LEO RANDOLPH: THE GOLDEN PRODIGY
By Austin Killeen
(Published in IBRO Journal 103, September 2009)
When the new born drew his first breaths, in the struggle for life, its unlikely family, cousins or neighbors foresaw what the future held for this tiny infant. The baby was Leo Randolph, the 2nd oldest of eight children. His arrival took place in Columbus, Mississippi, his home for the first two years of life. Seeking a better opportunity for her growing family, Leo’s mother Mattie, moved her growing brood to the Pacific Northwest. She selected Tacoma, Washington for her family’s new home.
Like most young boys his age, nine year old Leo was full of energy and curiosity. This might explain how he and his cousin entered an unoccupied room at the Tacoma Boy’s Club. They quickly found out they were in the boxing room, when an adult voice asked what they were doing there. The voice belonged to Joe Clough, who ran the boxing program at the Boy’s Club. He informed the youngsters that they had to leave but could come back in the evening when the boxing program was in operation. Leo’s cousin had no interest but Leo was curious and returned the following night. This would lead to an association with Joe Clough, who would become Leo’s trainer and manager thoughout his amateur and pro career.
This was Randolph’s introduction to boxing as Leo told me when we met at the Best Western in Spanaway, Washington. With an easy smile and firm hand shake, the former Gold Medalist is a likeable personality. Unfortunately, getting antidotes about his personal life was like pulling teeth. Rumor has it, that the early settlers using Snoqualmie Pass to cross the Cascade Mountain Range had an easier time than I did getting information from the humble former Olympic Champion.
Embarking on his amateur career at the ripe old age of nine, Leo had his first fight at the local Elks Club. His affiliation with the Tacoma Boy’s Club proved to be a wise move. Under the leadership of Joe Clough, the Tacoma boxing program would prove to be one of the strongest in the country. With stars like Sugar Ray Seals, Davey Armstrong, Dale Grant, Rocky Lockridge and Johnny Bumphus, his daily gym environment was loaded with talent. This would prove to be both a blessing and a curse as he was very successful early on but his accomplishments were often overlooked by the local press. In researching material for this article, his early clippings were usually limited to stating only his results, as reporters covered in greater detail his more noted teammates.
By 1973 Leo was starting to attract attention on his own accomplishments. In January he captured a decision over talented local boxer, Randy “The Cat” McNurlin. In August he lost in the semi-finals to Ruben Licon, of Las Cruces, in the AAU Junior Olympics Boxing Championship in spite of scoring a knock down in the 2nd round. Licon went on to win the Nationals in the 100 lb class that year. In December of 1974 Leo scored his biggest win to date as part of the North American team, outpointing Hwang Chul-Soon of South Korea in the 112 –pound division. 16-year-old Randolph, the youngest fighter on the card, scored heavily late in the bout with stinging left hooks. This was part of a team match between North America vs. Asia held at Sahara Tahoe Hotel in Reno, Nevada. His record was an amazing 140-6-5. The five draws coming early in his career when bouts between underage pugilists were usually called a draw.
While 1973 and 74 proved Leo could compete successfully when stepping up in competition, 1975 would prove to be a breakout year for the Tacoma youngster. At the regional AAU tournament he captured the 112 pound title, cuffing his way to a decision over Mickey Griffen of Nanaimo, British Columbia. Moving on to the National Golden Gloves tournament in Knoxville, Tennessee, Randolph scored 2 wins in his first afternoon of competition. In the semifinals Randolph scored a decision over Craig Nelson of Minneapolis, Minnesota. This made Leo the lone survivor for the Tacoma Boys’ Club when Davy Armstrong and Rocky Lockridge were both surprisingly eliminated. This put “The Lion” into the finals against tournament favorite, Alberto Sandoval of Las Vegas, Nevada, who had twice defeated Randolph.
The Wilson High sophomore captured the National AAU Golden Gloves title, upsetting his former conqueror. Apparently you don’t get bonus points for past accomplishments. Leo surprised his rival by starting strong to capture the first round. Sandoval calling on his greater experience won the second heat. Randolph rallied in the third round to win the fight on all three judges’ score cards. In some circles this was viewed as an unpopular decision. But not in the opinion of handler Joe Clough, who stated; “when he had to reach down, he did and brought it through. He out gutted Sandoval and backed him up in the third round. With the win, the 17 year old won the right to try out for the Pan-American Games. Traveling to Madison, Wisconsin, that September, Leo suffered a setback to Richard Rozelle.
