By Thomas Gerbasi
For nearly 16 years, the USA Network’s Tuesday Night Fights series was a refuge for the serious boxing fan, and for an entire generation of aficionados, “Saigon” Skipper Kelp was our Arturo Gatti before “Thunder” became the human highlight reel of the sport.
Blessed with a debilitating left hook, speed, and an offensive mindset that overruled any serious thought of defense, Kelp was the guy who didn’t disappoint, the one who made it worth your while every time you tuned in. In other words, he was that rarity or rarities: a made for television fighter.
“You know what it was, where I may have lacked the boxing technique at the time because I relied a lot on speed, tenacity and power, I figure if a guy was a better boxer than me, I was gonna overwhelm him,” said Kelp. “And if I got a guy hurt, I wanted to finish it. I wanted to get him out of there.”
If he even sensed he had you on your back foot, Kelp would unleash combinations from all angles, almost always capped off with that left hook. And if he caught you clean, you usually took a nap.
Of course, careers like that don’t usually last too long, and Kelp’s run as a pro lasted just 29 fights from 1990 to 1998. He never held or fought for a world title either, but what makes Kelp a boxing success story is that a) he is still remembered today for his exciting fights and style, and b) when he walked away, he stayed away. And staying away – especially after leaving the sport at the age of 28 - may be even harder than winning a world championship. Not that it was easy for him.
“I became a better boxer once I started teaching,” said Kelp, who went on to coach the UNLV boxing team while also working with pro boxers and mixed martial artists. “Once I stepped away, I looked from the outside in and realized you could use your jab and that a little bit of head movement won’t kill you. (Laughs) Blocking a punch here or there is actually good for you. And once I stepped away and started teaching that to people, I started developing it myself. I was still young and in my prime physically. I was 28 when I stopped fighting, and for a while – I would say a good ten years – it was a battle for me. Am I gonna fight again? Because now I can do things I couldn’t do before. I’m still strong, I’m still fast, and now I can actually box. I have a defense, it’s hard to hit me, and as I was teaching, in the back of my mind that was always there.”
His March 1998 win over Javier Francisco Mendez would be his last bout though, the end to a career which began with a stellar amateur run in which he won two National Golden Gloves titles, fought future world champs like Stevie Johnston and Terronn Millett, and came thisclose to earning a spot on the 1988 United States Olympic team. But Kelp’s style wasn’t made for the amateurs; it was pro all the way, and Top Rank knew it, eventually signing the Vietnam native to a promotional deal. Looking back, considering that he was only 17 when he lost in the ’88 trials, would he have stayed to take a shot at the 1992 Games if he could do it all again?
“In hindsight I probably should have done it,” said Kelp. “I would have to believe I was the top guy or right up there. But I got wooed by Top Rank at the time, and I guess it got to me a little bit. But if I had a big crystal ball, I probably would have done the 1992 Olympics just for it being the Olympics. And back then, when US boxing actually meant something, it was special and I wouldn’t have minded having that experience.”
The pros beckoned though, and the kid with the left hook (who won his pro debut in 30 seconds over Miguel Lopez in December of 1990 with the only punch he threw) was an instant hit and soon to become a television staple. 15-0-1 in his first 16 bouts (with 10 knockouts), Kelp was nearly perfect until a 10 round decision loss to David Gonzalez in September of 1992. It was the first sign for Kelp that things might be changing for him, and not necessarily in a positive direction.
“When you hit a guy and you hurt him and when you know every time you touch a guy right some damage is gonna be done, you start looking for that,” he said. “So it’s a curse too when that’s all you start looking for. Because if you move up in the ranks and start fighting guys where everyone’s tough and everyone hits hard and they can take away one facet of your game just as easy as you can deliver it, then you’ve got to open up a little bit. And I never really had a Plan B or C. It was Plan A, and most guys couldn’t deal with it, but for the guys that could, they dealt with it.”
For the next three years, Kelp won more than he lost, going 7-2, but the two times he stepped up against future world champions Bronco McKart and Raul Marquez, he lost, with McKart handing him the only stoppage defeat of his career in March of 1994. Kelp bounced back from a decision loss to the unbeaten Marquez with perhaps his biggest win, a 10 round decision victory over Adrian Stone in May of 1996, but an exhausting loss to Tony Martin four months later made the writing on the wall pretty clear. Kelp returned for a final win over Mendez a year and a half later, but after that, the Las Vegas resident moved on. Asked why he never came back, his answer hits as hard as one of his hooks.
