"Off the Ropes: The Ron Lyle Story" by Candice Toft
Off The Ropes: The Ron Lyle Story by Candice Toft with a new foreword by Al Bernstein. Hamilcar Publications; Second edition, 232 pages
Despite eighteen months in a juvenile correctional facility and seven and a half years in jail, Lyle was quick to emphasize: “I always feared God.”
A few weeks ago, I was hitting the bag at the Y when a fellow I’d put to be somewhere in his mid-sixties struck up a conversation. A veteran viewer of the ABC fights heyday, the exchange was eerily notable in that the first fighter he mentioned was Ron Lyle. With fervent sentimentality, he spoke of Lyle’s legendary bout with George Foreman, even quoting - with perfect cadence - swaths of Cosell’s commentary. But behind his giddiness, I could tell that my new gym buddy was dead serious about this man.
It was serendipity at its finest as I had just finished, that same morning, Hamilcar Publications’ newly revised edition of the late Candice Toft’s 2010 Off The Ropes: The Ron Lyle Story, probably the best biography to be culled from 2018’s replete crop of boxing lit (the only other major standout I’ve read being Mike Stanton’s more sprawling, contextualized Undefeated, on Rocky Marciano). In a decade that boasted an overabundance of some of the greatest heavyweights the division has seen, Lyle ranked with the best. Yet much of his renown seems to derive from his role as a major, formidable opponent - a great fighter who almost clinched the title. Like The Ron Lyle Story, my happenstance at the gym confirmed that he was a lot more.
Through extended quotes via interviews with her subject, family members and friends, Toft imparts the moxie that brought the ex-con to square off with the best fighters of the decade. “It’s not a disgrace to get knocked down,” he’d tell the children and convicts at the schools, rec. centers, and prisons he visited regularly throughout his life, “It’s a disgrace not to get up.” A man of devout faith, Lyle practiced what he preached.
In 1945, Denver’s primarily black and Hispanic Curtis Parks district, in which Lyle was raised, had been described by one local reporter as a “creeping blight” on the city. But Ron always saw Denver his as lifelong home - indeed, a full third of his 51 bouts took place there. “A vision in a dream” drove his father William to build a Pentecostal church, where he took on the role of paterfamilias to Curtis Parks with his wife serving as a kind of missionary. Dropping out of school in the ninth grade to run with the neighborhood gangs - (“Mulattoes,” they were always quick to correct), Ron spent eighteen months in a juvenile correctional facility. Throughout his life he would nevertheless recall his youthful exploits with the caveat: “I always feared God.”
But sometimes fate, or even God, puts fear to the test. A 1962 incident involving a woman and a jealous boyfriend culminated in shots fired and someone dead. Ron’s involvement is still unclear and, to her great credit, Toft does what she can to reconstruct the episode without invention or filling in gaps. His refusal to give up the shooter’s name bought him 15-25 in Cãnon City Prison (of which he served seven and a half). Ron was nineteen, taking the fall to uphold his street-boy honor. Shanked by another prisoner early into his sentence and pronounced clinically dead (twice), the ink was still drying on his death certificate when a vision of his mother revivified him. (Like his father, Ron was frequently seized by so-called “visions” that guided him both personally and professionally.)
The prison athletic director introduced him to boxing. With nowhere to work out but his 28 square-foot cell, Lyle kayoed his way through the entire prison team until soldiers from the nearby Army base had to be brought in as opponents.
Paroled in 1969, he amassed an amateur record of 22-0 within fourteen months. In 1971, at the advanced age of thirty, he turned professional. Toft limits her context to Lyle’s arc as a fighter, friend and (for better or worse), family man. The events of the late 60s, particularly the Civil Rights Movement, had taken place when Lyle was inside and so are eschewed altogether. Like most boxing biographies, Ron’s fights serve as chronological landmarks, and his chasing the title, run-ins with the law, and complicated familial episodes suggest a via dolorosa both in and out of the ring. Toft’s incessant noting of Lyle’s rankings on the WBA and Ring’s top ten lists borders on the obsessive, but no one can accuse her of harping when discussing a fighter who occupied a spot somewhere in the top six more often than not.
