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An Unappreciated Legend: Michael Spinks Was One of Boxing’s Best

2 Jun
Michael Spinks

Former world Heavyweight and Light Heavyweight champion Michael Spinks gives his acceptance speech after being inducted into the Atlantic City Hall of Fame.

Thanks For The Memories

With his induction into the Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame, Michael Spinks reminisced about his stellar career.

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

For many casual sports fans, one of the most vivid memories of Michael Spinks was his being on the receiving end of a devastating first-round knockout from a Mike Tyson en route to becoming the youngest Heavyweight Champ.

For Spinks, it was the only blemish on an otherwise stellar boxing career. Before winding up on the wrong end of that Tyson knockout blow in Atlantic City on June 1988, Spinks was the undisputed light-heavyweight champion of the world and had become the first light-heavyweight to become heavyweight champion when he upset a then unbeaten Larry Holmes.

Spinks was in Atlantic City last Sunday as an inductee in the inaugural class of the Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame. He was inducted beside some of the guys he bested in the ring –Holmes and Dwight Muhammad Qawi—and the one guy who beat him—Tyson.

Spinks retired with a record of 31-1 with 21 knockouts and championships in two weight divisions.

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One of Michael Spinks most notable wins was his 15-round unanimous decision over Dwight Muhammad Qawi in 1983.

And oh by the way, Spinks was also a part of the nation’s greatest Olympic boxing team, the 1976 squad that won five gold medals, one silver and one bronze. In addition to Spinks, that team included Sugar Ray Leonard, Michael’s brother Leon, Leo Randolph and Howard David. In fact, the Spinks brothers became the first brothers to win gold medals in the same Olympics. Five members of that team—Leonard, the Spinks Brothers, Leo Randolph and bronze medalist John Tate—won world titles as professionals.

Spinks had a strong overhand right known as the “Spinks’ Jinx” He also had a solid left jab and could just straight knock you out.

But the thing that stood out to me was Spinks’ toughness in the ring against top-notch competition.

That toughness in the ring as a pro was forged in part by being a member of that 1976 Olympic Boxing team, Spinks said. The competition on that team was as strong as any he would face in his pro career, he said.

“Every guy on that team was an ass-kicker,” Spinks said. “They kicked ass and took names. It prepared me (for the pros) for sure. We learned how to compete fiercely. We learned not to take no for an answer. We learned not to take any butt-whippings from everybody. We learned how to fight hard.”

Another thing that made Spinks a tough guy in the rink was his older brother Leon. Michael told me that he knew he was getting better when he took Leon to a local gym in St. Louis, sparred with his brother, and actually beat him.

“We did three rounds and I whupped my brother’s butt for the first time,” Spinks said with a smile. “ I said, ‘Leon, I kicked your ass. … That gave me confidence that I got a little better.”

While Leonard, Leon Spinks, and Davis, who was named the most outstanding boxer of the Montreal Olympics, garnered most of the attention, Spinks was relatively unknown and got to the finals via a pair of forfeits.

But Spinks overwhelmed Rufat Riskiyev of the Soviet Union in the gold medal match  and dominated him with a third-round TKO to win the gold medal in the middleweight division. Spinks had lost to Riskiyev earlier that year.

“After he beat me in Russia, I said I think I can beat him. It’s just so happened that I got him in Montreal and I had it in for him,” Spinks said. “Every time I thought of (Riskiyev), I got down and did 10 pushups (during training). It was him and I in the finals and I got him.”

As a professional fighter in the light heavyweight division, Spinks took on all comers, went up the rankings and beat everybody they put in front of him in an era when contenders for crowns actually fought each other.

To get an opportunity to fight for the World Boxing Association light heavyweight crown, Spinks had to fight a former world champion in Marvin Johnson, whom he beat with a fourth-round knockout in March 1981. Four months later, Spinks took on Eddie Mustafa Muhammad for the World Boxing Association light-heavyweight title and defeated him in a brutal 15-round unanimous decision

Spinks unified the title in another, hard fought 15 round unanimous decision against his former sparring partner Dwight Muhammad Qawi. He also added the International Boxing Association title. He was unbeaten in world title fights at the light heavyweight division.

Of course, the signature fight of Spinks career came against Holmes, the then-unbeaten heavyweight champion who appeared to be on his way to breaking Rocky Marciano’s record of 49 wins without a loss.

