By Dr. Nikos Michalis Spanakos
We were nine USA Olympic Champion pugilists competing in the 1960 Rome Olympic Games. The mystery of what happened to my fellow Olympians has puzzled me for the past 44 years. So, naturally, I contacted them.
Everybody knows about my Olympic teammate and roommate, Light Heavyweight Cassius Clay. Years after the Games he encountered Malcolm X causing Cassius to convert his Christian religion to Islam and his birth name to Muhammad Ali.
The 112-pounder was Humberto “Lefty” Barrera from Robstown, TX, a tough Mexican-American puncher and the “baby” of the team, only a junior in high school. Nevertheless in my opinion, besides Cassius, the best pound for pound boxer on the team. After the Games he turned pro and was later ranked eighth amongst the world’s best bantamweights. More importantly, he continued night schooling, earning a college degree in Engineering while being a husband, father and grandfather. I’m so proud of my amigo, “Lefty.” Kudos.
The bantamweight was Jerry Armstrong from Idaho State College. He married, fathered and is a grandfather. He retired as a personnel director in Idaho. He was and still is a classy guy.
I was the 125-pounder, the featherweight, a weight I still maintain and no doubt one of my most difficult accomplishments. As a proud graduate of Albertson’s College of Idaho (College of Idaho) class of 1960, I turned pro, as did my identical twin brother Petros (medal winner in the 1959 Pan American Games with Cus D’Amato, the prominent manager who had in his stable Floyd Patterson, Jose Torres and years later Mike Tyson). Furthermore, although saying I remain undefeated as a pro sounds impressive, I actually had only one official fight as a professional, in 1967.
As to my bout in the Olympics games, I was the very first American to compete in the 1960 Games against the Russian. You must remember in that epoch America was bitterly locked with Russia in a hotly contested cold war for world supremacy. Thus, my bout extracted an extraordinary amount of global attention as an emblematic proxy battle between capitalism and communism. The boxing decision was contested even though I desperately endeavored to finish him off in the second and third rounds. When he was declared the winner I swallowed it reluctantly, like being ordered to swallow poison. However, in the next night, fifteen of the thirty boxing judges were fired for showing unfair favoritism. All fifteen were from communist nations. So even if I knocked him out the officials would have disqualified me for hitting him with excessive force. As much as I philosophically try laughing about it because life is absurd it hurts, always will.
Harry Campbell was the 132-pounder (an ex-paratrooper as was Armstrong), from San Jose State College. Harry could croon some of the most melodic Southern Gospel songs in the locker room. Unfortunately, he was killed in a professional boxing bout in California in 1961.
Boxing, my beloved sport, murdered and hospitalized a number of my boxing pals. One unforgettable boxing friend was Charles Mohr, University of Wisconsin, who died in a 1960 NCAA match. His death caused the abolition of intercollegiate boxing as a major sport. My twin Petros and I still mourn him and intercollegiate boxing.
At 139 pounds was Quincy Daniels. Quincy and I both competed in the 1964 final Olympic Trials at the NYC World’s Fair. He represented the Air Force while I was the All Army Champion. I was unable to contact him, although I was told he lives somewhere near Seattle.
While all of my correspondence was by mail, the shy Arthur Baldwin, the 148-pounder from Michigan, was the only one who responded with a phone call. What I extrapolated from the telephone confabulation is that Arthur still is the modest and shy guy I always admired. After the Games he studied at college and worked in construction while raising his children from two marriages.
At 156 pounds was the handsome Wilbur McLure, the most credentialed boxer on the team. Only 22 but having captured the Golden Gloves, A.A.U. and a Gold in the 1959 Pan American Games. After the Games, he turned pro and earned a doctorate in counseling psychology.
At 165 pounds was the fierce and feared Edward Cook, Jr. He could demolish you with either hand. He captured Olympic Gold, as did Cassius and McLure. All three prizefighters were so naturally talented that they would’ve won Gold while boxing in blindfolds. Cook remained in the Army as a “lifer” and retired as such.
Society believes in the untrue stereotypical concept of the uneducated, stuttering, punch-drunk fighter. While boxers are not born in middleclass neighborhoods but rather incubated in the slums and ghettos, there is a new generation of boxers coming on line that will forever abolish the punch-drunk boxer so satirized by comedians.
At 178 pounds was the one and only Cassius Clay, who was cantankerous, garrulous and obstreperous. But then again, in 1959, when my twin and I first met him and again in 1960, Cassius was a teenager. He was quintessentially a gentle soul and still is. As we all know, he went on to become the “GOAT,” the greatest athlete of the century. My twin and I were privileged to be his friend and teammate, and grateful for lecturing at my schools thrice as my invited guest in the 1960s.
At the Heavyweight class was the Marine, Joseph Price, who I was unable to contact.
Participating in the Olympic Games was a high. My regrets are that my brother Petros, with 25 boxing titles to his credit, did not make the 1960 Team. Petros should have been considered. The other is that Jules Menendez, from San Jose College, was selected as the 1960 Olympic Boxing Coach. In my opinion Ben Becker, the Team Manager, knew more about boxers and boxing than did Jules.
Editor’s note: The Spanakos twins collectively captured almost 50 boxing championships in the 1950s and 1960s. Petros is a retired Director from a NYC high school. Nikos is an Academic from the State University of New York (B.E.O.C.). Both are board members of Ring 8.