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A Bout with Greatness
Once upon a time, a Milwaukee man could've been a contender, and proved it by fighting the best.

Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

Al Jenkins' right fist shot out, hammering his opponent’s jaw with almost enough force to change boxing history.

Surrounded by thousands of screaming fans at Chicago Stadium, the 23-year-old Milwaukee heavyweight was a world away from the prison where he’d first worn boxing gloves. It was the third and final round of his semifinal bout in the 1960 National Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions. And now his much better known and far more favored foe, a slick 18-year-old kid from Louisville, Ky., was hanging on for dear life.

Cassius Clay was in big trouble.

“He was out on his feet,” Jenkins recalls, the memory undimmed by the 52 years that have since passed. The 75-year-old tells the story at his sparse Milwaukee apartment, where old trophies and a scrapbook document his boxing tales. His short, salt-and-pepper hair rounds off at a receding hairline. The mustache is fuller and grayer than the pencil-thin one he wore as a fighter. But in his physique, there’s still a hint of the muscular heavyweight frame that supported the dazed Kentucky teen, who clung to him like a drunk hugging a lamppost.

“I couldn’t shake him off,” Jenkins says.

It was the young Clay’s uncommon wealth of experience that kept him from going down. The man who’d later change his name to Muhammad Ali had learned to box at age 11 and won all but a handful of some 100 fights. The year before, he’d captured the national Golden Gloves and Amateur Athletic Union tournaments as a 175-pound light heavyweight. “There was a lot of hype around him,” Jenkins says. “I told my trainer, ‘I hope we draw him.’”

Brash words for a man who’d had only 12 amateur fights since his release from the Waupun, Wis., state prison a few years earlier. Jenkins did time there for an armed robbery committed when the North Division High School dropout was just 19, and passed that time learning the rudiments of boxing from a fellow inmate.

He’d absorbed the lessons well. In the 1959 Golden Gloves national tourney, the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Milwaukee rookie made jaws drop (and ache) by knocking out three far more experienced opponents before losing what Milwaukee Journal sports writer Evans Kirkby called “an unpopular and baffling decision” in the semifinals.

A year later, there he was again, back in the national semis. Jenkins won the first round against Clay and lost the second, setting up the decisive third. The round was half over when Jenkins landed his haymaker and stunned his star adversary. “Clay kept holding me after I had him hurt, and finally I just stopped and looked at the referee to break us up.” It would’ve allowed Jenkins to land a finishing blow. But by the time the ref got around to separating them, Clay had recovered.

“Clay made a gallant rally after being staggered by Jenkins’ right,” wrote Kirkby, and the fight went to a decision. One judge had Jenkins winning, but the other two scored the fight for Clay. There was no upset, and Clay went on to win the Golden Gloves heavyweight title.

“If the referee had done his job, I’d have won that fight,” Jenkins says matter of factly, though he concedes that the decision “could have gone either way.” Losing to the man who eventually became known as the “Greatest of All Time” didn’t upset Jenkins. “I knew he was destined for great things,” Jenkins says. “I knew I’d taken my best shot.”

He and Clay hadn’t seen the last of each other. On the strength of his Golden Gloves performance, Jenkins earned an invitation to the 1960 U.S. Olympic boxing team’s eastern regional trials in Louisville. There, he and Clay trained together, though they weren’t allowed to spar because Clay’s trainer, Joe Martin, was afraid they might pick up where they’d left off in Chicago. Martin needn’t have worried.

“I always liked [Clay], and he always respected me,” Jenkins says. “He was kind of special. He knew what he wanted, and was pretty deep and insightful for an 18-year-old high school student.”

Jenkins and his wife, who accompanied him to Louisville, also discovered one reason why sports writers would christen Clay “The Louisville Lip.” He accompanied them to a double feature at a movie theater and made far more of an impression than whatever was on the screen. “I don’t know what we saw,” Jenkins says, “but it was wasted money because he talked through both movies nonstop. My wife said later, ‘Does he ever be quiet?’”

