TELL ME IF this would make a good boxing movie: Local journeyman fighter struggles through a tough career. Just when he’s about to hang up his gloves, he gets a fluke shot at the world champion. He’s losing the bout miserably when, in the late rounds, he reaches into the depths of his soul and stuns the sports world with a sensational knockout. Sound familiar? Well, it should- only this time it was Gene Hatcher of Fort Worth in the title role, not Sylvester Stallone. This time, it wasn’t a movie, it was real life. And Gene Hatcher knows all about real life.
Ever since he won the World Boxing Association junior welterweight crown on TV last spring, 24-year-old Hatcher has enjoyed the usual amenities of being a celebrity: His hometown of Fort Worth declared June 1 a day in his honor; a luncheon was held for him by the state Senate in Austin; and on December 15, he was scheduled to fight Ubaldo Sacco, the No. 1 contender for the WBA title. (His first title defense.)
But things haven’t always gone so well for Hatcher. In 1982, only a month after his infant son died, financial pressure forced him to enter the ring against a top-rated contender. The result was his first loss in 15 bouts. After that, a string of important TV fights were canceled due to last-minute injuries and boxing politics. He suffered a disappointing loss to a man he had already beaten before. Hatcher’s once-promising career was on the skids.
Then, early this year, he got the opportunity to fight world champion Johnny “Bump City” Bumphus in Buffalo on the same card as Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini’s title defense. As the only available contender at the time, he seemed a “safe” opponent for the slick Bumphus, a 4-1 favorite.
Hatcher was way behind on points when, at the end of the 10th round, he and Bumphus continued fighting after the bell. Bumphus’ manager jumped into the ring and shoved Hatcher away from his fighter. Hatcher, nicknamed “Mad Dog” for his brawling style, suddenly came alive in the next round. Snarling at his opponent, he bullied Bumphus around the ring and finally connected with the left hook of the year. The underdog-turned-mad dog was now top dog-champion of the world.
Back home, it was business as usual. Boxing fans were elated, of course, but most people took the event in stride, if they knew about it at all. No parade, no crowd at the airport to greet the conquering hero.
“Most folks around here probably don’t appreciate the fact that Fort Worth has two world champions right now,” admits David Gorman, Hatcher’s manager. “It’s hard to compete with the Cowboys, Mavericks, Rangers, SMU and TCU.” Gorman, 41, sold his masonry company in early 1982 to guide the careers of local boxers. “I haven’t given up on Fort Worth as a fight town. It’ll just take a little time to educate the public as to what we have over here.”
What Gorman has is the most promising group of young boxers in the country. The jewel of the Gorman stable is WBA welterweight champion Donald Curry, 23, whom most insiders consider to be the best boxer, pound-for-pound, in the world. Despite Curry’s talents, he’s probably best known for being quiet and shy-traits that won’t help him match the charisma of his predecessor, Sugar Ray Leonard.
“Being a laid-back guy from a laid-back place like Fort Worth has made Don a lot less well-known,” concedes the equally laid-back Gorman. “It seems a shame that a champion, to really get the attention, has to be a loud-mouthed smart aleck or be in the news for shootin’ his wife or something. The only thing I worry about with Don is him driving his Mercedes too fast.”
The gold convertible with the plates that read “D CURRY” is parked in front of a small building on a bleak stretch of Main Street in southeast Fort Worth. Painted on the side of the building is “Gorman’s Super Pros.” Inside, Gorman divides time between his office and the adjoining gym, where his amateur and pro boxers work out every evening. In addition to Curry and Hatcher, there are Top-10 contenders Robin Blake and Harold Petty, plus other rising stars such as Steve Cruz, Freddy Guzman and Charles “Machine Gun” Campbell. Gorman’s fighters are well-known to boxing fans, having appeared on network TV and as regulars on ESPN’s weekly cable boxing shows.
“There’s not a bad guy over there,” says Spider Bynum, a Dallas attorney and veteran boxing official. “It’s different from the other gyms in the country, where you have the big egos. The champions get no more attention than anyone else. I guess you’d say it’s a real family atmosphere.”
