LOSING SEARCH FOR A WINNER

The crowds at the Orlando arena are sparse, and the operation costs more than it makes, but Pete Ashlock keeps spending in hopes that one world champ will emerge from his spotless gym
May 27, 1979

Pete Ashlock, boxing manager and promoter, pushes back his $300 cowboy hat and contemplates the glories of the Florida sun and the complexities of his personality. "I'd say I am the most honest, generous, upright, benevolent person in the whole world," he says. And how would he describe himself if he were telling the truth? "I'd say I'm a sorry, no-good s.o.b., but if I was better educated, I'd do better."

No one questions Ashlock's savvy, but everyone agrees that in an earlier life he was probably a thorn. He operates out of Orlando. Among his detractors are the U.S. Government, which once filed a six-count tax-evasion indictment against him, and Orlando city fathers, who can't stand—or understand—Ashlock's brand of Old West individualism and straight talk. He says the cornerstone of his philosophy is "Don't ever say no until you hear the price."

Veteran fight manager and trainer Angelo Dundee says of Ashlock, "He's fair and his word is truly his bond." That's the scouting report on Ashlock. If he gives you his word, take it to the bank. His promises don't take funny bounces. Ashlock is among the last of those who think that all things are possible as long as you do them yourself. "When I decide to have a board meeting," says the self-made millionaire, "it takes about two seconds for everybody to get there and vote. And what you've got to remember is there ain't one Government employee who will ever help you do anything, but that every one of 'em will try to keep you from doing something."

A perfect example of how Ashlock, a former Texas rodeo cowboy, flies in the face of conventional wisdom is his boxing club in Orlando, which is both a club for boxers and an arena in which club fighters appear. Whatever made Ashlock think that a fight club, which stages pro bouts every other Tuesday night, would succeed in Orlando? "Nothing," says Ashlock. "I never thought it would succeed. Orlando ain't a sports town." So why try? "I like it. Besides, you got to build talent somewhere. Why not here?"

Sure enough, boxing isn't succeeding in Orlando. Indeed, it's an abject failure, financially. Townspeople stay away in droves from his Orlando Sports Stadium, which could seat 9,500 for boxing; the biggest crowd ever was 3,858, and 1,000-1,200 is closer to normal. But Ashlock perseveres, saying, "When a promoter quits dreaming about a full house, he'd better get out of the business. A good promoter has always got to have a good excuse. That's the most important thing. Like when we have a small crowd, I say, 'Well, the Winn-Dixie store stayed open too late.' It doesn't matter how good the excuse is, long as you got one."

Still, Ashlock's club—about 15 pros are under contract to him, and 25 or so amateur fighters are also members—is one of the busiest boxing facilities in the country. It is thus a blockbuster success, artistically. Dundee credits Ashlock with being one of the nation's most active promoters. New York matchmaker Gil Clancy says, "Ashlock isn't impossible to deal with. All he wants is the best match and the most money." There are only four boxing capitals in the U.S.: New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Orlando. Chris Dundee, the Miami promoter, says of Ashlock, "He's got to love boxing, because God knows how much money he has lost on it."

Ashlock has lost money on every one of his boxing shows. Conversely, he makes money on every one of his weekly wrestling shows. This year he'll stage 155 events in the Sports Stadium, including rodeos, horse shows, rock shows and boxing. The other night he took in $5,126 on a boxing card; his expenses were $7,000. "Don't matter," says Ashlock. "I just bought a $1,900 ticket and I had a good time." And in the post-midnight shadows of the barnlike stadium, he explains that "when you're trying to sell the public something you like, you're at their mercy. If we'd had more people tonight, I'd have lost less, and if we'd had less people, I'd have lost more. But boxing is an individual thing and I like that. And if I keep two or three kids off the street or out of jail, it's worth it to me."

