June 10, 2022by Jon Kramer

The Greatest and The Short Fighting Career of Spider Jon

Copyright 6-10-22  /   4,279 words by Jon Kramer
Nonfiction.  These events took place in the late 1970s

Unbeknownst to me, and certainly without my permission, the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time died on June 3, 2016.  Exactly what I was doing at the time I am unsure, but it seems likely I was on an expedition in the wilds  – not connected to the internet, radio, or TV (I don’t even own a TV and never will). Further, I must not have looked at a newspaper or even a magazine for a matter of weeks.  All this ensured my complete ignorance of the passing of Muhammed Ali, a paragon of bombastic rhetoric, far-reaching philanthropy, and a serious influence in my life.  He billed himself as The Greatest.  He was.

In early college years I was an active boxer, captain of the boxing team at our local community center in Rockville, Maryland.  Our coach was an Olympic boxer and wrestler.  He drove us like a drill sergeant.  I trained hard and eventually became half-assed decent in my light-heavy AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) weight class in the DC area.  I got my butt kicked plenty, but I still came out on top more often than not, even though I was a neophyte in the sport of hammering people into pulp with your fists.   There was even a time when my coach fancied me as having the potential to become a Great White Hope, a mythical Caucasian creature that might someday rival the great Black fighters who dominated the sport top to bottom.   I was not so sure, and that alone dooms such an idea in this arena of gladiators.

While most boxers favor an Orthodox stance (left foot and arm forward – boxers who are righthanded prefer this position, just as a right-handed skateboarder favors the left foot forward), some are Southpaw (right arm and right foot forward).   I had a rare talent for not favoring either.  I could switch stances quickly and easily.  I was just as powerful jabbing with my left as with my right.  “Spider Jon” they called me: all arms and legs dancing around the ring.  But when it came time to let fly the hammer, my 1-2 combination was equally effective either way.

Those were The Greatest’s greatest years.  By the late 70s when I entered the ring, Muhammed Ali had married wife number three (of four) and had reclaimed the Heavyweight Champion title as many times.  But he was getting old for a boxer of any weight class, so he retired from the ring in 1979 after an impressive wave of wins.  There was no doubt in anyone’s mind Muhammed Ali had proved that he was, in fact, the greatest heavyweight fighter of all time.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t stay away.  I suppose when your whole life revolves around being the center of world attention, it’s hard to cede that to the next champion, titan or not.    Ali decided to come back the year after he retired – for “one last fight”.  Some said he needed the money.  Others said he couldn’t stand by and watch lesser fighters getting the accolades he had from the global media.  I think he did it to test himself and prove that he still had it.

The Fight was against Larry Holmes, perhaps the heaviest hitter of all time.  Imagine going into the ring against a bulldozer.  He wasn’t fast, and he wasn’t graceful.  But he was big and unstoppable.  When he landed a hit on you – and he would, sooner or later – even if you were The Greatest, your bell got rung.

The match opened with action from the start.  Ali came on hard right out of the gate.  In the first few rounds he literally danced circles around Holmes, jabbing him relentlessly, using all the tricks in his book.  Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee! Ali was fond of saying.  This he did – again and again.  Bam! Bam! Bam! – Ali was hammering Holmes like a wobbling punching bag.  He was fast and furious – Holmes couldn’t keep up and he didn’t even try.  Ali knew he needed to dispatch Holmes early:  If the fight carried on past 6 or 7 rounds, he would tire.  Holmes would then gain the advantage and clobber him.  Ali had to make sure that didn’t happen.

It did.

By Round 7 Ali was spent.  In Round 8 he couldn’t get far enough away from Holmes.  The last half of Round 9 he was brutally battered and by middle of next, Ali could hardly stand up.  It was painful to watch.  The Greatest was being thoroughly destroyed before a global audience.  At the end of the tenth round, Angelo Dundee, Ali’s longtime trainer, told the referee to stop the fight.  And God Bless him for that!  If he hadn’t, we might have witnessed the death of The Greatest on national TV.  Some things are unimaginable.

