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Boxing’s Golden and Silver Gloves

A favorite moment each year comes when Jim Rasco, the historian of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, introduces past Hall of Fame inductees during the organization’s annual induction banquet.

That moment will occur Friday night at North Little Rock’s Verizon Arena.

One past inductee who won’t be in attendance Friday is the man I wrote about yesterday, boxing luminary Ray Rodgers.

Rodgers will be in Independence, Mo., helping run the Silver Gloves national championships. He’s the first man ever to head both the Silver Gloves and Golden Gloves organizations at the same time, and he’s a member of the halls of fame for both groups.

At age 75, Ray Rodgers is on the road, working as hard as ever.

Golden Gloves has a storied history.

In 1923, the sports editor of the Chicago Tribune, Arch Ward, came up with the idea of an amateur boxing tournament to be sponsored by the newspaper. Each champion was awarded a miniature golden glove, which gave the tournament its name.

The list of past Golden Gloves medal winners is a who’s who of the sport.

Joe Louis was a Golden Gloves champion in 1934.

There was Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) in 1960, Sugar Ray Leonard in 1973, Marvin Hagler in 1973, Michael Spinks in 1974, Thomas Hearns in 1977, Mike Tyson in 1984, Evander Holyfield in 1984, Oscar De La Hoya in 1989 and Little Rock’s Jermain Taylor in 1998 and 1999.

Rodgers, who was born in Oklahoma but grew up in Conway, was inducted into the Silver Gloves Hall of Fame in 2001, the Golden Gloves Hall of Fame in 2002 and the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2007.

The late Billy Bock, a 1996 Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame inductee who was a well-known amateur boxer and later was among the pioneers of high school baseball in the state, told the Arkansas Democrat in 1990: “If it weren’t for Ray Rodgers, there would not be boxing left in Little Rock.”

Silver Gloves is for amateur fighters ages 10-15.

Golden Gloves is for amateur fighters ages 16 and older.

Based in part on the Golden Gloves’ tie back to the Chicago Tribune, newspapers long have been among the main sponsors of amateur boxing events. The New York City Golden Gloves tournament, which has been around for 85 years, is sponsored by the Daily News.

Rodgers told an interviewer in 2008: “It has a natural attraction to kids who are basically adventuresome and want to do something no one else does. That’s a lot of it. The dynamics of it hooked me in the fifth grade, and I’ve never been out of it one day.

“In boxing, as in life and everything else, desire is half the deal. … I’m a great believer in amateur boxing. I think it’s one of the greatest sports ever devised. It’s a cliche, but it’s true. In boxing, you don’t have anybody to hand off to or to lateral or pass it off to. You’re on your own, brother.

“The only discipline that lasts is self-discipline. You can stand a kid in a corner and whip his butt with a paddle. But once he learns self-discipline and the desire to do better in the ring, that sticks with him all his life.”

Jermain Taylor is the most prominent example of the hundreds of boys (now men) Rodgers has helped through the years. Born in Little Rock in 1978, Taylor and his three younger sisters were abandoned by their father when the future champion was 5. Taylor began boxing at age 13 with Ozell Nelson as his trainer.

Taylor’s Olympic bronze medal came in 2000 and his professional boxing debut was on Jan. 27, 2001, at Madison Square Garden against Chris Walsh.

As noted in yesterday’s post, Rodgers has served as the cut man in Taylor’s corner throughout Taylor’s professional career.

Taylor once said of Rodgers: “He’s the type of guy who comes in the dressing room and makes you feel comfortable. I’ve never seen him mad, not one time, and I’ve known him since I was 12. I’ve never seen him with a mean face. He’s the type of guy who always wants to see you smiling.”

Rodgers’ father, who worked for 49 years for an oil company that eventually became part of Mobil, moved the family from Oklahoma to Conway so he could serve as a pump station engineer in Arkansas. Young Ray was already addicted to boxing at the time of the move.

Ray Rodgers’ office at the Golden Gloves Education Center, which is adjacent to the Junior Deputy baseball fields just off Cantrell Road in Little Rock, now serves as sort of a museum of this state’s boxing history.

There is, for example, a photo of Bock and Rodgers in 1959 at the state AAU boxing tournament with Miss Arkansas in between.

“We were her escorts,” Rodgers says.

Famous names in Arkansas business, sports and politics crop up as you look at the programs and bout sheets Rodgers has collected through the years. For instance, Buddy Coleman of Little Rock was the state AAU boxing chairman one year.

Rodgers delights in talking about his 14-year amateur boxing career, delivering pithy quotes such as this one: “My left jab was so good the judges thought the other guy was sucking my thumb.”

The Arkansas River Valley — from Fort Smith all the way down to Little Rock –was a boxing hotbed in those days. Rodgers tells of going across a low-water bridge to make it to a boxing tournament at Oark (not Ozark!) in the Ozark Mountains north of Clarksville.

Places like Clarksville and Coal Hill produced good amateur boxers. The Subiaco Abbey, built in 1878 and associated with the Benedictine Order, was the home of many talented boxers. Wherever amateur tournaments were held across the state, you knew the boys from Subiaco Academy would be there and compete hard.

Rodgers’ home ring was at the National Guard Armory in Conway, where he boxed for a coach known as “Slow John” Cole. Rodgers went by the nickname “Butterball.” He continued to box competitively through graduation from Conway High School and Arkansas State Teachers College, now the University of Central Arkansas.

“I had deceptive speed in those days,” Rodgers says. “I was slower than I looked.”

At age 16, Rodgers also began coaching younger boxers. In 1958, he sent his first boxer to the national Golden Gloves tournament in Chicago.

Rodgers graduated from college in August 1960, becoming the first member of his family to earn a degree. He got married two weeks after graduation and moved to Little Rock to take a job with Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. Rodgers fought his last fight in 1961 at the Mid-Arkansas Golden Gloves Tournament, but a lifetime of being involved in boxing was just starting.

He has worked with young boxers at various locations through the years, even using a gym that Gary Hogan, who loves the sport as much as Rodgers, once operated in downtown Little Rock.

In 1988, Rodgers raised private funds so he could transform a metal building next to the Junior Deputy baseball complex into a gym. It has been the home of the Ray Rodgers Boxing Club ever since.

In 2009, he turned the adjacent building into the Golden Gloves Education Center so his boxers would have a quiet place to study.

Rodgers has brought a number of legendary boxers to Little Rock through the years to promote the sport and help him raise money. Ali visited in 1990. Joe Frazier and Floyd Patterson also have visited the state’s capital city at Rodgers’ invitation.

Rodgers has had his share of tragedies.

In 1987, his wife Sally, a constant presence with him at boxing tournaments, died of breast cancer.

His current wife, Carole, whom he married in December 2005, now helps him run amateur tournaments.

Rodgers’ daughter Dawn battled brain cancer for 11 years before passing away in 2005.

Last year, Rodgers finally shut down his business, Mid-South Drywall.

“I’m not getting any younger,” he says.

On one wall of Rodgers’ office is a tribute to Stan Gallup, the longtime Golden Gloves executive director who died in February 2009 while accompanying the Kentucky Wesleyan basketball team (his son was the school’s athletic director) to an away game

It says “Stan Gallup, 1922-2009, Father of Modern Golden Gloves.”

Rodgers calls Gallup “a mentor.”

I happen to think Arkansas’ own Ray Rodgers has just as much a right as Gallup to that title of “Father of Modern Golden Gloves.”

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