The Many Faces of Henry Clark
Of all the people I’ve known who had “champagne tastes on a beer budget,” 1960s heavyweight contender Henry Clark was the least forgettable.
Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1945, Clark was a caddy for professional golfers, primarily working the Louisiana and East Texas circuit, when on a trip to San Francisco for a tournament decided to remain in California and become a boxer.
Turning professional in 1964 after losing in the Golden Gloves to Steve Grant – a loss avenged twice, when it mattered – Clark was not matched easy. He lost to Joey Orbillo in his first fight, fought 18-fight veteran Johny Gordon in his second, and won a ten-round decision over Mexican heavyweight champion Manuel Ramos in only his fifth fight.
Scheduled for a six-round preliminary bout that night, Clark agreed to fight Ramos when Al Carter, Ramos’ originally intended opponent, proved unavailable.
Clark quickly grew from being a good-sized light-heavyweight to a strong 200 pounds in less than a year, not yet 20 years old.
Occasionally referred to “as a second Cassius Clay,” the San Francisco Examiner’s Eddie Muller described Clark in 1965 as the “new fancy Dan of local boxing.” Employed at the American Can Company, a newspaper photo featured Clark in top hat, holding a gold-tipped walking stick.
“That’s my image,” Clark said.
Victories over Eddie Machen and Leotis Martin placed Clark in Ring Magazine’s top ten, and he claimed both Joe Frazier and Sonny Liston were ducking him. But a 1968 loss to Liston, 41-3 coming in, proved this not to be the case.
Muller wrote that “San Francisco’s Henry Clark went big game hunting yesterday, but forgot to bring along enough ammunition to halt the on-coming charges of Sonny Liston.”
Liston said of the fight, “I don’t think Clark had any fear of me, but I know he respected me. This wasn’t a hard fight, just a workout.”
Clark Continues After Loss to Liston
Henry Clark, now 15-4-2, would continue fighting for over a decade, but would never again be considered a potential future champion. Defensively adept and with a good chin, Clark’s major problem was a lack of power. The Sacramento Bee’s Bill Conlin indirectly described how Clark fought when writing about another Sacramento heavyweight, Stan Ward, noting that Ward’s style “is unspectacular, being remindful of Henry Clark, but he has the ability to tie up and outpoint a host of ranked heavies.”
Clark and Conlin were good for one another. Conlin’s column provided Clark the attention he enjoyed – especially in his retirement years – and Clark provided Conlin with a near endless source of material.
Their bond strengthened in 1972 when Clark moved to Sacramento, locating across the street from friend, sparring partner, and former foe Bill McMurray. An out of shape Clark took a fight with Ken Norton – which he lost – to help make the down payment on the new house.
Clark, Ward, and McMurray – Sacramento’s top three heavyweights – traveled to Zaire as George Foreman’s sparring partners for his title defense against Muhammad Ali.
Ward would become ranked in the top ten himself and, although having nowhere near the power of Foreman, was as large and with comparable tensile strength. But he would never make his way into Conlin’s heart the way Clark did. Conlin wrote of Ward as being an “enigma,” fighting “less with more ability than any other world heavyweight.”
Henry Clark claimed to have been robbed when receiving a draw in a Johannesburg fight with Jimmy Richards in 1975, adding that the “mixed” match made South African history. “For purposes of box office, they made me an honorary white man,” Clark said.
He was stopped twice by Earnie Shavers in 1976, and retired at 32-12-4 after losing a decision to the hard-punching Bernardo Mercardo in 1979. This is when Henry Clark’s life, from my perspective, became most interesting.
Henry Clark Vocational Path Twists, Takes Turns
Conlin wrote of Clark at this stage of his life as being “a man for the times and a wide-ranging entrepreneur.” A Seventh Day Adventist who did not drink or eat meat on Saturdays, Clark owned a T-shirt company and ran a nightclub called Body Language, located only a few blocks from the gym.
He invested himself in promotional work, too, hoping to score financially. Involved with boxing, of course, the business Clark knew best, he also signed a four-year contract to represent Charlie “The Tuna” Chapman,” the first African-American to swim the English Channel.