It didn’t take long for Randolph to turn the tables on his Pan-American Games rival, beating Richard Rozelle at the National AAU Boxing Championships in Las Vegas the following spring. Along with fellow Tacoma Boy’s Club teammate Davy Armstrong, Leo gained and automatic berths to the U.S. Olympic Trials in Cincinnati, Ohio that June.
Continuing his hot streak at the trials, Leo stopped his first two opponents. In the championship match, Julio Rodriguez lasted the distance against the Tacoma import, only to lose the decision. 2 weeks later in Burlington, Vermont, Randolph had to repeat his win over Rodriguez by decision at the Olympic box offs. Thus for the second straight Olympics the Tacoma area would be sending two boxers to the games. Sugar Ray Seals and Davy Armstrong accomplished the deed in 1972 at Munich, Germany.
Going to the ‘76’ games in Montreal, the US squad was considered our countries strongest since 1952, when the Americans captured 5 gold metals. Clint Jackson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Howard Davis and Davey Armstrong all figured to have outstanding chances of bringing home the gold. Three other Americans were given medal chances; Charles Mooney, plus Brothers Michael and Leon Spinks. Forgotten in the optimistic outlook was the “little train that could,” Leo Randolph.
Before the boxing portion of the Olympics even started, controversy struck. Several countries from Africa withdrew from the games for political reasons. As a result twelve boxers were awarded walkovers as their opponents were no longer at the Olympics. Some of the fighters had already received a bye as a result of an odd number of contestants entered in a particular weight class. This meant that one boxer could be boxing in the finals having only boxed twice while his opponent could have boxed four times, in addition to having been placed in a more difficult talent pool. Olympic officials refused to have a re-draw and the games when on as scheduled.
Leo’s first opponent was 31 year old Constan Gruescu of Romania, one of the favorites in the 112 pound flyweight class. Gruescu had been boxing since 1959 and was the 1975 European champion. In announcing the bout it was obvious the Howard Cosell knew little if anything about Randolph. He further stated that U.S. team manager, Rollie Schwartz, told him before the bout that the Tacoman had no chance of winning. Cosell was surprised when Randolph and Gruescu fought on even terms in the first stanza. Howard keep repeating how much stronger the Romanian was and that it would prove to be a major factor in the fight. Watching a video of the bout, the Romanian’s strength advantage wasn’t obvious to me. The second and third rounds were all Randolph’s. Fighting from an upright position Leo keep landing stinging punches which his Eastern Europe rival had no answer for. In the final round Leo dropped his opponent with a straight right to seemingly leave no doubt about the decision. The only surprise about the verdict was that one judge had the Romanian winning. The victory put the Tacoma Boys Club product in the quarter finals. To his credit, Cosell was won over by Randolph’s performance acknowledging that he had underestimated his talents.
Leo’s next problem was David Larmour of Ireland, the reigning British Commonwealth flyweight champion. For Larmour, it was his first bout of the Olympics, having been the recipient of a pair of byes. The bout itself was a difficult one with much infighting. Leo tried to establish his jab in the opening stanza but the Irishman was successful in closing the distance, making the first 3 minutes very close. In the second Larmour continued to press the action but Randolph answered successfully with uppercuts. When the Irishman would take a step back, Leo would switch to stinging left jabs. The third was a repeat of the second as Larmour had no answer for the Tacoman’s uppercuts. Leo’s victory clinched him at least a bronze medal, but the win didn’t come easy. In his post fight comments, Leo stated “it was a tough grueling fight with much of the work being done on the inside instead of at long range. I think this was one of my better fights.”
While Leo was trying to capture the gold, another story was unfolding. Randolph’s mentor Joe Clough had hitch-hiked to Montreal to support his two fighters; Davey Armstrong and Leo. With little money to spend he was sleeping in a local church at night and eating food that Armstrong and Randolph were sneaking from the Olympic village cafeteria. When Tacoma Car Dealer, Tom McCann heard of Clough plight, he started a “Fly Joe Clough Home” fund. To show his good intentions, McCann donated the first $100 to get things rolling.
Additionally, Mattie Randolph Leo’s mother was unable to attend the games due to financial constraints. Hearing of this, Fletcher Jenkins, director of the Tacoma Boys Club started a fund to send Mattie to Montreal. “It’s going to be a real surprise for him. Besides the money thing, Leo’s Mother had told Leo at one time that she would never board a plane,” stated Jenkins. Overcoming her fear of flying, Mrs. Randolph boarded a plane in time to see her son’s third bout with Leszek Blazynski of Poland.
