On Being a Professional Fighter: An Interview with Jeff Bumpus
by Phil Rice - In the immediate post-Ali days of the 1980s, televised boxing had no shortage of flashy dancers trying to grab the attention of a boxing public starved for the sort of entertainment the self-styled “Greatest” had provided for twenty years. Unfortunately, none could match Ali's superlative ability to combine theatrics with athleticism, and few—very few—could even come close. As trainers were quick to point out, Ali's speed and reflexes enabled him to get away with going contrary to boxing axioms, but mere mortals were better advised to stick to the proven fundamentals.
Article posted on 19.03.2010
As a viewer of the televised fight cards—and in the 80s there were frequent opportunities to watch entire boxing cards on the tube—I found myself bored by the obnoxious braggarts who seemed to think that boasting and dancing were the essence of boxing. A little flash, a little style, fine, but stick to the business at hand. To do otherwise, in my mind at least, was to cheapen the sport itself, to overemphasize the entertainment aspects. So the fighters who caught my eye were more often the ones who demonstrated a solid work ethic in and out of the ring. Sometimes these were champions, such as Alexis Arguello or Marvin Hagler, but the working-class guys filling out the cards were what really kept the sport alive.
Among the multi-dimensional glare of the televised boxing theatrics there resided—as there has always resided in the prize-ring—a core group of fighters who were driven by something beyond glory, beyond fame, beyond even money.. These guys were holding up the sport through blue-collar values instead of through posing or artificial aplomb. Celebrity status and money were well and good, but such trinkets were not their primary goal. They were fighters, period. Historically speaking the list of such boxers is a long one, but among my favorites from the 1980s is a guy named Jeff Bumpus.
I didn't need the television announcers to tell me much about Jeff as a fighter. He was one of those guys who told the viewers—and his opponents—plenty within the opening seconds of a bout. What he said was, "I'm here to fight and here's what I got." He was skilled but nowhere close to being fancy. The slickest quality he brought into the ring was his southpaw stance. Beyond that fact he was pure meat & potatoes. Good chin, good power, solid fundamentals. Those qualities were quickly evident. Less obvious at first glance were the subtleties. Heart, desire, and other boxing clichés revealed themselves when the tenor of the fight turned tough, and as things will do inside the ring, they turned tough for Jeff quite often.
Jeff "The Tazmanian Devil" Bumpus was a professional boxer from 1984 until 1993, compiling a record of 32-8-1 with 20 knockouts. He was a good fighter and a solid pro. Not only did he fight some of the top names in the lightweight and junior welterweight divisions, but during one six-month period he faced Greg Haugen, Vinny Pazienza, and Julio Cesar Chavez in succession. He lost tough decisions to each of those world class fighters, but he gave an excellent account of himself in the process.
As with many professional boxers, Bumpus wasn't brought along on a schedule designed to nurture his development but was instead obliged to take whatever fights were offered, ready or not. This meant that he frequently was fighting on short notice and up against opponents with huge advantages in experience, often in the other guy's hometown. But he had a good grasp of the fundamental tools necessary to compete in the ring, and he always fought with determination and an irrepressible heart. Ultimately those qualities would define his career as a prizefighter.
A few months ago I came across Jeff online and sent him a note that basically said "thanks for all those entertaining fights." He graciously responded, and we wrote back and forth a little bit. Spend anytime at all conversing with him, even if it's just by exchanging a few emails, and you'll discover that he's a squared-away guy with a sharp intelligence and a pleasant disposition. He's also a gifted storyteller. Some people study the art of storytelling for years in colleges and universities without being able to participate in the art itself, while others—like Jeff—seem to naturally understand how it all works. Given these points of character, it occurred to me that he'd make for an interesting interview. So he and I exchanged a few more emails, the results of which are transcribed below.
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Phil Rice: Jeff, let me start off by saying that it is a true pleasure to be able to catch-up with a fighter who, as anyone who followed boxing in the 1980s knows, epitomized the word "pro" in the ring.
