Boxer Sings the Blues



Boxer Sings the Blues

Pete Ranzany was scheduled to fight Jimmy Heair on a Tuesday, in December, 1978, and Heair arrived in Sacramento the Wednesday before.

His luggage had been lost somewhere between Tennessee and California, however, and took two days to arrive, just in time for Heair to get some late training on a Friday evening.

Events like that are only one of the indignities that traveling boxers – those who show up in strange towns to fight someone who is no stranger to the local judges and referees – endure for their paychecks. Heair was once one of the top lightweights in the world, but this is what his life had declined to.

I had been training at Ernie Geuvara’s Capitol Gym for three months when Heair arrived – I hadn’t even sparred yet. Usually, I would arrive at the gym around four or five o’clock after my classes at Sac State, and the other boxers there would be mostly amateurs with the occasional preliminary fighter. The established pros would have trained earlier in the day and be gone by the time I showed up.

The only guy who could spar with Heair was a light-heavyweight who had fought professionally a few times but was now in the military stationed at Mather Air Force Base. This guy had a good forty pounds on Heair, but Heair said he needed the work, so they gloved up.

The Air Force guy took this as an opportunity to rough up someone who was once close to the big-time, but Heair was patient with him at first until it became obvious that Air Force was trying to put Heair down. The gym was virtually empty and I was standing on the ring apron and could see everything. After taking a last right hand, Heair’s nostrils flared and his eyes narrowed. He was not going to tolerate any more bullshit. 

Jimmy Heair was not the hardest punching boxer in the world, even when fighting men his own size, so he wasn’t going to take out a 185-pound guy who had professional experience with one punch. But he bullied Air Force, pushing him backwards with his forearms and shoulders, as he unloaded heavy punches. Air Force was defenseless on the ropes as the round ended. 

Heair turned and walked to the other side of the ring at the bell, not even acknowledging the other guy, who decided one round was all he had in him. That was Heair’s sparring for the day, and he put in several rounds on the heavy bag before jumping rope, while his manager, T. David Goodwin, watched. 

When I was done hitting a bag myself, Goodwin asked me if I was a pro. I told him I hadn’t even had an amateur fight yet. He said I didn’t need any amateur fights to be a good pro, telling me he could get me professional fights already if I was willing to travel to Tennessee and Mississippi, where he did his business. I didn’t know much about boxing, and I didn’t know this guy at all. But I knew that Heair had been a promising prospect in Southern California five years earlier. That he had won his first 33 fights, boxing at the Olympic and the LA Forum. I knew something had happened, but I didn’t know exactly what, and he had returned to northern Mississippi, where he was born and had spent most of his life. I knew he was now fighting out of Memphis, Tennessee, home of the blues.

I knew Heair had been brought to Sacramento to lose and help Pete get back on a winning track after losing a title fight to Pipino Cuevas. Not lose as in taking a dive, but to give an honest effort, which would be an effort that was still going to fall short of being a winning one. I could see that Heair didn’t have a lot of money. That he didn’t project the air of a world class boxer with the way he dressed or with the equipment he used. That Goodwin was with him, but that local guys were going to work his corner because that is what struggling traveling fighters did.

I wanted to be a professional boxer. I wanted to be a part of the world that Goodwin was talking about. Ever since I was a kid and stopped spending my allowance on baseball cards so I could buy Ring Magazine and Boxing Illustrated, this is the fraternity I wanted to belong to. But I looked at Goodwin and knew this was someone to stay away from. 

Ranzany would receive the decision, a fair one, after he and Heair fought for twelve rounds. Pete was the better boxer, as well as being bigger and stronger and the more powerful puncher. If he had not come along at the same time as seven Hall-of-Fame boxers named Palomino, Duran, Benitez, Leonard, Duran, Cuevas and Hearns, Pete would have been a world titlist himself. But, as good as he was, he had to fight like crazy just to make the top ten, which must have been terribly frustrating. Jimmy Heair knew something about frustration, too.

