|PHILLY BOXING HISTORY July 05, 2011||
Heroes Never Die:
By George H. Hanson Jr., Esq.
With a sprained left ankle from an injury in the boxing ring, I slowly and gingerly, with cane in hand, climbed the 15 steps to get to the gym’s second floor. I looked up as I made it through the door and immediately noticed the painting of James "Black Gold" Shuler on the brick wall peering across the ring straight into my eyes. From the day the James Shuler Memorial Gym opened in West Philadelphia back in 1994, I wanted to come and pay my respects. However, it took almost 17 years to finally garner the courage to visit Shuler—one of my heroes and an extraordinary human being.
Here it was noon on a Saturday and I made the trip over with Charles Ramey, my old trainer, and his fighter, Philip "The Mongoose" McCants, who is scheduled to fight on the undercard of Paul Williams’ comeback fight Saturday, July 9that Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City.
Ramey had brought McCants here on numerous occasions to get some "work" or sparring against the cadre of contenders, prospects and just tough Philly fighters who call this place home.
I recall that fateful Monday, March 17, 1986 when I heard that James "Black Gold" Shuler had been killed in a motorcycle accident. Numb with disbelief, the tears started flowing as I tried to accept that he was no longer with us. Shuler was omnipresent at amateur shows and tournaments, making his way back to the locker room and wishing all of us young pugilists good luck. After one of my fights, he paid me the highest compliment. When walking out the ring, he said, "Man, you fight like Tommy Hearns." I don’t know if I walked back to the dressing room or levitated, but I was on cloud nine. It didn’t matter that I had won the amateur fight because a compliment from James Shuler was like winning the lottery. I still have the old VHS tape of him shaking my hand in the ring before the bout.
I limped over and sat on the ring apron, taking a deep breath I noticed that there was another painting and a poster-sized picture of James Shuler adorning the right wall of the gym. Pristine and spacious, the gym had a 20-foot ring smack dab in the center, at one end were three heavy bags with a large rubber mat secured and covering the area, and at the other end were two treadmills or running machines, weight benches and dumbbells of various sizes. Adoring the perimeter was an area for shadow boxing, a jab bag and an uppercut bag. To the far right, past the lockers, was the bathroom equipped with two showers, three stalls and two urinals with the rules of the gym posted for all to read. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention the two full-size standing scales. Owner and head-trainer Percy "Buster" Custus could not have honored his friend any better. This gym was literally a living and breathing monument with Shuler watching from the walls with his almond-shaped eyes following you around the gym from any given vantage point.
James Shuler was one of the most dominant amateur fighters in history. A fun-loving, engaging, humble soul outside the ring, he was the opposite once the bell rang. Shuler was an imposing wrecking machine that wreaked havoc, destroying opponents who dared to face him in the squared circle. He was the 1979 and 1980 National Golden Gloves champion at 156 lbs. Interestingly he was a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Boxing team that perished in a plane crash en route to Warsaw, Poland on March 4, 1980 for the USA vs. Poland box-off as part of USA vs. the World. However, Shuler stayed behind in the U.S., due to an injury.
I remember the stories I heard about fighters eating their way up to another weight class or starving themselves down just so they could avoid Shuler in the 156 lbs. division. I had a hard time believing that he was a middleweight because he appeared much larger standing at almost 6-feet-2-inches looking like he was sculpted out of a block of ebony. The U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Russia robbed Shuler and his teammates of the opportunity to bring home Gold medals just like Sugar Ray Leonard, Howard Davis, Leo Randolph, Michael and Leon Spinks, four years earlier. Shuler was an overwhelming favorite to reach the middle block of the medal platform listening to America’s anthem while the U.S. flag was being hoisted.
Shuler’s Gym has become the epicenter of boxing in the City of Brotherly Love—a position once held by Joe Frazier’s Gym in North Philadelphia. A boxing bazaar, it is the home of IBF cruiserweight champion Steve "USS" Cunningham; the Chambers boys—heavyweight contender "Fast" Eddie Chambers and younger brother, junior-welterweight prospect Steve "Showtime" Chambers; light-heavyweight title challenger Yusaf Mack; super-middleweight Dhafir "No Fear" Smith; middleweight Gee Culmer; junior-middleweight Jamaal "Tyson" Davis; hot junior-middleweight prospect Julian Williams; and numerous upstarts and amateurs. In addition, other fighters call it a second home or the place to find great sparring. When I arrived, Robert Hines, former junior middleweight champion—a fixture at Shuler’s Gym—was already on the floor instructing several boxers. Hines is one of the in-house trainers and is Custus’ right hand. I was hardly there ten minutes when Brother Nazim Richardson came through the doors and disappeared as quickly as he had arrived.
