Wild West Hero: Ron Lyle
He decided to channel his energy into boxing. He made his mind up about something else too. He would win the heavyweight championship of the world…
Imagine that you are a Great White Shark and that you are transported back to the Miocene and Pliocene epochs of some 60 million years ago. Not being short on confidence and unaware of the level of competition in your new surroundings, you assume that the balance of power will not be radically disturbed and that you will continue to boss the oceans. Any pretenders to your throne will be quickly dispatched and you will carry on eating as much as you can get as the good life endures.
Then you come upon your ancestral brother, Megladon. He is three or four times your size at a length of up to a hundred feet, his temperament is just as vicious and his massive jaws make yours look like those of a goldfish. He eats whales for lunch. He is the reigning world champion and you know at once that he will beat you every time and probably snack on your remains into the bargain. To heap insult on injury, you might not even make it past some of your fellow contenders in this awesome age of giant talents.
Megladons and sharks popped into my mind when I decided to write about Denver’s former heavyweight contender Ron Lyle and the top quality era in which he fought. There were all sorts of fish in that great sea of the 1970s, all hungry and dangerous in their different ways.
There were stingrays and swordfish in the likes of Floyd Patterson, Jimmy Ellis, Jimmy Young, Gregorio Peralta and Larry Middleton. There were whales of varying sizes and aggressive tendencies in George Chuvalo, Oscar Bonavena, Joe Bugner and Buster Mathis. There was even an octopus on the comeback trail in Ernie Terrell.
The members of boxing’s shark family were plentiful and assorted in their potency and staying power. In the back waters were those who flattered to deceive in Jeff (Candy Slim) Merritt, Stan Ward, Mac Foster, Jose Urtain, Jose Luis Garcia and Alvin (Blue) Lewis.
Then there were the big sharks with real and enduring teeth, the thrilling quartet of Jerry Quarry, Ken Norton, Ron Lyle and Earnie Shavers. The heavy punching Lyle, from the Centennial State of Colorado, was a bona-fide member of that select group of contenders, even if he wasn’t the leader of the pack. But they all suffered the same, cruel twist of fate. They were ruled by three megladons in Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Joe Frazier.
Ron Lyle was sitting on a park bench on a fine sunny day, looking calm and relaxed and bearing that slightly glazed look that afflicted many others when they were talking to boxing announcer, Howard Cosell. Lyle was being asked about how he got into boxing after a lengthy prison stretch and Cosell was taken aback by the casual way in which Ron related the details of a stormy and near disastrous early life.
He discussed murder and a near fatal stabbing with the matter-of-fact air of a nine-to-fiver describing another tedious day at the office. “It was back in 1961 when I first got involved in a gang fight and a guy got killed. I was sent to the penitentiary for first-degree murder. I was tried for first-degree murder but found guilty of second degree. That was when I first started boxing.”
Watching other prisoners in the ring, Lyle didn’t think that boxing looked too hard and figured he could do well at it. He fought for the first time in 1964, but quickly got derailed in an arena where the fighting and the jostling for power never stops at the ring of a bell.
“I got stabbed. When you’re in prison, man, everybody’s mean or they wouldn’t be there. I was stabbed in the abdomen. One of the prison doctors signed my death certificate, but another doctor wouldn’t give up. I guess he thought he could get to the artery. I was bleeding internally. When they opened me up, they couldn’t find the artery because of all the blood.
“They had to give me thirty-six blood transfusions. I went on the operating table at ten o’clock that morning and didn’t get off it until about five that afternoon.
“They sent me to the hole (solitary confinement). You have nothing there but the letters you get from home and I wasn’t getting too many letters.”
To while away the long hours, Lyle began to exercise and strengthen his body. He was a naturally big and strong man at 6’ 3” and around 215 lbs. at his fighting weight, and all the hard work soon bore fruit. Setting himself new targets every day, Ron reached the point where he could do a thousand push-ups in an hour. He made the decision to channel his energy into boxing. He made his mind up about something else too. He would win the heavyweight championship of the world.
