Ed Sanders was good as gold
Ed Sanders won the heavyweight gold medal in the 1952 Olympics when Ingemar Johansson was disqualified for inactivity in the final. Photo / THE RING
THE RING will post occasional stories on African-American fighters during February, which is Black History Month.
The death of former heavyweight champion Ingemar Johansson on Jan. 30 produced the usual glut of obituaries and remembrances. They all waxed nostalgic over his historic and, in hindsight, fairly slapstick soap opera with Floyd Patterson. (Their three fights produced 13 knockdowns. Was the canvas coated with banana peels?)
Many articles referenced Johansson’s famous failing at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, where he was disqualified in the finals for “not trying.” It was big news at the time, especially in Sweden, where a newspaper ran the headline: INGEMAR, FOR SHAME.
Lost to the passage of time and to many amid Johansson’s indignity is the story of his opponent in that gold medal round. It was Big Ed Sanders from California. He’d knocked out all three of his Olympic opponents, which one imagines explains Johansson’s reluctance in the final.
Sanders’ relegation to mere footnote is highly unfortunate considering that in besting Johansson, even by disqualification, he became the first African-American heavyweight Olympic gold medal winner.
America’s only other heavyweight gold medalist was Samuel Berger, who won gold at the 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis, but it was hardly the accomplishment it was in 1952 or that it is today, for that matter; only American boxers competed in ’04.
Still, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Sanders has largely been forgotten.
“I hadn’t heard the name or even thought about him in years,” legendary West Coast promoter Don Chargin told me recently. But soon enough the memories came back.
Sanders split a pair of amateur bouts with Jack Scheberies, who Chargin promoted after Scheberies turned pro. Chargin remembers in Sanders a dedicated puncher.
“He was light on his feet, could box, and was a strong, strong guy,” Chargin said. “He was a better than an average puncher but was very, very strong. He was a well-conditioned guy when he first started. I don’t know about later on, but he was always in super shape. He took (boxing) very seriously.”
Sanders, born in Los Angeles in 1930, attended Compton Junior College in the L.A. area and then Idaho State College. At 6 feet, 4 inches and about 215 pounds, he played end on the football team, center in basketball and was an accomplished track athlete.
After winning the Chicago Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions in 1952, he represented the United States in Helsinki, then in 1954 turned pro in Boston, where he was stationed while enlisted in the Navy.
Sanders trained out of the New Garden Gym in Boston, where one of his gym mates was future world welterweight champion Tony DeMarco.
“He was a good fighter and a real gentleman,” DeMarco told me. “Everyone liked him. He had a style like Joe Louis’ – not as good as Louis, of course, but a similar style. When you met him, you knew you liked him. He was a real gentleman.”
Sanders was 6-1-1 (with three knockouts) when he met 17-6-1 (12 KOs) Willie James at the Boston Garden on December 11, 1954 for the New England heavyweight crown. Sanders was favored and, according to DeMarco, everyone at the gym thought he would win.
Nevertheless, Sanders was behind on the cards and, according to the New York Times, “took a heavy battering in the earlier rounds but hadn’t (gone) down until he wilted under a two-fisted attack at 25 seconds of the eleventh.”
Sanders collapsed on his right side, rolled over and was taken from the ring unconscious on a gurney. At Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. William Sweet performed a four-hour operation to remove a blood clot on his brain. The surgery was unsuccessful and Sanders died at 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 12. He was 24 years old.
Massachusetts Boxing Commission chairman Nick Manzullo has been around the game for decades. He told me that fight guys in the Boston area were high on Sanders. Many thought “he could have gone a real long way” if he hadn’t died.
A month after Sander’s death, and in the same ring, world featherweight champion Sandy Saddler stopped Lulu Perez in a non-title fight as part of a benefit show for Sanders’ wife and 17-month old son, Russell.
It was all the fight game could do for Sanders. What we can do today is remember him as something more than a footnote.
Some miscellaneous observations from last week:
What will I miss most about the Joe Calzaghe era? Enzo’s joyful and uninhibited use of swear words in the corner. It’s a pity he and Norm Stone never worked together. ÔÇª
Calzaghe’s retirement, assuming it lasts, is the best thing that could have happened to Jermain Taylor. ÔÇª
Somewhere in the future there’s a padded cell with Vic Darchinyan’s name on the door. ÔÇª
I wrote last month that I wasn’t familiar with Gus Johnson and didn’t know what to expect from Showtime’s new blow-by-blow man. As a rule, I don’t trust the authenticity of anyone who has to put on a fake, booming voice to go to work, which I admit disqualifies most play-by-play announcers. Still, Johnson’s shtick Saturday night sounded more over-the-top than most: The Simpson’s “Duffman” calls the fights.
But maybe it’s not shtick. Maybe Johnson really talks that way all the time: Wouldn’t that be fun? “Hey, that chili is destined to devastate my digestive tract! It’s the ultimate challenge! Bring it on!” ÔÇª
It’s time the commissions started giving trainers prefight physicals too, particularly hearing tests. Kid Diamond told his corner about 112 times after the ninth round that he preferred not to get beaten up anymore by Antonio DeMarco and all of the sudden they were Marlee Matlin. ÔÇª
Wake me up when Ruslan Chagaev fights someone who’s a household name somewhere other than in his own household. ÔÇª
Kudos to Cory Jones, who isn’t as talented as Shawn Porter but hung in there, never stopped trying and landed more shots than he was given credit for by Teddy Atlas and Joe Tessitore. ÔÇª
Someone please tell those wonderful, hyperventilating maniacs in Salisbury, Md., that boxing is dying, will you? They seem to have missed the email. I confess I don’t entirely see what they’re so excited about – Fernando Guerrero is a nice prospect, but so are a lot of guys – but it’s great to see that kind of excitement about a young fighter, isn’t it?