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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014

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In Sports Commentary

The author (third from left) meets former boxing champ James J. Braddock in 1963, and the priesthood loses out to the world of boxing.

Golden Gloves gives the local boys a fight for boxing glory


If you want to experience real March Madness, head to Racine tonight for the first round of the Wisconsin-Upper Michigan Golden Gloves tournament at John Bryant Community Center.

Give or take a year, the Golden Gloves has been Wisconsin's top annual amateur boxing event since 1930, and its alumni include such homegrown ring icons as Tony Martin, Doll Rafferty, Billy Braggs and many others who went on to acclaim in the professional ring. Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali and Floyd Mayweather came up through the Golden Gloves ranks in their respective states.

It will be mostly novice-division action Saturday night, for boxers with 10 or fewer previous bouts. They're earnest, anxious and excitable, and what they lack in finesse they make up for with flailing gloves.

There are exceptions, and in the 80-plus year history of the Wisconsin Golden Gloves tournament one of the most glaring and pathetic ones was me.

In 1963 I was a doughy lad of 12 whose only successful form of aggression was bullying my little sisters. I had an older sister, but she called me "heifer" and once gave me a black eye by pounding my face on the floor.

I wanted to be a priest until the day I was introduced to James J. Braddock and told he had once been the heavyweight champion of the world.

They made a movie about him a few years ago called "Cinderella Man." It's typical Hollywood slush. If you want a true portrait of the man, look up the story about Braddock the great writer W.C. Heinz wrote in True magazine in the late 1950s. Heinz said the rugged Irishman looked and acted exactly like a former heavyweight champion of the world was supposed to.

All I knew after meeting Braddock was that suddenly being heavyweight champion seemed a higher calling than Holy Orders. Not long afterward I enrolled in the Juste Fontaine School of Boxing at the Eagles Club, where every Saturday morning "Coach Juste" – a 1940s Golden Gloves champ who'd had a long pro career – futilely tried to teach me how to throw a proper left jab and bounce around the ring on the balls of my ungainly feet.

I had the coordination of a box turtle, and was hardly motivated to surmount that handicap when Juste addressed me in front of the other larval pugilists as "Pork Chop."

I subscribed to The Ring magazine and memorized each monthly issue. In the back of the self-described "Bible of Boxing" were pages of columns by special correspondents reporting results from around the world, and at 14 I started collecting the meager local ring news and submitting it to the magazine under the title "Boxing in Wisconson."

By the time I was 16 I had learned how to correctly spell the name of the state in which I had lived my whole life, and even more importantly was finally eligible to enter the Golden Gloves.

I was a 154-pound "junior middleweight" then. (Today, my right leg alone is a junior middleweight.) My older brother Mike was in the U.S. Navy, and sent me a pair of authentic silk Everlast boxing trunks to wear in my ring debut. He'd even taken them to a seamstress and had my initials, PE, sewn on the front.

"PEE" would've been more like it. That's what I almost did in my shiny trunks when I found out my opponent was Ron Decorah. I'd seen him fight several times. In one of them he'd scored a TKO. He was no Jake LaMotta, but my quaking knees refused to acknowledge the distinction.

Because of the high number of tournament entries (triple what they get nowadays), then fights were held simultaneously in two rings at the Milwaukee Auditorium, and probably even my own family turned to watch what was going on in the other one when it was clear a moment after the opening bell that I was in full survival mode.

If I hit Ron at all it was purely accidental, and I may have even apologized for it. He was not so reticent, and his very first punch made me see stars like a cartoon character.

After that I cringed, ducked, ran away and tried not to cry. The only instruction Decorah's coach had to give him between rounds was to try not to fall down laughing. When Ron won the decision after three two-minute rounds it turned out to be the luckiest thing to ever happen to me, because if he had fallen down laughing and knocked himself so kablooey they would have had no choice but to declare me the winner, later that night I would have had to fight again against a guy named Larry Ward.

Within two years, Larry Ward was the national middleweight amateur champion. In the last bout on that night in 1967, he barely won a decision over Ron Decorah.

What Ward would've done to me would've made it impossible for me to feed myself, spell my own name and from then on indulge my lifelong affinity for The Sweet Science from the safe side of the ropes. The only thing I've pounded ever since is a keyboard. It doesn't hit back.

If you go to the Golden Gloves Saturday night you may see a budding Joe Louis or Muhammad Ali. And if you're lucky, maybe even a future contributor to your favorite website.


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