Chapman was a student at the local state college and Clark was negotiating for Caesar’s Palace to “underwrite” an attempt to swim across Lake Mead, near Las Vegas, using only the butterfly stroke.
Henry Clark admitted that financing Chapman’s English Channel swim was causing family discord – with Clark in debt and the mortgage on the home several months in arrears. But he was confident money problems would soon be in the past.
Planning for Chapman to swim the Potomac River, the Red Sea, and the Nile, Clark said, “We met a Nigerian chief, chief O. Latinino of Ibadan, while we were in London – and he said he’d make everything right for us.”
These plans were never realized, however, and Chapman publicly stated by mid-1982 that he was handling his own affairs.
Clark was undaunted, and continued to carry himself similarly to world-champion Michael Spink’s promoter, Butch Lewis, with the upper crust satorical splendor and a gift of gab.
Clark had claimed that “Charlie Tuna is my full time job now,” but that could only have been so when not in New York to “offer my services” to Don King in promoting the Larry Holmes-Gerry Cooney title fight or establish himself as a boxing promoter in Northern California.
Real estate developers Tony and Mike Rios assisted in Clark’s first major effort to compete with the established promotional hierarchy of Babe Griffin and Sid Tenner in Sacramento. When Tony Rios said, “Our enthusiasm for Henry Clark knows no bounds,” and “I’ve never been involved with anyone just like him,” he had no idea what he was getting into.
Luring local junior-welterweight Sal Lopez to Clark Enterprises–click here to read more on him, from a Glen Sharp story– with a higher guaranteed purse and a full mariachi band leading him into the ring, this venture did not last long.
San Francisco’s Nannette Moss, artist, financial entrepreneur, and former ballet dancer, was Clark’s next partner, buying a 50% ownership in Henry Clark Enterprises. He rented a building attached to the Capitol Gym to serve as his office, which I don’t remember ever opening.
Echoing Clark’s thoughts about the Rios brothers – “I have rich Mexican backers” – Clark attempted to secure a fight between Randy Shields and Thomas Hearns at Hughes Stadium – where Pete Ranzany had challenged Pipino Cuevas for the welterweight title.
Clark told promoter Bob Arum that Moss was prepared to send a $200,000 letter of credit to Arum’s Top Rank Promotions. Arum said Clark had told him that “money was no object.”
Arum contacted Moss for verification, but this was the first she had heard of the matter, and her association with Clark ended, as well.
I first met Henry Clark in 1980 when, as a four-fight amateur, he tried to talk me into signing a professional contract with him. Having been a devoted reader of Ring Magazine since childhood, I knew who Clark was, and will admit it was kind of flattering to have someone like him express interest in me.
Clark was in his mid-thirties then, and had fought nearly 50 professional fights, but he still looked as youthful and innocent as a choir boy. It was difficult for a part of me to not believe everything he said. But another part of me thought Clark sounded as sincere as a hungry pimp.
The next thing I know, Henry Clark is in the gym with a linebacker-sized heavyweight from Richmond, Matt Brewer, the “Blonde Bomber.” Although Brewer had no amateur experience, Clark would say, “You are looking at the next champion of the world.”
I never saw Brewer box, but Clark said he had sparred with Muhammad Ali three days at Ali’s Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, training camp. Clark said he had “obtained” a special axe for Matt to cut wood with, and then “obtained bigger and harder logs.”
He told the papers that becoming Brewer’s manager was an act of God, meant to clear Clark’s financial difficulties.
“I have a lot of money tied up,” Clark said. “My wife and family are objecting…[But] what is money when you have a guy who’s going to be champion of the world?”
Conlin reported that Clark “is putting a syndicate together, through attorney Lance Thompson, to the heavyweight championship aspirations of Richmond’s Matt Brewer.”
Clark let reporters know he and Brewer had stayed at Earnie Shaver’s Warren, Ohio, mansion, complete with a private lake, 20 bedrooms, 9 bathrooms, and a swimming pool. ”Brewer and I are living like millionaires,” Clark said. “It’s nice to have wealthy friends.”
