On May 23, 1941, Joe Louis knocked out Buddy Baer for the heavyweight championship. That was the last time this city hosted a heavyweight championship bout, but there was a time when Washington was a showcase for boxing talent.
My father, once a trainer of Henry Armstrong, the only man ever to hold three world titles at once (when there was only one title in each weight class), was one of a handful of trainers, managers and promoters who witnessed the emergence of a plethora of young, mostly black and superbly talented boxers as World War II was ending. My dad, along with the legendary Billy Edwards, managed and trained light heavyweight champion Bobby Foster, now a sheriff in New Mexico, and the late great Holly Mims of Capitol Hill, who nearly every middleweight in the country tried to avoid at one time or another.
As great as Mims was, there were other D.C. boxers revered for their indomitable spirit and raw punching power: the late Yancy Henry, Gene Smith, Sonny Boy West, Aaron Perry, Terry Gibson and Moe Greene, to name a few of the clever, swift-of-foot knockout artists who became household names both in this city and beyond. Colorful characters such as Roland Pryor and Thomas W. "Torpedo" Reed made for some exciting times during the '40s, '50s and '60s. Reed, playfully referred to as "Canvas Back," made his one and only victory memorable when he traveled to every newsstand in the area, bought every paper that covered the fight, cut out the articles and made a scrapbook out of them, keeping it with him almost everywhere he went.
Sadly, however, prize fighting all but ground to a halt here by the mid-1960s. A number of factors contributed to the sport's local demise. Live gate receipts dwindled as television's popularity increased. The civil rights laws opened up major college sports to blacks, especially in basketball and football, thus leading to safer and more professionally lucrative options. Such activity siphoned off a significant chunk of local athletic talent just as the elder boxing experts, the experienced trainers and managers, were retiring or passing on. And the urban unrest of the '60s further depleted the pool of young athletes. Accompanying the mass exodus of whites from the city following the 1968 riots were sizable numbers of blacks, who migrated to Prince George's County, for example. That's where Sugar Ray Leonard grew up.
But most of the city's older boxing experts cite the failings of the D.C. Boxing Commission when talking of the sport's low profile. For one thing, they note the commission's lack of experienced personnel.
The late "Pappy" Gault, who for decades ran a popular training facility on Georgia Avenue and Irving Street, charged before he died last year that the commission, unforgivably, simply missed opportunities. The commission, he said, could have used its newly endowed authority after the passage of Home Rule in 1974 to improve the licensing procedure for fighters, organize matches and promote the sport.
Yet few members of the commission have rejuvenated the sport. For six years, Cora Wilds was chairman, and not a single top draw championship bout occurred here during her tenure. Burtell Jefferson, a former police chief, now heads the commission. During his chairmanship, Simon Brown, D.C.'s lone champion, has defended his International Boxing Federation welterweight title twice, but the crowds have been sparse, and the promotion has been inadequate.
The tax dollars supporting the commission are yielding little in return. Meanwhile, major urban areas such as Miami, Las Vegas, Detroit and Los Angeles are capitalizing on boxing's latest surge of popularity. If this city is going to commit itself to a boxing commission, then it owes those of us who support the sport to a top-rank boxing match.
As I sift through my autographs of Joe Lewis, Henry "Hammerin' Hank" Armstrong, Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammed Ali, Jersey Joe Walcott, Holly Mims and many others, I am saddened by what has happened to a once proud city and its rich boxing heritage. One can only hope that a newly elected leadership will improve the status of boxing in the city and honor the memories of the youth-oriented managers and trainers of the past whose commitment to a sport made many of us proud to be Washingtonians. -- Norman S. Saunders Jr.