Larry Sykes: remembering the ring

. February 19, 2014.

Larry Sykes lay on the bed face down, his throbbing right hand in a bucket of ice water. He had to get the swelling down. Sykes won his fi rst two bouts at the 1972 Olympic boxing trials, and was ready to face future heavyweight champion Larry Holmes—but during the second fight he’d broken his right hand, his best weapon, and he couldn’t let that fact be obvious. “They’d look in your eyes and squeeze your hands,” Sykes says. “If you flinched, you’d be disqualified.”

Rising star

Sykes is well known in Toledo for his work in banking and on the Toledo Board of Education. Gone are the times when he was a rising star in the world of amateur boxing. In the fi fties and sixties, Toledo
was a boxing hotbed, home to standouts like Leotis Martin, Louis Self and Lindell Holmes. And for countless young men, Sykes included, the life of the ring was a path to success.

“You didn’t have a lot to do,” Sykes says, “especially inner-city kids.” Opportunities were limited. Boxing was a way to stay off the street and a way to build an identity. “I was a skinny kid,” Sykes says. “Girls used to beat me up and take my lunch.” But once Sykes discovered the gym, he was on his way. Under the teachings of Jimmy Pettaway (who had fought the great Joe Louis), and later Frank Reyes, he became a standout in the area’s boxing scene, haunting the old hangouts like the Bancroft-Kent Center and Soul City on Dorr Street. The sport gave him a new discipline, a new outlook and the opportunity to travel. It was a wide and exciting world for a boy from the streets of Toledo.

Golden gloves

Sykes fought his way up through the Golden Gloves youth boxing system, and became a rising national star. The Olympic trials were his chance to step onto the biggest stage yet. In his way were Larry Holmes, a future all-time great, and his own injuries. Sykes fought the good fight, but lost in a split decision. After the bout, Holmes’ coach approached him. “’Why didn’t you throw your right?’ he asked
me. ‘That’s what he was afraid of.’ I had to tell him it was broken,” Sykes recalls. But he’d been successful enough that offers were coming in. Sykes could have turned professional. But the choice
had begun to look like no choice at all. Sykes had earned a college degree by that point, and was working for Planned Parenthood. What had been a thrilling sport and a way to self-discovery looked
a lot less viable as a career. Boxing would not make you rich unless you were Ali or Frazier.

Ready to succeed

“It’s fun winning,” Sykes acknowledges. But the inherent brutality of the sport had begun to affect him. “I knocked a guy out with an uppercut,” he remembers. “He lay on the canvas shaking…his mother was yelling that I’d killed her boy. That scared the life out of me.” He asked himself, “is this something I really want?” 

The ring had taken its toll on his body, too. Sykes still feels its effects, from arthritic knees to sinus trouble to a thumb bent askew. His days as a warrior are long behind him. Now he’s a grandfather, a vegetarian and a nondrinker. But he still believes that his ring days helped make him who he is, and that today’s youth need something that can do the same for them. “You learn discipline,” he says. “You have no one to count on but yourself.” The training. The early mornings. The long runs. The endless study, looking for an opponent’s weakness. All made him someone ready to succeed in the wider world. “You can will your mind to do anything you want,” he says. “If you believe that, you can do it.”