Tribute for a Heavyweight

Adapted from Chapters in the Sky by Paul Niquette
Copyright ©2001 Sophisticated: The Magazine. All rights reserved.


he evening flight from Rochester through Buffalo to White Plains was always packed on weekdays. Seat 13-B beside me was the only empty one on the plane. I checked my watch. Two minutes to departure. I could hear the baggage doors slamming. How splendid, I thought to myself, then sighed. On a stuffy commuter flight, the currency of gladness comes in small denominations.

Suddenly there came into view a red-faced chap in a rumpled suit, staggering down the aisle. He dragged his carry-on bag against the seated passengers and hollered at the cabin crew for a drink. The man was huge. I shifted toward the window.

"I'll hang that up for you," said the flight attendant.

"Aren't you sweet," sneered the man. He collapsed into the seat beside me, banging his leg against mine. I earnestly hoped he would not notice my existence.

"What's that you're readin'?" he asked with his scarlet nose next to my temple.

"Airline maga -- "

The man lurched for the passing stewardess. She quickened her step, thigh barely beyond his grasp. "Make that bourbon, honey," he yelled.

The plane pulled away from the gate. My eyes scanned a paragraph without comprehension.

"What's that you're readin'?" he asked again, this time simply taking the magazine out of my hands.

"Help yourself," I said sincerely.

He jammed the magazine into the seat pocket in front of him.  "What do you think of Spinks?" he asked in a voice that could be heard throughout the plane.

"Boxer, right?"

"That goddam Leon!" he shouted. "He don't wanna go up against Norton.  Shit."  An avalanche of racial epithets followed.

People in the seats ahead cringed. So did I.

The plane began its slow taxi. I confronted the thought of sharing my fate with a bigoted dipsomaniac who would doubtless draw unkind attention from the Administrator of Luck in the sky.

"You don't know who I am, do you?" asked my tormentor.

"Sorry, no."

He shouted his name in my general direction.  It did not register at first. I raised my eyebrows and smiled, pretending otherwise.

"That's right.  I am 'The Great White Hope'! Put 'er there."

My knuckles folded sideways inside his grip. For several days, each time I took pen in hand, I would be reminded of that handshake.

He explained in slurred speech that he was a 'contender' -- not just could-a been, was a contender! Most recently this fellow had participated in a prize-fight with someone named Ken Norton. From the context, I deduced the match had not lasted long.

"Shit, you can hit 'em, but they don't hurt!"

While the flight attendants gave the safety briefing, I thought back to the last boxing match I had seen: I was in the audience of horrified millions who witnessed a grim tragedy on their black-and-white TV.  It was a Saturday afternoon in the early sixties.  The referee held back a few seconds before stepping in.  Benny "Kid" Paret died that day in the ring under the pummeling of Emile Griffith. I renounced whatever interest I then had in boxing. Sitting next to this guy, I felt anything but a renewed attraction to the sport.

"Bitch owes me a drink!" he said, turning abruptly in his seat and craning his neck. Any moment, I expected my seatmate to storm the galley for booze.

"What do you think of Ali?" I asked.

"Clay, you mean."

I nodded, of course.

"Cosell always talkin' about Ali this and Ali that. He don't know shit. Get me back in shape, you'll see what I make of Cash-yuss goddam Clay."

"Back in shape?"

"Don't pay no attention to this," said he, slapping himself on his not inconsiderable midsection. "Give me six months, 15 miles a day, some work with the weights. I already got a gym lined up -- hey, where'd that broad go! -- then you give me a shot at Clay. "

he plane's engines spooled up for take-off. The fellow in the seat beside me fumbled with his seatbelt, filling the cabin with epithets. As the plane pitched up for take-off, he froze, eyes glazed. The wheels came off the pavement and thumped inside the fuselage. He swallowed hard, eyes wide.

"Landing gear," I explained. The plane climbed into the leaden overcast typical of Rochester. Several minutes passed.  "What do you do between fights?" I asked.

Beads of perspiration appeared on the man's upper lip. "Huh?"

I repeated my query.

"Public Relations," he uttered with effort.  Without warning, the self-proclaimed heavyweight contender gasped and elbowed my upper arm. "What the hell was that?"

