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The Marvelous One

Back to the Stone Ages

He was middleweight champion of the world and a brand new daddy to boot. Bertha had delivered their healthy, beautiful baby girl Charelle Monique just two weeks before. It would not have been unreasonable, therefore, to imagine that a man who had worked his way to such a station in life had reached a place of contentment. Marvin Hagler simply was not hardwired that way.

There are many things you just don’t do around Marvin Hagler. One of them is take anything for granted. The jive-talking kid from the Kronk Gym who called himself ‘Caveman’ would find that out the hard way in a few days’ time.

“I’m happy,” Hagler admitted before rapidly adding, “I’m not satisfied. I’ve got a lot of work to do and I’m hoping that I can fight all the champions out there and show them where I belong in the standings of the world.”

Bob Arum had signed Hagler to a multi-fight promotional deal but was thus far unable to deliver the “big fights” and “big money” that Marvin knew were up for grabs against Thomas Hearns, Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, and Wilfred Benitez. Instead, he found himself already on the verge of recycling through once vanquished foes, obligated to make a second defense against Fulgencio Obelmejias later in 1982, an unfortunate obstacle on the road to pugilistic immortality that Hagler deemed “an insult”. Fully Obel blamed his first defeat at the hands of the newly crowned middleweight king at the Boston Garden on having fought through the ill effects of the flu and, whereas he had been the top-rated contender as determined by the WBC at the time of their first go-around, Obelmejias had since attained the status of the WBA’s mandatory challenger. Next time Marvin would knock him out in five rounds instead of eight.

But first, here Hagler was in Atlantic City posing for publicity photos with William Lee who, having some fun with his ring moniker, taunted Marvin by intoning “I’m going to beat you” over and over while waving around a toy club. Unamused, Hagler lifted his balled-up left hand and warned the ‘Caveman’ that “I’ve got a club too.” One he intended to use to beat his replacement opponent “back to the Stone Ages.”

Sneaky Pea

Mickey Goodwin climbed between the ropes at Bally’s Park Place Hotel and Casino on March 7, 1982 in formal attire rather than boxing gear, his role having been reduced from participatory to strictly ceremonial. A quick wave to the 2,000-plus attendees after his name was spoken into the microphone followed perhaps by some last-minute words of encouragement for his stablemate and surrogate ‘Caveman’ Lee before making way for the next special guest to be announced.

The title shot against Marvin Hagler, live on Wide World of Sports, was supposed to have been his, although in San Remo, Italy instead of Atlantic City. Not to mention a $100,000 payday, win or lose. If not for that goddamned broken left hand.

Mickey hailed from Melvindale, described in Lindy Lindell’s book Metro Detroit Boxing as “a small, down-river, working class suburb” and, as a Caucasian who packed one hell of a punch, Goodwin had to prove to the hard-boiled skeptics at the Kronk Gym that he deserved to be welcomed into their surroundings as more than an oddity or a mere novelty. “They wanted to see the white guy get knocked out, but then realized I could fight,” Mickey once said. Both unavoidable and unfortunate, the “white hope” label was sometimes placed on him by the local fans and media.

A Golden Gloves champion who had reportedly rattled off 21 consecutive knockout victories as an amateur, Goodwin missed out on participating in the 1976 Olympic Trials only because of the severity of a cut above his eye sustained during one of his two successful qualifiers. ‘Rockin’ Rick Jester, National Golden Gloves Light-Heavyweight Champion and eventually a 12-8 professional whose every win and loss occurred by way of knockout, would be the lone Kronk Olympic hopeful at the Trials where he was outpointed by John Davis who would go on lose to Leon Spinks in the 81kg finals.

