The Jim O'Hara Story:

Boxing, Dignity & StReet Smarts



Minnesota’s rich boxing history includes heavyweight contenders Billy Miske, Tommy Gibbons, Lee Savold, and Scott LeDoux. Miske and Gibbons had title fights with Jack Dempsey in the 1920s. Savold took on Rocky Marciano in 1952. And LeDoux faced Larry Holmes for the title in 1980.

Whereas Miske, Gibbons and Savold traveled out of state for their shots, LeDoux delighted Minnesota fans by bringing the title fight to them.

Jack Dempsey is ranked number nine on the Bert Sugar list of the top 100 fighters of all time. Rocky Marciano is ranked number 14, and Larry Holmes is ranked number 45. (Bert Randolph Sugar, Boxing’s Greatest Fighters, 26, 43 and 151 (The Lyons Press 2006).) Tommy Gibbons was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1993, as was Billy Miske in 2010.

Before winning the title, Dempsey had fought Billy Miske at the St. Paul Auditorium in May 1918. Dempsey won but said later that night: “If I ever have to fight another tough guy like that I don’t want the championship. The premium they ask is too much effort.” (Clay Moyle, Billy Miske: The St. Paul Thunderbolt, 54 (Win By KO Publications 2011).)

LeDoux also was as tough as they come, and his scheduled title fight with Holmes was the biggest of his career. Holmes vs. LeDoux was booked for July 7, 1980 at the Metropolitan Sports Center, which was in Bloomington, the same venue where LeDoux had fought Ken Norton to a 10-round draw a year earlier.

Don King was the promoter, and Muhammad Ali was there, providing ballyhoo for the event as well as a possible future contest with Holmes.

Ali was 38 years of age and would indeed have two more pay days: Larry Holmes (October 1980) and Trevor Berbick (December 1981).

Ali is ranked number seven on the Bert Sugar list of the top 100 fighters of all time, after Sugar Ray Robinson, Henry Armstrong, Willie Pep, Joe Louis, Harry Greb, and Benny Leonard. (Bert Randolph Sugar, supra, at 20.)

Holmes wasn’t going to take LeDoux for granted. He’d already been defeated by a Minnesota boy on a big stage. As Bert Sugar put it, Minnesota heavyweight Duane Bobick “had forced Holmes to throw up his hands in surrender at the 1972 Olympic Box-Offs.” (Bert Randolph Sugar, supra, at 152.)

LeDoux was the real deal, a contender during arguably the greatest era of the heavyweight division, including when Muhammad Ali was leading the discussion. Not only had LeDoux proven himself a match for Ken Norton (from whom Holmes won the WBC title by split decision), LeDoux drew with Leon Spinks in 1977 just four months before Spinks dethroned Ali. In September 1978 Ali avenged the loss, regaining the WBA title, and retired a year later (for the first time). Back in 1973 Norton also had beaten Ali, losing to him six months later.

On July 6, 1980, the day of the weigh-in for the Holmes-LeDoux match, things were going well, just the usual hiccups, like finding an 18-foot ring to replace the 17-foot-4 squared circle that had been set up. Holmes’ management insisted upon the larger ring as Holmes, the scientific boxer, wanted more room for his footwork. Muhammad Ali was there. Jim had brought his youngest child, Jeff, age 15, and Ali was gracious in showing him card tricks.

The weigh-in was at the Registry Hotel, which was near the MET Center. Later that evening, just as Jim was getting ready to put down his guard, he was approached by someone from Holmes’ camp. They spoke privately, and Jim learned that the main event may be off and that he was needed upstairs in Holmes’ suite. Jim looked concerned; he knew as well as anyone that boxing cards don’t go off as planned, but this was a world title bout. He told Jeff to follow him.

When they arrived at Holmes’ room, there were bodyguards outside the door. When they entered the large suite there were only three other men present: Larry Holmes, Don King, and Muhammad Ali.

Ali would fight Holmes three months later, but he wasn’t going to interfere tonight. He offered to show Jeff more card tricks across the room at a coffee table, which he did for the next 30 minutes. He also threw some magic tricks into the mix.

Larry Holmes, Don King, and Jim remained standing on the other side of the room. They never sat down. If Holmes was walking in Ali’s shadow in public, he certainly wasn’t in private. Carrying his infant child, Holmes insisted that his view of the contract terms be followed. Don King argued his view of the deal. Jim served as mediator.

Holmes and King were able to work out their differences. The next day LeDoux got a crack at the title. He'd earned his shot. 