His early career didn’t hint at the sorrow that was to come, but Heair lost his way while traveling on the road to stardom. He took a couple detours, likely thinking they might get him where he wanted to be more quickly, and soon found himself astray, disoriented in a world in which he was unfamiliar. Heair then began desperately searching for the main road, only to end up even farther off course, so deep in the woods he would never find his way out.

Heair reached the finals of the 1971 National Golden Gloves, losing to future lightweight contender James “Bubba” Busceme. Los Angeles manager Jerry Moore liked what he saw in Heair, and turned him professional in Southern California, where he won those 33 early fights. Heair was an aggressive boxer with an impressive left hand and an even more impressive chin, and in only a couple years developed from a four-round preliminary boy to being a star attraction as a main event fighter.

He received his share of attention in the LA papers. By 1973, he was a world-ranked lightweight, and writers were speculating about when he would receive a title shot.

Two other lighter weight fighters were coming up in Los Angeles the same time – Bobby Chacon and Danny “Little Red” Lopez – and Dan Hafner wrote, in his column for the LA Times, that “Bobby Chacon belongs in the class with two other young unbeaten fighters, Danny Lopez and Jimmy Heair.” “Honest” Bill Daly said Heair was the best prospect he had seen in years. 

But Heair was impatient for success and becoming frustrated with the business end of boxing. The concept of world championships had already bifurcated by the early 1970s, with Roberto Duran holding the WBA version of the lightweight title while Rodolfo Gonzalez was the WBC man. Heair had stopped crowd favorite Tury “The Fury” Pineda in four rounds, and had beaten former champion Chango Carmona, in March of 1973, just after Carmona had lost the title to Gonzalez.

Heair felt it was his time. He began talking about how both Duran and Gonzalez were ducking him, avoiding a lucrative payday for fighting in Los Angeles against someone to whom they might lose in order to take easier challenges elsewhere. Some part of that argument makes sense, too, because both Duran and Gonzalez would have been well compensated for fighting Heair. 

Heair did get a fight with Duran, but Jimmy was on his downside, and he got points for his toughness, mostly, in that 1979 bout.

A talented, aggressive, durable white guy fighting a Hispanic in Los Angeles would have been a major box-office event. This is especially so for the highly-regarded Gonzalez, who also fought out of Los Angeles, and beside the racial angle as a marketing device for a world title fight, this match would have been for the city championship, as well.

But these fights were never made, and Gonzalez eventually lost his title to Guts Ishimatsu of Japan, which further rankled Heair. “So, the title that was in Los Angeles that I should have won all of a sudden was in Japan,” he said. Ishimatsu would defend his title twice against Pineda, needing thirty rounds to gain a draw and a decision victory with the man Heair had knocked out in October of 1973. But he didn’t fight Heair.

Problems began to arise. Heair had nose surgery in January of 1974 – an extensive cleaning out of cartilage and resetting a deviated septum. That comes from blocking too many punches with your nose. Recovery from the surgery contributed to the longest layoff of Heairs’ professional career. In his first fight back, he lost a majority decision to Rudy Barro, a tough Filipino who had moved to the States to face stiffer competition and collect higher purses. Heair blamed the loss on coming back too soon from the surgery.

The future superstars Heair came up with were making their way into the bigtime. Chacon had beat Hall-of-Fame boxers Chucho Castillo and Ruben Olivares, and would knock out Lopez in the ninth round in May, 1974, before becoming champion a few months later in September. 

Lopez would rebound to himself stop Olivares in 1975 and then become a world champion, too. All three had proven themselves as solid main event attractions, but Heair was not moving along with his friends to the level above that.

Impatience was growing, as Heair saw himself being denied the opportunity he thought was his. Some thought he needed a little more seasoning, that he depended upon his durability too much, rather than craft. The same critique could have been made of Danny Lopez, but Lopez’s fists were hammers which got him out of a lot of trouble. Heair didn’t have that kind of power. At the highest levels of competition, success would require that he box rather than punch. 

