By Ben Joravsky
The young men at the front desk of the martial arts studio on Lincoln Avenue won't let Johnny Lira into the gym because they don't know who he is.
Lira explains that he's a retired boxer who used to work out in this gym. He knows the owner. They're longtime friends. He, Lira, still teaches a class there. Sorry, the deskmen say; the rule is we can't let you in unless we know you.
No big deal, Lira shrugs. They can't be more than 24 or 25. Why should they know that Lira's one of the great characters in local boxing, that 15 or so years ago he was one of the toughest fighters in town, a hard-luck kid who almost became world lightweight champion? And after years in Vegas and Miami and on the road, promoting fights and managing boxers, he's come back home. He makes his living as a superintendent for a contracting firm, but he's calling friends and writers to let them know that "Johnny's in town" and he's "got a million ideas."
"I'm working to set up a pension fund for retired fighters with Senator John McCain of Arizona," he says. "I want to clean up the sport around here. They're killing it. We got incompetents in charge of other incompetents. What they did to the Park District boxing is a disgrace. It's the rape of boxing, I call it."
Lira's a lucky man. He's taken thousands of blows to the head but his mind still works fast. He loves to talk. When he gets going he can't stop. One theme leads to the next. No matter where he is--a restaurant, a gym, a street corner--he punctuates his points by stabbing the air with big, thick fingers as his rising voice scrambles from topic to topic.
"I was just a kid on the street until I found boxing," he says. "I grew up around Grand and Ogden. I went to Santa Maria, Holy Innocents, Holy Name Cathedral, Talcott, Montefiore--and that's just grammar school. For high school, let's see--oh hell, I can't remember them all. I was thrown out of every school I went to. I wound up sneaking into Holy Trinity, Wells, and Lane just to be with my buddies. They didn't throw me out of there because they didn't know I was there.
"I wasn't a stupid kid. I was mildly dyslexic. I used to see letters backward. I was always questioning the nuns on everything. I always wanted to know why. Why this? Why that? In their eyes I was a pest. They were always telling me to forget about it. I was always getting into fights. I was this redheaded, freckle-faced kid, kind of chubby. A guy'd pick on me and bam, I'd knock him in the head. I had a great punch. One punch and he went down."
He took up boxing in the third grade. "The first person who taught me the science of boxing was this lady at the Boys Club at 524 N. Wolcott. They called her the nurse, but I don't know why they called her that, because she wasn't a nurse, she was a librarian. She had us studying chess. She associated boxing with chess. A queen was a right hand. The rook, a left hook. The bishop, a right uppercut. The pawns were the jabs, and so on. I don't know how she knew boxing. Maybe she thought that's the only way to reach us 'cause that's all we were interested in.
"Now, this Boys Club had a boxing ring up on the third floor. And here's the funny thing--the coach associated boxing with chess. You had the nurse teaching us chess and talking about boxing and the coach teaching us boxing and talking about chess. He said boxing's the science of deception, just like chess--you want to trick your opponent, getting him to make a move he doesn't want to make. That's what fascinates me about boxing. The deviousness of the moves. It's a modern derivation from the fencing masters in France. They used to teach their students to stab without being stabbed. That's boxing--hit without being hit. It's not a rage. A fighter uses rage--a boxer uses science. The greatest boxers weren't bullies. Muhammad Ali wasn't a bully. Oscar De La Hoya's not a bully."
By the time he was 18 Lira had been in and out of several jails and juvenile detention centers. "My rap sheet was three or four pages long--battery, assault, murder. I don't pretend I was a saint. I've been accused of things I didn't do and I got out of things I did do. But I never murdered anyone."
The murder charge was filed after a young man was killed in a street brawl. The case against Lira was dismissed after an eyewitness testified that Lira wasn't at the scene. "A lot of the judges and lawyers I met, they changed my life," he says. "Judge Saul Epton, he was the judge in my murder trial. Jack Rimland, he was my lawyer--I call him the Jewish Johnny Cochran. I love that man. Judge Marvin Aspen, he set me up on a work-release parole program. He told me to stay in boxing and get my life straight."