You jumped into professional boxing with a very limited amateur background, yet during your career you were competitive against fighters such as Greg Haugen, Vinny Pazienza, Bret Summers, and other tough pros with world-class amateur pedigrees. How were you able to make such a successful transition into the pro ranks without putting in more time as an amateur?
Jeff Bumpus: I believe I always viewed the amateur ranks as a temporary situation, a learning platform with an eye on being a professional. I think the thing that enabled me to go from zero experience to climbing inside the ropes with those guys was the fact that I did nothing but eat, sleep, and drink boxing for years. I worked an 8-hour job, drove home like a maniac and ran to my coach's house, went to the gym, worked out a couple of hours, ran home, and then shadow boxed until the late hours. My memories of that time include a great deal of solitude. But that's the cost, and I'd empty the pockets and pay it again if I was given the chance.
PR: You've been described as having a "pro style." How would you define such an assessment, and in what ways was it an advantage or disadvantage in your career?
JB: Maybe a pro style just means a fighter does the best he can with the tools available to him. No one ever described me as a one punch KO artist, or possessing speedy hands or brilliant boxing ability. But I showed up and God help you if you weren't ready to fight. Disadvantage or advantage? I guess if you can't find one of those "specialty" labels for a fighter, he's going to have a hard time winning a world title. So to answer that question, maybe it's a disadvantage to the casual boxing fan, and a plus to a hardcore boxing fan. It all depends on where your loyalties lie. I have a huge amount of pride in being told I had a pro style.
PR: Looking at your record, it appears that during your first year fighting professionally you were really getting a quick taste of the hardcore life of a fighter. I know it's difficult to squeeze into just a few sentences, but how would your describe those early bouts?
JB: What I remember was the thrill of this feeling like I was on my way. I was learning the trade. It looks like a lot of fights for one year but to be honest with you, the only night that I got to come alive and shine was fight night. Twelve or fourteen nights out of a whole year really isn't that much. The rest of the time my head was down. It seemed like that four-week period between fights was an extremely long time. By the time these yo-yos get my gloves on and I'm finally inside the ropes and ready to go, I'm thinking "FINALLY . . . took me four weeks to get here!"
PR: You managed to show up on television during that first year, defeating Randy Reedy in a four-rounder. That had to have been a thrill for a young fighter.
JB: ESPN was the place to be for a fighter trying to get noticed and Bob Arum was at ringside. Future light heavyweight champ Don LaLonde was fighting local hero Carlos Tite in the main event. My family, friends and coworkers were parked in front of the TV. I had pretty much worked myself into a shaking maniacal state, and then I was the first fight of the night on the televised portion of the card. If I could bottle that feeling and sell it, there would be no drug problem in this country. I forgot to throw a real live jab for pretty much all of the first two rounds. I did a punch count long before HBO came up with their phony punch stats. I "averaged" 110 punches a round and as I said, none of those punches were jabs in the first two rounds. I was all adrenaline and enthusiasm and I came Ye Verily close to crying like a four-year-old with relief when I won the fight. I won my first televised fight, and that particular fantasy had kept me entertained for many miles of roadwork previously. That was a great night.
PR: Just a few months later you went in against 22-0-1 Danny Ferris in front of his home crowd. Apparently someone thought you would be the perfect stepping-stone opponent for Ferris, a former amateur standout who was being touted as a professional prospect. But it turned out to be the other way around. What happened?