To boxing observers, Spinks was attempting to do the impossible as a light heavyweight…defeat the reigning heavyweight champion of the world. While he admitted to being extremely nervous before the fight,  something in him clicked and told him to relax and fight his fight—defense and counterpunching.

“I told myself you haven’t gotten your ass whipped and to stop thinking that way,” Spinks said. “I just do what I do best. I moved on Larry and I threw punches to let him know that was there. I fought in a circle and made it difficult for Larry to hit me.”

Spinks would beat Holmes in a 15-round unanimous decision and would beat Holmes again in the rematch. He would beat every other heavyweight he fought, except for that loss to Tyson. At the time, I thought Spinks because of his style and defense would give Tyson problems. Unfortunately, a Tyson right knocked him out in the first round.

But even in losing that fight, Spinks has no regrets and said he left everything in the ring.

“My coach told me that I better not walk out that ring as a loser. He said if I lose they’d better be carrying me out on a stretcher,” Spinks recalled. “I had the fighting spirit. If you’re going to beat me, you’re going to beat me trying.”

 

Atlantic City Celebrates its Storied Boxing History With Inaugural Hall-of-Fame Induction

2 Jun
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Dwight Muhammad Qawi was inducted into the new Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame. Known as the “Camden Buzz Saw,” Muhammad had some memorable fights in Atlantic City. Photo by Chris Murray

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

Back in the 1980s, local high rollers looking for entertainment away from the tables in the form of a boxing match didn’t have to go all the way to Las Vegas to scratch that itch.

They only had to go as far as Atlantic City.

Atlantic City was as big a boxing venue as they come and was the setting for some of the greatest boxing matches in the sport’s history.

From the heavyweight title bout between Mike Tyson and Michael Spinks, to the Arturo Gatti-Mickey Ward Trilogy, and great matchups between Philly-area fighters like Dwight Muhammad Qawi and Matthew Saad-Muhammad, Atlantic City was a major hub for professional boxing.

That history was honored on Sunday night (May 28) as the Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame inducted its first class of boxing legends.

In addition to Gatti, Spinks, Qawi and Saad-Muhammad, boxing champs Mike Tyson, and Larry Holmes, boxing writer Bert Sugar, referee and former N.J. State Boxing Commissioner Larry Hazzard Sr., Philadelphia boxing promoter J.Russell Peltz, matchmaker Don Elbaum and legendary promoter Don King were among those enshrined as part of the first class.

In addition to being a celebration of the Sweet Science, the ceremony at the Claridge Hotel also served as a glowing tribute to what was once one of the sport’s beloved locations.

“When you consider that in the five years from 1984 to 1988, there were 451 fight cards in Atlantic City, which is an average of 90 a year,” Peltz said. “What city, what state has 90 fight cards a year?!”

Like the boxers it celebrated, Atlantic City itself is scrappy. Through the ACBHOF, that scrappiness is celebrated, said Ray McCline, the Hall of Fame’s president and founder.

At a time when the city’s Boardwalk is a shadow of its former self and tourism is spotty, the ACBHOF could be a big help, McCline said.

“It’s a huge boost,” he said.  “It’s really about trying to remind people what Atlantic City was in the past, but to also create a space so that we can be competitive on a boxing level … It’s about promoting the history of Atlantic City and also Atlantic City as a tourist destination for people that love the sport, but also love the city.

Don Guardian, Atlantic City’s Mayor, agrees. The economic impact these athletes had on the City alone makes honoring them this way make sense, he said.

“It’s almost like we owe this to these great athletes that came in their prime and performed in Boardwalk Hall, especially,” he said. “What it meant was that hundreds of thousands of people over a decade came to Atlantic City that wouldn’t have been here otherwise.  … Thousands of jobs existed because of the great athletes that are in that ring.  Atlantic City was the East Coast boxing Mecca and it we hope to return to that again.”

While McCline and Guardian are optimistic that Atlantic City can return to its boxing glory days, Peltz thinks that the increased level of competition from casinos in locations like upstate New York and Connecticut makes it highly unlikely.

“I think Spinks and Tyson was the peak in June of 1988,” he said. “It’s never going to be what it was because the casinos have too much competition from those in New York and Connecticut and they aren’t willing to put up the money they way they used to back in those days.”

