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Remembering boxing’s departed
The sport of boxing lost some of its most colorful characters -- including iconic figures such as Emanuel Steward, Carmen Basilio, Angelo Dundee, Teofilo Stevenson, Bert Sugar, Hector Camacho and Johnny Tapia -- in 2012.
They come at us now in indelible images, indelible names, and indelible faces we can’t forget, and shouldn’t forget. The year 2012 took away some of the best in boxing.
Some went way before their time, some unexpectedly, others tragically, and still others passed away reaching a fullness of life that allowed their legacy to seep into boxing lore.
Carmen Basilio, Bert Sugar, Angelo Dundee, Corrie Sanders, Hector Camacho, Michael Dokes, Teofilo Stevenson, Don Fullmer, Johnny Tapia and never last, Emanuel Steward, all died in 2012.
Perhaps the death that hit everyone in the boxing community the hardest was the passing of Steward, the renowned hall-of-fame trainer who died on Oct. 25, at the age of 68. He was a contemporary who was the conscience of the sport through his position as an HBO broadcaster and in the no-nonsense way he expressed his opinion and how he trained his fighters.
“Emanuel Steward lives in the hearts of each of us,” heavyweight world champion Wladimir Klitschko said at Steward’s memorial service in Detroit a few weeks after he died. “Not just the people present in this room—but the people around the world.”
Steward’s impact on the sport was made clear by the many great champions he trained, including Klitschko, Lennox Lewis, Thomas Hearns and Evander Holyfield, who all showed up to the memorial service, along with his HBO broadcast family.
Lewis called Steward the greatest trainer that ever lived. Hearns was so gripped by emotion that he couldn’t fully express himself at all.
“Emanuel will always be remembered in all our hearts,” HBO blow-by-blow man Jim Lampley said. “You just had to see the spectacular showing of support he received at his memorial service. It was a veritable who’s-who of boxing royalty, with one section that I would call the Hall of Fame section. You would have to go to Canastota to see anything remotely close to who was there. To me, it conveyed how many people’s lives in and out of boxing Emanuel Steward touched.”
The purveyor of Detroit’s famed Kronk Gym had an ability to touch everyone at every level of boxing, to preach the virtues of the sport.
So did Sugar.
The one-time editor of THE RING died on March 25, of cardiac arrest. A hall of fame inductee, Sugar authored close to 90 books, mostly about boxing and boxing history. He had battled lung cancer for numerous years, though still loved lighting up a cigar every chance he got.
Dundee had been removed from the main hustle and bustle of the contemporary boxing world for some time, but “Angie” still carried tremendous clout. A true, salt-of-the-earth everyman, the Hall of Fame trainer worked with Basilio, Luis Rodriguez, Jose Napoles, Willie Pastrano, and Jimmy Ellis, though he was most renowned for training Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard.
After the fourth round of Ali’s first fight with Sonny Liston, on Feb. 25, 1964, in Miami Beach, Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, came back to the corner and complained that his eyes were burning. He told Dundee to cut off his gloves, he was through. If not for Dundee telling Ali to go back out there “and run,” who knows what would have happened and if “The Greatest” would have ever been the greatest?
Would Leonard be Leonard if not for the audible coaxing with “You’re blowing, son! You’re blowing it!” Dundee provided between the 12th and 13th rounds of Leonard’s legendary first brawl with Hearns?
Boxing wouldn’t be boxing without its tragic figures, and regrettably, 2012 supplied two, one you had the feeling something was lurking in his future, while the other’s terrible demise came quite unexpectedly.
Camacho’s death on Nov. 24, was the result of gunshot wounds to the head suffered on November 20 while seated in a car outside a nightclub in Bayamon, Puerto Rico. Reports surfaced that cocaine was found in the car Camacho was in, and even his own funeral couldn’t be drama free, when a fight broke out between the girl Camacho was seeing at the time of his death and an ex-girlfriend.
Camacho will be remembered for his flamboyant style in and out of the ring. But after he squeezed out a split-decision victory to retain the WBC lightweight title over Edwin Rosario, he altered his style from a puncher to a runner, less willing to engage.
