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.
"I’d hate to think that just because I’m a fighter I’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, "He’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 I’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. "Let’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 don’t know why you’re going for a rummy like me," Marsh told him. "Why don’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 football’s best running backs and was his friend for life.
Too small for the pro gridiron, the six-foot, 190 pound Marsh, who’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 ½ 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.
Marsh’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. Isn’t it inner peace that we are really looking for?
"I think it is. Being at peace with ourselves is all-important. Yes, that’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!"