Published September 16th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
It’s hard to imagine, but Muhammad Ali once came to Kansas City – and nobody expected him to talk.
In 2000 he appeared at a Boys & Girls Clubs’ fundraiser at Bartle Hall, visibly suffering from symptoms of the Parkinson’s disease doctors had diagnosed in 1984. Ali’s wife Lonnie addressed the crowd from the lectern, Ali sitting silent to her side.
But then he stood up, walked over and began to speak, taking questions from the approximately 1,000 people present, including many children.
What’s the most important thing you learned as a boxer?
“Don’t get hit.”
Who was your favorite boxer you fought against?
“Smokin’ Joe Frazier.”
Were you ever afraid before a fight?
Ali stared in mock disbelief. “Do you know me?” he asked.
Ali’s face, his admirers often said, may have been the most famous on the planet. Everyone knew him.
From the time he won his first national Golden Gloves championship in 1959, earned a gold medal at the Rome Olympic Games in 1960 and became heavyweight champion in 1964, Ali transfixed millions with his boxing, his braggadocio and, ultimately, his bravery in speaking out on the social issues of his time.
In Kansas City the local Golden Gloves organization, beginning in 1936, helped build the same kind of amateur athletics infrastructure that produced the young Ali in Louisville, Kentucky.
The Kansas City Golden Gloves has staged tournaments for 86 consecutive years, most recently in July. Today it considers itself the community’s oldest sporting organization, with generations of amateur athletes developing individual discipline while also, arguably, helping to advance civil rights during the 1930s and 1940s.
In those years the Golden Gloves tournaments held in Municipal Auditorium routinely showcased integrated competition, decades before integrated teams could be seen competing in Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium, home of Major League Baseball beginning in 1955.
Meanwhile, Kansas City can also claim a rich legacy in professional boxing. Local fighters, Tommy Campbell in the 1950s and Tony Chiaverini in the 1970s and 1980s, reached the top tiers of the sport.
And yet, boxing’s less admirable qualities also have been visible in Kansas City.
During the early 1900s, a confidence gang that used fixed boxing matches and other dodgy athletic contests to swindle an estimated $5 million out of their dupes operated for years out of several Midwestern cities, Kansas City among them.
Their elaborate “cons” helped inspire “The Sting,” the 1973 gambling film that explored how “marks” were separated from their money.
Campbell, during a 1956 California boxing investigation, admitted to taking a dive in three fights on orders from a Los Angeles boxing promoter. It was an example of the corruption that especially tainted professional boxing in the 1950s and 1960s, prompting New York sportswriter Jimmy Cannon, famous for his prize fight coverage, to describe pro boxing the “red light district of sports.”
Other Kansas City boxing stories were tragic.
The death of local boxer Randie Carver, days after a 1999 fight in a North Kansas City casino, shocked his many admirers.
The 2013 death of Tommy Morrison at age 44 ended a career that included a heavyweight title won by defeating George Foreman in 1993.
Morrison, an Oklahoma boxer who relocated to Kansas City to be managed by longtime area boxing trainer John Brown, denied he had contracted the HIV virus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
The professional boxing scene in Kansas City still misses him, Brown said recently.
“You need a local hero,” Brown said recently. “That’s what Tommy was.”
From the early 20th century, many considered boxing a wholesome pursuit.
Those included a former president.
The sport was, Theodore Roosevelt wrote in 1910, “a vigorous, manly pastime” with a “distinct moral and physical value” that encourages “such essential virtues as courage, hardihood, endurance and self-control.”
Roosevelt also remembered how, when he had served as president of the New York police commissioners in the 1890s, organized boxing clubs “had given the vigorous young fellows who otherwise would join ‘gangs’ a legitimate outlet for their activities…”
In Kansas City, boxing seemed a path to responsible adulthood, at least among the donors determined to assist the city’s young news vendors, many of whom slept in downtown alleys and stairwells.
Those who helped build the Kansas City Newsboys Club apparently agreed with Roosevelt, outfitting the downtown building with a gymnasium, which hosted boxing tournaments covered by The Kansas City Star.
Jackson County juvenile court officials, meanwhile, opened the McCune Home for Boys, a 100-acre farm northeast of Independence, where neglected and delinquent boys followed a supervised schedule of both work and play.
“It is a place where criminal tendencies are checked before they overcome all the better tendencies in the boys,” the Star wrote in 1917.
While the residents learned trades such as carpentry and masonry, they also participated in organized athletics, including boxing.
“Tommy and Joe do not fight on some street corner with brickbats and angry faces, but they put on the gloves,” the Star reported.
“Tommy may knock Joe out, but it is all in fun.”