Hilmer Kenty gave Goodwin the nickname ‘Sneaky Pea’ because of the way “he’d sneak that left hook into you.” Kronk guru Emmanuel Steward told Joel Greer of the Ann Arbor Sun, “He has that innocent look, like Swee’Pea (the abandoned baby Popeye the sailor-man raised as his own in the funny papers), and he’s so sneaky he knocked out an experienced fighter the first time we put him in this ring.” Besides praising Mickey as the “best natural puncher” he ever trained, Steward later remembered Goodwin being “the big attraction at first at Olympia and around Detroit. Not Tommy.”

It should go without saying that Steward was referencing Tommy Hearns who, alongside Goodwin, comprised one half of Kronk’s unlikely ‘KO Twins’. They even debuted on the same Olympia Stadium card together the day after Thanksgiving in 1977 and, true to their collective identity, scored a pair of knockouts.

Combing over Goodwin’s professional resume produces a list of names that are mostly unfamiliar, the majority of them having brought into their bouts with Mickey win/loss percentages well below the equator–Don Cobbs and Teddy Mann among the rare exceptions. Coupled with the fact that he struggled with his weight as well as his penchant for partying, opting one time to depart on an unannounced spring break road trip rather than show up for a scheduled fight according to Emmanuel Steward, Mickey became one of boxing’s many frustrating cases of “what if?” with his 40-2-1 career record.

After working his way to the WBA’s 5th place ranking and then breaking his hand while training for his crack at Marvin Hagler, Goodwin would never again challenge for anything better than a regional championship, winning the USA Michigan State Light-Heavyweight Title in 1983 and retaining it by virtue of a draw in his only defense.

Mickey sat back down in his ringside seat at Bally’s in Atlantic City. Tommy Hearns, the other half of the ‘KO Twins’, was there as well. Not a passive observer but not just a cheerleader for his Kronk buddy ‘Caveman’ Lee either. Bob Arum and Emmanuel Steward had reached a tentative agreement for a Hagler/Hearns fight to take place sometime that summer but the Top Rank chief was having a hell of a time ironing out the logistical and financial wrinkles. Marvin Hagler strongly suspected that being made to defend his title against Mickey Goodwin or ‘Caveman’ Lee or whichever Detroit-based middleweight Emmanuel Steward threw at him was little more than a scouting mission.

Caveman Lee

Hagler felt that using a Kronk fighter of lesser stature as a sort of spy (or, however remote the possibility, a saboteur) to “peek at me” was a transparent ruse on the part of Emmanuel Steward and Thomas Hearns and it was his intention to give them very little to scribble down in their notebooks. “I’m planning on putting him out as soon as possible,” Marvin said of ‘Caveman’ Lee. He added, with a touch of clairvoyance, “It could end in one.”

It has been suggested that when Marvin Hagler had ventured into Philadelphia for his five fights at The Spectrum in days not long gone, he was conveyed about town at some point by J. Russell Peltz’s personal limousine driver Rabbi Lee, father of William who would become acquainted to Marvin in 1982 as ‘Caveman’. Bill Lee traces his hirsute sobriquet back to the Boy Scouts in North Philly, so named by a pal because “I was kind of hairy.”

Though he personally preferred baseball, basketball, and football, William was forced to pursue boxing by his father who had fought as an amateur and trained Michael Spinks. Rabbi would repeatedly and mean-spiritedly use Spinks as a yardstick against which he measured his own son, an example William would always resent and never be able to live up to. He likened his abusive father to Idi Amin and confessed that it was because of Rabbi’s negative influence that he never loved boxing although he grew attached to many people he would meet along the way.

The Boy Scout was anything but. Lee’s life began to go haywire at the age of 14 when he would run away from home with his brother, a recurring delinquency that would result in “drinking, smoking, running the streets.” Desiring greater distance from home and maybe some much-needed discipline, William joined the Army for a brief stint after turning 18 but returned to Philadelphia and Rabbi who forcibly twisted his arm into becoming an amateur boxer.

