A King Without A Crown

Sean O'Grady held the lightweight championship and did as his father wanted—and that cost him his title
November 02, 1981

The fog at 7 a.m. is rich and dense, and it beads like sweat on your upper lip. The gray light could be from a streetlamp or the lightening sky. Or even from the full moon, obscured by fog, that is hanging above the murky trees. Sean O'Grady, wearing a green sweat suit, starts his run through Oklahoma City's Will Rogers Park. With him is his brother-in-law Monte Masters, a 23-year-old heavyweight who is the opponent Joe Frazier has selected for his comeback fight. O'Grady is training for an Oct. 31 fight with Andrew Ganigan, who's replacing Howard Davis, the injured 1976 Olympic champion. O'Grady and Masters take quick, small steps. A lap through the park is 1.3 miles, and by the third lap the rising sun has become mired in the fog with the trees, moon and streetlamps. Only the runners seem to be moving. They slice through the fog, side by side, jostling each other like colts. Masters cuts a corner and sprints ahead.

"Cheaters never win and winners never cheat," O'Grady yells after him as he races to pull even. They are fit and the running is effortless. The company is good. There is privacy in the fog, and they like it.

A month earlier, in September, O'Grady had been on top of the world. He was then the WBA lightweight champion, and had a 74-2 record and an astounding 64 knockouts. He was the Cosmopolitan Bachelor of the Month for September; in the accompanying article, he said he'd like to meet a shy, conservative girl who really needs me. "Bashful bunnies" wrote to this "peachy pugilist" by the boxful. O'Grady received something like 10,000 letters, many of which contained photos that were anything but shy and conservative. Further, the 22-year-old O'Grady was a budding TV color man. He had done a series of fights for ESPN, and seven bouts for CBS in the past four months. O'Grady is polite, nice-looking and articulate and, on Good Morning America, host David Hartman made quite a bit of O'Grady's dream of becoming a brain surgeon. (The press constantly refers to O'Grady as an "honor student enrolled in premed at Oklahoma State University," although he hasn't attended college since 1979 and will be only a sophomore if he returns.) O'Grady has also been the subject of two songs and a biography humbly entitled Sean O'Grady, Living Legend, by a certain Champ Thomas. More on him in a moment. The final testament to O'Grady's burgeoning fame came when his logo—a battle tank made from the words Green Machine—was made into a limited edition belt buckle on which was embossed SEAN O'GRADY, WORLD CHAMPION. It sold in Oklahoma City for $19.95. Yep, things were looking rosy for O'Grady.

Until Sept. 12, when the WBA stripped him—or, more accurately, a New Jersey judge, Stanley S. Brotman, ordered the WBA to strip him—of his championship. The reason: O'Grady hadn't defended against the No. 1 contender, Claude Noel, by that date.

O'Grady's troubles with the WBA began last April, when Hilmer Kenty was the WBA lightweight champion and O'Grady had signed to fight him. Noel sued Kenty, the WBA and promoter Bob Arum, claiming that Noel, not O'Grady, was the No. 1 contender and therefore should get the title shot. Brotman ruled that the winner of the O'Grady-Kenty fight would have to defend against Noel in 90 days. When O'Grady upset Kenty, he had to fight Noel. That was fine with the O'Grady camp—O'Grady is managed by his mother, Jeanie, and trained by his father, Pat—but the judge also stipulated that Arum's Top Rank, Inc., would promote the O'Grady-Noel fight. Pat O'Grady, who exercises absolute rule over his son's life, didn't like that idea. He has another son, Michael Gass—Sean's half brother—who had just taken over the family promotional business, Starmaker, Inc., and naturally Pat wanted Starmaker to promote the bout. When Arum and Gass failed to come to terms, Pat O'Grady said there would be no fight. Sean was then stripped of the title he had worked seven years to win, had never defended and had held for all of five months.

"Sean may have been the victim," says one observer who knows father and son, "but his father was the victimizer. The ironic thing is that the feeling in the boxing world is that Sean would have beaten Noel, no problem."