JB: Danny had progressed to the point where he needed to move up in competition in order to grow as a fighter. In our situation, it was the same reason I was in with Haugen and Pazienza later that year. We didn't have the sterling amateur background or the money behind us to bring me along "carefully." It was my first ten rounder. My intro to the big time. To move forward I had to win. If I lose I lose the momentum and progress of the past year. I didn't want to go back. It was a decent matchup in which they figured he was the naturally bigger fellow and his strength would prevail. They had only seen me in the Reedy fight on ESPN and took the bout thinking that I was wild and would run out of rage and be easier to handle late in a ten-round fight. For the first time, I think in my life, I was the faster fighter and I was hitting him from places he couldn't see. As far as running out of gas, they backed the wrong horse there because it wasn't happening to me that night. After the fourth round he had been down a couple of times and his corner just decided that it would be best to try again another night. I had one of those nights where you could do no wrong. Couldn't have come at a better time for me
PR: You started 1985 with five victories in five bouts in the first six months, including the Ferris fight. You slowed your pace for the second half of the year, with only three bouts, and you would lose tough decisions in each—but the opponents were named Haugen, Pazienza, and Chavez, in that order. That's quite a line-up.
Haugen was undefeated but still an unknown quantity at the time, at least on the East Coast. Pazienza was probably better known but still unproven. You severely tested the mettle of each. What did you learn about these two future world champions as fighters—and about yourself?
JB: I think what happened by the summer of '85 was that I had run the gauntlet of preliminary challenges. I was having a hard time getting any fights at all at that point. We would have to go national to advance my career. I felt confident that I could make the jump in stature of competition. I definitely wanted to make the jump. But I didn't know as much about the "craft" of boxing as I needed to know. The fight with Greg was an overnight call to fill in for John Meekins who was unable to fight. I was given little info on him and he was given false info on me, so we were pretty even there. He had a couple hundred amateur fights and I was as strong as anybody he was going to run into but I was all heart and muscle without too much skill. Greg had heart, strength, and skill. He did very well throughout his career with "pressure" fighters. It was the luck of the draw. I learned I had one of the best chins in the world at lightweight—not something you want to learn on national TV.
Vinny was a force of nature. I've grown to be good friends with Vinny over the years. His parents treated me like family when I visited him in Rhode Island. We have the kind of friendship that two guys who have punched each other for an evening or so acquire. He would come firing with bad intentions and I would fire back, but his speed was better, his combinations were better. The successful career stats of other fighters who are and were considered formidable opponents for those two tell me that I wasn't out of either Greg's or Vinny's league, just that they had mastered a few skill sets that I hadn't quite gotten to yet. Their combination punching was superior to my own. They didn't eat punches they didn't have to. Courage-wise, those two fights proved a lot to me personally because things go wrong inside the ropes and you have to deal with them, right then and there. I showed myself that somewhere inside was a snarling and unlicensed beast that wasn't going to take this lying down, even if he was wounded. Everybody has the heart of a champion when they are on their game and things are going their way. But how many can say they will dig down and fire back with a broken gun or with closed eyes or blood pouring? I found out in those two bouts that, even if I didn't possess all the skills, I wasn't lacking in the heart department.
PR: You fought Haugen in July and Pazienza in September, and your next fight was December 19 at the Olympic in LA against Julio Cesar Chavez. Coming into that bout Chavez was 48-0 and the reigning WBC Super Featherweight World Champion, yet he was still considered a rising star. He was growing in other ways, too, and he wanted to try out the lightweight division. What did you know about Chavez as a fighter, and what was your mind-set entering that non-title fight?
JB: Julio wasn't a legend at that point. It wouldn't be much longer before he became a boxing legend, but at that moment he was on the radar of those in the know who saw greatness in the making. All that I knew about Chavez was learned on a Saturday in July of that year during his 2nd round destruction of Roger Mayweather. I believe my response was, "Oh wow." The punching power was obvious. The fight didn't last long enough to ascertain more. Entering the fight at only 23 years old was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. I didn't realize what I was up against. I had my own "Rocky" fantasies of pulling off the miracle or at the very least shaking the hell out of the world champion. It wasn't lost on me that Apollo Creed was a 46-0 world champ in the movie or that Rocky was a down-and-out nobody or that I had received a call out of the blue like Stallone's character. I had no real reason to have any expectations of having the opportunity to fight someone of Chavez's stature. I felt like someone was whispering things about "destiny" in my ear. I got to work out at the Main Street Gym; I was going to get my moment in the famed Olympic auditorium. I mean, for a kid not even five years out of high school who had his first amateur fight four years ago, what were the odds? But . . . maybe I could drop a few jaws in the boxing world. I hadn't come here to roll over and play dead. This was my chance. Like I said, 23 and way too young to be completely psyched out by the enormity of it, and being a dreamer, I was convinced that good things could happen to me, too.
