His main trouble, says Duane Bobick, sprawled on the bed in a cluttered motel room 90 miles southeast of Los Angeles, is that he was born about 100 years too late. "I'm just like those old trappers," he says. "They weren't as interested in hunting the game as they were in seeing what was ahead over the next hill. That's me."
Bobick is a heavyweight fighter who has yet to trap any big game, his most impressive victory so far being one over the often-defeated Chuck Wepner. Ah, but look what lies over the next hill: Madison Square Garden and a nationally televised fight next week against third-ranked Ken Norton, one of the two fighters who have whipped Muhammad Ali. If Bobick should beat Norton, over the next hill might be a bout with Ali himself for the heavyweight championship.
Although the smart money says the sky is more likely to fall than Bobick is to beat Norton, these are heady days for a 26-year-old who has inched upward in the ranks during the last few years by fighting no-name opponents in places often lacking bright lights. Bobick will come out of the Garden with $250,000; his biggest previous payday was $50,000 for Wepner. All that cash for a man who has said, "I'm a fair boxer, a fair puncher, but I put it together and it works."
Put that another way: a white man who says he's not great. Bobick is that rare, endangered creature, a White Hope, and thus, under certain circumstances, potentially hot box office. The boxing world got pumped up over him before the 1972 Munich Olympics. It seemed likely that Bobick would win a gold medal without breaking a sweat, then proceed to wow the professional fight game. But Cuban Teofilo Stevenson loused up that scenario in the quarterfinals at Munich, and Bobick's career went into eclipse. Now he is back from the dark side of the moon.
From last January until the end of April, Bobick spent most of his days inside the former Beaumont (Calif.) High School, skipping rope, punching bags and bodies and in general trying to act as though it is no upset that he is going to be in the same ring with Norton, the man who broke Ali's jaw. Why should Norton fight Bobick? Norton's share of the purse—$500,000—is reason enough. But there are others. "If Bobick and his people want to fight me, I guess they don't think much of me," Norton says. "I'm insulted." Norton's trainer, Bill Slayton, says, "We sure didn't want to fight anyone who could possibly beat us. Bobick was the safest one." In the Bobick camp, Trainer Eddie Futch, who used to be Norton's trainer, insists, "Boy, has Norton got a surprise coming."
In which case Norton would have a lot of company. Many believe that Bobick, despite his 38-0 professional record and No. 5 ranking, has some marshmallow in him. Typical of his critics is Don Riley, a columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, who offers this analysis of how Bobick has gotten so far: "By beating old ladies, roundheeled has-beens and clowns moonlighting in the Shrine Circus." A manager says, "I have nothing against Bobick at all, except that he can't fight." Bobick himself says, "All I am is a dumb country boy who learned a few tricks of the city slickers." The main trick he learned is that you don't have to fight the biggies to be a biggie yourself. Since October 1975, Bobick's victories have come over Rochell Norris, Scrap Iron Johnson, Randy Neumann, Larry Middleton, Scott LeDoux, Bunny Johnson, Chuck Wepner and Young Sanford Houpe—a group that likely hasn't signed 50 autographs altogether.
Bobick doesn't flinch when the litany of criticism is recited. "People don't take me seriously," he says. "First, because they feel like I let them down in the Olympics and, second, because I'm white and therefore can't possibly fight." But there also are Bobick defenders, most notably Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee. "I know what a lot of fight people say about Duane," says Dundee. "That he's slow, he telegraphs his punches, all that. But I call him a persistent sucker. He can take a punch and he just keeps coming at you. I say Bobick has a tremendous shot."
Dundee is not totally impartial: an Ali-Bobick match could be a financial blockbuster. Ali could mouth a few chords on the white/black theme—and even in this day and at his age perhaps inflame the impressionable. (Bobick insists that Ali told him privately, "You're gonna be the heavyweight champ.") Talk of skin color amuses Bobick, whose manager (Joe Frazier), trainer (Futch), assistant trainer (Murphy Griffith) and most of his sparring partners are black. "What I really am," says Bobick, "is the Great Black Hope."