Conflicts developed between Heair and his manager. Part of the difference was certainly Heair’s frustration at not getting a break, at Moore’s failing to obtain a world title fight. Heair moved back home to Mississippi and was commuting to California for fights, but the continuity of his training was broken. Separating himself from manager Moore, without the guidance of trainer Henry Blouin, Heair began to flounder, losing a couple more fights.

Leaving Moore and taking on Ron Weathers of Texas as his manager, Heair found himself fighting in places like Mexicali and Dallas and El Paso, far from the lights of LA. He would lose six of 16 fights through 1975, including an October, 1975, loss to Nicolino Locche in Argentina. Quickly becoming what is known as an opponent, Heair would later admit that leaving Moore was the worst decision he ever made, boxing-wise. This would not be the last time Heair would prove to be his own worst enemy.

Scheduled to fight Dave “Boy” Green in London in March of 1976, he didn’t arrive until the day before the fight after travelling for most of a day from El Paso. That, with the expectation from the promoters that Heair was supposed to arrive a week before the fight, is evidence that Heair didn’t always take his career as seriously as he might have. He came to realize this too late. 

“We took some very unwise fights. We took fights that were impossible to win,” he said. “I thought I’d be a fool not to do it, but I was crazy for doing it. You don’t need to be fighting in places where you can’t get your hand raised.”

He would fight 15 times in 1976, in Texas and Tijuana and places elsewhere, no longer the Golden Boy. His former Southern California friends, Chacon and Lopez, were world champions, gracing the covers of magazines and fighting on television, while Heair, who by this time was married with two children, was boxing to pay the bills.

Heair left Weathers to hook up with Memphis, Tennessee developer T. David Goodwin. Lawyers, as always, took care of the contractual complications. Goodwin was something of a benefactor for Heair, at least at first. He was close to home and Goodwin provided a house for him and his family to live in so he could concentrate on training. This would be the last of whatever prosperity Heair was going to get out of boxing.

Winning 18 fights in a row, according to, Heair was boxing for the most part in southeastern states – Tennessee, Mississippi, and Florida. This streak included a third-round knockout of Jimmy Corkum in July, 1978, which Heair thought should have put him back into the title picture. The fight that more clearly could have done that was his next, against Adriano Marrero in October. Marrero had beaten the then junior-welter champ Saoul Mamby before Mamby won his title, and had gone 25 rounds in two fights with world champion and future Hall-of-Famer Antonio Cervantes.

But Heair lost to Marrero, and for all practical purposes was no longer a contender. That was his last fight at 140 pounds, with Heair boxing full-time as a welterweight after that, basically providing competitive sparring for boxers who were established, and those on the make to become established. He would not again find himself in the ring with a recognized boxer and be considered as having a chance of winning.

Heair admits his career went off the rails about this time, and his life outside of boxing suffered in the wreckage. There were rumors of drugs and infidelities. Two divorces. A third marriage ended when his wife died in a horrible car accident only “seven weeks and two days” after the wedding.

To whatever degree Jimmy Heair is known to the general public, it is because he went ten rounds at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas with Roberto Duran in 1979. The fight was a brutal, uncompetitive affair, with Duran unable to hurt Heair because of his chin, and Heair unable to punch hard enough keep Duran honest and off of him. Heair won a lot of fans with his display of valor that day. (ABC showed portions of the bout, see below and hear Howard Cosell call the action.) He will always be remembered for his courage.

Heair left Goodwin and hooked up with Weathers again. He was still fighting mainly in the southeast, but a city the size of Memphis was a rare stop for him by then. More often he was fighting in Mississippi, in towns like Meridian or Tupelo. Someone bought him airfare to Milan, Italy, once, but that was understood as another chance to lose overseas, which he did, of course, by a first round KO to Nino La Rocca.

