Dr. Wilbert “Skeeter” McClure, the former professional boxer, passed away last week at the age of 81. Between 1958 and 1960, Skeeter McClure won virtually every important national and international amateur boxing championship including Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), Golden Gloves (Chicago and Inter-City), Diamond Belt, Tournament of Champions, and Pan American Games. The crowning achievement to his brilliant amateur career was winning the Olympic Gold Medal in the light-middleweight divisionat the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy.
McClure’s roommate at the Olympics was another Gold Medal winner named Cassius Marcellus Clay. At that point, McClure was considered to be a more accomplished boxer than Clay. But whereas Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali, won the professional heavyweight championship in 1964 and became the most recognized face on the planet, McClure’s once promising professional career stagnated, never living up to expectations. One wonders how things might have turned out had McClure, like Clay, been guided by the savvy Angelo Dundee instead of the incompetents with whom he entrusted his professional boxing career.
It is to McClure’s everlasting credit that he did not let the terrible mismanagement of his professional boxing career stop him from achieving great success in an entirely new profession. McClure had a college degree in literature and philosophy. After his pro career ended, he returned to school where he earned a master’s degree in counseling and, in 1973, a doctorate in psychology from Detroit’s Wayne State University. The Ohio native joined the teaching staff of Northeastern University in Boston, where he taught courses in counseling and psychology for five years. Over the next 20 years, McClure built a successful private clinical practice. In addition, he operated a consulting firm that provided corporations, non-profit foundations, and police departments with education and training in stress management, conflict resolution, team building, and performance evaluation.
The history of his pro boxing career serves as a primer for how to ruin a brilliant young prospect through appallingly careless matchmaking.
Considering his post-boxing success, one might ask if it makes any difference that Skeeter did not win a professional boxing championship. I believe it absolutely does make a difference. McClure dedicated 17 years of his life to the sacrifice and discipline it takes to master the toughest of all sports. He had it within him not only to win a professional boxing title, but also to achieve all-time great status perhaps equal to or even exceeding that achieved by Muhammad Ali. Bad decisions made by the people he trusted to guide him to a title destroyed those dreams. The history of his pro boxing career serves as a primer for how to ruin a brilliant young prospect through appallingly careless matchmaking.
As an Olympic gold medal winner, McClure would be a hot commodity if he were to turn pro today, especially considering that he was a college graduate. But the scenario in 1960 was quite different from today. An Olympic title, while desirable, did not automatically insure a megabuck promotional contract or a lucrative television deal.
After considering several management offers, McClure signed on with a wealthy Ohio businessman whose hobby was managing professional fighters. This person hired a trainer who had been affiliated with Archie Moore, the great light heavyweight champion. Regrettably for McClure, both the businessman and the trainer proved to be clueless in the ability to make appropriate matches for the young phenom.
McClure was drafted into the Army directly after the Olympics, but he was able to turn pro and fight several times while on leave. He won his ninth straight pro fight June 30, 1962 – a 6-round decision over Harold Richardson at Madison Square Garden. Teddy Brenner, the Garden’s matchmaker, was impressed with McClure’s performance and his sterling amateur background. Television was in need of new faces to fill a weekly schedule calling for almost fifty Garden main events per year. So, with a grand total of nine pro fights (5 KOs) and 39 rounds of professional experience, McClure was signed to fight the South American middleweight champion Farid Salim on August 4, 1962 at Madison Square Garden in front of a nationwide television audience. Salim, a rangy 6’ 2” middleweight had lost only two of forty professional fights.
(Note: The following are comments and direct quotes by McClure from his interview with this author that took place in 1998.)
McClure was excited to be headlining at the world famous arena and wanted to be ready for his first major test as a pro. I asked my trainer: ‘Is he a boxer? Does he have fast hands? What’s he got?’ And the answer I received was: ‘I don’t know.’ What the [expletive]! My first TV fight…10 rounds…and the son-of-a-gun doesn’t know anything about my opponent! No one [today] would do that to a fighter with a Gold Medal.” McClure shook his head in disgust. It was the same thing with everyone else I fought. I’d ask: ‘What has he got?’ Every first round was a surprise.