Lyle always had a formidable presence about him, as well as a suitably mean look. What he also possessed was great determination, fighting spirit and heavy punching power in both hands. Ron additionally had the capacity to learn fast and he quickly matured into an educated hitter who could mix up his shots and inflict significant damage with both hands. Watch the films of him as an amateur and as a learning professional, and you will not see a fighter who just blasts away and hopes for the best.
Lyle fared well as a Simon Pure, but time was of the essence after his seven-year stint at Uncle Sam’s pleasure and Ron had to move fast. He was already thirty when he turned professional in the spring of 1971 and he needed to make rapid and impressive progress if he were to realize his great ambition of winning the richest prize in sport. He was to come up short in his quest to attain that great goal, but how he tried and how he thrilled us in the attempt.
As a teenager with a typical love of the heavyweights, I was always scanning the rings around the world in various boxing publications, eager to spot the coming of the next colossus who would smash through the existing order and start a new era. One has yet to acquire a meaningful perception of talent at that age, and I was disappointed many times. I remember following the progress of Mac Foster, Jeff Merritt and Spanish slugger Jose Urtain, picturing them as thunder-punching destroyers who would blitz their way to the very top.
New sensations would come and go, lighting up the sky briefly before being badly found out. Merritt would collapse in just 47 seconds against Henry Clark, Urtain would be easily humbled by an old Henry Cooper and Foster would be severely beaten by the eternal Comeback Kid, Jerry Quarry.
Ah yes, that great wrecker of reputations, Jerry Quarry. It was Jerry who rose up to halt the rampaging charge of Ron Lyle at Madison Square Garden in 1973, by way of a comprehensive boxing lesson that Quarry fans still love to recall. The master class snapped Ron’s winning streak at nineteen, but the Denver puncher showed his class by doffing his hat to his conqueror and vowing to improve.
I wondered about Ron Lyle after that defeat. Would he simply trail off and become another in-and-out journeyman? Quarry, for all his erratic ways, had a peculiarly permanent effect on others. Thad Spencer never won another fight after being pounded by Jerry. Mac Foster became a trial horse. Buster Mathis never hit the heights again.
But there was something gloriously rugged and contrary about Lyle. He didn’t care for being anybody’s doormat. He had first caught my eye in 1972 with crushing knockouts of Mathis and the tough and tricky Larry Middleton. Big Buster was often mocked, but he was an awfully tough man to knock over. Only Joe Frazier had managed the feat before Lyle. Middleton, just seven months before his third round knockout loss to Lyle, had won many plaudits in London by taking Quarry all the way and losing a razor-thin decision.
Lyle bounced back from the Quarry defeat by winning seven straight before being held to a draw in Germany by Argentina’s canny old fox, Gregorio Peralta. Ron’s next assignment would be against another fighter from the Land of the Gauchos. On March 19, 1974, Oscar (Ringo) Bonavena came to Denver.
Let’s get physical
“I never thought I was in trouble,” said Lyle, after sharing Bonavena’s company for twelve bruising rounds on a rough old Tuesday night. “But he’s very physical. The first three rounds were the worst. Man, this guy is tough. Bonavena’s a lot more physical than Jerry Quarry, though Quarry had the finesse. Oscar hits a lot harder.”
Brawling Bonavena, never shy about promoting himself, predicted an early knockout victory over Lyle and came out in determined style. The thick-set, muscled Argentinean wasted no time in swinging big punches at Ron, scoring with a meaty left and a succession of body punches. Lyle was always a slow starter and those hard lefts troubled him for the first three rounds. But Ron seemed to be finding his rhythm by the third as he used his four-inch advantage in height and began hit back at Ringo. Lyle was the heavier man by nine pounds at 216 lbs. and Oscar was forced to crouch and grapple as his opponent’s stinging blows struck home more often.
