Jim Holley was not supposed to win. He knew it the moment he got that call in 1989: Boxing promoter Jerry Thomas had a ring, a date, and the West Virginia heavyweight champ all lined up, but he didn't have an opponent for him. Could Holley fight that Saturday? The pay was 600 bucks for six rounds.
But Thomas likely knew the answer before he made the call. Of course Holley would be there. He was a guy promoters could always count on.
Holley arrived at the Holiday Inn in Parkersburg two days later. It mattered not that the Ashtabula southpaw hadn't had a pro fight in almost a year or that he'd lost 18 of his last 20 bouts. He was in the business of losing, and he did it well. Winning? That took too much work.
"I never liked to train much," he admits. "And the women, woo -- if it weren't for the women, I could've had me a title."
His 215 pounds were neatly tucked on a 6-foot-3 frame, his shiny bald scalp accented by a sharp mustache, under which awaited a forever-flashing grin. He would be facing the mountainous Sammy Scaff, a 6-foot-8 lumberjack with 17 knockouts who'd be backed by a hometown crowd.
As Holley stepped beneath the fluorescent lights of the hotel banquet room and into the ring, the evening's favorite was never in doubt. Boos bounced throughout the room when Holley's name was announced. He danced around his corner unfazed, light shimmering off black trunks.
The bell rang and Scaff plodded toward him, trying to move the smaller man to the ropes as sweat dripped from his mullet. The crowd stood, raising plastic cups of Bud Light. Then, out of nowhere, Holley threw a nasty left that sent Slammin' Sammy to the floor. The fight was over in less than two minutes.
The crowd was pissed. Cups went flying. This isn't what they paid to see. But Holley was in a world of his own, jumping up and down. It may have been only a Holiday Inn in West Virginia, but for this one small, rare moment, Holley was king.
"We all thought that was pretty funny," says Joe Furst, a promoter from Lima. "The guy was supposed to be a real heavyweight champ, and he just closes his eyes and Holley knocks him out."
"I sent that guy into retirement," Holley recalls with delight 18 years later. "And see, I wasn't supposed to win. That's why they call you two days before a fight. They just need a body."
A living, willing body -- at 53, it's what best describes Holley's career. He was what's known in the boxing world as an Opponent -- with a capital "O" -- or less charitably as a stiff, a tanker, lunch meat, or a tomato can. He was among those who plumbed the depths of boxing, the paid punching bags who fill in last-minute vacancies on cards, the fodder whom more promising fighters use to pad their records.
His career record was a punishing 5-55 and landed him suspensions in six states. When you lose that many fights, you're a danger to yourself in the ring. And that record doesn't include the losses piled up by his large stable of tomato cans, who roamed the country by van, taking fights wherever they could get them.
For over two decades, he supplied boxing's lower rungs with a ready roster of stiffs, taking guys off the streets with the promise of a paycheck in exchange for a world of hurt, and turning Ashtabula into a tomato-can capital.
Promoters from Pennsylvania to Paris know his name. Some say he's the salt of the earth -- the most reliable guy in boxing. Others claim he's an unwashable stain on a once-great sport, a life-size mockery along with his famous "Holley-by-golly" fighters.
"Even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while," says Bernie Profato, director of the Ohio Athletic Commission. "I got no beef with Holley, but the guy's record is atrocious."
It's not that Holley cherishes that reputation. He would've loved to have bred a champ, but the timing was never right. So he took kids off the streets, providing bodies when bodies were needed. At least his wife and children had a roof over their heads. "I never thought about my reputation," he says.
He never lost on purpose, nor did his fighters. They simply honored the truth that without losers, there would be no winners. Besides, they were fighting for the same reason everyone does: "You never know when you might win."
There was a time when Ashtabula was known in the Kremlin. It was believed to be among the Soviet Union's primary nuclear targets, thanks to the city's uranium-enrichment and manufacturing capabilities. But driving through the city today, one wonders whether the commies didn't accidentally hit the launch button at some point.
As you head down Route 20, the main drag is lined with an abandoned elementary school, cash-advance shops in half-empty strip malls, and a used-car lot lined with rusting Mercury Sables. Holley's tidy green house is one of the few with life inside. To one side rests a crack house; to the other, a boarded-up hovel with tree branches bursting through its windows.
It's hard to believe this place was once immortalized by Bob Dylan and poet Carl Sandburg as a town as iconic as San Francisco, where giants like Union Carbide padded ledgers and modest folk bought fenced yards near the glory of Lake Erie.
