Longform

Rolling With the Punches

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Hardney, who always gets the last word, insists, "I did win the world's light-heavyweight title--out on the orange field one day." One morning in Florida, he and Foster squared off in a bare-fisted dukeroo and, Hardney claims, laughing, "I whipped his ass."

Foster--who successfully defended his title fourteen times before retiring in 1975--has a simple rejoinder: "Wild Bill couldn't beat me if he had three arms." That may be true, but Hardney had more success against the rest of the field. Between 1972 and 1978, he says, he ran off eighteen consecutive knockouts. "I used to fight all kinds," Hardney says. "I was lucky to knock a lot of guys out. I hate training."

That attitude was catching up with him by the late Seventies, as he approached forty. In 1978, on his brother James's birthday, he recalls, he won a bout. "Then I looked to the crowd," he recalls, "and said, 'That's it. I'm tired of this.' And that was my last fight."

Well, almost. He fought under assumed names now and then to make a few extra bucks.

"I have never really taken a fall," Hardney says. "What they do to me is, when they call me they know I'm out there drinkin', so they know I ain't in no condition. So I took a lot of fights like that. I did it for money."

Eventually, Hardney moved to Denver, where several siblings, including brother Glen, lived. He took a job with AT&T as a building mechanic and looked forward to enjoying himself and his four daughters. He had no desire to get back in the ring, except to work with a friend's son or one of his own daughters.

Then, on New Year's Eve 1986, came a punch that sent him to the canvas.
Bill and Harriet's eldest daughter, sixteen-year-old Carla, took an overdose of drugs. "She went down in the medicine cabinet downstairs in the bathroom and took just about everything she could take," Harriet recalls. The family rushed her to the hospital, and she seemed to be recovering. So they went home for the night and made plans to visit her first thing in the morning. "We felt she'd be all right," Harriet says. "But by the time we got to the door of our house the phone rang, and they told us we had to come up to Children's Hospital. And they told us she had passed away." Carla didn't leave a note, and the Hardneys say they had no indication something had been wrong.

"It's the worst thing that could ever happen to a man," Hardney rumbles. The family no longer celebrates New Year's Eve.

"It devastated him," Dallas Sherman says. "He couldn't figure out why it happened. It turned him into a hollow shell of a man for a long time." Hardney began drinking more, and on April Fool's Day in 1991, he was arrested after he wrecked an AT&T vehicle while driving under the influence. Hardney spent a year going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, he says, "but I didn't get my job back." Since then, he's bounced around from job to job.

"He's cut way back on his drinking," says a friend, Delbert Smith. But Smith wonders if "the way his career turned out had something to do with his drinking, rather than vice versa."

These days, things seem mellower. Wild Bill says he hasn't had a drink in a few months, one of his daughters has just given birth to a girl and another daughter is pregnant. The Hardneys' youngest, Gina, is now seventeen and once had the boxing bug herself. Wild Bill, who gave her some lessons, says, "She can handle a boy."

Harriet Hardney say that since Carla's death, she and her husband "just notice the other children [we] have and try to see if anything's bothering them."

Wild Bill still survives on videotape. As late as 1990, when he was nearly fifty, he fought exhibitions. And he was still clowning around.

In a fight with a fifty-year-old named Vincent Goodnight, Hardney can be seen coming into the ring wearing a cowboy hat and fur coat. As he takes off the coat, his gut looks as if he had swallowed a medicine ball. But the swagger is still there. And the pranks. Goodnight's pants are pulled down in the second round, and while he gathers them up, Hardney leans against the ropes on the other side of the ring, basking in the applause of the crowd.

And in the third, after pressing the attack, Wild Bill Hardney, the clown prince and almost-champion, lands a sweet left hook. Goodnight's face freezes in genuine surprise, and then he drops to the ground like a statue.

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T.R. Witcher