. 9, 2011. She was by his side when he passed away, but because of COVID-19 restrictions only a few close friends and family members – including his son Cory, who won versions of the welterweight and junior middleweight title — were present.

He remained upbeat even as his medical issues worsened. In 2014 he suffered intestinal damage and was hospitalized after swallowing a piece of chicken bone, which led to multiple surgeries. Then, in mid-December of last year, the TMZ gossip site reported he was in a Las Vegas hospital and “reportedly fighting for his life.” The prostate cancer he had been diagnosed with had spread to his bladder, assuring an outcome as certainly negative as his defense against Ali had been. But he fought as he could, for as long as he could, and that is in and of itself a testament to what had once made him special.

Rest in peace, Leon. So many fighters, good ones, have never known the exhilaration of being an Olympic gold medalist, or a heavyweight champion of the world.

A New Orleans native, Bernard Fernandez retired in 2012 after a 43-year career as a newspaper sports writer, the last 28 years with the Philadelphia Daily News. A former five-term president of the Boxing Writers Association of America, Fernandez won the BWAA’s Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism in 1998 and the Barney Nagler Award for Long and Meritorious Service in 2015. In December of 2019, Fernandez was accorded the highest honor for a boxing writer when he was named to the International Boxing Hall of Fame with the Class of 2020. Last year, Fernandez’s anthology, “Championship Rounds,” was released by RKMA Publishing.

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Avila Perspective, Chap: 157: Tank Davis and Rollie Romero in LA and More

David A. Avila

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Avila Perspective, Chap: 157: Tank Davis and Rollie Romero in LA and More

LOS ANGELES-One champ sells out Atlanta, the other fights out of Las Vegas, so I guess they will meet in the peace-loving neutral site of Los Angeles.

Gervonta “Tank” Davis holds the WBA lightweight title and the no-neck destroyer from Maryland who sells out in the city of Atlanta has agreed to fight in L.A.

Rollie Romero the number one brutish contender for the WBA title and native to the casino capital has also agreed to transplant this title match.

Tickets sales opened today.

Davis (25-0, 24 KOs) will defend the WBA lightweight belt against Romero (14-0, 12 KOs) on Dec. 5, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Showtime pay-per-view will televise the match that many predict will not hear the final bell.

One more thing, these guys absolutely do not like each other.

“We were supposed to spar in 2018 and he didn’t show up to the gym. He did that twice because he knew he was getting beat,” said Romero on his reason for having a beef with Davis. “He’s got such a big head, it’s going to be hard to miss it. He gets touched up by every opponent he faces. Leo Santa Cruz was beating him up and (Mario) Barrios was getting to him too.”

Davis said he does not care about words.

“He’s been talking for a long time. He’s trying to sell a fight, but I’m going to show him that he’s a chump on December 5,” said Davis. “I’m not here to talk, I’m here to fight. I don’t take this personally. To me, this isn’t a beef, this is business.”

Both expect a knockout, nothing less.

Even their promoter Floyd Mayweather agrees with that assessment.

“I don’t see this fight going the distance. Two undefeated knockout artists. Two champions,” said Mayweather.

Thompson Boxing Open for Fans

Fans return to the Inland Empire area this Friday, Oct. 22, with Thompson Boxing Promotions staging a fight card featuring undefeated super bantamweights at the Ontario Doubletree Hotel in Ontario, California.

The main event pits Northern California’s Eros Correa (10-0, 7 KOs) against Japan’s Katsuma Akitsugi (6-0). It can be seen on the Thompson Boxing Promotions page on Facebook.com.

“Thompson Boxing has had a lot of great fighters ascend to bigtime fights and I want to follow in their footsteps,” said Akitsugi who trains in Southern California. “They do a lot of shows in the L.A.-area, and they have helped my career a ton. I’m looking forward to putting on a great fight for the fans.”

It’s been almost two years since fans in the Inland Empire (the I.E. as locals call it) were able to attend a boxing card live. It’s significant because outside of Fantasy Springs Casino, on one occasion, people could not see boxing in-person.

Roughly there are about 15 boxing gyms in the I.E. including Joel Diaz and Antonio Diaz’s gym in Indio, the Robert Garcia Boxing Academy in Riverside, Abel Sanchez’s gym in Big Bear Lake, and the Henry Ramirez boxing gym in Riverside. Those are powerhouse gyms.