For boxing fans, Sunday night’s event provided a chance to envision what Atlantic City’s boxing heyday must have looked like. Seeing Michael Spinks and Dwight Muhammad Qawi and Mike Rossman served as a reminder of the epic battles these fighters had with each other and of the days when Atlantic City was a great boxing venue.

“I don’t try to figure it out, I just accept it,” said Qawi, who fought Matthew Saad Muhammad, both Michael and Leon Spinks. “(Fighting in Atlantic City) brought the best out of me.”

McCline is in the process of trying to find a permanent home for the ACBHOF, he said. The Claridge Hotel is in the running, and he is looking at other locations around the city.

Here are the members of the Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame’s Class of 2017:

Boxers: Matthew Saad Muhammad (deceased), Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Michael Spinks, Mike Rossman, Levander Johnson (deceased), Arturo Gatti (deceased), Mike Tyson and Larry Holmes.

Trainers: Bill Johnson (Levander’s father), Lou Duva (deceased) and Mike Hall (deceased).

Promoters/Matchmakers: Frank Gelb, Don Elbaum, Don King, J. Russell Peltz

Officials: Larry Hazzard Sr., commissioner New Jersey Athletic Control Board, referee Steve Smoger, ringside physician Dr. Frank Doggett (deceased)

Media: Bert Sugar (deceased), Dave Bontempo and Jack Obermeyer (deceased)

Casino Officials: Ken Condon, consultant Caesar’s Entertainment; Dennis Gomes, CEO Resorts International (deceased) and Bob Lee, president of the International Boxing Federation.

Barack Obama and Jack Johnson More in Common Than You Think

16 Feb
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Both Barack Obama and Jack Johnson held positions no one thought a Black man would ever hold in this country. They were both cheered and vilified for it.

While it’s tempting to look at Barack Obama’s eight years as President of the United States through the eyes of Jackie Robinson, viewing them through the eyes of Jack Johnson might be more accurate.

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

One of the most compelling and important African-American “firsts” in America’s history ended last week when Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States.

Barack Obama left the White House and went back into private life after an often-tumultuous eight years as the leader of the free world. In his two terms as President, Obama managed to save America from a depression through his economic stimulus plan and helped 20 million people get health insurance through the Affordable Care Act.

But while the Obama Presidency had some great moments, what many will remember, and what some will attribute to the Rise of Trump, will be the opposition he faced, much of which was based in racism.

From the Trump-championed “Birther” movement and the social media memes that often accompanied it, to Congressman Joe Walsh shouting “You lie!” during the first State of the Union Address and other random acts of disrespect, Obama’s presence in the White House seemed to bring out the worst in a lot of Americans.

When Obama assumed the office, many compared his ascension to that of Jackie Robinson integrating Major League Baseball and I guess that makes sense on some level. During his first season in the league, Robinson faced all kinds of racist taunts from fans and was told not to fight back by Brooklyn Dodgers’ management.

But while the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to Robinson as “the first freedom rider,” and the comparison between he and Obama works on some level, I submit that there may be a better sports-related analogy we can apply here, and that’s the rise and reign of Jack Johnson, the first African American boxer to become world heavyweight champion.

There’s a lot of commonality to their circumstances.

At the top of the 20th century when Johnson was making his push toward history, it was thought impossible for a Black man to attain boxing’s most prestigious prize. At a time when the concepts of Social Darwinism and Manifest Destiny relegated people of color as inferior in the early 1900s, the heavyweight championship was seen as the private domain of white men.

When he defeated Tommy Burns to become the first Black man to win the heavyweight belt, Johnson turned that notion on it’s head and with it the prevailing notion of White supremacy. 

The whites who ran boxing at the time were so invested in not recognizing Johnson as the heavyweight champion that they initiated a search for a “Great White Hope” that they hoped would defeat him. Even as Johnson continued to mow down these “Great White Hopes”, the news media that referred to him as “the playful Ethiopian” while portraying him as an “ape” or an African tribesman with exaggerated features joined fans in refusing to recognize Johnson as champion.

When Jim Jeffries, the man that White fans and the mainstream media did recognize as heavyweight champion, got into the ring with Johnson on July 10th, 1910, it was seen as not only the “Battle of the Century”, but as the fight designed to Make Boxing Great Again.