But Ashlock really keeps going, he says, for one reason: "My hope is getting me a champion." Ever since that day in 1969 when Dean Chance, the American League's Cy Young Award winner in 1964, walked into Ashlock's office, said he owned a fighter and asked Ashlock to put on a card, Ashlock has been hooked. That only 1,200 fans showed up for the occasion is proof that Ashlock was easy to convince. His hopes for getting a champion are slim, like anyone else's, but a New York friend and promoter, Frank Curry, says, "The thing that's different about Pete is that he's willing to take a chance and to back up his conviction with cash."

Indeed, when the ABA was in business, league officials encouraged Ashlock to buy a basketball floor and hinted at the possibility of a franchise. Says Ashlock, "I spent $33,000 for a floor, got three ABA games, lost $7,500 on each one—and didn't meet a gentleman in the whole mess." He sold his floor for $12,500. When Ashlock got the closed-circuit television rights for Orlando for the 1974 Ali-Foreman fight, he spent $18,000 to advertise it on the side of city buses for a month. Seven days before the month was up, the fight was postponed. The delay guaranteed another money-losing event for Ashlock, but he did it all over again. "The only way you can kill a damn cowboy," he says, "is to cut his head off, then hide it."

Curry also says that anything Ashlock sets out to do eventually gets done. So if the phrase "...wearing red trunks, the world champion from Orlando, Florida..." doesn't sound very plausible, who's to say it might not someday? But even Dominick Polo, who trains Ashlock's boxers, is candid when asked to name the best fighter ever to come out of Orlando: "None."

The star, if fading, of the Ashlock stable is Edgar (Mad Dog) Ross, a 154-pounder who once held the North American junior welterweight crown. But Mad Dog Ross has never won the titles of the organizations that count, the World Boxing Council (which once ranked him as the No. 3 junior welterweight) or the World Boxing Association. Ashlock remembers when Ross drifted into the Orlando gym three years ago. "You talk about a wild, rank bum," he says. "He didn't give a damn for nothing. He was just tough." Ross subsequently ran up 50 straight victories and fights were hard to come by, says Polo, because his record was too good.

Edgar ("That doesn't sound like a fighter, does it? Sounds like a poet") got his nickname back home in Tuscaloosa after a furious sparring session with a heavyweight. "Man," said the bigger man, shaking his head, "you fight like a mad dog." "Every town has its Top 10 toughest guys," says Ross. "I wanted to be in the Top 10 in Tuscaloosa."

Ross staged his fights ("I was a pretty good promoter, too, just like Mr. Ashlock") either in the parking lot of the McDonald's across from the high school or in Bowers Park. He recalls that folks would show up with knives, guns and tire tools. "I'd fight and the war would be on," says Ross. "Several people would always be carried off to the hospital. Worst of all, sometimes it was me. I tell you, fear makes you fight like hell. Once a guy raised his pistol at me and fired it point-blank. I knew he couldn't miss me, and when the gun went off I figured I was so excited that I just didn't feel it." The shot somehow missed. Ross later served in the Navy, firing guns on a destroyer off Vietnam. He spent his service years fighting and carousing, and by 1970 he was back in Tuscaloosa, looking for trouble and doing pills. He'd buy them by the gross at a truck stop. "I couldn't see where I was going, but that was only because I wasn't going anywhere," he says. Then he fell in with Ashlock. Mad Dog has now become a solid citizen, even to the point of attending college. He rents a small house with orange trees in the backyard. He barbecues chicken for neighbor kids (in turn, they rake his yard), plays Scrabble and lives with his two dogs.

But, alas, Ross and his 50 straight victories went to Kansas City recently for a $17,000 payday against Tony Chiaverini, the WBC's seventh-ranked middleweight. Ross' biggest previous purse had been $1,600. "He's not going to throw anything I haven't seen before," Ross was saying before the fight. And, indeed, Chiaverini didn't. Just a lot more and a lot harder. In the ninth round, Ross was knocked down. In the 10th, the embattled Mad Dog suffered a technical knockout. He later allowed that it was as bad a whipping as he'd ever taken, even counting Tuscaloosa. And the future isn't too bright. Ross is 31 years old, and while he denies he's over the hill, that's probably just where he is.

