The second semester of my eight-grade year, I made a buck and a half for being used as a somewhat mobile punching bag for my fellow 8th grader, Johnny Copeland. Johnny was on the “Vocational” path in school, considered three levels down from my “College Prep” track. These kinds of low-life experiences and acquaintances had enriched my life, but they had downsides too. It was pure luck, for example, that Mom never noticed the bruises on my arms all those weeks and I’d decided that, despite the usefulness of the extra money, I wasn’t going to re-enlist as a sparring partner.
Johnny didn’t like my decision, but I announced it while surrounded by a number of football and basketball players, so he didn’t argue. He just went to the Boys’ Club and kept working out in the more orthodox way. He dropped out of high school his junior year. I assumed that, like many of his peers, he’d knocked up a girl and had to get a job.
He hadn’t stopped boxing, though. He won the Joplin Golden Gloves in his weight class every year. As a freshman at the University of Kansas, I read in the Star that Johnny had won the Kansas City Golden Gloves. Clearly, he’d become a seriously good amateur fighter. He won the K.C. Golden Gloves title again the following year, and in March of 1965, I saw him fight for the first time in a ring rather than in a schoolyard.
I rode the Greyhound from Lawrence into downtown Kansas City, MO, and grabbed a quick burger before heading over to Municipal Auditorium for the National Golden Gloves Championships, which started promptly at 6 p.m. I could afford only the price of the cheapest ticket: a buck and a half, exactly what I’d earned from getting hit by Johnny six years earlier. That little piece of cardboard permitted me to sit anywhere in the portion of the balcony located at one end of the arena, a large rectangular space, designed for basketball, that seated 20,000.
I instantly spotted several empty rows, and as I walked down towards them, I realized that the large numbers of mostly middle-aged African-American men occupying seats nearby were likely the cause of this “empty quarter.” I plopped down in a prime spot, two rows in front of a handful of buddies who were passing around a small bottle of liquor. The first fight had already begun: two black kids who looked about 18 were engaged in what’s called a “war” in the sporting press, shorthand for lots of punches thrown and landed by both participants. This was the first flyweight semi-final. The second would match two white boys. “See, they gotta have a white against a colored in the final. Ain’t that right, kid?” The speaker stretched out his leg and kicked the back of my seat.
“O yeah, sure,” I replied, without taking my eyes off the spirited struggle.
“Leave the kid alone,” his buddy responded. “You’re full of shit anyway. Look at the pictures in the paper: ain’t no other weight class even got two whites and two blacks. It’s mostly all our boys, ’cept for this next bunch and the heavyweights.”
“Gimme a slug of that,” was the only response.
The “next bunch” were the bantamweights. A Latino from Fort Worth narrowly won the first semi-final bout. The winners of both three-round semi-finals in each of the eight weight classes would meet later that same evening for the championship in their division.
Then Johnny Copeland entered the ring to face a stocky pugilist from Montana, whose arms were shorter than his. Johnny looked as skinny as I did. I weighed 118 pounds myself, the weight limit for this division, but I lacked his thick neck and muscular shoulders. His stomach also showed evidence of his having done at least three sessions of a hundred sit-ups daily. I could maybe do a hundred in a week.
“Jab him!” I yelled throughout the contest. “Stick and move! Use your reach!” Johnny fought as if he heard my instructions, though likely they were roughly similar to the advice shouted by his trainers. The men behind me were also rooting for Johnny, the only white boxer on the K.C. team, because, although from Joplin, he represented Kansas City by virtue of having won the Golden Gloves there. After three tough rounds, Johnny lost a very close decision. I sagged with disappointment. One win away from a National Championship! I would have liked a drink from that bottle circulating a few feet above my head.
A couple of hours later, that opportunity presented itself. The lightweight final featured Frankie Anderson, a young man from the Kansas City ghetto regarded as the finest boxer in the Greater Kansas City area. His opponent was an olive-skinned guy from Omaha. My now-intoxicated neighbors two rows above me persisted in referring to him as white, though they used terms like “honky,” “redneck,” “peckerwood,” and my new favorite, “Crisco.” (Took me a while to get that one.) I’d have bet the man in question had some African ancestry though his skin was considerably lighter than Frankie’s deep ebony. I cheered enthusiastically for Frankie, but the men at my back assumed I must be for the “white guy” and gave me unceasing shit throughout the match about the general incompetence of “your boy,” as Anderson administered a methodical and thorough beating. After Frankie’s hand had been raised as the winner, they offered me consolation in the form of a half-pint bottle of cheap whiskey. I expressed my sincere gratitude, took a healthy drink, and passed the bottle back. During the final four championship contests, I sat turned partially towards them in order to converse and to periodically receive further “consolation” drinks from one bottle or another. Apparently most of the half-dozen or so 50ish gentlemen had brought a half-pint of notably cheap booze. I was quite a connoisseur of cheap liquor.
I waited eagerly for the heavyweight final to begin. An impressive white kid of 19 (my own age) from L.A. named Jerry Quarry, later a well-known professional, had knocked out all four of his previous opponents in the tournament, and in his semi-final had broken the jaw of his Texan rival with a single punch. The man was taller than Quarry by several inches and outweighed him by 45 pounds. Doctors were involved and the victim carried out on a stretcher. As I waited for Quarry and his probably quite trepidatious and even reluctant opponent to emerge from the dressing rooms and climb into the ring, I enjoyed the nice buzz I’d picked up from the liquor. All of a sudden, from a far distant part of my brain, there came back to me another Golden Gloves tournament, one I’d attended a decade earlier back in Joplin.