In a sort of backhanded way, I also realized that this moment was something I would have to live with for the rest of my life. My last thought before entering the ring at the Olympic was that I had to leave everything inside that ring. No regrets.
PR: So you were completely focused. Then the bell rang. How would you summarize facing Chavez?
JB: Well, at first I knew I was being played with. What I mean is that I think Julio thought he could KO me at will and he was going to get a round or two of work, dust this guy off and head back to Culiacan and buy the wife a nice Christmas present or something. He came out strictly looking to box. I came out strictly looking to make it a phone booth war.
What that eventually does is force a man who is looking to enjoy himself and what he was hoping would be a glorified sparring session to fight for real. Late in the first round after trying to pressure him and missing the mark several times, I landed the same right hook that dropped most of my 20 or so KO victims in my pro fights. For one splendid moment, I enjoyed the surprise in his eyes and the slight wobbling in his front left knee. Then he straightened up. Now, I had his attention. He shifted his weight and landed a right cross that shattered my nose. People ask me to this day, "How hard did Chavez hit?" OK, straight answer: Picture a baseball bat with an ashtray taped to the sweet spot. And don't think I wasn't thinking of Rocky at that moment either. Hey! We both got our nose busted at the end of the first round with the champion! I'm not making this stuff up by the way.
I think that the fact that I was a huge boxing fan, a star-struck kid in many ways, helped me get through the whole disastrous end to the first round. I took the whole thing—the pain, the blood gushing out of my nose—as my baptism under fire so to speak. I am in here . . . I'm having my courage tested . . . I can't wait to show what I'm made of . . . . Unfortunately that stuff only goes so far and as rounds go on, reality sets in. The guy had perfect balance and weight shift and he was a monsoon of punches and there is no way you want to stand out where the rain is the hardest. I needed to take this fight back to phone booth range if I was going to survive. I was enthusiastic but I wasn't stupid.
Out of a combination of determination to show this guy what I am made of and a paralyzing fear that some other part of my face was going to be crushed by another thunderbolt, I crawled all over Julio for the rest of the fight. Cutting the distance down naturally brings about clashes of the head. Two accidental head butts caused a cut that ended the fight. I can still see Dr. James Jen Kin waving the fight over. I had never heard of a "technical decision" before in my life but as it turned out, I would lose this fight by that means. Years later I approached Frankie Randall at an amateur fight in Flint Michigan to let him know he wasn't the first to lose a tech decision to Julio. I really enjoyed that, you know.
PR: Chavez stayed at super featherweight for a couple more years after that fight. If he was testing the waters at lightweight by fighting you, you obviously made an impression.
After such a tough run—three tough fights in a row with three tough decision losses—how did you assess your career heading into 1986?
JB: Being brutally honest, things were never the same after the Chavez fight. Quite possibly I should cut 23-year-old me a little bit of a break here, and admit that I had my head down and didn't do much in life for four or five years except box, so quite naturally I would take a break and live just a little bit. If I am truthful with myself, however, I would have to admit that when I left LAX on Saturday Dec 20, 1985 and headed home, I was at peace with what happened. I had gone at this guy with all I had. I had "fought this guy hard" as Mick from the Rocky movies used to say. When I left the ring in the Olympic Auditorium, somehow I knew that no matter what I did, how hard I worked or how lucky I got, I was never going to be in the same class of fighter as Julio Cesar Chavez. Maybe I was a little hard on myself. After all, the numbers that Chavez posted rivaled Sugar Ray Robinson's career when you look at them 25 years later. He was the greatest fighter of my generation and I fought him hard. Maybe I was just running out of things to prove to myself.