Ramirez has one of his fighters Anthony Chavez on the Thompson Boxing card this Friday.

The Inland Empire just may be the center of the boxing universe. This is not an exaggeration. One of the best discoverers of talent in the area has been Thompson Boxing which brought the boxing world numerous stars like Timothy Bradley Jr. Mauricio Herrera and Josesito Lopez.

Who will they bring next?

Tickets can be purchased by calling Thompson Boxing at (714) 935-0900 or at their web site ThompsonBoxing.com

Proof of vaccination is necessary or a negative Covid-19 test within 72 hours of the event.

Shakur

A battle for the WBO super featherweight title sees champion Jamel Herring (23-2) defending against former WBO featherweight champion Shakur Stevenson (16-0, 8 KOs) who has moved up in weight. It takes place on Saturday, Oct. 23, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. ESPN will televise.

Herring, a former U.S. Marine and 2012 Olympian, has height and reach and toughness. Will it be enough against the speed of Stevenson, a 2016 Olympic silver medalist? The Marine has improved with every fight.

Stevenson has an abundance of speed and ability to fight outside. But when it comes to fighting inside, he would rather hold. Will he be allowed to hold?

Last week in San Diego

Speaking of featherweights, the new WBO featherweight titlist Emanuel Navarrete (35-1, 29 KOs) defeated Joet Gonzalez (24-2, 14 KOs) by decision in San Diego last Friday.

It was one of the best fights of the year.

Navarrete and Gonzalez traded blows nonstop for 12 rounds with neither willing to give an inch. The 2,000 fans were riveted by the action.

It was Gonzalez second attempt for the WBO title. The first was against Shakur Stevenson a year ago. Tremendous heart shown by the Glendora, California prizefighter.

Navarrete has height and reach and could very easily move up to the super featherweight division. It would not be a surprise to hear he does move up.

Fights to Watch

Fri. ESPN+ 4 p.m. Oscar Rivas (27-1) vs Ryan Rozicki (13-0).

Fri. Telemundo 11:59 p.m. Jose Soto (15-0) vs Ganigan Lopez (36-11).

Sat. FITE.TV 3 p.m. Harold Calderon (25-0) vs Luis Florez (25-21); Rosalinda Rodriguez (12-0) vs Edina Kiss (15-15).

Sat. ESPN 6 p.m. Jamel Herring (23-2) vs Shakur Stevenson (16-0).

Photo credit: Esther Lin / SHOWTIME

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‘Hotlanta’ Has Suddenly Become a Professional Boxing Hotspot

Arne K. Lang

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‘Hotlanta’ Has Suddenly Become a Professional Boxing Hotspot

This coming Saturday, Oct. 23, Top Rank will stage an important fight at Atlanta’s State Farm Arena, home of the city’s NBA franchise. Shakur Stevenson challenges WBO 130-pound world title-holder Jamel Herring in a battle of former Olympians.

Saturday’s card will be the eighteenth boxing card in Atlanta this year. At least four more shows will be staged here before the year is out. On the pro boxing front, only Southern California has been busier. There have been more shows in Atlanta than in Las Vegas this year and only 10 shows in all of New York thus far in all of 2021.

True, most of the Atlanta shows have been low-budget affairs; club cards that attracted no mention in the national press. But the city’s NFL stadium housed the Jake Paul vs. Ben Askren freak fight in April and Gervonta “Tank” Davis headlined a pay-per-view show at the State Farm Arena against Mario Barrios in June.

It’s a fair guess that Atlanta would not have been on Top Rank’s radar screen if not for Davis. His fight with Barrios reportedly attracted a paid crowd of 16,570, an uncommonly large turnout by today’s standards. Eighteen months earlier, in his first appearance in Atlanta where he is a part-time resident, “Tank” drew 14,129 to the State Farm Arena for a far less compelling match with Yuriorkis Gamboa. That bout took place three days after Christmas, historically a dead zone for a boxing promoter.

The Davis-Gamboa fight with a vacant 130-pound belt at stake was Atlanta’ first world title fight since the 1998 match between Evander Holyfield and Vaughn Bean, a drought of 21 years.

