Man, it was a rumble in the Riverfront

After the last bell clanged, concluding the hard-fought Olympic Trials in Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum, there was no doubt but that this country will be sending a balanced, formidable team to Montreal next month
June 13, 1976

The sign on a building near the Riverfront Coliseum said, CINCINNATI BELTING AND TRANSMISSION CO. Inside the Coliseum, the top 88 amateur boxers in the country belted away at each other last week in the U.S. Olympic Boxing Trials, and when the final bell rang late Saturday night it was apparent that the U.S. is going to transmit a strong team to Montreal. The best bet for a gold medal is 139-pound Ray Leonard, who has been compared with Sugar Ray Robinson and hot just because he has the same first name. The surprise of the Trials was a heavyweight, Big John Tate, whose coach, Colonel Ace Miller, a former pool hustler, collaborated on a ballad that begins: "Everyday at the gym you can see him arise/He stands 6'4" and weighs 225."

The strength of the team is the result of a quiet resurgence of amateur boxing in the U.S. Half the contestants in the semifinals in Cincinnati got their start in a Junior Olympic Program that Roily Schwartz, the team manager and National AAU boxing chairman, helped form several years ago. YMCAs and recreational centers are now turning to boxing, and more than 20 colleges have taken up the sport as a club activity. Two years ago, thanks to Ron Johnson, president of the National Indian Activity Association, and the peripatetic Schwartz—who comes on like Edward G. Robinson with backslaps and the greeting "how you doing, baby?"—the NIAA held its first boxing championships. And last week two Indians, a Piute and a Hopi, made it to the semis. The Hopi, 106-pound Adrian Dennis, reached the Olympic Trials finals, the first Indian ever to do so. Earlier this year, the National AAU championships in Las Vegas drew a record 409 entries. Says Schwartz, "People are demanding boxing. The kids want it. We have a good wholesome approach to the sport now and compassionate people are running the show."

Sugar Ray Leonard comes out of a recreation program in Palmer Park, Md., near Washington. Now 20, he began boxing at 14 under stringent amateur rules (no slapping, no holding, points scored only with knuckle surface punches that land on the front of the body or the face) after his brother persuaded local officials to start a boxing program. Leonard's coach then and now is David Jacobs, a former amateur and professional fighter.

"I saw right off that Ray had the potential to be a good boxer," says Jacobs. "He really progressed fast. He was more determined than the average kid. When he started, I told him he had to train hard, and I never had to worry about him running around every night. Most young boxers don't realize that to be a good boxer you have to train every day, not four or five months out of the year. You have to pay the dues. This kid can do it all. He's gifted."

Leonard fought his first international match at 16, knocking out his Russian opponent with one punch, a left hook, in the first round. Before the Trials, he had a 127-5 record. His last defeat was in Moscow in 1974, a decision that was jeered by the crowd; the winning Russian graciously gave Leonard the trophy. He has won the National AAU and Golden Gloves championships and the gold medal at the Pan-American Games. Only once has he been knocked down, upon which he got up to knock out his opponent.

In Cincinnati Leonard said flatly, "I expect to win here." And he did, easily. With a picture of his girl friend and his son taped to his right sock, he took a three-round decision from aggressive Ronnie Shields in his first bout ("Ray loves to fight a boxer that's coming to him," says Jacobs), and he knocked out Sam Bonds in 42 seconds of the first round of the semis with a short right hand to the jaw off a jab. "A knockout comes when a man makes a mistake and you take advantage of it," Leonard said. In the finals he won a unanimous decision over Bruce Curry.

Rolly Schwartz becomes even more effusive than usual when he talks about Sugar Ray II. "Ray Leonard is the greatest amateur I've seen in my 38 years of amateur boxing," he says. "He has the fastest reflexes and the greatest balance. Reflexes like Muhammad Ali, balance like Sugar Ray Robinson. Nobody's going to outbox him. He can take you out with either hand, and he's got a jab that will take your head and set it back in the fifth row. Right now he could beat any lightweight or welterweight in the world, amateur or professional."

