Carmody an honorable fighter in every sense

Army boxer Bob Carmody honored America in the ring by winning a medal and on the battlefield by sacrificing his life, Mark Chalifoux writes.

Originally Published: May 26, 2006
By Mark Chalifoux | Special to ESPN.com

To most people, Robert Carmody is just another name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Boxing aficionados or Olympic enthusiasts may recognize him as the only known U.S. Olympic boxer to win a medal and be killed in combat.

Bob Carmody
Photo by Howard BrynildsenRobert Carmody, in this 1960 U.S. Army photo, began his boxing career two years earlier to lose weight. He dropped 35 pounds and fought at 112 (flyweight).

To those that knew him, Bob was much more. He was an elite Army boxer, a "fun-loving guy," the man who talked Joe Frazier out of an early retirement, a devoted husband, a playful invader of small German villages, a dedicated coach and a man of honor.

Bob Carmody was a fighter. The 5-foot-2, 147-pound kid known as "Butterball" began fighting on the streets of Brooklyn in the 1950s. His boxing career didn't start until 1958, after he had joined the military and was stationed in Germany with the 11th Airborne Division. Carmody approached a larger guy in his platoon and asked if he would go out for boxing with him.

"He wanted to lose weight. He looked like a roly-poly little pig," Mickey Thomas, the larger guy, said with a laugh. "I told him I'd join if he did."

This led to the two fighting in "smokers," which were company bouts pitting novice fighters against each other. "It was street brawling with gloves," Thomas said. Carmody and Thomas fought their way up the ranks, through the open, company and battalion levels before establishing themselves on the division team.

With Carmody fighting at the 112-pound flyweight level and Thomas as a heavyweight, the two boxers were ready to embark on careers that would take them around Europe to fight some of the best competition in the world as part of the 11th Airborne Division boxing team.

Bob Carmody was an elite boxer. There are three things needed to be a great fighter, according to Gene Kilroy: brains, speed and guts, in that order. Kilroy, who befriended Carmody and Thomas during their time in the 11th Airborne Division, knew a thing or two about boxing and served as Muhammad Ali's business manager for 12 years after leaving the Army.

"He was the real deal, he had all three," Kilroy said of Carmody. "He was the greatest lightweight the military ever had."

Ken Adams, who sparred with Carmody many times during the early '60s when both served on the 101st Airborne Division's boxing team, could attest to his skill. "It was his blinding speed that made him a great fighter," Adams said. "I used to get my butt kicked a lot, but I learned a lot about speed from him."

'We lived to fight'

The division team was dominant and routinely wiped the mat with the other divisions throughout Europe, leaving the 11th Airborne as the champions of the continent.

"We lived to fight," Thomas explained. The boxing team had separate living quarters, separate transportation and separate eating quarters. They wore civilian clothes more often than their uniforms and trained seven days a week as boxers, not soldiers. "We were like a pro team, our job was to box," Thomas said.

Bob Carmody
photo by SFC Joe M. Gonzales Carmody (left), battling an unknown opponent from the 82nd Airborne Division, won four consecutive All-Army titles in the '60s.

As the popular champions of Europe, the division team traveled around the continent, fighting the top professionals in various countries. They traveled to Austria, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Poland, Iraq and Egypt to face, and usually defeat, the best competition available. Their arrivals were marked with anticipation and banners advertising the upcoming matches, which were just as important for the Americans.

"I remember having high-ranking officers come down and talk to us before the fights," Thomas said. "They would try and fire us up, basically tell us to show them what Americans were all about. It was wild."

Bob Carmody was a fun-loving guy. While the members of the boxing team were extremely dedicated, they were still young men in their late teens and early 20s and knew how to have a good time.

"The military and civilians couldn't wait for us to get to town," Thomas said of the division matches against the European professionals. "We would always put on a show, some of the guys would even sing, and then we would always go out and party with the other team.

"Everywhere we went, we were very, very popular. It was almost like being a king of the country. It was a wonderful, wonderful time."

When they were back in Germany, Carmody and Thomas would make the hourlong drive to a nearby university to party and pick up girls. The two boxers and another member of their unit chipped in to buy an old Mercedes, which they christened as their "party machine," to make the trip to the university. The trio would siphon gas from Army trucks and save it in five-gallon cans so they could cruise around the country. Still, the "party machine" paled in comparison to the time they did their joyriding in an Army tank.