Bonavena had broken his hand two years before and injured it again more recently, but it was serving him well and continued to be his most effective weapon as the fight went into the later rounds. Oscar had a game plan, but Ron wouldn’t oblige him for long enough. The South American bull repeatedly tried to trap Lyle on the ropes and shell him with heavy artillery, but Ringo was taking some jarring shots in return. He appeared to lose his orientation for a few fleeting seconds in the sixth round when Ron connected with a slamming right cross. The punch knocked out Bonavena’s mouthpiece, but he fought back viciously as Lyle followed up with combinations.
Oscar continued to come on strong in the seventh round, but he was always making up the slack and never quite reeling himself back on level terms. He got a break of sorts in the tenth, albeit a painful one as Lyle winged one south of the border. Referee Joe Ullman called a time-out as Ringo retired to his knees in some discomfort.
Bonavena knew he needed a big finish and upped his work rate over the last two rounds as the fighters traded heavy blows. But his big surge came too late in the day. He credited Lyle for being a strong and powerful man.
Ron continued to show that power throughout the remainder of his exciting and eventful career, but the boxing “cuties” would always give him trouble. Four months after the Bonavena victory, Ron was going the full route again to gain a unanimous win over the faded but still crafty former WBA champion, Jimmy Ellis.
Lyle rumbled on with stoppage victories over Boone Kirkman and Memphis Al Jones, but then met an artful trickster in Jimmy Young, who had run into a rich vein of form. Young had been an erratic journeyman for the best part of his career, plying his trade in different parts of the world as one of the game’s classic spoilers. Then he had suddenly learned how to win consistently. Oddly enough, it was after getting stopped in three rounds by Earnie Shavers that Jimmy seemed to see the light. He was unbeaten in eight bouts coming into his match with Lyle in Honolulu, and had held Shavers to a draw in their return.
Ron never could figure out Jimmy Young. Lyle was widely outpointed in one of the great heavyweight surprises of 1975, and the result was no fluke. Twenty-one months later, Jimmy would repeat the trick in a return engagement in San Francisco.
But that first loss in the Aloha State handed Ron the opportunity he had long sought. The word was out that Lyle couldn’t handle the smart guys, and the smartest guy of them all decided that the big hitter from Denver was a sufficiently safe option for a title defense. World champion Muhammad Ali gave Ron his big chance at the Convention Center in Las Vegas on May 16, 1975.
If Muhammad figured that Lyle’s ambition was to simply look respectable, it was a foolish assumption. The strong challenger fought with great heart and determination and was ahead on the judges’ scorecards going into the eleventh round. His movement was intelligent and he had scored effectively to the body throughout
It was then that Ali, so often slothful until he was pushed to the very edge, woke up to the realization that he needed to work and fashion a major offensive. A sudden right to the jaw shook Ron badly and sent him staggering to the ropes. Ali continued to fire well placed punches, driving the challenger into a corner where he sagged under the hail. Referee and former middleweight contender Ferd Hernandez halted the fight, much to Lyle’s anger.
Like every brave and proud fighter, Ron would remain bitter about the stoppage, regarding it as premature. “It was tough,” he said. “I felt I was robbed of the greatest honor in all sports.”
Shooting Down Shavers
The man from the mountains went back to his hometown of Denver angry and motivated. Lyle was never the best man to have a fight with when he was in a bad mood and it seemed only fitting that he should hook up with another renowned gunslinger to clear the air. Lyle against Earnie Shavers was a match made in heaven for heavyweight thrill seekers. To this day, a good old Rocky Mountain pal of mine describes the meeting of Ron and Earnie as one of the greatest slugfests he has ever seen. And he has seen a great many.
The big guns clashed in Denver on September 13, 1975, firing everything they had at each other in fifteen minutes and forty-seven seconds of mayhem. When it was all over, Lyle’s business partner Bill Daniels threw up one of the most loved questions in boxing: What if?
Ali had hurt Lyle in Las Vegas but had failed to deck him. What if Ron had hit the canvas in that fight and got up as flaming mad as he did against Shavers? Lyle was livid over his carelessness when Earnie drew first blood in the second round. The two fighters were exchanging punches when Ron stepped back a little too leisurely and got hammered flush on the jaw by the famous Shavers left hook. It required an awful lot to knock Mr. Lyle off his feet and he went slowly as he first wobbled against the ropes before dropping to one knee. He took the eight-count and was seething when he straightened up his big body.
