Calvin Grove: A Champion Lost to Time

By Mark Hostutler on November 19, 2017
Calvin Grove: A Champion Lost to Time
“I set out to do something that very few people on this Earth have ever done, and I did it.”

Grove traveled the world in search of fame, fortune, and a few knockouts. He found all three, as well as the knowledge that, in the fight game, none of them last…

At 55 years old and decades removed from the last time he stepped in the ring, Calvin Grove nonetheless remains but a dozen pounds or so from his fighting weight, and looks capable of going more than a few rounds if the bell were to ring.

It’s the product of a monastic life, one that includes no drinking, no smoking, no fast food, and even no cursing. The high-top fade may have given way to a shiny bald head long ago, but the discipline that enabled Grove to become a world-champion boxer in the last year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency still dictates his life.

“I knew the sacrifices that were necessary for me to reach the top, and I didn’t mind making them,” Grove said. “I made up my mind the moment I turned pro that I was gonna be a champion.”

At 5-foot-7, Grove may have been too small to excel in the more popular sports—basketball and football—when he was a teenager in the late 1970s in Coatesville, Pa., a hardscrabble city of approximately 12,000 people 40 miles west of Philadelphia.

He may have lacked height, but he certainly didn’t lack toughness. Confrontation was routine, and fighting was accepted as a part of growing up with four brothers under one roof and a handful of cousins living up the street.

“That’s how we handled things back in the day, with our hands,” said Grove. “It’s not like nowadays, when kids carry guns and knives. You don’t know what to expect when kids get into it.”

His brothers eventually ushered him to a local gym—where he learned how to box, how to stick and move the proper way—and he was smitten.

“Boxing, I thought, was easier,” Grove said, laughing. “You fight on the street, there are no rules. You could be fighting two, three guys at once. In boxing, it’s one on one.”

Coatesville’s blue-collar identity—forged in the local steel mill, where if you grew up in the city and didn’t work there, you knew someone who did—became his. Grove’s amateur career peaked in 1982, when he captured the Pennsylvania Golden Gloves championship at 125 pounds.

Having earned the nickname “Silky Smooth,” which had less to do with the force of his punches and more with the slick texture of his footwork, Grove debuted as a 19-year-old professional, quickly knocking out his opponent, on June 3, 1982. Ten days later, he fought in Atlantic City, the setting of 23 of his next 24 matches.

And so began an illustrious career that commenced with 34 consecutive victories, culminated in the IBF featherweight title, and concluded with bouts against legends-in-the-making Azumah Nelson, Angel Manfredy, Arturo Gatti, and Kostya Tszyu.

Grove made the important jump from prospect to contender in the mid-1980s, when he joined a stable of fighters under Josephine Abercrombie, the late heiress of a Texas oil fortune who started the Houston Boxing Association (HBA). It’s the only time in his life he’s lived away from Coatesville.

“After signing a five-year contract, Abercrombie boxers are provided with a furnished apartment,” according to a 1985 profile on her in People magazine. “Their diet is overseen by a nutritionist, and daily training takes place in a new 6,000-square-foot carpeted gym. Boxers may draw weekly cash advances up to $125, attend frequent financial seminars, and are offered various Abercrombie-recommended investments. Physical checkups—including CAT scans to check for brain damage—are a requirement. Members of the stable are each guaranteed at least eight fights per year, and fly to out-of-town matches in one of ‘Mrs. A’s’ three jets. They turn over a third of their purses to the association.”

The presence of Grove and Frank Tate—the 1984 Olympic gold medalist at junior middleweight and a future IBF champion at middleweight—undoubtedly legitimized the HBA, as Abercrombie aimed to join Don King and Bob Arum as the top boxing promoters in the country.

Grove’s finest moment, much like his country’s, came in northern France, near the English Channel. Against Antonio Rivera—on Jan. 23, 1988 in Gamaches, a small town about 75 miles north of Paris—Grove shook off a left hook that put him on the deck in the fourth round.

“At that point, I’d already been on the canvas three times earlier in my career,” he said, “so I knew how to react.”

Grove responded with aplomb, twice flooring the Puerto Rican champion in the same round, first with a three-punch combination and then again with a swift right uppercut and left hook of his own.

Rivera made it to his feet, but seconds later, the referee ended the fight, and the IBF featherweight championship belt belonged to Grove.

His corner—including his father, James Grove Sr., and brother, James Jr.—immediately swarmed the ring, hoisting him high in the air, as Europe’s The Final Countdown blared through the arena.

“It’s hard to describe that feeling of becoming a world champion,” Grove said. “It took a while for me to understand (the magnitude of) what I achieved. I set out to do something that very few people on this Earth have ever done, and I did it.”

The motivation was certainly there. Another Coatesville boxer, heavyweight Jimmy Clark, achieved in the amateurs what Grove could not. Clark, seven years Grove’s elder, won the 1977 National Golden Gloves Championship in Honolulu, but he put his pro career on hold for a shot at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. The United States, though, boycotted the Games because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

(In March 1980, Clark was supposed to be aboard a Polish Airlines flight that departed from New York City and crashed while attempting to land in Warsaw, killing all 87 people. Clark, who overslept and missed the flight, avoided the same tragic fate as 14 other American amateur boxers who were preparing for the upcoming Olympic trials.)

Clark turned pro soon after, compiled an 18-1 record, and even sparred with a young Mike Tyson, but he threw the towel in early on his career, retiring in 1989.

