Longform

Rolling With the Punches

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So he started earning his share, winning seven of his first eight professional bouts. "When I got in the ring, I won the fight already," he says, recalling his cocky attitude. "That ring is mine. That's the way I felt: This is mine. I gotta keep it. Get him out of the ring."

A close look at Hardney's face shows that he took his licks, too. His wife, Harriet, points out the delicate creases around his lips and eyes--the right eyelid and brow are a patchwork of tiny crisscrossing lines of impact.

Wild Bill suffered his first real setback in July 1965. It came outside the ring, but it had everything to do with what went on inside.

Home in Ohio, his mother had planned to come see him fight in Akron--it would have been her first time watching him--but she confessed to him the day before the fight that she was about to die. And she did. "The day after she passed, he knocked the guy out in the first round," Glen Hardney remembers. "Then he buried Mom the next day."

Hardney took her loss hard. "He was more like the baby," Glen says. "He and my mom were really close." Like many other athletes from poor families, Hardney had dreamt of supporting his mother with his winnings. Hardney lost his next four bouts, and he says he knew "I didn't want to fight anymore. I said to hell with boxing."

From the time of his mother's death until his retirement more than a dozen years later, Wild Bill flitted in and out of boxing. His career peaked briefly in 1970 and then slid back down, though he often garnered publicity for his antics inside the ropes. He wound up working in construction primarily to support himself and, after marrying Harriet Caldwell, also in 1970, his family. But a friend, Jimmy Skelton, says Hardney took construction even less seriously than he took boxing: "He was not a construction person. So he came to construction 'cause the money was pretty good. He'd have been much happier had he been boxing."

Like a lot of other fighters, Hardney spent at least as much time as a sparring partner for big-name boxers as he did fighting his own fights. He worked with Archie Moore in 1961, as Moore was ending his career with a loss against Cassius Clay. And he reunited with Hurricane Carter, becoming his sparring partner and drinking buddy throughout the mid-Sixties.

A better influence, however, was Bob Foster, whom he met in 1967 at a training camp in Chatham, New Jersey. He and Foster developed a friendship outside the ring. "Bobby did a lot for me," Hardney says. "I think Bobby's mother died a couple years before mine." On Foster's suggestion that Hardney could make more money by sparring with him, Wild Bill left Newark for Washington, D.C.

"He was a good fighter if he had his heart in it," Foster recalls. "I guess he figured that all he could do was get other guys in shape."

Hardney's brother Glen sees a deeper significance: "It's the kind of guy he is--making somebody better to help fulfill their dream. His dream died with Mother."

Looking back, Hardney saw himself at the time as the "best sparring partner in the world. That's why everybody got me. I could look at how you fight one night and fight just like you the next night."

But while Wild Bill sparred, Wild Bill partied. He fought occasionally, too--once competing in four fights in four states in four nights. He lost them all, and boxing commissioners warned him not to do it again. His reputation grew among reporters to the point where he'd tell them to bring booze to interviews if they wanted to talk.

Somehow he managed to mix his drinking and training. "He liked to party a lot," recalls Foster. "That's all he did, but he just got exceptionally strong. He could drink half a pint of vodka and then run five miles. He'd go to a party, come back at two or three, then get up at six and do roadwork."

And the roadwork did pay off when he got a title shot against his friend Foster in 1970. Foster got the win, of course, but Hardney swears he would have won--he would have been light-heavyweight champ of the world--if he had been in better shape. That's a claim he also makes of the seven other losses he suffered as a pro.

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T.R. Witcher