Eddie Brooks’ biggest claim to boxing immortality will always be that he knocked down Muhammad Ali.
But the semi-finals of the annual Wisconsin-Upper Michigan Golden Gloves tournament this Saturday in Racine make it an opportune time to recall when the Milwaukee heavyweight provided one of the most memorable performances in 84 years of state Golden Gloves competition.
Nineteen sixty-six was a year of homecomings in Milwaukee boxing, beginning with the Golden Gloves tournament itself.
Seven years after the first tournament was held here in 1930, The Milwaukee Journal took over sponsorship of the Golden Gloves, and thanks to the newspaper’s unstinting promotion the tournament was a stellar fixture on the local sports scene for the next 18 years.
After The Journal ended its sponsorship in 1955, Milwaukee amateurs had to travel to Kenosha, Fond du Lac, Green Bay and Rockford, Ill., to fight in the Golden Gloves until local businessman Jack Pellmann brought the tournament back to the Milwaukee Auditorium in ’66.
It also marked the return to the Golden Gloves of local heavyweights Eddie Brooks and Charlle Singleton.
Brooks started boxing as a teenager at the Urban League gym on 9th and Vine Streets, where coach Baby Joe Gans turned out more amateur champions every year than any other gym.
Brooks won the middleweight title in the Rockford Golden Gloves in 1958, and was runner-up in the Kenosha tournament the next year as a light heavyweight. The Boys Tech grad later joined the U.S. Army, and after winning the All-Army heavyweight title in 1963 Brooks didn’t box again until the ’66 Golden Gloves.
Singleton played football and ran track at Rufus King high school and was a five-time Golden Gloves champion starting in 1960. After he won the open division heavyweight title in 1962, ’63 and ’64, tournament officials barred him from the 1965 tournament to give someone else a crack at it.
The 5-foot, 10-inch, 200-pound Singleton’s return in ’66 and the entries of Brooks and three others made it the most imposing heavyweight field in recent Golden Gloves history.
On the opening night of competition on Feb. 14, the 6-2, 220-pound Brooks didn’t fight like somebody who’d been out of action three years. First he stopped James Sherard in two rounds, and then flattened Pete Buckner, the previous year’s novice (four fights or less) Gloves heavyweight champion, in 37 seconds.
In his only bout that night, Singleton beat Jim Wildrick by TKO in the third round to set up the regional championship match largely responsible for the 2,300 fans at the finals three days later.
The open division heavyweight title fight was the last of 17 bouts that evening, the shortest and the most unforgettable. Playing Sonny Liston to Singleton’s Floyd Patterson, Brooks smashed Charlie down twice before the fight was stopped at 1:37 of the opening round.
"This is no amateur fighter," wrote Ray Grody in the Sentinel the next day. "Brooks has had a wealth of experience in this business and it showed up in practically every move he made."
Three years later, Brooks and Singleton, both pros then, fought for the Wisconsin heavyweight championship at the Eagles Club. Brooks won in eight one-sided rounds that lacked the drama of their first meeting.
The highlight of Brooks’ boxing career came two years after that when he served as sparring partner for Ali and decked the ex-heavyweight champion in the gym. (Said Ali afterwards: "I don’t want and I wouldn’t advise that it go to his head.")
Singleton died of a heart attack in 1972. Now in his mid-70s, Brooks has dementia.
Almost a half-century later, the shock and awe that crackled through the Auditorium that night are still palpable. After Brooks exited the ring, the hands of the timid 15-year-old "Wisconsin Correspondent for The Ring Magazine" were shaking more than usual as I took the photo of the new colossus of Milwaukee boxing that accompanies this.
Editor's note: The 2014 Wisconsin-Upper Michigan Golden Gloves Tournament continues April 5 and 12 at the John Bryant Community Center, 601 S. 21st in Racine. Fights start at 7 p.m. Tickets are $18 for reserved seating and $15 for general admission. For more information call 262-835-1486, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.