SI Vault
Richard B. Stolley
February 02, 1987
The immense popularity of boxing as big-ticket public entertainment in this country may have surprised a lot of people—but not the little town of Pekin, Ill., and not me, either.
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February 02, 1987

Twin Boxers: It Wasn't Twice The Fun

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The immense popularity of boxing as big-ticket public entertainment in this country may have surprised a lot of people—but not the little town of Pekin, Ill., and not me, either.

Before TV, prizefights were a common form of diversion in small towns; Pekin escalated the spectacle by staging public fights between—of all things—twins. The Stolley twins—my brother, Jim, and I—were one of the star attractions of the late 1930s. I'm stretching the point—we were, after all, living in middle-class comfort at home—but Jim and I could almost say we made our living as professional boxers at the age of eight. Our motive was to raise pocket money, not an easy thing back then. Pekin was receptive because it had a history of using twins as entertainers. In that town of 17,000 there were two other sets who performed regularly: The Hines sisters played clarinet duets, and the Tibbs brothers put on gymnastic exhibitions.

We were simply following a precedent set by another, older pair of boxing twins, Tim and Henry Soldwedel, whose family owned the local dairy. They were identical, which made them, I suspect, even more fun to watch than us fraternal twins—sort of like swinging at a mirror. The Soldwedels began boxing about 1916 when they were only six years old, kept it up for five years and finally bought identical soprano saxophones with their earnings when they retired. The Stolleys came along about 20 years later.

Who actually arranged our first match—the Don King of Pekin—is lost to memory, but our parents became our trainers, managers, seconds and promoters. Needless to say, my father, a good high school and college athlete himself, was the more enthusiastic; my mother seemed close to tears every time we entered the ring.

Our training began after Jim and I came home one afternoon and complained to Dad that a new kid in the neighborhood had turned out to be a bully. He said we would have to learn to fight back (do fathers still give such advice to sons? I have only daughters) and he bought us boxing gloves. He also hung a punching bag in the basement. It was a speed bag, and we never really mastered the knack of keeping it going with that rapid tattoo of punches I've admired ever since. In an early attempt, Jim recalls, he "hit the bag and it rebounded and smacked me in the face." We also did roadwork around the block, to amused comments from neighbors.

Mother made matching shorts for us—one yellow with blue stripes, the other blue with yellow stripes—and our professional career was under way.

Our first fights were in private homes at stag bridge clubs. Enough men would gather for one or two tables of bridge; they would play cards and drink highballs, and at the midevening break for sandwiches the Stolley boys would arrive for three one-minute rounds in the living room. The men would laugh, egg us on as we flailed away with gloves the size and softness of puppies, and at the end toss their pocket change onto the rug. Jim and I would rip off the gloves, scoop up the silver and go home to bed.

We boxed by invitation at the country club and even at the Woman's Club, an august collection of the leading ladies of Pekin. My mother actually booked that fight; our public reputation had overcome her distaste for watching her twin sons pound each other.

Our biggest fight took place at half-time at a Pekin Community High basketball game. High school basketball in Illinois is not a sport but a sacred ritual; the gym was filled to the rafters. We boxed in and around the jump circle, and with each punch the cheers were deafening—at least to eight-year-old ears. It was an exhilarating experience; from that early moment on, nobody ever had to explain to me the noisy narcotic of the crowd. I think Jim won the fight; he hit me more often than I hit him.

In the end, having to hit each other is what terminated two possibly promising pugilistic careers. Nobody ever kept score at our fights or declared a winner. It was supposed to be fun, and it was—except to us. Twins grow up very close to each other, whether identical or fraternal; you're together all the time. Fighting because you are mad at your twin is acceptable; fighting to entertain others turned out not to be. Eventually I had braces on my teeth and my mouth was declared off-limits, but I am pleased that brotherly love is what finally closed down the Stolley boxing show.

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