My Dad taught me the basics in high school.  But it was in college that I really got into it.  Not for the machismo, I have to say, but for the workout.  Boxing is nothing, if not a serious workout.  You cannot find a more intensely demanding 180 seconds – both physically and mentally – as stepping into a boxing ring against a well-matched opponent.   The amount of energy expended that brief amount of time in the ring is off the charts.  Every second becomes an eternity.   There are a lot of sports that lay claim to the old saying, but boxing earns it above them all: Everything else is just a game.

Our team – the Olympic Memorial Boxing Club – was a boot-strap operation housed in the basement of the National Capital Jewish Community Center.  The budget supplied by the Center was barely enough to cover expenses for team uniforms: a couple pairs of shorts, a mouthpiece, and a ‘ball cup’ (armored jock strap).   For the rest – gloves, punching bags, helmets, speed bags, etc – we had to drum up our own funds.

That meant sponging off our friends, our parents, and our friend’s parents as well as canvassing the community.   As captain of the team, I worked tirelessly with Coach to scrounge the money for the equipment we needed.  It was slow going.  The team went door-to-door in the neighborhoods groveling for money.  It became quickly obvious boxing didn’t have the cachet that football did.

Hmmmm, lemme see what I can do, was a typical response.  We just did the grocery shopping so we’ve not got much to spare…

The donations were pitiful.  I determined that, on average, I was collecting about eighty-five cents per hour.  The others were doing even worse.  It was pathetic.  At this rate it would take six months to assemble the funds just to buy a punching bag.

Without equipment – especially gloves and helmets – we couldn’t really do any training on our own.  But Coach had a plan that got our feet wet.  For practice we toured around the metro area visiting other boxing clubs – using their equipment and sparing with their teams.  It was a brilliant idea.  The one we used the most was also my favorite: Sugar Ray’s.

Sugar Ray Leonard – himself one of the greatest fighters of all time – had won gold at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and just turned pro.  He began climbing the ranks, eyes toward more than one of boxing’s world titles.  As a fellow Olympian, our coach knew Sugar Ray and arranged regular sparing matches between our teams at his club in Landover, Maryland.  Although just beginning his pro career, Sugar Ray was backed by money and had a fantastic training facility in a converted strip mall.  It was managed by his cousin Odell, himself a worthy contender.

One evening, while our club was getting its collective butt kicked by Sugar Ray’s far superior team, I was sitting at a ringside table watching a lesson in humility when this older fellow – easily the most senior guy in the place – comes up and sits next to me.  He made some comments about the way each fighter was going about their business – remarks I recognized as insightful things a trainer would say.  With my eyes fixed on the fighters, I casually asked if he was part of Sugar Ray’s team.

Yeah, you could say that.  But I just stopped in to say hi to Odell and see if Sugar Ray was around.  We got a fight coming up and I need to keep him motivated.  What about you? he asked.  You part of this group?

I told him I was the team captain, trying to learn anything and everything I could.  I extended my hand, introducing myself.

There’s something about a handshake that tells you much about the person.  His was solid, yet reserved.  Warm but not clammy.  It was what you might call commanding but respectful.  It wrapped my hand fully in his, and although I could tell he was very strong, he didn’t vise-grip me.  He squeezed just enough to let me know he was sincere.  It relayed a person of confidence, but not one of boast.

Angelo Dundee here – pleased to meet ya, he said in an understated tone with a slight bit of accent.

My jaw dropped – you could have pushed me over with a feather.  I was shaking hands with the undisputed greatest coach in boxing history.  A living legend.  The one person most responsible for Muhammed Ali’s profound success.   I had heard Sugar Ray’s team was talking with Dundee but I had no idea a deal had been cut.  I was floored to be sitting here shooting the breeze with the very man that coached The Greatest throughout his career.

Dundee was the top trainer in the business.  More importantly, he was known as a thoroughly decent and honorable man – one that you could trust implicitly.  While professional boxing was rife with nefarious underworld conmen and criminals, Angelo Dundee stood as an island of light in a sea of darkness.  Howard Cosell, the world-famous radio and TV announcer, once said:  If I had a son who wanted to be a fighter and I couldn’t talk him out of it, the only man I would let train him is Angelo Dundee.