Enter the Kansas City Golden Gloves in 1936.
A Chicago sportswriter had founded a national tournament in the 1920s, believing that organized amateur boxing could be uniquely beneficial to young men. Kansas City Star Sports Editor Ernie Mehl shared the sentiment and convinced the newspaper to sponsor local tournaments, and also helped broadcast the bouts over WDAF-AM, the Star’s radio station.
Hearing championship prize fights described over the radio proved a popular distraction during the Great Depression. By the 1940s boxing, both amateur and professional, was thoroughly mainstream.
Harry Truman, no huge fan of spectator sports, made an exception for boxing. As vice president in 1945, he filled a ringside seat to watch Rocky Graziano fight in Madison Square Garden. In 1951, as president, he welcomed heavyweight champion “Jersey Joe” Walcott to the Oval Office.
By then, television was bringing boxing to millions in their homes.
In 1950 Americans bought 5 million TV sets; 20% of American homes included one. Ten years later nearly 90% of homes contained a TV, which many owners used to watch boxing on Friday nights.
One television network dropped its longtime Friday night boxing show in 1960 after continuing allegations of shady practices in the ring.
In Kansas City, that kind of thing went way back.
By the early 20th century a confidence gang led by southwest Missouri swindler John C. Mabray had perfected a way of duping victims in elaborate cons involving foot races, wrestling matches and boxing matches.
The gang would identify a possible dupe, often a prominent community leader who considered himself a sportsman.
A “steerer” then would introduce himself, flatter the dupe for his athletics acumen and then invite him to take part in a scheme that involved a “sure thing” – an often-private athletic event whose outcome had been predetermined and which would yield a handsome return for investors.
The victim would produce the money and the event would be staged.
The action routinely involved an alleged athlete – sometimes in the middle of a boxing match – whose subsequent “dive” in the ring would be made all the more convincing by the bursting of a small bladder of blood in his month.
Mock panic then would ensue and the victim would be hustled away with frantic warnings that authorities no doubt were on their way.
The scheme proved successful, bringing in an estimated $5 million, in part because victims often were too embarrassed to come forward and testify in court, fearing the loss of stature in their hometowns.
But eventually some did, including a northern Missouri banker who testified in a 1910 federal trial as to how he had lost $30,000 after being persuaded to invest during an almost theatrical presentation featuring other alleged investors, all staged in a Kansas City hotel room.
Mabray, found guilty of mail fraud, soon reported to Leavenworth federal penitentiary.
Upon his release just over a year later, Mabray found work running a Kansas City hotel. But police chief W.E. Griffin soon told him to leave town by a certain date.
“If you are in Kansas City after then you will be arrested,” said Griffin, according to one newspaper account.
Some 60 years later “The Sting,” the film inspired in part by the Mabray case, depicted an equally complicated scheme that ended with a small red trail from actor Robert Redford’s mouth.
The same year Mabray reported to Leavenworth, former president Roosevelt called for professional prize fighting to be banned.
“The betting and gambling upon the result are thoroughly unhealthy,” Roosevelt wrote, adding that he hoped that a recent championship fight between retired champion Jim Jeffries and Jack Johnson, the country’s first Black heavyweight champion, would be the “last prize fight to take place in the United States.”
Gambling wasn’t the only issue, however. The fight, said to Roosevelt, had included “a very unfortunate display of race antagonism.”
On Independence Day of 1910, Johnson faced Jeffries, dubbed the “Great White Hope,” as he had been lured out of retirement specifically, many hoped, to defeat Johnson. But during the bout in Nevada Johnson not only defeated Jeffries but also appeared to have taunted him.
In Kansas City fight fans had filled downtown Convention Hall, where they received a round-by-round description by a stage announcer reciting details received by telegram. After Johnson prevailed, the crowd left without apparent incident, according to The Star.
That wasn’t the case across the country. Two days after the fight 10 people had died in race-related civil unrest occurring in six states.
Phil S. Dixon, a founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and a Kansas City area sports historian, has not found evidence of widespread violence in Kansas City.
But T. Roosevelt Butler, the son of the owner of the Kansas City Giants, a professional Black baseball team, described to Dixon during a 1980s interview being accosted by a gang of white youths while he was delivering newspapers.
“Violence broke out all over the country,” Dixon said.
“I call that day the bloodiest response to a sporting event in the history of sporting events.”
The unrest contributed to the 1912 approval by Congress of legislation prohibiting the interstate transportation of boxing films, a law not rescinded until 1940.
Johnson, meanwhile, continued what some considered his provocative behavior, courting and marrying three white women. In 1912 authorities accused Johnson of violating the Mann Act,, which forbade the transport of women or girls across state lines for “immoral purposes.”
