By Thomas Gerbasi
In the days before cell phones, Mississippi junior middleweight Paul Thorn got used to getting fights by way of a knock on his trailer door from his trainer / manager / uncle Merle.
So when Merle Thorn showed up one day in early 1988 with a fight, the 9-1-1 prospect assumed it would be another bout against someone on his level, an opponent who could help get him to the next level should he win.
It was something more than that.
“My uncle drove up to my trailer, and I’m not making this up,” Thorn said. “It almost sounds like something out of a Forrest Gump movie, but in my hallway in my trailer, I had the centerfold of KO magazine of Roberto Duran. My uncle says ‘I got you a fight in Atlantic City, it’s gonna be a good one.’”
“I thought he was joking, but it was for real.”
This wasn’t some other Roberto Duran, but the legendary “Manos de Piedra,” 82-7 at the time and two fights away from fighting Iran Barkley and Sugar Ray Leonard in back-to-back fights. For the Hall of Famer from Panama, the April 14, 1988 bout was just a blip in his career, but for Thorn, it remains a touchstone in a life that has had many of them.
These days, more than 26 years removed from the competitive, but losing, effort, the 50-year-old from Tupelo isn’t down on his luck trying to relieve past glories in a sport that doesn’t treat its own too kindly. Instead, Thorn is a singer-songwriter who has achieved that rare mix of critical and popular acclaim. His latest effort, Too Blessed to Be Stressed, delivers some of his best work yet, but the Americana artist isn’t one to toot his own horn about himself.
“I hope people will like my new record, and that’s the main insecurity I have when I put a record out,” he said. “Just like when I was boxing that was the main insecurity I had, going into the ring and hoping I’d win.”
This time around there are no Roberto Durans lurking in the opposite corner. In his current field, Thorn is the equivalent of a world champ dancing circles around his competition. Again, you won’t hear that coming out of his mouth, but when you ask him if there was anything in boxing that he was able to relate to his music career, he says it’s like night and day.
“Before a show, I feel comfortable,” Thorn said. “I feel confident, I feel like I know what I’m doing, I feel like I can bring it and that I can entertain. But when I was in boxing, I had lots of self-doubt. There were a few times I could put it together and a few fights where I really looked good and stuck with my game plan. But confidence was a big thing I didn’t have. When I fought Duran, I was in just as good a shape as him; I was probably in better shape. But he had that mental ability to relax, and he believed in himself, and that’s what I didn’t have. But I do have it on stage, and I think that’s why I’ve been able to come as far as I have in my music career, because I do believe I can compete with the best. I’m not saying I’m better than anybody but I believe I’m as good.”
Thorn’s success in music may come down to something he had when he did fight pro from 1985 to 1988 – honesty. In boxing, no matter how much you talk before a fight, when it comes down to it, it’s you and your opponent when the bell rings. It’s the most exposed any athlete can be. There’s no hiding behind teammates, no one to blame when things don’t go right. Being forced into that kind of brutal honesty is what makes a songwriter worth his salt, and Thorn has that.
Even now, when he looks back at his boxing career, he doesn’t use hindsight to say ‘I woulda, coulda, shoulda.’ He’s as honest now as ever.
“As a boxer, I was pretty good, but I was not great,” Thorn said. “And that’s a sport that only the best should stay in. If you’re good, you’ll win to a certain level, and I beat some good fighters, and I was decent. But when I went in against the best in the world, Roberto Duran, he was at a different level. On my best day, I don’t think I could ever compete at that level. And I just realized at one point that there was no really good reason for me to stay in it. I took it as far as I could take it, and that’s all that I could do.”
There it is, straight talk, no chaser. It may have been something he learned the hard way back home in Mississippi from his uncle, a former pimp and boxer who used to fascinate young Thorn with stories of his sparring sessions in California with some of the best of that era.
“He was out in Los Angeles back in the heyday of the Olympic Auditorium,” Thorn recalled. “He was one of Danny ‘Little Red’ Lopez’ sparring partners. He sparred with Bobby Chacon, and he had the chance to spar with Ruben Olivares, but he said he chickened out because he was so in awe.”
