Off The Ropes: The Ron Lyle Story: Book review
Gary Lucken reviews a fresh edition of Candace Toft’s fascinating 2010 biography Off The Ropes: The Ron Lyle Story...
“I wasn’t afraid of the Ali fight. I was relaxed and knew my skills were coming to a peak – I prepared for a moment. When the moment came, I gave it my all. It didn’t work out, and only God knows why. But the greatest challenge in boxing is accepting the results, win, lose, or draw. Come to peace with it.”
Ron Lyle was asleep in a hospital bed when the vision came to him. He could see the future clearly - one day he would fight for the world heavyweight crown. He was sure of it.
The fact that he wasn’t a boxer wouldn’t stand in his way. Or the fact that he was languishing in prison, a convicted murderer. Or the fact that he first needed to recover from a near-fatal stab wound inflicted by a fellow inmate.
Remarkably, the vision would come true.
Lyle was one of the big beasts who prowled the heavyweight division in the 1970s, an intimidating 6ft 3in, 15-stone mass of muscle who plied his trade in a golden age of mitt-slingers. But whereas the likes of Ali, Frazier and Foreman have assumed iconic status, Lyle’s name has somewhat drifted to the margins of boxing history.
The arrival of a fresh edition of the late Candace Toft’s 2010 biography Off The Ropes: The Ron Lyle Story may help rectify that situation.
Released by Hamilcar Publications and featuring a new foreword by Al Bernstein, Off The Ropes draws upon contemporary newspaper reports plus the author’s interviews with sportswriters, friends, family and Lyle himself to give a fascinating account of how a jailbird with intense focus and an iron will turned himself into a title contender and came agonisingly close to claiming the heavyweight throne.
But the book is not simply an absorbing story of a journey from prison yard to the top table of pugilism. It is also a tale of personal redemption, and one which Toft tells well.
Born in Dayton, Ohio, Lyle moved with his parents and siblings to the Curtis Park neighbourhood in north-east Denver when he was aged eight and was one of 19 children raised in a stable, close-knit and God-fearing family. Genetically blessed with size and strength, he was already 5ft 11in by the age of 13, the biggest kid in the local area and a talented all-round athlete.
Toft paints a picture of a young man who was no angel – a propensity to indulge in petty villainy earned him spells in juvenile hall and a correctional facility – but who was also a much-loved guardian figure to many, a youth who was by nature protective of others, including a bunch of close friends dubbed the “group of brothers” to whom he was a de facto leader.
His life took a disastrous turn in 1961 when the 20-year-old Lyle and his pals violently clashed with a gang of older youths in a row over a girl, a confrontation which resulted in the fatal shooting of a member of the opposing faction.
Although apparently not the gunman, Lyle took the fall by claiming he had been the one who opened fire and argued that he acted in self-defence. He would pay a heavy price for that “admission” when he found himself convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 15 to 25 years in prison.
Toft recounts the events that followed in a tight, no-nonsense and efficient narrative.
Shipped off to the notorious Colorado State Penitentiary at Cañon City, Lyle found himself in a “hellhole” containing 1400 inmates, a place where violence was rampant and where cons were in genuine danger of losing their lives. While behind bars he excelled at basketball, baseball and football but initially declined the chance to join the boxing program. That situation would change dramatically when another prisoner stabbed him in the abdomen with a “shiv”, piercing an artery.
The Ron Lyle story almost ended there. He “died” twice on the operating table as surgeons fought for several hours to save him, using 35 pints of blood for transfusions, but he pulled through and it was while recuperating that he had his vision. Interestingly, it didn’t reveal the opponent he would face or the result of their battle.
Lyle viewed it as a message from God, a signal indicating the path he needed to take to make something of his life and to redeem himself in the eyes of his family, particularly his mother.
After being released from the hospital he was sent to the hole – punishment for his perceived role in the stabbing that nearly killed him – and spent the time developing a brutal exercise regimen which included the completion of 1,000 press-ups in an hour.
Guided by a prison guard and absorbing knowledge from wherever he could find it, Lyle mastered the basics of boxing before climbing into the ring for his first bout. He lost, but from then on never looked back, avenging the defeat in a rematch and racking up win after win before gaining his freedom when he was paroled in November 1969 after seven and a half years in the penitentiary.
Not far shy of his 29th birthday, time was not on his side. A brief but successful amateur career followed in which he won 25 out of 29 fights over a 14-month period, notching up 17 knockouts along the way. He then turned pro and at the age of 30 made his debut in the paid ranks in 1971.
In the next couple of years Lyle climbed the rankings, becoming a hero to Denverites in the process, as well as winning plaudits for his work with children, often visiting schools and camps and offering a non-judgemental ear to troubled youngsters while explaining the virtue of self-discipline. He also made regular morale-boosting visits to the inmates at Cañon City.
Eventually, despite setbacks in the form of decision losses to Jerry Quarry and Jimmy Young, Lyle’s vision came true when, aged 34, he got a shot at the title. On May 16 1975 he took on Muhammad Ali in Las Vegas, losing via Round 11 TKO while ahead on two of the three judges’ scorecards, the third being even.
Lyle was philosophical in defeat, commenting that only God could explain the outcome and adding that “It wasn’t my time.” He fought on, knocking out Earnie Shavers in his next bout before losing an absolute humdinger of a slugfest with former king George Foreman in 1976, but never got another chance to fight for the championship.
His career subsequently wound down, not helped by the fact that he again found himself charged with murder, this time in relation to the shooting on New Year’s Eve 1977 of a man who had once been a fellow prisoner. Lyle was acquitted after claiming a gun had gone off during a struggle when the “victim” came to his home and tried to rob him.
After retiring in 1980 following a KO by Gerry Cooney, Lyle struggled for direction in his life, and in Toft’s words began an “odyssey” lasting nearly 20 years in which he searched for something to replace his dream of becoming heavyweight champion.
He flitted between Las Vegas and Denver in an almost peripatetic existence, working as a trainer and security guard, embarking at one point on a brief comeback, and dealing with issues in his personal life. He finally found peace and contentment with a long-term love and in the running of a gym and boxing program for youngsters in Denver.
Lyle died in 2011 at the age of 70, after Off The Ropes was first published, from complications linked to a sudden stomach ailment.
His life was a remarkable one and the story of it worth re-telling, which makes the book’s new edition thoroughly welcome. Off The Ropes is absolutely recommended reading.
Off The Ropes: The Ron Lyle Story is published by Hamilcar Publications, an imprint of Hannibal Boxing Media, and available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble Online and at local bookstores via IndieBound.org.
More information about the book is available on the Hannibal Boxing website here