“I saw him come out mad in the third round,” recalled Bill Daniels. “That’s the real test of an athlete – to come back – and Ron did it. If that had happened in the Ali fight, Ron might be champion today. We needed this one badly. That comeback showed how badly Ron wanted it.”
And how Lyle came back! He and Earnie continued to test each other’s mettle with some tremendous blows before Ron brought the curtain down with a devastating right cross early in the sixth round.
Years later, Lyle looked back on the brawl in typically candid and understated fashion and said: “I got dropped in the second round with a nice shot and after that, I was just trying to get my bearings back. Earnie Shavers was a helluva puncher, man. That’s the hardest I had ever been hit. I think a lot of people just thought Earnie hit hard, but he was a very sharp puncher. He didn’t just hit hard; it was precise and sharp.
“He threw a lot of very sharp punches. He wasn’t a puncher like Foreman to where he threw one bang. It wasn’t none of that. Earnie Shavers’ punches were very sharp and crisp and he threw a lot of them. After he dropped me, I just had to listen to what Bobby (trainer Bobby Lewis) was telling me. Bobby told me from the beginning that Earnie Shavers was a hard puncher when he was in close, so when you were in close to him, you had to keep your hands up. I was an inside fighter too.
“My thing was throwing in close too, so I had to get close to him as well. I got close to him, I got comfortable where I was, and a couple of times, I got close to him, dropped my hands, and raised my chin and he dropped me. But I got back up, corrected those mistakes, and went right back to the same process; inside fighting, keep my chin down, punch from close range and try to survive. I never put too much emphasis on knocking out any fighter.
“Knocking out Earnie Shavers was like any other fight where I knocked my opponent out. When you win, it’s over. You don’t think about whether it was a knockout or decision; you just congratulate the other guy, as well as yourself, and you leave it at that. So to me, there wasn’t any special emphasis knocking out Earnie Shavers. I would have took a decision, and even if I lost, I would have fought on and moved on.”
Foreman at Caesars
Depending on who you are, or perhaps more importantly, what you are made of, a fight with George Foreman can either be perceived as a plum award for all your hard work or an invitation that is only marginally less intimidating than a personal audience with the Prince of Darkness.
After Lyle knocked out Shavers, Big George came back to boxing to get a piece of the action for the first time in fifteen tortuous months. The only fighting he had done since his monumental loss to Ali in Zaire was in a series of embarrassing exhibitions in which Foreman’s lack of confidence was plainly evident.
When George got serious and returned against Lyle at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in January 1976, the erstwhile “invincible” colossus of the division was spinning the wheel of fortune every bit as hopefully as Ron. All sorts of doubts continued to penetrate Foreman’s mind. He became obsessed with what he perceived to be his lack of stamina in the Zaire fight and began to tinker with his natural style in an attempt to better pace himself. He had a new trainer in wise old Gil Clancy, who was secretly concerned and irritated that George was listening to advice from too many other people.
The Foreman-Lyle confrontation was therefore a dangerous match for both men and might well have been more appropriately staged at those famous crossroads down in Mississippi, where Old Nick is reputed to come strolling up those in need of a favor with his latest brochure of attractive offers.
A battle of big punchers always generates a big buzz and a packed crowd of 4,500 simmered with anticipation as Foreman and Lyle answered the first bell and squared off.
The fighters circled each other warily, as if bracing themselves for the inevitable collision that would assuredly wreck one of them. They didn’t take too long to get down to serious, hard-hitting business, and the tension around Caesars was palpable as the battle rumbled on. The first round passed and the two titans were still standing.
Each knew that one would get the other, irrespective of time or any other intervention. Both were fired up for the challenge and began punching in earnest in the third round, rocking each other with heavy blows. It was interesting to study their facial expressions as the pressure increased.
