The not-so-sunny skies of Harley Woods

By Pete Ehrmann on May 15, 2018
The not-so-sunny skies of Harley Woods
Photo: Harley Woods (right) vs. Cody Gainer. Orlando Sentinel photo by Tom Greene.

“Seldom in 28 years of reporting for Ring Magazine has your correspondent flipped over a prospect as potent as punching Harley Woods…”

Funny what sticks in your mind. It was 53 years ago this summer when I read the sentence, “Seldom in 28 years of reporting for Ring Magazine has your correspondent flipped over a prospect as potent as punching Harley Woods.” The writer was Tom Ephrem, whose column of news and results from Florida called “Under Southern Skies” appeared every month in the back pages of The Ring. In the July 1965 issue he was agog about Woods because in his first three pro bouts that spring the Jacksonville heavyweight knocked out his opponents in 31, 28 and 17 seconds.

I don’t know for sure, but I’d be surprised if any correspondent for The Ring did it longer than Tom Ephrem. “Yours truly now claims 27 wonderful years with The Ring magazine,” Ephrem noted in his column in the January 1965 issue, “and will be with the Boxing Bible another 100.” He didn’t make that, but was still at it up to his death in 1974.

When I started sending the meagre ring news from Wisconsin to The Ring in ’65, Tom Ephrem’s columns were my template. But mine were shorter, way less knowledgeable, and lacked his alliterative punch.

Over the years I never forgot that hyperbolic hallelujah for Harley Woods.

It turned out to be premature. After a fourth first round KO win in late ‘65, Woods was himself stopped in three consecutive fights. He fought sporadically over the next three years and his final bout, a decision win in a four-round preliminary, gave him a career log of six wins and six losses. All the latter were by KO or TKO.

According to an article by Ben Montgomery, published June 2, 2013 in the Floridian, the monthly magazine of the Tampa Bay Times, Harley Woods was legendary before he became a professional boxer.

Montgomery’s story, “Unbeaten,” is about the eight months in 1961 that Vic Prinzi, former Florida State University star quarterback and NFL player, worked as a teacher and football coach at the Florida School for Boys in Marianna, “one of the largest homes for troubled kids in the country.” That’s where he met Woods, then doing his second stretch for armed robbery.

“He was 16, nearly 6 feet tall and 190 pounds,” wrote Montgomery, “…tough and built like a tree, and most of the kids on campus were afraid of him.” Woods was “abandoned by his father at 7. His mother was an alcoholic. He had spent time in juvenile homes in Jacksonville. Every adult who had entered Woods’ life had abandoned him.”

“I’ve been shit on a thousand times in my life,” Woods sneered at Prinzi the first time they met. “You’re just one more asshole that’s going to do it.”

He didn’t. Unlike the rest of the FSB administration which routinely brutalized the young inmates, Prinzi mentored and encouraged them.

“I think there’s something in you,” he told Woods. “The only problem is, you’re the one who’s got to let it out.”

He did it on the gridiron. As FSB’s fullback, Woods scored 81 points in the ’61 season, fifth best among Northwest Florida high school players. “No matter the scores,” wrote Montgomery, “Harley Woods had begun to take on a leadership role. He was a force.”

When Prinzi was called to active military service, not to return to FSB (he was a longtime Florida State football commentator up to his death in 1998), Woods told the coach he loved him.

The article doesn’t mention Woods’ pro boxing career, and none of the FSB alumni interviewed knew what had become of him. Montgomery found out that Woods was setting up for a rodeo in 1987 when a metal flagpole he was raising into the Southern sky brushed a power line, and the heavyweight who blew Tom Ephrem’s mind was blown away by 14,000 volts.

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  1. Bruce 08:11pm, 05/23/2018

    Another gem by Brother Ehrmann.  I used to love reading those back pages of The Ring, with the tiny print…probably why I wear glasses today.

  2. Ollie Downtown Brown 08:24am, 05/16/2018

    “I’ve been shit on a thousand times in my life. You are just one more asshole who is going to do it.” PRICELESS. What a quote. Makes me think of a quote by convicted murderer, Troy Kell . Kell, as with most of these hardened men, represent a great deal of truth,  despite their wicked and evil souls, stated, “If you suck ass long enough, pretty soon you start choking on shit.” Not the most likable guy around, but there is a lot of truth in Kell’s statement. I guess these people, like Kell and Harley Woods learn the ropes quickly by being exposed to the worst of humanity.

  3. peter 06:12am, 05/16/2018

    Sad story—good read.

  4. Lucas McCain 06:03am, 05/16/2018

    Nice piece with a stunning conclusion.  (I resist saying “shocking.”)  Also a pleasure to recall those back pages in the Ring.  So many intriguing characters and dramas, everywhere one looks.

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