Marty Sammon—As Real as It Gets

By Robert Mladinich on September 3, 2012
Marty Sammon—As Real as It Gets
“My guardian angel,” said Pattillo Beals, “was a young paratrooper named Marty Sammon.”

Reading about Floyd Patterson made me wonder how Muhammad Ali became such a cultural icon and touchstone…

The wonderful new book “Floyd Patterson: The Fighting Life of Boxing’s Invisible Champion” by W.K. Stratton describes the “forgotten champion” as playing an integral role in the United States civil rights movement. 

Patterson was courageous enough to take several defiant stances, all of which could have not only derailed his career but quite possibly could have gotten him killed. He very publicly aligned himself with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and also refused to engage in several bouts unless the venues in which the fights took place were desegregated. 

Reading about Patterson made me wonder how Muhammad Ali became such a cultural icon and touchstone. It can be argued that he deserves plaudits for relinquishing his career for the sake of his principles when he refused induction into the U.S. Army at the height of the unpopular Vietnam War. But the counterpoint to that argument is the fact that some other poor black or white man with no political connections had to take his place.

While the merits of the worship of Ali can be debated ad nauseum, what cannot be argued is the inexcusable ways in which he diminished two particularly noteworthy opponents, Patterson and Joe Frazier.

Through the sheer force of his personality, Ali had many people believe that Patterson and Frazier were Uncle Toms, a particularly denigrating term to signify puppets of the white establishment.

How the gullible public accepted this is bewildering. Ali, after all, had a white grandparent and grew up in relative comfort in Louisville, Kentucky. Patterson hailed from Bedford-Stuyvesant, one of the worst ghettos in New York City, and Frazier was the son of a one-armed sharecropper from Beaufort, South Carolina. Their “black experience” was about as real as it gets.

The real heroes of the civil rights movement were not the Hollywood celebrities who linked arms and had themselves arrested by appointment during urban protests. It was men like Dr. King, Patterson, Frazier, and scores of others who went about exacting change in their own way, without bombast, and through their own decency, fortitude, dignity and perseverance.

One such man is Marty Sammon, a California-based referee and judge whose name we often hear when fights are broadcast from the West Coast. Sammon says age is just a number, but he’s been around a long time and he is still going strong and has the persona of a man decades younger.

He was born in Steubenville, Ohio, a city that also spawned such notables as Dean Martin and former porn actress Traci Lords. Sammon, now a Northern California stockbroker with an eclectic group of friends, has an autographed photo of Lords (fully clothed) in his office with the words “To Marty: We both got out” written on it.

When he was a youngster, the Sammon family left Ohio for California when many of the local steel mills closed down. Like so many others they envisioned an industrial Mecca, but were in for a rude awakening.

As his family moved constantly to find work, Sammon attended 11 schools by the age of 15. Because he had done some boxing back in Ohio, he was able to fend off adolescent bullies and extortionists and developed a reputation as someone not to be trifled with.

College boxing was extremely popular in the 1950s, so the athletic Sammon eagerly joined the team at Santa Clara University where he earned a degree in finance. In the 1955 Pacific Coast Inter-Collegiate tournament at Sacramento’s Memorial Auditorium, his bout with Roger Rouse was described by one local newspaper as the bloodiest in that venue’s history.

“The problem was, it was all of my blood,” jokes Sammon. 

Years later, longtime light heavyweight champion Bob Foster, who fought Rouse twice as a professional, said Rouse hit him harder than any of his other opponents, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier included.

As a member of the ROTC in college, Sammon was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army upon graduation. He was assigned to the 101st Airborne, where he was trained as a paratrooper. In September 1957 his unit was deployed to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce the integration of nine black students into that city’s Central High School.

“Ain’t nothing like being harassed and expecting to die,” said Melba Pattillo Beals, who in 1957 was just 15 years old and scared for her life when she was chosen to be one of the “Little Rock Nine” on the basis of the close proximity in which she lived to the school, as well as her grades and her strength of character. 

