Heavyweight Boone Kirkman Speaks
“Back in the dressing room, Zale shook my hand and said, ‘Hey, I like the way you fight, kid.’ All that made me feel good…”
Why does a kid want to become a fighter? That’s the $64,000 question. For Cassius Clay, it was because of his stolen bicycle. For Roberto Duran it was because of poverty. For Rocky Graziano it was because of his ‘tude. A cop told Rocky: “Kid, learn to fight in the ring or go to jail.”
For Boone Kirkman, the former heavyweight contender in the 1970s, it was about recognition. Let Boone tell you in his own words. I spoke with him on the phone from his home in Renton, Washington, where he recently retired from Boeing as a truck driver…
“I started boxing because of all those medals and the pigskin-leather-sleeved jackets I saw the fighters wearing when my dad brought me to the Golden Gloves. And I was mesmerized by reading the book ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’ about Rocky Graziano. There was just something special about boxing—it put a fire in my heart.
“I guess I always wanted to stand out, be recognized, and wear one of those boxing jackets. Boxing was something I could do. At that time, I hung out with a group of friends called ‘The Buds.’ We never got in too much trouble.”
But the local police chief of Renton, an industrial suburb of Seattle, remembers it differently: “Kirkman was already a tough, young brawler in the taverns. I took him aside, ‘Look, son, if you like to fight so much, make up your mind. What’s it going to be? Either join the Police Guild boxing team, or you wind up in jail.’”
Boone chose boxing, and like Rocky Graziano, his kindred spirit, it led to a pro career.
But Kirkman’s amateur career was sometimes discouraging. “I lost five fights in a row and they told me to quit. But I worked harder and in return-matches I beat all those guys—except one…Sam Minex.” I hear a smile in his voice. “I drove an hour-and-a-half in the snow to get to the arena for our rematch, but Sam never showed.”
In 1964, only after one year boxing, Kirkman won the Northwest Championships by knocking out Chuck Wagner in the second round to become the runner-up in the National Championships. The next year he won the National AAU Heavyweight Championship in Toledo, Ohio. ABC’s Wide World of Sports covered it. Archie Moore, the former Light Heavyweight Champ was the commentator and said he liked the way I punched to the body. I knocked out Tony Zale’s fighter that night in the third round. Back in the dressing room, Zale shook my hand and said, ‘Hey, I like the way you fight, kid.’ All that made me feel good.”
After compiling an overall amateur record of 33 bouts, with 19 knockouts in 27 wins and 6 losses, Kirkman turned pro.
Enter Jack “Deacon” Hurley. Hurley was the legendary west coast trainer of Billy Petrolle, Harry “Kid” Matthews and Elmer Rush. The great sportswriter, W.C. Heinz, based one of the major characters in his highly regarded boxing novel, “The Professional,” on the flamboyant Hurley.
But Hurley, by then a sickly 75-year-old, was on his last legs. He was residing at the downtown Olympic Hotel with a bum heart, “ulcers within his ulcers,” and two-thirds of his cancerous stomach removed.
But after watching a young Boone Kirkman punish a heavybag at a local gym, Hurley became invigorated. Who wouldn’t? He was watching his heavyweight champ! Just like ailing Cus D’Amato was later to guide a young Mike Tyson to a championship, Hurley began to chisel this raw, powerful boy into contender status.
Under the watchful tutelage of a wily manager and enriched by excellent sparring with Eddie Cotton, a cagy, 36-year-old pro light heavyweight, Kirkman began to climb the pro ranks. “I learned a lot from Jack and Eddie. At first I was Eddie’s sparring partner and he whooped me good. But I slowly learned. Yeah, Cotton landed a lot of lefts and rights on my nose bone,” laughs Kirkman, “but after awhile, I reversed it and he stopping coming around. He said I was getting too big for him.”
Within six years, Hurley’s protégé began to grace the front covers of all the major boxing magazines: Ring Magazine, Boxing Illustrated and World Boxing. Boxing fans took notice of this handsome, curly-haired Irish-American and his quick climb up the fistic ladder. By 1969, Boone had become a major force within the heavyweight division.
Oozing with power and full of fight, Boone entered the top 10. He and Hurley began making good money. The Seattle Center Coliseum and virtually every other arena in Seattle and Portland sold out whenever Kirkman laced on a pair of gloves. There was a $50,000 purse for Eddie Machen and then $80,000 for Doug Jones—both astounding sums back in 1967.
“Fans were clamoring to see the new, young Dempsey,” wrote Dan Raley from The Seattle Post. “Kirkman was popular and people used to crowd into Renton’s Melrose Tavern, which he co-owned, just to watch him skip rope and hit the bag late at night.”
“Yeah, I was moving up the ladder pretty good,” says Kirkman. “I kept in condition and worked hard to learn everything Mr. Hurley could teach me, which was plenty. The more I learned the more I realized how little I knew.”