Holmes won by TKO in the seventh, and after LeDoux, Holmes’ next title defense was against Muhammad Ali himself. In October 1980, Holmes was awarded a technical knockout against Ali in the 10th round in Las Vegas. Holmes would later say that this victory freed him “from walking in Ali’s shadow.” (Bert Randolph Sugar, supra, at 153.)

At 38 Ali was no longer the greatest in the ring, but he was still great as demonstrated by the kindness he’d shown Jeff back in Minnesota. Relatively few have had one-on-one time with Muhammad Ali. Jeff will tell you that it was unforgettable but also that the best part of the day was being able to see his dad in action among some of the big names in boxing.

Jim laughed when asked if he could see punches coming at him in the ring. Although everything happens in a flash in the professional ranks, experience can provide time and space, allowing you to think on your feet. When Jim walked into that hotel room and the only other men there were Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes and Don King, all Jim knew was that the title fight was in jeopardy. Things were heated, and the parties were at an impasse. He was able to slow things down and help Holmes and King see eye to eye. Gary, Jim’s oldest child, said of Jim:

He had an innate sense of fairness, and he could say more in a few words than most. He got straight to the root of the problem and tried solving it. He didn’t step on anybody’s toes doing it, either.

(Gary is quoted by Terry Collins, Jim O’Hara Dies; He Ran the State Boxing Board, Minneapolis Star Tribune, January 21, 2002, page B5, column 1.)

Years later Muhammad Ali was asked to name his picks for the list of the top 10 heavyweight champs of all time. He didn’t name himself, offering that the editors could insert him wherever they want. Here’s Ali’s list in chronological order with some of his comments: 

  • Jack Johnson, “Scientific boxer”;
  • Jack Dempsey, “He hit hard”; 
  • Gene Tunney, “Accurate left jab and right cross”; 
  • Joe Louis, “Knockout punching”;
  • Ezzard Charles, “Scientific boxer”;
  • Jersey Joe Walcott, “He would come in, then move out”; 
  • Rocky Marciano, “Could take a punch and just keep coming”; 
  • Joe Frazier, “Just kept coming, moving forward, no matter how hard you hit him”; 
  • George Foreman, “Knockout puncher”;  and
  • Larry Holmes, “Hard hitter.”

(Bert Randolph Sugar and Teddy Atlas, The Ultimate Book of Boxing Lists, 18-19 (Running Press 2010).)

A hulk of a man, Scott LeDoux’s plan with Larry Holmes appeared to be to win with body shots. A technical boxer, Holmes was too smart to get close. As he worked the jab, he made sure that this title bout was exciting only before it began. Consistent with his performance against LeDoux, Holmes place in history has been assessed by the author Carlo Rotella thusly:

He has always been a businesslike worker, rather than a crowd-pleasing showman, in the ring. His pragmatic boxing style, founded on the left jab and good defense and the timeless premise of hitting without being hit, never made much concession to popular taste. Posterity unfairly tends to reduce him, perhaps the finest technical boxer on the short list of heavyweight all-timers, to the champion who, in one writer’s words, “made boxing seem strictly an act of commerce.” Bracketed in history by the two premier celebrity boxers of the television age — Ali, who made boxing seem like political theater, and Tyson, who makes boxing seem like nonconsensual sex — Holmes has been partially eclipsed. 

(George Kimball and John Schulian, At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing (Library of America 2011), which includes the writing of Carlo Rotella: Champion at Twilight, Kindle Edition.)

If not heavyweight champion of the world, Scott LeDoux was a character loved by everyone. In 1977 he was a contestant in the United States Boxing Championships, a scheduled year-long professional tournament. He was happy to be in the tournament but soon heard rumors suggesting his upcoming February bout was fixed. He heard he couldn’t win if the matter was left to a decision. LeDoux ignored the rumors but sure enough, the eight-rounder went to his opponent when it should’ve gone to him.

After the verdict was announced Johnny Boudreaux, the winner, was being interviewed ringside on live national TV by Howard Cosell, the tournament’s host. Still in the ring, LeDoux yelled down at Cosell to call it as it is. Words were exchanged between the fighters and LeDoux kicked at Boudreaux’s face after something was said about LeDoux's mother. The kick missed but lead to Cosell’s toupee being knocked off on live TV. The story became big news, as the author George Kimball explains:

LeDoux, with the ABC cameras rolling, unleashed a barrage of accusations of fixed fights and rigged ratings. The loss remained on LeDoux’s record, but it did result in the convocation of a grand jury in Maryland, and the FBI was shortly looking into the proceedings.

