Does anyone really believe that Knoxville, Tenn. is the Amateur Boxing Capital of the World? Colonel Jerry (Ace) Miller does, and apparently he is enough. Indeed, folks say that when the Colonel gets to truckin' and snortin'—hill talk for wheeling and dealing—he makes that other celebrated Smoky Mountain hustler, Davy Crockett, seem like just another coonskinner. That is the prevailing explanation why Knoxville not only hosted last week's AAU Boxing Championships but also will be the site of the 1975 national Golden Gloves and, if all goes according to Miller's master plan, of the 1976 U.S. Olympic boxing trials.
Miller himself allows that the Cinderella story of Knoxville as the Boxing Capital might have something to do with his "magnetic personality." Certainly his handle, Colonel Jerry (Ace) Miller, has a kind of prepossessing ring that suggests a retired fighter pilot laying aside his hero's medals to work for the betterment of youth. Actually the rank is honorary, a bestowal made to help him sell boxing—and Knoxville—the way Colonel Sanders peddles fried chicken, and the nickname Ace dates back to the days when Miller was a pool hustler, part-time bookie and full-time street fighter.
Colonel Ace makes no apologies for his wayward past; a self-described "ex-hoodlum," he professes to have the innate honesty of a man who says, "Even when I was playing the sting game, I never took money off a drunk." He did take enough sharp jabs to the head to forsake boxing at an early age because "it hurt too much." Later, when flying fists and barstools left him with assorted fractures of the skull, nose and jaw, he also gave up free-for-alls to work at a service station by day and run a boxing club in a converted pool room by night. It was just as well; at 5'5" and 145 pounds he figured to live longer teaching uppercuts than dodging them.
Now 35 and the director of boxing for the Knoxville Recreation Department, Miller says that he is so reformed that he has not only given up drinking the hard stuff but is well on his way to "correcting my cursing." And shoot fire, as Colonel Ace is wont to say these days, everybody knows that boxing needs all the hard-sell promoters it can muster.
The governing elders of the AAU and the Golden Gloves tended to agree when Miller, Knoxville Mayor Kyle Tester-man and a phalanx of supporters decked out in electric orange blazers descended on them last year to deliver their pitch for host-city rights. They offered slide presentations, fried chicken spreads and enough down-home sayings to charm the warts off a hog: "Colonel Miller is gonna treat you so many ways nice you'll have to like one of 'em." Speaking for himself as much as for the city, Colonel Ace proudly says, "We're little but loud."
Big and boisterous were the words for last week's fistic invasion of the Hyatt Regency in Knoxville, a hotel designed for some inexplicable reason to look like an Aztec pyramid. Equally incongruous were the sights of fighters slamming the heavy bags not far from the down ramp of the hotel garage and strolling the lobby in their flashy robes right along with the uniformed members of the Southeastern Association of Firechiefs.
With a record 309 entrants, the AAU boxoff at the Civic Coliseum across the street was even more carnival-like. Utilizing three rings simultaneously for 12 solid, free-swinging hours at a clip, AAU officials somehow ran off as many as 118 bouts a day. It was a bit bewildering; combatants in the black ring sometimes responded to the bells for the adjacent red and blue rings in what looked like a 3-D slugfest gone wildly out of focus. In such a setting, one hardly missed light heavyweight Al Fracker (SI, June 10), the engaging West Pointer who had promised to steal the show. It seems that Cadet Fracker had to stay home and study. But no matter what the weight, the class of the tournament was Ray Charles Leonard, a 139-pound wonder who was busily dispatching his first opponent just about the time his high school class was graduating back home in Palmer Park, Md.
Though he was named after soul singer Ray Charles, Leonard is more aptly known to his sparring mates—and to covetous pro scouts—as "Sugar Ray." He is such a finely balanced boxer, combining crackling power with silken, flashing moves, that even Colonel Ace could not be accused of spreading it on too thick when he said, "At this stage of development Leonard has to be one of the finest talents, if not the finest, to come along since the original Sugar Ray."
As for mettle, last month on his 18th birthday Leonard sustained a bad first-round cut during a U.S.-Russia team bout in Moscow and then battled back to outclass the two-time Soviet champion Anatoli Kamnev. When the myopic judges awarded the decision to the Russian, not only did the crowd lustily whistle its disfavor but Kamnev walked across the ring and rendered his verdict by presenting the winner's trophy to Leonard.
Aaron Pryor, a junior Joe Frazier who was voted the outstanding boxer in the same U.S.-Russia match after three straight victories in the 132-pound division, watched Leonard work over an opponent one night last week with open admiration. "Look at that," he said. "A right and then three straight left hooks. No, four! Five!" Pryor attests to the deadly efficiency of Leonard's lightning combinations: "While working out with Ray in Russia last month, I leaned in to hook a right and chuke! chuke! chuke! I was down before I knew what happened. Wow, I said to myself, what was that!" Says David Jacobs, Leonard's coach: "Ray can rip off five left hooks in five seconds, six seconds if he's coasting. He hit one boy in Ohio with a cruncher and then hit him four more times while the boy was falling."
Leonard, who occasionally changes pace with a showboating Ali shuffle, started boxing with his brother in the backyard five years ago and then moved one block down the street to the local recreation center. At 15, he lied about his age and advanced all the way to the quarterfinals of the 1971 AAU championships in Las Vegas. Since then he has lost only three times while piling up 81 victories. Last week, while many of the fighters were showing the strain of having to go two bouts a day, Leonard had such an easy time of it with two first-round knockouts, one in just 28 seconds, that he deliberately carried his next opponent for three rounds just to get in a little workout.
None of last week's AAU champions, in fact, so dominated his division as did Leonard. In the finals, a proficient but not exactly thrill-packed exhibition in which every bout in the 11 divisions went the three-round limit, Leonard was the only overwhelming winner. He might have livened things up with a knockout but he was matched against Paul Sherry, a 22-year-old southpaw from San Francisco. "Lefties always make you look awkward," says Leonard, "and they're usually very hard to take out." Even so, he went into what he calls his "Bob Foster number," leaning in with his left shoulder to batter the bedazed Sherry almost at will. Afterward Sherry said, "I just wasn't ready for his speed. He hurt me with his right hooks and there were some good lefts in there, too. Let's face it, there was everything. I'll have to wait and see the films to find out exactly what he was hitting me with."
Predictably, Leonard is being hit with all kinds of offers, including $30,000 in cash to turn pro. But so far he is forth-rightly following the advice of his coach, a former featherweight who spent some enlightening time on the pro circuit. Says Jacobs, "I've told Ray all about the professional fight game. I was in it long enough to know that somebody else makes the cabbage and you end up walking on your heels." Says Leonard, "All I have on my mind right now is going to the Olympics in 1976 and winning the gold medal. After that I'll take up something else, maybe electrical engineering. I don't want to be just a boxer the rest of my life."
All that Colonel Ace has on his mind these days is bringing Leonard to Knoxville for the Olympic trials. Then, he says, he may temporarily confer the Boxing Capital title on Montreal for a few Olympian weeks. Meanwhile, Miller equates Leonard's chances of succeeding in the Olympics with his own: "Leonard's gonna turn 'em every way but loose, and so am I."