Dundee was the kind of person that made you feel instantly comfortable, like you and he were friends from way back and had just run into each other.  No preamble, no bullshit.   You felt as if you’d been friends forever – the kind that you can easily catch up with, whether it was a week or a year since you’d last connected.

 No Mr.Dundee stuff – call me Angelo, he said matter-of-fact.

He was very interested in our organization – the Olympic Memorial Boxing Club.  He’d never heard of it.  No surprise there – neither had anyone else, for that matter, being as we were brand new.  But he wasn’t just curious, he seemed genuinely interested as I explained the story, parts of which he already knew from the media.

Our club was named in memory of those killed in the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics.  Eight gunmen from the Palestinian terrorist group Black September took nine members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage after killing two others in the process.  They demanded the immediate release of hundreds of political prisoners from Israeli jails and a jet to take them to Egypt.  The West German government (this was many years before the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990) refused any help from the international community – including Israel – preferring to rely on their own expertise to free the hostages.  It could not have gone worse.

Despite a well-thought-out plan to ambush the captors, the rescue attempt was bungled horribly.  The effort called for the flight crew to be replaced by undercover police who had easy access to weapons concealed on the plane.  The jet was also to be surrounded by snipers and sharpshooters.  The police made the necessary arrangements while stalling the terrorists.  They mobilized their units, hid the weapons, and eventually moved the group to the airport using two helicopters.  Everything was set and things were going as planned.  That is until, at the very last minute, the undercover “crew” inextricably freaked out and ran away.  Yes, ran away! – leaving the plane empty.  On top of that, the police couldn’t locate any specially trained snipers, so the plane was instead surrounded by regular cops who target-practiced on weekends.

In hindsight, the outcome was thus predictably calamitous.  When they landed at the airport, the captors realized it was a set-up and a firefight ensued. Tragically, all the hostages were killed before the terrorists were overpowered.  Three of the terrorists were taken alive.  It was a terrible blow to the Olympic tradition and a huge embarrassment to the West German authorities.  The incident was close and personal to our coach, too, who lost several friends in the tragedy.

As we sat and talked, Angelo asked how our club was doing.  Boxing clubs typically spring up in inner cities – poor areas that have a nonstop flow of troubled kids dreaming of making the Big Time.  They’re always on the edge of going broke.  So Angelo was always trying to help new clubs along.  I didn’t want to bother him by griping about our lack of funding, so I kept the financial blues under wraps.  About that time Odell runs over to ringside and yells:

 Yo!  Martin!  Don’t kill the guy, OK?  We need these white kids around – they help boost morale.

 He came over and joined our table.  While shaking hands, Angelo mentioned something about our organization, how it was good to see another new club coming up.  Inadvertently Odell let the cat out of the bag:

Yeah, but they ain’t got nothin to work with, so they come over here mooching off us!  How ya like that?  –  white suburban kids beggin from black ghetto kids!  They even ask me to borrow a wore-out old punching bag!

 Angelo turned to me, by which time I’m feeling about ¾ of an inch tall.  He asked if it was true.  No sense in denying it, so I told him it was:  we were struggling to get on our feet.  He then asked Odell for some paper.  In short order he wrote out a note and handed it to me, instructing me to give it to the owner of College Park Sporting Goods.


Introducing my friend Jon Kramer, captain of a new club.

Can you fix him up? Any questions, call me.  Thanks.

– Angelo

 I’d never been in CPSG, much less know the owner.  But I rode my bike past it five days a week on my way to classes at the University of Maryland.  Naturally, I was super grateful for the note.  But I was also stymied.  I had no clue what Angelo’s note might mean.  As we walked out of Sugar Ray’s that night, I showed it to Coach.  He lit up with a smile.

That’s fantastic! he sang.

But what does it mean?  I asked, perplexed.  Do we get credit terms?  Do we get a discount?  What?

Go find out, he advised.  So, a few days later I took the note in and gave it to the owner.

