How great, how special was heavyweight contender Ron Lyle?
I’d go as far as to say former prison convict turned all-round good guy Lyle deserves to be remembered as the best heavyweight of the 1970s who was never able to become world champion. And, yes, that’s saying something – especially when we look at how special fighters such as Jerry Quarry, Jimmy Young, Oscar Bonavena, Earnie Shavers, and others were never able to capture the big one during that golden decade.
Lyle earned every single thing that came his way.
Born in February of 1941, Lyle was the third of 19 – yes, 19 – children. It was always going to be tough. Supposedly a street gang member (Lyle insisted he was never in a gang, that he merely spent time hanging with his best friends, or “brothers”), the teenage Lyle fell afoul of the law, with him being sentenced to 15 to 20 for second-degree murder. At age 20, Lyle’s life looked finished, but it was just getting going.
After another, even more hellish spell of the bad stuff – Lyle being stabbed by a fellow inmate shortly into his sentence, with only 36 blood transfusions saving Ron’s life as he lay on the table – the 6’4” specimen born out of Denver, Colorado was even more determined to make something of himself.
And, boy, how Ron Lyle did just that.
Confined in solitary after cheating death, Lyle set about pushing himself through a regimen that saw him, on a bowl of spinach a day, crunch out hundreds of sit-ups, push-ups and squats. Lyle was not like other men. He was unimaginably strong and determined. Lyle knew.
Upon his release from prison, Lyle had competed in around 25 amateur bouts, with him reportedly losing only one. After receiving a full pardon in late 1969/early 1970, Lyle made astonishing progress. The National AAU champ in 1970, Lyle notched up an unpaid career that is worthy of an article all by itself.
Fast-forward to April of 1971, and Lyle was at last a paid pro. A professional athlete who would reach the top. Remember, Ron was determined. He knew. 19 straight wins came, most of them by KO, before Lyle was decisioned by Jerry Quarry, this in February of 1973.
Here, Lyle takes up the story of his career in his own words. Words that were so very kindly shared with this writer just prior to Ron’s death in November of 2011.
“I owe the sport of boxing a whole lot,” Ron said back in the summer of 2010. “It helped me turn my whole life around. I love helping and inspiring other people, young kids. It’s good to help people. That’s what it’s all about. I came from a big family, of 19 brothers and sisters. I know how to work with a team.”
Lyle went on to play his part in simply epic fights with George Foreman, Earnie Shavers, and Muhammad Ali.
“The Foreman fight didn’t go my way, but it’s a fight I’ll never forget,” Ron said way back when. “I gave it my best that night. The [Earnie] Shavers fight was another good one, that was the first time I had to get up from a knockdown to win a fight, so I passed that test. Shavers was a very sharp puncher. When he hit you, the lights went out! When he knocked me down, the ground came up to meet me.
“Foreman’s punch was more of a ‘Boom!’ George really stepped in with his left jab, too.”
As ultra-special as the Shavers (a win for Lyle) and the Foreman (a loss for Ron) slugfests are, it is the Ali fight for which Ron is best remembered. And Lyle was always fond of the memories he had of his May 1975 world title challenge of “The Greatest.”
“First of all, Ali was a great fighter,” Ron told me. “All due respect to Ali. [But] skill-wise, I think I matched up to him well. I myself became a very well-rounded fighter and I was at my very best when I fought Ali. I had to be. I was the underdog, and did I rise above that? I think I did. I could see all of his punches coming and I could move around them. I will always cherish the memory of that fight.
“Maybe, in a way, the referee helped me [when he stopped the fight; Ali behind in the 11th round]. I can move around. I’m in good shape. I can talk. Maybe he [the ref] saved me from taking more punishment. But Ali, he was THE man then, and we all tried to keep up with him.”
Lyle never did win the big one; the Ali fight of May 16, 1975, being his sole shot at the world title. But, boy, how Lyle made his mark on the heavyweight division. And how much of a huge dent the peak Ron Lyle would be making in today’s heavyweight division if he was here today.