Whether I wanted a break or not, I was pretty much left alone after that fight. I was further disillusioned with the sport after earning a ten round draw in a fight where I knocked my opponent down three times.
PR: Seems like you deserved a break after the way you closed out 1985, but your very next fight after Chavez, the draw you just mentioned, was against Bret Summers in front of his home crowd in Washington state. Summers was a former U.S. Amateur Champion and a member of the famed Kronk gym. Going into the bout his record as a pro was 25-2, and he was anxious to re-establish himself after a couple of recent stumbles. Hardly the soft touch that would have been warranted under the circumstances.
JB: You know its funny you mention this because I was just on the phone with Bret yesterday and he was saying the same thing about himself in regards to drawing an opponent like me. I guess its all perception but I watch ESPN Friday Night Fights nowadays and see blowouts. Constantly. I know I sound like an old grandfather but back in the day we had Saturday afternoons filled with fight cards and competitive fights. Wars in fact. Rockin' Robin Blake vs. Tony Baltazar, Bobby Chacon vs. Bazooka Limon, Ray Mancini vs. Anybody. If you wanted to get into the mix of those iconic matchups, you weren't going to get it by beating up your grandmother four times for television. I don't fault the fighters nowadays. Greed seems to have put the whole economy in a tailspin and it has sure worked its magic on boxing. In the 40s and 50s it was nothing for a guy to get a title fight with 10-15 losses. You learned your craft the hard way. The eighties was a great time for boxing, but even then fighters were closely scrutinized in their won/loss record. Today the problem has grown to the point where fighters are badly overmatched on televised fights to pad the resume. It doesn't do anyone any good, least of all the viewing public. Certainly just because you are undefeated doesn't mean you have fought your baby sister eight times. But then again, not everyone is a Julio Cesar Chavez either. Bret and I went at it with the idea of doing damage, and then when ten rounds were up, we had a lot of respect for each other. Now we talk all the time. It would have been much easier on both of us to fight someone else. I don't think either one of us would have done it differently, even though on the phone we ask, "Why in the world did I have to match up with you?" That's good for a couple laughs.
PR: So after a busy and eventful 1985, how'd 1986 play out?
BR: The ten round draw with Summers took place in April of that year, and then I had to fight the same fellow, Kent Acuff, a Golden Glove champion from Indiana as an amateur, on three separate occasions.That pretty much did 1986 for me. Who in the world would want to fight me, and go blood and guts for little recognition? After all I had three losses and a draw in my last four fights, and they probably would not be paid very handsomely for the trouble. Then again, I might finally have something good happen to me and pull a rabbit out of my hat. Would you want to be the one who was the victim in my coming of age party? I had suffered a fractured orbital bone with Greg Haugen, a fractured collar bone with Vinny Paz and a shattered nose against Chavez. I had paid dues but fighting the same guy three times wasn't going to prove much, even if I beat him all three times. 1986 should have seen some new opportunities after those four or five years of hard work, but1986 as I saw it was the cold and flu season of my career. I worked out hard. I waited on phone calls. I made two trips to the Winnipeg, Manitoba area, and found out that I had no idea what real cold was until then. I wondered if the reputation as a fouler preceded me or if quite possibly that night in the ring with Lion of Culiacan would be my only shot. If so, then "this parting was well made."
PR: You didn't hang up the gloves for good--assuming you're not planning a comeback--until 1993. There are many stories about the difficulties pro fighters face in the transition from the ring back into world, but the public perception is more focused on those few fighters who are able to make a living entirely from boxing--the fighters who exist in that thin financial crust at the very top. But as I understand it, most pros, even the ones like yourself who are able to ply their trade on televised cards and achieve some recognition along the way, maintain a regular job throughout their career. What thoughts can you share about these realities, about your own experience and about the sport in general?
