SI Vault
Edited by Jerry Kirshenbaum
March 24, 1980
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March 24, 1980


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Boxing is a sport of survival. Its practitioners learn to defend themselves with their fists, and many of them, realistically or not, count on their ring careers to lift them out of the barrios and the ghettos and lead them to a better life. The sense of hope that pervades the sport lends poignancy both to the death in the ring last November of Willie Classen (page 62) and to the plane crash in Poland last Friday morning that killed 87 people, including 22 members and officials of a U.S. amateur boxing team.

Capricious twists of fate put certain fighters on the doomed LOT jetliner—and left certain others off. The Americans were scheduled to fight in Katowice and Cracow and heavyweight Kelvin Anderson of Hartford was along only because he had failed to obtain a visa in time to make an alternate trip to East Germany. Flyweight George Pimentel made the trip after having lost a controversial decision in the semifinals of New York's Golden Gloves tournament; had he won, he would have stayed home to fight in the finals. On the other hand, Houston's Ronnie Shields passed up the trip because he had the flu, while heavyweight Marvis Frazier skipped it because the bouts in Poland didn't fit in with the career plans his dad, Joe, has carefully mapped out for him. Another heavyweight, Jimmy Clark, was delayed visiting relatives and missed the flight.

The 14 fighters who wound up aboard the jetliner when it departed JFK airport were neither the U.S. boxing team, as first reports had it, nor the collection of second-stringers that subsequent accounts made them out to be. Six of them were teen-agers and Bob Surkein, the AAU boxing chairman, said of them, "They were just babies. They got sweat suits with USA on them, and they wore them all over the country like the proud kids they were." But 23-year-old Lemuel Steeples, who won a gold medal at last summer's Pan American Games, was on the team, as were several others of proved or potential Olympic caliber.

The team's coach was Tom (Sarge) Johnson, a retired Army master sergeant who lived in Indianapolis. The 58-year-old Johnson was a good-natured man who made young boxers feel at ease in his company while still commanding their respect. "He liked to joke and laugh, but when he was serious, you'd better pay attention," Sonny Long, a flyweight who once trained under him, recalls. Johnson was an assistant coach of the U.S. team at the 1976 Olympics that produced five gold medalists, one of whom, Sugar Ray Leonard, said last week, "Sarge was just beginning to get the recognition he deserved. He was really the one who put together those five gold medals."

Johnson wasn't lacking for recognition in Asia and Africa, where he conducted clinics for the State Department. In Mali last summer, he made a point of exhorting local boxers to represent their country with dignity and never to make excuses; at the end of his stay, officials there staged a boxing program in his honor. He visited the Seychelles on the same trip and that country's national coach later said, "Sarge had the boys eating out of his hands." A U.S. embassy official in the Seychelles stopped by the gym and marveled, "I was able to observe the effect this man has on the young men. They love him." Johnson also had a profound influence on boxers in Kenya, which is scheduled to send a team to the U.S. next month. Because of the plane crash in Poland, the Kenyans must now change part of their plans. Although their boxers are going to fight Americans during the trip, Kenyan officials had taken the extraordinary step of arranging to have Sarge Johnson in their corner.


USC's Billy Mullins is fast—he won the 1978 NCAA 400-meter championship in 45.33—but could he be this fast? The Los Angeles Times reported last week that Mullins had received 28 credits in the fall of 1977 from four Los Angeles area community colleges—Pasadena, Los Angeles, West Los Angeles and Rio Hondo. Some of the credits, which enabled him to transfer the following spring to Southern Cal with full track eligibility, were for classes close in time and distant in mileage. For instance, according to the Times, Mullins supposedly took Economics IA at 8 a.m. at Rio Hondo, Chemistry 22 at 9 a.m. at Pasadena, 20 miles away, and Literature 1B at 10 a.m. back at Rio Hondo.

"I did a lot of driving," Mullins was quoted as saying of his whirlwind schedule. But the Times didn't let it go at that. It said that Mullins lives with his parents and quoted his father as asking, "How could he attend four schools? I don't remember anything like that." And E. John Larsen, the USC faculty athletic representative, conceded that Mullins would have had trouble attending Economics IA, Chemistry 22 and Lit 1B on the same day, even if he were wind assisted.


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