Shuler, with his Olympic dreams vanishing with the boycott, joined the punch-for-pay ranks in September 1980. If he couldn’t win a Gold medal, the 21-year old boxer was determined to win a world championship. In his thirteenth bout on October 23, 1982 he captured the NABF middleweight title winning a unanimous 12-round decision over 1972 Olympic Gold Medalist, Sugar Ray Seales (56 wins – 7 losses – 3 draws – 33 KOs). Seales, the only American boxer to win Gold at the 1972 Olympics, would fight and win three months later but was forced to hang up his gloves for good due to a severe retinal tear—he was later declared legally blind.
By 1:30 PM the gym was teeming with activity as I made my way to the back to sit on the small elevated platform, which provided me with full view of everything. On the heavy bag, four feet away, USBA cruiserweight champion Garrett "The Ultimate Warrior" Wilson was in a fighting frenzy punishing an imaginary opponent. I could only speculate that Wilson’s motivation was undefeated Lateef Kayode, the NABF cruiserweight champion who had been mentioned as a possible opponent for Wilson. Lateef Kayode, Wile E. Coyote, Don Quixote—any Kayode according to Wilson will get kayoed! Wilson, despite an earlier gut-wrenching workout on the kettle bells with his strength and conditioning coach, lightweight boxer Elizabeth Sherman, still had enough fuel to attack the bag with violent intensity. Next to Wilson was Jamaal "Tyson" Davis honing his skills by throwing combinations on the heavy bag while simultaneously dodging a foam stick attacking him from the right, manned by his trainer, Sharron Baker, to refine his abilities to slip or evade punches. Davis is scheduled to fight on July 15th in Atlantic City and appears to already be in top form. Scanning the floor, lightweight contender Hammerin’ Hank Lundy was whacking away at the hand pads held by his trainer, Sloan Harrison, as he bellowed like a banshee warrior.
On the left side of the ring, jumping
rope decked out in black shorts trimmed with purple, a
purple top, matching black Panamanian boxing shoes and a
purple bandana was junior-welterweight Althea "Lady Thunder"
Saunders. You could not help but notice the stunning
Saunders who looked like the prototype for the perfect
female fighter—long limbs, perfect symmetry and abdominal
muscles so ripped and tight a punch would bounce off them
like a tennis ball on a parquet floor. Saunders moved
rhythmically tapping out a staccato beat on the hardwood
floors as the five ceiling fans provided background vocals.
Not to be outdone, former beauty queen and 2012 Olympic
hopeful Kymmberli Stowe was in the ring simulating fighting
as Custus held the pads instructing and directing her
graceful movements. Earlier, Stowe and Saunders sparred for
six-entertaining rounds that didn’t go unnoticed.
Heavyweight Georgiy Guralnik, Julian Williams and McCants
all were on the far side doing calisthenics or being
coached. I glanced at the wall and there was James
Over the next three years (1982-1985) Shuler continued his undefeated streak posting nine victories beating top contenders Clint Jackson and James Kinchen along the way. On March 3, 1986 he defended his NABF middleweight title against Tommy "The Hitman" Hearns in Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas. It was a bout that I had no interest in watching because it featured two of my favorite fighters and I knew that it wasn’t going to go to the scorecards. Hearns, a fast starter, stormed out of the gates, caught Shuler with a devastating right hand bringing the evening to a close at 1:13 of Round 1. Little did we know that this was Shuler’s last fight because one week later he was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident—a day that I will always remember.
It was almost 3:00 PM as I took a long look at Shuler on the wall still smiling, following me with his eyes to the door. I cautiously made my way down the stairs, out the door and onto the sidewalk. It took me 17 years to make it to 750 North Brooklyn Street in West Philadelphia. However, in boxing timing is everything and today, a bright sunny Saturday was the right time to visit Shuler, who will always live in our hearts, minds and stories. Percy Custus has truly honored his friend with a living monument. I dashed home in time to watch my old fight tape with Shuler shaking my hand and relive that memory before the scheduled 4:45 PM heavyweight showdown on HBO between WBO & IBF champion Wladimir "Dr. Steelhammer" Klitschko and WBA titlist David "Hayemaker" Haye. Heroes never die.
Continue to support the sweet science, and remember, always carry your mouthpiece!