The story Tialano “Tito” Tovar tells is a story you could hear in any boxing gym in America.
“I had four friends growing up in the projects. We all started boxing, but they didn’t stick with it. They’re all doing life sentences now. All four of them.”
Tovar is the boxing co-ordinater at the Red Shield Gym, part of the Salvation Army’s Community Center in Denver’s Whittier neighborhood. His career resume includes a couple title bouts and a fight with Hall of Famer Arturo Gatti, as well as a near miss with future Hall of Famer “Sugar” Shane Mosley, when an unscrupulous manager tried to match him up with the future Fighter of the Year. Today, his fighting days behind him, Tovar trains fighters, some of whom remind him of himself.
As we walk through the gym, he puts it bluntly: “Boxing saved me.”
With too much time to get in trouble and little to do in a rough neighborhood, Tovar found boxing as a way to stay occupied, and as a way to a better life. It was appropriate that he would end up working here, hand in hand with another man saved by boxing—an iconic Denver fighter once on the wrong side of the law, then celebrated nationally as one of the best heavyweights of his time: Ron Lyle.
Tito Tovar poses in front of a photo of himself and Ron Lyle, back in the day.
Ron Lyle’s professional career is impressive not just because of the extraordinary circumstances he came from, but also because of how small a window he had. When many fighters would have been starting their careers, Lyle was doing time in prison after being convicted of second degree murder. While inside, he was stabbed in a brawl and was so grievously injured that one of the two doctors in the operating room signed his death certificate. The other doctor, however, continued operating. Lyle had 36 blood transfusions and actually died on the operating table before being brought back. Rather than stagger through a slow recovery, he began exercising to strengthen himself. In solitary confinement, he was eating a bowl of spinach daily and one full meal every three days, doing pushups to pass the time. He eventually reached a point where he could turn out 1000 pushups in an hour.
It was during his years in prison that he began boxing, and after some early success, he began to have dreams where he was fighting Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight title. When he was released from prison, he became a national amateur champion, but because he had lost so much time in prison, he didn’t turn pro until he was 30, an age when many fighters are thinking about retirement.
Lyle boxing in the Colorado State Penitentiary. (photo: Cliff Mattax)
Denver was always a wild town. A mining camp filled with saloons and gambling halls. A haven for crooks and corrupt public officials. It was like any other town in the west in that it had dreams of becoming a cosmopolitan city. Unlike almost any of the old mining camps, however, Denver actually managed to make it happen.
Looking at the city today—clean, organized, and very healthy—it’s hard to connect it with its lawless past. Similarly, it’s not a town that has a wide association with boxing today. But it’s seen its share of wild fights, from illegal bare-knuckle brawls (standard fare in 19th century America) to legitimate fights among major contenders. Mike Alvarado, a current welterweight contender (and former junior welterweight title-holder) calls Denver home. “Denver” Ed Martin once held the title of Colored Heavyweight Champion when the twisted rules of white supremacy kept black fighters from competing for the greatest prize in sport. Colorado native Jack Dempsey scored a knockout at the Denver stockyards just one year before winning the Heavyweight Championship. The title even resided here when Charles “Sonny” Liston moved to Denver to get away from constant police harassment in Philadelphia, uttering the famous line, “I’d rather be a lamppost in Denver than the mayor of Philadelphia.”
But Lyle had the chance to be the first man raised in Denver to hold the heavyweight belt when Muhammad Ali agreed to take him on in 1975. Lyle was brilliant in the ring that night, fighting a clinical fight that had him ahead on all the scorecards after ten rounds. Then Ali caught him with an overhand right, staggering him and sending him into the ropes. Lyle didn’t go down, but after being pummeled against the ropes, the referee stopped the fight. Lyle was furious at the time, but interviewed about it later, he was more philosophical.
“If there don’t be no Ali, you think you’d be sitting here talking to Ron Lyle? About what?”