Corrie Sanders, on the other hand, was willing to fight anyone, anywhere, though where Camacho skirted the law, Sanders was the polar opposite. The South African star was killed September 23, 2012, of a gunshot wound to his stomach during a robbery at a restaurant celebrating his nephew’s birthday.
Sanders was only 46. His second-round knockout of Wladimir Klitschko, later avenged by big brother Vitali, was THE RING’s Upset of the Year for 2003. Sanders, whose body more resembled the Family Guy’s Peter Griffin, was a tricky lefty with a hammer fist that downed Klitschko four times.
Fullmer died on Jan. 28 of leukemia at age 72. The brother of former middleweight champion Gene Fullmer, Don fought hall of famers Dick Tiger, Jose Torres and Emile Griffith during a 15-year career.
Dokes, a former WBA heavyweight champion who often lived and partied harder than he trained and fought, died on Aug. 11, from liver cancer at 54.
Stevenson, a rare three-time Olympic boxing gold medalist, along with fellow Cuban heavyweight Felix Savon and Hungary’s Laszlo Papp, died on June 11, at 60 of a heart attack. The great “what if” haunted the boxing world as to what would have happened if the Cuban amateur legend had ever met Ali in the early-1970s.
Who could ever forget Basilio?
His gutsiness enamored and created a whole generation of fight fans through the 1950s.
Basilio died on Nov. 7 at 85 of pneumonia. He fought the best of his time, beating Sugar Ray Robinson in one of the most riveting middleweight championship fights in history on Sept. 23, 1957 at Yankee Stadium. Basilio was an old-school, grizzled pro who won more on heart and desire than pure ability.
Known as “The Upstate Onion Farmer,” since his Italian immigrant family worked the onion fields of upstate New York, Basilio was unrelenting in his attack and never backed down from anyone.
The former two-time welterweight champ and middleweight champ was Arturo Gatti long before Arturo Gatti. Basilio was involved in an unprecedented five-straight RING Fight of the Years: 1955 (KO 12 Tony DeMarco II), ’56 (KO 9 Johnny Saxton II), ’57 (W 15 Robinson I), ’58 (L 15 Robinson II) and ’59 (KO by 14 Gene Fullmer I).
Basilio’s legacy was solidified with his back-to-back middleweight championship bouts with Robinson but he always held a deep well of resentment toward the ultra-talented all-time great due to a snub he received one time in 1952 after a brief encounter with Sugar Ray in New York City.
“I said to my wife I want to shake his hand and meet him and introduce myself: I said, ‘I’m Carmen Basilio, I just fought Bill Graham last week,’” Basilio recalled to HBO in the Ray Robinson documentary.
“He gave me the brushoff. I was embarrassed; I felt about [an inch high]. I said I’m going to fight that son of a bitch one of these days and kick his ass. It didn’t happen until 1957, but I got at him. So when he died, I didn’t give a s___. There was no sense on putting any act and feeling sorry for the son of a bitch, because he was the most arrogant person you can run into.”
And finally, there was the unsinkable Tapia. “Mi Vida Loca” was found dead at the age of 45 on May 27, from heart failure. His mighty heart endured a tumultuous life, which was far more brutal outside of the ring than in it. The New Mexico native’s father was reportedly murdered while his mother was still pregnant with him, and he was forever traumatized by witnessing his mother raped, stabbed and dragged away to her death when he was eight years old.
The three-division titleholder was no stranger to death himself as he was declared clinically dead five times from drug overdoses during his adult life.
In the ring, however, Tapia somehow channeled all of his tragedy and misery into thrilling performances and memorable victories over many reigning titleholders, including cross-town rival Danny Romero in 1997, and who can forget his breath-taking first bout against Paulie Ayala, which was THE RING’s Fight of the Year for 1999.
Basilio, Sugar, Dundee, Sanders, Camacho, Dokes, Stevenson, Fullmer, Tapia and Steward, all indelible men left behind in 2012.
The memory of them will never be.
Photos / Joe Guzurski-AFP, THE RING, Mike Powell-Getty Images, Al Bello-Getty Images, THE RING