I tried to follow his eyes, which were fixed on the seatback ahead.

"That noise!" he exclaimed.

A grinding sound from under our seats came to a stop.

"Flaps coming up," said I. "They let the plane fly slow and -- "

"You a pilot or what?"

"Only light planes."

"Like Piper Cubs and shit."

"Cessnas, mostly."

The boxer shook his head. "Never get my ass in one o' them. Takes three doubles to get me on one o' these!"

"What about the ring?"


"Getting in the boxing ring. That's something I would be scared of. Aren't you?"

The man blinked his eyes slowly. "Yeah, but I keep my feet on the ground!"

In but a few minutes, the seatbelt sign came on, and the pilot announced the beginning of our descent into Buffalo. As we emerged from the clouds in a steep left bank, I pointed at the city below, turning as if on a giant phonograph beyond the tip of our wing. My companion in the sky declined to look out the window.

"Make this trip often?" I asked.

"Gotta fly all the goddam time," he grumbled.

"They'll be putting down the wheels about now," I said. "Otherwise it takes full power to taxi."

The flight attendant came by to check our seatbealts. She crouched in the aisle. "Sorry, Mr. Bobick," she said. "But the leg from Rochester to Buffalo is too short for beverage service.

Suddenly I remembered: Bobick, Bobick -- yeah, Duane Bobick.  I took another look at his face.  Wait'll I get to the office.  Hey, I sat next to the immortal Duane Bobick himself!

"Are you continuing with us to White Plains?" asked the flight attendant.

"Not a chance," Bobick grumped.

Our airliner touched down and taxied to the gate. Duane Bobick turned to me. "Don't make no sense," he said sheepishly.

I thought for a moment. "Not all fears are irrational," I said.


"Tell you the truth, I'm none too keen about airliners, myself," said I wearing my best grin. "Give me a Cessna anytime."

He hauled himself up into a standing position. "That don't make no sense, for sure!"

"Why did you take up boxing?" I asked. "Uh, just curious."

Duane Bobick held up two fingers and stared intently at them. "First," he scowled, "because I'm stupid."

I declined to comment.

"Second," he hollered for the whole plane to hear. "I like to hurt people!"

new century, a new millennium, a message by e-mail...

> Sat, 03 Mar 2001 06:03:45 -0800
> Hello: Your experience with Duane Bobick is fascinating 
> to me: would you please tell me, in all sincerity, if you truly 
> did meet him on the plane and if your account is true? 
> Also: when was this?  I ask because I heard Duane Bobick
> give his testimony at my church a couple of years ago.
> Please let me know.
> Thanks much.
> Tim Heckel
Dear Mr. Heckel,

All of the particulars in "Hands of Strangers" are true.  Ordinarily, in writing or telling an anecdote, I take liberties with mere facts and justify my doing so by saying, "Truth may be stranger than fiction but never as dramatic."  The Duane Bobick story, which took place in about 1978, is an exception.  If anything, I have attenuated the events, including the man's crude deportment and verbal excesses. Most of the things that have been written about Bobick, particularly by sports writers, are far more scathing -- unfairly so, I firmly believe -- than my little anecdote.

Your query is most welcome, for I have searched the World Wide Web for clues about his history in sports to give increased specificity to the depiction and to ascertain his present whereabouts, inasmuch as I would like to obtain his comments about the story, possibly for an epilog.  I am pleased to learn from your message that he has found some kind of redemption, which is more than I can say for myself -- this, despite the fact that I have two younger brothers who are exceptionally gifted ministers.

My expectation is that Duane Bobick brings to his new life the same indomitable spirit that I saw in the sky above New York and, ironically, could not help admiring.  Surely, as a man in his fifties, he stands in sharp contrast to the figure I saw more than 20 years ago.  Then too, if his is like most conversion testimonies, the more sinful the past the more righteous the present and the more compelling the message.

