Boone “Boom Boom” Kirkman was posing for photographs in front of the downtown Renton mural that bears his image and was dedicated in November, when a couple of people walking by noticed.
“Is that him?” they asked, hoping to get a chance to shake his hand.
More than four decades after packed houses watching his heavyweight bouts in the Seattle Coliseum would chant “Boom Boom!” he is a still a fan-pleaser.
Kirkman once seemed headed to a heavyweight championship fight, back in the sport’s heyday, when those events dominated the sporting world. He fought and sparred with some of the biggest names in the sport: George Foreman, Joe Frazier and Ken Norton.
That he never got the chance to box for the title, or realize his dream of fighting Muhammad Ali, doesn’t matter much at 74. If he never climbed that mountain, that’s OK, because he scaled many real ones, including Mount Rainier eight times.
Kirkman, so affable and warm that it’s hard to imagine his job was once to hurt people, suffers from Bell’s Palsy, a facial paralysis he does not believe was related to boxing. He is deaf in one ear and hard of hearing in the other.
But he is amazingly fit, taking “hill hikes” that would be too much for many people half his age, and his mind is 100%, unlike so many other boxers from his day. But he doesn’t take it for granted.
“I just hope I got out in time,” Kirkman said.
A boxer is born
Daniel Victor Kirkman grew up in Renton and got the nickname Boone from his father. As a youngster with his father on hunting trips, Daniel would lag behind, seemingly more interested in his surroundings than keeping up, so his father started calling him Boone, as in Daniel Boone.
The name stuck.
But he didn’t stick with boxing at first, having been pushed into the sport by his father, Oehm, “after getting into a few scrapes.” He started taking the bus after school from Renton to downtown Seattle when he was 14, working out in the Cherry Street Gym.
“And I was getting my ass kicked every day in the gym and getting a new cut in my mouth,” he said. “I kind of got discouraged and I quit for a while.”
He started getting bigger and stronger, and he went back to the gym.
“I started beating the guys who were beating the (heck) out of me,” he said.
Soon, he was winning regional tournaments. Then in March 1965, he emerged into the national spotlight, winning the national AAU tournament. Kirkman said it remains his greatest memory, winning the title when he knocked out Fleming Mosley in the second round.
“I was a big underdog because he was knocking out all these guys,” Kirkman said. “That was a big win for me, and it gave me a gold medal.”
And it made him a star.
Kirkman turned pro, teaming with legendary Seattle promoter and manager Jack Hurley. He won his first 10 fights, then defeated Eddie Machen in front of 11,306 in the Coliseum. In a time before the Sonics, Mariners, Seahawks and Storm, Kirkman was the biggest sports name in town.
His good looks, pleasing rugged boxing style and humble roots helped make him a fan favorite, and the sell-out crowds continued as he ascended the world rankings, reaching No. 7 and appearing on the cover of Ring Magazine in 1968. His fame became more widespread when he appeared on a Rainier Beer commercial with Mickey Rooney.
“It was exhilarating and I appreciated it,” he said of the adoring crowds. “But once that bell rang I hardly ever heard the crowd. Whoever I got in the ring with, even King Kong, I thought I was going to win.”
Kirkman’s success put him on a collision course against another rising star, George Foreman, the 1968 Olympic gold medalist.
Kirkman was 22-1 with 18 knockouts when he faced Foreman on Nov. 18, 1970. Foreman was 23-0 with 20 knockouts. Something had to give. It was Boone, beginning with a first-round knockdown that Kirkman said wasn’t fair.
“I was looking up and he hit me with one hand and shoved me with the other hand,” said Kirkman, who received $40,000, his biggest payday. “And I was lying on the ground, going, ‘What the hell is going on?’ It threw my fight plan off. I was going to try and get inside, and try to get to his body.
“But he did catch me with a good shot in the second round.”
That shot ended the fight. Kirkman separated from Hurley, unhappy that he only had one sparring partner before the bout. After suffering a broken collar bone, Kirkman didn’t fight again for a couple of years, but then started winning again and climbing the rankings.
He improved to 31-2 when a packed Seattle Coliseum saw him beat former heavyweight champ Jimmy Ellis. Four months later, he went to Dallas for a tuneup for what he hoped would be a huge fight – perhaps even a title shot or a bout against Ali.
His opponent was Al Jones, with a record of 4-18 but known for a big punch. Jones was knocked down four times before landing one of those big punches early in the third round. Kirkman was knocked unconscious for the only time in his career.
“That was the nightmare of my boxing career,” Kirkman said. “I thought I needed a tuneup, and I got tuned out,” Kirkman jokes now.
Trying to get his ranking back up, he took on some big names, losing to Norton and Ron Lyle, part of four consecutive defeats. He was offered $10,000 to fight Larry Holmes on the undercard of the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight in Manila, The Philippines. He turned it down.
“I said that was a joke,” he said.
He did agree to take part in a 1975 nationally televised exhibition as one of five fighters to go three rounds with Foreman in Toronto. Kirkman was one of two to last all three rounds.
After four consecutive victories against low-profile fighters, Kirkman retired in 1978 with a record of 36-6 with 25 knockouts. In 1983, he fought a four-round exhibition against Gerry Cooney, who was coming off a loss to Holmes for the heavyweight championship, and took it more seriously than Kirkman was expecting.
“After the first round, I said, ‘Hey, this is an exhibition,’ ” Kirkman said. “But he just kept banging me and in the third round he hit me with a good uppercut and it stung me. Before the fourth round – I was getting peanuts — I said forget it. If I had been eight years younger it would have been a different story.”
That was Kirkman’s last time in the ring. He was 38.
“One of the greatest things to me about boxing was getting to meet all my heroes,” he said. “I met Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, Henry Armstrong, Archie Moore, Rocky Graziano and all those old guys.”
Life after boxing
Kirkman transitioned to a new life much better than many boxers do, working for 34 years as a truck driver, including the last 25 with Boeing before retiring in 2010.
As a boxer, he was mountain climbing and rowing, and later added running and bicycling, logging 26,000 miles on his bike in a six-year span in the 1980s. He has climbed all the major peaks in the Northwest, including Mount Rainier eight times and Mount Si 267 times.
He still hikes regularly and last week did the six-mile round-trip hike to Squak Peak, with an elevation gain of 1,600 feet.
He lives in his beloved Renton, with Terese, his wife of 31 years. He loves the mural that Will Schlough painted on the wall in downtown of his home city, saying it looks just like he did at the time. But Kirkman is not that person anymore.
“When I was younger, I had the eye of the tiger and the burning in my heart to fight, but it kind of sizzles out when you get old,” Kirkman said. “Now I look back, and I go, ‘What the hell was I doing?’ ”