Across the street from downtown Nashville's Davidson County Court House, around back of an old brick building and up a flight of stairs, is a locked metal door. Behind it is the Nashville Metropolitan Jail gym. Inside are two basketball hoops, a Universal gym, two pay phones, four heavy bags suspended from (and padlocked to) ponderous chains, a jogging machine, a boxing ring and, for two hours in the morning and again in the afternoon, some two dozen inmates, five deputies (three of whom are usually dressed in sweats) and three guard dogs. Knock on that locked metal door and—for the next two weeks, anyway—the deputy who'll answer will generally be Johnny Bumphus. "Bump City," as the inmates approvingly call him, would give anything not to be that man. He would give almost anything to be half the world away, in Moscow, fighting for the light welterweight (139 pounds) gold medal. He thinks he would win it. And from there...well, you take it. America's last gold medalist in the light welterweights was Sugar Ray Leonard.
It was watching Leonard win that medal that hardened Bumphus' resolve to make the Olympic team four years later. He was 15 then, living with his family in Tacoma, Wash., the youngest of seven children and the only boy. "I said to Mama, I'm going to be there in 1980,' " Bumphus recalls. "She said. 'O.K., we're going to see.' "
In the summer of 1977, Bumphus moved to Nashville to join his coach from the Tacoma Boys Club, Joe Clough. He got a job as a deputy and trained in the Old Metro Jail gym after work under Clinton Jackson, coach of the Sheriffs Boxing Club (and 16th-ranked WBA welterweight and '76 Olympian).
In November of '77, Bumphus' mother was shot to death in Tacoma. Stunned, Johnny decided to stay on in Nashville, keeping his job as a deputy and continuing his training under Jackson. When Bumphus won the light welterweight championship at the Olympic Trials in Atlanta last month, the win that could have sent him to Moscow, he dedicated the tournament to his mother. A common enough story, perhaps, but no less true through repetition. It is such a loss and the memory of a promise that can lift a young man to greatness.
July 20, 1980
Actually, Bumphus had his dreams set on the Olympics as far back as 1972, when his Tacoma Boys Club teammate—another Sugar Ray, this one with the last name of Seales—won the 135-pound gold medal in Munich. Bumphus had been boxing at the Boys Club since 1968. Like so many kids, he had gone there after repeated poundings by older and bigger schoolmates. "I was small for my age and used to get picked on a lot," he says. "I lost my first fight at the Boys Club and retired for a year. Then at nine I won my second fight and retired again. But I liked it. I played football and baseball and basketball for the Boys Club, too, but if there was a football game and a boxing match at the same time. I'd always go to the boxing. Seemed like I was winning more at that."
There were two more Tacoma boxers on the 1976 Olympic team, Davey Lee Armstrong and Leo Randolph. Randolph won the gold in the flyweight division. "As soon as Leo won, everyone knew that John would be next," says another teammate from the Tacoma Boys Club, Thomas Binford, who rooms with Bumphus in Nashville. "He'd been to the national Junior Olympics twice, and all the way along he'd been the best of our group—and at that time Tacoma was the hottest boxing spot in the country. Then Coach Clough moved to Nashville and the program went all to hell. That's why John moved down here."
Bumphus, who is a slim six-footer, fought at 132 until June of 1979, when he moved up to the 139-pound class. "I was starting training at 150 and by the time I got my weight down I was too weak. I haven't been beaten as a light welterweight and I've been there a year and a half." In that span, he has won 35 fights, seven by knockout, and has defeated opponents from the Soviet Union, Cuba, Poland and Romania who figured to be his toughest Olympic competition.
"I don't go out looking for a knockout." Bumphus says. "Boxing is the art of landing more punches. Hit and not get hit is my style." But the punches Bumphus lands are hardly pitty-pats. Because he runs up to nine miles a day when in training, his legs are well-developed and his weight is concentrated in his impressively leveraged upper body.
In the 1979 Southern Golden Gloves in Knoxville. one of his opponents had to be hospitalized following their bout. "I visited him in the hospital." Bumphus recalls. "But a week and a half later he died. It affected me deeply for a while. But the doctor told me he had a blood clot in his brain even before the fight. I happened to be the one in the ring when his time came. Some things are just meant to be."
A southpaw, Bumphus relies primarily on a right jab and a right hook, and quickness. "He's so fast," says Shelvy Wilkerson, a fellow deputy and sparring partner. "The man can throw thunder in jail and put handcuffs around lightning." Four months ago Bumphus flattened Wilkerson's nose during a friendly workout. "And that was with the big gloves on." Wilkerson says. "Imagine what he could do with the small ones. I tell you one thing, if he fought Duran. someone would go to sleep."
Bumphus turns 20 next month, and shortly thereafter intends to turn pro. Even now he is deciding on a manager. But a Duran-Bumphus scenario is unlikely. Bumphus plans to continue to fight as a light welterweight and gain his experience in that division. If he keeps growing and has trouble making the weight, perhaps then he would join the more glamorous welters. "But Duran won't be around much longer." Bumphus predicts. "He'll fight once, maybe twice more with Leonard, then get out. Or get knocked out. I thought Leonard, as champion, fought well enought to keep the title last time. I thought he won."
Like Leonard, Bumphus has a smooth, unscarred, babyish face that would have looked well smiling above a gold medal on national television. Admittedly, said visage doesn't cry out to be hugged and smothered with kisses as does Leonard's, but Johnny Bumphus is a handsome and marketable boxer. He is shy, intelligent, soft-spoken. Aside from the honor, the fulfillment of a dream, an Olympic medal and the resulting exposure would have meant a lot of money. "There's no question that a gold medalist is always going to get a better deal." Bumphus says. "Sugar Ray made $40,000 his first fight. The managers I've been talking to have offered $15,000 to $20,000.
"I remember when the boycott was first mentioned. I thought it would just pass over, that the Soviets would pull out of Afghanistan or whatever. More or less I was just thinking that there would be a team that went to Moscow. Even if it didn't, at least I'd be a member of that team. But when it was official, it was really a heartbreaker. It affected me for about a month, I guess. Now I accept it."
It has probably been easier for Bumphus than most. He has seen fate's whimsies up close. Last March he had been on the plane carrying 14 U.S. boxers only hours before it crashed, killing all on board. "It had just dropped a group of us off in New York returning from Warsaw, where we'd stopped on the way back from East Germany. Then it picked up the other guys and 10 hours later it crashed. The coach had called me and asked which trip I wanted to be on. I chose East Germany because I wanted the extra experience. I'd already fought the Polish fighter and the West German." One of the American boxers killed in that crash was Lemuel Steeples, Bumphus' chief competition for the 139-pound spot on the Olympic team.
Bumphus isn't bitter about the boycott. Like many American blacks, he feels somewhat removed from the government's decision-making processes. "I believe I blame the Russians for going into Afghanistan in the first place," he says. "Carter was letting them know whatever it was he wanted them to know the only way he knew how. I believe there might have been other ways to handle it without involving the athletes, but I guess he couldn't think of any. It was just fated.
"About the time the decision was made, I was really going good. I had all my punches working for me and just knew I was going to win. All the Cubans and Russians are is strong. They keep one glove in your face and go forward and look for the big punch. American boxers have more lateral movement. Go side to side and the Cubans and Russians get confused. We would've done well. The coach of the 76 boxing team said our '80 team would've done even better than they did in Montreal. But you can't change it. What will be, will be. I have to set a new goal for myself. It used to be the gold medal. Now it's to become world champion."