After his 1913 conviction Johnson fled the United States, taking bouts wherever he could.
In 1915 Jess Willard, the Kansas native known as the “Pottawatomie Giant” defeated Johnson in Havana, Cuba.
Johnson ultimately surrendered to authorities in 1920 and soon reported to Leavenworth prison.
There he began preparing his autobiography.
“Everybody was writing Jack Johnson’s his life story except himself,” said Dixon, who has studied the manuscript today held by the National Archives at Kansas City.
”He wanted to tell his own version.”
Johnson served about a year in Leavenworth, being released in 1921.
A separate manuscript, which Dixon long has been preparing, details the story of Tommy Campbell, who found himself trapped in the corrupt boxing circles of the 1950s and later decided to testify about it.
Campbell, who grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, and distinguished himself as an amateur in local Golden Gloves tournaments during the 1930s, later turned professional, fighting as a highly ranked lightweight.
In 1956 Campbell testified during a California investigation that he had been instructed to throw three fights while being managed by Los Angeles boxing promoter “Babe” McCoy, who scheduled fights at Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. One of those bouts was a 1950 fight against Art Aragon, considered the original “Golden Boy” who, during his career, was a favorite of Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe and others.
Campbell actually knocked Aragon down in that fight, Dixon said.
“He knew he was going to take a dive but, just fighting on instinct, he knocked Aragon through the ropes,” Dixon said.
“But he knew those mobsters were out there watching. So he helped Aragon up.”
Campbell took his dive soon after.
His 1956 testimony made national news and soon, Dixon said, other fighters came forward with similar accounts. That year the California State Athletic Commission banned McCoy from the sport.
Campbell later considered his story a cautionary tale.
“I thought about my own hopes and ambitions 10 years before and what had happened to them,” he said in a 1957 interview. “I was going to be rich, I was going to be a champion, and I ended up with nothing.
“So I went to Los Angeles and testified.”
Campbell, Dixon said, once was ranked as high as the No. 2 challenger for the world lightweight title. But he never got the chance to win it.
Today, Dixon said, Campbell remains the winningest professional fighter in Kansas history.
In 1959 the teenager from Louisville named Cassius Clay – later Muhammad Ali – won his first national Golden Gloves title.
For this to occur, several specific events needed to occur over an approximately 25-year period, according to scholarship published last month on the Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, maintained by the University of Kentucky Libraries.
“Muhammad Ali was born at the right time,” said researcher Reinette Jones.
A special collections librarian, Jones unpacked the complicated patchwork of regulation governing the integration, or lack thereof, of amateur boxing in several Midwestern states before and after Ali’s 1942 birth.
Jones found Kansas City newspaper articles from 1936 – during the city’s first tournament affiliated with the national Golden Gloves – documenting that Black boxers, while competing in qualifying bouts held at the Paseo YMCA, were allowed to go on to the metro-wide tournament in Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium.
There, throughout the late 1930s, Black athletes could win the right to compete at the national tournament.
That didn’t happen in Kentucky, where during the 1930s Black and white boxers fought in segregated weight divisions. Further, while both white and Black champions received trophies, only the white boxers then were allowed to represent Kentucky in Chicago.
That didn’t change until 1948, Jones learned, when it was announced that both white and Black champions and runners-up from separate segregated tournaments would be allowed to compete for the national tournament.
“This was described in Kentucky newspapers as revolutionary,” Jones said.
Ali was 6 at that time.
A final piece fell into place in 1959 when the U.S. Supreme Court – in “Dorsey v. State Athletic Commission” – upheld a federal court decision in New Orleans that found a 1950 Louisiana law banning interracial athletic competitions unconstitutional.
In 1960 Ali won his second national Golden Gloves title. He won an Olympic gold medal that summer in Rome.
“If Ali had been born earlier, he probably would have had to leave Kentucky to further his boxing career,” Jones said. “There were a lot of different factors that came together for him.
“But he was such a great boxer and he would have gone on to do well, regardless.”
In Kansas City civil rights activists after World War II used the local Golden Gloves tournaments to pressure city officials over segregated seating policies inside the Municipal Auditorium. The practice had been enforced, they said, despite the opposition of The Star.
In 1951 City Council members approved an ordinance repealing that policy at the auditorium, the city’s airport terminal restaurant and the recently completed Starlight Theatre.
While Jones’ research found the Kansas City Golden Gloves to be largely integrated, she did find examples of local newspaper coverage that have aged poorly.
A 1936 Kansas City Star article, detailing the initial rounds of Golden Gloves qualifying bouts scheduled at the Paseo YMCA, noted that “eight young Joe Louises will have been crowned, one in each weight division.”
