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Skeeter McClure: A Hell of a Man

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Dr. Wilbert “Skeeter’’ McClure fell in love at 13 and his heart stayed true to that first love until August 7, 2020, the day he passed away at 81.

A Renaissance man if there ever was one, he found not far from the steps of his boyhood home at 625 ½ Division Street in Toledo, Ohio a place that gave voice to his dreams. That place was Larry and Al’s Boxing Gym.

That is where he went the day a friend first came by and asked him to go to the local boxing gym. McClure knew nothing about boxing but figured why not, and off they went. The minute he walked inside and heard the rat-a-tat-tat of the speed bag, the jangling of the chain holding the heavy bag to the ceiling and saw young men with dreams doing choreographed dance steps designed to solve the puzzle another man presented them with their fists and their mind, he had found the place that would change his life.

“Boxing was the one sport I was good at that allowed me to control my own destiny,’’ McClure once told the Boston Globe. “Boxing was perfect. Just you and me, dammit! It was strategy and problem solving. I wasn’t beating on people. I was out-thinking them. To me, boxing was like solving a problem. It never had anything to do with ego.’’

That learning process took time, as the perfection of any art demands, and McClure willingly invested his. He once recalled that upon leaving the gym that first night he said, “I love this place!’’ As it turned out, his young friend did not. That boy never returned. Skeeter walked back every day. Although he would accomplish many things beyond the world of boxing, in a sense he never left it.

The oldest of five, McClure was raised in a household that honored education, reading and, at least in his case, boxing. He would become a master of all three, earning a Ph.D. in psychology from Wayne State University and teaching for many years at Northeastern as well as Mt. Ida and Bentley College after first winning an Olympic gold medal in boxing in 1960 and rising as high as the number 3 ranked middleweight contender in the world after turning professional.

That summer of 1960 he would reach the pinnacle of amateur boxing while sharing a room and a dream with a young man who would become his lifelong friend, Muhammad Ali.

Middleweight Eddie Crook (left) out of Detroit, the Louisville Cassius Clay, at light heavy, and light middleweight Wilbert “Skeeter” McClure (right) took home gold from the 1960 Olympics.

But in those days Ali was just a brash kid from Louisville named Cassius Clay. And McClure was a college student who despite being seen as the finest amateur boxer in the United States was not going to even go to the Olympics because he feared the cost would prevent him from finishing his final year of college at Toledo University.

When Dr. William Carlson, the university’s president, learned of this dilemma he solved it. He granted McClure a scholarship covering his tuition as repayment “for all the free publicity the University and the city received from Skeeter.’’

By then McClure was a two-time National Golden Gloves champion, the 1959 AAU National champion, a Pan-Am Games gold medalist and soon to become the Olympic gold medalist at 156 pounds. To achieve that dream he had to win four times in seven days, including a one-sided points victory over an Italian named Carmelo Bossi.

Poor Bossi was only in a position to take that thrashing because future world middleweight champion Nino Benvenuti chose to fight in those Olympics as a welterweight to avoid facing McClure for fear he would dash his dreams.

A year later, with a 138-10 record as an amateur fighter and high hopes for the future, McClure graduated from Toledo with a degree in English and an advanced degree in pugilism that would lead him to a 10-year professional career that might have been more than it became had he been properly managed. Fighting both before and during a stint in the Army following graduation, McClure won 14 straight and in 1963 was called in Boxing Yearbook “the hottest kid in boxing today.’’

McClure had gotten the name Skeeter from his father, who said not long after he was born that his son was so small he looked no bigger than a mosquito. That lack of size gave him speed and defensive deftness but an absence of crushing punching power. He had to win with sleight of hand, fleetness of foot and the kind of quick mind that comes only with boxing experience. Unfortunately, the latter would come too late because his management team threw him in too early against experienced veteran world champions like Luis Rodriguez.

Rodriguez had more knockouts than McClure had fights, including two fights with future Hall of Famer Emile Griffith and a time as welterweight champion before moving up to 160 pounds. When they first met at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 18, 1963 McClure was 14-0 and still a student of boxing. He was only months back from a stint with the Army in Germany. Rodriguez, meanwhile, was 52-3, a former world champion and considered one of the best fighters in the world.

Not surprisingly, Rodriguez won a decision and two months later McClure was unwisely rushed into a rematch with him and, predictably lost on points again. Five months later he was put in against Jose Torres, who had twice as many fights as McClure and would win the light heavyweight title five fights later. He again lost a decision. Although his career would go on for six more years and include a draw and a controversial split decision loss to Rubin “Hurricane’’ Carter it was never the same.

Long-time Madison Square Garden matchmaker Teddy Brenner told the Globe years later, “He was as good a fighter as Sugar Ray Leonard. If he’d been brought along slowly, he could have done everything Leonard did. He could have been champion. But in those days, a TV fight meant $4,000 and for $4,000 you fight tough men.’’

Managers Sol Gold and Sid Goldberg pushed Skeeter into the deep waters early, with two fights booked in 1963 against Luis Rodriguez, followed by a match in 1964 with Jose Torres. A less ambitious, more deliberate route likely would have served the Ohio native better.

Years after he’d moved on to earn his doctorate in psychology and begun a new career as a counselor in, of all things, conflict resolution and interpersonal communications, McClure would tell the Globe, “If anybody wanted a textbook case of how to take a good, young prospect and ruin him, I was it.’’

He finished his professional career with a respectable 24-8-1 record and the knowledge things might have been different in boxing. But rather than wallow in what might have been, he went on to build a new life in academia and as a counselor, for a time running a program called Relationships Unlimited. Years later, in the early 1990s, he would become the chairman of the Massachusetts State Athletic Commission, which oversees boxing in the state. McClure often lamented the absence of the great trainers who helped transformed a once shy and withdrawn kid from Division Street in Toledo into a Olympic champion and a world-rated professional fighter while at the same time providing him the chance to grow into much more than just a boxer.

“I never had any regrets,’’ McClure said once. “I gave a lot to boxing but I got a lot out of it too. A lot of people made sacrifices in their lives so that Skeeter McClure could enjoy some success in his.’’

Wilbert “Skeeter’’ McClure passed away with his long-time companion Marilyn Green and his friend Calvin Brown nearby. He is survived by his daughter, Karen; his sister Deena; his brother Stanford; two granddaughters and two great granddaughters. Services will be private but a memorial service is planned for some point after the present pandemic ends.

About Ron Borges

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