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Hero of the Ring
A Forgotten Boxing Champion

James, even in the Northwest, this guy is forgotten, but he must have been one of the greatest “naturals” of all time. A good enough football player to get a D1 scholarship, he went to the 1952 Olympics with minimal experience. He knocked out everyone he faced in Helsinki, except for the future heavyweight champion of the world, who was so intimidated that he backed away from Sanders the whole fight and never threw a punch.

Then, in the classic style of a Greek tragedy, he died in the ring after just a few professional bouts.

(Judging from the old photos he even had the physique of a Greek hero – Ken Norton looked anemic by comparison.)


Shep, thanks for this find. The fate of Sanders illustrates the power of chance, luck and what we might call Fate in masculine affairs.

Sanders status as an admired athlete as an amateur boxer speaks of a society that valued the manly arts, It mattered that a man knocked out the Pacific Coast college champion, that he defeated the U.S. Navy heavyweight champion. Sanders even trained at the best amateur boxing facility in the world, the U.S. Naval academy gym at Annapolis, Maryland. A reading of Sanders’ amateur boxing career is a reading of another age, when risk was acceptable—even commendable—and when promise was no guarantee. Note that the amateur bouts then were more brutal than pro fights now. In fact, any man who fought an amateur bout before 1962 should be regarded as having fight a professional fight by postmodern standards. Had Sanders not died an untimely death he might have been a second Joe Lewis, a powerful, disciplined man with a civil demeanor.

Sanders never had the training necessary to reach his potential and fought 8 pro fights under predatory promoters in 9 months. He had a shoulder injury which seems to have been concurrent with a string of concussions in tough pro bouts. A shoulder injury can stiffen the neck and cause a fighter to absorb more shock to his brain and cerebral spine. Sanders’ trainers, in a time when fight handlers were mostly mob connected and roughly 10 men died in the ring a year, fairly doomed him to a bad end.

Sanders’ promise and plight and his untimely end stand as reminders that the most gifted fighters we have seen in the higher profile ring wars are not the only men who could have achieved that brutal status, but simply the men that one of the crueler human processions has selected to exemplify tenacity and grace in our starkest ritual space: the boxing ring. The ring lives of champion boxers mean so much in large measure because good men have died fighting within those very squared dimensions.

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ShepSeptember 6, 2018 9:06 PM UTC

Well done, James.

I think Sanders has family in the LA area. Hope they stumble across this eulogy.

Any chance of a post about the USNA boxing facility? I did not know it was so highly regarded.