An auspicious debut pitted Lyle against A.J. Staples, a fighter who’d never hit the canvas in all his fifteen bouts. Ron put him down in the second. By the time he fought Jerry Quarry in February of ‘73, his record stood at a solid 19-0. But the Bellflower Bomber’s endurance presented a challenge: save for two decisions, Ron had never gone past the ninth to score a kayo. In the end, Quarry’s stamina brought Ron his first loss by unanimous decision.
With their son in tow, Ron’s wife left him with claims that his training and fighting regimen had come to eclipse the marriage. It had. He called their leaving “the hardest hit I ever took,” but soon became involved with a woman named Patty Jordan, with whom he had two more children. For a while, all was smooth sailing with Patty, just so long as Ron made regular exceptions to trainer Sam Boardman’s abstinence-only mandate.
By 1974, only Ali, Foreman and Frazier ranked above Lyle, and when Ron got his shot at Ali in May of ‘75, most of the hype centered on a potential Ali loss more than a Lyle win. The anticipation was well-founded: Ron took nine rounds before Ali scored a TKO in the eleventh. While much of the cognoscenti thought the fight should have been allowed to continue, Ron assumed a zen-like approach: “I upheld my ability as well as any man could against the obstacle that was ahead of me.”'
“I upheld my ability as well as any man could against the obstacle that was ahead of me.”
Besting Earnie Shavers in September of ‘75 earned Ron a shot at Foreman the following January in what Burt Sugar aptly dubbed a “mélange of mayhem.” The fourth saw both fighters hit the canvas (Foreman twice!) while Cosell alternately blared that this one or the other was in trouble. “This isn’t artistic,” he roared over the delirium, “but it’s slugging! And that’s what the public wants!” As with every significant bout (and this one’s for the ages), Toft’s breakdown is thorough without the over-extended analyses that - as happens in several boxing biographies - tend to derail the narrative flow. Yes, a certain degree of coverage is always necessary - it’s a delicate balance, and Toft is seamless and canny in her blow-by-blows.
Art and Science took a back seat to unadulterated warmongering in this “mélange of mayhem.”
On New Year’s Eve, 1977, a fight broke out between Ron and Rip Clark, an ex-con from his Cãnon City days. Lyle pried a gun from from Clark’s hands, a shot rang out, and Clark was dead with a bullet in his skull. While Lyle was exonerated and the murder charge downgraded to self defense, his legal fees were a major pecuniary blow (he always maintained it was money well spent). Still licking his wounds from his three big losses, the 36 year-old felt like he was starting over. A streak of five wins between 1977 and 1979 ended in a loss to Lynn Ball that many perceived as Ron’s death knell. A first-round loss to Jerry Cooney drove in the nail. Fifteen years later, he knocked out four nobodies in a brief comeback, but the ring was no place for a man of 54.
Dividing his time between security work in Vegas casinos and bartending in Denver, Lyle rented apartments when he could, spending the occasional night on friends’ couches or even a park bench. Despite financial and familial hardships (he was separated from his kids for almost two decades and had many siblings within his tight-knit family), Ron never stopped his work with children and convicts. “The inmates seem to improve every time he shows up,” said one Cãnon City guard.
Despite Cosell’s references to Lyle’s “sordid past” and the smattering of philistines who still regard him as a murderer (more for Clark’s death than for the earlier shooting), Toft’s thorough accounts and interviews put to rest any question as to Ron’s moral core, rendering him sensitive and genuine, restless and profoundly driven. Sure, a few skeletons always stay buried - Ron never gave up the shooter’s name - but Toft’s sources make her the ideal archeologist. Besides, Ron answered with cryptic simplicity when asked what it’s like to fight: “It can’t be told.”
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