Holyfield, who grew up in a public housing complex in Atlanta, had two prior title fights in the city where he was raised. In 1991, he defended his heavyweight title here against late sub Bert Cooper. Five years earlier, Evander wrested the WBA junior heavyweight (190 pound) title from Dwight Muhammad Qawi in an Atlanta ring.

The most important fight in Atlanta as measured by international news coverage was the Oct. 26, 1970 match between Muhammad Ali and Jerry Quarry. This was Ali’s first fight in 43 months, having lost the prime of his career to a suspension for draft evasion. The crowd of 5,000 at the city’s old municipal auditorium included 600 members of the press. (Ali chopped Quarry to pieces in a fight that was stopped after three rounds.)

The spearhead of the promotion was Atlanta attorney Leroy Johnson, the only African-American member of Georgia’s State Senate. He and Atlanta’s Jewish mayor overcame the opposition of Georgia’s segregationist governor Lester Maddox who declared Oct. 26, 1970 a day of mourning. Maddox’s arms were tied because Georgia had no state boxing commission beholden to the Governor. Each municipality was free to set its own course.

The 1970 fight, the first of two between Ali and Quarry, came to be seen as a watershed moment in the history of the “New South.” Twenty-six years later, Ali returned to Atlanta to light the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremony of the 1996 Olympic Games, one of the most indelible moments in TV history.

Of all the boxers born and raised in Georgia, none competed before more eyewitnesses than Beau Jack, a two-time world lightweight champion in the 1940s who appeared in a record 21 main events at Madison Square Garden.

Beau Jack had his first two fights in Augusta where he had a shoeshine stand in the clubhouse of the famous golf course, and two of his final three fights there, but fought only once in Atlanta, that coming very late in his career when his pull was diminished. On his road to Gotham’s famous sock palace, the Augusta native spent a considerable time living and fighting in Holyoke, Massachusetts, where, unlike Atlanta, there was no opposition to interracial matches.

Beau Jack’s lone appearance in Atlanta came on July 17, 1950. His fight with Bobby Timpson, a journeyman from Youngstown Ohio, was one of only two pro boxing events in Atlanta in that calendar year. The sport had been moribund in that city for the better part of the previous three decades.

To find a period when boxing activity in Atlanta was as robust as it has been lately, one has to go back 100 years. In those giddy days in the immediate aftermath of World War I when boxing was bursting out all over, a former streetcar conductor named Walker Miller (everyone called him Walk) turned Atlanta into a boxing hotspot on par with the region’s other major cities, Memphis and New Orleans, where the sport at the local level was also flourishing.

W.L. “Young” Stribling, perhaps the greatest regional attraction in boxing history, made his pro debut in 1921 at age 16 on a Miller-promoted show in Atlanta. Walk Miller would eventually become Stribling’s co-manager, maneuvering him into matches with several of the era’s top heavyweights, but achieved his greatest success with Theodore Flowers who worked as a porter in Miller’s gym before becoming the first man of color to win the world middleweight title.

deacon

The son of a Georgia sharecropper who was introduced to boxing while working in a Philadelphia shipyard, “Tiger” Flowers, nicknamed the Georgia Deacon, developed a following that crossed racial lines. His two bouts in Madison Square Garden with Harry Greb and his bout in Chicago with Mickey Walker were big money-makers. As he was advancing with Walk Miller at his side, the club scene in Atlanta withered.

Like many boxing promoters, Miller was a jack-of-all-trades. He was a gym operator, a trainer, a manager, a promoter, and a booking agent. The closest thing to him in today’s Atlanta is Terri Moss. A former pro boxer, Moss, 55, is the CEO and head trainer of the Buckhead Fight Club which has been keeping the sport alive in the Peach State with a series of low-budget promotions.

Imagine that. Walk Miller’s spiritual heir is a woman. Miller and his cronies would have never seen that coming.

The bout between the 24-year-old Stevenson (16-0, 8 KOs) and the 34-year-old Herring (23-2, 11 KOs) and a co-feature will air on ESPN and ESPN Deportes starting at 10:30 p.m. EST. The undercard will air on ESPN+.

There are nine fights scheduled on Saturday’s Top Rank show including appearances by up-and-comers Evan Holyfield, Evander Holyfield’s son, and Nico Ali Walsh, the grandson of Muhammad Ali.