When Johnson’s win led to race riots, American newspapers reinforced White anger at the outcome including an editorial in the Los Angeles Times that warned African-Americans to be aware of their place in society:

“You are just the same member of society today you were last week. … You are on no higher plane, deserve no new consideration, and will get none … No man will think a bit higher of you because your complexion is the same as that of the victor at Reno.”

Johnson didn’t get that message. His self-confidence allowed him to flaunt his relationships with White women at a time when doing so would get you killed.

An aging Johnson finally lost his title to Jess Willard under a sweltering sun in Havana, Cuba in 1915 when he was knocked out in the 26th round.  Of course, the New York Times proclaimed Willard’s victory as restoring “pugilistic supremacy to the white race.”  It would be another 22 years before an African-American would fight for the heavyweight title.

Like Johnson 100 years earlier, Barack Obama broke through a barrier that no one thought a Black man ever would. When Obama began his trek to the White House, few African-Americans gave him a chance, thinking he would go the way of Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. But Obama not only won the Democratic nomination, he easily won the presidency over Republican Sen. John McCain.

Conservatives in Congress got together the night Obama was inaugurated and promised to do all they could to block anything the new president proposed. In a meeting of top GOP luminaries on the night of Obama’s inauguration, they came up with a plan to fight the new president on everything.

The Republicans did it to the point that it exceeded the bounds of decorum at times.

While Obama was a family man who was devoted to his wife and family, he and First Lady Michelle Obama were often the recipients of the most racist vitriol on social media. Conservative media outlets like Fox News often slammed Michelle Obama for daring to point out racism in American society, as she did in a 2015 speech at Tuskegee University.

When Obama was re-elected in 2012, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly loudly proclaimed that “traditional America” was over and the White people were a minority because of America’s changing demographics. Of course, traditional America translates into a White America where racial minorities, especially African-Americans, were invisible and knew their place.   

It was that energy that the Trump campaign managed to tap into through portraying Mexicans as rapists, Muslims as terrorists and African-Americans as a threat to law and order because of groups like Black Lives Matter.

In 2017, African-Americans, even with all the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, see themselves in the same perilous situation as they were in the early 20th century.

Father Time Wins Again: Time for Hopkins To Say Goodbye for Good

23 Dec
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Bernard Hopkins looked as old as the 51-year-old man he is in his loss to Joe Smith Jr. Photo courtesy of sportingnews.com

When Bernard Hopkins was literally knocked out of the ring last weekend,  he learned that even his arms are too short to box with the ravages of time. 

By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun
About 10 years ago, I did a phone interview with former HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant as part of my coverage of the International Boxing Organization light heavyweight title fight between Philadelphia boxing legend Bernard Hopkins, who was 40-something at the time, and a younger, faster Antonio Tarver.

At the time, I thought that Father Time would keep Hopkins from winning that fight and asked Merchant what it might finally take to convince Hopkins to finally retire from the ring. In order for him to do that, Merchant said, someone would have to “beat him up”.
It took another 10 years, but last weekend it happened.

After a successful career of standing toe-to-toe against a combination of Father Time and guys half his age, Bernard Hopkins finally got “beat up”. In what is hopefully the final fight of a Hall of Fame career, Hopkins lost to light heavyweight contender Joe Smith Jr. by TKO in the eighth-round.

The outcome of the fight was about as embarrassing as it was sad for the now 51-year-old Hopkins as his much younger opponent literally knocked him out of the ring. With that, Father Time helped add Hopkins to the long list of legendary pugilists who mistakenly believed that greatness is immortal.

With all due respect to the man who once dominated the middleweight division and has won a few titles as a light heavyweight, Hopkins looked exactly like the elderly, 50-something fighter he is as Smith pummeled him all over the ring.

It reminded me of the reasons why I refused the offer of a ticket to a closed circuit screening of the Muhammad Ali/ Larry Holmes fight in 1981. I couldn’t stand to see a great fighter when he wasn’t great anymore. If I had gone to that fight, the guys would have been called me an oversensitive punk because I would have been crying like a baby.

It was the same way with Sugar Ray Leonard when he lost to Terry Norris. I’ve also seen film of guys like Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis fighting when they were well past their prime. It’s often sad and hard to watch because you remember when they were kings and when were so invincible in the conquest of their opposition.

Hopkins needed to go out as a conquering hero the way former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis did when he led the Ravens to the Super Bowl back in 2012. Instead, Hopkins took to the ring as a shadow of his former self and showed that he just didn’t have it.

