Rolling With the Punches

Except for his protruding gut, Wild Bill Hardney appears to be in great shape as he steps into the boxing ring at the 20th Street Gym. For a 54-year-old chain-smoker, he looks pretty good dancing around, dodging blows, firing off tightly controlled punches from shoulder height, crouching in low on opponent and friend Ed Lawson.

Poor Lawson, who's only 42, is overmatched. Hardney is a three-time national amateur champ and former pro contender as a light-heavyweight. Lawson has that nervous look in his eyes as Hardney moves in on him, that slightly panicked smile that says, "We're just havin' fun here, right?"

Hardney certainly is. This is his first time in a ring in two years, and his smile threatens to explode from his mouth. But 54 is not 24, and after three minutes Wild Bill is winded for the night.

"You still got the moves," Lawson says appreciatively, "but you've gotta give up on those Lucky Strikes." To which Hardney shakes his head--no way--and laughs.

His laugh is spontaneous and combustible. It's a rumbling train that derails without warning from a throaty voice so deep it's often hard to make out what he's saying.

At his small home in Aurora, he laughs while leafing through his big blue scrapbook. A Golden Gloves champ from 1962 through 1964, Hardney was asked to try out for the 1964 Olympic team but decided to turn pro instead. He's sparred with Sonny Liston, George Foreman, Archie Moore and Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. His own career--streaky with flashes of talent--ended with a 78-8 record--barring the ten or fifteen fights he says he tanked at the end of his career.

Writers and promoters called him the "Clown Prince of Boxing," though in reality he was a prisoner of many busted dreams and bitter moments. Stepping into the ring against Hardney was like stepping into a three-ring circus, with Wild Bill as the ringmaster. He might pull your shorts down--like he did to his foe in a 1990 exhibition fight in Denver--or shake his ass at you before putting you away, like he did to his last official opponent in 1978.

"I never took boxing seriously," Hardney says. "It was a game. It was fun. I enjoyed it. It kept me out of trouble."

"He didn't respect nobody," says Bob Foster, Hardney's friend and rival and light-heavyweight champion of the world from 1968 to 1975. Foster, now retired in Albuquerque, should know: He had to defend his title against Hardney in February 1970. In his only title shot, Hardney went down twice in the third round. The ref stopped the fight at the end of the fourth, giving Foster a victory by TKO.

But in a photo of Foster after the fight, the champ's face clearly resembles an overripe plum. Hardney points to it and insists that he was the one who did the damage. Foster recalls that a Hardney head butt caused the gash over his left eye. Hardney remembers it as "a right followed by a left hook" and adds, "I beat the hell out of him."

Foster told reporters at the time that Hardney was a "tough kid--I wouldn't mind taking him with me as a sparring partner." By then, Hardney had already been sparring with Foster for two years. In fact, he was better known for helping other fighters than for helping himself. The jokester could have been unstoppable, some people say, if he had worked harder and partied less.

A Baltimore newspaper covering a fight between Hardney and Eugene Bethea in March 1972 marveled at Hardney as the boxer who "had to be seen to be believed." In the first round, according to the paper, "Hardney suddenly stopped in the middle of a furious exchange, pretended to be hurt and fell against the ropes. Bethea, sensing the kill, closed in. Hardney took two solid shots to the chin and started laughing as he pushed his opponent out into the center of the ring and nailed him with a hard right.

"In the second, Hardney was doing some heavy body punching when Bethea hit him with a light jab. Wild Bill stepped back and held his eye with one hand and summoned his man towards him with the other. Bethea hesitated. Hardney switched hands. Now his right held his eye and the left was urging the man towards him.

"In the third, Hardney so bamboozled the willing Bethea that he stood directly in front of him with his hands down, defying him to attack. Bethea finally obliged and Hardney planted a left hook on his whiskers.

"Finally, in what had to be the most hilarious episode seen in a Baltimore ring, Hardney again held his eyes after a jab and summoned Bethea to him with the other. No dice. As further inducement, Hardney put the summoning hand behind his back. Bethea liked the odds and attacked. Hardney knocked him cold with a straight right followed by a left hook."