They worked on their secret weapon: a left jab/upper cut combination. George Foreman, in the Omaha audience the night of the fight, saw Stander's big idea, and would use it to crush Frazier in their fight months later.
|He fought for the heavyweight championship of the world in 1972. After the loss, much to his surprise, the world kept spinning, even though Ron Stander's had crumbled to bits. Now at age 50, the cuts and bruises have healed, and Stander is standing tall again, not as a fighter, but as a father and a survivor.
by Tim McMahan
The scene: The Apple lounge, 35th and Farnam Sts. 1 p.m.
The just-after-lunch crowd still hung out. Playing keno, listening to the jukebox and soap operas on the tv. Playing pool. A handful of drinkers sat and smoked and watched their Keno cards.
The Butcher was late. Tracking him down had taken about month. Oh sure, everyone knew Ron "The Butcher" Stander, but no one had his phone number or was giving it out. I got a message passed to Stander from a friend of a friend of mine. Still no go. Finally, leaving my card at Theodore's bar on Leavenworth paid off. I got the call. "Butcher Stander here." We'd like to do a story... "How much ya payin' me? (pause) Just kiddin'." Two days later, here I am, waiting for The Butcher to arrive.
In 10 minutes, he did. I didn't recognize him. He'd slimmed down since the last fight he'd reffed at AkSarBen -- an NABF middleweight championship televised over cable's USA network last fall. "Want a Molson's, Ron?" asked a sincere waitress.
"No thanks, just give me a Coke."
Stander in his gray-satin jacket leans against the bar, over one shoulder on the paneled wall is one of his original fight photos, showing a young warrior in a tough-guy pose. Raging bull. Looming. Ready to take on the world. The guy at the bar wasn't much different, just a few pounds heavier, a few years older. An ink-black mane now silver, thanks to a time-dye. And a face that didn't really show the results of 80 battles, 20 of them losses. None of them viewed from the canvas. Now 50 years old, The Butcher, a self-proclaimed 'face fighter' looks no worse for wear. The stitches have healed. The bruises, gone.
'Hi. Butcher Stander. You must be Tim. Sorry I'm late. I had to drop off the kids at school." He shakes hands. They're huge; doughy, fingers like link sausages. Mauling hands. Opening volley was the obligatory question:
"Some say the original Rocky film was inspired by The Fight. Any truth?"
Stander laughs and takes a sip of his soda. "Coulda been," then adds, "I've never met Sylvester Stallone -- I met his brother, Frank. I heard the influence was the Chuck Webner/Ali fight. I never heard my fight mentioned with Rocky. Maybe, though."
"When he fought for the title, I said, 'Ronny, put $10,000 into a mutual fund and forget it's there.' He didn't. Ron and his wife were able to spend it with both hands."
"I didn't leave any regrets on the mat. I fought to win. Some fights after the title, I didn't prepare or care. The ones I did, I knocked those guys out."
|The similarities are there. "The Fight" was May 25, 1972 -- the first time
Omaha hosted a heavyweight world-title boxing match in its 105-year history.
That was when local boy, Ron "The Bluffs Butcher" Stander, 23-1-1, got his
shot at the title. The champ, Joe Frazier, who had just come back from
dropping Ali and was now fighting sure-thing lame-Os for $250,000 a shot,
took the fight. The clincher -- $10,000 of the gate would benefit Sickle Cell
Anemia research - Frazier's pet project. Some say Stander's first defeat a
few months earlier in Denver against a no-name named Rico Brooks also helped
grease the gears.
The fight was slated for Memorial Day. Frazier would wear red-white-and-blue trunks out of respect. Stander was a 10-1 Vegas long-shot. When the fight ended, he would be able to say he never went down. From there, the Rocky similarities go south.
The promoters called it the battle of the century. The press knew better. Tom Lovgren, the matchmaker and one of Stander's oldest fight friends, said despite the ho-hum attitude in the boxing world, the reporters came in droves. A championship is still a championship. They numbered more than 150 photogs and scribblers. "There were bigtime writers here," says Lovgren. "Some guy from England, Asia, I mean everyone was here. And all were saying that Ron didn't stand a chance... but they said the same thing when Ali fought Liston. No one went home until the fight was over."
