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Bill McMurray Was A Good Second Tier Heavyweight

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Bill McMurray was an outstanding athlete at San Bernardino High School and then junior college, where he played football and ran hurdles on the track team – and was drafted by the Oakland Raiders of the old American Football League. He was also drafted by the United States Army, where McMurray, once his athletic prowess was observed, was asked if he knew how to box. 

“I could try,” McMurray said, in his wife Margaret’s version of the story, and before long he was winning military tournaments and upon discharge began a professional career in which he fought from 1959 to 1971.

Boxing in those years was the most lucrative sporting activity in America, with the heavyweight champion being the highest paid athlete in the world. The possibilities of making big money were greater in boxing than in football, which McMurray found an attractive proposition. He knew there would be less money at the beginning, with no guaranteed salary, but there was hope of a bigger pot at the end of the road.

Football became a fallback option for him. “If I don’t make it in boxing, I may try my luck with some pro football team next season,” he said.

McMurray would never make the kind of money that had enticed him. The need for steady employment took time away from training, and – given his late start in boxing – McMurray was never able to apply himself as would have been necessary to become the complete, well rounded fighter that might have once been possible for him. He worked construction, moved furniture, and drove trucks to provide for his family – which included four children – and got by with his athletic gifts and ability to glide around the ring with long hurdler’s legs, occupying opponents with his left hand. 

Managed at first by jeweler Art Leon, McMurray’s first professional fight was in San Bernardino against Andy Isaac, on the undercard of a Lauro Salas main event.  McMurray’s local fame was such that the newspaper featured a photo him on the cover of the sports page the day of the fight rather than Salas, a former world champion. Strangely, he would not fight in San Bernardino again, but did in Los Angeles and Hollywood until moving northward, with two matches in Reno and another in Modesto before his 12th fight in Sacramento, where he would settle, becoming known as one of the better heavyweights in local history. Certainly, one of the most well-liked.

“I like it here and I thought a heavyweight would have more of a chance of getting ahead in the north end of the state,” McMurray said of his new home.

McMurray beat most of his early opposition, and within three years was 25 years old with a record of 17-3.

The early losses can be excused as on the job training, for McMurray, with his limited amateur experience, basically jumped from the frying pan into the fire when becoming a pro.

But he began to struggle with more experienced boxers, and a loss to Eddie Machen on November 5th, 1963, was a sign that McMurray might turn out to be more of an opponent than he would be a contender. 

Machen said of McMurray, “Bill is a big, strong boy and he can move back quickly, but he is as green as grass.”

He was on his third manager by then, moving from Leon to Pete Kokinis, who then sold McMurray’s contract to Sid Tenner, and training himself for the most part. Working as a trucker, sometimes on overnight runs – which meant skipped days at the gym – McMurray began using boxing as a way to supplement his income rather than looking at his jobs as a way to sustain his family until boxing became more profitable. The record for the remainder of his career would be 7-15-3. 

His first six fights after meeting Machen included two losses to California state champion, Roger Rischer, two losses and a draw to Elmer Rush -the first time they fought was only Rush’s sixth professional fight – and being stopped in three rounds by Charlie Powell, the sometimes defensive end for the San Francisco 49ers. 

Powell was probably an even finer athlete than McMurray. He played a little professional baseball before deciding he had more of a future in football, and entered the NFL at age 19. Having boxed when young, too, including sparring with top amateur heavyweights Harold Espy and 1952 Olympic gold medalist Ed Sanders – Powell wanted to fight, as well. Famed West Coast trainer Duke Holloway, who claimed to smoke a dozen cigars and drink a fifth of brandy a day, also claimed to have taught all three -Espy, Sanders, and Powell – how to box.

Powell would take sabbaticals from the NFL to develop a professional boxing career. Not applying himself whole-heartedly to either football or boxing probably limited his development in both sports, and Powell ended with a record of 25-11-3. He fought, but did not beat, Floyd Patterson and Muhammad Ali, but knocked out Nino Valdes at the end of Valdes’ career. 

After the Machen fight, McMurray began hiring out as a sparring partner, working with Zora Foley and Machen and Mac Foster, not only as a way to make extra money, but to also stay in shape with good sparring, which he couldn’t always get in the Sacramento area.

McMurray, Powell, and Rush would become friends, with Powell or Rush driving from the Bay Area to spar with McMurray or McMurray going to their gym. There were good heavyweight fights in Northern California, but not many quality heavyweights permanently training in Sacramento and the Bay Area cities in the early 1960s.

