From The Idaho State Journal, July 24, 1996

This is the second story I did pegged to the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. The implications of what might have been for the boxing world are quite interesting.

They called him "Big Ed"

Local boxer won Olympic gold and fame in the ring

By Arik Hesseldahl
Of The Journal

It was 10 years ago when Russell Sanders' mother handed him a mysterious manila envelope.

It contained some 30 pages of typewritten and handwritten notes, put to paper by Sanders' father before his death in 1954. They were to become the story of a man who at the age of 24 was considered by some to be a shoo-in as the next world heavyweight champion.

He was ''Big Ed'' Sanders, a one-time member of the Idaho State College boxing team. In 1952, he represented the United States in the Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland, winning the gold medal in heavyweight boxing, possibly the first African-American to win gold in that event.

Since receiving that envelope, Russell Sanders has been researching his father's life for a book about the man he never really knew.

Big Ed was a California native, growing up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. He and his brother were competitive siblings.

''When my dad was 12, he and his brother Donald would collect coffee cans and fill them with cement and connect two of them with a steel rebar. Those were their weights,'' Russell said.

Ed grew to be a 6-foot-4, 220-pound athlete. He played defensive end on Compton Community College's football team, and joined the boxing team.

It was in 1950 at the National Junior College Boxing Championships in Ogden, Utah, that Ed attracted the attention of then-Idaho State boxing coach Dubby Holt and then-football coach Babe Caccia.

''He had a good left hand, and for the big man that he was, he was a real orthodox, skilled boxer,'' Holt recalled.

Holt and Caccia recruited Ed to Idaho State to play football, run on the track team and box. ''I remember his first collegiate bout. We boxed Washington State, or it may have been Gonzaga. He knocked out the Pacific Coast champion in his first bout,'' Holt said.

While attending Idaho State, Ed fell in love with Pocatellan Mary LaRue, who was then secretary at Idaho State's athletic department. She would later become his wife.

''My mom says she didn't really like boxing. But she liked watching my dad box. He had a fluidity about him that she loved. But she would cringe when he would hit someone. She felt sorry for the other guys,'' Russell said.

As Mary cringed, many fighters fell before Ed's devastating left-right-left combinations, his powerful jab and his uppercut. Russell described when one of Ed's opponents — himself a 240-pound heavyweight — suffered a left uppercut to the body that lifted his feet off the canvass.

In 1951, Ed was drafted into the U.S. Navy, but continued his boxing career. He toured Europe, winning various tournaments, including a Golden Gloves tournament in Berlin, Germany, enhancing his reputation.

With a broken hand, Ed knocked out Kirby Willis, a fighter who had beaten Ed once before, to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.

The Olympics turned out not to be much of a challenge for Ed. He knocked out a Swiss fighter in the first round, defeated two Italians in his second and third fights, and KO'd a South African in the second round of a semi-final bout.

The only thing standing between Ed and the gold was Swedish fighter Ingemar Johansson. But facing Ed was too much for him. Russell has a copy of the film of that bout.

''The guy got freaked out. He was so nervous. He just didn't want to compete,'' Russell said. Describing it as a bout is truly a misnomer. A fearful Johansson did his best to stay as far away from Ed as he could, creating an almost comical scene. Finally in the second round, the referee stopped the fight, disqualifying Johansson in disgust.

''That was my Dad's only regret about the Olympics. He was ecstatic to have won the gold medal, but he really wanted to work for it,'' Russell said.

After the Olympics, Ed decided to turn pro. A 1952 story in The Idaho State Journal announced his decision to the world. With an amateur record of 43 wins and four losses, he had every reason to expect a successful career.

But Ed's dreams were cut short on Dec. 12, 1954 in Boston. He was fighting Willy James in preparation for an upcoming bout with world champion Rocky Marciano.

A blow to Ed's head during the fight with James aggravated an injury Ed had suffered in a sparring match, fracturing a bone in his skull, and causing spinal fluid drainage.

''He had had some problems, but he was hard-headed and wanted to go on with the fight,'' Russell said.

At 24, Big Ed Sanders died of injuries related to the sport that had become his life. At the time, Russell was a newly walking toddler.

How different might boxing history have been had Sanders lived? The answer may lie in a certain heavyweight fight in The Bronx, N.Y. on June 26, 1959.

On that night, it was Johansson, the Swedish boxer who had seven years before cowered in fear during two rounds in the ring with Sanders, who knocked out Floyd Patterson, winning the world heavyweight championship. Patterson had won the title from Jersey Joe Walcott, who had won it from Marciano, whom Sanders had been training to challenge.

Johansson would hold the title less than a year, losing it back to Patterson in a 5th-round knockout in New York the following June.

The computer in Russell's home contains 500 typed pages of notes and writings detailing 10 years of research. On the floor below it are two stacks of files containing newspaper clippings and records, and Ed's draft of the autobiography.

Russell sees his work on the book as the best way to know and understand the father he never knew, the father who just might have been The Champ.

''He lived more than most people do in 24 years. And he enjoyed every minute of it.''

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