“McClure moves with the grace of a young Ray Robinson, hits with authority, and fights back furiously when hurt.”
Despite the lack of advance knowledge, the former Olympian, a 12-to-5 underdog, was more than up to the task. He won a unanimous decision. His superlative boxing skills were a revelation to many who witnessed the bout. One reporter wrote: McClure moves with the grace of a young Ray Robinson, hits with authority, and fights back furiously when hurt. Comparing a boxer with only ten pro bouts to Robinson, the greatest fighter who ever lived, was a huge compliment. More experience before taking on top contenders was all that McClure would have needed in order to realize his full potential.
After four more fights, McClure was rated the eighth best middleweight in the world. But it was all happening too fast. There was little respite from one hard match to the next, all against top opposition. One didn’t have to be a boxing expert to know that McClure was being rushed into matches with fighters he should have avoided at that stage of his career. At some point, the boxer must be tested against a quality opponent to see what he’s got, but the timing has to be right. Unfortunately, instead of being handled like a precious diamond in the rough that needed a master craftsman to cut and polish it, McClure was thrown to the lions while he was still learning the ropes as a pro. Considering his spectacular amateur accomplishments and the tremendous promise shown in his early professional bouts, the ruination of that great potential, through no fault of his own, makes Wilbert Skeeter McClure the most poorly managed fighter in the history of the sport.
This is how it evolved: Six weeks after the bout with Farid Salim, McClure returned to his hometown of Toledo, Ohio and won a unanimous 10-round decision over tough Tony Montano, a 37-bout pro who’d competed with several world ranked boxers. Three weeks after the bout with Montano, McClure was back in the Garden meeting 63-bout veteran Gomeo Brennan. Once again displaying fighting spirit and superb boxing smarts, McClure won a hard-fought 10-round decision over a far more experienced opponent. In early 1963, he returned to Toledo to outpoint former welterweight contender Ted Wright, a veteran of 60 professional bouts.
Amazingly, despite his limited professional experience, he was good enough to be competitive with these seasoned veterans, even outpointing them, but every fight was tough. He certainly wasn’t being overprotected, that’s for sure. In fact, in his 33 professional fights, only five opponents had losing records. As if to emphasize this point, in his next fight, on October 18, 1963, McClure was matched against the great former welterweight champion Luis Rodriguez in yet another nationally televised fight from Madison Square Garden.
Rodriguez was a substitute for Jose Gonzales, a granite-chinned contender who six months earlier had withstood the bombs of “Hurricane” Carter and stopped the feared puncher on a cut in the sixth round. When Gonzales was injured in training, he pulled out of the scheduled bout with McClure; Luis replaced him. A bout with Gonzales would have meant another punishing contest for McClure, but taking on Rodriguez made even less sense.
McClure didn’t have to ask about Rodriguez. The great Cuban boxer was a former welterweight champion and one of the ten best fighters in the world. His only losses in 55 bouts were against Emile Griffith and Curtis Cokes. Rodriguez was capable of beating the world’s top welterweights and middleweights. He had scored a stunning ninth-round knockout of middleweight contender Denny Moyer in his most recent fight. Luis had a total of 430 professional rounds compared to McClure’s mere 14 fights and 85 rounds.
McClure knew that he was not ready for Rodriguez. He told his manager and trainer that he thought they were crazy for accepting him as an opponent at this stage of his career. We argued for two days, said McClure. I was just so tired of all this crap. Isolated in a remote New Jersey training camp, the young fighter was fatigued and disgusted. But, his handlers eventually convinced him to accept the match, saying that his weight advantage of nine pounds would give him an edge.