Nevertheless, an Ali-Bobick battle could have strong appeal. There would be the folk hero and people's champ who has done everything, been everywhere, beat everybody and said everything, against the personable Olympic flop ("After Munich, my spirit was dead") who has shown grit in climbing back.
Bobick is a more mature person than he was in Munich; whether he is a fighter of merit must await closer inspection. He hints that, against Norton, he will alter his "persistent sucker" style when he says, "I know now there's no lost pride in backing up or running away in a fight. I just tell myself I'm doing it to get a better view of the situation." Good thinking, since a close view of Norton would put Bobick in position to receive the punishing Norton right uppercut. Dundee points out that Norton typically puts "his right foot in the bucket, which makes it hard for him to back up"—for what that's worth. And the Bobick people expect Duane to work on Norton's body because, in the timeworn phrase, "If you kill the body, the head dies."
If Bobick is slow on his feet, slow with his hands and awkward with his left jab, he does have a decent straight right hand. (When Norton employs a straight right, he often fails to clench his fist.) And Bobick keeps banging away. Obviously, Futch, who was in Norton's corner when Norton beat Ali and in Frazier's corner when Joe whipped Ali, wouldn't ever put Bobick down. He isn't worth a dime as a PR man, though. "I'm a trainer, not a magician," says Futch. "If a fighter doesn't have it, only God can help him." Any comment on Bobick's style, Eddie? "I have always favored effectiveness over form. Duane is effective."
And, sometimes, philosophical. "I have this understanding about work," Bobick says. "It has to be done. You work, you sweat, you feel the aches and your body cries. Then you take a hot shower and lie down. That's what life is all about and it feels good." But when he spars, he looks terrible. "I'm a pansy in training," he says. "I don't wanna hurt nobody. Besides, who cares? The idea is to have all your bad days in the gym." Some of the worst occur when Futch tries to teach him ring strategy. Once, in frustration, Bobick hurled his gloves to the floor. He says, "It's like Eddie keeps showing me a quarter and a penny and I keep getting 'em mixed up."
But if Bobick's boxing ability may be suspect, his affability is not. "Personality is about half of everything you do," he says. Bobick is no strutter and insists he wouldn't think of himself as a big star until, well, say, he had held the title as long as Joe Louis (12 years) and made as much money as Ali. A local newspaperman says, "Hello, Mr. Bow-bick. Gee, I'm just a small-town reporter." Says Duane, "That's O.K. I'm just a small-town boxer."
This fight originally was scheduled for March but was put off after Bobick, according to Futch, suffered a dislocated cartilage in his left side while sparring with his brother Rodney. The delay seems not to have hampered either fighter, although Norton says, "I could have used the money to pay my taxes."
The fact that Bobick has sweated rivers trying to amass enough money to interest the IRS is the key to his prospects. "People think you have to be black and hungry to be the champ," he says. "Well, I'm white and hungry."
Duane Bobick is one of 12 boys (two have died) and one girl born poor in Bowlus, Minn. The oldest, LeRoy, 27, explains, "For us, a ghetto was where the rich people lived." LeRoy once joked that Duane was weaned on Kool-Aid because milk was too expensive. When he was a seventh-grader, the Bobicks lost their house to the bank; father Bobick failed to meet the monthly payments. Today, Duane's parents are on partial welfare; his father, a plasterer, is just getting back to work after a few years of poor health.
Graves in Bowlus are dug by Bobick's father, as they were by his father. This task also once fell to Duane, who would stick a torch to the frozen ground (graves then went for $25 in the winter, $20 in summer) and work his way down to the required 5½-foot depth. "The hole would be deeper than me and I'd throw that dirt up over my head and half of it would slide back down in the hole," Duane recalls. "That teaches you persistence."