Some background via a fight press release:
"Few fighters compare with Stander for raw animal courage. 'I'll fight any living human -- and most animals -- if the price is right,' he says. He boasts that he never has lost a barroom fight, which probably equals another record established a generation ago by 'Two Ton' Tony Galento. A genial, jovial sort of man outside the ring, Ron thinks only in violent terms when he enters the ring. His black hair, which he wears long and trimmed in mod style, and granite-hard build give him the appearance of a man who could drive his head through a wall, if he had to.
'I know Frazier is one of the greatest heavyweight champions in history,' Stander concedes. 'Maybe the best. But I know I'm getting the chance of a lifetime and I'll be ready for him. I'm going to make this the fight of my life.'"
It was no empty boast. Before the embarrassing decision loss in Denver, Stander was a top-10 contender in both WBA and WBC rankings. Since his first pro fight in July 1969, Stander had put together an impressive record, including a 5th round knock-out of Ernie Shavers, a fighter many say was the hardest hitting heavyweight of all time. "Shavers was my stepping stone," Stander says now. 'It's the one that caught people's attention."
Three months before The Fight, Stander took off to Boston with trainer Johnny Dunne. "You couldn't get good sparring around here," he says. They worked on their secret weapon: a left jab/upper cut combination. George Foreman, in the Omaha audience the night of the fight, saw Stander's big idea, and would use it to crush Frazier in their fight months later.
The Boston training ended up being Stander's undoing. He says he peaked too early, trained too hard. During sparring, an over-eager Might Joe Young caught Stander with an uppercut, breaking his nose two weeks before the fight. No way was Stander going to post-pone -- he may never get another shot. The nose was a secret in the camp, just one more factor that would come back to haunt him.
The Civic Auditorium was SRO. Omaha was blacked out to the national television broadcast. Fans yelled "Go Big Ron" as Stander entered the ring. Frazier was said to look cool in his patriotic ring gear, All-American right down to the shoe laces. Stander's quote: "It's going to be a war. Joe will come out smokin' and I'll come out whalin' and it probably won't last 15 rounds."
Stander was right. Lovgren, just a spectator, his matchmaking take already a sure thing, remembers Stander walked right to the champion "throwin' bombs."
"Depending on what you want to see, Frazier's knees buckled from a right in the first round," Lovgren says. "He said he was just off balance. All I know was that it was a shot that hit him on the jaw. Believe me, his knees did funny things."
Round 1 was close. Most had it even. Stander's trademark "Rhino" style was doing him well. Round 2 Stander let loose with his well-rehearsed uppercut. He missed, just barely. "It got Frazier's attention," Lovgren says. Blood flowed from Stander's broken nose when he returned to the corner. The cornerman said don't worry; your nose is a long way from your heart.
"In the third, Frazier came out to box, not battle," Lovgren recalls, "and that's when Ron got cut up."
Weeks before the fight, Stander says he made an agreement with Frazier: Stander could pick the judges, Frazier would pick the ref. It was a mistake. Stander says Frazier sliced him to ribbons with headbutts. "I got butted 12 times, and was constantly elbowed," Stander says. "I even asked Joe to watch it."
The first cuts opened in Round 3. Stander was blind in the ring. He ate an uppercut that almost put him away. Round 4 was a bloodbath. Stander was bleeding so badly that he put his head down toward the canvas so the blood could flow off him. He found Frazier by looking for his feet. Meanwhile, Frazier was Sunday-ing him to death. Dr. Jack Lewis's corner examination came up with four gashes on Stander's face and a closed right eye. He ended it. It was counted a fifth round knockout, though there was no fifth round.
"I could have went on," Stander says. "but I had four cuts that took 17 stitches to close and a broken nose that wasn't getting any better. I wanted to fight fire with fire. He was starting to fade."
Though a loser, Stander walked away a hero for his courage and $38,000 that he split with his manager. Frazier got $100 k. "When he fought for the title, I said, 'Ronny, put $10,000 into a mutual fund and forget it's there,'" Lovgren says. "He didn't. Ron and his wife were able to spend it with both hands."
Stander blew the money. The loss left him in a funk. "I was 27, I was in the depression scene for awhile. A lot of shit happened." After his divorce, he says he regrouped and got back in the fighting game. He was sold from manager to manager like so much rare steak. "There was about a half-dozen fights I really cared about -- Terry Daniels, Morris Jackson, Gerrie Coetzee. When I got the Ken Norton fight, I figured, why try? I'm going get ripped off anyway. So it was 'let the party begin.' Set 'um up. Make sure there's a drink in front of me at all times."