Lee estimates that he had about 28 fights as a novice, losing only three, before making his paid debut on February 25, 1976, notching a first-round knockout of Wallace Smith in a preliminary bout on a card at the Philadelphia Arena headlined by Bennie Briscoe. His friend Jimmy Young, who was currently ascending the heavyweight rankings on a trajectory toward a title shot against Muhammad Ali, introduced William to mobster Frank ‘Blinky’ Palermo who in turn got William a sit-down with Don King. These proved to be influential yet fleeting associations. King did, however, arrange for an opening slot for ‘Caveman’ Lee in a non-televised four-rounder on a September 14, 1977 show originating from Caesars Palace and aired on NBC called Night of the Heavyweights. William dispatched Henry Walker in the opening round, setting the stage for what amounted to relatively risk-averse exhibitions throwing the spotlights on Jimmy Young, Leroy Jones, Ron Lyle, Larry Holmes, and Ken Norton.

Though he was 6-0 with each win occurring inside the distance, Lee continued to question his own dedication, admitting that he would probably always have “one foot on the street and one in the ring.” Lee’s first proper trainer was Clarence ‘Skinny’ Davidson. Having hitchhiked to New York to enlist for active service in World War One rather than settle for becoming a stevedore in Philadelphia, ‘Skinny’ boxed his way to the featherweight championship of the 15th New York Infantry. After being discharged, Davidson fought professionally from 1916 to 1929, earning the Pennsylvania State Bantamweight Title in 1917, and would help guide Harold Johnson to the World Light-Heavyweight Championship.

It was when he more than held his own in sparring sessions with Vito Antuofermo, who was preparing for his 1979 middleweight title fight with then-champion Hugo Pastor Corro, that William came to Emmanuel Steward’s attention. Soon after, Lee relocated to the Motor City and was fighting out of the Kronk Gym alongside Thomas Hearns, Hilmer Kenty, Milton McCrory, Duane Thomas, Jimmy Paul, and ‘Sneaky Pea’ Mickey Goodwin.

After suffering his first career defeat at New York’s Felt Forum, a December 1978 six-round majority decision loss to Don Addison on a card featuring the 14-0 Gerry Cooney, ‘Caveman’ Lee had won all seven subsequent bouts, six by knockout, entering into his toughest test yet against the 6-2-1 Frank ‘The Animal’ Fletcher. To this day, Lee is bothered by the stoppage loss to Fletcher more so than the blowout by Marvin Hagler (both coincidentally occurring in Atlantic City), feeling that he was the superior fighter and would have won had he not overtrained.

William did not allow this setback to deter him for long. He was back in action a mere two months later to take on the 6th ranked veteran journeyman Marcos Geraldo who had extended both ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler the full distance in unsuccessful campaigns and was looking for career victory number 50 over ‘Caveman’ Lee. It was not to be, denied in only 55 seconds. “You saw the champ in me that night,” Lee stated retrospectively.

This would be the first in an eight-fight knockout streak for Bill Lee, none more memorable than his five-round victorious war of attrition with John LoCicero on ESPN on July 7, 1981. Perhaps lapsing into bad habits due to the fight being delayed by one month, ‘Caveman’ confessed to training inadequately and taking LoCicero lightly.

Ring magazine declared round five of LoCicero vs. Lee as 1981’s Round of the Year and Al Bernstein, a member of the ESPN team commentating the fight that night, puts it right up there with round one of Hagler/Hearns (when they finally did get together in 1985) and Diego Corrales’ 10th round rally against Jose Luis Castillo in 2005 as one of the most exciting rounds of boxing he has personally witnessed during his esteemed broadcast career. Years later, Lee would encounter a former aspiring amateur fighter turned prescription pill dealer and occasional boxing writer named Aram Alkazoff in a holding cell at Detroit’s Wayne County Jail, professing to his one-time Kronk associate with undeniable pride that people would come up to him and rave about how “LoCicero and me was like Tony Zale and Rocky Graziano.” He additionally revealed, “I woulda died rather than lose.”