The reference was to the athlete who would become heavyweight champion in 1937, the first Black heavyweight champion since Jack Johnson.
It was an apparent example of how sportswriters of the time sometimes felt free to note the ethnic diversity of boxers. A nine-paragraph Kansas City Times article from February, 1946 – touting an upcoming professional fight card – managed to include references to a “Negro club-fighting expert,” a “lion-hearted Irish slugger,” a “Jewish clouter,” a “classy 122-pound Kansas City Mexican” and a “flashy little Cincinnati Italian American.”
The language in the Kansas City newspaper copy, Jones said, didn’t approach the usage she sometimes encountered in several Southern newspapers during her research.
“Some of the terms seemed designed to generate fear,” she said.
“There were newspapers that gave the impression that Black boxers were beginning to dominate the sport.”
The same belief that supporters of amateur boxing expressed a century ago – that it teaches discipline and builds self-confidence – is still heard today.
“I enjoyed dramatic benefits from the sport,” said John Brown, longtime Kansas City area boxing coach and trainer.
“I was born with a severe cleft palate and facial deformities,” he said. “My speech was a lot less distinct, and since kids were making fun of me, I ended up having to fight all the time.
“Once I got into boxing, all that changed.”
Others tell similar stories.
“I got involved in boxing because of bullying,” said Cam F. Awesome, a Kansas City area Golden Gloves champion and motivational speaker.
“People said you can do anything and I never really believed that. But I was so desperate to get a prom date when I was 16, I decided I would commit everything I have to boxing.
“It taught me the definition of discipline and hard work.
“One of my quotes I use is… ‘I didn’t know what hard work was until I got punched in the face for not working hard enough.’ “
After learning that lesson, Awesome said, “nothing else seemed that difficult.”
Chris Walden, Kansas City Golden Gloves president, credits the same discipline and devotion for amateur boxing’s enduring attraction across decades of Kansas City sports history.
The local organization’s most recent tournament, in July, drew between 1,500 and 2,000 fans during each of its two nights at Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kansas.
“While the popularity of the Golden Gloves has increased or decreased since 1936, it’s remarkable how consistent its appeal has remained,” Walden said.
“It has continued through wars, and now even COVID.”
Meanwhile, the legacy of Muhammad Ali, who died in 2016, remains complicated.
Tony Chiaverini, a Kansas City boxer who fought professionally from 1975 through 1983, can vouch for Ali’s unique charisma.
In 1978 Chiaverini fought – and won – a fight on the same February 1978 card that included the heavyweight championship bout at the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel between Ali and Leon Spinks.
“Spinks was in real good shape and he beat Ali,” Chiaverini said.
“But I’ll tell you the difference between the two. After the matches there were people all around the hotel, walking around, getting something to eat and drink, and both Spinks and Ali were there.
“Ali had bodyguards but that didn’t matter,” Chiaverini said.
“There were people who wanted to go up and touch him – just to be able to say that they did.”
Brown, who today operates the Turner Boxing Academy in Kansas City, Kansas, remembers encountering Ali twice – once at a Mike Tyson fight and the other time in 2000, when Ali came to Kansas City for his Bartle Hall appearance.
He received a brief meeting with Ali, and Brown presented him with a jacket bearing the words “Greatest of All Time.”
He also watched Ali address the crowd.
“Ali was one of the greatest showmen who ever lived, and he brought so much charisma to boxing,” Brown said. “He created so much attention that even people who were not that connected to the sport followed him.”
Brown isn’t sure, however, how relevant Ali is to today’s young amateurs.
“When I talk about Ali in my gym, if the boxers are 20 years old or above, they usually know who I am talking about.
“But a lot of the younger ones don’t know. I just tell them to go to YouTube and look at Ali’s fights with Joe Frazier.”
The boxing skills on display there speak for themselves, Brown said. But it is Ali’s other accomplishments that still impress Awesome.
“Ali means so much to me because he stood for more than boxing,” he said. That includes the self-discipline Ali exhibited in winning three heavyweight championships, he said.
Also, Awesome added, Ali’s surpassing personal presence later in life seemed to supplant the controversy he had been associated with during the 1960s as he fought for civil rights and against the draft during the Vietnam War. Today foxing fans who approach Awesome routinely mention Ali.
“These old people – white guys 70 or 80 years old who grew up with segregation – they still idolize Ali,” Awesome said. Sometimes these visitors, Awesome added, will describe their personal encounters with Ali
“Everybody I have met who met Ali seems to have the same story,” Awesome said.
“He made the person he connected with feel like the most important person in the world.”
Flatland contributor Brian Burnes is a Kansas City area writer and author. He is serving as president of the Jackson County Historical Society.