Tim Moore remembers those times like yesterday -- when playgrounds weren't crack dealers' offices, when kids like Holley shot hoops between school and working out at the Y.
Moore, now 46, started boxing in the third grade, thanks to Ashtabula's thriving amateur program. That's where he first saw Holley brawl. "He always boxed," Moore says. "And he was always good. I think it was a family thing, because I always remember seeing his dad around training."
But by the 1970s, companies like Rockwell International were closing their plants. Ashtabula's boxing scene dried up. So Holley would head to Willoughby to fight in tough-man competitions at the Cosmopolitan Nightclub. "People would come off the streets, and there would be one-minute rounds," he says. Winning the tournament could bring you $1,000, a nice payday when everything around you is dying.
But after a handful of tourneys, Holley was barred from the club. "I was winning too much money," he says. So he decided to turn pro, training himself at the Y and in his backyard.
He had a promising start, winning two of his first three bouts. But like many coulda-beens, his aversion to the gym brought a swift descent. "When he was actually fighting, Jim could have been ranked," says promoter Furst. "He was good. He had a natural ability -- the way he thought and his skills. He just didn't train that hard, which is the same problem with a lot of young fighters. He just wore out too fast. So he tried to con his way through. Jim's a good con man. A good hustler too."
Though Holley continued to fight, he put more energy into recruiting other fighters, realizing there was plenty of cash to be made without setting foot in the ring.
He never left the house without his scale, driving to the mall and weighing anyone who looked capable of taking a blow. He became known as "How Much You Weigh?" Holley. If you had two arms, two legs, and half a brain, he could train you. "I had just about everyone in this town fighting," Holley says. "You walk down this street today, and you'll run into four or five guys that used to fight for me."
Once, he even recruited a girl off the side of the road. He was driving down the highway when he noticed a sturdy young woman standing next to her steaming Escort. Holley pulled over and offered a hand. "How much you weigh?" he asked. "Can you fight?"
"Hell yeah, I can fight," answered Greta Daniels.
Within a year, Holley had her fighting in Atlantic City against J'Marie Moore, daughter of legend Archie Moore. "She won that fight, but they wouldn't give it to her, because it was Moore's daughter," Holley says. "That's the way they do this game. You've got to have clout."
It's the lament of losers everywhere: I woulda won but . . . The difference is Holley kept pushing.
He was eventually managing more than 30 fighters. He built a ring in his yard, using a garage door, plywood, and old carpet for the flooring. He finished it off with canvas donated to him by an army-surplus store and rope from a feed outlet. "We trained on that for seven years," he says. "In the winters, we'd head down to the Y. Then I had to tear it down when my granddaughter was born and put up a swing set."
His front porch was a constant home to wannabes. They showed up because there was nothing else to do. Holley was always ready with a pair of Everlasts. "I was just trying to get kids off the streets."
Through promoters like Mike Acri and Furst, Holley found his stable steady work. He'd pile 15 guys into a passenger van and drive across the country for weeks at a time. "The way it worked was, I'd need three guys who were 125, 134, and 142 pounds," says Acri. "So I'd call up Jim and say, 'You got those guys?' Then I'd ask him what their records were, and they'd be around one to three or something, and then I'd say, 'Bring them up to Albany, New York.'"
For low-rent fights, they'd earn $100 a round. If they landed on a casino card, they could expect to see up to $2,000 a bout. Overseas, they could make $3,000, win or lose. And mostly they lost.
Eventually, Holley's supply of boxers earned him a reputation as the most reliable man in the business. Need seven guys for a card on Thursday? Holley had them. "He provided a great service for boxing," Furst says. "He's just a heck of a guy. If it hadn't been for guys like Jim Holley, there wouldn't be a lot of these prima-donna fighters, you know. Jim had good, reasonable opponents."
Holley's childhood friend Tim Moore also got in on the action. After a tough stint with drug addiction, he went to Holley looking for work and quickly became his corner man. "Holley said 'Man, you don't have to live this way,'" Moore remembers. "He got me off drugs and gave me work, and it was great work too. I was down in Atlantic City for months working with his fighters. He did that for a lot of people -- got them off the streets, off the drugs, and gave them work."
Moore remembers one night when a group was driving home from St. Louis. Everyone was exhausted. Holley turned to one of his fighters and said, "Just shut up and drive." As Holley and Moore slept in the back, they suddenly felt themselves come to a stop in the middle of nowhere. Holley asked what was going on. "You told me to drive," the fighter said.
"We'd ran out of gas," Moore laughs. "But that was how blindly loyal they were to Holley. He said 'Just drive,' and that's exactly what the guy did, without any questions about where he was supposed to go."