Despite being all of 23, the strapping Sammon had an inherent sense of right and wrong and no patience or tolerance for prejudice of any kind.

“Hell, all those kids wanted to do was get a good education,” he said recently. “President Eisenhower had sent the 101st Airborne there to protect them. We all had guns, but nobody knew that we weren’t allowed to put any ammo in them. It was one big bluff.”

Having grown up with people of all creeds and colors, Sammon was aghast that so many of his colleagues were not supportive of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. He says he almost came to blows with several of his redneck colleagues, and to this day is touched “by the courage of those children,” meaning the Little Rock Nine. 

He still keeps in touch with one of those “children,” Pattillo Beals, who is the director of communications at Dominican University in San Rafael, California, which is not far from Sammon’s home in the Bay Area.

She says she calls him every September to “say thank you for saving my life.” At a prayer breakfast several years ago to benefit the San Jose YMCA, she told the assembled audience that her grandmother had always instilled in her that in tough situations God will send you a guardian angel.

“And my guardian angel,” she continued, “was a young paratrooper named Marty Sammon.”

While no one will ever accuse Sammon of being a shrinking violet, he is modest when talking about his contribution to social history. He believes his actions were nothing more than the result growing up poor, never believing he was better than anyone else, and knowing full well that the content of one’s character is based on far more than their skin color.

“On a jump you don’t care what the person’s skin color is, as long as he can fire his weapon and cover your ass,” he said, harkening back to his Army days.

After his military service Sammon went about the business of working and raising a family. He and Rosemarie, his wife of over 50 years, had three children, Michael, Sharon and Lisa. Michael, a mathematical genius and superb rugby player, passed away several years ago at the age of 39 from a pulmonary embolism. 

Sammon stayed in shape by playing handball at San Quentin State Prison, and eventually agreed to referee matches there between the inmates. The inmates had a lot more at stake on the outcome of some of those fights than Sammon realized, and he often had debris thrown at him if he inadvertently messed with the over/under by stopping a fight too soon or letting it go too long.

“If you could referee a fight in San Quentin, you could referee a fight anywhere,” laughs Sammon.

As a professional judge, Sammon’s biggest fight was probably the first Oscar De La Hoya-Shane Mosley bout, which he scored 115-113 for the Golden Boy. Although criticized for that decision by many people, he cites De La Hoya’s undercounted body punches and stands by his decision 100 percent.

From a strictly personal perspective, his most memorable refereeing assignment was the infamous first matchup between former football star Mark Gastineau and Tim “Doc” Anderson in 1992 in San Francisco. Rumors abounded that Anderson was going to take a dive, so prior to the bout Sammon personally warned both parties that there better not be any monkey business.

Anderson wound up beating Gastineau from pillar to post. His victory so enraged his promoter, Rick “Elvis” Parker, it is alleged by Anderson that Parker poisoned him just prior to a rematch. Anderson lost that fight, and was left lying in his own vomit on the dressing room floor.

Anderson blamed Parker for never fully recovering from the rematch, as well as threatening the well-being of his family, including his quadriplegic sister, if he went to the authorities. Things culminated with Anderson shooting Parker to death in an Orlando, Florida, hotel room in 1995. He is now serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole in a Florida prison. Sammon and Anderson have kept in touch.

“I write to Tim regularly, and he writes back,” said Sammon. “I’m pretty much of a law and order guy, but good cell space is being wasted by keeping him in prison. If someone threatened my family the way his was threatened on a regular basis, all bets are off. There were so many mitigating factors that should have been taken into consideration.

“Even several of the jurors wrote to the judge, expressing exasperation over the drastic sentence. They were going to request leniency, but that decision was taken out of their hands by mandatory sentencing guidelines. It’s a travesty of justice.”

Sammon was cast as Referee No. 5 in the film “Million Dollar Baby,” which garnered the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2004. It also won awards for Best Director (Clint Eastwood), Best Actress (Hilary Swank), and Best Supporting Actor (Morgan Freeman).