Ross remains a local hero, however, and every time he fights he ups the gate by $3,000 to $5,000. "When I get another star," says Ashlock, "every jerk in town will come out to get his autograph and pass on his opinion as to whether he thinks the fighter is good or lucky."

One of Ashlock's putative stars was Scott Clark, who got a title fight in Los Angeles in January against WBA welterweight champion Jose Pepino Cuevas. Clark was knocked out in the second round. At 20, he has more time to come back, if he wants to. "I'm not going to worry myself about losing a boxing match," he says. "Depression is a bad thing. Look, if I have some talent, it'll show up. And if I don't, it'll show up." Clark still considers himself a good fighter, which is one reason why he feels he can get away with wearing a gold velvet robe and trunks. Was it fighting so far from home that hurt him against Cuevas? "Oh, no. I've been booed in Orlando," he says. "But I have a great future. Why shouldn't I? I'm young and white and I can talk."

Ashlock says that what motivates him in the business are quality human beings like Clark. "He's a splendid young man who stands to make a lot of money," Ashlock says. "But all I can do is plant the potato crop, then pray for rain and sunshine—and that it don't get too cold." Ashlock gets a third of his boxers' purses (with Ross, they're split 50-50) when they start fighting main events.

Another of Ashlock's hopefuls was Termite Watkins, the WBC's seventh-ranked lightweight, who fights out of Orlando and Houston. But Termite went to New York, ran into one Teo Osuna, and the fight ended in a draw. Sitting glumly in Madison Square Garden, Ashlock grumped after the decision, "Heck, that other kid couldn't hit Termite in the backside with a handful of rice." But, in truth, Osuna almost surely deserved a win. Upon reflection, Ashlock agreed.

The Orlando fighter considered to have the best chance of winning a title is lightweight Claude Noel. Mickey Davies, formerly Ashlock's matchmaker and now a matchmaker in Las Vegas, calls Noel a "good ring machine." Says Ashlock, "He can put you to sleep with either hand."

When Ashlock blew into Orlando after his professional cowboy days were done, with the intention of promoting a rodeo, the city gave him so much grief about using its auditorium that he went out and put up his own building for $740,000. How did he plan to make money by having one rodeo a year in the place? "That wasn't the point," he says. "I like rodeo." His architects presented him with a plan that called for 468 tons of steel—"Which I couldn't afford," Ashlock says. So he redesigned the structure, used 168 tons of steel, and now people come around to study how it was done.

When the county wouldn't pave the dirt road that led to Ashlock's Orlando Sports Stadium, he bought the materials himself. The county grudgingly contributed the labor—then raised the property taxes. When the city's regular ticket outlets wouldn't do business with him, he utilized the Clock Tavern and the Point After Lounge. Because Orlando didn't have a suitable boxing gym, Ashlock built one himself at the back of the stadium, out by the swamp with the alligators.

As boxing gyms go, the gym itself is positively elegant. Obviously, the warm weather and sunshine seeping in help enormously. Polo, a onetime heavyweight, who envisions himself as a mixture of Napoleon and Caesar, runs a taut ship. Signs advise spectators not to go beyond the ropes, talk to the fighters, smoke, drink (beer or booze) or talk loudly. Boxers are told not to spit, do karate, lean on the ropes or put their hands and/or feet on the wall. Polo, who reminds listeners—even if nobody asks—"My record is 263-plus wins and only 19 losses," is a bug on neatness. He is also a bug on erasing the traditional image of a club fighter. "There is a difference between saying I have a club to develop fighters and I have club fighters," Polo says. "A club fighter sounds like a loser who fights in a basement once every five months. My fighters aren't that. They polish their shoes and make sure their robes aren't wrinkled. At least they can look good."