It would be tempting to think that maybe Bill Lee was turning a corner personally and professionally. ‘Caveman’ had battered down the doors of the New Year 1982 with 21 wins, 20 knockouts, only 2 losses, and ranked 5th by the WBA and #10 by the WBC. Not to mention a challenger for the undisputed middleweight title thanks to Mickey Goodwin’s busted left paw. But, by his own admission, “I think the LoCicero fight took it out of me. Then I got a few bucks and everything got crazy.”

From Jail to Title Fight

Almost anyone would consider an extended stay on Cape Cod to be a lovely vacation. Anyone, that is, except for Marvin Hagler who took his Provincetown training camp so seriously that he referred to it as “putting myself in jail”. Hagler seemed to derive some masochistic pleasure from the monastic seclusion and self-denial. “Destroy and destruction. That’s the only thing on my mind,” was Marvin’s slogan.

During the drive from Cape Cod to Atlantic City, Pat Petronelli informed Marvin that they had to take a quick detour through Brockton and asked if he would like to stop by his house for a visit with Bertha and to check on little Charelle. “I don’t want to kiss no babies,” Hagler replied. “I gotta be mean.” Lest he be perceived as a brusque, uncaring brute, which he most certainly is not, let it be known that Marvin later told the reporters convened in Atlantic City, “I hope to get this thing over and go home and see the baby. As long as I know the baby is healthy, I don’t have to worry about anything but the ‘Caveman’. And the more he talks, the meaner I get.”

‘Caveman’ Lee was originally scheduled to face Buster Drayton in a preliminary attraction until Mickey Goodwin’s unfortunate training mishap propelled him into the main event opposite Marvin Hagler even if a steel rod to the side of his head courtesy of a faulty heavy-bag support beam nearly eliminated him from the equation as well. Lee told Michael Katz of the New York Times that he anticipated some hot and heavy action but was cautiously hopeful that “it doesn’t heat up too bad”.

“They often go awry” Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote in 1785 about “the best laid plans of mice and men”, though it would appear that this also applies to cavemen. Bill Lee audaciously laid out his strategy prior to the fight which was to switch stances from orthodox to southpaw (a reversal of Marvin Hagler’s favored technique) to confound the champion and use his powerful right hand to stun Hagler and the entire boxing world. It is easy to see in retrospect how this posturing belied the truth of the matter which was that, as he personally attested to much later, despite being in good shape physically, ‘Caveman’ Lee was in desperately poor shape mentally.

This made a decidedly dangerous proposition of engaging in a fist fight with a man who insists that “there’s a monster that comes out of me.” Marvin Hagler gladly elaborated, “Now even more so behind me being champion and you’re trying to take something that I have, that I worked for so long and hard. You’re taking the food out of my baby’s mouth or taking the roof away from my home. I’m scared about that in a sense, so it makes me work harder.” It might have caused William to tremble in his boxing shoes to hear Hagler promise, “I can’t let this guy ‘Caveman’ Lee get lucky. No way. I’m here to rip his head off. That’s what I’m out there to do.”

Both parties involved naturally refuted a newspaper account claiming that Tommy Hearns had knocked Bill Lee out cold in a sparring session and Emmanuel Steward was busy denying any potential conflict of interest stemming from the fact that he managed both the ‘Caveman’ and the ‘Motor City Cobra’. With a Hagler/Hearns title fight still on the negotiating table, what would transpire in the event that Lee somehow wrested the belt from Marvin’s grasp? “If ‘Caveman’ Lee knocks out Marvin Hagler, I’ll be the happiest man in the world because Thomas is already in a position where he is guaranteed some sort of a championship fight within the next year, regardless of what division,” said Steward who invoked possibilities such as a rematch with welterweight champ Ray Leonard, or challenges to super-welterweight titleholders Wilfred Benitez and Davey Moore as viable alternatives. “So, if ‘Caveman’ Lee wins, it wouldn’t hamper his plans at all.”