By the late 1970s Lira was one of the country's most promising professional lightweights (he fought at 135 pounds). "I trained at the C.Y.O. gym over at Racine and Jackson. I worked with some of the best--Chuck Bodak, Johnny Tocco, and Tony Zale. The man of steel, the finest piece of steel to ever come out of Gary--that's what the ringside announcers used to say about Tony. Because of the lack of promotions in Chicago I moved on to Vegas sometime in the 70s, and that's where I had most of my pro fights.
"I beat Andy Ganigan to win a shot at the lightweight championship. It was in an outdoor stadium in Hawaii in front of 15,000, 20,000 people. In my corner was Mike 'Sarge' Gambino. Our purse was $25,000 and we had bet $15,000 on the side. We were 15 to 1 underdogs. In the seventh round I hit him with a group of punches. My shots were landing with more and more velocity. I hit him with a right after a left uppercut, and he went down. Good night, sweet prince. He was in a coma for 31 days. By the time he came out I was back in Vegas."
Lira fought Ernesto Espana in Chicago for the world championship. Rimland remembers watching on TV. "Johnny was not one of those tremendously stylistic fighters, like Sugar Ray Leonard," says Rimland. "But he was diligent. He had what they call in the fight game 'heart.' In the fifth or sixth round he knocked Espana down. I thought, 'This is it--he's gonna do it.' But Espana got up and in either the eighth or the ninth he opened a cut over Johnny's eye and they called the fight. That was as close as Johnny got to being champ--but give him this, he fought for the title."
Lira retired in 1983 after getting pounded by Russell Mitchell. "Mitchell beat me and he beat me bad," says Lira. "After that I knew it was over."
For the next 15 years he was in and out of Chicago, Vegas, and Miami. He promoted some fights, managed some boxers, took bit roles in B movies. In the early 90s he called reporters around town to let them know he was managing a hearing-impaired ("don't say deaf--it's not politically correct") boxer named David Davis. But Davis's career ended when he was injured in a car accident; soon after, Lira moved back to Miami, where he worked with the legendary trainer Angelo Dundee.
He came home last year and bought a place on the near west side, not far from where he grew up. He says he has a lot of friends in local politics--congressman Rod Blagojevich, 47th Ward Democratic committeeman Ed Kelly, 33rd Ward alderman Richard Mell, and secretary of state Jesse White, to name a few.
"My number one objective is to create a pension plan for retired boxers. The way I see it, everyone who makes anything off a fight should give a little piece of it to a pension fund for boxers. Another thing--I'd like to get involved in the Park District. It stinks, the way they're running their boxing program. Since Ed Kelly left you got incompetents running things. They don't know about sports."
To prove his point, he heads over to the field house at Clarendon Park near Montrose and the lake. The entrance to the boxing gym's locked, but the field house manager opens it for Lira. The gym's dark and cool. "Look at this, no one's here," he says. "It don't even smell of sweat, like it hasn't been used in weeks."
He steps into the ring and dodges and darts. It gets him going on his glory days. "I was fighting at the Silver Slipper, a small casino in Vegas. And before the fight I had to go, you know, take a piss. So I'm standing there at the urinal and I look to my left and it's Johnny Carson and I look to my right and it's Doc Severinsen. I can't believe it. I wanted to shake their hands but, you know, we all got our things in our hands. So I said, 'Aren't you Doc Severinsen and Johnny Carson?' And they said, 'Aren't you Johnny Lira? We're gonna watch you fight.' Imagine that--they knew me!
"After the fight, we went out to dinner. Me and Johnny and Doc and Tony Orlando and Sylvester Stallone's brother, oh, I can't think of his name. The guy who wrote the theme to Rocky. Frankie--Frankie Stallone. Yeah, Vegas was something. When you were up they treated you like a king.
"Listen, I don't say boxing's the greatest thing in the world. It's hard. When they punch it hurts, even if it don't leave a mark. But still, come on, there should be kids in this gym. This is a ghetto neighborhood. This gym should be packed. Where are the fighters? They should be hitting the bags! Nothing's changed since I was coming up. You gotta figure there's kids around here who are just like I was--a bunch of hard-asses who could use a break."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.