For you that know me well, know that I am the man that sticks the playing cards on the ceiling. The first place I performed that trick was at a small oyster bar on state line avenue called Fat Jacks. I guess the year was somewhere around 1987 or 88. A regular face in the bar at that time was a sharp looking gentlemen that was always friendly and ready for a conversation. Getting to know Leo De La Rosa became quite a treat because of all the history and knowledge he had about Texarkana and the surrounding area. One of the things that was always mentioned, when the name of Leo De La Rosa came up, was boxing. There are certain things that just stick with you for a life time and boxing was firmly attached to Leo.
Leo was a participant in the Golden Glove Organization in Corpus Christi, Texas, beginning when he was twelve years old. Out of respect, I promised not to divulge the age of Leo, so I will not make any mention of his age in this article.
Leo stated that it all started in a pool-hall when a young man bumped into him and he picked his pocket. As the gentle walked out of the pool hall he looked to see what he had gotten and the information turned out that the man was a truant officer. He had just taken over after the old officer had retired. Leo said, “You know what was really strange is that after a couple of hours the guy came back into the pool-hall and came straight to me and ask for his stuff back. Now I couldn’t imagine how he knew that I had taken his wallet.” The gentleman took Leo by the arm and for a moment Leo thought the he was being lead the juvenile center. Leo said, “The young man took me around to all the local jails and detention centers letting me meet the characters that were locked up inside. After seeing all that I wanted to see, he then took me to a boxing gym that was just around the corner and introduced me to a man named Bill. Bill was a boxing trainer and manager that worked for the gym. Bill told me that he could help him out by keeping me out of the “Big House”. He said, “Bill told me that he knew some guys that would spar with him and that he would train him how to box.” I kept pulling on Bill’s shirt asking him what he wanted me to do. Bill finally became irritated and grabbed my shirt and pulled me up into the ring. Bill said, “Listen here ”grease ball”, I didn’t send for you, they brought you to me.” Leo said, “I kept calling him Chief, and I was asking him what he wanted me to do.” He said, “If we are going to be together in this deal you need to call me by my first name, and that is “MISTER”. The association I had with Mr. Bill was a lifelong inspiration to me. He was someone I always think about in times of hardship and trouble.” “Not only did Bill teach me how to box, he taught me everything in life in general. Also back in the old days we were taught to work on strict technique. We worked in front of mirrors and learned to shift around and how to spar properly.” At this time and age there is very little attention paid to the fine details of boxing. As a matter of fact Bill didn’t fight me for two years. He just trained me during all that time. I guess what I am trying to say is Bill did me a big favor by making sure I was ready to box. He turned out to be like a father to me, making sure that I was always ready for the battle.”
Leo spent a lot of time talking about the time he gathered the notion to try to get Muhammad Ali to come to Texarkana. He was working at the Federal Correctional Institute at the time and had a contact that was somewhat connected to Ali. After trying several days and getting the same message of, “he is out of town”, Leo finally got in contact with him. Working as a correctional officer at the time he thought that an exhibition fight would be perfect for his clientele. Ali was training for the fight against George Forman in “The Rumble in the Jungle”.
Don King had arranged this fight with the music businessman Jerry Masucci, who took his famed musicians, Fania All Stars, to play at the venue. King managed to get Ali and Foreman to sign separate contracts saying they would fight for him if he could get a $5 million purse. However, as King did not have the money, he began seeking an outside country to sponsor the event. Zaire’s dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, eager for the publicity such a high-profile event would bring, asked for the fight to be held in his country. It was really unexpected to have Ali to fly to Texarkana before this fight.
Well friends Ali showed up at the Texarkana Air port on August 15, 1975 backing up the words he had promised Leo weeks earlier.
After arriving at the FCI The people’s Champion said that he wanted to go into the segregated areas where the prisoners were housed. After being led into the segregated area, Ali shook hands and talked to many of the inmates. He came out and told Leo that personal contact was important. When asked if he sparred Ali at the exhibition, De La Rosa said “No and laughed. He’s 6-foot-3, and weighs 230 pounds,” I am 5-foot-7 and weigh a buck 20. The assistant warden did not want Leo in the ring at the exhibition, but he was set to referee. After all, he was the one that had put most of the event together. “I tried to tell him that it’s boxing tradition,” Leo said. “I told him that there are always three men in the ring.”
Leo and Ali met in Chicago at Golden Gloves Boxing Club in the late 1950s when both boxers were amateurs.
Ali walked into the club and saw Leo, who was in the corner of the boxing ring with a towel on his head. Ali asked him, ‘What are you hiding for? Who are you scared of?’ De La Rosa replied, ‘Nobody. Who are you?’
Ali said, “I’m Cassius Clay from Kentucky. I’m going to win the National Golden Gloves, the Olympics, and then the Heavyweight Championship of the World.’ De La Rosa replied, ‘Yeah, right.’
De La Rosa decided to keep his eye on Ali to see how he would fair in the Golden Gloves tournament. Ali won, and De La Rosa stayed in contact with the superstar boxer.
A promoter once paid travel expenses for De La Rosa to attend a fight between Ali and Cleveland Williams on November 14, 1966, in Houston. De La Rosa was granted all access, and Ali asked him what he thought about Williams. De La Rosa said that Williams was no match for him.
What a fun time talking old times with Leo De La Rosa. You never know what stories are hidden in the minds and memories of friends you have known for years. And there you go Leo, People still don’t know how old you are….. But I Do.