Hearns would defeat Benitez by majority decision that December for the WBC strap, becoming a two-division world champion. ‘Caveman’ Lee would get taken to “the fringes of death,” in the words of referee Larry Hazzard, in just 67 seconds, prior to which the last first-round knockout in a middleweight title fight had occurred back on August 25, 1950 when ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson required only 55 seconds to demolish Jose Basora in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Lee threw the first few punches, a double left jab followed by two swift left/right combos and landed a good overhand right before being frozen in a momentary state of suspended animation by the raw power of a Hagler right jab. With ‘Caveman’ then staggering back toward the ropes, Marvin lurches forward with a piledriver of a right hand followed by a straight left that pins Lee’s slumping shoulders against the equally sagging ring strands. Held aloft for a split second, he is caught by a flush right hook and pitches face first onto the canvas. Defying logic and the laws of physics, Lee stumbles to his feet at the count of five but is greeted rudely by another Hagler right hook upon Larry Hazzard’s completion of the standing-eight.

Backed into the ropes once more, William absorbs a left hook and right uppercut. He somehow possesses the presence of mind to pivot away from immediate peril but there is a price to pay for retreat in the form of body blows, hooks and uppercuts delivered with both hands quicker than the ‘Caveman’ can deal with the violent onrush. A pair of right hooks makes Lee’s knees buckle, his torso slouching backward in sickeningly slow motion, suspended only by the ring ropes while his feet remain firmly planted, causing his body to arch at an awful 30-degree angle as ringside observers stretch their arms out to catch the plummeting prizefighter in case he should freefall out of the squared circle entirely. Hazzard motions Hagler away, waves to the timekeeper, and catches ‘Caveman’ in a gentle bearhug, guiding him to the mat in the same manner that you would a toddler who has fallen asleep in your arms, lowering them into bed ever so softly as not to disturb his or her peaceful slumber.

So detached from his senses was ‘Caveman’ Lee that during his post-fight press conference he at first claimed to have been hit with “a lucky punch”. When that assertion was questioned by another incredulous sportswriter, Lee asked earnestly, “Did I say that?” Both then and now his recollection of the fight goes no further than the first knockdown. Hagler’s right hook, Bill Lee said, “left me on queer street.”

Seated behind the ABC broadcast table wiping away sweat with a towel, Marvin Hagler was asked by Keith Jackson about ‘Caveman’ Lee’s aggressive start out of the gate. “I liked that. I wanted him to come to fight. I expected that,” Hagler responded. “I didn’t want to give them nothing, you know it. They were scouting. You know, I didn’t believe too much about that Mickey Goodwin thing, but this was a better opponent for me to get ready for Hearns.”

From Title Fight to Jail

The urine sample handed over by William Lee to the New Jersey State Athletic Commission as part of his medical examination after the bout tested positive for morphine and quinine, chemical components of heroin. Although the actual version of events will probably never truly be known, Lee later revealed his side of the story. He alleges that one of the promoter’s employees pissed in his cup as he was either in no condition or no mood to do so himself, producing the dirty sample. While he will freely admit to habitual drug use as an active fighter, William maintains that he would lay off the stuff during the final few weeks of training.

Lee’s boxing license was revoked until a follow-up test in September came back clean. His reinstatement proved to be too little too late, however. ‘Caveman’ Lee had accelerated his downward spiral by freebasing cocaine and smoking crack, already well into the process of blowing through the $60,000 purse money from the Hagler fight while attempting to cope with his brother’s recent suicide.

Police officers responding to an August 4, 1983 robbery at the Avon Township Branch of the First Federal Savings and Loan of Oakland converged upon a car with smoke billowing through its open windows. The smoke bomb and red dye packet placed in the money satchel by a resourceful bank manager had exploded during the getaway. Inside the vehicle belonging to William ‘Caveman’ Lee, as written in Captain Bill Nolin’s report, were $18,465 in cash, a ski mask, and a .30-30 Winchester rifle with which Lee “ordered four customers and an employee to the floor” according to the UPI news feed. He was apprehended in neighboring Pontiac Township ten minutes later and, “unable to post a $30,000 bond,” was held at Oakland County Jail.

