Remembering the Houston Boxing Association’s Fighters! By Ken Hissner (Dec 2, 2009) DoghouseBoxing
In 1982 millionairess Josephine Abercrombie attended a closed circuit Cooney-Holmes fight at the Summit, in Houston. She started talking to a tax accountant from Penn’s Oil, Bob Spagnola, a former amateur boxer who worked with fighters in Houston. He offered to show her around the boxing scene and in time under Spagnola’s management they formed the Houston Boxing Association. Abercrombie whose first love was horses got addicted by her father, oilman J.S.S “Mr. Jim” Abercrombie. Spagnola was a graduate of Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, and fought as an amateur in Willie Savannah’s gym in Houston. He was a Gulf AAU Champ at #165 in 1979.
Over the years, I have talked to Spagnola (Manager and assistant director) and Jesse Reid (trained Canizale brothers) both connected with HBA. I even met Abercrombie while accompanying the first women’s boxing judge in the United States, Carol Polis, who had a meeting with her in Atlantic City. “I wanted to meet her since she was one of the few woman promoters and adopt me”, said Polis. “In all seriousness, as a judge I couldn’t be too close to many people in boxing but it was nice meeting her and she was gracious to accept my invitation,” she added. When HBA came to an end Abercrombie went back to her first love, horses. Today, at 83, she owns Pin Oak Stud, Inc., in Kentucky. She received an award August 6 of this year in Sarasota Springs, New York. That is boxing and horse country.
Mostly fighting between Houston and Atlantic City their stable of fighters included Cedrik Rose, 9-0 (1st fighter), TX, Choo Choo Dixon, 20-5, TX, Calvin Grove, 49-10, PA, Lou Savarese, 46-7, NY, Vincent Boulware, 29-11-1, PA, David Gauvin, 17-1, MASS., Gaby, 44-8-1, TX and Orlando Canizales, 50-5-1, TX, Frank Tate, 41-5, MI, Thomas Tate, 41-7, MI, Sherman Griffin, 17-8, MO, Carl Williams, 30-10, NY, Joe Manley, 29-8-2, O, Tony Tucker, 58-7, MI, Mike Williams, 22-6, TN, Iran Barkley, 43-19-1, NY, Todd Foster, 41-4-1, MT, Kelcie Banks, 22-6-2, CA, and Poncho Carter, 23-7, GA.
Their first world champion was Frank Tate, of Detroit, from the 1984 Olympic team who won the IBF middleweight title in October of 1987. Joe Manley who won the IBF light welterweight title in October of 1986 would join the group later. Another champion was Tony Tucker, from Grand Rapids, who won the IBF heavyweight title in May of 1987 and would later join the group. Though able to sign Tate the group was not able to sign Evander Holyfield whom they tried to sign. “Evander came to me and said they offered me $250,000.00 to sign. I told him do you want the money or someone who can move you? He decided to sign with us,” said Lou Duva. This was in the Pennsylvania Pocono’s this past week-end that I talked with him. Per Bob Spagnola who was the founder of HBA “it was $600,000.00”, said Spagnola. In 1984 Abercrombie let the 1984 Olympic team train on her 6,000 acre Cannonade Ranch near Gonzales, Texas. “Bob Spagnola became my manager. We all lived in a Houston apartment complex and signed for a percentage of the apartments. I remember Mrs. Abercrombie giving us all Houston Astro’s baseball caps” said Tate. Their next champion was Calvin Grove, from Coatesville, PA, who won the IBF featherweight title in January of 1988. Then Orlando Canizales, of Laredo, who won the IBF bantamweight title in July of 1988. His brother Gaby, also from Laredo, won the WBO bantamweight title in March of 1991.
The first HBA boxer Cedrik Rose was 9-0 with 8 knockouts but had to do it his way. His way put him away for 15 years. Then Mike Williams came aboard. Williams, 1984 National GG champ, had 21 (19-2) fights for HBA and said “Josephine Abercrombie did wonders for my career.” After HBA he became a sparring partner for Mike Tyson and ended up 22-6. Speaking of Tyson, HBA had a four fight deal with Jim Jacobs. “When I arrived in Houston only Rose and Williams were there,” said Tate. Tate and Boulware would make their debut along with Tillman on December 7, 1984 on the first HBA show. Their run would last until August 14th of 1990 at Sarasota Springs, New York.
David Gauvin came to Houston from Fall River, Massachusetts. He had a 146-13 amateur record. After turning professional and compiling a 17-0 (10) record he was put in with Jimmy Navarro, 18-1 (14) in Atlantic City in 1987 and lost a split decision. He would return to Fall River and never fought again. He was the only one to complain about how he was treated that I am aware of.
I recently talked to former IBF featherweight champion Grove who was stabbed in his hometown of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, recently. He spent several days in the hospital but like a true champion is back on his feet. This past May he was inducted into the Pennsylvania Hall of Fame. “Everything is fine now. I really enjoyed my 4 years in Houston. Mrs. Abercrombie really took good care of me”, said Grove.
Their matchmaker in Houston was Joe Spudik while Ron Katz did the shows in Atlantic City and it was HBA East. Katz would eventually help out in Houston. Along with Reid was Al “Potato Pie” Bolden doing most of the trainers of the fighters.
In January of 1985 Lawrence “Poncho” Carter made his Texas debut in his 9th fight. His two previous fights were in Atlantic City. He won his first 15 fights before losing in Houston to Everett “Big Foot” Martin and two fights later to Marvin Mack in Atlantic City. At 16-2, he moved up to heavyweight in 1987 and became a club fighter going 7-5 before retiring. Another HBA boxer, Iran Barkley, won the WBC middleweight championship in 1988.
“Bob Spagnola signed me in 1989 after seeing me at the Olympic trials in 1988,” said Savarese. He was 13-0 (12) when HBA folded. Ending his career at 46-7 (38) and became a promoter in Houston after retiring. Todd Foster was only with HBA for several fights before jumping ship and going back to Montana.
The HBA group had a good run and produced champions but in trying to spread out to the east coast in Atlantic City cost them dearly. They lost hands on control of things and the expenses mounted with little to show in the final years. They had some very good fighters and made some noise but all good things sometimes come to an end!