Best regards,
    Paul Niquette

hus began a personal investigation that resulted in the following discoveries:

Eleven Brothers and One Sister It is no exaggeration to say that Duane Bobick came from a large family.  He grew up in Little Falls, Minnesota, where he now lives and works, following a life adventure I am at loss to imagine and unable to exaggerate.  The man nearly reached the pinnacle of his sport, which would have afforded him transcendent fame and fortune.  There can be no doubt that, unique among athletes, the Heavyweight Champion of the World claims primacy among earth's inhabitants.  The person so distinguished enjoys more collective admiration than any religious leader or head of state.

Golden Rematch Heavyweight boxer Duane Bobick was a rising star in 1971 when he defeated no less than the great Teófilo Stevenson of Cuba in the Pan American Games.  The next year, in the quarterfinals of the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Stevenson beat Bobick and went on to become the first fighter to win three Olympic gold medals in one weight class and one of only two to win three World Amateur Boxing titles. The fierce conflictions between Nixonian U.S. and Castro's Cuba mirrored the international rivalry between Bobick and Stevenson -- the latter arguably one of the best boxers of all time -- and doubtless enflamed the passions of Duane Bobick fans.

available at
Great White Hope  According to one sports writer, "There was some resentment by blacks against white heavyweight Duane Bobick because he was getting much attention in the press -- the same attention black Olympic heavyweights like Floyd Patterson, Joe Frazier and George Foreman had received." The sentiment was apparently reciprocated later on in the form of tainted characterizations by the public of Duane Bobick as a latter-day Great White Hope (for a history of the White Hopes of 1908-1915, see Cyber Boxing Zone Encyclopedia).  Several boxing enthusiasts have weighed in on the subject in e-mail messages to me.  Said one, "There are racists in all walks of life, from the mailroom to the boardroom.  I'm of the opinion that once in the ring, fighters aren't focused on race -- just on surviving, making a living and winning."  Another wrote that Jerry Quarry, a contender from the 1960s and 1970s, "dismissed all of the 'white hope' talk as a bunch of nonsense by saying that he didn't fight for any race of people but that he fought for himself and that any fighter could be beaten because they had two arms and two legs just like him."  Thinking back, I now have my doubts that the bombastic young man I met on an airliner decades ago was himself ever really a racist (see "Bottle to Throttle").

First Minute of First Round It was in May of 1977 at Madison Square Garden that Duane Bobick, undefeated in all 39 of his professional fights, was knocked out by Ken Norton.  Of course, this is the one fight for which Duane Bobick will be remembered, even though he went on to score ten more knockouts in 13 bouts.  Many otherwise fair-minded people have allowed themselves to heap scorn upon Duane Bobick and his boxing career. Bobick fans who had paid premium prices for tickets were doubtless disappointed in the brevity of the match.  Sports writers called it a "thorough demolition," a "humiliation." Saturday Night Live ran the action with a satirical voice-over bemoaning a trend of African-Americans mugging white people.

Professional Record of Ken Norton A high-profile boxing match is a most dramatic intersection of two lives, each an arching trajectory, often one on the rise, the other at zenith or in decline.  The first man ever to knock out Duane Bobick began his professional career in 1967.  Ken Norton climbed the rankings quickly, and in his 31st professional bout, won the NABF (North American Boxing Federation) Heavyweight title at San Diego in March of 1973, by a split decision over Muhammad Ali -- whose jaw Norton broke during that fight.  Four years later, a superbly conditioned athlete at his peak, Ken Norton, "Black Hercules," met Duane Bobick in May of 1977.  That was just six months before Norton was named World Heavyweight Champion by the World Boxing Council.

Perceptions and Expectaions In an e-mail message to me, Angelo Vecchio wrote, "The Norton-Bobick fight was important for several reasons.  At the time, within the context of the heavyweight division, this was in interesting matchup, with a somewhat startling outcome.  Norton's nationally televised, first-round demolition of the undefeated Bobick, who was perceived as a big, strong fighter, established Norton as some sort of superman.  People began to expect Norton to be an early knockout artist, and when, four months laters, someone like Lorenzo Zanon made it to the fifth round, it was somehow disappointing to casual fans that it 'took so long' for Norton to get the knockout."