“I guess ‘Caveman’ didn’t think he had much to live for,” pondered Emmanuel Steward upon learning of the incident. “He must have just reached the end of his rope.” Lee was found “guilty but mentally ill” by a jury which requested leniency of Circuit Judge Frederick Ziem on behalf of William who wound up serving a three year stretch.

“They banned boxing in prison so I’ve been banging on the heavy bag,” groused ‘Caveman’ Lee upon his release. He would participate in two final prizefights, a 13-second dismantling of Orlando Pauling at Detroit’s Cobo Arena and a knockout loss to Yawe Davis in Italy almost two years later in a support match to the Donald Curry vs. Lupe Aquino main event.

A parole violation landed Lee back behind bars in 1991 for another three years after which he was arrested for armed robbery yet again in 1994. “I am a menace to society,” William lamented to the judge presiding over his sentencing hearing. “Put me away for life.” He would get 12 years.

The recreation center which housed the original Kronk Gym was broken into and vandalized, closed for business and boarded up the same year that ‘Caveman’ Lee emerged from prison for the last time. Though Kronk has since reopened at a new location, the graffiti covered structure at 55 McGraw Avenue still stands as a sad monument to the American Dream which novelist Hubert Selby Jr. once warned “will kill you dead,” a have and have not requiem for cities and their suburbs laid to waste and the lost souls who haunt these crumbling metropolises. For decades, William Lee was one such walking ghost, alive and yet dead on the inside. Fortunately, he did not succumb to society’s neglect and indifference or succeed in annihilating himself through his own weaknesses and excesses.

These days, Lee is several years sober and happily married. He still resides in Detroit, not far from his daughter China and a short distance from the old Kronk Gym. He has found sporadic but gainful employment for auto parts dealers, construction outfits, and salvage yards. Many mornings he would unlock the doors and look after the Kronk Gym, at its temporary storefront in the interim between permanent addresses, until it was time to train welterweight/middleweight prospect Domonique Dolton (currently 17-1-1). Bill Lee had apparently gotten in contact and kept in touch with Mickey Goodwin since ending his recidivistic tendencies in 2006. Three years later, he would be the recipient of some shocking news concerning his friend ‘Sneaky Pea’.

Despite suspicion on the part of emergency responders and corresponding AP reports that he had been “bludgeoned to death” on March 3, 2009, an autopsy revealed that no foul play was involved. 51 year-old Mickey Goodwin had suffered a stroke at the Melvindale home he lived in with his mother Irene and step-father Larry (neither of whom were home at the time) and fallen down a flight of stairs, sustaining the grievous injuries in question. It was deduced that he had then taken a shower and gone to bed, dying in his sleep.

The Boston Red Sox had Bill ‘Spaceman’ Lee. Detroit’s Kronk Gym produced Bill ‘Caveman’ Lee. Different but strangely the same, living testaments to how the dividing line between genius and madness can become quite indistinct and often cohabitate in the neutral zone for as long as they can stand one another’s company.

A Marvelous Postscript

“…weighing 158 pounds and with a record of 53 wins, 2 losses, 2 draws with 44 knockouts, ladies and gentlemen…from Brockton, Mass., here is the middleweight champion of the world, Marvin Hagler.”

If Marvin appears to be more perturbed than normal just before he is brought out to the center of the ring at Bally’s Park Place on March 7, 1982 to touch up with ‘Caveman’ Lee, you are not mistaken. Network executives at ABC, whatever their rationale, forbade the word “Marvelous” from being used during his ring introduction.

Marvin Nathaniel Hagler, Pat and Goody Petronelli, and attorney Steven Wainright put forth a formal protest which was roundly rejected. “If he wants to be called Marvelous Marvin on ABC,” they were informed unceremoniously, “tell him to go to court and have his name changed.”

Seven weeks later, on April 23, Marvelous Marvin Hagler did exactly that.