The chances are that the last time you heard of the University of Oklahoma's Dan Hodge (SI, April 1) he had just won the national intercollegiate wrestling championship, had just confirmed his informal title of best amateur wrestler in America, and was planning to settle down as a high school teacher and wrestling coach in Oklahoma. Well, the Oklahoma schoolboys who looked forward to learning to wrestle under Dan Hodge's tutelage will have to wait. Dan is a boxer now, and it looks as if he's going to be one for a long time.
Dan's plans were changed by a former (1937-41) University of Oklahoma wrestler named Art Freeman, now an independent oil operator in Wichita, Kansas, who has 1) put Dan to work for a drilling outfit he owns and 2) hired a boxing coach, with the aim of getting Dan ready for the heavyweight division of the Golden Gloves this winter.
"This isn't going to be like the Rademacher business," Oilman Freeman says. "Danny isn't going to go after the professional championship his first fight out. He's going to go at his own speed and if he ever decides he's had enough, or if he gets hurt, he can stop.... We aren't ever going to do anything that might make him ridiculous."
So, in Convention Hall at Hutchinson, Kansas the other night, the best wrestler in America made his debut as an amateur boxer. It was quite an experience all around.
November 18, 1957
Convention Hall in Hutchinson (pop. 26,000) is a grimy brick building just north of the police station and across the street from the bandstand where concerts are played every Saturday night during the hot Kansas summers. It used to be the scene of major sporting events (wrestling, Golden Gloves tournaments) but since the building of a bigger, more modern arena the older hall is rarely used for anything more strenuous than square dancing.
The hall seats 4,000 and was almost one-fourth full for Dan's fight. About 600 had paid the modest (75¢ to $1.50) admission prices; the other 400 were in as guests of Dan's management. The guests included several oilmen from Wichita and Hutchinson, their wives, guests of Hutchinson and Wichita newspapermen, and Dolores Hodge, a pretty girl of 23, whose hands were never still as she waited to see her husband in his first fight. It was the first boxing of any kind she had seen except for a few hurried glimpses of televised fights.
"It's all right with me, whatever Danny wants to do, if he likes it," she said. "He seems to like boxing all right."
"Did you watch him when he wrestled?"
"Oh, yes. I saw almost all his matches."
"Did you ever see him hurt?"
"No; of course, he hurt his shoulder once, but never anything bad."
"Will you try to see all his fights now?"
"I don't know yet; all those close to home, I think."
"How do you feel about seeing Dan hurt another man? He's going to be in there hitting as hard as he can. It's not like amateur wrestling where a punishing hold is illegal."
"I don't know yet. I just don't know."
"Is it what you want him to do?"
"It's all right with me if Danny likes it. I don't want to see him hurt, but he can quit any time and it is all right with Mr. Freeman. He'll still have a good job."
"Did Danny ever have any fights outside the wrestling ring, fights where he got mad and hit a man?"
"I've never known him to fight, never."
"You met him in high school, didn't you?"
"Yes, in Perry, Oklahoma. He was a sophomore and I was a freshman. We didn't go together right away but we had a few dates and then we went steady for a year and a half and we got married after Danny graduated." They now have two children: Dan Allen Jr., 3½, and Linda Marie, 2.
Dan's sponsor, Art Freeman, paced the auditorium floor during the intermission (there were 10 fights, including the main event). He told the visiting oilmen that the first fighter picked to face Dan, a young Wichita Indian who had had six amateur fights, had withdrawn and the matchmaker had run in a veteran in his place—a man weighing 207 who had had 65 fights or so. This was all right with him, Freeman, because he wanted to give Dan the best possible test.
The substitute, Raymond Scott, was slipping into a badly wrinkled athletic supporter when I went backstage to interview him. Scott is a pudgy, 25-year-old Negro who is married, a resident of Hutchinson and alaborer with Chalmers Borten, a company specializing in the construction of grain elevators.
"How many fights have you had?" I asked him.
"No, about 20."
"All as an amateur?"
"How many did you win?"
