If I had my way a couple of years ago, onetime super middleweight contender Tony "The Punching Postman" Thornton, who died Sept. 10 of complications from injuries from a motorcycle accident, would have been better known to fight fans throughout America.
During a private meeting in Las Vegas with boxing journalists, HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg asked about former or current fighters knowledgeable and glib enough to merit auditions for the upcoming analyst role on "Boxing After Dark." I suggested Thornton, the letter carrier from Glassboro, N.J., who was good enough to earn three cracks at some version of the world 168-pound championship, but not quite good enough to win any of those dream shots.
"Tony is not only more well-spoken than most fighters, he's more well-spoken than almost everyone, including you and me," I told Greenburg, who nodded dutifully and then hired former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis without ever having contacted Thornton. What HBO obviously wanted was someone with a very high profile, and I guess Tony -- who would have been 50 on Nov. 8 -- didn't fit the bill.
But, oh, what a wonderful interview he was! Bobby Czyz, the only fighter I am aware of to have held membership in Mensa, once said, "I may have lost fights, but I never lost a press conference." I told Czyz that his boast might be true only because he'd never shared a podium with Thornton.
An honest workman whether he was toting a mailbag, serving as a Postal Service customer-relations representative or banging away in the ring, Tony compiled a 37-7-1 record, with 26 victories inside the distance, in a professional career from 1983 to '95. In his first two bids for a world crown, he dropped unanimous decisions to WBO champion Chris Eubank on Sept. 19, 1992, in Glasgow, Scotland, and to IBF titlist James Toney on Oct. 29, 1993.
His final grab at the brass ring represented his least realistic chance for success. He was a 30-1 underdog the night he took on IBF ruler Roy Jones Jr. on Sept. 30, 1995, in Jones' hometown of Pensacola, Fla. The ending probably was preordained, in any case, but Tony's hope of pulling off the upset was doomed when he reinjured his chronically tender left shoulder in the second round, effectively rendering him a one-armed fighter. Jones stopped him one round later.
Tony retired after the Jones beatdown, ostensibly because of the bum shoulder, but probably more because he had the good sense to realize it was time for him to get out. That decision alone illustrates his wisdom.
The world can ill afford to lose a good man, and Tony's death shook me more than those of some other athletes I have covered who have passed on. Since word of his passing spread, friends and acquaintances have informed me of the many small kindnesses "The Punching Postman" dispensed along with that day's mail. One man along his route, Daniel Stearne, of Bellmawr, N.J., sent an e-mail recalling how his dad, Bill, and Tony would talk boxing whenever they had the chance. When Bill Stearne passed away in 2000, Tony appeared at the viewing and silently placed a pair of miniature boxing gloves in the casket.
To the best of my knowledge, Tony is the third Philadelphia-area fighter to perish as the result of a motorcycle crash, along with middleweight contender James Shuler, who was 26 when he died on March 20, 1986, and cruiserweight prospect Andre "Thee" Prophet, who was only 20 when he was killed on Aug. 13, 1988.
Tony leaves behind daughter Ashley, 22, son Tony Jr., 20, ex-wife Carole and girlfriend Kim Eikerenkoetter.
Rest in peace, buddy. In my book, you always were a champ.
Philadelphia is a treasure trove of boxing stories begging to be turned into documentaries or feature-length films, and the tale of former middleweight contender Bobby "Boogaloo" Watts is the subject of British director Liam Mulvey's current project, "Boogaloo: The Life and Times of a Middleweight Contender," which is scheduled for a 2010 release.
Watts, now 59, compiled a 38-7-1 record, with 20 wins inside the distance, from 1969 to '83 and is perhaps best known as the first man to defeat future Hall of Famer Marvin Hagler, which he did in a 10-round majority decision on Jan. 13, 1976, at the Spectrum. But there is so much more to Watts -- who didn't consider his victory over Hagler a big deal, because, at the time, the Brockton, Mass., southpaw wasn't widely known -- than any single night in the ring.
Mulvey will trace Watts' life from his days as a child sharecropper in the Jim Crow South to his family's migration to North Philadelphia in search of a better life. Joe Frazier made the same trip, and here he and Watts found their way up and out of poverty and despair through boxing.
Angelo Dundee, the venerable trainer of Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, is a Philly native who describes this city's inseparability from the fight game in harsh but accurate terms. Were it not for the harshness of the streets, so many steel-hard fighters would not have been forged in local gyms.
"Philadelphia is not a town. It's a jungle," Dundee says in the documentary. "They don't have gyms there. They have zoos. They don't have sparring sessions. They have wars."
Never a world champion himself, Boogaloo served as the trainer to former IBF super middleweight champ Charles "The Hatchet" Brewer. He currently is the chief cornerman for Rogers Mtagwa (26-12-2, 18 KOs), who challenges WBO super bantamweight titlist Juan Manuel Lopez (26-0, 24 KOs) on Oct. 10 in Madison Square Garden.
Super bantamweights Teon Kennedy (13-0, 5 KOs), of North Philadelphia, and Lante Addy (6-4, 4 KOs), of Ghana, vie in the 10-round main event Saturday at Bally's Atlantic City in what is being billed as a "Night of Thunder," honoring the late Arturo "Thunder" Gatti, who was 39 when he died on June 11 in Brazil.
In addition to the six scheduled bouts, there will be tributes, videos and special announcements throughout the evening celebrating the life of Gatti, a two-time world champion who was a nonstop action fighter and Atlantic City's top boxing draw for years.