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Late-Bloomer Jersey Joe Walcott Goes the Distance Again With Statue in Camden

Bernard Fernandez

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It may not always be apparent to those with untrained eyes, but there is genuine art in boxing for those who understand the beauty and majesty of a perfectly timed left hook. Just such a masterful moment of the sweet science was authored by Jersey Joe Walcott on July 18, 1951, in the seventh round of his fifth and likely final shot at the heavyweight championship he had been clawing and scratching his way toward since he turned pro at 16 in 1930.

Again a longshot against the great Ezzard Charles, against whom he already was 0-2 in title bouts, a frozen moment in time that fateful night at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field transformed Walcott from a symbol of his sport’s relentless but mostly unrewarded grinders to instant-legend status. At 37, he not only had become the oldest man to that point ever to win boxing’s most prestigious prize (a distinction he would hold for 43 years, until 45-year-old George Foreman dethroned WBA/IBF champ Michael Moorer on another incredible, bolt-from-the-blue knockout, on Nov. 5, 1994, in Las Vegas), but the patron saint of fighters with iron wills and vision quests they would see through to completion or die trying.

In a story that appeared on this site on July 16, 2018, I ranked Walcott’s blasting of Charles No. 1 on my personal list of all-time one-punch knockouts, which I described thusly:

Entering the seventh round, Walcott led the scoring, in rounds, by 5-1, 4-1-1 and 3-3. Moving forward while rocking side to side, the 9-1 underdog dipped to his left and exploded upward with a thunderous left hook that caught Charles flush on the jaw. The semi-conscious champion pitched forward onto his face.

It is difficult to encapsulate the full scope of such a historically significant and aesthetically flawless a punch into any inanimate object, like a statue, but sculptor Carl LeVotch perhaps came as close as is humanly possible with his eight-foot bronze of Walcott, which was unveiled this past Saturday during a celebratory day of festivities in Camden, N.J., the hometown of the beloved fighter whose real name was Arnold Cream. The unveiling took place along the Camden waterfront, at the Wiggins Park Promenade, following a 3½-mile parade that featured marching bands and other attractions.

For medical reasons I was unable to attend an event I had very much been looking forward to, but the spirit of the occasion – and the 20-year march from concept to completion for those who wanted the Walcott/Cream statue to be more than just another item on someone’s wish list – closely mirrored the ring career of an inspirational figure who fueled the imaginations of so many attendees. Chief among those is Vincent Cream, 61, the grandson of Jersey Joe who spearheaded the drawn-out efforts to raise the $185,000 required to fund the project, which is still not entirely paid for.

“It was an overwhelming moment,” Vincent Cream told Boxing Writers Association of America president Joseph Santoliquito, who covered the event for another media outlet. “Everyone who never met my grandfather met him today.

“No one ever dies. He’s here with us. When I look at his statue, and you see who’s gathered here – white, black, old, young, everyone coming together – his timelessness has come. To persevere for 23 years, it represents who my grandfather was as a man and his fortitude as a person. When you have a dream, it’s important to set goals between the dream and the achievement. Every time I brought up the idea of a statue, people would tell me, `Good luck with that.’ That was 10 years ago. We achieved it, a little at a time – like my grandfather.”

LeVotch, with whom I have long been acquainted, has nearly as long a track record in his boxing-related field as did Walcott, who took his ring nom de guerre in tribute to Joe “The Barbados Demon” Walcott, a welterweight champion whose career ended in 1911. The original fighting Walcott was a hero to young Arnold Cream’s father, Joseph Cream, who came to New Jersey from the British Virgin Islands. I first met LeVotch for a story I did on him that appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News editions of July 2, 2003, when he took me through the process of his creation of a 17-inch cold-cast bronze statuette he called The Spirit of Boxing, reproductions of which are owned by any number of boxing notables. His goal, he told me, was to create something more meaningful than the statue of the fictional heavyweight champion Rocky Balboa that was used as a movie prop for 1982’s Rocky III.

“It doesn’t move me,” LeVotch said. “A true piece of art is capable of moving the man on the street. It is an instrument to inspire. It’s been that way since antiquity. I have a great affinity for Rodin (that would be Auguste Rodin, the French sculptor, not Rodan, the Japanese movie monster). His The Thinker is a sacrament, if you will, of an inner grace.

