The romance is what most people know about boxing.
They appreciate the epic battles between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. They remember the ferocity of Mike Tyson, the athleticism of Sugar Ray Leonard, the impenetrability of Floyd Mayweather Jr.
The graceful, the menacing, the undefeated ... it catches their breath. Nothing beats a good prize fight.
But there is a lot less to boxing than that, and a whole lot more.
“It’s about people,” said East St. Louis native Arthur Johnson, who was 22-6 as a pro, won seven Golden Glove titles and fought in the 1988 Olympics. “It’s not even about boxing, really. It’s about giving someone a chance, a chance to aspire, to do great things in life.”
When St. Louis welterweight Devon Alexander recently lost to Amir Khan — and lost his chance to fight Mayweather — the face of St. Louis boxing lost some national luster. But area experts say the sport in St. Louis is alive and well, with a stream of young contenders hoping to become the next big name.
Those who know the game know it’s not defined by big paydays and mainstream media.
On the surface, the sport is primitive, punitive, maybe even preposterous. Pain is part of the program, exhaustion a constant companion. Fear is the biggest opponent — fear of getting hurt, fear of being humiliated, fear of failing. Fear is the one thing in life that makes it impossible to dream.
Beneath the surface, boxing is about overcoming fear. It’s about dreaming.
Some form of boxing has been around since the dawn of time. Evidence of it exists from third millennium Egypt and Mesopotamia, from Ancient Greece and Rome. Rules for the “noble science of self defense” were written in 1743.
In 1867, British sportsman John Graham Chambers published a new set of rules, endorsed by Marquess of Queensberry John Douglas.
The Queensberry rules barred wrestling moves and required gloves, becoming the blueprint for modern boxing. In America, the activity showed up in the early part of the 19th century, often in heavily wagered, bare-knuckled tussles between Irish immigrants and “American natives.”
The sport has roller-coasted through culture ever since, entwined with politics and corruption, race and sociology, money and television. St. Louis has been part of the narrative, with great champions such as Henry Armstrong and Archie Moore, dark characters such as Sonny Liston, improbable stories such as the brothers Spinks.
More recently, fighters such as Alexander and Cory Spinks have had national exposure.
‘DON’T ... COUNT ST. LOUIS OUT’
To be sure, the local scene benefits when one of its own makes it big. The bright lights have residual value. And at some point, they will again.
“If you’re thinking boxing in St. Louis is dead, you’re fighting a loser there,” said Jimmie Howell, the long-time coach at the North County Athletic Association, president of the St. Louis Amateur Boxing Association and member of the National Golden Gloves Hall of Fame.
“We have so many good young kids coming out. When we go to the national tournaments, they all hate to fight St. Louis kids, because every one of our kids is tough and well-trained.
“We have a really strong base of coaches in St. Louis. Don’t ever count St. Louis out.”
Twenty-two boxing gyms in the area are recognized as members of the USA Boxing Ozark Region. USA Boxing is the national governing body of amateur, Olympic-style boxing.
These area clubs predominately are run by men who have been in boxing their entire lives, the Yodas of the sport. They were mentored by legends such as Kenny Loehr, Myrl Taylor and Elmer Howell.
They are the real Mick Goldmills, stuck in truly grungy rooms, training wanna-be Rocky Balboas. The Hollywood characters are fictional, the whole-grain stories of perseverance are real.
They are men such as Harold Petty, a five-time St. Louis Golden Gloves champ, the national Amateur Athletic Union champion in 1979 and a runner-up in the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1980. Petty spent 45 years around the legendary Loehr, who died last week at age 82, and trained kids in St. Louis for nearly 60 years.
“He taught me how to box, and the finer points of coaching,” Petty said. “But he taught me so many things about life. He taught me how to respect, how to win and most importantly, how to give back.”
Petty has taken the baton from Loehr at the 12th and Park Recreation Center, a sanctuary for kids in a coarse corner of town. It is a gold mine of athletic talent, but only a small percentage stay with boxing. Even fewer make significant money. Petty isn’t selling tickets to fame and fortune; he’s selling survival.