Merle Thorn didn’t pull any punches in the ring or with his assessment of those he worked with.
“He said Danny Lopez could not fight a lick,” said Merle’s nephew. “He said ‘I could go in there and spar with him and every punch I threw I could hit him. The first time we were sparring, I was just pinging him to death and making him look like a fool.’ But then halfway through the third round of sparring, Danny threw a straight right and hit my uncle and broke his collarbone. With one punch.”
Thorn laughs, knowing that in the sweet science, all is not always as it seems. Lopez went on to become a world champion. Merle Thorn never made it as a boxer, but in the eyes of his nephew, he was a helluva coach.
“He wasn’t a great fighter himself, but he turned out to be what I believe was a great trainer,” said Thorn. “I didn’t have any quality sparring. I had a heavy bag hung under a tree, and we’d drive to Memphis on a weekend to get sparring with the best we could find. I didn’t become a world beater, but I got good enough and I think I was number nine in the NABF at the time the Duran fight got put together. So I give him a lot of credit because he trained me and got me that far. He was a real trainer.”
And he didn’t baby his nephew either. Case in point, a weekend excursion that he sent Thorn on with a trainer friend of his.
“We used to go to these smokers on the weekend when I was just learning how to fight a little bit,” Thorn said. “This old Mexican guy, Mr. Sepulveda, took me down to Parchment, Mississippi and we pulled into the Parchment Penitentiary. Unbeknownst to me, that day they were having a boxing tournament. I got to go in there and fight against the inmates and I was the only person on the whole card that wasn’t an inmate. (Laughs) They had 20 fights on the card and Mr. Sepulveda had the brilliant idea that I was going to fight the first fight and the last fight.”
The first fight, Thorn won by knockout. In fight number 20, the last of the day, the 16-year-old won again, this time by decision. You couldn’t wipe the smile off his face.
“I went home with these two trophies that said ‘Parchment Prison Rodeo Tournament,’” Thorn smiles. “I still have them; they’re my prized possessions. So we’re pulling out of the prison, and just to show you how hard my trainer was on me, I’ve got two trophies in my lap, I’m beaming from ear to ear, I’m happy that I won, then Mr. Sepulveda said ‘you should have knocked that other guy out too.’”
Thorn breaks up laughing at the memory, almost as if he can’t believe he lived through it.
“You’re 16, you ain’t ever been nowhere, and you pull into a prison. You’re not going to visit the prison, you’re going to fight people that live there.”
That was boxing in Paul Thorn’s world. It’s something you probably won’t see happening these days, as that’s as old school and hard-nosed as you can get. And when you hear a story like that, it’s no surprise that Merle put his nephew with 11 fights in with Roberto Duran.
“My relationship with my uncle, in a strange way, it was like he was pimping me,” Thorn said. “He was throwing me out into the fray. But I don’t have anything but gratitude for that because it really helped me develop as a person in a way that I wouldn’t have developed otherwise. He always put me in hard situations.”
None harder than a fight against Duran, but Thorn didn’t show up and fall down that night in Atlantic City. He cut Duran and was competitive throughout, but the cuts the Mississippi product sustained prompted Merle to throw in the towel at the end of the sixth round. Thorn has no regrets.
“I went down there and gave it my best, but I didn’t have that extra something, and he was the better man and he won,” he said. “I always heard of his punching power, and he has punching power, but at 160, it wasn’t like it was at 135. But what really impressed me about him when we were in there going at it was how incredibly hard he was to hit.”
It’s a fond memory, not a bitter one for Thorn, and you can hear that in his voice. He has nothing but praise for Duran, and nothing but good things to say about his brief time in the ring. And though it looks like music, not boxing, was his true home, he won’t forget his time between the ropes.
“It was a great season in my life,” Thorn said of his boxing career. “It helped me learn to face my fears, and I learned a lot of things from boxing.”