The family observation is more than an analogy. Until his death last summer, Elvis Gorman was the first to greet visitors to his son’s gym; David’s wife, Loretta, will most likely be in the office taking part in business matters; and inside the gym, Ron Hatcher will be training his son with “Papa” Joe Bar-rientes, whose son, Roy, is also a trainer.
The ethnic and cultural mix of the different fighters is punctuated by a camaraderie born of a common discipline. Take light heavyweight Freddy Guzman, for example. After working 10 hours a day delivering Coors, Freddy puts in two hours in the gym, followed by five miles of road work. All this doesn’t leave much time for his real loves-good food and pretty girls-but it paid off last August with a string of victories.
Then there’s Phil Sawyer. Being a senior at TCU and a member of Kappa Sigma fraternity is not the usual boxer’s background. “I know it sounds strange, but I like it. It gives me a variation.” Part of that variation is getting up early seven days a week and running six miles, then going to class, then two hours of gym work, then studying and then sleep. Sawyer came within two inches of being the state super welterweight champion this summer-those two inches being his opponent’s thumb, which penetrated Phil’s eye and caused the bout he was winning to stop. “Boxing’s a tough discipline, and it doesn’t leave you much social life,” he observes. “I’d like to get a rematch, win the championship and then retire.”
The man who probably fits the stereotype least is David Gorman himself. Except for some gold jewelry (golden gloves, so that’s OK) and a healthy Miami suntan, Gorman shares little in common with the rest of the boxing world’s hierarchy.
“David has a genuine concern for his fighters other than financial,” according to Lester Bedford, a sports promoter in Fort Worth. “He truly cares about them as people. And David Gorman is totally honest, which is really rare in boxing.”
Spider Bynum agrees: “David is a welcome sight in boxing. Most successful people in the sport have amnesia. They don’t remember where they came from. David doesn’t have amnesia.”
Al Bernstein, the colorful analyst for ESPN’s popular Top Rank Boxing show, calls the Gorman stable “the most unlikely group of people to succeed in boxing in the world. It’s refreshing. And no one in boxing is easier to work with than David. Anyone in the business will tell you that. He and his staff are simply set apart from the rest.”
For all their talent and visibility, the Gorman fighters have never really caught on as local sports heroes like Tony Dorsett or Buddy Bell have. Although boxing doesn’t have the broad appeal of other major sports, it’s still an enormous draw, especially on TV.
“The Cowboys and the Mavericks didn’t have big crowds in the beginning, either,” remarks Bynum. “Dallas used to be a helluva boxing town, and Fort Worth is probably the amateur boxing capital of the world, at least until recently. What we need here are some regular boxing shows, but they can’t be doggy fights. You’ve got to have some major people. Those guys in Fort Worth just haven’t been exposed to the public around here enough for them to become famous.”
Sometimes local people appreciate an athlete more if he comes from outside their own region. There’s no evidence, for example, that Olympic track star Carl Lewis is considered much of a hero in his hometown of Houston. But the response for the postponed Gerry Cooney fight in Dallas last summer was outstanding, and Cooney is from Long Island.
The turnout for Don Curry’s two title fights in Fort Worth was respectable, although not good enough to please New York promoter Bob Arum. Arum, who, along with the flamboyant Don King, pretty much controls boxing, said after the last Curry fight that he’d never stage another one in Fort Worth. Later, he said that he has “supported Curry for two years.”
“Bob Arum doesn’t care about Fort Worth,” responds Bedford. “He matched Curry with two unknown, foreign fighters. If Arum doesn’t make money off Curry, he has himself to blame. Don’s only responsibility is to win.”
Steve Crosson, a Dallas real estate appraiser and an international boxing official, agrees that promoters are often at fault. “Dallas and Fort Worth have the potential to be good fight towns. It’s just that promoters usually lack imagination and do a poor job of competing for the public’s dollar.”
