Phil Rice
bwband3b

The Bantamweight Who Ripened on the Vine

The original Maxwell House Hotel had been a Nashville landmark for almost a century when it burned down in 1961, a year after my own birth in that same city. Construction on the hotel had begun before the Civil War, and the doors were officially opened in 1869. For the next fifty years or so the Maxwell House was an icon of opulence and splendor. The main lobby featured mahogany cabinetry, brass fixtures, gilded mirrors, and magnificent chandeliers. An impressive historical guest list for the hotel includes Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Jane Addams, Enrico Caruso, Buffalo Bill Cody, Sarah Bernhardt, and William Jennings Bryant, plus no less than seven US presidents, including Teddy Roosevelt, who, according to legend, proclaimed the coffee brand named after the hotel to be “good to the last drop.” But by the middle of the twentieth century the old hotel had slipped into apartment house status, and the fire of 1961 ended its run entirely.

maxwell1925

The Maxwell House Hotel, 1925

Twenty years later the Maxwell House name was revived and placed on top of a brand new convention hotel located on the business perimeter of Nashville’s inner city. When I took a job there as night auditor in 1985, the hotel was struggling to get its financial feet on the ground despite a steady flow of business. As night auditor, my job was to pull together a daily accounting ledger for all of the hotel rooms plus the three restaurants, two bars, and any banquets and conventions. And it had to balance. To enhance my job experience, the hotel was at that moment converting from manual record keeping to computerized accounting, and in 1985 many of the employees had never seen a computer in real life. I hated my job.

One night I arrived at 11:00 p.m. to start my usual shift, and very quickly recognized that the first couple of hours were going to be spent directing a steady flow of revelers to a party on one of the top floors. I had no idea as to the nature of the party, but it was clearly the place to be seen that night. I was answering questions like a robot, not really paying attention to the questioners, just pointing to the elevator.

Then a guy who looked like a Viking fresh off the ship snapped me out of the trance. His shoulder-length blonde hair was stringy and unkempt, and, unlike the other partiers, he was not dressed in the high fashion of the day. Adding to his conspicuousness was a tremendous scar that started at the hairline and traveled down the length of his face, resembling the sort of mark a battle axe might produce. It was also difficult not to notice that he was the only white guy to ask for directions to the big shindig, though any concerns about his possible motives were eased by the man standing behind him. Unlike his blonde friend, this guy was a sharp-dressed African American, wearing what appeared to be a fine silk suit. He stood a full head shorter than the Viking, with the broad-shouldered wiry frame of an athlete. I quickly recognized him as being Jerome Coffee, the prizefighter.

 Jerome Coffee

II

He might not have been a household name, but anyone who read the local sports pages knew about Jerome Coffee. The late 1970s saw several amateur boxers from the area gain national attention, led by Clint Jackson. In 1974, Jackson won the silver medal in the World Amateur Championships, defeating future world champion Mike McCallum in the process. He was the National AAU and Golden Gloves welterweight champion for three consecutive years (1974-76), culminating with a spot on the 1976 US Olympic boxing team alongside Ray Leonard, the Spinks brothers, Howard Davis Jr., and John Tate. Because he failed to win a medal and his later pro career did not include a world title, history tends to overlook his contributions to that team, but in 1976 Clint Jackson was one of the most highly regarded amateur boxers in the world.

The success of Jackson and Knoxville’s Big John Tate helped open the doors for several boxers from the region in the 70s and 80s. Johnny Bumphus, Bernard Taylor, Billy Collins Jr., Rickey Parkey, Donald Bowers, Frankie Randall, and Loren Ross were among the fighters who gained at least a moment in the national spotlight during that time. But for pure athleticism and boxing skill, Jerome Coffee might well have been the best of them all.

Jerome Coffee stands between fellow amateur champions Mike McCallum and Johnny Bumphus (1979)

Like Jackson, Coffee was an outstanding amateur boxer. He was the National AAU Flyweight champion in 1977, the National PAL Flyweight Champion in 1978 and 1979, and the National Golden Gloves Flyweight Champion in 1979 and 1980, and he was a bronze medalist at the 1979 Pan American Games. He made his professional debut in 1980 at the age of 22—still a young man, but, according to conventional boxing wisdom, fighters in the lower weight classes tend to peak early, and he had racked up a lot of miles as an amateur. To make an impact as a professional, he would need to move up the rankings quickly.

Unfortunately, at least from a tactical point of view, Coffee remained in his hometown of Nashville, where quality sparring partners and world-class opponents were rare, especially for a man whose best weight was less than 118 pounds. This forced him to fight opponents who outweighed him by ten and even fifteen pounds, which was not only difficult but also did little to prepare him for the top fighters of his natural weight class. Still, he continued to perform well.

The list of opponents for Coffee’s early career is mostly filled with fighters who would not even qualify as journeymen, much less contenders, but there are a few telling moments that reflect his talent. In his tenth pro fight he won an eight-round decision over Freddie Pendleton, who entered the fight with an unimposing record of 2-3. What makes the bout noteworthy is that Coffee, a bantamweight, defeated a lightweight who would go on to win a world title a few years later. Coffee’s next bout was a decision over Kelvin Seabrooks, who five years later would win the IBF Bantamweight World Title. Now with a record of 11-0, Jerome Coffee seemed to be on the fast track to contender status, but then his career stalled.

His next few opponents were of the scrap-yard variety clearly intended to keep him occupied while his management tried to secure him a high profile fight. That moment finally came when he went up against fellow prospect “Sweet Baby” James Manning, a tough rumbler who had become a favorite among ESPN viewers. Stylistically Manning was made for Coffee, and the Tennessee bantam took a ten-round decision victory, demonstrating his impressive wares in the process. He had at last attained legitimate contender status.