"I begged him in '78," Lovgren says. "I said, 'Ron, get in shape and stay that way. You can make a lot of money. But he could only drive himself when he really had to. He couldn't bring out that inner-desire to win. After that, he lost most fights. When his career was at its tail end, I advised him to stop. He didn't. He understood, but he kept fighting, waiting for that big payday."
"I averaged maybe $5,000 a fight after the big one," Stander says. "I fought once a month and whatever happened happened. When I got started, my first fights were smokers, 4-rounders where I'd knock the guy out in the first round. If I had met a Cus D'Amato right off the bat, things would have been different. My fighting style was eat the leather. Drill the guy. No defense. I never got knocked off my feet. I was a face fighter, like Marciano."
Stander pauses, then reaches into his mouth and pulls out sets of partials. He's left with dark holes where teeth had been knocked out years ago. He looked like a hockey player, or a fighter. "Boxing's been good to me," he says with a gap-toothed smile.
Though he never announced his retirement, Stander quit in 1983 with a record of 60 wins and 20 losses. "After I got out of the game, I hung out at the corner," Stander says. He bought a bar in Council Bluffs, The Sportsman, a nice little neighborhood bar. "Then I got in trouble," he says. "I beat up a guy after I left to get a bite to eat."
Soon after, he sold the bar. "I got tired of it," he says. "I was there for three years. They're a real pain. You're married to them. It's a lot of work and headaches, expense and aggravation."
Stander went through one job after another, working construction, driving a Ready-mix concrete truck, making ends meet. He never turned his back on the sport. "I trained some guys, helped some guys out, reffed a bit and judged fights now and then." he says. He's an official IBF ref, with the credentials to prove it and two title fights under his belt. But as for training: "It's a hard business. You need dedicated kids."
He points to Omaha cruiserweight Dick Ryan. "He's dedicated," Stander says. "You should do a story on him. He could be a top-10 cruiserweight. He's sparred with the champ, Orlan Norris, quite a bit. Big George Foreman likes him. He has the ability to give those guys good work. Dicky just needs a break in life. He's unlucky. No matter how good you are, all you need is a little bit of luck, like the frosting on the cake."
Stander says today's heavyweight is a different animal than in his day. "They're just different," he says. "Different era, different decade. They have better training facilities and methods, vitamins, the kids are bigger, stronger and faster. But the desire isn't there.
"When I fought, any given night a top-10 guy had a chance to beat the champ. Now they're waiting for the one big score. They don't want to work their way up the ranks. They want all the marbles, and I don't really blame them."
The Butcher glances at his wrist-watch. He starts his shift in front of a Vickers' drill press at 3:30. The job, where he's been for a year and half, is a reunion of sorts. Stander worked at Vickers four years before he turned pro.
"My family is my hero today," he says. "The guy who goes to work for his family, takes care of them, does the right thing, then goes home and teaches his kids to do the right things. That's my hero."
With two grown kids by his first marriage, Frankie and Angela, and now two boys by his second, Ryan, 6, and Rowen, 4, Stander's getting a second shot at being a father. "Frankie, he got shortchanged," Stander says. "I ran around the world with him. If I had more time to work with Frankie, he might have been a major league baseball player. These two little guys, we'll see what they're good at, and I'll have more time for them."
There's very little bitterness in Ron Stander. Before our second interview at The Apple, I showed him some old news clippings about The Fight. One showed a tight close-up of his torn up face. He read it closely, then asked where I got them. "It's been a while since I seen these," he says. The pain of reliving the greatest moment of his life showed in his eyes.
"I didn't leave any regrets on the mat. I fought to win," he says, looking out the window onto Farnam St. "Some fights after the title, I didn't prepare or care. The ones I did, I knocked those guys out.
"I had a lot of fun traveling around. I met a lot of nice guys. I been lucky with my health, God bless me. If I could fight today, it would be different. I wish I was 20 years old right now. I'd button down the hatch with what I know. If I got a shot, knowing what I know, it would be a run for the roses. I'd give it a good go."
Originally published in Nebraska Sports magazine. Copyright © 2002 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.
Photographs © Michael Malone reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.
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