Gorman recently hired a public relations team to help his fighters get exposure and to stir up interest in some local cable TV fights he’s putting on. Their first job will be to introduce new champion Gene Hatcher to local sports fens. One of those involved will be Fort Worth’s leading boxing impresario, Shelly Mann: “We’re gonna bill Gene as ’The People’s Champion.’ Here’s a guy who’s a family man, who comes back from adversity-a man the kids can look up to. He’ll be great for the community.” With his strong jaw, cap pulled down on his forehead and a can of snuff tucked in his jeans, Hatcher does indeed look the part of a modern-day Jack Dempsey.
A more difficult task may be promoting Curry. Although his superior boxing skills have earned him the nickname “Cobra” and made him the critics’ darling, he has yet to catch fire with rank-and-file fens, who prefer the thunderous punching of a Thomas Hearns or John “The Beast” Mugabi.
Curry isn’t bothered by his lack of notoriety. “A lot of guys from up North get attention because they’re loudmouths. I’m just a quiet guy from the South. People down here don’t like it if you’re too cocky, like a Butch Johnson.” More than anything, Curry blames the 1980 Olympic boycott for his struggle for publicity. After winning all the amateur titles around, Curry was a favorite to capture the gold in Moscow. “Just look at what the Olympics did for Sugar Ray Leonard. They give you a real head start. I never had that chance.” Instead, Curry had to pay his dues fighting in gambling casinos and in places like Lake Charles, Louisiana. By contrast, 1984 Olympic gold medalists like Mark Bre-land made their debuts on TV.
But things are looking up for the man who one sportswriter recently called “the best-kept secret in boxing.” Curry’s last few fights have shown a more crowd-pleasing style and increased confidence with the press. When asked by reporters about a cut over his eye last spring, he lifted his sunglasses and replied, “It’s not that bad. I’m still good-looking.” That last statement is no idle boast. Curry is considered by many to be the most handsome fighter in the sport. With the right promotion, he could very well become the Billy Dee Williams of boxing.
Perhaps the Gorman boxer with the most star potential is lightweight contender “Rockin’ ” Robin Blake, who’s originally from the West Texas town of Levelland. With his boyish grin, pink trunks and come-to-rumble style, Blake became the most popular regular fighter on TV last year and was next in line to fight then-champion Ray Man-cini. Two losses, however, slowed his progress. Recently, the 22-year-old Blake has been on the comeback, and a title shot is predicted for the near future.
It’s easy to understand Blake’s appeal. He’s outgoing and an exciting knockout artist. Yet, like Hatcher, he is a born-again Christian who gives appreciation to Jesus Christ in every post-fight interview. “Everything I got, it’s not because I was lucky-I was blessed. God’s been good to me. My wife’s daddy is a Baptist preacher. He told me once to straighten up or take a walk. I didn’t want to take a walk. I knew a good thing when I had it.” Blake, who’d rather do interviews on the golf course than in the gym, enjoys being thought of as a matinee idol. “I like being recognized. I can go out to eat and people will come up to the table and say hello. You get lonely for that if you lose it.”
David Gorman sees only brighter days ahead. “If we can get Robin and Harold Petty the title shots they deserve, we could have four world champions next year. I don’t think anyone’s ever done that.” Gorman is also finally seeing a financial opportunity. “Every nickel I’ve made has gone back into this business. This year, we gotta start worrying about me and mama.”
The big money, of course, will have to come from national TV. And it’s hard for a little gym out of the mainstream to get the attention of the Eastern establishment, which obviously favors its own products. Ring magazine, the bible of boxing, was particularly apologetic for Bumphus in his loss to Hatcher-not surprising, since Bumphus, who fights out of New Jersey, was gracing the magazine’s cover at the time. And the article implied that Hatcher wouldn’t hold the title past his first defense.
“They’re in for a surprise if they think theyare gonna take the title from the Mad Dogthat easy,” says Gorman. “Don’t start thatmouthin’ unless you’re gonna back it up,’cause down in Texas we don’t talk. We justget it on.”