“Working with such a great cast was a tremendous introduction to the film business,” said Sammon. “There wasn’t an ounce of pretentiousness on the set. You hear so much negative stuff about Hollywood types. Well, everyone I met was the antithesis of everything I ever heard. It was an absolute joy to be involved in such a great film.”

As things turned out, he and Eastwood had a lot in common. Both went to high school in California’s East Bay, and Sammon says Eastwood was so low-key and down to earth he felt like he was working with an old friend from the neighborhood.

“We realized we had some common ground and really hit it off,” Sammon said.

What surprised Sammon more than anything was the fact of just how regular of a guy Eastwood is. He waited on the food line like everyone else, and no one in the crew seemed the least bit intimidated by his superstar status.

“Clint sees himself as a regular guy,” said Sammon. “It’s not often that I’m nervous talking to anyone, but walking onto the set, I admit I was a tad bit nervous. But within minutes I felt as comfortable as I do in a boxing ring.”

Sammon can also not say enough good things about Swank.

“The dedication of that woman is amazing,” he said. “She’s always looking to learn, and even did all of her own stunts. I told her if you get hit in the head you get dizzy and mad, and if you get hit in the body you wince. In her next scene she got hit with a body shot and winced beautifully. She shot me a wink and asked the crew, ‘Did you see how I winced?’ The director [of that scene] said jokingly, ‘It’s called acting, Hilary.’”

Throughout his very eventful life, Sammon has always had a way of finding himself in the midst of important events. 

“I can honestly say I’m one of the luckiest people I know,” Sammon said. “As long as you never give up on your dreams, good can come out of anything. Hilary Swank said it best. When she accepted her second Academy Award, she recalled the days she was living in a trailer park with nothing more than a dream. Hell, I once lived in a trailer park in Fontana, California, so I could relate to that. The greatest accomplishment in life is to dream big, then set out to make those dreams come true. It’s true in boxing. It’s true in acting. It’s true in anything.”

What Sammon probably doesn’t even realize is something that his grandchildren, Katherine and Stephanie, both of whom are superb student/athletes, should know about him.

By any standard of measure, their grandfather is a true American hero. It has nothing to do with his ring or movie exploits, but is based on the fact that he stood up when others would not during those dark days in Little Rock six decades ago. It is hard for some people to fathom that so many of the freedoms and liberties that we now take for granted did not exist in the not-too-distant past.

Our great country was built and improved upon on the backs of many brave people, most of whom are as anonymous as Sammon was in 1957. He needs to not take those actions for granted, and his grandchildren need to know that they come from the sturdiest of stock. 

If you don’t believe me, just ask Melba Pattillo Beals.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Little Rock Nine

The Little Rock 9 - Arkansas 1957

Little Rock 9 -- An Interview with Marty Sammon

Tim "Doc" Anderson vs Mark Gastineau 1992

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  1. Raymond McCormack 02:30am, 01/08/2013

    I wish you could have given one example where as you write, “Patterson was courageous enough to take several defiant stances, all of which could have not only derailed his career but quite possibly could have gotten him killed.” I am not aware of even one such incident.

    You futher write,“and also refused to engage in several bouts unless the venues in which the fights took place were desegregated.” This was not unsual at the time. Even Sonny Liston had the writen into his contracts when he was the champion.

    Patterson was one of the most discrimatory fighters of the modern age. As a champion for almost 5 years he fought only 2 black challengers. Everyone else was white. He avoided, Nino Valdes, Eddie machen, Zoro Folley, Cleveland Williams… When it came to prize fighting Floyd was not a noble warrior. I don’t know where you draw your conclusions from.

    Regarding your statement,“But the counterpoint to that argument is the fact that some other poor black or white man with no political connections had to take his place.” This too is somewhat misleading. What about all the college kids who got collge deferments? .