“Hopefully, you get one or two that stick with it,” said Petty, who was 37-9 as a pro and a two-time world titleholder. “And along the way, you have to teach them a little bit about life and about staying in school.
“Boxing may not work out. But I still think it’s one of the better programs for kids, as far as discipline and as far as learning respect for others. They learn things about life that are more important.”
Technique will improve balance, footwork, punching and defense. Experience will breed poise and confidence. There is, indeed, a “sweet science” that comes with 12-ounce gloves and a 20-foot square ring. Styles make fights, and fighters make styles.
But there is no substitute for dedication and hard work. You can cheat yourself, your coach, even the gym. But you can’t cheat the sport. It exposes the less dedicated every time.
At the recent Golden Gloves novice tournament in the Heart of St. Charles ballroom, Johnson coached one of his Flash Club fighters from the ringside corner. It was the third round and the combatants were exhausted.
“It’s yours, go take it,” Johnson yelled to his fighter. “He’s done. He doesn’t want it! He doesn’t want it!”
Getting punched in the face isn’t for everyone. Fighting for two minutes for three rounds is exhausting. Preparing to do it isn’t nearly as much fun as hanging out with friends. Boxing is not the path of least resistance, by any stretch. But it’s a path, straight and narrow.
Above all else, you have to want it.
“It’s not easy,” said Jessie Davison, who runs the Cherokee Center gym in Benton Park. “I can show you what to do, tell you what to do, but I’m not the one getting punched in the face. It’s up to you to get out there.”
Sometimes that message translates elsewhere. Two of the kids Davison coached were Darnay Scott and Mac Cody, who went on to play in the NFL.
“To see them go on and be successful, in boxing or in another career, that’s all I want, Davison added.
As athletics facilities go, Cherokee is not much to look at by any means. It’s a small upstairs room, with faded paint on the walls and pieces of drywall hanging from the ceiling. There are some heavy bags here, a speed bag there, a little space for shadow boxing. But basically the room is dominated by the large boxing ring in the middle. For the 15-to-18 boxers who filter in and out, just being in the room is all that matters.
“I’ve had guys come back and see me and say, ‘Jessie, I really appreciate it,’” Davison added. “And I always tell them, ‘It’s not me. No, you did it. It’s all you.’ ”
Boxing is not strictly an inner-city sport. The clubs are scattered around the St. Louis area, including southern Illinois. When you consider the number of fitness clubs and mixed martial arts fighters incorporating boxing, the training benefits are obvious.
For individuals, it is a relatively inexpensive sport. Many of the clubs will provide the gloves and the registration fees. If you have a pair of tennis shoes, an athletics cup and a mouthpiece, you’re in business.
An individual sport has its own appeal. No one sits on the bench, no one gets more playing time than the next. When you’re ready for a fight, you get in the ring.
Where it goes from there is not up to some misguided coach chasing trophies for his mantle. It’s entirely up to you.
That’s not to suggest it’s a walk in the park. During one novice fight in St. Charles, one of the boxers suffered a bloody nose that gushed throughout the bout. Others sported nicks and welts. Like football, wrestling and ice hockey, there’s a black-and-blue price to be paid.
But Michael Shipley, who coaches at the St. Charles Boxing Club, offers perspective.
“My son has broken his femur, his ankle, both arms, fingers, hyper-extended an elbow and a knee … all from playing football,” Shipley said. “These kids get a black eye or a bloody nose and that’s about it.”
Head trauma is a sensitive issue in sports, and certainly concerning in boxing — but more so on the professional level, in which bouts last 10-12 rounds. A Johns Hopkins University study in the late 1980s showed no “clinically significant” signs of permanent cognitive or motor skill loss” for amateur boxers.
Chase Goulet is a Francis Howell High sophomore. He plays football and baseball. One day a friend talked him into going to the St. Charles club. The friend bowed out, Goulet stayed.
“It’s definitely a rush, I love it,” said Goulet, who captured a novice title at 165 pounds. “You’re fighting someone in a ring and it’s pretty cool. You can’t just go out and rage on someone. You can’t do that in boxing. If you do, you’ll get picked apart. You have to go out there and actually box.”
For all the turbulent properties of boxing, there are remarkable testimonials.