JB: It's kind of like making big money in Vegas or Atlantic City. Very, very few actually make anything. Then in that small percentage of casino winners, the big money winner has to throw all his chips in and win that huge gamble. The problem for most of us in the middle or bottom, much like the US economy by the way, is that eating a meal and paying the light bill has to be accomplished as well. If you aren't bankrolled by people with money or in a family with money to start with—name three of those guys in boxing, by the way—then you have to play the odds like me. I worked a 40-hour a week job like everybody else, and fought part time. It was full time in my heart. Just part time in real life. The only time I ever threw all my chips in and trained full time was for the Chavez fight, but that was because my employer, Bill Robinson, told me that this was the chance of a lifetime and he wasn't going to let me throw this away wasting my legs on a concrete floor in a factory, even if it was his factory. And we know how that turned out. Maybe that's why those at the top have such a hard time with life after boxing. They have no concept of what the average guy does to get a dollar, and really no concept of how much money he's going to need to make it through life, and worse yet how long he's actually going to live. You're right though. The vast overwhelming majority of professional fighters have a job and will function just fine in life after boxing, short of their battle scars.
PR: I've heard from a reliable source that you have been gaining some attention as something of a storyteller and writer. Care to philosophize just a little on the value of the stories from your days in the ring?
JB: Well, since you put it that way I won't clutter the interview with false modesty (insert laughter here). I would hope that what someone would get from reading anything that I've written would be that I was both a fan of boxing and a hopeless romantic. I've always wanted to tell Sylvester Stallone that both by accidents and by design I came closer to living the life of his fictional character than anyone he knows. At least the first installment. I still haven't decided what I want to do when I grow up, simply because the dreamer and the hopeless romantic in me haven't died. The value in anybody's story . . . anyone with a story to tell . . . is how much passion they have for the subject. I fell in love with boxing, took a rocket ride to where I could rub elbows with great fighters, and never became so ingrained in the upper echelon that I killed off that hopeless romantic. When you climb inside the ropes, what you are is obvious for everyone to see. What I am, what I hope you saw if you watched me, was a big kid with an autograph book in his hand who made some big names in the lightweight division work for their money in the 80s.Very few people can picture themselves being a greater fighter than Julio Cesar Chavez. I bet a whole load of them wondered what it was like to cross gloves with him just once. Look no further . . . have I got a tale for you!
PR: Well Jeff, it's truly been a pleasure discussing boxing with you. Your career might sound like it came from a Hollywood screenplay, but you are the genuine article. If he hasn't done so yet, I'm sure Sylvester Stallone would be honored to shake your hand. And I mean that sincerely.
I don't expect you to respond to my enthusiastic praise (hey, I'm a fan), but do you have any final thoughts to share before the tape runs out?
JB: My son had a class in his senior year of high school entitled "Sports Literature" and I was asked to speak to the class and of course I lied through my teeth about how good I was. Someone asked about following their dreams and how to go about it. My reply was this, and if it were my epitaph I would be fine with it:
People ask me all the time, 'How do I learn how to fight?' or 'What do I do to make my dream come true? ' The answer is so simple that it's complicated. You go and be that hero you've always wished you were. People tell themselves, 'Oh I'm young and I have all the time in the world to make my dreams come true.' Well, no you don't. The clock is ticking. If you're a dancer, go dance. Dance your heart out. Or sing, or whatever it is that you want for yourself. Time slips away fast. In 28 years would you like to come back and tell future students about those adventures in pursuit of a dream? Or would you like to tell them 'Well, I daydreamed about it.' The clock is ticking.
Phil Rice is a freelance writer and editor currently working out of Pittsburgh, PA. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeff Bumpus retired from professional boxing in 1993. He currently lives and works in Union, Michigan. As mentioned in the interview, his tales have indeed begun to attract some attention. "He Broke Bones," a short memoir of his bout with Julio Cesar Chavez, has recently been accepted for publication by Canopic Jar, an online literary journal (www.canopicjar.com). An advance posting of the story is available for viewing at www.canopicpublishing.com/bumpus.htm
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