With his mother, Joe Clough and Sugar Ray Seales in the stands rooting him on, Leo faced Poland’s southpaw slugger, Leszek Blazynski. Randolph started slow in the first but had a strong second round when he started throwing right hand leads against his 27 year old opponent. Leo continued to outbox his Polish rival in the third, but had to survive a strong late round rally by Blazynski. His Iron Curtain rival landed a strong overhand left to Randolph’s ear, but fortunately didn’t realize Leo was hurt. Once again Leo captured the verdict by a 4 to 1 score, assuring a place in the gold medal round. In his post fight comments, Leo stated “I started to use some right-hand leads in the second round, and that helped.” Randolph continued; “But he just kept coming in like a bulldozer.”
In facing heavily favored Ramon Duvalon of Cuba for the gold, Leo was finally facing someone close to his own age. The Cuban was only 21. Randolph appeared to have a slight edge in the first round as he forced the action and landed several good blows to the body. The Cuban came on stronger in the second, and the third was another close one. In the final round Duvalon had a point taken away for butting. The Cuban was also warned several times for holding. When the judges tallied their score cards, Randolph came out ahead by a score of 3 to 2. “Yes, I was a little nervous waiting for the decision,” Randolph said, “but I thought I had won it.” Probably one of the most famous pictures of Leo in the Olympics shows him standing over the Cuban after scoring a knockdown.
Instead of turning pro and cashing in on his new found fame, Leo elected to return to Wilson high and complete his senior year. Leo told me he went out for the gymnastic team that year in an attempt to gain additional upper body strength; participating in the still rings and pommel horse. When questioned further, Leo finally acknowledged that he scored varsity points in many of the meets despite his lack of experience in gymnastics.
In June of 1978 Randolph had his coming out party in the pro ranks. Leo’s pro debut was impressive, scoring a second round TKO over Alfonso del Gadillo. Referee, Pat McMurtry stopped the bout after the out-of-towner hit the canvas for the third time in a one-sided match. Over the next six months, he upped his record to 8 and 0 with four ending early.
Next up for Leo, was a trip to Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum, fighting in the semi final bout of the evening. His Olympic teammate Howard Davis was in the main event. Leo’s opponent David Capo seemed a safe enough adversary, having lost his only other fight as a pro to future featherweight champion, Juan LaPorte. Capo failed to read the script where it said he was the designated body. To the surprise of everybody Randolph would suffer his first defeat as a professional, losing a split decision to his Hispanic rival. Capo came in low and used lefts to the head to gain an advantage. Capo drew blood from Randolph’s nose in the second round and the bleeding continued for the remainder of the match.
After a pair of wins to get back in the win column Leo visited Los Angeles for the first time. Randolph was put to a severe test in beating Jose Luis Bautista over 10 difficult rounds. Randolph connected often with accurate punching. But he couldn’t damage Bautista, even when he began loading up with his punches in the final round. After scoring five more wins, Leo was awarded a title bout for the WBA Super Bantamweight Crown in his backyard of Seattle, Washington.
For the confident Ricardo Cardona of Colombia, defending his title on foreign soil seemed a safe bet. In his sixth title defense he would be gaining excellent exposure, fighting on national TV and getting an outstanding payday as well. Giving away 3 inches in height and 9 inches in reach Leo had difficulty in the early going. Cardona seemed to get the better of a war of left jabs, in spite of Randolph’s aggressiveness. Following a careless wild left in the fifth round, Leo was floored by a straight right for the mandatory eight count, although he was up at five. Attempting to shake the cobwebs from his brain, Randolph got on his bicycle staying out of harm’s way until rounds end. It was evident Cardona was dishing out some punishment as claret was running from Leo’s nose and left eye.
Watching the video, I was amazed at Leo’s recuperative powers. Answering the bell for the sixth, he showed no ill effects from the knockdown, continuing to be the aggressor. By the 10th, it appeared to me that the bout was fairly tight. “After the 12th round,” Joe Clough admitted, “I thought it was even on points.” However, Joe told Leo that he was trailing and in danger of losing. Continuing to pressure the champ, the Tacoman seemed to have gained control of the fight entering the 15th and final round.
Sensing he had the Colombian in trouble, Randolph battered the champ into the ropes with overhand lefts and rights. Fearing Cardona was in serious danger, referee Larry Rozadilla told him in Spanish “I’m going to stop the fight if you don’t start throwing punches”. When he failed to respond, he did, as Cardona was exhausted. Cordona returned to his corner, slid off his stool and collapsed while his handlers tried to revive him. He was removed to Seattle General Hospital, leaving the arena on a stretcher and being transported by ambulance.
Seattle had its first world champion since Freddie Steele was middleweight champion in the late 30’s. Having struck gold in Montreal at the 76 Olympics, Leo had repeated the process in the pros. In the amateurs gold was in the form of a medal, professionally gold was in the form of cold hard cash. Although the paid attendance at the gate was a disappointment, ABC-TV paid $300,000 for the television rights guaranteeing Muhammad Ali Pro Sports, Inc. a profit.
Leo made the first defense of his title just 95 days after winning it. His opponent Sergio Palma, although highly regarded, had lost to former champ Ricardo Cardona in a previous attempt at winning the crown. A beats B, B defeats C, so A should be able to take C. Logically this makes sense, but logic doesn’t always play out in a boxing ring. Although entering the ring in good physical shape, the new champ had spent the last few months making the banquet circuit. Both in the amateurs and pros Leo had always motivated himself by setting lofty goals and then reaching them. Having won the title, he never set new personal marks to shoot for. As a result “Leo the Lion” might have been better named “Leo the Lamb.” Meanwhile his ambitious Argentina challenger was allegedly seen eating bowls of broken glass and rusty bolts for nourishment.
When the bell rang to start the first round at the Spokane Coliseum, it didn’t take long for the Randolph fan base to see fireworks. Unfortunately for the local product, he was staggered by an overhand right to the head 10 seconds into the round. Using a swarming attack and lighting-like combinations the South American dropped the champ twice in the first round. The assault continued unabated in the second, with Leo somehow remaining on his feet. Amazingly Randolph started to land his left jab in the third and won the round. Watching the video, it appeared the Leo might also have taken the fourth. The home state fans were coming to life as it appeared the Lion was back. Palma sucked the energy out of the audience at the start of the fifth, swarming all over Leo, dropping him for the third time. Referee Stanley Christodoulou stopped the one sided contest 72 seconds into the round saving the local product from further punishment. The next day Leo announced his retirement from the ring.
I asked Leo about his decision to hang up the gloves after staging such an excellent comeback in the third and fourth stanzas. When he answered he had never viewed the bout, I was shocked. He told me recently that he had finally seen the contest. He further stated “Austin I have no memory of the bout after the second round. I thought about a comeback a few years later, but have no regrets regarding my decision.”
Today Leo spends his time driving a bus for the Pierce Transit and attending college evenings. He’s taking part in his company’s management training program. In his free time he volunteers at Remann Hall, Pierce County’s juvenile detention center. In addition to offering counseling to the Remann Hall population, he gives them haircuts. When asked if he has a barber’s license, he laughed and said “I learned on the job with nervous volunteers.” When he’s asked by youngsters “why do you drive a bus if you won a gold medal?” Leo answers “the gold medal gets you into the room, but you have to have skills if you plan to stay there. I failed to capitalize on opportunities early in life because I wasn’t prepared. That why I’m attending school now, so I won’t be unprepared the next time opportunity knocks.”
Leo is also very active in the Tacoma Church of Christ. He’s gone to all-black churches and all-white churches. He says “it doesn’t make any difference because they all read out of the same book.” A lot of athletes talk the talk, claiming to be born again Christians, Leo walks the walk. He even got me to meet him at church one Sunday, and I made a donation to the collection plate. Can I claim this as a business expense with the IRS? (Just joking Leo) As we parted ways in front of the church, Leo was on his way to visit Pat McMurtry at the hospital. Pat had suffered a broken arm in a fall at home.
Leo has one indulgence; his classic 1985 Silver Spur Royce, which he keeps in immaculate condition. The 5’ 5” champ has a son, Leo Jr. who stands 6’ 3”. So much for the saying the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree. He’s also blessed with a lovely daughter, Mariah, who attends high school. In addition, he’s a proud grandfather three times over.
Shy, modest, and humble are three adjectives which describe Leo spot on. Did I also say a class act? When I told Leo that Boone Kirkman, Larry Buck, Andy Kendall and Pat McMurtry all said he was a great person, he thanked me. Smiling he mumbled “they must have gotten the money I sent them.