"Everyone thought Duane was the good one in the family. We didn't want them to be disappointed," says LeRoy. To this end, other Bobicks always seemed willing to take the rap for Duane's misdeeds. Like when things began to be missed from cars around the church in nearby Little Falls, where the Bobicks worshiped. "Duane was the lookout at the church," LeRoy says, "and when the cops were picking me up, there was Duane looking out—for himself." Whenever things went wrong in Bowlus, which is 80 miles north of Minneapolis, and later in Little Falls, where the family lived for a time, people generally were of the opinion that "the Bobicks did it." They would generally be right.
Last Christmas, LeRoy was charged in connection with a barroom brawl in Bowlus. Brother Rodney had his moments in the neighborhood not long ago when he snatched a wig off a woman's head. She was not amused: a barstool went through the air, later a gun appeared and then things started going seriously downhill. (That situation was later settled in court with a suspended jail sentence and a one-year banishment from the county for Rodney.) "In Bowlus," says Duane, "all you can do is drink. But Little Falls is much different. There you can play Bingo and drink. Growing up for me was lonely. Then I chose a lonely profession." To this day he loves solitaire.
Family loyalty suffered an occasional lapse among the Bobicks. Brother LeRoy recalls that "a bunch of guys would be fighting me and Duane. It was always the town against us. And if we started losing, Duane didn't mind changing sides, and the next thing I knew he'd be beating the hell out of me."
Duane naturally gravitated to gyms, and when he joined the Navy he was befriended by Murphy Griffith, uncle of the former boxing champ, Emile. Griffith had a look at Bobick and said, "I can't work miracles, but let's try." Words like "miracles" seem to keep cropping up in Bobick's career.
After some early head-inflating boxing success, Duane went to Munich, where he had his darkest day since the old gang fights back home in Bowlus. Bobick eventually signed with a Denver cable-television executive, Bill Daniels, for a bonus of $25,000 and 50% of the gross purses after expenses. However, in his 25th fight while in Daniels' employ, he earned only $445.80. Bobick bought out of this deal for between $107,500 and $150,000, the ultimate figure depending on how well Bobick does in the next 18 months. Daniels says, "I didn't want to lose him. But when athletes get unhappy, they don't perform. I thought he would be the heavyweight champ and I still think so. To have a champ, that would be life's thrill."
So Bobick signed on with Frazier, and currently receives 47% of the gross purses plus pension benefits, with all boxing-related expenses paid by Frazier. "I got in the ring with Bobick and he took some of my best shots. I decided he had potential," Frazier says. Ironically, Frazier didn't want Bobick to go against Norton, a longtime Frazier friend. "He's my very good partyin' buddy," says Frazier. "We have big fun together." But, says Joe, he was overruled by others. Just the other day, Norton saw Frazier and said, "What are you doin' puttin' that white boy on me?" These days Joe is wrapped up in his activities as a song-and-dance man, and he doesn't take credit for Bobick. This might be because he understands that blame often quickly follows credit. But why is it that people persist in saying Bobick can't fight? "I don't know—but they said the same thing about Joe Frazier," says Frazier.
Bobick likes to say he began boxing "when the doctor slapped me on my rear and I hit him with a left hook." Nice line, but impossible; everyone knows Bobick never had a left hook until he was taught one by Frazier. "Duane is pretty good at it," says that master of left hooks, "but even now it's no big snappy punch."
As recently as 1975, Bobick earned $15,000. In 1976, it was $61,000. This year? "A bunch." If he loses to Norton? "It won't be the end of the world," says Duane. "Life already has nailed me a lot of shots. I'll be O.K. And some day not too far away I can give up this manly art of getting belted around."
Bobick admits he once had a fear of dying "before I accomplished anything," but now feels he has met most of his goals. He wants to improve his brothers, which explains why at a banquet in Manila he hurled an olive pit across the table that hit LeRoy between the eyes, then instructed, "Don't blow on your soup. It's not polite." He says he wants to be "a good person because if you are, everything will happen for the best."
Thus does Duane Bobick approach the most important fight of his life. "If I win, I may move right into the middle of Beverly Hills and raise chickens," he says. "If I lose, I'll go lie up in the sun and figure what to do next. I'm flexible. I've got gypsy blood in me just like those old trappers did."