Ron Lyle (left) fighting Muhammad Ali in 1975 (photo: Associated Press).
When people talk about Ron Lyle’s career today, it really comes down to three fights. The title fight with Ali, and his following bouts with two of the hardest hitters in boxing history: George Foreman and Earnie Shavers.
The Shavers fight was held at the Denver Coliseum. In the second round, Shavers caught Lyle with a punch that sent him ass-first onto the ropes. Considering Shavers is rated by many as the hardest hitter of his era (Ali, Joe Frazier and Ken Norton all agree on this), Ron Lyle had no business getting up from the punch. But he did, rallying from that point forward, and finally knocking out shavers with a ferocious right hand in the sixth round. It’s a remarkable knockout. Lyle is standing at almost a 90 degree angle to Shavers when he throws the punch, and Earnie goes down like he’s just been shot. The hometown crowd went crazy, and Lyle booked a fight with former champion George Foreman.
The Foreman/Lyle fight was named 1976 Fight of the Year by Ring Magazine, and it was, in a way, Lyle’s swan song. His performance was extraordinary, even though Foreman eventually knocked him out. In the fourth round (one of the greatest rounds in boxing history), Lyle became just the second man (after Ali) to knock down Foreman. Foreman rose and sent Lyle to the canvas. When Lyle rose, he was dazed, barely hanging on. When you watch the fight, you’re certain Lyle is about to go down. Then, out of nowhere, Lyle comes back, hammering George Foreman to the canvas again, the first fighter to ever send Big George down twice in the same round.
But Lyle was spent. Foreman won the fight the following round. Ron Lyle, already late in his career due to the time he lost in prison, would never get another opportunity to challenge at the highest level of the heavyweight division. Like a lot of fighters, he launched a short-lived comeback later.
Tito Tovar understands this: “When I retired, I didn’t feel normal.”
DVD’s of famous fights inside the gym. Tovar plays these for fighters to get them motivated.
There’s always the belief in a fighter that they can put it all together one more time. And when that dream finally ends, some, like Lyle and Tovar, turn to training. Ron Lyle ran a boxing gym for years, but came over to the Salvation Army’s Red Shield Gym around the beginning of the millennium. He loved training fighters, but unlike a lot of ex-boxers, Ron Lyle wasn’t too interested in training pros. He worked, almost exclusively, with amateurs.
“They pay you in tickets,” Tovar says. “The promoters…then you have to sell your tickets. So you have to be a trainer, a manager, a businessman…Ron didn’t like that.”
When Tovar joined him at the gym ten years ago, he wanted to train pros.
“Ron said, ‘I’ll work with your fighters, but you gotta help me with my amateurs.'”
The partnership lasted a decade. Then, three and a half years ago, Tovar came to the gym and didn’t see Ron Lyle. Tovar assumed he was just taking the day off. Then he read in the paper that his mentor had died.
“I couldn’t believe it. He was as strong as an ox. He was sharp.”
Lyle had been admitted to the hospital with a stomach ailment and had died in the night. Tovar thinks it was connected to the stab wound Lyle received in prison many years earlier. When Lyle died, his family asked that any donations in his memory be made directly to the Red Shield Gym.
And Lyle’s wife insisted that Tito Tovar take over the boxing program.
“He was the nicest guy you would ever meet,” he says about Lyle. “But he could intimidate you to motivate you.”
These days, running the gym, Tovar works with everyone. Pros and amateurs. Young and old. The gym even has a Parkinson’s Program, helping those afflicted with the degenerative disease by keeping their muscles strong and working with their reflexes.
In talking to Tovar, you can sense the weight of responsibility of keeping this gym up. There’s a debt of gratitude that underlines everything he says, not just to Ron Lyle, but to boxing itself.
He motions to a picture of Ron Lyle on the wall. Two Denver fighter, both trying to keep things going in their hometown.
“He believed in giving back,” says Tovar. “I’m trying to do the same.”