From the viewpoint of Angelo Dundee, Ashlock looks awfully good. "As a promoter, you've got to be able to suck it up," he says. "Pete does. If he doesn't have ulcers, he should have." Ashlock pays around $125 for a four-round fighter, up to $400 for an eight-rounder and between $600 and $5,000 for a main-event boxer. Plus expenses. And he knows that his interest in his fighters will sometimes go unrequited. James Salerno, a promising light heavyweight, recently left him. Harsh words are frequent in the fight game because, Ashlock explains, "Very few of these guys save their money. Then when they wake up and discover they've failed, they're looking for an excuse. Sometimes I'm it." However, Ashlock doesn't squirm when payoff time is at hand. Bruce Trampier, who used to work for Ashlock, says, "I've seen a lot of times when everyone went out of the stadium with money—except Pete."

Ashlock dropped out of school back in Texas...well, he thinks, along about the ninth grade. "I had to ride horseback 14 miles to get there," he says. "Do you have any idea how many side roads there are in 14 miles?"

When he quit rodeoing in 1951, he split for Orlando. "My financial success is purely accidental," he says. "All I did was recognize Florida as a frontier and drop a few bucks into it." He bought a bulldozer and cleared land. Watching others erect buildings on land he cleared, he decided he might as well put up buildings, too. He also did paving. In 1958 he got Government contracts for site preparation at military bases in Oklahoma and Texas. But the prime contractor went broke just before Ashlock was to be paid and left owing him $600,000. Cigar clenched in teeth, Ashlock says coldly, "To collect from dear old Uncle Sam took me nine years, 11 months, 17 days."

Ashlock then got to thinking about cranes, having had to rent a number of them for his building projects. He decided to buy the cranes himself and do the renting. He got into the Cape Kennedy building boom, then Walt Disney World. "Whenever I heard of work," he says, "I'd spend anywhere from $30,000 to $180,000 on another crane." In August of 1973, his 27 cranes were making him $66,000 a month; in September, business fell off and his cranes were making him $6,000 a month. Says Ashlock, "Funny thing, but I never wanted more than a couple of cranes anyway."

Although the Government failed to convict Ashlock on any of the tax-evasion charges, he admits to being nervous because "they was flying in witnesses from all over the world against me." But he doesn't think they'll come after him again, because "I stand peaceful with them—if they stand peaceful with me."

But peace is rarely Ashlock's portion. Eight years ago the Orlando Sentinel ran a headline that said ONE DEAD, DOZENS HURT IN ROCK RIOT AT STADIUM. In fact, two young women were killed after their car was rammed by a sheriff's car en route to the stadium, about 3.2 miles away. Ashlock sued the Sentinel Star Company, which publishes both the Sentinel and the Orlando Evening Star, for $10 million. The suit was dismissed and appeals denied.

Thus, because Ashlock is demonstrably a fighter, liking fighters makes sense. He promises that each of his top boxers will get a title fight before 1981. All he expects from them is effort. An example of effort, he says, is a friend of his "who can still run 15 miles, then whip your butt at the other end if he don't like what you're doing."

Most of all, while others scratch their heads and say can't and don't, Ashlock says yes and does. When his daughter was born while the Ashlocks were visiting in Dallas, he bought an airplane for $38,000 and flew the family to Orlando. "I wanted to get home," Ashlock says. His wife, Mary, says, "There isn't another like him." In a restaurant, Pete asks for onion slices and twice is brought pitiful little slices. He promptly gets up, walks across the street, buys an onion, comes back, slices it in huge pieces and eats it.

"I've never met my equal," he says. "And if I die tomorrow, there's not a damn thing I missed."

PHOTO PHOTOBacked by his stable (some are a bit more stable than others), promoter Pete Ashlock (left) is aided by trainers Dominick Polo and Steve Elliott. TWO PHOTOSLoosening up in the men's room, Mad Dog Ross hoped to run his record to 51 straight wins, but, doggone it, he was decked and then defeated.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)