Boxing legend Kenny Loehr still ringside at 80

Friday, May 18, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — Sitting ringside at a scuffed up card table, the coach yells over the steady pounding of jump ropes and leather gloves.

"Get that left hand up, man," he says. "Jab high. You ain't fighting no midget."

The young fighters press on, rotating to the next exercise every four minutes when a timer blares.

The second-floor gym is stuffy, even with two windows open. Eight heavy bags swing from metal rafters. A gaping hole in the two-toned green walls remains after a pipe problem four years ago.

This is Kenny Loehr's gym. Loehr, 80, has been teaching young men to fight for 57 years, and as long as they keep coming he'll keep training them.

Over the years, Loehr was the U.S. head coach for the World Games, the Goodwill Games and the Pan American Games. He trained brothers Michael and Leon Spinks, and was there when they won gold medals in the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. Another of his boxers, Eric Griffin, took a gold medal at the 1989 World Boxing Championships in Moscow.

"The only thing I didn't make was coach of the Olympic Boxing Team, and I should have made that, but I wasn't the type," he said. "I wasn't kissing nobody's butt."

Loehr was inducted into the Golden Gloves Hall of Fame in 1988 and the USA Boxing Hall of Fame in 2005.

He's got a room in the basement of his Mehlville home loaded with trophies. But at the gym it's all about the current boxers.

"What are you, gonna kiss him? Come on, work," he yells out to a fighter. "Them ain't no punches."

When they finish, after they run, they come back to the table for his approval and soda money.

"I tell them if they don't thank me, I don't buy 'em the next time," he said.

Loehr was one of five boys, the son of a St. Louis police officer who later ran a tavern.

Loehr attended Holy Ghost Grade School and fought his first fight at age 13.

"I used to get picked on quite a bit, but when I started boxing, it was a different story," he said. "I learned how to take care of myself pretty good."

He boxed for six years, and in 1948, he won the regional Golden Gloves championship at 126 pounds.

In 1950, he enlisted in the Marines, and shortly after he was shipped to Korea he got shot in his right foot, but it didn't end his boxing career.

Five years later, Loehr got into coaching. He worked as a mailman so he could get to the gym by 2:30 every day.

In 1958, he married Rose Rosner. "My wife had four or five miscarriages," he said. "I guess the good Lord, that's the way he wanted it. I could have never did this if I had kids."

Loehr said he thinks of his boxers as sons.

His time at De Soto Center was during the height of amateur boxing in St. Louis. Loehr had 60 or more kids fighting in every tournament.

"Kenny had a team that was like the Roman Army," said Jim Howell, head coach of the North County Athletic Association. "When we went to the Golden Gloves tournament, he had most of the champions going to the national tournament for years and years."

While at De Soto, Loehr began to work with a young fighter, Harold Petty, who went on to become a St. Louis Golden Gloves champ five times, the national AAU champion in 1979 and a runner-up in the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1980.

Petty, who helps Loehr coach now, remembers their first meeting. Petty was 10, and some of his buddies took him to the gym.

"Ken knew what everybody was doing all the time, and he had this little stick," said Petty, 51. "If you were shadow boxing, and you dropped your hands, he would come out of nowhere and hit you. Pow."

After Loehr whacked one of the boxers, Petty said he wondered what he had gotten himself into.

"Ken stopped right in front of me and said 'What do you want?' and I said, 'I just come to box.' He said 'OK. Put your clothes over there and do this.' "

Loehr's coaching style is the perfect combination of toughness and compassion, Petty said.

"Boxing helped make me the man that I am," he said. "It helped shape my confidence."

Today Loehr usually works with young fighters, ages 8 to 13. Although interest in boxing has declined over the years, Loehr still trains about a dozen boys.

"I don't deal with too many big kids no more because they don't do what you want them to do," Loehr said.

Most of the boxers are from poor families, broken homes.

Devontee Courtney, 11, has been training with Loehr for two years.

"Coach tells me no getting into trouble at school, and keep your grades up," he said.

Devontee's brother, Vantrell, 12, said boxing is a fun sport but that you have to take it seriously.

"This guy teaches us discipline, and he teaches us to be responsible," he said.

St. Louis Police Capt. Jerry Leyshock oversees the Police Athletic Fund, which provides money for equipment and tournament fees for the boxers. Underneath Loehr's gruff exterior is a guy who really cares, Leyshock said.

"It's nothing for a kid who took a pretty good hit in the first round to come back with a tear in his eye, and Kenny to yell at him that he better knock that off, you know the crying part," he said. "But what people don't know is, if the kid loses a tough match, Kenny has a hard time composing himself where nobody can see him because he feels for them."

Loehr, who gets paid $10 an hour by the city, trains five days a week, from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. But Loehr said he gets just as much from the boxers as he gives.

"They make you feel so good," he said. "I ain't kidding you, they're keeping me alive right now. I know they are."

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