When Ron Marsh took off his horn-rimmed glasses it was almost like seeing Clark Kent turn into Superman.
A schoolteacher his entire adult life, from 1965 to '70 Marsh moonlighted as a professional boxer, was once regarded as a potential challenger to Muhammad Ali and later became a contender for the light heavyweight title.
He fought eight times in Milwaukee and won them all, including the biggest bout of his career at a sold-out Eagles Ballroom.
"Iâ€™d hate to think that just because Iâ€™m a fighter Iâ€™d be labeled an animal or a slob," the gentlemanly Marsh once told Ray Grody of the Milwaukee Sentinel. But when the glasses came off and the gloves went on, recalled local referee Paul Konner, "Heâ€™d take a street fight and put it into the ring, He had no reverence for anyone in the ring. A lot of guys pace themselves, but not this guy. He was something else."
Once the ninth-ranked light heavyweight in the world and a huge fan favorite here, Marsh was most proud of his 30 years in the classroom. "I think Iâ€™ve had a positive effect on a lot of kids," the phys-ed, science and health teacher said in an interview five years ago from his home in Overland, Kansas.
Marsh died there on Sept. 8 at age 70.
Born in Boise, Idaho, Marsh grew up in Kansas City. "Letâ€™s just say that I had four tattoos on my arms by the time I was 12, and then got into trouble," he told Grody in 1970.
After his expulsion from high school in KC, Marsh moved to Omaha. He played high school football and became friends with a running back named Gale Sayers.
Hitchhiking one day from Omaha to KC, Marsh got a ride from an influential alum of Kansas University who tried to talk him into enrolling there. "I donâ€™t know why youâ€™re going for a rummy like me," Marsh told him. "Why donâ€™t you go for somebody like Gale Sayers?"
Marsh and Sayers both ended up with KU football scholarships in 1961, and for four years Marsh blocked for the man who became one of college and pro footballâ€™s best running backs and was his friend for life.
Too small for the pro gridiron, the six-foot, 190 pound Marsh, whoâ€™d won several Golden Gloves titles, became a teacher and a prizefighter. Within a year, Sports Illustrated named him one of the seven best prospects in the heavyweight division, along with Joe Frazier, Jerry Quarry and Buster Mathis.
In 1967, he fought Mathis at Madison Square Garden. Outweighed 239 Â½ to 186, Marsh was knocked out in the fourth round. The next morning he was back in the classroom at Norwood Jr. High in Overland Park with make-up covering his bruises.
Marshâ€™s brawling style made him a huge attraction in Milwaukee, and for his Aug. 3, 1970 fight against light heavyweight contender Andy Kendall at the Eagles Ballroom he stopped rush hour traffic on W. Wisconsin Ave. every afternoon sparring in a ring pitched in the parking lot of the building on North 24th Street.
He beat Kendall in 10 thrilling rounds, and a month later Marsh stopped Billy Marsh at the Eagles Ballroom. But then, as local promoter Harry Simos dickered with 175-pound champion Bob Foster to get Marsh a title fight here in his "second hometown," the fighting schoolteacher made the stunning decision to be a full-time Clark Kent.
"I had my moment of glory in the ring, and I now desire to hang up my gloves for good," he wrote Simos. "Harry, I want to thank you and the other fine people in Milwaukee for clearing a path for me to go all the way to the top in boxing.
"I just have to accept myself as an almost champion and I think that sounds healthy and relaxed in attitude. Isnâ€™t it inner peace that we are really looking for?
"I think it is. Being at peace with ourselves is all-important. Yes, thatâ€™s really living, when we can stop the act, relax and be ourselves."
Wrote Holly Brown Malkames on a tribute page to her former teacher:
"Mr. Marsh was an incredible teacher and invested so much in us kids. He always had a smile, an encouraging thing to say and respected everyone for who they were. He saw potential in each student that passed through his school. The difference was, he made sure to tell them and give them the confidence to reach and exceed that potential. He had high expectations of all us but went about it in a manner that was fun, humorous and clearly influential. Mr. Marsh left his print on my life and I am so grateful. You will live on in all of us you believed in!"
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Pete Ehrmann
Published June 7, 2016
West Allis native Don Lutz was a professional boxer in Miami Beach, where he trained with numerous world champions, including Muhammad Ali. And even though they responded to being drafted to the Vietnam War differently, the two couldn't be divided.
Published June 4, 2016
The illustrious Muhammad Ali, who died Friday night at 74, visited Milwaukee at least four times. He always left an indelible, unforgettable mark on the town and the people that saw him, including this writer.
Published May 31, 2016
Native Milwaukeean Luis "Cuba" Arias, 25, is an undefeated middleweight who hopes to lead a boxing renaissance here when he fights at the Wisconsin Center on June 4 against Jorge Silva. Now a Florida resident, Arias talked with OnMilwaukee about his homecoming and his ring career.
Published March 29, 2016
Thanks to my often reluctant participation in our grand democracy by voting in elections, my mailbox has lately been overflowing with brochures from candidates. Most of it is just annoying, but today's mail brought something downright offensive.
Published Feb. 3, 2016
John L. Slaughter reigned, in the long-ago words of a local newspaper, as "king of the Milwaukee colored colony," owning one of old Downtown Milwaukee's biggest gambling joints. And his fall from the throne was as jaw-dropping as his rise.
Published Jan. 24, 2016
Milwaukee's original "Greek Freak" Theodore Anton stood only waist-high to the current one playing for the Bucks. But in a match-up in Anton's boxing arena, 6'11" Giannis Antetokounmpo would be in over his head.
Published Dec. 19, 2015
The mark British light-welterweight Jerome Wilson hoped to make in boxing, until he left the ring on a stretcher in his 11th pro fight last year, is now indelibly etched with "Wiped Out? The Jerome Wilson Story."
Published Nov. 27, 2015
One hundred eight years ago, a 69-year-old man walked from Portland, Maine, to Chicago. A week later, Weston arrived in Milwaukee for a walking contest with political implications that overshadowed its competitive ones.
Published Nov. 6, 2015
I rise now to heap encomiums on Louis Mueller, though he is long gone, and I know him only from a front-page article in The Milwaukee Journal 100 years ago titled, "Milwaukee man Downtown for the first time in 31 years."
Published Oct. 31, 2015
`Tis the season to remember when a Milwaukee judge ruled that a man had no right to beat his wife because she was cheating on him with the ghost of her dead first husband.