ABC didn’t cancel the tournament until April 16. ***

[A] … whistle-blower, Scott LeDoux, became a boxing commissioner in his native Minnesota.

(George Kimball, Four Kings: Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, Duran, and the Last Great Era of Boxing, Chapter 1 (McBooks Press, Inc. 2008), Kindle Edition.)

Another extraordinary heavyweight is Duane Bobick, who as mentioned beat Holmes on his way to the 1972 Olympics. One of 12 sons from Bowlus, Minnesota, Bobick was favored to take Gold in Munich but lost in the quarterfinals after the shock of witnessing from his dorm window events related to the Israeli team massacre. (Mike Hayes, “Watch Bobick Closely,” Says Angelo DundeeThe Ring, August 1974, 10, 32.)

As a professional Bobick beat LeDoux twice and retired in 1979 with 52 recorded pro bouts: 48 wins (42 by KO) and only four losses.

Bert Sugar ranked Sugar Ray Robinson the greatest pound-for-pound boxer in history. Jim said the same. What about the heavies? Within the top 10 boxers of all time, Bert Sugar listed four heavyweights. He booked Joe Louis at number four, Muhammad Ali at number seven, Jack Dempsey at number nine, and Jack Johnson at number 10. (Bert Randolph Sugar, supra, at 1, 10, 20, 26, and 29.)

They say Ali always wanted to be a big Sugar Ray Robinson. Jim considered Ali the greatest heavyweight of all time, indeed the greatest overall fighter behind only Robinson.

Ali had started boxing at age 12, eventually becoming known in some quarters as the “fifth Beatle” because no one had ever seen anything like him. He became a star in 1964, the same year the Beatles became stars. If he’d been snubbed by big shots when he was a no-name kid, Ali wasn’t about to do the same to Jim’s son Jeff. Ali treated Jeff the way Ali would’ve wanted to be treated.

“And I remember,” Ali said later as part of an authorized biography, “how bad I felt one time when I met Sugar Ray Robinson and asked for his autograph, and he told me, `I’m busy, kid.'” (Thomas Hauser, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, Chapter 17 (First eBook Publication 2012 (Initially Published in 1991), Kindle Edition.)

Ali loved to entertain. In 1965 Edwin Pope of The Miami Herald travelled with Ali from Miami to Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, where Ali was to train for his rematch with Sonny Liston. Said Pope:

I have to admit that before that bus ride I didn’t understand Ali even though I’d been around him quite a bit in Miami. He seemed hostile and strange to me. But on that bus I got a sense of how complicated and how sweet he could be and how funny he was, always funny. 

(David Remnick, King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero, Chapter 14 (Vintage Books 1999), Kindle Edition.)

If Ali the showman didn’t necessary believe his own pre-fight bravado, he was full of surprises in the ring and eventually made just about everyone smile if not not laugh.

More than an entertainer, Ali had heart in and out of the ring. There’s a story about a 12-year-old dying of leukemia who wanted to meet Ali. Although the kid’s father didn’t care for Ali, he got his son released from the hospital whereupon they drove unannounced and uninvited to Ali’s training camp in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania. The dad found he could drive right into the place; there were no guards; and the dad explained the situation to the first person he saw. Ali then spent the whole afternoon with the boy. The father later said:

Mister, I never liked Ali. I’ve hated him ever since I knew about him. I was always hoping someone would beat him, and beat him badly. But I’ll never forget what he did for my son. He’s a good man, and I’m sorry for the way I felt about him.

(Thomas Hauser, supra, at Chapter 9.)

When asked about his legacy, Ali said in part: “I’ll tell you how I’d like to be remembered: as a black man who won the heavyweight title and who was humorous and who treated everyone right.” (David Remnick, supra, Epilogue.)

In 1980 before the Holmes-LeDoux fight in Minnesota, Muhammad Ali had shown Jeff O’Hara some magic tricks in addition to card tricks. Six years earlier in Zaire, Africa Ali had invented “rope-a-dope” and reclaimed the heavyweight championship of the world from George Foreman.

You’ll never guess what Ali was doing just three hours after that victory. He was sitting on the steps of his cottage totally into showing a magic trick to a group of children. He was showing them a rope cut in two and then the same rope magically whole again. Newsweek magazine’s Pete Bonventre, the sole journalist to come across the scene, recalled: “All I could think was, I don’t care what anyone says, they’ll never be anyone like him again.” (Thomas Hauser, supra, at Chapter 10.)

Copyright 2012-2015 by Steven T. O’Hara. All rights reserved.