Lyle’s face hid nothing and showed the full effects of the struggle: eyes wide with the intensity of the effort, mouthpiece bared. Foreman, ever impassive, had the slightly bored look of a man who was being made to watch a film he had already seen before.
There were moments in the round when both men looked on the verge of going down as they coldly hammered each other with their best punches. It was the kind of seesaw brawl where fortunes changed so rapidly that anyone with a sizeable bet on the outcome must have been suffering fits.
Yet the best was still to come. The fourth round sprang so many sensations that Caesars Palace seemed to shake to its very foundations from the thunderous noise of the crowd. It was a round of primitive, hit-or-be-hit action, a round of three knockdowns and three shattering minutes in which Foreman and Lyle probably learned more about themselves than in all their previous fights.
Memories of the Ali fight must have come flooding back to George when Lyle suddenly cut him down with a clumping right-left combination. There was pandemonium at Caesars when Foreman hit the deck. Getting knocked down wasn’t expected of George, even after the Ali fight, any more than it was expected of Sonny Liston after being humbled by the same tormentor at Miami Beach and Lewiston. Monsters don’t get slain and we don’t believe it even when they do.
George arose quickly to take the mandatory eight-count and gamely took the play away from Lyle by knocking out Ron’s mouthpiece and flooring him with a clubbing right.
Now each man had sampled the full impact of the other’s power, and it was clear that the survivor of this war of wills would be the man with the biggest heart. Foreman’s advantage was short-lived. Amazingly, Lyle turned the fight around again as he stormed back to pound George to the canvas for the second time.
Fight announcer Howard Cosell claimed that he heard something very significant at this point. What he heard was Gil Clancy saying of his fallen charge, “He’s through.” Gil, of course, later denied that he had said anything of the sort.
The bell rang within seconds of the knockdown, but the count continued and Big George staggered to his feet at “four”. As he and Lyle made their way groggily back to their corners, Caesars was a cacophonous hub of frantic activity. Phil Spector couldn’t have concocted a more formidable wall of sound. Spectators bounced up and down like excited children, reporters hurriedly updated their notes and cornermen worked feverishly on their fighters. I don’t know of any other sport that could paint such a beautifully chaotic picture.
What was Foreman thinking during the minute’s rest? His world had been so full of thunder and lightning over the previous fifteen months. After Ali, was it all going to end for good here? Nobody had ever floored the big man twice in a round before, yet any negative thoughts going through George’s mind must have surely been tempered by the satisfaction of pulling himself back from the brink of oblivion to keep his championship dream alive. The stakes were so much higher in those still largely innocent days. There was still only one heavyweight championship and sometimes only one chance to get it back, whatever the small alphabet family of the WBA and WBC told us to the contrary.
Lyle had snatched back the initiative in that uproarious fourth round and he threw the dice in the fifth in a grandstand effort to finish Foreman off. He staggered George with a combination of punches, but he was now going after a man who was desperate to prove himself a warrior to a cynical public. Wounded men of Foreman’s talent, much like wounded bears, never stop being dangerous.
Launching a violent counter attack, George sent Lyle’s mouthpiece spinning from his mouth a second time as he drove his hurt opponent into a corner with a volley of blows. This time Ron was too stunned to respond. One could see the resistance seeping out of the Denver slugger as his body took the full force of Foreman’s big swings and hooks.
Lyle sagged as if to go down, but he was trapped in the corner and for a moment he had nowhere to fall. Then he slowly toppled forward and rolled onto his side as referee Charley Roth picked up the count. Ron struggled manfully to get up, but Foreman’s incessant attack had proved decisive.
What a fight! What a finish!
Ron Lyle came again but never quite so gloriously. He never did win the heavyweight championship of the world, but he survived and prospered admirably in a heavyweight era of numerous, true giants. He was a fighting man who continues to be a source of intrigue and something of a cult figure to boxing fans and historians. What a pity that he is no longer with us.
Mike Casey is the Founder & Editor of ALL TIME BOXING at https://sites.google.com/site/alltimeboxingrankings. He is a freelance journalist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).