Meeting a fighter of Rodriguez’s stature in his 15th professional bout was both negligent and stupid. Compare it to the early career of future middleweight champion Marvin Hagler who turned pro after winning the National AAU light-middleweight championship in 1973. In Hagler’s 15th pro bout, he won a 10-round decision over Sugar Ray Seales, the 1968 Olympic gold medalist. It was Seale’s first defeat in 22 bouts. Hagler’s next two opponents had a combined record of 5-14-3. Another future middleweight champion, Roy Jones Jr., a light middleweight Silver medalist in the 1988 Olympics, had a spectacular amateur record similar to McClure’s. In his 15th pro bout, Jones KO’d Lester Yarbrough who came into the ring with a 12-16-1 record and would win only one of his next 34 bouts. Neither of these future pro champions faced the type of brutal competition that McClure had to contend with during his first two years as a pro.
Of course it was a forgone conclusion that Skeeter would lose. Once again displaying the heart and talent of a true champion, and despite being dropped for the first time, the overmatched Olympian actually gave Rodriguez a tough fight. The Cuban won a unanimous 10-round decision, but he had to work hard for the victory. Even Rodriguez was impressed. Give that kid another year, he said, and he’ll be champion.
After that fight, Skeeter should have taken a rest and then taken on a series of lesser opponents, while at the same time perfecting his professional skills. Instead, Brenner insisted on a rematch two months later. After all, their first televised fight was exciting and interesting so why not do it again? McClure’s management should have refused the rematch. It is a truism in the unforgiving world of professional boxing that a quick rematch between an inexperienced boxer and an old pro is just asking for trouble. The old pro will use his vast experience to figure out what to do in the rematch while the inexperienced boxer will be at a distinct disadvantage. And that is exactly what happened. Rodriguez adjusted his strategy and concentrated his attack on McClure’s body to slow him up and bring down his guard. In Round 6, Rodriguez dropped McClure for an 8-count with a solid left hook to the jaw. Once again McClure got up and fought his heart out. He was able to win a few rounds but lost another unanimous decision in a punishing fight. Putting McClure into the ring with Luis Rodriguez for his 15th and 16 fight was not just bad matchmaking, it bordered on criminal negligence.
A young boxer doesn’t walk away from a series of tough and punishing fights without paying a price. If it happens often enough there will come a time in the abused boxer’s professional life when something changes within him. It can happen after one vicious beating, or it can take place over the course of several tough fights with too little time to rest between them. The change can be dramatic, or it can be subtle and unrecognizable except to an experienced trainer or someone close to the boxer. The damage is both physical and psychological. Eventually the law of diminishing returns takes effect as progress ends and potential is blunted.
The boxing portion of this story could very well end here even though Skeeter went on to fight 14 more times over the next four years. Five months after the Rodriguez debacle, there was a 10-round decision loss to future light-heavyweight champion Jose Torres (another Garden fight McClure needed like a hole in the head); only two fights in 1965, and in 1966, a pair of back-to-back 10-rounders spaced two months apart with murderous-hitting middleweight contender Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. McClure lost a decision in the first bout and fought to a draw in the second. The cost of those two fights added to the erosion of this once brilliant prospect. The decline was underscored four months later when he lost a 10-round decision to unrated Harold Richardson, the same fighter he previously had beaten easily. It was McClure’s 24th professional fight and his fifth loss. Comparisons to Sugar Ray Robinson were long past. He had been put in too deep too early, and sunk.
Yet, it took a while for this proud and intelligent boxer to finally accept the inevitable, to acknowledge that the boxing part of his life was ended. In 1967, after being stopped for the first time in his career by Johnny Smith and then losing a lackluster 10-round decision to England’s Johnny Pritchett, McClure hung up his gloves. His record was 23-7-1 (11 KOs). Three years later, feeling the itch to give it one more try, he had two more fights and then retired for good.
Although a large part of the blame for McClure’s failed boxing career goes to his managers, the person who was most responsible for ruining him was Teddy Brenner, the powerful Madison Square Garden matchmaker.
