Episode 12: Anthony Hembrick, Godfather of “Showboating Fighters KTFO”

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Anthony HembrickAnthony “Hollywood” Hembrick was a light-heavyweight contender, an exciting boxer who was 14-0 with eight knockouts. On June 12, 1990, he headlined a card at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he’d served with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. With a wildly partisan Army crowd in attendance and a national TV audience on USA Network, Hembrick met journeyman Booker T. Word for the vacant U.S. Boxing Association title, a steppingstone belt on the way to a world championship.

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An admirer of fellow Detroiter Sugar Ray Robinson, Hembrick “understood the showbiz angle of boxing,” his manager, Arnie “Tokyo” Rosenthal, says. Hembrick dressed his cornermen in bike shorts had them get “fade” haircuts — this was 1990 — and before the fight, performed a series of choreographed dance moves with them. The crowd loved it.

And then the fight started. Hembrick controlled the first round and buckled Word’s knees with a left hook. But then Word caught Hembrick with a wild right hand, knocking him down face first. Hembrick got up, but never really recovered. Two knockdowns later, the fight was over. A first-round KO.

“Showboating Fighters Get KTFO” is a popular genre on YouTube now. KTFO means knocked the f— out. But even 15 years before YouTube launched, Hembrick’s awful night was the dominant fact of his career.

“Nobody was ever going to forget this night against Word,” Rosenthal says. “It was on USA Tuesday Night Fights. And they would play it year after year after year, you know, in the best and the greatest knockouts and the funniest knockouts. You know, this just gets played over and over and over again.”

This wasn’t the first or last disappointment for Hembrick, who had been the captain of the 1988 U.S. Olympic boxing team and would eventually fight for the world title twice. He retired in 1996 after he was diagnosed with a leaky blood vessel in his brain. His health today is good, he says with a chuckle, “besides some dementia.” He says that manifests itself in forgetfulness, but he doesn’t present as a person struggling with dementia.

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Music

Opening Theme: “Big Swing Band” by Audionautix. (CC by 3.0)
Closing Theme: “Can’t Win For Losing” by Johnny Rawls, courtesy of Deep South Soul Records. Visit Johnny Rawls’ website and Facebook page.

His latest album is called Waiting For the Train.

People in the story

Anthony Hembrick

Anthony Hembrick fought professionally from 1989 to 1996, retiring with a record of 31-8-2. He was the USBA light heavyweight champion in 1995. He lost a controversial split decision to Leonzer Barber for the WBO light heavyweight title in 1992, and lost a unanimous decision to Henry Maske for the IBF title in 1993. As an amateur, Hembrick had been a star of the Army team out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and was elected captain of the 1988 U.S. Olympic boxing team. A schedule mixup caused him to miss his first fight in Seoul, resulting in disqualification. After his boxing career ended, Hembrick reenlisted in the Army, retiring with a full pension. He lives in Dallas, where he coaches boxing. He’s seen here in a recent photo.

Tokyo RosenthalTokyo Rosenthal is an Americana singer-songwriter who, in one of many previous professional incarnations, was Hembrick’s manager. He’s also been a TV executive and commentator, a photographer and an author. His latest album is This Minstrel Life and his new book is Our Last Seder. For more information, visit his website at TokyoRosenthal.com.

Alfonso “Smitty” Smith was the coach of the Army boxing team at Fort Bragg, and also worked in Hembrick’s corner during his professional career. Smitty says he didn’t have any say in the choosing of Hembrick’s opponents, but didn’t like the idea of Booker T. Word from the start, because Word was a “short, muscular guy that stayed in his chest,” exactly the kind of fighter who always gave Hembrick problems, “even in the gym.” Smith was inducted into the Carolina Boxing Hall of Fame in 2009.

Smitty and Tokyo
Al Smith and Tokyo Rosenthal ringside at one of Hembrick’s fights. Photo: Tokyo Rosenthal.

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Episode 10: Killer Weight Loss Secrets: Fighters Cutting Weight is the Battle Fans Don’t See

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A fighter weighs inWe thought we’d have fun with our clickbait headline, but cutting weight is no laughing matter. As Andrew Stelzer reports, athletes in combat sports sometimes go to extreme lengths to rapidly lose weight leading up to the weigh-in. Then, having made the contracted limit, they try to pile the weight back on in the 24 hours before the match.

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Read a transcript

As you might expect, this is unhealthy, leads to poor performance, and can even be deadly. The idea is to fight at the lowest possible weight class, preferably one significantly below what you actually weigh when the bout begins. But since it’s common for both contestants to be cutting weight, they’re usually risking their health without gaining a competitive advantage.

Imagine how much better the sports would be if the athletes were climbing into the ring or cage in peak physical condition, rather than drained by the weight-cutting routine. Stelzer interviews fighters in various disciplines, as well as health experts and sport officials about how combat sports can solve this problem.

Andrew StelzerAndrew Stelzer is a journalist in Oakland, California. You can hear more of his work at AndrewStelzer.com.

Weigh-in photo by Peter Gordon (CC by 2.0). Stelzer photo courtesy Andrew Stelzer.

Also in this episode: Billy Conn

Billy Conn was light heavyweight champion of the world in the late ’30s and early ’40s. He was in the inaugural class of the Boxing Hall of Fame, and the Associated Press ranked him as the ninth best pound-for-pound fighter of the 20th century. On top of all that, he had Irish charm and Hollywood looks.

He even starred in a movie about his own life, though his greatest movie moment was getting mentioned by Rod Steiger at the beginning of the famous “I coulda been a contender” scene with Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront.”

 

But all anyone outside of Pittsburg remembers about Billy Conn is a fight he lost. It was in 1941, and he had moved up in weight to challenge heavyweight champ Joe Louis. Conn was such a hero in Pittsburgh that the Pirates baseball game was suspended for 54 minutes so the crowd at Forbes Field could listen to the fight over the loudspeakers.

Billy ConnFor 12 rounds at the Polo Grounds in New York, the Pittsburgh Kid had the Brown Bomber beat. But then he decided it wasn’t enough to beat the great Joe Louis. He wanted to be the guy who knocked out the great Joe Louis.

“What’s the point of being Irish,” he shrugged a few minutes after Louis knocked him out in the 13th round, “if you can’t be stupid.”

Tim Conn helps tell the story of his father’s moment in the spotlight, and the 50 years he spent reliving it, including his long friendship with Louis. Biographer Andrew O’Toole, author of Sweet William: The Life of Billy Conn, discusses Conn’s legacy as well.

Learn more

There are two Billy Conn biographies. Sweet William: The Life of Billy Conn by Andrew O’Toole, who you can hear in this story, and Billy Conn – The Pittsburgh Kid by Paul Kennedy.

The Boxer and The Blonde by Frank Deford, Sports Illustrated, 1985
In the words of the subhead: This is the story of Billy Conn, who won the girl he loved but lost the best fight ever. Not many photos, but they’re great.

BillyConn.net — Plenty of photos, and lots more, at the family’s official site!

Billy Conn, 75, an Ex-Champion Famed for His Fights With Louis, New York Times, 1993
This AP obit of Conn is pretty straightforward, but it does include a great story from late in his life when he punched out a robber in a store.

Mary Louise Conn, widow of Billy Conn, dies at 94, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2017

The Myth of Louis-Conn, New York Times, 1981
The Red Smith column mentioned in the story.

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Music

Opening Theme: “Big Swing Band” by Audionautix. (CC by 3.0)
Closing Theme: “Can’t Win For Losing” by Johnny Rawls, courtesy of Deep South Soul Records. Visit Johnny Rawls’ website and Facebook page.

His latest album is called Waiting For the Train.

Billy Conn Song

The song that plays throughout the story about the Billy Conn-Joe Louis fight is “The Pittsburgh Kid” by The BibleCode Sundays. They are a band from London who gave us permission to use their song about the great light-heavyweight who almost beat the Brown Bomber. Thanks to Andy Nolan for that.

The BibleCode Sundays’ new album is called Walk Like Kings. It includes guest appearances by Russell Crowe and Declan MacManus, the older brother of band member Ronan MacManus. You might know Declan by his stage name, Elvis Costello. The BibleCode Sundays are on tour in the U.K. for the rest of 2017.

BibleCode Sundays on Facebook.

Other Songs Used

“Aint No Thing” by BOPD
“Government Funded Weed” by Black Ant
Both used under the Creative Commons CC by 3.0 license.

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Bonus Episode: The Stanley Can Interviews


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Washington Post storyFull interviews with three members of the 1974-75 Washington Capitals, the worst team in NHL history, and the only one that ever took a twirl with the Stanley Can. Goalie Ron Low, center Ron Lalonde and defenseman Jack Lynch remember a “tough, tough” year. Listen to the bonus episode.

Listen to Episode 2: The Stanley Can—The Washington Capitals and the Worst Season Ever.

See the Episode 2 show notes.

Here’s that photo of Chuck Wepner’s “knockdown” of Muhammad Ali. Chuck Wepner, Muhammad Ali

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Note: All links to Amazon on this page are affiliate links, meaning we get a fee if you use the link to make a purchase. 

Music

Opening Theme: “Big Swing Band” by Audionautix. (CC by 3.0)
Closing Theme: “Can’t Win For Losing” by Johnny Rawls, courtesy of Deep South Soul Records.

Visit Johnny Rawls’ website and Facebook page. His latest album is called Waiting For the Train.

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