February 25, 2014

Fort Worth heavyweight left his mark on future champion

Nick Wells went toe-to-toe with one of boxing’s greatest and won — twice.

The greatest heavyweight ever produced in Fort Worth and its famed Golden Gloves program trotted out from his corner seeking a confrontation with Larry Holmes, who tried to keep his distance from the man he knew all too well.

Holmes danced a little and Nick Wells, already the legend known as the low-mileage heavyweight knockout artist from Fort Worth’s Polytechnic High School, stalked.

To the approval of the super-partisan hometown crowd at TCU’s Daniel-Meyer Coliseum, Wells and Holmes finally engaged.

A 1-2-3-4-5 punch combination, including what a correspondent at the time called a “vicious left,” sent Holmes to the canvas.

Within in a minute of the first round of the 1972 U.S. Olympic Trials semifinals, Wells leveled the man who would become one of history’s greatest heavyweight champions.

But Holmes got up, and Wells attacked with a right that sent him down again. At the count of seven, Holmes rose …

Wells quickly followed with another right hook that sent Holmes into the ropes. The referee said no more. Only 1:54 into the fight, Wells had finished off Holmes a second time in a matter of months.

In the 1972 national Golden Gloves tournament in Minneapolis, Wells knocked out Holmes in the third round, the first amateur loss for the man who some six years later would become the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.

“As I look back, he was much more a fighter the first time than the second,” said Wells, 63, now a retired Fort Worth firefighter after 32 years of service. “He wanted it bad the first time. He was undefeated.”

“I wanted it bad too. I had nine national tournaments and had knocked out the opponents in the first round. Holmes went three rounds.”

It’s a treasured moment for Fort Worth’s boxing community, which reassembles for the state Golden Gloves Tournament Wednesday through Saturday at the Watt Arena on the grounds of the Will Rogers Center.

The best fighters from around the state are seeking berths in the national tournament in Las Vegas.

Many are seeking to be another Nick Wells, a five-time Golden Gloves state champion who also won twice more in Nevada while he was in the Air Force. There’s not much dispute that he’s the best heavyweight to come out of Fort Worth.

Much of that happens just in the neighborhoods like Poly, which, Wells said, was stacked with boxing talent.

One of those was really special. Many argue that after Jack Johnson and George Foreman, Wells is the best heavyweight to come out of Texas.

“It’s nice to be mentioned in that group of people,” said Wells, who qualified twice for the Trials as the AAU champion and the Air Force champion. Holmes qualified by winning an east coast regional tournament.

Duane Bobick qualified as both the Navy champion and the Golden Gloves national champion.

For his second victory over Holmes, Wells earned a shot for the Olympic Trials championship against Bobick, who had beaten Fort Worth’s legendary heavyweight three previous times.

A young Phil Sawyer was among the almost 7,000 on hand the night of the Holmes knockout, and recalled Wells standing on the ropes and gesturing to Bobick, saying something to the effect of “you’re next.”

No, said Wells that day, he was waving to a friend.

More than 40 years later, Wells acknowledged with a little laugh that, well, he might have told Bobick “you’re next” or some such.

“Me and Nick are going to rumble,” Bobick said at the time.

That they did.

In the first round, Bobick opened an existing cut over Wells’ eye. A cut above Wells’ lip soon appeared. By the end of the second, Bobick had blood running from his nose and lip.

The referee stopped the fight between the second and third rounds because of Wells’ eye.

“We were setting a hell of a pace,” Wells said at the time. “I think I might have had a chance if I could have come out for the third round. He bombed me with those uppercuts.”

The eye, Wells said, is his only regret about his time in boxing. He cut the eye on a door during a bout of horse play earlier that week in a TCU dorm room.

“Maybe it I would have lost anyway, but I would have loved to have gone in there with no cut,” Wells said Wednesday. “But that’s the way it happened. Bobick was a good fighter, too.”

The eye also caused him to miss out on his last chance to earn an Olympic berth at the U.S. Training center in Bear Mountain, N.Y.

In Munich, Bobick lost to eventual gold medalist Teofilo Stevenson in a third-round TKO.

Holmes never cleared up his boxing blemish caused by Wells.

Joe Frazier lost to Buster Mathis in the 1964 U.S. Olympic Trials. Muhammad Ali fell as an amateur to Jimmy Ellis. Both gave their nemeses a professional bout … just to set the record right.

Holmes never did with Wells, who gave up a professional career to focus on a steady livelihood for his family.

Wells said he and a representative talked with Don King about a rematch, but it never materialized.

“I wish I could have had a money fight with him,” Wells said. “He kind of avoided me. He wasn’t going to risk fighting a left-hander.”

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