Evidence that hope was still springing eternally for McMurray, even as late as 1966, came with his victory over Willie Ray Richardson in a rematch after having lost their first fight. McMurray’s manager Tenner said, “Now he has a chance to meet better boys. We want the winner of the Eddie Machen – Jerry Quarry fight.” McMurray hoped to fight Cleveland “Cat” Williams.

“John Henry” Jackson was the name of the foe, for the record.

He told reporters before the second Richardson fight that he knew it was a “make or break” fight for him, that he had about run out of opportunities. McMurray had come close to being a factor in the heavyweight division, but always fell short of that goal.

The closest he would come was stopping the then number-two ranked Thad Spencer – in line to fight Muhammad Ali – on cuts to win the state championship. But he would lose that title to Henry Clark four months later.

Clark had grown up in Louisiana, but was fighting professionally for Joe Herman in San Francisco, and had some of the same problems finding sparring partners, as did McMurray. He would eventually move to Sacramento to become McMurray’s neighbor – living right across the street – and near permanent sparring partner.

McMurray fought a bloodbath with Dave Zyglewicz in Houston shortly before Zyglewicz challenged Joe Frazier for the heavyweight championship, in what was a surprising gut-check. McMurray had a six-inch height advantage, and at least that much longer of a reach, but fought Zyglewicz in a phone booth.

McMurray’s friend Javier Alcala said, “Bill was a fine athlete and very brave, but he did not have an aggressive personality. He wasn’t a fighter at heart.” It is possible, then, that McMurray was trying to prove something about himself with Zyglewicz.

Manager Tenner let reporters know that after the gutsy, crowd-pleasing performance against “Ziggy,” promoters from England, Germany, and Italy were calling about McMurray’s availability for overseas bouts. Tenner admitted, for his part, that he had always wanted to travel to Europe.

By late 1966, after beating Spencer, the WBA ranked McMurray as the 8th best heavyweight in the world. He and Tony Alongi fought to a technical draw in November of that year when they were both cut too badly by the third round to continue. Alongi, who had twice drawn with Jerry Quarry, was the betting favorite going into the fight. But then McMurray lost to Clark, whose only previous defeat had been to Zora Folley.

McMurray claimed he only had 15 rounds of sparring to prepare for the fight, which makes sense, for his main sparring partner would have been, in this case, the opponent for whom he was preparing. He would spar with “Preacher” Lewis, who fought as a 180-pound heavyweight, or light-heavy Fred Roots. Sometimes with lightweight Don Conley.

The plan in early 1967 was for Will Edgington, who would later take Tony “The Tiger” Lopez to world class status, to begin training McMurray, who knew he wasn’t the most technically refined boxer in the world. McMurray told reporters that Edgington had helped him to correct “my sloppy punching,” but a first-round knockout loss to Floyd Patterson was the end of a dream.

McMurray would fight out of town more often after that, taking fights on short notice for short money. Promoters loved him for this. When Margaret said her husband went into boxing because he thought he could make some money, this was not what the family had in mind.

At the end of his career, he would be taking fights for whatever quick cash he could get, barely training at all, losing to Ken Norton and Boone Kirkman and Earnie Shavers. McMurray was stopped by Sonny Liston in 1968.

By this time, his record was 24-17-2.

McMurray fought another sparring partner, his friend Fred Lewis, seven months after losing to Patterson. Lewis was an interesting character, an elder statesman in local gyms, having begun boxing professionally in Sacramento at age 31 after an eight-year hiatus while he made a career in the Air Force. Lewis became a minister later in life, so his religious inclinations are probably what led to the nickname of “Preacher.” He had a thoughtful personality. 

Lewis barely weighed 180 pounds for most of his career, but said reducing to the 175-pound light-heavyweight limit left him sick, so he fought heavyweights. He talked with reporters about McMurray before their fight, providing a context with which to understand his upcoming opponent’s career.

The Sacramento Bee had described McMurray as “primarily a defensive fighter who holds off his opponents with a long left jab and an occasional hook.” Lewis agreed. “I like Bill, a real nice guy,” he said, before adding, “all he’s got is a jab.”

Lewis did not need to know someone very long in order to know him very well. “Bill’s always been kinda messed up. I mean, at the beginning, he had no real trainer, somebody to take him and do things right. Mac could have gone farther in the game had he been properly supervised at the start of his career.”

This was the first part of a two-fold problem, with the second part compounding the first.

“And he’s always had to work so that he couldn’t concentrate on training. He’d work until 7, maybe 8 o’clock, for a moving outfit, lifting that heavy furniture. He’s gotta be too tired to work out.

“Bill never got his body in real good shape. He’s a tough guy on the outside all right, but when it comes to inside you’ve got to be in condition to absorb punishment. And he’s absorbed some.”

