- - Tuesday, August 16, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

When you look at a photo of the great 1976 United States Olympic boxing team — the greatest this country has ever produced, this year being the 40th anniversary of that squad — you see, of course, Sugar Ray Leonard and the start of a legendary Hall of Fame career.

You see the Spinks brothers, Michael and Leon, both of whom would go on to become heavyweight champions — Michael moving up after dominating the light heavyweight division to upset Larry Holmes for the championship, and Leon shocking the world by taking the title away from Muhammad Ali after just seven professional fights.

You see two other gold medal winners — Howard Davis and Leo Randolph, plus a silver medalist, local boxing coach Charles Mooney, and a bronze winner, future heavyweight champion John Tate.

Mixed in with those medal winners and African-American boxers was one little-known white kid from Mesa, Arizona — Chuck Walker, the tap-dancing fighter who may have fallen victim to the Cold War in his bid to join his teammates on the medal stand when he lost a disputed 3-2 decision in the second round to eventual gold medal winner Jerry Rybicki from Poland.

“I said it then, and I’ll say it now and won’t back down a bit — there is no question I won the fight,” Walker, 59, said. “Everyone knew I won it. That fight wasn’t shown on television because it was such a robbery. Howard Cosell thought I won the fight. The word was they didn’t show it on TV because they didn’t want communist relations to get any worse. It was a big deal at the time. Howard Cosell said it was the worst decision he ever saw in the sport.”

Sugar Ray Leonard was the star of that Olympic boxing team, but he might have had to share the spotlight if Walker had won the gold medal. His story was the most unique and his presence on the team the most unlikely of all those boxers.

In 1975, when Walker stopped Washington’s Keith Broom to win the AAU light middleweight championship in a bout on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, he was asked afterwards what he did when he wasn’t fighting. “I’m a professional tap dancer,” Walker replied.

Why tap dancing? To help Walker overcome a deformed foot he was born with.

“I was an entertainer before I was a boxer,” he said. “I was born with almost a club foot, it pointed backward while the rest of me pointed forward. So my parents when I was four started me in tap dancing classes as therapy, at the suggestion of the doctor. I was one of those strange kids — I was the only little boy there, but I liked it and stayed with it.

“I didn’t start boxing until I was about 13 years old,” Walker said. “I always had an interest in boxing because my Dad was a big boxing fan. But what really started it was I was kind of getting into little tiffs with bullies in school. At that age, if this is what life is going to be like, I had better learn to deal with it. So one summer I talked my Dad into taking me down to a local boxing gym. I saw what was going on, and I can’t quite explain it, but I thought, this is what I was meant to do. But even with that, I was only going to learn enough to protect myself, but I started boxing and that was it. I don’t think I missed a day for the next five or six years.”

When Walker fought Broom, nobody knew much about the white kid from Mesa. “Nobody even knew my name,” he said. “He (Broom) was the All-Service champion and had all kinds of credentials. Nobody gave me a chance. I knocked him out in the first round, and made believers out of everybody, including myself.”

Walker made the Olympic squad after qualifying in the legendary hard-fought Olympic Trials in Cincinnati with a victory over Henry Bunch. Then it was off to Burlington, Vermont, to train with his teammates for the Montreal games.

“Those were great teammates,” Walker said. “They were like brothers. We slept together in a big unit. It was a good thing we all got along and loved each other. We knew each other from the amateurs, and most of us went into the competition as friends already. It was an unusually close team.

“Charles (Mooney) and Howard Davis and I were the three musketeers,” Walker said. “We ate together. We ran together, of course they would run off and leave me because I wasn’t a fast runner. Hardly ever did one go somewhere without the other.”

What about the star — Sugar Ray Leonard?

“All of us loved him, and he loved us,” Walker said. “He was an intelligent guy. He was by far the most popular guy on the team. But one thing impressed me in training camp, we were all getting pulled for interviews, but Ray was far more than anyone else. So he went to the coaches and said, ‘Look, I just want to be one of the guys and I don’t want anything to think I am looking for preferential treatment in the press.’ But we loved it, and encouraged him to go for it.”

Walker has a particular special memory of Leon Spinks. “The coaches wanted to send him home. They couldn’t control him,

“The coaches would come along around 5 or 6 in the morning for a run, and we were in these barracks, with tall closets, just enough room for a person to get into and close it,” Walker said. “Leon would climb into one of those closets and close the door. After the coaches got everyone up to run and left, he would crawl back out of the closet and climb into bed.”

“But the day of my gold medal fight in Montreal, Leon called me into his room and said, ‘Chuck, I’m praying for you,’” Walker said.

He needed more than prayers in his gold medal match against Rybicki. “This guy ran constantly, a tall southpaw with that upright communist stance, it’s hard to have a good fight against an opponent like that. The first round was close. The second round I thought I won. By the third round some people thought the fight should have been stopped. It was a landslide for me. He won a 3-2 split decision among five judges. I have no bitterness. But I won the fight. It is a statement of fact.”

Walker went to fight 11 pro bouts, with a 9-1-1 record, but became an actor, entertainer (still tap dancing) and an accomplished film maker. And while denied victory in Montreal, Chuck Walker won the legacy of being a member of the greatest Olympic boxing team in American history — accomplishments that, given the state of American Olympic boxing today, will likely never be matched.


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