Although a large part of the blame for McClure’s failed boxing career goes to his managers, the person who was most responsible for ruining him was Teddy Brenner, the powerful Madison Square Garden matchmaker. Both Brenner and Harry Markson, the director of the Garden’s boxing department, were uninterested (or perhaps incapable) of using the resources, reputation, and influence of the world’s most famous arena to its fullest capacity. Developing and nurturing new talent was not a priority with them. There are people who mistakenly hail Brenner as a great matchmaker. The facts do not support that opinion. During his tenure at the Garden (1959 to 1977), Brenner made some good matches, but he did far more damage by destroying the careers of at least a score of very promising young fighters, including McClure, by overmatching them against superior opposition before they were ready. This pattern was repeated far too often. Brenner knew better but just didn’t care. If the result of a match ended up ruining a prospect, so be it. It was of no concern to either Brenner or Markson. Their weekly paychecks arrived whether they put on a good show or not. They would also abuse their power by favoring certain “house fighters” handled by compliant managers who never argued with Brenner’s choice of opponent. Making matters worse, the marketing skills of Brenner and Markson were negligible. The great arena was running on its reputation and interest was dwindling. One time, near the end of their tenure, in a fit of pique they revoked the press privileges of a journalist who dared to criticize one of their awful matches in print. So much for freedom of the press.
In those days the prestige of appearing in a main event at Madison Square Garden was second only to winning a world title. Even when matched against an opponent that was all wrong for their fighter, managers were reluctant to turn down a Garden main event. But it didn’t have to be that way. In Los Angeles, during the same period, promoters George Parnassus and Eileen Eaton were carefully developing and nurturing local talent and making the sport hugely popular without benefit of a national television sponsorship. But because this is an article in tribute to Wilbert McClure, I won’t go into further details about the destructive nature of Brenner and Markson’s arrogance and incompetence. Suffice it to say that boxing suffered as a result.
Reminiscing some thirty years later, McClure was philosophical about his ill-starred professional career. I was bitter back in 1967, the then 59-year old grandfather admitted to me. McClure was still handsome and looked twenty years younger. But now I’ve come to terms with it. I believe everything that happened was supposed to be in my life, both before and after. When you think about it, maybe the experience helped me to save some lives. I’m probably a more well-rounded psychologist because of my experience in the [boxing] business.
McClure was not prone to self-pity, nor did he live in the past. His positive attitude helped him to start over in an entirely new field. But boxing was not totally out of his life.
McClure was not prone to self-pity, nor did he live in the past. His positive attitude helped him to start over in an entirely new field. But boxing was not totally out of his life. From 1995 to 1998, he served as chairman of the Massachusetts Boxing Commission where one of his chief priorities was the athletes’ safety. He especially was concerned about over-the hill-boxers who can no longer properly defend themselves yet still are allowed to fight. The boxing community, said McClure, especially the state commissions, ought to have more courage lifting the licenses of fighters who cannot and should not do it anymore. During my tenure as chairman, I was threatened with lawsuits by managers because we suspended those boxers who couldn’t fight anymore.
When asked to evaluate today’s fighters McClure’s response was precise. You cannot become skilled and polished if you are fighting two or three times a year. When you’ve got fighters challenging for a world title with 15 pro fights, you know you’ve got a problem. It makes it difficult to appraise the top boxers of today based on what they have accomplished. It is not scientifically sound, accurate, or fair. I feel sorry for Roy Jones Jr. because he hasn’t fought a great or even a very skillful opponent yet. So he cannot be placed in the pantheon of great middleweights because it takes great opponents to make great fighters.
McClure also said that welterweight champ Oscar de La Hoya, although still a work in progress, was lucky that there were no Kid Gavilans around to test him. Put Oscar in the ring with Gavilan when he was champion, or a Ray Robinson when he was champ or a Tony Zale. Those guys were tough, man. There isn’t any way in the damn world you’re going to hurt them…and they will hurt you badly. It is a lesson that Skeeter learned the hard way.
Wilbert “Skeeter” McClure, a gracious and intelligent man, made his mark both inside and outside of the boxing ring. But most importantly, he lived his life with meaning and purpose.
Mike Silver’s newest book is The Night the Referee Hit Back: Memorable Moments from the World of Boxing. Available from Amazon.com or publisher’s website: Rowman.com: