The professional boxing scene has always stirred an exciting atmosphere and when it buzzed through western Montana in the 1960s, ’70x and’80s on the glove laces of Roger Rouse, Leroy Romero and Marvin Camel, the taste was tantalizing.
When TV arrived with its sideshows to do the fights, the carnival truly was in town.
Missoula promoters Elmer Boyce and Phil Benson had landed a deal that lured a production company to the Adams Fieldhouse on the University of Montana campus in May of 1976. The purpose was to showcase the then-25-year-old Camel, who was under contract to Boyce’s company and trained in the back of an arcade game store on Woody Street.
It was near where the late Spider McCullum once trained Missoula boxers, including one named Art Sayler, a cousin to my dad. As the story goes, Art was in toe-to-toe combat with a pugilist from Hamilton on one card and wasn’t faring so well.
“Block those punches, Art,” Spider exhorted from the ringside corner.
“You don’t see any getting’ by me do you?” Art retorted.
Anyway, this TV fight card Boyce negotiated turned into a pretty big deal. The producers, now contracted to syndicate the card to nationally on participating stations, hadn’t thought beforehand that Camel’s fight with one-time Brooklyn prospect Angel Oquendo could carry the show as the main event. Oquendo was probably more known than Camel then, though the Ronan native was already decidedly the better boxer.
As a result, world middleweight contenders Billy “Dynamite” Douglas of Columbus, Ohio, and Lonnie Bennetth of Los Angeles had been signed with the winner being put in line for a title shot. Both boxers were ranked in the top 10 in all middleweight ratings at the time. Douglas was a puncher who could take as give as his got while Bennett relied on quickness, finesse and footwork to outscore opponents.
Boxing was nationally popular at the time with the likes of Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Earnie Shavers, Ken Norton, Roberto Duran and Marvin Hagler being among the headliners of the day, along with all those ‘70s Olympians of the era who went on to world fame and titles — Sugar Ray Leonard, John Tate, Leon Spinks, Michael Spinks, Leo Randolph, etc.
The time and the cast for the event, in Missoula in 1976, was, therefore, a dream assignment for a 24-year-old part-time sportswriter and fulltime hopeful looking to scratch his way into the profession.
Bennett won his fight and Camel prevailed in 10 rounds, unanimous decision, in his. The fight card was good, but maybe anticlimactic to the episodes of the weigh-ins that preceded.
Jerry Quarry, a heavyweight who had fought everybody who was anybody during the era, was brought by the TV company to be color analyst on the broadcast. He told stories and laughed boisterously off to the side of the field house arena as he greeted and conversed with boxing celebrities Bob Foster and Gene Fullmer.
Foster was the light heavyweight world champion for several years and won so many title bouts in the 175-pound class he tried a couple of times to move up and win the heavyweight crown. However, he was KO’d by both Ali and Frazier. So he retired to his Albuquerque hometown, joined law enforcement and had been beckoned to ref on the Missoula card. Foster, instead, decided to try for a comeback and was matched against former sparring partner Al Bolden.
So, Foster was weighing in when he kidded with Quarry. Foster had knocked out Quarry’s younger brother, Mike, a couple of years before in a light heavyweight title bout.
The new ref flown in was retired middleweight champ Fullmer from Salt Lake City. He had become a banker in West Jordan, Utah. So, there were inside jokes, fake punches flailed and a lot of laughing. A crowd gathered.
Suddenly, loud, shrill screaming filled the facility. A young fighter was prowling the outer edges of the field house floor hollering toward the ceiling from beneath a black, hooded robe.
“The devil’s in me!” shrieked the boxer, identified by the lettering on his robe as “The Sweet Sugar Demon,” Jimmy Owens, from Las Vegas. “Ohhh, I have to win. I have to beat him bad. The devil’s in me.”
He continued to moan, groan, holler and scream — at the top of his lungs — as he slowly walked the shadows of the field house’s inside walls.
The Quarry-Foster-Fullmer party laughter stopped and all watched Owens go through his actions and endured his cries.
Quarry grinned and shot a look at Fullmer.
“Did you ever act like that before a fight, Gene?” Quarry teased.
“Nooooo,” Fullmer said very slowly with a twinkle in his eye. “Not before one. Maybe I did AFTER a few of ‘em.
“Probably the ones with Basilio.”
The Fullmer bouts with Carmen Basilio were bloody epics and rank as legendary in boxing history. It seemed that whenever they fought, they regressed to the Art Sayler method of defense and not many punches got past them, either.
So, Fullmer’s answer to Quarrry’s query drew loud laughter from a fairly large crowd that had gathered to see what Hall of Famers Foster, Fullmer and Quarry were saying.
Anyway, Bolden lasted less than a round with Foster. And if the devil indeed left the body of The Sweet Sugar Demon that weekend it was because Milwaukee’s Karl Zuerheide beat it out of him. Owens’ career record wound up being 12-16-1.
Foster fought a few more fights, including in Butte, before retiring for good. Camel became world cruiserweight champion and gained his fame. Quarry died from, it has been said, the effects of blows absorbed in his boxing career.
The young sportswriter is still, occasionally, plugging along at the craft.