Grove’s victory in France, meanwhile, put Coatesville on the map, even if the media often incorrectly spelled it. Scores of family, friends, and fans—including the admirers who often lined the city’s streets cheering him on while he worked on his conditioning—greeted him at the airport upon his return from his first-ever trip overseas.

After reaching the sport’s pinnacle, Grove successfully defended his belt once, against Philadelphia’s Myron Taylor, the older brother of Olympic champion Meldrick Taylor, in Atlantic City on ESPN. His brief, almost-seventh-month reign as champion ended on Aug. 4, 1988, when he suffered his first loss as a pro—a 15-round, majority decision—to Jorge Paez in Mexicali.

The match was held in a dusty, open-air bullring that usually seats 11,000 fans for the sport it was built for, but squeezed in 16,000 people for this championship scrap.

“We went down there, on his turf, because they put in the highest bid,” said Grove. “The fight was outside in the middle of summer. It was 120 degrees, seriously. I was so dehydrated I had to be carried back to the dressing room, which seemed like a mile away because they (the fans) were throwing ice at us.”

Grove returned to Mexicali eight months later, in late March 1989, for a rematch that netted him the largest purse of his career ($150,000), and lost “fair and square.”

His next fight—in Moscow on Aug. 20, 1989—made a bit of world history. He was the first American, along with his opponent, Anthony English, to fight in the Soviet Union. (Second if you count the fictional Rocky Balboa in Rocky IV.) Ironically, Grove’s unanimous-decision victory secured him the USBA—yes, United States Boxing Association—Super Featherweight belt.

He later challenged for the WBC Super Featherweight belt, losing to the aforementioned Nelson in Lake Tahoe, Nev., more than 6,000 feet above sea level. Eventually, he earned two more shots at a world title, against Miguel Angel Gonzalez for the WBC Lightweight belt in 1994 and Manfredy for the new WBU Super Featherweight belt in 1995, but lost both times.

In all, Grove estimates that he made $950,000 in purse money for a professional career that spanned 16 years.

“Not quite a million dollars,” he said. “That’s not bad, but after you pay your manager and trainer, it’s nowhere close to that.”

Now, the former world champion, a father of four kids who are all grown up, lives in a small apartment in his small hometown, in an anonymity that’s hard to comprehend. Grove was never given a key to the city, nor was he inducted into his high school’s Athletic Hall of Fame. (Boxing, after all, is not a scholastic sport.) He is given an occasional seat on one of the floats in the annual Christmas parade, though. In Coatesville, a city that grew rougher around the edges as the nation’s steel industry declined and jobs disappeared, there’s surprisingly little interest in boxing and even less resources for a kid who dreams of becoming the next Floyd Mayweather.

Grove works part-time in construction, and wears the attrition of his career on his sleeve.

“I went to the doctor recently because my girlfriend said that I sometimes forget things,” he said. “They scanned my head, though, and said everything looked good.”

Silky Smooth traveled the world in search of fame, fortune, and a few knockouts. He found all three, as well as the knowledge that, in the fight game, none of them last. He currently lives about a mile from his childhood home, remembering his days as a champion and trying not to dwell too much on how the judges “robbed him” in this loss or that.

“I did what I set out to do,” said Grove. “It was a lofty goal, maybe more of a dream, but I accomplished it.”

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1988-01-23 - Calvin Grove - Antonio Rivera - French Tv

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  1. Vincent Miles 04:29am, 12/01/2017

    This is an outstanding article on the Champ, Calvin Grove. It is refreshing that you’ve printed such a positive story. Coatesville athletes rarely get positive attention in the local media; so that it is great that we get to read a story like this. Calvin and his brother, James Jr., do a lot of community’s service projects behind the scene to help the elderly and less fortunate. They do not sound the trumpets for how they bless others because they receive an intrinsic satisfaction that does not seek public accolades. Thank you again for documenting one of Coayesville’s finest. His cousin, George “Bunky” Grove (deceased U.S. Army Champion) was also a local boxing legend. He sparred Muhammed Ali during his prime and put him on the canvas. He was also instrumental in Calvin’s early stages.

  2. nicolas 11:12am, 11/23/2017

    TETUMBO: I don’t think that Paez was unknown at that time. The fact that Grove almost did win in that fight was the real story, and also that it was the last 15 round title fight. Interesting that Grove would go on to score actually his greatest win later, a TKO over Jeff Fenech, though he caught Fenech after his devastating loss in the second fight against Azumah Nelson.

  3. Brian 03:32pm, 11/20/2017

    Great article Mark. I loved the detail about Grove’s career. It truly amazes me that he doesn’t get the “love” he deserves in Coatesville. Keep up the great work!!

  4. tetumbo 01:25pm, 11/20/2017

    What I remember about Calvin Grove is the emergence of the virtually unknown Paez who nobody expected to defeat the skilled and polished Grove. A great and memorable bout that didnt’ diminish Grove’s profile as much as it blew up Paez’s.

  5. c.h. 09:14am, 11/20/2017

    Thanks Mark, A great story about a real nice guy, and slick and crafty boxer. I first watched him in the amateurs and knew, with his ability and dedication that he was “going places.” I wish him and all the people of Coatsville the best.

  6. Bob 05:24am, 11/20/2017

    Nice to see a story on Calvin Grove, a very busy fighter during a prime boxing era. He has a lot to be proud of and it sounds like he is doing okay. Nice update on a fine fighter and a class act.

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