DALE Spears was a pretty good boxer in his time. As a Columbus teenager in the 1950s, he won dozens of bouts and seemed destined for success beyond his hometown. In a span of five years he won two state Golden Gloves titles.
With all his victories, however, there was one match that still stands out in his mind more than a half-century later. It was one he lost.
He can take comfort from his loss, however. He was defeated by another teenager, from Louisville, Kentucky, a fellow named Cassius Clay. Today the world knows him as Muhammad Ali, arguably the greatest boxer of all time and a champion in another field — human rights.
Spears’ thoughts have been focused in recent days on memories of his encounters with the brash young boxer who was awarded a decision over him in a match at a Louisville club in the 1950s. They were awakened by news of the death of the boxing great earlier this month.
The 74-year-old Ali was a shadow of his former self when he died in an Arizona hospital, his body ravaged by Parkinson’s disease.
“Sure, it was sad, but in some ways it has to be considered a blessing,” Spears said last week from his Columbus home. “At least he’s free of the pain that he suffered so long.”
The two men were not close friends. It’s been decades since they last saw each other. If anything, they were friendly rivals a long time ago. But there were similarities in their lives, especially in the way they made boxing so much a part of their beings.
Spears took up boxing as a protective measure. “I was getting beaten up pretty regularly by a bully at school,” he recalled. “My father (Melvin Spears) found out about it and took me to the gym. He turned me over to Charlie Brown, who coached the boxing team for the Police Athletic League. I trained with him every day, and after about a month I was pretty good. One day I was confronted by the fellow who had been beating me up, and I was able to get in a number of good hits. I still remember that first punch I landed. It felt pretty good.”
Ali, who grew up in one of Louisville’s tougher neighborhoods, had a similar motivation for taking up boxing. “Someone stole his bike, and he was taken to a gym where he learned to box from one of the best trainers in the city,” Dale said.
They met in the ring when both were still in the early days of their careers as amateur boxers. The occasion was a match between teams from the Columbus and Louisville Police Athletic leagues. The venue was the Louisville Pendennis Club, an exclusive fraternal organization that would be comparable to the Columbia Club in Indianapolis. The matches were restricted to members of the club, but they provided recognition for the Columbus boxers outside their hometown.
“They featured us on a television show called ‘Tomorrow’s Champions,’” Dale recalled. “We were even treated to a dinner at the Pendennis Club, and I recall that they served us turtle soup. Turned out that Cassius and I were the only ones willing to eat it.”
The two boys met in a three-round match, but it was clear from the start who was the superior boxer.
“He didn’t hurt me, but he sure outpointed me,” Dale recalled. “He was fast, very fast. I could tell even then that he was going to be somebody special.”
That was the only time the two met in the ring, but they ran into each other a number of times afterward at interclub matches.
Ali went on to ring greatness, but any thought that Spears had of pursuing a career in the ring ended in the early 1960s when he severely injured his hand in an industrial accident. That removed him from competition but not from boxing. He followed in the footsteps of his mentor, Charlie Brown, and took up training local boxers. For 27 years he was a mainstay in local boxing circles.
He may not have achieved success as a professional boxer, but Spears does have a number of rewarding memories about his career in the ring. Chief among them was a defeat at the hands of a boxer who would come to be known simply as “The Greatest.”
Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.