Unfortunately, in 1968, injuries—an infected finger chopping wood and clearing brush, and then a broken collarbone while sparring a 200-pound heavyweight named Wes Craven—halted Kirkman’s rapid progress.
But Boone remained a hot ticket. Kirkman and Hurley gave Seattle a big-league draw before the NBA brought the Sonics to the city.The buzz of excitement in the air regarding this young emerging heavyweight remained palpable. Purses remained large and expectations high. Kirkman’s killer instinct, punching power and affable personality made him a crowd-pleaser.
The electric hum of hope reverberated south into California and ripped eastward, across the country, to New York City. Was Boone Kirkman the next heavyweight champion?
Kirkman by now had compiled an impressive record of 22-1 with a string of 17 knockouts, including a TKO over title contender Eddie Machen. “Machen tagged me so hard in the second round, my head was vibrating like a tuning-fork. But I was 22, young and hungry, and could weather it. If I was hit like that at 30, I don’t know.”
In the third round,” remembers Kirkman, “I hit Eddie a good shot and when he was falling, he cracked his ankle going down.”
That year, Kirkman also knocked out Amos Lincoln, Doug Jones and Archie Ray—all exceedingly dangerous opponents.
Only tough Bill McMurray and Wayne Heath lasted the distance with Kirkman.
But Doug Jones managed to stop him. “On a cut,” remembers Kirkman, “below my eye. Nasty cut. My eye went shut and was sticking out about an inch. Well, I just kept fighting and bleeding and Jones kept rubbing his head into my eye. I didn’t like that too much. I was ahead on points, punching him on the ropes and had him going, when the ref suddenly stopped it. Everyone thought I had won, but the ref raised Jones’ arm and stopped it in the seventh. Too bad, I was ahead on all the scorecards.”
Two months later, Kirkman reversed the loss with a sixth round TKO. Fifteen thousand fans attended. Jones announced his retirement after the beating.
By 1970, Kirkman was rated seventh among the world’s heavyweights by Ring Magazine.
Next stop…Madison Square Garden. Big, undefeated George Foreman was waiting.
“Stop” is the correct word. In the first round, Foreman rushed from his corner and pushed Kirkman to the canvas. Quickly thereafter, Foreman scored a two-count knockdown with a thunderous left-right combination, and Kirkman took the mandatory eight-count. At the end of the round, Foreman again pushed Kirkman onto the canvas.
“Hurley was clever, but he missed the boat that night,” says Tommy Gallagher, the colorful and wily trainer from NBC’s The Contender at a Ring 10 meeting in Long Island City, NY. “After Kirkman was pushed a second time—which is a flagrant violation—Hurley shoulda screamed ‘sprained ankle’ and kept Kirkman on his stool! Hey, you can’t push a fighter and get away with it! That’s dirty! Besides,” Gallagher grins, “there was a fortune to be made in the rematch.”
Kirkman could have used Gallagher’s devious guile in his corner that night.
Early in the next round, Foreman dropped Kirkman for another mandatory eight-count. Referee Arthur Mercante eventually stopped the bout at 0:41 to protect Kirkman from further punishment.
Boone recalls the Foreman fight: “I wasn’t really prepared going in. I flew into New York two weeks early, trained every day, but I had practically no sparring. I’m a guy who needs to box to stay sharp, not just hit a bag.” Although he makes no excuses, there is a hint of frustration within his voice. “I think Mr. Hurley skimped on me. It was a major fight and I was supposed to have three sparring partners, but I ended up with one—Lee Estes.”
Estes fought on the undercard. He fared a bit better than Kirkman, getting TKO’d in three rounds by Willie Burton.
Ted Lowry, the legendary heavyweight who fought Rocky Marciano twice, (and according to The Providence Journal boxing writer, Michael J. Thomas, beat Marciano in their first fight) knew Hurley and sheds possible insight upon the situation. “I knew Mr. Hurley well,” he said from his home in Norwalk, Connecticut. “He made a lot of promises, but he didn’t always carry them out.”
After that night, Kirkman and Hurley licked their wounds and flew back to the west coast where they continued their winning ways with 10 consecutive victories, including big wins over gigantic Jack O’Halloran and dangerous George “Scrap Iron” Johnson. He also won a split decision over future WBA Heavyweight Champion, Jimmy Ellis, after being knocked down in the first. “But it wasn’t the same,” says Kirkman.
The fire in Boone’s heart started to “fizzle out.”
“Then came 1974. It just wasn’t my year.I got knocked on my ass. I went down to Dallas, for a tune-up fight with “Memphis” Al Jones, and I wound up getting tuned out.
“In the first round, things were going good. I knocked him down twice. In the second, I dropped him two more times. I was hoping to finish him off, but 15 seconds into the thirrd round, I got walloped with a right hand. I remember falling—my head whiplashed and hit the canvas hard. That’s what knocked me out.” Kirkman remained unconscious for five minutes. “That fight was a nightmare. But things like that happen.
