Ali, Columbus Revisited; Fish-Run Update

Scurrying to meet a last-minute, early-deadline mandate necessitated by printing-press issues, the desk phone rang at 3 p.m.

It was Tobias Houpe, son of late, great Columbus, Ohio, Police Athletic League boxing coach Roy Houpe, Cassius Clay’s 1959 AAU and Pan-Am Games teammate who groomed young boxers at the long-ago bulldozed inner-city  gym on the corner of Mt. Vernon and 22nd.

Pressed for time but wanting to at least confirm a few details dredged from foggy, 41-year-old memories, I took the call, disciplined myself to keep it short and discovered that the 55-year-old man had probably attended the 1975, pre-Christmas, 10- or 12-bout fight card we had promoted to raise money for the Columbus PAL. The main event pitted  light-heavyweight contender “Dynamite” Billy Douglas from Columbus versus Miami up-and-comer Lee Royster in a scheduled 10-rounder. As it turns out, Douglas was the father of  Buster Douglas, who in 1990 shocked the world with a 10th-round knockout of presumably unbeatable world heavyweight champion Mike Tyson.

What salient memories do I retain from that six-week phone  deal, pitching ads for the fight program book from an office inside the PAL building? Well, I remember the impoverished, African-American neighborhood. I remember the nearby luncheonette where every day, at Roy Houpe’s recommendation, we ate absolutely delicious skillet-fried chicken or  perch (the only two lunch choices) with all the fixins’ and a large glass of milk for under five bucks. I remember the windowless bar farther down the street where we had a drink or two and shot eight-ball partners against neighborhood sharps. I also remember separating the most promising sales leads into a special stack reserved for afternoon calls, when the young boys arrived after school to work out, the background noise of young voices, banging  speed bags and jumping rope working as great sound effects for a sales pitch that  included some form of “Keep ’em in sports and out of courts.” And how could I ever forget our gregarious, Fu-Manchu-ed, 400-some-pound promoter imploring, “If you want to live in style, spin the dial.”? What a hoot, these vivid, distant memories.

Oh yeah. One more digression, another  unforgettable recollection. How could I not tell of the wild city-wide victory celebration in which my friend and I participated after Ohio State staged what legendary Buckeye football coach Woody Hayes called, “Probably our greatest comeback” after beating Michigan, 21-14, with two improbable fourth-quarter TDs? When the downtown bar scene started to get out of hand after dark, mounted police appeared on High Street  to announce through megaphones a strict 11 p.m. curfew: “No exceptions. Everyone off the street by 11.”

Well, my friend and I  retired to our second-floor efficiency apartment just under the gun and watched through the window as a thinning, unruly crowd remained boisterous after curfew. The mounted police, long riot sticks in hand, went into action and did quite a number on anyone they could get their hands on. We watched in horror from a birds-eye perch and could even  hear the crunch of night sticks on human flesh and bones below. Occurring not too long after memorable Kent State in another Ohio college town, it left an indelible mark on a Happy Valley lad who had grown up in a two-cop town, one by day, another by night.

But, back to Tobias Houpe, who  called from his car by cell phone. He was scurrying around before departing for Louisville, Ky., where he would attend Ali’s Friday funeral as an old friend, and cover it for his newspaper employer, the Columbus Post. Tobias said that before his dad’s sudden Dec. 27, 1987 death, Ali used to stop to visit the family of his amateur flyweight (125 pounds) teammate whenever he passed through Columbus.

“They were friends from Golden Gloves and AAU days, not to mention national amateur champs and Pan-Am Games teammates in 1959,” he said. “Ali would stop at the house and take my father out to eat. He even sparred with us kids, just horsing around, but I’ll never forget it.”