First-Round Knockouts  "You'd probably have to go back to 1973 for a similar set of circumstances," says Vecchio.  "That was the year, veteran Jerry Quarry KOed the up-and-coming Earnie Shavers in the first round.  Fortunately for Shavers, he shook off the obvious disappointment and pieced his career back together nicely, and about five years later, to bring it full circle, Shavers knocked out none other than Ken Norton -- in the first round -- essentially finishing Norton as a contender.  Meanwhile, Duane Bobick, after eight consecutive victories, was knocked out by John Tate (in the first round) and was never again taken seriously as a contender."

Professional Record of Duane Bobick Back in 1973, the year Norton broke Ali's jaw,  Duane Bobick was just beginning his professional boxing career. Any official tabulation of Bobick's achievements in the ring will show that as a pro he had 53 bouts, winning 49 -- 41 by knock-out!  On his 40th fight, after 39 consecutive wins, Duane Bobick climbed into the ring with Ken Norton, the former NABF champion who would soon to be declared World Champion.  No doubt about it, Duane Bobick, fourth ranked in the world, was indeed a contender.  The bell rang, and fifty-eight seconds later Bobick was the subject of ridicule.

Film Credit: Billy Boy In my searches on the World Wide Web, I came upon a 1979 boxing flick made in South Africa entitled Billy Boy starring Duane Bobick in the title role.  I found a rare copy of the video being auctioned at e-Bay.  Mine was the only bid.  As I expected, Billy Boy's  elementary plot -- a poor, young boxer desparately fighting his way to the top -- strings together countless ring ballets before screaming crowds, dominated by sweaty close-ups of contorted faces pummeled by gloved fists and staged knock-downs in slow motion.  What I did not expect was the fine acting job done by Duane Bobick between matches. Even his English accent was credible -- much better than Costner's in Robin Hood, anyway -- and whereas Billy Boy may not deserve the critical acclaim received by Raging Bull, I'll take Bobick's range of characterizations over DeNiro's tiresome extremes any day.

Brawler with Class  With no knowledge of prize fighting whatsoever, I wanted to evaluate for myself the quality of Duane Bobick's work in the ring, so I acquired a video-tape collection of the man's professional matches.  His confidence was unmistakable as he stepped through the ropes, and even in battle, with his cortical tissues obviously jolted inside his skull, his knees wobbled by body blows, Bobick showed unflagging determination and courage.  As for style, I think my studies confirm that he was a bit of a brawler.  A brawler with class.  All right, so I have become a retrospective Duane Bobick fan.  I may not be alone.  One of my new-found correspondents is Dane Roger Clark 82, a strongly opinionated expert in boxing matters.  Dane writes, "Duane 'butchered' tough, Big James Summerville in two rounds. Summerville was never down, but he took a horrible beating and was a bloody, staggering mess in the 2nd round, and the bout was stopped. Bobick's punches were short and crisp, and he looked like a future champion. Summerville was no bum, as he had KO'd 9th rated Jack O'Halloran only a year earlier."

Detroit News wire services May 30, 1997 "Duane Bobick's arms were injured in an accident at a paper mill in Little Falls, Minn. Bobick, a former Olympic boxer, was working at Hennepin Paper Co. when his arms got caught in a machine that uses two stacked rolls to draw paper. His arms became entangled between the rolls, a company representative said. Bobick's right arm was severely damaged, and there was some damage to his left arm, including broken bones and crushed blood vessels. Despite the injuries, Cameron said the company is expecting him to return to work. Bobick, a heavyweight, was a member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic team." [1997 photo by Steve Kohls, The Brainard Dispatch]

1997 Acts of Kindness: Governor's Volunteer Award Winner  The citation reads, "Duane Bobick of Little Falls has contributed to his community in a multitude of ways. He generously volunteers six to eight hours a week at St. Gabriel's Hospital, and works as an inspirational speaker for various community groups, motivating people to think positive and to fight through tough circumstances in life. Duane was instrumental in several building projects, helping with the construction of the Faith, Love, and Hope Church and the installation of playground equipment at the Lincoln School. He also gives boxing clinics throughout the state and volunteers in classrooms at local elementary schools, providing youth with a positive role model. Duane's active involvement and commitment to serve his community have made a tremendous impact on people of all ages."

Home Page Table of Contents Top of Article