That, says Pat O'Grady, wasn't the point. He says that Arum had promised to split the promotion with Starmaker and then went back on his word. Arum denies this. Pat sticks to his principles: "We turned down $250,000 to sign with Top Rank. I told them where they could shove their money. That's called guts. To buck the system takes guts. I fought in World War II and was wounded twice for the right to be free."

Pat O'Grady mentions his war record a lot. He was a Marine, enlisting with the help of a forged birth certificate when he was 15. He fought on Okinawa and Guadalcanal. Perhaps his anger comes from that experience. Or perhaps his gallstones, which have been bothering him of late. But there's a lot of anger inside him. He has been called many things over the years. Curmudgeon is as good a description as any.

When Dean Bailey, a writer for The Daily Oklahoman, referred to O'Grady as a curmudgeon a while back, he got a phone call from the O'Gradys' lawyer. "He told me I could call Pat anything I wanted, as long as Pat knew what it meant," says Bailey. "He'd had to look up 'curmudgeon.' " You could also call Pat a good, old-fashioned Oklahoma redneck. "I'm not afraid of anybody down at the gym," he says. "I've got two friends, Smith and Wesson, that can handle them all, and I'll pull the trigger on any of them."

Clearly, diplomacy isn't Pat's long suit. So the first thing he did when the WBA stripped Sean of his title was to form his own organization, the World Athletic Association. President? J.C. Thomas—a/k/a Champ—a boxing referee who doubled as Sean's biographer. Chairman of the Executive Committee? Michael Gass. Credentials Chairman? Pat O'Grady. The WAA says it now has members in 26 states and six countries, all of whom are either active boxing promoters or managers. But it has yet to be taken very seriously, and the Nevada boxing commission has refused to recognize it. "It's another phony organization, just like the WBA or WBC," says one boxing expert. "The question is, do you go with an established phony organization, or an unestablished phony one?"

Sean would seem to be the pawn in his father's grand, defiant game, but he says, "I would gladly sacrifice my title to have a world organization based in this country. We have the best fighters, the biggest purses, and I'm kind of glad it happened to me. I was depressed for about two weeks after they took my title away, but then I decided I'd rather be the people's champion than any organization's."

O'Grady and Masters are on their fourth lap, still enshrouded in fog. Masters runs up, grabs the back of O'Grady's arm and then easily pushes it across the front of O'Grady's body. O'Grady stumbles.

"Leverage," Masters says with a smile. He's referring to a boxing lesson that Pat gave the night before at a birthday party for Grandma O'Grady Harms, Pat's mother. Grandma lives with Sean. She cooks and cleans for him, reminds him to take his vitamins and, when 10 o'clock rolls around, tells him it's time for bed. "You know, Sean won't ever leave the house until he kisses me goodby," Grandma says. "He's just a peach of a kid. They don't make them any better."

Boxing is a family affair with the O'Gradys. Rosie O'Grady Masters, the sister of Sean and wife of Monte, works in the boxing office with her parents. Another half brother, Pat Fitzpatrick (Pat O'Grady has been married five times: "I used to change wives like other men changed shirts."), helps out around the gym. Gass is the promoter. To a large degree, they all depend on the income from Sean's boxing career. That's another type of leverage.

Sean rolls his eyes at Masters and says, "There's nothing like teaching boxing at a party."

"It's never out of your mind," Masters reminds him.

A Mexican heavyweight named Tony (Kid) Longoria lived with the O'Gradys when Sean was around 5 years old. Longoria was a teen-ager, full of hostility, and he was trained and managed by Pat O'Grady. "He was a street kid," says Pat, "very mean, a vicious type. A big, tough macho man. More than anything, he was the one who made Sean want to be a fighter."

"We lived like gypsies," Sean recalls. "We went from Beaumont to L.A. to Austin to Vegas to Houston to San Antonio—wherever Dad could get Tony fights. Longoria was 17 or 18 and could drive a car. I wanted to be like him. He was mean, and he made me mean. I got in a lot of fights at school when I was younger; I had a lot of snarls at society. But you can't fight mad. When Dad took over, he taught me to be controlled."

