Back in the Day: Two Hall of Famers Recall Baltimore’s Boxing Legacy

Stacy M. Brown | 2/23/2018, 6 a.m.
Author Thomas Scharf’s compilation of more than 200 rarely, seen photographs that skillfully illustrate Baltimore’s heritage as an elite boxing ...

Author Thomas Scharf’s compilation of more than 200 rarely, seen photographs that skillfully illustrate Baltimore’s heritage as an elite boxing town highlight the effect the city had on the sweet science.

Scharf, a boxing historian and member of the International Research Organization and elector to the International Boxing Hall of Fame, also touched on Joe Gans, a fighter dear to two of Baltimore’s old-time sluggers— Louis Butler and Marvin McDowell.

“The first African-American world boxing champion Joe Gans, he’s from Baltimore and he was one of the best lightweights to ever put the gloves on,” said McDowell, who runs the popular UMAR Boxing Gym at 1217 W. North Avenue.

“Gans was the first African-American world champion in any sport,” said Butler, who along with McDowell, are members of the Maryland Boxing Hall of Fame.

Gans became the first Baltimore resident and the first African-American to win a championship in 1902. “He earned the nickname, ‘The Old Master,’ because his skills far preceded his age. It was like he’d been here before,” McDowell said.

Both Lewis and McDowell recalled the Baltimore boxing scene as being the gateway to champions and big name stars like Baltimore’s Dwight Braxton (who changed his name to Muhammad Qawi) and Palmer Park Maryland’s Sugar Ray Leonard.

They reminisced about tough fighters like Johnny Wilburn who boxed from 1975 to 1980, squaring off against the likes of future champions Michael Spinks and Eddie Mustafa Muhammad.

Venues like the Civic Center, Painters Mill and Fells Point hosted many fighters.

On February 5, 1977, the Baltimore Civic Center played host to Leonard’s professional debut where the eventual “Fighter of the Decade” defeated Luis Vega. Three months later, Leonard returned to the Civic Center and defeated Willie Rodriguez.

“For young and aspiring Baltimore fighters, there were plenty of heroes,” Butler said.

“Mine were anyone I had watched on the black and white television. Guys like Joe Lewis, Sonny Liston, Sugar Ray Robinson and Jack Johnson,” he said.

“One time someone told me I was like Jack Johnson and I was so happy,” said Butler, who helped to kick-start the career of another Baltimore legend, Hasim Rahman, who would go on to become a two-time world heavyweight champion.

McDowell noted that the man who inspired him was Roberto Duran, the former world champion from Panama known as the “Hands of Stone.”

“I was crazy about Duran and I was a great fan of Sugar Ray Robinson, who nobody compares to him,” said McDowell, who earned induction in the Maryland Boxing Hall of Fame in 1996 after a career highlighted by victories at the 5th Regiment Armory in Baltimore over Darryl Cherry and at the Steelworkers Hall in Baltimore over Anthony Williams and Maurice Young.

Butler’s career, which led to a Hall of Fame induction in 2004, included wins at the Civic Center over Joe Sprowell and Eddie Smith. He twice battled Qawi, once at the Civic Center and at Steel Pier Arena in Atlantic City, N.J.

“Back in the day, we were at the top of the line. If a guy wasn’t in our weight class, we didn’t worry about him but if he was in our weight class, we wanted to know who he was so that we could take care of him,” McDowell said.