When I shared with him his father’s awestruck praise of Ali for being “a boy beating men,” it sounded like he had heard the same gushing words many, many times himself. Exactly what those  gasping words of praise referred to is unclear, but it seems to me that he was speaking of the Pan-Am Games, where young  Clay would have fought older Latin American boxers as a 17-year-old light heavyweight. But, without doubt, the former teammate’s praise could have spilled over into the first years  of Ali’s pro heavyweight career. Clay’s first two pro fights occurred before his 19th birthday. Then he posted eight wins as a 19-year-old and six more at 20. For his first title fight on Feb. 25, 1964 in Miami against Sonny Liston, 29, Clay had just turned 22, entering the bout with a 19-0 record as a 7 to 1 underdog. He won that fight by seventh-round knockout and beat “The Bear” again 15 months later with a first-round KO in Lewiston, Maine.

Ali’s title was stripped in 1967 after beating Zora Folley to increase his unbeaten record to 29-0. Then, after a 3½-year banishment that slowed him down and allowed ring rust to accumulate, he returned to beat Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena, entering  his “Fight of the Century” versus champion Joe Frazier on March 8, 1971 at Madison Square Garden with a 31-0 record. He suffered his first loss in that hallowed New York venue by tight decision in a fight that placed the winner, Smokin’ Joe Frazier, in the hospital for three weeks.

I can’t remember the name of the trainer or expert who uttered these words, but no truer words could have been spoken in  assessment of “The Greatest” in his prime: “The only man who could’ve beaten Muhammad Ali was Cassius Clay.”

He floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee.

The annual spring Connecticut River Valley anadromous fish run is slowing to a stop, with water temperatures fluctuating between 68 and 74 degrees Fahrenheit for the past two weeks, so this year’s American shad run through Holyoke will likely not reach last year’s total of 412, 656.

Nonetheless, with shad still trickling in and 379,929 having passed Holyoke through Tuesday, 400,000 may not be likely but ain’t impossible, either. The river has basically reached the optimal spawning temperature, when upstream movement slows to a crawl before coming to a halt. When fish stop instinctually traveling upstream, the females will establish stationary spawning lairs, where they deposit eggs to be visited and fertilized by males. The progeny will starting hatching after two weeks and populate the river as juveniles next month. Those that escape foraging predators and grow to sufficient juvenile size to travel downstream will head for the Atlantic ocean this fall and return to spawn as mature adults in the 3- to 6-year-old range, with a few precocious 2-year-olds following. Most but not all shad die after their upstream spawning runs.

Not much has changed pertaining to a spotty fish-passage riddle through Turners Falls. Despite three connected passageways that eventually funnel all migratory fish over the Spillway Fish Ladder and past public viewing windows toward the shad run’s historic terminus at Bellows Falls, Vt., the network has proven inefficient over its nearly 40-year history. The fish count there does not seem to be a high-priority this year for some reason. The report from Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle shows that, through May 27, only 24,595 shad had been counted passing Turners Falls. Meanwhile, the count through Vernon, Vt., larger at 25,104. Remember, no fish that pass Vernon can do so without first passing Turners Falls.


Why can’t they seem to get things sorted out in the Powertown? The migration figures through there have been curiously low ever since the fish passageways were opened in 1980. The obvious question is, why go to the time, effort and expense to build fish ladders if they can’t be maintained to optimal efficiency? It’s puzzling, and has been since day one.

On the salmon front, a total of five Atlantic salmon have been counted in the river system this year. Two of those fish went up the Westfield River. Three others were transported over the Holyoke Dam by the Barrett Fish Lift. All five of the fish were briefly captured, tagged and released to be tracked while spawning naturally in the river system. The annual salmon numbers have been in steady decline since the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service pulled the plug on its restoration project in July 2012. Since then, the number of returns from 2013 through 2015 have been 92, 32 and 22, in that order. This year’s incomplete total of three could grow slightly. Atlantic salmon spawn in the fall and can enter their destination river until August and September.

Neither of the two salmon to pass Holyoke have gotten past Turners Falls. They could be hanging out in virtually any tributary between Holyoke and the Powertown.

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