On one hand, you have to admire Hopkins for doing something he loves even at his advanced age. He was beating up younger guys when he was in his 40s, which further cemented his legend. He had overcome the rough streets of North Philadelphia, a stint in Graterford Prison and a host of other challenges to become one of the best pound-for-pound boxers in the history of the sport. He was on his way to being a first-ballot Boxing Hall of Famer even without the victories he had as a 40-year-old man.

He has nothing else to prove, and I hope that if nothing else, Hopkins most recent defeat shows that to him. He doesn’t need to humiliate himself like that again.

In fact, he’s probably making more money watching other guys fight through his work with Golden Boy Promotions.

Given what happened to Ali when he hung around too long, it might be time that Hopkins stops hanging on to his youth and allows himself to live in our memories as one of the greatest boxers of all time.

His family deserves the best years of the rest of his life.

His Own Man: Muhammad Ali Versus the Suppression of the Black Athlete

10 Jun

Muhammad Ali: 1942-2016

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Muhammad Ali faced harsh criticism with his membership in the Nation of Islam and his friendship with  Malcolm X.

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me — black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own. Get used to me.”-Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali meant a lot to me as a young, Black man growing up and trying to find himself.

Ali will always be the athlete that I measure all other athletes by both on and off the field because he was willing to risk his career as an athlete by not only joining the Nation of Islam, but also by refusing to be drafted into the military and fighting the Vietnam War due to his religious beliefs.

When Ali died June 3 due to complication from a staph infection, he was lionized, which is easier to do now that it’s safe.

But when Ali was in his heyday, it wasn’t as acceptable to be a fan of his because of he spoke his mind about racism in America and never wavered in his beliefs at a time when it was harshly frowned upon for a Black man to be so outspoken.

Ali’s legacy was about defying the suppression of Black athletes who dare to be their own men and be outspoken about race. His willingness to stand up for his beliefs was part of a historical pattern that has defined the African American experience in sports.

There has always been an outright hatred for Black athletes, male or female, who are outspoken and refuse to define themselves and not through the eyes of white supremacy.

When Ali took on Joe Frazier in 1971 in the fight billed as the Fight of the Century, he was seen as the villain in the eyes of white America because of this outspokenness, while many boxing fans hoped that Frazier, who was less outspoken on racial matters and seen as a good “Christian”, would put Ali in his “place” as the more “American” of the two boxers.

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Ali keeps it real about Vietnam and the treatment of African-American Athletes.

As veteran sports writer Terence Moore pointed out on MSNBC recently, it wasn’t until Ali became stricken with Parkinson’s Disease and was rendered unable to speak, that White Americans opposed to the Ali of the 1960s and the principled stands that he took felt comfortable enough to embrace him.

This attitude on the part of White Americans toward Black athletes goes back to Jack Johnson’s reign as the first Black heavyweight champion of the world. Not only did Johnson destroy the physical notion of white supremacy, his brashness inside and outside the ring offended white American sports fans and frightened some African-Americans who feared reprisals from white people.

Johnson not only beat his white opponents in the ring, he taunted them.  At a time when a Black man could be lynched at the mere accusation of looking at a white woman, Johnson married two and flaunted his relationships in public.

In the book, Bad Nigger: The National Impact of Jack Johnson, Al-Tony Gilmore quoted a white boxer who fought in the early 20th century who said: “Why, if that scoundrel would beat that white boy the niggers would never stop gloating over it and as it is we have enough trouble with them.”

While Johnson didn’t see himself as a race man or an activist, the mere fact that he was his own man and refused to bow down to the harsh restrictions of racial segregation in the early 20th century or to defer white people.

After Johnson lost the title in 1915, it would be another 18 years before a Black fighter would get a shot at the title.  And it had to be someone that was seen as more palatable to them.

For a Joe Louis to get a shot at the title, he was not allowed to raise his hands above a defeated white opponent or even smile after a win. And because of Johnson, Louis was prohibited from publicly being pictured with white women.

Because of Louis’s quiet, unassuming nature he was beloved by whites in a way that Ali or Johnson was not. White fans seemed to be more comfortable when an African-American athlete is quiet or willing to suffer fools gladly.

In Jackie Robinson’s first two years breaking baseball’s color line when he endured all the racist taunts from fans by not fighting back he was seen by the mainstream media as a sympathetic figure. When Robinson was allowed fight back on the field and stand up for himself and Black athletes off the field, the same White media that cheered him as a sympathetic figure vilified him for standing up for himself.

