After Sugar Ray Robinson, and before Sugar Ray Leonard came Tacoma's own boxing phenom, Sugar Ray Seales, who won a gold medal in boxing at the 1972 Olympics. His boxing career almost cost him his sight, but even though, Seales is still involved in the sport he's loved his whole life.
After waiting for years for his huge moment, Tacoma’s Sugar Ray Seales was left wondering if it was going to happen.
In 1968, the boxer had qualified for the Olympics in Mexico City, but at 16 he was one year too young to compete. Now, four years later in Munich, after he had made it to the quarterfinals of the light-welterweight (139-pound) division, terrorists had taken 11 Israeli athletes hostage.
Sports, justifiably, were no longer in the spotlight. Whether the Games would resume was the question.
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“It was silent,” Seales said of the Olympics athletes village during the standoff, which lasted nearly a day before all 11 Israeli athletes were killed.
“My mom and dad were there and I told them to stay out of the village until I gave them a call, and that we were under some terrible stuff right now. But you also had to remain focused on why you were there.”
When competition resumed, Seales was more than ready. He became the only American to win a boxing gold medal at the 1972 Games.
Decades later, a big reminder of Seales’ victory on the grandest stage is never far away. Nearly blind after a long pro boxing career, Seales spent 17 years working with special-needs kids in Tacoma before moving to Indianapolis, where he is involved in the sport again. But one thing has never changed in 46 years: The gold medal is always in his right pocket.
“It’s my American Express card,” he says, referring to the motto: “Don’t leave home without it.”
The affable Seales loves the effect an Olympic gold medal has on people.
“I will give it to you, I will let you feel it,” said Seales, 66, who coaches young fighters at a gym in Indianapolis. “It’s a positive thing that will get you moving, and do something good for you. They say, ‘I want one of these, I wish I could win one.’ Every day I share it.”
• • •
In the beginning
Seales spent the early part of his life in the Virgin Islands, learning to fight and box by watching his father, who was a boxer in the military. When he was about 12, the family moved to Tacoma.
“My brother got hit in the eye with a fruit and it knocked his eye out,” Seales said. “My mother’s brother told her that in Tacoma there were special doctors. And we took a chance, and we made that move to Tacoma. And right after that, boxing.”
Not far from the Seales’ house, in easy walking distance, was the downtown Tacoma Boys Club. There he was coached by Joe Clough.
“All the fighters at the Boys Club, we all became something,” said Seales. “Joe Clough took care of that.”
Among Seales’ teammates on Team USA at the 1972 Olympics was Davey Armstrong, whom Clough had also coached in Tacoma. Seales was the first boxer from Tacoma to become a national Golden Gloves champion, an honor that means a lot to him to this day.
But his dream of boxing in the Olympics, even though he was the nation’s top amateur in his weight class, would have to wait in 1968.
And when he realized his dream four years later, he was ready.
He went 5-0 in the 1972 Olympics, defeating Angel Angelov of Bulgaria in the title match. That ended an amateur career in which Seales went 338-12. As the only USA boxer to win a gold medal, it would have seemed that Seales was destined for riches as a pro.
It wasn’t to be.
• • •
A tough career
The tragedy in Munich loomed over his accomplishments. And Seales, rather than getting a big-time manager, hired a local man from Tacoma with basically no experience in the boxing world.
Seales reportedly received $1,000 for his pro debut. Four years later, Olympic champ Sugar Ray Leonard reportedly received $40,000 for his pro debut.
Despite winning United States and North American middleweight titles, and fighting in front of some big crowds in Seattle, where he was a star, Seales never got rich.
“The people I ended up with were small-minded,” he said. “We were all small-minded, and we never made it to the big time, and we should have. If I would have left town right after the Olympics, then something different would have happened for me. I would have been rich and I would have three or four houses. But it didn’t happen.”
Still, he won his first 21 fights until he traveled to Boston in August 1974 to face Marvin Hagler, who handed Seales his first defeat. (Hagler would go on to be one of the great middleweight boxers in history.) Three months later, in front of a packed house at the Seattle Center Coliseum, the two fought again, this time to a draw in a fight Seales is convinced he won.
