Today, May 29, would have seen Philly middleweight James Shuler celebrate his 61st birthday. Who knows what kind of a ring career the man known as “Black Gold” would have had to look back on had he not been the victim of a tragic and fatal accident at the young age of 26.
Tall, naturally gifted and by all accounts just about the nicest guy who ever donned gloves, Shuler was trained by two giants during his short ring career – Joe Frazier and later Eddie Futch. A superbly decorated amateur who won most everything apart from Olympic gold, including two National titles at 156 pounds (the Olympic gold medal something Shuler was thought to be all but guaranteed to win in 1980 had the U.S not boycotted the Games) – Shuler had exceptional skill.
Shuler came close to losing his life earlier in 1980. The U.S Olympic team he was a prominent member of air-bound for Poland that March, the plane went down and the team members lost their lives. Shuler had not been on board due to a nose injury he had suffered.
A hard worker in the gym, Shuler went pro in September that fateful year, at 160 pounds. Sleek and fast, the 21 year old was moved pretty fast. Picking up good, learning wins over the likes of Sugar Ray Seales, who was 56-7-3 at the time, Clint Jackson and, in February of 1985, James Kinchen, with all three wins coming via the score-cards, a 25 year old Shuler was deemed ready to be moved up in class. Futch said at the time that Shuler was “the best kept secret in boxing.”
After a win over Marvin Hagler sparring partner Jerry Holly in July of ’85, Shuler was matched with a former two-weight ruler who might just have been sufficiently past his best to be taken. Enter Thomas Hearns.
Fighting Hearns on the double-header card that also featured Hagler going to war with John Mugabi, the card put together to hopefully instill sufficient fan interest in a Hagler-Hearns II, Shuler was never allowed to shine. Hearns, far from a faded force, even just a little, came out rapier fast and, with around a minute gone, dropped Shuler with his famed right hand. The shot tore through Shuler’s guard, sending him down in a fold. Shuler’s hands had still been up yet the speed of Tommy’s bomb saw to it that the fight-ender found its target.
Shuler was gracious in defeat, telling Hearns he was a great fighter and even thanking Bob Arum for getting him the big opportunity. With the money he had earned in the NABF title fight, Shuler bought himself a motorbike. Just seven days after suffering his one and only pro loss, Shuler was dead, his bike colliding with a truck.
Hearns, along with Emanuel Steward, attended the funeral; Tommy placing the NABF belt at the graveside. Later, Shuler would be immortalized by The James Schuler Gym, which was opened in Philadelphia in 1995 by James’ close friend Percy Custus.
We will never know how Shuler’s career would have unfolded had he lived. Plenty of fighters who went on to become world champions had to overcome a nasty and quick KO loss on the way up, and who can say Shuler would not have done the same. As it is, we only got a tantalizing look, a veritable glimpse, really, of Shuler’s enormous promise.
Shuler’s final record reads 22-1(16).
James was posthumously awarded a Congressional Gold Medal in 2007.