“There was a trade-off and a price you had to pay,” he explains. “The way I fought and the fans I did have when I was fighting, they admired a certain way that I fought. And I started worrying about my health. There would be times when I was training where I’d go ‘do I have a headache? I think I have a headache.’ And it was really just eating away at me. To be a fighter that the fans will love and to not cheat yourself or cheat the sport, you can’t have that doubt in your mind. I’d watch fighters and I’d see them quit on the stool or quit in a fight, and I’d say ‘how could they do that?’ And I didn’t want to be that guy. I knew there was a point where my life wasn’t worth the title anymore. When I was young and fighting, I didn’t have the technical aspects, but my mind was one hundred percent fighter. I was willing to die in the ring to beat the opponent. And as I got older and had kids and started evaluating what was really important, I didn’t want to be faced with that conflict of whether to continue. You can name any great fighter that fought past a certain age, and there’s a price you pay. There’s slurred speech, and as you get older, those negative results of fighting are highlighted even more. And I know I wasn’t willing to make that sacrifice. I feel healthy now, I can speak without slurring, my thought process is clear and good, and though you lose a little sense of glory, I’m happy with it.”
Skipper Kelp made it. And that’s the happiest ending you can ask for in this sport, where there are so few like it. At 42, he still trains up and comers at his Fight Capital Training Center in Las Vegas, and given his time in the ring as an amateur and professional, he provides a unique look at the sport for his charges. And he doesn’t mince words when he discusses his own shortcomings.
“I know the result of being a one-dimensional fighter,” he said. “No matter how good you may have been one dimensionally, you have to have other dimensions because the game has evolved and there are other fighters out there that are as tough as you, as strong as you, and as fast as you. Now who’s gonna be smarter and have the better game plan? It doesn’t mean it has to be a boring fight; it just means you’ve gotta have Plans B, C, and D.
“Going back on it, I really can critique my career,” Kelp continues. “I wish I would have been more technical and picked my places to fight a little better. I think that was one reason why I never made it over that hump. You gotta have a little bit of both, and I think I focused a little too much on tenacity at one point, where with a little more boxing technique and some setups and a little more skilled use of the jab, I could have combined that and had a little better result. But it was fun though. It took less thought fighting the way I did.”
Kelp laughs, clearly at peace with the memorable career he had in the ring and the ever expanding possibilities he now has outside of it. In fact, the only thing that can get him down is the idea of fighters not being willing to take the lessons given to them by their coaches.
“The whole thing with Freddie Roach and Manny Pacquiao on the last 24/7, Freddie said ‘I used to be the boss. I used to tell Manny what to do. Now he tells me what to do,’” recalls Kelp. “As a trainer, I don’t ever want to be in that position, and I’ll turn down a world-class fighter because if I’m gonna be your trainer, I’m still from the world of martial arts. I started in martial arts and then got into boxing and now I’m back into martial arts as well. You respect your trainer and you put him on a pedestal because he’s your sensei. And that’s still in the back of my mind. I would rather work with a kid that’s less talented that’s gonna give me everything he has and we’ll see what we can do with that.”
That’s Kelp’s mission these days, to lead a hungry young fighter to the heights he just missed himself. Of course we can all say ‘if I knew then what I know now,’ but that’s not the way the world works. Then again, few have the chance, like Kelp does now, to put what he has learned into action through someone else.
“I can one hundred percent pinpoint reasons why I didn’t take it to that next level, and it really gives me a lot of ammunition as a trainer, especially dealing with professional boxers,” he said. “The line between being good and being great is so small in some instances, and there are certain things a fighter has to do to get there and being that I didn’t take that step, those moments stick in me and resonate and I really preach that to my guys and if they’re willing to listen, I know I can get them to that next level.”
And if they get there, they can only hope that they can make the impact with an entire generation of fight fans that their trainer did. And that’s something that still makes Skipper Kelp smile.
“Those times will never go away for me, and whenever I get a person who can get back to that time and have a good feeling about it, it definitely has a special meaning for me, no question.”