That old bastard thinks I’m made of money!, he yowled while reading it.  He just wants to bang my sister and thinks I should pay him to do it!  He laughed uproariously.  I’ll see what I can do – you’z come back next week.  Tony sounded like a Jersey transplant.

I was nervous about the return trip.  I drove over in Conquistador, my old, beat-up Ford Galaxy station wagon with nearly 200,000 miles on it (a true miracle of perseverance in those days).  I brought with me all the meager funds the club had collected – something like $65. – expecting to make a down payment on a fortune of equipment given to us on credit.  I sheepishly asked the clerk to alert Tony that I was in the store.  The proprietor came flying out of the back room waving papers that he tossed into the hands of an assistant.

Okay, I got a kit together for yazWheel your jalopy around back and Niko can help load it.  Tell that old fat-ass Angelo I said he owes me… again!  He laughs heartily and disappears from whence he came.

I drove to the loading dock where several boxes were waiting. They contained a huge assortment of gear, mostly used, but in great condition: two punching bags, two speed bags, a whole box of gloves and helmets in various sizes, a jumbo pack of new athletic tape, a dozen new mouthpieces, even new water bottles and towels.  We loaded it all into Conquistador.  Then came the moment of truth I was dreading.

Please sign this, the clerk, Niko, said.

I took the form.  It neatly listed all the gear and the cost for every item.  It was depressing because we couldn’t afford most of it.  The sum total was over ten times as much money as I had in my pocket.  I started sweating.  How could we ever hope to pay this bill?  It would take an eternity to pan-handle that kind of money.  I was in the proverbial pickle and didn’t exactly know what to do.  So, I did nothing.

Niko was standing there waiting.  He finally asked,  What’s wrong?

Nothing’s wrong, I said, totally embarrassed.  I’m just wondering what are the terms?  I wasn’t expecting to pay this all right now.

Whaddaya mean? he asked, as if offended. You don’t pay anything – it’s a donation!  Look at the bottom.

Sure enough, in the last row it stated the above listed items were being donated to the Olympic Memorial Boxing Club.  I almost cried.  The club was now on its way.

About a year later, in a sanctioned AAU match, I came up against a guy with the ring name of “Tiny”.  As you might guess, he was anything but.  He was on the top end of the weight class above me – Middle-heavy – and could easily box in the Heavyweight slot if he ate just a few more Big Macs.  I wasn’t supposed to be paired with him, but there was no one in my weight class that evening and, as it turned out, there was no one in Tiny’s either.  So, either we fought each other or didn’t fight at all.  Being the underdog, it was my call.  I was in top form.  I’d done well in all the fights before that and was excited by the challenge.  It was an opportunity to prove myself against a heavier opponent.   The game was on: Spider Jon vs Tiny.  It was a match made in hell.

Tiny looked like Humpy Dumpty.  My cornerman Rob, a fellow team member, said “You can KO this guy!”  (KO = Knock Out)  I agreed.  Frankly, to me, it looked pretty easy. My opponent was flat-footed and slow.  There was nothing dynamic about him.  He couldn’t dance.  He couldn’t float.  And he seemed as dim-witted as a dinosaur.   He couldn’t even Rope-a-dope when the going got tough.  I, on the other hand, could float and dance with the best, even better than most, since I could easily switch stances on a dime.  I was ready to KO this guy in Round One.

By now maybe you can guess what happened.  It was not pretty. I came out dancing and swinging like a white tornado, taking control of the fight from the first moment.  Tiny just stood there like a fire hydrant planted in the ground.  I spun around him again and again, knocking him silly.  I must have landed a hundred hits in the first three minutes.   I moved in occasionally and wailed on him, sometimes connecting with powerful undercuts, and even heavy round-abouts.  When Round One ended at the bell, everyone knew I had punished the guy pretty badly.  He was a teetering house of cards about to collapse.  How he was still standing was beyond me.

Now, finish the job!, Rob growled as I sat on the stool and rehydrated.  I nodded – this was it.  Tiny was going down!