The Sacramento promoters would not schedule Brewer on a card, though, because Clark demanded at least a thousand dollars for an appearance. This, when four-round fighters were earning $200.
Although Clark said of Brewer that “I have never met a more dedicated and hard-working young fighter,” that “he has the natural ability” and “I taught him the rest,” Clark was too busy for the daily regime of preparing a neophyte for professional boxing and planned to serve as Brewer’s manager, with Clark’s brother, Richard, assuming the duties of a trainer.
Brewer pulled out from what would have been his first professional fight – his first fight of any kind – when injured in an automobile accident “on his way home from church,” and by the end of the year was in “temporary retirement,” supposedly driving a truck. I did not hear of him again.
Consuming some of Clark’s time during the Brewer drama was his lawsuit against Joe Conforte – owner of the Mustang Ranch and manager of heavyweight contender Bernardo Mercardo, who had retired Clark – for violation of oral contract.
Clark had been serving as trainer, valet, and companion of Mercardo when the boxer was in Reno, Nevada. Mercardo, who died in 2021, lived primarily in Columbia and spoke only Spanish.
“Bernardo and I don’t communicate too well,” Clark admitted, “But we understand each other in the gym.
“Nobody will ever over-train Bernardo because he is not addicted to hard work. But he has such tremendous talent and the good punch.”
The Bee’s Conlin offered these words about Clark’s experience with Conforte and Mercardo: “Henry Clark, who plays more differing roles than Marlon Brando, is in a new casting,” and quoted Clark as saying “…in my opinion, Bernardo can beat anybody in the world if he’s in shape. It is my job to keep him in shape.”
Not too specific about Mercardo’s new training program, Clark did say he was boxing with Mercardo in the gym and that Mercardo had sparred 200 rounds and run 300 miles since he was hired. Clark was thankful “Joe had confidence in me and gave me the job. Furthermore, he has given me a $40,000 limousine, with TV, telephone, and a full bar. Tell those friends of ours in Sacramento that I have a white chauffeur.”
Conlin understood, writing “Just what the training regimen for Bernardo Mercardo amounts to, nobody knows. But our good friend Clark intends to make it a full-time position.” When Conforte ended the arrangement, Clark looked to the courts for relief.
Spending time in a criminal courtroom as well, Clark was cleared of conspiracy to commit auto theft charges when it was determined that he had unknowingly purchased a couple stolen vehicles from acquaintances.
Promoting without a patron proved difficult for Clark. A 1983 card of his was cancelled by the California State Athletic Commission only days before the event because Clark had “failed to complete an application to promote.”
His promotional license was revoked in 1984 for failing to schedule the minimum 26 rounds of boxing on his shows. Clark protested, claiming he was involved with the FBI in its investigation of boxing as a sport, in general, and of New York promoter Don King, in particular.
Clark was banned from boxing promotions in Louisiana when he failed to produce the boxers’ purses in advance of the show, as is generally demanded by state athletic commissions. Bonding companies usually perform this service for promoters, but Clark’s bond agent had ended its relationship with him. In the Louisiana action, Clark was also accused of failing to cover the cost of hotel rooms, meals, and transportation for the fighters; and of not hiring a doctor to provide pre-fight medical examinations.
Clark told Louisiana commissioners that his New Orleans lawyer had delivered the required funds, but the lawyer denied this. Of the boxers and managers who had accused Clark of shorting them, Clark said, “Those guys are all lying,” and threatened to sue them for breach of contract. “I don’t want to talk about what organized crime has done to me in California and Louisiana,” he pleaded.
Finding the regulatory environment of boxing too onerous, Clark, divorced by this time, entered the ministry, working in Chicago and Louisiana. He titled his sermons “Henry Clark vs. Satan.”
He did return to Sacramento for the inaugural fight of George Foreman’s second career in 1989. Clark estimated that he had sparred some 2000 rounds with Foreman when they were young.
Clark was 55 when he died in 2000, most likely of a heart attack. He had been living with a sister and her husband in Zachary, Louisiana.