"About 16, I think."
I felt his upper arms, his belly and his thigh. There was muscle in the arms and thigh but his belly was soft and jiggled to the touch.
"You're not in what I would call great shape. When was your last fight?"
"Two years ago."
"You haven't fought in two years?"
"Have you been in training?"
"No, I've been working. But I've been doing some roadwork lately."
"How far do you run?"
"I'm not sure, just run."
"How long you been doing that?"
"Now look, I'm a tender old man and I don't want you swinging at me, but is this a tank job?"
"What do you mean, a tank job?"
"You know what I mean. You know how much this first fight means to Hodge. Are you going to take a dive?"
"You just wait and see. You'll see I'm not taking any dive."
"How much are they paying you for the fight?"
"What do you mean?"
"Are they giving you anything besides expenses?"
"You'll have to talk to my manager about that."
"Who is your manager?"
"Where is he now?"
A small, nervous Negro appeared at my elbow. "Are you John Hill?" He admitted it.
"How much are they paying you and Raymond for the fight?"
His hands fluttered and he said, "Step over here." We stepped over there, well out of the fighter's hearing.
"Is this going to be written up in that sport magazine?"
"That's why I'm here."
"I wish I'd known about that. This has not been easy; there are complications."
"What kind of complications?"
"Well, I'd better not say."
"How much is the boy going to be paid for the fight?"
"Well, I thought it ought to be as much as $25 but I'm not sure now."
"Is it more than $25?"
"Is it $20?"
"Less than that."
"Yes, that's just what it is, $10."
When Mr. Hill isn't managing fighters for purses up to $10 for a main event he carries luggage as a redcap at the bus depot in Hutchinson. When I mentioned his name to Fred Mendell, of the Hutchinson News, he smiled wryly and said only that Hill has been around for some time and that it is not customary for amateurs to have managers, as such.
Hodge was dressed and wrapped in the dressing room on the other side of the stage. The room is a big one, lined with lockers, smelling like every other dressing room where athletes leave their sweat. Boxers waiting to go on jogged lightly, loosening up. Ray Powell (145 pounds) of Dodge City, who had just been knocked out by Harry Sabo (145 pounds) of Wichita in 1:45 of the first round, lay full length on a bench about 10 feet from Dan, recovering. The victim's condition apparently did nothing to discourage Danny. Dan was dressed in clean white trunks, obviously making their debut with him. His blue robe with the five interlocked circles of the Olympic insignia he bore at Melbourne was thrown around his shoulders. His long-jawed face was as politely inexpressive as it always is. His trainer, Curt Kennedy, worked over the already well-wrapped hands.
Beginning in the basement
From the well-fitted protective cup under his new trunks to the freshly cleaned robe Dan was as well and carefully dressed for boxing as any man ever will be but he was as out of place as Shirley Temple in a sex movie. Nothing is quite as grimy as 10 amateur bouts on a weekday night in a Kansas town. If there is a bottom rung on the boxing ladder, Dan was in the basement below it, but this strong, quiet, competent, inexperienced man, this deeply religious, nonsmoking, non-drinking, wife-and-family-loving, superbly honest amateur athlete just was not touched by any of the aroma.
"How's the cold, Dan?" On the day before the fight, his cold was bad enough to require a shot of penicillin.
"How are you feeling?"
"Good. Real good."
"You think you might be tempted to use a wrestling hold when you get in there tonight?"
He smiled forgivingly. "No, there's no chance of it. The two aren't alike at all."
"Before you went to boxing had you ever hit a man, really hit him to hurt?"
"How do you feel about going in there to hit a man as hard as you can, as often as you can till he falls down and can't get up. Is there any emotional reaction in it for you?"
He thought it over. "No, no I don't think so. It's competition. I'll just do my best."
"He's one of the best I've ever seen," Kennedy, the trainer, said. "You only have to show him a thing once and he picks it up. He's going to go right to the top."