That event had been held at a venue called Memorial Hall, a small-scale version of the Municipal Auditorium where I now sat, half-drunk and musing. I’d been nine years old back then. I’d obsessively viewed the Friday Night Fights from the moment we’d first purchased a TV a couple of years prior, always paying attention to the commentary of both the announcer and my dad. Consequently, my father deemed me sufficiently well-versed in the intricacies of the sport to appreciate an evening of watching men trying to beat each other up in front of an audience of 3,000 or so. I loved it. I’ve saved the tattered program to this day.
But as I sat in the balcony in Municipal Auditorium with companions who were largely brown and black, I thought of an incident that happened during that childhood evening of pugilism in my hometown, one I barely remembered. Early on in the proceedings, a black boxer had been matched against a white one. They were mixing it up pretty good when a couple of fellows in front of us started hollering “Kill the nigger!” After the first shouts, my dad tapped one of them on shoulder, leaned forward, and talked to them for a short while. They laid off the racial epithets after that, though I clearly remember hearing similar remarks shouted throughout the evening from the balcony above us. I’m sure I knew enough then about the subject of race in America that I ought to have been proud of him, but I wasn’t. I was embarrassed.
I didn’t hear what exactly he said or else I’ve forgotten it. But the two men had turned to look at me so it seemed likely my father had used my youth and innocence as a reason for them to tone down their vitriol. It always infuriated me to be used as an excuse for his manipulating other people. But besides being furious, I’d also been frightened. Dad was nearly 6 feet tall and built like a light-heavyweight. At 43, he looked as if he could still go a couple of rounds, so maybe the race-baiters were intimidated. But there were two of them! And they were a lot younger than him! This could be a serious punchup! I visualized blood on the floor. Maybe theirs. Maybe his. Maybe mine. I put my feet up on my seat and buried my head between my knees. Eventually, Dad patted me on the shoulder and no more was ever said about it. Clearly, I’d scarcely thought about it since.
It now seemed like something important, but if I hadn’t been sitting there with a bunch of not-white people watching the fights it might never have come to mind.
The heavyweight final was historic, but also rather anti-climactic: another (though slighter and slimmer) giant in opposition to Quarry, another broken jaw, and another stretcher. As we all started filing out of the arena, angry shouts came from one aisle over, then sounds of a scuffle, then footsteps running and someone screaming “He’s got a knife!” At this, much of the exiting crowd started running. I stuck with my new friends. I sensed that their instincts in this situation would be superior to mine, even though we were all, to one measure or another, drunk. A smart move. They internalized how to stay safe at times when violence breaks out. Instead of running away, they slowed to a walk. “Let’s not get hasty. Don’t want to run into no shiv. Keep your eyes peeled.” They were looking around cautiously as we approached the stairway. I saw someone point at the floor. Blood. A few drops at first, but increasingly large puddles as we descended towards the lobby.
“Two white guys,” one of them said.
“Nah. One of ’em was Mexican.”
“You’re both wrong. Two whites and one…” Here the speaker rubbed two fingers on the back of his hand in the sign meaning “skin like ours.”
The paper the next day said only that someone had been stabbed and was in the hospital in stable condition. The alleged perpetrator was in custody. There was no indication of the race or ethnicity of any of the participants in that violence.
Frankie Anderson, the slickest boxer in that tournament, never turned pro. Instead, he went to work for the “Outfit,” Kansas City’s powerful branch of the primarily Sicilian Cosa Nostra. He was murdered in a mob-owned downtown Kansas City parking lot during an internecine gang war in 1970. He was 23 years old.
Jerry Quarry turned professional soon after his success in Kansas City. He fought twice for the world heavyweight championship, and had some success outside the ring as an actor and businessman. He also took some beatings from fighters of the caliber of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Like many others, when his businesses failed, he went back into the ring and got himself pummeled by men who’d have been his inferior a decade earlier. He wound up with dementia pugilistica and was seriously cognitively impaired as well as physically damaged. He died at age 54.
Johnny Copeland suffered a broken jaw in the 1966 Kansas City Golden Gloves and, although he won that fight, couldn’t contest the championship. The man who won the title by forfeit went on to win the National Championship. Johnny won the 1967 championship and retired from boxing at 21. After the birth of his fourth child, economic necessity propelled him into a career as a professional at age 25. He won 38 bouts and lost 44. He’d fight anyone, anywhere. He became known as “Irish” Johnny Copeland, so the audiences in Des Moines or San Antonio would know he was white. He fought twice in the same week, once in Lake Charles, five days later in Philadelphia. He won both. Amazingly, of his 82 bouts, only 21 went the scheduled number of rounds. He knocked out 32 of his opponents and was himself knocked out 29 times.
Despite this, he retained the same mental and verbal facility he’d always had, though he was never known for being witty or bright or even especially articulate. At the age of 58, while walking on the shoulder of Interstate 44 near Joplin, he was struck by a car and killed. No explanation was ever found for why he was walking after midnight on a freeway with his back to traffic.