“We won that (the rematch), but Seattle didn’t understand that,” Seales said. “I was the hometown boy, I was supposed to get that edge. But they didn’t give me the edge. I won the first seven or eight rounds, and we battled the last (few). I should have gotten that one, and when Hagler left, he had his hat over his head. He knew he lost that (fight).”
In 1976, Seales was knocked out by European champion Alan Minter in London, and while that put Seales out of contention for a world title shot, he kept on fighting, but not without a cost.
He suffered a detached left retina in one fight, leaving that eye ineffective, and the cumulative damage nearly made him blind in his right eye.
“The word was out that I went broke,” he said. “I was fighting to pay last month’s bills.”
He kept fighting even though he could barely see. When he was finally forced to retire in 1983 with a pro record of 57-8-3, including 34 knockouts, he was $100,000 in debt from seven eye surgeries (four on his left, three on his right), and legally blind.
One day, he and his manager were driving on the freeway, despairing about what to do.
“We were hitting ourselves in the head, saying who can we get to help us,” he said. “So we turned the radio on and heard (Sammy Davis Jr. singing) ‘The Candy Man.’ So we shot down to Las Vegas to see him and the Candy Man said yes. The Candy Man saved Sugar.”
Davis held a bash in 1984 at the Tacoma Dome as a benefit to help Seales. Among those attending were Muhammad Ali, Hagler (who had fought Seales three times) and Ray Mancini.
“I was $100,000 in debt and when Sammy left, I was free,” Seales said. “They said Sammy Davis Jr. lost $20,000 (on the event), but my $100,000 eye bill was gone. I think Sammy took care of that.”
• • •
A new line of work
Eventually, Seales regained some sight in his right eye after surgery, and through a connection, he got hired to work with autistic students at Lincoln High School in Tacoma. It was as rewarding as it was difficult. For 17 years, he put his heart into his work.
“I was sky high in the air, an Olympic gold medalist, but I had to come down and be one of them to understand them, to work with them,” he said. “It wasn’t easy. You had to be alert all the time.”
The grateful letters and phone calls from parents meant the world to Seales.
“I would get into their chest, and into their heart,” Seales said. “It’s not the dog in the fight, it’s the fight in the dog.”
In 2007, Seales and his wife, Mae, who have been married since 1987, moved back to her native Indianapolis. And soon he got back into the game he always loved, despite the toll it had taken.
• • •
A good life
Seales has helped turn the Indy Boxing and Grappling Club into a Golden Gloves power. He is one of three coaches, proudly saying, “when I pulled up to that gym five years ago, they were third place two years in a row. Now, five years later, we are the five-time Golden Glove champions.”
He and Mae live in a senior citizens’ community. After a big spread on Seales came out in the Indianapolis Star earlier this year, the community put on a bash for Seales, who this year was inducted into Indiana’s Boxing Hall of Fame.
“I love the game,” he said. “I love the game, man. It’s me. If I am not in there (at the gym), things don’t happen right. I am the key to you winning.”
Seales said he is not broke, “but I ain’t got no money,” and his mind shows no effects of fighting more than 400 times as an amateur and pro. He still has family in Tacoma, and tries to come back at least once a year to the place where he is still a revered star.
In 2011, Tacoma mayor Marilyn Strickland declared Sept. 13 as “Sugar Ray Seales Day” and he was in Tacoma again this year on his day.
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And his vision could improve soon. Seales said he has about 15 percent vision in his right eye, and that should get better with cataract surgery scheduled this month. He called the left eye, “the Lord’s eye,” saying God determines when he can see out of the legally blind eye.
Those times are when he is helping young fighters. Helping others is what he likes to do most, whether it is autistic students or at the boxing club.
“When I am at the club, He gives me light in that eye because that is where He wants me to be, because helping is what I do,” he said. “Muhammad Ali said to me in an autograph, ‘Service to others is the rent we pay for our room in heaven.’ I give a lot of service, because you can’t give enough.”