Dan was first in the ring. He stood quietly while Scott apparently used the old trick of making his opponent wait. The trick had its most telling effect on Scott's manager. Little John Hill looked worried as he jittered in Scott's corner. At last he spotted his tiger talking quietly to a small group seated well off to the side of the auditorium. Hill trotted over to persuade Scott to get into the ring.
Dan was introduced as a fine wrestler making his debut as a boxer. His weight was given as 190, Scott's as 208.
Dan moved out fast with the first bell. He is amazingly fast. Three seconds later Scott was on the floor. He looked puzzled. So did I. He didn't know what hit him. Neither did I. I don't think Dan knew, either. Scott didn't take a count, just bounced right up from the canvas.
Dan moves forward all the time, throwing short, hooking punches. He fought Scott just as he shadowboxes, hitting fast. When he shadowboxes he tries to throw at least one punch a second. He used much the same tempo against Scott. He keeps both hands high and keeps them moving. There were no recognizable combinations, just a steady stream of punches.
When Scott got up Danny moved in again. He threw more punches. Scott went down. He went down and got up and went down and got up and went down and got up and went down and got up. Twice he took an 8-count, but on the other knockdowns Scott came up fast. He never lost his puzzled look in the first round.
The thing moved too fast for any accurate reporting. Mike Culbert of the Wichita Beacon and Bill Hodge of the Wichita Evening Eagle, who sat together at ringside and compared notes, said there were nine knockdowns in the first round. Fred Mendell counted only five. Bob Overaker of the Wichita Morning Eagle said there were eight. Charlie Lutkie, the referee, a racing driver and professional wrestler, counted eight. I lost track after seven. Scott couldn't say for sure. He wasn't keeping score.
Scott didn't always go down because he was hit by a legitimate punch. At least twice he was bulled to the canvas by the speed and power of Hodge's rushing.
Scott came out surprisingly strong for the second round. He took a left hand to the head to throw a long right uppercut that caught Hodge flush on the chin. Hodge felt the blow but it didn't slow him up. He kept boring in and dropped Scott with a wild series. He dropped him again after an 8-count. Scott staggered up, then without being hit, toppled over, face forward, his rear high in the air, and collapsed.
The referee stopped it after 1:35 of the second round.
Danny was unmarked except for a slight abrasion on the right upper arm. He did not remember how he got it.
"How did you like it?" I asked him.
"I like it."
"Was it much different from wrestling?"
"The biggest difference is that in boxing you rest after three minutes. In wrestling you get in there for nine minutes without rest. This is a little easier."
"Did he hurt you with the right?"
"He hit me but it didn't bother me."
"You want to go on as a boxer?"
"Yes, I sure do."
A bloated middleweight
In the Scott dressing room there were loud explanations. "I haven't been in a ring in three years," he told the lone friend who listened, upping the absence by a year. "I'm not afraid of that boy. He's strong and fast but I'm just a middleweight 38 pounds overweight. When I get in shape I'll fight him again, you'll see. Hey, did you think that was a tank job, did it look like a tanker to you?"
I said I had never seen anything like it.
Although he had been hit an uncounted number of times about the face and head there were no marks on Scott's face or body. He had bled slightly at the nose just after the fight but the bleeding was quite minor and easily controlled. He was in good spirits. "I better quit talkin' and get dressed or my wife will give me another whip-pin'," he said.
There is no doubt that if he continues, Hodge will be one of the most exciting heavies to watch. There is also no doubt that at this stage his ability is untested and unknown. Nothing in this fight with Scott, who is a rolling, bobbing, weaving clown, proves anything except that Hodge is strong and fast, eager and willing, innocent and totally unafraid.
His backers are trying to line up an amateur card for him every two weeks. The problem will be to find opponents. Kansas produces hardly more amateur heavyweights than it does aardvarks; so Freeman is planning to take Dan into nearby Oklahoma and Missouri.
The auditorium emptied after the fight. Dan's wife waited for him with a little group of admirers. Her eyes were still bright with excitement and it was hard for her to stand in one spot.
"If I'd known it was going to be this simple I would never have worried for a minute," she said.