It was that meanness that convinced Pat that one day Sean would be a world champion. "My goal in life is to take hostile children and turn them into champions," Pat says. "If they don't have that hostility, I can't give it to them." That, obviously, is the trainer speaking, not the father. There's no father now. It's a role he has had to give up. "I'm against the father-son relationship in boxing," he says. "It's too brutal a sport, too vicious. You need total objectivity. Sean O'Grady's the enemy when he's in the ring. I want him to hate me and take it out on the other guy. If he don't knock his opponent out, I'm mad."

That apparently is the way it has to be. Historically, fathers haven't had a great measure of success working in their sons' corners. Mike Rossman, for example.

"My father and I have a strictly business relationship," Sean says. "Don't get me wrong, I love him. But I would discourage anybody from trying to do what I've done. I still look at him not as my manager, but as my father."

The strain shows, but in a peculiar way, it may be this father-son tension that has made Sean the fighter he is today. "Look at my kid's eyes," Pat yells while reviewing a tape of the Kenty fight. "You don't have to tell this kid to finish a fighter. He's a beady-eyed little killer." The father is beaming with pride.

When Sean was 13, Pat took him to Los Angeles to see what Sean could do in four rounds with then featherweight champion Bobby Chacon. "Sean did so well I didn't trust what I saw," Pat recalls, "so I asked Sugar Ray Robinson, who was there, what he thought. He said, 'Give him a shot. He fights like a black.' "

Sean turned pro at the age of 15 after just 17 amateur fights. He fought 26 times in 1975 with 22 knockouts. When Sean was 17 and 29-0, Pat purposely overmatched him against Danny (Little Red) Lopez, who was on his way to the featherweight championship. "I never thought he could beat Lopez," Pat says, "but I wanted to get-that 'undefeated' monkey off his back. That can put pressure on a kid." Pat threw in the towel after four rounds, but Sean had rocked Lopez several times in the first round.

It would be four and a half years before Sean lost again. In the interim he acquired a reputation as a bleeder because of several gruesome bouts that were nationally televised. During one fight, against Shig Fukuyama, the ring doctor told Pat, "People think he's bleeding so much, they're calling in from all over the country demanding that it be stopped. The TV cameramen are threatening to turn off their cameras." Pat told the doctor to put cotton in his ears, and Sean won on a fifth-round knockout.

After suffering eye cuts in two successive fights, O'Grady underwent plastic surgery. The projecting bones beneath his eyebrows were filed down and a layer of subcutaneous tissue from his backside was inserted as padding. When O'Grady describes the operation, he uses the medical terms. For two years he worked as a scrub technician at a local hospital and can graphically describe a 13½-hour open-heart surgery that he witnessed—"The sternum went creak, creak when they cranked it open, and there was this little bitty heart, no larger than this," he says, cupping his hand. He talks of becoming a doctor as others speak of owning a ranch. It's his genuine dream, but it's just that—a fantasy, one that his present career and life-style are leading him further and further from. "My real fear," he says, "is waking up at the age of 35, without having saved any money and without any other skill than boxing."

The plastic surgery was a success and, in a way, a blessing. While O'Grady was recovering he began doing the ESPN telecasts. When he returned to the ring, he continued his string of victories, which stood at 43 when he finally was given a shot at the lightweight title last November. His opponent was the WBC champion, Jim Watt. The fight was held in Glasgow, Scotland, Watt's homeland, a bad place for visiting boxers. The day of the bout, O'Grady received the following letter:

We have watched you train etc. and could have taken you at any time, but we want to make this really dramatic which will go down in the Records. You won't be the only one to get it, your mother, sisters, and BIG MOUTH IRISH OF A FATHER, AND OF COURSE that ugly old bastard of a granny...So say your prayers you half bred IRISH BASTARDS, and remember 1690!!!...Ther [sic] will be at least twelve of [us] in the arena and no doubt one or two of us may get it, but as long as we have the satisfaction of ridding some of you Catholic Bastards it will be well worth it.
—THE PROTESTANTS ARMY