But Louisville didn’t go as planned for Jenkins. Having his wife there was a mistake. “I didn’t run, I didn’t abstain – all the things a good fighter should do.” In the Olympic regional trials, he was stopped by Wyce Westbrook of Ohio. “I just ran out of gas,” Jenkins says. “I was crushed. I knew what I had to do, but I just didn’t do it.” Clay, meanwhile, advanced to the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome and won the light heavyweight gold medal, his first big step toward worldwide fame.

Jenkins returned to Wisconsin and, in 1961, advanced to his third national Golden Gloves tournament in Chicago. Cassius Clay was also there, but this time as an observer. By now, he was an undefeated professional heavyweight. Jenkins was resting on a cot in one of the fighters’ dressing rooms when Clay approached him. “You’re gonna win the tournament this time,” said Clay, who’d already earned notoriety for predicting the results of his own bouts.

His prediction was on the money. In the finals, Jenkins won a decision over Claud Devenport for the heavyweight title. He’d become just the fifth Milwaukee boxer to win a national Golden Gloves championship since the competition’s inception in 1928.

Jenkins was only 24, and his fighting future seemed limitless. The Journal’s Kirkby invoked the name of another boxing legend, writing that he looked “very much like a youthful Joe Louis in the ring.” A pro career, Jenkins said in an interview, “could mean a better future than manual labor, even if you can’t get to the top. A lot of boys have made contacts and got opportunities through boxing they never would have had in any other way. I hope that’s what it will mean to me.”

But it wasn’t meant to be. Since Jenkins’ boyhood – which began in Jackson, Miss., before his family’s 1944 move to Milwaukee – he’d worn glasses to correct his poor eyesight. “In the amateurs, you didn’t have to take an eye test,” he says. “In the pros, I couldn’t pass the physical.” And just like that, after 30 amateur fights, only three of them losses, his boxing career was kaput.

Jenkins went through several jobs, and in 1965, “I picked up a pistol like a fool and helped a guy rob another guy.” He was sent back to Waupun, got out, did another armed robbery and went back in.

During his third stretch in the place where he’d first learned to fight, Jenkins discovered he could also hit the books. He got his GED and, upon release in 1971, took a hard look at his life. “I had lost my family,” he says. “That hurt, especially not being able to see my son, who was born in 1964. It just didn’t make sense to keep going back and forth to prison.”

Jenkins enrolled at Milwaukee Area Technical College, taking courses in English, Spanish, psychology, and labor and industrial relations. In 1978, he graduated with an associate liberal arts degree. His hoodlum days were over.

For several years, he worked in a foundry and then at A.O. Smith until a back injury put him on disability. Today, he has bladder cancer, diabetes, emphysema and asthma, none of which keeps him from a daily walk of 40 minutes up and down the hallway outside of his apartment on Milwaukee’s North Side. And since 1991, he’s been a daily volunteer with the Social Development Commission’s “Senior Companion” program.

“Al has really taken on the hard-core people, the ones who often aren’t able to verbalize,” says Bill Meunier, an SDC project assistant. “Al helps them to feel better and understand there are people who care.” It’s, Meunier adds, “the same spirit he had as a fighter, refusing to let what other people might see as insurmountable obstacles get in his way.”

By sad coincidence, Jenkins’ most famous boxing foe is also in rough shape due to Parkinson’s disease. The two fighters lost touch long ago, and nowadays, Jenkins doesn’t wonder what might have been if he’d hit Clay just a little bit harder or if his poor eyesight hadn’t precluded a pro boxing career. He’s proud of what he accomplished.

“It was the only thing I did well that wasn’t destructive,” he says. “I think about that a lot.”

The old trophies and the scrapbook’s faded news clippings are handy reminders. So is another item tucked among the headlines.

It’s a page torn from the 1961 Golden Gloves national tournament program. On the upper left-hand corner is scrawled the gracious words, “Best of Luck Al Jenkins.”

It’s signed, “Cassius Clay.”

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