Bob Carmody
photo courtesy Carmody family From left: Bob Carmody, unidentified, Mickey Thomas, unidentified, in Germany circa 1957-58. Carmody and Thomas, who were boxing teammates, became close friends.

"I taught the other two guys how to drive it, then we started riding around to little German towns demanding that food and beer be shoved down the barrel or we would fire off a blank and blow out everyone's windows," Thomas said. "We got a slap on the wrist for it, but the townspeople loved it. They thought it was hilarious."

The members of the unit also would frequent carnivals and fairs, where the chance to step in the ring against a big, angry boxer was always one of the attractions.

"We'd always talk Bob into fighting him," Thomas said. "He was so fast and in such good condition, he'd just cut the guy to pieces.

"It was a work of art. He was so friggin' fast."

Carmody's Olympian efforts

Bob Carmody was a champion. Even in a regimen that required the boxers to train constantly, Carmody's work ethic stood out.

"He was the type of guy who, when the coaches would try to tell him to run 5 miles, Bob would already be running," said Kilroy, who played football, baseball and basketball in the Army.

It wasn't long before Carmody rose above the division level, as he won the first of his four consecutive All-Army titles in 1961. He won a gold medal at the CISM (International Military Sports Council) games in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1962 and followed that performance with a bronze medal at the Pan-American Games in 1963.

Bob said to me, 'Don't worry about it. One of these days, you'll be able to spell it out loud and clear who should be representing the U.S.'
Joe Frazier, a teammate of Carmody's, after losing to Buster Mathis in the 1964 U.S. Olympic trials

"He worked real hard," Adams said. "It wasn't all a talent thing for him; he had a really big heart."

Next for Carmody was a run in the Olympic trials. He officially won a spot on the 1964 Olympic boxing team with an upset over Melvin Miller in the finals at the New York World's Fair in 1964.

Bob Carmody was a great friend. The same night Carmody earned his Olympic berth, he found himself in a dressing room with Kilroy and Frazier only minutes after Frazier lost his finals fight to Buster Mathis. Frazier was distraught after losing the match he thought he had won, and talked about giving up boxing. This prompted Carmody to spring to his feet and talk sense into the bigger boxer.

Bob Carmody and Joe Frazier
Carmody Family photoCarmody and Joe Frazier.

"Bob told him, 'No, you're a great boxer. This is nothing, don't give it up,'" Kilroy said. "He said, 'Keep fighting, Joe. You're a better fighter than him.'"

Carmody said the words Frazier needed to hear.

"Bob said to me, 'Don't worry about it. One of these days, you'll be able to spell it out loud and clear who should be representing the U.S.,'" Frazier said.

Frazier went with Carmody and the rest of the Olympic boxing team to San Francisco to help them train. After Mathis injured his hand, Frazier took his place as the team's heavyweight. Frazier and Carmody became fast friends and training partners for the upcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo.

"He's the kind of guy you really need," Frazier said of Carmody. "I had some hard times, things was rough, but he was a guy that helped you out a lot. I loved him like a brother."

Carmody wasn't a fast runner, but every morning he'd wake Frazier up and wait on him to go on their morning run, Frazier said.

"He worked very hard and knew his job, he was a guy like Joe Frazier," Frazier said.

A dynamic duo

It wasn't hard for the duo to stay focused during the games in Tokyo, because the language barrier made it tough to go out. Members of the boxing team gambled during their downtime. Blackjack, war and dice were the games of choice, and Carmody and Frazier did most of the winning, Frazier said.

"We would always split the money," Frazier said. "It was usually small amounts. It was just to keep us all together."

Bob Carmody
AP PhotoCarmody, right, won a bronze medal in the '64 Olympics in spite of a bruised hand.

The winning continued in the ring for Carmody and Frazier, who both cruised in their first Olympic bouts. Carmody defeated German Otto Babiasch to become one of four Americans to reach the semifinals, but it came with a price: Carmody badly bruised his left hand in the fight. Even with his bruised hand, Carmody put on an impressive showing against Italian Fernando Atzori, but lost on a controversial split decision and was forced to settle for the bronze medal.

"He was robbed," Kilroy said. "Everyone said Carmody won that fight. The entire crowd booed when the decision was announced. It was a crime."

Frazier went on to win the gold medal despite fighting the final match with a broken hand. Just months after Carmody talked him out of an early retirement, Frazier was able to "spell it out loud and clear" who the best heavyweight truly was. Six years later, Frazier would become the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.

Officer and a gentleman

Bob Carmody was a man of honor. Mario Rodriguez met Carmody in Germany, when they were both serving in the 11th Airborne Division.

