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When Lincoln County ruled boxing world

On Tuesday, Jan. 9, some Lincoln County legends of boxing gathered at the Lincoln House for an informal reunion. They met to share breakfast, as well as stories about Ralph Conner, whose dedication to the sport through coaching has earned him a place in the Carolinas Boxing Hall of Fame.
On April 13, at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, Conner — already a member of the Lincoln County Sports Hall of Fame — will be inducted into the Carolinas Boxing Hall of Fame, which represents both North and South Carolina. It is an honor earned through decades of successfully coaching local boxers, and the influence he has had on those boxers, a number of whom became coaches themselves, makes the award all the more fitting.
For Conner, coaching boxers was a labor of love.
“There are a lot of good fighters from Lincolnton that I had something to do with,” Conner said. “I felt that if I could keep one kid off the street, I’d done a good job.”
Conner developed an interest in the sport while fighting in Italy in World War II. Upon returning from the war, he became involved in the sports life of Lincoln County, but, according to Conner, it did not begin with boxing.
“After the war, I was walking through town one morning and I saw some kids on the ball field,” said Conner. “I just felt inspired to help them, so I bought some balls and gloves.”
It was while working as assistant to Betty Ross at the Lincoln County Recreation Department that Conner began working with boxers. He talked his boss into allowing the boxers to train. Sonny Taylor, one of the boxers Conner coached, remembers the positive impact Ross had on the young fighters.
“We had discipline in her presence,” Taylor said. “Betty Ross guided us in the right direction.”
Although Conner had begun coaching while at the recreation department, it was not until he took over as manager and athletic director at the VFW that the proverbial gloves came off.
“That’s when we started ‘whooping up’ on other teams,” said Conner.
Those were the days when Conner would go around town, his beautiful wife Clara by his side, gathering boxers to go do what they did best. He was never afraid to push his boxers to go farther, even when it meant instilling fear in them.
“I would put the station wagon in low gear and follow the boys,” Conner said. “ I said I was going to run them over.”
Clearly, Conner’s methods worked. The tree of boxers and coaches that grew from the seed Conner planted includes many branches, spanning several generations.
One of those branches, Chick McMurray, coached seven fighters to National Golden Glove Championships. McMurray coached Brandon Mitchem, a former amateur national champion who once finished second in the Olympic tryouts, and Billy Bridges, who won both an amateur and a professional national championship.
Taylor, whose success with Conner as coach earned him a place in the Carolinas Boxing Hall of Fame, has fond memories of his days being coached by Conner.
“He was always our biggest fan,” said Taylor.
Once, when fighting in New York City, Taylor had the opportunity to meet the most famous boxer of the 1950s, a meeting Conner almost unwittingly derailed.
“(Taylor) fought in one of the best fights I’ve ever seen in New York,” Conner said. “After the fight, a man asked permission to talk to him, and I said he was resting. It turned out to be Rocky Marciano’s uncle.”
Luckily, Taylor got to meet Marciano anyway. Taylor had breakfast with the boxing legend the next morning, despite sporting a black eye from the previous night’s fight, which he won.
Roby Jeton, another of Conner’s hall of fame fighters, has early memories of Conner that come not from the ring, but from the baseball diamond.
“When I started playing midget baseball, (Conner) was the coach,” said Jeton.
In addition, Jeton says Conner may be responsible for the career of one of the most outstanding athletes to ever call Lincolnton home, former major leaguer and Lincoln County baseball legend, Tony Cloninger.
“He’s one of the most famous athletes from Lincoln County,” Jeton said. “If it hadn’t been for (Conner) he may not have made it. (Cloninger) lived in Denver, and he used to walk all the way to town before (Conner) started picking him up.”
Despite helping young Cloninger get to baseball practice and coaching numerous boxers to victory, Conner remembers times when he was not so popular.
“When the boys started coming to me, they didn’t like me much,” said Conner.
Yet over time, Conner became a friend as well as a mentor to his fighters. He also helped put Lincoln County on the map as the home of some great boxers.
“Boxing is more a tradition in Lincolnton than football,” Jeton said. “When I went to fights in Gastonia and Charlotte, there were more people from Lincolnton than from those bigger cities.”
Lee Boyd, a Hall of Fame boxer whom Conner took to fight in New York City, also remembers a strong Lincoln County presence at area fights.
“Everyone who wanted to fight but couldn’t was there,” said Boyd. “And they were all from Lincolnton.”
According to McMurray, more national champion boxers hail from Lincolnton than from any other town in North Carolina. It is safe to say that Conner had a lot to do with that.
Though modest, Conner understands the important role he played in helping fighters hone their skills. Despite his success, Conner admits that it was not always easy.
“The coach can see what the fighter can’t when he’s in the ring,” Conner said. “But often, fighters don’t listen.”
Unfortunately, the boxing scene in Lincolnton today is not quite what it used to be.
“It’s pretty well dead all over the state,” said McMurray.
Boyd agrees. He says that nowadays the only chance he gets to enjoy a boxing match is on HBO.
Even Conner has turned his attention to a different sport. At 83, he has decided to focus on getting his golf game up to par.
“Believe it or not, I’ve shot my age for the last 10 years,” Conner said. “I’m a pretty fair golfer.”
As Conner attempts to conquer yet another sport, Jeton is preparing to introduce him at the ceremony in which he will be honored for his accomplishments in the sport he has loved for a lifetime. Jeton plans to use the opportunity wisely.
“I’m planning on getting even for some things,” said Jeton.
All joking aside, the induction ceremony will give all the fighters whose lives Conner has touched a chance to honor him. Hopefully, it will also give the rest of the Carolinas the chance to know about a man whose accomplishments in the sport of boxing have made Lincoln County very proud.
by Allyson Levine

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