Boxing aficionado Ray Rodgers peppered the Arkansas Sports Club with verbal jabs Monday.
Rodgers, who has served as an amateur coach, a professional cut man and an amateur official throughout the world, began his pugalistic career while growing up in Conway after his family moved from Oklahoma. He had moved as a child to what he described as a quiet, community full of drugstores downtown, in the early 1950s.
“When you’re the new guy in town, there is always somebody who wants to take you on,” Rodgers said. “That was right up my alley.”
He remembers when longtime friend Bobby Ward (not the famous race car driver) invited him over to his house to teach him a little boxing,
“After I knocked him off his front porch three or four times, he told me he had taught me everything he could teach me,” quipped Rodgers.
He has coached boxing since 1953 at the age of 16. He played football at Conway High and the University of Central Arkansas for the legendary Raymond Bright. While he operates as an amateur trainer and cut man out of Little Rock, he has many longtime friends in Conway and taught many of them how to box, including former state Sen. Stanley Russ and Henry Hawk.
As the featured speaker at the club’s monthly luncheon, he joked about the changes in the community in which he grew up.
“You know you are getting old when half of the grade schools in town are now named for teachers who taught you who are now dead,” he said.
He was as quick with a series of one-liner as a champion boxer with punches, much of it self-depreciating about his childhood, when he learned to box by the first grade.
“The only thing that comes to us without effort is old age,” he said.
“I came from a big family, two sisters and three brothers and the brothers slept in the same bed. I never slept alone until I got married.”
“I once told mother that my life didn’t matter. She said that wasn’t true because there are at least four mothers in the neighborhood who point to me as a bad example.”
“I got a bad grade and complained to the teacher. She told me that I didn’t deserve an F, but it was the lowest letter grade she was allowed to give.”
“Until the first grade, I thought my first name was ‘defendant.’”
“I had skipped school for 10 days and my dad and I had a conference at the school. The principal told me that I would be doing him and the school a big favor if I’d quit.”
But Rodgers stuck it out and now he’s devoted more than a half-century to teaching young people to box and also the values of citizenship and being a good student. His day job involved a dry wall business but his passion has always been for helping young people. The line of those he has influenced would be long.
He is highly respected nationally and internationally as both a cut man, coach and leader in amateur boxing. According to many, he has been instrumental in keeping amateur boxing alive in the United States. He has worked alongside or rubbed shoulders with most of the big names in the sport for half a century, people named Ali, Foreman, Patterson, Sugar Ray, Macho Camachio, Lennox Lewis, Bob Arum and Don King.
That led to another series of verbal jabs.
“Don King was one of the shrewdest people I have ever known,” he said. “He once sent me a plane ticket to be a cut man for a fight in Las Vegas, I just happened to notice it was just a ticket for flight to Vegas, not the return. I called him and say until I get the other half of the ticket, I won’t be there.”
Boxing has taken him all over the world.
“Once, we were put up in the Europa Hotel in Belfast (Northern Ireland),” Rodgers said. “We were told it was always being remodeled because it had been blown up more than any building in Belfast or Europe. You get a little worried when you go into a town and the police ride around in armored cars with sand bags on the top.”
In Hong Kong, “I learned that if you pay someone in American money, it goes in a man’s pocket; if you pay in Chinese money, it goes in the cash register.”
Once, after he served in the corner for a boxer in Kansas City, a man rushed into the locker room asking him to attend to a boxer who had been cut badly. “I looked at the guy and how beat up he was and told the trainer that he didn’t need a cut man; he needed a pistol.”
He downplayed his own boxing career, as “Butterball Rodgers” as a youth. “My dad watched me box and told me that if I was shadow-boxing, he would bet on the shadow.”
On steroids and performance-enhancing substances: “The only thing I tested positive for was rust. But I never finished any worse than second in any of my fights.”
He has been in the corner for all of former champion Jermain Taylor’s fights and said he will be again if the Little Rock boxer chooses to fight again.
The best boxer he’s ever seen?
“Definitely Sugar Ray Robinson,” he said. “His left jab was so good that the judge thought the other guy was sucking his (Robinson’s) thumb.”
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org)