Understandably distracted, O'Grady started slowly, but by the ninth round he had cut Watt badly enough that the ring doctor came in to examine him. The fight was allowed to continue, and in the 10th round Watt butted O'Grady, opening a gash on O'Grady's forehead. The bout should have been stopped then, but the butt wasn't acknowledged by the referee. Blinded by blood streaming into his eyes, O'Grady was virtually defenseless by the 12th round, and the fight was finally stopped with Watt declared the winner on a TKO.

The O'Gradys waited until they were out of Scotland to shout We Wuz Robbed, which they clearly were. The WBA, which initially dropped Sean to No. 4 after he lost to Watt, reinstated him as the No. 1 contender after reviewing films of the fight. (Noel's suit resulted from this action.) "I cried like a little baby after I lost to Watt," O'Grady recalls. "I was upset after losing to Danny Lopez, but I didn't see it as the end of the world. The Watt fight, I did. For two months I didn't run or go near a gym. I almost quit."

He started training again last New Year's Day, and he was again given a chance to win a 135-pound title in April, against Kenty. It was Kenty's fourth defense, and few thought O'Grady had much of a chance. O'Grady is tall (5'10½") for a lightweight, which gives him exceptional leverage and, hence, power, and he's a polished boxer. But he also takes a lot of punches and cuts easily. Kenty, most observers supposed, would jab him to ribbons. But in the second round O'Grady knocked Kenty down with a straight right on the point of the chin, and he dominated the fight, winning 13 of 15 rounds. "Hit him in the tub," his father repeated between rounds. "Every time you hit him in the belly he cries." Kenty took a terrible beating and showed great courage in lasting 15 rounds. It was a resounding way for O'Grady to win the lightweight championship. "He's a great body puncher," says Angelo Dundee, Sugar Ray Leonard's corner man. "One of the few left."

Then, after five months and no fights, O'Grady became an ex-champ at 22. The goal that he had sought since he was in fifth grade—when he announced to his laughing classmates, "Someday I'm going to be world champion!"—thrown away without taking a punch. And even though he's the same fighter, his marketability is limited without a title. And his talk about moving up in weight to fight Leonard sounds hollow. What does Leonard need with Sean O'Grady, former champion?

And just how good is O'Grady? "He's a real professional fighter," says Cus D'Amato, who managed Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres, among others. "He's not a skillful fighter, but boxing is a test of wills, not skills." A more sober assessment comes from Jimmy Jacobs, Wilfred Benitez's manager: "Right now he wouldn't beat Arguello [the WBC lightweight champ]. He hasn't reached his peak yet and won't for a few more years." What would happen if he fought Leonard? Says Jacobs, "I wouldn't even address myself to a question like that."

They have completed five laps. The fog has lifted some; the sun is burning its way through. They are walking, joking with each other, their T shirts wet and sticking to their skin. It has been a good start for the day.

A car approaches. O'Grady recognizes it and he tightens. A trapped look passes across his face. He walks on, hands on hips, head down now.

His father drives up. "You through already?" he says.

"Yep."

"What time'd you start?"

"Seven."

"How far'd you go?"

"Six and a half."

"Is that what it says on the schedule?"

"Yep."

"Tomorrow you better do seven."

Sean nods. His father drives off, the tires making a wet sound on the road.

"Not even a good morning," a companion says.

Masters and O'Grady smile at each other. O'Grady shrugs and says: "Why should today be any different?"

PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERSean pounded Kenty "in the tub," as his father urged, and won the WBA lightweight title. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERBoxing is a family affair for the O'Gradys: Grandma, Pa, Ma and Sis watch a workout. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERSean and his boxing brother-in-law, Monte Masters, rap, wrap and run together.

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)