You can make the argument that this hasn’t changed much in America because Black athletes who speak out on social issues face racist hostility and calls for punishment and sanctions, such as in the case of the St. Louis Rams players holding up their hands in solidarity with Michael Brown, an unarmed Black shot to death by police in Ferguson, Missouri.

Being accepted on your own terms as a Black athlete is the legacy that Muhammad Ali leaves behind.

Maybe now that he’s no longer with us, America will, at long last, get used to it.

The Greatest: Muhammad Ali Transcended Boxing

10 Jun

Muhammad Ali:1942-2016

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Muhammad Ali Shook up the world with his stunning upset of Sonny Liston in 1964. He held the heavyweight title three times.

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

Boxing fans around the world are mourning the death of three-time heavyweight champion of the world Muhammad Ali.

Even in the city of Brotherly Love, the hometown of Joe Frazier, his fiercest rival, people are paying tribute to a fighter who transcended sports.

“Muhammad Ali was an exceptional and extraordinary individual,” said Rudy Battle, chairman of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission. “He was a superlative victor and exemplified the true meaning of the “People’s Champion”. He always took time to recognize his fans.”

Ali was a force to be reckoned with both inside and outside the ring.  As a boxer, Ali had a stinging left jab along with the hand speed and lateral movement with his feet of a welterweight and a middleweight. Some boxing experts described him as a Sugar Ray Robinson at the heavyweight level.

Charlie “Mickey” Thomas was one of Ali’s sparring partners and had been friends with the champ since the two of them were teammates on the 1960 U.S. Olympic Boxing Team. Thomas gave Ali credit  for revitalizing a sport ravaged by it’s control by organized crime.

“When (Ali) was boxing, boxing sucked,” Thomas said. “It was a terrible time, It was run by the mob … and Ali put the sport back in boxing. Look at what he did for the sport.”

“None of the heavyweights fighting now have Ali’s quickness,” said former world middleweight and light middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins. “He was like the Fred Astaire of boxing.”

Outside the ring, Ali became a polarizing figure with his membership in the Nation of Islam and by refusing induction into the United States Army based on his religious beliefs and the idea that African-Americans were mistreated at home.

“I can talk all day about what Ali did inside the ring,” said former world middleweight and light middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins, “but what he did outside the ring was even more profound. Thirty and 40 years from now we’re still going to be talking about Muhammad Ali.”

Hopkins said it took tremendous courage for Ali to stand up for his principles at a time when African-Americans were getting murdered for participating in Civil Rights demonstrations across the country. Just like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were eventually assassinated, Ali faced the real danger of someone shooting him down.

“He sacrificed a lot because there was bullet out there with his name on it,” Hopkins said.

Thomas, who is white and served in the U.S. Army Special Forces, said he agreed with Ali refusing induction into the military because of his religious beliefs and felt he was being true to himself.

“Muhammad Ali was the only truly conscientious objector I knew,” Thomas said. “He believed in what he was doing. I don’t find a lot of Baptists or Catholics who do that.”

When it comes to the legacy of Black athletes who speak out on controversial issues like LeBron James wearing a hoodie as a protest against the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, Hopkins said the media shuts down Black athletes who speak out on controversial issues.

“You can get the media to assassinate them now and kill them that way,” Hopkins said.

In addition to standing up for his rights with respect to his religion and for African-Americans, Ali also stood up against the exploitation of fighters by unscrupulous managers and promoters, Battle said. The Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, which was signed into law in 2000, is designed to protect fighters from unfair business practices by promoters.

“He fought for the equality of boxers and established the Muhammad Ali Law,’ which prevents an individual from both promoting and managing a boxer simultaneously, thereby, eliminating total control of a boxer,” Battle said.

Thomas said Ali had a big heart and his best memories of him were of his willingness to give of himself, especially when the media wasn’t present.

“It was kindness to people without the knowledge of the media. He did a lot for people and he gave a lot of money away and he helped many, many people,” Thomas said.

As someone who grew up in North Philly, Ali had a profound influence on young boxers who tried to emulate the way he fought, his trash talking and his self-confidence.  Ali was as much a hero to young people in Philadelphia as Frazier, Hopkins said.

