More than 21,000 would stuff the old Chicago Stadium, all equally
shrouded in a cloud of cigar smoke. Parents, high society, South
Side boosters, gangsters. You name it. Frankie Carbo might be
ringside, scouting, hoping to identify the next Primo Carnera.
Blinky Palermo was certainly there, representing the Outfit. The
finals of the Chicago Golden Gloves, an institution that provided
send-offs to everyone from Barney Ross to Cassius Clay (and Joe
Louis in between), was simply the place to be, although maybe not
if you had unfinished business with the mob. ¬∂ Of course,
this was before TV, before the avalanche of pro sports that
diluted our attention. It was 1923 when the tournament began,
unofficially and illegally. Back then, boxing was banned in
Chicago because of widespread corruption, and that first
tournament was allowed only because of a court injunction. Still,
when the Chicago Tribune decided to sponsor the event, there were
424 entries, producing a civic phenomenon that would endure for
It was, at its peak, the most important boxing event in the
country. Never mind that the New York Daily News jumped into the
fray and hosted the first official Golden Gloves tournament in
1927. When you think Golden Gloves, you think Chicago. You think
Joey Maxim, and Ezzard Charles, and Tony Zale. And Louis, who
came down from Detroit to fight. And later, coming up from
By the '30s, when the tournament settled into Chicago Stadium
(and by which time the mob had turned Chicago into America's
fight town), the Golden Gloves was the championship conduit. Any
fighter with any aspirations had to pass through the competition,
it seemed, and with upwards of 800 entries a year it was truly
grueling. Of course, the Tribune's relentless coverage provided a
nice send-off too.
The tournament proved a popular enough idea that other cities and
states institutionalized it, and it became a national testing
ground for boxing's youth. There is hardly a name in the sport
that did not come out of a Golden Gloves tournament. Sugar Ray
Leonard, Mike Tyson, Tommy Hearns. Still, it was the Chicago
event that seemed special.
April 4, 2004
It was the newspaper connection, mostly. The Tribune's sports
editor, Arch Ward, thumped the tournament mightily, creating a
tradition that was quaint yet vibrant. The coverage made stars
out of fighters like Joe Louis, yes, but some unlikely kids as
well. Anybody reading a sports section in the '50s surely
followed the O'Shea brothers, three apprentice plasterers who
regularly reached the nationals. Brian and Rory went on to have
fine pro careers in the '60s, while Tom, now 65, decided to
become an English teacher in Chicago's inner city and coach
boxing on the side.
"In those days, when you were watching the Chicago Golden Gloves
champion, you were likely watching the national champ as well,"
Tom says. "And if you were a national Golden Gloves champ, you
were the best."
It has been a while since the Chicago Golden Gloves was must-see
boxing. Now the event is held in St. Andrews gym, near Wrigley
Field, and while tradition alone mandates attention (the
2,200-seat gym will be standing room only for the finals next
week), it can never be what it was.
These days, anyway, it seems as much fantasy camp as pro
incubator. Nobody need be particularly qualified, or even
committed, to perform in the Golden Gloves; a fighter must pass a
cursory physical exam, and that's about it. There are even novice
categories to encourage entry. This does not guarantee an
especially competitive forum, but boy, is it ever democratic.
Genuine prospects are muddled in the same 275-boxer mix as
convicted felons, bond traders, lawyers and off-season
concessionaires. Indeed, it's this potpourri of pugilism that
provides much of the tournament's current fascination. Just last
week an antique rug dealer named Haig Klujian was conducting his
annual assault on the sport, climbing through the ropes for his
third Golden Gloves.
Klujian, 27, said he had been "stunned" when his first bout two
years ago was halted in 30 seconds (on account of he might have
gotten killed). Last year's result was only a little more
encouraging, in that he was allowed the full three rounds in
But then, in qualifying in the 156-pound class last week, he got
his first win. True, he lost the next night, but the pattern of
improvement was unfolding for him. "I'll be back next year, and
the next," he vowed, "until I can retire with a winning record."
Also showing up for the preliminaries was Lawrence Dunning, a
24-year-old options trader who was educated at Exeter but has
become intrigued by the hurly-burly of Chicago gym life. He won
his first bout and was looking forward to his second, though with
a calm sort of gusto. While his competitors were sprinkled about
the dimly lit St. Andrews shadowboxing, smacking pads and just
generally behaving fiercely, the Londoner read Autobiography of a
Yogi. "It's not that great," he admitted.
Perhaps truer to the sport's roots was Cedell Mims, 21, who was
making his Golden Gloves debut just months after getting out of
the Big House. Mims, who had served five years in a succession of
increasingly secure institutions for a carjacking, still seemed
surprised at the legitimacy of this forum. Previously, his beefs
had been settled in the Joliet prison showers--"We'd fight to the
death," he says, "or close." Now? This was just strange. He still
fought as if his life depended on it, rushing from his corner to
fire immediate straight right hands, pure aggression. That, and
the house-arrest bracelet tucked into his sock, were all that
betrayed his previous boxing experience.
Any of these characters, in the tournament's better days, would
have been Page One stuff for the Tribune. An antique rug salesman
would likely have been a five-part series. But the newspaper
dropped sponsorship in 1985, and things have never quite been the
After years of producing winners who dominated the nationals (or
at least shared the domination with champs from New York), the
Chicago Golden Gloves is just another of the 32 entries each
year. Although, previous to the 2004 team, it had produced
heavyweights for three straight Olympic squads, it no longer can
be counted on to send fighters to international competitions or
provide Louis-quality pros. But looking over the ragtag hopefuls
even this year, Arch Ward would not likely have been too
disappointed. The stories just keep coming.
For more about sports in Illinois and the other 49 states, go to
"In those days, when you were watching the Chicago Golden
Gloves champion, you were likely watching the national champ as
well," says O'Shea.
This is the 37th in SI's 50th anniversary series on the 50
states. Next week: Georgia