Longform

Rolling With the Punches

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As it turned out, Hardney also suffered his own share of knockdowns. ("You remember getting hit," he recalls. "There's a big light--you don't know nothin'.") And some of them have happened outside the ring.

After moving to Denver in 1984, he settled into a job with AT&T as a building mechanic. He talked of opening up a boxing gym, but it never happened. The eldest of his four daughters killed herself one night in 1986, and Wild Bill himself, a notorious drinker, lost his job in 1991 when he wrecked a company truck.

The man who often made $1,000 a fight, $100,000 against Foster, just left a job with a sewer company that paid $10 an hour.

Hardney insists there are no regrets, not now or ever, and his laughter and air of contentment seem convincing. But others aren't so sure. Like Dallas Sherman, a friend of the Hardneys who's enjoyed many days getting together and watching fights with Hardney, listening to him spin stories. "You sense," Sherman says, "that sometimes when he's talking about guys he ran around with, guys he fought, he does sometimes regret that it got away. He gets kind of moody."

Sherman adds, "I don't think he'd have been Tyson, but he wasn't the kind of guy you would want to step into the ring against."

"I don't understand how he got into boxing," says Hardney's younger brother Glen. "The guy cried over everything. He picked up every stray animal."

Yet William Louis Hardney, who was born in 1941 in Rayford, North Carolina, the ninth of eleven children, was also a tough egg. He grew up in Steubenville, Ohio, then Egg Harbor, in southern New Jersey, then rough-and-tumble Newark. His mom and older sisters raised him and the young ones. Hardney doesn't say much about his father, except that he was the first black to head an American Legion post in Ohio and was severely injured in a crane accident at a steel mill in 1948, when little Louis was seven.

Hardney recalls picking up the boxing bug at a friend's house. "He was the only guy that had television," Hardney says, "and we just watched Cavalcade of Sports. We used to watch fights all the time. So I told him, 'That's what I want to be: a fighter.'" His boxing debut, however--at age fourteen, in a crowded Elks Club center in Steubenville--was inauspicious. Hardney says he got popped on the head enough to realize he didn't care much for boxing. So he turned to baseball, where he excelled as a catcher and attracted some scout interest.

Hardney moved with his family to Egg Harbor in 1955 and headed upstate to Newark two years later. In New Jersey, and particularly in Newark, Louis Hardney started getting "involved in things I had no business doing."

He made the rounds of every reform school in New Jersey, he says. "Every time I'd get out I'd tell them, 'See you next week.' Wasn't nothin' to it." But as he drifted in and out of reform schools for four years, Hardney made some important acquaintances. The first was an Army sergeant named Hare who ran a summer camp at which Hardney boxed and played basketball.

Then, around 1956 or 1957, Hardney met a "bad son of a bitch," a would-be boxer named Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. A decade later Carter would become a cause clbre after being accused of killing three whites in a New Jersey bar. (And Hardney would become a minor character in the drama as an erstwhile alibi for Carter.) But at the time, Carter was just someone that Wild Bill Hardney "didn't mess around" with, though the two became friends of a sort and fought each other a couple of times. Who won? "I won," Hardney says, smiling.

Hardney left reform school for the final time in 1959, and a few years later he saw Hurricane Carter again. On television. Knocking someone out in the first round. Inspired, Hardney decided to get back into boxing. (His decision had been made easier when a promising tryout opportunity with the Los Angeles Dodgers fizzled after his reform-school past was unearthed.)

"They still remember me in Newark," Hardney says with pride. "Hurricane Carter, Sonny Liston and I were known as the party boys. We didn't like training. I'd drink seven days a week, anything for a laugh. The party life stopped me."

Still, Hardney won the national Golden Gloves championship in 1963--though he says he was drunk. He had been drinking on a night he wasn't scheduled to fight, and when the schedules changed, he fought anyway. He finished his amateur career at 90-2, earning a tryout for the Olympic team. Hardney passed on the chance. "The Olympics weren't a great big huge thing like it is today," he says. "I could fight in Madison Square Garden for four rounds and make $1,000. That's a lot of money."

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T.R. Witcher