Goulet’s coach, Shipley, did a little boxing in his youth. But he’s a St. Charles police officer by trade.
On one of his calls, he came across Johnny Evans, a 29-year-old man with autism. Evans was having issues communicating with people socially. Shipley talked him into coming to the gym, and Evans hasn’t stopped coming.
Now, when a new face walks into the St. Charles gym, Evans is the first to introduce himself and make the stranger feel at home. Evans is independent, lives in a nearby apartment and walks to the gym each day. When the weather turns poor, Shipley will swing by to give Evans a lift. Another boxer or parent might provide a ride home.
Evans hasn’t had a fight yet, probably never will. But it doesn’t matter. He’s winning round after round.
“It’s been really good for him,” Shipley said. “He’s there every day, working out. Everybody knows him. It’s made a big difference in his life. That’s what the sport is all about.”
Shipley sees it over and over, broken spirits, troubled souls. He watches them get in a ring, go toe-to-toe, get knocked down and stand back up. Then he watches what happens when it’s over.
“They hug each other and they hug the other coaches,” Shipley said. “These kids understand what it takes to step up and get in that ring. They understand what it takes to be here, and they have all the respect in the world for each other.
“The sportsmanship is not like any other sport I’ve ever seen.”
UPS AND DOWNS
Accurate numbers on active boxers are hard to maintain, but the pulse of St. Louis boxing hasn’t changed dramatically in recent years.
Certainly, the activity doesn’t approach where it was in the 1950s and early 1960s, when the Golden Gloves drew big crowds to Kiel Auditorium and the Arena. Participation was up for the Golden Gloves novice tournament last month. By mid-summer, there will be some 500 people boxing around town.
“Boxing is a good deal like any other sport,” Howell said. “We’ve had years where the Cardinals have been just superior, and there’s a lot of interest. Then maybe the next couple of years they’re also-rans.
“Boxing is the same way. We’ll have two or three really good fighters that look like they’re going to make good professional material. But so often they wind up having to go to another state because we don’t have big promotions here.”
That said, St. Louis heavyweight Joshua Temple is the No. 1 ranked amateur in the country and a member of the USA Olympic boxing team. The Cardinal Ritter grad, 22, is competing for a place in the 2016 Summer Olympics.
In the pro ranks, a few St. Louis pros have promising résumés. Lightweight Kent Cruz is 7-0, bantamweight Stephon Young is 12-0-1, heavyweight Stephan Shaw is 3-0, featherweight Derrick Murray is 10-0 and super lightweight Keandre Gibson is 12-0-1.
Preston Freeman was one of the more dynamic young fighters from St. Louis. He grew up on tough streets in North County and joined Howell’s gym as a 14-year-old.
“Just a nice, quiet kid,”’ Howell said. “You never hear a peep out of him.”
Freeman started 3-0 as a pro, and the future was bright. In March 2013, two nights before his fourth fight, the 20-year-old was shot dead outside a University City nightclub.
Boxing clubs are forever underfunded, straining to stay open. The All City Boxing Club in St. Louis provides nourishing snacks for its athletes, even helps them with homework. Other clubs cover fees and equipment costs. Johnson is trying to open a facility in East St. Louis to help kids with life skills as well as hooks and jabs.
Why, you might ask. Why should people care about boxing?
Last month, 20-year-old East St. Louis product Keeion Anderson made it to his fourth fight. When it was over, he embraced his opponent and opposing coaches. His arm was raised, a trophy was presented and he became the first Golden Gloves champion from the East St. Louis/Washington Park area in more than a decade.
Anderson stays with friends and relatives, wherever there is room. He was living with his mother until she died of breast cancer. He was living with his grandmother until she passed away. He was living with his step-dad until he went to jail.
On a Friday night in St. Charles, he hugged his brother and sister, hugged Johnson and took pictures to send to his step-dad. He has a new job, a trophy and a dream.
And he’s alive.
“It’s helped me straighten out my life a bit,” he said. “Boxing has kept me on the straight and steady path. If it wasn’t for boxing I’d probably be in jail now, or worse. I know a lot of people who are.”
There’s a lot more to boxing than romance, a lot more that is real.