“I’m one of those guys who believe boxing is a metaphor for life. I also think of it as an art form. Those who do it well are, in their own way, artists.”

In addition to his sculpted improvements of several awards the BWAA presents as its annual dinner, LeVotch’s other life-sized commemoration of a boxing life, that of former middleweight champion Joey Giardello (real name: Carmine Tilelli), was unveiled on May 21, 2011, in Giardelli’s old South Philadelphia neighborhood. Like Walcott, Giardelli – father of four sons, one of whom was born with Down Syndrome – was more than just a fighter, something LeVotch sought to convey through his art.

“I saw Joey not only as a terrific fighter, but as a father who cared deeply for his disabled son,” Carl told me a decade ago. “How do you convey all these different sides of a man in coagulated metal? My challenge was to capture the essence of the man as well as a physical likeness.”

Brought to tears by LeVotch’s artistic interpretation of who her husband was and what he represented in meaningful ways that extended beyond the ring, Rosalie Tilelli said, “I’m overwhelmed. I call Carl LeVotch my Michelangelo.”

Jersey Joe Walcott was demonstrably statue-worthy even if he hadn’t moved on from boxing to a full and rich later phase of his life in which he served as the first African-American elected sheriff of Camden County, serving from 1971 to ’74, and chairman of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board until 1984. His wife, Riletta Cream, also was committed to public service as a city educator and county freeholder from 1994 to 2011.

But it is Walcott the boxer who set records inside the ropes that almost certainly will never be matched, much less surpassed. Fighting in an era when there was just one heavyweight champion, not a bunch of alphabet title-holders, he fought eight times for boxing’s grandest prize, going 2-6 with two losses apiece to Joe Louis and Charles before he broke through against Charles with that museum-quality left hook in Pittsburgh. Five of those title bouts, incredibly, were in succession. There are more than a few historians who believe Jersey Joe should have won on points in his first go at Louis, in which he floored the “Brown Bomber” in the first and fourth rounds. No wonder Walcott’s most ardent fans, even those in his own family, were hesitant to risk seeing him come up short again when he again squared off against Charles in the home stadium of baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates.

“I was 12 when my dad won the heavyweight title and there he is, so real,” Ruth Cream, now 82, told Santoliquito at the unveiling. “I remember that night like it happened clearly. I was the only one downstairs at our house with reporters in our living room watching the fight on TV. Everyone else was upstairs in bed because they didn’t want to watch it.

insert

“After my father won, I remember running up the stairs to tell my family, `Daddy won!’”

After a successful defense on points against familiar foe Charles, Walcott, well ahead on points through 12 of the scheduled 15 rounds, was dethroned by Rocky Marciano on a 13th-round knockout on Sept. 23, 1952, in Philadelphia. He fought just once more, this time being stopped in one round by Marciano, before hanging up his gloves with a 51-18-2 (32) record. He was part of the 1990 charter class of inductees into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Camden officials are hoping their hometown hero’s statue becomes something of a tourist attraction, as is the case with the Rocky statue at the base of the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum and the 12-foot Joe Frazier statue, created by sculptor Stephen Layne and located outside the Xfinity Live! bar/restaurant in the South Philly sports complex. As splendid as it is, the Giardello statue draws fewer eyes given its location in a less-bustling and attraction-loaded neighborhood.

But in a metropolitan area where bronze tributes to sports stars of the four local professional franchises (Eagles, Phillies, 76ers and Flyers) are fairly commonplace, the statues of Frazier, Giardello, Walcott and, yes, Stallone are at least a signal that boxing, for so long Philadelphia’s fifth pro sport and a veritable cradle of champions, is recognizing a part of its past that is worthy of being preserved and treasured.

Editor’s Note: Bernard Fernandez, named to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the Observer category with the class of 2020, was the recipient of numerous awards for writing excellence during his 28-year career as a sportswriter for the Philadelphia Daily News. Fernandez’s first book, “Championship Rounds,” a compendium of previously published material, was released in May of last year. The sequel, “Championship Rounds, Vol. 2,” with a foreword by Jim Lampley, arrives this fall. The book can be ordered through Amazon.com, in hard or soft cover, and other book-selling websites and outlets.

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