Before that, though, Heair fought again in Sacramento, losing to Sal Lopez in July 1980, less than two years after the Ranzany fight. Lopez stopped Heair with a left hook and a right hand in the fifth round. 140-pound boxers hadn’t been able to this point been able to punch hard enough to bother Heair, so this knockout stands out. The Lopez camp saw this as affirmation that Sal was prepared for the bigtime. Ranzany had not been able to stop Heair. Roberto Duran had not been able to stop Heair. But their man did, and they read this as saying it was time for Pete Ranzany to be supplanted as Sacramento’s main attraction. I interpreted the outcome of this fight a bit differently. 

The Jimmy Heair that Lopez fought was not the same man we had seen with Ranzany. He was trying. Heair always tried. That’s why he always got second chances, even with all the managerial instability he was usually the center of.  Heair always provided value. He never looked for an easy way out of a fight, even when the whole world would have been willing to grant him that ease. Because promoters knew that Jimmy Heair would rather die than quit, which is a quality the paying public values in a boxer, he could call Don King’s office in New York, or Don Chargin in California, and find a way to make some money by trading on his chin.

All boxers would like to have abundant courage and a sturdy chin. These are qualities, however, that most boxers want to hold in reserve, for the nights when nothing else is working, for fights when talent or skill or athleticism or youth are not available, and life becomes, for the moment anyway, nothing but a gut-check. But when courage and durability are the foundation of a boxer’s defense, the boxer is going to end up broken. 

Durability is the crudest from of defense, and exacts the highest prices on its practitioners. That price comes in the form of a toll taken on the body and the mind of the boxer. Taking a punch is not unlike taking a hammer to a large rock. You don’t notice much damage at first, but eventually the rock begins to crack and pieces chip away, and finally the rock crumbles in pieces upon itself.

Jimmy Heair was beginning to crumble, and he knew it, admitting to the Sacramento Bee after the Lopez fight that he was thinking about quitting. “The handwriting is on the wall,” Heair said, although sadly he would ignore that message for another four years and 29 fights. Of those, he would lose 11 of the last 14.

He was 35 years old in 1987, when David Rainer of the Jackson Daily profiled Heair in the Jackson, Mississippi, Clarion Ledger. Heair was working at a factory and helping to promote local boxing shows in Hamilton, Alabama. Married for a fourth time and with two young children, Heair had a noticeable slur to his speech and an unsteady gait to his walk, clearly exhibiting symptoms of CTE. He never blamed boxing for his condition, however, saying that “Boxing was good to me and I abused boxing. Nobody told me to have 140 fights. After a hundred fights I was still in good shape. I probably could have fought until I was 40 if I had stayed in shape and not abused drugs and my body.”

Heair was open and honest about how difficult life was knowing he didn’t live up to his expectations, or to those others had for him as well. “I see a lot of people that I disappointed in the way I turned out…But who do they think I disappointed the most – me,” he said.

On that day in 1978 when I saw Jimmy Heair in person, we were in the locker area of the gym, changing clothes after training. It was a tiny room, barely big enough for two people. Most professional boxers, especially visiting ones, would keep other fighters out of the room while dressing, but not Heair. There was no pretentiousness or air of superiority about him.

I wished him luck in his fight with Ranzany and he thanked me as he shook my hand. He was polite and spoke mildly. I liked him. I didn’t even know him and I liked him.

Rainer’s interview ended with Heair becoming nostalgic. “I can remember the time when I was a kid,” he said. “I had an old heavy bag and I would hang it on the end of the porch. I would hit the bag, and run on the railroad tracks and get Ring Magazine and Boxing Illustrated and read them and say, ‘Someday I’ll be able to do this stuff.’ That day came and I was able to do that stuff and more than most of those fighters were able to do. And, I messed it up so. It really hurts me.”

–Glen Sharp is the author of “Punching From the Shadows: Memoir of a Minor League Professional Boxer.

He talked about the book, and his journey to writing it, here. (23:40 mark.)