Sometimes, Holley's fighters would actually win. Cruiserweight Exum Speight, picked off the streets of Ashtabula, won a bout televised by the USA Network. He also knocked out North American Heavyweight Champ Lyle McDowell. Holley's son, Maurell, beat Eric "Butterbean" Esch, whose record is 77-7.
Then, in 1998, Ray Austin showed up on his doorstep. Austin, a drug dealer recently freed from prison on trafficking charges, heard from a guy in lockup that Holley trained fighters. He wanted in on the action. Holley took him to Columbus for his first fight. Austin lost, but Holley knew the kid was gonna earn. "I thought to myself, I finally got me a champ."
But Austin had other ideas. He knew it would be impossible to make real money with a guy who ran on the hillbilly circuit. After his first match with Holley, he left to train with Cleveland's Romeo Connors, a more respected trainer. Connors eventually took Austin all the way to his first million-dollar purse and no. 2 in the IBF rankings.
It would prove a recurring motif. Whenever a fighter showed promise, he would eventually fall into the arms of a better trainer, one who could offer world-class gyms and paydays with more digits. To most, Holley was little more than a charming but unrefined hustler, a purveyor of willing stiffs.
"I was mad," Holley says. "People were always stealing my fighters. But that's the way it goes."
On a scorching June day, Holley retreats to the bowels of Ashtabula's YMCA to play his regular Tuesday round of racquetball.
As he smacks the ball, he huffs about how boxing sold him out, how he did all these favors, rescued all these fights for promoters, managers, and trainers, and how he got nothing in return. "After these guys get what they want, I get bad publicity," he says. "I had more work than anybody, but people are always talking about how bad my fighters are, how Ashtabula is full of tomato cans."
The city, in fact, had become known in boxing circles as the "Hall of Shame."
"I go way back with this guy," says the Athletic Commission's Profato. "His fighters were a joke. Some of the guys never got to even sit down on the stool because they got knocked down so fast."
For a sport that maintains the principles of a Clark Avenue pimp, boxing still has rules. If someone loses six consecutive fights, he's automatically suspended. And if a fighter is knocked out, he must wait 60 days to fight again. No one wants to explain why there's a dead tomato can in his ring. But Holley often ignored such rules.
He earned plenty of suspensions for his own performances. Throughout the 1980s, he landed a series of suspensions for losing fights from New Jersey to Ohio. After a 1990 match in the U.K., in which Holley was knocked out within 68 seconds, the British Boxing News labeled him the "hapless heavyweight" and wondered why officials ever allowed him to climb into the ring.
Then, in 1991, Holley was suspended indefinitely on his home turf. Alexander Zolkin was supposed to fight in Columbus, but his opponent was a no-show. Holley was suspended at the time, but he offered to save the match. The boxing commission agreed to let him fight. After being knocked out in the third round, he was immediately placed back on suspension.
"When he couldn't fight here anymore, he started taking his guys to other states," Profato says. "And then they started suspending him out there because he was probably bringing in the same poor product."
In 1996, Holley was touring the U.S. when one of his fighters, Lynell Calloway, got knocked out in Chicago. This posed a problem: Calloway was supposed to be on a card in Philadelphia the very next night.
He begged Holley to let him fight. Calloway had a wife and a newborn at home; he badly needed the money. Holley acquiesced. But when the Pennsylvania commission realized Calloway had been knocked out the night before, they suspended Holley's Pennsylvania license and fined him $1,500.
"This is a part of the business that truly disgusts me, to be honest," says Dan Rafael, a boxing writer for ESPN.com. "There's something noble about getting a guy off the street. It's another to drive a kid across the country to get his brains beat out. It's one of the bad parts of the sport. There are guys out there willing to shove a body into the ring to make a buck."
But if Holley was benefiting from his warehouse of tomato cans, so were promoters, who'd often arrange cards and start selling tickets at $50 a pop -- without the combatants to fill them. Refs and judges worked by a double standard, paid to turn their heads when Holley's fighters entered the ring, only to make a stink when crowds screamed about rip-offs.
"Everyone knew what was going on," Furst says. "Jim Holley provided a very valuable service for the people who are bad-mouthing him. [Those guys] probably got a couple prima-donna fighters, and he probably got opponents for those fighters, and those guys don't have the guts to say he did a service for them. They should be giving him an award, not penalizing him."
