- Don Stradley
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HAVERHILL, Mass. -- Somewhere in his 69 years, Skeeter McClure has won an Olympic gold medal in front of grim Cold War judges, had a business burn down during a Detroit riot, fought some of the best middleweights of the post-Kennedy era, earned degrees in philosophy and literature as well as a doctorate in psychology, worked as a group therapist, taught adult education classes at Northeastern University and served as the boxing commissioner of Massachusetts. He was also, for a short time, Muhammad Ali's roommate, which would've made a nice reality series for television if such a thing existed in 1960.
McClure came to Haverhill, Mass., recently to take part in a charity benefit for a local boys' club. He sat ringside at a reserved table, enduring an evening of amateur boxing that might have been better off in the parking lot behind the high school. McClure smiled politely at the fighters as they shuffled past his table.
"There are five ways to keep a left jab from landing," McClure whispered, "and these kids don't know a single one."
It was not exactly a magical night of boxing. One bout was stopped when a kid injured his arm throwing a haymaker. Most of the boys had bloodstains spreading down their shirt fronts. "People talk about suspending fighters, but I also think trainers should be investigated and suspended," McClure said, as he picked away at his steak dinner. "When I see these kids getting hit in the nose so often, I wonder who trained them."
McClure didn't like what he saw during his time as Massachusetts' boxing commissioner. According to McClure, too many of the state-appointed officials don't understand the sport.
"Would the owner of a football team hire a head coach with no damned experience? Of course not," McClure said. "But in boxing, there are people with no credentials acting as trainers. That's what politicians have done to boxing. And the state doesn't give a s---."
This is the tough McClure talking, the one who used to fail students when they made three grammatical errors on a paper. His still-boyish face is capped by a mushroom cloud of grey hair and a mustache that almost overwhelms his mouth. He is cultured, but more than one person from his past is referred to as a "dumb son of a b----."
Not Ali, though. When the subject turns to Ali, McClure warms up.
"He was a sweetheart," said McClure, recalling the 18-year-old Ali, who was known as Cassius Clay then. They were co-captains of the 1960 U.S. Olympic team, rooming together in Rome.
"I was on a couple of teams with him, and he was just a nice kid," McClure said of Ali. "He worked hard and didn't run his mouth off. He was gregarious, though. He loved to walk around and meet people. He liked the idea of making international friends, even back then, going to the pavilion just to meet people. But I had some seniority over him, so I'd say, 'Before you go, make sure you clean up this room.' But he's a good man, a very good man."
Even without the Ali connection, McClure should be remembered and celebrated. From 1958 to 1960, there were few amateur boxers in the country better than Skeeter McClure. As a light middleweight he won consecutive Chicago Golden Gloves titles, the 1958 Pan Am games championship and the AAU championship. In 1959, he was named Outstanding Amateur Boxer in the U.S. Not bad for a skinny kid from Toledo.
"When I was born, my father took one look at me and said, 'This boy is no bigger than a skeeter [slang for mosquito],' " McClure explained. "The nickname stuck with me."
"My introduction to boxing was a kind of accident. I was 13, sitting on my front porch, and a friend walked by. He said he was going to a boxing gym, and invited me to come along. I didn't have anything better to do besides sit on that porch. So I went with him. It was a 10-mile walk to reach downtown Toledo where the gym was located. When we got there, all the noise was exciting as hell."
Although McClure's father had been a fighter, McClure was not a natural.
"I was afraid of getting hit in the face, so my coach devised a method where my sparring partners would just tap me, a tap on the forehead, and a tap on the cheek," McClure said. After a month the coach told them to hit me a little harder. That's how I got used to taking punches."
"I had to get over that fear. A lot of people, in their lives, don't do that. They'll just avoid things because they don't want to get hurt. I'll use that as an example when I'm giving a lecture; if people gradually build up to something, they can get over their fear of failure."
His amateur career was glorious, but McClure has no kind words for the men who mishandled his professional career. After a mere 14 pro bouts, McClure was rushed into matches with the likes of Luis Rodriguez, Rubin Carter and Jose Torres. He was competitive, but he went 0-4-1 against his vastly experienced opponents.
"I had too much going on. I was in the Army, I was in college, and I had a wife and a baby daughter," McClure explained. "I left Toledo for Detroit, because there were better sparring partners in Detroit. I was all over the map. I didn't have the business acumen."
In 1965 McClure almost fought his idol, Sugar Ray Robinson. By then, the 44-year-old Robinson was searching for an easy opponent.
"I heard it was between me and Joey Archer. Robinson thought he could beat Archer, but he wasn't sure he could beat me. That's why he picked Archer."
Archer won a decision, and Robinson never fought again. Meanwhile, McClure's odd luck continued.
"While I was in Detroit I had a store, but it was burned down during the riots when Martin Luther King was assassinated. From there, I combined my boxing career with teaching jobs."
A brief time with Cus D'Amato didn't work, either.
"He was a very interesting man, and a talented trainer." McClure said. "I was fond of Cus, but we had our differences. He wanted me to use the peek-a-boo style he gave Floyd Patterson, and that wasn't for me. I was a boxer, man."
An ongoing rib injury caused McClure's retirement in 1970 after 33 pro fights.
Within three years, McClure would attend Wayne State University and earn his doctorate in psychology.
McClure downplays his tough side, although in his time he was tough enough. In the 1960 Olympic final, McClure beat Carmelo Bossi, an Italian star, in Rome. But McClure overcame much more than Bossi's hometown advantage.
"We discovered if you had 'USA' written on anything, you were dead," McClure said. "We had a good team; Ali, Eddie Crook and I won gold medals, but we used to joke, 'Let's take off our jackets because they'll want to kill us.' We were up a creek without a paddle because of the Cold War."
Throughout the summer, McClure felt the Russian judges had consistently -- perhaps purposely -- voted against Americans. Several judges were sacked for incompetence.
"I give the Olympic committee credit for canning those judges," McClure said. "They wouldn't do that now; they'd be afraid of the controversy."
Ironically, McClure almost skipped Rome.
"The Olympics weren't a big deal to anybody in 1960," said McClure. "I'd never seen an Olympic event. There was no coverage on national TV, like there would be in the 1970s. I fought in the last anonymous Olympics. That's been the story of my life."
The gold medal in 1960 didn't open doors the way it would for later Olympians, but McClure's winning performance in Rome remains the most satisfying moment of his life.
"The odds were against us. There was so much to deal with. There were 14 zillion people standing around the scales when we were weighing in. And guess what? We used Toledo Scales. I'm from Toledo, Ohio, where the scales were made. Toledo was very proud. I said, 'Why don't you take a picture of me on the scales and give me some money? I'll be a spokesman: "You too can be an Olympic champion if you use Toledo Scales!" '
"I thought it was a good idea, but they weren't doing that in those days."
There were no endorsements for Skeeter McClure. He'll have to be content with the little place in history he has all to himself.
Don Stradley is a regular contributor to The Ring.
1dMarc Stein and Ramona Shelburne