Round 2 started with the same bang:  I flew out of the corner intent on squashing him flat.  Spider Jon came on like an explosion, plowing right into him, hammered away, giving it all I had.  Every ounce of energy poured into my opening gambit to put him away.   I could see the end, feel it almost: this guy was going to topple over, crumpling like a building whose foundation had just been demolished.  All this time Tiny just stood there, barely sliding around on his feet.  He took the beatings, all I could deliver, with barely any response.  It seemed like he would just collapse at any second.  But any second never came.

By the end of the second round, I’d had it.  I hit a wall, totally spent. Completely and utterly exhausted.  I’d blown all my strength and all my reserves on this guy and had nothing left.  I could barely hold up my gloves, I was so wasted.  And there was Tiny, inexplicably still standing.  He now looked twice as big –  like an indestructible monolith.  A KO now seemed like a hopeless dream – like attacking Caesar’s army with a toothpick.

Amateur boxing is three rounds of three minutes each.  I cannot imagine going for six rounds, much less double that like they do in professional bouts.  Twelve rounds is unfathomable to me.  That’s four times as much as amateur fights.   I was, at this point, thankful I had only one round left to go.  There was no doubt in anyone’s mind I had dominated rounds one and two, scoring big margins against my opponent.  But it was equally obvious  – to me at least – that it would be easier for me to push over the Great Pyramid of Giza than it would be to knockout my opponent.  Considering my scorecard up to that point, however, all I had to do was hold on and ride it out – I’d win by decision.

In Round 3 the beast began to move.  Slowly, but surely, he came after me like a landslide. And that’s when I realized my mistake.  Tiny knew I would come on hard in the early rounds, trying to knock him out.  I found out later that all his opponents had that same idea when they first fought him.  But his talent was, he could take a beating.  He actually invited it.  All he had to do was wait it out.  Sooner or later, his opponent would tire.  Then the tide – and tables – would turn in his favor.  They did.

In that last round I discovered just how small a regulation boxing ring is.  I couldn’t get away from the wrecking ball.  I had no strength and no dance left in me.  Tiny, meanwhile, became astonishingly animated.  He was still flat-footed, but shuffled around the ring with surprising agility. I’d no sooner escape from one corner, then I’d find myself corralled into another.   Everyone in the audience could see I was getting the same medicine Muhammed Ali had received at the gloves of Larry Holmes.  And I paid the same price.

About midway through Round 3, Tiny set me up perfectly.  Right in the middle of the ring, I made one final assault to stem the tide.  I came directly at him with a left jab and right cross combo.  He was waiting for it.  I landed the jab (not very effectively) and a glancing cross to his chin (even less so).  He took it easily, almost grinning.  I played right into his hands: just as my momentum was carrying me forward with the combination, Tiny released an explosive right uppercut that hit me in the gut so hard it literally picked me up off the mat and set me back a foot or two.  I felt the wreckage in my ribcage like a crushing of twigs.  I was in shock and initially couldn’t breathe.

Thankfully, Tiny knew what he’d done and resisted following it up with any more.  I don’t know if you call that mercy, integrity, or honor but to this day I am grateful he stopped.  He looked straight at me as if to say,  Enough?.  I staggered back and bent over.  The Ref grabbed me.  Somehow, I raised one arm and surrendered.

I’m done… I croaked.

No question about it, the Ref agreed.

AAU regulations require a trip to the hospital whenever there is a serious injury like this in the ring.  My girlfriend, who was in the audience and witness to my destruction, drove me.  I had three cracked ribs.  Why do you do this? she asked on the way home.  I could hardly speak.  It hurt like hell just to breathe.  For the fun of it?… I whimpered while doubled over, holding my ribs in pain.

During the mandatory eight-week hiatus from the ring, I had time to think about the whole boxing idea.  I got into it for the work out.  And while it was, indeed, a work out, I had to admit that getting head concussions, flayed flesh, and broken ribs was not part of my original plan.  By this time, there were reports of The Greatest himself being “punch-drunk” and having serious brain damage.  It seemed I could look forward to that, too, if I carried on.

Spider Jon called it quits.