But that's how the system worked. Promoters weren't crucified for serving audiences the sporting equivalent of spam. Judges and refs never lost their jobs for going along with the folly. It was Holley who paid penance for the sins of boxing. "I did a lot of guys a lot of favors," he says. "They called me last minute. That's the way it works. And all these refs and commissioners knew what was going on, but they put it on me. It's crooked, let me tell you."
Promoters would also stiff Holley when his guys would win. Once, an Akron promoter refused to pay the winner of the main event. Holley showed up with six of his guys at the promoter's restaurant. The purse was quickly paid.
Still, all the suspensions, fines, and rubber checks couldn't stop Holley. He kept filling cards farther and farther away, from France to Brazil.
In 2001, he got a call from a promoter in Honolulu. The guy was seriously screwed. He had a fight that weekend, but he was seven guys short. Could Holley come through?
The next thing Holley knew, he was on a plane to Hawaii. "I was traveling all over the world," he says. "You name it -- I went there. I saved a lot of shows."
But five days after he returned from Honolulu, the feds were waiting for him.
Brandon Kuhn was among the young wannabes who showed up regularly on Holley's porch. But in a rare moment of restraint, Holley refused to let him fight. "He just wasn't any good. He didn't want to train. Just lazy." But he did provide Kuhn with a place to live.
In 1999, Kuhn called from a pay phone and told Holley to turn on the evening news. A Midwest Fireworks store in Conneaut had gone up in flames.
Two years later, the feds finally tracked Kuhn down, pegging him for arson.
He would soon confess -- and claim that Holley received $5,000 to torch the place. Kuhn didn't know who gave Holley the money or what they wanted, but he agreed to light the place up for a $2,000 cut.
Kuhn said Holley drove him to Conneaut, provided the supplies, and told him to get to work.
Holley denied everything, though he admits to knowing who wanted the fire set. "Kuhn took it upon himself to burn that place down," he says. "I knew who put him up to it, but I wouldn't tell, so they made it awfully hard for me."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Phillip Tripi says otherwise. "Evidence, including live witnesses introduced at trial, showed that Holley paid Kuhn to set the fire and provided him with transportation." A jury found Holley guilty on all counts. He was sentenced to five years in federal prison and ordered to pay over $400,000 in restitution.
He continued to recruit in prison, training fighters in the courtyard, just as he'd done in his backyard. And he continued to get in trouble. "They don't even let you do a push-up in there," he says.
He was finally released in 2005. With no money and his wife shouldering the household expenses, boxing was a distant memory. He took a truck-driving job for a sign company, working 14-hour shifts.
But in May, he cut back on hours so he could start training his nephew, Ramon Holley, a promising heavyweight with a willingness for the gym. He's picked up extra kids as well -- two sturdy young men from his Ashtabula neighborhood and a girl "with a bad attitude" he found working at a Subway.
This time, Holley says it's going to be different. "I've done people so many favors, I'm favored out," he says. "Now it's my turn. I want a champ."
Before Holley can get back into the game, he has to pay $3,000 in fines and get his suspensions removed. Profato says that won't be an easy task. "He's still suspended in four states," he says. "And as long as he is listed as suspended in the [national boxing database], he's suspended in Ohio. Even if he does clean up, I can't imagine that he'll get more than a conditional license here in Ohio, which means that he only gets two fights, and if he loses either of them, he's done for good."
Holley hopes to open a gym. But despite the heap of empty buildings that litter Ashtabula, he says he can't find a place. Either the neighborhood is too dangerous or the rent is too high.
Even the YMCA has refused to let Holley start a boxing program at its facilities. Though he's been a Y regular since childhood and used it as his office during his heyday, an ex-con with a history of running stiffs is a hard sell for the Y's board.
So for now, Holley makes the 45-minute drive to Cleveland, where he trains Ramon and other hopefuls at Romeo Connors' new gym, a converted party center between a church and a barbecue joint on Stockbridge Avenue.
On a humid Friday in July, his newest recruits pause between push-ups to watch Connors' pros shadow-box around the room. Their jaws drop as they watch Paul Scianna's body elegantly spasm into combinations of hooks, jabs, and ducks. You can see it on their faces -- they want to fight, bad.
As his guys skip rope, Holley sits in the corner, scrutinizing the natural skill and work ethic of each. This guy's kind of lazy, he's thinking. That one, he does some nice handwork. Could any be a champ?
He's thinking aloud about getting a gym, digging out the ring stored away in the garage. Then he starts running through a list of names -- other fighters he could use for sparring and amateur fights, places where he could promote tough-man shows.
He's adding up the dollars as a petite brunette catches his eye. "Oooh-we, just my type," he tells the girl. "What you weigh? 107? I can make a fighter out of you."