    Finally, I has to stop reading the pulp, when you wrote,“Ali, after all, had a white grandparent and grew up in relative comfort in Louisville, Kentucky.” Ali, never had a white grandparent. And I do not know of anyone who would write that a black person grew up in “relarive comfort” in the deep South durimg the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. If I remember correctly Ali threw his gold medal in the Ohio River because of the discrimintion in the South. That does not sound like “relative comfort” to me. It soumfds more llke outrage

    Dude, you need to get your facts straight before you write an article. If you want people to take you seriously.

  2. nick 11:05am, 09/13/2012

    Thank you for your response Bob. Dave Zyglewics was a tough guy, anyone who can get into that ring is a tough guy. However, deserving of a title shot? Look at his records. of the 36 men he faces 18 had loosing records at the time, some who he lost to. In fact, he had lost a fight I believe in the previous year. This fight happened in April of 1969. Interestingly the previous December 10, 68 Frazier beat Oscar Bonavena by a unanimous descision in Philadelphia. I remember as a boy becoming interested in boxing, and seeing that this was being advertised on close ciricuit TV. Why this is interesting, the co feature of that close circuit boxing show featured Sonny Liston against Amos Lincoln. I did not know at the time that fight was in Baltimore and the Frazier fight in Philadelphia. Liston won by 2nd round ko. Makes one wonder if there was thought about a Frazier-Liston fight. Lots of reason why it may not have happened, but why was that fight not made? Liston was certainly more deserving having not lost since 1965 to Ali. Even Floyd Patterson, though he lost to Jimmy Ellis on refs Harold Vallens, score card, and controversially was more deserving.

  3. Bob 03:53am, 09/12/2012

    Nick: You bring up good points. The fighter you mentioned who fought Frazier was Dave Zyglewicz, who went left hook for left hook with Frazier before getting out-hooked at 96 seconds of the first round. But it was exciting while it lasted. Check it out on You Tube. It’s so easy to dismiss guys like Zyglewicz, but he worked hard to get where he did get and was a tough guy. A feature on him will be forthcoming in the near future.

  4. nick 01:00pm, 09/10/2012

    I was no big Ali fan, as I would have liked to have seen Patterson, Frazier, Norton and other fighers beat Ali. in the case of the last two, more than once. However, while Patterson may have aligned himself with King, one should note that in many ways Patterson’s heavyweight career was like that of Jack Johnson, when heavyweight champion, he would defend his title against white fighters, not giving other blacks the opportunities to try to get the title from him. The only black fighter he successfully defended his title against was Tommy Hurricane Jackson, a fight that may have only happened because he had won by a split decision before getting the title against him. As a champion, Rocky Mariciano looks more like a civil rights person as 4 of his 6 title defenses were against black fighters. In seven successful title defenses for Patterson, only one black fighter got a shot at the title. Joe Frazier, after beating Buster Mathis, did not fight a black heavyweight until his unification fight with Jimmy Ellis, and the of course he fought Ali. But after Ali, who were the fighters he fought before he took on his ill fated fight with Foreman, white fighter Terry Daniels, and Ron Stander, also between Mathis and Ellis he fought Ramos, Bonavena, Quarry and a fighter named Larry Ziegelfus (probably have that last name wrong), not black fighters.  Ali by contrast before having his belt taken away for his draft refusal, of Ali’s 9 title defenses, 5 were against black fighters. Had Ali not been so outspoken, and hated, is it not possible that other black fighters would have been ignored?

  5. peter 05:30pm, 09/04/2012

    Another great article. What’s unique about Mladinich is that his writing always digs down deep into the detritus of boxing. He’s always finding interesing nuggets of gold down there in the dark—fascinating nuggets of gold which other writers would never see, or recognize. Mladinich is a tough guy with delicate sensibilities—and a knack for good writing.

  6. Mike Casey 07:00am, 09/03/2012

    Floyd had a ton of guts in more ways than one, for which he was never given credit. He made his contribution quietly and with dignity. Alas, you’re never going to make the news by being quiet.

  7. AKT 04:47am, 09/03/2012

    How high is high? ;-)


  8. the thresher 04:35am, 09/03/2012

    Jesus Christ, this is like reading a great book. How high can’s bar go?

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