“Back in the dressing room, I asked “Memphis” Al for a rematch, but he didn’t want one.”
To make matters worse, in June, Ken Norton TKO’d Kirkman. “I was dead tired and couldn’t come out for the seventh round. It wasn’t Norton’s punching power. My sparring partners—Elmer Rush and Larry Frazier—punched harder. I over-trained. I know that sounds like an excuse, but I was beating him. They said I broke Norton’s rib and he had to cancel Mandingo, the movie he was filming.”
Three months later, Ron Lyle TKO’d Kirkman in eight. “Hey,” he laments, “1974 was a nightmare.”
Next, Kirkman agreed to take part in a carnival-like exhibition, as one of five boxers fighting three rounds each against Foreman in Toronto. It gave Kirkman a shot at revenge. Boone was one of only two challengers who went the distance. (The other was big Charlie Polite.) Foreman confided later that Kirkman had broken his rib in their fight in Madison Square Garden. “The money in Toronto was decent: $10,000 plus expenses,” says Kirkman, with a shrug in his voice.
After a one-year layoff, Kirkman fought Randy Neumann, the slick New Jersey heavyweight contender, in Las Vegas. “The money was right, but I wasn’t.” Neumann copped a 10-round unanimous decision. “I just couldn’t land my shots. We all got bad nights,” he says, philosophically. “In a rematch, Neumann wouldn’t be as lucky.”
Kirkman ended his boxing career in 1978 with four very impressive wins: a 10-round unanimous decision over the Mexican contender Jose Roman, a KO 7 over rugged Ron Stander, and a scary 10-round decision over Pedro Agosto.
“Agosto was short and didn’t look too tough,” says Kirkman, “but you can’t judge a book by its cover. He dropped me in the third. Back in my corner, my trainer said, ‘C’mon, Boone! This is the last round.’ Huh? I thought it was the third but it was the 10th! I got amnesia for seven rounds! I heard this happening to other fighters. Not me!”
Kirkman’s swan song was a brutal fourth round TKO over muscleman Charles Atlas.
“In 1975, I had an offer to fight Larry Holmes in Manila, on the Ali-Frazier undercard. But it was embarrassing how little money they offered—$5,000. Then they offered me Gerrie Coetzee in South Africa for $10,000. Chicken-feed. By then, I had my son and a good job back here driving a truck in Seattle.”
After 75 pro and amateur bouts, Daniel “Boom Boom” Kirkman finally hung up the gloves and hit opponents no more. Instead, he began hitting hiking trails. Accompanied by his brother, he’s climbed 10,000-foot Mount Rainer eight times and Mount St. Helen’s three times before it erupted.
Before retiring from Boeing, he would climb out of bed every morning at 4:30 and hit the road transporting sensitive instruments that balance jet wings. It was a different sort of roadwork.
Today, at 69, Daniel “Boone” Kirkman is at peace with himself. He weighs 214 pounds, only a few pounds over his fighting weight, and eats no red meat. “I must’ve eaten two herds of cattle when I was fighting, but no more. Now it’s a lot of vegetables and green salads.” Boone has two grown kids, and is happily remarried to “the love of his life,” Terese, a nurse who’s recently retired after 33 years.
As a retirement gift Boone took her out to dinner and bought her red roses and sparkling champagne.
“Boone, supper!” It’s Terese’s voice I hear in the background.
“Right on!” Boone calls back. “I guess I gotta go,” he says, “but ya know what concerns me about boxing? The guys who get injured. Holyfield and Hopkins are two great fighters, but you gotta know when to get out.” He mentions three well-known fighters now suffering from brain damage. “Ya know, I was at a picnic a while back with this former champion, and he says, ‘Boone, I’m talking to you now, but I know tomorrow, if I see you, I’ll forget I ever saw you today.’ That’s sad.”
“Yeah, that is sad,” I concur. “But you sound okay.”
“Do I?” he asks, tentatively.
“Yes, you sound great.” I’ll be lucky to remember half the things he’s said in our pleasant half-hour conversation, yet Boone Kirkman has remembered minutia from four decades ago—like pigskin-leather-sleeved jackets, “The Buds” and Sam Minex.
“Life is good,” he says. “I’ve survived two divorces and 12 years in the ring.” Then I hear the smile in his voice again. “Somebody up there must like me.”
Happy New Year, Champ. And many more to come!
Peter Wood is a former middleweight finalist in the 1971 New York City Golden Gloves. Wood was selected to represent America in Montreal, Canada. In 1976, he was asked to represent America in the Maccabian Games held in Tel Aviv, Israel. He is the author of Confessions of a Fighter , and A Clenched Fist—The Making of a Golden Gloves Champion. Wood’s writing credits include a guest column in The New York Times, and articles in Commonweal, America, Ring and Boxing Illustrated.