Lewis was cut over the right eye in his fight with McMurray, and the fight was stopped after the sixth.

The life of an opponent is one of the less romantic aspects of boxing, full of indignities and the insecurities that come from such an unstable life. Negotiations for McMurray to fight Buster Mathis in Sweden didn’t work out. A proposed fight with Joey Orbillo was twice postponed, and after Orbillo was injured in a car accident the idea was scrapped.

Tenner declined the opportunity for McMurray to meet Jerry Quarry in Oakland because of tentative plans to make the fight in Sacramento. When that fell through, the Oakland offer was no longer on the table.

McMurray did, however, fight Sonny Liston in the spring of 1968, in Reno for $3,000, the largest purse of his career. When a reporter asked Liston before the fight what he thought of McMurray, Liston said, “Never seen him. Just looked at his record.”

The quick wit, dry sense of humor, and comic timing of Sonny Liston is vastly underrated – watch the airline commercial he made with Andy Warhol – and when asked if he thought McMurray was a good fighter, Liston responded with a smile, saying, “I hope not.”

McMurray took two weeks off work to train for Liston and explained after the fight he had wanted to wear Liston down with four or five rounds of movement. But he was clearly intimidated, offering little resistance before being almost knocked out of the ring in the fourth round. 

He got to experience one last sense of conquest by knocking out the supposed heavyweight champion of Ireland, Pat Stapleton, a 3-1 favorite, in one round at home in Sacramento. This was 1969, and a few days before the fight Stapleton sparred with the 1968 Olympic gold medalist, George Foreman, who had not yet boxed professionally. 

In the dressing room as the fight approached, Stapleton began to think about what might happen – given the difficulty he experienced with the amateur Foreman – when he got in the ring with a nearly fifty-fight professional. 

Stapleton thought about it until he decided not to fight that night, just minutes before the bout was to begin. Promoter Don Chargin could not persuade Stapleton otherwise, so he borrowed a security guard’s firearm and held it to Stapleton’s head, making sure he understood worse events than Bill McMurray were in his future if he did not carry through with his contractual obligations. 

Stapleton walked to the ring with Chargin following, holding the gun, covered by a towel, to his back. McMurray, a converted southpaw, never had much of a right hand, but that is what laid Stapleton out in one of the shortest fights in Sacramento history. 

The McMurray camp, given that their man had disposed of the best Ireland had to offer, and assuming all the spoils of victory, began referring to McMurray as “Irish” Bill. This led to some confusion a few months later when the “Irish” Bill McMurray who arrived in Cleveland to fight Al “Blue” Lewis turned out to be a 6’4” African-American, and reporters had to revise their story lines.

His last fight was a first round loss to Earnie Shavers in 1971. Alcala, who worked McMurray’s corner for this fight, said, “Bill barely trained, running a little and hitting the bags. He didn’t spar at all, and was paid something like $1,500.”

Three years later, through Henry Clark, a world-ranked contender in 1974, McMurray was hired by George Foreman as a sparring partner for his title defense against Muhammad Ali.  With his height, movement, and reliance on the jab, McMurray had a stylistic resemblance to Ali, and Foreman, already proficient at cutting off the ring, was looking to sharpen those skills for the upcoming fight.

Also employed was Bay Area light-heavyweight Terry Lee – who did not have much of a punch even against guys weighing 50 pounds less than a heavyweight – for the sole purpose of “running circles around Foreman.”

Of the seven sparring partners Foreman took to Zaire with him, three – Clark, McMurray, and one-fight professional Stan Ward – were from Sacramento. Four hundred dollars a week for one round of boxing a day. The rumor was that Lee was getting $600 a week, but he was putting in more rounds.

McMurray was the sparring partner Foreman was boxing with when cut a week before the originally scheduled date of the fight, leading to a month-long postponement. McMurray was let go after this but, according to his son Keith, was picked up by the Ali camp for strategizing purposes.

Promoter Chargin would say of McMurray years after the fighter’s retirement that “Bill had more ability than he realized…the one thing that hurt him, he got in that frame of mind of being a sparring partner.”

Alcala, in support of that thinking, said, “In that era Bill was never going to be champion. But, when he was young and came in at around 210 [pounds], he was a good second-tier heavyweight.”

Earnest William McMurray was sometimes called Fred, a nickname possibly inspired by the television program “My Three Sons,” starring Fred MacMurray. Like the father in the show, McMurray the boxer also had three sons, but would have to bury two of them before he, already suffering from Parkinson’s, would die from complications of a stroke on February 23, 2016.

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