I got down to 222 pounds for boxing. I was running two miles twice a day. I rode my bike. I did rounds on the heavy bag. I lifted. I sparred with John Caruso, who was my trainer and a former heavyweight champ of the Marine Corps.
I was pretty thin, after being 280 previously. And my wallet got pretty thin that year, too.
It was 1978, one of my worst years in terms of success, fame and fortune, and I was trying to fight my way out of it. My French restaurant and disco Buster’s, in Saratoga, Cal., was doomed as the disco fad faded.
After getting bounced around by life that year and in the previous years, I figured the safest place for me was the boxing ring.
I have to confess the year wasn’t a total bust. I had a little cash from working on television in the Superstars and a couple other events. But it was not steady income and sometimes it was a hand-to-mouth existence. Occasionally, I had to lay sod to make money. I took the sod off the truck and threw it down so it would unroll. I could sod a yard in about two minutes. That’s how I learned my way around shovels and wheelbarrows.
I had a couple of other things going that year, too, but mostly I was spinning my wheels. I was working on my real estate license. I was involved with a 24-hour Nautilus gym. Then there was Mike Esparza and his furniture business, Comfort Stuff. It was lounge-type furniture, big cushions and large frames. I liked it. It was like opium den furniture.
Esparza was a smooth talking fellow. He was good at figuring you out and selling you the moon. Soon I became the endorser. This was change for me, as usually I was more like an enforcer and had had a couple of jobs like that. I invested $5,000 in Esparza’s company.
We’d go into banks and he would point to me and say “He’s invested. This is going well.” And I’d look around like I was going to buy the place. I was the guy who made them look honest. Soon, I was getting passed around by guys who were using my fame to make themselves seem legit. I was part of the petting zoo.
Usually, you get paid to do that. But I was paying. I guess I didn’t read the manual about making endorsements. It’s that old rule – when you look around the poker table for the sucker and can’t find him, then you know it’s you.
But I really didn’t fit in that sort of life. I wasn’t used to being the strong, silent front man. I liked to work behind the scenes, seeing what I could get away with, where’s the wives and daughters, that sort of thing. And I’m not one to sit quiet and nod my head. I like to run my mouth.
So after getting arrested at the Christmas party for Comfort Stuff, I wanted my money back. That was when I was driving a big, canary yellow Gran Prix with Illinois plates in San Jose. Talk about a big radar signature. The cops actually stopped me in the parking lot for DUI. It was annoying. I got out of jail, held my head high and got out of the furniture business.
Then I found Caruso. We started going to the San Jose gym. You walked up three flights of stairs. It was a “Requiem for a Heavyweight” type place. A lot of boxers – many of them Hispanic – trying to become prize fighters.
It was interesting to watch the pro boxers beat up on the amateurs. The amateurs would try to score points with classic boxing tactics. The pros would just try to smash them.
I would spar with Caruso. He was a lot smaller and could get inside of me. Within the first couple of weeks we were trading punches. I was like the new kid that shows up with all the new stuff. I remember he got inside me once and gave me a shot to the liver. It stunned me. My liver was quivering. My bladder was splattered. That’s what it felt like.
He wanted me to box professionally in Mexico and Italy. I didn’t think that was a good idea.
It was about that time that I was getting involved in the Highland Games and there was an event in Georgia in which I competed. I went to Atlanta where I ran into Bucko Kilroy, Mohammed Ali’s financial manager. I knew Bucko through my old girlfriend Heidi Spitz. They had become an item.
Kilroy asked me what I was doing and I said I had started my boxing career and was planning on a world tour. This was a lie, of course.
But he was impressed and said Ali was there for an exhibition and was going to fight a round with a local kickboxer. A couple of local politicians were going to get in the ring with him. It was a goodwill exhibition and fundraiser.
Kilroy said, “I can slip you in for a round with Ali.”
I thought “Yes, I won’t have to go box in Mexico or Italy. I’ll just start at the top.” I agreed to spar with the Champ.
The big show was at the Omni in Atlanta and it was packed. I had my pipe and drum corps with me for a big fanfare. I wore traditional Scottish dress — a kilt, headgear, and the stockings with a dagger in one of them. I looked like William Wallace with boxing gloves.
Ali saw the dagger in my stocking and asked me, “Have you been hanging around with colored peoples?”
I said, “Why?”
He said, “That knife you got there.”
For maybe the second time in my life, I didn’t know what to say. I’ll never forget the moment. So I said, “Are you here to talk or throw hands?”
So the bell rang and we walked to the middle of the ring and touched gloves.
So we’re tapping and tapping. And he’s working me to the ropes so he can do his rope-a-dope tactic. I couldn’t get at him. I pulled his arms down and tried to tap him on each side of the jaw, which he slipped. I wasn’t trying to hit him hard, anyway.
We went back to the middle of the ring and he got lower and lower and suddenly he stood up tall and gave me a left hook and a right hook right over my head. He could have put them on my jaw, but he didn’t since it was just an exhibition.
He was just showing me that he could put his punches wherever he wanted. That was the end of the round.
Later, I asked Angelo Dundee, his manager, if he thought I could make it boxing.
“Why don’t you get a job?” he said. “You’re a good looking white kid, this ain’t for you. Boxing is for the Negroes.”
The alarm went off. I thought, “What?!” I was stunned and didn’t know what to say. In hindsight, I don’t think he meant it as a racial slur. It was just how he felt about boxers.
I followed his advice and stopped boxing. But I didn’t get a job. I never gave that a second thought. I did start looking ahead to the 1980 Olympics and another trip to Moscow. I picked up the shot and started throwing.
By Brian Oldfield with George Houde