But then, nothing. He returned to boxing limbo, getting in the occasional fight to keep active but against competition that did little to keep his skills tuned. When he walked into the Maxwell House in February of 1985, he was an undefeated contender sporting a glossy record of twenty-four wins without a defeat, and he had probably not even lost more than a handful of rounds along the way. But he had been inactive since the previous July and hadn’t been in the ring against a serious opponent since the Manning fight in 1983. He was like an overripe tomato languishing on the vine.

 

III

I pointed toward the elevator and gave his Viking friend the proper directions, and the two of them disappeared into the steady flow of anxious partiers. Within the hour I looked up to see them already exiting the hotel, apparently having had enough of the gala event. I couldn’t help feeling a bit of disappointment at not having at least spoken to the superb prizefighter, but it can be difficult to break character while working in the hotel business. Then, about fifteen minutes later, I saw the big man with the scarred face standing at the end of the front desk. He asked me if there was anybody who could give his car a jump start. I quickly told the desk clerk on duty that I would return shortly, and I headed out to the parking lot, confident that the battery in my ’79 Impala would do the trick.

The space in front of his car was empty, so I pulled the Impala in until the front bumpers were almost touching, and then I hooked up the jumper cables and revved my engine to give the dead battery an extra boost. Throughout the process I could see the top half of a dark face barely peering over the dashboard of the Viking’s car. Finally, exasperated at my own shyness, I blurted out, “That’s Jerome Coffee, right?” He looked mildly surprised before confirming his friend’s identity. “Well,” I continued, “think he would mind if I shook his hand and said hello?” The Viking went over to the passenger door and said something through the window, then pointed at me.

The heretofore expressionless face of Jerome Coffee broke into a smile and he stepped out of the car and walked over to me with his right hand extended. “You must be a boxing connoisseur,” he said, giving my hand a firm shake. Until that moment it never occurred to me that he might not be accustomed to being recognized in public. How could anyone not know Jerome Coffee? But he was right. I was a boxing connoisseur.

We spent several minutes discussing his amateur days and the current whereabouts of some of the boxers he had come up with, like Johnny Bumphus and Clint Jackson. I made some typical fan comments about his own career, and asked what was on the horizon. He said there were at that very moment negotiations underway for a world title fight to be held in Japan against IBF champion Satoshi Shingaki. It was clear that he was frustrated with the developments, but he was still hopeful that his shot was coming soon.

Although I would’ve gladly forfeited my night auditor position in order to continue the conversation, in the midst of the discussion the Viking turned the key and his car started up, so I had to disconnect the jumper cables and reluctantly say goodbye to Jerome Coffee, bantamweight contender.

I returned to my anxiety-riddled job that night feeling a deep sense of satisfaction at being able to say that I had met Jerome Coffee, and that he seemed like a genuinely good man in addition to being a world-class athlete.

About ten months later, without any significant tune-up fights, Coffee traveled to Australia to battle undefeated Jeff Fenech for the IBF title. Fenech had defeated Shingaki for the title and had already defended it in a rematch, winning by technical knockout on both occasions. The Australian was a rising star on the international boxing scene, and a huge celebrity in the Land Down Under. In the meantime, Coffee had continued to collect rust while playing the waiting game. When he finally received his shot, according to a newspaper account in Sidney, “After 15 punishing, grueling rounds when no quarter was given or asked, the three judges unanimously awarded the bout to Fenech.”

Since he was not a power puncher and his chances of winning a decision on the Aussie’s home turf in a stadium full of fanatical supporters were extremely slim, the fact that he went the distance against the powerful Fenech and was credited with winning several rounds speaks volumes. (It would be another eight years before anyone would actually defeat Fenech, and that would be the great Azumah Nelson at 130 lbs.) Had Coffee fought Shingaki first, he likely would have become champion and then could’ve defended the title against Fenech in a sold-out venue in the US. With all of the advantages being turned in his favor, it’s not difficult to imagine him winning a decision. But that’s not the way it happened.

Among the major professional sports, the career of a boxer contains more variables than any other athlete. While the structure of weight classes is designed to level the playing field, there is in reality never a level playing field for a professional boxer. As an athlete, Jerome “Kid” Coffee was already significantly on the decline when he finally stepped in the ring to fight for a world title. Nicknames aside, he was no kid. He would campaign in the ring for a few more years after the Fenech bout—primarily serving as a name opponent for the young fighters on the way up.

He retired for good in 1992 with a record of 35-13 (19). As with most boxers, those numbers do little to accurately convey the talent of Jerome Coffee. At his best, he was smooth and quick, able to move around the ring effortlessly while landing dazzling combinations with pinpoint accuracy. He was a defensive wizard, yet as he showed against Fenech, he could also stand toe-to-toe and trade punches with the best when called upon. He was truly a masterful purveyor of the sweet science.

jerome coffee with Eddie Futch2

Jerome Coffee with his mentor, legendary trainer Eddie Futch (center)

After his boxing career ended Jerome Coffee became a boxing trainer who, like Freddie Roach, spent time in Las Vegas learning at the feet of the legendary Eddie Futch and others. Today he is actively training fighters in Canada. Given the intelligence, experience, and strength of character he has demonstrated over the years, he may well be one of those successful boxers who become even more successful as a trainer and coach. But make no mistake, Jerome Coffee was something special in the prize ring—at least to a boxing connoisseur.

’