|PHILLY BOXING HISTORY March 11, 2009||
PHILLY'S HUGH "BUTTONS" KEARNEY
By Ken Hissner
Kearney established a 103-7 amateur record, winning numerous junior Olympic titles and regional Golden Gloves championships. At the age of 11, a bully chased Kearney in the playground. Former boxer Jimmy Beecham saw this and asked, “what you running for?” Beecham explained that he could teach the kid how to fight so that he could take care of that bully. “Stand up to the challenge. Jab right to the body and left to the head,” said Beecham. Later Kearney did, with Beecham as his trainer, and got to like it so much that he established himself as one of the top amateurs in Philly.
Kearney was training in an area called the “Black Bottom” at 39th and Aspen, when he signed with area Tavern owner Nick Nichols. It seems Ray Munson, one of former heavyweight champion Sonny Liston’s friends, saw Kearney riding on a bike one day and was told “that is one of the best prospects in Philly”. Though Kearney never signed a promotional contract, J Russell Peltz did most of his promoting.
Kearney was raised by his mother, who passed away when he was 17. He quit school and tried to raise his younger brother Bryant, who was 13. Times were tough; so he decided to turn professional at age 18.
Kearney turned pro in June of 1983 against Camden’s Jimmy Wrotten (1-1) at the Playboy Casino in Atlantic City. “I got rocked in the 1st round,” said Kearney. “I was able to come back in the next round and finish him off in the 4th round,” he added. In his fifth fight, he beat George Brown (2-1) from Bay City Michigan, by majority decision in six. Brown would go on to win his next five fights. “This was a tough guy,” said Kearney.
Several fights later Kearney won an 8-round split decision over Jimmy “Shotgun” Muse (9-7-2), who was 6-1 at the legendary Blue Horizon. “I thought I won the fight easily,” said Kearney.
Next, Kearney, who had no trouble making 147, was put in with a fellow southpaw named Sidney Outlaw (5-4), who came in at 155 pounds. Once again Kearney emerged the winner in this 8-round bout, ending 1985.
Next up was future IBF super middleweight champion Steve Little of Reading (11-4-1) for the state welterweight title over 12 rounds. “He was tough and smart. It was like a chess match,” said Kearney. Reading trainer and cut man Rich Ormsbee had this to say about a heckler at the match. “I never saw anything like it. This guy actually helped Buttons win the fight. He was on Little from the 1st round to the last, and needless to say Little was mad as hell. During the fight while in a clinch, Little told the guy after he was done with Kearney the heckler was next,” said Ormsbee. “When the fight ended, the guy ran out of the building with Little after him. I thought it was pretty funny. This guy actually took Little off of his fight plan,” added Ormsbee. Kearney won the majority decision and the state title. “Little and I became real good friends after that fight,” said Kearney. “Later when he was training in Las Vegas he invited me out there to get away from the city. I guess I should have taken him up on it,” added Kearney.
Returning to Atlantic City, Kearney defeated George Leach (7-2) who had won his last three fights. “He split my lip, but I got the decision over him,” said Kearney. Just three weeks later, Leach upset a then 17-0 Vincent Pettway in Baltimore, the future IBF light middleweight champion.
At this point, Kearney changed trainers. Beecham was spending more of his time with another young fighter in Anthony “TKO” Boyle. So Kearney turned to Mitch Allen who had been part of his team. Allen still runs the 57th & Haverford Recreation Center today. “I love that guy, he was always straight forward, gave me great advice and he cared about me,” said Kearney.
After four more wins in 1986, Kearney opened 1987 against Detroit’s Ali Salaam (10-1) who was coming off four straight knockout wins. “This guy could punch,” said Kearney. Word was Salaam was related to Henry Hank, former middleweight contender. “I didn’t know I was fighting this guy until the day of the fight.” Kearney stopped Salaam in seven rounds.
Next up was contender Darryl Anthony (22-3-2) who had just lost to former WBA jr. welterweight champion Gene Hatcher for the WBC Continental Americas welterweight championship. Anthony was also the only person to defeat Mark Breland in the amateurs. “He was a defensive specialist, so I had to fight him inside,” said Kearney. Hugh took the decision over 10 rounds at the Blue Horizon.
After a knockout win at the Blue Horizon, Kearney ended 1987 with a 10-round draw with Houston’s Derwin Richards (15-6-1) at the Blue Horizon. “I thought I won seven of the ten rounds”, said Kearney. Then there was some unrest in the Kearney camp, and possible management and promotional changes were discussed - all of this, on the verge of possibly the biggest fight in Kearney’s career.
“I got a two week notice about who I was going to fight,” said Kearney. It was April of 1988 and he was scheduled to face Jorge Luis Maysonet, 15-2 Puerto Rican boxer who had just moved to the Bronx and had won all his fights by knockout. “I knew nothing about this guy,” said Kearney. “I got hit with an overhand right that I was told I never saw,” said Kearney. The punch came just 10 seconds into the fight, and the referee stopped it without finishing the count. It was the first defeat in 18 fights for Kearney.
Atlanta’s David Taylor was brought in next. He was 16-9-3, and had won five of his last six fights, after going the 10-round distance in France with former WBC lightweight champ Jose Luis Ramirez, in his 100th fight (94-6 with 75 KOs). Taylor also drew with Joe Frazier, Jr. in Scranton. Kearney beat Taylor in a good 10-round decision win at the Blue Horizon. This set the stage for probably the second biggest fight in his career.
That fight was in Philly at the Pennsylvania Hall, Civic Center, with future IBF jr. middleweight champion Vincent Pettway (25-2). Six months prior, Pettway had suffered only the second loss of his career by a knockout. The only other loss was to George Leach who Kearney had stopped in 1986.
“I didn’t know it until after the fight but Kearney had gotten sick in the dressing room,” said Allen. “He caught me in the 2nd round and knocked me down,” said Kearney.
“Rudy Battle, the referee, came over to me and told me to stay down,” he added. “He must have known how bad I was hurt,” said Kearney. It was Kearney’s last fight. “If I couldn’t get the right management, I was leaving boxing alone,” said Kearney. He ended his career 18-2-1, with 5 knockouts.
There had been such high hopes for this young man who had won so many amateur titles. Philly writer George “Chicken” Hanson (The Mouthpiece) remembers Kearney well. “I was returning home to Jamaica for the summer and I planned to carry the Junior-Olympic trophy to showcase how well I was doing in America – beating up my share of “di Yankee boys dem,” said Hanson. “He was impossible to hit and the sheer number of punches that he threw was stunning.” Kearney won and I became a fan of his that day.
So many young standouts in the amateurs looked like “can’t miss” prospects for the professional ranks. Kearney walked away from the game after just five years and never looked back. Sometimes it seems so much greener on the other side of the hill. Many a good amateurs have been discouraged when they got into the fight for pay ranks and Hughie “Buttons” Kearney was one of them!