Predicting medalists in Olympic boxing is a chancy business. Besides Leonard, regarded as a near cinch for the gold, there are other hopefuls among the winners at Cincinnati. These include 125-pound Davey Armstrong from Puyallup, Wash., a Pan-Am gold medalist, and 132-pound Howard Davis, of Glen Cove, N.Y., who won a gold in the 125-pound division in the world competition in Havana in 1974. Davis moved up in weight for the Trials and defeated Aaron Pryor of Cincinnati, the nation's top-rated amateur lightweight, in a rousing final. Along with the other runners-up, Pryor will go to camp in Burlington, Vt. with the Trials' winners for training and a box-off. Winning the Trials does not necessarily mean a berth at Montreal. Should a runner-up win in Burlington, there will be a rubber match to decide who fights in the Olympics. The idea, says Schwartz, is to keep the fighters sharp and make certain that the best of them represent the U.S.

Clinton Jackson from Evergreen, Ala., who fights out of Nashville for Ace Miller, won the 147-pound competition. The only boxer ever to win three straight National AAU and Golden Gloves titles, Jackson was named the U.S. Olympic athlete of the year in all sports for 1975.

Chuck Walker of Mesa, Ariz., a 156-pounder, was the only Caucasian winner. Coached by his father, Walker is a classic international-style boxer (forgetting his unclassic right-hand bolo punch) and also a ballet and tap dancer. He made three solo appearances as a tap dancer on the Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour. "I'm a little surprised I got a fair shake here," Walker said after the Trials. "I was robbed in the Golden Gloves and in the AAU."

Leon Spinks of St. Louis, a Marine lance corporal stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., won the 178-pound title. He was a bronze medal winner at the World Games in Havana and a silver medalist at the Pan-Ams in Mexico City last year. His brother Michael, not as highly rated, won the 165-pound championship, and their joint victories mark the first time brothers have won in the Trials.

The big question mark is Big John Tate, raw but learning at 21. To the eye, he is of the stuff of legend. He glowers at his opponent before the bell, and instead of shaking hands he is just as likely to knock gloves to show he is a mean dude. When Big John wins, he swats the canvas with his right hand to announce he's No. 1.

Up until a year ago, Tate was hefting 100-pound sacks of cattle feed in West Memphis, Ark. Then he moved to Knoxville at the instigation of Ace Miller, the city's director of boxing. "He asked me if I'd make him the champion," says Miller. "I told him the name of the game is defense."

Miller got Big John hired as a truck driver for the city and installed him in a bedroom in the gym, a converted pool hall. For the first six or seven weeks, Big John sparred with Clint Jackson. "He was beatin' me all over the ring," says Tate. "He would tell me, "Big John, bring your hands up.' " Big John started looking good, but Miller says, "Everybody laughed at us. They said he was big, dumb and slow. No one wanted us anywhere. Then one night we were invited to St. Louis where Big John knocked out the Polish champion."

For all this, Big John has had his ups and downs. Earlier this year he dropped a split decision to Mike Dokes in the Golden Gloves, and he was outpointed by Marvin Stinson in the AAU championships. Stinson is a slick eel of a boxer who learned to fight inside by sparring with Joe Frazier, Cyclone Hart, Jimmy Young, Duane Bobick, and other adherents of the Philadelphia school. At the Trials, Big John was ready. He easily outpointed Dokes, the favorite, in the semis. After his loss, Dokes announced that this was his last amateur fight and he was turning pro. In the finals Big John won a decision over Stinson. The bout looked closer than that—Stinson did a lot of scoring inside—but Big John was the aggressor throughout and never let up. Stinson was so distraught he fell to his knees when Tate was announced as the winner.

"I told the people in Knoxville I'm goin' to win the gold medal," said Big John afterward. "He's gonna win the gold," said Miller, "and then we're gonna get rich!"