"Germany was a special place," Rodriguez said.

One of his favorite Carmody stories: It was summer and he was riding with Carmody and another soldier on a crowded bus into town. An elderly lady got on the bus, aided by two walking canes, and couldn't find a seat. Carmody stood and offered his seat to the lady, but as he moved to stand a man quickly slid into Bob's vacant seat. "Bob turned around and hit the guy so hard he couldn't see straight," Rodriguez said with a laugh. The driver then made an unannounced stop to let the soldiers off the bus.

Bob Carmody and Wife
photo courtesy Carmody familyDespite religious differences, Carmody married the former Merry Sykes after the '64 Olympics.

Carmody was the type of guy who would always pay back the dollar he borrowed from you, even if you never wanted it back, Thomas recalled. "He was a man of honor. Anywhere you went, he was always a guy you could trust," Thomas said. "He treated everyone with respect, especially his girlfriends."

One of those girlfriends was Merry Sykes, a young woman he met before he left for the Olympics. Shortly after returning from Tokyo, Carmody wanted to take their relationship to the next level, but there was a problem: She came from a Protestant family and her mother didn't want her to marry Carmody, a Catholic. He went to Rodriguez, who was a few years older, for advice.

"I told him that the important thing about faith was believing in God. Protestant or Catholic, that was nothin' about nothin'," Rodriguez said. "He loved her, and I told him if there's something in your heart, that's all that matters." The two met with Merry's mother and shortly after, Bob and Merry were married. Rodriguez was the best man.

Bob Carmody was a soldier. After the 1964 Olympics, Carmody entered the coaching ranks as an assistant on the All-Army squad and assisted the Iraqi army team for two summers through CISM. It was during this time that Kilroy, who at the time became an executive with the Philadelphia Eagles, tried to talk Carmody out of staying in the Army and even offered him a job as a trainer with the NFL team. Carmody, who loved the security of the service, declined.

Ultimate sacrifice

Shortly after coaching at the CISM boxing championships at Fort Meade, Md., in June 1967, Carmody and his unit were called for duty in Vietnam. Almost immediately, Kilroy called a few friends in the Pentagon and had Carmody's name removed from the list. The only negative about being a boxer in the military was that they had very little combat training, Thomas said.

"I told him not to go, that he wasn't trained for that [expletive]," Thomas said. "He told me, 'I'm a soldier, a leader of men. How's it look if I don't go?'"

Everyone close to him tried to talk him out of going, but Carmody would have none of it. Staying behind while his brothers in the 101st Airborne went to Vietnam was never an option for the Army medic, so he volunteered to go. Several months later, on the day his second child and only son was born, Robert Carmody left for Vietnam.

"With his status, he would've only been putting on boxing exhibitions for the soldiers," Rodriguez said, sighing. "But he wanted to be there with his guys. He felt it was his duty to be there."

On Oct. 27, 1967, several weeks after arriving in Vietnam, Sgt. Robert John Carmody was on patrol with five other soldiers near Saigon. They were ambushed by a group of Vietcong and during an 11-hour firefight without backup, five of the six men were killed. Carmody was one of them.

"I got the call, and it was like my world collapsed," Kilroy said. He called Thomas with the news.

"I was just in total, total shock," said Thomas, who is now retired and still trains boxers three times a week at Dunedin Boxing Club near his home in Clearwater, Fla. "He was my best friend."

Carmody may be the only U.S. Olympic boxer to win a medal and be killed in combat. While the U.S. Olympic Committee doesn't keep those records, officials don't know of any others. Carmody was awarded the Bronze Star posthumously.

Bob Carmody will never be forgotten.

"When you go through life, you judge people based on who you would want in the foxhole with you," said Kilroy, who went on to become a casino executive in Las Vegas after working for Ali. "For me, that was Carmody."

Kilroy's sentiments were echoed by Frazier.

"He was a fun guy," said Frazier, who became the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world and a boxing legend. "I wish I'd had a guy like that to get my back through life."

Rodriguez, who left the military in 1974 after 23 years of service to join a mobile home business, also had a special relationship with Carmody.

"He was like one of my kids," Rodriguez said. "I married him, and I buried him."

Perhaps the simplest way to describe him is found in an inscription on a portrait of Gene Kilroy that Carmody's son discovered in a photo album. Kilroy signed it: "To Bobby, you're the greatest guy in the world."

Mark Chalifoux is a freelance writer based in Cincinnati.