“Part of my demeanor and attitude in the ring came from wanting to be like Muhammad Ali,” Hopkins said. “You had a lot of young North Philly talking trash against each other, doing the Ali Shuffle. He was our hero.”

 

New Manayunk Boxing Gym Named After Legendary Philly Fighter Harold Johnson

26 Feb
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Light Heavyweight legend Harold Johnson, who grew up in the Manayunk-Roxborough section of Philadelphia, is in the International Boxing Hall of Fame and is considered one of the best technical fighters in the history of the sport.

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

Even after his storied boxing career faded into sunset, former light-heavyweight champion Harold Johnson always made his presence felt in his old neighborhood of Manayunk-Roxborough.

Whether he was playing with his jazz band at one of the American Legion posts in the racially diverse neighborhood or just talking to the young people he’d see on the neighborhood’s corners, Johnson was a very visible part of the community.

“He cared,” said Joe Mathis, director of the Kendrick Recreation Center. “(Johnson) would ask a kid he didn’t even know, ‘Who are you and what’s your dad’s name or do I know you and who’s this guy’ to a little guy and that would influence that kid. He was the champ.”

Now thanks to a new boxing gym at Roxborough’s Kendrick Recreation Center, Johnson’s name and influence will continue to serve as inspiration for the children of Manayunk-Roxborough.

On Saturday, Johnson’s family joined Councilman Curtis Jones, and Jackie Frazier-Lyde, the daughter of another Philadelphia-based boxing champ, Joe Frazier in dedicating the new Harold Johnson Boxing Gym at the Kendrick Recreation Center. The gym, which cost $500, 000 to build, is an addition to the center.

With this boxing gym, Johnson’s involvement in Manayunk-Roxborough get a chance to hone their boxing skills while learning about a man who was an integral part of the place they called home.

“It’s a place for the youth to go and it’s a great thing,” Mathis said. “This keeps (Johnson) him involved and keeps his name alive. I’m honored to be able to do that for him and now his name is going to be here forever.”

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Joe Mathis, director of the Kendrick Recreation Center in Manayunk-Roxborough, and Rev. John Roberts, the son of Harold Johnson, stand inside the ring at the new Harold Johnson Boxing Gym.

The Rev. John Roberts, Johnson’s son, said he and his family are happy that his fathered is being honored by the city and his old neighborhood.

“It’s a great feeling for me and to the family because dad was a great fighter and it’s nice that Philadelphia recognizes their own,” said Roberts, who is the pastor of the Gardener of Prayer World Prayer Center. “To have this gym named after him is a great honor because this is where he grew up here in Manayunk. … There’s no place like home.”

Jones said Johnson is to Manayunk-Roxborough what basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain was to Overbrook High School and West Philadelphia.

“He was the George Washington of boxing up here,” Jones said. “Therefore, just as important as Wilt Chamberlain was to West Philly and Overbrook, Johnson was as important to Manayunk and boxing.”

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Rev. John Roberts points to a picture of his father Harold Johnson inside the new gym named for his father.

Boxing historian John DiSanto, who runs the website phillyboxinghistory.com, said naming the recreation center after Johnson will give young people in the community the opportunity to know who Johnson was and what he meant to this community.

“It’s way of constantly introducing him to new people and for him to be an inspiration for kids to come into train,” DiSanto said. “The more places his name can be mentioned and included the better, he needs to be remembered.”

As a fighter, Johnson is known for being one of the most technically proficient fighters of all-time. He has fought and beaten some of the best boxers in the history of the sport including Ezzard Charles and legendary light heavyweight champion Archie Moore, who he fought five times. Johnson also beat Cuba’s Nino Valdez, a heavyweight contender in the 50s and 60s, and was a sparring partner for Joe Louis, arguably one of the greatest heavyweights of all time.

The 5-foot-11 Johnson won the undisputed light heavyweight championship in 1962 only to lose it in 1963 to Willie Pastrano on a controversial split decision. He had a record of 76-11 with 32 knockouts.

DiSanto said Johnson was an underrated in his time because of his humble demeanor, his technical fighting style and because he fought as a light heavyweight at a time when all the focus in boxing was on the heavyweights.

“His fights tended to go the distance and he was in a lot of chess matches,” DiSanto said. “He’s in the Hall of Fame and you can’t get any better than that. He’s not a household name, but in this area he’s a local legend for sure.”